Friday, 28 May 2010

More adverts and visual clutter - coming to a Brighton landmark near you soon

Adverts and hoardings could be plastered in historic locations across the city in a desperate bid to raise cash to fund tax cuts, thanks to the latest ruling of Tory-run Brighton and Hove City Council.

A report considered by a meeting of yesterday's council cabinet said that new adverts - and sponsoring attractions (like  stretches of our beach) could raise 'significant' sums of money.

And mindful of the Con-Dem government's plans to impose a local tax freeze on the council - as well to cut funding for services like planning enforcement, highway maintenance and noise nuisance patrols - the cabinet was quick to press ahead with the scheme.

Of course no-one likes paying taxes - and Council Tax should be scrapped in favour of a fairer system to ensure those who can most afford it fund local services - but cluttering our public spaces (and our mental environment) with adverts just isn't the answer.

It will make Brighton and Hove a less attractive city - and will exhort more vulnerable residents to spend money they haven't got on stuff they don't need, fuelling the debt-and-consumption based economy which caused the problems leading to public service cuts in the first place.

The irony of the fact that, just a few weeks ago, the Tory Council rejected a bid to allow a community centre to fund its services through placing an advert on one of its walls is incredible - it seems the visual clutter is alright if it meets financial holes left by tax cuts and Government borrowing, but not when it is going to fubnd community groups.

I think the council should take a leaf out of Sao Paulo's book. The conservative administration there recently went in the other direction entirely, and banned advertising hoardings in the city altogether.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Government plans for new academies give me the willies - both as a parent and as a politician

The Con-Dem Government's enthusiasm for one of the scarier New Labour policies - the transformation of state schools into privately-run 'academies' fills me with despair.

As a local councillor I know that families want more and better chools, close to their copmmuninities, and, crucially, they want a say in how they are run.

Most don't want to get directly involved, of course, instead they want democratic accountability: they want to know that a public authority is responsible for standards and the way their childrens' school is run, as well as setting the overall admissions policy that makes sure every local child has access to a good local school.

If they don't like the decisions that are taken, they can, ultimately, vote to make sure the councilllors responsible for these decisions are booted out of office.

But the logic of academies and so-called 'free schools' turns that on its head: taking power away from parents, teachers and local councils, and handing it to sponsors - that is, anyone with a few hundred thousands to spend setting up a school in their own (not the pupils') interests.

Al this wouldn't be so bad if it improved performance - but the evidence suggests that it doesn't guarantee any such thing. Many academies end up failing.

As a parent of a six-year-old whose excellent primary school 'feeds' directly into Falmer High School - soon to become an academy - I worry that stamndards will fall, and that the school's specialisms, business and sport, will be completely irrelevant to his interests and educational needs.

Obviously, things change - and I really hope I'm proved wrong about Falmer, but at the moment I just can't imagine wanting him to go to school there.

The Green Party has always spoken in favour of greater freedom for the school to decide how it is run and the school curriculum.

But this does not and must not mean putting the running of the school into the hands of a private sponsor who may know nothing or very little about education, and taking the power away from parents and teachers who have little representation on the governing body at an academy.

Academies can see principals paid in excess of £120,000 whilst there is a high turnover of valued and committed staff lower down the pay scale as they are invited to reapply for their jobs on different pay scales.

Time and again Greens and others have asked why the freedoms and funding attached to academies cannot be given without the strings of creeping privatisation and millionaire sponsors attached. Yet no answer is given.

The Greens' Education spokesperson, local councillor Rachel Fryer, sums it up well:

“With the proposals of up to 25% cuts across local authorities, inevitably affecting front-line staff including teachers, we could be facing the situation of having new buildings without the teachers to go in them.

Let’s give the money directly to schools through greater investment, trusting schools and teachers to know the best way to spend money to improve education."

Green MP calls for a cross-party move towards a 'zero-carbon' UK

I promise to talk about something else soon, but today I couldn't help but reflect briefly on Caroline Lucas's Maiden Speech in the House of Commons.

