Thursday, 28 May 2015

Extending right to buy is not a viable solution to the housing crisis.

As part of the slate of legislation put before parliament in the Queen's Speech the government proposes to extend the 'right to buy' to allow 1.3 million tenants of housing associations to purchase their homes.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark said 'the policy we are announcing in the Queen's Speech is very clear, every property that is sold will be replaced, so the housing stock is being expanded and people can achieve the aspiration that most of us want to own our own homes.'

The Green Party opposes the extension of 'right to buy' and in March Jason Kitcat, the party's former leader in Brighton and Hove told the Guardian "Right to buy represents the biggest privatisation programme this country has ever seen. It's absolutely perverse that homes built for those on the lowest incomes are now owned by private landlords letting them at full rates."

During the general election campaign party leader Natalie Bennett said "We need to move away from thinking of homes primarily as financial assets and go back to thinking of them as safe places to live. We have seen a huge rise in many parts of the country where people are really struggling to survive to pay the rent. We've lost 1.5 million homes to 'Right to Buy' ... When you travel around the country you see from the train how many brownfield sites there are, particularly in the north and the Midlands, and there are also 700,000 empty homes to bring back into use. So much development has been focused on London and the South East. That's why we're opposed to building HS2, which would focus even more development, people and money on London. We need to build strong regional economies all around the country."

The 'right to buy' will do noting to address the housing crisis in the UK, many of the 1.3 million people eligible under the government scheme will be unable to get a mortgage and the plans does nothing to help the 1.8 million families currently on council housing lists and living in temporary accommodation and Bed and Breakfasts.

The Green Party fought the general election on a manifesto promising to build 500,000 new homes for 'social rent' and bring 700,000 empty properties back into use. They also proposed introducing five year tenancies, capping rents in line with the consumer price index and setting up a Living Rents Commission to investigate ways of reducing rents.

The government's plans to extend 'right to buy' have attracted criticism from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who said it would cost 'billions of pounds' and could potentially 'worsen the UK's underlying public finance position.'

The National Housing Federation warned that is could further reduce the amount of social housing available, saying that since 2012 only 46% of social housing sold of has been replaced.

A spokesperson for North Staffs Green Party said ' Mr Clark's comments show that he and the government of which he is part clearly do not understand the potential impact of their own policy', going on to say that, 'extending right to buy could have a devastating impact on a city like Stoke-on-Trent where many families are struggling to make ends meet on the minimum wage.'

Adding that 'the Greens are the only party that fully understands the magnitude of the housing crisis and put forward credible policies to address it.'

The Green Party in North Staffordshire will be closely monitoring housing developments in the region and calling for more social housing to be included as a requirement for planing permission to be granted.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Queen's speech should highlight social responsibility and protecting the climate.

Tomorrow amidst the pomp and ceremony of the state opening of parliament the Queen will deliver the first speech written for her by a Conservative government for almost twenty years.

North Staffs Green Party activist Sean Adam said this should be 'an opportunity of this new government to set a social responsible agenda and highlight progress in the need for environmental protection'

Amongst the legislation expected to be announced are bills for a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union and devolution of more powers to English cities.

There will also be legislation to end the use of police cells to provide emergency detention for people with mental health problems, to create more apprenticeships and to give parents of three and four years olds access to fifteen hours free childcare a week.

The speech will also contain controversial measures to change strike laws, requiring industrial action to be supported by at least 40% of eligible union members; to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights and to revive the Communications and Data Bill giving the security services greater access to information about individuals phone and internet usage.

Speaking about his concerns regarding the legislation likely to be announced Sean Adam said 'I believe that what we are going to see is an opportunity for greater tax relief opportunities for those who least need them and once again further austerity inroads into the disabled which I feel will also include taxing the Personal Independent Payment,. This has been a support service to help disabled people with additional costs to achieve a semblance of quality of life dependent on their condition and should be effectively ’ring fenced’

He added that 'What worries me most will be the exclusion from the Queens’ speech on Climate Change and yet this need to achieve global climate balances is an opportunity here in North Staffordshire to build on an already renewable energy sector to bring in additional employment,  development and research'

A spokesperson for North Staffs Green Party said 'Sean's comments demonstrate that the austerity agenda put forward by the government has real consequences for vulnerable people and ignores key areas of concern.'

Adding that 'while some measure such as ending the detention of people with mental health problems in police cells for no reason other than that they are ill and improving access to free childcare are welcome other areas, the repeal of the Human Rights Act and the expansion of the power of the government to spy in citizens are worrying.'

They provide, he said, 'further evidence that David Cameron's government has priorities that do not match the concerns of most people.'

Monday, 25 May 2015

There are worse things to be than the most working class city in the country.

You might not have known there was a competition, there is it has to be said less glitter about it than Euro-vision, but Stoke-on-Trent has been crowned the most working class city in the country, beating rivals like Sunderland and Wolverhampton into a cocked hat.

