Saturday, 28 June 2008

You've almot got to feel sorry for them, haven't you? (Well almost!)

So Labour have lost another scalp: Wendy Alexander, Scottish Labour Leader and close friend of the Browns, has resigned after being caught out, wait for it, breaking parliamentary rules on cash donations. You couldn't make it up. Coming just hours after Labour came fifth in Henley (behind the Greens) it really tells the story of a Labour Party with absolutley no hope of winning the next general election.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Vote Green to keep the Tories out in Kemptown

First Labour lost the formerly safe seat of Crewe and Nantwich to the Tories, now they have come fifth in Henley (Greens 1,321 votes, Labour 1,066), next Haltemprice and Howden (where Labour aren't even standing)... Every by-election we have sends out a resounding message to the country - Labour are in electoral freefall. I reckon this gives us one clear message for Brighton Kemptown: only a Green vote can keep the Tories out.

Falmer Academy: A gamble with our children's education

REPLACING Falmer High School with a new city academy will threaten the future of a school which had the second highest value added results in the city last year.

Brighton and Hove City Council and the Government want to pull the existing school down - and build a new academy on the site, at a cost of more than £25 million pounds. Outline planning permission for the scheme was granted last week.

But a new academy would be outside local authority control: the private sponsor, who admitted at a recent public meeting that he is yet to observe a lesson at the school, would have the power to appoint all members of the board who would appoint the new principal and in effect decide how the school is run in all aspects.

Worse, it would require all pupils to specialise in either sport or entrepreneurship, by building those areas into all lessons, regardless of a particular child's interests or abilities.

I am deeply concerned that replacing Falmer High School with an academy will mean a drop in educational standards and staff morale.

The school currently has a high retention rate of teachers who manage but under this proposal they could be required to retrain and, after a three-year 'settling in period', to accept poorer pay and conditions than their colleagues in other local schools.

Falmer School is one of the fastest-improving schools in the city - and this proposal threatens to undo all the good work of the existing management team: if it all goes wrong it will be pupils from Moulescoomb and Coldean who end up paying the price.

The council has begun a public consultation on the scheme, and is inviting parents and anyone else concerned with Falmer's future to let them know their views. A public meeting explaining the supposed benefits of the scheme has already taken place at the school - now a second meeting has been organised to hear about the potential downsides.

Parents can't make an informed choice until they've heard both sides of the story. The council doesn't seem to want to describe the potential downsides of an academy, so we've organised a meeting in Moulescoomb next Monday to do exactly that.

The Government is effectively trying to bribe the local community here. It has promised £26 million to rebuild Falmer, but only if the school is taken out of local authority control and handed to a sponsor who has made no secret of his support and financial backing for the Labour Party.

I think that stinks. If the government was committed to improving Falmer School, it would agree to spend the money in the way that parents and the local community think it should be run.

The meeting to discuss the scheme will be held at the Learning Development Centre, Hodshrove Lane, Moulescoomb, between 7.30 and 9pm next Monday, June 30th.

Speakers include former Falmer pupil Linda Newman (outgoing president of the University and College Lecturers Union), Alistair Smith, National Secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance and Cllr Rachel Fryer, the Greens' education spokesperson. I'll be in the chair.

The Government is trying to bribe the community into replacing Falmer High School with a City Academy, even though Falmer is an improving school - and a number of academies are failing badly.

The bottom line is the proposed sponsor, Rod Aldridge, is a businessmen (one incidentally who has amassed an enormous fortune from schemes just like this, and donated a fair whack of it to the Labour Party) and not an educationalist.

I don't dispute that he knows a lot about making money from privatising schools but he is happy to admit he doesn't know much about running them - or ensuring the diverse needs of pupils are met. I hardly think that makes him the right person to be in control of the only secondary school serving the children of Moulescoomb and Coldean.

This is nothing less than a huge gamble with the future of our children's education at stake, and I hope concerned parents and teachers will come along to the public meeting next Monday to discuss these issues further - and find out what they can be doing to try to prevent the scheme going ahead.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The onslaught continues apace...

Well it hasn't taken long, has it? Almost directly opposite the unlawful Starbucks cafe on St James's Street, a clothes shop has begun clearing its stock out to make way for a new tenant: Tesco Express. The issues, of course, are quite different: while Starbucks needed (in theory at least) to get planning permission, as it sought to change the use of a building from a shop to a cafe, Tesco don't. As the site's already an 'A1 retail outlet' they can just open - and will. This is clearly a massive weakness in the system. It's been well-documented that a new Tesco store will take money that would otherwise be taken by local businesses, forcing some of them to the wall, and that any profits they do take will be whisked away from the local community, impoverishing us all (except Tesco's owners) a little. Local residents and traders are, unsurprisingly, staunchly opposed to Tesco moving in and futher chipping away at St James's Street unique character (as ward councillor I have already started receiving complaints about it - and its opening isn't even common knowledge yet!). but there's nothing the council - or anyone else (lawfully at least) can do about any of this. Of course Tesco has deep pockets, and can afford to run at a loss while it forces the competition to the wall - and therefore denies shoppers the effective choice to take their business elsewhere - so there's little chance that even a consumer boycott could work. But I feel a responsibility to try, and I certainly won't be shopping there.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Rubbish talk

With matters (literally) hotting up in Newhaven as Veolia has reportedly started work on its new waste incinerator without waiting for the technicality of planning permission, now seems a timely moment to talk some rubbish.

