Potholed society

Meme by Anthea Bareham

It’s not just our roads which are potholed… the whole country shows similar symptoms of neglect. My article on the disgraceful state of so many British roads, riddled with potholes and crumbling surfaces, leads us to use the pothole theme to evaluate some aspects of our neglected services and faltering social cohesion.

From crumbing surfaces to crumbling services

Indeed, the UK is not just suffering from potholes in its roads! The ravages of a decade and a half of Tory underfunding and austerity has created gaping holes in some of our most beloved institutions and left us with crumbling services. Here are just a few examples:

Schools: Everyone knows about leaking roofs and reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), as reported in a BBC Online article ‘Our school has been crumbling for 20 years’. Added to that, on 6 April there was a Guardian report on vermin and pests invading schools, which are already full of mould from leaks. A school in Dartington recently suffered from sewage invading the outside areas. You couldn’t make it up. Few people know how serious the teacher shortage has become, so much so that the government is trying to recruit teachers from abroad, notably from Jamaica according to a Guardian report on 3 April. Several recent newspapers carried headlines like: ”Teaching assistants routinely cover lessons”, and “schools are struggling to provide qualified teachers for every class”. Could it be that, as Gove once said, “We don’t need experts”… because they are too expensive, and that the government is happy to save money by using cheaper alternatives? Surely not…

NHS: It seems pretty obvious that the Tory party aspires to privatise the NHS, with all sorts of consequences for the tax-payer, too many to describe in detail here: higher costs, poorer service, long waiting times and disappearing NHS dentistry, the latter with awful consequences for the current generation of children. Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that “Half of patients rarely see the same GP each time”. There are huge regional variations in provision in every area of health and social care, the so-called ‘postcode lottery’. A rather sad example of this is that of the parents fighting to get their son the palliative care he needs. They happen to live in an area where provision is poor or non-existent, whilst in other areas the provision available conforms to what is required. As reported by ITV News: ‘It feels like they’ve written him off’: The NHS brain-drain too is intensifying, with a steady leaching of doctors and nurses, sick of being vilified by the government, seeking better pay and conditions abroad. Many, like one of my daughters, end up in New Zealand, from where hospital staff are in turn lost to Australia, doubling their pay in the process. Again, the government’s solution is to poach medical staff from abroad, often from countries which can ill afford to lose them. Brexit has affected the situation, with many doctors and nurses returning to their EU countries. Now, thousands of other nurses are returning to their countries outside the EU. The same has happened in the care sector. A care home I know well used to be staffed largely by carers from Eastern Europe; they have mostly left, and are being replaced by people from India, the Philippines and Africa, some of whom have only had hasty training. Then, of course, to save money, we are experiencing a watering down or dumbing down of GP service, just like what we are seeing in schools; this is comprehensively documented in a recent article by our Editor-in-Chief.

Water… shithole potholes: British voters, particularly those who like to get close to rivers and beaches, know only too well about the scandalously negligent performance of our water boards; while their share-holders are swimming in dividends and their executives are wallowing in bonuses, the rest of us have to swim in sewage. It is a national disgrace when the globally famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is reported abroad as having been blighted by the high pollution levels in the River Thames. And now we have cryptosporidium in our water supply, requiring us to boil water before consuming it… just as in a Third World Country. Yet massive dividends have just been paid out to shareholders. The front page of the I on 16 May reads: “UK’s toxic water: illegal sewage, parasites in taps – and higher bills on the way”. Can things get any worse? Yes! On 2 July a local Facebook post warned people that at two South Devon beaches ‘the smell is rank’, with toilet paper floating in the water. Gruesome.

Potholed borders: Reducing migration has for years been the flagship policy of the right wing of the Tory party… and their most abject failure. They just can’t seem to accept that, given our falling birthrate, we need to import labour, particularly for the health and care sectors. One dodgy decision after another – most merely seeking propaganda-like front-page headlines in the Tory-loving papers – has led to the chaotic situation we see today, with increasing small-boat crossings, repeated tragedies at sea, inadequate processing of genuine asylum-seekers, and the nonsensical Rwanda policy, which will not have got underway before the July General Election. And, of course, the man who provides hotel accommodation for asylum seekers is now on the rich list of the wealthiest people in the UK. Disgraceful and immoral profiting by the desperate plight of other human beings.

Child poverty: On 23 April a Guardian opinion piece suggested that in response to Britain being sicker and poorer Rishi Sunak attacked disabled people. On the 15 May a Metro article reported that UK children and elderly are suffering food poverty, as evidenced by a UK record of 3 million food parcels, of which over a third went to children according to Metro. Any teacher will tell you that hungry children do not learn well. According to Child Poverty Action Group, 4.3 million children live in poverty in the UK, which many of us would consider a national disgrace. The charity I am involved with is conducting a survey on ‘Poverty in work’, an issue of increasing concern. Low wage growth compared to increasing living costs has brought this about, according to the Guardian article of the 25 June. An inevitable consequence of the precarious situation of many families is having to live in rented accommodation. Owing to the failure to reinvest the money made by selling off council houses in building new local authority accommodation, the private rental sector has boomed, aided by financial support for ‘buy-to-let’ landlords. All too often, owing in part to weak regulation of the sector, as reported by The Conversation on 15 May 2023, “Rental properties are more likely be mouldy than other homes. This is a concern as excessive mould growth is known to harm human health.” In November 2023. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) reported that “Over 1.6 million children in England live in cold, damp, mould-ridden private rented homes”, adding that this is “an issue highlighted following the death of two-year-old Awab Ishak from prolonged exposure to mould.” Remember, this is in the 21st Century in one of the richest countries in the world. We should be ashamed, or at least, those who vote for politicians whose policies allow this should be ashamed. Add to these situations the appalling lack of dental care, the poor state of educational provision…

