Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Commitment to council tenants? It's more like a Circus... (but at least there's some great street art on the way)

I attended a meeting of the residents' consultative panel looking at plans for the redevelopment of the old Circus Street market in the Tarner area. There was lots of discussion about whether residents of two neighbouring blocks of council flats, Kingswood and Milner, would prefer to abandon the council and throw their lot in with the developers - a transfer of council housing stock by the back door in other words. I don't believe residents really want to leave the council, they just want repairs and maintenance to be carried out and are fed up with the Labour/Tory alliance that's been running this city for so long failing to meet even the basics - let alone the 'Decent Homes Standard' - the minimum standards for council housing laid down by Government. The developer Cathedral wants to press on, and is urging residents to make a decision quickly. Of course they can't make any informed decision at all until new Tory council leader Mary Mears keeps her promise to let them know when improvements are planned at the blocks: she's promised to reveal her plans but has so far shown no signs of doing so - or even turning up to a residents meeting to explain why. Council tenants in this city have learned that their interests aren't safe when Labour run things - they're fast realising that things aren't any better with the Tories nominally in charge (but of course we know that in fact it's the officers who make the real decisions either way). I've asked Mary Mears, again, to let residents know what's going on: watch this space and I'll let you know what she says...

Meanwhile, the developers and the local residents have gone halves and found the cash to tidy the area up in the short term: something everyone could agree on. Following the tough decision to close Tarner Park to graffiti artists, it has been decided to commission some street art from the same artist responsible for the graffiti murals at Kensington Street (pictured). I can't wait to see the finished result - I'll bring you pictures as soon as I can!

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

UK worst for recycling... but it's not your fault!

The UK has the worst recycling rates in the EU.And is it any wonder? This picture was taken yesterday outside Hove Town Hall, and shows recyclable cardboard chucked into the skip with all the days other rubbish from the ongoing building works. If the council here in one of Britain's Greenest cities can't be bothered to get it right, what hope have we got of shaking off the title of 'the dirty man of Europe'?

The simple truth is that if we don't want incinerators and landfill sites all over the Sussex countryside (and usually in the backyard of the least well-off) we'll have to throw away less - and the only way we'll do that is both to consume less in the first place (especially wasteful and pointless excess packaging) and recycle more.

Monday, 28 April 2008

A Sussex 'poor list'?

Today's Argus carries a Sussex 'rich list'. Well done to all mentioned for accumulating large sums of wealth! Isn't it time the Argus carried a 'Sussex poor list', telling some of the stories not only of the increasing numbers of homeless people on our streets, but also the thousands of everyday families in Brighton, Kemp Town and Peacehaven struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising fuel, food, accommodation and tax bills?

Friday, 25 April 2008

Labour/Tory alliance rejects Greens' call for £7 an hour living wage in Brighton

Well last night your councillors really nailed their colours to the mast on low pay. Incredibly, the Labour/Tory alliance rejected Green calls to support the principle of a 'living wage' of £7 an hour to be the minimum paid in the city. They had the nerve to suggest instead that the national minimum wage was working well (they obviously don't have to live on it!)

Labour sells out local democracy for a few extra quid (while pensioners get poorer...)

Yesterday marked something of a milestone for Brighton and Hove: the council voted to abolish its open and democratic multi-party committee system in favour of leader and cabinet model with all decisions being taken by cabinet members (in secret if they wish, as long as they announce them in public one day).

The cabinet will be entirely made up of Tory councillors, even though they couldn't quite scrape together a majority at last year's election.

Incredibly, the bizarre new arrangement was supported by the Labour 'official opposition' - and yesterday we found out why: a grubby deal over cash allowances.

While an increasing number of council tax payers struggle to make ends meet, an unholy alliance of Labour and Tory councillors decided to ignore the recommendation of the council’s Independent Remuneration Panel and pay 37 special allowances to councillors in the coming year.

For no real reason (apart from buying Labour votes of course) the Tory/Labour alliance agreed to fly in the face of the independent advice, and double the bonuses paid to the two deputy Labour leaders (two paid deputies? They've only got 13 seats!) - at a cost of more than £7,000 to the taxpayer.

And even harder to justify (if that's possible) is the alliance's decision to create two new allowances, each of £2,156, for the Labour and Tory members of the local Arts Commission, which meets four times a year. That works out at more than £500 a meeting! Of course it's great that the council has found an extra £4,300 for the arts, but it's a pretty ugly gesture when it's destined to end up in a few councillors pockets. Why not just distribute the money among Brighton’s many struggling arts organisations?

Meanwhile, figures published today put all this in context by showing the extent to which some of the poorest pensioners in Brighton and Hove have got poorer since Labour came to power. Across the city, Council Tax has risen by 134 per cent since 1997 - but pensions have risen much more slowly. In 1997, 34 per cent of an average pensioner's income went on local tax bills, now it's 41 per cent. This worsening pensioner poverty is the context for this cash-grab. Absolutely scandalous.

