Housing: Another victory for chumocracy under Johnson’s reign – and a shot in the kneecap for the rest of us

What the hell am I talking about?

Answer: the new planning bill put forward by Conservatives or the “developer’s charter” (as it is known by the Labour Party) which makes it easier for developers to ride roughshod over local interest groups and “gags” residents in the area who object to any new developments.

Why are the Conservatives putting such a bill forward?

Answer 1: the Conservatives have said that they are pushing the bill forward in order to make sure that future generations have housing options.

Answer 2: Seeing as how house prices are already sky-high (as a result of millionaires, billionaires and their mates flooding the housing market with dirty money) it seems unlikely that the next generation would even be able to afford whatever houses or apartments that develops might offer.

Most likely answer: Therefore, the most likely reason for the cutting of red tape would be because the Conservative party received wads of developer’s cash. Shadow Community Secretary Steve Reed is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “donations from large developers had risen by 400% under the Boris Johnson leadership.”

How many times have we seen ministers get up in front of parliament and call for some kind of legislature after they have received funding from a vested interest? Clearly the same thing is happening right now. Developers have provided huge swathes of money to the Tory party and now they want to see the return on their investment.

They are getting that return in spades. With no local residents or interest groups (one would assume this includes environmental groups) allowed to stand in their way, developers are free to build where they like, when they like and damn the consequences. An effective green light that would put even more power in the hands of big business whilst cutting themselves free of any collective power that the people should have in their hands when it comes to changes that effect their lives.

Developers are already given wiggle room and the freedom to make their own (often disastrous) choices, the prime one – especially in my area – building on flood plains, using less than suitable building materials or often using no materials at all as was shown in the reason deluge of complaints against Persimmon Homes. Building and selling houses has never been more lucrative, and with the lack of waiting times when it comes from purchasing land to building properties as a result of this bill, they are set to up their profits considerably.

With a flood of properties into the market, one might think that homes might become more affordable. However, houses are never developed at a rate that matches the increase in prices. Unaffordable homes will be shoved on unsuitable land and they will fall directly into the hands of property companies and private landlords at the expense of the next generation. This will add to the wealth divide and we all know what horrors that can bring.

Data funnelled from NHS to private companies will ruin your insurance

Listening to the radio yesterday, it wasn’t all that surprising to hear that the Conservatives were overlooking the selling of private data from NHS medical records to third parties. The Conservative government are aching to make money from any and all methods.

Not too long ago, I wrote about the issues that I had faced getting life insurance. A history of mental health issues means that I am unlikely candidate for life insurance and therefore, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to help my partner pay for the house with anything other than the pittance in my savings account.

The reason why I bring up the mental health issue in regards to the selling of your medical data to third parties is because third parties can be advertising firms, betting companies, social media platforms, media companies and, of course, insurance companies. Advertising companies and betting firms are one thing – we can block these if we want to and not all of us are subjective when it comes to companies trying to sell us crap on the old interweb machine.

Insurance, however, has the ability to wreak havoc on our very lifestyles in a very real way. If a motor insurance company has your data and finds out that you have diabetes, they may reject your claim. Now, diabetes is already labelled on insurance questionnaires which already drives up premiums. But let’s say that the same insurance company also knows that you visited the hospital twice in the past six months because you had concerns regarding your insulin levels. You have just become a higher risk despite taking twice daily blood sugar checks and managing your diet. The insurance company doesn’t care. The data says you have visited hospital for concerns regarding your health. Your premium just went up. The car needed for work is suddenly unachievable because, on a tight budget, you cannot afford to drive to work.

Data was worth more in 2019 than oil. Your attention and how to gain it has an incredibly high price. Data regarding your health is a completely different ball-field. Algorithms can now predict your ailments before you know what they are yourself. If you have a loyalty card with Tesco and you suddenly have cravings for certain foods that are associated with pregnancy, the algorithms at Tesco can spot that trend and start advertising baby products. And then, bam. They know about it before you’ve even peed on a stick. You’re scratching your head and wondering why you are getting coupons or emails for reduced baby clothes…

Cambridge Analytica proudly promote themselves by claiming that they can sell things to social media users by using over 5000 pieces of information that they have acquired for every user whose data they examine. We know this to be possible. If insurance companies use this kind of algorithmic technology, it means that they could very well predict what ailments you may or may not have in the future depending on your medical records and those of your elders. You might never develop any hereditary diseases or illnesses but that doesn’t matter too much because the insurance companies are looking at probability, possibility, and risk. Health insurance, life insurance, travel insurance, car insurance, worker insurance – these are all now at risk and so is your very ability to purchase a new house, go on holiday or the opportunity to own a car.

