Thursday, 25 November 2010

More protest in Brighton as children, students, teachers and sympathisers take to the streets

Well yet again protest has come to Brighton as popular dissatisfaction with the Government's completely unnecessary cuts programme spills onto the streets.

This time the focus was on education cuts: specifically the trebling of university fees, the withdrawal of the grants designed to help the poorest 16-19 year olds get to school and college for further education - and the withdrawal of funding for adult education. As part of a rash of demonstration and civil disobedience sweeping the country, as many as a thousand students, school pupils (some, reportedly, as young as 11) and sympathisers marched and, inevitably, some engaged in a little spot of good old-fashioned civil disobedience: Brighton Town hall was briefly occupied, and an occupation of some Brighton University buildings appears to be ongoing, more than 24 hours later.

I thought this photo told a story worth telling: a sole Labour Party sympathiser getting the mood all wrong: most of the placards and chants on display were focussed on the issues at stake (one of my favourites had to be: 'Tories put the N in cuts') while this chap rather missed the message, imploring students to just 'Vote Labour' as though that'd make a blind bit of difference! Remember, it was Labour that introduced tuition fees in the first place - and that Labour remain committed to making deep public spending cuts too.

For the record: the Green Party would abolish student tuition fees absolutely. Higher Education students would pay neither £9,000 a year, nor £3,000 a year, but nothing at all. They would be paid from the general exchequer, funded by increasing the higher rate of tax paid by the highest earners and closing the tax avoidance and evasion loopholes currently enjoyed by the likes of George Osbourne, Rupert Murdoch and Lewis Hamilton.

Anyway, enough of that party political nonsense: here's a video that made me laugh out loud, pilfered from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts website. I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Time for American Express to pay compensation to neighbours of new HQ building works

Can you imagine one of your neighbours deciding to demolish their house and build a brand new one a few metres away - and to take five or six  years doing year doing so - closing roads along the way, and generating noise, dust and disruption which keeps you up at night, kills your home working business stone dead, rattles the ground with pile drivers until bricks and tiles fall off your house, and then refuses to pay you any compensation for the misery you're suffering?

Well that's what's happened to Carlton Hill residents living in the shadow of the Brighton-based European American Express HQ.

The firm has made a few concessions to residents - washing their cars and windows, for example, but few (except perhaps AmEx's US bosses) believe the firm is at all interested in the local community in which is HQ sits.

As ward councillors we raised our objections early on in the process (of course they didn't prevail), and have been able to broker regular, open, meetings between residents and AmEx managers.

It could all be about to kick off a little. It seems some residents have been unable to sell their homes as a result of the ongoing work, and something of a house value blight has descended on the so-called 'Edward Street Quarter'. Affected householders are preparing to sue the American bank accordingly: it could end up costing the firm a generation of community goodwill and a few hundred thousand pounds if it ends up with residential community clubbing forces to take an American bank to court.

Meanwhile, the firm has donated a few thousand pounds to the fund to pay for Christmas lights in nearby St James's Street - the area's bad-PR slush fund (last year it was Starbucks who tried to use a small donation to the fund to buy its way out of the bad publicity generated by opening without planning permission in the area).

Of course the jobs AmEx provides to the area are welcome - but surely shouldn't give the firm a carte blanche to be a bad neighbour.

The principal beneficiaries of the firm's presence in Brighton are, after all, the bank's shareholders. That's the way the banking market works. remember, it's a bank, not a hospital or a school!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Standing up for local media - and jobs - in face of US onslaught

Today and tomorrow journalists at The Argus are striking over plans by the papers' US owners to sack sub-editors and move the paper's production to Southampton.

I've just got back from a wintry morning standing alongside them outside the paper's Hollingbury HQ: I was delighted to see a really good turnout, of local politicians (here's a few, pictured: myself with fellow Green Councillor Pete West, Hollingdean and Stanmer election candidate Luke Walter and Ben Parsons, local NUJ rep).

Overturning the plan really matters, for three main reasons.

Firstly, decent local jobs must be protected, now more than ever. For a company (US-based Gannett in this case) to seek to cut costs by sacking staff might just be acceptable if that's the only way it can keep the business alive, and therefore protect other jobs - but there can be no excuse for it when it's simnply about increasing profits.

Secondly, to protect the quality of our city's journalism. I don't always see eye-to-eye with the Argus, but it plays an essential role in reporting what happens in our city, especially by the council and police authority members elected in all of our names.

It's essential in a functioning democracy that this oversight is provided by the media, and replacing skilled journalists who boast local knowledge with overworked, underpaid and remote replacements will make this function of the paper weaker then ever.

