“Putting lipstick on a pig” thats the end result of billions spent by government on IT projects

A scathing report on government digital policy says it has failed in its objective of “transforming government”. The numerous iterations of applying technology to government has amounted to no more than expensive window dressing or, as colourfully described in the paper, “putting lipstick on pigs”.

The term e-government is used as a catchall term for words commonly used in associating information technology and government, including: electronic, digital and online.

One of the major reasons for this failure, according to the report, is the assumption that government is a service industry. This leads to the adoption of a private sector model for plans to use technology to enhance government activity. The report states, in no uncertain terms:

Governments do policy, not services…Citizens are not customers

Because of this service industry mindset, the authors argue, work done on researching and implementing e-government tends to be done by people with technology and management backgrounds. The people who should be leading this work are those with a public administration or political science background, who best understand the role of government and how it can be improved. These improvements can then be adopted digitally.

The paper argues that cosmetic changes have been made to the front-end websites, whereas little significant change has happened at the back-end. One of the authors of the report, Paul Waller of Brunel University, says…….

Read more at The Canary

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Information and tools to change the world in 2016

Knowledge is power, so they say. The information technology revolution we are living through offers the possibility of significantly increasing our knowledge; which if used effectively/collectively can empower us to change the world. I am assuming anyone reading this will want to change the world for the better, if not I suggest you stop reading this now.

Governments across the world are firm believers in the well worn maxim7851166090_fe20caa69a_o knowledge is power, which is why they generally try to maximise the amount of information they have on you while limiting the amount of information you have on them. Our current government is an excellent example of this type of behaviour, currently they are pushing through an Investigatory Powers Bill (but don’t worry they promise only to use it against paedophiles and terrorists) while simultaneously trying to nobble the Freedom of Information Act (while insisting they are promoting transparency).

Below are a list of websites that enable you to gather relevant information and offer suggestions on how to use it. Maybe after reading this article you could use your powers to oppose the governments nefarious plans, but that is completely up to you. All I ask is that you use any new knowledge you aquire wisely.

They Work For You

They Work For youWhat does your MP do all day? Does he actually turn up to parliament and vote, or does he spend most of his time being wined, dined and schmoozed by powerful lobbyists? They Work For You is an excellent tool which provides an easy way to find out, just stick in your postcode and you can find out what your MP has been up to lately. You can also search parliament records for subjects, keywords and phrases that have appeared in debates. If you register you can get email alerts every time your MP speaks or an issue you are following is brought up in parliament.

Local Authority Public Records

If you want information at a more local scale your local authority holds a wealth of information relevant to you and your community. Manchester City Council’s website has a comprehensive ‘The Council & Democracy‘ section to promote public and press scrutiny of the local democratic process. It includes information on:

  • MCCrecords
  • Links to live and recorded webcasts of meetings.
  • Meeting Meeting minutes and agendas
  • Information on councillors in the borough
  • Statistics,census and budgets
  • Policies, strategies and future plans

These sites are generally not very well designed and the included search tool not very useful. On my more cynical days it crosses my mind that maybe this is done on purpose to make it harder to find relevant information. If you are struggling to find what you want I suggest using Google Advanced Search, which allows you to search the whole of Manchester City Councils website by inputting the council’s URL (i.e. http://www.manchester.gov.uk) into the ‘site or domain’ box.

What Do They Know

An excellent site that allows the public easy use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000Freedom_of_Information_logo . This beautiful piece of legislation was brought in by the last Labour government and in my opinion was their finest moment. It enshrines in law public access to information held by public authorities, some information the authorities have to publish, some you have to ask for.

What Do They Know provides an extremely useful tool to ask those questions to the relevant authorities. The relevant authorities (particularly central government) may writhe, wriggle, squirm and try every possible tactic to delay/not publish data that is embarrassing to them. So it is important to ask the right sort of questions, which the site offers advice on as well as providing information on successful and unsuccessful requests by others; they also describe what actions to take if the authorities will not release the requested information.

Full Fact

fullfactAn excellent independent charity (website developed by mySociety) that helps you separate the wheat from the chaff and the bullets from the bullshit when it comes to the claims made by politicians and the media. The site can also help translate the doublespeak spin which the majority of politicians try to bamboozle us with these days. Full Fact describe themselves as non-partisan which gets a big tick in my book, because as Skunk Ananasie sings “everything’s political!

38 Degrees: people, power, change

When you have gathered and analysed your information you may have identified something that you would like to change, and are prepared to stick your neck out and campaign to change it. This is an excellent time to visit the 38 Degrees website which has an excellent Top Tips section on running a successful campaign, including short videos giving advice on:

  • Writing a petition, the site contains an excellent e petition tool
  • How to use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • How to write emails promoting and supporting your campaign.
  • Running events to boost campaigns.
  • Involving the media in your campaign.

