Monday, 30 November 2009

425 Brighton jobs to go as publicly-owned Lloyds Bank to close Sussex House

At 11.45 this morning the Lloyds Banking Group announced that it is going to close its Contact Centre in Brighton (Sussex House) on 28th May next year, resulting in the loss of 425 jobs. The Bank is moving out of the building and the work of a further 76 staff may be transferred away from Brighton.

As things stand, there is little prospect of more than a handful of these staff avoiding compulsory redundancy, obviously with serious consequences for local jobs and the local economy.

I'm flabbergasted: almost half the bank is publicly-owned - and I think the Government has a duty to step in and save the jobs, relocating some of the bank's call-centre activities from India to Brighton to do so.

It might costs the bank a little more money in the short term - but the costs to the Government - and the fabric of our society - of mass unemployment are much, much higher.

Yet again the Labour government seems more interested in protecting its investments - and encouraging the banks to make as much money as they can - even at the cost of hundreds of jobs.

Simon Burgess must be absolutely ashamed of himself.

Government must find cash to save jobs, courses and facilities at Sussex University

Some 150 jobs are under threat at the University of Sussex in the latest attack on higher education in the city.

As many as 122 academic jobs face the axe - and another 20-odd support staff.

The decision, which is subject to a 'consultation period' until next March, has already sparked fierce opposition: more than 1,500 people have joined a Facebook group opposing the cuts, and more than 500 have signed an online petition.

There have been demonstrations on campus - and another is planned for this Thursday (Dec 3rd) morning, at 9.30. If you want to join and make your voice heard, meet at Library Square.

Of course the row has centred on whether the University should concentrate on attracting more lucrative foreign students - who pay higher fees - and the most popular (and profitable) courses, or whether its role should be that of a publicly-funded institution designed to deliver higher education to school leavers across the country. There's really good summary of the issues here, courtesy of the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Personally, I think The University of Sussex plays a vital economic and cultural role in our city. Any redundancies or cuts – or even threats of them – are the product of privatisation and the introduction of the profit motive into the provision of higher education and must be opposed.

It is for the Government to fund universities, including Sussex, properly – not just leaving the job to vice chancellors to do so by juggling the figures, short-changing students and slashing less profitable academic courses.

I urge the vice chancellor to reconsider his decision, and to appeal to the Government to put its money where its mouth is in terms of its support for universities and students.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Brian Eno named artistic director for 2010 Brighton Festival

Musician and political campaigner Brian Eno has been named 'Guest Artistic Director' for next year's Brihhton Festival. The appointment has already got Greens across the city jumping for joy - as he's something of a fellow traveller, it seems (and I'm not just talking about his decision to name a 1975 album 'Another Green World').

Perhaps best-known for his haunting keyboard riffs in the background of most of Roxy Music's tunes, Eno has migrated into the world of politics a little. He's a regular critic of the Labour Government and the Tories alike on BBC Question Time, and a champion of civil liberties at a time when the cause of freedom from state interference needs a champion or two.

Check out this video - and watch this space for more on Brighton Festival as and when there are more tales to tell.

Brighton Tories lead Cameron's 'de-toffing' efforts

The bizarre Mail on Sunday (aside: Mark Thomas made me lol t'other day when he suggested its masthead should be forced to carry the words: 'The Newspaper that Supported Hitler') quotes two local Tories today in a piece about David Cameron's backfiring efforts to 'de-toff' the 'New Tories' by banishing candidates' double-barrelled names.

Simon Radford Kirby, the former pub mogul and Pevensey councillor who hopes to become Brighton Kemptown MP, and Scott Seaman-Digby, who was ditched at potential Tory candidate for neighbouring Brighton Pavilion a fortnight ago, have both quietly dropped their double-barrelled names, but deny being asked to so by their cuddly leader Dave Cameron.

After it was reveled that fellow Tory MP hopeful Annunziata Rees-Mogg had refused Cameron's instruction to change her name to plain old Nancy Mogg, Mr Kirby said he was exactly the same person whether or not he went by the name Radford-Kirby or just Kirby. Well he's spot on treally, and I just guess the question is wheter he's the right person for the job of representing Brighton Kemptown, whatever his name. The people I meet around the constituency on a daily basis certainly won't be supporting him - but it's not his name they object to: it's his politics.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Whitehawk's Crew Club is too important to close

Whitehawk's Crew Club plays an integral role in the community and simply must not be allowed to close.

This view is widely-shared - across the council, by senior police, by councillors - but Brighton and Hove Council last week decided there just wasn't enough money in the pot to keep the crew Club open ahead of planned improvements three years down the line.

Councillors of all parties met last week to decide on the level of long-term (three year) grants to community groups around the city. They agreed that, thanks to a lower than average Government grant to Brighton Council - and the expectation of a record low Council Tax increase, they just couldn't give the Crew Club all the money it needs to guarantee its future.

They can't realistically overturn that decision now without throwing community groups across the city into turmoil - but the council, and the police, must work together to help find the cash and keep the Crew club open.

But I have asked Brighton police to help as well as the council, and received informal assurances from both that the money can be found from other sources - I hope so, the Crew Club is simply too important to close.

Paltry Government funding for Sussex Police risks jobs

The Government has announced its annual grant to Sussex Police for the next budget year: 2010-11.

The cash meets most of the costs of policing in the county - most of the rest is made up by Council Tax.

And the magic number is ...drumroll... just over £174m, one of the lowest grants in the country.

This isn't entirely unexpected - the figure was first published as part of an earlier three-year funding settlement, but that doesn't mean I'm not sorely disappointed.

