Glasgow smiles: how the city halved its murders by ‘caring people into change’

In a squat redbrick community hall in the shadow of a pair of vertiginous north Glasgow tower blocks, half a dozen men sit on plastic chairs around a sturdy wooden table. The carpet is threadbare, the overhead lights harsh. Through shatterproof glass windows, dusk has turned to night.

“I can’t get a job anywhere, not with my history,” a lean man in late middle age says, his eyes turned downward. A little further along the table, a lad in his early 20s with a tattoo on his neck emphatically nods: “I need to get my shit together.”

There are echoes of the 12-step programme in the raw honesty, the white knuckles and supportive arms on shoulders. But this monthly meeting is being organised by a Scottish police taskforce, the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The man with his head bowed has a conviction for murder. Opposite him is a onetime major drug dealer. Another has done time for assault. Everyone around the table is on the same, long road: trying, with help from the VRU, to wrest new lives from the ashes of old, chaotic, violent ones.

The Violence Reduction Unit is a product of Glasgow’s own turbulent recent past. The unit, initially part of Strathclyde police, was set up in 2005 to tackle the city’s endemic knife fighting and gang crime. At the time, Glasgow was western Europe’s murder capital. A decade later, Glasgow’s murder rate has more than halved, from 39 in 2004-05 to 18 last year. Similar drops have been recorded for attempted murder, serious assault and possession of an offensive weapon.

The precipitous decline began when police acknowledged that the only way to stem the tide of violence was to tackle the culture that spawned it, says John Carnochan, a former Glasgow murder detective involved in setting up the VRU. While young men grew up in unstable, violent homes, joined gangs, carried knives, drank and fought, death and mayhem was almost inevitable.

The VRU attempted to break this cycle. Their strategy – borrowed from anti-gang violence initiatives spearheaded in Boston in the 1990s – combined creative thinking with old-fashioned enforcement.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, even vets were all enlisted to look out for the signs of violence and domestic abuse, and to counsel the young men who arrived at every hour of the day with fresh knife wounds.

There were legislative changes, too. The VRU lobbied successfully for increases in maximum sentences for carrying knives. Where previously those caught with a blade were allowed back on their street while their case slowly progressed through the justice system, now once caught they were fingerprinted, DNA-swabbed and held in custody until court.

Paul joined the VRU’s small team last year. The 37-year-old father of three has a calm, quiet self-possession that belies the chaotic story of his life. Born to an alcoholic mother and abusive father, he grew up in a North Glasgow house “where no one ever showed any emotion”. When his grandfather dropped dead in front of him, nobody asked how he felt.

Within a few years he was running away from home. By his early teenager years, he was in a gang, talking drugs and getting into fights.

One night, a street fight went badly wrong. Paul (not his real name) was quarrelling with a childhood friend at a bus stop. His erstwhile pal fell under the wheels of a bus. He was crushed to death. Paul pled guilty to culpable homicide and was sent to prison.

A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow.

A police officer in Crosshill, Glasgow. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Released back into the same environment he had left, filled with drink, drugs and violence, Paul decided he had to change. “I’d been in prison and I’d been in care and I didn’t want my kids going through what I went through,” he recalls.

Then he met the VRU. In 2008, the unit – extended the previous year to cover all of Scotland – had set up the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Glasgow’s East End, where sprawling housing schemes had hosted the worst of the gang violence. More than 600 gang members were “called in” to listen to hard truths from police, paramedics, the mother of a young man killed by a gang with machetes, and former offenders, including Paul.

“I felt excluded all my life,” he says. “Now here was the police, who used to exclude me all the time, and they were trying to include me.”

Funded primarily by the Scottish government, CIRV combined the carrot and the stick. Gang members were given a choice: renounce violence and get help into education, training and employment, or face zero tolerance on the street.

The results were remarkable. Among the 200 gang members who became directly involved with CIRV, violent offending fell by almost half, according to a 2011 study. Weapon possession was down 85%. Even among gang members who had not attended a call-in, violence had fallen by almost a quarter.

Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU)

Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

The walls of Karyn McCluskey’s cluttered office, located in a 1970s office block in downtown Glasgow, are decorated with photographs. There is a picture from a stint at the Met in London in 2010 – her long, sandy-coloured hair and knee-length boots stand out among a sea of men in uniforms – alongside stark, black-and-white photos of blood-soaked young Glaswegians in doctors’ surgeries.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you spend your time getting these bad boys jobs?’ I always say, ‘I’m not doing it for them, I’m doing it for their kids,’” McCluskey says.

In 2004, McCluskey was a young intelligence officer on Strathclyde Police. Then commissioner Sir William Rae asked the recent recruit from West Mercia to pen a report on how to reduce the city’s headline grabbing rates of violence. McCluskey’s paper lead directly to the creation of the VRU. A decade later, she is the unit’s director.

A long-time single parent, McCluskey has no shortage of empathy for the young men – they are overwhelmingly men – whose names and faces come across her desk. She goes to the christenings of ex-offenders’ children; more than once, our long conversation is broken by a phone call from a charge seeking advice. But she is hard-headed, too, which perhaps explains why home secretary Theresa May is one of her many fans.

McCluskey believes inequality breeds violence. She wants “a revolution” in how we tackle violence – by focusing on the traumatic environments in which so many offenders are reared. Reversing the effects of 20 years of deprivation and neglect is not easy, but it has to be done.

“If jail on its own worked, America would have no crime,” she points out. “You need a different approach.”

Part of this fresh tack is enlisting former offenders and gang members to work continually with current ones trying to escape the chaos. One of those former members is Paul, who, having participated in the CIRV project, was recruited by the VRU as a “navigator”. The best part of his job, he says, is when his charges realise that they, too, can change. “You can see the light going on. They have an opportunity to break a cycle that has gone on for years.”

