Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Tim Kent - Timewaster?

One of the motions put forward in last nights council meeting was by Labour Cllr Judith Price. Essentially it refers back to a motion amendment put forward on the 24th February by Lib Dem Cllr Gary Hopkins which proposed that instead of employing 15 more housing benefit officers, that the £310,000 thus saved be used for energy efficiency instead. She apparently wanted to highlight that the Audit Commission had criticised the amount of time taken by Bristol City Council to process housing benefit claims, and that if the Lib Dem motion had been carried the situation would be even worse.

When Cllr Hopkins put forward his motion on 24th February the Lib Dems were in opposition - by the end of the day they were running the council. It appears that at some point, once they were in control, they changed their minds about the need for housing benefit officers and not only did they employ the 15 Housing Benefit officers, they actually added a further 8. This is good news - such good news in fact that you would expect the well-oiled Lib Dem PR machine to make a bit of a song and dance about it - especially as some of the areas that are most affected by improvements to the housing benefits service include those wards such as Lawrence Hill, Easton and Ashley that the Lib Dems are fighting hard to win elections in.

But apparently, nobody told Tim Kent, the executive officer responsible. Or maybe they did but it was on the inside pages of a report and Tim is now following apparently established Lib-Dem procedure of only reading the front and back pages of reports?

Whatever, the point is, that the motion was put down over a week ago, which you would think gave Cllr Tim Kent plenty of time to find out that the number of Housing Benefit officers had in fact increased thus making the motion pointless - and, in the spirit of transparency and openess promoted by the Lib-Dems (and in order not to waste council time) he could have communicated this to Cllr Price and perhaps the motion could have been withdrawn.

In fact Conservative Cllr Ashley Fox had put forward a written question for Cllr Kent for yesterday's meeting.

What plans does the Executive member have to either increase or reduce the number of staff processing housing benefits claims?

An accurate response to that would surely have caused Cllr Price's motion to be withdrawn. But, apparently, in his written response to this question, Cllr Kent did not know the answer. When queried on this by Cllr Fox in last nights meeting, Cllr Kent responded "I didn't know whether it was 23 or 25 and wanted to be sure my facts were accurate". It appears that the time between when he provided the written response to Cllr Fox, and the time when he responded verbally to Cllr Price was just the time needed to get his facts accurate.

Of course it was Tim, I am sure that was the real reason and it had nothing to do with you seeing an opportunity to respond to a possible attempt at political point scoring by Labour with some political point scoring of your own.

In the event, the motion was debated at length with much heat and little clarity, including numerous examples of speakers accusing the other side of political point scoring whilst taking the opportunity to do so themselves. Do as I say not as I do.

As a result the 45 minutes that were allocated to debating motions was used up in this self-indulgent tit-for-tat over a motion that proposed no changes and achieved less. As a result 3 other motions regarding the funding of policing in this city, the openness and accountability of various public bodies that affect this city, and the potential improvement of transport in this city were pushed off the agenda. As a result the city council once again made itself look like a school playground for exchanging insults rather than an elected chamber representing the people of this city and intended to improve the state of the city and the quality of life of its residents.

Tim Kent has to shoulder a major share of responsibility for this wasting of council time and thus tax-payers money - all it needed was a straight answer to Ashley Fox's written question and, in all likelihood, councillors could have been debating motions that actually show potential to make a difference rather than throwing insults across the chamber. But he saw an opportunity for pointscoring and, like a moth attracted to the light, couldn't stop himself.

Is this what we want more of when we vote on June 4th? - or do we want councillors who put the needs of the city above their own petty agendas on behalf of their political parties?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

City Council's £12,000 subsidy to local foodies

In times of recession, money becomes tight and a little help to pay the bills is obviously welcome.
Even better, it would be great if you could find a fairy godmother who could say "look, I know things are a bit tight, so let's forget about the bills for the moment" and wave a magic wand and the bills disappear.

Well, if you live in Bristol good news, it appears there may be one - Bristol City Council. However there is a problem - it doesn't apply to the poor sods who actually pay the council's taxes.

BUT, apparently, if you are a food retailer who sells high quality food aimed at well-heeled foodie fashionistas who like to hold dinner parties where they can say "we source our food from the same people who supply Gordon Ramsay doncha know" then you appear to be in luck.

Taste opened in a fanfare of publicity and was touted as the feather in the cap of Bristol's award winning St Nicholas market. Despite the fact that they would be competing with the many long-established local suppliers already in the market there was no end to the help provided to help the high-status outfit get started. As the recession has hit, I have been told that that help has now extended to allowing them to "forget" about paying some £12,000 to the City Council, at least until they hit better times. Now isn't that nice.

