Monday, 1 September 2014

Bercow

MPs have returned from the long summer recess to debate the issues of the day. There was some serious debate about the very worrying situation in Iraq and the Middle East. Dennis Skinner was on form as usual suggesting that the PM should be thanking the Labour Party for preventing Government plans, just a year ago, to arm Islamic State militants so they could fight against Assad. With such important issues being debated I was surprised that the evening news reports were not about global issues but about one of the most inward looking debates about procedural issues that has made the headlines; the appointment of a civil servant the Clerk to the House.

Sir Robert Rogers the long-serving Clerk to the House has retired. He had a wide ranging role that included responsibility for ensuring parliamentary processes are followed and the running of the parliamentary estate. The speaker has a role in making the appointment and Speaker Bercow has recommended Carol Mills who currently oversees parliamentary services in the Australian parliament. Tory MPs have taken issue with this and decided to raise several of points of order and repeatedly shouted down the speaker. The speaker's job is to keep order, today some MPs it impossible.

I'm not sure of the reasons for the vitriolic reaction to this recommendation. It could be an excuse to have a go at the Speaker. Bercow, who despite being a Conservative, has upset many in his own ranks with his wide ranging reforms. He has given select committees and backbenchers real power to hold the government to account. Bercow has got into the habit of calling out individuals at PMQs with pre-planned put-downs, which would anger any unruly MP.

Women are underrepresented in the Conservative Party. The disproportionate reaction could even have been because the recommendation was that a woman should take on the role of the UK's principal constitutional adviser, a position which has been held by a man for the every one of 651 years since the post was created.

There may well be valid concerns about the recommendation but today, certain MPs behaved in a way that would be unacceptable on the first day back at any school, summing up precisely what members of the general public dislike about politics.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Kielder - Midge Free Zone

I recently returned from Kielder in the North of the Hexham Constituency. When I told friends that I was spending a few days up there the reply was, "Watch out for those midges," or "Make sure you pack insect repellent," and while it is true that at this time of year when the air is still and damp, swarms of the little biters can be seen, it should not put you off visiting one of the best destinations for both relaxing and outdoor activities in the whole of the UK.

The group that runs the community-owned Kielder Campsite have decided to take matters into their own hands and try and reduce the number of midges. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Chemical sprays.
  • Reducing the amount of standing water.
  • Encouraging predators such a trout fry.


At Kielder they have chosen a high-tech approach; installing midge traps. These have flashing green, blue and white LEDs, a small fan to draw the midges in and then a water trap, which drowns them.


The science behind the traps is quite interesting with the light designed to be most attractive to midges looking for a mate. The water needs to have no surface tension that would save the insects from their fate, and no chemicals such as chloride or fluoride ions to put them off. At Kielder they have discovered that dissolving demerara sugar in rain water seems to do the trick.

Each unit is effective over one hectare and there are three on site. A significant reduction in the midge population is expected over the next year with the result that sitting outside on warm summer evenings at Kielder is likely to be a lot more comfortable.

Kielder is much quieter than other Northern England tourist destinations such as the Peak District and particularly the Lakes. This is great for people who have discovered the North of Northumberland, but tourism brings benefits and should be encouraged. Come to Kielder, enjoy the dark night skies and the long warm days and don't worry about the midges!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Reshuffle


On hearing the recent news that Baroness Butler-Sloss had stepped down as the head of the historic child abuse inquiry because she felt that she 'wasn't the right person for the job' Dennis Skinner cut to the point as usual "Most of Cameron's cabinet should do the same."

I don't know if William Hague was listening to advice from the long standing MP for Bolsover when he threw the towel in, but the loss of experienced cabinet members like Hague and Ken Clarke is worrying, we could see a lurch further to the right before the election. And while I don't agree with Hague's politics he was a statesmanlike Foreign Secretary. Philip Hammond is a bizarre choice, described by Rhonda MP Chris Bryant as "a man trying to catch up with the 1990s whilst busily shouting at foreigners" Foreign office staff could be worried for their jobs, it is difficult to see him as anything other than a 'hatchet man' after making 3000 armed forces personnel redundant since 2010.

Staff rooms were relieved that Gove is no longer at Education. He consistently put ideology before outcomes and stubbornly refused to listen to teachers. He prioritised free schools over the vast majority of existing schools, diverting £400M from the education budget into his free school pet project. He will not be missed, but why has Cameron made him chief whip? Gove the enforcer? If he is as good in the whips office as he was at education, the Government could be losing divisions in the commons soon.

His replacement Nicky Morgan has one thing going for her, she is not Micheal Gove, however Cameron has also made her Women and Equalities minister at the same time. That is clearly two roles. What is it with Tories and 2nd jobs? Being an MP is a full time job there should be no time to earn on the side as a consultant, barrister or company director. Ministers are also MPs and giving one person 2 briefs to look after means that something will have to suffer, probably Women, and Equalities.

It is too easy to gloat when this Tory government gets things wrong, but there are real consequences of incompetence, people are struggling while they say 'tax cut for the rich, real terms pay cut for everyone else, job done. Now time for a pre-election reshuffle so people think we've changed' 

The headlines are that the Conservatives have tried to make the cabinet a bit less male and a bit less stale. Outside of the Westminster bubble and buried under the blanket of reshuffle news was a significant jump in inflation, with many of us already finding that our pay is not going as far as it should, this is unwelcome news.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Judge Butler-Sloss

Baroness Butler-Sloss has stood down from the her appointment leading the enquiry into allegation that government ministers either abused children or covered up child abuse. She has shown some integrity by saying shes not the right person for the job. She is probably right given her ties to the structures of the past which have failed to protect children from abuse.

What is incredible therefore, is that David Cameron is so arrogant says he still made the right choice. A Judge has judged herself unsuitable for the role she was given yet our Prime Minister refuse to question his own judgment. He badly judged the situation in the EU when he chose to fight a losing battle over the appointment of Junker. These poor judgement calls are not in the same league as ignoring repeated warnings by bringing Andy Coulson straight from hacking phones at the News of the World into the heart of Government but again, demonstrates a worrying lack of judgment.

The Beast of Bolsover in Durham Photo Credit: David Crockit
Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner spoke at Durham Miners Gala and said that if he had a question  PMQs he would have asked Cameron if he had any prison visits planned, to visit his mate Andy Coulson. On hearing the news that Butler-Sloss had stepped down because she felt that she 'wasn't the right person for the job' Dennis cut to the point as usual "Most of Cameron's cabinet should do the same."

There is speculation about a reshuffle, Cameron will may reappoint some of his old friends Liam Fox or maybe Andrew Mitchell to top jobs, he might try to make his cabinet a bit less male and a bit less stale, but with his judgement so lacking, I wouldn't trust him to pick a 5 a side football team.


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Restrictions on 16-18 Transport Funding

A lot has been written about Northumberland County Council's decision to reduce funding for home to school transport for students aged 16 to 18. I am sure that this decision was a difficult one; no Labour activist gets involved with local politics to cut services that are relied on by young people.

