Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Toddle in the City

This blog was first published at http://www.toddleinthecity.co.uk/blog/ on May 23, 2013.

Once you live in London, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the many things that make it one of the planet’s greatest cities.  Clearly, there are spectacular sites and places to visit, largely in the centre of things- Zone 1 – the focus for tourists and visitors, commuters and those seeking entertainment.

In truth, London – once you really get to move around in it – is fascinating across the urban area it covers from Uxbridge to Bromley, from Kingston to Enfield.  My passion for the last two years has been capturing the details of London’s communities in the form of accidental and unusual letters hidden in buildings, streets, street art and the like.  It’s a unique way of bringing out of the background the things that makes communities and places distinctive, that gives places their character and their heart.  People like the way it makes them see the capital, and I enjoy allowing them to see it differently.  I find it easy to do this with a background in town planning and architecture, but others find it harder. It’s exploratory photography – random and spontaneous; an adult toddle.

Much of my travelling around the city in those two years has been with my daughter, now four.  Working part time, I was able to take her out all over the city, showing her the breadth and depth of places such as Stratford, Silvertown, Brixton and Richmond.  She has been a joy to be with, and although she’s had to be pushed around in a pushchair a lot, we managed the steps and the crowds scattered across the transport network with humour when we could.  Most of the time, movement has been relatively easy, and the Overground in particular opens the city out a little more to those less mobile. Be wary of parents with one kid who say they can’t get out any more – they’re not trying hard enough.

However, with the arrival of a second child a year ago, I struggle with the fact that I’m much more hampered in getting around simply by having a second child.  I feel guilty that, not only does my youngest not get to see the city, but the first is also disadvantaged for the same reason.

One of the reasons is economics; working part time with two children in bleak economic times is not the best time to be taking children to all corners of the conurbation.

But one of my frustrations with London is the sheer difficulty of getting around (without a car) with more than one child.  Look carefully, and you’ll often notice that it’s parents with one child that are out and about.  Parents with two or more will find the steps on the underground too much, the crowds on the trains too daunting and buses awkward to negotiate weighed down by nursing bags, pushchairs and other paraphernalia.  A personal frustration for me is the unwillingness of passengers on the tube to vacate spaces designed for pushchairs and wheelchairs, and even marked as a pushchair and wheelchair priority space, often making journeys tense and uncomfortable.

Having said that, my relationship with my kids in London is good, and the positive xperiences of living and breathing the wide expanses of the city far outweigh the niggling negatives.  We love to travel around, we love days out and we love exploring. Both kids have done a Toddle, and both will do more, because the idea of mixing with new kids of different ages in new environments, looking around them, asking and answering questions with a camera is just a brilliant idea.

I hope that as a built environment professional with a couple of kids keen to travel about the place I can offer some interesting perspectives as I blog here on the Toddle site.  See you soon!

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Street play and paedophilia?

There’s a wave of community action gathering pace through the country as people gather together in their neighbourhoods and try to make their lot a little better. It may be that the Government’s localism agenda is having an effect; it may be that people are so unhappy with the state of things that they’re taking it upon themselves to do what they can in their place to make things better. Certainly, you do hear more often of street parties, gatherings, community groups and festivals, and here in north London, it’s no exception.

My own street has had its own Facebook page for about a year, and it’s a conduit for expressing issues on the street. It’s come about over a period of two years, residents having got together in 2011 to organise a ‘street play’ event, closing the road and allowing children to play, supervised, in the street for an afternoon. Our event went really well; last year we followed it up with a Jubilee lunch, and we plan to have more regular street play events this year.

The street play idea was born in Bristol, although community events to ‘take back the road’ have been going on for some time, endorsed and encouraged by the likes of the now defunct Government agency, CABE. This drew on experience in places like The Netherlands, where the Woonerf has been introduced in many areas, and Frieburg where, in Vauban, a major housing development has a totally shared space in all its streets. Experimentation has, perhaps half-heartedly, taken place here in places like South Staithes in Gateshead but the counter intuitive approach appears to have positive results. The street play idea seeks to edge towards shared spaces, streets for people, and has a wider aim of reducing traffic speeds and car dependence as well as building communities and getting children out playing, particularly where they have limited access to play spaces.

Our campaign is the first in LB Enfield, but follows very successful similar schemes already underway in Hackney, Waltham Forest and Sutton among others, and other schemes in planning in places like Haringey. It’s being encouraged by Government funding to improve health in pre-teens, and by London Play, a charity aiming to provide better play opportunities for kids. We needed to consult with residents on the street and prove some level of understanding amongst them about what we were trying to do. When our consultation ended, we were informed by the Council that there had been objection raised with them, but the Council have – to date – not let us see the objections, what they said or who they were from. It has, however, put the schedule for achieving a closure – via a Temporary Street Play Order – back from June to July already.