Yep, so next time you watch Gordon Ramsay on the telly or hear about the over-inflated prices at his top London restaurants, you can take pride that in some small way, Bristol's council tax payers are subsidising the restaurant bills of London's social elite.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Nick Clegg Ate My Hamster!

Yes he did, I know its true, I read it in the paper..... in fact, if I recall correctly I think the original quote was that "During a visit to Bristol, Nick Clegg ate...." and somewhere else, in the classifieds on page 58 in the bottom right corner, it said "My Hamster cage is for sale". However the point is that even if Nick claims my quote was "taken out of context" that doesn't neccessary mean its not true, because as Cllr Mark Wright says ""Taken out of context" is the automatic response of someone who has said something stupid but won't apologise for it." unless, of course, I have taken him out of context.

Lib-Dem councillor Neil Harrison is apparently, like many other Lib-Dems (nearly a million of them according to the Lib-Dem voice), a Daily Mail reader, and so when he saw this article he immediately expressed outrage.

Chris Hutt, who (I hope he doesn't mind me saying) is a little bit older and much wiser than young Neil, has seen all this sort of thing before and thus decided to base his opinion on more firmer ground, and thus viewed (and provided a link to) the original video (Caroline's comments are 14 minutes in). Chris also has the advantage that unlike Neil and, of course, Caroline and myself, he does not represent a particular party. I have my own views on Caroline's remarks but I suggest you watch the video, make up your own mind, and then decide whether the Daily Mail (and Neil) have drawn a valid conclusion.

Meanwhile, while Neil was directing everybody's attention to Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was in Bristol cleaning windows to get some attention - poor guy. Unlike, I suspect, Neil (perhaps he can correct me on that), I have actually met Nick Clegg - he is a nice guy, witty and intelligent, he also reads the Independent rather than the Daily Mail, or at least that was the paper he was reading when I last met him. When I first met him he occasionally let his heart lead his head and allowed his personality to shine through and was thus prone to the occasional "gaffe". Apparently, since then, the "image makeover" people have gotten to work and he now rarely makes gaffes, but has also lost any trace of having a real personality. I guess some in politics will see this as a good thing. I don't and as a Green Party member I hope that the day Caroline gets a visit from the "image makeover" people, she gives them short shrift. Nick Clegg was, and Caroline Lucas is, much more effective when they care more passionately about their policies rather than their media image. If this means they occasionally say things in the heat of the moment - so be it.

Meanwhile I hope the local Lib-Dems were studying Nick's window cleaning technique because if they are going to start slinging a lot of mud around they are going to have to work hard to provide everybody with a clear view of that "openness and transparency" they keep promising us in Bristol.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Jon Rogers: Political Mathematics for Beginners

Lesson One; What makes a seat a two party marginal?

Example (taken from The Bristol Blogger)

"KingsWeston is a close, Lib Dem Labour marginal. 38 votes last time in May 2006…

John Thomas Bees - Labour - 1078 votes - 36%
Joanna Prescott - Lib Dem - 1040 - 35%
Anthony Smith Conservative 614 20.71"

POSSIBLE CLUE: Note that the gap between first and third = 464 votes and this would appear to put the seat out of reach of the third party. Thus "Lib Dem Labour marginal".

Now try it yourself - is the following a two party marginal?

Ashley Ward last time out in May 2007;

Shirley Marshall Liberal Democrat 1237 37.36
Daniella Elsa Radice Green Party 1127 34.04
Ricky Orlando Nelson The Labour Party Candidate 765 23.10

POSSIBLE CLUE: Gap between first and third = 472 votes

Answers on a postcard to;
Jon Rogers
councillor for Ashley ward
c/o Bristol City Council
College Green
Closing date for entries is June 4th - any entries received after that date may be marked "Return to sender - not known at this address"

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Before The Car Took Over

The developing proposals to introduce 20mph zones in the Easton and Bedminster areas of Bristol offers an opportunity to consider the fact that prior to the Road Traffic Act of 1930 the entire country had a national speed limit of 20mph. In many ways 1930 was the year that road-based transport and the private car in particular, really started its rise to dominance over all other travel modes.

In our attempts to reduce this dominance can we learn anything from the inter-war period that might have relevance for today?

