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Thursday, 3 April 2014

Leading and Following: How Dancing Can Deepen Our Coaching Insights

I've been away from blogging for a while, concentrating on setting up new Dementia Friendly Communities projects funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and becoming more absorbed in the MA Creative Writing I am doing at York St John University. Conventional Leadership Development and Coaching have taken a back seat in the last month, although you can see from our Spring Newsletter that The Open Channel is working right at the heart of the concerns of organisations, particularly in the public and charitable sectors.

Personally, I am learning how to be a creative practitioner, in preparation for my third career as a writer, to which I plan to transfer full time in 2016. So, ideas and techniques which link coaching and leadership theory to creative practice are of particular interest and for that reason alone I couldn't miss this month's EMCC Yorkshire and Humber meeting which promised insights into coaching practice through dancing.

Thanks to Kate Pinder for introducing us to Fides Matzdorf and Ramen Sen, brilliant amateur Ballroom and Latin dancers whose day jobs are as a Research Fellow in a Business School and in IT consultancy. Their personal understanding of organisations and leadership are evident in the parallels they draw from dancing. 

What did I learn? First of all I learned to dance, which was amazing since a few years ago, I spent two terms at evening classes trying to achieve what Fides and Ramen taught me in less than five minutes. With the co-operation of my brilliant partner Corinne, I learned how to connect physically hip to hip, and to maintain a connection which allows leader and follower to  move confidently to music without learning any steps. How great it felt to glide around a dancefloor, swaying to the music, connected by rhythm.

And how great it feels, if you've had that experience, to work in an organisation where you feel in tune with the culture and values,  confident in  supportive leadership, and free to express yourself within explicit parameters that everybody understands.  How great it also feels to coach an individual or a team in a relationship of mutual trust, where leadership is a question, and following is a response which leads to insight.

The insights I had in this incredibly enjoyable and fun session were:

  • Leadership has to be based on trust.
  • Trust is based on supporting people through mistakes and learning from them.
  • Clarity of rules and techniques is essential to prevent people from getting it wrong - for example the ballroom convention is to move anti-clockwise. It works if people follow the rules.
  • Within the rules, individual expression is encouraged - feeling the rhythm of the music, and responding to one another as partners allows you to be creative.
  • Both leader and follower have responsibilities, they may be different, but they are both essential for a good outcome.
  • Collaboration toward a shared objective is the key to success.
  • Satisfaction , fun, a sense of achievement - these are the rewards that make you want to continue.
If you get a chance to attend one of Fides' and Ramen's workshops, do it. Wherever it leads you, be a trusting follower and learn from your dance.

For those of you taking a break this Easter, have a great time, for others, have a great time too!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

There Is No Future In A Battle Between Young and Old

I have been seriously bothered today by the volume of tweets about disparities in public spending between older and younger people. I am not denying the challenge around this, but I am challenging the language used to have the debate.

I am sensitised to this subject from hearing a passionate and insightful presentation by Philly Hare of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  about negative images and language in relation to ageing and specifically linked to dementia. Philly was able to draw the attention of the Yorkshire and Humberside Dementia Action Alliance at its conference in York on Friday to a wide range of references which shocked most of us in their portrayal of ageing and dementia as apocalyptic events which we must fight or fear.

Nobody would deny that age brings challenges for all of us in terms of health, both physical and mental, and for many of us dramatic falls in our income. At the end of life we may face some years in need of support or intensive social or health care, and this will have an impact on our families and those caring for us.

Neither would I deny that the increase in many countries and areas of the UK in the proportion of older people will increase the call on the costs of health and social care. There is no benefit in having our heads in the sand about this - we must work out the fairest ways to spread the cost of care fairly, and the Care Bill is this government's attempt to do that. I am not interested here in debating the proposed changes, my purpose is to point out that setting groups in our society at one another's throats is not helpful in managing the fair distribution of resources.

