Coventry- Why are our politicians failing us?
We are pleased to publish this article by Jane Nellist, a leading trade unionist and anti cuts campaigner in our city, regarding the future of Coventry. It is a contribution to a debate about the way forward, how we can develop Coventry and what sort of policies need to be carried out. We welcome any feedback or comments, see bottom of the article about how to do this (to reply on the website rather than sending us a message scroll right to the bottom). It is particularly relevant at the present time with the forthcoming elections and the new development next to Coventry train station.
Coventry is not my birth city but I, like many others, seeking jobs, family or escaping from devastated countries, have made it their home. Over the last hundred years, the city has grown to become the 10th biggest city in England with a rich mixture of people and cultures. It is my city now; my three children were born, educated and grew up here. I have spent over 30 years campaigning alongside my partner who, for nearly 10 of those years, was a Member of Parliament and then for 14 years a councillor in the city.
To know where we are and where we want to get to, we have to know where we have come from. As a teacher in the city for over 20 years, I am passionate about teaching children about our city.
The medieval Coventry grew rich on wool and trade. At one time, the city had the richest collection of medieval buildings to rival those of York and other heritage places. Most of them destroyed by the bulldozers in the name of development not the Luftwaffe who bombed the city in 1940. They had become slums because there had been no investment in them.
The city has always been at the heart of the pounding Industrial Revolution with a rich variety of skilled workers making watches, ribbon weaving, bicycles, machine tools and of course cars. In the boom of the 50s and 60s the city was rich with the highest paid factory workers the country. The city centre was an amazing shopping experience – renowned as the best outside of London! How things have changed!
Out of the rubble of the war, with the post war development we describe Coventry as a Phoenix. The first purpose built shopping precinct, new homes instead of the decrepit ‘courts’ system, full employment with factories booming, and of course, the ring road, which to some it’s an efficient way of keeping traffic moving around the centre, to others it’s a concrete collar strangling the city centre.
Housing estates grew very rapidly, hugging the city with green spaces, schools, shops, libraries, pubs and clubs and a heart of their own. Many of those facilities are now closed and demolished – local services such as libraries are under threat as the council revenue is squeezed by government cuts and the Coalition’s Big Society
So what has gone wrong? Two words come to mind- Recession and Austerity – Capitalism at its most brutish and thuggish. It gives some of us the ‘good times’ then slaps you down. It takes the profits and then moves on. Huge factories across Coventry have closed, replaced with shopping outlets and lower waged businesses or, like Peugeot who closed the Ryton factory with a loss of 2300 jobs and moved the production to Slovakia.
We now have the most Food Banks. Poverty blights our communities. Poor housing contributes to poor health. Benefit and welfare cuts impoverish our population. Low pay blights our communities. The ‘haves’ blame the ‘have not’s’ and the ‘have not’s’ are ignored or pilloried by the politicians.
So what is the Big Plan? What are our elected officials and ‘city fathers’ doing to revive us?
Local councillors are fast at picking up their allowances but don’t give us much in return. MPs fly under the radar apart from a few articles in the local paper. Why haven’t they spearheaded campaigns to save our services? Democracy is suffering in our city. It’s hard to find much difference between Labour and Tories –all the councillors voted to implement huge cuts with hardly a whimper of protest! They wouldn’t even organise a protest to Westminster about the unfair cuts to the budget for the city or join other councils in an organised lobby of government.
Our council services are being hacked to pieces; children’s centres, libraries, community centres, resources to charities and voluntary sector services, education services, elderly care and youth services…….the list goes on. Services that past generations fought for are being wiped out.
The City Council has recently produced the City Plan which identifies land for development and how they are going to meet the need for more housing and employment in our city.
Housing is a huge issue. With thousands on the housing waiting list, more living in over-crowded, poor housing, the Council’s answer is to build thousands of houses with an emphasis on detached housing on the greenbelt – Coventry apparently doesn’t have enough detached housing!