One of the young men Paul works with is 19. His earliest memory is his father holding a gun to his mother’s head: she was using her son as a shield. “Once you understand where he is coming from, it is not hard to want to help him,” Paul says.

Although Glasgow’s crime rates have continued to fall, some question the
VRU approach. “Violence dropped and weapon-carrying
offences dropped, but that was on the back of substantial work by
police and other agencies,” says William Graham, a lecturer in criminology at Abertay University. “So it is hard to say that CIRV was the sole cause of the reductions, though it did show a degree of success.” Some say the publicity-savvy VRU were given credit for a general decline in violence across Scottish society.

But former murder detective and VRU founder John Carnochan warns that people “might forget how bad it was” in Glasgow. “All we have done to that community is to show what life is like without gang violence. We have changed the normal. Same as we changed the normal for smoking. But the challenge is keeping the normal.”

Now retired, Carnochan spends much of his time travelling the world talking about the VRU. “All we did was start to think about things differently,” he says. “It was really difficult but it was wonderful, too.”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan of The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow.

John Carnochan, now retired, of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) at their HQ in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

CIRV was discontinued in 2011. Although the programme seemed to produce significant falls in violent crime, a source close to the project says the political will wasn’t there to carry on funding it once government funding ran out.

Across Scotland, the policing climate has changed dramatically in recent years. Previously separate forces such as Strathclyde are now amalgamated. The new national force, Police Scotland, has often been accused of adopting a command-and-control approach, focused more on cracking down on crime than addressing its causes. Stop and search has been used excessively, with young men in deprived communities disproportionately targeted.

The VRU approach of “caring people into change”, as one officer puts it, doesn’t necessarily fit well with such heavy-handed tactics. Now the VRU is looking for new ways to ensure ex-offenders stay out of the cycle of drink, violence and, often, early death. They established a small charity to create employment opportunities for former gang members who might otherwise struggle to find jobs, modelled on Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Early projects included work placements at the Edinburgh Tattoo and last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. So far, 79% of those involved are still in employment. The eventual goal is to set up a social enterprise restaurant in the city centre.

Back in north Glasgow, the evening’s meet-up is drawing to a close. The last person to speak is the quietest. Michael, not his real name, spent time in prison for assault. Tonight he is exhausted, but not from the all-day benders he used to go on. He was up at 5am for work in a burger van near a building site. His first child was born before Christmas.

“I want to show my wean something I never had.” His voice is low, but the note of pride is unmistakable. When he finishes everyone around the table is smiling.

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian April 6, 2015.

Scotland’s Unstated Writers

Unstated – an edited collection on the theme of Scottish independence – has already caused what Scots would call a stramash. The uproar began in December, just days before the volume was published, when excerpts of Alasdair Gray’s contribution, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, appeared in the Scottish press.

Gray contended that since the 1970s, English men and women have been over-represented in the upper echelons of Scottish life, in ‘electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services’ and in the arts. The impact was explosive. Gray, a scion of Scottish literature and the author of modernist classicLanark, was decried as a racist in some quarters; in others, he was celebrated as a teller of uncomfortable truths.
Battle lines were hastily drawn. The Booker Prize winning novelist James Kelman – who is also represented in Unstated – came out in support of his fellow Glaswegian. Another west of Scotland writer, the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, accused Gray of that gravest of literary sins, ‘parochialism’.

The most unfortunate aspect of the furore over Gray’s essay is not that many of those commenting had not read it – although clearly they had not; in full, it is a clumsy piece of writing but far less salacious than the headlines that greeted it – but that is has detracted from what is in the main a prescient and thoughtful anthology on one of the more surprising aspects of life on these islands (Ireland and Britain) right now: the rise of Scottish nationalism.

Next year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. For the first time since 1922, the United Kingdom may lose a limb. If Scotland does vote ‘yes’ – a rather big ‘if’ given opinion polling – Europe will have a new nation; Ireland a new sovereign neighbour. This is pretty seismic stuff – as the strength of European Commission opposition to an independent Scotland automatically joining the EU attests.

Unstated compromises more than twenty-five essays, poems and reflections on this inchoate political dispensation from some of Scotland’s best known literary figures: alongside Gray and Kelman are offerings from Kathleen Jamie, James Robertson and Tom Leonard. The collection reflects an antinomy at the root of contemporary Scottish cultural life: the country is in the midst of arguably the most significant outpouring of cultural nationalism in a century, as Hames seems to recognise with a nod to Patrick Geddes in his perspicacious introduction, and yet ‘nationalism’ itself remains a rather dirty word.

‘By inclination I am not a nationalist by inclination,’ writes Glasgow-based novelist and playwright Suhayl Saadi in his self-consciously quixotic yearning for a more equitable state. Kevin MacNeil cautions that, ‘(n)ationalism is a poison that heals when taken mindfully and in appropriate measure but destroys utterly when taken in excess.’

Most of the writers gathered in Unstated, though not all, are willing to take a risk a sip from the hemlock cup embossed with the ‘n’ word. Even among supporters, however, the vision of an independent Scotland is hardly romantic; indeed pessimism about the future, inside or outside the UK, runs through much of the collection.

‘The truth is obvious,’ opines Jo Clifford, ‘we are part of a disunited kingdom whose other title really should be Insignificant Britain. Mediocre Britain.’ That the National Health Service emerges as a leitmotif is not as surprising as first appears: the much loved NHS, a symbol of the putative egalitarianism of the post-war generation, is in the process of being privatised by Tories south of the border but remains relatively unscathed in devolved Scotland.

