Vivienne Westwood speaks out about destruction of Rectory Gardens housing co-op

Vivienne Westwood is known for her outspoken attitude, both in her fashion and activism. Sticking to trend, today she spoke out about the destruction of long-standing housing co-ops in her home borough of Lambeth, lending her support to the documentary Spectacle are making about the fate of Rectory Gardens and its residents who currently face eviction by the council.

This sort of short-termist policy is “incredibly stupid, shocking and horrible. It’s terrible to put people through that distress” and will simply add to the “growing list of people waiting for housing”, said Vivienne. In 2011, Lambeth recalled the properties it previously handed over to the self-forming housing co-op back in the 1970s as a response to cuts, spurred on by the now-booming London market. Vivienne spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about Rectory Gardens: “There is no traffic, so children can actually play together and knock on each others’ doors. People are all working together, it’s absolutely great.” The enforced break-up of such a community is “disgusting”, she added.

Vivienne moved to Clapham in the 1960s, when she recalls that London was a “dilapidated” yet “creative” and “living” city. Echoing the words of artist Maggi Hambling, who Spectacle interviewed two weeks ago, “There was always something to discover. It was full of craftspeople and artists”. Now, she says, London has been “cleaned up” and priced out through short-sighted government policy that is “killing the actual reason why people want to live here in the first place.”

With a deep love of London’s theatres and cultural centres, such as the National Gallery, Barbican, and particularly the Battersea Arts Centre, Vivienne argued that these sorts of enterprises tend to emerge from the ground up, through artistic communities that are allowed to grow organically, like Rectory Gardens itself. “These sorts of communities are so important to what makes London such a buzzing, active, cultural place”. But in a world dominated by concern for “profit” alone, in which “people are just treated as commodities”, she fears that all such creativity is “being obliterated and swamped”.

Vivienne highlighted the fact that the government is currently planning to build over 200 high-rise luxury flats in the City; an action she deemed “an absolute scandal”, since, at the same time, “the housing list is growing while council houses are being pulled down and housing co-ops are being evicted. Where are people going to live?” Arriving in London almost 50 years ago as a school teacher, Vivienne said that even at that time it was very difficult to find a flat. With her then boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, they found a place that had been squatted by “hippies” and painted entirely red on the inside – “it looked like the inside of a phonebox! It was great!”. This was the only way they were able to secure a home. “I don’t know how people manage today. It’s dreadful.”

Referring to the soaring prices of London property, Vivienne spoke of the case of Maritza Tschepp who is being threatened by eviction from her ‘short-life’ house in Stockwell to the potential tune of around £700,000 for the Council at auction. Not a penny of that would go the former resident, despite the fact that it is her invested energy and money alone that has maintained and increased the property’s market value over the 33 years she has lived in it. At those prices, suggested Vivienne, who earlier this year attended a demonstration outside another boarded-up co-op house on Lillieshall Rd to protest its sale, it’s likely only to be speculators or those after second homes that can afford to move in.

“The government is doing only what’s good for business and profit – they’re not thinking about people. This is bad economics and is storing up trouble for the future”, argued Vivienne fervently. A long-standing Lambeth resident, she understood that the council was facing enormous pressure from its budget being slashed in half by government austerity measures. But argued that they should be resisting and raising the alarm about the scale of cuts, rather than backing the Government in “trying to work a system that is a short-term disaster for people and a longer-term, unimaginable disaster for the planet”. She urged that people should “stick together” to protest against the “false economy” of austerity.

Reflecting her broad activist perspective, Vivienne was keen to stress that the story of Rectory Gardens should be seen as part of a bigger systemic problem of greedy capitalist profiteering resulting in the destruction of communities and the environment, “happening everywhere”. “We need a green economy based on collaboration, respect for people, fair distribution of money, community. A green economy is a people’s economy – it is urgent and necessary. If you protest against the acquisition of these co-op houses, you are protesting against everything that is ruining the planet.” In her own true-to-form, outspoken words, that is: “a world in which politicians’ only care is to syphon off all profit for the super rich”.

