28 July 2008

Puffins On Farne Island

I've been away for 10 days in Northumbria. I'd never been north of York, so it was interesting spending time in places like Alnwick, Bamburgh and Seahouses.

We took a 2 1/2 hour boat tour to the Farne Islands ... seals lounging on rocks, and a landfall for an hour on Inner Farne (arctic terns sweeping over head, thousands of puffins).

Only a day later, news broke that the number of breeding pairs of puffins has fallen from over 55 000 in 2003, to 36,500 this year.

Sandeels, the staple food of puffins in the summer, are in good supply. There is a lack of ground predators, so the puffins can breed.

The suspicion is that fewer puffins are surviving over the winter, and something is happening in the open sea (an intensification of storms due to climate change) that affects the ability of puffins to find winter food.

It's not just polar bears!

Batman And America's Vigilante Violence

Andrew Neil is onto something ...

"Batman is really an allegory for America. He thinks he stands for truth and justice but his penchant for vigilante violence is deeply suspect as a means of spreading these virtues (think of G Bush's invasion of Iraq) and actually attracts the sort of evil he is meant to be destroying. The Joker is obviously al-Qaeda and you are given the strong impression that he wouldn't exist if Batman wasn't there in the first place. Batman is not averse to beating a confession out of the Joker (Gitmo, Abu Ghraib). Batman wins in the end, but since most of Gotham (Baghdad) is trashed in the process - even the city's biggest hospital gets blown to smithereens - you wonder if it was really worth it."

Recent Stories In The Telegraph

- One of the city council's scrutiny boards will discuss, on the 6th of August, the idea of private companies bidding against city GPs for the right to run a new health centre in Hillfields and two new clinics in Stoke Aldermoor and Foleshill.

- Over 400 people have signed a petition to save the post office on Standard Avenue in Tile Hill South.

- A new nature area for children has opened at Park Hill Primary School in Eastern Green.

21 July 2008

Labour's New Benefits Proposals

Everytime I see a proposal like this from New Labour, I think, "close your eyes, and can you distinguish it from something the Tories would do?"

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said he had "deep concerns about the tone of these reforms and the target-led ethos underpinning them" He added: "Disabled people face a myriad of barriers in finding employment, including negative attitudes from employers and inadequate social care support. Punitive measures against individual disabled claimants will do nothing to remove these barriers."

17 July 2008

Early Day Motions On Peace

Early Day Motions are non-binding straw polls -- resolutions that MPs sign up to on topical issues. You can see a current list of them here, and you can also search for the EDMs that your own MP has signed up to here.

Some of the recent ones that I would be signing up to, if I was an MP, are:

- EDM 2076 - Mayors For Peace (criticises Boris for withdrawing London from the worldwide Mayors for Peace network)

- EDM 2057 - International Criminal Court (celebrating its 10th anniversary; supporting its work against individuals accused of international crimes, including the current Sudanese President Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur)

- EDM 2004 - US "Star Wars" base in the Czech Republic (the proposed base would work in tandem with Menwith Hill and Fylingdales and would heighten tension between NATO and Russia)

The North's Ecological Debt

Do you hear Gordon Brown, David Cameron, or Nick Clegg talking about the following?

Mike Davis, TomDispatch:

Will rich counties ever mobilize the political will and economic resources to actually achieve IPCC targets or, for that matter, to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable, already "committed" quotient of warming now working its way toward us through the slow circulation of the world ocean?

Will the electorates of the wealthy nations shed their current bigotry and walled borders to admit refugees from predicted epicenters of drought and desertification like the Maghreb, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Pakistan?

Will Americans, the most miserly people when measured by per capita foreign aid, be willing to tax themselves to help relocate the millions likely to be flooded out of densely settled, mega-delta regions like Bangladesh?

Sheer demographic momentum will increase the world's urban population by 3 billion people over the next forty years (9 percent of them in poor cities), and no one--absolutely no one--has a clue how a planet of slums, with growing food and energy crises, will accommodate their biological survival, much less their inevitable aspirations to basic happiness and dignity.

