Monday, 29 March 2010

Mephedrone Idiocy

This Government seems determined to go to its probable doom still operating with the same kind of politics that have gotten us into such a mess in the first place. Right thing to do, but unpopular? Never going to happen.

And so it was with mephedrone, the latest scare drug of the moment. All the relevant legislation says, very reasonably, that the Government needs to conduct a sober, scientific and comprehensive study of any substance that it wishes to control. After all, by controlling mephedrone, the Government will at a stroke be seriously criminalising many thousands of young people.

However, this is New Labour - so imagine my complete lack of surprise at the rush to push through a ban on mephedrone before the General Election. It seems that, far from heeding scientific advice and carefully considering policy, it just takes a few scare stories in the tabloids to get this Government to jump. As far as I can tell, there has been next to no proof either way about mephedrone as yet - but hey, lets not let that stop us from creating new laws. Who needs proof when you have outrage?

I've always been incredibly proud of Green Party drugs policy, which points out that prohibition generally doesn't work. It's simply not the best way to keep people safe, and just pushes drugs underground into the control of criminal gangs who ensure that the substances used become less pure and more dangerous. In the case of mephedrone, there are scores of drugs, still legal, which give almost the same high - so all this will achieve is to push people towards other alternatives. Alternatives the effects of which, surprise surprise, we will have no idea about. And so the merry-go-round of outrage will begin again.

This is also the view of Professor David Nutt, the man whom the Government sacked for having the temerity to tell the truth on these issues only a few months ago. Like him, I certainly don't believe that mephedrone is harmless. But I do believe that making it a controlled substance is almost certainly going to make things worse, rather than better.

Political expediency 1 - 0 Rational science based politics.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Allen Road shootings

As I walked to the first hustings of the Parliamentary campaign on Thursday, I saw some 'Police Do Not Cross' tape cordoning off part of Allen Road, near the Shakespeare pub. As I soon learnt, there had been another shooting - and it involved one of the young men who had already been shot in November, on Howard Road.

I posted my thoughts on gun crime, its causes and its solutions after that tragic incident in November, and my understanding remains the same. Gun crime isn't something that we can deal with simply through tougher enforcement, or through isolated action in one community - though both of these things might help to some extent. Ultimately, violent crime amongst young people is caused in the majority of cases by deprivation and hopelessness - and until there is a wider movement in this country dedicated to reducing levels of inequality (both economic and political), we will not be able to make significant headway against this problem. Young people who behave this way are acting out and demanding respect in the only way that they can envisage - a way that is twisted and malformed because of the environment they find themselves in relative to others in society. We need to allow people the opportunity to earn and find respect in other ways.

On a related topic, this post on StokeyTalk points out an interesting aspect of this latest incident - the increasing use of social networking by residents to find out what is going on, in near real time. I wasn't too impressed by Twitter when I first started using it - but things like this show me that sometimes it can be an incredibly powerful tool. The idea of "citizen journalism in the information age" couldn't be a bigger cliche - but its potential is astonishing, for all that.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Housing and the Budget

More on the budget in a few days. For now, one brief bit of thinking on an astonishing ommission - the complete lack of a mention for affordable housing in 2010's Budget. Who needs a strategy for social housing when you can steal a policy on owner-occupying from the Tories, eh?


One of the few major, eye-catching changes in Labour's 2010 Budget was a housing measure. Unfortunately for the almost 5 million people on social housing waiting lists throughout the country, the measure had nothing to do with housing that those most in need can afford.

In providing a holiday on stamp duty for homes under £250,000, Alistair Darling is following the same tired formula of attempting to stimulate the economy through subsidies to owner-occupiers, rather than investment in homes for the millions of people who are in very serious housing need. A subsidy of only a couple of thousand pounds will not make housing ownership accessible to all, and will cost £550 million over two years.

At the same time as this giveaway, the Government is refusing to protect social housing investment from the swingeing cuts which are guaranteed to hit unprotected government departments later in the year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that non ringfenced departments will suffer cuts of 17.98%. This would mean a drastic reduction in an already inadequate building programme. In 2007, Gordon Brown pledged to build 1 million units of social housing by 2020 - however, according to the National House Builder's Federation only 162,000 of these will have been built by 2011, and if the projected cuts take effect, the remaining 838,000 will not be built until 2029!

The direct effect of this complete neglect of social housing (momentarily ignoring the indirect effects on health, economic equality and prosperity) will be a further 1.25 million people joining the housing waiting lists, and the loss of 278,000 jobs and apprenticeships in the construction industry.

Labour had a chance, with this final Budget, to set out a route back to sane levels of social housing in this country. They have failed this test in epic fashion, and look set to condemn millions to continuing housing misery.