In the early 1990s, sociologist David McCrone dubbed Scotland ‘a stateless nation’, a country without a state but with a strong sense of distinctive culture. Douglas Dunn teases apart this linguistic separateness in a fittingly lyrical poem about Scotland’s ‘three sound tongues’; English, Gaelic and Scots.

Evocations of Ireland often serve to highlight our differences. Inverting Yeats’s famous dictum, Janice Galloway declares that, with the Conservatives in power in Westminster, ‘a terrible beauty is on the slouch.’

Galloway, one of the most acerbic voices to have emerged from Scotland in the last 30 years, neatly sums up the dilemma facing her compatriots next autumn: ‘All we have to lose is what we signified – a jumble of mean-spirited stereotypes, our lost regiments and regimental glories, our status as the last kick of Empire, our sense that somehow we deserve not only less than we hope for, but a smack for getting big ideas in the first place.’

Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. Edited by Scott Hames is out now, Published by Word Power Books. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 3 February, 2013. 

From Dream Home to Living Hell: Life on Ireland’s Ghost Estates

Noelle McHale bought her “dream home” in a new estate in Ireland’s midlands in 2006 for €175,000 (£142,000 today). But her dream has turned to nightmare with her semi-detached worth only a fraction of that price, and the unfinished estate it sits in considered dangerously unsafe because of toxic gases.

“If you light a match it can cause an explosion. I’ve stopped lighting fires, I have to keep the windows open, and the water in the toilet full,” Ms McHale said.

Already this year, a build up of methane and carbon monoxide is believed to have caused two blasts at Gleann Riada, on the edge of Longford. In one house, now boarded up, windows and doors were blown out. “It is the luck of god that someone wasn’t killed,” said John McNamara, a chartered engineer and advocate for the estate’s residents.

Gleann Riada is one of around 2,800 unfinished housing developments, scars of the Celtic Tiger boom, which pockmark Ireland. Some are almost completed, but others have serious problems.

Built on an area prone to flooding, Gleann Riada is worse than most. Subsidence has left concrete walls tottering and footpaths buckled. Inadequately treated sewage is thought to be the primary cause of the build up of poisonous gases. The estate “is unsafe” until “necessary and immediate remedial work” is carried out, Dr Kevin Kelleher, author of a report into the explosions on the site, told the a local paper earlier this month.

The developer has gone bust, but the local council maintains that, as a private estate, residents must bear the costs of repairs. Mr McNamara estimates the cost at €5 million. “Who’s got that kind of money?’ asks Ms McHale.

With many unable to afford alternative accommodation, most Gleann Riada residents, who hail from Poland, India and Russia as well as Ireland, have been forced to remain on the estate, in fear of their lives.

Ireland is now paying a heavy price for the lax planning and building regime of the boom years. In February, two-year-old Liam Keogh died after drowning in a pool of water on an unfinished estate in Athlone, Westmeath, around 30 miles from Longford. In Dublin, more than 240 residents of the Priory Hall apartment complex have been moved out of their homes for more than a year after a court ordered work to make the building safe. It was built by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeely, declared bankrupt in July.

“There is a question as to are these estates the tip of the iceberg?” says Professor Rob Kitchin, director of the national institute for regional and spatial analysis at Maynooth university and the lead author of A Haunted Landscape: Housing and Ghost Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Earlier this week, campaigners called on the government to provide support for the up to 40,000 homeowners whose foundations were built using pyrite. When exposed to air or water, pyrite (iron sulphide, or fool’s gold), becomes unstable and cause walls and floors to crack.

The government has so far pledged just €5m for the repair of unfinished estates. “They are being left to hang in the wind. The government strategy is ‘we will try to deal with health and safety issues as best way we can and hope for market correction’,” says Prof Kitchin.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, October 19, 2012.

TED — A Strange Way to Talk About Openness

IF you had wanted to see the movers and shakers in Edinburgh this week, it would have cost you £3,850, writes Peter Geoghegan

If you did find yourself with just shy of four grand burning a hole in your pocket, would you spend it all on a ticket for a four-day conference on “radical openness”? Probably not, I’d guess, but that’s exactly what the 800-plus delegates at this week’s TEDGlobal conference, which opened in Edinburgh on Tuesday and finished yesterday, have elected to do.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a Silicon Valley organisation that hosts invite-only conferences to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. For the $6,000 entrance fee, guests at the Edinburgh conference heard presentations from a host of luminaries including Alex Salmond, artist Antony Gormley, singer Macy Gray and choreographer Wayne McGregor. All talks are 18 minutes long; questions are strictly forbidden.

Since its inception in Monterey, California, in 1984, TED conferences have become remarkably popular, and increasingly influential. The event is now hosted by English publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson and owned by his non-profit organisation, the Sapling Foundation. TED talks – recordings of conference presentations that are available free online – have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. Previous conference speakers include Bill Gates, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and self-styled militant atheist Richard Dawkins.

Last year, Edinburgh hosted its first TEDGlobal conference at the International Conference Centre. Attendees at the inaugural Edinburgh event had the chance to hear Niall Ferguson aver his controversial version of history, or grab some chat about the good life with pop philosopher Alain de Botton.

If this all sounds elitist, it is. Beneath the meritocratic American West Coast rhetoric, TED is one of the most exclusive events imaginable. Not only is the cost of a ticket vertiginous – and that’s without transport and accommodation – all attendees are heavily vetted. As the conditions for acceptance on the TEDGlobal website state: “You must be likely, in our judgment, to be a strong contributor to the TED community, the ideas discussed at TED, and the projects that come out of the conference.”

The aura of exclusivity that surrounds TED is central to the brand’s success: the extortionate fee is simultaneously an imprimatur and an excellent way to generate money for the organisation. Would-be tech innovators and over-zealous life coaches will happily remortgage their house for the chance to press the flesh (and have their photo taken) with movers and shakers at TED. Whether they get value for their $6,000 is another matter entirely.