Is that such a bad thing? I suppose it means the long awaited sequel to Notting Hill isn't going to be called Bentilee, but there are worse things to be than working class.

That said the term doesn't mean what it used to, when applied to towns or people it no longer signifies honest toil in a skilled trade; all too often it is a lazy media stereotype for economic bottom feeders clinging to the decaying edge of the rust belt. As Owen Jones puts it, the working class have gone from being the salt of the earth to being the scum of the earth.

At least they have in the eyes of the sort of media types who love hanging negative tags around the necks of cities like Stoke and then having a good laugh about it in their Hampstead drawing rooms. They probably used to pull the wings off flies when they were children too.

I agree that we need more high quality jobs in the area and support to help people at all stages of their working life move away from repetitive manual labour. There are though far worse things to be than working class, and I'm more than proud to define myself as working class.

To me the working class identity is composed of values that are, for the most part exemplary, these include valuing that someone works hard not just the type of work they do; having roots in one place, loyalty to family and friends and a lack of patience with all things pretentious. There is, despite the stereotype of shell suit clad slobs slumped in front of the X-Factor, also a long tradition of intellectual curiosity amongst working people, often linked to a strong strain of creativity.

The alternative to this, the cool, atomised metropolitan existence pushed by a largely upper middle class media and advertising industry seems shallow by comparison. All brand names and over priced coffee sipped in painfully fashionable parts of the country. A house of cards for which the inmates probably wear having paid too much as a badge of honour.

We need to embrace not reject the best of working class values, something I thought about last week when I read that Tristram Hunt believes that Labour must 'raise its game' if it wants to win the 2020 election.

What he meant, I fear, was that they need is slicker PR, sharper suits and fewer awkward principles to get in the way of doing as leadership candidate Liz Kendall said, Mr Hunt has hitched himself to the wagon of her campaign since his own leadership ambitions turned to dust, 'whatever works' to trawl in the votes.

Working people need a voice in politics like never before, but it won't come from a Labour Party that lost its way in the nineties and will never find it again by scrabbling about on the middle ground. They might be better looking to parties like the SNP, Plaid Cymru or the Greens to articulate , which might explain why those three parties continue to grow amidst the barren landscape of British politics.

Far from cringing in shame working class people should celebrate their identity. We need more of the values associated with working class communities like Stoke in public life. Like judging people on what they do rather than what they promise to do tomorrow and a belief that we are all part of a shared enterprise called society, not just endless individuals wielding the 'sharp elbows' David Cameron and his kind believe to be a prerequisite for success in no interest other than their own.

Working class it a worthwhile thing to be, but the only people who will speak up for us is ourselves. It is time we got off our knees, stopped worrying about the cheap jibes of lazy media types and started celebrating who we are and what we've got to offer.

Say it out loud; we're working class and proud.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

As their membership and confidence grows Stoke Greens meet to plan their future campaigns.

Following a positive showing in the local and general elections members of North Staffs Green Party met for the first time last night.

The party stood candidates in most wards across Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle and stood candidates in all three city constituencies and in Newcastle and Stone.

The meeting took place at the Chancellor's building on Keele University campus and saw members discuss the party's performance in the elections and make plans for future campaigns.

Sean Adam, who stood as a parliamentary candidate in Stoke North said the seven thousand votes the party had gained across the region gave it a 'responsibility' to continue speaking up for local people who share their views.

Campaign organiser Matt Maddocks described the party's performance at the election as a 'success' pointing out the number of candidates who had placed well and in the target to win ward of Weston Coyney the Greens took 15% of the vote.

Although none of the parliamentary candidates managed to retain their deposits they increased the number of votes they gained, giving, Mr Maddocks said, 'more people than ever before the chance to vote Green.'

The meeting also celebrated the success achieved by Sam Gibbons in joining fellow Green Wenslie Naylon as a member of Keele parish council.

Several members spoke about the positive experience they had had taking part in the election and welcomed the participation of students at Keele, saying they suggested the party had a strong body of future activists, candidates and voters.

In a discussion about the coalition formed by City Independents leader Dave Conway with the support of the Conservatives and Ukip following Labour's loss of control of the council Jan Zablocki, who stood for the Greens in Weston Coyney said the new group needed to put forward a convincing 'vision' for the city's future.

This, he said, needed to address issues such as using transport hubs to integrate bus and train travel around the city, providing covered walkways to attract shoppers to the town centre and investing in social housing and a municipal renewable energy scheme.

Many of these things could have been achieved, he said, had the previous Labour administration not wasted money on projects like the new Civic Centre.

Green Party members, he added, wanted to see a 'new council offering a new beginning' and would be watching closely the actions of the coalition.

