Sunday, 21 February 2010

Reasons to be cheerful.... Growing Newsome!

Growing Newsome is very literally a grassroots organisation, or maybe more appropriately a root vegetable organisation because they aim to grow quite a lot of them this year. They are an offshoot of Newsome Ward Community Forum and over the last year they have done stacks of useful stuff including seed swapping, establishing community allotments on Occupation Road and at the Ashenhurst Allotment site, providing timely advice about planting and mutual support. Yesterday was taking on the bramble patch that time forgot in a back garden. The deal was that we help a householder bring her garden under control and use the land for growing vegetables for the community. When I arrived there were about 20 or so students from Leeds being informed about the work of Growing Newsome by Diane Sims, one of the Growing Newsome Gurus. Pretty soon some of them were helping local volunteers and getting stuck in with secateurs(spell check that one some time). Soon we were uncovering Mayan ruins and lost japaneses soldiers, actually the odd tennis ball and a kids croquet set. There is more to come on the local food front with our first tranche of the 1000 fruit tree project about to come to fruition (the puns are flowing well today!).

So what are the big lessons so far from this for the Council. The Council talks a lot about the need for community cohesion and rightly so, even if 'community cohesion' is not a very engaging phrase. Growing Newsome is a real catalyst for greater community cohesion. It empowers people, brings them together on positive local projects, improves the local environment, provides food for the wider community, reduces carbon emissions, reduces food miles, combats the impact of peak oil, reduces reliance on supermarkets and makes you feel really darn good and positive! Lets face it having gone through the Council's latest budget process I need a bit of positive. Lessons for Green Party Councillors? Well I think I can say we have succeeded in putting sustainable energy high up on the Council agenda, local food and supporting community projects like Growing Newsome is already our new focus. The local food agenda will literally grow and grow (puntastic!)

For more details of 'Growing Newsome' check out their website at:-

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Kirklees Budget Amendments - Good, Bad and Bogus

So all can now be revealed. The time for amendments to the Kirklees Budget has passed. We will go the budget meeting next Wednesday with a Labour budget based on the financial constraints forced on us by this Government following their mismanangement of the economy. There are 3 amendments, the Conservatives, the Green Party's and the the Lib Dems. We have gained some things out of the budget process. In our amendment we have the extension of the free insulation scheme Kirklees Warm Zone for another 3 years. I tried to get them to rebrand it 'Green Zone' to avoid confusion with the Governments 'Warm Zone' scheme but also to annoy the Lib Dems (see previous posts!). Of course they weren't having it but the issue of confusion between the 2 schemes is genuine and will have to be addressed at some point soon. Not least because 'Warm Zone' is a brand that we have to pay for. There are also opportunities to bring new measures to the scheme free draughtproofing for vulnerable households, electricity saving measures such as Real Time Displays and Powerdown and deliver them on an area by area basis.

Other things we acheived were in the 'side agreement'.

We have a commitment to continue to support the core funding costs of 'Build' the body which provides training in skills for the building trade for brickies, plumbers and decorators until these are picked up thorugh supportive contracts such as Building Schools for the Future further down the line. This is exactly the sort of project we should be supporting at these times.

We also have a commitment to develop support for projects promoting local food producers in the area. This has been a strong theme for Julie Stewart-Turner our first Green Party Mayor during her year in civic office.

There is a commitment to come up with proposals for a free bus link from Huddersfield Town to the Galpharm Stadium possibly electrically powered. This would provide a link to all the sports and leisure facilities in the area and reduce the need for car travel at a venue which isn't directly served by Public Transport and where the car parks are often full at peak times.

Our big hope is that we will be able to establish a free solar panel scheme for private householders with the capital costs for the Council being met by the new Clean Energy Cashback being introduced this April. We are due a report in June on whether or not it is a goer. The Lib Dems don't like the idea of this scheme and didn't believe it was much worth pursuing. No doubt if we make it work it will be appearing in a Lib Dem leaflet as one of their initiatives. Bitter? Moi? You bet I am!

We have already established the principal of self funding capital for solar projects with the £5million agreed for solar panels for council buildings last year. Providing free solar panels at no net cost to the Council for private householders is more difficult but I don't think impossible.

So what of the Lib Dems Budget amendment? Well surprise surprise we have £2 million to upgrade the insulation of Council Tenants. But I hear you say 'Didn't they claim they had already acheived this in that scurrilous leaflet they posted in Almondbury in December?' (see December post 'Dem Fibs from the Lib Dems') Well yes they did. So they lied, it's what they do. More energy stuff from them £300k for Solar PV for community buildings, some additional monies linked to the boiler scrappage scheme and an energy advice project for the elderly. All good but there is nothing else! If you didn't know better you would think they were desperately trying to win back lost ground on the energy agenda. No matter, if that's the case then the Green Party has acheived more in this budget than simply getting our own initiatives passed we've pushed the other parties on or agenda and got gains for local people.

