Wednesday, 26 November 2014
Wednesday, 29 October 2014
There are many causes of this malaise. Our first-past-the-post system means most elections are decided in a handful of seats by a few voters; those of us unlucky enough to live elsewhere have the distinct impression we don’t matter and that the politicians have stopped listening. The main parties are all trying to occupy the same ‘middle ground’, to such an extent they have become entirely indistinct from one another. There’s actually a broad spectrum of opinion in this country – but when I hear the leaders of the main parties speak I am reminded of Marx (Groucho that is) who said ‘These are my principles. And if you don’t like them I have others.’ Additionally we must look for causes in the types of people we elect to Parliament. Just a generation ago, the Commons was filled with teachers, miners, dockers, health professionals – those who had in fact done a ‘proper’ job – not career politicians with little experience of real life beyond an apprenticeship in media or on a City trading floor so alien to most of us.
While Brand has highlighted the problem, he is somewhat hazier on the solutions. One positive to take from people’s disengagement from formal political dialogue is that they have found other ways of ‘making a difference’ in their communities – by working directly or indirectly with local groups on issues that affect their daily lives. Some of these will be overtly political – campaigning on specific issues. Many however will not be – but still they make a difference. Politicians need to start listening, and social media should increasingly play its part. People are beginning to rely on social media for their news and everyday discourse; and they rightly expect to be engaged by politicians via this medium. More importantly, though, social media is an open parliament, where its users, not politicians, set the agenda.
And politicians, media-trained to reveal nothing of their personalities or beliefs, need to start having a dialogue directly with the people they serve. For this reason I fully applaud the efforts of the Lansdowne Church, supported by the town council and others, to launch a series of debates on topical issues. Last Saturday it was food banks, a debate that was lively, informative and revealing of the grotesque inequalities of 21st century Britain, with local people showing they were better informed than our representatives in Westminster.
Wednesday, 24 September 2014
The SWDP needs to have people and communities at its heart and should be embracing their contributions and participation throughout the plan-making process and over the full life of the plan period that follows. Instead, the process appears to have generated more upset and disquiet than enthusiasm among communities in South Worcs, and while we appreciate that the proposed plan has been produced in line with the formal consultative requirements of a plan-making process, the outcome has clearly failed to attract the groundswell of active public support/ownership that would surely be the hallmark of a successful outcome. This is a highly unsatisfactory basis for committing to a long-term development plan and reflects an insufficiently ‘bottom-up’ plan-making process, with inadequate provision for active engagement and dialogue with communities.
When the SWDP was published in 2012, the Greens were the only local party to offer a formal response – a serious, radical alternative to the concentration of development in large urban extensions. We proposed a distributed form of additional development across the area (all existing settlements growing pro rata to their current size) as a more appropriate option for accommodating the extra housing and employment growth. Such distributed development:
- better supports regeneration of rural and other local communities and makes them more self-sustainable as places to work as well as live
- does not require such large-scale additional infrastructure (particularly roads) or risk further congestion of the existing travel network
- provides a more manageable response to what is a fairly uncertain level of need for extra housing and employment provision, especially as distributed development (on smaller sites) can more easily be managed incrementally
- represents a more logical response to 21st century trends and lifestyles when so much more business and communication will be electronic, rather than face-to-face and the costs of transport (at least with fossil fuels) are likely to have escalated much further, particularly in response to ‘peak oil’
- enables the villages to become economically prosperous once again, able to sustain a wide range of local services and amenities, which in turn helps nurture and support local entrepreneurialism to further underpin their success as local economies
- enables the character of Malvern, the views from the hills, and the town’s tourist potential, to be protected from further sub-urban sprawl and more town centre traffic congestion
- is more likely to support sympathetic and high quality architecture and respect local vernacular design
- saves large tracts of high quality land for agricultural/food production purposes (recognising the importance of South Worcestershire’s farm economy both for local and national food supply)
- minimises the pressure that large-scale concentrated development has on existing and new essential services (e.g. doctors’ surgeries, fire stations, water/sewerage mains and power supplies)
- is more likely to promote and support strong community identity and sense of place than do the soulless commuter-oriented, upwardly-mobile and transient estates that large-scale housing extensions invariably become
- avoids the risks of ghettoisation of less advantaged people and families that again so often goes hand in hand with large tracts of residential development, particularly where there is likely to be a significant proportion of social housing (e.g. the SWDP is looking for 50% affordable housing on larger sites).
In addition, particularly in response to the relatively high population/household growth envisaged for the sub-region, we proposed provision for one (possibly two) significant new green towns in the South Worcs area – zero/low carbon sustainable, self-sufficient communities, with a strong emphasis on advanced technology in terms of employment and economic base – of between 2,000–3,000 houses plus associated employment and amenity space and sufficient sites for a full range of service provision.