 

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To thrive, we must get radically political – not just commit to private actions for happiness

Last week, I attended an evening presenting Richard Layard and David Clark’s new book Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies hosted by Action for Happiness, which Layard co-founded. Underlining the core thesis of their book, Layard and Clark spoke about the immense potential for evidence-based psychological therapies to alleviate the burden of mental illness in the UK; if only we invested more in these services. They encouraged us to write to MPs to ask Commissioners to do so. This is in the tailwind of Mind releasing a report last month in which Local Authorities were rightly lambasted for spending ‘unacceptably low’ amounts on mental ill-health prevention services[1]. While funding for mental ill-health represents only 1.36% of the national budget, we spend four times as much on anti-smoking initiatives. Yet suffering from mental illness can shorten lives more than smoking and is the single largest source of burden of disease in the UK.

This demonstrates the terrible inequality between the way we treat physical and mental illnesses that must cease. Spending on provision for mental health needs to be ramped up to high volume. Agreed.

What concerned me about the Thrive event, however, was a feeling that we were skirting around the core issue – that is, the political and economic background against which the mental health crisis has exploded, has itself thrived. It is no coincidence, in my mind, (and many already agree), that we have seen the escalation of mental health problems coincide with the rise of a neoliberal political ideology that, since the 1980s, has promoted individualism, competition, commodification, marketisation, and privatisation of common goods and services. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that the resultant visible securitisation of our physical environment in cities and towns has created a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety, undermining trust and social cohesion further, and contributing to mental illness. A report published in 2010 by the Mental Health Foundation directly links mental ill-health to our individualistic society. We are the one of the most unhappydistrusting, and lonely countries in the world, with one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe.

At the same time, we have seen the welfare system hacked back, with direct implications for those struggling with mental ill-health. Last year, Mind reported a 50% increase in the number of calls to its Infoline, according to the Guardian, with callers reporting severe financial worries. Oxfordshire Mind received £336,078 (I am curious how the £8 was decided on…) from the Big Lottery Fund to deal with some of this fallout through its Benefits for Better Mental Health service. The recession has been found to have hit those with mental illness hardest, with fears for the impact on yet further social exclusion. How can we talk about calling for more funding for mental health without talking about austerity and health privatisation and what the broader ideology behind this is doing to our societal capacity for wellness?

Take social anxiety; the most common anxiety disorder, which David Clark spoke about at the launch. Social anxiety relates to an excessive level of self-consciousness and fear concerning what others are thinking about you, leading to avoidance or intense anxiety of social situations. A social dis-ease. As a very shy young person, I experienced this myself and know how crippling it can be, even far into adulthood. There are many things one can do – investing in more access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to ‘correct’ thinking and put it into perspective is one (although this approach itself requires critical examination). But, shouldn’t we be asking, what kind of society creates this condition in the first place? Why are we so afraid of one another? Or, perhaps, why have we not made space in our society for shyer more reserved peoples (worryingly, Social Anxiety Disorder reaches back to concepts of shyness in its historical development) – something that Susan Caine, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, deems to be the result of a cultural ideological ideal of extraversion, which fits hand in glove with our other cultural holy grail of brash individualism and competition. Perhaps we should look at social anxiety as a symptom of the cultural myth of the confident, self-made individual clamouring for recognition, which has no time for the quiet, the uncertain, or the not-yet fully formed, fully ‘self-branded’ person. For this reason, perhaps it is no surprise that Social Anxiety Disorder is most common in the young – particularly those in their 20s.

Describing how psychological therapies can help such conditions, and many others, Clark concludes that a ‘large proportion’ of mental health problems are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic. Hang on a minute… Rewind…  ‘…are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic.’

Stop.