Matt Sellwood is the Green Party's national housing spokesperson, and the Parliamentary Candidate for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Ending Fuel Poverty

In one of my more recent posts, I highlighted one of the major items of expenditure in Hackney Green Party's budget proposals this year - a scheme designed to kickstart the provision of free insulation for all residents of the borough, prioritising the most vulnerable households.

A similar scheme has already been pioneered by Kirklees Green Party, who secured over £20 million for it, and it has transformed the energy efficiency situation of housing in their area.

Now, I'm aware that insulation isn't the sexiest political issue. But it should be.

It should be because nearly five million households in England cannot afford to heat and power their own homes. They need to spend more than 10% of their income on energy, and so are living in fuel poverty. The annual average household energy bill is now over £1,200 - more than double the average bill just five years ago.

And it should be because, in 2008/2009, there were more than 36,000 excess winter deaths, with many more people becoming seriously ill or going into heavy debt due to fuel poverty.


Yes, of course, excess deaths aren't just cold related, and not everyone died as a result of poor heating in their homes - but even if we are ludicrously conservative and attribute just 10% of those deaths to insufficient fuel and heating (and I suspect its actually a lot more), we are talking about thousands of preventable deaths. And that was for 2008/9. The winter we've just had was colder.

Of course, the Labour government have been on the case for a decade now, ever since they passed a Parliamentary Bill on the topic of fuel poverty in 2000. I'm sure its fixed.

Oh. Turns out, there are now nearly three times more households in fuel poverty than in 2001, when the government launched its UK Fuel Poverty Strategy. The government has already acknowledged it will miss its 2010 legal target on fuel poverty, and is on course to miss the 2016 target unless there is a radical shift in strategy. As End Fuel poverty have said of the government, "it is reluctant to set a target energy efficiency standard for private sector homes; take regulatory action to drive up standards...and make sure all the necessary funding is provided."

Frankly, this isn't rocket science. We need to stop faffing about at the edges of this problem, stop relying on the market to fix itself, and introduce minimum standards in the private sector as a matter of urgency. As Friends of the Earth point out in a recent briefing: "Strong minimum standards, which are toughened over time, should make it illegal to rent out a property below a certain energy efficiency rating...this should start immediately with properties in Energy Performance Certificate Bands F and G...there is simply no moral, practical or financial argument for allowing a landlord to continue to make money from letting a property which is in bands F or G - a standard of energy efficiency so poor that it is classified as a health hazard - when that property could be improved to Band E for less than a thousand pounds."

Absolutely right. We need the 'stick' of minimum energy standards, and the 'carrot' of easily understood and accessible free insulation. We need it because bringing the homes of the fuel poor up to the energy efficiency standards of homes built today would reduce their fuel bills by an average of 52 per cent, and cut their carbon emissions by 59 per cent. And we need it because people are dying.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Grassroots Legislator?

Those who are keen readers of the Hackney Gazette may have noticed that Diane Abbott has reacted with some irritation after I pointed out her absence from a key climate vote a couple of weeks ago.

While I've been having a bit of fun with her assertion that no-one in Hackney has ever met me (I'm fairly sure I'm not a figment of someone's imagination, though I suppose you never can tell), Diane's response actually brings up an important and interesting point of discussion - the proper balance as an elected representative between engagement in the community you serve, and attendance at the legislative body in which you sit.

In actual fact, Diane and I are not very far apart on this, I suspect. I come from a tradition of politics which believes, strongly, that the role of a politician is not to be elected every five years and then go about their Parliamentary business (a view of the function of elected representatives which has been extremely prevalent in historical British politics), but rather to interact with and dynamically serve the community groups and campaigning organisations which exist within their constituency.

The main wellspring of ideas and 'genius' for change comes from the grassroots, not from one person who happens to have been elected. One of my political heroes is the late Paul Wellstone, and I've found the organisation set up in his memory, Wellstone Action, to be a helpful guide to how an elected representative should spend much of their time empowering constituents to hold them to account. There are already many good examples of this in Hackney - the London Coalition Against Poverty springs to mind - and I would hope to work with many more if elected, either as a councillor or MP.

The only difference between Diane and I is the value that we placed on that particular amendment to that particular bill. For me, when a vote is that tight, and when it is about holding powerful corporations to account on their attempts to water down environmental standards, I'll be in Parliament. That doesn't mean that I won't be an active and energetic community MP as well - because, in the end, building community politics is the most powerful route to social change.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Cuts Consensus

Yesterday, I was glad to see this article in The Guardian, which makes the case that the Green Party has been arguing for many months. Namely, that it is insanity to submit to a round of swingeing cuts given our economic situation - that public investment and revenue raising are the way to get out of this recession, and that slashing public spending will only hurt the poor and the vulnerable.

Caroline Lucas MEP has been speaking out against job cuts in Brighton, where she is aiming to become one of the first Green Party MPs, and as she puts it:

"The last thing we need to be doing in the current economic climate is making cuts. What is needed is investment in public services, to make sure we get out - and stay out - of recession."

