According to Margaret Thatcher I am a failure ….

Margaret Thatcher once said: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus, can count himself as a failure”. I have to plead guilty as charged. I have never learned to drive, not through any inadequacy (although my long legs makes it awkward to get behind the wheel) but through an absence of need or inclination.

I can’t think that it has hindered me much in my life. I might have gone more into the countryside and it might have come in handy when on holiday, but I haven’t really noticed. Not driving has saved me a small fortune. Instead I walk and use buses, as well as the occasional taxi.

I freely confess I am now over the age of 26, so I think a lot of Margaret Thatcher when on a bus (like the time I caught the bus when I was about to have lunch with the Queen….). I am not alone. According to census data from 2011, over a third of households across the city don’t own a car – failures each and everyone of them!.

Cycling to work across Brighton and Hove has doubled between 2001 and 2011. Just under 5% of the population cycle to work. 14% of residents take the bus to work, and over 20% walk to work. Almost 10% of adults cycle at least once a week.  Even the Mayor of the City, Cllr Pete West, cycles to engagements.

In recent weeks I have become a bit obsessed about cycling. I used to cycle everywhere but stopped over 20 years ago when my daughter was an infant when I narrowly missed being killed by a bus turning from Ditchling Road into Oxford Street in Brighton.

My bike has been rusting in the back yard for too long. Yesterday I got it out, pumped up the tires and the thing practically collapsed under me. I need a bicycle because I have accepted a challenge from colleagues to ride 100km on Sunday 25th June as part of BHT’s Around the World Cycling Challenge.

In 12 hours we need as many of you as possible to ride round and round the Preston Park Velodrome so that we clock up 40,075km – equivalent to circumnavigating the earth at the Equator.

Why are we doing this? To raise £25,000 for First Base Day Centre. On days like today, with wind and cold, street homeless people need shelter, and First Base provides that and so much more – showers, clean and dry clothes, hot food, medical care, and much more. Staff at First Base also help people to look at why they are on the street and help them to move into accommodation.

There are three things you can do to help:

  • Sign up to ride yourself – you don’t have to do great distances, every little helps, as the advert says. It costs £10 to participate, £5 concessions and £5 for children under 16. Register via https://www.bht.org.uk/support-us/around-the-world-cycle-challenge-2017/ (Please make sure you do register)
  • Help on the day. Please email my colleague Sara Peskett, and she can let you know how and when you can help.
  • Sponsor me. You can do so here or you can send me a cheque made payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ c/o BHT, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH

The Mayor of Brighton and Hove, Cllr Pete West, launching the BHT Around the World Cycle Challenge

The smallest charities are finding the going hardest and fear for their future

18% of charity chief executives believe that their organisation is struggling to survive, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (of which I am a member).

What is particularly worrying is that charities with a turnover of less than £1 million were disproportionately represented in those who are taking a pessimistic view. Those of us leading larger organisations are fortunate to have more options available to us, and the loss of one or two key income streams will not compromise the financial viability of the organisation as a whole, even though individual services might close.

It is these small organisations that are probably the closest to their communities but may also be ones that are least equipped to respond to a worsening economic environment.

Three small organisations have sought sanctuary by joining BHT over recent years – Threshold Women’s Counselling, the Hastings Community Housing Association (HCHA), and the Whitehawk Inn. There are some efficiencies to be gained by such mergers, but they are often overestimated. The real advantage can come through shared central expertise and improved cash flow.

Merging with a larger organisation can ensure the continuation of services and doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of identity. Threshold is still called Threshold, HCHA is now Hastings Community Housing, and the Whitehawk Inn remains the same.

There is a loss of autonomy with the governance and management arrangements of the ‘receiving’ organisation tending to take over, and the business disciplines will be applied across the expanded organisation.

An understandable mistake that trustees of small, struggling charities are known to make is to hope a corner will be turned or something cropping up. That very rarely happens. They might leave an approach to a larger, relatively stronger, organisation too late. It is tough to be at the helm of an organisation that is struggling. I know, I have been there. But an early approach can result in charitable services being saved and continued. After all, that is why we are here.

Charging charities for the work of the Charity Commission is not on

The Charity Commission is to consult about whether charities should pay towards the running cost of the Commission. In a recent poll, 78% of 225 respondent said no. The charge would be between £60 and £3000 and would pay towards the running costs of the Commission.

I wonder whether there is a fundamental flaw with this proposal. Charities are very restricted on how they can spend money. If money was donated for one purpose, it may not be spent on another. I am currently asking for sponsorship for a charity cycle ride and have said that the money raised would go towards the cost of running First Base Day Centre. We would not be allowed to use any of that money for any other purpose such as …. paying a fee towards the running costs of the Charity Commission.

If a charity spends money on an item for which the money was not raised, the Charity Commission would certainly have something to say about that.

We could, of course, start a JustGiving appeal to pay our fee to the Commission but I doubt that there would be an overwhelming response from the public to meet this dubious cost.

The Charity Commission is a Quango and, as such, the government should ensure that it is fit for purpose and adequately funded for that purpose. It should not be imposing a tax on charities whose funds were intended for truly charitable purposes.

The Budget: My Reaction

On housing, the Chancellor said : “                      “.  Specifically, on housing supply he said: “                              “.  On affordability, he said: ”                       “. And on an increase in the supply of homes for rent which people can afford, he said: “                          “.

To be fair, the Autumn Statement did focus quite a bit on housing, although I feel the wrong sort of investment. (See my comments on that statement here: An Opportunity Missed).

On social care he announced £2 billion over the next three years. That is to be welcomed but it is less than the £1 billion per annum needed just to keep things as they are.

