Byelection issues 4: What a waste

This is my last post of this little series. I’m casting my postal vote and going away for a week, so I’ll miss the nail-biting last few days of campaigning in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection.

I have no complaints about the conduct of any of the candidates, though the overall quality of “debate” on the #heg13 Twitter hashtag has been just as lamentable as I expected. I was encouraged to see Emma Daniel making a good effort to use twitter to amplify issues and questions raised on the doorstep by local residents but slightly disappointed that she didn’t seem interested in following up with debate on her own policies.

I haven’t been able to attend any of the “meet the candidate” events that have happened in local pubs, but I was pleased to hear they were happening. I’d be interested to hear what any local residents who did attend thought of them.

Anyway, I’ll end my series with another look at waste, which has become a big story in this last week of the campaign. How can it be that recycling rates have gone down under a Green council? (I’m not discussing the rise in CO2 emissions reported to Policy & Resources Committee this week, since the committee papers clearly state that it occurred in 2010 and Labour’s gleeful reaction reflects much more badly on them than on the Green administration.)

The truth is that waste management in Brighton and Hove has been abysmal for decades. In the early 1990s, other cities (Leeds, for example) were successfully running kerbside food waste collections, while Brighton & Hove couldn’t even manage to collect recycling. Since 2003 our city’s waste (after it’s been collected and processed) has been managed by a private company, Veolia.

What’s not recycled is taken to Newhaven to be incinerated. Of that “residual waste” over a third is food waste. A further 25% is garden and other biodegradable waste. All the nutrients, energy and water that went into producing that food are literally going up in smoke. Talk about waste!

Food is a resource, even when people don’t want to eat it. We really shouldn’t be burning it. There’s plenty of evidence about how to manage a food waste collection. 47% of local authorities are already doing it. Why aren’t we?

In fact, there’s an example of a successful food waste collection even closer to home. Magpie combined food waste collection with their Green Box recycling scheme for a few months last year. I was lucky enough to be in one of the participating households – it was great. We put out half as many binbags as before; they were lighter and less likely to be ripped open by seagulls. The people behind that initiative have a new plan, outlined on this somewhat cryptic website.

Following the links to their facebook page, you come across this table of prices. It’s from this document, one of many that make up the council’s 25 year contract with Veolia. I’m no expert, but I think there’s something going on here that needs to be explained. As the Verdiculture people point out:

“The less we dispose the more it costs? We cannot afford zero waste. Contract has minimum fee so if we disposed of one tonne it would cost hundreds of thousands”

Is this why we don’t have a food waste collection scheme?

I’ve just read Brighton & Hove City Council’s Waste management strategy. It’s a curious document. It identifies waste minimisation as the highest priority. Among its objectives, it includes

“engage with local retailers and trading standards to encourage reduced packaging”.

It states correctly that

“Effective waste minimisation requires action at source, for example, by manufacturers making their products more durable or re-usable. It also requires retailers to reduce packaging of their products and consumers to change their behaviour, for example, by buying products with less packaging and buying more durable items plus re-using items where possible.”

But all this builds up to the anticlimactic admission that

“the council’s powers to reduce the amount of waste are limited to encouraging customers to change their behaviour.”

The strategy continues with page after page of exhortation to residents and appeals to the miracle-working powers of the voluntary and community sector. But there’s nothing about how the council will engage with retailers, or any other businesses for that matter, to minimise the wasteful use of resources.

Does the council, a major landowner, really have no leverage at all with businesses located in the city? Can the city not involve tourism businesses in a concerted initiative to cut waste, while selling our city as a place that is serious about its commitment to One Planet Living? 8% of our residual waste is nappies. Can the council, as public health authority, not fund a free cloth nappy loan scheme? Why is it left to voluntary groups to take action on the food waste that happens before food even reaches the shops?

Frankly, focusing on recycling rates is looking at this issue from the wrong end.

Manufacturers and retailers don’t sell disposable products or use excessive packaging because they are ignorant. Veolia didn’t negotiate a higher price for lower amounts of rubbish by mistake. They do these things to make a profit, but we can’t afford to carry on treating those profits as an inevitable part of the landscape.