A lot of people have been waiting a long time for the first speech in the house of commons by a Green Party MP: it came this afternoon, and didn't disappoint.

Touching on the history of both Brighton and The Green Party Dr Lucas straddled the line of being a great constituency MP, by talking about some of the big issues facing the city, the high level of public sector unemployment, for example, and the transport and housing inequalities we face, and a great party leader, by promoting the Greens' wider agenda.

She ended by doing what no MP has ever had the courage to do before: calling for all parliamentarians to put their party differences to one side and work together to tackle the looming environmental crisis by working towards a zero-carbon economy within a decade.


Anyway, here's the text. if I can find a video or audio file later I'll post that here too, for posterity if nothing else.

Mr Speaker

I am most grateful to you for calling me during today’s debate.  

The environment is a subject dear to my heart, as I’m sure you know, and I’ll return to it in a moment.

I think anyone would find their first speech in this chamber daunting, given its history and traditions, and the many momentous events it has witnessed.

But I have an additional responsibility, which is to speak not only as the new Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion, but also as the first representative of the Green Party to be elected to Westminster. 

You have to go back several decades, to the election of the first Nationalist MPs in Scotland and Wales, to find the last maiden speech from a new national political party.

 And perhaps a better comparison would be those first Socialist and Independent Labour MPs, over a century ago, whose arrival was seen as a sign of coming revolution.

When Kier Hardie made his maiden speech to this House, after winning the seat of West Ham South in 1892, there was an outcry.

Because instead of frock coat and top hat, he wore a tweed suit and deerstalker.  It’s hard to decide which of these choices would seem more inappropriate today.

But what Kier Hardie stood for now seems much more mainstream.

Progressive taxation, votes for women, free schooling, pensions and abolition of the House of Lords.

Though the last of these is an urgent task still before us, the rest are now seen as essential to our society.

What was once radical, even revolutionary, becomes understood, accepted and even cherished.

In speaking today, I am helped by an admirable tradition – that in your first speech to this House, you should refer to your constituency and to your predecessor.

David Lepper, who stood down at this election after thirteen years service as Member for Brighton Pavilion, was an enormously hard-working and highly-respected Member whose qualities transcend any differences of Party.  I am delighted to have this chance to thank him for his work on behalf of the people of Brighton.

It is also a great pleasure to speak about Brighton itself. It is, I am sure, well-known to many Members, if only from Party conferences.

My own Party has not yet grown to a size to justify the use of the Brighton Centre, although I hope that will change before long. 

But I can say to honourable members who are not familiar with it,  that it is one of the UK’s premier conference venues; and there are proposals to invest in it further to help ensure that Brighton retains its status as the UK’s leading conference and tourism resort

There are also the attractions of the shops and cafes of the Lanes and North Laine, the Pier and of course the Royal Pavilion itself, which gives its name to the constituency.

And beyond the immediate boundaries of the constituency and the city, there is the quietly beautiful countryside of the South Downs and the Sussex Weald

Brighton has always had a tradition of independence – of doing things differently.   It has an entrepreneurial spirit, making the best of things whatever the circumstances, and enjoying being ahead of the curve. 

We see this in the numbers of small businesses and freelancers within the constituency, and in the way in which diversity is not just tolerated, or respected, but positively welcomed and valued.

You have to work quite hard to be a “local character” in Brighton.

We do not have a single dominant employer in Brighton. As well as tourism and hospitality, we have two universities, whose students make an important cultural, as well as financial, contribution to the city.

There are also a large number of charities, campaigning groups and institutes based there, some local, others with a national or international reach, such as the Institute of Development Studies, all of which I will work to support in my time in this place.

Many of my constituents are employed in the public and voluntary sectors. They include doctors and teachers, nurses and police officers, and others from professions that do not always have the same level of attention or support from the media, or indeed from politicians.

But whatever the role – social workers, planning officers, highway engineers or border agency staff – we depend upon them. 

I’m sure that members on all sides would agree that all those who work for the State should be respected and their contribution valued. In a time of cuts, with offhand comments about bureaucrats and pencil-pushers, that becomes yet more important.

