Has Capitalism Gone Too Far?

ImageWhen the poorest in our society can no longer afford to heat their homes, while energy companies make large profits…

When big businesses seize all opportunities and charge high prices to consumers, in order to make money for shareholders…

When even politicians are so worried about upsetting multinational companies that they fail to take the action needed to protect the lives of their constituents…

Has capitalism gone too far?

Economy out of balance

House prices are beginning to boom again – at least in the south – which means more southerners are likely to look further north for ‘bargains’ and the wave will begin to sweep across the country again, putting properties even further out of the income-reach of many northerners.

Since privatisation energy prices have soared, and continue to rise each year as soon as the cold weather begins, leaving more and more of the poorest people shivering and frightened to turn on their heating – risking hypothermia.

High energy costs, together with other overheads mean food prices have continued to rise dramatically throughout the economic crisis of the last few years.

The cost of petrol/ diesel, which goes up fast but never drops back to the same level, affects everything that needs to be delivered to shops, and businesses that need to travel to their customers.

At the same time, government policies limit income and there are far more people either unemployed or underemployed. Household incomes have plummeted for many families over the same period as prices have rapidly increased.

The politicians of the Labour Party like to take about the ‘squeezed middle,’ but what about those at the bottom? Who represents the working class, and those who cannot even find work, these days? And for how many people was the bedroom tax the last straw?

Take this all together and add in tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor and it is clear that there is something going drastically wrong with the economic balance in our society.

The economic indicators all show the gap between rich and poor is wider that it has been for well over a hundred years, and the north-south divide is also widening. We are supposed to be an advanced, civilised society, so why is this being allowed to happen?

Wages

Minimum wage was supposed to stop employers from paying slave wages and give employees a decent income, with which to pay their household bills, etc. But it doesn’t seem to have kept up with the cost of living, and as usual, big business felt they had to find a way around the increase in their wage bill, this time they found it by adopting zero-hours contracts.

When working tax credit was introduced to top up low wages, big business simply paid the majority of their wages minimum wage, knowing it would be topped up by the state where necessary.

The introduction of flexible working was supposed to allow employees to work around family commitments, transport problems, etc. Instead, employers use it to try and keep their employees at their beck and call, to phone them at short notice and expect them to abandon all other responsibilities and jump to their ‘master’s’ voice.

Whenever a move is made to protect/ improve the lives of workers and give them a better work/ life balance, many employers seem hell-bent on twisting the legislation and turning it back on the employees in ways that actually make their lives worse.

Big business is so keen to profit, but many of them are also keen to avoid paying tax.

Energy

There are ways of cutting energy costs to homes, but at present only those with spare money, or access to borrow, can afford to take advantage of these ways, whether it be soar panels, a small wind generator in the garden, heat-exchangers, passive homes.

What kind of society are we that those with money have access to cheaper energy – and can even be paid for producing it – while the poorest pay the higher prices on ever-decreasing incomes?

When wind-power was first developed, I remember reading about a man in Scotland who had produced a small wind-power generator which could be fixed to a rooftop, similar to a TV aerial. He envisaged that we could all have one of these on our houses and generate at least part of our own electricity, to bring down costs. He couldn’t find anyone to back him to go into full production. Why? Because big business was already seeing pound signs in the development of the technology. They began to push to build swathes of the biggest possible ‘windmills’ to make profits for their shareholders and the still become angry and upset when campaign groups fight them over these plans. Surely, a small windmill on every rooftop would be less obtrusive? But of course, big business cannot allow the little man and woman to deny them profit.

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Food

What kind of society are we, when even working people are having to resort to using food banks to enable them to eat? How many more are going hungry rather than be seen to be so desperate? (And how many more are simply getting deeper and deeper into debt rather than use this last resort?) It’s obvious, if people can’t eat properly, they can’t work properly. They can’t function to solve the problems that are daily being thrust upon them. They become run down, exhausted, malnourished, ill. What kind of workforce will they be then?

Health

The more pressure that is put onto the already overstretched poor to pay higher prices/ find non-existent jobs, etc., the more their health is likely to suffer – especially in the long-term. Hypothermia, malnutrition, stress-related illnesses or even worse. This is turn, puts more pressure on the already over-burdened NHS – another national institution threatened with creeping privatisation. It could even be argued that big business, with its determination for power, and greed for more and more profits for shareholders, is gradually killing our citizens!

