Monday, 28 May 2012

Strange Bedfellows - Kirklees Councils Annual Meeting

Ming the Merciless - a 'Strong Leader'
Given the outcome of the Annual Meeting ' Strange Bedfellows' was my immediate thought as a title for this blogpost. The outcome of the May Election left Labour without a majority, though with more seats, and so the opportunity to get some leverage on them in the run up to the Annual Meeting and election of a 'Strong Leader' was a limited one. The term 'Strong Leader' is one dreamt up by the last Labour Government as part of their alternatives to an elected Mayor (an even stronger leader!)

A common thread among non Labour Parties in the run up to the election was around retaining staffed provision in village libraries. The direction of travel indicated, in the consultation, is for more volunteer run and assisted libraries. So this was the main area where we could get some joint action if we could agree a common approach to the Labour Party. I talked to all the other Party Leaders in the run up to the Annual Meeting but to get the Conservatives to sit down for 3 Group talks with ourselves and the Lib Dems proved very difficult and I didn't detect a lot of enthusiasm from them in any case. Labour were quite keen to talk to all the groups seperately to get the best deal they could or 'divide and rule' if you prefer. Given we weren't getting anywhere with the Conservatives both ourselves and the Lib Dems declared publicly on Monday that we would vote against Labour on the Libraries issue to try to get the Tories to declare their intentions. On Sunday Eveening Mehboob Khan indicated that if we were to vote against them leading the Council they would remove us from Chairing the Resources Scrutiny Panel this along with the fact that they had told the Lib Dems we had already made a deal with us convinced me, if it were necessary, of the character of the Labour leadership.

On Wednesday I went into the Annual Council Meeting not knowing which way the Conservatives were going to vote on the Leadership of the Council. In the end they abstained. If they had voted against Mehboob Khan he wouldn't have been Leader and we may then have been able to exercise some leverage on the libraries issue at the very least. So I guess the big question is why the Tories did what they did? There is the 'foaming mouth' wing of the Tories who won't talk to the Greens in a civilised way at the best of times so I can imagine Robert Light had his work cut out with those characters in any case. Then of course if Labour weren't  going to vote for the Green Party and Valley Independent Group to have any Committee Chairs who were they going to support? The Tories of course. Instead of our Cllr Terry Lyons chairing the Planning and Highways Committee you have the delightful Conservative Cllr Christine Smith instead of Green Cllr Julie Stewart-Turner chairing the Resources Scrutiny Panel you have Tory Cllr Donald Firth. Loyalty to the 'strong leader' obviously brings its rewards (and punishments to those who defy him).

 So where does this leave the new 'Strong Leader' of Kirklees, 'Mehboob the Merciless'. A bit embarrassed I think. It doesn't do his dubious 'left credentials' much good having to do a deal with the Tories who are as we know the 'bad guys'. We had quite an amusing exchange of tweets where he rather illogically accused me of wanting the Tories to run Kirklees instead of him. The only question put to us was "do you want Mehboob Khan to be leader of the Council?" there wasn't a mutiple choice question. If there was "None of the above" would probably have been my answer.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

LGA Environment and Housing Board Report

A new understanding between LGA and DECC?
It was a lively Environment and Housing Board in May. The LGA produced a campaign plan entitled ‘Housing the Nation’ to lobby government to give Councils more powers to encourage new housing in their areas. One of the weaknesses of the campaign, in my opinion, was the lack of any emphasis on the need for more social housing to rent. Purchasing a house is beyond the reach of many people particularly young people. You have to question the wisdom of encouraging someone to spend an increasing proportion of their income over their entire working lives to purchase a home. We need a change in culture in the UK away from the dubious virtues of ownership to one where a secure affordable rented home is a serious option. There was an interesting and indeed surprising suggestion that came from one of the Conservative members to have an increasingly punitive tax on land where planning permission had been granted but development had not commenced. I christened it the ‘Tesco Tax’ due to their large land banks of land where building had not yet taken off.

The renewal of the LGA’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Department of Energy and Climate Change provoked a lot of comment. The MoU was one where the 2 bodies were supposed to share intelligence and information on current policy developments and work together on action to tackle climate change. One bone of contention was the illegal cuts in the Feed In Tariff for solar PV which had been pursued with no reference to the LGA and had cost Councils many thousands in preparing for large scale solar projects which were now defunct. Clearly the MoU had been disregarded by DECC here. There were other examples which brought into question DECCs real commitment to buy into the MoU. There was general agreement that we needed to secure more assurances from DECC before renewing the MoU. One suggestion I made which was well received and accepted was for the LGA to establish another MoU but this time with industry. The interests of the microgeneration and energy efficiency sectors and local government coincide in a number of areas. We both want to see action on the ground and our principle common constraint is the policies of central government. Approaching DECC with a common message could give more weight to both organisations. I’ll let you know how it progresses.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

'Flood RE' - will it help areas at risk of flooding?