The frequency of belligerent, militaristic and catastrophic references - the inter-generational battle or  conflict, the time bomb or tsunami of ageing and/or dementia - does a number of seriously damaging things. First, it creates a sense of blame which is attributed to older people ('young people suffering from the crisis inherited from their elders'), which leads to discrimination against older people, which leads to disinvestment/de-prioritisation of their needs.

Why should we couch the need for more health and social care resources in the elderly as a 'battle' for public spending with the young? Where is the benefit in encouraging young people to believe that resources are being taken away from them by the old? The truth is we all get old (if we are lucky) and we experience greater need for health and social care as we age. Young people use the bulk of our investment in education, which is absolutely as it should be.

Our problem arises not because age groups are in competition with one another for resources per se , but because the number of older people is growing at a rate which is beyond the capacity of the working population to pay for. So younger people see themselves working longer, paying more taxes to support the growth of the ageing population.

What is missing from this characterization is any positive perspective which considers how generations can support one another to share public resources. From a narrow middle class perspective we seem to have abandoned the opportunity to generate capacity and resources within the wider family network. Our post-war expectations were for increasing affluence based on education and mobility - factors which feed the drive of the young towards cities in search of work, separating them from wider family support. If the working family can afford the costs of childcare, transport and housing, each individual family household can afford its isolation. Our economic policy is still predicated on this post war dream. But when these costs become too high, people have to consider sharing - particularly childcare and housing- and the family is the place that many people would start.

In my parents' generation born in the 1920s and brought up in a deep depression, nobody in the working classes would have expected to own their home, or even to live in a single family house. Sharing with family or lodging with neighbours was the norm. As it was for the very rich, ironically - with older family members staying on to live with the son who inherited. For families from different cultures the need for larger homes is driven by expectations that three or even four generations might live together permanently, sharing childcare, incomes and household tasks.

The age time bomb is real, but its language is dramatic and divisive - it is explicit in labelling older people as a burden, a threat or a problem to be solved. We cannot create a positive future for everybody in the context of this language. We need to recognise the value and opportunities which older people bring in terms of wisdom, experience, skills and we need to support them to remain active contributors to society for as long as they can. We need to challenge people as they age to think about how they can not only support themselves but offer support to others. This might be by sharing housing, investing their pensions in social projects, passing on skills, providing childcare.

As for fighting for resources for the young, we can adjust our language and  think creatively about how resources can be grown, shared and expanded to provide for everybody. Bringing the generations together is a more positive route to solving resource issues than fighting over a shrinking pot. What can older people do to support families with young children, to babysit, to volunteer in nurseries and schools, to support the teaching of basic skills, to offer a room in their home, a place at their dining table?

In the course of my work with people with dementia I have been inspired by those people who have been able to continue to make a contribution to society, using their skills for as long as they had them - people with dementia who may experience confusion and memory loss, but who can still teach music, painting, foreign languages to other people with those skills which define them. Before listening to Philly Hare on Friday I heard Eileen and Richard talk movingly about their experiences following Eileen's diagnosis of dementia. They were honest about the bad times - dementia can be an enemy - but positive about the good times. Above all, they continued to treat and respect one another as people, not perfect but full of hope and possibility.

We are all either old now or on the path to being old - we don't need any fighting along the way.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Feeling Blown About and Battered? By the High Winds or the Autumn Statement?

Well done George Osborne, you've brought me back to my blog! And yes, it's the pension headline that everybody is talking about, so I thought I'd join in. I might just warn that there are a couple of other topics coming, so if you're not into pensions, stay with me for food banks and depression...

With auto-enrollment spreading are we looking at the death of the state pension? Retirement is a relative concept, and without employment, it becomes a bit of a nonsense. The Fabians are on this tack, so go have a look there when you've done here, but not before.

