“A food dystopia: Is Britain sleepwalking into a crisis?”

Back to the future?

Terry Marsden is Director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute, and Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, Cardiff University.

Kevin Morgan is Professor of Government and Development, Cardiff University

The historical ability for the UK state to periodically create self-inflicted harm upon its own food system seems to be raising its head again as the country triggers Article 50 to remove itself from the European Union. We should remember that the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, opening up the UK to cheap food imports (based indeed on subsidised imperial preferences to its colonies), in exchange for colonial penetration of its financial and manufacturing interests and sectors, created the conditions for a long- running agricultural and rural depression in the UK, lasting well into the 1930s. That Imperial regime of ‘free trade’ created much harm to the British food system, its rural areas, and indeed shaped a dependent food diet based upon imports from colonies and other European nations (like Danish Bacon and Dutch eggs and pork). What is ironically labelled as the ‘full English’ breakfast up and down the land derives from the successful import penetration of its component parts from overseas. The decline in our food-based infrastructure was so bad that, by the onset of the 1st World War, Lloyd George had to go ‘cap in hand’ to the likes of Henry Ford to plead concessions on building his tractors on these shores in order to resolve food and rural labour shortages. Even by 1941 the national farm survey found the agricultural situation in a parlous state, even before the U-boat campaign further disrupted food supplies and led to a period of prolonged public food rationing until 1954. Continue reading

Energy Access

Dr Sam Williamson, Lecturer, Faculty of Engineering, Bristol University

We are energy consumers. Every day we devour energy, and most of the time we don’t even realise it. Before we wake up, our boiler has heated up our water for a hot shower, and at this time of year our homes are warmed. We unplug our mobile phones, switch on the bedroom lights, and boil a kettle to make our morning tea or coffee, before we travel into work, university or school, often by car or bus, consuming energy as we go. And that’s before we think about any of the embodied energy in everything we use. We have direct access to energy through the infrastructure made available to us.

A fire and tuki (kerosene lamp) in a kitchen, Terai, southern Nepal. Photo credit:
Sam Williamson

However this isn’t the same all over the world. The International Energy Agency report in their World Energy Outlook 2016 that 35% of the world’s population still cooks on traditional biomass, with 18% having no access to electricity, and with over 80% of these people living in rural areas. Those that are connected often suffer from frequent power cuts, and have to revert back to traditional methods for lighting and power. 4.3 million people each year die from illnesses attributed to indoor air pollution using traditional fuels for cooking, heating and lighting (World Health Organisation, 2016). Along with the health implications, exposed flames can cause fires in basic housing, and burning of fuel wood and charcoal leads to extensive deforestation causing soil erosion and land degradation. Continue reading

The invisibility of homelessness

Tessa Coombes - PhD student in Social Policy, University of Bristol

Tessa Coombes – PhD student in Social Policy, University of Bristol

The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.

In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.

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Measuring Poverty and Living Standards

Tessa Coombes - Social Policy PhD student

Tessa Coombes – Social Policy PhD student

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorlling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

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Government reaction to the refugee crisis: humanitarian response or political opportunism?

Ann Singleton, Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol and consultant to the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC), Berlin

Ann Singleton, Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol and currently on secondment to the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC), Berlin

Dr Monish Bhatia, Abertay University

Dr Monish Bhatia, Abertay University

Recently the public and media became aware, through one image across Europe (and the world) of the plight of people fleeing for their lives. Within the UK this image produced an awakening after months and years of warnings about the consequences of policy failures, wars and discrimination against migrants. Evidence of the catastrophic failures of UK and EU migration policies, which are based solely on immigration control, borders and ‘security’, have been disbelieved or treated with scepticism by policy makers, officials and many academics.

Repeated reports of deaths in the Mediterranean were ignored or seen as someone else’s problem, the public having been fed a relentless ‘diet’ of poisonous ‘news‘ and rhetoric about migration in general. Institutional racism and discrimination was further embedded as asylum seekers (including children) in the UK were detained, portrayed as troublesome, instead of being welcomed and offered protection. Furthermore, the consequences of austerity are continuously blamed on migrants.

There is a crisis of democracy, as well as policy and a humanitarian crisis, which has been fuelled by the action and inaction of our government.