If that is true, then shouldn’t we be asking – what’s going on with us that we don’t provide that for each other? Why must I go to a therapist to have this basic human need and capacity offered to me? In a society dominated by so-called ‘communication skills’ and communication technologies – have we forgotten what it means to listen? Do we not know what it’s like to be heard until we enter a therapy room? How tragic. I can’t help but feel that our capacity for true empathy (I dislike the word sympathy) is swallowed up by the ticking clock, the over-bombardment of advertising and images, and the relentless me-first mentality that we are led to believe is necessary to ‘win’. Only those we pay have the time and skill, or perhaps the permission, to listen. For to admit that we are mentally unwell is to admit that we are not so sure that we are ‘winning’. And to listen to another – to truly hear empathetically – is to perhaps admit that neither are we…

According to George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article, this ‘Age of Loneliness’ – of individual striving and surviving – is killing us. Loneliness is a significant cause and augmenter of mental health problems, as well as factor contributing to reduced life expectancy. Monbiot attributes its pernicious prevalence to that ‘life-denying’ neoliberal ideology that ‘enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.’

Echoing similar analysis, Action for Happiness state on their website: ‘We live in an increasingly competitive, self-obsessed culture which encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions as a route to success. This is supported by our political and economic systems that are focused on maximising economic growth above all else… [O]ur focus on materialism and self-obsessed individualism is leading to serious problems across society. We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, lower levels of trust, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.’ At the same time, Layard and Clark write in their book that ‘mental illness does seem to be more common in countries where there are low levels of support, trust, and cooperation, and excessive levels of competition for position’.

But both Action for Happiness’s and Layard and Clark’s response is woefully, inadequately non-political – ‘By focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, helping others, meaningful activities, keeping active, and having a spiritual dimension or greater purpose to our lives.’ In one swift movement, Action for Happiness brings us to the brink of the structural problem, and then whisks us away into the private realm of personal and family life, where it is promised that ‘small actions’ will ‘build a happier society’ and a ‘social movement’ for change.

In a similar vein during the event, Layard argued that of course we need to address attitudes and social values, moving away from competition, consumption and material status aspiration. We must foster communities that put altruism at their core to counter these forces. As if to initiate this, the Chair, the Director of Action for Happiness, was anxious to keep encouraging us to ‘think of small actions we can do ourselves’ to make the world happier, asking us to write a ‘pledge’ on the back of a small credit-sized card we were each given on our seats. If only these personal credits could outweigh the structural debts on the balance sheet.

Of course small actions matter – they matter to people here, now, the starfish that was put back in the sea; but this perspective ignores the conditions that structure our responses. How can we create an altruistic, meaningful, spiritual, community-minded society in the context of vast inequality, insecurity, and the creed of competitive individualism that is ingrained in the logic of our institutions, even within our infrastructure? The GREAT DREAM of the ’10 Keys for Happier Living’ that Action for Happiness promotes is curtailed and crippled by the very economic and political structures that had to dream it. Our capacities for Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying out, Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, and Meaning are all socially defined and constrained.

Neither altruism, nor small personal actions, can ever be enough if we’re talking about the scale of change we need. It is like being told to eat a healthy diet in the face of the billions spent on advertising junk food to halt obesity… Or putting little pictures of blackened lungs and rotting corpses on packets of cigarettes to prevent cancer… Or telling us to switch off our lights and unplug our mobile phones to prevent runaway climate change… Or investing more into psychological therapies for those struggling with mental ill-health… They are good things to do, but they don’t solve the root problems; rather, conceal them.

This obfuscation is duplicated in Layard’s own analysis – he argues that the majority of those who are least satisfied with their lives are most likely to be suffering from a form of mental illness, which itself causes more misery than poverty or unemployment. Whilst definitely seeking to reject the pathologising of sadness and wanting more from life, isn’t long-lasting dissatisfaction and unhappiness often a cause of mental illness? And physical illness, poverty, and unemployment are all factors that significantly increase the likelihood of developing mental health problems as self-reinforcing factors. Comparing the suffering caused by mental illness to that of poverty is a misnomer – mental illness emerges out of a whole combination of layered factors, including poverty or unemployment itself, and is often a symptom not itself a cause. This shows up the danger of simply focusing on treatment and not prevention or the wider causes for its manifestation. If we segregate mental illness from factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social fragmentation, we wind up in an apolitical situation in which ‘happiness’ simply becomes a thing that we try to create in our spare time, rather than seeking to build a conception of mental wellness into the very logic of our social system.