The Chief Constable has already warned that, with a Government grant at this level, Sussex Police faces a £35m cash shortfall over the next five years, and that jobs may have to go as a result.

The Government knew this - and, having spent billions bailing out the banks, could find an extra few thousand pounds to guarantee bobbies' jobs and safeguard neighbourhood policing here in Sussex.

It looks like Labour's priority lies in protecting the bankers - but not the struggle against crime and anti-social behaviour that's making some lives a daily misery here in Brighton.

Adding an extra few pence on Council Tax bills across Sussex might be the only way we've got left to make sure no jobs are lost at Sussex Police.

I hope the Tories who dominate Sussex Police Authority have got the courage to recognise that no-one likes tax but they are prepared to pay it for effective community-based policing. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Don't blame the train drivers!

First Capital Connect spin doctor Roger Perkins has offered an apology for the ongoing disruption faced by commuters using the Bedford to Brighton Thameslink route.

Of course rail users will be delighted to hear that he's sorry for the misery cancelled trains cause, but it's completely unfair - a a little cowardly - to lay the blame on the train drivers for refusing to work overtime, as he does.

Surely train drivers - like the rest of us - have the right to choose whether or not they work outside their contracted hours?

The fact is that responsibility for the reduced service lies squarely with First Capital Connect’s management, who have forced drivers into a position of industrial action with their unfair and unnecessary demands.

Imposing a pay freeze and requiring drivers to voluntarily work their rest days is symptomatic of a private company that puts profits first at the expense of passengers and staff.

The Green Party has long called for a renationalisation of the rail network and a commitment to an affordable, reliable and comfortable service. Let’s end the failed experiment of privatisation and get public transport back where it belongs, in public hands.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

What it's like to be a marathon-running novelist

I am not a novelist: I'd like to be, I have a few ideas, and I can string a sentence together if I try hard. They say everyone's got one book in them, so maybe one day I will be. I certainly won't be betting my house on it though.

I am not a marathon runner either. I'd like to be though, and I hope I will be on April 18th next year, when I'll tighten up my trainers and try to get round 26.2 miles of Brighton and Hove's highways, twittens and beaches. My training's going more slowly than I'd hoped, but it's still going.

But I do love the novels of Haruki Marakami - and this non-fiction effort - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - is as good as any of them, really. Though there can't be many marathon-running novelists out there, I bet there are a fair few people out there who, like me, would actually like to be both.

Even if that's not the case - Murakami's insights into a world seen through not one but two pretty solitary and weird lenses are quite compelling. With every new description you just want to yell 'weirdo' - then, taking a moment, realise he's actually spot on.

'What I think about...' is certainly a product of the orient. We don't chose to live either healthy or unhealthy lifestyles, he posits, for example, we're all a product of both - and it's getting the balance right that matters most. The solitary and emotionally draining practise of novel-writing is his most 'unhealthy' pursuit - running, he argues, is one of the ways he prevents writing from killing him. Mostly through suicide, he notes, being a novelist has taken a fair few lives prematurely.

Though he calmly slips in the fact that he gave up smoking as he realised it was simply incompatible with being a runner (perhaps the most compelling argument I've heard, really), and that he's cut back a little on the alcohol as he's become older, there's no preaching here. It's a compelling, and readable, account of what makes Murakami tick. It's so gracefully done that it's more like listening to a gentle monologue than reading, really, and I've absolutely no idea if it rings true or not. I'll take his word for it though.

If you're inspired by any of this, you can buy the book via this link, or, of course, get it free from your local library.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Friday, 20 November 2009

Banning words and burning books at paranoid Brighton Council HQ

Brighton Council's minority Tory leadership is becoming increasingly paranoid and twitchy as its grip on power seems to slip away.

Last month we had the bizarre news that the council was using tax-payers' cash to sweep the corridors of its Hove HQ for bugs - and shuffle staff around to make sure no secrets are overheard through the walls (tip for worried Tory councillors: lower your voices a little!)

But the latest news to leak its way out of King's House is even weirder: apparently the word 'green' has been banned from council-speak so leader Mary Mears isn't constantly reminded of our presence.

It seems senior officers have been warned to avoid using certain words known to wind up Mary's flagging administration - or risk losing support for future policy initiatives.
It's not just 'green' that has been effectively banned - there's a whole list of words and phrases that will be missing from Brighton council-speak as long as the Tories run things: 'Europe' and 'Government initiative' also make the cut.

I wonder how the French cabbage likely to be served to councillors during our next official meal (as part of the Government's 5-a-day initiative) will be described? Vegetable matter of unspecified origin and appearance, perhaps? Or, more importantly, when will they start burning books at King's House?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tories choose latest Brighton Pavilion candidate at poorly-attended election stunt

Charlotte Vere (pictured) has been selected as the replacement for TV doctor David Bull as the official Tory candidate for Brighton Pavilion by the less than 100 people who turned up to the party's so-called 'open primary' at the Grand Hotel last night.

I feel sorry for her really: she'll be giving up on a life in leafy south-west London (well hopefully she'll be moving to Brighton now) and work with eco-millionaire Zac Goldsmith to become the England's first Tory to lose to a Green MP.

But her heart's clearly in the right place, even if her head hasn't remembered the long-term social damage done to this country by Margaret Thatcher. I've never really understood Tory politicians, if I'm honest. I look forward to meeting her soon.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Spreading a little Christmas cheer on St James's Street

Regular readers of this 'blog will know that I believe many of the problems we face, the world over, from climate change and war to poverty and inequality, are caused by religion and commercialism.