Over the year ahead North Staffs Green Party will be working herd to engage with local communities, supporting community campaigns and working closely with charities and arts groups.

This will include supporting local and national campaigns against austerity run by the North Staffs People's Assembly.

A North Staffs Green Party spokesperson said the meeting had been 'hugely positive' and had 'given members an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful debate on our policies.'

Since the election the Green Party has gained a further five thousand members, this the spokesperson said 'shows we are gaining strength and credibility as a political force.'

He added that over the next five years the Greens in Stoke would be 'working hard to speak up for the growing number of local people who share our goal of advocating positive political and social change.'


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

From parking to major crimes on the PACT variety bill.

There are times when, in the best possible way, a PACT meeting resembles nothing so much as an old time variety bill, last night was just such an occasion.

First into the spotlight was Mike Brown, head of facilities at Royal Stoke University Hospital, an avuncular chap well known to regular attenders. Its a good job too since he usually has the same song to sing, namely that building work at the hospital, a source of endless problems, is making progress slowly, usually too slowly for the public mood.

Last night was no different, Arup have been completed a report into parking requirements at the RSUH site and this will be turned into 'a strategy document detailing the available options for increasing the Trust's car parking capacity in the future', meaning building a multi-storey car park somewhere on site for those of us who don't speak bureaucrat. This, along with the opening up of other car parks on site should reduce the problem, someday soon, probably.

Amongst the issues raised in questions from the audience were the continued use of the former Royal Infirmary site for non medical services and the problems speed humps on the hospital site cause for people travelling by ambulance. In the latter case Mr Brown said the trust were aware of the issue and were attempting to address it in the long term through tougher enforcement of speed limits.

If Mike Brown is a cheery uncle then Nigel Eggleton of First Bus is a stern headmaster, another familiar face to PACT regulars he's long since perfected the habit of gripping the lectern and leaning forward as he speaks you see in junior ministers giving bad news to a restive house.

He spoke about the 'consolidation' that had taken place in the local public transport market recently with Bakers and Wardles leaving the game and D and G taking on their vacated routes, suggesting, he said, that things were 'less healthy' than he'd like them to be.

On a brighter note First have taken delivery of ten new buses, the start of the slow modernisation of their 'elderly' fleet; passenger numbers on the controversial number 3 route have also continued to grow.

Mr Eggleton took questions on private operators not working together, something that is to the disadvantage of operators and passengers alike, he agreed this did cause problems and said thing may change when a new council leader and cabinet are in place. On the review of evening bus services carried out by First leading to timetable changes he said further cuts may be in the pipeline.

Liam Rider and Marcus Barber of Staffordshire Police gave a talks on, respectively, the work of the local CID and the force's forensic investigators.

The CID, said Mr Rider, deal with any crime that requires a complex or protracted investigation, these range from burglary through fraud to murder. Locally the most common issues dealt with by the CID involve burglary, largely due to the area's high student population although Stoke is by no manes a hotspot for this type of crime.

He then answered questions on the role played by drugs in serious crimes, saying that they were indeed a major cause as addicts resort to ever more desperate measures to fund their habit. The police service was, he said, working with other agencies to help offenders break free from the cycle of addiction, crime and imprisonment.

Asked whether spending cuts had impacted on the ability of the police service to investigate major crimes Mr Rider said that has not happened yet and that steps were being taken to manage costs through the use of non-warranted officers for some tasks.

The forensics investigators attached to Staffordshire police, said Marcus Barber, also investigate the full range of crimes from domestic burglaries to murders that make the headlines. Their work involves detecting and analysing hairs, fibres, blood stains and traces of body fluids that might provide evidence leading to a conviction, in recent years the number of investigators employed by the service has gone down and may be reduced further by ongoing spending cuts.

Their work, he said at some length suggesting he's a man tired of being asked the question at parties, is nothing like its television portrayal. They don't 'walk into the room and spot straight away the single hair on the carpet that will unravel to whole case', and, of course, nobody calls 'cut' so the shot can be set up again if they make a mistake.

Last up was Michael Clarke, Team Manager for Parking and Enforcement for Stoke-on-Trent City Council, a pantomime villain or hero of the people depending on whether you've been given a ticket or had the space outside your house kept clear. Actually he's an ordinary man doing a difficult job where its almost certain he's going to upset somebody before the day is out.

He spoke about the council's use of mobile enforcement vehicles equipped with cameras to catch people who park illegally, particularly outside schools. The council had, he said, recruited six more enforcement officers, none of whom will ever receive a ticker-tape parade from a thankful public, but without whom parking would be even more of a nightmare.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A result nobody predicted and a future we should all worry about.

The 2015 general election produced a result that nobody, including the main protagonists, could have predicted.

When the polling stations closed on Thursday night everyone who was anyone said that the race would be neck and neck with the Labour Party, propped up by the SNP, nosing ahead to form another coalition. The edit polls said something different, they said that the Tories would be the largest party and might even get a working majority; but nobody believed them.