There is also a Brighton that is perhaps less familiar to honourable members. The very popularity of the City puts pressure on transport and housing and on the quality of life.

Though there is prosperity, it is not shared equally. People are proud of Brighton, but they believe that it can be a better and fairer place to live and work.  

I pledge to everything I can in this place to help achieve that, with a particular focus on creating more affordable, more sustainable housing

Brighton was once the seat of the economist Henry Fawcett who, despite his blindness, was elected there in 1865. Shortly afterwards he married Millicent Garrett, later the leader of the suffragists, a movement he himself had supported and encouraged.

So he lent his name to the Fawcett Society, which is still campaigning for greater women’s representation in politics.

The task of ensuring that Parliament better reflects the people that it represents remains work in progress – and as the first woman elected in Brighton Pavilion, this is work that I will do all that I can do advance. 

I said when I began that I found this occasion daunting.

Perhaps the most difficult task is to say a few words about the latest radical move that the people of Brighton have made – that is, to elect the first Green MP to Parliament.

It has been a long journey.

The Green Party traces its origins back to 1973, and the issues highlighted in its first Manifesto for a Sustainable Society – including security of energy supply, tackling pollution, raising standards of welfare and striving for steady state economics – are even more urgent today.  

If our message had been heeded nearly 40 years ago, I like to think we would be much closer to the genuinely sustainable economy that we so urgently need,  than we currently are today.

We fielded fifty candidates in the 1979 general election as the Ecology Party, and began to win seats on local councils. Representation in the European Parliament and the London Assembly followed.

Now, after nearly four decades of the kind of work on doorsteps and in council chambers which I am sure honourable members are all too familiar, we have more candidates and more members, and now our first MP.

A long journey.

Too long, I would say.

Politics needs to renew itself, and allow new ideas and visions to emerge.

Otherwise debate is the poorer, and more and more people will feel that they are not represented.

So I hope that if, and when, other new political movements arise, they will not be excluded by the system of voting.   Reform here, as in other areas, is long-overdue.

The chance must not be squandered.   Most crucially, the people themselves must be given a choice about the way their representatives are elected.  

And in my view, that means more than a referendum on the Alternative Vote – it means the choice of a genuinely proportional electoral system.

Both before the election and afterwards, I have been asked the question: what can a single MP hope to achieve? I may not be alone in facing that question.

And since arriving in this place, and thinking about the contribution other members have made over the years, I am sure that the answer is clear, that a single MP can achieve a great deal.

A single MP can contribute to debates, to legislation, to scrutiny.
Work that is valuable, if not always appreciated on the outside.

A single MP can speak up for their constituents. 

A single MP can challenge the executive.  I am pleased that the government is to bring forward legislation to revoke a number of restrictions on people’s freedoms and liberties, such as identity cards.

But many restrictions remain. For example, control orders are to stay in force. Who is to speak for those affected and for the principle that people should not be held without charge, even if it is their own homes?

House arrest is something we deplore in other countries. I hope through debate we can conclude that it has no place here either.

A single MP can raise issues that cannot be aired elsewhere.

Last year Honourable Members from all sides of the House helped to shine a light on the actions of the international commodities trading group Trafigura, and the shipping of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast.

There was particular concern that the media in this country were being prevented from reporting the issues fully and fairly.

This remains the case, for new legal actions concerning Trafigura have been launched in the Dutch courts, and are being reported widely in other countries, but not here.

Finally, I would like to touch on the subject of today’s debate.

I have worked on the causes and consequences of climate change for most of my working life, first with Oxfam – for the effects of climate change are already affecting millions of people in poorer countries around the world – and then for ten years in the European Parliament.

But if we are to overcome this threat, then it is we in this chamber who must take the lead.

We must act so that the United Kingdom can meet its own responsibilities to cut the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are changing our climate, and encourage and support other countries to do the same.

This House has signed up to the 10:10 Campaign – 10% emissions reductions in 2010.  That’s very good news.  But the truth is that we need 10% emission cuts every year, year on year, until we reach a zero carbon economy.

