Saturday, 30 April 2011

Campaign Diary: Mostly chickens

On a sunny but breezy afternoon we went up to Harecroft, a little hamlet between Cullingworth and Wilsden - about 150 electors but mostly good Tories so worth the visit. Lots of friendly folk on the doorstep - plenty of 'come inside, sit down, have a cup of tea' responses (this may have a little to do with the howling gale blowing outside). And much discussion of chickens and not in a good way!

Harecroft features a large chicken factory - a place where, after a brief prayer, a lot of chickens are slaughtered. And it smells. Not all the time but often enough to upset and annoy the locals. Now without boring you all with loads of detail (and we should note that the factory's been there a long time), we should note that the firm running the unit has been prosecuted successfully by the Council at least once. However, the locals - quite understandably - would like it closed, which of course isn't something the Council is able to do (certainly not permanently).

We have the same problem in Cullingworth - I remember being photographed by the local paper gingerly holding a slightly whiffy chicken foot that had fallen from one of the waste wagons. And, since I lived on the street with the factory, I also witnessed the occasional break for freedom - two or three chickens making a run for it down the road!

There isn't a magic solution to these problems - I can't promise anything other than my best efforts to local residents. I am as frustrated as local residents by the seeming inability of environmental health officers to deal with persistent problems be they smells, dust or noise. I understand the limitations of the law but worry that, as with many other areas, there is little the Councillor can do is make a lot of noise, insist on actions being taken and generally getting on the case. None of this is of any comfort the the people whose life is a misery because of noise and dust from Bingley Stone or these poor folk in Harecroft who live sometimes with a permeating stench of rotting chicken.

In times past there was a sub-committee of council concerned with environmental health where these issues could be brought by councillors - or through petitions the public. And this committee had teeth, it could require action of officers, it could insist reports are brought back to a future meeting and could hold those delivering to account. Now we have area committees with no substantive executive powers in these areas, pointless and powerless scrutiny committees and a "portfolio holder", a single councillor, whose deliberation of such matters takes place in private with officers. So much for modern local government!


The temple in the woods

It stands there. A temple to nameless - or merely just forgotten - spirits of the country. A cage of pillars at the end of an avenue of flowers. As you approach your stride falters a little - not for any conscious reason but perhaps a hesitancy born from those faintly remembered godlets. This is England after all, a land where those spirits of tree, of water, of wind and flower are but a faint echo. A country where the magic of place is almost crushed by the sound and fury of modern life, a land of contradiction in which millions turn their backs on the magic of wood and field.

But we have that magic still - it is recorded by the poets:

Youth of delight, come hither,
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.
Doubt is fled, & clouds of reason,
Dark disputes & artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze,
Tangled roots perplex her ways.
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead,
And feel they know not what but care,
And wish to lead others, when they should be led. 

And at the head of the avenue there is a temple in the woods.


Friday, 29 April 2011

Shared experience - a thought on the Royal Wedding and why I'm a monarchist


I wrote a while ago about shared national experience - rather sadly in the context of the Eurovision Song Contest.

However, Eurovision has become a mark in the calendar, something we share as a nation – part of the social capital of Britain. Now before you all rush off let me explain. Much of our TV viewing is only marginally social – if it’s not a solitary activity, it’s shared only with our immediate family and friends. Indeed, some critics of our modern culture single out the goggle-box as a prime culprit for the loss of social capital.

However, events like Eurovision belie that gloomy prognosis. What we see is a much broader engagement – not only the large numbers of viewers but all the other aspects of social interaction. There’s pubs and clubs organising Eurovision nights, some people get together with a bottle or two of cheap fizz and some chocolates and others make it a big family occasion. Workplaces have sweepstakes, the newspapers are full of stories and twitter, facebook and other bits of the interwebs abound with chitter-chatter. It’s more than just a TV event.

Now it may be brave - and a little unfair - to compare today's wedding festivities to a song competition but there is a parallel. Which rather explains why I remain a monarchist. Let me explain.

What we have seen today is a shared experience, something that has brought people together with neighbours and friends, an event that has in that trite parlance "captured the nation's hearts" - or most of the nation at least. If we did not have the symbolism of the Royal family, we would need to create symbols, festivals and events to achieve what has been achieved through this wedding. Things that are there to unite us as a nation, that we share with our neighbours. Rather than a family of real (and privileged) people, we'd create other symbols of nation - flags, saints days, celebrations of liberation or independence - to serve the same purpose as sustainers of the nation.

Those who oppose monarchy - at least in the moderate constitutional form we enjoy - offer a rather grey, drab alternative. Not just a has-been politician parading in a sash on state occasions but an accompanying collection of clunky symbols. These opponents of our monarchy are the same sort of people who tried to abolish the Lord Mayoralty in Bradford, who rail at the tyranny of clothing by dressing down for meetings, who dislike table manners and who think there's dignity in the Mayor turning up in a Toyota Prius or a grey BMW.

