When … our ideas have been ‘marketplaced’, our rights sold, our intelligence sloganised, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned … when the marketing of life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a glass darkly.”Toni Morrison
Mouth Full of Blood
Anyone struggling to get to grips with cashless parking payments who may be tempted to take up the offer of Brian Coleman, described by Kent Online as “a former Barnet councillor at the forefront of bringing in cashless parking 14 years ago,” to “come down to Kent to run a session on how to download the app onto people’s phones” might want to think again on examining his record.
Coleman, a former aide to Boris Johnson who has called on “the elderly” to keep up with the times, was expelled from the Conservative Party after his criminal conviction for attacking a woman, ironically over a parking infringement — his own — after a video of the assault was shown to the court.
In other news, London residents previously won a landmark High Court victory over Barnet Council after controversial parking charge increases spearheaded by Cllr Coleman were found to be unlawful. In 2012 Mr Coleman was ousted due to his role in introducing the system that abolished parking meters and replaced them with a pay-by-phone system involving significant price increases.
Mr Coleman is clearly a big fan of parking charges, having, while chairing the London Assembly, brought ridicule upon himself by claiming that the precious green space Potters Fields Park, which was being refurbished, would be better used for a multistorey car park.
In addition to such environmental non-credentials, Barnet Tory politics were commented on as featuring “a deep-rooted misogyny”, as exemplified by Mr Coleman’s reference to women in the public gallery as “sad, mad old hags”. More information on Mr Coleman’s charming behaviour and political career can be found on Wikipedia.
The glaringly obvious question, therefore, has to be why this man has been called upon by our local media to comment on our situation here in a way that misleadingly implies useful expertise or authority when he is clearly unfit to do so. If he has been recommended for this role, perhaps we should be told by whom, and why?
The controversy caused by Canterbury City Council’s imposition of parking charges on the strip of land next to Seasalter beach raises various issues, and has largely focused on the difficulties of using the RingGo app payment method.
Resistance to the introduction of parking charges in the previously free spot has been seen in the spray painting of official signs. Though it’s to be hoped private car use will give way to more environmentally friendly transport methods, unfortunately this seems unlikely at a time when bus services are being cut leaving many people with no choice but to drive.
Local people have drawn attention to the problems older people face if they are not familiar with the technology or don’t own a smartphone: although it may have become so normalised as to appear to be compulsory, there is no law against not having, knowing about or wanting one. Not yet, anyway. The story reached national debate level, with the story being taken up widely by media, including the Jeremy Vine show.
The RingGo app, which is used in more than 400 towns and cities is not as straightforward as it might first seem or as convenient as it likes to claim. In some locations, when you park your vehicle with RingGo, a company doing well in this era of new parking technology, there is a 20p “convenience” charge on top of the normal parking tariff charges: a text message charge of 10p as a confirmation that payment has been made for a booking can be followed with a further 10p text reminder charge when a session is due to expire.
There can also be further “convenience” charges of up to 30p that vary depending on where you park. This has led to reports of these rip-offs costing British drivers millions of pounds a year and numerous accusations of incidents of overcharging.
In Dagenham the RingGo scheme had to be suspended when drivers using the previously free car park outside a parade of shops were forced to pay for the privilege, with a local business owner opining that “some buffoon at the council had no idea how this would affect people.” Or perhaps, if they were councillors of the heartless kind typified by Brian Coleman, they just did not care.
Apps and downs
As well as some people wishing to resist pressure to allow the incursion of digital gadgets into every area of our lives, many are uncomfortable with entrusting multinational corporations with their credit card details — hardly surprising when data breaches are frequently in the news.
Local councillor and regular Seasalter swimmer Ashley Clark objects to “the RingGo method of payment and card meters without the cash alternatives,” pointing out that “the requirement to carry a phone or a bank card is unduly onerous and invites crime unless one is locking the items in one’s vehicle.”
Mr Clark also comments on “sinister problems with overreliance on mobile devices and cards. It means that one’s movements are constantly tracked by banks, the phone providers and, potentially, the state. This smacks of Big Brother and the onset of an Orwellian dystopian world,” and he draws attention to “our increasing vulnerability to cyber attack in a divided world.”