So you might be surprised (if you're kind) - or think me a hypocrite - to read that I spent much of yesterday dressed as Santa Claus selling 'gifts' at a church Christmas bazaar.

But I agreed to dress up as the big man because I thought doing so would be an opportunity to bring some smiles to St James's Street - and that saying no certainly wasn't likely to either reduce commercialism or religious fervour, either here in Kemp Town or anywhere else.

And so it proved: trade at the Dorset Gardens Methodist Church wasn't that brisk, but almost all the children who came in made a beeline to my corner of the hall. They left with a smile, a photo - and a little Christmas magic on a stormy and otherwise depressing November day.

You could argue that the very presence of a man dressed in a Santa suit charging cash for 'gifts' in Brighton six weeks before Christmas merely provides evidence that the whole story is a myth so it would have been hypocritical NOT to have accepted the invitation! Discuss...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

After all that: Starbucks to go?

Starbucks on St James's Street has certainly been responsible for some controversy.

After being refused planning permission to open in the conservation area, doing so anyway, and eventually winning a protracted legal battle to stay - despite opposition from Brighton and Hove Council, ward councillors, and regular demonstrations by residents' concerned at the multi-national's tendancy to threaten the viability of local, independent cafes - it is reported that the firm has now adopted a 'de-branding' strategy that could see it vanish from the street just months after opening.

In the face of collapsing sales around the world, the firm has decided that what most people really want these days is, you guessed it, coffee  from a local, independent cafe.

So the firm has, in a desperate bid to stay competitive, closed one of its biggest stores in its birthplace, Seattle, and replaced it with a '15th Avenue Coffee and Tea' shop instead - with no mention at all of Starbucks, and the style and design  copied directly from nearby successful independent cafes.

Don't be surprised then if, after all that fuss (and public money), Starbucks in St James's Street closes its doors soon, to be replaced by a faux independent coffee store that's part The Tea Cosy, part Red Roaster and part Metro-Deco.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Time to renationalise the railways - and get Brighton to London trains moving again

Rail travellers have been paying the price for failed privatisation again, in the face of hundreds of cancelled trains between London and Brighton - with all the attendant delay and inconvenience - over the last few days.

Drivers employed by First Capital Connect - the private company that runs trains on the Thameslink line between Brighton and Bedford - have been refusing to work overtime in a dispute over pay. That's led to hundreds of cancelled trains - and misery for thousands of commuters.

Basically, the rail company is offering its drivers a 3% pay rise next year, but nothing at all this year.

That's a scandal. Inflation might be low, but it's rising - and it masks the reality that food and energy prices are rising fastest of all.

It's completely unacceptable to impose a unilateral pay cut - to ask anyone to work for less, effectively, than they were being paid this time last year.

And it's not as though First Capital Connect doesn't have the money: research has shown that Britain has some of the highest rail fares in the world.

First Capital Connect must sort this out by treating its drivers fairly - making a little less profit, if need be, but paying its staff a fair wage and not simply passing on the costs to commuters.

And in the longer term, the Government must simply renationalise the railways. If private firms are incapable of doing the job - as they have been on the East Coast mainline - then the state needs to step in to guarantee services and keep fares down by removing the profit margin from prices.

The Green Party has calculated that removing the profit margin, and a proper programme of Government investment in the railways, could reduce the price of a Brighton to London commuter season ticket by £110 a year.

Yesterday, Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas joined Green councillors at Brighton Station to discuss the issue with commuters - more than 100 of whom agreed that renationalisation was the answer.

Cheap, efficient public transport is simply too important to be left to the vagueries of the private sector.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Labour's answer to crime and disorder: less cash, but a new website

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending one of Brighton and Hove's most vibrant community meetings: the St James's Street Area Local Action Team.

Every month, residents, traders, local councillors, council officers and neighbourhood police gather to discuss ways to make the area safer - to find ways of working together reduce crime an anti-social behaviour in the area.

The packed agenda included heated discussions about cycling, whether or not to lock New Steine Gardens at night, the impact of Southern Gas's plan to close the street next year for weeks digging up the road, and the disturbance residents are suffering at the hands of those leaving the area's many pubs and bars late at night.

But I could scarcely believe my ears when a council officer informed the meeting that Brighton and Hove had been selected to take part in a new pilot scheme designed to improve community safety.

We were all invited to visit a new Home Office website and enter details of where we felt safe, and unsafe, and why.

It was explained that the information entered would be used by the Home Office and the council to help them better target resources - but that actually there weren't any new resources associated with the scheme at all, so it'll just be another tool for shifting around the cash that's already there.

Sussex's police chief Martin Richards has warned that we face cuts, effectively, of £35m -and that police officers might have to be laid off to make ends meet. Police stations could even face closure as the cuts bite.

Tory members of Sussex Police Authority have voted to make things even worse, by increasing savings: putting tax revenue in the bank 'for a rainy day' - in other words choosing to make the cuts even deeper, ignoring the rain streaming down the windows.

The council's community safety team is under intense financial pressure too. The Tory administration has pledged to make the lowest Council Tax rise in the city's history, just as the Government is, effectively, cutting the amount of money it gives us here in Brighton and Hove.

The City Council's budget for next is yet to be published, but there are bound to be cuts somewhere.

But we've got a new website to help us weather the storm of cuts. Great. What we need is more cash for neighbourhood policing: more community engagement, more uniformed patrols on the streets - and more neighbourhood empowerment. Not another chocolate teapot which will uselessly gather information residents have been giving the police and Council, to little avail, for years.

Madeira Drive events in 2010

Brighton Council has just published a list of planned events taking place next year - including the usual crop of car-based rallies at Madeira Drive, a handful of events for Brighton Festival, and, of course, the inaugural Brighton Marathon! It's an impressive list.