Our system, much though it loads privilege onto a single family, has the merit of providing that unifying sense of nationhood without it becoming politicised or for nation to become conflated with state. Because the next monarch is decided by happenstance - by a fluke of birth - we avoid the division and discord that comes from a political choice process. The Royal Family are able to symbolise nation for the very reason that we do not choose them - the moment we are actively involved in choosing is the moment when the choice is rejected by those whose favoured person was not selected.

Given a choice between what we have now, a constitutional monarch, and an elected (or worse appointed) president - and let's face it that is the choice - opting for monarchy is fairer, outside of politics and more unifying. And vastly better looking.


Thursday, 28 April 2011

Weddings and anniversaries....

29th April 1989, Bradford Registry Office - best decision I ever made was to say 'yes' or 'I do' or whatever. I can't actually recall the precise words but that doesn't matter it's the event that matters - the commitment and yes, the struggle, the rows, the tears, occasional things chucked or broken. All mixed in with laughter, fun, hugs and smiles.

So I'm celebrating 22 years of marriage to Kathryn on the same day when a rather better known couple tie the knot in Westminster Abbey. The only thing is to say that I hope they get as much from their marriage as I have from mine. That, and to raise a glass to those we love.

So here's to Kathryn! Do join me!


Friday Fungus: Disposing of disposable nappies!

This week's economist reports on the work of Dr Alethia Vasquez-Morillas that looks at using mushrooms to deal with the trickiest of waste management challenges - disposable nappies. These nappies, so convenient to mums and dads, create something of a headache for waste managers:

DESPITE their name, disposable nappies are notoriously difficult to dispose of. Studies of landfills suggest they may take centuries to rot away.

And because of this our green friends have applied their unique form of passive-aggressive promotion to the advocacy of "real nappies". But now they can relax as Dr Vasquez-Morillas has found what looks like the solution:

This research assesses the feasibility of degrading used disposable diapers, an important component (5–15% in weight) of urban solid waste in Mexico, by the activity of the fungus Pleurotus ostreatus, also known as oyster mushroom. Disposable diapers contain polyethylene, polypropylene and a super absorbent polymer. Nevertheless, its main component is cellulose, which degrades slowly. P. ostreatus has been utilized extensively to degrade cellulosic materials of agroindustrial sources, using in situ techniques. The practice has been extended to the commercial farming of the mushroom. This degradation capacity was assayed to reduce mass and volume of used disposable diapers. 

And you've guessed it, those lovely oyster mushrooms gobble up the nappies pronto!

As she and her colleagues describe in Waste Management, cultivating the right type of mushroom on soiled nappies can break down 90% of the material they are made of within two months. Within four, they are degraded completely. What is more, she says, despite their unsavoury diet the fungi in question, Pleurotus ostreatus (better known as oyster mushrooms), are safe to eat. To prove the point she has, indeed, eaten them.

Wonderful - dealing with a previously intractable waste management problem and providing a food source! What could be better!


The Guardian are in it for the money, you know!

Yesterday the Guardian, behaving exactly as you would expect a struggling business to behave, shut down its ‘Guardian Local’ operation – or rather ‘experiment’:

The Local project has always been experimental in both concept and implementation. We've learned a lot from the beatbloggers, under the expert guidance of Sarah Hartley. We have also learned from the local communities who got involved with telling their stories. And using this we have continually refined our approach over the past year.

As an experiment in covering local communities in a new way, it has been successful and enlightening. Unfortunately, while the blogs have found engaged local readerships and had good editorial impact, the project is not sustainable in its present form.

Since the Guardian is losing loads of money (and wants to keep expensive London-based writers on its books), we shouldn’t be surprised by this decision – this ‘cut’. Nevertheless, the squeals of pain were heard, how could the Guardian do this? How could the cuddly, woolly-lefty, caring, sharing Guardian close down this wonderful community resource?

“The Manchester Evening News and its sister titles have made a huge contribution to the fortunes of the Group for the best part of a century. GMG would like to pay tribute to all the staff for their hard work and achievement in a sector dealing with structural change as well as economic downturn.

GMG is mandated to secure the future of the Guardian in perpetuity, and we have a strong portfolio which has to be in the right shape to achieve that goal. The Group board and the Scott Trust have made the decision to sell in light of these strategic objectives.”

The Guardian severed its historic connection to Manchester, pulled out from local journalism and closed its Northern operations purely and simply to provide cash to prop up the ailing national title. The ‘experiment’ of Guardian Local was nothing to do with journalism or community but an endeavour aimed at spreading the Guardian brand. Its purpose was to make money for the Guardian, it didn’t so it is closed down.

