Sunday, 14 February 2021

Covid 19 - One year on - Prescient thoughts from the archive!

 On the 22 February last year I asked for consideration of the coronavirus to be added for discussion to Kirklees Council's Leading Members meeting.

At this time there were a total of 13 confirmed cases in the UK. 4 of which had come from people disembarking on a cruise ship. It was only 3 weeks after the first 2 cases were discovered and quickly isolated in York. The first clusters of cases had started appearing in Northern Italy and I got a really bad feeling about its ability to travel so far so fast.

Reading it back the email I sent to the Council's Chief Executive and other Party Leaders seems rather prescient sadly:-

"Are we developing/have a plan for a possible serious outbreak in Kirklees/West Yorkshire?

 A few thoughts off the top of my head

 Addressing and limiting fear has to be a top priority as well as mythbusting.

 A Public Information campaign on the reality of the Coronavirus has to be an essential - How it's transmitted. How dangerous is it actually compared with other diseases. What precautions get the balance right between  being effective/proportionate/limiting fear.

 We need to appreciate how long precautions against a pandemic may last. A month? a year? Will Huddersfield, Leeds or Sheffield or anywhere end up in lockdown with limited public transport/ check points and people being told not to leave their homes for weeks at a time. Is it possible for the UK to take China style measures given our different cultures and expectations regarding authority.

 What guidance have we received regarding Local Authority response to a Coronavirus outbreak and are funds are being made available for additional demands on social care and other services

 Getting more staff to work from home is obviously something to explore as well as video conferencing even for people working in the same building perhaps.

 Huddersfield is a University town with a large student populations. We need to ensure that they and particularly the chinese community do not become a target for racist attacks on the back of Corona outbreak. We also need to coordinate with University authorities to ensure our actions are coordinated and complementary.

 Setting up the equivalent of a local COBRA committee to strengthen a multi agency response would be a good idea and with guidance to do this formulated jointly by LGA and the appropriate Govt departments.

 Engaging the power of the community to look out for vulnerable people and to disseminate information will be a key task for us to extend our reach.

 Do we need a regional/sub regional approach to this potential problem?"

That was on 22nd of February. A week later the first Covid infection for someone who had not come from abroad was detected. A week after that the first death in the UK was announced. The following week 250,000 attended the Cheltenham Festival and 52,000 attended the Liverpool V Athetico Madrid match with 5000 Spanish spectators. By the 23rd of March we entered the first national lockdown. 

My main reflection is that National Government acted far too slowly and that cost lives, thousands of them. At some point they must be held to account for what they did and didn't do. If they are allowed to portray the vaccine roll out as some form of victory then democracy will have failed us again. The seriousness of this crisis required an all Party approach and not a partisan one. The Conservatives should have sought talents from all parties to come together to address the crisis and sadly it never did. Coming from a Party that must make best use of its often limited influence I am annoyed beyond words when politicians in power waste their opportunities to act. That is as true of the Conservative Government in Westminster as it is of Labour Administration in Kirklees.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Speech to the West Yorkshire Growth and Economic Development Conference - 10/2/21

 I’ve been a Kirklees Councillor for 22 years, elected and re-elected for the Green Party 6 times. I’m the Green Party’s National Energy Spokesperson and I represent the Newsome Ward in Huddersfield which in many ways it is a microcosm of West Yorkshire. It has large Council estates, some streets with £300’000 pound houses, and some large asian communities.

 I’ve worked in Energy Efficiency and Renewables sector for 17 years. Project managed insulation and heating schemes. I have worked in the public sector and the private sector and used to work as lobbyist for the Renewable Energy Industry where I was ignored by some very important people.

 During many of my years as a Councillor I have learnt how political power can make positive change happen. For many years the Council lacked a majority, and to get budgets passed and leaders of the Council elected the largest party, whichever one it happened to be at the time, needed the support of just a few Councillors from another political group to achieve that. The Green Group was more than happy to help and as a result Kirklees had the UK’s first universally free insulation scheme, a renewable energy fund that installed solar panels on many council buildings, a solar scheme for householders with no upfront costs and schools constructed to very high energy specifications. Kirklees now has a majority party in control and is less innovative, risk averse, officer lead and managerial. My own politics aside it is a real shame and a waste of political power. For me the whole point of my political journey has been to make change happen and that is why I am standing to be West Yorkshire’s first Mayor.

 So enough about me what about the policies I will champion as West Yorkshire Mayor.

 The Green Bullding Fund that I propose aims to mainstream quality assured high energy standards in public sector building and social housing projects.

 4 years ago I chaired an All Party Group on Kirklees Council looking at the Passivhaus standard. A quality assured means of construction that produces buildings with low energy demand,  low carbon emissions and high energy efficiency standards. These are airtight properties with mechanical heat recovery ventilation.

