Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Labour's crocodile tears over closure of Brighton community garden

The Lewes Road community garden closed once and for all on Monday as activists dismantled the site and handed the keys back to the developer, so he can build a Tesco, a betting shop, and seven flats there.

It's a sad day for all of us - not just those of us who use the garden, but for all of us who want stronger, empowered communities, more green space, fewer supermarkets - and less traffic.

The sad truth is the law of the land and the political and commercial elites that have always run this country will always rule in favour of a development and an enhancement of so-called 'free' multi-national trade over local communities and anyone who advocates local control and 'living lightly'.

I do find it absolutely amazing that Labour Party activist Tom French has been claiming that it is the Greens who have allowed this to happen.

Few governments have been so 'pro' allowing the onslaught of 'big business' in our communities as the last Labour government - and that's not just a national observation, but a local one too.

Remember the privately-drafted Retail Study for the city drawn up (at great cost to the local taxpayer) in 2006, last time Labour councillors were in power here?

It called for new shops and supermarkets to spring up all over Brighton and Hove, covering a total area requivalent to NINE new Churchill Squares.

The sad truth is Labour remains the party of big business, not local communities, when their interests clash, and its activists' tears over the loss of the community garden are of the crocodile variety.

Tesco declares war on Brighton?

With Tesco in the news for being 'anti-Brighton' after it made the factual observation that it was cheaper to holiday in Bulgaria than here, I thought the time was right for a return to one of my favourite clips by the King of political satire, Armando Ianucci. From the excellent Time Trumpet, it tells the story of what happens when Tesco really declares war on a community.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

After BP disaster, oil exploration off UK's South Coast hots up

The environmental and social catastrophe of BP's ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico hardly needs more description.

Many thousands of commentators have shown how the disaster is destroying local economies and unique cultures as well as devastating already threatened ecosystems.

The usually on-the-ball Naomi Klein has written of how all of this is, perhaps, just the inevitable result of an ongoing 'battle' between human society and global ecosystems (or nature, if you like).

Ever eager to find a way to make money from anything at all, the bookies are already offering odds on a range of outcomes: which endangered species will be made extinct first, for example? (Current favourite is the Kemp's Ridley Turtle)

BP has announced its direct costs have already risen above $2bn, and the firm has agreed a compensation package of some $20bn.

You'd expect all of this to lead to change in the law: either the introduction of a new international crime of ecocide to put CEOs of companies responsible for this sort of mess behind bars, or, intriguingly, a 'three-strike-and-your-out' rule that would dismantle any company that repeatedly broke social or environmental laws

At the very least, you'd think the oil companies would be shying away from new undersea oil exploration ventures while they work out the long-term implications of the BP rig explosion.

But exactly the opposite appears to be the case. Green Party Euro-MP Keith Taylor has today warned that oil exploration off our south coast is hotting up, with one Australian firm alone, Norwest, reported to have found seven new sites in the 'Wessex Basin'.

We know what the alternatives are - and are already investing in large-scale off-shore wind turnine 'grids' in exactly this area.

Wiser people than I have made two compelling observations about the BP disaster: first, that oil-damaged marshes, habitats and beaches may take generations to recover, if they ever do, and secondly, that when a wind-turbine fails, the cost is likely to be a splash.

Let's hope we learn from events 'over the pond' - and allow no new oil exploration (let alone drilling) off the coast of the UK.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Meanwhile, Brighton Tories try to pull plug on local business

Worrying news: today the St James's Area Action Group heard that a voluntary scheme by which city centre stores each chip in to a £2.5 million pot to fund Christmas Lights, secrity patrols, clean-ups and even marketing is under threat - thanks to a last minute council decision to withdraw a grant of just £25,000.

Yes, you heard it right - seed mony that could bring in 100 times its value for local businesses has fallen victim to the first round of Tory cuts - a decision that could force some small businesses to close their doors and speed up the corporate take-over of our central shopping areas.

Already it is rumoured that multi-national bogeyman McDonalds could be coming to St James's Street. (Just today the firm has been fingered in the US for fulling childhood obesity - you couldn't make this stuff up!)

Remember 'Be Local, Buy Local'? It seems the Tories who run Brighton and Hove City Council don't.