It was never community journalism.  To do that we’d have to heed Mike Chitty’s words:

At some point we have to recognise that change that is prompted from outside, that is funded by someone else, that delivers someone else’s policy goals or answers someone else’s questions is really unlikely to provide us with any hope of transformation.

At some point we have to recognise that for any real long-term success we have to start from where WE are, and work with what WE have got, and break this dangerous habit of relying on external ‘benevolence’.

The Guardian is just a business. It has no interest in Leeds beyond the story and, of course, the cash.


Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Campaign Diary: "Why on earth do you do it?"

Mechanics Institute, Denholme - showing the Pricess Diana Memorial Garden
I set out to write a review of my re-election campaign, a sort of halfway point (OK, more than halfway point) appraisal of what I’ve seen and heard plus a comment or two on things that matter to me. But then the bloke at the pub asked me:

“Why on earth do you do it?”

It took a little longer than that – the reminder of Graham’s regular observation that politicians are constrained in what they can say by the conventions of modern political correctness. Partly this is used to explain why there are fewer racist politicians but underneath that is a more profound truth – we are both liberated, given a platform, and restricted in what we may speak from that platform.

The problem was that I couldn’t give that bloke in the pub a snappy response – a substantial observation of local government’s value, a reminder of what we get from democracy or a personal mission of change.

“Perhaps if people like me stop, the nutters will take over,” I quipped.

Not really the best answer, but it was a pub, we were there to watch football rather than discuss politics – or even the purpose of the politician. It was the best I could do at the time!

However, I’ve been thinking – dangerous pastime in a local councillor I know, something our party managements put much effort into suppressing. Thinking about the question that bloke posed – why do I do it? What on earth possesses me to put myself at the mercy of a largely ungrateful electorate, spend time at dreary meetings that seem obsessed with the minutiae of process rather than with grand issues of state,  and wrap myself in the distrust the employers and others have in the politician?

A clue to why lies in my shallow little quip – by nutters I don’t mean people who have peculiar political views, extremists or even the ‘other side’. I mean the nasty side of politics – the status-seeker, the power-hungry, those more interested in their own advantage than in the ‘right thing’. I have encountered such people – men and women who would scheme, manipulate and destroy to get what they want. Perhaps, I am a little tainted by this corruption now but I still cling to the values of service, duty and responsibility – as do many others, of course.

My father – who was a local councillor for a long time – defined for me the priorities of a politician. They go something like this:

Your first priority is to your conscience – to doing the right thing.
Your second priority is to those who elect you, who you represent – to consider their interests
Your last priority is to the Party, to the whip – to your colleagues

This may make uncomfortable reading for the tribal creatures of party – those who adhere to some sort of democratic centralist myth of leadership.

But I do it – stay as a local councillor – firstly for me, for my own desire to have a voice, however that voice may be limited or hobbled. Secondly I do it for my neighbours – for the wonderful people (and one or two not so wonderful ones) who live in the five villages making up Bingley Rural. And thirdly, I do it to stand firm beside others in the Conservative cause, in opposition to socialism and the creeping semi-fascism of social democracy.

These five villages – Cullingworth where I live, Wilsden, Cottingley, Harden and Denholme – great places, real places that deserve affection and require someone who cares for these places, for the old buildings, for the fields, woods and stone walls, for the people living and working here. Above all someone for whom the magic of the South Pennines – or at least this little bit of that beauteous range – sings loudly and who wishes to see that magic preserved.


"Are there any vacancies here at the moment?"


My wife and I were in Burtons yesterday looking (unsuccessfully) for a t-shirt. While we were perusing the clothes on offer a young woman walked into the shop and approached the floorwalker:

"Are there any vacancies here at the moment?"

The woman was looking for a job*. Now there weren't any on offer at Burton but I was cheered that this young woman saw that the way to get a job was to go out to the places that employ people and ask them whether they had need of her services.

I hope this particular young woman is successful - she shows the initiative that employers like, she was prepared to invest some shoe leather and make the effort. She probably recognises that we have no 'right' to a job - it is work done in exchange for payment received - and that jobs are pretty scarce now. And that plenty never get near to the Job Centre.

*Update - came across this while reading the Policy Exchange report on 'Fairness' (pdf):

At present, Jobseekers Allowance claimants are required to search for work but there is no fixed amount of time they are mandated to spend doing this. In fact, a recent survey conducted by two Princeton economists for the Institute for the Study of Labor, found that jobseekers in the UK spend an average of eight minutes per day looking for jobs.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

...or you could just cut taxes?


Read this attempt to create a distinct economic strategy for Labour - at it's heart is the idea that the share of GDP that is wages and investment need to rise for a sustainable economy. Now leaving aside the fact that the peak for 'wage share of GDP' was in 1975 - just before we crashed into the IMF's bail-out and during the height of the union power that destroyed out manufacturing industry, I was struck by an obvious alternative.

