Thursday, 30 September 2010

How to survive having a politician brother

Richard Cooper
 It's not been a good week for Ed with brother David taking his bat and ball home. So I thought I'd share my views of having a political brother.

Mr brother, Richard got elected as a Councillor in Harrogate at the same election as me in 1999. He was also a paid political agent for a while as I was. He was on the Cabinet at Harrogate Council for a number of years as was I in Kirklees. We've pretty much managed successfully to avoid stepping on each others toes and rivalry for key Party positions is highly unlikely.

So long as he remains in the Conservative Party we should be OK!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Me, Mr Ed and the Earth Centre

My Ed Miliband anecdote is from the General Election Campaign where we both appeared on 'The Politics Show' at the doomed Earth Centre near Conisborough. On the panel was Paul Scriven Sheffield Council Leader and General Election Candidate, Mr Ed himself, a Tory replicant candidate recently let out of the factory that produces them, a mad woman from the BNP who blamed climate change on immigrants (where from? - Mars) and yours truly. Ed was of course unashamedly pro nuclear despite no real work having being done to prove the necessity for nuclear power - its just something people say "We need nuclear or the lights will go out - no really they will". What struck me about Ed was how mind bogglingly serious he was. I don't remember him smiling once. I'm sure he does on occasions. One of the BBC North reporters, Len Tingle, asked me, off camera, if I ever dreamt of being on a panel with Ed Miliband? I was charactaristically undeferential suggesting Ed might benefit from the encounter more than I would given our respective records on tackling climate change.

Avast me hearties, the Earth Centre pirate ship.

The venue, the Earth Centre, is a real tragedy. A reasonable idea at the time it was opened just over 10 years ago. A top of the range environmental awareness raising centre it has now been abandoned for the last 6 years and there's a local campaign to bring it back into use.There are low energy buildings, reed bed serviced bogs, a massive 50kWp solar array and a mock Pirate Ship, which my son Dominic played on when we visited it around 7 years ago. It was a nice, if a bit of a pricey day out. A couple of years ago I was asked to have a look around the site by Doncaster Council to give a few opinions on how the site could be brought back into use or at least pay its way. My suggestion was to put some significant size wind turbines on the large Earth Centre site to generate electricity and some valuable revenue to at least help support the site and possibly bring some much needed cash to the Council. The Council has been able to make some cash from the Earth Centre as a film location for a post apocalyptic HQ following a plague in the BBC series 'Survivors'. The Earth Centre was ideal and the only thing they had to CGI on the skyline to complete the picture were some large wind turbines.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

"We're all in it together" - if you use Public Transport

Huddersfield's Free Town bus
I was contacted this week for comment by 'The Examiner' on the cuts to bus services by the West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority - Metro. There are proposed cuts to the Free Town Bus Services in town centres around West Yorkshire, including Huddersfield, reductions in early morning and rural services. Interestingly one of the comments on the Examiner Website article says,

"Cllr Andrew Cooper is playing party politics as it is not the government that is choosing to cut this service. The decision is a local one!"
You have to ask yourself what cuts passed down by national government could the West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authortity make that aren't to public transport! It is what they do after all. If the government gets off the hook as easily with the chap who said this they can cut us to oblivion with impunity.

Of course the people who rely on these bus services are often people who don't have access to a car and in many cases that is because they simply can't afford it. Huddersfield Town Centre is built on a slope. From St Patricks Catholic Centre down Westgate to the Beast Market you are walking down hill. If you go shopping at theKingsgate Centre and are getting the bus home then its a long way uphill especially if you have mobility problems or are getting on a bit. For these people the Free Town Bus Service is a godsend. Ultimately this is down to Government spending cuts and cutting the budget deficit. Of course politics is about choices so lowering the upper tax threshold to incomes over £100k? No. A Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions? No. Tougher action on banks and bankers bonuses? No. Cutting bus services? Yes!

Then of course there are the environmental implications of a diminished public transport sector but then this is "the Greenest Government ever".

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What! The "Greenest Government Ever" breaks a promise

The Roman God Janus. Apt in so many ways to this article.
When the Feed In Tarrif was introduced in April this gave a much needed boost to the microgeneration sector particularly those installing solar photovoltaic panels. One disappointment however was that only installations fitted after July 15th 2009 would qualify. So all those pioneers who had helped keep the industry alive before the tarrif was announced would receive only 9p/kWh while those new installers would get 43.1p kWh. The Conservatives prior to election promised to include all microgenerators in the tarrif. Rather than me repeat the sorry tale in detail heres a link to the excellent Yougen blog which details it.
I guess from this blogs point of view I should detail how this will affect Kirklees. Well, we have been installing solar panels on Council houses and council buildings all through the noughties mainly funded through the Renewable Energy Fund established by the Green Party. Chris Huhne Lib Dem DECC Minister's decision is therefore disappointing to say the least. It doesn't stop us moving forward with existing schemes but it can hardly be regarded as 'fair' - the touchstone word of this government.