Looking back at the period between the wars, the amount of choice for public transport in the Bristol area seems amazingly high by today’s standards. When the Oldland Common station was opened in 1935 it brought the number of rail stations within what is now the Bristol urban area to nearly 30, with another 60 or so in the rest of what is now the West of England partnership area.

Bristol also had an electric Tram network that provided a dozen routes, a bus network that complemented the tram network, and finally the Clifton Rocks railway to ease the uphill walk from Hotwells to Clifton.

With very little competition from private motor cars which were both small in numbers (less than 2 million cars in 1926) and restricted in speed you might think that the public transport providers were experiencing a boom. In fact the opposite was true.

In 1923, the Railways Act of 1921 came into force, grouping the railways into a "Big Four" – part of the reason for this act was to stem the losses being made by a large proportion of the 100 or so existing railway companies. Similarly from the 1920s, bus companies faced a market failure leading to the introduction of bus regulation in the 1930s to reduce competition and the resulting losses – in Bristol this would include the decision to phase out tram services. If public transport wasn’t booming either, how were people getting to work?

It appears that despite all the public transport availability, the most popular method of getting to work in Bristol in the 1920s was by foot or by bike. With only a small number of cars on the road, and all motor vehicles restricted to 20mph, the roads were relatively safe for pedestrians and cyclists alike. The high levels of walking and cycling was also helped by the fact that, at this time, Bristol was a still a relatively compact city – although the low-density estate building of the 20’s and 30’s was already in the process of changing this.

By reducing the number of cars and restricting the speed of those that remain you encourage a shift to non-motorised forms of transport regardless of the level of public transport provision.
As a more modern example, the key factor in the transformation of central Copenhagen from a place geared towards cars to one designed for people, has been the gradual increase in pedestrian streets. Initially the percentage of streets that were pedestrianised was relatively small – the key to Copenhagen’s success lies in the fact that by introducing just a few but strategic pedestrian streets, motorists could no longer use the central area as a through route (a larger scale rat-run). The result is a street ambience that benefitted a larger proportion of the population compared to a system that might remove only those unable to afford to pay a congestion charge. Pedestrian streets introduced more people friendly streets with active usages (pavement cafes, market stalls, live performance, etc, etc) – in short, all the things that architects and designers like to design (or talk about designing) into modern developments like Cabot Circus, Harbourside and, not forgetting, Ashton Park.

Increasing the level of streets that are off-limits to cars also helps reduce the amount of on-street parking available. A MVA Consultancy study of Bristol for the UK government concluded that car trips into central Bristol could be cut by 41 per cent if parking measures including a 75% reduction in on-street parking, higher parking charges, and enforcement of planning permission for non-residential parking were introduced. That report was produced all the way back in 1997 – yet here we are today discussing systems like BRT and Congestion Charging that are optimistically expected to reduce car use by 10-20%.

The conclusion we could make here is that whilst the introduction of 20mph zones will certainly offer some improvement in improving road safety and thus encouraging more walking and cycling - in the end it is only by reducing the number of cars on the road that we might provide the circumstances for a large-scale shift to walking and cycling. To reduce the number of cars on the road you need to reduce the amount of road space. The question is - does anybody in Bristol have the courage shown forty years ago in Copenhagen?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

City Councillors work hard to make bankers look good!

In yesterday's council meeting the Conservatives put forward a motion regarding absenteeism amongst councillors. In the ensuing less-than vigorous debate various councillors expressed their opinion that their fellow councillors were good people who worked hard for little reward for the benefit of their electorate. The perception that councillors were disreputable and consumed by self-interest was a false one perpetuated by unfair stories in the media. But, as one councillor jocularly remarked, at least they don't think we are as bad as bankers. Oh, how we laughed at his wit.

Once the councillors finished bigging themselves up they, or more specifically, Labour and the Tories, then returned to the job in hand; trying to replace bankers on the bottom rung of public respect!

Just before the outbreak of mutual self-congratulation, council had accepted the 2009 revision of the Bristol Local Area Agreement which included targets for reducing per capita CO2 emissions.

Now, let’s be clear about this, all three of the major parties (not just the Green Party) accept that Climate Change is happening, that it is detrimental to mankind, and that we are causing it by the massive amount of carbon emissions we pump into the atmosphere. It is recognized that there needs to be an absolute reduction in the levels of greenhouse gases being produced – or people die, simple as that. As a result the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed with support from all parties and set a target of 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. Next month, the government is likely to set a target of a 21% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 based on advice from the Committee on Climate Change - a figure that many of us think is way too low with at least a 40% reduction being needed.