Certainly there is a need for more house-building – though there has been insufficient emphasis on bringing empty homes back into use and renovating our existing housing stock. But as important as the numbers are the variety of types, sizes and costs (affordability) of additional housing to meet a range of household circumstances. We want to see a much greater emphasis on achieving a better balance in the housing stock – with much more (affordable) provision for first-time buyers, more social housing (rented and shared equity), and many more smaller houses/bungalows to suit an aging population. The Plan should not just leave it to developers to build what they wish – since this only results in mass provision of (more profitable) executive homes that are unaffordable/unsuitable for many local needs and instead simply attract outsiders into the area, many of whom will commute long distances to work.
The SWDP, and the additional development it permits, also represents an important opportunity to upgrade significantly the standards of thermal efficiency in our housing stock to respond to the problems of climate change and escalating fuel costs. Exacting standards for new development with regard to energy efficiency and carbon emissions should be set. In this way the Plan can be the instrument by which we dramatically improve design standards in relation to a range of considerations, such as access to services and provision of community focal points, sound insulation and privacy etc.
The Plan is pessimistic about the prospects of being able to achieve the significant additional transport infrastructure (road schemes in particular), although having said that, the Plan also seems predicated on such additional infrastructure being provided. But cheap and easy car travel has been a major contributor to the loss of local facilities from smaller communities through diminished custom and viability. Moreover, experience tells us that road improvement/congestion alleviation schemes mostly only provide short-term relief and simply encourage more vehicles on to the highways so that soon the congestion and pollution problems re-emerge. This is a hopeless circular process out of which we must escape – and for which this SWDP again provided a golden opportunity that has been squandered.
Our preferred option of a more distributed pattern of additional development seeks specifically to do this – by both reversing the trend to dormitory settlements for our villages and re-establishing them as sustainable and vibrant communities with local employment and services so that people need to travel far less. This is surely a more logical way to solve traffic congestion problems than continuing to throw public money at short-term alleviation schemes.
Such a vision requires imagination and the courage to stand up to central government and large developers. This administration has neither the imagination nor the courage, resorting to its party whip to ensure MHDC rejected our vision and forcing this unloved beast of a plan upon us.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
One of the most expensive fixed costs of the Cube are its utilities and in order to meet the Cube’s mission, these costs need to be minimised. One means of achieving this is to obtain electricity at well below market price. Malvern Community Energy Co-operative, of which I am a director and which has installed the array, will sell electricity at a discounted rate to MYCT, who run the Cube. Any excess will be sold to the grid at a higher rate.
The Co-op electricity will also not be subject to the uncertainties associated with fossil fuel price increases (over twice inflation for the last 10 years), instead linking increases in price to RPI. The difference between the Co-op electricity prices and the market prices equates to the social benefit this scheme is delivering and is a part of creating a viable youth and community centre for the community run by the community. It is worth remembering that the Cube and all its services and facilities only exist today because a group of community-minded volunteers campaigned to be allowed to run it rather than the County Council following their plan to demolish the building.
Co-operative ownership of renewable energy is familiar to many in continental Europe and has been growing rapidly in the UK in recent years. There are now renewable energy co-operatives across the UK and across a range of technologies. These projects are not only helping to improve the local environment, but by bringing people together they are making renewable energy more accessible and affordable. Co-operatives of this kind are truly democratic structures: anyone can apply to join and with a ‘one member one vote’ system and a board elected from the membership, they offer a fair and transparent way to operate a community-owned renewable energy business. They also have the power to prioritise membership from the local area, ensuring that financial benefits from renewable energy flow to people in the locality.
The fossil fuel multinationals and their friends in government are hostile towards renewables. Unlike their diminishing supplies of oil and gas, renewables are inexhaustible and available to every community – not dependent on unstable sometimes undesirable overseas governments. And as renewables belong to nobody (even if the Nestlé chairman is reported as having said that water is not a right, but should be given a 'market value' and privatised) each and every one of us can benefit.
The sole planned activity of Malvern Community Energy Co-op is the ownership and management of one or more solar arrays in the Malvern Hills area. The establishment of the solar array at the Cube is the first stage in this process. With this demonstration model and the knowledge and lessons learnt from the set-up process the intention is to develop other projects. The Co-op is already pursuing other possibilities with organisations who own large roofs that face south and have a high electrical power demand. Watch this space!
Saturday, 6 September 2014
So consider for a moment these statistics: 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; every 6 seconds a woman is assaulted in her own home; every minute an incident of domestic violence is reported to the police – though a victim is likely to have been assaulted 35 times before she seeks help for the first time. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner.
So from which illiberal backward, authoritarian part of the globe do these shameful statistics come? In fact, they come from Great Britain. Look again at those statistics – can you believe they come from Britain in the 21st century?
Make no mistake, domestic violence knows no social, economic or class boundaries – it is seen in every walk of life. Wherever it occurs, the victims are many: the women –sometimes the men – who suffer not only visible physical scars, but invisible mental scars that may take far longer to heal – loss of confidence, sense of worth, of being valued; children who are forced to witness the hurt of those they love, who may themselves become conditioned to accept abuse as the norm; parents and friends of victims, who feel helpless and guilty, seeing their loved ones so diminished and cowed.