And time is running short.  If we are to avoid irreversible climate change, then it is this Parliament that must meet this historic task. 

That gives us an extraordinary responsibility – and an extraordinary opportunity.

Because the good news is that the action that we need to tackle the climate crisis is action which can improve the quality of life for all of us – better, more affordable public transport, better insulated homes, the end of fuel poverty, stronger local communities and economies, and many more jobs.

I look forward to working with Members from all sides of the House on advancing these issues.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Green MP's Alternative Queen's Speech - and the logic of entryism

Members of the Green Party agreed to support an 'entryist' approach to targeting efforts at ensuring the country's first Green Party MP was elected to parliament earlier this month - and, of course, the approach worked and Caroline Lucas was duly elected as MP for Brighton Pavilion.

The logic of entryism is really very simple: boost the profile of the party in the shape of one of our most passionate and articulate advocates, in this case party leader Caroline Lucas, and hope that the increased knowledge of the party, and our values and abilities - not to mention our alectability - and see more and more Green MPs elected to join her.

I'm as sorry as anyone else that, here in Brighton Kemptown, I've now got a Tory MP on the form of local businessman Simon Kirby, but I hope that now the Greens have proven, once and for all, that the Greens can beat Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem candidates, I really believe we can elect a Green MP here next time.

I hope I get the job, but of course I'll back whoever the party selects to be its candidate.

But the logic rests on the ability of our single MP to catch the public - and the media's - attention.

So far, she's doing a pretty good job, and I thought I'd share with you her latest success: getting Channel Four news to broadcast her 'Alternative Queen's Speech'.

As the real Queen outlined the 22 bills that will put yesterday's public sector cuts into practice, Caroline argues that 'you can't cut your way out of a recession' - that public sector jobs need protecting - and that we should scrap Trident, and war, to save money while making the world a safer place.

Here it is.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Happiness in the workplace?

Today I received an email from mental health advocacy charity Mind about their new campaign: 'Put on a Happy Face' - designed to get employers to take their responsibilities for staff welfare seriously.

According to the campaign - backed by this superb video - workplace stress costs British businesses some £26bn each year.

Managers, Mind argues, can prevent much of this by encouraging staff to address stress earlier - and to stop 'putting on a happy face' when things get too much.

Put on a happy face from Mind Charity on Vimeo.

Of course, I hope the campaign is effective, both at improving wellbeing at work and reducing the financial and social costs of workplace stress.

But, for me, the costs to businesses of failing to promote their employees happiness and wellbeing is one of the least troubling aspects of all this unhappiness.

No - I can't help thinking that work shouldn't be how we define ourselves, or measure our success, at all.

Like housing, food, companionship and freedom, I think happiness should be one of the core components of a good life - and reducing costs to business is quite incidental. where it contributes to these goals, great. Where it doesn't, I couldn't care less.

If good jobs promote happy citizens and help achieve these ends, great - but if they don't I'm not sure the job (or the business) is worth having in the first place.

Looking after employees' welfare shouldn't be about saving businesses cash, it should be a fundamental legal requirement.

The new economics foundation, a progressive think-tank, has published widely on the subject of how the economy should be more focused on boosting national happiness rather than national wealth, and has come up with a simple guide to reducing stress - and improving well-being.

Interestingly, none of its conclusions have much to do with the world of work.

So, if you're looking for a to-do list designed to improve your happiness, do give them a try:

(i) Connect - have more interaction with fellow human beings
(ii) Be active - a healthy body is a prerequisite for a healthy mind
(iii) Take notice - 'Be Curious. Take notice of the beautiful' Hey, and the ugly!
(iv) Keep learning - 'Learning encourages social interaction and increases self-esteem and feelings of competency'.
(v) Give - 'Look out as well as in'. Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Join a community group as a volunteer.

This last one calls to mind one of my favourite hippy-dippy bullshit quotes of all time, from Shantideva's 'The way of the Bodhisattva':

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself

Monday, 17 May 2010

Millionaires in the cabinet?