Map first published in the Journal
The Tory government are not demanding that all councils make such tough choices. The burden of austerity is not equally shared; there are councils such as those in some of the most well off areas in Hampshire, where the amount they receive back from central government has actually increased whereas NCC is required to cut £130m.

Austerity is not just a word we hear on the news. It is not just about efficiency savings and 'working smarter'. It is impossible for cuts of such magnitude to have no effect on people's lives. Home to school transport has already been removed by neighbouring authorities. Northumberland have managed to provide it for two extra years compared with other councils facing similar budget cuts.

There has been been some scaremongering from Tories, led by the sitting MP for Hexham, but to clarify: There will still be some funding for transport. Northumberland college will use some of the funding it receives to provide a bus service from Hexham to its campuses. Students whose parents are on low incomes will still get a bus pass. There is also ongoing work to negotiate reasonable rates for bus passes.

I can't welcome the decision to restrict funding for home to school transport, and I don't agree with some of the justification for it. As well as a Parliamentary Candidate I am Branch Secretary of the University and Colleges Union at Newcastle College. Many of my students attend college in Newcastle because their chosen course is not available close by. Restricting home to school transport could have an impact on student numbers and therefore jobs at Newcastle College. And while it might be true that Northumberland County Council has been paying to export students to Tyne and Wear, I don't think that in itself is a reason to cut transport.

The disparaging remarks about the quality of post 16 education in Northumberland from a Tory councillor are out of date and out of touch. I doubt if the councillor in question has any experience of 6th form or Further Education provision in the County. In the Hexham Constituency alone we have the outstanding QE 6th form and Northumberland College's Kirkley Hall campus where success rates for 16-18 year olds have risen, and are now in the top 10% nationally.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the provision is only being reduced because of the disproportionate impact of government cuts on North East councils. Transport spending on London is £400 per head while in our region the figure is less than £18.

The council has also received criticism for not holding the July meeting when this decision could have been discussed. The criticism from the sitting MP for Hexham at first seems justified 'council running scared' etc. Until you learn that not one alternative motion had been put forward for discussion at the meeting by either the Tories or the Libdems!

Instead of trying to stop his own government from targeting our council, by imposing cuts that are way above the national average, Hexham's Tory MP is now looking to legally challenge the basis for cancelling a meeting which would have cost £18,000 to hold. The only people that benefit from this sort of childish behaviour are expensive lawyers. Taxpayers will no doubt end up footing the bill if this goes any further.

I wish the council wasn't forced into making such choices, but unfortunately this government has chosen to pursue an austerity-only approach to economic recovery which is failing our region. Tory MPs in parliament have voted for these cuts but then Tories in Northumberland oppose their implementation. If Conservatives are looking for division, they don't have to look very far.


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Don't Undermine Us

Looking West from Whittonstall after a day campaigning in Hexham. 
UK coal have withdrawn their application for extraction of 2.5 million tonnes of coal and fireclay from land near between the villages of Hedley and Whittonstall in South Northumberland. I have been involved with opposing these plans on environmental grounds since 2010.

Restoration after opencast takes decades, the impact on biodiversity leads to populations that are more susceptible to disease and extinction. Unrestored opencast leaves us with land that is of no ecological value.

Whittonstall Action Group have been opposing this application for the past four years. Hours have been spent; looking at plans, amended plans and reports. Drafting letters, reports and press releases. The process has dragged on, the patience and resolve of volunteers has been tested.

The refusal is good news, The proposed opencast was in a scenic, rural corner of the Hexham constituency and would have operated for at least 7 years but victory for local activists, has not come in the way in which we had hoped. Withdrawal of this application rather than refusal, could leave the gate open in the future, for new applications in the same area.

The outcome is welcome - the diverse habitat close to Whittonstall first school is safe. There is however another positive outcome; When a single issue unites the people of a local community, personalities and skills emerge that otherwise remain hidden. leaders, negotiators, press officers, landscape archeticts, ecologists, researchers, web designers all working together. The single issue has gone, but I hope that Whittonstall Action Group remains to bring people from surrounding villages together, working on the issues that matter.


Further Reading: WAG Website http://www.whittonstallactiongroup.co.uk/

Thursday, 29 May 2014

TTIP

Text of speech given to UCU Congress 2014;

I was asked by a UCU member recently what I thought about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) the answer I gave wasn't helpful but it was accurate; I said that I didn't know enough about TTIP to really give an opinion, and it is the secrecy which surrounds TTIP that is the essence of the problem.

I work not for a college, but for a group, many of us now both in further and higher education work for corporations. TTIP would allow corporations to challenge legislation on environment, health and worryingly employment legislation.

The stated aim of TTIP is to remove 'barriers' to free trade. But what some people might describe as barriers, I would call the protection of workers rights.

I support [The motion on TTIP] We should work with the European TUC who are defending occupational heath and safety, the protection of minority rights and hard won terms and conditions.

Further Reading:
1. http://www.keepournhspublic.com/pdf/TTIP%20position%20paper.pdf
2. http://strongerunions.org/2014/05/08/useu-trade-talks-need-to-raise-not-lower-safety-standards/

(It's a pretty short speech, all of the speeches at this years conference were, with everyone on a strict countdown timer, I find this OK - there's nothing I could say in five minutes that I couldn't summarise in three, but some colleagues were cut off in full flow or when developing arguments)

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

European Elections 22 May

Jayne Shotton, Jude Kirton-Darling, myself and Paul Brannen 
I'm voting for three candidates who have worked tirelessly during the European campaign. Together with local Labour activists, candidates and MPs we have knocked on over 100,000 doors (sorry if we missed you).

We have listened to people's concerns about Europe: On immigration we will tackle employers who exploit migrant workers by paying less than the minimum wage. This is in stark contrast to other parties intent on demonising certain groups.

On jobs we will safeguard British jobs by securing European investment in companies based in the North East and by defending hard won rights at work.

Some MEPs draw a salary but then don't bother to turn up. Our candidates will be a strong voice in committees and debates in Europe.We have candidates that will work hard for our interests, speak up for the people of the North East and exert real influence.

I'm voting Labour tomorrow. I hope you will too.

Liam Carr


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Fixed-Term

One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the coalition government was the move to fixed-term parliaments. Gone is the drama of the Prime Minister having to go to the Queen to ask her to dissolve parliament.

If David Cameron still had to call an election, he would be open to the same sort of criticism he gave out to Gordon Brown in the run up to 2010 election. Cameron could be described as weak, indecisive and running scared of the electorate.

There are practical issues too. The business of government almost grinds to a halt. The coalition have rushed though legislation that was expected to be controversial; trebling tuition fess, cutting welfare payments for the disabled, the bedroom tax and measures to privatise NHS services, all in the first three and a half years of the five year fixed-term parliament. This leads to situations such as earlier this week when there was no ministerial statement at all until the Speaker called a Minister to the House after Labour asked an urgent question about the American company Pfizer taking over the successful British drug development company Astra-Zenica.