Layard says that we need to rethink the concept of ‘deprivation’ to reflect what is going on inside someone’s own mind – for mental illness spans income inequalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Both poor and rich can suffer. Yet, pinpointing mental illness as an individual phenomenon again misses the point – this is a social, structural crisis, not just a personal one.

Wanting to appeal to a wide audience, Action for Happiness state that is has ‘no political, religious or commercial affiliations’. This is bigger than party politics; that is true. Yet, stopping short of challenging the neoliberal logic we find ourselves forced into, it only ends up standing by the political, dogmatic, and commercially-minded ideology that is framing the existence of this social movement in the first place.

The mental health crisis should be understood as a social limit to growth – that is, a social warning system sounding the alarm against the relentless pursuit of endless economic growth within the current paradigm, as Action for Happiness themselves seem to recognise. But if we are serious about, say, Gross National Happiness as our measure of progress, then we must recognise that this entails a supremely radical shake-up of our entire economic model and cultural ideology. At its logical endpoint, we are talking about challenging the very ideology of growth itself. As Monbiot concludes, ‘Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people’ (And isn’t ‘Action for Happiness’ just such a palliative?) ‘But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.’

I am not sure whether Action for Happiness, or indeed Layard and Clark, are aware that their stated ambitions, to create a ‘happier society for everyone’, and a ‘positive change in what we mean by progress’ away from ‘materialism and self-obsessed individualism’, are much more radical, and political, than they themselves perhaps wish to admit.

In the last sentence of their book, Layard and Clark say that with regards to mental health ‘Apart from global warming, there is no other major problem which is so neglected worldwide.’ I agree – and would add that both are at root the same problem; as one audience member put it – a system that itself is psychologically unwell, in the manner of Joel Bakan’s pathological corporation. The solution to both can only be system-level change – a confrontation with the fundamental neoliberal logic of our entire current mainstream politics and economics. What could be more radically political – and more mentally sound – than that?

[1] As an aside – I am always amused and irritated in equal measure by such turns of phrase as ‘mental health prevention services’ or, in chit-chat, ‘she’s got mental health’ – as if people being well, that is mentally healthy, is the thing that is bad. Let’s get it right – we’re talking about mental illness not wellness here, sadly.

Local artist Maggi Hambling condemns Lambeth Council’s ‘Jack the Ripper policy’ towards urban development

Painter, sculptor and Clapham resident, Maggi Hambling, told Spectacle that ‘Lambeth Council, rather like Jack the Ripper, seems to be ripping its way through the whole feel and importance of this area’ through its short-termist policy of selling off cooperative housing, such as that of Rectory Gardens, just round the corner from Maggi’s sunlit studio.

‘What I think is most extraordinary is that Lambeth calls itself the ‘Cooperative Council‘ when it has destroyed and is still destroying every cooperative around me. It’s terrible, to put it mildly’, she says. In an interview for Spectacle’s documentary about the breaking up of Rectory Gardens Housing Co-op, Maggi describes Lambeth’s ‘money-grabbing, short-sighted, and morally criminal’ behaviour towards Co-ops in the borough. In nearby Lillieshall Road, only two of 15 houses remain, while residents of Rectory Gardens are currently in the process of being evicted.

‘The creative community, as I have known it over all these years, has changed from an enormous mix of different people living together and caring about each other into this gentrified place where money, money, money, rather than any kind of feel for the community, rules. Every bit of creative spirit is being exterminated with a very heavy hand. Nothing but destruction is coming from above.’

Maggi moved to the area in the 1960s and remembers the wide variety of people who once made this their home, including artists and craftspeople. The systematic eradication of co-ops, she fears, is the product of a policy of greed that will ultimately destroy what makes this place special to live in.