This ominous allusion to an authoritarian technological dystopia featuring a 1984-like panopticon of social control is not far-fetched. Since the big tech companies realised that our personal information and behaviour constitute vast resources they can capture and mine, it has been advisable to be wary of the power and surveillance that smartphones involve. Shoshana Zuboff, author of bestseller The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, uses metaphors of conquest in her analysis: “With so little left that could be commodified, the last virgin territory was private human experience.”
There are often good reasons for resistance to technological developments. The Luddites, contrary to popular myth, were not a bunch of fuddyduddies who didn’t like change but skilled workers forced to protest against the loss of their livelihoods and professions by replacement by machines and lower paid workers during industrialisation. They “initially sought to renegotiate terms of working conditions based on the changing circumstances in the workplace”, according to Kent historian Jessica Brain.
“Some of the ideas and requests included the introduction of a minimum wage, the adherence of companies to abide by minimum labour standards, and taxes which would enable funds to be created for workers’ pensions … The movement emerged when attempts at negotiation failed and their valid concerns were not listened to, let alone addressed.” Their actions met with a brutal response from the government and military: imprisonment, death, and deportation, though of course their modern-day counterparts continue the struggle.
Ageism, exclusion, access
The accusation that the insistence on the use of ubiquitous mobile phone technology and the move towards cashless payments generally is ageist needs to be taken seriously. While some people feel it’s condescending to think that older generations are not as capable as younger people of being tech-savvy when clearly many are, it is important to recognise that some are not, and these people matter. Contemptuous attitudes such as those expressed by Brian Coleman make more people feel excluded and devalued, left out of and unable to participate in society. This is patently unfair and discriminatory. Barriers — physical, attitudinal and technological — need to be dismantled to enable equality of access. Disability rights activism has long affirmed the principle that rather than people having to fit in to and adapt to the way society is structured, it should be shaped around our realities and needs. Progress on this human rights issue is patchy when people are seen as revenue streams rather than citizens.
The National Pensioners Convention statement on social and digital inclusion reminds us that “government, other statutory bodies and business have a responsibility to ensure that access to information, services and discounts are supplied to older people in whatever form is most suited to their needs. Age discrimination and the negative portrayal of older people in the media should be challenged at every opportunity.”
The recent Ofcom Digital Exclusion Report states that even “as the proportion of people without internet access declines, the negative impacts of remaining offline become more acute, as an increasing number of services and support networks become digital-only … Those more at risk of digital exclusion included older citizens; the most financially vulnerable; those not working; people living alone; and people impacted by a limiting condition e.g. hearing or vision impairment … User choice, cost issues, and a lack of skills or confidence are all contributory factors in digital exclusion.”
This is echoed by Mind the Digital Gap, Age UK’s report into digital exclusion, which showed that although the pandemic “pushed people to get online for the first time, build on their skills and embrace new technology”, it also created “even more barriers for people to access vital support and therefore deepened existing exclusions.”
In addition to security worries and lack of access, mobile phones are expensive, both to buy and to continually recharge. As energy bills rise, when increased costs mean people are forced to choose between heating and eating, this matters. The parking charge in question is relatively small (£1.50 for weekdays and £3 for weekends.) Ashley Clark tends to the view that “in difficult times where the council is trying to keep the council tax as low as possible, hard choices have to be made” and stresses that “the parking charges at Seasalter are targeted primarily at summer visitors who contribute nothing towards litter clearance and toilets, which are costly. Accordingly there is no charge from October to April and before 10am or after 4pm. and this favours locals, including dog walkers, who tend to go before or after working hours.” He feels the charges are reasonable.
However, for some people in these lean times even such low costs may swallow up the risibly small increase in state pensions arising from the current government’s suspension of the triple lock policy. “This betrayal of a manifesto promise conveniently ignores the fact that the earnings link with the state pension was lost for 30 years between 1980 and 2011 — and the triple lock was supposed to gradually rectify the consequent increase in poverty in old age,” as Silver Voices, the campaigning organisation formed to “maximise the political impact of senior citizens”, points out.
For some women the situation is worse, as the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign shows. The Health Foundation recent data analysis reveals that “women are more likely to be poor and have more debt than men. Because of unpaid caring responsibilities often they can work fewer hours, and as a result have fewer savings and smaller pensions. For minoritised and disabled women, the picture is even bleaker. When the social safety net is slashed — as it has been, repeatedly, for more than a decade – it is women who fall first through the cracks.”