The Coalition is limping towards the general election, its like Clegg and Cameron are locked together in a three legged race to 2015 trying desperately not trip each other up. They could do honourable thing and repeal the 2010 fixed term parliament act and call an election but they won't, they are clinging to power but at the same time not doing very much with it.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The many and not the few

Labour's ideas for the 2015 manifesto are coming together. Thesebare a few concrete pledges outlining how we will build an economy that works for the majority rather than the few at the top;


  • End rip off rents so tenants can plan for the future with new long-term, predictable tenancies.
  • Cut income tax with a lower 10p starting tax rate, but reintroduce the 50p top rate of tax as we pay off the deficit in a fair way.
  • Make work pay by strengthening the Minimum Wage and providing tax breaks to firms who pay a Living Wage.
  • Back small businesses by cutting business rates and reforming the banks.
  • Help working parents by providing 25 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year-olds.
  • Tackle youth unemployment with a job guarantee and more apprenticeships.


There is a clear choice in the local and European elections. There are parties who put the narrow interests of a few before the national interest. We in the Labour Party act in the interest of the many and not the few.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Politics Podcast 27th April

In this weeks podcast we discuss our latest campaigning activity, plans for government to give the public a say in betting shops on the high street, HS2 and zero hour contracts. Please press play to listen to the podcast or subscribe via our talkshoe page by clicking this link.


Our political podcast is now available to subscribe on iTunes which is completely FREE from their iTunes store. Click here to subscribe to our Politics Podcast on iTunes. There is no better way of ensuring you do not miss a show as any new shows automatically downloads to your computer each time you open the iTunes application and we have uploaded a new show.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to listen in and we hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Look North?

Letter to Journal about the neglect of the North East when it comes to government funding for infrastructure projects.
The sitting MP for Hexham has called on Alex Salmond to invest in infrastructure in that would benefit the North East, citing the example of dualling the A1 (Journal 12th April). There was not one infrastructure investment for the North East in George Osborne's recent budget. However tucked away behind the beer and bingo, on page 86 of the budget, there is a pledge to provide funding to extend a viability study into A1 improvement north of Newcastle to Scotland, but with strings attached, the Scottish government must pay half! The government are happy to spend millions on transport infrastructure projects such as Crossrail in London but they want the Scots to pay for a road which is in England because it happens to be North of Newcastle. It is embarrassing to see a  Conservative MP, after failing to get his own government to invest in North East infrastructure, pleading with Alex Salmond for funds.
Labour recognises the need for an economic recovery that benefits the many and not the few, the need for a government that acts in the interests of people who work outside one square mile in the capital. We are setting out plans which including the reinstatement of a Minister for the North East, this will be a step in the right direction towards an approach which is inclusive of all regions of the UK.

Friday, 11 April 2014

UK Coal - Latest

It has been announced that the Government are going to loan UK coal £10M to allow their deep mining operations to come to an orderly close. This is a massive disappointment for the families of mine workers which will be a reminder to many of us in this region of the the events of around 30 years ago. This response is not a recscue package, it has been described as a 'kick in the teeth' by Chris Kitchen, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. The loan does allow a managed closure of the pits. A cynic might add that the government are acting in self interest; the delayed redundancy of 1300 miners will not affect employment rates until after the next election. 

This closure of deep mines will ultimately mean that all coal in this country is extracted by surface mining. This is a step in the wrong direction. When compared to more familiar mining methods such as drift mining and deep mining, surface mining provides fewer jobs but with greater environmental damage. I hope that every assistance is given to mine workers both from government and from the employer in terms of retraining and job opportunities.

I was speaking about the situation facing UK Coal at a debate about sustainable development in Riding Mill and was asked, "but what does it mean for Tynedale?"

The company have an application pending to extract 2.5 million tonnes of coal and fireclay from land close to Whittonstall. The application was originally submitted in back in December 2010. The concern is that they will not be able to afford to meet their obligations to restore land after opencast coal mining.

One stipulation of the loan is that existing surface mining operations are sold. Hargreaves and Banks are likely to be interested but no offer has yet been made. Developers make bold claims are about the ecological value of the land after restoration, but if they are not a position to cover the costs of restoration then planning permission cannot be granted. I hope that Northumberland County Council set a determination date soon and that the planning meeting can take place in Hexham rather than Morpeth, to ensure that as many local people as possible can attend.

It's sad to say that coal is our heritage, not our future.




Note: I have been asked what the problems facing UK Coal mean for the opencast at Halton le Gate near Haltwhistle, the answer is not much as it is not operated by UK Coal but by a developer that uses subcontractors for extraction and restoration.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Politics Podcast

In this weeks podcast we discuss the expenses scandal and press furore surrounding Culture Secretary Maria Miller, we hear about the latest campaigning Liam has taken part in with our European Candidates Judith Kirton-Darling, Paul Brannen and Jayne Shotton. We also discuss Fair Pay Week, the sale of Royal Mail and much more.


Please press play to listen to the podcast or subscribe via our talkshoe page at http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/132481.


Our political podcast is now available to subscribe on iTunes which is completely FREE from their iTunes store. Click here to subscribe to our Politics Podcast on iTunes. There is no better way of ensuring you do not miss a show as any new shows automatically downloads to your computer each time you open the iTunes application and we have uploaded a new show.

Thanks to everyone who has listened so far.

Friday, 4 April 2014

UK Coal


Coal not Dole was the simple message carried on banners in the 1980s. Today the same message is being sent to the government following an appeal by UK Coal for £10million of government funding to continue mining operation in the Midlands.


If a solution can not be found UK Coal will be looking at a sale or restructure plans that could affect the rest of the workforce, many of whom are based in the North East. Any restructure or possible wind down of the company must put workers first. Attempts to use liquidation of assets to avoid paying proper redundancy must meet strong opposition from both workers and government.



The news of UK Coals possible demise brings into focus two things which I passionately oppose and have campaigned vehemently against: Compulsory redundancies and opencast coal mining. 



My primary concern is for employees. UK Coal must not cut and run: With employment law as it stands it is all too easy for companies to sack workers and liquidate assets, paying off the senior bosses and leaving the state to provide for families of ordinary workers. Early retirement, and voluntary redundancy must be the first options. There is a skills shortage in the renewable, nuclear and oil and gas sectors. David Cameron has blamed EU regulation for his inabilitiy to step in and help miners all history points to Conservatives having a blatant disregard for the livlihoods of workers who spent long days winning the coal on which our industries depended. The government should step in and make sure that the costs of any retraining are met. 



My other concern is for the environment, particularly for the restoration of existing coal mines. Opencast mining permanently alters the environment and reduces biodiversity. Badly restored opencast is an unmitigated environmental disaster, that will remain a blight on the landscape for generations.



The future of UK Coal will be of interest to people in the Hexham Constituency. There is a live application large opencast mine atWhittonstall near Hedley on the Hill which is being looked at by planners at Northumberland County Council. I have been involved in the 4 year long campaign to prevent planning permission being granted at Whittonstall and I will be relieved the application is refused but any celebratory drink will taste bittersweet, when thoughts turn to workers at UK Coal who are facing an uncertain future.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Forget it?