Our priority must be to urgently build affordable, low rent high quality family homes to relieve the misery. We need to also implement a huge programme of house improvement. Walk around the streets of Coventry and see how many homes need serious structural improvements including re-roofing and a whole host of repairs as well as efficient glazing.
Tenants are being left in the hands of big landlords and private letting agents, many charging exorbitant rents and ‘admin’ fees, often for poor quality housing. In the university areas, landlords have crammed four or more students into what had previously been two-bed properties, pushing families out of the area. This situation has been worsened by the Tory bedroom tax.
There are more and more homeless people visibly living on our streets. These are people who have fallen into a spiral of traps which they can’t get out of. Poor mental health services and the lack of drug and alcohol support programmes, lack of emergency housing, ‘Catch-22’ benefit system and a society that seeks to demonise the homeless mean that they have few ways out. In our city, that should be unacceptable. Everyone should have the right to a home. More supported housing is needed for those most vulnerable.
Over the last few years, the impact of unemployment especially amongst young people, benefit cuts, zero hour contracts and lower wages have had a devastating impact on our communities. Child poverty is going through the roof which has such an impact on young people for potentially, the rest of their life. That’s why I strongly support the demand for £10 an hour minimum wage and an end to zero hour contracts and the restoration of welfare and benefit support for those most in need. This would immediately lift those poorest families in Coventry to start to have a more decent life.
One of the big debates in our city at the moment is the impact of the growth of the two universities in our city- (yes that’s right- Warwick University is geographically within Coventry!) It’s not just about student numbers, although that is a big issue.
As a teacher, it’s great that we have two successful universities. However, there is a growing imbalance in our city, especially with the impact of Coventry University. The foot print of the university on our relatively small city centre is becoming like a big hob nail boot. Now the university is to take over office space used currently by the City Council which is moving into accommodation at the new train station development- Friargate. I hear more and more people commenting on the takeover of the city by the university. Soon our signs on approaching Coventry will say ‘welcome to Coventry University, the Home of Coventry’. We need to call a halt to this.
The proportion of young people in our city is growing and that’s good but many of those are the growing student numbers who only live in the city for only part of the year. How can we build a successful commercial space when many of those are only here term time?
Coventry does have a great future if we have a plan that meets the needs of all of it’s people.
We need more investment and better paid jobs for local people. If we don’t have the skills, we need proper training facilities.
We need more resources for our public services especially for our elderly. The development of the over 50 complex at The Butts is great but what about those who do not have the wealth to move in there?
Too many elderly people who have given their working life to the companies who have made loads of money out of their labour are not receiving the care they need now. Too many private care homes are poor quality. Council Care homes are being closed. We need resources quickly to make their life more comfortable and enjoyable.
Our shopping centre suffers, as do many others with competition from out of city shopping citadels. Other towns and cities, easily accessible, offer a more pleasant shopping experience, so they say. Empty shops, a plethora of charity shops, pound shops, betting and pawn shops as well temporary pop-up shops seem to be the norm in our city. Many of the locally owned shops struggle with high rates in the city centre so you end up with the same High Street companies vying for our hard earned pounds- or credit. At night, the city centre closes down and becomes a dead zone. No vibrant café culture for us. Clubs closing down and too few places for our young people to let off steam and dance the night away!
With the axing of youth centres across the city, there are few places for young people to meet up. Entertainment is expensive and if you have not got the money, street corners are the only place to congregate. We need better resources for our young people.
There are also fewer public toilets and baby changing/feeding places in the city. We should have more. They need to be well lit, clean and safe.
There is no doubt that our Phoenix is not in good health at all! Our city is now a ‘Marmot’ city- a city that has been identified because of poor health indicators and health inequalities. We have some of the lowest life expectancy in our poorest areas. Some may say we are ‘Marmite’ city- you love it or hate it! The latest atrocity is the new Study Inn in the old AXA building- a tetris or lego block, gaudy in its red grey and black garb. How did we allow this? The 3 spires are supposed to be the focal point.