Speak to just about anyone (apart from, of course, the local government chief officers and waste company shareholders who benefit most from the deals) and they'll say the same thing: we don't need or want new incinerators burning rubbish, or more landfill sites, in the beautiful Sussex countryside. But with existing sites near capacity and exporting waste hardly a sustainable or just solution (in fact we face the opposite situation: the reality is that we in Sussex are committed to disposing of millions of tonnes of waste from London) the only way we can avoid new facilities is to throw away less rubbish in the first place, surely? Seems obvious, eh? But, on average, we are all throwing away more and more. Of course, much of what we dispose of is pretty pointless over-packaging and marketing guff, and there's lots industry and the Government can do to prevent us 'consuming' it in the first place, but a lot of it is entirely recycleable, or even perfectly good and reusable in its current form. Yet still we throw it away: few of us make the connection as our hands hover over our bins that unless we minimise our waste we'll have the incinerators and landfill sites whether we like it or not. And it'll only get worse under proposed changes to planning law which could mean such facilities are deemed of strategic importance and therefore beyond the remit of democratic planning committees or the views of local communities.

What we really need is for Government to show some political leadership on this (which is, of course, a problem being repeated up and down the country) and adopt a 'zero waste strategy', including, for example, making manufacturers meet the true costs (social and environmental as well as simply economic) of disposing of the products they produce, making it more difficult NOT to recycle than to do so by channelling some of the money raised from waste charges to the local authorities responsible.

This isn't pie in the sky thinking, it's already been implemented successfully, with astonishing results, in parts of Canada and Australia.

This is just a two-minute rant - and I'm certainly no waste expert. But the latest in Transition Brighton and Hove's series of public talks on energy and resources promises a much better informed and comprehensive discussion on the subject of waste.

Speakers include Biffa Waste Services Limited director Peter Jones and Professor Marie Harder from Brighton University's Waste, Energy and Resources Group.

The meeting takes place this Thursday, June 19th, at the Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton. It's open to all, and tickets are £3 on the door. It should be both interesting and, at the same time, a rubbish discussion (sorry!)

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Circus Street Graffiti Update

Well those of you who read my previous post on the future of council housing in the Circus Street market area are probably pining for an update.

Circus Street is due to be redeveloped into new homes, office space and creative work spaces. However this may take a number of years. Since the market has closed the area has become a hotspot for graffiti tags and residents have said they don’t feel very safe in the area because it doesn’t look cared for.

The Tarner Community Safety Action Group together with the property developer Cathedral and City Clean have put some funding together to commission a well known graffiti artist to spray one continuous piece of graffiti art along the entire length of the shutters. The artist is responsible for the graffiti art in the North Laine area (see pix at previous post) which has become a popular tourist attraction and has prevented unsightly tagging.

Of course the bigger issue for many is whether or not the Kingswood and Milner blocks will be included in the development. Residents are effectively being forced to consider whether they want to transfer the ownership of their homes from Brighton and Hove City Council to a Housing Association, just months after they voted resoundingly against such a stock transfer. But despite formal and informal requests for council leader Mary Mears to make a statement about how and when the council will bring the flats' standards into the 21st Century, she is yet to do so to residents' satisfaction. How can residents be expected to decide where their interests best lie if the administration insists on keeping them in the dark about future plans for their homes? The frustration was palpable at last week's Annual General Meeting of the Tarner Area Partnership. We'll keep asking, and until the answers are forthcoming, argue that any decisions about the future of Kingswood and Milner should be, regrettably, put on hold.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Bomb makers and another dead cyclist

That UK factories are busy making components of bombs and other weapons that have been used in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and possibly Somalia to unlawfully kill and maim civilians, including children, should be an absolute scandal.

That cyclists and pedestrians so regularly die under the wheels of cars should too.

But that these two coincided when a 19-year-old girl was killed as she cycled from London to Brighton this week to attend the 'Carnival Against The Arms Trade' demo outside the Brighton base of EDO-MDM, an arms manufacturer responsible for bomb release mechanisms, should be a matter of national shame.

19-year-old Marie Vesco, a committed anti-war activist with the Whitechapel Food Not Bombs and the Brixton Reclaim Your Food groups, was demonstrating her commitment to tackling climate change by cycling from London for the protest, alongside 11 others, when she was pronounced dead a the scene of a car crash on the A23.

A close friend described her as “a very warm and generous person who was always laughing and always made people laugh."

To paraphrase one of the peace activists, the fact that she was killed on the roads, whilst cycling lawfully and safely, speaks volumes about the priorities of the British government. Whilst arms dealers are subsidised to the tune of billions of pounds, the relatively small amount of money that it would take to provide safe cycle lanes for bikes just isn't made available.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Free breakfasts for cyclists to mark Bike Week (June 16-20)

To celebrate national Bike Week 2008 and encourage cycling in Brighton & Hove the JourneyOn campaign is offering free breakfasts to cyclists. Just turn up with your bike to one of the venues mentioned below and claim your breakfast.