George Osborne wants us to forget about the Tory tax rises which have contributed to a cost of living crisis.


A few examples:
  • VAT increased – to 20% from 2011
  • Income Tax higher rate threshold cut to £42,475 in 2011-12
  • Higher Income Child Benefit Charge introduced 2013
  • Insurance premium tax increased – from 2011
  • Capital Gains Tax increased – to 28 per cent for higher rate taxpayers from June 2010
  • New Beer Duty introduced on high strength beers from 2011
  • ISA subscription limit uprated in line with CPI rather than RPI from 2012-13
  • Pension tax relief restricted from 2014-15
  • Inheritance Tax threshold frozen in 2015-16
  • National Insurance Contributions ending of contracting-out rebates from 2016-17
The chancellor has failed to balance the books, we don't need more smugness. We need real action on jobs and wages.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Pre-Budget

One of the first pieces of legislation passed by Coalition government was the move to fixed term parliaments. The Prime Minister no longer has to go to the Queen and ask her to dissolve parliament, not only have we lost some of the theatre associated with British democracy we have also lost around 18 months of effective government. The coalition have pretty much stopped passing legislation, backbench business and opposition day debates are more prevalent than government business. The government seem to be limping towards the general election, Its like Clegg and Cameron are tied together in three legged race towards May 2015, desperately trying not to trip each other up.

The budget will look towards the next general election rather than making positive changes and setting the agenda for future economic growth.Later this week the chancellor will present his final budget before the 2015 general election. There is pressure from two former Conservative chancellors, Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, for a further cut in the tax of higher earners.

There are plenty of Tory backbench MPs who support further tax cuts for the rich, they would of courses would benefit personally from these measures but its hard to believe that the chancellor would back such a move in a pre election budget.

As announced by the Lib Dems at their conference, there may well be a rise in the amount people can earn before paying any income tax from £10,000 to £10,500. This will be worth around £2 per week to those on the low incomes. However it must be seen in context of other previous budget with bedroom tax charges at £15 a week, the government are tinkering around the edges while wages are falling.

In the Hexham constituency, pay has fallen by an average of £270 a month since the Coalition came to power, the recovery that Conservatives speak of is not being felt in Northumberland.

I hope to hear some announcement that will signify that George Osbourne has listened to the public. Maybe he will show a little humility, and acknowledge that pursuing an austerity only approach has stunted economic recovery.

Related post: Osborne wants us to forget about Tory tax rises: http://liamrcarr.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/forget-it.html

Monday, 3 March 2014

Ovingham Bridge

Last week I attended a meeting in Ovingham village hall about the closure and refurbishment of the bridge, which will be closed from May and reopen in May 2015. Local councillors were there including Eileen Burt from the Prudhoe side and Paul Kelly who represents Ovingham. They were joined by Gemma Reay a senior bridges engineer from Northumberland County Council.

Last weekend, after campaigning in Prudhoe I crossed the bridge. It was a Saturday and I parked up to see how much traffic was using the route. I can confirm that for most of the time I was there there was traffic waiting to cross at one end or another, and the cars do make a bit of a racket as they rattle from one end to the other. We have been assured that the new surface will be much quieter.

Before the meeting I was listening to residents who all agreed that the work is necessary. I heard from some that were concerned that the bridge would be made too wide, resulting in an increase in larger traffic. This is not the case; the stone pillars at either end of the bridge will stay so width restrictions will remain in place, however the current high metal barriers will be replace by conventional angled kerbs. No longer will we have to worry about dings to alloy wheels or loss of wheel trims.

During the meeting itself many concerns were raised, the first of which was the loss of trees from the areas around the bridge. This is a valid concern as many trees have already been cut down. We were told that replanting will take place on all woodland areas, apart from those which are underneath or very close to the bridge. Other environmental concerns were discussed, including the removal of the current paint on the bridge, which is lead based and we were reassured that none of it will be allowed to fall into the Tyne.

Parking was also raised. This is an problem even when the bridge is closed. All contractors' vehicles will be parked in a compound and not in the village. Children from the Prudhoe side who attend school in Ovingham will be dropped off and supervised as they walk across the pedestrian bridge to school.

I asked about penalty clauses in contracts for finishing late. These are in place for subcontractors but as Northumberland County Council are using their own workforce to do much of the work there are no penalty clauses for this aspect. I see this is a positive as the council can address any delays due to weather or other circumstances.

I sought assurance that the work would be finished on time: While residents understand the need for the closure, the inconvenience to local people should not be brushed aside or underestimated: Many will have increased journey time which for some will mean a whole year of getting in later from work, and a whole year of increased fuel costs.

I was assured that the build would be completed on time, and that the closure would be for a maximum of 12 months. It is a shame that the Goose Fair will have to be cancelled, it's a shame many people will be inconvenienced, but the refurbished bridge will be an improvement on the existing one and will last for many years to come.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Off Grid Energy

So far it has been a relatively mild winter, but with temperatures falling, many older residents in the Tynedale area will be concerned about heating costs.

Winter fuel payments to pensioners are tax-free payments of between £100 and £300. They were introduced by the Labour Government back in 1997. Most payments are made between November and December. We are proposing to bring forward payment of the winter fuel allowance from December to July to allow pensioners to buy their domestic heating oil during the summer months when costs are lower.

There are 4.6 million pensioners in the UK who do not have access to gas central heating. They have to use alternative sources of energy such as oil-fired heating, solid fuel or liquid petroleum gas. This group is more likely to be in fuel poverty than those who do have access to gas because heating costs are higher. Nationally 15% of UK households do not have access to a mains gas supply, rising to 18% of households in Northumberland.

Since 2005 heating oil prices have doubled. Suppliers often put prices up just before the winter payment is due. Bringing the winter fuel payment forward would allow customers in rural areas to pay for their fuel before the winter, so they would get more heating oil for their money.

Although Labours price freeze on gas and electricity is big news, during the freeze, all parts of the energy market will be reviewed. Off grid energy in rural areas will not be overlooked.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

From Global to Local

I attended the Hexham Debate about corruption and the arms trade yesterday. The speaker was former ANC member of the South African parliament Andrew Feinstein. He is now the director of Corruption Watch UK. He spoke with great passion and in great detail about the mechanism of global arms deals and, with all the accuracy of a former investment banker, about the vast sums of money involved.1

He also discussed the apparently widespread corruption involved in most arms trades, both in government-to-government deals and in the more shadowy world of the illicit weapons market. It was fascinating stuff.

After the debate I was asked by a Hexham constituent, what my thoughts on the topic were. I said that the defence industry employs a lot of engineers both in the North East and Nationally, bringing in export revenue of £8.8Bn in the last financial year. However I was uncomfortable with the idea of our Prime Minister flying round the Middle East earlier this year, on a plane full of arms dealers to secure this investment. My main concern was that weapons produced in the UK could end up being used by governments against their own civilians.