BBC Academy

BBCacademyI love the BBC, which maybe explains why the current Tory government killjoys are trying to diminish its capabilities and turn it into just another substandard, heavily biased, advertisement riddled private broadcasting company. Amongst the many magnificent offerings on its website is the BBC Academy which has an excellent journalism skills section. Two particularly useful sections with relevant information on creating online content to support campaigns are Social Media and Content Production.

UK Parliament Website


The UK Parliament Website provides everything you need to know about the workings of the mother of all parliaments in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. You can also submit evidence to upcoming Select Committee’s and Joint Comittee’s through this site.

Office for National Statistics


Another treasure trove of information which the government don’t mind to much about being made public. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is the largest independent producer of official statistics in the UK and is the recognised as its national statistical institute. But beware, there can be a certain amount of spin in how they analyse and present the data. If you cant find it here you need to make a freedom of information request.

So there you have it, for what its worth. I hope there has been something of use to you in this article to aid your quest for a better world in 2016. If you have any sites that would make a good addition to this list please suggest them in a comment below. I will take this opportunity to wish you every success in your activities this year and – may the force be with you!


Article first published in 38 Degrees Manchester, 6th January 2016

Support the junior doctors strike

The junior doctors have recently voted for strike action by a staggering 98%. In my opinion this is a pivotal struggle that will determine the future of the NHS. It is imperative that the public are seen to be supporting this action in overwhelming numbers to oppose the bad press which will be generated by this strike, by the likes of Murdoch’s media monopoly.

This is a drastic action that the junior doctors have been forced to adopt, and lives may be put at risk. But that risk is miniscule when compared to the future good health of our nation that is threatened by government plans for the NHS.

The longer this struggle continues the less likely it is to succeed. Thats why I think we should all support this strike action by showing up at the picket lines on the days of action and show our support. If this action fails there will be no stopping the further privatisation of the NHS, this is the moment to act!

The days of action will be on the 1st, 8th and 16th of December, I will be there in Manchester supporting the Junior Doctors. If you are able, I urge you to do the same.


And here is Jim Naughtie’s pronunciation of Hunt, as unforgettably uttered on Radio 4’s Today program. It cracks me up every time I hear it 😉

Housing crisis: when does a crisis become a disaster?

Greater Manchester is being hard hit by the housing crisis just like the rest of the country. Tory incompetence in housing policy is pushing many people to the brink of homelessness, while more fall over that precipice every day.

The housing crisis is nothing new, there has been an awareness of the growing problem ever since the Right to Buy policy was introduced in 1980 by the Thatcher led Tory government. The policy gave 5 million council house tenants the right to buy their home from the local council at discount prices, due to the lack of new council houses being built this led to a severe depletion in council housing stock. The decrease in housing stock was exacerbated by the fall in council house building, by local authorities, to insignificant levels by 1996. The graph below also illustrates that the loss of a large proportion of new build houses that were council houses pre 1980 has not been filled by the efforts of Housing Associations and private enterprise.

Source – Dept for Communities and Local Government, via BBC News

Source – Dept for Communities and Local Government, via BBC News

Lack of new social housing

In an attempt to increase the amount of affordable housing the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (section 106) was introduced. This required a new housing development, of over 15 dwellings, to provide a set proportion of affordable housing, that proportion being 20% in Manchester. The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a fixed rate tax on new developments, was also introduced in 2010 with the intention of it funding infrastructure projects to support the local area.

In 2013, Financial Viability Assessments (FVA) was introduced to the Section 106 affordable housing requirements. This meant that property developers could appeal against their obligations to provide affordable housing if they could show, by a viability appraisal, that doing so would reduce their profit margin too much, making the development non-viable. The problem with these viability appraisals is that they are presented by expensive property consultancies in a complex and impenetrable manner. ‘Councils just don’t have the expertise to challenge viability reports… We can’t argue back’, a senior planning officer was reported to say in the Guardian.

A major problem with FVAs is their lack of transparency as they are not subject to scrutiny. In a freedom of information request to Manchester City Council, it was revealed that MCCs financial viability assessment plan is not available to: the public, local councillors, local authority planning committee’s or local authority scrutiny committees. MCC also admitted that they did not get independent validation of FVAs using the Government District Valuer Service.

The Salford Star reported how in twelve months developers managed to dodge planning fees of over £19 million and avoided paying for over 800 affordable homes by submitting FVAs that showed they would not make sufficient profit. Yet those same property developers were still making up to £24 million in profit on each contract.

Devo Manc

The Devo Manc deal incorporates a £300 million housing fund, to build 10,000 – 15,000 homes over ten years, that is under the control of the newly appointed interim Greater Manchester (GM) Mayor Tony Lloyd. You may have hoped that this fund would be used to address the severe shortage of affordable housing; sadly that is not the case.