Other factors are contributing to the poverty of some older people, e.g. the removal of the over-75s TV licence benefit. Already struggling pensioners who have found a twice-weekly sea dip a lifesaver during the last two years of Covid and isolation must now contend not only with the disgusting levels of sewage pollution due to the water companies’ failure to properly process waste water, but have to factor in an extra cost if they rely on their cars.
The cost-of-living crisis affects not only hard-up pensioners, of course. When it should be a source of shame that “up to two million older people across the UK are not receiving the social care support they need and are struggling to survive in their own homes,” according to Silver Voices, we’re expected to accept shortages of funding and increasing poverty at a time when governmental proposals to buffer us against the cost of living crisis are risible “non-fiscal” solutions — cramming more kids into nurseries, having fewer MOTs! — while being told UK military aid to Ukraine could rise to £500 million or that £200m of taxpayer-subsidised funding for post-Brexit border posts to check imports may have been wasted.
Landback: privatisation and monetisation
Some comments under the Kent Online article point to larger issues, one objector emphasising that this “little oasis of freedom and relative wildness … should not be municipalised.” Another says that “the true disgrace is that it has to be paid for at all.” This of course puts the question in the wider context of the big business of parking.
A parking space is perhaps the ultimate example of the profit-maximising exploitation of land: a small rectangle used continuously to extract revenue. Which leads to the question some Seasalter residents are asking: Is there nothing that can’t be monetised? Can’t we even have a scrappy strip of pot-holed roadside shingle where we can stop for a while to swim or sit or walk, where you might spontaneously pull over to stand on the sea wall, listen to a curlew and get a glimpse of the incoming tide, the wide sky and the marshes behind you; a moment of peace, whether you can spare just 10 minutes or a few hours?
As members of the swimmers’ group point out, this is a beach enjoyed by so many people whose mental and physical health is improved hugely by not only the exercise but the contact with nature and a bit of wild space; it’s the high point of some people’s day. If people are now saying they can’t access this vital resource, this is tragic from both a public health point of view and that of personal, recreational and spiritual life.
Zuboff has written of how places — cities in that instance, but the concept also applies to smaller locations — are now managed by algorithms presided over by digital omniscience, which are “recasting our gathering place as a commercial operation in which once-public assets and functions are reborn as the cornered raw materials earmarked for a new marketplace.” She warns that “surveillance capitalism’s expropriation of human experience has not faced” the same “impediments” of regulatory frameworks in other spheres intended to “defend society from the worst excesses of raw capitalism’s destructive power.” This realm of lawlessness is mirrored and modelled by a real-world political situation where a ludicrous and corrupt Prime Minister and his cronies can abuse power seemingly with impunity, “deliberately breaking international law; tearing up the ministerial code; ordaining police stop and search ‘without any cause for suspicion’; removing British citizenship at whim, while waging war against the civil service and the BBC, those national safeguards.”
All these national and international matters may seem a far cry from our local stretches of Kent coastline. But communities to whom the worth of a place means something over and above its financial value share much in common, face the same threats, need the same resources. Corporate power will ride roughshod over neighbourhoods and environments with callous indifference, whether it be in cyberspace or through the physical damage done, e.g. by deforestation, installing industrial infrastructure projects on agricultural land — as is planned for swathes of countryside adjacent to Seasalter in Graveney — or private businesses despoiling our foreshore. The special connection we feel to “our” places — not because we own the title deeds but because we experience interacting with them, love them, need them — is a vital part of being alive.
Potentially this perhaps involves developing the capacity for a kind of radical re-envisioning of the human relationship to land, water and air encouraged by movements such as Landback. Such worldwide campaigns are not only seeking justice for indigenous people dispossessed by colonialism who are reclaiming their homelands but prioritising a different way of being that is possible for everyone: not a nationalist claiming of territory but a shift toward recognising our place as part of ecologies in “a relationship that is symbiotic and just, where we have reclaimed stewardship” — rather than the currently prevailing extractive systems that benefit private interests and continue to enclose the commons, to the detriment of our home planet and us all.
Frankie Green lives in Whitstable and has been taking part in various political activities since the 1960s: anti-apartheid movement, the Vietnam war, the Gay Liberation Front, the Women’s Liberation Movement and Palestine Solidarity Campaign. She helps run a feminist music archive and collects stuff on a blog.
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