Friday, March 23, 2007

Listening to be heard

It was handbags at dawn between Fellgate and Hedworth ward councillors Paul Waggott and Steve Harrison in the Shields Gazette yesterday, and it indicates that there may be more media contretemps before the May 3rd election. Hijacking of media credit is not new in South Tyneside - recently Couns Brady and Gibson basked in the glow of a misleading headline whilst [Independent candidate] Steve Pattison and his Friends of Temple Park did all the legwork to stop the development of the site's former caretaker's residence into a surgery.

So I can understand Coun Harrison's petulance at Coun Waggott's alleged press hijacking but the real point has been missed. Residents' concerns have finally begun to be addressed, and if it took the fear of losing Fellgate and Hedworth ward to the Independents to get things moving it shows that sometimes our electoral system does work.

What the voters will see though is two councillors fighting very publicly, when it's obvious they should have been working together, or at the very least talking to each other. It's apparent to anyone watching from the sidelines that it's partisan politics that's all that matters in South Tyneside, and particularly Fellgate and Hedworth, not consensus resolution for the benefit of residents.

While the sitting councillors are noisily sound biting each other in the press, apparently today the prospective Green Party candidate for Fellgate and Hedworth ward quietly collected nomination signatures and listened to residents concerns.

Re-engineered opinion

It's been said that there's no such thing as an original thought when it comes to writing, and I've got to agree with that to a certain extent. As a computer programmer by trade, I acknowledge that much of my professional work stands on the shoulders of others.

Reading Curly's blog yesterday I came across his comment on a piece in Celia Walden's 'Spy' column in the Daily Telegraph, discussing South Shields MP David Miliband's alleged status as a 'gay icon'. Not a paper I read much, but when I read the full text on the Telegraph website I was struck by the familiarity of the context of the article, and particularly the phrase "His voting record on gay rights has regularly been used by Pink News to contrast against Gordon Brown's".

So back to my blog entry of 9th December 2006, where I found I'd written "His voting record on gay rights is regularly used by pink news to contrast against Gordon Brown's", discussing Mr M's new entry as a celebrity; strikingly similar to Celia Walden's statement. The main difference between her comment and mine was the tense.

The 'no original thought' rule could easily explain this similarity. Surely hundreds of folk on t'interweb have commented on the Miliband vs Brown gay rights voting record, and the likelihood of a similar or the same sentence being used would be high?

So to slay the paranoia demon I did a literal search on Google for the consistent part of the quote, the phrase "used by Pink News to contrast against Gordon Brown's". It brought up only one entry. Mine.

Did my original blog post provide Celia Walden with inspiration for her own piece? If so, it's comforting to have at least one reader out there. Then again, it may just be coincidence.

I suppose at the very least it's nice to be ahead of the professional opinion writers. And then there's the old saying about imitation and flattery...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Miliband's moment

South Shields MP David Miliband is a key player in a defining moment in British history. Not over the next Labour leader bun fight, but in the publishing of the Draft Climate Change Bill, released today. The UK will be the first country in the world to introduce a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions and it's an achievement to be proud of.

The Bill is a remarkable monument to people working together for a common cause. It was born as Early Day Motion 178, tabled by former Environment Secretary Michael Meacher, signed by 412 MPs and supported by thousands of British citizens through Friends of the Earth's Big Ask campaign.

South Tyneside is a local pivot to the story. South Tyneside Friends of the Earth has spent the last year or so campaigning for public support, getting hundreds of people to sign 'Ask your MP' postcards. One thing that STFOE volunteers found was the wide geographical range of visitors to South Shields. People from as far away as Canada showed interest at the stall under the bridge on King Street, and UK residents visiting from from Falkirk and Liverpool signed postcards.

To his credit, Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn was one of the first MPs to sign the EDM. Beats tilting at statues.

However, South Shields MP David Miliband has been a minister of one sort or another during the campaign, which meant that unfortunately he felt tied to ministerial convention which prohibits ministers from supporting EDMs which call for legislative change. He met with local green activist Bryan Atkinson last year to discuss a climate change bill and the meeting spawned the recent Climate Change Conference in South Shields.

Today's news of Mr Miliband's carbon crusade was slightly depressed by him showing symptoms of Labour's schizophrenia over transport. His swipe at the Conservatives' throwaway policy on aviation that, "criminalising aviation isn't going to save the planet", implies that there is an anodyne solution to flying. Labour's projected growth in aviation is at odds with the need to reduce it. There is no way to square this circle; Branson's super fuels, Blair's magical airframes or Miliband's offsetting won't reduce the air industry's fair share of emissions whilst the number of flights are growing. However flawed, the Conservatives seem to be at least thinking about the issue.

But the draft Bill is very far from perfect. There's no year on year annual emissions target mechanism, a 'carbon budget' if you like, essential for the timely monitoring and management of emissions reduction. As Shadow Environment Secretary Peter Ainsworth said:

"To be truly effective, any bill should have three elements: annual emission reduction targets, an independent body to set as well as monitor these targets, and an annual carbon budget report from the secretary of state."

