Friday, 21 March 2014

Budget 2014 Takes Doublespeak to New Depths

Casual readers of the budget might wonder whether it had been written by chancellor George Osborne or George Orwell. A garden city built in a quarry and growth built on a reinflated housing bubble are hardly reassuring evidence of the economy based on "more economic security and economic resilience" that Osborne claims to be his objective.

Most shockingly, the freezing of the carbon tax and the reduction in the rate of air passenger duty for long-haul flights makes it plain that the chancellor has no understanding of what resilience means, and how our failure to tackle climate change threatens it.

Resilience has followed hard on the heels of that much-abused concept 'sustainability' in helping to define the key characteristics of a sustainable society. Unlike the financial system, which cracked when it came under pressure, a resilient system would be able to bounce back even in the face of unexpected challenges; unlike the railway line at Dawlish, resilient infrastructure is based on built-in redundancy that means there is always an alternative when a system comes under pressure from an unpredictable event. It is exactly this sort of resilience that has been designed out of our economy and society by years of lean management and just-in-time production systems. From computer systems to food supply chains, the globalised market-place has left us less resilient than we have ever been.

So what would a budget for resilience and security actually look like? Let's start with finance. A resilient model for banking would insist on the breaking up of the consolidated megabanks so that banks were no longer 'too big to fail', and no one bank would be large enough to bring down the whole system. Mr Osborne could pop across to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and have a word with his colleague Vince Cable who operates RBS on behalf of its owners, us, the citizens of the UK. He might subtly suggest that he break it up into a system of local community banks, which could be required to actually act like banks, building supportive relationships with the local businesses that a resilient economy requires, rather than acting like casinos.

While on the issue of finance, we should also tell George that his desperate attempt to reinflate the housing bubble through extending the life of Help to Buy is storing up exactly the sort of catastrophic financial collapse that put us in this economic mess. It also does nothing for those who are most in need of reasonably priced housing, since it will only support mortgages they cannot afford and encourage house prices to rise even further beyond their reach.

The most fundamental cause of social insecurity in modern Britain is the failure of the housing market to provide affordable, comfortable homes to those who need them. Here the chancellor could act swiftly to bring in rent controls which would simultaneously reduce the massive amount of public money being wasted on housing benefit. He could also raise the borrowing limits on local authorities to enable them to build houses for those on their lengthy and growing waiting lists.

The greatest source of insecurity we all face is the unpredictable consequences of climate change, and it is here that Osborne's words ring most hollow. Here we see clearly the government's back-tracking on this most vital issue, building on the earlier folly of reducing green levies on energy companies, now further decreasing incentives to business to reduce their carbon emissions by freezing the carbon price floor. He has learned nothing about resilience from the winter's devastating storms and floods, but the urgent need for a consistent policy on climate change is now more evident than ever.

Real energy security comes from demand reduction as a result of improved energy installation in homes, combined with local generation from renewable energy sources. This government's mixed messages on renewable tariffs and taxes has undermined several proposed investments in wind generation, destroying jobs in my own home region of the South West. A higher rate of feed-in tariff limited to small-scale and community-owned electricity generation projects would be the best policy in the budget to ensure real energy security.

With a budget that achieves the exact opposite of the objectives the chancellor has set himself we are all wondering what will come out of the Ministry of Truth next. A Localism Act that centralises planning perhaps; or a Big Society that cuts benefits for the poor and vulnerable?

Written by  Molly Scott Cato Professor of Green Economics at Roehampton University and Green candidate in the European Elections

First published at The Huffington Post

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Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn Dies Aged 88 – An Icon of the English Left

Very sad to hear the news that Tony Benn has died. He had been very ill for a little while and when last I saw him in the flesh, which was a couple of years ago, he looked very frail.

I once saw him make a speech at The Free Trade Hall of all places in Manchester in I think 1980, and he was very powerful, electric even and really inspiring, and I left the event feeling as though the revolution was about to begin in the next week or so.

Times change of course, and the revolution (a peaceful one, of course) looks further away than ever now, but Tony Benn was the only figure on the left from the 70’s and 80’s and before that managed to keep up with the new politics of the left, attending Left Field at the Glastonbury festival for example and he could engage easily with the younger generations.

I thought of trying to get a video clip for this blog of Tony Benn in his prime, but in end thought it more appropriate to feature a recent one, like the one above, because he really did adapt with the times, and could be just as inspirational in his later years.

He will be sadly missed by all those of a radical political persuasion, young and old. He constantly reminded us of our power to change things, and to never give up hope. A great man indeed. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Boris’ rich investors won’t build the affordable housing London needs

Boris Johnson is heading down to Cannes this week to flog regeneration projects to investors and developers at MIPIM, the world’s largest property fair. He told the BBC he was going to “lobby key investors and developers to help double house-building, including more affordable homes”.

And yet affordable housing is the last thing on their minds, and the Mayor is all too happy to wave through regeneration schemes with or without it.

Take Mount Pleasant, for example. He took this decision out of the hands of the two local councils at the request of the recently-privatised Royal Mail Group, who own the site. They want to get planning permission so they can sell it on to a developer with a big mark-up.

In their plans, only 12 per cent of the homes would be affordable. The councils think it could be at least 50 per cent. But Boris took it off their hands before they could say no and is likely to wave it through.
The Mayor has been travelling the world to sell London. His argument is quite simple: building lots of homes is the only way to solve our housing crisis, and this is the best way to achieve that.

