Categories
current affairs

Brighton Primark Protest

This morning I had an early start to get out to Crown Street in Regency ward. I was joining residents who live around the large Brighton Primark on Western Road. For nearly two years their life has been blighted by deliveries through their small residential cul-de-sacs. Whilst most other businesses on Western Road take deliveries through loading bays at the front of their stores, Primark insist on using these side roads causing noise, vibrations and congestion.

Primark’s management have refused to enter into dialogue with residents or councillors. We’d had enough so decided to blockade their 8am Saturday morning product delivery. We hope to raise the profile of these issues ahead of a planning application from Primark being decided by the council’s planning committee this Wednesday 25th November, which includes delivery issues. We’re asking for a condition forcing Primark to take deliveries from the front like everyone else. Please lobby your councillors using WriteToThem.

See how our protest went:

A short report from BBC South East:

Update:
Some pictures of the protest by local resident Jane Dallaway are now on Flickr.

Categories
notes from JK

The Future of British Politics

In this essay I argue that for lasting democratic renewal, this country urgently needs constitutional reform, empowered local politics and better quality politicians.

It is striking how many commentators argue that the “time for reform is now”, that there seems to be a “groundswell of support” or a “new consensus” forming. Sadly, as of late 2009, there doesn’t seem to be the reform at any level that these authors sense is imminent. Are reformists as a group fooling themselves? Or by making their proposals seem inevitable do they hope to garner more support?

In fact I think that they are correct. A great number of people, quite possibly a majority, feel deeply dissatisfied with how the UK is run. How its basic processes operate and the poor tangible results they deliver.

The NHS is fragmenting into Foundation Trusts regardless of local opinion. Schools are nailed to the national curriculum and obsessive testing. The Police are chasing the same drug users over and over again while lax licensing leaves communities dazed by alcoholic chaos.

It does seem like time for reform to me. But politics… our politicians… are just not responding effectively to the challenges, if at all. They make lots of noise about policies and initiatives. But they are designed for the media – so they, the politicians, are seen to be doing something.

There are honorable exceptions but I am afraid that the vast majority of politicians are dreadful. They fail to critically assess the issues or resulting legislation. They toe craven party lines, which again are crafted for the media first and foremost. They don’t seem to mind dodging questions or parroting massaged statistics on national television. These are not normal people. I wouldn’t make figures up when talking to my boss or friends. I doubt many of us would. If asked a question I would try to answer it honestly, not answer a different question altogether.

The media are a problem too… they make sport of politicians often putting them in impossible situations. Sometimes, like exposing the expenses debacle, they are effective in holding the politicians to account. But too often they are happy to recite lines fed to them by political operatives resulting in crescendos of scaremongering, disinformation and out-of-context ‘revelations’.

Perhaps this country has got the politicians it deserves. But I hope not… I think that it is more correct to say that politicians have somehow morphed into a separate class with their own priorities, values and way of operating. They have become disconnected from the greater population in a very unhelpful way. Try as they might, they can’t help but put their own interests ahead of others.

People bemoan professional politicians. I don’t entirely agree. I would love politicians to be professional in how their conducted politics. Wasn’t Churchill the consummate professional? I see politics as a process of negotiation between competing visions, needs and interests. It is difficult work, filled with tricky compromises and careful balancing acts. Too often it is portrayed as simple ideologies battling it out — but in reality there is never a simple ‘red overcomes blue’ victory. If our politicians were more explicit about this reality, more careful and much more honest I believe that would greatly help.

Why aren’t they? Because the culture of our politics is excessively tribal, focussed on defending the party and often far too petty. It seems extraordinary that so much time and energy could be spent on banning fox hunting yet despite many promises and reviews we still don’t have an elected upper house or a more proportional voting system for Westminster. We also have an absurd number of ministers soaking up MPs who should be busy as legislators, not managers. We are burdened with an unwritten constitution, notoriously unbalanced libel laws, an unhealthy obsession with maintaining our position in the world order (hence vast spending on the military) and a massively centralised government.