The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.

"Building Bridges"

A study called "Building Bridges" will be launched next week at a conference in London.

Whilst focused on London (it was a two-year study, by Londoners aged 16-25, and supported by the Race on the Agenda think-tank), it probably has lessons for communities spread across the country.

One of its conclusions is that the emphasis on knife crime meant that the focus was on how violence is inflicted rather than why. The report will call for:

"a greater focus on prevention by tackling problems such as a lack of aspiration, a culture of individualism, fear, poverty and a lack of educational opportunities for young people. It will also back the introduction of youth-led projects to address the issues, since these work because "young people trust other young people". The report will also call for improvements in black history education, since this was feeding into a feeling of exclusion among black teenagers."

16 July 2008

10 Reasons To Cheer Teenagers

Mark Easton, the BBC Home Affairs reporter, has a "top 10" list to counteract all the "binge-drinking, drug-addled, knife-wielding thugs ready to leap out and stab a granny for a fiver" stories about teens. Among his points:

1. Teenagers are more likely to do voluntary work than people from any other generation. In fact, they are 10 times more likely to be volunteering in our communities than regularly being antisocial in them.
2. More teenagers than ever before are staying on at school after 16 to study.
3. And more than ever are going on to further and higher education.
7. Nearly two-thirds of 10-to-15-year-olds have helped raise money for charity.
8. According to English schools inspectors, bad behaviour in comprehensives is at its lowest level for at least a decade.
9. 175,000 under 18-year-olds are unpaid carers in the UK with some 13,000 providing more care than a full-time job (50+ hours).

Number 9 says a great deal about how our social care/eldercare system is broken, but it demonstrates selflessness.

One of the comments in response was from Andy Hamflett, Chief Executive of the UK Youth Parliament:
"Dear Mark,

I think I love you.

So great to read a (rare) balanced perspective on this issue. I'll make sure I dsitribute this throughout our UK-wide networks. It will certainly be well received by young people.

As we engage every day with the ever-burgeoning youth participation network which supports young people to be active citizens everywhere, I can tell you that young people are sick and tired of being demonised.

We all understand that youth crime is a major issue (but as you say, most victims are young peope, too), and that bad news sells (so everyone say, anyway), but we don't feel that any other group within society could be demonised in quite the same way as young people are, and there's a groundswell to try and do something about it."

Gordon Brown As Seen In 2006

Reading Andrew Rawnsley back in March 2006, all the signs were there ...

A majority of the cabinet still wants to put off the day of a Brown premiership. The real fears revolve around the temperament and style of a Brown premiership.

There would be no check and balance to Prime Minister Brown because there would no longer be a Chancellor Brown. You can run the Treasury by concentrating on one big project at a time. You can also disappear from view when it is politically convenient. When a princess dies in the middle of the night, when a bomb goes off in the middle of London, there is no time to commission a review or draw up five tests to determine the response.

Gordon Brown is a hugely formidable Chancellor and yet we cannot be at all sure about what he would make of being Prime Minister. We don't know. What might just scare him a little is that he can't know either.

Unison Strike In Coventry

For the next two days, nearly 600 000 members of Unison will be on strike.

It will be one of the biggest strikes since the general strike of 1926.

The chief issue is the cost of living and wages. Inflation was 3.8% in June. That monthly figure was the highest since June 1992. The Local Government Association is offering 2.45% to workers. The LGA is crying poor, but if central government stepped in, they could pay public sector workers a living wage. It's a gendered issue as well. As many as 250 000 of those balloted earn less than £6.50 an hour. Of these, 75 per cent are women.

It's an EU-wide issue. Across the 27 countries of the EU, average wages have grown by just 6.7% between 2000 and 2007 -- less than 1% a year. There has also been, across the EU, a "widening gap between productivity improvements and wage growth, with real pay lagging around 10 points behind increased output per employee."

So, we have increasing worker productivity, rampant inflation, and poor treatment of women workers on minimum wages in the public sector. What should Labour do?