Another report from the Salford Star showed that £42.6 million of the GM housing fund has already been loaned to property developers to build on sites including Trinity Way in Salford and the contentious Pomona site in Trafford. Salford City Council failed to collect £1.28 million CIL for the Trinity way site, and lost the opportunity to build 76 affordable homes due to the developers FVA.

Gerald Kaufman pointed out at a recent public meeting on Devo Manc that £300 million was just ‘a drop in the ocean’ towards Greater Manchester’s housing needs, and that over ten years it amounts to only £3 million per borough per year.

Housing bubble

The shortage of housing is one of the major factors resulting in the rocketing price of housing. After the economic crash in 2007/8 the housing market was the first thing to recover as the rest of the economy struggled; despite the fact that an inflated housing market in the USA was one of the major factors in precipitating the economic crash. In July 2015 the Office for National Statistics stated the average price of a house in the UK was £282,000. The average wage in the UK is £24,648 gross, which only enables that person to take out a mortgage on a house worth £110,000.

In the Guardian, Owen Jones pointed out the hypocrisy of a Tory party calling itself the party of home ownership. ‘There are almost 250,000 fewer English and Welsh homeowners since David Cameron became prime minister. Even more staggeringly, the number of homeowners aged below 34 has plummeted by 50%’. He went on to describe how home ownership had dropped to its lowest level in three decades, and how the Tory ‘Help to Buy‘ scheme was inflating house prices.

Private rented sector

An inevitable outcome of the factors mentioned is that the private rented sector is booming, where people pay substantially higher rents for lower quality accommodation when compared to social housing. Private landlords now own one in five homes, and 4 out of 10 council houses sold with the Right to Buy scheme are also owned by private landlords. Private renters also have to deal with the insecurity of short term contracts and the ill health that often accompanies poor housing conditions. In 2010 the Building Research Establishment estimated it costs the NHS £600 million a year to deal with ill health caused by poor housing, another avoidable burden on our overstretched health system.

Generation Rent is an organisation fighting for change in the private rented sector. Their website states that private renting has doubled in the last decade, and that around a third of renters have had to cut back on food and heating. They campaign for improvements in: affordability, professional management (i.e. a national register of landlords), security of tenure and living conditions; and encourage people to lobby their local MP to improve private renting.

Source: National Housing Federation, via The Guardian

Source: National Housing Federation, via The Guardian

Tenants in the UK not only pay the highest average rents in Europe, they also pay the largest percentage of their income to pay the rent (see graph above). Along with house prices, rents have also risen. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13 average weekly rents increased in the private rented sector by 7% from £153 to £163, according to the English Housing Survey.

The problem of the 7% rise in rents is compounded by the drop in real wages. The International Labour Organisation reported in 2013 that the average real wage in the UK had fallen by 7.1%, relative to the average wage in 2007.


Insecure short term private rental contracts and shortage of social housing combined with cuts to social security and housing benefits, has seen a steady rise in homelessness in Greater Manchester and across the UK.

According to government figures, in the first quarter of 2014 the number of households accepted as statutorily homeless was 12,540; this had risen to 13,650 by the last quarter, a rise of 8.9 %. The number of English households in temporary accommodation rose from 58,440 to 61,970 between 31st March and 31st December 2014, a rise of 6%. Manchester City Councils annual count of rough sleepers in Manchester on one night last November came to 43, it was 7 in 2010; local charities estimate that the real number is double that of the annual official count.

Homelessness can only get worse with the cuts, £46 billion over 5 years, to social security announced by George Osborne. The removal of housing benefit entitlement from 18 to 21 year olds threatens a group who are already suffering rates of unemployment 3 times that of the general population. According to information published by Shelter the removal of housing benefit from 18 to 21 year olds will affect 19,894 people in the UK. Not all of these will have the option of living with family members as 62% of young people become homeless because friends and relatives will no longer accommodate them, often due to relationship breakdown. Housing benefit also pays for temporary and emergency accommodations such as hostels and domestic violence refuges. Cutting this benefit can only result in more young people, our future, sleeping rough.

A report by Crisis called ‘At what cost’ provides a compelling argument of the economic folly that allowing homelessness to persist and rise engenders. It estimates the cost to the taxpayer, over a year, of preventing a person becoming homeless or letting that person become homeless. In the examples presented (based on real costs and experiences of the homeless) it estimates the extra cost to the taxpayer of not preventing homelessness ranges between £3,000 and £19,000 per person.

