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C of E's pre-Election publication warns of lose-lose situations for many towns and cities

15 January 2015

by Pat Ashworth


Dave the Builder: the Prime Minister fixes tiles to a roof mock-up, alongside a former roofing apprentice, Lynden Blackwood, during a visit to J. Wright Roofing College, in Nottingham, on Monday

Dave the Builder: the Prime Minister fixes tiles to a roof mock-up, alongside a former roofing apprentice, Lynden Blackwood, during a visit to J. Wr...

THE Prime Minister has issued a firm rebuttal of the picture of Britain painted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in which "many cities are left feeling abandoned and hopeless". 

It is suggested by Archbishop Welby that entire regions of the country are trapped in an apparently inescapable economic downward spiral. He refers to "a tale of two cities", and argues that turning the tide will come only through a commitment to solidarity.

"The hard truth is that [many cities and towns where there is long-term decline] are in what appear to be lose-lose situations," he says. "Already in decline, the road towards recovery and growth is made even more difficult. . . As the south-east grows, many cities are left feeling abandoned and hopeless."

His reflections come in a book, On Rock or Sand?, to be launched at Westminster on Tuesday. It comes from a symposium of economists, social thinkers, contemporary historians, and theologians, invited in 2010 by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, to reflect on some of the pressing challenges of the day in the context of increasing social dysfunction and in the wake of the financial crisis.

Dr Sentamu's own contribution says that politicians who often refer to "hard-working families" should speak instead of "hard-pressed families". He refers to the "blight of increasing poverty in a land of plenty".

On Thursday, the Prime Minister said that he "profoundly disagrees" with the picture painted by the Archbishops.

"I've never complained about the church for getting involved in political issues, they have a perfect right to speak out," Mr Cameron told the Daily Telegraph.

"I just happen to think, and I haven't seen this report in all its detail so I will study it, but from an early reading of The Daily Telegraph I profoundly disagree with some of the things that they are saying."

"Far from leaving cities behind, we're rebalancing the economy and you can see real growth in cities like Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds - indeed some two-thirds over the last year has come from outside London and the South East. And some of the places where jobs are growing fastest and apprenticeships are growing fastest, where exports are growing fastest are not in London or the South East."

He went on: "We are tackling poverty by giving 1.75 million more people a job in our country. Actually under this Government inequality has fallen so I don't think the picture they paint is accurate.

"I look forward to debating and discussing it with them. They have a right to speak out as long as they don't mind when I speak pretty vigorously in defence of the excellent economic and social record of this government.

"The fact is you can't do any of these things in terms of tackling poverty, growing opportunity, rebalancing the economy unless you have a strong economy and we have restored or are restoring the strength of the British economy."

Both Archbishops refer to the importance of solidarity. Archbishop Welby speaks of "a society built and lived on the principles of the inherent dignity of the person, outside and beyond any economic value, and of the commonality of the human journey". Declaring the economic crisis to be fundamentally a theological problem, he calls for a reclamation of the Christian definition of solidarity for the common good.

Dr Sentamu refers to the common good as a "quest for a big vision, moral and practical", in which "everyone needs to be involved or it won't work." The Church urgently needs to provide reflection on how the social compact can be refashioned in ways that make sense in the light of today's serious social and economic realities.

Politicians and the electoral system come under fire from Ruth Fox, director and head of research of the Hansard Society. She identifies "a damaging 'anti-politics' mood" gnawing away at the democratic roots of society, which, if left unchecked, "threatens to cast doubt on the legitimacy of representative politics, regardless of whichever party may be in power in the future".

Politics, she says, is "increasingly reduced to a marketing game where each side offers up promises to the public but rarely engages in open and forthright debate about the negotiations and compromises that are required to achieve those promises".

Ultimately, "nothing will change unless politicians change [both] their approach to the values and ethics that should underpin politics and their own personal conduct in the future, and how they go about politics itself, adopting a more values-based approach, stressing moral choices in pursuit of a more distinct vision for the organisation of our society."

Christian values could shape the approach to managing the economy and operating within it, suggests Andrew Sentence, formerly an external member of the Monetary Commission of the Bank of England. "We cannot hope to hold back the global tides which are shaping our economy. But we can seek to mould the way in which our economy is responding to them," he says, setting out sustainable growth, shared prosperity, and responsible business as the principles that should guide the way ahead.

The changing face of poverty is assessed by Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust. The income from work, always prescribed as the best and safest route out of poverty, now provides no such assurance for many people, she says.

All the main political parties currently approach the provision of "welfare" based on a critical and non-evidence based assumption, she says, "that, unless the receipt of help is made as unpleasant as possible, poor people will always opt not to work. . .

"The current sanctions regime is the latest manifestation of an approach that tries to mould behaviour through the provision of benefits. At heart, it is based on the view that the motivations of poor people are entirely other than those which drive the rest of us. While all systems of public support have conditions attached to them, it is new for the UK to have institutionalised the ability to withdraw all obvious means of financial support for failure to comply with regulations."

The Revd Professor Oliver O'Donovan, until recently Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, reflects that three aspects of work - material, social, and spiritual - are all bound up together. Andrew Adonis, a former head of the No. 10 Policy Unit, highlights youth unemployment as something that "blights communities and stigmatises individuals with a sense of worthlessness and failure". It marks a failure by society to provide the conditions which can enable full human flourishing, and "will not be eradicated by waving a magic wand".

Kirsten England, chief executive of York Council, reflects on health and well-being in Britain, arguing that the UK approach is neither equitable nor sustainable, and highlighting huge disparities. Life expectancy varies dramatically and the faultline is socio-economic, she suggests.

She lauds, as do many of the contributors, the increasing number of local authorities adopting the Living Wage (LW). "The experience of the introduction of the LW is that it lifts self-esteem, workforce morale and organisational productivity as well as enabling people to live decently," she says, calling for a re-energised debate about the kind of society families want to live in; concerted work to strengthen community life and well-being in neighbourhoods across the nation; sustained work to redesign the delivery of health and social-care services; and national action to tackle the unequal distribution of health and well-being.

Canon James Woodward, of St George's Chapel, Windsor, reflects on whether ageing is a blessing or a burden. He calls for "a fundamental change in how we as a society think and feel about old age", and emphasises: "We should not confuse old with poor. Those who are poor are rarely poor because they are old: they are poor now because they were poor when they were younger, unable either to accumulate assets or pension rights to draw upon in later life."

Sir Philip Mawer, a former Secretary General of the General Synod and later Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards, reflects that an election is an opportunity to take stock, in a fundamental way, of the direction of society and the values informing its development.

He describes the book as "about Faith, Hope and Love (or Charity)", and says that as he writes, he "can almost detect the sceptics reaching for their pens". But he contends that, if the required transformation in the nature and style of representative democracy is to be achieved, the voice of those who speak from a position of religious faith cannot sensibly be excluded from the discussion.

"This is not only for the pragmatic reason that religious belief (sometimes more, sometimes less), coherently articulated, is still an important component in the lives of many citizens and that faith communities fulfil important functions within our society. It is also because one of the core components of the life of faith is the attempt to model that life on clear ethical values."

Dr Sentamu has recorded a video publicising the book and arguing why the Church should get involved in politics.

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