‘We’ve returned to a Victorian era of poverty’
Plus: another local council on the brink
Hello readers — welcome to your (very delayed) weekly briefing. I usually send this stupendously varied and interesting edition of The Dispatch on Monday afternoons to brief you for the week ahead. But yesterday I was struck down with norovirus just as I was in the middle of writing it — such are the perils of being a one woman team.
This briefing brings you a mini-scoop about council finances in Dudley, details on the measles outbreak at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, and a lovely Home of the Week in Erdington. Plus, I try to explain the concept of a “community fridge” and recommend some excellent events to go to and things to read.
There are now an astonishing 8,802 of you on our free mailing list, up from 5,201 a month ago. It’s very exciting — bordering on unnerving — how quickly The Dispatch is growing - huge thanks to everyone who has been sharing the link to our site in local Facebook groups (please keep this up, it’s so useful) and telling friends about us.
It’s now almost a month since we launched our paid memberships. It was a bit of a weird time to launch – just before Christmas when people have lots of other things to think about and spend money on. But despite that, we already have 241 paying members, which means we need just 9 more to get to 250, our first big membership milestone. Here’s the plan: let’s hit 250 this week (tonight even?) and let’s hit 300 by the end of January. And then let’s get to 500 by the Spring. Sound good?
If you’re not a member yet, just hit that button below to join up. You’ll get an extra members-only story each week (and more in future), you’ll be able to join the comments, you’ll be invited to our events and you’ll be helping to fund public interest journalism for others who are less able to pay.
Our weekend read was by local author Charlie Hill, who reflected on how he became a writer in Birmingham, a place not typically associated with literary allure. However, as Hill points out, perhaps that is changing.
Finally, thanks to Malik for becoming a paid member of The Dispatch. You can’t see his full quote here, but he says: “Having a local paper reporting local news is a breath of fresh air for me!” Welcome to the city and to The Dispatch, Malik.
🌤️ Wednesday: Dry with some cloud but brighter in the afternoon. Max 2°C.
🌨️ Thursday: Cool and dry with sunny spells and potentially snow showers. Max 3°C.
☀️ Friday: Dry and bright with plenty of sunshine. Max 4°C.
☂️ Weekend: Windy with light rain. Max 10°C.
We get our weather from the BBC.
Big story: Food banks help people to survive. But can they survive themselves?
Top line: Food banks and other vital voluntary services are being priced out of the areas where they operate due to rising rents – and some are struggling to find a home in the first place. We’ve been speaking to them to find out more.
The big picture: Rising rents cause the same pressures to voluntary services as they do to people renting homes, squeezing out organisations on tight budgets. This has been felt most sharply by Birmingham city centre-based services, like homelessness provision, as inner-city neighbourhoods that used to be more affordable, like the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth, have become more developed and expensive.
Stephen Raybould, Programmes Director at charity sector support organisation Birmingham Voluntary Services Council (BVSC), tells me the issue has grown over the past decade. He says:
“Anywhere rents are going up, which is everywhere, there are issues and certainly other voluntary sector organisations have complained quite vociferously about it.”
Starting out: For new services, just getting off the ground can be a struggle. Often a start up will be given a space in a building belonging to another voluntary sector organisation but when that service needs it back they are left high and dry. Although charities receive business rates relief, they still have to pay the price per square foot which Raybould says “presents a significant challenge”.
Other options: An alternative is to get a space from a private sector organisation or a social landlord who is offering it as part of their “corporate social responsibility”. In some cases, the council can provide a premises as part of an asset transfer, so the charity delivers a service out of a council property instead of paying rent. However, the organisation still needs to pay for the maintenance of the building which isn’t always realistic for those just starting out.
Zoom in: The Bartley Green and Northfield Community Fridge opened in April last year when it was able to take a ground floor room of established organisation, the Bartley Green Community Hub. However, now the Hub needs that room back, Dawn Mason, who started the Fridge, and her fellow volunteers are stranded.
Their last day of serving from the Hub was 21 December. Now they have to park up their car twice a week and hand out the food from there. Needless to say, this limits the amount of food they can give out that requires chilling or freezing.
Mason tells me they have looked for new premises but most are way beyond their budget and cost between £20-30,000 a year. Other local services, like the Brandhall Baby Bank, are similarly stuck without a base.
Hang on, what is a community fridge? It’s a bit different from a food bank in that it allows users to choose their own produce. Raybould tells me the desire to “choose your own” can be seen as demanding - the criticism is, you can’t be that desperate or you’d eat anything that was given to you. But it isn’t as simple as that. He gives several examples:
Some people have medical conditions which they manage with their diet, like diabetes, and require a high protein diet which is less feasible when using food banks with tinned and dry food staples.
Another problem that arises is when children refuse to eat certain foods but their parents don’t have the means to provide an alternative meal.