Government Policy

So what is the current Tory government doing about tackling this crisis started by a previous Tory government in the 80s? Every policy this government pursues appears to make the problem worse. Along with the mentioned Right to Buy, Help to Buy, social security cuts and removing housing benefit from under twenty one year olds the following policies also exacerbate the housing crisis:

  • extending the ‘Right to Buy’ to housing association properties
  • forcing councils/ housing associations to sell their most expensive properties
  • bedroom tax
  • abolishing demands that developers provide a certain amount of affordable housing to rent in new developments
  • cuts to local authority Homelessness Services

Although the Tories are primarily to blame for this crisis, the previous Labour government and current Labour councils have done nothing to address the problem. Our political system has become so short sighted that it struggles to see beyond its own nose. Having only knee jerk reactions to whatever the mainstream media deems an important issue at the time, resulting in incoherent, disjointed and more importantly ineffective strategies to deal with problems like housing.

When does a crisis become a disaster? The answer is it already has, for the ever increasing number of homeless people on our streets; every day there are more living on the brink of disaster due to the austerity measures pursued by this government. The Tory agenda is to provide more security for those who already have it and less security for those who most need it, a cynical ploy to secure support amongst their voters. Everyone needs to stand up, be counted and become active if we are to oppose these Tory designs to take our society back to the Dark Ages.

Conrad Bower

Previously published in the Manchester Mule, 16th of October 2015

Gerald Kaufman and Gorton councillor condemn Devo Manc

From left: Emma Runswick (Save Our NHS), Caroline Martin (Gorton Against Poverty) and Sir Gerald Kaufman (MP for Manchester Gorton)

From left: Emma Runswick (Save Our NHS), Caroline Martin (Gorton Against Poverty) and Sir Gerald Kaufman (MP for Manchester Gorton)

Gerald Kaufman denounces the Devo Manc deal at public meeting in Levenshulme. Gorton South Councillor Julie Reid warns of “privitisation by the back door” and warns of possible mergers between Greater Manchester Colleges.

At a public meeting in Levenshulme Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Gorton, heavily criticised the way the Devolution Manchester (Devo Manc) deal had been forced on the people of Manchester, and warned of its potential adverse effects once the deal begins to bite. Julie Reid, Labour councillor for Gorton South, spoke at the meeting warning of upcoming government reviews of Greater Manchester (GM) Colleges followed by other GM tertiary education establishments. Reid warned that the non-Ofsted reviewers would be considering possibilities for mergers between these institutions.

The people at the meeting, held last Friday evening at the Inspire centre, were informed by Kaufman of the severe deficiencies of the Devo Manc deal and its lack of accountability, preventing those deficiencies being addressed.

Kaufman was particularly concerned with effects on the NHS saying “the national health service is the most important service we have in this country, its vital and everybody needs it from time to time and some people a lot of the time. It is under attack from this government right now’. He went on to say “we don’t know what the hell the structure [of the NHS] is going to be under devolution. What we also don’t know is how the money is going to be allocated and who will do it.”

An undergraduate student of medicine in Manchester, and member of the Save our NHS campaign, Emma Runswick agreed with Kaufman’s criticisms, and was concerned about the cost of increasing privatisation to the NHS. “Operating in the market, is costing us £9 billion a year, that is £9 billion that we are not spending on patients”. Runswick described how PFI debts were costing the NHS £2 billion per year, and that who was responsible for those debts is not made clear in the Devo Manc deal.

After Kaufman’s speech Reid laid into the Devo Manc deal with a passion. “it’s privatisation by the backdoor, breaking the NHS down, breaking higher education down. I am telling you, I am going to be there fighting… if we don’t stop this in the NW, then they will take it round the rest of the country. If we don’t stop them nobody will!”

The shocking news of possible mergers between GM higher education establishments was also revealed to the meeting by Reid, who told of reviews being carried out on Manchester and Bolton colleges this week. “Then they are going to work their way through the whole of GMs college system. This is not Ofsted, these are reviewers from the government, they are going to review provision in GM and guess what? They are going to look at mergers”.

Kaufman also highlighted the inadequacies of the £300 million housing fund, and that the Greater Manchester Fire Service would be abolished and its functions transferred to the mayor. More details of Kaufman’s damning Devo Manc speech can be viewed in the video below.

Organiser of the meeting Evan Pritchard (Greater Manchester Unite Community Branch) was happy with the ground covered by the meeting. “The meeting brought out the reality that these changes are about a linked attack on democracy and on the living standards and working conditions of the majority through the furtherance of austerity and privatisation.” He went on to say “hopefully people attending the meeting will be using what they learned to educate their friends, neighbours and workmates as to what is being done behind our backs to change fundamentally the way that public services will be run locally.”

Pritchard was encouraged by the fact that locally elected representatives of the Labour party had took a stand against Devo Manc during the meeting. “These representatives should be applauded for the stance they are taking, and encouragement should be given and pressure placed on other councillors and MPs in Manchester and in the wider area of Greater Manchester to take the same position.” He was hopeful that this meeting would act as a catalyst for a growing opposition to Devo Manc.