The New Statesman captured it well in a recent editorial:

If millions of workers lose purchasing power by below-inflation wage settlements, we will quickly be in a recession. Is it realistic, or even morally acceptable, to call on the lowest-paid not to defend their families' living standards?

Tony Blair continued a Tory tradition of disdain for public servants such as teachers, social workers and probation officers. Brown must break with it.

Fighting them will not win him votes from the middle ground, because anything he can do on that front, the Tories will always do better. George Osborne has already made it clear that his response to strike threats will be tougher trade union legislation.

For the past decade, the country has been held to ransom, with Labour's blessing, by the richest in society. That is why an appeal to those seeking only a living wage to act for the greater good sounds hollow indeed.
National link: Green councillors respect town hall pickets

15 July 2008

The Non-Negotiable Needs Of Capitalism

A Very Public Sociologist has an important post on the limits to political ecology. We need to think really hard about what kind of ideas and assumptions back up political action.

If we accept "non-negotiable" ideas (we need to use more and more energy; any scientific innovation is progress), then it leads to nuclear power and biotechnology. If we contest non-negotiable ideas, mainstream media won't listen to us (we're not being "realistic").

Are we at an eco-political turning point, a point where green politics is not about to take off but where it could give way to a politics of unsustainability?

The vision offered by sustainable development and political ecology talk about different lifestyles, re-engineered social-natural relations, new (post-capitalist) forms of economic life and a society animated by existential need, not the impoverished vision of acquisitive materialism.

When this is pitted against the non-negotiable needs of capitalism - labour flexibility and capital mobility, information, improved transport, nuclear energy and bio-technology, the system wins out every time.

Climate Camp, Kingsnorth -- 3rd to 11th August

You can read all about preparations for the climate camp protests at Kingsnorth in August here.

The climate camp has been held in 2006 (at the Drax plant in Yorkshire) and 2007 (at Heathrow).

Kingsnorth has been chosen, since it is the first proposed site of seven coal-fired power stations in the UK. These power stations would emit around 50 million tons of CO2 a year.

One of the 10 reasons not to build Kingsnorth is that, insted of employing people to burn coal, we need to talk about how about we build install and run an energy system based on renewables. Germany's renewables sector, for example, already employs 250 000 people. This is the only way forward -- figuring out how to shift employment from dirty industries to clean, sustainable industries, to jobs that pay living wages.

The organisers of the climate camp have issued an "open statement and invitation" to the trade union movement to attend the camp:

We want to clarify that this action is not against the workers at Kingsnorth, nor does it mean we think the UK coal industry should be shut down overnight. It means we want to show the seriousness of the threat both to humans and our environment, now and into the future. This crisis affects the world’s poorest people first and hardest and is a social justice issue.

We recognise the history of political attacks on the miners and the union movement and we firmly resist that. We recognise the need for jobs, viable communities and a strong trade union movement, and we want a decent, fair and long term deal for all, including miners, energy workers and their communities. Extremely rapid reductions in emissions are necessary if we are not to watch millions suffer and die in the most preventable disaster the world has ever known.

We have adopted the model of "Just Transition," in which the needs of workers are paramount within the transition to a new economy: their views are central, there should be adequate retraining where required, there should be no loss incurred. An increasing number of trade unions are adopting this model internationally. There will be ways we can make this transition protect, and benefit, workers and communities worldwide.

10 July 2008

Migrant Recycling Workers Shut Down In Beijing

A relentless campaign by Beijing to present a sanitised, modern city to millions of Olympic Games visitors has led to a government shut down of scores of garbage recycling centres that provide these migrant workers with an income:

As the Olympic Games approach, the number of garbage pickers has visibly dropped across Beijing including at Qianbajia, a recycling station where about 200 households live among towering piles of plastic, building materials and scrap metals.

Qianbajia is among the dozens of urban recycling stations being shut down for the Games, effectively cutting off the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Beijing's temporary workers who eke out a living from the city's cast-offs. The workers process up to a third of Beijing's trash and have a "positive effect" on society, but most have criminal records, leave second-hand environmental pollution, and pose a health threat.

