Sunday, 31 August 2008

Opposing the visual clutter of 'Clone Town' Kemp Town


In 2005 Boots the Chemist took over Alliance Unichem in a surprise merger which shocked the business editors and caused a flurry of headlines for a day or so.

It's just another sign of the impending 'Clone Town' Britain, the tendancy for retailers to be snapped up by each other until just a few remain, and every shopping street looks the same as every other. The excellent New Economics Foundation (nef) tells the story better than anyone.

Locally, we've done quite well at resisting the march of the clones: Kemp Town retains much of its unique character - but I'm concerned that with the coming of Starbucks and with work already well under way on a new Tesco Express in St James's Street the steady erosion of the area's identity is gathering pace.

That's why I've lodged a formal objection to a planning application by Boots to put up a sign advertising their new 'corporate identity' outside the former Alliance Pharmacy in St George's Road.

It's just a sign, and in a free world it might seem fair enough to let a shop put up a sign advertising its name, but the reality is this Boots sign would be another step towards the area looking just like everywhere else.

Kemp Town's unique character is achieved in large part thanks to its independent traders, local businesses and visually interesting environment.

A sign advertising a chain store that appears in almost every shopping street in the country – and in at least five other locations in Brighton and Hove alone – can hardly be deemed to be ‘visually interesting’, a planning requirement.

There's not much I, as a local councillor, can do about Boots’ takeover of the Alliance Pharmacy, but I can seek to preserve the area’s unique character by arguing against chain stores’ intrusive attempts to advertise their presence with dull logos and visual clutter.

Fortunately, members of the council’s planning committee seemed minded to agree when I made similar arguments about a bid for an illuminated sign outside the controversial Starbucks cafĂ© in St James’s Street.

I hope they'll take a consistent line - and agree this time too.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Why creating a fairer society can't mean cheaper petrol

News today that the Taxpayers' Alliance thinks the Government should intervene in the oil market so we can enjoy cheaper petrol.

Of course no one wants to pay more for anything, especially in these times of rising prices. The cost of housing, food and fuel – for heating our homes as well as getting us about – are all skyrocketing, while wages fail to keep up.

It’s vital that we urgently address these economic woes, and that means changing the way we do business on a whole range of fronts: reining in the vast profits of the energy companies with windfall taxes, improving public transport (and making it more affordable with public subsidies) – and tackling fuel poverty by ensuring everyone has access to better energy efficiency measures to keep our homes warm (domestic insulation should be free for everyone, for example).

We should be promoting locally-produced food – as Green councillors have made sure Brighton and Hove’s schools will be doing. The shorter the journey from farm yard to dinner plate, the lower the cost of food – as rising fuel prices lead to imported produce being more costly.

And as for the chaos in the housing market, we must introduce tough new regulations on the banking sector – to stop the financial fat-cats who got us into this mess in the first place from gambling away any hard fought economic recovery – and call an immediate moratorium on all repossessions.

All of these measures will make life more affordable, sustainable, and fair.

But none of them will be able to make much difference to forecourt petrol prices.

Energy analysts are increasingly warning that we’re hitting the moment of ‘Peak Oil’ – at which demand increases faster than new oil-fields are being found. The law of supply and demand economics means this is bound to push prices up further. Who’d have thought a few months ago we’d be paying £1.40 a litre for unleaded before the summer was out? Well it’s only going to get worse.

Of course, the Government can tinker around with the rate at which at which petrol is taxed – and it can even subsidise the oil giants by paying them to produce more cheap fuel. But I believe that is short-sighted: as supplies dwindle it can only get more expensive to do this, and before long we’ll be facing the same problems as we are today but with higher tax bills and a little less in the treasury to help tackle it – and with the small matter of the increased greenhouse gas emissions that come with burning fossil fuels rather than seeking alternatives too.

Surely it’s better for us to start making the shift to a greener, cheaper, fairer, society now – and implement measures to make life a little more affordable, even if that means having to pay a little more for petrol on the forecourt?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Crocodile tears over Poohaven

The news that East Sussex County Council's planning committee has given the go-ahead for Southern water's 'Poohaven' sewage treatment works on the South Downs at Peacehaven is a disaster not just for local people, who will have to endure the smell and congestion associated with the plant, but for the principle of local solutions for local problems. The reality is that it will handle waste from much of Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area, and it would have been better for everyone if Southern Water had proposed several smaller solutions, planned according to the principle that no community should have to endure the waste of another.

