Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Putting communities before developers

As MHDC prepares to vote on whether to add still more homes to the already bloated South Worcestershire Development Plan, its Tory leadership predictably wrings its hands. But let’s not forget how readily they’ve accepted central government’s bidding to build our way out of recession, regardless of the environmental and economic cost. To its pleas there is no choice – there is always a choice.

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

Communities doing it for themselves

If you’ve travelled past the Cube this week you may have been intrigued by the frenetic activity on the roof. What you might not have realised, as work on installing a solar array was completed, is that this is a really good news story for community working – locals coming together to make their community better, a unique community renewable energy scheme to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions in Malvern.

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 NestlĂ© 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

A world where everyone feels valued, equal and safe - free of domestic violence

Our country is justly proud of its record of supporting the rights of women around the world – whether it’s their fight for rights we take for granted or eradicating abusive practices – slavery, forced marriages, FGM.

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