Saturday, 18 December 2010

Why the 'big three' parties are all wrong on the cuts biting in Brighton right here, right now

Why cuts are the wrong cure from False Economy on Vimeo.

Here's a great video from the great campaign group False Economy.

It uses that old campaigning trick - getting diasabled people and children to tug a few heartstrings - but it does so in a way that illuminates, rather than clouds, the logic behind the message: that cutting public services is neither morally right nor likely to be effective.

The list of economic experts who have reached this conclusion is almost getting too long to list (makes a change from the time before the crash, which hardly any of the so-called experts saw coming!) - my favourite starting points are Herman Daly, Joseph Stiglitz and former Bank of England Monetary Policy committee member David Blanchflower. Most of the economic thinking undelying their position comes from John Maynard Keynes. Anyway, there are loads of really good links on False Economy's website if you want to dive into the economics behind what they are saying.

We are already seeing the implications of the cuts bite here in Brighton.

Bright Start Nursery is under threat of closure, 16-18 year-olds in their city are set to lose their Education Maintenance Allowance, University fees are set to treble, over 1,000 police officers and staff are for the chop, police stations are reducing their 'opening hours', homeslessness and unemployment, especially among the city's younger people, is rising, train fares are set to rise at mnore than double the rate of inflation, spending on social care for the most elderly is to be slashed in the name of 'personalisastion', NHS services are being farmed out to private firms who can deliver them more cheaply by employing fewer nurses... and all this is happening here in Brighton.

I could go on, but I won't, for now: I think my point is clear. This isn't about abstract thought, this is about poeple's lives, here and now. And it's a bloody disgrace.

What saddens me most is that all the 'big three' political parties agree. Yes, there are some arguments between  Labour and the Tories about the speed and the depth of the cuts programme, but they all agree that the cuts are necessary, and with the basic principle that 'we are all in this together' - that recipients of public services (mainly the poorest) and public sector employees (mainly women) must bear the brunt of the problems caused mainly by the banking sector - and Labour's failure to properly regulate it in the first place.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Brighton Council action on reducing carbon emissions is pitiful

Regular readers of this 'blog will know that, depsite being a Green Party councillor, I don't often muse on traditionally environmental topics.

But, given the cold weather that seems to have brought most of the country to a stanstill (for the fourth tine in a year!) I don't feel I can hold off from talking about Brighton Council's shameful record on climate change any longer.

Of course most of us imagine the symptoms of global warming to be increased desertification, rising sea levels, water shortages and so on, but scientific consenses these days seems to point to the increased incidence of extreme weather events and general meterological unpredictablity too. And that's exactly what we're seeing at the moment.

Of course, climate change isn't anyone's fault acting alone. But big employers and public service providers can make a real difference to the carbon dioxide emissions which are prety universally thought to be driving the climate chaos.

That's why the council together with its public secor parners (like the police, the fire and rescue service, the soon-to-be-disbanded primary care trust and so on) adopted the target of reducing CO2 emissions across the city by some 12%.

Figures reported to the city's Local Stratic Partnership a couple of weeks ago though show the progress has been pitiful - CO2 reductions are only about half that, at about six per cent - and most of those are due to recession meaning there's less stuff being made, bought and sold.

Could it just be that the council doesn't take its duty to reduce CO2 emissions seriously?

New Brighton Sainsbury's will be a disaster for local traders: I predict a wave of direct action

So it's official: Sainbury's wants to open its 10th supermarket in the city on the old Job Centre site in St James's Street.

The store revealed its plan - to open a Sainbury Local on the site in Spring 2011, in a letter to me as ward councillor (in which the firm has asked for my support - fat chance!) - and it has been reported in today's Argus.

If it opens, the new supermarket will be the fourth in just a few shorth metres of St James's Street - and the sixth in a stretch running from Rock Gardens to the Clock Tower (about a ten-minute walk).

Let's be clear - a new Sainsbury's will be a disaster for the area and the wider environment: both for residents and local businesses.

It will reduce choice (after all, most of the supermarkets sell pretty much the same range of goods, mostly branded and trucked in in fleets of lorries), suck profits away from the town, undercut local businesses, drive local business rents up, and make the street look a little more like everywhere else in the coutry - reducing at a stroke the reasons why any visitor would want to come here.

Local residents - at least most of those at last week's St James's Area Local Action Team Meeting - are fiercely opposed to the coming of the retail giant.

Judging from the popular dissent at the opening, without planning permission, of a new Starbucks a little further up the road in 2008, and the increasing politicisation of people living in the area as a result of Government cuts in just about everything, I predict a wave of direct action against the store.

We can all start by boycotting their new outlet just a few metres away in North Street.