What is beyond question is that TED has emerged as a major player in the online world of ideas over the past five years. Among supporters, TED generates levels of devotion that detractors have likened to cults. Sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has said that TED “has a cultish feel to it. The speakers use a lot of terms like ‘magical’ and ‘inspirational’. It’s almost the religion of the knowledge class.”

Many of the buzzwords and phrases that attach themselves to TED certainly have an airy, high-falutin’ quality. Take “radical openness”, the theme of this year’s Edinburgh conference. This, as Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED, told the Guardian last week, means, “people thinking differently at existing problems, and pushing at boundaries in radical new ways”.

At a time when the future of the United Kingdom (and late capitalism) is anything but secure, when debates about sustainability and environmental disaster proliferate, “radical openness” smacks of the vague and the flaky. No surprise, then, that Philip Blond, the brains behind Cameron’s much-mocked Big Society, was a keynote speaker at last year’s TED Edinburgh.

But the most serious accusation levelled at TED is that it reproduces a narrow, Silicon Valley view of the world, with precious little room for dissenting voices. Earlier this year, tech investor Nick Hanauer – an early backer of – delivered a talk at a TED conference in which he suggested that “rich people don’t create jobs”. Hanauer argued that middle-class consumers, not capitalists, are the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity, and that tax breaks for the rich are a drain on the economy.

Hanauer’s talk was met with applause from the audience. However, Chris Anderson refused to publish the talk on the TED website because it was “too political” – rather ironic given that TED often invites politicians to speak at its conference, as Alex Salmond’s appearance on Wednesday attests.

Hanauer’s talk is now freely available online – in the digital age even an organisation as powerful as TED will struggle to suppress content – but the controversy paints TED in a very poor light. Anderson’s argument that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by Hanauer’s contention that ordinary consumers are the most powerful job creators hardly seems sufficient justification for blocking an idea if it is, in the TED patter, “worth spreading”.

For an enterprise whose mission statement begins: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world”, TED also gives remarkably little back to the city in which its conference takes place. Indeed, Edinburgh as a city is largely incidental to the TED experience. Last year, Giussani explained the decision to relocate the annual TEDGlobal conference from Oxford, its erstwhile home, not in terms of ideas and individuals but of transport links and infrastructure. The only trace of TED in Edinburgh were the orientation signs dotted around Lothian Road.

TED is a short-term boon for the local economy, but this week will leave little in the way of meaningful legacies beyond the balance sheet. New ideas are vital for Scotland’s future – but these ideas need inclusive, inexpensive spaces where they can be shared and debated, not exclusory, £3,850-a-head conferences. Perhaps it’s time for a TED for the rest of us.

This piece appeared in the Scotsman, June 30.

Local Currencies: The Road to Financial Safety

As small businesses struggle to find support from the banks, Peter Geoghegan suggests now is the time to look at an alternative way to finance retail firms

It’s official: the UK is back in recession. On the day Rupert Murdoch was appearing in sack-cloth and ashes before the Leveson inquiry in London, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the UK had shrunk by 0.2 per cent in the first three months of 2012. Following a similar contraction in the final quarter of last year, we have returned to recession, at least technically.

In stark contrast to the juicy revelations from Leveson, the news that the UK is in recession caused barely a ripple in the media pond. Some commentators argued that the ONS figures were misleading, adducing an increase in manufacturing activity in recent weeks. Others asserted, with some justification, that GDP is a remarkably unsophisticated measure of economic vitality, best taken with a generous pinch of salt.

Health warnings aside, the fact remains that the UK economy is in pretty poor shape. Overall employment across Britain stands at 8.3 per cent. A recent labour market report from the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) shows joblessness among people aged 18 to 24 at a five-year peak. But you don’t need to be a policy wonk, or wade through reams of statistics, to realise that the economy is flatlining: just saunter around almost any Scottish city or town. On once-thriving shopping streets, retail units lie either empty or under-used. The “for sale” signs, so ubiquitous during the credit bubble, have been replaced by offers to rent property, often at bargain basement prices. According to the business consultancy the Local Data Company, shop vacancy rates in Glasgow are currently running at 21.2 per cent, a rate surpassed in some West of Scotland towns.

The empty high street store – most likely erstwhile home to a branch of a major retail chain that has either gone under or downsized dramatically – provides the starkly eloquent image of this spectre of uselessness today.

The retreat of retail can be attributed to a plethora factors – the rise of online shopping, an overall reduction in disposable income in straitened times – but among the chief culprits is the difficulties faced by those key drivers of the economy, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Last week, the Bank of England released a three-year assessment of “trends in lending” by banks to businesses and individuals. The findings were stark: lending to SMEs has decreased markedly since mid-2008. Lending to all small and medium sized enterprises has been negative since 2009. All five major high street banks in Britain have failed to achieve their government-agreed targets for lending to small firms.

To be fair, it’s a problem that the Scottish Government has acknowledged. During a Holyrood debate back in February, finance minister John Swinney excoriated the failings of Project Merlin, the Westminster-backed scheme which has led to just 4.8 per cent of gross lending going to Scottish SMEs, despite small businesses in Scotland accounting for 6.4 per cent of the UK total. “It is clear that Project Merlin has failed to address poor lending conditions for Scottish companies and this needs to be addressed by the UK Government,” said Swinney.

As Britain sinks into the dreaded double-dip recession, it’s obvious – or at least it should be – that creative solutions are required to reinvigorate small businesses (and the economy more generally). Banking reform, and the redirection of capital away from speculation and into productive activity, is an imperative. But beyond waiting for root and branch reform that might never happen, how can we stimulate Scotland’s local economies quickly?