Finally, many people are suffering from fuel poverty and cannot afford the gas or electricity required to cook certain foods.
Zoom out: Raybould paints a dire picture of the poverty he encounters. He told The Dispatch:
“I've spent my 30 year career in and around the voluntary sector. Dealing with this it's like we’ve returned to a Victorian era of poverty where people haven't got enough food to eat, can’t afford to heat their homes. Sometimes they get the food and they haven't got the fuel to be able to prep it. And it’s big numbers.”
Bottom line: For over a decade now, benefit freezes and cuts to local services have placed more importance on voluntary services to fill the gaps. The people running those services say they are witnessing staggering demand. But in a city that is developing and attracting more and more private investment, increasing rents are making it more difficult for these vital organisations to operate.
Photo of the week
This atmospheric shot of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal near Kinver was taken on Sunday by Sally Shillingford.
Brum in Brief
⚠️ We are hearing that Dudley Council is expected to declare a Section 114 by the end of the month, meaning the local authority would effectively be declaring itself bankrupt. The council is currently trying to reduce spending to cover a £12 million budget gap, but The Dispatch has been told a Section 114, similar to that issued by Birmingham City Council in September, is likely to be issued by February. Can you tell us more? Please get in touch.
💉 Birmingham Children’s Hospital has been inundated with the highest number of cases of measles in decades – 50 kids in the last month have needed treatment. Yesterday morning’s Radio 4 show spoke with the immunologist Andrew Pollard who thinks the outbreak is down to declining vaccination rates. As a result, Pollard says, susceptible populations have built up particularly in some parts of London and the West Midlands leading to spread. The segment is one hour 20 minutes in.
⚖️ Birmingham City Councillor Simon Morrall has been sentenced to a one year community order for harassing his ex-girlfriend. Morrall, 34, represents Frankley Great Park ward as an independent since losing the Conservative Party whip following his arrest last January. Jane Haynes has the latest update at BirminghamLive.
👻 Ghost villages in staffordshire where houses were bought ahead of the now cancelled HS2 northern leg have been abandoned, with neighbours complaining of squatters and cannabis farms. Phil Robinson told BBC Radio Stoke that a bungalow once owned by his mother in Madeley had been empty for seven years. "It's a tragedy really," he said. "What do you do? The government has got the power."
Home of the week
This cute two-bedroom house in Erdington has been designed with great care and attention to detail. It is available for £200,000.
📰 Freelance journalist James O’Malley has written a takedown of the dominant model for local news as typified by media giant Reach Plc. He uses the Birmingham Mail as a case study for his analysis to show how once-trusted news sources have been gutted by such companies chasing clicks and advertising – to the detriment of journalists and readers alike. We were pleased to be mentioned as a positive alternative: “The Birmingham Dispatch is another example too. That’s a new publication that has already accrued over 8000 subscribers in just a few weeks. And I’m intrigued to see how it develops – I just hope it can keep up with its closest rival’s coverage of what Naga Munchetty is wearing.”
🎧 A Birmingham University immune cell biologist has been featured on BBC health podcast Just One Thing. In the ‘Inflammation Special’ Professor Janet Lord gives her five top tips for limiting and reducing inflammation to prevent ageing-related disease. Inflammation, Lord says, is a positive response to injury or infection, but “chronic inflammation, persisting for decades” is where it becomes harmful. For example, it can damage blood vessels, and cause insulin resistance. She adds: “We’re increasingly becoming multi-morbid so the older adult doesn’t just have one of these conditions, they acquire many if them. In recent a survey at the QE hospital in Birmingham we found 70% of people admitted had three or more conditions.”
💻 Art writer Ruth Millington visited the Margaret and Berthold Wolpe exhibition at Winterbourne House and Gardens which is open until 11 February. She writes on her blog: “Art history has been built upon mythical images of the individual male genius. Working alone in his studio, he is driven by his unstoppable imagination. But behind every great man, so they say, there’s a woman, and art’s masters wouldn’t have got anywhere without their female muses, models, wives and fellow artists, whose contributions have largely been overlooked.”
Things to do
🍷 Learn once and for all how to pair a good wine with an even better cheese at this Vagabond Cheese Wine Masterclass. Tickets are £35-40 and include five wines and cheeses plus expert guidance.
⚓ Live near Tipton and want to have your say on this year’s Canal and Community Festival? Join a planning meeting online at 7.30pm to get involved.
🕯️ Explore the Coffin Works museum after hours by taking this atmospheric candlelight tour. Arrive at 6pm for your hot drink – included in the £18 ticket price – and begin the tour at 6.30pm.
💆♀️ Take some time out at a breathing, meditation, and mindfulness lunchtime class at West Smethwick Park. Just £3 per session.