It saddens me to be able to see the beginning and end of the Welfare State in this country. My parents, born in the 1920s had the benefit of it as adults, as parents themselves and into late middle age as they fell ill and out of work. My father didn't live to draw his pension at 65, he died aged 60 on invalidity benefit as it then was. My mother benefited from a widow's pension for 18 months, which is just as well because she 'didn't pay full stamp' so wouldn't have had much of a pension of her own. My grandparents had no state pension - if they lived into old age (a few survived beyond 70, a very few) they lived off continuing earnings if that was possible, or shared income from sons and daughters sharing their home, or from charity or the parish. In my family history research I have found none of my direct relatives named as workhouse residents, but I have seen them named on the 19th century Census returns as 'pauper' and 'destitute'

I've said it before, the Welfare State has made me what I am - a hard working relatively prosperous member of society who has paid in and will (absence of further crashes willing) be paid out with a company pension at 60 and a state pension at 66. My husband has a modest private pension coming from a long career in private and public sectors at an average  income level. Our personal pensions, which we can access whilst we still earn money from our business, mean that we can manage well for the next few years, hopefully, although if the next three years are as tough as the last three, we will be managing rather than thriving. But yes, we are the lucky ones.

My son, in his first job after graduating, is also lucky to have one which is interesting, stimulating and appropriately paid - so many graduates continue to fill our shops and cafes waiting to do what they really want to do, and so many young people without a degree wonder what the future holds for them. Going through the consultation on auto enrollment with his employer, my son feels sufficiently well paid to go with the enhanced company scheme. I have been surprised at the low take up of pensions in the sectors I am involved in as a Board member - housing, social care and universities, even though we pay a so called Living Wage. It isn't surprising if you're young and low paid that you prioritise the here and now. How worrying if you're older and low paid. 

So, no state pension until 70? Why bother? Indeed, if you have a job it makes more sense to provide for yourself through a contributory scheme. But what if you haven't got a job, or you're in and out of work, or low paid all your life - this is the reality for millions of people. It feels to me like the last half of the 20th century was some kind of dream where we had a belief in the social provision of welfare support but now we've woken up to find that we're going back to a 19th century kind of world where the poor are  villified, offered little support or 'support' in the form of punishment.

Bringing me neatly to food banks. It is not the done thing to say you hate food banks - it sounds mean at the very least. But I do hate them because they symbolise a willingness to accept that we live in a country where large numbers of people are unable to feed themselves and their families properly. The large numbers might include people who (some of us think) have got their priorities wrong, but the truth is that many many people using food banks are doing their best, living without food themselves to feed their kids, working their socks off and still not able to put food on the table. What an absolutely exhausting nightmare that must be. We cannot let food banks cloud our vision and think they are a solution, they are not, they are a sop, and we have to have a system which provides a proper safety net for individuals and families, and which helps people to thrive in the long term. 

I don't sign many petitions or contribute to Kickstarter projects but this week I have supported #jackspetition and a book about Incredible Edible local food campaigns. This is better than just fretting about food banks, let's take a bit of control!

I do want to say something about the wonderful step John Woodcock MP took yesterday in talking about his depression, but I think there is so much to say that I will save it for another blog, not in four months, but maybe more like four hours, or four days time. I hope so, writing this has been good, I'm glad to be back!

And in York, where 74 mph winds this morning have taken the felt off our shed roof, the air is calmer and the sun is peeping through - let's hope that in itself is a sign of better things to come.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Life Stories: Three Single Men Get a Place of Their Own

This week I have talked to three single men who have had experience of care services over a long period of time. Their stories are different in many ways but the issues raised by their circumstances are worth some reflection. One of the men is my brother, I will leave him to last.

On Friday I had a day with colleagues looking at some of Metropolitan's sheltered housing schemes in Derby and Nottingham. We found many good things -  buildings, staff and services - but we also found room for improvement particularly in relation to the physical and social standards which people rightly expect. Our rule of thumb was - would I live here, would I want my relative to live here? Unless we can answer yes to these questions, we can't be confident we are offering the best we can manage in housing, care and support services.

As we walked round we met several people, including two single men who I won't name here but will call John and David. John had Multiple Sclerosis and David Prader-Willi syndrome; both men were in their late fifties and had lived in sheltered housing for some time. They had both lived with their parents until they died, and clearly needed some kind of support to live on their own.