Greens pull plug on Brighton Council privatisations

Yesterday's budget was, largely, a pointless exercise in austerity which will see almost everyone worse off - and living in a city with fewer, and underfunded, public services.

Child benefit and public sector pay have both been frozen - representing after-interest cuts, VAT will rise to 20% - a tax hike that will affect the least able to afford it most - corporation tax is down, tax-setting powers have been removed from councils, and so on.

In short, it will see unemployment worsen, prices and the cost of living rise, benefits cut, taxes increase and the wide-scale privatisation of public services.

Almost everyone (except, perhaps, the beneficiaries of a new 'millionaire's allowance' which will see the first £5,000,000 in profits from share speculation taxed at a lower rate - yes, really - you couldn't make this up) will be worse off today than they were yesterday.

For different reasons perhaps, two people waking up with a bit of a headache today will be Brighton and Hove's very own privatisation champion, Tory City Council leader Mary Mears, and the man charged with delivering her vision, council chief executive John Barradell.

The Green Party councillors have refused to take part in the recruitment of four new directors (to be paid £125,00 a year each) to oversee the privatisation of council services across the city.

The truth is the 'intelligent commissioning' model of running the council - under which the council would stop directly doing anything, instead running a tender process for a private company or charity to take on the job instead.

Let's be clear. 'Intelligent Commissioning' isn't very intelligent - and 'privatisation' is a much clearer word to describe it than 'commissioning'.

It will end up wasting money (you've only got to look at the £600,000 a year its bosses will receive just for managing the process), removing democratic accountability from the delivery of public services - and collecting the taxes needed to pay for them - see pay and conditions for those working in the public sector fall, worsen services, especially in the care sector.

But perhaps the biggest problems facing Mary's vision is that's it's completely unviable anyway. Recruitment professional say there just aren't enough people out there who know how to actually do 'commissioning' - and third sector and voluntary groups say they are too busy working out the impacts of cuts on their budgets and workloads to take part in tendering process at the moment.

And as for the timing! To spend more than half a million pounds a year on fat-cat salaries for new 'blue skies thinking' directors (they won't, after all, have and departments to run - they'll all have been 'outsourced') as public sector workers demonstrate after being told they'll have their par frozen is just rubbing it in.

It reminds me of last time Mary Mears made the headlines for her unsympathetic approach to cutting pay: her cartoon depiction in Private Eye after she announced budget cuts while on a cruise.

The process will happen - with the support of the Tory, Labour and Lib-Dem councillors our refusal to endorse the vision - or the recruitment - won't come off the rails.

But the council constitution means we aren't allowed to discuss even changes of this significance in a council meeting (it's just a matter for the Tory cabinet and the Chief Executive) - so at least this gives us an opportunity to make our position clear.

You never know - if the Labour councillors find some bottle - the whole thing could come crashing down quite quickly.And if not, at least when it all goes wrong, we'll have done what we could to protect public jobs and services here in Brighton and Hove. In large measure, I think that's our job as councillors.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Sussex Police pledge to stamp out illegal hunting once and for all

There has been much public debate about the future of the Hunting Act, the legislation which bans the barbaric practice of hunting foxes with hounds.

Although most people agree that the law really must remain on the statute books, some Tory MPs believe it should be repealed, and that hunting should be allowed once again.

I'm delighted that both Brighton MPs Caroline Lucas and Simon Kirby have pledged opposition to blood sports, and will oppose repealing the legislation when David Cameron eventually allows a 'free vote' on the matter in parliament, which he has promised to do.

But all this is fairly academic - the law is riddled with loopholes and has never been properly used anyway. Not a single hunter has ever been prosecuted under the act in Sussex, despite ample evidence that illegal fox hunting continues.

Part of the problem has been the police, who have viewed their role as one of preserving public order (that is preventing the hunters and the hunt monitors from beating each other up) rather than one of stopping the hunts.

But all that could be about to change. After I raised my concerns about the way hunts were being policed at a meeting of the Sussex-wide Neighbourhood Policing Scrutiny Committee last year, the police have adopted a new policy on hunting.

In short, they promise to fully investigate the five hunts operating in the county, and to prioritise stopping all wildlife crime.