Our planet’s natural resources are simply not disposable. Using precious oil and water to manufacture takeaway cartons that get used once and thrown into the street is grotesquely stupid.

I don’t know if it’s worth asking the Hanover & Elm Grove candidates this – they seem to have given up answering my questions. But I would really like to know, from anyone who has any part of the answer:

Can Brighton & Hove seriously approach zero waste, and if so, how?


Not a byelection issue: parking

Parking is certainly an issue in Hanover. Put two or more Hanover residents in a room together and you can lay odds they will be talking about parking within the hour. Everyone has an opinion on it, except our potential councillors.

All the election literature I’ve seen so far (except the TUSC leaflet, which avoids mention of anything specific to the ward at all) follows the time-honoured formula when approaching a divisive issue – say something that reassures voters you will listen to them, without expressing any opinion of your own.

Thus we have almost identical statements from David Gibson: “We will work together on solving long-standing issues like parking, recycling and waste disposal” and Emma Daniel: “Problems like rubbish and parking are difficult to resolve, but if I am elected, I will consult the community properly and do everything I can to ensure that your views are heard”.

Even Robert Knight, the Conservative candidate – who has nothing to lose, since he has no chance of winning – manages to come up with a forthright sounding statement on parking which actually says nothing: “Parking is a big problem with parts of the area now the City’s unofficial free car park, whilst other areas fear the encroachment of controlled parking. A solution that suits all local residents is urgently needed.”

Of course, I understand why the candidates are reluctant to commit themselves to any particular position on this issue. It is a difficult problem to solve, and there is a history of highly emotive campaigning by some residents against pretty much any initiative from the council that includes a hint of restriction on parking.

My view on this, I freely acknowledge, is a pretty extreme one. If I were in charge of the council I would:

  • turn over a small patch in the middle of every north-south street in Hanover to grass, so that children (and everyone) could safely and easily use the streets for play and socialising, and travel around the neighbourhood on foot from an early age
  • introduce a residents’ parking scheme, with hefty charges for parking private cars on the street
  • reduce the number of car parking spaces available to a safe and legal level
  • massively increase on street bike parking
  • add more car club cars with dedicated bays
  • lay on free shuttle buses to the London road and the station
  • do anything else I could think of with the aim of transforming Hanover into a predominantly car-free neighbourhood

I don’t suppose I would get elected standing on that platform, but I think it’s worth pointing out that doing nothing about parking in Hanover is also a pretty extreme position. All the while we continue to do nothing, we are living with a situation in which:

  • parked cars line both sides of most streets in Hanover, impeding access for emergency vehicles
  • in some streets, cars routinely park on the pavement, forcing pedestrians out into the road, especially people with buggies, wheelchairs or small children
  • in Elm Grove, in particular, it is common practice for people to drive along the pavement to access “parking spaces” on the hardened verge
  • cars are often parked right up to and around the corners of streets, obstructing sight lines for pedestrians (especially children), cyclists and drivers
  • our area is used as a free car park by visitors to the town, people doing their shopping in the town centre, staff at American Express and people from other areas of town trying to avoid paying for parking permits
  • 62% of car journeys made by Hanover drivers are within Brighton

To widen the issue out slightly, all the while we accommodate the domination of our city’s streets by private cars, we are living with:

  • unacceptably high levels of air pollution
  • traffic queues through the town every weekend in the summer
  • bus passengers being prevented from accessing open spaces because too many people have travelled there by car

Everyone agrees that parking is an issue for Hanover & Elm Grove, but nobody can agree on what to do about it. Last time the council proposed to control parking, in 2010, it was met with a vigorous campaign from the do nothing faction, and the proposal failed to attract majority support. Though I supported the CPZ proposal, its design left a lot to be desired. A few of us produced a detailed response, with a range of ideas for the future, but spaces in which such ideas can be discussed are few and far between.

Since then we have tried to make our own spaces for that discussion – in Grove Street and the Hanover Centre last September, and in Southampton Street, Coleman Street and Scotland Street this May. There’s recently been a very encouraging survey in Scotland Street, resulting in clear majority support for more bike parking. We also now have the interesting example of a few streets in the neighbouring Queens Park ward which have been transformed by controlled parking from the cluttered environment we are used to in Hanover, to much more open and pleasant places to be.