Now, if our local politicians say that they believe that climate change is bad for us and are committed to reducing emissions for our beneft, how are we doing in Bristol? Obviously, if we are going to reduce emissions by 21% (let alone 40%) we need to have reduced by, say 7% at least by 2010. Well the base 2005 per capita CO2 emissions were 5.8 tonnes and the 2010 target is.....drum roll....5.8 tonnes! Yes that's right, five years work and we have gone nowhere but, wait, there is hope on the horizon. The 2011 target is....5.7 tonnes per capita. Wow, no wonder we are a green capital!

But, as Charlie Bolton explains on his blog, it is even worse than that - the 2005 figures are based on a population of 410,500 which means the total overall emissions come to 2,380,900 tonnes of CO2. But the population forecast for Bristol in 2011 is 440,700. So with a per capita emissions level of 5.7 tonnes that means our total is 2,511,990 tonnes. Instead of reducing our emissions as a City, we will have added 131,000 tonnes per year by 2011. To simply maintain our level of carbon emissions at the 2005 levels, we need a per capita target for 2011 of 5.4 tonnes. To reduce overall emissions by 7% would need a target of 5.0 tonnes per capita. In short, as far as carbon emissions are concerned, the LAA is worthless. We may have to rely on the Lib-Dems to set more demanding local targets with a little pressure from us Greens. One thing is certain, to rely on Labour and or the Conservatives too take climate change seriously is like expecting a turkey to vote for Christmas - they simply don't have the courage of their supposed convictions.

Nobody is sure what Bristol's population will be in 2020 but figures in the region of 470,000 have been bandied around. In that case if we are to reduce our emissions by 21% by 2020 then we are looking at per capita emissions that will need to be 4.0 tonnes.

What could you do for 4.0 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum? Well, you could drive to Bristol International Airport and catch a return flight to New York. And that’s it, that’s your entire carbon emissions for the year gone. This is why any carbon emission reductions, even real ones, are useless if you continue to expand airports.

This brings us to Charlie’s motion last night regarding the expansion of Bristol International Airport. Labour and the Conservatives blithely ignore all the evidence that shows Bristol International Airport and its expansion offers little or no benefit to the local economy. Worse still, after all the talk earlier of only working for the benefit of Bristol, they used the opportunity to indulge in some petty party bickering about the Lib-Dems having changed their position, about the Lib-Dems in Norwich opposing the Greens, quoting the CBI (President: Martin Broughton, chairman of BA) saying business in Bristol is reliant upon the airport expansion – yeah, I am sure the 98% of local businesses that are SMEs most of whom never use the airport are looking forward to paying for carbon offsets because the airport has used up their share to transport BAe and Lloyds Bank executives around the world.

As for the carbon emissions, our Helen said that planes are getting more efficient. Not according to the aforementioned BA Chairman and CBI President who has gone on record saying that fuel efficiency gains “are likely to be outweighed by future growth” But wait, our Helen has read somewhere about carbon offsets! That will do the trick – we can offload our carbon offsets on to somebody else. It’s a bit like the waste strategy – instead of preventing the waste in the first place you pay somebody else to take care of it for you. So, instead of reducing our own carbon emissions we will pay somebody else to reduce theirs – that way in 20-30 years time they will have a modern clean transport system, and modern clean cities with modern energy efficient homes and workplaces and won’t need to buy our carbon offsets but by then it will be a SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem).

As already mentioned, the Climate Change Act is a legally-binding document that commits us to a 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. That means the UK’s emissions must be reduced to 32.5 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. Meanwhile the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research estimates that the aviation industry in Britain will account for 32 million tonnes carbon but this figure underestimates the percentage of air travel by British nationals or the effect created by the combination of greenhouse gases released by aircraft at high altitude – when these figures are included we reach a figure of 59 million tonnes of carbon equivalent from aviation alone. That is 181% of our target for 2050.

To re-use the waste analogy, whilst Labour’s Mark Bradshaw carps on about how Lib-Dems and the Greens (oh, and the Tories of course) by wrecking the waste strategy will cost the taxpayer money, Labour (with the Tories) are happy to pursue a strategy that will see the country having to buy 59 million tonnes of carbon at prices which some government estimates put at £140/tonne by 2030 – that’s £8.3 billion spent so that executives can fly to meetings they could do by video-conferencing, or tourists can export their money to somewhere else, somewhere with less pollution, somewhere where they are considering banning dirty, noisy aircraft. But that too will be a SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem).