OPINION: The Economic Impact of COVID-19 – A Birmingham View

Words by Ifor Jones – Head of Partnerships, The Pioneer Group / Picture of Birmingham skyline by Luke Matthews, profile pic courtesy of The Pioneer Group

As the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has become clear with the threat of a tsunami of redundancies across the West Midlands I couldn’t help but reflect on what I experienced first-hand with the closure of MG rover first hand back in 2005 with 6,300 redundancies being made.

This had a profound economic and social impact on local communities which was mitigated by the action of the MG Rover Taskforce. I led the community support strand of the Taskforce which started with mobilising advice services to work in tandem with JC plus and the Learning Skills Council and progressed with a community regeneration programme supporting grass roots organisations and focusing on providing support for workers and the MG Rover community.

The following sets out the learning and the lessons which arose from this tragic time which I feel are very relevant to the potential impact of COVID-19 across the City.

In the lead up to COVID-19, statistics for the first quarter of 2020 confirmed Birmingham’s comparatively high unemployment claimant rate (9.3%) compared to other major English cities.

The figure had been relatively stable but began to increase during 2018 in the wake of benefit changes connected to the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is my assertion that, when considering the potential impact of COVID-19, we will see two distinct cohorts within the unemployment claimant count for Birmingham.

  • Longer term cases clustered in geographical hotspots or demographic characteristics such as youth unemployment, BAME groups and people with disabilities.
  • Those who have lost their jobs as an economic consequence of COVID-19, across a range of sectors and impacting on an even wider cross section of the working population.

A Precedent for What’s Next

In 2005, MG Rover at Longbridge closed with the overnight loss of 6,300 jobs. Further job losses in the supply chain pushed this figure to over 8,000.

However, a significant number of workers were able to retrain to change their careers; undertaking academic vocational training. A report indicated around 4,000 (63%) of former MG Rover workers found new, mostly full-time, work. Approximately 25% of these workers were earning more with over 50% of them earning less.

Strong partnerships were key to the management and mitigation process, especially in relation to the social and economic impact of such a significant plant closure.

In a two-year period, I witnessed a shift from crisis management to sustained economic and social strategies for recovery. At the heart of this was a collaborative approach coordinated at different levels, from the very local in Longbridge and Northfield to across the city, region and nation as a whole.

My engagement through a localised team in the City Council was to co-ordinate the initial crisis response regarding advice and community support delivered in partnership with agencies such as JobCentre Plus and The Learning Skills Council. This was complemented with the support of organisations across the voluntary and community sector and, most critically, the MG Rover communities themselves.

Mobilising a response to administer change at pace was critical, as was building relationships with the workers and MG Rover to ensure engagement with and wider community buy-in.

The lessons that were learned, that can help us deal with the anticipated fallout of COVID-19 include:

  • mobilise interventions at pace working with both cohorts – existing and new claimants
  • get new cohort of unemployed into training and work as soon as possible
  • quickly intervene with training agencies and providers for re-skilling
  • ensure personal contact with individuals whether through advice and support or training
  • recognise importance of welfare advice and wellbeing services and administering benefits quickly
  • use opportunities for public service employers to take on and train former MG Rover workers, for example the city council created opportunities in youth, leisure and community development services
  • work in partnership – at regional, city and local levels – with public services, employers, community and third sector agencies
  • provide community support in the moment of crisis – e.g. helplines, social events, funding for holiday breaks
  • create a strategy for inclusive growth e.g. local area regeneration – Longbridge transitioned from a centre of economic activity of regional and national significance to an important local centre with a mix of new housing, retail, public services and some retained manufacturing.

Ifor Jones is Head of Partnerships at The Pioneer Group – for more on The Pioneer Group, visit: www.pioneergroup.org.uk

The Pioneer Group is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce, facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association.

Established in April 2020, the Taskforce is a network of local organisations from a wide variety of sectors, working together to support people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

To access the online address book and database of local support services compile by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, visit: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19/local/support

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OPINION: …and you’re worried about a statue?

Words by Ed King / Pics by Paul Ward – all photography in this article has been taken from Snapshots of Mumbai

I used to live on Cecil Road. At the end of Cecil Road was Kitchener Road. Running parallel to Cecil Road, and perpendicular to Kitchener Road, were Fashoda Road and Manila Road.

Every one of these roads is named after a murderer, or where many murders took place.

And each terrace house that sits behind their names, be it full of second year students or people on remand, are an epitaph to evil. And Imperialism. And to Empire that stole a third of the world, then sold it back piecemeal at a charge.

How does this happen? What possible reasons could there be to celebrate such cruelty? Let’s backtrack… let’s look backwards to move forwards, to see the patterns. Let’s understand some history before we compartmentalise modernity.

In 1601 a group of London merchants set sale aboard a fleet of grand old ships called the Hector, Red Dragon, Ascension, Guest, and Susan – bound for the East Indies, a place we now recognise as India and South East Asia. White British men with their eyes on fortune and glory. White British men with privilege – a word you need to remember when talking about Britain’s colonial history.

Their mission was to trade, and their reason was that the Dutch, Portuguese, and French merchants were beating them to it – charging them a high price for goods a new society was beginning to enjoy. And to feel was their right to enjoy, be it gifted by God or the court. But it was trade that galvanised the request to take bullion abroad and exchange it for silks on the road. It was about competition, and greed – two more words to remember.

So, in one decree the East India Trading Company was born – and over the next 400 plus years would use their Amazon approach to the Elizabethan marketplace to end up controlling half the world’s trade.

What began as a royal charter to circumnavigate the prices of spices, silks, coffee, and cotton from mainland Europe, would turn into a centuries spanning race for control of international territories – one that would end in monopoly, slavery, a New World Order, and the backbone of what we purport as ‘democracy’ – after some savvy North American think tanks helped coin a new meaning. And wars. And bloodshed. And all the unspeakable horrors that occur when you believe God isn’t watching.

I know there’s a lot to research here, and I am not an academic man. But we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to learn. To keep learning. Then to pass on truth and knowledge. And as most of us walk around with the world’s largest library in our pockets that’s a pretty good place to start.

But there’s another point of understanding we need to address. Something I need to recognise too, as I become involved in conversations that are long overdue and fundamental to any future that can call itself equal.

There is a thing about being British. And white. And male.

And until the widespread media reports of recent weeks, it’s a word that that is not often acknowledged as it really needs to be. Just like the names of the roads where I used to live.

Privilege.

A hierarchy formed through history and hubris; a position stolen by my forefathers and endorsed by every silent generation that came afterwards, including my own.

I have it. My father has it, as did his father beforehand. It is impossible to be British, male, and white, and not have it. You can deny it all you like; all your heart wants to. But it’s there. We’re born into it. The world around us was built on it, by powerful people who can get away with murder. Who have roads named after them.

I’m not condoning acts of social disorder or violence, but crimes need to be challenged – whether they happened weeks or centuries ago – and their perpetrators need to be seen as the criminals they are.

Maybe some of us need to live in fear for a while too; maybe some of us need to know what that’s like. To be unsure of what the world could do to you without consequence. To walk down a road and not feel safe. To sit in a job interview and know it’s not your experience that’s the problem. To not get served in a bar, or a restaurant. To get heckled from the stands. To get spat on, to get to get punched. To have your last cries for help, for mercy, squeezed from your windpipe by a man with a badge.

And if you don’t believe there’s a balance that needs to be reset, Google each of the names I mentioned at the start of this article – those proud men and moments of history that still pepper UK cities. Whose names are remembered but whose actions we choose to forget. Men with privilege, granted by a world that hid its horror behind their own.

Lord Robert Cecil. Lord Kitchener. The Fashoda ‘incident’. The Battle of Manila.

Murderers and murder, adorned on the roads where I used to live – on street corners near primary schools and pubs. In the edge of our blind eyes every single day.

…and you’re worried about a statue?

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and author of Snapshots of Mumbai.

For more on Snapshots of Mumbai, published by Review publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/snapshots-of-mumbai

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OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

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OPINION: No mercy for the self-employed – a car finance disaster

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

Before lockdown, I drove a lot. Pubs, weddings, venues – life as a full-time musician requires you to pop up out of thin air for clients in far reaches of the country. It’s a magic trick, but it requires preparation. Most importantly, you need a car. A car to fill with instruments, speakers, bags of cables, two meals, an overnight bag, and space for a costume change or a nap between sets.

I recently got myself a dad-racer [like a boy-racer, but more practical] – not too ostentatious, but a step up from the ol’ banger I started with [and loved very dearly]. I got this through Personal Contract Purchase (PCP). I pay to hire the car every month.

The flexible PCP contract suited me – I’m self-employed and I’ve never had a ‘proper job’. I didn’t want to be tied down to a particular car. I wasn’t sure whether one day I’d go full on Scooby Doo Mystery Machine so I can fit in all the members of a wind quintet, or if I’d disappear off to Mongolia to learn the ways of traditional Tuvan throat singing. In Mongolia, one is better off with a horse.

Now I don’t drive at all, save for a big shopping trip. All my work has dried up. COVID-19 has left me with a big lump of metal outside to pay for every month and I can’t afford it.

I think it makes sense for me to get a month or three off paying, or at least a discount. I paid for this car in the trust that I would use it. Now there’s a literal pandemic, a literal lockdown, and I think it’s only fair that my fixed lease is extended.

I make my case via email to Far Sisters Motor Finance (fictitiously named, in the hope the real company doesn’t punish me further). I get a phone call a few days later from a lady I’m going to call Vera.

There’s nothing else we can do for you I’m afraid, everyone’s going through this.”

30 seconds of schtum. I’m shocked by Vera’s words. Everyone’s going through this? We’re all in this together? That neo-blitz spirit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has nefarious consequences. “It’s bad we can’t help you, but remember, we’re all in this together!”  I feel defeated, put the phone down, and hear the Dam Busters March play on a rusty, old music box in my head.

But, like any business, Far Sisters need my money. They need it in order to pay staff members, like Vera Lynn whom I just spoke to, so they can continue to call up customers to tell them that they can’t have their money back. The money they’re spending to not drive their cars.

The best they could offer was “breathing space”, but what about the value of my car? It’s still three months of a car I can’t drive. In a way, this encourages me to drive more… gotta get those miles in I’ve paid for. Wasted petrol, C02 pollution galore!

It might seem relatively petty, and I can hear the scoffs already, “there are people worse off than you.”

But there are people, waaayyy better off than me. Like the bosses of these finance companies. And the housing rent companies that refuse to give rent holidays. They’re getting ‘Money for Nothing’ whilst we’re in Dire Straits. We self-employed people are squeezed in the middle. People don’t know quite what to do with us. People are saying sign up to Universal Credit (I have) and to sign onto this and that, but do I trust a government scheme any more than I do the good nature of my finance company?

Time will tell. But remember, we’re all in this together. Some are on the top, and some are on the bottom. I’m somewhere in the middle, and nobody wants to speak for us.

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is a local musician and community activist. You can keep up to date with him at www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic

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OPINION: Why the NHS should be awarded the George Cross

Words by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands / Photography courtesy of Andy Street 

As we continue the fight against coronavirus, May 8th has taken on a new significance – as the next date on which the lockdown will be reviewed.  Yet there is other celebration connected to that date – VE Day – which resonates with so much that is going on now.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day may have been disrupted by a new enemy, but it links us to a past generation who faced another great national test.

It was during World War Two that the George Cross was created, to reflect the courage of civilians who showed extraordinary bravery. I believe we are seeing that courage again today. That’s why awarding our NHS staff the George Cross provides appropriate recognition for their incredible efforts.

Recently I was honoured to join HRH Prince William to help officially open the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC. Just a few weeks ago, this was an empty space. Now it is a fully-operational hospital with 500 beds ready to join the fight with COVID-19. It stands as a testament to what we can achieve if we pull together as one. It also represents the respect and gratitude we all feel towards our NHS staff.

The ‘Nightingale’ name above the door also perfectly embodies the driving principles of those who are on the frontline on this crisis – they are saving lives whilst demonstrating care and compassion.

The NHS, from the doctors and nurses on the wards, to the ambulance crews and paramedics, and all support staff, represents the very best of our society.

This crisis has shown, more than ever, the vital importance of a health service that is free at the point of use. Look around the world, at the disjointed approach produced by countries where private healthcare is prevalent, and you can see the true value of our single, united health service.

The nation’s weekly doorstep appreciation of the NHS – where millions of people applaud in support – is proof of the debt of gratitude we all feel.

The NHS reflects so much of the best of British society. The NHS is truly democratic, treating everyone the same. The personal gratitude expressed by the Prime Minister to the nurses and staff who oversaw his recovery from COVID-19 illustrates how the NHS is there for all of us.

The NHS also reflects of the diversity of our modern society. In the crisis, we see the young caring for the old, and we also see retired doctors and nurses returning to join the fight. We see NHS staff from all backgrounds and from across the globe helping the people of the UK.

Right now, the NHS is also hugely important to the health of our economy. As we try to protect business through the duration of the crisis, the NHS is a huge employer that simply keeps going.

Of course, as an institution, the NHS needs care and investment. Prior to the outbreak, the Government unveiled a huge programme of future investment, but now, as we fight this virus, our focus is rightly being placed on the here and now. Some areas are clearly not as good as we want – such as the continuing issue of PPE.

We see now, more than ever, how the NHS is the embodiment of British society. And it is the NHS staff, putting themselves at risk daily, who have become our modern heroes and heroines. That is why I believe the George Cross is an appropriate acknowledgment of the bravery we are seeing.

This is not a gimmick. These awards exist to allow us, as a society, to recognise those who have stepped forward in a time of need.

These are unprecedented times, but awarding this medal collectively, to thousands of people for their joint bravery, has been done before.

In 1942 The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George, so as to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the great siege they underwent in the early part of the Second World War.

Six years after Malta was awarded the George Cross, the NHS was born. Now, after seven decades of devoted service to the British people, our NHS staff now find themselves under siege too, from coronavirus. There is no doubt in my mind that this is their finest hour.

It is time to reflect the unique contribution to our society of the NHS, and the gallantry shown by its staff. The National Health Service has earned the George Cross.

Andy Street is the Mayor of the West Midlands. For more on Andy Street, visit www.wmca.org.uk/who-we-are/meet-the-mayor/

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OPINION: The Clap

Words by Keat Moore

On Thursday evenings families gather on their doorsteps, driveways and balconies and wait. Then, at precisely 8.00 pm the quiet, lockdown-muffled, streets erupt with the sound of applause, drums, fireworks, and the clash of pots and pans.

‘Clap for Carers’ was started in the UK by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch woman living in South London, when she took to social media to encourage her friends to emulate similar displays seen in the Netherlands, Spain and France. It soon went viral, and three weeks after Boris Johnson told the nation they must stay home, households have seized the opportunity to break the monotony. Clap for Carers has now become an almost ritualistic display of appreciation and gratitude for the continued efforts of our NHS workers in tackling the pandemic.

However, there’s something about the whole spectacle that makes me grimace.

Before the word coronavirus became part of the world’s lexicon, the NHS had been fighting a lonely battle against the Government. Starting in 2010 with George Osborne’s austerity measures the NHS saw a dramatic slow-down in funding and a real-terms budget cut, it had to dig deep to shield patients from the financial impact of the cuts, at the cost of frontline workers who bore the brunt through working harder and longer shifts.

In 2016, then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt appeared to recognise the plight of the NHS: “Without its people, the NHS is just empty buildings… Fill it full of NHS staff, you’ve got something really special.”

He acknowledged the extraordinary work done by the NHS and its people, and for a moment there was hope that the NHS had finally won the battle, that this recognition of the commitment and dedication shown by staff would be rewarded. Mr Hunt then went on to announce that he’d be scrapping student nurse bursaries and introducing tuition fees.

The consequence was 900 fewer applications to study nursing as the country was facing a shortfall of 25,000 nurses. And it wasn’t just nurses who were subjected to this Annie Wilkes approach to appreciation, junior doctors were subjected to a 40% pay cut which resulted in industrial strike action from the BMA. The NHS had 6,000 unfilled doctor and GP positions at the time.

To compound the issue further, this happened around the time the UK had voted to leave the EU. EU/EEA nationals account for over 9% of the doctors and 6% of the nurses working within the NHS, respectively, let alone the almost 70,000 EU nationals working in adult social care –  that’s nearly 200,000 doctors, nurses and carers who’s future was, and still is, now uncertain.

The NHS has been battling on several fronts, for many years, against many governments, against many issues and against all odds – but now it faces a new threat, an unseen and lethal enemy, with the potential to decimate our health service.

Right now, they’re facing an impossible task which they are completely unprepared and unequipped for. In 2016, due to mounting concern that a pandemic would be the greatest threat likely to face the UK, the Government staged a nationwide pandemic preparedness drill codenamed Exercise Cygnus based on a fictional outbreak of ‘swan flu’.

The conclusions gathered from that exercise have never been released publicly, but local authorities who took part in the drill have noted that PPE supplies were an area of concern. It’s also worth mentioning that according to DHSC accounts, the value of the UK’s emergency stockpile (consisting of PPE, including respirator masks, gloves and aprons) had fallen by more than £200m between 2016 – 2019.

And now we’re witnessing the heart-breaking ramifications of those decisions.

It’s tragic that the true value of the NHS, if there was any doubt, only comes to the fore at the hour of our need, but it’s nothing new for the workers on the frontline. They have always been here, doing the extraordinary every day, and whilst the loss of life within the NHS is painful to bear we must try to keep in mind that the loss of life without the NHS would be unfathomable.

More needs to be done to ensure that the actions and gratitude displayed within the community marry up with the actions and decisions made in Whitehall; because when this fight is won, it will be hard-won by the brave and steadfast people of the NHS, and we will look to them when it’s time to nurse this nation and the community back to health.

I hope by then, that they will have earned much more than a standing ovation.

Keat Moore is editor of Erdington Local – you can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/_mr_moore

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