Armitage Bridge Flood 2008
If you want to know whether or not Climate Change is real and getting worse don't listen to Friends of the Earth, don't listen to the Campaign against Climate Change and whatever you do don't listen to the Green Party! You want to go the people who really know, none other than the Association of British Insurers. As representatives of the insurance industry the ABI have a vested interest in assessing the risk and likelyhood of flooding events and understanding what action has been taken to mitigate those risks. As we all should know changing weather patterns are upon us. We have longer, heavier rain events, flash flooding and the consequential damage to property.  This has had a real impact on Armitage Bridge in the ward I represent as a Kirklees Councillor but hopefully measures the Council has put in place and action taken by local people will limit the risk of flooding in future. So far so good!

For  a number of years now there has been an agreement, called the 'Statement of Principles' between the Government and the ABI which has ensured that many homes at risk of flooding have received reasonable levels of insurance. This agreement runs out next year but households are already seeing the consequences of this as the cost of  their renewal premiums drops through their letterbox. One householder in Runnymede was quoted £10,000 for their home insurance due to flood risk. So what can be done to address this problem? In the short term we need to do all we can to reduce the impact of flood and heavy rain events though strategically placed resevoirs, sustainable urban drainage systems and putting measures in place which reduce damage to homes at risk of flooding through flood secure doors and higher electrical sockets. It almost goes without saying that we need to take ongoing urgent action to reduce our carbon emissions but the issue of insuring homes remains.

Last week, as Chair of the Local Government Associations Inland Flood Risk Working Group I facilitated a meeting last week between DEFRA, the Association of British Insurers and Councillors from around the country who had been badly affected by flood events. The ABI's proposal to government is called 'Flood RE' where government will underwrite the cost of insurance for major flood events. It is estimated that the cost to government could be around £100- £200 million per annum. It is based on a similar agreement between Government and the ABI called ' Pool RE'. 'Pool RE' is nothing to do with pools of water, or Religious Education come to that, but is how the government helps the insurance industry insure property against the risks of terrorism events. Basically Flood RE is a guarantee by government that they will step in if flood events occur and help with cost. I've asked to see the details of 'ABI's 'Flood RE' proposal so the the Local Government Association can comment and if happy with it lend its support to the document.It seems a good principle for government to 'underwrite' the risk to the people they represent who find themselves in dire unaffordable circumstances due to no fault of their own. DEFRA is due to report back in 'Spring' this year. Admittedly I don't feel Spring has really sprung yet but we should know something shortly I guess.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Silent Running - Twitter and Local Elections

You may think social media and elections were made for each other and conventional wisdom is that it is. We hear about Facebook campaigns which helped propel Obama to the Whitehouse and you’d be forgiven for thinking Kirklees politicians, myself included have learnt very little from this but as with many things there’s a lot more to it than that.

 As local election campaigns were beginning to take off in Kirklees I noticed the Labour Candidate for Newsome had set up a Twitter account. I was naturally going to follow her. She had a few initial followers already including prominent Labour Cllrs. Very soon I discovered I’d been blocked as a follower and after a few initial tweets from her all went very quiet. Twitter is a good way of letting everybody know what you are doing and thinking and during an election campaign. If you are targeting a seat you don’t particularly want your opponent to know what you’re up to and what streets you’ve been on . Fortunately for me the oldest form of social media ‘the community jungle drums' pretty much kept me abreast of what’s was going on, who was on the streets, where they were and what they were saying on the doorstep – ‘Street Twitter’. ‘ Electronic Twitter’ went into ‘silent running’ mode like submarines keeping a strict silence lest they be discovered by the enemy above.

My own twitter traffic during the election lost a bit of spontaneity. Things I wanted to say about the election would have been unwise to say. I started making ‘Non Election News’ Tweets such as “I extracted 2 pints of worm wee from my wormery this morning. Useful as a liquid fertiliser. Back out on the stomp!” I was definitely ‘extracting the urine’ with that tweet! Another tweet was “my sweetcorn, leek and tomato seedlings are coming through. Rain makes canvassing tough but the patch gets watered!” Now I know twitter is supposed to express your trivial musings in less than 140 characters but didn’t I realise there was an election on?! I certainly did but even saying where I’d canvassed and what response I’d received could be giving information to an opponent who didn’t have my best interests at heart in the slightest.  I thought the best thing I could do was let them know how my allotment was progressing!