Originally published in Manchester Mule

Conrad Bower

For more information see: Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign and Save Our NHS Greater Manchester Coalition

Devo Manc: regional devolution and inequality debate

Green Party energy spokesperson Andrew Cooper spoke about the pitfalls of the Devo Manc deal, as it currently stands, to a large audience at the Friends’ Meeting House.

The discussion on regional devolution and inequality, organised by Equality Northwest, was billed for the 11th of September with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, as the guest speaker, but she pulled out last minute to take part in BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions programme.

Cooper talked about his investigations into how democratically accountable the elected mayor model is, using the recent Scottish Referendum as an example of a referendum result that is expected to stand for a generation. In contrast, the Manchester mayoral election where the result was resoundingly in favour of not having a mayor has been discarded within a few years.

He described the whole process as being autocratic due to the limited number of people and the secrecy involved in making the deal. When Chancellor George Osborne announced the deal, he said that the agreement has been reached “after several months of private discussions with local representatives from all three parties, I have reached agreement with the civic leaders of Greater Manchester to create the first metro-wide elected mayor outside of London”. The decision came as a shock to the majority in Greater Manchester (GM).

George Osborne and the civic leaders of GM announcing Devo Manc.

George Osborne and the civic leaders of GM announcing Devo Manc. Photo: Manchester Evening News

For Cooper there was no sense in “transferring power from a remote centralised government to a remote centralised individual”, in his eyes the major reason for pushing the devolution deal is to delegate the responsibility for cuts to local authorities. He felt that an elected assembly for GM with the power to raise taxes locally would be a better deal for the people.

Devo Manc allows a directly elected mayor of Greater Manchester to be installed as head of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) with these responsibilities & powers:

  • Increased strategic planning powers
  • new £300m housing investment fund, projected construction of 15,000 homes in 10 years
  • local transport control, ability to operate franchised bus services and integrated tickets
  • welfare-to-work schemes, with dedicated £100m budget, to allow 50,000 places
  • existing local authority social care and health budgets combined and controlled by GMCA
  • greater control of further education and business support, earn back up to £30 million tax for growth created

The interim mayor Tony Lloyd was appointed in May 2015 by the 10 local authority leaders that make up the GMCA, he will be in post until 2017 when the elected mayor is appointed.

After Cooper’s speech, the panel was opened up for a Q&A session from the audience. The panel included David Fernandez, founder of the Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign, Neil McInroy, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and chair Allan Wort of Equality Northwest and 38 Degrees Manchester.

Fernandez was keen to see a ‘Barnett’ like formula to secure a fixed level of expenditure for Greater Manchester: “Osborne decides what we get”, he said. “We have no protection whatsoever to any decision to pull the rug from under us, and that is a form of power and control.”

McInroy questioned the dubious philosophy underlying Devo Manc in which “health is seen as a cost rather than an investment” and questioned whether better health can be delivered by declining budgets. A “broad and deep democracy” is what a devolution deal should provide for the residents of Greater Manchester, according to McInroy, with the ability to manage the economy at a local scale.

The supreme vindication and definition of a representative government is eloquently expressed in the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg speech with the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – the general consensus of the people during the debate was that Devo Manc fails on all three counts.

Wort was pleased with the event: “Around 200 people gave up their Friday night to participate in a full-throated discussion with experts on regional devolution and inequality”, he said. “Our audience is now not only better informed but rarin’ to go in making our society a better place to live.”

For more information, see Equality Northwest, 38 Degrees Manchester, Centre for Local Economic Strategies and the Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign.

First published in Manchester Mule, 18th of September 2015

Conrad Bower

Punk journalism: can it challenge the mainstream media?


Punk rock exploded into life in the 70s, firing the passions of a generation who were tired of jaded, distant and ostentatious mainstream rock groups. Punks emerged in local scenes all over the UK; the stripped-down instrumentation and simple style encouraged emergent punks to start up their own bands, in some cases self-producing their work and distributing it through alternative networks. The DIY principle was strong in punk, lyrics reflecting personal experiences and disillusionment with society, generally avoiding the love song mainstay of the mainstream. This resulted in a strong political streak to punk music, often rebellious and anti-establishment.

There is a new breed of journalism developing that shares much with the punk ethos. It is a journalism that has grown tired of the jaded and biased views of a mainstream media dominated by monopolies. It is a journalism emerging from local community DIY initiatives, in response to the barren local news landscape, occasionally crossed by the lightweight, directionless tumbleweed offerings of a mainstream press dedicated to serving itself, the affluent and the powerful rather than society as a whole. It is a journalism created by people passionate about bringing to light the important social justice and public accountability issues deemed unprofitable, unworthy or uncomfortable by the mainstream. It is punk journalism.