We also have a famously aggressive media pack which has forced government into launching incessant new initiatives often developed in the space of nothing more than a few days.

It is clear to me in my travels that countries with strong regional and local government tend to fare better. There is a stronger sense of ‘place’, there is more accountability and profile for local politicians and hence national government is not so burdened with details. Nowhere is perfect but we in the UK have spent too long being pleased with our past achievements. They are long gone. This is not a new trend…

In 1872 we were one of the last democracies to adopt the secret paper ballot, way after our colonies had done so. Having been an early adopter of democracy itself we then rested on our laurels, while others saw the opportunity for positive reform and took it. Still to this day our vote is not truly secret due to the serial number of every ballot. In every other serious democracy such a system is regarded as an abomination. Have we lost the knack of reform?

I think not. We have still managed to introduce some devolution, the Human Rights Act and the creation of a Supreme Court. These were all good things, though there are details we could argue need improving.

However I don’t believe any of these were seen as inherently threatening to the political class. Devolution, if anything, created more space for the political classes and initially at least, did not create any major political upsets either.

An elected upper house and proportional representation, for example, would smash open the current club quite dramatically. Without a House of Lords how would failed MPs stay in the gang or Prime Ministers stuff their cabinets? And proportional representation would abolish the notion of safe seats, utterly changing the logic of current British general election campaigning (and so media reporting). Changing the rules for political party finances would risk more new parties gaining ground. A written constitution would eliminate the wriggle room that allowed decisions like the second war on Iraq to squeeze through. These changes would create a political system and associated culture that would be significantly more accessible and accountable.

Let’s run through a quick list of reforms I think necessary:

  • A written constitution;
  • An elected upper house;
  • Proportional Representation for all elections;
  • Reformed party finance with capped donations and expenditure;
  • Reduced number of Ministers;
  • Possibly rooted in the new constitution, a major re-balancing of power and responsibilities between national government, agencies and local government.

This list resists all the policy changes I would love to implement from rewriting our tax system to nationalising the railways! These would be for our re-invigorated political system to debate. I don’t believe that the reforms I suggest would swing the political leanings of Westminster one way or the other. I don’t think that should be a factor in one’s deliberations on constitutional reform and in the end it doesn’t matter. As long as the reformed system is significantly more representative of people’s wishes then I am hopeful that outcomes will be improved.

I know some will probably call this hard to swallow because I am a “Green”. As an elected politician for the Green Party I am branded, stamped, tarred with the party political imprint. This is a symptom of the problem with British politics at the moment. Once someone “comes out” as being party political they are viewed with suspicion, their utterances are treated with caution and they are no longer “independent”. Our political culture needs renewal so we can get past such simplistic views.

Too much political discourse revolves around one party being bad and the other good. I personally consider party labels as flags of convenience for describing certain worldviews. It doesn’t mean everything from one or the other should be utterly discredited. When we cannot find common ground, let us heartily disagree. But to be so tribal makes agreement when there is common ground that much more difficult.

So what shape should politics and politicians take?

I hope for constitutional reform, I see that as the most likely catalyst for lasting change to our political culture. But as we may be waiting a long time we can still be mindful of Ghandi’s exhortation that we be the change we want to see in the world.

I believe a modern politician should first and foremost be true to themselves. By honestly reflecting their views and acting in accordance with them they are far less likely to hoodwink voters, toe party lines on difficult votes or mislead in interviews.

They need to be honest, hardworking and open to opposing views. They should be excellent communicators both in public and one to one.

In their defence, today’s politicians all suffer from incessant interruptions, excessive meetings and vast requests on their time whether emails, phone calls or invitations to events. Somehow politicians need to find the self confidence and strength to sail a path through this to calmer waters where they can reflect, consider and do much more quality legislative work.

Whilst accepting the electoral realities of re-election bids, being seen at hundreds of events and in thousands of press clippings should not be the main focus of our politicians. Nobody can think clearly when running all the time. We need to help them slow down if we want better quality thinking from them.