I am delighted that so many different events - to cater for all tastes - are planned. They provide entertainment for residents - and play a key role in making Brighton an attractive tourist destination. A busy events diary is one of the mark's of our city's vibrancy. It keeps our hotels full (well fuller than they might be without so much going on, anyway) - and provides a welcome boost to turnover in our shops, cafes and restaurants as they are surely the reason behind many of the 8m or so tourist trips to the city made each year.

But as local councillors one of our roles is to defend the interests of residents - and that means doing the sometimes dirty job of holding event planners to account over the unintended negative side-effects of planned events.

For example, the recent White Air extreme sports festival held on Madeira Drive was fantastic - a real showcase for the city. I enjoyed it immensely, as did my five-year-old son (especially the glider simulator!) - but residents saw Kemp Town beach closed for three days, and disn't see a penny in compensation.

At last month's full council meeting I asked David Smith (the cabinet member responsible) whether he thought residents should be entitled to any payback for the loss of access to the beach for three days - even if only in the form of cheap tickets to future festivals.

He dismissed the idea roundly, claiming their was no loss of amenity at all. Well maybe being asked to pay £40 to walk on the beach outside your house for the day doesn't represent a 'loss of amenity' to him - but it certainly does to the thousand of Queen's Park and Kemp Town residents on low incomes.

And then there's the issue of air pollution and carbon emission generated by all the motor-based events. Surely the council could just adjust the way it charges event promoters so those events which generate more pollution are charged a little more than those which don't, creating a good old-fashioned financial incentive for events to clean up their act?

Any money raised in this way - and from a small levy on ticket prices, where these are charged - could be put into a 'Madeira Drive' fund to be spent on the regeneration of the area to everyone's benefit?

The full list will be discussed - and permission granted (or not!) at the next meeting held by the Culture, Recreation and Tourism cabinet member David Smith on December 8th.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Greens setting the agenda at Brighton Council

Yesterday I was invited to address members of Brighton Council's Environment and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Yes, quite a mouthful, I know.

I'm not a member of the committee, and therefore didn't have a vote or anything, but I was amazed really to find the meeting completely dominated by the Green Party's agenda - to see proof in action of how our 13-strong group is batting above its weight.

First there was the substantive stuff: the committee agreed to establish two separate scrutiny panels to investigate services for victims of rape and serious sexual assault (this was something I proposed myself, following conversations with victims, police officers and others, and discovering that rape victims in the city are taken to Crawley - as there are currently no round-the-clock support facilities available in the city), and one to look at whether following the lead of cities like Portsmouth and Bristol by establishing a blanket 20 mph speed limit would save lives and improve traffic flows - another Green Party campaign, this one led by Hove parliamentary candidate and St Peters and North Laine councillor Ian Davey (pictured).

And then there was the non-substantive stuff: a debate on roadworks (I've already blogged about this) sparked by Queen's Park Green councillor Paul Steedman. There was a discussion of the future of the London Road area which revolved around traffic congestion and the majority of residents' views that the last thing the area needs is a Tesco superstore. Although this was the clearly stated view of those living and working in the area - it tallies exactly with the Green Party's position on the issue, and a brief debate about the council's strategy for dealing with waste - and, perhaps bizarrely for such an urban authority, mineral extraction. There was wide acceptance of the view that we should do everything the law allows us to do to refuse to import waste from London, and that we need to boost recycling levels and find alternatives to landfill and incineration where we can. Again, exactly the Green party's position.

So it seems that the Greens' by-election win in Goldsmid is already making a huge difference. With 13 councillors, obviously we can't make any of the big, important decisions. But we can, and are, setting the agenda in which those decisions are being taken - that can only be good news for residents.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Tories announce Brighton Pavilion shortlist

According to The Argus, the local Tories have whittled the applicants to stand for parliament in Brighton Pavilion down to just six.

And it looks like, whoever is chosen, the party has already thrown in the towel.

Frankly I haven't heard of three of them at all - so I can't tell you anything about them.

But of the three I have come across, there's Andrew Wealls, who actually has some experience standing in an election locally and losing to a Green party candidate, Scott Seaman-Digby, a senior Tory national organiser, and Chelsea councillor Mary Weale.

Now it's up to the good folk of Brighton Pavilion to choose the final candidate, at an open 'primary' meeting next Wednesday. Anyone living in the constituency can vote, whether or not they are a member of the Tory party. Call 01273 411844 if you want to join the fun.

Of course it's all academic really: if this shortlist really contains the best candidates to Tories can muster it looks to me like they've already thrown in the towel.

Remember David Bull? His departure was clearly prescient - it seems the Tories just can't find a big hitter who wants to risk being the country's first Tory candidate to lose to a Green MP.

Traffic nightmare coming to St James's Street

Do you ever get the feeling our city is mired in a permanent traffic jam of roadworks?

Probably. Members of Brighton and Hove City Council's Environment Scrutiny Committee yesterday learned that roads in Brighton and Hove have been dug up on about 20,000 separate occasions in the last year.

The council itself carried out about 9,000 roadworks, and about 8,500 were done by the utility companies. Oh and then there's Southern Water's main replacement project - which has, additionally, seen roads closed and traffic brought to a standstill while the firm has upgraded miore than 50 km of pipes.

A traffic engineer told members they were doing everything they can to get the privately-owned utilities to work together - cutting costs, disruption to residents and traders, and delays to all road users.

He gave one example of how they were able to persuade two utility firms to co-operate on works at North Road, cutting the length of time the road was dug up by about nine months.