It really is time to scrap the unfair Council Tax in favour of a system of local government finance based on taxing the increase in land values - one which doesn't view pensioners and the low-paid as open wallets - and replace the state pension with a much higher Citizens Income guarantee pegged to the real cost of living.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Greens: defending local services, valuing public servants

Today schools across the country were closed at members of the National Union of Teachers went on strike for the first time in 21 years in protest at Gordon Brown's steady attack on public services. The catalyst was the derisory offer of a three-year package of below-inflation pay rises: essentially a pay cut (and another next year, and the year after that) - just at the time when housing, food, fuel and finance costs are sky-rocketing. I was privileged enough to join the 400-odd so teachers and supporters for a march from Pavilion Gardens to the Old Ship Hotel, where I met some of the inspirational people who are delivering improved results at most city schools but are being essentially kicked in the teeth by the government for doing so.

This Government has presided over a tax and pay structure for the public services that has seen the gap between the richest and the least well-off stretch even more wide than it was under the Tories. It must now ensure that teachers, and indeed all public servants, are given a pay rise of at least 3.8 per cent, the current level of inflation. Of course to do so would cost money, but not doing so calls into question the very future of high quality local public services.

True, thousands of pupils and their families faced disruption. But headteachers, parents and pupils have said they support the action anyway. At the heart of this action is the extent to which we value the work teachers do, and forcing another pay cut on them can only make future recruitment and retention harder, threatening to reverse recent improvements in local schools' performance.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

St James's Street under multinational attack...

St James's Street has come under attack from multinational big business again as Starbucks plan to open a new branch on the site of the former Sussex Stationers shop. This is little short of a disaster for local residents, shoppers and traders.

Why? Well there are at least four good reasons:

1. St James's Street doesn't need another coffee shop - it's got 12 already!
2. Money spent at a multinational chain store leaves the area immediately, money spent at a local independent retailer is of much greater benefit to the local economy.
3. Starbucks stores have been widely reported as aggressively driving rents up and prices down until independent retailers are forced to the wall, then putting prices back up again. This represents an unwelcome attack on our thriving local business sector.
4. People come to Kemp Town and St James's Street for its unique charm and independent retail atmosphere. The more chain stores that move in the less likely people are to come to Kemp Town in the first place.

It's not quite a done deal yet though: Starbucks do have to get council planners' permission to change the site's use from a shop to a restaurant. Starbucks don't seem to think that matters (well they are hardly going to let a little impediment like local decision-making stand in the way of a good old-fashioned world domination plan, are they) - they've already started work (pictured) even though their application isn't even going to be considered until next month.

The good news is that opening another coffee shop on St James's Street shouldn't be allowed. It would run counter to local planning guidelines, which say there should be a clear predominance of non-food stores, and that no new large eateries should back on to homes or be built within 400m of another. I counted 22 so-called 'A3' premises (coffee shops, restaurants) in St James's St in 10 minutes today - and I didn't count any of the side-streets.

The bad news is that the local planing guidance doesn't always prevail. To make sure it does in this case we need as many people as possible to object to the proposal, before the deadline of May 7. I have written to the planning department making my objections plain: if you want to add your voice of disapproval you can do so on the council's website, here, clicking on 'I accept' and then typing in the application number - in this case there are two: BH2008/01039 and BH2008/00953. If enough of us do we might just see off the latest attempt to bring Clone Town Britain to Kemp Town.

A Green Dream Team for the Sussex Coast?

IN the run-up to next week's Sussex local elections, the Greens have selected Susan Board, who looks set to become the first Green member on Adur District Council, as candidate to contest the East Worthing and Shoreham constituency.

Susan has lived locally for five years, with her teenage son. She holds a PhD in Environmental Politics and lectures for the Open University. She is passionate about the local community – she chairs her local residents’ association and volunteers part time at the Information Shop.

Susan's selection completes a Westminster Green Team for the Sussex coast. She's pictured here (By Whitehawk transmitter, only of the few places from where all four parliamentary constituencies are visible), second from left, with (l-r) me, Caroline Lucas MEP (who hopes to become MP for Brighton Pavilion), and Cllr Ian Davey (Hove and Portslade candidate).

The Green message is spreading and the party is growing steadily. We've now got more than 100 councillors and polling data shows we're ready to elect our first MPs to Westminster as people are increasingly disillusioned with Labour's failure to tackle social injustice and see through the Tories' hollow pretence to take the environment seriously. I’m delighted to welcome Susan as a fellow candidate. Her dedication to the community and her commitment to a fairer, greener society are just what we need in parliament.