After the meeting I met with some committed Hexham Labour activists for a few hours of campaigning. The main national concerns raised on the doorstep were jobs, and the North being ignored by the government in Westminster. The bus station was also a concern, among both residents and owners of local businesses close by. I hope that following proper consultation a solution can be found that is acceptable to both businesses and bus users.2

From learning about the global arms trade to listening to concerns about local buses, you can't say that the work of a parliamentary candidate isn't varied.


1. For further reading Andrew's book "The Shadow World inside the Global Arms Trade" is out now.

2. Further comment on the Bus Station

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Additional Northumbria Police Cuts

Northumbria Police has already had to make a £58m reduction in spending since the Government Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010.

The Conservative-led coalition have demanded cuts of an additional £46m by March 2017. It is difficult to make such extreme savings in such a short time frame without affecting services.

The Conservative MP for Hexham has openly criticised Vera Baird, the Labour Police Commissioner in the Local Press for the way she is implementing the cuts imposed by the government, but the sitting MP is yet to stand up to his own Chancellor and Home Secretary, for imposing additional budget cuts which could result in the loss of 12 police stations across the region including Prudhoe Police Station.

The leadership of the police are being forced to make choices between closing buildings and cutting numbers of police officers but buildings will not be closed until alternative provision is found.  I fully support our police and crime commissioner in her efforts to make sure the public are kept safe in spite of these extra cuts, but there is no denying that Government is putting front-line policing at risk.

The police are doing more with less; they need the full support of politicians on all sides.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Bus Station

It is a shame that it looks like Hexham bus station in its current form, looks like it will have to close. A private company owns over half the site and Northumberland County Council own the remainder. The proposal is that the land will be sold and buses will drop passengers at alternative locations, some of which may well turn out to be more convenient than the existing bus station.

Plans are at early stages and will be available for public consultation. I would urge community representatives on all sides and members of the public to have their say, on what the alternative provision should look like and where it should be located.

The sitting MP has already indicated that he is disappointed that the council "Has abandoned grand schemes" The reality is that there is no money in council budgets for grand schemes, the council, like many Northern councils are seeing the money they receive from from the treasury, cut year on year.

The MP for Hexham voted in favour of a finance bill which has seen spending on services for the people of Northumberland fall by £130M: It is impossible to cope with that level of reduction without any effect on services. Some councils in the UK are not having to make such choices, some in the South of England have actually enjoyed a modest budget increase.

All we see is criticism of a Labour led Council in Northumberland for the way they are implementing the cuts being demanded by a Conservative led Government in Westminster. My question is this: When is the sitting MP going to stand up to his own leader and chancellor and ask questions about the disproportionate effect of Government policy on services in the Hexham constituency?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Out Of Touch

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has recommended that MPs receive an 11% pay rise which is equivalent to £7,600. The MP for Hexham has indicated that he is willing to accept the rise: It was reported in the local paper that he would accept the rise 'without any qualms'

I am frankly dismayed at Mr Opperman’s stance on the issue of MPs pay.

An MPs current salary of £65,768 would be considered by many as generous. There are families in the Hexham constituency who will struggle to make ends meet in January. Prices are rising faster than wages so the timing of this announcement could not be worse.

I also believe that being an MP is a full time job and any duties outside of public life have an impact on the work of an MP. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority could look at the issue of MPs doing second jobs, instead of focusing on wage rises.

I accept that MPs salaries should be decided by an independent body but when that body makes a proposal that is so out of step with the public mood, it must be rejected.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Core

Planning is always an emotive issue - the need for affordable housing, new business investment, and energy demands must be balanced with the need to conserve the environment, and minimise the impact of development on people's lives.

On planning, the Government has promised to 'devolve greater power and freedoms to local government and community groups through the Localism Act'. This has yet to become a reality: Large corporations and developers can effectively ignore decisions made by local councils by appealing unfavourable outcomes in the high court, which is exactly what UK coal have done with the Bradley surface mine application, over in County Durham. The initial decision of the planning inspector to listen to local concerns and refuse planning permission has been quashed in the High Court. I'm part of the Whittonstall action group who are opposing a similar development near Whittonstall first school. The worry is that if Northumberland County Council listen to local concerns and recommend refusal then appeals will be lodged and the decision will be simply transferred from Northumberland to London.

This is where local plans, such as Northumberland's Core Strategy become important. The core strategy is a plan for the next 15 years that includes the designation of areas of land that can be used for particular purposes. If an area does end up being designated for housing after public consultation, it may not necessarily have houses built there, but that planning permission for a new housing development will be more likely to be granted if it is inside rather than outside this area. Long term planning is essential in both local and national government and plans that are made must go beyond our electoral cycles.

The Conservatives have missed the deadline for initial consultation which ended on January the 2nd. It is easy to make quick political points, but more difficult to make tough choices for the long term.

Local plans are the only means by which the extent and nature of development can be decided locally. By refusing to engage in the core strategy we are leaving the door open for developers to apply, be knocked back because of the strength of local feeling and then simply have the decision overturned because local strategies are not in place or not robust enough.

Hopefully, when the plan is completed, many opinions can be taken into account and the views of local residents will be have been heard.



Documents can read here (click to go to NCC core strategy page)

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Regional school improvement boards

The head of OFSTED, Michael Wilshaw has said that education is a postcode lottery, and the quality of the education a student receives is based on luck. One of the solutions he suggests for this is that good teachers should move into areas where schools are not as good in order to raise standards.

Schools do need good teachers, but instead of addressing the government's shift to allowing people with no teaching qualifications to teach, Wilshaw choses to criticise good teachers for living in the wrong place. There are issues in some local authorities, and the two Michaels; Wilshaw and Gove, are very quick to point out failings, but pointing out failings is not enough, and saying that good teachers should move around more is definitely not enough.

The Education Secretary enjoys making an example of entire regions of the UK, he said he could "smell defeatism" in schools in East Durham, it later came to light that he had never visited a school in East Durham.

Real improvement in schools can not be imposed by a national body, it has to come from inside the school itself. It has been announced that Ofsted will spend longer in failing schools but this is not the answer either.

School improvement departments used to exist with the local education authority framework but local authority budgets have been slashed by this goverment. Staff who work in the council education department, but who do not work in front of young people on a daily basis, have been seen correctly, as non-front line staff, who can be made redundant, without affecting teacher-pupil ratios or numbers of support staff in schools. In addition to this, many schools are now out of local authority control. There is very little organisation to address school improvement on a regional basis.

A system of regional school improvement boards could be introduced, this would not replace Ofsted, but it the role of Ofsted to identify areas of improvement, this is distinct and separate from the role of working with teachers and school leaders to bring about positive change.

The board should not be made up of bureaucrats but staffed by current practitioners, Advanced Skills Teachers already exist, they are given a reduced timetable, would remain in post and could share good practice in their own region. Outstanding teachers could even take a sabbatical for a year to work for the School Improvement Board, they could liaise directly with teachers, for an extended period to make real improvements in Teaching and Learning.

