Tag Archives: Bristol

Taking on the Buses in England

Sheffield     ACORN in the United Kingdom is known largely as the ACORN Tenants’ Union, and no matter where we have organized, the affordable housing crisis has come to the forefront even though there is a long list of other issues.  We have embraced our reputation and work as a union whether on eviction defense, landlord licensing, reforms of letting agencies, and best practices from rent levels to health standards for units.

But, that’s not all of course.  In Sheffield, Manchester, and Bristol, bus transportation has become a huge issue for our members.  An action in Bristol on the eve of my arrival in the country with more than one-hundred members was dramatic and well publicized as ACORN members rallied over their concerns and issues with the bus system.  The action featured a eight-foot long cardboard bus held up by the members as they marched.  Made the point!

What’s it all about?

In England the bus system has been privatized for quite a period of time, yet cities have more or less control over the private contractors, which in Bristol and some other cities is the multinational First Bus company.  The heart of the ACORN demands is that a franchise system that provides more public control of the system is needed.  London is the model franchise system in England through Transport for London.  ACORN members in each city, no matter the contractor, are demanding more control over the fare rates and the routes.  The company is blaming the cities for congestion slowing the routes and not providing the subsidies that would involve lower fares.

Car ownership is not ubiquitous in the way it is in many areas of North America outside of the largest cities like Toronto, New York City, Chicago, and others where subways, streetcars, and buses are able to move the millions.  In Manchester, trams made a big difference, but in cities like Bristol, transportation is a more difficult proposition.

Many studies around the world have established that the higher the fares, the lower the ridership.  More than one-hundred cities around the country offer free transportation.  Some cities are now experimenting with providing free bus service on the routes with the most low-income riders from home to work and back again.

None of these experiments and proposals that are citizen and customer facing seem likely in a totally privatized system.   The report in “Bristol LIVE” of the bus action seemed mainly a platform for rationalizations and finger-pointing from the regional manager of First Bus at the city, the riders, and about everyone else anywhere in range.

All of which will deepen the commitment of ACORN in England in pursing reforms at the city level to improve bus transportation which the members are demanding.

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Sanctions, Starvation, and Clawbacks in England’s Universal Credit

crowd files in early as 40 plus members and friends settled in for the show

Bristol      The “beast of the east” weather front roaring from Siberia to the United Kingdom was collecting front page headlines as it dumped snow on southern England, trapping some people in stuck trains for 12 or more hours and worse.  Coming from Paris, I had hoped to escape the storm, but waking up early I found a note that my plane was cancelled, and I needed to figure out a way to hop a train to get to Bristol.  The Eurostar under the Chunnel was pretty straightforward, but getting a train to Bristol had me standing open-mouthed in Paddington station looking at one train after another cancelled to Bristol Temple Meads, only solved by the Great Western Railway people having me – and many others – jump a train that was going through to Bridgend in Wales:  standing room only!  Snow everywhere, but it seemed to be receding, until we left the station, starving and popped into a huge Weatherspoon’s, one of the conglomerate pub operations, and found that they were out of food.  In fact, so was KFC and one place after another.  The beast had brought everything to a standstill.

The show must go on, and we had another packed house, approaching fifty ACORN Bristol members and supports at the Barton Heights Settlement House with a full complement of members handling tickets (47 presold with only 8 no-shows, so beast beware!), concessions, and production, no translation necessary.

getting set at the Barton Heights Settlement House

One of the most interesting questions came later at a curry house after the show, and focused on the emerging crisis for lower income families involving England’s new welfare and benefits scheme, “universal credit,” as it is called.  This has been in the making for quite some time, but in one pilot and rollout after another, the fierceness of this war against the poor, is being implemented, and Bristol in now counting the days when it is phased in here.  Without getting too far into the weeds on the policy prescriptions, universal credit, as argued by the government, seeks to consolidate all of the benefits into one check, while at the same time lowering benefits, increasing work requirements, and making receipt and continuation of benefits more difficult.

In talking with the organizers about how to confront this program and organize beneficiaries, two of its provisions already being implemented seemed more out of a Charles Dickens novel and the horrors of Victorian poverty, than modern England.  The first is the abnormal delay in receiving benefits once qualified:  six weeks.  Of course, you ask, how would anyone make it six weeks without money?  Here the punitiveness of the program becomes predatory.  The government allows you to borrow some from your future check, so that even once you are established the recipient is “paying back” their own benefit money.  Who thinks this stuff up?  Furthermore, since ACORN is a tenants’ union in the United Kingdom as well, we have been flooded with cases where the landlords triggered the forced “loans,” because they were unwilling to wait for their rent money until the tenant received their checks in six weeks.

organized signup and books table

It gets worse though.  Organizers were telling me about families who had gotten “sanctions” for even the most minor situations, like missing a case officer meeting or a work appointment with a sick child or their own illness.  The sanctions are no hand slap.  I heard of one for 6 weeks for a missed appointment, and another who was barred for two years.  No money, no housing subsidy, no nothing.  The entire policy seems designed to create homelessness and complete destitution.

The clawbacks are also amazing down to forced refunds and potential penalties if a claimant doesn’t report money from pawning something or selling an old couch in desperation.  Getting a little work to survive, means not only clawbacks, but even worse sanctions if discovered.

On this war against the poor in Britain, there’s going to be a body count, visible on the streets, unless we – and others – can organize recipients to demand basic human rights to life itself.

Bristol ACORN even had snacks and treats just like a real cinema

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