Don’t make the same mistakes as Canada

Canada’s spending cuts solved a debt crisis but also created mass homelessness.

Who can persuade the government not to follow a deficit reduction model that solved a debt crisis but left in its wake mass homelessness and an even deeper housing shortage? Speaking in the Commons this month, the Chancellor said "we need to look to Canada and their experiences in the early 1990s when they too faced a massive Budget deficit".

True, the Liberal administration there turned a 9 per cent deficit into a surplus in just three years. But the cuts, which included slashing funding for affordable housing, had devastating consequences.

They brought homelessness -- previously a marginal problem -- into the mainstream, hitting families and older people for the first time and forcing the Canadian government to spend even more money in emergency funding. The country also faced a shortage of social housing where supply ground to a halt.

The experience shows how cuts to housing can damage the wider economy. So why is George Osborne looking to the same model to slash our deficit?

In next week's emergency Budget, £610m in funding earmarked for new social and affordable homes is at risk. Coupled with the £150m of cuts announced in May, this would mean 12,625 fewer homes built per year and 19,000 job losses at a time of record unemployment.

Shelter analysis released earlier this week shows that for every pound chopped from public investment in new housing, the economy will take a hit of at least £3.50. Predicted cuts could cost the economy £2.7bn, and this couldn't come at a worse time.

Housing doesn't sit in isolation: cuts not only mean fewer homes for the 1.8 million households on waiting lists. They also bring the loss of jobs, skills and economic benefits that new homes provide.

Pulling funding quickly before the housebuilding industry has recovered would drag an industry of critical importance to its knees, and bring housebuilding to a standstill. Every year we fail to build, we sink deeper into a housing crisis, which will eventually become impossible to get out of.

Large-scale job losses would also cause a skills drain that we know, judging by the last recession, could take a decade to recover from. When housebuilding does pick up again, we won't have the capacity or the expertise to build the homes we need. We owe it to future generations to continue investment so they are not saddled with this legacy.

Housing is one of the keys to economic recovery. More homes built means more jobs, more tax revenue and reduced welfare payments at a time when government is desperate to hack back the housing benefit bill.

It also acts as a catalyst for other markets and is the foundation on which many industries are built.

If the government is to make cuts, they must be intelligent cuts. Working closely with organisations such as Shelter will be critical -- or we will all be paying the price.

Campbell Robb is the chief executive of Shelter.

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Campbell Robb is chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.