I think it's about time, we, and Brighton Council, started resisiting the onward march of Clone Town Britain: a good place is the excellent Re-imagining the High Street report by the New Economics Foundation.

Of course, the 'Londonization' (as the French call it) of Brighton is only to be expected, given the appalling Retail Study adopted when Labour ran the city, and the toothless way in which the Tories have tried to protect local businesses and communities too.

But just because resistance to the corporate onsluaght hasn't been as successful as we'd have like so far, it's no reason to stop trying.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Multinational support for community campaigns doesn't buy them carte blanche to act with impunity

A thought-provoking letter in last Friday's Brighton Argus challenged me over my public involvement in the campaign to stop Starbucks opening a store in St James's Street and my condemmnation of the attitude of giant US bank American Express, which dominates much of the Edward Stret area, to its neighbours.

The author argued that, as the firms had donated more than £10,000 between them to the area's Christmas lights over the last two years, I should rethink my condemnation of them.

Of course it is good that both Starbucks and AMEX have made contributions to the St James’s Street area Christmas Lights.

I hope the display encourages residents and visitors to the city to visit the area and support local businesses – who have had a tough couple of years – in the run-up to Christmas.

But let’s be clear: both firms decided to donate some money to the lights only in the face of PR disasters, and compared to their bottom lines, the amounts donated in attempt to buy the goodwill of the community are pretty derisory.

Last year Starbucks was trying to tackle its public image as a ‘bulldozer’ which opened without planning permission and ignored public concerns – and local democratic opinion.

Having ‘bought’ the goodwill of some members of the community for a mere £3,000, it has declined to make any contribution at all this year.

As for American Express: it is an important local employer, but the construction of its new HQ in Carlton Hill is making residents’ lives a misery, and it is steadfastly refusing to compensate them.

I would have preferred to see the firm’s largess directed at its neighbours who are suffering daily road closures and traffic chaos, noise, dust, structural damage to their homes – and a complete loss of business for those who work from home.

The community campaign against Starbuck was about preserving the street for local business and residents.

So, no, whilst I am glad the firms concerned have helped the area fund its much-needed Christmas Lights, I haven't changed my view.

And while I'm delighted that our comunity campaign against Starbucks prompted them to give £3,000 to the fund, I'd much rather they hadn't opened here in the first place.

On a recent trip to London I came across this image of a good-old fashioned bit of 'subvertising' on a so-called 'Boris bike' which I though summed up the issue quite neatly really: sponsoring something for the community (be it Christmas Lights or a public bike-hire scheme) really doesn't give big business the right to act with impunity in other areas - whether it's opening a cafe without planing permission, refusing to compensate your neighbours for years of disturbance, or supporting the arms insdustry.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The streets of Brighton today: police everywhere, justice nowhere?

Today I walked from Kemptown across Brighton to the BBC Sussex studio to take part in a live Politics Show debate about cuts to the police, and proposals to farm out some of the police's responsibilities to charities and other organisations in a bid to save cash.

The irony was remarkable: on the way there I passed at least 20 officers, and saw a gaggle of parked-up vans, doing very little. I think they were there in case there was a repeat of yesterday's protests against tax dodgers.

The phrase: 'police everywhere, justice nowhere' springs to mind.

The cost of the whole operation (given overtime bills and so one) probably topped six figures: certainly enough money to stave off a few of the 1,000+ job losses envisaged at Sussex Police. I wonder how many of the officers involved asked their superior officers whether the level of policing could end up costing them their own jobs?

Yesterday's protests targeted Top Shop to draw attention to the group's owner Tory advisor Sir Philip Green, who, by channelling some of his vast profits through his Monaco-resident wife's accounts, is able to avoid paying UK tax on much of his fortune - and therefore avoid contributing to the police bill in the first place. And the very same police who might end up losing their jobs want to prevent any disruption to his ability to go on doing so! The mind boggles.

I think if the police spend more time and money catching tax dodgers and a little less protecting the rights of the Sir Philip Greens of this world to sell stuff and enhance their personal fortunes it'd be better for all of us - not least the police themselves whose jobs are under threat.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Clone town Brighton - the latest chapter

Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a line I have used before, but the simple fact is it keeps being true!

Clone Town Britain took another step closer to kooky Kemptown this week with the eventual closure of the Taj shop on St James's Street  - and rumours that Sainsinsbury will move onto thew site.

If they do, St James's Street will boast one Sainsbury, one Morrisons, one Tesco and one (currently being extended) Co-op all in the space of about 200 metres.