Issuing local currencies is one innovative option. The theory behind local currencies is straightforward: national notes are exchanged (usually on a one-to-one basis) for a specially created local denomination that can be used to buy designated goods and services in a geographically defined area. Local currencies are perfectly legal and can be very efficient ways of increasing economic activity, especially in times of economic or political crisis. Since they don’t accrue any interest, local currencies generally circulate at a much faster rate than national currencies. They also retain money in the local economy and encourage consumers to buy local produce.

When they work, the effects of local currencies can be impressive. In Switzerland, the WIR Bank has existed as an independent complementary currency system for small and medium sized businesses and retailers since 1934. Having begun with just 16 members, WIR has grown to 62,000 users with assets of around 3bn Swiss francs (£2bn).

Germany currently has about 30 local currencies. Damanhur, an eco-community of about 900 people in northern Italy, has been using its own currency for decades, tied first to the Italian Lira and, more recently, the euro.

Damanhur runs on a similar model to Scotland’s oldest and most successful local currency, the eko, which circulates among shops and businesses in the Findhorn eco-community in Moray. Established in 2002, the eko has proved remarkably resilient: about £20,000 worth of currency is currently in circulation. The notes have a set life-span, usually between three and five years, at the end of which they can be redeemed for new issue ekos or, in rare cases, sterling. Capital raised by each eko issue is used to fund low or no interest loans to community projects such as wind farms and affordable housing.

In the wake of the financial crisis, local currencies have gained traction elsewhere in the UK. In 2009, the first urban local currency was launched in Brixton, London. The Brixton pound has been one of the success stories of the area’s regeneration: more than 70 local businesses accept the stylishly designed notes, which have become a symbol of the area’s burgeoning cultural confidence. The Bristol pound is due to launch soon.

Local currencies, popular in the US during the Depression, have also been making a comeback across the pond. The most successful, BerkShares, circulate in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, with the participation of five local banks. BerkShares retail at 95 cents for a $1 share, an attractive saving that increases the currency’s appeal to customers.

Edinburgh, with its proud history of independent retailers and niche shops, seems like an excellent testing ground for a local currency. The notion of a special currency for the capital is not exactly new. Last year, Transition Edinburgh drew up plans for an Edinburgh pound, which the council broadly supported.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm for a local currency in Edinburgh was muted, not least due to a lack of confidence amongst business people and shopkeepers. A Portobello pound, due to launch this year, is currently on hold. A similar local currency scheme in Hawick in 2010 had limited success.

Arguably the main reason why local currencies have struggled to get off the ground here is a paucity of information on how they work and why.

The Greens remain the only political party actively campaigning for their establishment inScotland.

Local currencies are not a panacea for all our economic woes but they could help lift some of the fug that surrounds our high streets. As the double dip hits, the time to think creatively about our economy – and local currencies – has arrived.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, May 9, 2012.

Local Currencies

My latest blog on the London Review of Books site, on local currencies, runny Spanish omelettes and ‘the Miracle of Worgl’:

Death to the Euro.’ The handmade sign was pinned to the wall of a community centre in San Luis, a gentrified neighbourhood just inside the boundaries of Seville’s old city. It was a balmy Friday evening, but inside a crowd of around a hundred people were listening to a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on puma, a new local currency for San Luis launched last month. Puma is the third local currency to be introduced in the Andalusian capital this year. Pepa and jara already circulate in Macarena, a working-class district on the other side of Seville’s city walls.

After explaining how the new currency would work – euros can be exchanged one-for-one for puma notes, which are valid in designated San Luis shops – the speaker took questions from the floor: an elderly man with a straw hat wanted to know if his local café would acceptpuma; a young mother asked how she could sign up for the scheme on-line.

Repeated doses of EU-enforced austerity have hit Spain hard. Last week, the country officially slipped back into recession. The Spanish economy, the fifth largest in Europe, is expected to contract by 1.7 per cent in 2012.

In the slipstream of the Eurozone crisis, local currencies – perfectly legal, so long as income tax is paid – have proliferated across Spain. Thezoquito has circulated in parts of Galicia since 2007. Local currencies are proving popular in the UK, too: the Totnes pound has been around since 2007; the Brixton pound, with a natty picture of Ziggy Stardust on the tenner, emerged in 2009; the Bristol pound is about to launch.

Local currencies tend to circulate more rapidly than national (or transnational) currencies, as well as keeping money in the area, with the result that local economic activity increases. In 1932, the mayor of Wörgl in Austria replaced the faltering national currency with specially printed ‘Certified Compensation Bills’. Inspired by Silvio Gesell’s theory of ‘free-flowing money’, the Wörgl bills were designed to depreciate by 1 per cent of their value each month in order to promote rapid circulation and dissuade hoarding. Within weeks Wörgl had almost full employment. A new ski jump was built. Roads were repaired. Six neighbouring villages soon copied the ‘miracle of Wörgl’. In 1933, the Austrian Supreme Court upheld the Central Bank’s monopoly over the issuing of currency. Thirteen months after it began, Worgl’s experiment was over; within weeks joblessness in the town returned to around 30 per cent.

At the end of the evening in Seville, plates of runny omelette were passed around the room. An activist in his late twenties – a member of Spain’s M15, or indignados, movement – said the presentation was ‘fantastic’: ‘He wasn’t just talking about money, he was talking about trying to create a new society. We need another system. The currency is just a tool.’

Seville Youth Bear Brunt of Economic Collapse

A middle-aged man with a Che Guevara beard and a black and white keffiyeh smiles down from an election poster attached to a lamppost in Gines, a middle class suburb on the outskirts of Seville. Below the photograph a single word instruction emblazoned in bright red ink: ‘Rebelate’. But there is little sign of rebellion on the neat, tidy streets of Gines, just a weary fatalism about the prospects for Seville, and for Spain.