John told us that he had lived in a nursing home for 17 years after his mother died. He expressed real gratitude that eventually somebody questioned whether he could live independently and helped him to move to sheltered housing. In these relative terms John's experience is remarkable and truly positive - we had met him on his way back from the bank where he went on his motorised scooter. 

But things could be better for John - we asked him whether he used the communal lounge or joined in activities. He told us that bingo and coffee mornings weren't of much interest - he liked music, rock music and would have appreciated something a bit more lively. John is a baby boomer, born in 1954 hitting 60 next year - he may be physically frail, but his mind certainly isn't. And he is a generation apart from the 80+ year olds who are his neighbours. Sheltered housing can be a practical option for younger people with physical disabilities but their social needs are likely to be very different from  their older neighbours. We need to think about how the management of sheltered housing can encourage flexible use of facilities in order to benefit a wider range of tastes and needs.

At another scheme we met David, who told us he had Prader-Willi syndrome, a chromosone disorder which affects people in a variety of ways, but which includes a learning disability. David moved to sheltered housing after his parents died, and he manages a busy life of volunteering and fundraising. For David, one of the real benefits of living in sheltered housing was having personal contact every day with the Scheme Manager, but unfortunatley, this level of support has been cut by the Council, and this daily human contact has been lost. This might be part of the reason why David kept us talking for so long, enjoying some interested company.

As we looked at the different sheltered housing schemes and talked to residents, we began to ask ourselves what it was for? Enabling and re-abling people to help them to become or remain independent seemed to be core to its purpose. Our aim might be to support people to live well with a disability or into older age, and sheltered housing could not only be a permanent home for people, but also a place of transition to and from independent living. In order to fulfil this purpose we need to get better at co-ordination and integration with health and care services, working more effectively to match people and properties.

We saw some empty flats - an increasingly common occurance in older sheltered housing schemes - and could see how we might improve their presentation to make them more attractive. For some adapted flats with specialist features, it might be necessary to talk to social services or health partners about specific individuals rather than expect a choice based letting service to identify them.

And talking of specific individuals, there is my brother. Another single man finding himself adrift and vulnerable after a life at sea with everything provided including plenty of alcohol. As his life catches up on him he has spent 12 months of the last 24 flipping between hospital and nursing home, trying to establish a stable home and routine back in the UK after years living abroad.

This week he is hospital again, recovering from a bout of severe confusion caused by vitamin B deficiency. Today he was lucid enough to talk about what was happening to him, to commit to a healthier lifestyle and to discuss his living arrangements. I imagine he might fare well in sheltered housing, where he can be independent but with some kind of safety net of support if needed. I am thinking of John and David, it works for them, to an extent.

My brother, however, is not keen. He likes it where he is, living in a small room in a shared house, hoarding biscuits in his bedroom and endless packets of cuppa soup in a deep drawer in the kitchen. It seems odd him living like this, it's as if he is a 62 year old well-worn student. But to him, it's sheltered housing - his own private space, a communal lounge, help on hand in an emergency.

Seeing John, David and my brother this week has made me think deeply about independence, support , choice and the interface of housing, care and health services. We all need a place where we can be who we want to be, and we might be prepared to compromise other things to achieve that.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Four Cornerstones - a model for friendly communities for us all?

This week Doncaster community partners from across health, local authority, voluntary and private sectors will agree an action plan for creating a Dementia Friendly Community. Over the last six months they have considered how Doncaster supports people with dementia and their carers and families and how the Borough could do even better. Through an Accelerated Learning Programme devised and led by AESOP Consortium and The Open Channel, around 20 community leaders have committed to making Doncaster more Dementia Friendly.

Doncaster will be the first place to use the Four Cornerstones model to develop its action plan for a Dementia Friendly Community. Developed  from concepts originally explored with Innovations in Dementia for work for the LGA's Ageing Well Progamme, the model was an integral part of our research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 'Creating a Dementia Friendly York' 

So what are the Four Cornerstones?