I do think being a politician is a full time job. It is if you want to do it properly. Legislating against second jobs seems overly restrictive though, let the voters decide on that. But while we expect our MPs, even the most backbench ones from small parties, to work full time… we seem to have a much lower opinion of our councillors.

Despite managing millions if not billions of assets (Brighton & Hove City Council’s assets are worth about £2 billion) councillors are expected to work only part time on their duties. Furthermore based on the time they are expected to work (which excludes residents meetings etc) the value is discounted by around a third because being a Councillor is a ‘public service’. So councillors end up with a small allowance — which is taxed like a salary — for managing the area they represent. Councillors in Oxford City get around £3k a year, Brighton & Hove around £11k and Birmingham £16k; and some say Birmingham is the largest local authority of its type in Europe.

54 councillors in Brighton & Hove are responsible for managing, monitoring, scrutinising the budget, policies and actions of a council which provides waste collection, social care, schooling, cultural services, roads, street lights… the list goes on. Yes the council leader, cabinet members and some others get additional allowances but the leader in Brighton & Hove gets £38k in total while the Chief Executive is on some £170k. Who is in charge there?

I’m not advocating £170k salaries… CEO pay needs reducing. But we’re trying to get our local government on the cheap – and it shows from the poor results we get. What if there were fewer councillors, about one per ward, earning around £30k each and the leader on something like £60k. Would that be outrageous? It would cost about the same as the current councillor pay bill. But we would then have councillors able to dedicate their whole time to supporting their local area and properly considering policies.

At the moment that isn’t possible because nobody has the time, so officers take the lead and councillors just mutter and nod at their reports.

If we were to rebalance the power between local and national government then reforming the role of councillors would become inevitable. It is only because local authorities are the poor relatives of government that the current situation has been allowed to persist. If, like in Sweden, local councils had lead responsibility for health or policing as they used to, then I doubt such weak democratic structures with part time representatives would be allowed to persist.

It is our current politicians who are responsible for our constitutional arrangements, the centralisation of government and the dire political culture. So, remembering the honorable exceptions I noted previously, I am led this conclusion about the future of British politics:

For a better politics we need better politicians. It’s a simple as that.

Categories
current affairs

Brighton O-K or O-no?

A mockup of the Brighton O as provided by their PR agency
A mockup of the Brighton O as provided by their PR agency

One of the joys and challenges of representing Regency ward is the number of major projects proposed for the area from redevelopment of the Brighton Centre to building on the site of the old Royal Alex Children’s Hospital and what do with the site of the West Pier.

The latest proposal is a temporary observation wheel known as the “Brighton O” which unusually is a spokeless design. If built the wheel would apparently move to another city once construction of the i360 tower was to commence (another classic Regency ward project saga).

I’m getting very mixed views from residents and businesses on the Brighton O. Many think the wheel would be superb for rejuvenating a part of the seafront which is in need of attention and greater footfall. Others believe it will be excessively disruptive to an already crowded area affecting the sailing club, businesses and residents of buildings it will overshadow.

The case for the O is at www.brightono.com and the case against is at www.brightonno.org.uk

I’d very much like to hear more views on this. Do you think the project will make a positive contribution to the city with an unusual design or is it an invitation for people to look in resident’s bedroom windows? Let me know.

If you’d like to register your views with the planning committee, send your views to Chris.A.Wright@brighton-hove.gov.uk

Categories
current affairs

Less alcohol than ever at Sainsbury’s, Western Road? I don’t think so

Half-price wine offer as you walk into Sainsbury's Western Road
Half-price wine offer as you walk into Sainsbury's Western Road - is this responsible?

A while ago I spoke on behalf of residents to a licensing panel considering an application from Sainsbury’s. The supermarket, a very short way from Waitrose, wanted to double its size and so needed to apply for a new license to sell alchohol.

Residents and I were concerned given that the area already has an abundance of places from which alcohol can be bought. Residents suffer from noise, anti-social behaviour, violence and more. It has got significantly worse since the new 2003 Licensing Act came into force.

