Former Africa Minister Mark Simmonds. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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If a Tory MP can’t survive in London on £90k+, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Mark Simmonds has resigned from his ministerial job at the Foreign Office, citing the “intolerable” nature of his parliamentary housing allowance – a mere £27,875 (on top of his £89,435 salary).

There are many ways in which you can wake up, but being abruptly forced into consciousness by the sound of water pouring through your bedroom ceiling is not one of my favourites. This was Sunday, and it marked a dark moment in our housing situation, a state of affairs that I am beginning to view as little more than a series of dark moments, some of which, considering the broken light in a windowless bathroom that we endured for three months earlier this year, have been literal as well as metaphorical.

While I was crying on the phone to Shelter this past weekend, Mark Simmonds MP was no doubt reflecting on the “intolerable” nature of his expenses. The £27,875 a year rental allowance to which he is entitled (plus £2,500 for each of his three children) was not enough money for a family home in central London. Simmonds is, naturally, not prepared to live anywhere less than a stone’s throw away from Parliament, and though his claim that there is no suitable housing has been found to be nothing short of unadulterated bollocks (the Times found several three and four bedroom properties within his price range), he has now resigned from his Foreign Office post, or, to use terminology reminiscent of the coverage of his colleague Baroness Warsi’s departure last week, has flounced off in a diva-ish hissy huff, the big girly girl.

Simmonds’ case makes me wonder just how much more the Great British Public is willing to tolerate from these minted Tory parasites. Crybaby Simmonds earns £89,435 a year, pays his wife up to £25,000 to be his office manager, and until he became a minister in 2012, had a £50,000 consulting job with a private healthcare firm. Last year, he was dubbed the most expensive MP in Lincolnshire by his local paper after he claimed £173,436.96 in expenses. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions from the fact that such a staggeringly large sum is dear for Lincolnshire but maybe relatively modest compared to other, less sausagey counties.

Boris Johnson once famously described his £250,000 salary at the Daily Telegraph as “chicken feed”. Presumably £27,000 doesn’t even go as far as that. It may be enough to maintain the bloated, blood-filled ticks nestling amongst the chicken’s feathers, or to finance a small flea circus. Perhaps Simmonds could take me on as a consultant. In my new advisory role I’d be able to inform him that maintaining a colony of weevils costs roughly £1,200 a month (less than the cost of a special house for your ducky ducks, not enough to maintain a moat), though I can tell you from personal experience that it costs far, far more in emotional expenses. I’d hazard, also, that Simmonds has never been forced to take a shit by candlelight, and if he had, it would have been because of aesthetic and atmospheric considerations, not through necessity.

Seriously, though, just how does he think the rest of us manage? In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time where families have been forced to leave central London due to the benefit cap of £500 a week introduced by legislation voted for by Simmonds, it doesn’t just leave a sour taste in the mouth: it is fury-inducing. Many of us lucky enough not to be couch-surfing or cupboard-dwelling tolerate leaking ceilings, damp, mushrooms growing from the walls, pest infestations, broken boilers and gardens filled with fox turds and mattresses and are supposed to be grateful for it. And when we do confront our powerful landlords, we are told that the mould is our fault for breathing too much and that the repairs may take six months, if they happen at all.

I keep my rented flat despite the hole in the roof and the oven that doesn’t work and the cracks in the ceilings because it is the only claim I have to a home. The rent is relatively cheap for an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified and will soon become unaffordable, especially if Giles Coren insists on continuing to enthusiastically review local restaurants. I live a stone’s throw away from the hospital in which I was born, and the first house that I ever lived in, which also had a mattress graveyard for a garden. There is a large, white mark on my wrist from when, as a toddler, I fell on some broken glass while playing there. This place has given me scars, but it is my place, and I would be heartbroken to leave it.

The other thing that stops me going is hope. The hope that I will earn more money, as at the moment nearly fifty per cent of my earnings go on rent and, despite what several snide (and rather wealthy) critics have implied while discussing my book advance in the national press – making a regular living from writing is a challenge. Then there is the hope that they’ll come and fix the ceiling, if we hassle them enough, though the word “hassle” is key here. I wonder how many others in the vicinity are living in poor conditions, and how those without the education or assertiveness or tenacity might cope. We are able to quote the relevant statutes, to talk of putting them on notice and housing ombudsmen. We have an internet connection which allows us to send the 500 or so emails required for a response, and phone contracts which enable us to spend hours on hold. We are not suffering from depression or another mental illness, and so the thought of being endlessly volleyed from department to department is irritating but not enough to make us give up and go back to bed, hopeless and cold. We know our rights, and are not so frightened that when Shelter tell us that the nature of our tenancy agreement means that the landlords could evict us for kicking up too much of a fuss, we refuse to stop making that fuss.

We are, in other words, lucky. But still, what we would do for £27,875. What so many of us would do. The whole thing is intolerable. 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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