 We looked at costs and gathered evidence from the Passivhaus Trust, and leading pioneering councils like Norwich City Council and Exeter City Council where they have mainstreamed Passivhaus on public sector projects. Once backed by a good supply of work and a policy that gives the construction sector the confidence to invest in skills, construction costs are not that much higher than building to current building regulation standards. The Passivhaus Trust reckons additional building cost are somewhere between 4-8% but that cost is soon recovered in saved energy costs. Some of the most powerful evidence we took was talking to people who lived in passivhaus properties and also seeing passive houses being constructed.

This is where policy can make a difference. So the conclusion of the All Party Passivhaus Group 4 years ago was to recommend to the Kirkees Labour Cabinet that we specify the Passivhaus Standard or equivalent in all public funded projects or as a condition of sale on the sale of council land for development.

 Sadly the Kirklees Cabinet has ignored the report and sadly when challenged uses evidence on costs derived from one off demonstration projects which by their nature can cost an additional 30% or more.

 So my proposal as West Yorkshire Mayor is to establish a Green Building Fund to cover up to 5% on top of the usual capital cost of the development to ensure that all public sector projects are constructed to the Passivhaus standard or an equivalent standard that achieves the same outcomes. The fund would stay at 5% for the first 5 years and then the percentage would decrease gradually as skills and familiarity with the standard help construction costs come down. This would not only cut emissions but put thousands of pounds back in the pockets of householders in saved energy bills, with money generally going back into the local economy.

 Won’t the Government’s future homes standard do the same job in reducing energy costs and carbon emissions? Well probably not . Research has shown that there is a substantial performance gap on supposedly green homes where they use far more energy than predicted. The quality assured approach to Passivhaus Construction ensures it does pretty much what it says on the tin and energy demand remains very low with 70-90% reductions in fuel bills typically being reported.

 We also want to tackle the need to retrofit existing properties to reduce their emissions with some substantial demonstration programmes that will aim to influence the significant investment needed from national Government, who have so far avoided a long term strategy to tackle the emissions of existing buildings. This is where the Mayor can make a real difference by being a pathfinder and policy innovator leading the way forward for national governments.

 The education and skills responsibility of the Mayor should be harnessed to ensure we have the architects, suppliers and builders to deliver the Green Building Fund, renovation of existing houses and to ensure that we have the skills to address challenges we know are coming such as the move from gas boilers to air sourced heat pumps which is a significant challenge in itself.

 I’m also a strong supporter of social rented housing, but they have been poorly served by successive governments of all political hues, with an ever diminishing council housing stock due to the wrong headed, right to buy policy. Social housing is a social good, an alternative to ownership, more secure than private rental and ensures there is an alternative to both. We need a strong and growing social housing sector to create not just the poverty housing of last resort but a viable option for people who can’t get on the housing ladder. With enough support and rising numbers of council housing it would be an essential check on rising house prices. The power I would seek from Government is the right for Councils in West Yorkshire to suspend the right to buy to ensure the business plans for investment in new Council housing stacked up and there would no longer by a hole in the financial case for investment.

 The role of West Yorkshire Mayor should not just be a souped up Council Leader or a MP with a bigger constituency. It has to be something different, It has got to be about generating real change, providing direction for the region and providing the policies that we need to deliver a sustainable future.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Greens propose 6 month rent holiday for Kirklees hospitality businesses

The Kirklees Green Party Group have proposed an amendment to Kirklees Council’s 2021/22 budget to tackle the economic threats from the Corona virus crisis and climate change.

 Following on from the successful 3 month rent holiday Cllr Andrew Cooper proposed for Kirklees hospitality businesses last year, the Green are now proposing a 6 month rent free period for caf├ęs, coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and clubs.

 Cllr Cooper said,

 “it is vital for the vibrancy of our town centres that the hospitality industry doesn’t collapse following the long period of restrictions and lockdowns. We have some excellent and welcoming businesses in Huddersfield Town Centre who have lost thousands. If Kirklees really has a commitment to revitalising Huddersfield then protecting the businesses we already have is vital at this time.”

 The Greens have also proposed a Covid Community Recovery Fund

 The £30k Covid recovery fund introduced last year was very welcome and Green Councillors have made good use of this fund.

 Councillor Cooper said,

 “Using this funding we have helped schools with IT equipment prior to the wider scheme introduced by the Council. We have helped community organisations with little access to funds to repair buildings, helped with the provision of food to vulnerable people, helped isolated people keep in touch with friends and relatives using smart technologies. Our budget is pretty much spent but the pandemic and its effects go on hence our call for another round of funding.”

 The Greens have also proposed an initiative to involve local people in the regeneration  of our Town Centres

 “Plans to revitalise our town centres are welcome but we believe the Council is not engaging as well as it could and we are proposing a new board that involves local people and key local organisations in the detail and decision making regarding regeneration proposals. Ideas we would like to see considered by such a body would be a strong emphasis on children’s play in the town centre, drinking water fountains, free wifi, public art and more pedestrianisation”

 The Green Group has also submitted a wide range of initiatives to address climate change and reduce peoples energy bills including a project to construct all new council buildings to a very high energy efficiency standard and also a new project to improve the energy performance of existing homes.