That'd be absolutely terrible for the street - and the wider community. Consumers would have less choice (they all sell pretty much the same range of branded goods as each other), local businesses would suffer (not only from the inevitable rent rises but also the ability of multi-national superstores, with deep pockets, to undercut them until they go bust), visitors to the the city would have no reason to visit the area, and it would look just like every other shopping street in the country.

But it's hardly a surprise. The last Government (that's right, when Labour where in charge) oversaw the biggest increase in chain store domination of the British High Street in history, presiding over a system of tax breaks and hidden subsidies (remember, Sainsbury's largest shareholder, David Sainsbury, was a Labour peer!) for the retail giants. And when Labour ran Brighton Council they adopted the bizarre retail study claiming we needed supermarkets as big as NINE Churchill Squares around Brighton and Hove.

Remember  the campaign to prevent Starbucks replacing the local firm 'Sussex Stationers' a little further up the street? It was Government intervention that overturned the locally determined (democratically) planning rules that would have prevented the new store.

And as for the current Tory council! Well, don't get me started, really. They have refused steadfastly to implement their own licensing rules which are supposed to stop new off licences and supermarkets with off-license sections opening up in the area (the so-called 'Cumulative Impact area in which there is supposed to be a presumption against granting any new license application). They are cutting cash for community development work, and have even undermined the city's Business Improvement District scheme.They don't spend as much time, money or effort promoting businesses in the area as they do elsewhere in the city (just look at the fiasco over the fact that Christmas lights have to be funded by American Express and Starbucks in a desperate bid to buy some good publicity!) - they're happy to promote car-based out-of-town shopping centres and ever more supermarkets on 'empty' sites (like the community garden in Lewes Road) - indeed their primary line of defence against Clone Town Britain seems to be a few faintly xenophobic sounding 'Be Local, Buy Local' stickers.

Meanwhile the Chief Constable of Sussex Police Martin Richards and Tory East Sussex County Council leader want to close police stations and house coppers in supermarkets in an increasingly desperate bid to save cash in thee face of Government cuts. The mind boggles.

It's no wonder the retail giants are winning, really, and local people, independent traders, and the 'feel' of our communities are losing. Roll on the May election.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Snow laughing matter: abandoned buses, shopping centres and even roads

So it's snowed. Lots for the South coast. And chaos has ensued. Brighton Council gritters have broken down, so have a few buses (picture right) and shoppers have abandoned the pre-Christmas consumer-fest for a day or two.

In many ways it's a campaigner's dream: reclaiming the streets for pedestrians  is easy when there are few vehicles out, and fighting rampant consumerism by persuading people to stop shopping is a cakewalk when it snows too (check out Churchill Square this morning - and only a fortnight before Christmas. The tills were hardly ringing!).

Seriously though the weather is causing real hardship to many. Heating systems in some communal housing blocks have endured problems, some shops have run out of staples (after just one day), commuters and travellers have been stranded, schools have closed, and as for the city's street homeless population - well it hardly bears thinking about. Oh and the switch-on of the Christmas Lights in St James's Street has had to be cancelled too.

Anyone suffering hardship should try and contact me by leaving a comment below - I'll help however I can. The council (God don't you just love the Tories) seems to have largely abandoned the idea of providing much help itself (although it has placed a large grit pile at the junction of Queen's Park Road and Elm Grove, and been gritting and ploughing major roads) and is instead encouraging a 'big society' response - asking for volunteers to help with gritting, sweeping up snow and driving key workers around. It's not like the snow hasn't been forecast for days (weeks even?) after all...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

In Italy's student-led protests, it's culture itself that's resisting the cuts

Students, schoolchildren and sympathisers took to the streets again yesterday: in Brighton and around the country.

Many were 'kettled' by police in freezing temperatures: Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority Jenny Jones is planning to call for a review of the tactic - and the Met's whole approach to policing demonstrations - at the next authority meeting in London.

Anyone from Brighton who travelled up for any of the London demos, and has anything to say about the way the police there handled things, do let me know and I'll pass their accounts on to Jenny.

There have been fewer complaints about the policing here in Brighton - most comments I have received have been poking fun rather than expressing concern: that said there was some 'kettling', and even a report or two of young people being tasered - so do let me know and I'll make sure all complaints are properly examined.

Education cuts have sparked student demonstrations in Italy too - as this photo shows students wearing crash helmets (and presumably enjoying slightly warmer temperatures than we're seeing in the UK at the moment) were perhaps better prepared for any police violence they may have encountered.

But for me the really interesting thing about this photo was that it shows the protesters were carrying shields adorned with the names of book: Melville's Moby Dick, Plato's Republic and even the Wu-Ming Foundation's 'Q' were among the titles chosen.

By putting literature in the front line, the students and their sympathisers made the excellent point that it's not just the people - it's culture itself - that is under attack from education cuts.