The Salford Star was born in 2005; its editor and founding member is Stephen Kingston, who has fond memories of being a punk back in the 70s. The Star burst into existence in response to Salford residents in Whit Lane being threatened with the demolition of their houses as part of a regeneration plan. “They were fighting like mad, I knew one of the people involved in that from other work, and he said what we need is to give people a voice.” Kingston was at the time working with a local paper called the Old Trafford News, which he decided to leave. “I said OK, we will do one for Salford. Trafford is about one square mile whereas Salford is a big city. So you need a big monster magazine for a big monster city, that was how it was born.”

Salford Star issue one

Kingston spent six months researching, talking to the community, holding public meetings to determine what the people of Salford wanted from a local paper. He also investigated the strong Chartist movement’s ties with Salford; there was a huge national meeting to promote social justice on Kersal Moor in 1838. The Chartist paper was called the Northern Star, hence one reason for naming the Salford Star, the other reason being that it had a tabloid ring to it that made it more accessible. It was a source of pride for Kingston that the paper had grown from the needs of the community and that the community members who helped found the paper were still on the board of directors.

Basically it inspired people like myself from that generation to say fuck ’em, we will do it ourselves.

Punk brought about significant change according to Kingston: “In terms of giving people self-confidence to do it themselves, it was the most influential movement probably ever. Because the people who got involved in punk suddenly got a sense that, yes they can take on authority.” He went on to describe how punks reacted to music, art and fashion they didn’t like by creating their own: “Basically that inspired people like myself from that generation to say fuck ’em, we will do it ourselves.”

The decline in local journalism in the UK has been rapid, with many commentators acknowledging that there is a deficit in the ability of the local press to hold people in power accountable. This decline is mainly attributed to the rise in online media sources, which has led to a drop in sales of local newspapers resulting in loss of revenues from the cover price and advertising. A report released last year by the Media Standards Trust summarised this decline in the UK:

  • Revenues of the four primary local newspaper companies in the UK, between 2005 and 2010, dropped by between 23% and 53%.
  • Media Wales staff fell from around 700 in 1999 to 136 in 2010.
  • Northcliffe Media employees fell from 4,200 to 2,200 between 2008 and 2012.
  • Media analyst Claire Enders calculated that 40% of jobs have gone in the course of five years in the UK regional press.
  • Between 2005 and 2012, a total of 242 local newspapers closed.
  • The total circulation of local/regional daily papers dropped from around 4.5m to around 2m between 2000 and 2013.

Co-founder of the Bristol Cable, Alon Aviram, is worried by the current state of the traditional press in the UK. Aviram spoke of his concerns over media conglomerates dominating the remaining local news scene and shaping the nature of the content (Lord Rothermere and Trinity Mirror are two major stakeholders in Bristol’s traditional local paper, The Bristol Post) and the media deserts caused by media consolidation and local papers closing down, “especially low-income communities where papers don’t necessarily operate because advertisers are not interested in reaching out to those communities. So there is a major issue where local media especially is just pretty boring and doesn’t fulfil its function of scrutinising the activities of those in power.”

Overturning old models

The Bristol Cable was established in 2013 by Aviram and Adam Cantwell-Corn with the idea of producing a good quality, sustainable, cooperatively produced media that could go beyond a niche market and appeal to a wide range of people. Aviram is also keen to overturn the old model of one-way direction of news from the media to the public. “We were interested in finding a way to have conversations and investigate established power, whether it was in the home or council or big business… in a way that was shaped differently from traditional organisations.”

The Bristol Cable’s name is symbolic of the philosophy underpinning the organisation: the strands of a cable making up a stronger entity as a whole, the circular cable logo symbolises an exchange of information that can go both ways and sustain itself. The cable also recalls Bristol’s industrial past.

The Manchester Mule was launched in 2008, its logo a bucking mule promising “news with a kick” and harking back to Manchester’s industrial heritage and its use of spinning mules. Its stated three core principles are to:

  • Provide an alternative to traditional local media
  • Use media as a tool for social change
  • Promote openness and inclusivity

As with many punk journalism titles, it has struggled to retain writers, with many contributors moving on to permanent paid positions and input to the online site becoming sporadic. The Mule recently provided a comprehensive local journalism course to encourage local writers to participate. One of the people to complete the course was Ben Beach, a history student at Manchester University planning on a career in journalism once he graduates. Beach thinks the Mule should “look at the Salford Star as something to aspire to … and report on stories, such as the homeless protest camps, that the Manchester Evening News [owned by Trinity Mirror] doesn’t really cover in any depth.”


The Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976 had a huge influence on Manchester according to Beach. He credits the gig with being the catalyst for some of his favourite bands, including Joy Division and New Order. Beach, who will soon be starting the third year of his degree, wants the Mule to offer an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream press and also spoke of the practical reasons for joining the Mule: “Getting work experience and internships is really difficult. While there are student newspapers and publications you can work on, the Mule offers a lot more scope. It covers all of Manchester and not just the student bubble, and it opens up opportunities.”