But it's no big surprise - and it's not entirely Southern Water's fault either. The firm was effectively 'given the nod' by both the Labour Government and Tory-run East Sussex. For the the Labour and Tory general election candidates to shed crocodile tears about this decision on the pages of The Argus is yet more evidence that neither party is capable of the joined-up thinking that enables them to both make decisions and represent local communities.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Celebrating children's right to play - as long as they're wrapped in cotton wool

Today is Playday 2008, an annual celebration of children's right to play, and it will be marked locally with a programme of play events free for all children at Hove Park from 10am (courtesy of the council) - one of thousands of locally organised events for children, young people and communities taking place across the UK this summer. Similar events, boasting games, art, fun and even music and drama performances, are happening at Queen's Park every Friday until August 22nd, also from 10am.

Organised events like these are great: lots of fun for kids and a breath of summer holiday fresh air for parents too. I'll certainly be taking my little boy, and taking my hat off to the council for organising the sessions (though I wonder why they have missed out swathes of children and families in Moulsecoomb and Whitehawk from their provision...)

But far more shocking than the fact that Brighton and Hove Tories don't like providing services in the more deprived areas of the city (hardly news) is a major new study by Play England, released to coincide with Playday, which found that children's development is suffering from their being denied the chance to play outdoors and without adult supervision.

The study found that half of all children have been stopped from climbing trees, 21 per cent have been banned from playing conkers and 17 per cent have been told they cannot take part in games of tag or chase. Some parents are going to such extreme lengths to protect their children from danger that they have even said no to hide-and-seek.

Of course, there are all sorts of dangers out there now which make it difficult for parents to give their children the freedom they need, but we have to get these into perspective, for our kids' sake.

Yes, some children are abused - physically or psychologically, and sometimes even sexually. Of course this is inexcusable, and we should never increase the risks of our children falling victim. But the tragic truth is that these terrible crimes are usually carried out by a child's parents themselves, or a church leader or someone else known to the child. Most children who are abducted are taken by a parent or relative. In reality, stranger danger is overstated.

When it comes to the safety of the games children play if left alone, again, the figures show we've been getting a little wrong. Last year, almost three times as many children were admitted to hospital after falling out of bed as those who had fallen from a tree. Both of these figures were overshadowed by the numbers treated for obesity brought on by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

But there is one area in which the risk faced by unsupervised children, especially in urban areas, has increased dramatically: the risk of being hit and injured or killed by a car.

I think we should be doing something about that, and not keeping our children indoors: campaigning for better road safety measures and slower speed limits and, when we're behind the wheel of a car, slowing down and paying more attention. Twenty is plenty, and I think Brighton and Hove should follow Portsmouth's example and reduce all urban speed limits to 20 MPH, with the exception of major routes into and out of the city. The bottom line is speed kills, and reducing speed will mean fewer children die on our roads.

Now that really would be a step forward in terms of delivering children the right to play.

Time to tackle 'institutional homophobia' at the Home Office

In the years since the McPherson report the Government and the police have come a long way in tackling the 'institutional racism' that used to lie at the heart of the way the Home Office dealt with race issues (shooting the odd Brazilian by accident notwithstanding).

But, alas, the same can't always be said for the way the state treats lesbian and gay people. It's no exaggeration to say that 'institutional homophobia' remains rife in the Whitehall corridors.

Gay and lesbian asylum seekers are still regularly deported back to countries where they face persecution, punishment, torture or even execution simply because of their sexuality. Iranians Pegah Emembakhsh and Mehdi Kazemi were just the latest high profile examples.

The sad truth is that the immigration staff making decisions about such asylum cases just don't really know what they are doing. They don't receive training in issues surrounding sexual orientation - and they often don't understasnd that fleeing a regime which persecutes on the basis of sexuality is an internationally recognised and legitimate justification for asylum, and such cases should be granted according to the UK's commitment as a signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention.

But now three activists from Brighton and Hove Green Party are trying to change things - and have called on the Prime Minister to change the way LGBT asylum seekers are treated, logging a petition with the Number 10 website.