Scrap traders and recyclers, faced with a diminishing pool of rubbish collectors to do business with, grumble of lost profits and fear that their suppliers may not come back after the Games.

Rights groups and activists say the sweep has also taken in the homeless and the mentally ill, along with beggars, hawkers and prostitutes.

Car Club Membership On The Rise

- The public health director of Stockport: "We need much more widespread introduction of 20mph zones in side streets. We are killing our children for the sake of saving a couple of minutes."

- The Commons Public Accounts Committee says that the cost of decommissioning nuclear power sites could rise "significantly" above the £73 billion already estimated. We can install solar panels and wind turbines and tidal turbines now, not 10 years from now, and also avoid the massive decommissioning that will follow any nuclear power expansion.

- Despite years of sustained criticism from watchdogs, "significant weaknesses" persist in maternity and neonatal services across England, putting mothers and babies at risk.

Finally, car club memership is significantly up:

This week, two of the leading car clubs - Streetcar and City Car Club - both announced a sudden surge in members. They say that a likely catalyst was the moment the chancellor revealed increases in motoring taxes in his budget speech in March.

Streetcar said that in the period from March to June its UK membership leapt from 27,537 to 37,532.

Similarly, City Car Club reported a 300% increase in membership requests since March compared with the same period last year. It now has more than 6,000 UK members.

Next Meeting - 15th July, 730pm

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, the 15th of July.

At our AGM on the 1st of July, we decided to have policy discussions (knowing Green Party policy, knowing you, aha!) each month.

This month, it will be transport.

- Centro is planning more Park and Ride spaces at Tile Hill station (pictured), is that a good thing, or just one part of an integrated strategy (should it be Bike and Park? Less parking places in town? More bus/train interchanges? Closest parking spaces to the platform for low emission cars?)

- What is the Green Party policy on planes, trains and automobiles?

You can see the entire glorious bundle of Green Party policies on transport here.

Come join us at 730pm, at the Coventry Peace House (Stoney Stanton Road, just north of the canal, east side, big yellow buildings, hard to miss!).

09 July 2008

Steve Bell's "If" -- Gordon Brown's NHS

"Get Us To Feel Better About Ourselves"

A former gang member from Birmingham talking to the Archbishop of York:

"What you must do is to get us, young people, to feel better about ourselves. Help us to achieve confidence about ourselves without needing the dangerous prop of a knife. Help us not to judge ourselves in the eyes of others. Stop viewing us through the eyes of failure. Help us to overcome self-loathing. Your job is to stop the merry-go-round of our culture of immediacy by providing us with hope and long-term solutions to our longing for belonging. To us all the brave talk and actions of adults towards young people are similar to the gang culture. We are not all bad."

08 July 2008

David Cameron and "Nudging"

Rachel Sylvester has an interesting take on David Cameron and personal responsibility/moral choice.

The latest must-read book at Conservative HQ is Nudge, which argues that peer pressure is a more effective way to change behaviour than state directives. Last week, Steve Hilton, the Tories' chief strategist, met one of its authors, Richard Thaler, to discuss how his approach could be applied to social problems such as drugs and knife crime. At the moment, the argument goes, people are being “nudged” in the wrong direction, with rap music that glorifies violence, soap operas that popularise antisocial behaviour and gang culture that creates a sense of family for people who have none.

The question is how to turn the nudges around. A rap song that highlighted the danger of carrying a weapon could be more deterrent than endless knife summits at No10. A health visitor who persuaded working-class mothers to read to their children might have as great an impact on education as a change in the qualifications system. In short, Mr Cameron does not just want to hug a hoody, he wants the hoodies to be persuaded to hug each other. He wants to create a smaller state by reducing demand rather than supply.
Jim, over at The Daily Maybe, has also written on this recently:

We have a society that ritually idolises violence, wealth, image and personal satisfaction over a sense of community. We have a society where many people, both young and old, feel they are outsiders to their own communities, where no-one has a responsibility to them and they have no responsibility to anyone else. Under these circumstances it's a surprise that so many people feel a sense of social responsibility.
Cameron is on to something. His objective is to keep government small and non-interventionist by encouraging civil society to be more interventionist with itself. He is wrong when he talks about "social responsibility" and withdrawing the UK from the EU Social Chapter. I think he's wrong when he characterises things like obesity and drug abuse as moral failures, rather than health issues to be treated.