First is The Place. In this cornerstone we explore issues about the physical environment and infrastructure and ask how they help or hinder poeople with dementia and their carers. So for example:

What is the Scale of the Place, and what happens at each level?

City, Town, Village, Suburb, Street, Home

How Welcoming is it?

Human scale, Environmental Quality, Clean, Calm

What level of Clarityexists?

Buildings which look like what they are, Streetscape, Signage, Access, Transport

How Familiar is it?

Distinctive Elements, Landmarks, Features, Historic Resonance
In The People Cornerstone we consider how those closest to people with dementia - including carers and families, but also regualar carers and people in the community - support, react and respond. We ask:

What Awareness do people have of Dementia and what it means?

Do people and the community judge, stigmatise or patronise?

Are people understanding and empathetic?

Do they support, facilitates  the abilities of people with dementia, encourage the retention of skills and the aquisition of new skills and interests?
We call the third cornerstone Resources to signal that is about more than 'services', and consider:

What Natural, Physical, Cultural, and Personal resources does the community have - everything from rivers to evening classes.

How can care and support draw on the wider resources of the Community?

What role can Personalised Budgets play?

What Specialised Support exists?

The fourth cornerstone - Networks - is as much about how everything is wired together, through joint working and collaboration. We assess whether the networks are

Effective in sharing understanding

Practical in helping to solve problems

Inclusive in crossing boundaries

Discreet in respecting confidentiality

Strategic and Personal

In Doncaster the model has proved useful in helping partners to identify priorities for action. We do not suggest that any community can be fully dementia friendly, but anywhere can progress and become more so.

In developing and using the model, we have become convinced that it has wider applicability - we have looked in some detail at a number of age-friendly initiatives and feel that the model certainly applies in thinking about how to support older people. But why stop there? We all, whatever our age, condition or situation, are more likely to thrive in a community which is relatively 'friendly' - we need quality and support in terms of place, people, resources and networks, and we know that when one of these is missing or dysfunctional, problems occur. 

For community leaders, it is not enough to focus on one dimension in order to progress - we know that communities which work offer a multiple of benefits such as good environment, housing, culture, jobs, education, healthcare. We believe that the Four Cornerstones model has the potential to help community leaders to work together to identify how they need to improve and commit to action to create friendly communities for us all. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Regulation and Assurance: Doing the Right Thing

This week the controversy surrounding the CQC will have caused many of us working in regulated areas and sitting on Boards to think deeply about our roles and our behaviour.

We cannot and should not expect Boards or regulators to take the place of management and know what is going on at a detailed operational level on a day to day basis. Indeed, executive managers are skilled at making sure that Boards do not get involved in day to day management, and regulators are by their nature in less than regular contact. 

What this means is that our expectation should be that executive managers will run their organisations well, understanding how to maintain safe, good quality and consistent practice and to assure themselves that this is happening. Boards and regulators will then 'dip in' to test this on a regular or occaisional basis.

When things go wrong, Boards and regulators can support and oversee improvement plans, and retest practice and outcomes to assure progress. This process relies on the truth being told in terms of information and analysis produced and what people say in face to face interviews.

Triangulation of patient, customer, public and stakeholder views is important in challenging data and narrative about what is going on - at Winterbourne View, Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay, people said things were wrong, but they were ignored and suppressed until it was too late, and irreparable damage was done.

It has been shocking to hear the suggestion this week that the regulator itself had been willing to engage in cover ups - if they are afraid of the truth, who can the public trust?

Public services - and particularly those which are literally about our lives and deaths - are based on trust, and if this breaks, catastrophe can appear in the cracks.

At every level of our public services, and especially those which care for us at our most vulnerable, we must have people who recognise the importance of safety, quality and consistency and who are prepared to challenge within their own organisations to ensure the highest standards and the effective management of risk. They must also be prepared to recognise when things have gone wrong and to put them right - to fear the consequences of poor practice rather than the embarrassment of bad PR.