I did break this rule on one occasion. When I was reliably informed by locals that a prominent Conservative Cllr had been spotted canvassing in Newsome I wanted the world to know that I knew what was going on and that she’d been spotted. She then had the option of carrying on canvassing in Newsome and be accused of abandoning her own backyard or go back campaigning in her own patch. By my reckoning and given her particular style of canvassing I couldn’t lose either way but the quandary over what to do was not mine, it was hers and I’d got more than enough to deal with at the time.

Here’s a couple of songs by Joan Baez 'Rejoice in the Sun' and 'Silent Running' from Silent Running starring Bruce Dern in the 70’s Sci Fi masterpiece and ecological thinkpiece. In order to protect the last earth trees Bruce's character takes his forest carrying spaceship 'offline' and goes 'silent running'. It doesn't get much more 'hippy sci-fi' than this!

Monday, 7 May 2012

2012 Local Elections Coverage - BBC & Election Tales

BBC Look North feature on 2012 Kirklees Local Elections. 3 Labour Cllrs including Cllr Khan can be seen tromping up Newsome Road. I feature towards the end with our new Cllr Robert Barraclough

At the count giving an interview for the Kirklees Election tales team.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Kirklees Elections 2012 report

Optical illusion - Actually it's the Green Party that is on top here!
Lots to be said about the Kirklees Elections of 2012 but the headlines for the Green Party were winning our fifth seat on Kirklees and our second seat in the Kirkburton Ward by 23 votes as Robert Barraclough joined our ranks. Robert will be an excellent local councillor. He is a farmer, businessman, Parish Councillor and former Chairman of Kirkburton Parish Council who is refreshingly straightforward and considered in his approach to decisions. He'll be an asset to the Green Party but also to Kirklees Council as a whole. This just leaves Cllr Christine Smith as the remaining Conservative in the ward. We'll be gentle with her!

It was the wettest election I can remember. Thousands of leaflets were delivered in heavy rain. One morning 6 of us delivered the whole of Shelley in wet weather gear through a relentless downpour, Special campaign honours to those people.

We also had a more aggressive Labour Party Campaign in Newsome than usual that needed addressing and handling. It was a bit of a 'surprise attack'  and soon we were seeing Labour Councillors from all over Huddersfield canvassing in Newsome. We also had our Labour MP Barry Sheerman and a Coronation Street Actress pressing the flesh for Labour in Newsome. We closely followed the literature being produced by Labour and there was a lot of it, some personalised letters and several full colour glossy leaflets. I bumped into Cllr Mehboob Khan leafleting in Lockwood who insisted to me that Labour were not targeting Newsome but the evidence and information that had come my way seemed to indicate the opposite. I was getting calls from constituents from all over the Newsome Ward telling me what this or that Labour Councillor had said to them on the doorstep in pursuit of their votes.  Apparently I spent all my time running Kirkburton Parish Council and was neglecting the Newsome Ward which I didn't even live in! Actually I attend about 2 Parish Council meetings a month and there are plenty of other Kirkburton Parish Cllrs to do the important stuff without me interfering. As for not living in the ward I've never tried to make a secret of this and have put my home address prominently on several leaflets over the years. It was strange to get this sort of attack from the Labour and Conservative Candidates who also didn't live in the ward themselves but of course they didn't put this particular fact on their leaflets. There were 2 full colour leaflets that went out in the last couple of days as well as a full colour Polling Day reminder card. There's plenty more I could say on the Labour campaign but it can wait for another day. Interestingly the Tories put a bit more effort than usual into Newsome but the messaging was all about not voting Green rather than reasons to vote Conservative. It almost seemed like a two pronged attack from 2 Parties working together to unseat me. When Kirkburton Cllr Christine Smith was sighted canvassing in Newsome trying out her own particular brand of invective with the locals I knew the knives were out. The feeling and support on the doorstep towards the Green Party remained good throughout which was comforting.

The outcome of all this was an increase in the Green Party share of the vote from just over 51% to just under 53%. Anyway here's a clip from Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan. Khan has just carried out a surprise attack on the USS Enterprise and believes he has the upper hand.