‘Clapham and places around here will just become dormitories for people in the city who can afford the extortionate amounts of money they’re paying for their little bit of castle. This area is trying to turn itself into Mayfair. Something that the totally un-cooperative Council is probably very happy about to the detriment of healthy communities and anything that breathes any life.’

‘Rectory Gardens is the last bastion of the cooperatives and is hanging on by its teeth. Whatever anyone can do to save it must be done now. I would ask the Council to look at their own greed and lack of foresight and vision. Otherwise, this sort of Jack the Ripper policy is going to amount to a London that is extremely boring, to say the least.’

Despite anger, Maggi optimistically concludes that ‘it is possible to win these battles. The so-called Cooperative Council should be emphatically made to see how blind they are being and how cruel.’

But, she wonders, as many might, ‘why does everything have to be a battle?’

(First published on Spectacle’s website – http://www.spectacle.co.uk/spectacleblog/rectory-gardens/local-artist-maggi-hambling-condemns-lambeth-councils-jack-the-ripper-policy-towards-urban-development/)

Why saying “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why… Natural Capital is coming to town!” isn’t quite good enough…

NatCap13 Happy Christmas!

Last month, around 500 business leaders, policymakers, academics, and environmentalists convened in Edinburgh for two days to discuss the ‘natural capital’ approach to achieving economic and ecological sustainability. The core messages at the World Forum on Natural Capital revolved around a number of central themes. The first was the need to move beyond the ‘soft appeal’ of the ‘sexy’ concept of natural capital, to the ‘hard task’ of getting down to the business of mainstreaming it into the economy. The concept may have gained traction, with this Forum proving the proposition, but we now must move from conceptualisation to action. Nothing new there, you might rightfully argue. The second theme was about the need for more engaging narratives and stories, not only about successful application of the natural capital approach itself but also of genuine and sustained collaboration and dialogue that have resulted in that success. Perhaps, again, nothing really that new there either. Collaboration and dialogue are the linchpin of system-level sustainable transformation; the latter cannot occur without the former. True we need more of this, and we need to hear more about this, and there is merit to repeating this many times until this way of working is mainstreamed. However, perhaps not such a revelatory comment.

Where themes picked up pace were with regards to levels of confidence that this was the future; the world was going to be swept along by this new wave of radical thinking, like it or not. You were either in – or far out. Jochen Zeitz, the man behind PUMA’s Profit & Loss Accounting, argued that we may not have found the right tools and metrics just yet, but they will materialise, and all business will be using these by 2020. David Steuerman, Business and Biodiversity Programme Officer at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, pointed out that going back 30 years and asking people then if they wanted the digital technology revolution, and all the upheaval and radical change accompanying it, to take place, more than likely it would have been utterly rejected. Accounting for ‘natural capital’ is the same – but it will happen. Likewise, Alan McGill, Partner, Sustainability & Climate Change at PwC, echoed these sentiments, saying that natural capital is the first signposted industrial revolution we have ever had. It will happen because if business wants to survive, it better start accounting for its true and full costs – or risk being completely left behind. What everyone needs, however, is to understand this shift better so that we can all prepare, and buckle up for the bumpy ride.

A spoof ‘Great Nature Sale’ protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum on Natural Capital