The really irritating thing is that it would have cost very little. It could have beeen limited to microgeneration installations fitted under government supported programmes. This should have been a fairly manageable number. As the Feed In Tarrif is funded through utilities it would not have affected public sector budgets.. The impact on the populations fuel bills would have been hardly noticeable and it would have helped hundreds of households in Kirklees Council housing on the very lowest incomes have a few hundred more pounds in their pockets. It would have been a small step towards a fairer and greener society but sadly not to be.

The next key date is October 20th when the Spending Review reveals what the GGE 'Greenest Government Ever' is going to make of the proposed Renewable Heat Incentive. There are also concerns about how it will treat the existing Feed In Tariff. Lets see what happens. I promise to say something nice about the Coalition Government at the next opportunity. May it be soon.

There's the no such thing as (the BIG) society

Newsome's 'Big Society' Clean Up Gang. 

Margaret Thatcher famously informed us that that there was no such thing as 'Society' now her latest Conservative successor David Cameron not only believes Society exists but he wants it to be 'big' as well. This comes as surprise to many of us who were sure David Cameron believed in society but only 'High Society'. OK that's got the Posh Tory jibes out of my system and onto the subject of  the 'Big Society'.

A central belief of 'The Big Society' is that services are better delivered by individuals, community groups and charities rather than public bodies and a belief that we need to 'turn government completely on it's head'. There is also a belief that somehow people's natural desire to improve their communities is being stifled by local or central government and that barriers need to be removed to enable the Big Society to flourish. As David Cameron said in July "stop us from stopping you do things for your area".

What comes to mind is a conversation the Newsome Green Party Team had in a pub in the late 90s where we believed we were no longer just community activists but the providers of services. In fact as I remember it we went as far as to say we had become not merely Councillors but an alternative to Council Services. We started to list all the things we did or did with volunteers in the area. When buses were removed from service over the Christmas holiday period we brought in a free volunteer bus service, when areas got heavily littered we organised skips and clean up teams to clear rubbish, when no recycling services existed Councillor Graham Simpson did a waste paper collection round to many households around the Newsome area. I even stretched the point to the limit and suggested that at its height our casework gathering in Council estates was estate management. Like all conversations after a few beers the case may have been overstressed but there was a still a lot of truth there. While believing in voluntarism there was still a strong element of campaigning (and shaming) of the public sector to pick up the slack of inadequate provision in the Newsome area. So the waste paper collections played their part in encouraging Kirklees to put more effort into household recycling, the Christmas Buses pushed Metro into provision of services on Boxing Day at least. So if anything much as we believed in the power of people doing things for themselves we also believed that the public sector could do more than it was doing not less..

The role of the 'Big Society' should not be to replace the management  and provision of publicly funded services but to enhance them to provide additionality to what is provided already. The classic example in Newsome is 'Growing Newsome'. Volunteers working together on local food projects doing the level of detailed work that would never be provided by the Council nor should it be. This is individuals coming together with passion and commitment on a project which should be more fun than worthy. If the Big Society is not about additionality it is by definition about changing the management of local services from the public sector  to charities or community groups. There may be some limited value in this. For instance I can imagine a strong role for the Fuel Poverty Charity, National Energy Action in taking on the role of managing and monitoring progress on action to improve energy efficiency taking powers away from DECC and possibly local authorities. I just wonder whether taking powers from central government is what Dave actually meant. It would be interesting to test this.

Capacity and enthusiasm are the keys to successful volunteer action. A lot of people are simply not interested. Why support local food projects when there's so much quality Reality TV to watch. Those who are interested may have lots of different commitments limiting their capacity and eventually people will get bored of growing marrows for the community (or whatever) and want to move onto something else. This is one reason why we need to think very carefully before core services are moved from the Public Sector for the sake of those people who rely on them.

A classic example of the 'Big Society' gone bad is the concept of 'Free Schools' where parents or charities can get together to run and manage a local school. This will undoubtably unfairly skew financial provision from publicly funded schools to once run by religious organisations or discontented parents who can't justify a school in their area under normal circumstances. Again this would not be additional provision it would be a dubious way of creating yet more inequality in our stupid 'choice' based education system. (Don't get me started!)

A real test of the Government's commitment to the Big Society would be to actually public fund it rather than doing a one off trawl of dormant bank accounts. If it really believes it will deliver better more efficient and cost effective services it would be worth it, wouldn't it?