The Bill's target of a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 has been overtaken by recent findings by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change which suggests that a 90 per cent cut is more appropriate. So if the higher 90 per cent isn't going to be the target initially, the Bill must include a mechanism to allow increases to the 2050 target.

You can expect to see business groups like the CBI and the power industries throw their political and economic muscle at the consultation in an attempt to dilute the Bill even further, which means groups like FOE will have at least another year campaigning to make the Bill even stronger and fit for purpose.

But at least we have a Bill on the table to debate. Considering that there were no voices in the cabinet publicly supporting a Climate Change Bill, that's a worthy enough success for now.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will try to garner some credit for the Bill reaching Draft stage, but the applause should go to two environment ministers, one past and the other present, Micheal Meacher and David Miliband.

Michael Meacher for Labour party leader with DM as DPM anyone?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Respectable vandals

There's regularly local media coverage of vandalism, with the main perpetrators apparently being disaffected youths with no concept of respect or social reponsibility. Walking down my street the other day I found another kind of vandalism, but one which won't get 'respect' headlines or visible 'blitz it' campaigns.

Pavement and verge parking. I took a few pictures of some stunning examples of parking, planning to prepare a post on the subject and an email to the council. Most of the verge parking was done by residents, people who you would think wouldn't want the area in which they live to look like a day at Diggerland.


But then by coincidence a few days later I received a letter from South Tyneside Council. Once I drew my eyes away from the awful presentation and grammar, I found that our Council was threatening to take action against motorists parking on the green verges. I presume this was prompted by a resident in my street, as residents in adjacent streets with equally Somme-like verge damage haven't received the letter.

So, what will our council do with these anti-social motorists? According to the letter from the Council, prosecution under the Highways Act 1980 or a vague "could be considered to be Criminal damage".


Sounds good. However, our Police are already stretched and this kind of activity comes low on their list of priorities. So we should have cause to celebrate when the recent South Tyneside Council On View magazine told us that new Decriminalised Parking Enforcement would "reduce dangerous and inconvenient parking". But the council's 'Parking Team' dashes hope, saying that "South Tyneside Council can only issue PCNs to cars parked on footpaths where there is a yellow line restriction."

Our councillors aren't much better, where similar anti-social behaviour has been met with appeasement by offering to tarmac, concrete over or replace green verges with parking bays - often using Community Area Forum 'environment' budgets (yes I know, it's bitterly ironic). There's little surprise in this attitude - politicians have become terrified of annoying drivers.

Green tree-lined avenues are disappearing. As a community, we don't value the green verges. We park on them, discard our litter and allow our dogs to shit on them.

At least if you drop litter or let your dog poo without picking it up you can get an on-the-spot fine. If you're a Council tenant and cause problems for the neighbours you will become the focus of the Council's remedial 'Respect' policy, with the threat of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order.

But park on the verge and you get little more than Council hand wringing and feeble letters.

The simple answer is to introduce on-the-spot fines for these vandals. Moves are already under way in Newcastle and London to introduce such schemes. If fining irresponsible parkers doesn't work, then ASBO their ass into showing some R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for something that belongs to all of us.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Potts' worthless two-pence

Over on Curly's Corner Shop it seems at first reading that local Tory Councillor David Potts has had something of a revelation over climate change. He's telling us that "a recent consensus has been reached that the cause is human activity of various sorts." Welcome to the 21st Century.

This is a big change from 2005, when Coun Potts challenged "anyone to show me just one single solitary shred of concrete proof that humans contributed or are at all responsible for global warming." He also claimed that "reducing emissions is a complete and utter waste of time and money." I'm guessing Stern kicked that Lomborg-esque nonsense into touch.

His climate change denial mode was matched by a similar position over second hand tobacco smoke. In 2006 he wrote that the "notion that smokers are harming non-smokers is a little shaky to say the least."

His argument moves to the hilarious, accusing some unnamed characters as the "same types of smart people predicted that the world would have run out of oil by now many times over". I presume the "smart people" was the oil industry; but they didn't predict oil running out - it was peaking which caused so much consternation (and still does) to the oil industry.

Coun Potts also bemoaned these same "smart people" for predicting "that the world cannot feed the number of people alive today." Guessing by the number of people who die for lack of food each day, the "smart people" were right.

Potts then places his faith in technology as the answer. It may be part of the answer - we have all the technology we need available to us now. But no amount of technology is a substitute for what we really need to do - reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

Possibly Coun Potts is just jumping on Cameron's greenish bandwagon. Or you could argue that Potts has finally seen the light and decided to listen to the scientists. But I doubt it. He's acknowledging that climate change exists, but all he's done is moved with the rest of the denial lobby to an 'it's not that bad - it's all scaremongering' position. Instead of rubbishing the evidence, he's mocking the risks.

By dismissing concerns over climate change as hysteria, Potts is carrying on that good old denial tradition and burying his head in the sand.