Teachers would be able to share their expertise in their own region, they, better than anyone, understand the challenges faced by fellow teachers nearby, and how these can be addressed. Good teachers don't need to move house, but they might be able to move teaching in the right direction.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela

Nelson Mandela is an inspiration to all who fight for justice, peace, fairness and equality. 

He was locked up for his part in the struggle against an evil system, and could have allowed anger to consume him. He chose instead, to forgive his captors.

He could have used his position as one of the leading lights in the ANC, to call for an all out war against the government, but not Mandela, he chose a different path. 


Mandela chose reconciliation rather than revenge. He chose democracy rather than seizing power. 


He has left our world now, but he has left a better world behind, than the one into which he was born.

 
"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that
respects and enhances the freedom of others." Nelson Mandela
 


Friday, 22 November 2013

Poverty can be found, wherever we choose to look for it.

There is now a food bank in Consett for the first time since the miners strike. Food banks are no longer a temporary measure, they have become part of the establishment, for example when there are delays at the job centre, staff simply hand the destitute a food bank voucher.

Cameron will claim that food banks are a triumph of his big society but they are in fact needed because the failure of the state to look after the most vulnerable in society. Many donations come from older people who have lived through times when families and communities had to pull together in hard times.

Food banks are not unique to traditionally working class areas. I went on holiday with my family, camping in the New Forest. The towns and villages look very expensive places to live, one had a Ferrari dealership and many houses won't leave you any change from a Million pounds.

I was surprised to hear that the local churches were collecting food to distribute in leafy Southern towns. There is a now food bank in Hexham, it seems that even in areas which are sometimes thought of as better off, there is real hardship.

With Christmas fast approaching there are families who are really struggling with unemployment, low paid work, social security delays and the bedroom tax. Prices are rising, wages and social security payments are frozen and there is just too much month left at the end of the money.

Donations of food can be left at most churches, and I noticed that the Co-op in Prudhoe has a collection point.

The conduct of Tory MPs during Labour's opposition day debate on foodbank use, has been roundly criticised, they were laughing at the poor in their own consitituencies. The reality is clear: Poverty can be found, wherever we choose to look for it.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Homes for Northumberland

Planning is always a contentious issue especially in rural areas such as Northumberland and County Durham. Planners at Northumberland County council have identified the need for over 4000 new homes over the next 15 years, Planners predict that in order to meet this need, areas of land that are currently designated as green belt land will have to be used for housing.

There are several consultation meetings taking place during November where plans will be available, and residents will get a chance to have their say.

All the meetings start and finish at the same time and are in two parts:

1. Exhibition of plans 3-6pm
2. Public meeting 6.30-8.30pm

Thursday November 7: Prudhoe, Spetchells Centre, Front Street.
Tuesday November 19: Hexham, Prospect House, Hallgate.
Thursday November 21: Ponteland Memorial Hall.
Thursday November 28: Haltwhistle Library, Westgate.

Monday, 28 October 2013

No News is Good News

The saying 'no news is good news' is often used when waiting for bad news.
Planners at Northumberland County Council are due to make a decision on wether to allow an opencast development close to the villages of Hedley on the Hill, Broomley and Mickley and just 150 meters away form the primary school at Whittonstall.
I wrote a while back that I was worried about this application and the impact it would have on peoples lives, tourism, and the possiblity that restoration will not be completed to sufficiently mitigate against the adverse ecological impacts. [1]
The planning officers (who work full time for the council) will recomend to the planning committee (who are made up of elected representatives) wether or not this application should be rejected or accepted.
The planning officers were due to make their reccomendaiton last week but have been unable to do so. UK Coal have submitted additional evidence, in response to concerns raised by residents, this could be one explanation for the delay.
For people  like myself,  who are campainging against, waiting for this decision is a bit like waiting for exam results. We know we have tried our best and done everything we can to put forward a strong argument that any community benefits of such a development are vastly outwaighed by the negative impacts on  health, the environment and jobs based on growing tourism in the area.
UK Coal will not accept any decision by either the planning officers or the planning committee that prevents them from digging up our landscape. We have seen with the refusal at Bradley they are willing to go to the High Court in London to try and overturn a decision that was made in County Durham. This proves that a large corporation can simply chose not to acknowledge the concepts of localism and devolved decision making. [2]

I hope that the delay in the decision is simply because the officers are making sure that their recommendation is legally sound and that all the 'i's are dotted and the 't's are crossed. I hope that they see the sense in the argument that it better for both business and leisure, if the the land is left as it is.


Friday, 25 October 2013

Now Open - Every Little Helps?

Consett Tesco is now open for business, it is by far the biggest supermarket in Consett, and is very similar to any other big Tesco anywhere else in the UK. One interesting technology development is the scan as you shop facility. You take a scanner round the store and scan the bar codes as you add items to your trolley. The scanner has a screen so you can keep track of how much you have spent as you shop. This won't make Tesco as cheap as Barry's bargains on middle street but at least you won't get a nasty shock at the till.

There are many reasons why people would object to having a large Tesco built on the edge of their town. It may adversely affect small businesses in the town. There is already a medium sized Tesco less than a mile from Consett at Delves Lane: This will be closed so there is some balance there. People from outside Consett may come to Consett to shop, and it may attract further development as happened in Team Valley and more recently Kingston Park, two places where people from Consett go, but probably wouldn't have been to if it wasn't for the large retail parks there. Many people commute from the the Derwent Valley to the Newcastle area and will use the superstores there. The Consett commuter is more likely to shop closer to home as a result of this development.

Tesco have been implicated in the Workfare scandal; they have been accused of taking people on jobseekers allowance to stack shelves instead of paying a wage for this. Large supermarkets pay many workers low wages which require them to remain on benefits. By employing a workforce that is subsidised by taxpayers, supermarkets are effectively making profits for shareholders because the state allows them to avoid paying a living wage. The living wage argument is compelling but I feel that debating this would not be appropriate at a time when over 1 million young people are out of work. It is an argument for another day.

Tesco always seem to attract controversy: Their charity work attracted criticism when work support for cancer research was reduced and they sponsored the gay pride festival shortly after. They are criticised by farmers for driving down the prices of British produce. They have been castigated by a Celebrity chef for chicken welfare standards, and most recently they are the first retailer to postpone retirement until 67. I hope all retailers gradually adopt more ethical practices both in the way they source their food and in the way they treat their workers.

There are positives to the development: After a long wait, almost a lifetime in my case, something is happening on the steelworks site. What is in symbol of the humiliation of unemployment will bring employment, around 250 jobs. Morrisons is also expanding, Argos is looking at the old Morrisons site and there is talk of B&Q being interested. Tesco will contribute £400 000 towards town centre regeneration1 which may do little to appease local traders but is some compensation.

Retail may seem an unlikely development at a time when people do not have a lot to spend but there must be demand: There are plans for 3000 new homes in the area; population is increasing; it is time for Consett to look to the future. Added to the school and sports centre on the old Civic Centre site, we are looking at developments worth in the region of £100 Million2 being built in Consett in the next few years and although a state of the art school, a Tesco Extra and other retail outlets are not going to solve the problems of unemployment and lack of opportunity, every little helps.