However despite residents’ objections and my strenuous arguments that the license should be strictly curtailed if approved at all, it was granted. The Sainsbury’s lies right on the border of the ‘Cumulative Impact Area’ for licensing but that made no difference. Sainsbury’s barrister successfully prevented me from debating the low prices at which the supermarket sells alcohol. He also claimed that overall the new twice as big shop would have less space devoted to alcohol sales than previously.

Sadly the shop was boarded up and under expansion then so I couldn’t do ‘before and after’ shots. But I went in recently to take a look and there seemed to me to be a very significant space devoted to alcohol – see all the pictures on Flickr. The first shelf to greet you on entering the store was promoting half price bottles of wine.

In August this year, while I was on holiday, Sainsbury’s put in to extend the hours of alcohol sales to almost 24 hours. Unfortunately nobody objected to this other than the Council’s Trading Standards*. This is not surprising because beyond a small piece of paper in the window, there is NO requirement to notify people living near premises applying for a license or wishing to vary an existing one. Trading Standards’ concern related to underage drinking, but once a “Challenge 21” scheme was agreed to by Sainsbury’s (a fairly standard condition) the objection was withdrawn and the licensing panel meeting was cancelled.

However the online licensing register still shows the extended license as not having been granted because checks are outstanding. I’m trying to find out what that means but it seems likely that very soon we are going to have a virtually 24hr off-license selling at supermarket prices. The licensing law is completely failing residents and this city – we seem unable to stop the spread of cheap booze nor the harm it is causing people directly or indirectly. When will our MPs step up to push the change my constituents are crying out for?

Find out more:
Sadly I can’t link directly to licenses, but at least there is now a web-based register. Enter the reference codes below into the search at http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/index.cfm?request=c1204374

Application to open bigger store: 1445/3/2009/00059/LAPREN (minutes of that panel)
Application to extend hours: 1445/3/2009/01692/LAPREV (papers for cancelled panel)

* As a councillor I can only object to an application if either I personally live or have a business close to the premises in question, or a constituent close by asks me to speak on their behalf. Otherwise I am unable to participate or speak to a licensing panel meeting. This is extremely frustrating.

UPDATE: I have now received confirmation from council officers that the license indeed has been granted to allow sale of alcohol from 6am until midnight and late night refreshment (i.e. hot food) from 23 until midnight. I also clarified the text above to make it clear it won’t be open a full 24hrs a day as the license currently stands. (13/11/09)

Categories
current affairs

Wrong-headed Tory CEO-Mayor policy

I was astounded and appalled by Monday’s announcement from the Conservatives that they planned to merge council chief executives with directly elected Mayors.
The Guardian:
Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.
Conflating the two posts would help address public concern about the pay of local authority bosses, said Caroline Spelman, the shadow communities secretary.
Firstly, I agree that many chief executives (in local authorities and private companies) are vastly overpaid compared to their hard working staff. But cutting up to 12 CEO salaries and replacing them with new elections for mayors is hardly going to be saving money. It’s a populist measure because most people won’t think of the cost of the elections when hearing the proposal — they’ll just keep in mind losing another expensive bureaucrat.
But what worries much more is that this announcement shows that the Conservatives are ready to abuse the position of the civil service as much as Labour have. Peter Oborne and others have been scathing of how a trend to politicise and misuse the civil service in the political trenches has gone from occasional in the Thatcher years to out of control in the Blair years.
No matter who is in charge politically, a paid head of the civil service is needed to manage the permanent staff of government who remain whatever changes elections bring. YES local government desperately needs serious reform… but going back on hundreds of years of political evolution by merging officer and politician is wrong-headed, fixes nothing and is just cheap populism.
This is a bad policy and I’m disappointed that a major political party could actually announce something so wrongheaded. It doesn’t bode well for the level of political debate ahead…

I was astounded and appalled by Monday’s announcement from the Conservatives that they planned to merge council chief executives with directly elected Mayors.

The Guardian:

Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.

Conflating the two posts would help address public concern about the pay of local authority bosses, said Caroline Spelman, the shadow communities secretary.