“Politics of Envy”

As humans, we want. It’s in our nature. It could be something trivial, or it could be something vast and seemingly unachievable. For instance, I want to end the climate crisis and make sure that we stabilise the now fragile ecosystem. I don’t know if I want that because I can’t fathom a life without nature and an abundance of animal and plant life, or whether it is because, on a primal level, I fear for my own survival and that of my family.

But there is so much more than that. As someone who was raised in a working class family, I want a house. I want a roof over my head and a bed and car so that I can live my life in comfort. If I’m being honest with myself, that’s not all I want. As a working class person, I want the same kind of life that I see other people living. A wage that would not just buy me a car, but a car that is better for the environment than the grade of car that I can actually afford.

But I am being envious of those who have. Because I am someone who does not “have”. Why is expecting the same level of comfort or wanting more money to achieve fiscal security envious?

We are told that if we want to earn more, we should work harder and progress. That we should have a stronger work ethic. Maybe we should become entrepreneurs and make something new or get a skill that is in demand. This raises the question: why does the person who works all the hours under the sun just to get by earn less than someone who came up with an idea? After all, we are not all inventors. We don’t all spot some diamond in the rough that we can mine and make our riches. Many of us are just hard workers who turn up day after day to a job that we don’t care about but that brings in money to get us by. And we are told that we don’t have a good work ethic? That we lack dedication?

We are made to feel like we are not as deserving as someone who had a bright spark of an idea. What is worse is that “politics of envy” is not a term commonly used by people who have built a life for themselves from the ground up. It is used most by people who were born into wealth. People who have never known what it is to be working class and who have never had to worry about getting food on the table.

The very term “politics of envy” is in itself a clear indicator of the psychology of its users. It is to highlight a distinction between an “us” and “them.” The “us” have it, the “them” don’t. The phrase also drips with a disgusting level of contempt that the average worker. When this kind of phrase is used by someone within the upper echelons of society (someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg for instance) it has biblical and thus sinful connotations. Most disdainfully, it feels like a language of an authoritarian looking down at the lowest rungs of society.

Britain: The Land of Chumocracy and Cronyism

Covid-19 has wrought terrible devastation across the globe, and perhaps nowhere has felt the most amount of damage and uncertainty than America and the U.K. With record numbers of deaths per capita, a flood of terrible decisions and a onslaught of misinformation, managing the virus has been extremely difficult. The U.K especially have zigzagged in and out of lockdown enough times to confound any journalist, social commentator and of course, the millions of citizens who don’t know where they stand from one day to the next.

Throughout the entire ordeal, No.10 have had their feet held to the fire as Boris Johnson kept the U.K “open for business” and that it has also unravelled that the government has consistently handed out more than a handful of contracts to private companies – without going through the usual channels of putting said contracts out to tender. The test and trace scheme was handed to Dido Harding and produced by Serco with astonishingly bad results. For instance, the bespoke contract was delivered using Excel instead of custom-made software and, despite businesses across the U.K taking in all the information they needed from customers, it was all for nothing when the test and trace system failed to conglomerate the data. What’s worse is that the government still claims, at every opportunity, that it is the NHS test and trace system.

Please, don’t let them get away with that one.

The choice to give out contracts and not put them out to tender is not just an example “chumocracy” among the Conservative elite, it is also evidence of cronyism. The Conservatives have closed their ranks and they bully out those who might try to put forward their ideas and expertise or ways in which to improve the country. Conservative donors and friends (in one instance, a pub landlord) have widely benefitted from this chummy approach and, whilst this kind of treatment would be baffling at the best of time, it feels more like a slap in the face during such a turbulent period in our lives.