But usually, we were told, that doesn't happen. The companies involved don't like it much - and they're under no legal obligation to play ball with each other.

Well, personally, I don't think that's good enough. The law of the land allows the water, gas, electricity and cable companies to dig up the roads, essentially whenever they like.

I think it should also require them to plan their work and do it all at once: if they really can't get their acts together they should face heavy fines - used to compensate residents and road users - or compulsory nationalisation, to bring them into public ownership and control.

Meanwhile, the never-ending road works look set to continue.

And if you live, work, shop - or just hang out - anywhere near St James's Street it's about to get a whole lot worse.

Southern Gas Networks have announced plans to 'relay a section of the Gas main and associated services' in St James's Street (whatever that means exactly), next February.

The St James's Area LAT will discuss the plans with the Southern Gas manager responsible at its next meeting, which takes place tomorrow from 7pm at Dorset Gardens Methodist Church.

It'll be interesting to see how we all manage during any protracted closures of the street: I guess the buses will have to be diverted along the seafront and Edward Street, giving us an instant experiment (whether we like it or not) in giving pedestrians priority for a while.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Preston Circus to 'turn Japanese'?

Last week London's Oxford Circus 'turned Japenese'. Taking their cue from Shibuya in Tokyo, the capital's transport planners have re-timed the traffic lights at the junction so they all stop at once, allowing pedestrians to cross in all directions, including diagonanally. It seems to be working well.

Here's a video clip of the original inspiration in full effect.

But the real question for me isn't can we export a brilliant Japanese idea into London, but can we import it into Brighton? Well, the answer is maybe.

Today Green Party councillor Ian Davey suggested to members of the council's environment scrutiny committee that the same principle might work well at Preston Circus.

Traffic officers said they were looking at the idea - personally I'm not sure if there are enough pedestrians to make it work at Preston Circus but I don't think there's a Brighton junction in need of a more radical approach to tackle congestion, air quality and pedestrian delays.. remember, you heard it here first!

Saving on the costs of democracy

I was amazed to read this on The Times website this morning - I had a proper cornflake splattering moment.

It seems Labour's latest depsperate wheeze to cling on to power could be to crack down on democracy itself.

Basically, it seems that the treasury could save about one hundred million pounds  by closing a few polling stations here and reduce voting hours there (making it harder to vote) - and make candidates pay even higher deposits (to make sure only the big parties' candidates can afford to take part - and so there are fewer people to vote for in the first place).

The moves would drive turnout down even further (a disastrous thought - especially as we've no way of knowing the extent to which the snouts-in-the-trough expenses scandal has turned people off politics for ever) and mean more voters opt to do so by post, both of which can be expected to benefit Labour.

The Government has denied any intention to tinker with the way votes are cast in this country - but I'm not sure if I believe it really. I'll certainly be watching.

Junk media tells is like it is: junk food can cause depression

Last week The Observer newspaper warned that eating processed, sugary, foods could lead to depression. The December edition of Zest magazine has a similar story on its cover: 'Boost your mood now with 60 feel-happy foods', in which is exhorts its model-wannabe readers to eat more fruit and vegetables.

So, if they're right, the NHS spends millions each year treating people for depression brought on by junk food sold, at a profit, with adverts promising a happier, more relaxed, lifestyle, to anyone who succumbs to temptation.

I think the polluter pays principle should mean food retailers stump up cash to society - in the form of increased taxation - to compensate the NHS for having to nurse their customers back to health when it all goes wrong.

If that means junk food prices go up, but healthier food prices come down, so total food bills don't rise (hard to work out but that's no reason not to try), there'll be probably be a fall in the high numbers of Brighton residents suffering from depression.

Of course, Labour's friends in big business won't like it much, so don't expect any Government action on junk food anytime soon - but Green MPs will keep the issue on the agenda, whoever forms the next government.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Latest Labour assault on science: Gov't sacks drugs advisor

Unbelievable, really. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has sacked a scientific advisor on drugs for observing that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis, and that horse-riding is more dangerous than taking ecstasy.

Is it any wonder we have such a problem with alcohol use when the Government is refusing, yet again, to take seriously the advice of scientists?

Nationally, alcohol is a disaster for the health of both people and wider communities.

Recent reports say alcohol will directly claim more than 90,000 lives over the next decade. The figures don't include drink-related accidents or deaths from illnesses which have been exacerbated by alcohol consumption.

Here in Brighton and Hove things are even worse than average: five children a week are admitted to casualty as a direct result of alcohol abuse.

Earlier this year I joined forces with Sussex Police to take part in a Government consultation on the rules governing alcohol sales.

We argued for a ban on supermarkets selling cheap alcohol at below costs price (a recent study showed that cheap strong alcohol was being sold for as little as 17p a unit) - and a prohibition of drink promotions that saw prices fall the more you drank.

But of course the Government ignored us entirely.

Last year, I persuaded Brighton and Hove Council to investigate the extent of alcohol-related harm to children and young people in the city, and why it seemed to be worse in Moulsecoomb, Whitehawk and Kemptown than central Brighton or Hove.

A scrutiny panel was established, and we heard from doctors, teachers, parents, landlords and off-licencees - and, of course, children themselves.

We made a number of recommendations - particularly that schools should provide more information for parents about the extent of teengae drinking, that substance misuse efforts should concentrate on alcohol use rather than cannabis (a casualty doctor from the Royal Sussex told us he'd never heard of a cannabis-related hospital admission), that the council should fund more services for young people, and that the city centre's 'Cumulative Impact Area' - in which the presumption is against saying yes to any new off-licenses or pubs - should be extended to cover Hanover, Elm Grove and Preston Park.