Killing for soap

Unilever, manufacturers of a host of well-known brands, from Pot Noodle to Persil (via Flora) has been caught out using palm oil from deforested rain forests in Indonesia in its popular 'Dove' soap. This is killing communities and traditional lifestyles - but it's also destroying the habitat of the endangered Oran-Utan, and thousands of other species, threatening extinctions on a massive scale. Greenpeace, who unearthed the evidence, have asked them to stop, and they are asking that anyone who shares their horror at the burgeoning ecocide and human rights abuses taking place in pursuit of, erm, a brand of soap, to join them, by visiting this campaign page on their website. They've produced a short video clip to illustrate the impact of tropical deforestation. I challenge anyone to watch it and think we should just trust in the corporations' ability to self-regulate in their quest for ever-bigger shareholder dividends. The reality is that it's a small number of firms like Unilever who dominate the globalised economy and leave a trail of poverty, environmental destruction and human rights abuses behind them. We need stricter controls on international trade to stamp out the worst excesses carried out it its name, but we also need to tell the firms involved what we think once in a while.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Refugee Radio

I've just finished listening to a fantastic programme on Radio Reverb, Brighton and Hove's community radio station: Refugee Radio.

"It's a bit like Desert Island Discs, except instead of some boring celebrity talking about the records they'd take to a desert island, I will be interviewing different refugees from the local community and finding out what music they brought with them to our desert island of Brighton," says Steve Silverwood, the former refugee advice worker who hosts the show .

Today's show featured Haval, a young Kurdish refugee from Syria and some excellent Kurdish music. It provides a very personal picture of one man's story, and you can listen to it here.

Monday, 21 April 2008

A 'living wage' of £7 an hour for Brighton and Hove's lowest paid workers?

The national minimum wage - currently just £5.52 an hour - is effectively a 'poverty wage' in Brighton and Hove, a city with some of the highest accommodation and living costs in the country.

The fact is that if a minimum wage is to be an effective antidote to poverty it has to be linked to living costs, and these vary around the country.

Local branches of Trade Unions recognise the problem, and are working on a number of a policy proposals to tackle it: some have called for a 'Brighton and Hove weighting allowance'.

I'm not sure what the best answer is, but some way towards remedying the reality of grinding poverty would be a significant increase in the pay packet for some of the city's poorest. I'm asking councillors of all parties to support the principle of a minimum 'living wage' of £7 an hour in the city - I hope they will all support it: I'll report back here on what they've said on Friday.

Of course the council has no power over how much private employers pay their staff, but we can send out a clear moral signal that paying less than £7 an hour is unacceptable in this city in 2008.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Rocks Magazine RIP

I heard today that independent Brighton freesheet Rocks Magazine has ceased publishing. Shame. One more nail in the coffin of Brighton and Hove's mental environment. What good's a right to free speech without guaranteed access to a free media - something that's ever-more scarce as our local publications increasingly find themselves the playthings of property developers and US-based multinationals? Keep on keeping on, SchNews, Rough Music and all the Brighton bloggers out there...

Saturday, 19 April 2008

What it's all about

Well here's Sammy, my little boy. He's 4 and I can't really remember why I bothered getting out of bed every day before he came along. I can't bear the idea that he will grow up into a world of war, poverty, greed, over-consumption, injustice, and destroyed eco-systems. I could hardly have a blog and not mention him, could I?

Green Party Mayoral Election Broadcast

It's not getting harder for everyone, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer (thanks Labour!)

The Argus newspaper (Brighton's daily local rag) reports that the average cost of living has risen by about £250 a month in Brighton and Hove, thanks to escalating tax, energy, food and housing costs. That's more than 45 hours work for someone on minimum wage (but only a couple of hours for the council's chief executive, who was reported last week to be on more than £80 an hour!). It's depressing but hardly a surprise – the real shocker though is that Kemptown's Labour MP Des Turner claims in the same piece that there's nothing the Government can do about it.

Not only are many of the rising prices the direct result of a failure to take climate change, depleting oil reserves and burgeoning personal debt levels seriously over the last decade, but they come in the context of reductions in local government funding (pushing up council tax bills), abolition of the 10p a year income tax rate (pushing up the tax burden for some of the poorest families in the city) and a derisory minimum wage of, currently, £5.52 – clearly a 'poverty wage' here in Brighton and Hove, a city with some of the highest accommodation and living costs in the country. The blame for all this can be laid directly at the Government's door.

What we are witnessing isn't just life getting a little more expensive for everyone: it's a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in society – and if we are to tackle it we need a Government that takes a joined-up approach to tax, tackling climate change, decoupling society from ever-increased oil use and over consumption, but above all, a Government that is genuinely committed to social justice and equality, rather than keeping its friends in the business community happy whilst the yawning chasm between the haves and have-nots in our society creaks ever-wider.