There is, however, a more severe level of cronyism which was highlighted in today’s newspapers, and that is the one in which a contract was given to a Russian-owned firm to design a new briefing room for No.10. The company, Megahertz, has also worked on projects for Russia Television (RT), Channel One and Public Television of Russia,  which has raised concerns regarding the security of No.10’s new media suite. This might seem unconnected to what has transpired throughout the Covid-19 crisis but we need to go back a little to understand why this briefing room debacle raises so many questions.

Back in 2016 ex-MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, released a document stating (among other things) that Donald Trump was subject to Russian control after Moscow had managed to acquire compromising material (kompromat) on the then-to-be president of the United States. The kompromat – the infamous prostitute sex tape recorded in Moscow’s Hilton Hotel. When the information that Trump could be a Russian puppet was handed further up the chain toward Theresa May’s office, a blanket was thrown over the investigation and interest dwindled. But this wasn’t the first time that Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s government have ignored crucial information regarding Russia.

The Russia Report has long been an article of particular importance to the U.K media, and for good reason. The report claims that Russian money has flooded into London and upholds (and has fractured) the London property market. Property investment a tool of choice for money launderers and Bill Browder (known as Putin’s number one enemy and proponent against corruption) even goes so far as to say that London is “floating on a sea of Russian money.” The Russia Report thus raises the question as to whether or not Russian Roubles have made their way into the U.K’s political system. The report has been constantly sidestepped by Prime Minister Johnson and, before him, Theresa May.

Although heavily redacted in order to (one would guess) protect people within the government “the report notes that links between the Russian elite and the U.K allow access to business and politics that can be used for influence. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source,””. So, do we have a party in power who might very well be at the beck and call of Russian financiers and Russian interests?

Well, it might seem like a tenuous connection between the Russia Report and the hiring of Megahertz to design and build No.10’s new media briefing room, but the more you peel back the layers, the stronger the case becomes. After all, it is not simply a link between Russia, it is the way that the government now responds when faced with issues.

Over the last couple of days the U.K has been the subject of a new law which prohibits that thing we claim to love so much: free speech. Cancel culture is used by the right and left to claim that the other side is silencing their right to free speech. The truth is that both parties are involved in cancel culture but what we perhaps did not expect was that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, would push through a new law which prohibits peaceful protests, marches and public demonstrations illegal if they cause “serious annoyance”. The law also means that the Home Secretary can decide on what protests are legal and which are illegal. This could technically mean that the Priti Patel could allow protesters to walk the streets if they are marching for a Conservative party initiative, but block those who are standing against the government.

Barrister and author Chris Daw told the Big Issue:

“The bill hands over the power of deciding whether a protest is justified or should be allowed — decisions we as citizens have had for generations — directly to the Home Secretary. That’s an extremely chilling development. It’s completely contradictory to everything the liberty of the free citizen is about in Britain.”

“A politician could use that power to prevent protests in favour of causes they disagree with. This law gives power to whatever government is in charge to decide what causes can take to the streets.”

So what the hell are we looking at here? Why is it that a Conservative government, under a man who calls himself a libertarian, should act so willingly against the people whilst hiding secrets about financial backing from Russian interests? And we should never forget that this is all being done in a liberal democracy where we supposedly champion the people’s voices.

All the evidence points to Conservative links with Russia (though it might spread to parties beyond the Conservatives – time is yet to tell) but the truth is that we may never really know what is going on with money sieved through the London property market. What we do know, however, is that the British government have showed themselves capable of acting like Vladimir Putin’s own thuggish kleptocracy and we are happy to have RT’s own design company into an area where sensitive information is shared. Using a Russian company does not mean that the government is puppets to Putin’s regime, but why was the contract to design the room not put out to tender? Isn’t that something they do when their chums are involved? 

Corruption bleeding out from the East

Russia’s number one enemy – Bill Browder – tweeted this piece this morning in which reports that president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has threatened to kill two dissidents now residing in the UK. The threat: “We will definitely find you…and we will hang you, side-by-side.”