The petition, which can be read in full - and signed - at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/lgbtasylum/ - calls for an urgent review of the services provided for all LGBT asylum seekers. In particular its authors think that the following are needed for fair treatment -

1. Compulsory training for all asylum staff on sexual-orientation and trans-awareness.

2. Explicit instructions to all immigration and asylum staff, and asylum judges, that homophobic and transphobic persecution are legitimate grounds for granting asylum.

3. Clearer and up-to-date guidance from the Home Office for asylum judges to reflect the accurate scale of LGBT persecution throughout the world using expert information from NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

4. Legal-aid funding for asylum claims needs to be substantially increased.

It really is time the Government started treating LGBT asylum seekers with the fairness that they deserve. These are people who’ve often fled persecution, rape and torture who flee to our country and our response is to lock them up like criminals. They say enough is enough of this inhumane policy - we need to stick our necks out now and stand up for LGBT asylum seekers.

And I agree. If you do too, please take a minute to sign up.

Monday, 4 August 2008

New Labour has 'lost mandate to govern' as charities warn thousands of winter deaths loom

As the energy crisis takes another bite out of household budgets this week, charities including Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged have warned that thousands of people are likely to die from the cold this coming winter. It's becoming increasingly clear that we need some joined up thinking on this - and quick - if we are to avert the twin disasters of fuel poverty here in Brighton, Kemp Town, Peacehaven, and the rest of the UK, and the most devastating impacts of climate change, which are already taking their toll on millions of the world's poorest.

But the Government wants to take us in entirely the opposite direction: diverting cash from efforts to tackle climate change into simply cutting bills in the short term. If telling the energy companies what to do is going to really help the poorest, wouldn't it be better to take a long term view, forcing them to spend their gargantuan profits on more lasting measures, like better insulation, home energy conservation, or even trying to increase renewable micro-generation possibilities?

But no - as usual the Government is proposing policies for next 100 days, not the next 100 years. It's no wonder that Friends of the Earth have issued perhaps their 'hardest' anti-Labour statement in recent years this weekend.

A spokesperson for the environmental charity told The Observer newspaper yesterday:

'This New Labour government has managed to construct a fuel poverty strategy which has both increased fuel poverty and carbon emissions, letting down millions of the most vulnerable in society and condemning thousands to die of the cold this winter. On this basis I believe they have lost the moral mandate to govern.'

Blimey. Perhaps that's something for Simon Burgess to think about next time he accepts an invitation for a chummy photo opportunity with Brighton Friends of the Earth - and vice-versa.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

A wonderful Pride - but it really needs to green up its act


Well it's the morning after the night before and all that... Pride 2008 was a wonderful celebration of all that's good about Brighton, and Kemp Town in particular. Gay and straight working together to prove that, here at least, it makes less sense than ever to talk about what makes the LGBTI and straight communities different, it's what makes them the same that matters most - our shared humanity, community-mindedness and freedom of spirit.

Of course there were leaflets from all sorts of weird and wonderful political and pressure groups, not least the Labour Party, talking up dissension and division, but the fascist BNP and homophobic Christian Voice seemed to stay away (or at least keep a very low profile) this year.

Proof, I think, that Pride 2008 was more about celebration of unity than diversity lay in the kind of organisations who had the biggest floats in the parade: the police, a church or two - even the Tory Party (!), all groups traditionally associated with institutional homophobia, all groups that seem to have grown up a little in terms of their attitudes to the LGBTI community (at least here in Brighton).

But although this year's Pride was a wonderful event, a celebration of so much that matters to us all, and a wonderful testament to all involved in organising - and participating - in the weekend's events, there's still room for improvement.

Though they were down on last year, there were still complaints from those living in and around St James's St and the Old Steine, about noise, litter and public urination. And you should have seen the state of the temporary camp site at Sheepcote Valley on Sunday!

Personally, I think Pride needs to 'Green Up' its act - employ some friendly 'green activisits' to point out the social and environmental dangers of hedgerow abuse (in the lavatorial sense!) and sort out waste collection and recycling. They can do it at Glastonbury, so why not Pride?

Failure to do so plays right into the hands of the homophobes who are just desperate for another stick to beat Pride (metaphorically) and LGBTI people (sometimes, alas, not) with.

Pic shows (l-r) some of the elected Greens on the Pride parade: Brighton Pavilion MP candidate Caroline Lucas MEP, yours truly, and fellow councillors Jason Kitcat, Paul Steedman, Vicky Wakefiled-Jerrett and Hove MP hopeful Ian Davey.