We should know what it is to do the right thing, and if we don't we should work it out together. 

The CQC has been forced to take a long hard look at itself - public confidence is very low. But they should not be alone in this. Regulated services cannot rely on their regulators to tell them when they are going wrong - it may already be too late. The primary focus and responsibility for safety, quality and consistency must be held by those who directly serve the public. 

Other players are also in the frame - the government, civil service, legislature, commissioners. They must recognise and be open to pushback about the impact of their demands on services. The push for earned autonomy through mechanisms like Foundation status can clearly distort the views of hospital trusts trying to respond to pressure from the Department of Health/NHS and Monitor But it is literally fatal to ignore or even hide service failures in the interest of passing the 'exam'.

Whilst we understand the drive from commissioners to try to get more for their money as demand for health and social care outstrips the resources we can make available in our society, this has to be done in safe ways which assure quality. There is a proper concern about the impact of downward cost pressure on pay and staff quality which seemed apparent in Winterbourne View.

These examples of failure are dreadful, but they are not universal, thankfully. What this suggests to me is that the system, if it is distorted and not properly managed, can fail us, but crucially we need to rely on people to do the right thing. In a system where poor and excellent practice can sit side by side, it is the intentions, commitment and energy of good people making the right choices day in day out underpin our best public services.

Find our more about our work with regulated public services and Boards at The Open Channel

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Merry Month of May

I love May, most of us do. This year we have had to be patient waiting for the blossom and the fresh green of spring, but it is here today (although of course, as we have come to expect it may rain tomorrow).

This May I seem to have been busier than usual, so the poor weather has not distressed me so much, as I would have had little time to enjoy a glorious spring. We did enjoy quite good weather for the early May bank holiday, and spent a few days at Arnside birdwatching around beautiful Morecambe Bay. But that all seems so far away now...

I have been in London a lot this month with all my Boards meeting and all Metropolitan subsidiary and Committee Meetings falling in the same month as the Board. I've done five days and four overnights in London in the last three weeks, and almost felt like an interim again. My hectic schedule has included Sheffield Hallam and Compass Boards as well as all the Metropolitan meetings, being interviewed for a contract, interviewing candidates for Director roles,  being a participant in a workshop on different approaches to management, joining in a presentation on equalities and fairness, giving a presentation about housing for older people and people with dementia, helping to facilitate an intergenerational action learning set, visiting a drug and alcohol service, as well as catching up with colleagues to support them through change and share ideas for the future, and with friends for food, wine and laughter. I also spent some time in beautiful Rosedale researching my family history, and a wonderful day in Mortlake writing poems with people I had never met before, but hope to see again. And if I didn't see my family every day, I certainly spoke to them.

I have been tired and footsore this month, probably not very profitable, but I  have been fulfilled, stimulated and very very blessed. As I sit down to write this week, of all of the many things that have happened this month, what is likely to stay with me, what have I reflected on most, what have I learned and what would be good to share? I've chosen just two quite contrasting things, one philosophical, one more political which reflect the breadth of my work and the  issues that interest us at The Open Channel

Get out of your comfort zone occasionally, but ask yourself what is it that makes you most comfortable - when are you truly yourself?

Stretching  and extending yourself is a way to grow and develop your skills. Some of the things I do are well within my comfort zone, many are a stretch, although an easy enough stretch, some are a harder stretch, and occasionally some are downright scary. Interviews for jobs or contracts are always scary, not just because you might make a fool of yourself on the day, but because the fear of rejection is inherent within them. This month I have been on both sides of the recruitment table, and tried in both cases to make the experience as pleasant and constructive as possible. Whatever the outcome, there is scope for learning - about how you might do better next time, of course, but also for reflecting on the skills you have displayed, where you were best able to express yourself, which parts of your background and experience made you feel most confident, and how this recollection can help you to target what you go for next time, or how you demonstrate your strengths. 