Even those who work for these businesses are not exempt, as employees are driven by ever-increasing targets – pressure again.

Time for debate

What’s the alternative? I’m afraid I don’t have any answers, but perhaps it’s time we all began to think about what kind of society we want to live in, in the future and come up with a new theory.

The runaway train of big business seems to be travelling faster and faster – is it out of control? How do we stop it, or at least slow it down? Is it going to take a big disaster?

Before the gap between rich and poor, south and north widens any further, it’s time we began to debate how to stop the trend and make society fairer to those at the bottom. They are running, like hamsters on a wheel, faster and faster, but still slipping further and further behind, in and effort to simply survive. Otherwise we may be returning to a time when the poor are forced to live on the streets – or in self-built shanty towns, and beg for handouts from passers-by.

A home, heat, food, health, are all basic human rights. European legislation is in place to protect us from extremes at the moment, but the Conservatives want to opt out of it. Those considering voting for UKIP should also be aware of this. I’m no great fan of the European Union, but without support from them a ruthless right-wing government coupled with big business could quite easily push us back into something like a feudal society. All in the name of profit.

What do you think?

Berwick – Promoting Local Talent and Playing ‘what if?’

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Where do we start?

Following on from my last post, Is Berwick to be Doomed by Local Attitudes? the question is where to start?

The logical place is probably listing what we already have that we might be able to build on/ uses in a different way.

  • The Maltings Theatre and Cinema
  • 3 Museums
  • Berwick Record Office
  • Several Art Galleries
  • A Film Festival
  • Craft Fairs
  • Local Drama Companies
  • Local Bands of various kinds – large and small
  • Youth Theatre
  • Local Publishing Company for local writers
  • Numerous local artists and craftspeople
  • Historical guided walks
  • Operatic Society
  • Spittal Variety Group
  • Civic Society exhibitions
  • Choirs
  • Bygone Borderlands events
  • Tweedmouth Feast
  • Spittal Gala
  • Spittal Seaside Festival
  • Riding of the Bounds
  • Minden Day Parade
  • Farmers Markets
  • Local food producers

In short, a lot of local talent! Every time I’ve looked at this list I’ve thought of something else and I probably still haven’t thought everything relevant! We have a lot to work with, but we need to join up the dots and tell people about it.

Perhaps we need a Berwick Guide to ‘What’s On’ and a co-ordinated plan to spread out events throughout the normal visitor season and beyond, so that it looks like an organised programme rather than everybody doing their own thing. This could be sent out through Libraries and Tourist Information Centres (TICs), etc., as far afield as we can send it. Yes, this would need money to produce, but wait a minute and let’s look at a bigger picture.

What if?

Before we can think about looking for funding, we need to make a plan of what we would like to do.

To make a plan, we need to start playing ‘what if’ and make a list of possibilities/ what might work/ what we would like to do, etc. Then we pick out the best/ most relevant/ realistic parts and out them together into something more coherent.

THEN we start to think about how we might find the money. The plan will no doubt be adjusted several times, and the money would probably have to be sought from several sources in relatively small amounts to fund different parts of the project. This can be a bit torturous, but patchwork is the way to do it – voluntary hours can also sometimes count as match-funding. (I’m not a fund-raiser myself, but have sat on enough committees to know that is the way it is done.) Although funding may be more difficult to find that it was a few years ago, that shouldn’t be used an excuse to sit back and do nothing.

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Returning to Berwick’s History

To kick this off, we’ll return to thinking about history. There was a comment made in response to the post Could this be the future for Berwick? That the public “don’t understand the history – it has to be explained.” Of course! That’s what historians are for! If the public understood everything by just looking at a building it would be too easy, they wouldn’t appreciate it in the same way as if they have to make an effort to learn about it. The important thing is that many of the public want to know more.

One of the recurring complaints I’ve heard over the years is that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere visitors can go to find out more about Berwick’s history. No centre for interpretation. Even if they’ve managed to find the town museum hidden in the Barracks complex, they have been disappointed at not finding more local information of the kind they were seeking.