Our full report is available here.

I hope the local Tories have a slightly more evidence-based approach locally, and stop banging on about the bogeyman of cannabis, and we might just be able to buck the national trend and try and reduce some of the ill-effects alcohol is having on kids here in Brighton.

New push-bike parking spaces coming to George Street

Finally, provision for cyclists in the St James's Street Area looks set to increase, with ten new designated parking spaces for pedal bikes in George Street.

Green councillors have long argued that the council simply must fund secure parking places for bikes, both so cyclists have somewhere to leave their bikes, and to make cycling a more attractive option as an alternative to car use in the town centre.

Finally the argument has prevailed - for the St James's Street area, anyway.

Next stop: a proper, mandatory, physically marked, cycle-lane for Edward Street so cyclists aren't tempted to choose going against the traffic - and pedstrians' expectations - in St James's Street over a dangerous, busy dual carriageway!

A classic 'lose-lose' policy...

I've just read a news item that so turns received wisdom about copyright on its head I just had to share it with you.

The Pirate Party UK are reporting that people who 'illegally' download music are, in fact, the music industry's best customers!

On average, according to the results of a study carried out by left-leaning think-tank Demos, people who share digital files are likely to spend more cash on copyrighted materials than those who don't: so misguided Labour plans to stamp out file-sharing are not only bad for Internet freedom and music, it seems they could hit the music industry where it hurts too. I think that's what you call a 'lose-lose' policy.

Greens and Pirate Party lead EU charge for Internet freedom

Sometimes something unexpected happens in politics which re-affirms your belief in the political bedfellows you keep - I came across a small but heartening example of this yesterday, while musing over the Government's latest draconian attack on Internet freedom and discovering that the Green Party has been resisting it at EU level.

Last week, Busimness Secretary Peter Mandelson, fresh from holidaying with media mogul David Geffen, announced that the Government will be pressing ahead with its ideas of banning internet users who 'share' even little parcels of copyrighted material from using the internet at all.

God what a draconian response to a request from his rich mates to protect their markets - the truth is that it's the David Geffens of this world that have most to gain from enforcing out-dated copyright rules on digital files.

Banning file sharers from using the internet at all? That's like banning people who use adverts in magazines to break the law - those who promote cleaning services by illegally trafficked women, for example - from reading.

So I was delighted yesterday to discover that Mandy's plan looks set to breach the rules of a new EU telcoms package - and leading the charge for Internet users' rights have been the Greens and the Pirate Party.

It turns out that Green MEPs have been working closely with their coalition ally and  Pirate Party MEP Christian Engström, to fight attempts to introduce the‘three strike’ rule for people who illegally download material.

Green Party leader and MEP Caroline Lucas, describing the proposals as “excessive”, said the proposal had been rejected by the European Parliament, but warned that the struggle for Internet freedom was far from over.

Speaking after the debate, she said: “Lord Mandelson’s draconian anti-piracy measures, which mirror the French ‘Hadopi’ internet piracy bill, are excessive – especially given the complex dynamics behind filesharing. The European Parliament must continue to stand up to the Council's blatant attempts to erode citizens' rights and deprive people of an essential service."

Thursday, 5 November 2009

New Brighton-based online book review site goes live

Last week, I launched a new website: Ben's Bookshop. The idea couldn't be simpler:
1. Launch a free blog
2. Post reviews of books I read on it
3. Make money from commission when ever anyone, inspired by the review, decides to buy a  book there and then

So there you go then: Ben's Bookshop was born.

But the trouble is, enthusiasm to write the first few items - the one's no-one is ever likely actually to read - is in short supply. A week's gone by, the site boasts just two posts, and so far has had just 12 visitors (none of which, needless to say, has actually bought anything).

It looks like I'm going to have to be busy if I'm going to build the site into a useful web resource: a source for reliable and informative book reviews, concentrating especially on the fields of popular economics, politics and psychology. Guest posts and reviews are, of course, always welcome.

Meanwhile, while I build the content up a little, please consider making any Amazon-style online purchases via my site - not only are most prices discounted, but the commission I make will help fund my time to do entries on this site too.

Thanks, and sorry for selling.

Brighton Greens are here to stay - 'a force to be reckoned with', says Morning Star

The Morning Star - rabble-rousing paper of record for the left leaning - has dubbed the Green Party 'a force to be reckoned with'.

In a profile of newly elected Hove Green party Councillor Alex Phillips (pictured), the paper finds an 'articulate, well presented, striking and passionate' socialist who was attracted to the Green Party by its human rights and social policies - not the environment at all.

The Morning Star has long been supportive of the Greens, up to a point, and carries regular news and columns from Caroline Lucas and Derek Wall.

But this is the first time, to my memory, the paper has accepted that we are an organised, left-wing, alternative to the Labour Party - and that we are here to stay.

I should really renew my subscription!

Why Gordon Brown won't resign

There are many reasons why Gordon Brown won't resign before the General Election.

He's waited so long for the top job that now he's got it he can't bear let go so soon - and no-one in the Labour Party wants to make him.

Every player knows perfectly well that leading Labour into next year's General Election will mean presiding over a disastrous defeat - and no-one, not Mandelson, Harman, neither of the Milibands, wants that hanging round their necks.

This week we heard what the Prime Minister himself has to say on the subject.

In recent weeks more than 70,000 people signed a petition simply calling on the PM to resign. In answer, he said simply:

The Prime Minister is completely focussed on restoring the economy, getting people back to work and improving standards in public services. As the Prime Minister has consistently said, he is determined to build a stronger, fairer, better Britain for all.