And then this arrived when I thought I had almost finished this article: the National Foundation for Educational Research survey of 1,300 teachers, as reported in the Guardian on 5 June, revealed that “Eight in 10 primary teachers in England are spending their own money to help pupils”. Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The fact that children are arriving at school hungry, with unsuitable clothes and having to be supported by teachers out of their own pockets, says everything we need to know about the impact that child poverty and the cost-of-living crisis is having on children and young people.” Then again this, in the Guardian on the 17 June 2024: “Teachers and GPs ‘staggering’ under extra demands caused by poverty in Great Britain”, which reports how desperate families are increasingly turning to teachers and GPs for crisis help. On 19 June the Standard, like several online papers covered a report by the Food Foundation: “UK children shorter, fatter and sicker amid poor diet and poverty”. In 2024 in the UK? Enough said… My social conscience can’t take any more.

Potholed democracy: Small wonder that parliament has a pretty awful reputation as a bunch of schoolboys and schoolgirls behaving badly, howling like banshees instead of listening diligently to arguments and counter-arguments. The hypocrisy and total lack of integrity of politicians is exemplified in the recent controversy over Tory donor Frank Hester’s racist comments about Diane Abbott, and the government’s refusal to condemn his remarks. What an example to set to citizens. Lies, deception, brainwashing and gaslighting begat Brexit; the xenophobia generated and exploited for the purpose of achieving it has produced division and undermined social cohesion to such a degree that major changes to our political system will be needed to reverse the process… and repair our potholed democracy. And as for the first TV debate between Starmer and Sunak, in which the latter behaved like a lying, loud-mouthed yob… What a performance from the PM who, in his inaugural speech promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. Ironic that Sunak should complain about the xenophobic behaviour of certain Reform campaigners, when all they are doing is echoing the racist and xenophobic attitudes generated and exploited in the lead up to the Brexit Referendum.

Britain’s broken reputation: As a woman interviewed about her voting intentions said, we need a change to repair all that is wrong with broken Britain; she cited potholes, NHS waiting lists, overstretched schools, littered roads. We could add graffiti, fading road markings and dirty road-signs, often hidden by untrimmed vegetation and so on, and so on… a generally unkempt and neglected environment. So many people have returned from foreign holidays have commented on the cleanliness and tidiness of the countries visited compared to the UK. Our national self-image is at a low point, but even worse is the UK’s tarnished reputation abroad. As if Johnson had not done enough damage with his behaviour towards the EU, Sunak demonstrated how little regard he had for his duty to represent the UK and demonstrate statesmanship by shunning the gathering of leaders at the D-Day commemoration. In her Guardian opinion piece on 22 April, Nesrine Malik comments on the discrepancy between the image the UK still tries to project and the naked truth of broken Britain. “Ravaged by austerity, chastened by Brexit: how can Britain have influence abroad when it’s broken at home?” Malik is not alone; speaking about the UK government’s post-Brexit border solution, Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) asserts “We have become the laughingstock of Europe.”

Brexit? Wrexit!

For many of us, the most frustrating aspect of the current election campaign is the almost total absence of Brexit from the agenda, apart from the stated policies of the LibDems and the SNP, and the assessment of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as reported in the Spanish press. One recent satirical Facebook post suggests that because the major parties are not talking about Brexit, the villain who, arguably, was the prime mover of this major national disaster is not having to face the music for the huge damage Brexit has caused. Its negative effects are manifold, and most are very well-known. However, there are also many lesser-known effects such as the following:

  • The detrimental effect of Brexit has broken the banking sector; for example, Goldman Sachs has left only a ‘skeleton team’ in London, relocating its top brass to Europe. The former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, considers that Brexiteers have destroyed the UK’s future. Indeed, the “Take back control!” slogan used by Brexiteers is ironic because, according to Carney, the opposite is what they have achieved.

The end of the road for Broken Britain?

So, where does that leave the UK in 2024? Potholes in the road seem to be symbolic of the potholes in the country in general. Our roads will take years to be returned to acceptable standards, and the same is true of so many of our institutions and services. For millions of citizens living in the UK is like traveling along a badly maintained road: you have to travel with your eyes wide open, negotiating the ‘virtual’ potholes as best you can, expecting knocks and jolts along the way, and hoping to get by somehow or other. Hopefully, one day, the UK will return to being a more civilized and caring society. Remember: the current chaotic and disgraceful situation in so many aspects of British society is the result of 14 years of Tory mismanagement. If we want change, we have to vote the Conservatives out. Roll on the General Election: vote wisely!