Here is our social democrat writer quoting the IMF:

"...without the prospect of a recovery in the incomes of poor and middle income households over a reasonable time horizon, the inevitable result is that loans keep growing, and therefore so does leverage and the probability of a major crisis that, in the real world, typically also has severe implications for the real economy.”

So 'poor and middle income households' can't afford to pay back loans and maintain current living standards - creating the borrowing pathology that infects our economy. The propsed solution is:

Support for a living wage in the public sector and in public procurement

That's it really. A rehash of the economic nuttiness promoted by Ed Miliband during his leadership campaign (and largely directed to the successful strategy of sucking up to big union bosses - oh, yes folks, the 1970s all over again).

And that alternative? Simpler, cleaner, less-controlling, more effective and popular?

Just cut taxes for 'poor and middle income households'


The eco-city - ineffective and authoritarian?

Milton Keynes - is it really so bad?
Ever since I started indulging my fascination with urban geography, I have experienced the promotion of certain selected European cities. Places help up as paragons of municipal virtue – places like Montpelier (pdf):

Planning for recent growth in Lille, Montpellier and Lyon began before explicit sustainable design agendas were common. Nevertheless, these cities exemplify a number of planning and design strategies that advance sustainability on the urban scale. Chief among these are: 1) promoting density and diverse use in the city center, 2) developing urban infrastructure and transit systems that conserve energy and preserve the quality of the urban core, 3) counteracting sprawl through the establishment of concentrated patterns of growth in the urban periphery, and 4) “urban recycling:” the adaptive re-use of existing built fabric and the reclamation of urban post-industrial sites.

For 25 years - since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster - Freiburg’s guiding principle has been the saving of natural resources. It now has car-free neighbourhoods (while we still tell ourselves that ‘would never work here’) and trams that run through green corridors. It has a football stadium where the stands double up as solar energy factories.

The Freiburg charter sets out twelve principles for ‘sustainable urbanism’, drawing together ideas of diversity, tolerance, walkability, good public transport, high quality design and more. It misses some things out - it doesn’t adequately address poverty and inequality, although its principles help to mitigate them - but it offers a very good way of thinking about cities.

Here are the wonders of ‘old world urbanism’, setting out the agenda for a carbon-neutral, eco-friendly, people-focused city. But is it quite as shiny as the pundits make out?
However, there is another face to Montpellier. Away from the modern developments lie older areas developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. A growing population led to urban sprawl, which took place outside of the city walls (e.g. The Gambetta). Here terraced, ‘2 up – 2 down’ housing is packed into narrow and cramped streets, lacking the open space of the Antigone. Even with the influx of high tech jobs, unemployment in Montpellier rose from 16.7% to 22.4% of the active population. A large majority of these are the North Africans who have made Montpellier their home, but cannot locate within the newer developments. Both lack adequate housing provision and high crime rates are now major problems in Montpellier. Social and ethnic polarisation is therefore highly evident.

Perhaps we are looking only at that which we wish to see rather than at what is actually happening:

It's a brave utopian vision - but, oddly, Rieselfeld is the last place I would want to live. Its housing blocks, built to a uniform height (usually four storeys), are reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc. Because the properties are all the same age, the place lacks character and charm. On the walk to my hotel, I pass an area of pitted waste ground reserved for the last phase in Rieselfeld's development, awaiting the excavators and cranes that accompany any such work in progress. It might be 'the gateway to the Black Forest' (as one resident put it), but the quarter lacks some of the facilities you might expect of a small provincial town.

And residents in the Freiberg tenements speak of the social control:

In Vauban, if Rieselfeld residents are to be believed, green living is compulsory. 'It jumps in your face a little,' Claudia Duppe warned me, 'and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, "Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic." It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.'

This is the wonder of ‘old world urbanism’ – charmless boxes to live in, neighbours who shun you for buying cheap food and 18,000 a year just to park your car. Indeed to avoid this charge you have to sign a declaration that you will never own a car – something I’m pretty sure plenty of residents ignore.

If this is a better world, it is a better world I don’t want. A dysfunctional, bossy world tossed between trendy urban obsession with ‘sustainability’ and the pretence that creating swanky inner city neighbourhoods can resolve the fact that there aren’t any jobs. Ignoring the simple fact that this economic renewal requires transport links – and that mean roads, cars, trucks and airports as well as trams and bicycle lanes.

There are certainly things to learn from these places – the conformist, Stepford sort of places that the Greens would have us believe is the future of urban living. But the lesson is as much a warning about how authoritarian and controlling the ‘sustainability’ agenda has become as it is about whether these places work any better than Milton Keynes, Atlanta or Calgary.