A Chief Inspector will head the work, and more than 70 officers have already been trained up in how to prevent and detect wildlife crime, including spotting - and stopping - illegal hunting.

The new policy was presented to the Neighbourhood Policing Scrtuiny Committee last week. You can see the report here, and view a webcast of the debate here (about 1 hour 27 minutes in - follow the link from the 'index points' menu).

The proof of the new policy will, of course, be in the eating. I hope we see a complete end to the illegal hunting of foxes here in Sussex, any hunters who persist prosecuted, and the hunt monitors who selflessly give up their free time in support of the law and our wildlife afforded the repect they are due.

None of this is before time: it comes as a new hunting season is due to get under way next month or so, and just weeks after the Tory government appointed the bloodthirsty and enthusiastic hunter Nick Herbert to the job of policing minister.

Mr Herbert, who used to work for the British Field Sports Society and reportedly set up his own hunt while a student at Oxford will have to decide whether, in his new job, to back the law - and the police's decision to take it seriously - or not.

Brighton community groups gear up for yet another David v Goliath battle with Tesco

Just months after walking away from a planned - but deeply unpopular - retail complex in the London Road area supermarket giant Tesco is facing another David v Goliath battle with Brighton community groups over its plan to build a superstore on the site of a community garden in Lewes Road.

Green councillors, local MP Caroline Lucas and regional Green Euro-MP Keith Taylor have called for a boycott of the supermarket chain after developers Alburn Ltd launched a court bid today to evict community groups from the garden.

Local councillor Pete West summed up residents' feeling perfectly, saying:

“Local people don’t want or need a Tesco, and I am deeply opposed to plans for yet another supermarket in a road that already has a Co-op supermarket, a Sainsbury’s, a Spar and a very good Turkish mini-market.

“The last thing the Lewes Road needs is another supermarket that nobody has asked for. I am asking residents to show Tesco that a new store would be a failure, by pledging to boycott it.”

Local MP Caroline Lucas has urged Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to do all he can to stop the building of yet another supermarket on the site and has called for a competition test to halt the unchecked growth of super-markets and the devastating impact it has on local businesses, local communities and consumer choice.

In a letter to Mr Pickles and Planning Minister Greg Clarke she said:

“The Competition Commission concluded that the dominance of any one retailer in a local area has a negative impact on consumer choice. It recommended a competition test to stop supermarkets opening a new store in places where they already control the local market. I am disappointed the Government is now delaying implementation of the competition test.”

Former ward councillor Keith Taylor, now an MEP for the South-East region, added his voice to the campaign:

"In my time as ward councillor I was happy to welcome the community garden, and negotiated with the site owner to allow continued use of the site.

"In its year of operation the garden has been a focal point for developing a real community spirit and has reflected the wonderful diversity and energy of the city.

"I don't think anybody wants another supermarket here and now that eviction is on the cards I support the garden as much as ever."

The 'guerilla gardeners', who created the garden on the disused site of a former petrol station just over a year ago, also have an unlikely ally in Tory Brighton City Council leader Mary Mears.

Unlikely because, when it comes to defending communities from powerful vested interests, she usually sides with the crypto-fascist voices of unreason. Just last week, for example, she criticised Sussex Police for failing to ban a cyclists protest designed to darw attention to bikers' vulnerabilities from cars, and for failing to arrest travellers and van dwellers, whose lifestyle choices she deems 'unacceptable'.

She said: "The issue of multinationals and their impact on local economies is one we cannot afford to ignore." 

This might be the first, and perhaps the last, time I think she's spot on. But every little helps.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Fast food - Italian style

The eagle-eyed among you (well those readers with time on their hands anyway) may have noticed that this blog was silent for a few days last week. I've been in Italy, celebrating a friend's wedding on the North-West coast, and seeing for myself the way the Italians are preparing for the World Cup, and sampling some of the wonderful graffiti on the streets - it's much more about politics and a lot less about tagging.

Anyway, I could go on all day about Italy really, but I won't: instead I thought I'd share some of the most mind-boggling photos I took. In Pisa, just yards from the leaning tower, I came across this 'Automatic Restaurant', where you could buy two courses of pasta, pizzas,  drinks and processed desserts (check out the menu) - all from machines and with no human interaction whatsoever.