There are some great things happening in the city- Fargo in Gosford Street is amazing and a breath of fresh air, Ego theatre, Artspace and other art venues, Warwick Arts Centre is the biggest outside of London. Where people stand firm, we can win- look at the success of Charterhouse. By standing firm, residents have won and not only kept the field and the Charterhouse buildings but also, with Lottery Heritage funding, the facilities will be enhanced. If it had been left up to the council, those community resources would have been lost forever.
We have a great tourist trade with the Cathedrals and other historic buildings such as the world renowned Coventry Transport Museum, but we don’t harness it. Our city should be buzzing at night with all of the varied restaurant and culture we have to offer.
The Herbert Gallery and Museum has a great collection and fantastic visiting exhibitions. We have the Two Tone Village which celebrates our rich musical heritage and of course the Belgrade Theatre.
Often, it’s hard to find out what is going on in the city- we are not good at telling people until it has happened! It’s even harder if you have limited resources. How often are venues half full or audiences that quite frankly are not representative of our population? – wouldn’t it be great if prices were reduced so that it could be more accessible. I believe that we should have more free events. Culture should be at the heart of the city and accessible to all. The Godiva festival is a great example how Coventry comes together with a free event. Even that is now threatened with the Council cuts.
If you tell me that all of this is pie in the sky and that there is no money, ask yourself- Why are the rich getting so much richer? How come bankers are still getting over £80 billion in bonuses alone? Of course there is money, it’s just that we don’t control where it is spent. That’s why I am voting for TUSC in this election because there is a different way forward.
So what should we campaign for to ensure a brighter future for our city? :
- Build more affordable housing in the city. Homes that are energy efficient. Mixed housing, flats and family homes with gardens. This is an urgent priority.
- Ensure all brown field sites are utilised fully for priority housing and employment.
- We should protect Green Belt land. It’s not ‘nimbyism’, the Green Belt belongs to everyone and should be protected for leisure pursuits with quality footpaths for wheelchair use and pushchairs and cycleways.
- Improve the public transport system making it cheaper for people to use. Expand the ‘ring and ride’ so that those with certain needs can take part in the wider life of the city.
- Build homes for people in the city centre. We need to re-populate the city centre. Stop the city becoming a student village with companies making huge amounts of profit out of students.
- Stop the use of family homes for students and put more duties on landlords to look after the properties, including ensuring that homes are safe and well repaired, keeping entries accessible and clear of rubbish. Multiple occupancy homes should be registered with higher standards. If landlords fail to meet standards then have powers to transfer the homes to council ownership.
- Build high quality student accommodation in other areas of the city.
- Restore the Street Warden scheme and increase street cleaning. Ensure that there are facilities for people to get rid of bulky rubbish instead of dumping it on street corners.
- Curb the development of the two Universities. There is a serious imbalance within the City Centre which is becoming increasingly Coventry University campus. Encourage the University to open up their facilities for the people of Coventry.
- An immediate increase of the minimum wage to £10 hour for all workers whatever their age.
- End zero hours contracts and limit the use of agency workers.
- Increase the number of Apprentices with proper training, an increase in pay and a guaranteed job at the end of the training.
- In conjunction with the Universities and Colleges, set up training programmes for those unemployed to equip them with skills for jobs.
- Initiate an urgent city wide investigation into Child Poverty tasked with drawing up a plan to eradicate it in our city.
- Stop the closure of libraries and other local services.
- Increase Adult Education in the city.
- Expand leisure and health facilities in the city. We should be building a 50 metre pool in the city.
- Develop community facilities in local areas around Coventry. These should be freely accessible offering a wide range of entertainment, education and proper public information sessions.
Agree, disagree? Leave a comment or contact us if you want to get involved!