Perhaps those who might be most frightened about the prospect of inevitability and an ‘it’s-happening-with-you-or-without-you mindset’ are the protesters who set up camp down the road from the Forum at an alternative gathering ‘World Forum on Natural Commons’.  I had sympathy with their perspective on the Forum as a closed-off, elite group of ‘the great and good’ as Jo Confino described it (although perhaps ‘greatly bad’ from the protesters’ point of view), seeing as it was held in a closed venue, with exclusive prices, exclusive (delicious..sorry..) catering, and exclusive VIP attendees. Their argument that ‘nature’s not for sale’ is not stupid. It is not naïve either. There are real concerns as to what the full implications of the ‘natural capital’ approach could mean – biodiversity offsetting is the beginning – and it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to consider commodification and increased privatisation of our natural assets as an unintended outcome. In a recent Guardian live-chat on natural capital, the question ‘How is it possible to prevent a surge of privatization / dispossession once the “true economic value” of nature is revealed?’ was asked. Not all panelists answered, (this silence is itself interesting..) but Gerard Bos, Head of Global Business and Biodiversity at IUCN, stated that ‘this will be difficult to prevent and true economic value could drive the wrong behaviour’. Marije Schaafsma Senior Research Associate from the University of East Anglia emphasised the need for collective action to counter this, citing the public uproar in response to government attempts to sell off our forests last year as a key example. Indeed these risks point to the need for government regulation, sound policy, and civil society accountability. Thus, I was heartened to see at least a couple of people address the voices of the protesters, and acknowledge their value, to some extent. Richard Spencer, Head of ICAEW Sustainability, urged the Forum not to dismiss messages such as ‘nature is not for sale’ too readily and arrogantly. While we need more collaboration, this does not mean a ‘cosy party’ but constructive disagreement – real dissonance and debate should be welcomed. We also need to address the clear loss of trust, or loss of social capital, in the financial system that this wholehearted rejection of the natural capital approach represents (more on this in my next blog…)

However, it is the seemingly blanket ideological and wholehearted rejection that worries me – and much of it seems to be based on misunderstandings or misinterpretation. For example, ‘valuing’ the true worth of nature is not the same as ‘putting a price’ on nature. As TEEB’s Pavan Sukhdev explains, ‘value’ is the worth or benefit you receive, while ‘price’ is what you pay, or are willing to pay, in a market. No-one is trying to put nature up for sale. But let’s make damn sure that that doesn’t happen by engaging the public in shaping the discussion and the necessary policy frameworks. The motivation behind the natural capital approach is a good one; to go from a system which treats nature as worthless and destructible, to one where what is ‘priceless’ is truly accounted for and made visible. Protesters need to recognise and believe that most of the people at the World Forum, if not all, have that good intention in mind. Believe it or not, we share a common purpose – to protect our planet. The concepts of ‘natural capital’ and ‘natural commons’ may have more in ‘common’ than defendants think – so how about a ‘conceptual commons’ discussion?  What we need to discuss are the merits of the solutions on the shared table – like the turkey on our Christmas spread, natural capital accounting needs to take central place here as its promises are highly succulent and juicy, even as it may also proffer very real but manageable risk of salmonella if not properly cooked…  (Forgive my bird-brained Christmas puns here….;) oh dear…)

Likewise, those at the World Forum need to be aware that continuing to leave the public and wider NGO community (who have been relatively silent on this issue… bar Friends of the Earth with their bees campaign, which they interestingly semi-blush behind in this blog I came across which nevertheless echoes my thoughts I think) out of these discussions will only serve to polarise debate, rather than bring it into constructive friction. As one of the conclusions of the Forum described – collaboration requires trust, shared vision, and open and honest dialogue. Tony Juniper argues in a recent Guardian article, we need to start building meaningful dialogue now with sceptics, critics, proponents, and evangelists alike, or else, I argue, face 1000+ protesters and business who won’t want to touch natural capital with no_ordinary_capital (1)a ski-pole at the next World Forum in 2015, which will make for a far slower, bumpier, and altogether uncomfortable ride in the sleigh to NatCapland… and perhaps the disappearance of that which we value most on planet earth in the meantime.. I believe we are both on the same side, we just haven’t sat down and had enough mince pies and mulled wine together.

PS – Has Santa accounted for his natural capital yet? Well, as a start, he was appointed 2013 ‘Ambassador for European Forests’..

*NB: When I wrote this I was working as the Development Officer for the Natural Capital Initiative. All views expressed here were my own. Since writing this and leaving the NCI I have changed my views on the above, becoming increasingly sceptical of the natural capital valuation approach… More on this later.