In our intergenerational Action Learning Set this month, a graduate trainee and a recent graduate talked about their career aspirations. They were able to identify already the types of work and sectors which interested and attracted them and where they felt motivated, but there was sometimes a gap between what they wanted to do and what they felt was expected of them, or where they had found themselves. Being true to yourself, having the confidence and courage to pursue your dreams is hard in early career, but also in later stages when the need to generate an income that others might depend on is pressing. What seems important is to find your own balance - you may be prepared to forgo a dream for a while or even permanently if the consequences of pursuing it are too hard to bear (having no money, being away from family for instance), but if you find that you have worked for a time and been unfulfilled, ask yourself how long you could tolerate this, and why you would want to. Enjoying your work, being fortunate enough to express yourself through it and be yourself is a great privilege - make it one of your goals.

The North South divide is important, but inequality exists in the North and South, and is stark in London.

As a Northerner living in the North, I am passionate about the need to rebalance the economy and find ways of redistributing some of the wealth in London and the South East. I am not convinced that HS2 is the answer (for which I may be heavily rebuked by some colleagues) - it is too far away in timescale, just as likely to benefit the South as the Midlands/North, not as important as investment in technology, and I think it would do more good to find a way to make train travel more consistently cheap now than faster in the future. Anyway, back off my hobby horse, my interest is in understanding how the economy of the North can prosper and bring benefits to local people, but also how we can balance the national economy for the benefit of all.

The overheated economy in the South isn't a brilliant thing for everybody - in fact, the poor in London and the South East are in a worse position than the poor in the North, as prices of everything but most critically housing are much higher and have a disproportionate effect on incomes which are not relatively higher in London and the South. How people in London manage to pay for housing is a great concern - this week Shelter published a map showing how far some London Boroughs are placing homeless people in bed and breakfast with expensive Boroughs using places in cheaper Boroughs who in turn are having to send people as far as Birmingham or even Devon to find cheaper accommodation. And you don't have to be poor by any definition to find it a struggle to buy - in fact the threshold for eligibility for Shared Ownership is an income of £60,000. In the North, somebody earning that sort of salary could buy a house without difficulty, but the majority of people in the North don't earn that sort of money - and neither do the majority of people in London. Last year's ONS Earnings Survey reported here by the Guardian shows the median earnings in outer London were £31500.

My visits to London this month revealed the stark inequalities between rich and poor, not only in terms of income wealth, but also in term so environmental quality. At Clapham Park, Metropolitan is transforming the environment of this large Lambeth estate through a programme of refurbishment and new build development. The investment in people's homes represents an investment in their lives and it is important to co-ordinate the physical regeneration with access to training and jobs for local people.

It may have been because I had spent some time in the affluent environs of Kensington High Street that I was distressed to see the impoverishment of Harrow an outer London Borough where I lived in 1977. At that time, I would say that Harrow, whilst not South Kensington, was certainly a desirable place to live. I lived in a flat converted from a beautiful Edwardian terraced house - unfortunately my road is now a dual carriageway and the centre of Harrow is  dominated by mixed (some quite poor) quality development and people-disatrous road layouts and underpasses. This looked to me like poor planning and absent political stewardship - investing poorly in places lets people down.

I admit to some degree of sentimentality here, but actually I am sure that what I saw was not what Harrow or anywhere else deserved. Many of our town centres - not only in the North - are in crisis, not just because of the challenge of online shopping or the proliferation of bars and betting shops - but because of the incoherent nature of development, the unthinking destruction of good quality historic buildings and the faddy and undistinctive investment in jazzy cladded blocks by people who take their profit and run. Local councils are critical in this process and communities need to be empowered and encouraged to use Neighbourhood Planning to get the best for their places.

It was raining when I went to Harrow - perhaps if the sun had shone, lighting up the spring blossom, I may have felt less discouraged, but the way the cars whizzed off the roundabout to park under a Morrisons with no access to the shop from street level was evidence enough that people were way down the list in somebody's mind when this development was planned.

Rant over - feedback welcome

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