And thirdly, there is a really important principal at stake: the local media must be controled locally. An effective local paper must be part of the community it serves.

The Government should introduce strict new laws governing media control to ensure this: no UK local media should be owned by foreign or multinational companies at all. Otherwise their freedom - and therefore all of our freedom - is ultimately at stake.

Imagine (you wouldn't be far from the truth) if all local papers wree owened by foreign companies who viewed their role not  as keeping the community informed but turning a profit for their shareholders.

This whole saga shows that we need tough new laws preventing foriegn ownership of local media, not rules that allow the Argus to be run by the same company that owns USA Today.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Boost for local bloggers as US-based Argus owners abandon Brighton

The US media corporation Gannett, which owns the Argus, has sparked an all-out media war here in Brighton - a war it can't possibly win.

In the face of dwindling circulation (down from over 100,000 in its heyday to about 25,000 today, I'm told), and falling advetising revenues, it has decided to cut costs by sacking sub-editors and moving production of the paper to Southampton.

The move seems destined to further reduce the local flavour of the paper (to think, The Argus was once Brighton's newspaper 'of record'!) - and force anyone looking for real local news to look elsewhere.

They won't find it on the radio - with the exception of Radio Reverb, which carries little news - there's nothing on the airways which makes any real attempt to serve the city's community.

Neither the so-called BBC Sussex (so-called because it shares most of its programming with the equally so-called BBC Surrey based in Guildford) nor the pap music stations Heart FM or Juice FM even pretend to tell us everything that's going on in the city.

And they won't find it on TV either: Meridian sometimes fits a Brighton story in its few minutes of local coverage,, and the BBC has the contempt to split Brighton and Hove between its South and South-East news services, neither of which tells us anything much about Brighton.

Living in the BBC South area, I learn more about the goings on in Oxford, and even Bourrnemouth - than I do Brighton!

So where do they find it?

On the Internet, it seems. A growing number of local news services and blogs have sprung up in recent years trying to plug the gap: four of the biggest are (in no particular order): News From Brighton, Brighton and Hove News, Brighton and Hove Free Press and the Brighton Politics Blogger. Of course, there's this 'blog too, for occoasional comment.

I can't speak for the others I've named, but I can happily report that readers of this 'blog have been steadily increasing since it was first launched in 2008 and now peak at over 1,000 a week.

Of course some of those readers are just other councillors looking for something to complain about,  but even so - if they are reading my 'blog then I presume they are not hatching plans to undermine public service delivery or sell off the city's council housing stock or anything!

So, it seems the (old) King is dead - suicide by US managers looks to be the verdict: long live the (new) King!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Will Brighton follow San Francisco's lead and ban McDonald's 'Happy Meals'?

Last week San Francisco took a bold step in the defence of children's health: the city banned the practise of giving away plastic toys with junk food.

The move is a bold response to the growing problem of child obesity - and worries that today's children may be the first generation ever to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Latest figures show that  a staggering 15% of US children are overweight or obese - about the same as the number of ten year-olds here in Brighton, according to a recent report by the city's Director of Public Health, Dr Tom Scanlon.

I've today asked Brighton Council's cabinet member for Children's Services Vanessa Brown to consider introducing the same scheme here in Brighton.

I hope she is supportive - but I'm not holding my breath: the Tories have hardly got a great record when it comes to pitting corporate interests against public health.

What's worse: breaking a few windows or undermining social mobility?

On Wednesday about 50,000 people - several hundred of them from Brighton - marched through central London in protest at the Government's cuts in further and higher education spending that will see university fees treble, free adult education abandoned, and cash allowances to enable the poorest teenagers to stay at school - the Education Maintainance Allowance - scrapped.

By some accounts it was the biggest demonstration since the now famous 'Stop the War' march of 2003.

Of course the media have concentrated on condemning the actions of a breakaway group who occupied the Millbank HQ of the Tory party, breaking windows and setting off flares and bonfires.

But I think we all need to ask ourselves the question: what's worse - breaking a few windows or undermining the very idea of social mobility in our education system?

Let's be clear: the Government's plans will do exactly that.

The average university student will leave college with around £40,000 of debt: placing higher education out of reach of most poorer families.

Coupled with the decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the end of state-funded vocational training for adults, few are optimistic that these measures won't see the divide between rich and poor widen even further, and even more quickly than it did under Labour.

The prevailing wisdom, of coursem, is that any group seeking to change public policy should confine themselves to two routes to trying to do so: engagement with the political process, and well-behaved, orderly demonstrations.

I agree, in theory. But in practise, we have to remember that neither of these has worked at all, and that people are angry.

Many voted for the Lib-Dems in the mistaken belief that  they could be trusted when they said they'd oppose any rise in tuition fees.