Hardly a straight answer then, but I think that's a No. Simon Burgess will be pleased.

The Muse of Muesli Mountain

A new voice has joined the blogosphere from up the road in Hanover: Green Councillor Bill Randall.

Bill, the Convenor of the 13-strong Green Group on Brighton and Hove City Council, is a journalist by trade, and promises to tell an interesting yarn or two from the Hanoverian's perspective.

His first offering covers the staple diet of local councillors around the world: dog shit.

Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Four 2010 by-elections at Brighton Council?

The local Tories are, I understand, down to a shortlist of six candidates to fill the empty post of parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion.

The local association will, I'm told, whittle the list down to four before putting the candidates to a public vote.

I don't know who's on the shortlist - but I understand there's at least one local hat still in the ring.

It's something of a poison chalice. The vacancy was created after TV doctor David Bull dramatically quit the race earlier this year.

And it looks increasingly like whoever's selected will be beaten by Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas - just as the rest of the country return a Tory government for the first time in a political generation.

No-one wants to go down in history as the first in England and Wales to lose to a Green MP, of course!

If Caroline wins, she'll resign her European Parliament job in favour of Keith Taylor (pictured, left) - and that's bound to trigger a by-election in St Peters and North Laine.

But it might not be the only one. Of course, I'll stand down as a councillor here in Queen's park if I'm elected Brighton Kemptown MP, and Cllr Ian Davey is standing for the Green Party in Hove - and according to a 'tweet' from BBC South Political Editor Peter Henley, Moulsecoomb and Bevendean Councillor Maria Caulfield (pictured, right) is down to the shortlist of six to stand as Tory candidate in... wait for it... Gosport.

If she is selected, and wins, we'll be having a by-election in Moulsecoomb and Bevenden too - giving the Greens a chance to take yet another Tory seat.

Meanwhile, I guess Maria'll be too busy trying to win hearts and minds in Hampshire to make any more local gaffes (she recently admitted to a Guardian journalist that people hated the Tories and, I understand, she told a Kemp Town audience she was a Thatcherite) - let alone deal personally with residents' issues, or provide the political leadership for our massive housing division!

Whatever happens, 2010 is shaping up to be intersting, electorally at least!

New Chief Executive criticises City Council

Last weekend Brighton and Hove City Council's new Chief Executive John Barradell stirred up something of a hornet's nest when he condemned the Conservative-led council's failures on basic service delivery in The Argus.

For some reason the piece doesn't seem to be online (funny that), but it described some of his experiences after moving to the city and trying to set up basic services for himself and his family with the council.

The description, taken from a speech given by Mr Barradell to Hove business leaders, said at one point an automated phone message told him no service was available outside Scotland.

I guess Council Leader Mary Mears will be fuming - but more enthusiastic, it seems, are senior council officers.

I've had two private conversations this week with senior officers who are delighted Mr Barradell seems committed to improving service delivery for everyone, even if it means facing some home truths about his political masters.

I'm inclined to agree: almost all the casework I get relates to getting the council just to do something they should have done already - and it's not always easy, as Mr Barradell found out for himself - even if you're the boss, let alone if you're not.

Satisfaction in our council will only improve when its staff, and political masters, get better at listening to residents and supporting communities according to what they hear.

Too many people, certainly in Kemptown, are fed up with a council that just isn't very good at getting even the basics right.

Bookies put money on Greens to win Brighton MP

Pollsters and bookmakers have very different ways of predicting election results: both have lessons for those of us nerdy enough to follow the number-crunching details.

Gamblers and psephologists usually, but not always agree. There seems to be a growing consensus among both though that Brighton will return at least one Green MP to Westminster at the next election.

The Kemptown figures aren't available in the same way (well I don't know how to get that display, anyway) - but in neighbouring Brighton Pavilion, Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas is outright favourite to win at bookies Paddy Power and SkyBet and joint favourite at Ladbrokes.

I hope they are proved right. Green MPs for Brighton and Hove would be able to argue for a fairer city - and society: a win for everybody.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sing out Brighton - to bring our troops home

The NATO invasion of Afghanistan was legally mandated by the UN. As such it enjoyed my support, at first, principally in defence of human rights, women's rights - and to keep our streets from terrorist attacks.

But these objectives have, it seems, been abandoned in the face of failure - and the original mandate has little or nothing to do with the current military misadventure, which has seen more than 200 British troops come home in body bags.

As the Stop the War coalition has observed, NATO's operation in Afghanistan has descended into farce.

Gordon Brown and Barrack Obama have both congratulated Hamid Karzai (pictured) - a man they installed as Afghanistan's ruler in the first place - for winning an election they themselves have condemned as corrupt.

The group has launched a petition to the Prime Minister - and I hope Brighton will sing out, signing it in droves.

Brighton on the 'blogosphere

At risk of being too self-referential, I thought I'd just post links to three other 'blogs this morning.

Brighton Politics Blog provides an anonymous commentary on all things political in Brighton and Hove, and in his (her?) latest post (s)he summarises some of the city's best political bloggers.

(S)he was quite kind to me: thanks for the namecheck BPB, if you're reading, and the advice (I'll make posts shorter now!).

He's missing one of the best political blogs though for a local take on national issues, that of Caroline Lucas, local MEP, Green Party Leader, and parliamentary candidate in Brighton Pavilion. You can find her blog here.

And finally, a new-ish Brighton and Hove news website has sprung up. I wish them well!

Monday, 2 November 2009

New era for Tarner Park

This weekend years of work by the well-established Friends of Tarner Park group came to fruition when a new, graffiti free, ball court was officially opened.