I know the candidates won’t venture an opinion of their own on this issue, so my third question to them is: What are your proposals for enabling residents to help design parking changes in Hanover?

As ever, feel free to supply your own answers and views in the comments box.


Byelection issues 2 (continued): what the candidates say on cuts

I asked the two leading candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection this question:

Emma Daniel replied the next day with a series of three tweets:

I invited her to say more, and she said she would, but has since changed her mind.

In the meantime, David Gibson sent me the following statement by email on June 20th:

“Firstly, I believe that councillors should play an active part in the coalitions of resistance, such as the People’s Assembly. Along with 400 others, I was heartened by the strength of opposition. Personally I was also proud of the part played by the Green Party in helping to organise this event. I was reminded of the mass movement of non-payment and resistance against the Poll Tax. The success of that campaign demonstrates that it is wrong for councillors to think purely in terms of operating within mainstream political institutions.

Secondly, I believe that councillors should use their position to publicly highlight the injustice of the way that ordinary people are being made to pay for the mistakes of those at the top through cuts and austerity. I will continue to be vocal about on this.

Finally, at a local level councillors should explore imaginative ways of generating revenue and getting round the constraints caused by austerity. I recall in the 1980s how local council housing departments found ways to drive a coach and horses through the restrictions on capital spending, thereby protecting investment in council housing for many years. We should also consult with residents to identify what is truly needed for our city and base campaigning on the difference between this and the imposition of cuts by central government.

The Green administration of Brighton & Hove has worked hard to protect vital services for the most vulnerable and avoid compulsory redundancies. If elected, I would work hard with my colleagues in the minority administration not only to protect services for the most vulnerable and to highlight injustices, but also to take take practical steps, such as radically accelerating the building of new council houses – something that is entirely realistic within the current constraints.”

I had been hoping to compare Emma’s longer response with David’s, but even without that we can see some clear differences between the candidates on this issue. Emma thinks the council can’t really resist the cuts, beyond lobbying, while David thinks the council can play a part, alongside residents, in mass campaigning for more resources from the government. Emma thinks the way to create jobs in the city is by supporting small businesses, while David favours direct investment in council housing. Emma sees the desperate need of local people as a concern, while David identifies it as an injustice.

These differences may be more about presentation than actual policy, but I suspect not. There has been little difference in practice between what the minority Green administration has done so far in Brighton & Hove and the behaviour of Labour councils around the country. But the deeper the cuts bite – we have not yet seen the devastating impact on local residents of the benefit cap and universal credit, nor of the planned £30 million budget cuts at the Royal Sussex County Hospital – the more our politicians will be forced to put their principles into action. In circumstances like these, what we desperately need are politicians with a clear grasp of what those principles are.

I have been asked why I’m not including Phil Clarke in this discussion. Phil is the candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and a member of the Socialist Party. His line on cuts is solid and strong, like a brick wall, and includes the inevitable call for a 24 hour general strike. He can’t possibly win – the TUSC candidate in Hanover & Elm Grove attracted a grand total of 156 votes in 2011. However, thanks to the stupidity of our electoral system and the peculiarities of this particular contest, an increased vote for TUSC could result in a gain for Labour against a clearly anti-cuts Green candidate.

I can absolutely understand the temptation to put forward and vote for an uncompromising stand against the cuts and in support of workers driven to strike by an administration which claimed to be on their side.

I also see the value of using an election campaign as a platform for views that are not represented by any political party with a chance of being elected. That’s part of what I’m also trying to do with this series of blog posts.

But I think voting for Phil Clarke would be a mistake in this particular byelection. I think David Gibson would be as effective as a voice against cuts and for radical action in defence of working class people as anyone elected to the council can be. His voice would be more effective because it would be added to those of others within the Green group who have shown solidarity with the Cityclean strikers, despite the damage to their party’s electoral chances.