The authorities – police, social services, judicial system – have become far better at tackling the issues of domestic abuse. They more often see the signs, are less likely to believe what happens between partners – a ‘mere domestic’ – is something to steer clear of. If what happens behind closed doors remains there it will not only be allowed to continue, but will become commonplace and the norm within families and communities. But even now, especially now, the will may be there, but the resources are lacking.
While the authorities have become better at tackling instances of abuse, and while the networks to support the victims are slowly being put in place – allowing victims to become survivors, and once more to take control of their lives – there is still a long way to go. And we shall never eradicate this malaise at the heart of our society until we have tackled the root causes – our attitudes as a society to the role of women within it. Changing attitudes takes time and it takes resources.
For this reason I was delighted to be invited to attend the launch of a new charity, the SupportWorks Foundation. The Foundation does invaluable work supporting survivors of abuse through its various educational recovery programmes – free of charge and designed to empower them and help rebuild their lives. The highest quality training is also being delivered to professionals who themselves deal with victims of domestic abuse.
But to eradicate this malaise once and for all we must start by educating our young. The Foundation delivers courses designed to prevent teenage relationship abuse, sexual assault and bullying and activate student leadership in promoting healthy and respectful relationships. These courses allow those in schools and other establishments to deliver the Coaching Healthy and Respectful Masculinity (CHARM) programme to boys and young men and the We Are Valued, Equal and Safe (WAVES) programme for girls and young women. To find out more, to offer your support, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, 30 June 2014
One way to tackle this would be a locally determined Land Value Taxation (LVT), based on the annual rental value of the land, exempting all buildings on it, to replace the Council Tax and Non-Domestic Business Rates. As there would be no reduction of or exemption for buildings left vacant or that have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, this would encourage full use of existing properties and discourage the practice of people speculating on the price of sites whilst keeping the properties empty or derelict. It would become unprofitable to sit on unused land and would incentivise productive use of land.
Over time, this would help to stabilise the property market and tackle the boom-and-bust factor that contributed towards the 2008 financial crisis – discouraging disproportionate amounts of capital from being tied up in property and excessive accumulation of debt.
Moreover, the tax system should, whenever possible, target windfalls, not effort. The value of any plot is not the result of effort on the part of the landowner but the value added by the community; any increase is a windfall. As Winston Churchill recognised in a speech in 1909: "Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still… To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist as a land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced." The total value of the housing stock in the UK now stands at over £4trn, an increase above inflation since 1990 of £2trn. This £2trn increase has come through a rise in the value of land itself - not through new buildings (comparatively few houses have been built in the last two decades) but from improvements paid for by the community. Landowners have gained a windfall of £100bn yearly on average from a rise in land values to which they have not contributed. A tax levied on the value of the plot of land, without taking into account any building on it (value added by the landowner), targets this £100bn annual unearned windfall that at present is hardly taxed at all. Most goes to powerful and privileged freeloading landowners who fight to keep every penny, and in doing so harm the economy as well as damaging the environment.
The Green Party have developed a coherent LVT strategy:
LD400 The Green Party proposes introducing LVT (previously known as Community Ground Rent) as a tax payable on the annual value of land. The valuation would be of the land alone, exempting all buildings on it, recent and future improvements to it, or minerals extracted from it. LVT would therefore not be a tax on the rent of buildings, the value of crops, manufactured products or the product of other forms of work. (Minerals extracted from the land would be taxed separately - see NR423 & EC710s)
LD401 The proposed LVT would be levied by the local community at rates to be agreed amongst Districts and Regions. Any necessary redistribution between Districts and Regions would be undertaken by agreement between local governments in accordance with the principles agreed in EC551.
LD402 The level at which the tax would be levied would be based on the full value of the current permitted use of the land. Permitted use would mean, for example, that the taxable value of land which is deemed by the community to have special amenity or habitat value, thus inhibiting use for possible greater financial return , would be reduced. When it is considered desirable to change the use through the land-use planning framework, this new permitted use would then form the basis of the assessment.
LD403 Assessments would be reviewed automatically on change of use and every few years, or more frequently, on request. An arbitration process would be made available to provide compensation for those adversely affected by permitted use, and provision made for appeal against assessment.
Sunday, 18 May 2014
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean," said the little old man.”
Monday, 12 May 2014
Here I hope to set the record straight with some answers to the myths being spread by politicians intent on grabbing the headlines, but with little regard to the facts. With thanks to Tom Williams from Green World:
Monday, 5 May 2014
Thursday, 1 May 2014
Monday, 28 April 2014
Thursday, 24 April 2014
I urge you not to give in to politicians of every hue seeking to turn us against the weakest in society, but to support the likes of the Food Bank. Let’s be thankful that we have those willing to step in when government abrogates its responsibilities. But it is no cause for celebration.