To become sustainable punk journalism organisations need to become not just a stepping stone to other opportunities, but a worthwhile destination in their own right. But who can afford to work for free (or very little) for any length of time? Very few people, and definitely not students who have likely built up a large student debt during their studies. How can punk journalism become sustainable?

At the Salford Star Kingston has struggled to keep the paper afloat and after 10 years he still doesn’t class it as a sustainable business. “We get loads and loads of donations, very small donations. We have sold 10 T-shirts this week, sold a mug to America, you know we make pounds on them. Advertising on the website, well everyone knows about that, you don’t get it, you get bits and pieces.” The problem with advertising in Salford, Kingston explained, is that the idea of a lot of independent shops has gone and the only businesses that can afford rent in places like MediaCityUK are “big multinationals”, which will not advertise in the Salford Star. He explained that other paid projects are undertaken, such as trade union magazines and teaching, to help keep the Star going.

We wouldn’t accept it [council funding] either because, even though we are going through tough times, we recognise that we need to remain independent.

Holding the powerful to account is also more likely to make you more powerful enemies than friends, which can affect advertising revenue. “Advertising for the actual printed magazine is very difficult, because people are scared of the council,” Kingston explains, saying any companies having contracts with the council, such as regeneration companies, will not advertise in the Salford Star in fear that their association with it would scupper any future deals with the council.

Bristol Cable has also made its fair share of enemies and is unlikely to get any funding from Bristol City Council because of its reporting on their activities. Aviram accepts this bad blood between the Cable and the council as inevitable: “We wouldn’t accept it [council funding] either because, even though we are going through tough times, we recognise that we need to remain independent.”

The Cable has so far been funded by grants, awards and a crowdfunding campaign that raised £3,300 and enabled it to put on 35 hours of free workshops across the city. Three hundred people attended events across the city in things like low-budget film-making, writing and using social media. The Cable also has a membership scheme costing as little as £1 a month; it has already gained over 400 members in the eight months the scheme has been running, who are on average paying £3 per month.

bristol cable

Aviram has high hopes for the membership scheme, hoping it can provide community members with a stake in the Cable and enable work on the paper being paid for rather than voluntary. “Our objective is to hopefully get thousands of people in the city to be members of the Bristol Cable, for a little as £1 a month, and in turn they can self-sustain the Bristol Cable – influence what sort of content they want to see in the paper, have a democratic say on key decisions and be more directly involved in the media as opposed to being just passive consumers of it.”

Michael Moore’s report Addressing the democratic deficit in local news through positive plurality’ compares the state of local media in the UK and US, and suggests the UK should adopt strategies used in the US to support local news. Contestable funding is brought forward as a way of funding local journalism titles and still allows them to maintain their independence, integrity and innovations. He makes three suggestions on how this funding pot can be achieved:

  • Google and/or other large internet companies to supply a one-off contribution. This has already been achieved in France, with Google giving €60m. Google has indicated it is willing to do a similar deal in the UK.
  • Companies collecting and using personal data for commercial benefit to pay an annual charge. Companies are currently doing this, but it is negligible in relation to the profits made.
  • A scheme where every adult in the UK would receive vouchers each year. These vouchers could then be donated to one or many non-profit news services, which can then redeem them for money. It would be funded by a combination of donations from digital intermediaries such as Google.

These excellent suggestions for funding local media need political pressure applying to bring them into play. The current government, while often stating the benefits of transparency, tends in its legislation to make things more opaque. It is possible that it sees a strong and independent local press as a threat to business, rather than a pillar of local democracy. if that is the case, these initiatives are going to need a serious amount of people-power to put them in place.

A flickering flame

Kingston said there were many stories in the Star that he was proud of. One in particular that stood out for him was the series of articles, relying on investigative journalism, the Star had done covering the regeneration of Salford., “They [Salford City Council]were saying, ‘oh, you’re going to get a new house, it’s going to be all lovely’. We knew exactly what they were doing. They were trying to socially cleanse the community. The community knew it, and we gave them a voice.”

At the Cable Aviram also listed reports relying on investigative journalism as the work he was most proud of. One of these reports was an investigation into pay conditions in the catering sector. The Cable carried out a research survey of more than 100 catering workers, resulting in a report presenting unique evidence of poor working conditions and large amounts of unpaid hours. The story got some national coverage with Aviram appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and You and Yours.

The punk journalism analogy is not perfect; very few analogies are. The punk movement of the 70s was an explosion that burned brightly, profoundly influencing people and society, but all too quickly died down to a burning ember, eventually being subsumed as just another current of mainstream music. The new journalism is more of a slow burn, an ember that needs coaxing into a conflagration, the flickering flame being kept alight by people’s passion for truth and justice. Punk was good at pointing out the inequities of society, but not strong on solutions to those problems. The new DIY journalism offers the opportunity of again effectively holding power to account and providing a platform for democratic debate, promoting the transition to a fairer society.