As I’ve said before, I think the Green administration missed a good opportunity to stand up for the people of Brighton & Hove against the cuts, and that is part of the story that has brought them to a damaging conflict with their most militant workers. But those of us campaigning outside the council chamber missed a trick too. We failed to engage the Greens in a real dialogue, preferring instead to shout the “correct” answer at them and berate them as traitors when they didn’t adopt the tactics of Liverpool council in the 1980s.

I think we won’t win like that. Instead, what we need is a bit of the imagination and creativity shown by the students and workers at Sussex University, still campaigning in an exemplary way against privatisation. We need to acknowledge that these are new circumstances, requiring new tactics. And we need to allow ourselves space to debate those, without drawing up battle lines between us before we start. Please feel free to continue the debate in the comments below.


Byelection issues 2: the city council budget

I’ve been struggling to find a second question to put to candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection. It’s difficult to see much beyond the rubbish swirling about in our streets, and to get away from the feeling that the outcome of this dispute will overshadow all politics in the city for years to come.

The historical background to the dispute is long and complex, and (as I think I mentioned before) only a very few people have the information necessary to devise a solution that is just for everyone. It is also taking place in the confining context of brutal year-on-year cuts to the council’s budget.

How the council has responded to that onslaught is part of the story of what has brought us to this pretty pass. In my opinion, the Green administration has missed an opportunity to champion the needs of Brighton & Hove’s residents, choosing instead a managerial path of damage limitation, just like Labour councils all over the country.

This timid approach has meant that alliances between the council, unions and residents’ campaigns have not been built in Brighton & Hove over the past two years. It has eroded the optimistic and fighting spirit that sent Caroline Lucas to Parliament, to the point that there is a real danger of her losing her seat in 2015. And it has left Green councillors feeling boxed in and lacking in the confidence and courage they needed to take a principled stand when a court decision on an equal pay case in Birmingham brought the allowances issue to a head.

Brighton & Hove Labour, meanwhile, has concentrated on scoring points against the Greens, to the exclusion of all else – leading them to vote alongside the Tories to defeat a council tax increase in 2011, causing a reduction in the tax base into the future and further endangering local services.

Nationally, Labour remains as dreadful as ever, colluding with retrospective legislation to do claimants out of the compensation they were owed for being deceived into workfare schemes, promising a welfare spending cap to continue the misery being rained on poor people by the Tories, and engaging in bizarre policy acrobatics to avoid simply making a commitment to setting the minimum wage at a level that enables people to live decently.

Amid all this gloom, today brought a welcome piece of news – Unison’s Local Government conference passed a motion in support of Councillors Against Cuts – a network of Labour councillors who are determined to vote against the cuts being imposed on their electors, often by their own colleagues in council administrations.

So, my second question to David Gibson and Emma Daniel is this: What do you think local councillors should do to resist the budget cuts imposed by government?

I will report back on their answers, but feel free to supply your own in the comments box.


Byelection issues 1: the pay dispute

Four days ago I put this question to the two leading candidates in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection:

Emma Daniel‘s response was pretty swift. She is (not surprisingly) using Twitter well to engage with people on a range of issues in her election campaign. She replied with two tweets:

I offered her the chance to send me a longer response by email, but she didn’t take this up.

While commendably swift, I must say this doesn’t actually answer my question.

I’ve had to wait much longer for a response from David Gibson. Others on Twitter also noted his silence, as the dispute became more intense over the past few days.

However, last night, David published a lengthy statement on his campaign blog.

I’d urge people to read and comment on this statement. It makes several things very clear about where David stands on the issue and how his election would affect the balance of forces within the Green group on the council.

The key points, in my view, are:

“The city council must leave no stone unturned and show leadership in achieving this difficult task. For cityclean workers at the council refuse collection department my red line, if elected as a councillor, is that the council must agree a settlement and not impose one on its own workers.” (emphasis in original)

“as a Green Party activist, I believe fairness is worth fighting for. That means:

[…]

Fairness in industrial relations, including fair negotiating practices and no use of agency or contract workers to break a legitimate and legally organised trade union strike.