The main road into Gines is pockmarked with empty office blocks and faded signs advertising housing developments that never materialised, victims of the Spanish construction bubble that popped four years ago. ‘Since the 80s, all the business here was building, but now that’s finished and politicians have done nothing to help the situation,’ says local resident.

Opinion polls suggest voters in today’s election to the regional Andalusian parliament are unlikely to heed the (largely former Communist) United Left’s calls to rebel. Indeed after more than 30 years of continuous power in the sunny southern region, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) are set to lose control of Andalusia to the conservative People’s Party (PP), previously a marginal concern in an area with a long history of left-wing activism and support.

‘I don’t think PP are any better than PSOE but after all these years Andalusia needs a change,’ says Solina, who has seen many of her friends immigrate to Germany, France and even Brazil and India in recent years. Defeat for PSOE in Spain’s most populous autonomous community would leave conservatives in control of every regional administration. This comes on the back of PP president Mariano Rajoy’s crushing victory over the ruling Socialist government in national elections in November.

Although a weary electorate endorsed Mr Rajoy’s manifesto of austerity and budget cuts last winter, jobs remain the most important issue for most Spanish voters. According to figures released by the Spanish Ministry for Employment last month, the country’s unemployment rate stands at 22.9 per cent, the highest in the euro zone. Among 18-25 age group, work is even scarcer: over 40 per cent are not in education and without work.

Of Spain’s regions, Andalusia has been hardest hit by the downturn. Historically an economically deprived area, official unemployment now stands at a vertiginous 31 per cent. Julio is typical of many in the picturesque regional capital, Seville. The 34-year-old studied music at university before gaining a scholarship to study at a famous conservatory in Colombia. On returning to Spain he completed another degree, in history and science of music.

‘When I was finished the only job I could get was in a supermarket, stacking shelves,’ says Julio, who now ekes out a living teaching music in Seville. ‘I have three degrees and a scholarship paid for by the state. I passed five civil service exams but I didn’t get a public job because there isn’t any anymore.’

Diego Beas, a Spanish policy analyst and journalist based in Washington, describes youth unemployment as ‘the biggest problem facing the next generation’. ‘Spain’s is a very structural unemployment that isn’t going to just go away with an upturn in the world economy.’

Mr Rajoy’s proposed labour reforms – which will make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers – are strongly opposed by trade unions. A nationwide general strike has been called for Thursday. Meanwhile, Mr Rajoy has asked the European Union for more flexibility on Spain’s deficit-cutting commitments: it is estimated that the deficit will be 5.8 per cent of total economic output in 2012, higher than the agreed target of 4.4 per cent. The Spanish economy contracted by 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2011.

In January, Mr Rajoy outlined €8.9bn in new budget cuts, as well as tax increases designed to raise €6.3bn. Such austerity proposals are unpopular with many young, unemployed Sevillians. ‘Politicians here try to look at the Irish model – but after four years of cuts we are worse than at the beginning. (The new measures) look like they will make things even worse,’ says Francisco Jurado Gilabert, a bright, articulate 29-year-old studying for a PhD in the University of Seville.

‘We are fighting with each other for internships earning €400 or €500 a month. It’s impossible to think of the future, of having your own house with a wife and children. It’s very difficult to think in a stable way about the future anymore.’

Gilabert is a leading member of Real Democracy Now (DYR), a public platform against corruption in politics and unemployment that played a pivotal role in a wave massive demonstrations and occupations across Spain on May 15. The 15M movement – named after the protests’ hashtag on Twitter – has garnered strong support among the young and unemployed, the vast majority of whom are deeply disillusioned with mainstream politics.

‘We are not happy with the political system in Spain,’ says Gilabert. ‘Voting every four years is like giving a free cheque for four years. The two big parties (PSOE and PP) are the same, it doesn’t matter who wins. Most people don’t vote or only vote because they feel they should. They don’t believe in politicians.’

Real Democracy Now is not running in the Andalusian elections, or any other for that matter. ‘We don’t want to run for election, that is the first step to joining the system. We don’t want to have any structure. We are a network only, without leaders, without public speakers,’ Gilabert says of a movement that became known around the world as ‘the Indignados’, inspiring Occupy protests from Nigeria to New York, via Dame Street and London.

Diego Beas says that the scale of the May 15 demonstrations, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets of cities and towns across Spain, was a ‘complete surprise’. ‘It created a sense in which young people could participate in the political process in a way that was completely unheard of before May 15,’ says Beas.

If Mr Rajoy’s government is unable quickly to provide jobs and opportunities for the next generation he could feel the wrath of this new, still inchoate political voice. ‘Unemployment needs to come down significantly within the next year. If it doesn’t start dropping, that could cause huge problems for the current government,’ Beas remarks.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 25 March.

Solving Ireland’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

A recently published survey of students should make sobering reading for Ireland’s politicians. The poll, conducted by international research firm Trendence, asked 6,000 students in Irish universities if they intend to leave the country after graduation to secure a job in their chosen field. 27 per cent answered ‘yes’. In comparison, just 19 per cent of British students surveyed expect to emigrate for their first job.

That Irish students are willing to migrate for work is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does reflect a lack of job opportunities at home that is fast reaching chronic levels. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, around one in three of under-25s in Ireland are out of education and without a job.

The situation in Ireland is, unfortunately, anything but unique. The unemployment rate among Spain’s under-25s rose to 50.5pc in January. The youth unemployment situation in Greece is just as bad. Across the rest of Europe’s so-called periphery the situation is scarcely better.