(Also see reports in LGCPlus and Planning Resource)

Firstly, I agree that many chief executives (in local authorities and private companies) are vastly overpaid compared to their hard working staff. But cutting up to 12 CEO salaries and replacing them with new elections for mayors is hardly going to be saving money. It’s a populist measure because most people won’t think of the cost of the elections when hearing the proposal — they’ll just keep in mind losing another expensive bureaucrat.

But what worries much more is that this announcement shows that the Conservatives are ready to abuse the position of the civil service as much as Labour have. Peter Oborne and others have been scathing of how a trend to politicise and misuse the civil service in the political trenches has gone from occasional in the Thatcher years to out of control in the Blair years.

No matter who is in charge politically, a paid head of the civil service is needed to manage the permanent staff of government who remain whatever changes elections bring. YES local government desperately needs serious reform… but going back on hundreds of years of political evolution by merging officer and politician is wrong-headed, fixes nothing and is just cheap populism.

This is a bad policy and I’m disappointed that a major political party could actually announce something so wrongheaded. It doesn’t bode well for the level of political debate ahead…

Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Transport Direct followup…

Following on from my LinuxUser column bemoaning the terrible Transport Direct website I received an email from Peter White, Director of xephos the people I mentioned who’ve made a Linux-served alternative to Transport Direct on a shoestring.

Peter wrote:
For abour £500k per annum we could provide about 85% of the functionailty of Transport Defunct (the remaining 15% being pointless anyway) as far as journey planning. Plus the xephos site also delivers timetables and “search for nearest” enquiries neither of which are available on TD

To add the silly extras and the fine detail would take the cost up to about £1,000,000 p.a. Our problem is that we cannot generate revenue when there are services “out there” however feeble which are free-to-user. Govt will only fund its own project at huge expense. Individual local authorities would LOVE to use xephos but cannot because of strongarm tactics by govt.

As far as I know Transport Direct cost the government £40-50 million. I’ve heard of local authorities being given spurious reasons for not being allowed to use services like Peter’s xephos. If Transport Direct was any good that might be understandable but it’s rubbish so we shouldn’t be forcing local services to be hobbled too.

I am forced to believe that it’s much harder than I ever imagined to get this kind of web stuff done right otherwise we’d be seeing much more brilliant stuff coming from our government.

> For abour £500k per annum we could provide about 85% of the functionailty of
Transport Defunct (the remaining 15% being pointless anyway) as far as journey
planning.  Plus the [xephos site][3] also delivers timetables and “search for nearest” enquiries neither of which are available on TD
>To add the silly extras and the fine detail would take the cost up to about £1,000,000 p.a.  Our problem is that we cannot generate revenue when
there are services “out there” however feeble which are free-to-user.  Govt will
only fund its own project at huge expense.  Individual local authorities would
LOVE to use xephos but cannot because of strongarm tactics by govt.
As far as I know Transport Direct cost the government £40-50 million. I’ve heard of local authorities being given spurious reasons for not being allowed to use services like Peter’s xephos. If Transport Direct was any good that *might* be understandable but it’s rubbish so we shouldn’t be forcing local services to be hobbled too.
I am forced to believe that it’s much harder than I ever imagined to get this kind of web stuff done right otherwise we’d be seeing much  more brilliant stuff coming from our government.
Categories
e-democ / e-gov

Major Cities of Europe IT Users Group conference

The conference in Gothenburg (or Goteborg as they write in Sweden) has come to an end. Highlights included a fantastic presentation about m-parking in Zagreb, Croatia. They’re using SMS, GPS and GPRS for an integrated parking solution which lets people pay for parking with a single SMS, no registration, nothing. Then tow trucks and parking attendants are all connected to the system in real time along with a police database of stolen/interesting vehicles. Very impressive. Shame it only works for people with Croatian mobiles!

The final day was on e-democracy and apart from my presentation we had some really interesting presentations on applications in the UK (e-voting!), Spain, Finland and Denmark. None were getting massive numbers participating but they were trying hard. We really don’t know what does and doesn’t work in e-democracy yet which is why we need to keep experimenting. And as I said in my piece, Open Source can really help provide low cost ways of doing those experiments.