It is ironic that the revolution in information technology, which is proving so problematic to the traditional press, is providing the tools needed to ignite a burgeoning number of punk journalism titles. These flickering flames can only sporadically cast light into the dark reaches where power is abused. We must feed these flames with the oxygen of reliable funding to produce a blazing local media that can illuminate the abuse of power wherever it occurs.

First Published in the September 2015 edition of Contributoria.

Conrad Bower

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Boycott Workfare Manchester oppose state sanctioned “slave labour”

Shakespeare House was host to the Boycott Workfare meeting organised by the Whalley Range Green Party. Boycott workfare started in 2010 as a grass roots campaign to oppose forced unpaid work for those receiving welfare. Thomas Barlow, editor of Real Media and resident of Whalley Range, attended the meeting and said off Workfare “It is against our human rights to be forced to work, we have a law that bans slave labour in this country.”

Unemployed people are being demonised and I believe there is a war on the poor.

The Manchester branch of Boycott Workfare have a running campaign against B&M bargains in Whalley Range and Chorlton. A picket was recently held outside the Chorlton branch of B&M Bargains, which was covered by Manchester Mule here. The campaigners were determined to keep up the pressure on B&M Bargains with sustained flyer handout events outside the stores. During the meeting Barlow repeated that “public pressure works” saying that no firm likes the bad publicity associated with being in the workfare scheme.

Liverpool Workfare campaign had a recent victory where a large council contractor removal firm were pressured into exiting the workfare programme by demonstrations. The Boycott Workfare website also lists companies such as Sainsburys, Maplin, Burger King and Boots as companies that will no longer take part in workfare and say this as a sign that the tide is turning against workfare.

The Manchester branch of the Boycott Workfare campaign has been in existence for six months and one of its founding members Gwyn Morgan spoke at the meeting. Morgan an ex- teacher, who currently lives in Chorlton, had experienced claiming social security during an industrial dispute with his employers. He described how they treated him and processed him through the system as “very intimidating” with “increasing levels of intimidation” as the process continues.

Slave labour is a controversial term for workfare to some people, says Morgan, but he thinks it is accurate because “workfare is slave-labour because the means of survival are removed” their benefits are sanctioned if they refuse the work. This fits the International Labour organisations definition of forced labour (a.k.a. slavery) which states that someone who is under the menace of a penalty for the deprivation of food, shelter and other provisions can be identified as being in forced labour. The Oxford English dictionary definition of slave labour is “labour which is coerced and inadequately rewarded, or people that do it” also accurately describes people on workfare.

Barlow was concerned with the philosophy and spin, of the government and media, behind workfare; pointing out the negative image of welfare recipients portrayed on “poverty porn” titles such as Benefits Street and the Manchester based People Like Us. He reported communities in Moston and Moss side saying they felt the images portrayed in these programs were used to encourage punitive measures on welfare recipients. He believes that “unemployed people are being demonised and I believe there is a war on the poor. We are going back to a pre-Dickensian idea that poverty is somehow the individuals fault… not because of all the social and economic factors that we know make people poor.’

People on workfare don’t appear in the unemployment statistics.

During his presentation at the meeting Morgan pointed out that there is no evidence that workfare works in placing people in genuine paid jobs and that the only reason the unemployment figures are falling is that “people on workfare don’t appear in the unemployment statistics.” He also raised the nonsensical strategy of David Cameron who has stated 100% employment as an aim of the Tory government and the fact that the capitalist system relies on a pool of unemployed people to keep wages down.

The governments own figures show that workfare does not work, a Social Security Advisory Committee’s report in 2011 said there was no benefit to introducing mandatory work activity and that “This seems to us to signal that being mandated to mandatory work activity is regarded as a punishment…” . In 2012, Department for Work and Pensions research reported that mandatory work had “no impact on the likelihood of being employed compared to non-referrals.”

The only way Cameron can manage 100% employment is if he rolls out workfare on a bigger scale, and that is exactly the governments plan; which will further subsidise private industry with tax payers money.

I asked Gwyn what his hopes were for the campaign “The aim is to end workfare, unpaid labour. The employment strategy of the powers that be, is to roll it out to a massive degree. So there is a lot of work to do and a lot of scope for the campaign to move against this strategy.”

Resistance Songs

I was inspired by the news of the Dutch people succesfully prosecuting their government for not doing enough about climate change. The first track was brought to mind by the name of the organisation passing on the news GetUp! The organisation that actually brought about the case is called Urgenda.

So if the government’s insane policies are getting you down, this is the perfect playlist to perk you up a bit and possibly put some fire in your belly. Enjoy.