1. http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news/2010/07/28/24-hour-consett-tesco-superstore-gets-the-go-ahead-61634-26946926/2/
2. A conservative estimate

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Which Side Are You On?

When you get involved in local politics one thing you hear is "It doesn't matter who I vote for, you lot (politicians) are all the same"

Right now we can see clear differences in policy between the two parties that has not been seen since Thatcher was in power. Politicians for too long have tried occupy the muddy centre ground. New Labour stuck its flag firmly in the centre and won elections, Lib Dems have fashioned careers out of wriggling into the tiny space between the two main parties, they are still trying it now, claiming that they should be the party in a never ending coalition government because they make the Tories nicer and Labour meaner. Cameron came to power after reforming his Party, into Compassionate Conservatives; how quickly the mask slips.

When times are good the detail of economic policy is something that you can read about in the FT if you are that way inclined. During a recession however, every detail is front page news. The priorities, of both government and opposition, are laid bare.

On health the government are on the side of private healthcare providers. The health and social care act which allows private companies to get a slice of the NHS budget, is one of the few acts that Labour will repeal.

On education the government priority has shifted to academic qualifications in traditional subjects and values memorising facts over skills development. There is a choreographed split between Clegg and Gove on free schools, which not not change the implementation of a policy which Clegg could have voted down had he chosen to oppose it when it came before Parliament.

On welfare the line is less defined, with Labour and Tories alike trying to be "tough on benefits." The divide however can been seen in the approach; with Labour guaranteeing a job people who are out of work for 2 years. Under Iain Duncan-Smith the DWP are sanctioning more job seekers than ever before. The job-centre stop payments then give the person being sanctioned directions to the local food bank. This is the poor feeding the poor; many donations come from pensioners who have memories long enough to remember a time before the welfare state.

Rising prices and falling wages are the battle lines on which the 2015 general election will be fought. Energy prices are spiralling out of control and David Cameron has persisted in stubbornly staying firmly the side of the big energy companies. A Tory will always say that market forces must to be interfered with, but when the market is rigged it will not sort itself out, only a government can fix it. The public, the Labour Party and even John Major agree that now is the time to act - something needs to be done.

All political parties from Cameron's Conservatives to Mao's Communists will claim to be on the side of 'hard working people' However decisions like selling the Royal Mail off cheap show how clear it is that the Tories are still a party of rich men, paid for by rich men, implementing policy which protects the interests of rich men. Under the Leadership of Ed Miliband the Labour Party is developing policies that really will benefit the many and not the few.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Conference Season 2013: Not just for politics geeks.

Looking back at the leaders conference speeches by Ed Miliband and David Cameron tell us a lot both about the two party leaders themselves and about the priorities of a future government.

Ed started by thanking his partner Justine, Dave mentioned that his wife ran a small business, which must have been pretty straightforward to set up when Dad is a millionaire.

There was a contrast in styles, there is no argument that Ed is an impressive public speaker, he delivered his conference speech in his now trademark style; on an X-factor type stage with no notes and no auto-cue. Dave read his speech from a lectern, the delivery was super confident, often staring straight down the TV camera lens and pointing his finger. One pro Labour commentator tweeted that "Ed Miliband has changed the accepted norm for conference speeches Cameron was dull, slow paced and dated"

Ed attacked current Tory policy and the lack of growth. Dave attacked Labour, persisting with the "mess Labour left" and pleading with the country to let him "finish the job" There was not a trace of humility or even an acknowledgement that Tory policies are not currently working 'for hardworking people'

The media focus was on Labours energy price freeze. The Tory plan to stop social security payments to anyone under the age of 25 will grab the headlines. There are are questions to be answered about both policies. Will the energy companies, who made profits of £3.7Bn this year, really hold the a Labour Government to ransom by threatening power cuts? Would a Tory government really stop housing benefit payments to a 23 year old single parent?

The difference in the priorities of the two main parties is now clear:

Tories remain the party supported by and supporting big business. Cameron insisted that profit is not a dirty word. Ed made a distinction between small and large businesses: Labour will increase corporation tax but reduce business rates for small and medium sized companies. This redistribution is quite logical as if you add all the people employed in small businesses they vastly outnumber those employed by huge corporations.

Ed is on the side of the consumer when it comes to energy prices. Dave remains on the side of the energy companies, relaxing their green energy targets.

Ed is humble about the past mistakes of Labour Government, Dave remains arrogant and bullish pointing out that everything is up, up, up! but failing to mention that the cost of living is also up, up up and wages for everyone other than bankers are down, down, down.

The has been some interest in these conference speeches from people other than politics geeks. Political commentators are saying that at least you can tell the difference between the two parties again. The greens are against fracking, even in the 'desolate North' which is a sensible and popular standpoint. Despite the 'rise' of UKIP, Europe was not high on the Tory agenda. The Libdem conference was spent hedging bets: The leadership are hoping for another coalition, the grassroots are hoping for a miracle.

The next general election will be hard fought, we have seen the Daily Mail stoop so low to attack a party leaders late Father. Tory spin consultant Lynton Crosby will ensure that the fight will be fought in the gutter of politics.

New Labour is dead. Compassionate Conservatism is being killed off. I am hopeful for change. I don't want the Tories to finish their job of making the rich so rich that the poor might, by chance, be pulled out of poverty by osmosis. It is Labour who should be given the chance to build an economy that works for all.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Syria

The Government has been defeated in the commons as MPs voted against going to war in Syria. The Lib Dems voted with the Tories to defeat Labours logical amendment to wait for evidence from the UN before acting. If the Tory whips had supported the amendment then the motion as amended would have been passed, but instead Cameron showed both arrogance and an unwillingness to compromise by ordering the Coalition MPs to vote against the amendment.

A lot has been said about Iraq and leaning from past mistakes, Tony Blair has been criticised again for the way the Country was taken to was without a commons vote. A stark contrast can be made between two aspects of Tony Blairs legacy one is the minimum wage and the other is that a Prime Minister may never send our armed forces to intervene in another country with out a Parliamentary debate. The first was was achieved through triumph, the second through disaster.

Ed Miliband has shown real leadership quality in these past few days. He has proved it possible to shift the debate and set government policy while sitting on the opposition benches. On this occasion he acted quickly and decisively. He was statesmanlike, in contrast to Cameron and Osborne who were sniggering and joking while a debating if bombs should be dropped on another country. Gove completely lost the plot after the vote, screeching 'traitors' at the rebels.

In the end MPs have listened to the public, many will have had hundreds of letters and e-mails from constituents who are understandably not keen for our armed forces to be drawn into another conflict, at a time when the Government are sacking soldiers.

Ed Miliband, the Labour Party and any Lib Dems and Tories who rebelled, deserve credit for their strength of character. Sometimes what happens in Westminster really does matter.

We have seen images of unimaginable suffering from Syria; the brutal reality is that civilians and children have been deliberately gassed. Now the UK government must work for a political solution in Syria and quickly sort humanitarian aid to prevent further suffering.