The objectors emerged today and started their own campaign, posting a letter to every resident and taping the same note to trees, and started knocking on doors with a petition. Anecdotally, we understand that the objectors have some of the elements of the street play idea incorrect – particularly the level of supervision and parental responsibility required to undertake a street play event – but quite clearly the objections being raised centre around a fear that closing the street and letting children play in the street would attract paedophiles and risk children being kidnapped. A photo of the note below.

I wouldn’t be writing this, or organising a street closure for kids’ play if I agreed with these views. I’m not writing to judge the views or tear the arguments apart, either – both of which I’d be capable of – but it demonstrates the level of paranoia we have achieved in this country if these views have become normal with some people in our society. It’s views like this that make me uneasy on my own, as a father, with my two kids in a playground; it’s views like these that have lead to me eating fish and chips in a public park with my back to a playground. These views are more toxic than the grossly over estimated threat of kidnapping.

I’d love to know what you think. Who’s got the wrong end of the stick?


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Me, the Benefit Scrounger

I was persuaded to apply for Jobseekers Allowance earlier this year, when a job I’d been offered last December was abruptly withdrawn in February after a pitiful process that would make for another angry blog post entirely.  It would be my first experience of claiming a benefit, after nearly 20 years of work.

So, having pre-applied for JSA online in mid February, I went to my interview at the job centre.  Given the nature of the generic forms, I had a query about a pension I’m paid, which is the result of my first wife’s premature death from a brain tumour – it’s her teachers pension paid to me as a spousal benefit.  It wasn’t clear to me whether I should declare it as an occupational pension, given it was neither my pension, nor my occupation.

On the basis of my completed online form, along with a quick check on the process of my online application on the system, my interviewer told me that my claim had been refused and I wasn’t entitled to JSA, and my pension would almost certainly rule any payment out.  She asked me if I wanted to withdraw my application, and I left her to do that.

Less than a week later, I received a letter from the Stratford office of the DWP to say that my application had been approved, and I was sent details of how much it would be and where it would be paid.  I assumed that my interviewer had not withdrawn the application, and I rang Stratford to query the pension, which I’d not declared when I filled in the online form.  They had to ring me back after checking but, no, the pension had no bearing on a contributions based JSA payment, at least for the first six months of payment.  I was still entitled.

Less than a week after that, I was told that, owing to my non-completion of the application, I wouldn’t be getting any JSA.

After more to-ing and fro-ing, I reapplied for JSA on March 7, had another interview, declared my pension and waited for a response.  I also appealed to have the JSA backdated on the basis of my first interviewer giving me misleading information about whether my claim would be successful.  Again, over the phone, I was told that I was entitled to JSA.

In the meantime, I was attending the Job Centre (dehumanising, sparse, and unwelcoming places at the best of times) to sign on.  I declared a day’s work to them.  I explained that this wasn’t a job, but a one-off, single day for which I would be paid.  I filled in a form – an A15C – to explain all this, all the time waiting for payments on my JSA.

It seems that, despite having it explained twice, they didn’t understand the concept of a day’s work, and I was sent another A15C – with no note or explanation attached – and asked to fill it in again.  I made another call to Stratford for an explanation, and they seemingly wanted a start date for the day’s work, assuming it was a job.  It’s not a job, I said, and they settled for an explanatory note, faxed to a mysterious lady in the New Claims department called Elizabeth.  This was late March – still no JSA decision.

The joy of the making all these calls is that, despite each letter from the DWP giving the phone number of the Stratford office, you can’t actually call the Stratford office (I’ve been told that it’s, ‘not public facing’).  You actually get a call centre, where the operators have no access to the details of your case, or the letters you’ve been sent, and can’t actually help you.  You have to arrange with them for someone from the Stratford office to ring you back.  It rather puts you off ringing at all.  And, of course, each call is charged.

On April 3, I actually started a job and closed my claim for JSA. I assumed that this claim would be resolved at some point but, up to yesterday, it had not and I decided to risk the call centre and chase it.  Apparently, a note had been put on my file on April 23 seeking information about my occupational pension to be provided, ‘when I call’.  Not only had the Stratford office not bothered to write to me or ring me requesting the information, but they’re requesting information that they’ve already seen at my second interview at the job centre in early March, and had dismissed as being irrelevant to the claim in late February.

You can draw your own conclusions about this tiny, one person experience of the benefits system, but I find it long-winded, unsympathetic, inconsistent, unhelpful, obstructive and frustrating.  Good luck to any scroungers.  I admire your patience and perseverance.

My claim remains outstanding.