The Conservatives submitted an amendment it means their Council Tax is a 1% increase instead of a 2% increase. To do that they have further decimated jobs, services and cancelled anti recession measures, but they have the cynical 'We're cheaper' headline for their leaflets.

I'm definitely getting grumpier as I get older.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Kirklees Budget thoughts

This is the 10th Kirklees Budget where I have written, with my colleagues, the Green Party budget amendment. Of course this budget is the first one under the gloomy laden background of public spending constraints with job losses inevitable and sure to grow in the next year. The Conservatives are apparently going to have a 'pretend budget amendment'. They are going to undoubtedly play the lower Council Tax card. Irresponsible? Yes! Will it result in reduced services and job losses? Almost certainly. Would they do it if they actually ran the Council? I honestly don't know. Is it designed to get lots of lovely votes by conning people into believing they are fiscally responsible? You bet your ass it is!

So what real room for manouvere is there really in the budget? With inflation , increased costs and so many ringfenced services a standstill budget is effectively a cut which most people don't appreciate. So how far can it go up (and down) At the top end not much. Try going above 2.5% and save some jobs and services and government will cap you. Try a standstill budget or even a cut and you're cutting services or increasing costs to pass onto somtimes vulnerable households.

So what can you do with budget amendment? Find things to support that don't cost a lot but have a big impact or pick your supporting funding sources imaginatively? This year is harder than any I have seen but in the Green Amendment we will have helped save some jobs, help people into employment, reduced energy costs and of course improve the environment. Not as ambitious as I would like but there you go.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

University debate kicks off campaign

Friday, (shortly before the Red Bull kicked in) I was at the University of Huddersfield Students Union for a Question Time session where also on the panel we had Barry Sheerman MP, Jason McCartney the Conservative Candidate for the Colne Valley and dropping in towards the end James Blanchard from the Liberal Democrats. The NUS National President was there doing a very competent job of articulating the concerns of students over their finances, tuition fees and future prospects. The disappointment was the low turnout (hopefully not indicative of the election itself!)

It was an early indication of what is to come during the election campaign but it would appear that the international financial crisis has little to do with governments according to Barry Sheerman and that we are coming out of recession according to the very late James Blanchard. I beg to differ.

Friday, 12 February 2010

And the Award goes to........

The 2nd Yorkshire and Humber Microgeneration Awards were held last night and I am I confess feeling a little delicate at the moment and contemplating drinking my first ever can of 'Red Bull' to see if it really does give you a boost!

It was a good night (obviously!) but particularly for Kirklees. The RE-Charge scheme, a Green Party Initiative, won the Best Policy Category for enabling householders to install renewable energy with no upfront costs. Hillside Primary School in Newsome won the Best School Category for producing 55% of its own energy from onsite renewable sources. Green Councillors have been closely involved with the struggle to get the school built to the high standards the teachers, staff and community wanted. Paul Hudson was presenting the evening and it looks like he may well be doing the official opening of Hillside School later in the year.

The event itself at the Royal York Hotel gave a real boost of confidence to the Microgeneration Sector in the region with 170 people there. Noticeably absent were the Regional Development Agency Yorkshire Forward who still 'don't get' microgeneration or its potential to create worthwhile jobs, reduce carbon and fuel costs and to change society. I really believe having talked to council tenants who have had solar panels that microgeneration can fundamentally change the way people regard themselves. No longer are they simply passive consumers of energy but they are generators and producers of their own heat and power. If we create the conditions for hundreds of thousands of householders to use renewable energy in their home then we will truly be creating an 'Energy Generating Democracy'.

This Red Bull stuff works!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Carry on Cabinet!

As it looked like an interesting Cabinet meeting I decided to go along. The decision to provide Council land for Yorkshire Housing to build 35 houses in the Newsome Ward came up. The standard of build for these properties was Code for Sustainable Homes Level 3. A high standard but the minimum for new social housing developments and would not necessarily incorporate renewable energy such as solar photovoltaic panels. I had suggested when consulted as the local councillor that we might be able to have solar panels installed on the properties at no net cost by using the new Clean Energy Cashback to finance the capital costs. Officers chose to ignore this advice and it wasn't included in the report. Another good reason to attend the meeting.
Coincidentally today was the day that tariff rates were announced by the government and it looks increasingly likely that my suggestion would be possible. But it didn't stop there Councillor Shabir Pandor the Cabinet Member responsible for Housing was very, and repeatedly, insistent that it wouldn't be legal for a 'commercial' body like a Housing Association to take advantage of the tariff. Fortunately the Council Leader Cllr Mehboob Khan decided to take my advice and check it out and involve me in the decision for which I am most grateful. I've now sent them both the relevant section of the Government policy document that shows that Registered Social Landlords can indeed use the new 'feed in tariff'.

Last year the Green Party persuaded the Council to identify £5 million in the Councils Capital Plan for solar photovoltaic panels on the basis that the capital borrowing would be paid by the revenue costs of the panels. This looks like it will now happen and even more council buildings will have solar, our energy costs and carbon emissions will also be reduced. Exciting times indeed!