Thought and prayers remain with the Syrian people.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Egg Miliband

Ed Miliband had eggs thrown at him while he was walking around a market in Southampton talking to normal people. The fact that the leader of the opposition was in a situation where someone could throw eggs is a contrast with other politicians who prefer their contact with the public to be more stage managed.

Nick Clegg came to Consett recently the event was top secret with workers at the industrial estate that he was visiting we told that the visit was top secret, and threatened with disciplinary action if it was leaked before the date. Good photo opportunity for Clegg in a one of the small scale highly specialised engineering firms who are managing to export enough to keep afloat while the domestic market continues to flatline. Clegg didn't come for a look round the flea market in Middle Street that day.

Worse was the chancellor putting on a fake accent when delivering a stage managed speech/photo opportunity in a Morrisons warehouse. When he did put himself in front of the public at the Paralympics 20 000 showed their opinion when his name was announced.

You are far more likely to meet David Cameron at an exclusive black tie dinner for Tax-avoiding-millionaire Tory donors than on your local high street.

The fact that politicians have to make secret visits to warehouses or factories and put on fake accents in order to appear less out of touch shows how far removed from real life they are.

Ed Miliband was making an effort to meet with ordinary voters to listen to their concerns, he ended up with egg on his face, but a dry cleaning bill is a small price to pay for a leader who has his faults, but at least is trying connect with the general public.

Monday, 22 July 2013

You Can Make Me Coal Again

Last year I spoke at a public enquiry into the council's decision to refuse planning permission for an opencast coal mine in the Pont Valley1. I pointed out the ecological impact of the proposed development on an area containing several diverse habitats. The planning inspector found in concordance with local opinion that the opencast should not be granted planning permission. This was a victory for local activists but it turns out that the decision was not final; UK Coal the went to the high court and have managed to get a high court judge to rule that the planning inspector acted illegally when he took local opinion into account, when what they should have done was give more weight to the county council's mineral plan.

What this proves is that if you have enough money and an expensive lawyer, you can ignore localism and have a judge in London overturn a decision that was made in Leadgate workingmen's club in County Durham.

I dont know how UK Coal have the money to pay for this protracted legal fight. They have recently gone into administration and are now owned by their own pension fund which is an unusual business practice. 350 workers will be made redundant and those who remain are expected to take a 10% cut to their pension. There is yet another name change, to UK Coal Production.

UK Coal are having to steal from retired miners in order to keep the company afloat; they are in a very unstable position. This puts a massive question mark over any restoration strategy they propose. They only propose restoration in order to get planning permission. Even successful restorations result in huge damage to habitat and a massive reduction in biodiversity2. They are now even more likely to cut and run as soon as the coal is out, leaving permanent scars on the landscape, and the community in a never-ending battle to get things sorted.

During the public enquiry I argued that the restored land would have lower biodiversity. I submitted copies of my argument to both the planning inspectors and to UK Coal and I was then cross examined by UK Coals barrister. They have all the information which led to the original conclusion which is unfair. When I speak at the new public enquiry they will have their counter arguments ready. The whole process is stacked in favour of the developer and against local people.

The finances of UK Coal and damage to the environment are issues which can not be separated: If planning permission depends on ecological restoration then it can not be granted. I didn't trust UK Coal on restoration. I trust UK Coal Production, with its dubious financial arrangements, even less.

1. http://liamrcarr.blogspot.com/2011/09/pont-valley-is-worth-saving.html
2. http://liamrcarr.blogspot.com/2011/04/succession-genetic-diversity-and-coal.html
3. Object by writing to: dmnorth@durham.gov.uk
4. Sign the petition: http://www.pontvalley.net/nott/petition.php
5. Pont Valley in Pictures: http://liamrcarr.blogspot.com/2011/10/pont-valley-in-pictures.html

Saturday, 8 June 2013

What's Left?

I attended the UCU annual congress for the first time in Brighton this year. I met some great people and learned a lot. I also gave some advice to other UCU activists who have inherited management from Newcastle College. I also discovered, as is the case in many groups of supposedly like-minded individuals, that there are factions.

We have all seen the Monty Python sketch about the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. The sketch is well known and enduring mainly because it is based in truth. There are splits on both Left and Right: The Tories are split over Europe and have been for years. Worryingly, they are also split over how hard to hit the poor. For some ‘compassionate’ Conservatives pushing them into poverty is enough, others are calling for destitution. 

There are many Anti-fascists and Anti-austerity groups who are growing in response to the rise of the far Right. The more traditional parties on the Left include the Communist party, the Revolutionary Communist party, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). All are well organised and sell many papers at Trade Union events and rallies. (I have a real soft spot for left wing paper sellers and I am unable to refuse a copy so I end up with a copy of every one). 

There are still questions about the SWP and their decision to handle a sexual assault by holding an internal inquiry. This has been condemned from all sides and it is a shame that an organisation that fights against injustice can hide from justice in such a cowardly manner. 

I had heard form more experienced UCU Comrades that a split existed in UCU and that ‘UCU Left’ was an organisation within UCU that existed to further the aims of the SWP. I had my doubts about whether this was the case, mainly because Trade Unions are mass membership organisations that exist to act collectively in the interests of their members. I cannot see how any Trade Union activist would have either the time or inclination to further the needs of anyone other than the members of the branch which they serve.

For some time UCU Left were the only organised group within UCU. Decision makers on the NEC or in congress either supported them or chose to be independent of them. Being the only faction in town meant that when they gave voting advice or voted as a block on the NEC then motions would be carried. More recently a group called ‘Independent Broad Left’ has been organising to try and work in the interests of the majority of members rather what they see as than a narrow political agenda led by the SWP.

In my week in Congress  I have learned that both factions misunderstand each other:

  • Not every UCU Left activist is a member of the SWP
  • The people who oppose UCU Left are not neo-liberals or Tories
  • We are all in one Union. If members of these ‘factions’ got together for a pint they would probably agree on a lot.

In UCU as in all politics votes are whipped, if one side has a whipping operation then other side needs one too, but there should be no need for whipped votes when members are delegated from a region or branch. Voting instructions should not come from UCU Left or UCU Independent Broad Left but from the members in the branches who sent the delegates. 

Trade Unions are under attack from the Government, many branches are under attack from Management. The Association of Colleges are launching a co-ordinated attack on Pay and Conditions. None of these attacks will land fatal blows. One thing that is disastrous for any mass membership organisation is if the decision makers confuse leadership with dictatorship. Any organisation with an out of touch leadership is on the path to ruin. A member-led organisation is a difficult to achieve and even more difficult to control. But allowing the membership to take the lead and inform policy must be the aim of all trade unions.

 Further and Higher education has the 2nd highest rate of part time and casualised workers in the UK behind the hospitality industry. We are seeing lecturing staff forced into insecure part time work as employers demand ever increasing 'flexiblity' which actually means more uncertainty for students and fewer employment rights for staff. FE pay is moving further away from teachers pay. We are best placed to face the challanges ahead if we stand together.