Labour, lest we forget, introduced tuition fees in the first place (as just one of the measures they took that saw the gap between rich and poor widen so much during the 13 years that they held the riens of power).

And as for the Tories: well even today, Simon Kirby, our local Tory MP, has told the media of his enthusiasm for higher student fees.

So much for the democratic process.

And as for orderly protest? Well, I was one of the hundreds of thousands who marched through central London in protest at plans to invade Iraq without a UN mandate. Fat lot of good that did - we're still counting the bodies.

Indeed you could argue that the last time protet really changed public policy here in the UK was when Lady Gaga - I mean Thatcher - abandoned the Poll Tax after rioting hit the streets of London.

Of course I'm not saying violent protest is the answer - I'm a confirmed democrat, obviously (I'd hardly be a councillor if I wasn't) - just that we should get things in perspective.

And, to my mind, breaking a few windows in anger is far less serious than either lying about policy to win votes - or introducing a set of education policies that are bound to undermine social mobility.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Brighton Council's latest attack on council tenants' human rights

We've seen the budget deficit used as cover for an attack on benefits and the public sector over recent months, but Brighton Council has given us a new twist this week: using fraud as a cover for an ID-card scheme to make up for the national scheme ditched earlier this year.

On Monday members of the Housing Management Consultative Committee will discuss a plan that could require council tenants to carry ID cards to gain access to their own homes.

What next, one wag asked me today, compulsory bar-code branding for all living in social housing?

A national ID card scheme was a terrible idea. A local one, compulsory only for those living in social housing, is even worse.

This latest attack on basic human rights should be resisted at every turn.

When Labour ran this city they hatched a plan to privatise the city's entire housing stock: luckily tenants resisted and the idea was dropped after a hideously expensive PR campaign trying to persuade them to do exactly the opposite.

Now the Tories want all tenants to carry ID cards. I hope they resist just as strongly and effectively.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Green councillor cleared on all counts in free speech case

UPDATE: Green councillor Jason Kitcat has today been cleared of all complaints made against him - and all sanctions imposed - in a case that has cost the taxpayer thousands.

All the details of the case are in my latest - and earlier posts.

It was bound to happen, really. Before today's hearing I took delight in mentioning the case to all and sundry - I couldn't find a single person who thought pursuing this case was either just or a good use of public funds. In fact, most people thought the case itself brought the council into disrepute. All the hoo-ha has definitely increased viewing of the original clip in question.

So now only one question remains: how much public money was wasted on such things as barristers and hotel rooms, not to mention hours of officer time, on the whole charade?

Oh and I should declare an interest: I myself am subject to another standards board complaint - as a member of the Sussex Police Authority rather than Brighton and Hove City Council - a my 6th in two-and-a-half years.

I have been told it vaguely relates to something I've said on this 'blog regarding EDO protests in Brighton - but in a Kafka-esque twist I'm not allowed to know either the detailed nature of the complaint - or who made it - until after a committee has examined it. Natural justice at work? You decide!

Tories in disarray after Pickles' throws his weight behind Green councillor in free speech row

Today sees the latest installment in the saga of Brighton Council vs Green Councillor Jason Kitcat: his appeal against suspension for posting a video clip of a council meting on YouTube will be heard at the Hilton Metropole Hotel.

The swanky seafront venue will play host to the hearing - with the tab picked up by you, the taxpayer - even though I haven't been able to find a single person who thinks either the original complaint, the conclusion of the council's standards hearing, or the logic of suspending a democratically-elected councillor in a politically-hung council on the say-so of members of other parties was either just, sensible, democratic, or a good use of council officers' time or public money (and remember, were talking thousands here).

Jason was found to be in breach of the code of conduct after posting a clip from an official council meeting webcast onto YouTube.

Following an official complaint lodged by a Tory councillor (Ted Kemble), he was found to be in breach of the council's code of conduct by a Labour Councillor (Jeane Lepper) who admitted during the hearing that she hadn't actually seen the clip in question, and a Lib-Dem councillor (David Watkins) who appeared to some to be asleep during the hearing.

He was suspended from the council for six months but appealed against the ruling: hence the case that will be heard today, which the Standards Board for England has organised.

The council, and the Standards Board, are seeking to uphold the original ruling, despite the costs to the public purse of pursuing the case.

But Jason won over an unlikely ally last week in the shape of Tory Minister Eric Pickles.

Speaking in the House of Commons, of all places, he said: "I say to Councillor Kitcat: YouTube if you want to!"

The Hove Tories must be hopping mad.

With Pickles' weight behind him, how can Jason fail to have all the charges dropped.

I'll let you know the outcome when I can.