The dissidents: Natalia Kaliada and husband Nicolai Khalezin. Kaliada was a former diplomat and her husband was a journalist but both now focus their time and efforts on the Belarus Free Theatre which promotes plays with anti-regime messages.

Should these threats be taken seriously? In short, yes. Alexander Lukashenko has not only backed political assassinations in Germany but is also reported to have a slush fund which is kept aside specifically to finance said assassinations.What is worse, Belarus has already sanctioned political assassinations in Germany. Lukashenko seems to be taking hints and tips from Vladimir Putin’s operational handbook which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is no secret that the men are supporters of one another’s regimes.

Vladimir Putin himself sanctioned overseas murders for those he believed had committed treason or would offer classified information. This, as we all well know, let to the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Those are only two assassinations that have been popularized. Other assassinations have been reported by Buzzfeed News in their breakthrough article: From Russia with Blood (now extended into a book).

For now, it is best to highlight the issue of the death threats and make it as widespread as possible in the hope that the spotlight deters Belarus from carrying through with their threat.

Enjoying your local area during the second lockdown

Frozen plant-life, Worth Park, Crawley

With Covid infection rates rising, the UK has been forced into lockdown once again. Travel has been restricted and, what is worse is that the UK has become the sick entity of Europe. I mean, hell, we even bred our own strain.

That being said, the last lockdown provided many of us the opportunity to expand our knowledge of our local areas. This lockdown should be no different! In fact, having explored our local areas during the spring time, we can now look at our local areas afresh in the cold grasps of winter.

My partner and I are situated in Crawley, West Sussex. It is an industry-heavy area but that has made the finding and exploring of green spaces all that more valuable. For instance, our local walk is around Ifield Mill Pond (more a lake than a pond) which is surrounded by houses on three sides and a railway on the remaining side. Despite being so close to human habitation we get a wide variety of bird species (Herons and Cormorants have been frequenting the place) and it’s a great place to take kids and dogs.

Yesterday, we went to Worth Park, Crawley. It is a lovely set of gardens with a fountain and a very picturesque pond. They have recently put a coffee hut at the entrance which is nice if people continue to bin their cups. I think that we can all agree that human trash ruins a good nature walk!

Anyway, that being said, yesterday’s walk was lovely. Our dog (recently neutered) enjoyed the slow pace and my partner and I couldn’t help but stop every few seconds to take photos of something or another. It is when forced to explore your local area that you really start to appreciate just what you find and you really start to appreciate the community in which you live.

If, like me, you are a photographer or budding photographer, these places can become playgrounds as you start looking at the from different angles. The two photos included in this piece were taken just by turning round every now and then and trying to find a new angle on those things which I looked at every day.

Exploring your local area can be fun. It can be exciting and most importantly during this awful time, it gets you out of your home and into the local area. That doesn’t mean that you have to break Covid rules. You don’t have to rub shoulders with people. You can talk across space. You can grab a coffee. Take out a book. Sit in the sun or simply enjoy the stroll for what it is.

Do you know Carole Cadwalladr?

I ask because Pulitzer Prize nominee and Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, is going through a pretty strange time right now and it amazes me that the story isn’t more widespread. Especially considering just how intrinsically it ties into our modern political structure, and just where this little island of ours is heading.

But what makes me bring up Carole Cadlwalladr? Well, Cadwalladr’s house may very well be repossessed. And why? Because she is currently in court against Brexit-barking-bulldog cum “entrepreneur” of questionable (perhaps illegal) background – Aaron Banks.

The charge? Banks is claiming that Cadwalladr made libellous and defamatory remarks about Banks’s actions throughout as part of the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. The remarks claimed that Banks had been part of a conspiracy using questionable money to fund a Cambridge Analytica scheme which aimed to win votes for Brexit. They did this by plying people with tailor-made advertisements to Leave the European Union.

Cambridge Analytica has long since shut down but, in its prime, the company boasted that it could sway the average voter by using targeted advertisements. Do you want to sing God Save the Queen? Europe want to ban the UK’s national anthems. You like guns? The Democrats want to take your guns away. Vote Trump. It was that kind of targeted campaigning that made the difference in votes both within the Brexit referendum and within the US presidential election of the same year.