Quite. It's a pity that the three establishment parties don't seem to be on the same page. For a few weeks, it seemed that Brown might be opening up a bit of clear red water between him and CameronClegg - but alas, he soon fell back into line and started competing with the two opposition parties about precisely how tough he could be. Never mind the fact that you hardly save any money in total by sacking public sector workers, because of the fact that you put them straight onto the dole. Or the fact that we could face a double dip recession if we drastically cut our spending now. No, the important thing is to look tough.

I agree entirely with David Blanchflower, who points out in the article above that "the dire state of our public finances is not due to excessive spending growth but the collapse of revenues. So the most effective way to tackle the deficit is to stimulate revenue. Private sector investment has collapsed, so what's needed are government subsidies on investment and job hires. Instead of cuts, we need to be talking about how to get the economy growing again, and how to create jobs."

Absolutely right. We've been doing our bit in Hackney Green Party, to push for one of the key foundations of the Green New Deal - namely, massive improvement and investment in our housing stock.

Over 4,600 families in Hackney currently live in fuel poverty - and in the Green Party's 2010 budget amendment, Cllr Mischa Borris proposed over £600,000 of investment to kickstart a scheme to provide free insulation for every home that needs it. That key funding from the council would help lever in large amounts of additional money from energy utilities, as part of their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The programme would be prioritised towards vulnerable and low-income households.

The scheme, similar to the successful progamme introduced by the Green Party on Kirklees council, could reduce fuel bills for the poorest by an average of £150 a year per home and would make a significant impact on fuel poverty in the borough. And, crucially, the scheme would also help to create 'green-collar' jobs in the borough, helping to tackle Hackney's high unemployment levels.

How to fund it? Well, Mischa proposed a £16 a year increase in parking charges, for the most polluting cars. As she put it:

"A slight increase in parking charges for the most gas-guzzling cars is a fair way of funding a scheme that will benefit those without cars and living in fuel poverty. Councils should be creating ways of helping the most vulnerable residents. Using money from energy companies and those with polluting cars will benefit thousands of people who are struggling to keep their homes warm."

Makes sense to me. Of course, Hackney Labour rejected the plan and have just spent a bunch of money changing every lamppost banner in the borough into a party political broadcast about their council tax freeze. Public money, well spent...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Housing In The UK

This is a piece which will be published in a housing journal in the next few weeks - I thought you, dear reader, might also be interested....

Green Party housing policy: fairer and more sustainable

Matt Sellwood, Green Party national spokesperson on housing and parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Green Party believes that for too long housing has been treated as a speculative market, rather than as a vital human right. We would focus our efforts on reversing the marketising trends of the last thirty years, and in returning to an ethos which gives primacy to affordable, sustainable and well-designed social housing.

Truly affordable housing is clearly a vital component in any equitable and sustainable society. Not only does meaningful participation in a democracy necessitate a basic level of security and prosperity, but our current housing stock too often contributes to problems as widely varied as crime, climate change and ill-health. Any sensible government must invest massively in social housing, as one of the solutions to many other difficult issues.

Despite this, the current situation of social housing is dire, as the example of London amply illustrates. Social housing waiting lists have grown by around 80% over the last decade, while stocks of affordable housing have actually shrunk. 10% of households in our capital city are now waiting for a home that fully suits their needs. This is unacceptable.

Recent changes in government policy have made some small steps towards recognising the problem, but do not go anywhere near far enough in addressing its causes. The Green Party advocates bold action, including:

- The resumption of direct investment in Council and other social housing, at a scale far in excess of the current low levels on offer from the Government. Moves to allow local authorities to use receipts from sales to fund new accommodation must be solidified and accelerated. In particular, we would provide £4bn per annum to local authorities to expand social housing, mainly through conversion and renovation, creating 80,000 jobs.

- A programme of investment to ensure better use of the over 700,000 empty properties in the UK, and an immediate end to discounts and subsidies for empty and second homes.

- Steps to ensure that development is more evenly distributed across the whole of the country, so reducing pressure on housing in London and the South East in particular.

- Support to ensure that social housing tenants experience real democratic consultation, whoever their landlord, and that the cooperative model of management and ownership of housing is encouraged and supported.

- Support for a level playing field between all social housing stakeholders, including an end to the allocation of historic council housing debt to local authorities – whether under the current system, or under the proposed system of reallocation due to HRA reform.

This is what Green MPs would fight for in Parliament, and with party leader Caroline Lucas MEP tipped by bookmakers and pollsters to win the Brighton Pavilion seat in the coming general election, this is an approach we might hope to carry into the House of Commons in the near future. An increase in the Green vote nationwide will send this same message to the establishment parties in what may be a hung parliament.