[…]”

and

“I believe that anyone taking home less than £21,000 is low paid and Greens should be exploring strenuously every avenue to avoid any outcome that lowers the income of low-paid workers. That the local Green Party has found ways of achieving a Living Wage for council workers demonstrates its commitment to achieve things in difficult circumstances.  We need to show the same commitment to find ways of protecting the take home pay of low paid workers. Where there is a will, there is usually a way. I supported the resolution on this passed by local Green Party members earlier this year.

If elected, I will support any settlement that is negotiated with the unions, but not the imposition of a deal that reduces the pay of low paid workers.” (emphasis in original)

The debate on this pay dispute has been plagued by secrecy, with all participants emphasising only the aspects of the issue which suit their particular interest. However (as both Emma and David rightly recognise) it will only be properly resolved by talking.

I agree with David – we urgently need leadership from the Green council, and a commitment to reach a settlement the unions can support. If Jason Kitcat is not prepared to meet that challenge, he should step aside and let someone else take it on.


Elections: a wasted democratic opportunity

The byelection campaign in Hanover & Elm Grove has begun in earnest with today’s selection of Emma Daniel as the Labour candidate.

It could be an interesting contest. Both Emma and David Gibson, the Green candidate, are people of integrity, who are interested in engaging  and empowering people to make real change. Maybe the byelection will be a rare opportunity for ordinary voters to set the agenda and influence the direction of the city by electing a candidate who will truly represent us.

On the other hand, it could be a hard-fought, too-close-to-call, brutal campaign, with both candidates dragged along behind the tribal juggernauts of their party machines.

All too often, what should be the quintessential democratic moment turns out to be a period in which real debate is drowned out by bickering, point-scoring and phoney statistics – the party organiser’s favourite tool in the battle for tactical votes.

There are three reasons why election campaigns are so awful:

1. First past the post – canvassing

In addition to all the other (very important) reasons why FPTP is a rubbish electoral system, it also makes for terrible election campaigns because it means parties must concentrate all their energies on identifying “their” voters in order to get them out to vote on the day.

That is the only purpose of canvassing. They are not trying to find out what we are interested in or present their policies to us for consideration. They just want to know how we are planning to vote.

If we say we will vote for them, they mark us on a list and make sure to check whether we turn up at the polling station. If we haven’t shown up by the evening, they will come round to remind us. All parties do this, it’s how you run an election campaign in the UK.

With over a month until polling day, both Labour and Greens will be aiming to do a full canvass of the ward. It’s doable, but it’s a big job. The canvassers will be in a hurry – they won’t have time to debate issues or learn something from you, in order to help develop their policies. As soon as they have found out your intentions, they will want to be on their way.

2. First past the post – tactical voting

Political parties are so used to relying on tactical voting that they do it even when there is no real need (such as in a two horse race like Hanover & Elm Grove).

So all parties spend much more time talking about how many people are promising to vote for them than about why anybody should want to do that. The idea is that people want to be on the winning side, and that if you vote for a candidate who doesn’t get elected, your vote is “wasted”.

Social media enables parties to do this to a nauseating degree. As a local wit recently pointed out, if you believed everything you saw on Twitter, you would think everyone in Hanover & Elm Grove was intending to vote Labour, and everyone was intending to vote Green!

Watch out for the misleading and/or irrelevant graphs on election literature too. Both Labour and Greens have been much too fond of these in recent elections.

3. Personality politics and negative campaigning

I think this may also partly be a consequence of first past the post. If you can’t persuade voters to support you because they agree with your policies, it’s just as effective to persuade them to vote for you because they don’t like the other lot, or because you have made some mud stick to their candidate.

I think individual people can make a difference in politics – look at the way Caroline Lucas has used her seat in Parliament to raise a much-needed voice against austerity and for a progressive and sustainable alternative. And look at how Jason Kitcat’s managerial style has led the Green group on Brighton & Hove council into a catastrophic confrontation with the workers at Cityclean.

But I think policies and ideas are more important. If you are asking to be elected, you need to be able to put forward your own policies clearly, not just slag off the other lot.

Let’s try something different

During the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection campaign, I will be asking all candidates to give me their views on some key issues for the ward and the city. I’ll publish any replies here, so everyone can see them, and courteous debate will be encouraged in the comments section. Maybe we can use this byelection campaign as an opportunity to learn something from each other.