Cambridge Analytica gained access to social media user data through Facebook who, as we now know in large part thanks to Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting, sells data to third parties. (Interesting aside – the selling of data generated more income last year than the sale of fossil fuels. This is the first time that this has ever happened.) With the data provided by Facebook, Cambridge Analytica claimed that they could sway voters by studying the 5,000 data points that they had on each social media user.

Where does Aaron Banks fit into this? Well, Carole claimed that Banks was, in fact, breaking campaign spending rules in order to promote the Leave vote. The wider implications mean that the decision to leave the European Union was, in fact, illegal. This claim besmirched Aaron Banks’s reputation. Unlike the United States, where libel laws are far more relaxed, Cadwalladr is being taken to court and could potentially lose her house as a result of hefty litigation fines.

Libel lawyers are rife in London and it is the work of these firms that stop the publication the names of those people believed to be harbouring offshore bank accounts. Aaron Banks is utilising these services to make Cadwalladr suffer, despite that she was only doing her job and duty as a journalist in making sure that those people who work in shadowy ways are exposed and that the courts are able to properly administer justice.

A tweet from Carole Cadwalladr (22/10/2020)

Cadwalladr has made a world of difference when it comes to investigating Facebook and their profiteering from the selling of user data. As far as we can tell, Cambridge Analytica tried, and perhaps succeeded, in manipulating voters to sway them a certain way. With that in mind, are we seeing justice provided in the Banks V Cadwalladr (not the real name) case, or are we seeing a man’s wealth succeed in blurring the lines of the truth and potentially ruining a journalist’s life?

Mental health and work during Covid-19

Covid-19 hit Gatwick Airport (and the rest of the civil aviation sector) pretty damn hard. Travel across borders, and even internal flights, ground to a halt as the country went into lock-down. The last I heard, 44,000 people were at risk of losing their jobs or being negatively effected by the pandemic (reduced hours, changed contracts etc).

I personally lost my job working at Gatwick Airport. The company I worked for jumped the gun when it came to redundancies in the face of Covid-19. Instead of allowing us all to stay employed and on furlough whilst the government figured out how to take the country forward, the company instantly initiated redundancy procedures.

Not long after (though entirely unrelated) I ended up having a breakdown and I ended up in the local mental health hospital. The company had the good graces to keep me employed whilst I was in hospital but a few weeks after I was released, I was given the boot along with everyone else.

I started applications almost instantly and I spent my days scrolling through job boards, rapid-tapping out cover letters and tweaking my curriculum vitae to suit the needs of the job advert.

I applied for a Train Dispatcher role based at my local train station and I was shocked when, a few days later, the company got in touch with me and I was hurled through into training within the week. I took the tests, I passed and I looked forward to a well-paying job on the railway network.

And then I had a medical. A private medical company performed all the necessary tests but stopped short when they saw I was on medication. They asked what it was for and, seeing no reason to lie, told them it was for depression. They needed more information before they could sign me off to perform safety critical roles. They give me a form to hand to my GP and send me on my way. As soon as I get home, I head to the doctor’s and hand in the form.

And this is where it all starts unravelling.

I get contacted by the GP the next week and they want £100. Apparently that is how much it costs to get the form filled out with all the necessary information, signed, and sent off. At first I decline and try to get my soon-to-be-employer to cough up the money. They refuse. I shouldn’t be surprised since they wouldn’t even pay for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). That’s agency for you.

So, I cough up the £100 and find out a week later that I have been told that I cannot perform safety critical roles. It turns out, no one wants to put me next to a train track for fear that I would throw myself in front of a train. Either that or they somehow think that my medication makes me despondent (it doesn’t).

The whole thing has left me pretty fucking bitter. First of all, I cannot work in a sector for which I have a great amount of enthusiasm for. That is the main crux of this entire affair. Secondly, I am furious that I have been denied work because of my history with mental health issues.

Just like everyone else, I need to work. But it is not just work. It is everything else that comes with it. I want to get life insurance so that, if anything happens to me, my partner will be looked after. (I am not allowed life insurance because I am technically a suicide risk. I was told recently that I had to wait at least five years since my last incident until I was eligible for life insurance. That has since been pushed back. When I talk to insurers now, they all seem to get extremely vague on the issue and tell me that nothing is available in the foreseeable future…fantastic.)