As David Cameron announced his new cabinet this week I picked up a 'tweet' observing that about three quarters of them were millionaires.

I sent the message on, as you do, and two things immediately became clear:

(1) No-one had really done the research, and I just couldn't find a comprehensive list of how many members of our new Tory government really were picked from among the super-rich, and

(2) The observation proved extremely controversial, with many expressing shock and horror at how unrepresentative cabinet members' wealth made them - and a couple saying exactly the opposite, making the point that being a millionaire is a measure of success, and we should celebrate the appointment of so many successful politicians in our government.

Personally, I couldn't agree with this final point less: being rich isn't the same as being successful - countless studies have shown that, actually, well-being and health are far more likely to be the measures we use when we measure our own success and are more accurate measures of everyone else's too.

Being wealthy does make people happy, and does buy access to the best health-care - but the law of diminishing returns ensures that, once you've reached a fairly low threshold of wealth, and are able to meet most of your real needs, this is less true for every extra pound in your pocket.

The argument that having a cabinet stacked with millionaires makes it pretty unrepresentative of the population in general is, to my mind at least, far more true.

Of course you could argues that it just doesn't make any difference to the way a cabinet member makes decisions, but when it comes to making cuts in public services surely the personal perception of how much difference a few quid here or there makes to someone is bound to affect the way decision-makers think.

Here's a simple example: one of the first things the new cabinet did was cut its own pay by 5% - roughly £7,000 a year each. That sounds a lot - although it won't make much imact of the deficit, it seems like a grand symbolic gesture that the cuts will come from the top first.

But an annual pay cut of £7,000 for a millionaire is the equivalent of taking an annula pay cut of about £7 a year - or 14p a week - for someone living in a rented flat but with savings of about £1,000: not such a grand gesture after all!

Anyway, how true is it anyway?

Well, there are 23 members of the cabinet. I've listed them below, with a simple yes or no according to whether they appear to be millionaires or not. My sources are varied, but are based on various articles (mostly wikipedia) and lists published over the last two years available online. If any reader has better information, do please share it! I don't promise that my figures are absolutely correct, so I'll publish any corrections or different interpretations I receive.

But my cursory research shows that, of the 23, 16 of them are indeed millionaires.

I find that shocking - I guess whether you do to comes down to your take on the questions briefly discussed above.

So here's my list:

Prime Minister David Cameron YES
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg YES
Foreign Secretary William Hague YES
Chancellor George Osborne YES
Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke NO
Home Secretary Theresa May YES
Defence Secretary Liam Fox YES
Business Secretary Vince Cable NO
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith NO
Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne YES
Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley NO
Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove YES
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles NO
Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond YES
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman YES
Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell YES
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson YES
Secretary of State for Scotland Danny Alexander NO
Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan YES
Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt YES

Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws YES
Leader of the House of Lords Lord Strathclyde YES

Minister of State Baroness Warsi NO

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Vision for a sustainable Brighton and Hove

I've nearly finished working through all the piles of paper - and replyimng to all the tweets' and emails - generated during the general election campaign.

I've been deleting, recycling or throwing most of it away. But I just came across a few notes I made ahead of a hustings meeting organised by the STEPS centre at the University of Sussex's Social Policy Research Unit and held at Brighton's Jubilee Library - and I thought I'd post them here for posterity.

So, here goes: in less than two minutes, here's my vision for a sustainable Brighton and Hove:

Clearly we're interested in a geniunely joined-up approach: we dopn't think sustainability is just about low carbon (although that's clearly a necessary component); we don't think sustainability is just about low carbon, protection for biodiversity, low resource use and zero carbon either: there's a fundamentally human dimension too, about health, wellbeing, equality and community too.

We think you can't have sustainability in one country (let alone one city!) - or at one time - the concept requires global justice and justice between generations too.