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GE 2015: Are UK political parties committed to tackling the problem of poverty?

Dr Eldin Fahmy, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

Dr Eldin Fahmy, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than 13 million people were living in poverty in 2014, and the 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey reveals that the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically since the last survey in 1999.  In this context, Eldin Fahmy examines here the main UK political parties’ policy commitments on poverty.


It is impossible here to provide a full assessment of the scope of policy commitments on poverty partly because poverty is a policy arena with implications across a very broad remit of governmental responsibilities including, for example, health, housing, education, labour markets, and migration.  A more comprehensive assessment is provided by the UK Academics Stand against Poverty.  This commentary considers the anti-poverty implications of UK political parties’ commitments in relation to fiscal policy and social security policies before going on to summarise some of the key commonalities (and shortcomings) of existing political discourse on poverty in the UK as reflected in party manifestos.

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Poverty in Paradise

Dr Shailen Nandy , School for Policy Studies

Dr Shailen Nandy , School for Policy Studies

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes” (Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener)

What images come to mind when you think of the islands of the Pacific? Sun-kissed beaches, turquoise seas, balmy climes? Amazing rugby players?

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Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

Dr Eldin Fahmy, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

Dr Eldin Fahmy, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. In this post, Eldin Fahmy examines their impacts on public perceptions of minimally adequate living standards, and on the extent of deprivation. Based upon analysis of survey data for 1999 and 2012, it seems that as households have been forced to ‘tighten their belts’, perceptions of minimum living standards have become less generous. At the same time the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically.

The 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion survey (2012-PSE) is the latest and most comprehensive in a series of household surveys conducted since the early 1980s adopting a ‘consensual’ approach to poverty which reflect public views on minimally adequate living standards. Since our last survey in Britain in 1999, public perceptions of what constitute the ‘necessities of life’ have become less generous. Nevertheless, the proportion of adults in Britain deprived of these necessities has increased substantially since 1999.

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The evolution of gender and poverty in Britain: solo-living men are emerging as a new poor group

Dr Esther Dermott, Reader in Sociology and University Research Fellow, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

Dr Esther Dermott, Reader in Sociology, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

Esther Dermott examines the relationship between gender, age and living arrangements in Britain over the period of 1999-2012. Her analysis finds that older women have gone from being one of the poorest groups to being relatively advantaged. Meanwhile, men living alone are an emerging poor group in Britain.

As we approached the new millennium, the relationship between gender and poverty was clear – being a woman in Britain meant you were more likely to be poor. In 1999 the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) survey found a significant 6 per cent gap between poverty rates for men and women in Britain. But just over a decade later this gap had almost disappeared; the 2012 results showed a non-significant difference between men and women’s levels of poverty.

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Tax abuses, poverty and human rights: spotlight on the role of law

Stephen Halsey, Teacher, School of Economics, Finance and Management

Stephen Halsey, Teacher, School of Economics, Finance and Management

Where should the line between legitimate tax avoidance and immoral tax abuse be drawn? What are the responsibilities of governments, corporations and legal professionals in combating tax abuse? Tax revenues lost by the developing world due to tax abuse are estimated at $120bn per annum. This is equivalent to the total amount of aid provided to these countries each year and the situation is worsening. Recovering the lost tax would make a substantial contribution to the alleviation of poverty.

Last week PolicyBristol and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute hosted a high level panel discussion addressing these issues. The event was chaired by Shirley Pouget, Senior Programme Lawyer at the IBAHRI and panellists were:

  • Anders Dalhbeck  Tax Justice Policy Advisor at ActionAid
  • Celia Wells  Head of Bristol University Law School
  • Lloyd Lipsett  Advisor at Shift
  • Thomas Pogge  Director of the Global Justice Program and the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University
  • Ben Dickinson  Head of the Tax and Development Programme at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

The topic of tax avoidance has been drawing headlines recently on a micro-economic scale (Gary Barlow’s tax activity being an example of a celebrity abusing tax laws) and the matter is becoming increasingly publicised. In discussing the relationship between tax abuses and poverty, the panel argued that the current economic crisis has created a strain on financial policy, felt by members of the public and therefore raising the stature of the issue; they considered that all tax avoidance cases should be viewed as criminal.

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