John Bird: Our prosperity’s teetering on the brink. We need to act now

If we can find new jobs in this Covidised economy, then we can keep people in their homes

I went to a small cathedral town to draw the cathedral recently, but couldn’t get anywhere near it. The small city was a teeming mass of small cafés, restaurants, visitors, and street drinkers begging. It is in fact a closely knit medieval town and had all of the picturesque alleys and cobbled streets, but filled with countless drinking and eating places.

A few bookshops to break up the monotony. Charity shops abounded. And the cathedral was closed unless you’d managed to get a ticket by booking online. 

I did not see much social distancing, although I did my best to keep away from people. Masks worn in shops seemed to be the only sign of the government’s commands to stop spreading the virus.

Then I read in the Sunday paper that in fact masks and social isolation are worthless and that we should be moving toward ‘herding’; which I’m told simply means we all get the virus and most of us survive because we are healthy.

This is bad news for the poorest among us because as the newspaper also said, Covid-19 is likely to linger longer in areas of greater poverty and become endemic, meaning a part of everyday life.

In the same issue of the paper it also pointed out that our attempts to reduce the damage done by carbon by planting more trees is silly. Fast-growing trees, which are the ones we want, die younger. And then until they disappear completely they emit methane; which is another Earth-warming gas. So you have your experts and they spend much time contradicting and undermining each other – presumably in the interests of getting to the truth.

But one thing I noticed about this small cathedral town: it looks as if it’s got all the problems our entire economy’s got. A kind of microcosm of all that’s wrong with the UK’s economic profile. 

A complete over-reliance on a service economy was shown in its crowded, many-café’d streets. So there are no people, or very few, who earn enough money from these low-paid jobs to ascend out of the working poor. Even with the living wage you won’t be spending much on your kids’ education, or on holidays, or on decent food that doesn’t push up your salt and sugar intake. Food that encourages the storing of fat on your body because it’s cheap and full of poorly processed ingredients.

Standing at one of the crossroads I could look around and see only poverty, but hidden in the dress of prosperity and enjoyment. The prosperity accruing to the owners of dozens of imitation continental cafés or restaurants. Yet the hours worked and the money earned will only deliver a ‘just getting by’ life.

For all those years we were in Europe, the only thing we seemed to have learned was to imitate their cafés and restaurants

Briefly, on this sunny Sunday, money was flowing, but it was not the sustainable money
that our economy needs to build social justice for all. Skilful jobs for all that pay good money. Education for all that puts you into a category where you could aspire to living beyond poorly paid service jobs.

The streets were unclean. There were groups of people drinking and begging. The systemic removing of people from the streets through the lockdown seemed to have come undone.

I have always believed that leaving people on our streets to wither and die, to crash even further on cheap stimulants, is a modern human rights abuse. It was obvious that sorting out the health of street dwellers was not at the top of any list in this cathedral town.

Prosperity as an appearance: that is what made me feel that this small city was a good model to represent what’s wrong with our economy. For all those years we were in Europe, the only thing we seemed to have learned was to imitate their cafés and restaurants; to the advantage only of the owners of these imitation establishments.

But even this flimsy prosperity, greatly encouraged by the ‘eating out’ initiative, may well dry up if we have – at the end of this month – the beginning of the mass evictions of people who’ve fallen into pandemic poverty. The vision I witnessed in this small city in the sun may well be a mirage that will not last much longer. If thousands are found to be the victims of evictions, then the streets may well fill up with the new troubled, the newly broken, the newly reduced.

At some stage we will have to convert our low-wage economy to a high-wage economy

That is why The Big Issue is concentrating on keeping people in their homes and in work. If we can find new jobs in this Covidised economy, then we can keep people in their homes. But in the meanwhile we have to insist to the government that keeping people in their homes by paying their rents or mortgages is a cheaper option than allowing people to slip into homelessness.

The government’s legislative agenda has long had on it the Renters’ Reform Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech last December. It will enhance renters’ security and improve protection for short-term tenants by abolishing ‘no-fault’ (section 21) evictions, reforming the grounds for repossession and introducing a lifetime deposit. But the ban on evictions, which was extended last month, is due to run out on September 20. So where is the Renters’ Reform Bill when we need it most, as we face the risk of mass Covid-related evictions? We keep hearing that it’s “being brought forward”, but the Bill needs to get its skates on.

Our RORA campaign – the Ride Out Recession Alliance – is fighting to keep people in their homes so that their children do not become broken and depressed and reduced, condemned to never-ending temporary accommodation.

But at some stage we will have to convert our low-wage economy to a high-wage economy. And probably what is most depressing is that working people are often doing a highly skilled job, but getting jack shit for it. That’s not anything other than sheer social injustice.  

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.