But, there are aspects where his kind of approach will be right.

We need to look at why people join gangs (why gangs provide better security than the state) and why people are more willing to shoot/stab folks than 5 years ago. You can't legislate so that people stab each other less.

I think Cameron's is right about peer-pressure being, sometimes, as effective as top-down regulation. Neighbours talking with neighbours about composting, about how to travel to Italy by train, about how they installed their water butt, is the way things will happen.

It's going to be interesting how Cameron pitches this idea of "social responsibility" and differentiates it from the idea of the "nanny state" ... and Ed Miliband is already starting to respond to Cameron's rhetoric with talk of individual control of state budgets.

Children And Creativity

Arts provision for children in Britain is poor. It's so poor, it may violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, has criticised local councils and central government for cutbacks on arts activities, youth clubs and adventure playgrounds.

Rosen, in Socialist Worker, has also recently spoken out on creativity being absent in education:

We have to spend a great deal of time, thought and energy in working out how to make the meaning of what children read exciting, interesting and fun. If we want children to read, we have to work out how to make book-loving schools and book-loving homes. Schools should have the money to employ trained librarians and home-school reading liaison staff to work with parents on finding and reading interesting books.

We need to dispense with the futile system of asking children questions that teachers already know the answers to. Instead, we need to set up a space where we invite children to ask the people in a story questions that puzzle them and where other children can pretend to be those characters and try to answer the questions.

Books can also be seen as starting points for putting on shows, creating art, dance, music, film and powerpoint displays. The work that children write shouldn’t be shut away in scrappy little exercise books but should be published and performed.
This way a connection is made in the children’s minds between the world of literature and their own ability to write.

04 July 2008

Musicians Visiting Prison

"When we go in to those places, it's very energising for us. We don't go in to do prisoners a favour: how smug would that be? We're actually appreciative of them giving us some of their time. At the moment I think it's one in four of us knows someone who is in prison. That is something that society is going to have to deal with. If we can do anything to encourage people while they are in there to believe that there is some alternative when you come out, then that has to be a good thing. Let's face it: but for the grace of God any one of us could be in there."

Video: Billy Bragg's Jail Guitar Doors campaign

02 July 2008

Rising Energy Bills And Renewable Heat

The city council in Coventry has voted to seek a meeting with energy minister Malcolm Wicks over rising energy prices.

The reason that energy bills are rising in Coventry is the fuel that we use. We heat our homes with oil and gas, but we are entering an era that will be defined by a peak in the supply of oil, as well as a growing dependence on a few countries (Russia, Iran) with large supplies of natural gas.

In response to this, we need energy security. Energy security won’t come from hopeful letters from the city council to Malcolm Wicks. Energy security won’t come from Gordon Brown urging Saudi Arabia to pump even more oil.

Energy security will come from investments in insulation, in far more efficient white goods, and in renewable heat. We need a multi-year, multi-million pound public/private partnership to make these three measures affordable to working-class families in Coventry.

- The Green Party on Kirklees Council (in Huddersfield) introduced the country’s first universally-free insulation scheme. Any household, no matter what their income, qualifies for free cavity wall and loft insulation. It will save over £4.5 million in fuel bills, and it will create over 100 new local jobs.

- Coventry could be a pilot city for only A and B rated white goods (ovens, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers) to be sold in stores.

- We need to start thinking about not just renewable energy, but renewable heat. This can include solar thermal collectors, which heat water in pipes on your roof; wood-burning boilers; or air/ground source heat pumps. A basic solar thermal system roughly costs £1 800 and provide 80% of a typical family’s hot water during summer months. A 20kW wood boiler can cost £5,000.