There will also be musical entertainment, a bike doctor service and lots of cycling freebies. A focus on improving facilities for cyclists is needed now, in the face of peaking petrol prices forcing people from their cars, more than ever.

Just a few days after another young cyclist lost their life in a crash on the A23, we need action on cycling now: new cycle lanes (contraflowing their way round one-way streets where appropriate) and enforcement of existing bike lanes would be good start. A free breakfast isn't quite the same, but I hope it will get a few more city workers on their bikes. A cynic might say we need a focus on cycling for 365 days a year, not just five, but we've got to start somewhere, I suppose...

To get your free breakfast, just head to:

Monday 16 June from 0730-1000am
at Baobab Cafe,
South of the Level, St Peter's Place

Thursday 19 June from 0730-1000am
at The Meeting Place Cafe,
near the Peace statue, Hove seafront

Saturday, 7 June 2008

World becomes more peaceful, no thanks to Labour's Britain tho...

The world became more peaceful this year, according to a survey out this week.

But Britain fell well behind most of its European neighbours in the rankings of the world's most peaceful countries, coming in at 49th place, with Ireland the sixth most peaceful country.

Iceland, Denmark and Norway, were in the top three positions, with war-torn Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan the bottom four, out of the survey of 140 nations in the Global Peace Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

But the world did get a bit more peaceful compared to last year, according to a measure of 24 different indicators.

The factors include internal ones, such as levels of crime, government corruption, prison population, spending on weapons and the threat of terrorism.

External factors include relations with neighbouring countries and military involvements abroad - a reason why the UK falls down the rankings compared to similar, democratic western nations.

Sixteen of the top 20 most peaceful nations are European, with Germany ranked 14th and France at 36th.

The US, with its high levels of violent crime and military "World Policeman" role is ranked 97th, behind China, 67th, but ahead of Russia in 131st place.

The index has won the backing of an influential and distinguished group of supporters including Nobel Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Muhammad Yunus as well as endorsers from the world of business including Sir Richard Branson and Sir Mark Moody Stuart.

Supporters of the index urge policymakers to focus more on education, wealth and well functioning government and emphasise the importance of business in building prosperity and peace.

On average, scores for level of organised conflict (internal) and violent crime, political instability and potential for terrorist acts have all got marginally better.

In contrast, the world's armed services have grown on average per country, as has the sophistication of its weaponry.

Steve Killelea, founder of the Global Peace Index, said: "The world appears to be a marginally more peaceful place this year. This is encouraging, but it takes small steps by individual countries for the world to make greater strides on the road to peace."

It looks to me like we need to be taking a few of those small steps here in the UK.

The full rankings can be found here.

Friday, 6 June 2008

New Neighbourhood Charter for Eastern Road - great, but hardly a substitute for cash...

It's not everyday I find myself in such illustrious company, but this week I joined Council leader Mary Mears and Brighton's top cop Paul Pearce in taking the pledge - singing up to the Government's latest wheeze, that is, the Eastern Road Neighbourhood Charter.

In a nutshell, the Neighbourhood Charter - one of 12 pilot schemes in the country - is a contract between the community and the providers of local public services to meet tough new minimum standards on rubbish collection, street light repairs, contact between the police and the public, that sort of thing.

So far, so good. The logic of the charter is sound: give our neighbourhood (and, eventually, of course, every neighbourhood) the opportunity to set its own priorities for action and the ability to hold the police, Brighton and Hove Council, and the health authorities to account to make sure they deliver them.

The Eastern Road area is one of the most deprived in the city. Though it is surrounded by pockets of affluence, regarded as some of the most desirable areas to live in the whole country, here we are blighted by a range of 21st Century urban afflictions – poor air quality, a high fear of crime – especially amongst the area's many older residents – no local community secondary school, problems with housing management, and a hospital with one of the highest levels of MRSA infections in the country, to name just a few.

Last year residents were asked exactly what they thought about living in the area in one of the most detailed neighbourhood attitudes surveys I've ever seen. The answers were clear – people were proud of their area, but wanted to see public services that enabled and empowered them to live greener, healthier and safer lives – and the results of that survey have formed the bedrock of this Charter.

But it makes no sense to me that residents are being promised great new service delivery standards while government funding for local services is tighter than ever, and falling.

The whole project is overshadowed by the reality that this charter has come on stream in a year when the Government has effectively slashed funding – for Sussex Police, for Brighton and Hove Council, and for local neighbourhood renewal.

And that its launch comes just a month after the council here was forced to abandon its open, democratic system of decision-by-committee by a central Government edict and in the face of cross-party and widespread public opposition.

There's not much we can do about Government cuts and the erosion of local democracy – but the Charter we are launching today gives us an opportunity to rebalance the relationship between public services and the community in which we live. I really hope it works, and knowing the people of this quite special neighbourhood, I don't doubt for a minute that it will.