In his 2010 book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett talks of a ‘spectre of uselessness’ that haunts workers, particularly in the west. ‘A defining image of the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ Sennett writes, ‘shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence of there own eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended.’

To visit to any one of the lengthening dole queues across Ireland is to see this uselessness in action, or, more correctly, inaction. As I discovered recently on a visit to my local social welfare office in the Midlands, the lines of the unemployed in Ireland are packed with intelligent young people. Many have college educations. Some lost their jobs in the downturn, but more still have never had a job, they emerged from university into a country without work. All are waiting for their benefits or to apply for jobs that simply do not exist.

Official unemployment in Ireland has been hovering around 15 per cent for a couple of years now. Without emigration it would doubtless be higher – especially among young people.

It is a dereliction of duty among Ireland’s political classes to rely on London, Sydney and Toronto to solve the nation’s unemployment problem – just as it was for Michael Noonan, earlier this year, to describe the decision to leave the country as ‘a lifestyle’.

The European Union has, for once, been relatively quick to appreciate the scale of the unfolding crisis. The Commission, under the “Youth Opportunities Initiative”, is proposing to redirect €30 billion of uncommitted European Social Fund money to help develop the employability of young people across the region.

Following a European Council meeting in January, EU President Barroso wrote to the eight member states with youth unemployment levels significantly above the EU average: Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Italy, Portugal, Latvia and Ireland. In his letter President Barroso wrote that, ‘We need to make a special effort to boost growth and tackle the problem of youth unemployment.’ Barroso went on to say that Ireland should set up an action team to come up with a strategy for getting young people back to work.

Speaking in the Dail during a visit from Commission officials in February, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as expected, praised the President’s initiative but stopped short of committing funds to new youth unemployment strategies. ‘We will, in the first instance, be looking at whether employment programmes might be re-focused to better effect,’ Kenny told the house.

In truth, it should not take a letter from the European President for Irish politicians to realise the breath of the problem. Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published a report entitled ‘Youth Unemployment in Ireland: A Forgotten Generation’. Its findings make for grim reading: 90 per cent of respondents said that being unemployed had negatively effected their sense of well-being; more than half said the quality of jobs information provided at social welfare offices was ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘poor’; and seven in ten said they were likely to emigrate in the following twelve months.

When it comes to youth unemployment, identifying the problem is likely to prove much easier than solving it. This is, in part, an effect of what the Harvard economist Richard Freeman calls ‘the Great Doubling’: in the two decades after 1989 the world’s labour force grew from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people. As the amount of labour doubled, its value was reduced, and continues to be reduced. In the US real wages have not grown since the late 1970s, while in the UK (if not Ireland) wages have been stagnated for a number of years too.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) puts youth unemployment at 74.6 million people across the world. Before our eyes we are witnessing the emergence of what Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’.

Next month the ILO will host hundreds of young people for a forum in Geneva on youth unemployment. Answers to the problem won’t come easy. The historic level of debt in the global economy is not simply going to disappear – but there may be creative solutions that small countries such as Ireland could experiment with, including the introduction of shorter working weeks and increased job sharing.

Last month I gave a presentation on the subject of unemployment to a group of students at NUIM Maynooth. After spending an hour comparing and contrasting the situation facing young people in Europe and Africa, I asked the audience how confident they themselves felt about getting a job. Most were silent, but those that did speak said they expected never to use the degrees they would graduate in. If this does come to pass, we could be looking at the largest ‘lost generation’ in living memory.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post, April 2012.


Between the Lines

In 1971, a parliamentary Working Group criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being put up to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The ‘peace lines’, constructed mainly by the British army, were creating an ‘atmosphere of abnormality’, the Peace Walls Working Group warned. But they did ‘not expect any insurmountable difficulty in bringing together well-meaning people from both sides’, and believed that before long, the barricades would come down; ‘normality’ would return.

Gates in a 'peace line', Lanark Way, West Belfast. © Laurence Cooley 2005

Dismantling the ‘peace lines’ wasn’t a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Between 2000 and 2007, seven new barriers were put up and 16 old ones rebuilt or extended. Their history long predates the Troubles, too. In the mid 19th century, the route of the Dublin-Belfast railway was planned deliberately to separate Catholic Pound Loney from Protestant Sandy Row. In 1935, after weeks of sporadic violence in Belfast’s Docklands, with Loyalist snipers firing into nearby Catholic areas, the military built a large fence across Nelson Street.

The corrugated iron fence that bisects Alexandra Park in North Belfast is 120 metres long and 3.5 metres high. Its foundations were laid on 1 September 1994, the day after the army council of the Provisional IRA had announced a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. Seven months ago, a ‘peace gate’ was opened in the fence. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can walk from the Loyalist Shore Road end of the park to Republican Antrim Road without having to take a half-hour detour. The North Belfast Interface Network, a community group that spent three years canvassing local residents before the gate was opened, reports no incidents of violence in the park since September.

For civic boosters, however, this modest achievement can’t begin to compete with the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage (the ship was built in Belfast). Sixty million pounds of public money was plunged into Eric Kuhne’s shimmering Titanic Belfast ‘experience’, with millions more in PFIs for the Titanic Quarter redevelopment project. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s community sector is reeling from a succession of cuts. The North Belfast Interface Network, which employs five staff in a poky office near Solitude, the home of Cliftonville FC, is struggling to stay afloat. Last year it received £165,000 in funding. For 2012, it has so far secured only £62,000.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Olympic Spirit Comes to East London

Is that a rollercoaster, daddy?’ a young boy, his face pressed firm against the plate glass, points in the direction of a towering, twisting hulk of clay-red metal in the middle distance. ‘No son, it says here it’s a piece of art’, his father replies, reading off an inscription on a nearby viewing panel.

Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the 115 metres high ArcelorMittal Orbit (so-named after the Indian steel magnates who contributed much of the £20million cost) isn’t just any old piece of art – it’s the largest public work ever commissioned in Britain and the centre point of London’s Olympic village. Unfortunately Kapoor’s effort still looks like a grandiose Coney Island Cyclone, albeit one with an Olympic motif and an observation deck that promises an unparalleled eye-full of the East End.

Until the Orbit opens later in the year, however, the best views of the 500-acre Stratford Olympic site are not to be found inside the heavily cordoned off village but from the London 2012 shop in the adjacent Stratford Centre. Housed in a branch of John Lewis — the games’ ‘Official Department Store Provider’ no less — the store is filled with all manner of gimcrack embossed with the famous five rings, but the viewing gallery at the rear is free to visit and the vista is genuinely spectacular.

‘Parts of the Olympic village are ugly but parts of it are beautiful too,’ says Simon Cole, a resident of nearby Hackney and my guide through the Olympic site and its environs. It is late afternoon — the official Olympic tours long finished for the day – by the time we rendezvous inside the vast, cream-coloured Stratford (think Dundrum on steroids). The Stratford was purposely built so that it’s nigh-on impossible to visit the Olympic site without walking through: it’s estimated that 70% of Olympic visitors will pass along the centre’s abrasively air-conditioned halls.

Wayfinding inside is a nightmare – our tour was delayed for fifteen minutes as my guide and I were waiting outside different branches of the same newsagent. Finally we meet, just in time to see the sun setting over the vast Olympic park from the John Lewis viewing gallery.

Framed in the background by Norman Foster’s iconic gherkin, the eye is drawn, almost inevitably, to the shimmering silver Aquatics Centre. Designed by the famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, this bold, undulating building was created to mimic ‘the fluid geometry of water in motion’ – it’s here that Irish swimmers such as Grainne Murphy will be hoping to excel this summer.

At the heart of the park is the circular Olympic stadium. Track and field events will take place inside stadium, which will have a capacity of 80,000 during the games. As Cole explains, the stadium has proved controversial – and not just because of the on-going legal battle between Leyton Orient, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs over who will inherit it after the games. Dow Chemical is to sponsor the protective wrap that will encircling the 900-metre circumference during the games – the company is claimed to have links with the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed more than 15,000 people in India.

‘Personally I think it’s a real shame,’ Cole says of Dow’s prospective involvement. Cole, a native of Sunderland who sports a Sex Pistols-inspired Hackney Tours t-shirt, is a keen student of the East End’s radical history – as we stare out across the Olympic site he points out a red-brick complex close to the stadium. This, he explains, is the erstwhile site of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, where, in 1888, match girls rose up in a famous strike against the severe health complications that arose from working with white phosphorus.

Nowadays the old Bryant and May building is a gated community, an exclusive address home to popstars such as Katy B. Opponents accuse the Olympics’ backers of attempting to perform a similar transformation in Stratford – more than 3,000 flats, which will house Olympians in the summer, have already been sold after the games, at rates far in excess of what most people in traditionally down at heel Stratford can afford.

Stepping out onto Great Eastern Road, the thoroughfare separating the Stratford Centre and the Olympic park, feels disorientating in the same way that walking in LA does. All around are buildings so large and impersonal that the humble pedestrians is reduced to a pin prick, cars whiz by at furious speeds, a flashing LED sign advertises the Stratford Centre’s in-house casino, behind which peek out a pair of old-style high-rise flats. People are thin on the ground, save the ubiquitous security guards around the village and a few day trippers with tickets for an evening swimming meet in the Aquatics Centre.

English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a trenchant critic of the Olympics project, has called the games an excuse for the ‘privatisation of public space’, that have ruined ‘a wonderful wasteland’ which once existed in the marshes around the River Lea. Proponents – most notably London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron – argue that the games will boost the economy and national pride at a time when Britain is experiencing the most prolonged period of austerity in generations.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere in between. The costs of the games have spiralled to over £11 billion, almost £2 billion over budget, and the event’s legacy is uncertain – but there is no denying that, even in its unfinished state, the Olympic park possesses a thrilling, shock-of-the-new quality.

Standing at the View Tube, a series of nattily recommissioned shipping containers on the Greenway cycle path, the whole site opens up before my gaze. Past the National Stadium and Kapoor’s hula-hoop, beyond the Aquatics Centre and the waves of the temporary water polo auditorium, sits the spectacular fan-like velodrome. Nicknamed ‘The Pringle’ – and described by author Andrew O’Hagan as ‘like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood’ – the velodrome is a triumph of art and functionality. Nearby a giant LED sculpture of the word RUN sits on the outside wall of the handball arena.

But the largest building of all is not a sporting arena or a grandiloquent lump of metal – it’s the media centre, a gigantic white hangar that will house over 20,000 journalists during the games. ‘You can fit two jumbo jets inside it,’ Cole assures me, with a look of mild disapproval.

Cole describes his own view of the Olympics as ‘typically postmodern’: ‘there will be benefits but there will also be losers,’ he says as we pass by a block of newly built condominiums. A group of youths with swimming club logos emblazoned on their tracksuits walk in the direction of the Aquatics centre. Across the road, an office sits empty, the majority of its windows broken.

The East End is still the poorest part of London but the area is changing fast. Near the Olympic park perimeter fences is the shiny new East London Porsche dealership. A few hundred yards further down the road we pass a ramshackled family-run car repair shop.

‘If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I wouldn’t really come to Stratford’, Cole says as we near the end of our tour. It’s a sentiment many Olympic tourists will probably share, but there’s an undeniable, if distinctly ambiguous, allure to a corner of East London that will come alive in July.

For more information on Hackney Tours visit

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, 24 March