On the local level that means:

1. Tackling environmental and health inequalities - eg making it easier and safer to walk and cycle (which is also low carbon). This may mean restoring and supporting suburban facilities, including shops, to reduce car dependence (that's one of the reasons we're not at all as relaxed about large, centrally-located, supermarkets as local Tories). Local shops tend to employ more people than supermarkets, pay them more, and generate less carbon per employee too!

Green Party policies for investment in the very services and technologies needed to reduce our carbon emissions and cut our energy consumption and fuel bills would, it has been estimated, create about 4,000 new jobs in Brighton and Hove alone.

2. Enhancing - and making more affordable - facilities, such as New England House, for small and start-up businesses in the digital and environmental industries, as well as supporting centres, such as Community base, for third sector organisations.

3. Changing the way we view the planning process to allow environmental improvements (eg installation of renewable micro-generation technology, insulation etc) to all homes and public spaces in the city: creating jobs and reducing the city's carbon footprint.

But that's just Brighton and Hove.

Greens are internationalist by nature. We beleive our place in the world  is made more secure when the world's social and environmental problems are being solbved by successful international relations based on global co-operation.

And that means increasing financial support to the poorest in the world - as well as channelling it through new international institutions designed to democratise th way aid and development assistance is spent.

If you're interested in the debate, a webcast of the whole two-hour meeting is available to watch here.

Friday, 14 May 2010

City councillor resigns - to take up post as Green MEP

Well I said yesterday there was almost no politics during a largely ceremonial annual council meeting - I may have misled you slightly.

The story of the day was that Green Party councillor Keith Taylor announced his resignation to take up the seat at the European Parliament vacated by Caroline Lucas after she was elected MP for Brighton Pavilion last week.

The resignation will trigger a by-election of course - and the local party has already started the process of finding the right candidate to stand.

Keith (left) said: "I've spent the last 11 happy and fulfilling years as a city councillor, striving for improvements in locals' everyday quality of life.

“Now I'm taking all I've learnt to Europe to try and enrich the whole south east region. I'll work tirelessly to achieve as much as I can.

“Although I'll be spending a great deal of time in Brussels , my home will always be here, in Brighton and Hove.

“It's exciting to be delivering inclusive politics based on hope, around a positive vision of building a just and sustainable world. With the consistent rise in support for the Greens' message it's clear that's what people want.

“A special thank you and best wishes also go to Caroline Lucas as she begins her historic term as the first Green MP at Westminster ."

Amongst many well-wishers, Caroline Lucas was quick to pay tribute to Keith.

She said: “Keith is an outstanding politician, a highly respected party member, and a good friend.

“He has served the people of Brighton & Hove with passion and commitment for many years and, as such, will bring a wealth of experience to his new role in the European Parliament.

“I have no doubt that Keith will prove to be an excellent MEP for the South East region, and I wish him every success for the future.”

So, yet another election to contest!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Does the Lib-Tory government mean the end of the Lib-Dems on Brighton and Hove City Council?

Today I attended my fourth annual meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council since being elected to represent the Queen’s Park ward of the city.

And while much of the meeting is really about the pomp and ceremony of the mayoral office – nothing political takes place at all (well, almost nothing: Ted Kemble was sacked as cabinet member for major projects and former council leader Brian Oxley was brought back into the Tory leadership team) – it was interesting to chat to some fellow councillors about the impact of the national Lib-Tory government on the future of the council.

Specifically, with half the parliamentary Lib-Dem party now in the Tory government, and therefore accepting the doctrine of collective responsibility (that is, they promise not to criticise the Tories in public) it seems that the Lib-Dems and the Conservative parties have, effectively merged.

So what about the two Lib Dems on Brighton and Hove Council? Will either of them be joining the Mears administration? Will they be invited to attend Tory ‘whip’ meetings? Or will they walk away from the party, perhaps seeking membership of the Greens? How would the Green group of councillors react if they did? Of course, we can’t assume they’ll act in unison on this – maybe they’ll break in different directions?

Watch this space. If there are any developments – I’ll report them as soon as I can. And if any Lib-Dem members (I guess there must be some left) – or even either of their two remaining councillors – want to comment here, they’d be most welcome!