I don't know what amazes me more really - that someone has invented a way of eating that reduces the experience to an exchange of money with a machine and then a quick intake of processed calories on the hoof - or that I encountered it in Italy, the home of the Slow Food movement and, for some, the spiritual home of Europe's culinary culture itself.

Cameroon to win World Cup 2010 - you heard it here first

OK, everyone's talking about the World Cup, so here's my tuppence'worth.

Pele's prediction that an African team will win the tournament before the end of the 20th Century will come true just 10 years late.

England will go all the way: they'll beat the USA  (and win Group C), then Australia in the next round, Ghana in the Quarter Final and Cote d'Ivoire in the Semi.

But when they get to the final, they'll lose to 1990 superstars Cameroon, whose route to victory will see them  win Group E, then coolly dispatch New Zealand, Denmark and South Africa.

The other losing Quarter Finalists will be Greece and North Korea, and other the remaining second round qualifyers will be Nigeria, Mexico, Algeria, Paraguay, Spain and Chile.

OK, maybe not. This prediction is based on who I'd like to see win each match, for all sorts of (mainly irrational) reasons, none of which has anything to do with footballing prowess. But if it happens, remember, you heard it here first.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Brighton's public spending cuts in action: six figure payouts for former Labour MPs

As public spending cuts begin to bite, and millions are wiped from the budgets of Brighton and Hove City Council and Sussex Police Authority, it has been announced that the city's former Labour MPs are to get tax-free lump-sum bonuses of about £100,000 to make unemployment a little easier to bear.

It seems the three departing Labour MPs - two of whom retired rather than face defeat at the polls but all three of whom saw their seats won by candidates from other parties (one Green and two Tories) - are to receive so-called 'golden handshakes' of more than £110,000 between them on top of their generous publicly-funded pensions, the first £90,000 of which comes totally tax-free.

It seems as though the parliamentary authorities just don't get it. To paraphrase the late great Bill Hicks it'd be a little easier for us to tighten our belts if they were around some of these former MPs' necks.

Meanwhile  the city council is to press on with yet another reorganisation which will see four new directors hired on salaries of about £125,000 a year for overseeing wide-spread privatisation of our public services and doing some 'blue skies thinking' (they won't actually have departments to run - that's the whole point of the reorganisation).

Am I alone in thinking this sort of reorganisation, with all the costs it entails, should wait, at least until our new Tory government reveals the full extent of local spending cuts in its Comprehensive Spending Review due in September?

John Barradell, the council's Chief Executive, has already apologised to rock fans after the advert for the jobs sat under the wry strapline 'Status Quo fans need not apply' (my sides are splitting) - when will the community groups who are going to see their grants cut, and the public sector workers who will see thier jobs lost, get their apology?

If you fancy checking out the advert (and no, despite the headline it really isn't a joke) - or even fancy applying for one of the jobs, you can see it in full here.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Brighton Kemptown's new Tory MP is already stirring up xenophobia

I had the pleasure of getting to know Brighton Kemptown's new Tory MP Simon Kirby a little during the election campaign.

He always seemed an honest, straight-talking kind of guy - albeit one I didn't agree with very often.

But being a straight talker can be a double-edged kind of quality: it means when you insult someone, you can't talk your way out of it.

And when you choose to highlight the Euro-sceptic suspicions of Brighton residents by referring to an invasion of the city by the French over 500 years ago, as Mr Kirby did in his maiden speech in parliament, it sounds more like stirring up nationalistic sentiments rather than reflecting them.

How many of us really think the historical military relationships within Europe half a millennium ago are relevant to foreign relations today?

There's something to be said for taking the long view, but surely this is going too far?

Of course there's a good case to argue that we should all be given a say on future relations between the UK and the rest of the EU.

The Lisbon Treaty represented a real transfer from residents and elected representatives to unelected bureaucrats and multi-national businesses.

A single currency serving different countries and areas with wildly differing costs of living and fiscal policies is a pretty silly idea too.

But I hope if and when we do get a referendum on the future of EU-UK relations we can all stick to arguing about the economics and politics of whatever's being proposed, and not promote the kind of nationalism and xenophobia that comes of talking up ancient battles and long-forgotten wars.