Mary Dejevsky: I too, would ban charity soup-runs kitchen

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The Independent Online

You may recall, a few aeons ago in today's frantic news cycle, that the local council was mooting a ban on soup kitchens in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral. For a few days, the council got a terrible press, as charities and individuals involved with homeless people whipped up a propaganda whirlwind. Councillors stuttered about a consultation, said they were just canvassing opinion and insisted that of course they wouldn't let destitute people starve on their streets.

Against the vision of gentlemen just down on their luck receiving one modest hot meal a day, however, they could not make much headway. If you added the pleas from erstwhile rough-sleepers lauding the saviours of the soup-run, and from soft-spoken men (it was mostly men) from the outer London suburbs, whose life seemed to revolve around the making and delivering of soup to Westminster, then the council was always going to be in difficulty.

But it was also in difficulty because we, the residents, clammed up – at least in public. I listened to radio phone-ins and logged into a variety of chat-rooms, to find them dominated by soup-run supporters, not one of whom could be described as local. One phone-in host appealed desperately for someone, anyone, to call in against the soup run, but the good ladies of Westminster – yes, I'm making a presumption here – kept their peace.

Why? Because they knew that if they said openly what they really thought, they would set themselves up as mean and selfish Nimbys, to be vilified as such by the noble soup-makers. Perhaps it's a sign of hard times, but the desire not to be seen as "nasty" has gone far beyond the Tory party, producing a ruthless new orthodoxy that is leaving unpalatable truths unsaid.

So here goes. I would love Westminster Council to ban open-air soup-runs; all of them, every night of the week, and not just beside the cathedral. I avoid walking through the piazza, which is a glorious open space, after dusk. By then it's invariably strewn with rubbish – despite the best efforts of the council street-cleaners – and the presence of a lot of rootless men with not much to do can seem threatening. I dislike being solicited for money, or anything else (oh yes they do). And on my morning walk to the Tube station, I positively hate seeing men sidle up to the refuse enclosure at Channel 4 HQ (five minutes' walk from the cathedral) and urinate through the netting.

I applaud those charities, such as Thames Reach and Look Ahead, which organise soup stations indoors and combine them with other services – but in this argument they, too, found themselves outgunned. The PR war was won by do-gooding outsiders, who prefer to drive their soup all the way to Westminster rather than distribute it closer to home in Lewisham or Barnet.

The council's consultation period has just ended. When I phoned to i nquire about the outcome, they said they were still sifting the submissions but were inclined to seek a "consensus" before resorting to a new law. I fear they have been steamrollered by the soup lobby, with the result that the piazza will remain occupied territory for a good deal longer. Unfortunately, we residents will have to recognise that our public reticence is partly to blame.

Armour-plating? There goes the neighbourhood

Across from our flat is a car showroom that must have been refurbished at least three times in the past 10 years. During its periodic shutdowns, we who wait at the nearby bus-stop exchange wishful thoughts about how much we would like something useful like a supermarket to replace it, how the half-installed Scandinavian fittings look as though they might herald a restaurant (if only...), and how suitable the space would be for just about anything. Does it really have to be cars?

Apparently it does. But the latest reopening comes with a twist. In the nearest part of the showroom is a giant black BMW, with "Security Plus" on its number plate, and a separate, white, car door with a shattered window and three bullet marks (the point being, presumably, that they didn't get through). A notice offers more information about armour-plated vehicles inside. Now, what should we residents deduce from this? That the neighbourhood has gone up so far that it is now peopled by super-wealthy individuals in fear for their lives, or that it has gone down so far that we should all be in the market for fortified limos?

Dyson spots a vacuum – in the wrong place

Something strange seems to happen to entrepreneurs when they land within advising distance of governments; they come over all contradictory. Think of Lord Sugar. The latest to display such symptoms is Sir James Dyson, he of the aspirational vacuum cleaner. A member of the Prime Minister's business advisory group, Sir James lashed out over new visa arrangements for non-EU students. In a radio interview, he denounced as "sheer madness" the ending of a provision that allowed new graduates to remain in Britain for two years to look for work. Under the new arrangements, overseas graduates will be able to stay only if they are offered a job paying more than £20,000 a year.

Now you might think that this would be a good thing, encouraging overseas graduates to take their qualifications back to the countries that have often sponsored them, and leaving more jobs here for Britons. But this is not how Sir James sees it. He sees only a severe shortage of engineers, such as would drive companies abroad. But hang on, is this not the same Sir James who eight years ago transferred his vacuum-cleaner production from the UK to Malaysia? Maybe he could recruit these displaced overseas graduates to his operation there, or – better still – provide training for young Britons here. Or is it that he wants to pay his graduates less than £20,000 a year?