One of the first controversies I cam across after I was elected to the council in 2007 was the vexed question of whether to enforce a ban on graffiti in Tarner Park.

The park had become internationally-renowned for its graffiti: the park looked great, and attracted visitors from across the country to add to the constantly-evolving public art exhibition.

But the deprived Tarner area was paying a price for the park having become little more than a graffiti zone: parents with young children, and others living nearby, were reluctant to use the park, and there were a number of health scares as graffiti artists left half-empty can lying around for children using either the adjacent nursery - or the park's own PlayBase, to find.

The rest of the city centre saw a massive increase in 'tagging' as well: though the work in Tarner Park was of a high artistic standard - those travelling by train to Tarner often left a trail of less attractive work on Trafalgar and Sussex Streets.

A survey of residents and park users organised by the 'Friends Of...' group found that most, reluctantly, wanted the graffiti to go.

So the ban was enforced - and it's clear the park has gne from strength to strength since.

There are events there every few weeks now: and the park is always busy. This weekend saw the new ball court opened, as a band played, and children took part in Halloween activities.

A classic case of an empowered community, supported by councillors, reclaiming green space for neighbourhood use.

But the graffiti gave pleasure to millions: not just those living nearby, and the artists themselves, but around the world via books and the internet.

And we, as a city, have a duty to provide alternate sites where unregulated graffiti is tolerated, somewhere central and accessible.

It's clear to me now that the costs outweighed the benefits of tolerating graffiti at Tarner Park, but that there'll have to be a new argument, informed by residents and all park-users, including the graffiti artists, before we close any more graffiti sites.

Government inspectors grant permission to bulldoze Brighton allotment site

Government planning inspectors have stuck two fingers up at residents and campaigners by giving the go-ahead for building on the site of the former London Road allotments in Brighton.

The site, which has never before been built on, has become a haven for slow worms and other urban wildlife, according to the Friends of London Road Allotments (FLORA) group.

But alas no longer. Work bulldozing the site could start within weeks now, thanks to the Government decision - and other open spaces throughout the city could be next.

Cllr Amy Kennedy (pictured), who speaks for the Green councillors on planning issues, was quick to condemn the ruling:

“This bitterly disappointing decision comes after years of campaigning by residents, councillors and the FLORA group,"
she said.

“Now this urban oasis will be lost forever, and I have profound concerns for the preservation of other cherished open spaces in our city.”

"As a city, we are hemmed in by the sea and the South Downs, and these valuable pockets of wildlife habitat are quite rightly much-loved by the residents who live nearby.

“Sadly it may now become impossible for us to protect these sites, despite the best efforts of officers, councillors and residents alike. This is a grim day for the planning system in Brighton & Hove”.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Farming meat and dairy causes more than half world's greenhouse gas emissions

A new study reckons the meat and dairy industry is responsible for more than half all climate change emissions - suggesting changing our diet could be the biggest single step we could take to warding off the most devastating impact of climate change.

The preliminary findings - released on World Vegan Day - of a study by two World Bank economists say previous estimates saying meat and dairy caused about a fifth of all carbon emissions underestimated the problem by more than half.

Of course, what people choose to eat is a personal matter - but Brighton and Hove City Council - and, nationally, the Government - should be doing everything they can to promote healthy, cheap, cruelty-free and climate-friendly vegetarian and vegan food as an alternative to meat.

As an absolute minimum that means offering and promoting vegan food at all city schools, museums and leisure centres and teaching all kids about veganism at council-run primary schools.

Time to end live animal exports...

The campaign to stop live animal exports from Shoreham Harbour served to glavanize the local animal rights movement, but live exports - with all their inherent cruelty - continue apace.

Today I read that every year millions of Australian sheep are crammed onto ships bound for ports in the Middle East and North Africa. When they arrive, the sheep will be callously dragged to shore as if they were sacks of coal, and then they will have their throats cut whilst they are still conscious.

Picture a gentle sheep on a farm in Australia, the world's largest producer of Merino wool. One day, she is herded onto a crowded truck bound for a ship in a port city hundreds of miles away. For 24 hours or longer, she goes without any food or water. Her stomach aches and her mouth is dry as a bone, and she is constantly jolted and jarred. She is terrified, exhausted from sleep deprivation and stifled by the roasting heat inside the truck – with no idea what will befall her next.

Scared and desperately weak when she arrives at the port, she is herded into a feedlot. The "pellet" food wreaks havoc on her digestive system, causing stomach upset and diarrhoea, making her sicker and weakening her even more.

Eventually, she finds herself roughly herded onto a multi-tiered ship along with thousands of other sheep – strangers, not the family she has known. Because the sheep are packed together so tightly (a miserable three sheep per square metre), she is barely able to move. And that is how she stays for up to three weeks at sea – if she survives the gruelling journey.

The enclosed ship deck becomes as hot as an oven. The amount of urine and faeces on the floor grows every day. In a few days, her lungs and eyes are burning from the ammonia fumes, which are so strong they eventually cause her to lose her vision.

Some sheep on board die from starvation, others from heatstroke. In a bid to contain the diseases that run rampant on the ship, the workers often throw the bodies of the dead and dying into a macerator – a large mincing device – which grinds them up and flushes their remains out to sea.

The next stop for her is the live market, where she is sold to an unskilled slaughterer. In sheer terror, she smells the blood of other sheep all around her and tries to hobble away, but a man throws her to the ground and slashes her throat as she struggles to stay alive.

I'm glad, not for the first time, that I'm not a sheep.

It really is time for an international ban on all live exports.