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Berwick sometimes seems complacent about its history. Or perhaps – more likely – even most local people don’t really understand it either! They maybe have heard of disjointed bits and pieces, but don’t understand how it all fits together. After all, the most interesting bits are arguably before the walls were built and that’s a long time ago. For many people, anything before the Victorian era is difficult to get their heads around without help.

So, what if the local historians all put their abilities together and were able to take over one of the empty shops on the High Street, to turn it into a historical interpretation centre for Berwick and perhaps the older part of Tweedmouth.

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  • A sort of long-term exhibition to outline the history of the town and why the historical remains are so important.
  • A first step for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of the town, perhaps with scale models of some buildings to help explanations.
  • From there, people could be directed on to:
    • The museums
    • The Record Office
    • Derek Sharman’s walks around the walls
    • The Town Hall tours
    • The Main Guard
    • Etc. To find further information

All these things might make more sense if they have been put into context at the interpretation centre first. This is not to compete with any other organisation, but to supplement and complement their work and make finding them easier for the visitors. Both the town museum and the TIC are now effectively run from outside the town and are therefore not so in touch with local needs.

Perhaps there might be a room in this interpretation centre we could use for occasional talks, classes, other learning activities, for adults/ families/ the general public, visitors or locals. Maybe we could hook up with local film-makers for make some short documentary pieces we could show when speakers/ tutors are not available. (These may also be used for advertising on the internet.) Other spin-off activities might result, e.g. Jim Herbert might occasionally take a group of people up to the castle ruins to talk through an interpretation in the field. Generally educate those who don’t know – both tourists and locals – but want to know more.

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More Suggestions

Amateur groups could maybe help to start events moving. Perhaps with some

  • Street theatre – the youth theatre and/or adults
  • Historical interpretations
  • Pieces by local writers
  • Choirs or smaller vocal groups on the Town Hall steps.
  • Perhaps we should look for a pavement artist

If you make people feel good, and having fun, they are more likely to spend money.

Also as the economy improves, try to bring in more visitors of a higher income level and encourage them to spend in the town. For this we need to pitch shops and services in the town to a level that seems reasonably-priced compared to Edinburgh, but focus on quality over constant cheapness – think value. Some local people may also buy these items, if only for gifts/ special occasions.

Publicity Opportunities 

                     There are actually a number of ways of gaining publicity for free – especially through the internet.

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Also, remember, we are only a year away from the Scottish Referendum. That is likely to bring some more publicity – for Berwick and Carlisle in particular – regarding the effect Scottish independence might have on English border towns. Can we think of a way to cash in on this? We need to plan for it now. If they do vote for independence, we’ll probably have even more publicity – we need to plan ahead to take advantage.

What would be on your ‘what if’ list?

Is Berwick to be Doomed by Local Attitudes?

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My blog of a couple of weeks ago: Could this be the future for Berwick? seems to have stirred some opinions, especially in the Forgotten Berwick Facebook group.  So many thoughts and ideas have been generated that I have decided to publish a double helping this week. Today I will deal with some of the comments that were made tomorrow I will post another piece about possible ways forward.

Generally, by the feedback so far received, the idea of an old town/ new town set up with the big chain-stores going to Tweedmouth and the smaller  businesses to use the current town centre was met with approval, which is good, because it is happening whether we like it or not.

The discussion then turned to the development of tourism – as an important part of the town’s economy and then the old problems began to be reeled out:

  • We need to do something about the roads and toilets first.
  • We’re too remote for people to come here.
  • Nobody south of North Yorkshire has even heard of us.
  • Why would anybody want to come here when they can find everything an hour’s journey to the north?
  • The history isn’t enough. We need more to attract people.
  • There’s no money to do anything.

Northumberland County Council

As I understand it council tax is dealt with according to area. The income from an area has an effect on the amount the county council is prepared to spend on that area. North Northumberland loses out because:

  • Less heads of population, means
  • Less council tax per square mile, also
  • A low-wage economy, means
  • More percentage of people claim council tax rebate, therefore
  • There is less money for the County Council from the area, so
  • Less money is spent on this area.

If we could boost the local economy:

  • More people would earn more, and so
  • Pay full council tax, which would mean
  • More money to the County Council from Berwick, and
  • More money for them to spend on the area.