The only other matter of note (I won’t comment on the controversy of the day regarding national insurance and those who are self employed), we should no longer refer to JAMS (those households who, according to Theresa May, are “just about managing”) or the more patronising “hard working families” of George Osborn. Phillip Hammond (who must be competing to be the most boring Chancellor of All Time, a mantle currently shared by John Major and Alistair Darling) referred to “ordinary working families”.  I can go with that.

Denying 18-21 year olds the right to claim housing benefit is bad, bad news, and bad, bad policy

At the very time when rough sleeping numbers are rising nationally, the government has announced plans to end the automatic right of 18-21 year olds to claim housing benefit.

In a week with so much else happening (Brexit vote in the House of Lords, Theresa May in Scotland, Northern Ireland elections, Trump) someone must have thought it was the ideal time to bury bad news. This is bad, bad news and bad, bad policy.

If there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.

img_4847Of course there will be exceptions made for certain categories of young people allowing them to claim (such as if parents are abroad and the young person can not ‘go home’).

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We want to make sure that 18- to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career.”

Desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

What about the finances – we always hear we have to tackle the deficit. 2015 research from Heriot Watt University calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.

If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

It makes no sense in economic terms. It makes no sense in human terms. It is the wrong policy and goes totally against recent positive moves by government, now least through the Homelessness Bill, to tackle homelessness.

South Africa, Cape Town, apartheid, Brighton, laughter, family and friends – I don’t know what to call this post!

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks visiting family in South Africa. It is always such a pleasure to spend time with my older brother, Simon, and his family.  There is always much laughter – my brother has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Monty Python, as well as of history, Shakespeare, and poetry.

The trip coincided with the 40th anniversary reunion of my school. It was again an occasion with a lot of laughter, although I have to admit that I didn’t recognise or remember a number of my former class mates.  Surely I wasn’t at school with these old men.

Simon and I had an idyllic trip up the west coast.  We felt the sand under our feet, and the sunrises and sunsets were out of this world.  We relaxed, walked and laughed a lot.

With my brother I visited District Six, or what remains of it, a haunting and sad experience, with little remaining of a community full of laughter and kwela music which, through its vibrancy and inclusivity, was an anathema to the apartheid regime.

My teenage years were wonderful, spent on beautiful beaches, playing sport, hanging out with friends. After all, I had the best of everything: I was white, male, privileged.  But, as Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  South Africa exploded in 1976, when I was sixteen, with the Soweto Uprising during which 1,000 school children were killed by the apartheid police and military.

There remains such division, inequality, and injustice. The main difference is the colour of those in power.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the first ANC government had stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on board.  The biggest difference between Mandela’s government and that of Jacob Zuma is that competence and optimism has been replaced by corruption and incompetence.  And it shows.  Poverty remains so obvious.

Yet South Africa remains a country offering a warm welcome, and there is a lot of laughter, in spite of everything.

Returning to a grey, wet Brighton, everything seems depressed. I don’t know what the opposite of rose-tinted spectacle are, but at BHT we see on a daily basis the effect of poverty and homelessness, addiction and mental ill-health, and the intended/unintended consequences of the cruel welfare benefit system which causes unnecessary hardship.

We were recently described as a “Ken Loach Theme Park”, a description I like. But our spectacles are bifocals because we see change happening on a daily basis – people moving off the streets, people in recovery from addiction, those coming to terms and living independently in spite of mental health problems, and people being housed and getting work.

And there is a lot of laughter. But I have in the back of my mind a comment of a client from way back when I was the manager of our Addiction Services.  In a review meeting with clients, one said it would be great if they could have more fun.  “Whatever fun is”, another client responded.

For those of us who are privileged, who have homes, who can afford holidays, even trips to South Africa, we must, I must, never forget that for many, in South Africa and here at home in Brighton, life is hard. We must do what we can to make life better for them.

Fancy a modest challenge to help BHT?

For a while we have been thinking about a mass participation event to raise funds for BHT.  Many of the best ideas have gone – the Brighton Marathon, the Half Marathon, the Midnight Walk, and so on.

We didn’t want people to undertake superhuman feats of endurance, like running up Mount Kilimanjaro with a grand piano strapped to your back or jumping out of an aeroplane wearing nothing but water wings!

We wanted something that people of all abilities could participate in so we came up with the modest idea of cycling around the world …. in just 12 hours.  Hmmm.

around-the-world-cycle-challenge-logo-rgb-web_w300Today (Friday 10th February 2017) we have launched BHT’s Around the World Cycle Challenge 2017 which will take place on Sunday 25th June at Preston Park Velodrome.

We are calling on the community to get on their bikes and cycle as many laps of the track as possible towards a collective target of 40,075km.

The clock will start at 7am. Throughout the day there will be various slots for club cyclists, hand cyclists, children, and adults, enabling everyone to set themselves, their family or friends a personal challenge. There will also be various activities, entertainment and catering stands.

We are hoping that the event will raise £25,000 for BHT.

Please help us by:

  • Taking part – Come along for a leisurely Sunday afternoon cycle or a hundred kilometre dash at 7am in the morning. Register via https://www.bht.org.uk/support-us/around-the-world-cycle-challenge-2017/ (Please make sure you register)
  • Team Challenge – Why not organise a team and challenge others to a contest to see who can clock the most laps!
  • Spreading the word on social media  – Please retweet @BHT_Sussex tweets about the event and invite your friends to the BHT Around the World Cycle Challenge event on Facebook
  • Spreading the word amongst your friends – If you have any friends or contacts with businesses who may be interested in sponsoring the event, or would be happy to display an A3 poster, please let my colleague, Sara Peskett, know.
  • Volunteering – We will need lots of marshals and stewards across the day! If you’re able to volunteer two hours (or more) of your time, from 7am until 7pm, please contact Sara.

It’s going to be a fantastic day, and we hope it will raise a good amount for BHT.