The £100 is another thorn in my pride. At a time when I do not have work, I can’t afford to be paying that kind of money. Another thought nags at me. It might be wrong but it keeps coming back time and again: is this discrimination? Am I being pigeonholed because of my medical history?

Answer – YES.

I don’t say that because I am feeling sorry for myself or because I want to be seen as some kind of victim (I would hate either of those things) but because I have experienced mental health setbacks for the last four years and I have suffered the consequences of those setbacks within the world of work.

Although there have been major motions to try and make mental health as treatable as physical health, there is still a lot left to be desired when it comes to employer mentality. In 2018, I had better luck. After being admitted to hospital, I got a technician role within an airport and I worked the best job I have ever had. I was allowed to stand in areas in which Boeing 747’s taxied and not once did I throw myself into the engines propellers. Quite the opposite – that role pulled me from a dark place and rebuilt my confidence.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 rendered me redundant and I am now without a job. I had an opportunity to perform a role that would have made me extremely happy, would have provided some kind of structure that I could see toward developing a career. However, as mentioned, I failed the medical and therefore the job was taken away from me. I guess I understand. After all, they don’t want to hire someone who they think might become track meat.

But with such restrictions in place, is there any wonder that there is stigma around mental health? I have openly declared my mental health issues and the response is to be sidelined. Is it any wonder that people with mental health issues shutter themselves away? My partner raised this point to me as I was skulking one evening and I couldn’t fault her logic. People want to stay in jobs. People want to be treated the same as everyone else.

I felt confident that by speaking about my issues and being open, as I was in 2018, I would be given the all-clear and allowed to go into work. Instead, the very opposite happened.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from an article I read the other day. It is a summary of the effects of Covid-19 on mental health. It is this:

“Studies indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with distress, anxiety, fear of contagion, depression and insomnia in the general population and among healthcare professionals. Social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties may lead to the development or exacerbation of depressive, anxiety, substance use and other psychiatric disorders in vulnerable populations including individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and people who reside in high COVID-19 prevalence areas.”

It is going to be a depressing winter.

Hiring processes are all wrong

I am still jobless. Still in that lovely rut where you are thrown unceremoniously into the lurch of redundancy and before any role has provide real promise.

Update over.

I have already mentioned in a previous post, is the cruel question that employers ask: What kind of salary are you expecting.

Today I will be talking about another thing that cripples so many would-be-workers and potential could-be-workers. That is the demand for people to have “relevant experience”. If someone was applying for a managerial role, then of course experience in a certain field would be entirely necessary. But middle-tier jobs or start-of-your-career jobs? To ask for experience in these levels of jobs could be seen as criminal.

An example? Well, I just saw job posted for a very well known broadcasting company who are looking for a logistics professional to join their team. The setback is that said individual must have experience within the broadcasting sector. The broadcasting company have therefore limited themselves from hiring from a wide range of capable people to hiring from a very limited section of job hunters.

Not only is the broadcast company not allowing for fresh blood to come into their midst, they are also failing to put in the necessary training. It all then becomes part of that Catch-22 situation.

How am I going to get experience, if I can’t get the job? And how am I meant to get a job, if I don’t have the experience?

It is high time that companies start investing in their workforce.

No to chlorinated chicken

One hundred people swayed the vote saying no to the import of US chlorinated chicken into UK markets. It was a wise choice for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the health of those people who would be subjected to such meagre food hygiene rules. Secondly, animal welfare. The use of chlorine to wash chicken is a by-product of mass produced food. Where there is mass-production, animal cruelty and welfare standards fall dramatically meaning that the livestock we do choose to consume will have (if only slightly) better welfare conditions.

The last good reason for the rebuttal of chlorinated chicken onto our markets is purely political. Seeing as how we are leaving the E.U (rightly or wrongly…although we all know it’s wrongly) the UK is beginning to look to U.S interests like a new state from which they can reap huge rewards.

One small victory amid a waterfall of 2020 bad news.