Apart from this, at the moment the County Council probably don’t see the point of spending money on Berwick. To them, we’re unimportant, at the back of beyond. I’m sure our representatives do their best, but they are easily outnumbered and out-voted in the larger authority.

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If we start shouting about the town, and doing what we can to raise the profile, the County Council will also be forced to take notice of us. They will definitely be interested in any increase in income they can claim. Also, if visitors complain about the lack of facilities/ poor roads, etc., it will damage their reputation, because they are responsible – and they won’t want that – especially if it happens to threaten a potential increase of income!

If we continue to put off doing things while we wait for the County Council to sort out the problems, we will wait for ever – it will never happen. They will let Berwick die slowly. (I’m sure some of them would prefer it if we were in Scotland so that they didn’t have to bother with us.) We need to force their hand.

If we can begin to start things moving and then point out the problems. If we direct any complaints their way and force them to take notice. Then and only then, we might be taken more seriously and be able to get things done.

Also if we start this moving perhaps it will add another strand to the argument for dualling the A1.

Isolation

Berwick is not so isolated as it used to be. Look at all the publicity that Alnwick has had in the last few years – and it is less than 30 miles away. Droves of people now visit Alnwick for:

  • The International Music Festival
  • Alnwick Fair
  • The Castle
  • Alnwick Gardens
  • And now a Food Festival, too.

We need to entice some of them up here!

How many people also visit Bamburgh (20 miles away) and Holy Island (about 10 miles away). How many of them come on to Berwick?

Looking in other directions, how many visit the various stately homes in the Borders? If they are interested in history we should be bringing them here.

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Visitor Origins and Who Knows of Berwick

You may be surprised at how many foreign visitors turn up in Berwick Record Office – from all around the world. They clearly know about us! Over the years I’ve lived in this area I’ve come across visitors from all over Yorkshire – I don’t always have to ask, sometimes I recognise the nuances of their accents to be able to place them. I’ve also spoken to people from Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, etc. A few weeks ago Berwick Writers Workshop had a visitor from Cambridge who was on holiday in Berwick. He and his wife come every year as it’s the only place they both enjoy.

Of the books I’ve published, the Anne Hepple biography has sold all around the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA. I think more have gone to Australia than we’ve sold in Northumberland, despite her being a Northumbrian author! The two books on the history of Berwick’s drink culture have also sold in Australia and the USA. All these people have clearly heard of Berwick!

Berwick v Edinburgh

It may seem surprising but some people would prefer Berwick to Edinburgh! Not everyone wants to visit a big city for their holiday. Edinburgh is very crowded in the summer, which can begin to feel claustrophobic – especially when the weather is hot. Edinburgh is also very expensive and cheaper accommodation is almost impossible to find in the festival season because of all the performers needing to stay as well as the tourists. As the festivals there reach capacity perhaps we need a Berwick Fringe to provide an alternative with more breathing space and less cost?

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Historical Attractions and…

Berwick’s hinterland doesn’t just cover the old Borough of Berwick, the town also serves a sizeable portion of Berwickshire, too. In fact some of the shops attract more trade from over the border than from south of the town. Berwick is also the cultural hub for all of these areas. Although history gives us our Unique Selling Points (USP) we do need to look wider – partly to interpret, partly to compliment that history.

The people who are most interested in history are usually also interested in other aspects of culture. Therefore, we do need to look at culture and heritage together and form an attack with several related prongs. These would most likely include:

  • Music
  • Drama
  • Crafts
  • Art / Art History
  • Literature / Writing
  • Film / Media

All with a local bias.  We already have much of what we need, it’s just that sometimes the dots are not joined up from a visitor point of view. (More on this to follow in the next piece.)

The Money Problem

Of course money is tight everywhere at the moment, and even if it’s true that the economy is turning a corner, we can’t expect to have money thrown at projects. However, there are still some ways and means, if people are prepared to put in the effort. It would probably need more work to find funding now, but this is also the time to try and be more innovative in our thinking about how to find the means to do what we want to do. Besides which, it is not the first step we need to consider. It could be ‘putting the cart before the horse!’ (More to follow in the next piece.)

I hope this has addressed at least some of the arguments that were put forward last time and perhaps given more food for thought! Until tomorrow….

What do you think?