But what sort of homes? More expensive flats for rich investors, which could be left empty, or rented to insecure and overcharged tenants?

What’s more, the Mayor wants to stop prices rising by building more homes, and he can only build more homes if prices are rising. Spot the flaw?

I obtained copies of a brochure he took to China last autumn. One introductory page gives the game away:
“London has wealth preservation benefits, outstanding long term capital growth and an increasingly strong rental market.”
The message, in plain English, is that you can make lots of money from rising house prices and rents, and we won’t tax your profits away.

City Hall recently produced new research on London’s housing needs. To fix our housing problems over the next ten years it suggested we needed to build 62,000 homes a year, of which 41,000 should be affordable homes. So two thirds should be affordable homes.

But the Mayor keeps signing off developments like Mount Pleasant that are a long way from providing this. At Earl’s Court, only 11 per cent will be affordable, and those will only replace homes that are being demolished to make way for the expensive flats. At the Heygate estate, 25 per cent will be affordable, but these will only replace half of the 1,023 existing council homes being demolished.

The Mayor even signs off developments without any affordable housing at all, like One the Elephant, which I asked him about last October.

These are developments for the benefit of rich investors, leaving only crumbs for ordinary Londoners.

The simple truth the Mayor needs to learn is this: going to MIPIM isn’t the answer.

We need to bring in a land value tax to reduce demand from investors so that people on average incomes get a fair chance of buying their own home. For all those people stuck in the private rented sector for years to come, we need longer tenancies and rent controls modelled on success stories on the continent.

And if we are going to build 41,000 affordable homes a year, we need much more investment from public, not private, purses.

By Darren Johnson, Green Party member of the London Assembly

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Bob Crow died this morning aged 52 - A working class hero


I was shocked today to learn that Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, has died suddenly.

I saw him only two nights ago, looking hale and hearty in the Barbican Centre where he was in the audience for a Cuban Solidarity concert in aid of the Miami Five [Cubans imprisoned in USA for fighting terrorism].

Like other Greens I may not have shared the same politics all the time as Bob Crow, but that is less important than sharing his complete commitment to fight for a better society and to not only represent his trade union members and gain advances in a very hostile political environment, but also be a shining example of the need to be true to your own values against all the smears and outrages of the media and still dominant neo-liberal forces intent on running down the lives of working people.

Unlike the BBC news today I believe that many Londoners did accept the inconveniences of the recent RMT and TSSA strikes in defence of keeping staff present in Underground stations for all our safety. He led from the front in that and rightly challenged the Mayor Boris Johnson on his U-turn from being elected on a promise to keep Underground stations properly staffed.

Ken Livingstone has suggested that all the relentless pressure from the media organs of the right wing press that we endure may have contributed to undermining his health, no matter his own integrity and unashamed ability to fight back.

A reminder if we needed one that the gloves are off as far as the people who wish to continue to rule us are concerned.

Bob Crow was an unquestionably fine and honourable example of not lying down to austerity, opposing putting people out of work, and resisting the financialisation of all our lives.

He will be missed by a great many and should be remembered as a beacon for solidarity with those in struggle.

Written by Gordon Peters Haringey Green Party

The video above is from a recent appearance on BBC Question Time 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Council of Europe recommends more powers for English local authorities

Councils in England should have more powers devolved to them, according to a new review into the state of local government.
The Council of Europe regularly reports on the state of local and regional democracy in the EU's member states. A delegation visited twice last year in only the second-ever review of the UK, the first taking place in 1998.

Published today, its report ‘Local and regional democracy in the United Kingdom' recommends greater devolution of powers to local government, increased tax-raising powers for councils and a fairer funding settlement for English local authorities.

The report concludes:
·         The ability of councils to provide "essential public services, quality health and social care and effective and adequate community services and facilities, especially to the growing number of older people" is under huge pressure following austerity measures.
·         It recommends devolution of powers to councils as "the ability of local authorities to discharge their responsibilities sometimes appears to be highly restricted by central government".
·         Despite significant funding reductions themselves, councils in Wales and Scotland are "better off financially than their English counterparts". The complex formula for distribution of central government funding produces "considerable uncertainty and effects of unequal treatment".
·         A diversified base of local revenue is an "urgent necessity" with council tax "limited by central or devolved governments, due to the referendum obligation" while "all rates are decided by government and funding is still dominated by central government grants".

Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chairman, said:
"This report recognises the huge challenge facing public services with councils having to find £20 billion worth of savings by the end of this current Parliament. The LGA has highlighted the impact this will have on essential services and the Government has listened by not making an additional reduction to local government funding in 2014/15.
"We feel this review is a fair reflection on the current pressures facing local government. The current model for financing and running local government needs to change and adapt to today's circumstances and it is important that local and central government works together to address these issues and takes these recommendations forward.
"Devolution of decision-making and tax-raising powers to local areas is needed to help save money and improve services and English communities need to be given the same significant say over everything from health services to public transport as they do across the border in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"Our European counterparts also identified the urgent need for a fair and equitable distribution of public money across the United Kingdom. The 34-year-old Barnett Formula is short-changing English communities by as much as £4.1 billion a year and a needs-based model is needed for a fairer deal.
"When the delegation returns to the UK in five years, I hope these vital reforms will be in full force and local government will be looking ahead to the future with renewed hope."

This is a press release from the Local Government Association, which is a cross party grouping of local authorities, Chaired by a Tory. It shows the depth of feeling in local government about lack of funding under the ConDem government.