Along with Paddy Ashdown we thought that if that came to pass we'd make a midnight snack out of our collective hat, smugly certain that something else would be on the menu; events, the long time enemy of political certainty proved us wrong.

David Cameron's Tories didn't just emerge as the largest party they gained a majority that will allow them to govern without the inconvenience of having to keep the Liberal Democrats or any other coalition partner happy. This could lead to an avalanche of austerity policies that should give everyone without a trust fund cause for concern.

How on earth did we get here? The good lord alone knows and he's keeping quiet, the best I can do is examine my fragmented impressions of the campaign ans see if anything like an answer emerges.

For a long time it seemed like 2015 was an election of tranquillizers, there was lots of talk and photo opportunities, but none of it seemed to catch the public imagination.

The debates between the party leaders, or rather the squabbling about who was going to take part, where they were going to stand and whether or not the prime minister was even going to take part occupied an inordinate amount of space in the media. When they finally happened the debates were damp squibs, telling us little we didn't already know about the leaders of the three main parties, they did though introduce Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon to a wider public, with the latter taking the resulting publicity and running with it like a star quarterback.

Like any election the campaign created winners and losers before a vote had been cast and for a long time it looked like Labour leader Ed Milliband was going to be one by the simple expedient of doing better than anyone expected him to.

He seemed to grow in stature and confidence as David Cameron by contrast looked ever more stiff as he trundled from one staged appearance to the next. Unfortunately in a way that is all too sadly familiar to anyone who has watched his tenure as a party leader Ed Milliband then contrived to start getting everything wrong just when he most needed to be getting things right.

First of all he agreed to be interviewed by tedious faux revolutionary Russell Brand undoing in the process much of the status he had built up during the campaign. Then in the most barmy election stunt of all time he agreed to be photographed next to a huge stone slab with Labour's election pledged carved upon it which he said he would erect in the garden of Downing Street if he won the election.

The Ed stone as the press rapidly dubbed it has become something of a minor obsession for me, where has it gone? I have this fantasy where some twenty years from now Red Ed has it installed in the garden of his retirement bungalow was a, literally, concrete reminder of how badly he messed things up.

The real star of the campaign was, of course, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, she emerged as the full political package, someone who can be photographed walking along a balance beam at a primary school answering questions about taxation from the press pack without looking absurd. There are some people who say she might even be the best prime minister Britain never had.

Election night itself turned out to be one surprise after another as heads, those of Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls to name a few, rolled like something out of a Tudor court. The SNP marched on unstoppably north of the border and the Tories defied all expectations south of it and everywhere the Liberal Democrats were pounded into the ground.

Where do we go from here? Now there's a question to rank alongside anything Hamlet asked as he trudged the battlements.

As they gawp at the magnitude of their success it must seem to the Tories, to quote an appropriate eighties musical reference, that the only way is up. They're certainly in a strong position, but there may be problems ahead.

Europe is still the elephant in the party's drawing room and David Cameron could be pressured into calling a referendum early and then having to live with a decision he doesn't want, namely a call for the UK to withdraw. Five more years of austerity will dent their new found popularity and this time the Liberal Democrats won't be there to take the flack.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to find a new leader and, more importantly a new sense of purpose. Simply climbing onto the centre ground and hoping for the best isn't enough, they need to provide an alternative that is more inclusive and offers the people hit hardest by austerity some kind of hope.

The most important thing we need though is a comprehensive reformation of the voting system, at the election just gone millions of people who live in constituencies that aren't marginals or simply support parties other than the big three cast votes that didn't count, an experience that can only deepen existing feelings of disengagement.

Whatever happens over the next five years as the ancient Chinese curse would have it we are about to live through interesting times.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The NHS is greater than Magna Carta.

Hanley Park on a warm bank holiday Monday, I'm standing by the bandstand waiting with a small knot of protesters for a march that began in Buxton three days earlier to arrive. The march is part of a campaign against the privatisation of cancer care services in Staffordshire backed by unions with large memberships in the health sector and campaign group 38 Degrees.

As is the way with such things what happens for much of the time is nothing at all, every so often someone will rush past with a phone clamped to their ear saying the marchers are either about to arrive or certain to be delayed; then nothing goes quietly on happening just as before.

This gives gives the steadily growing crowd, most of whom seem to know each other from previous demonstrations to chat in the sunlight whilst the assembled bloggers and journalists kill time by photographing and interviewing one another.

I walk a little way off, sit down looking at the flags and banners, take a free badge from the smiley young woman from 38 Degrees and think about the NHS and the peculiar place it occupies in our political discourse.

No other issue has the power to prompt so much political piety from all three main parties, each in their own way pledges to defend it to the last on a seemingly daily basis, then equally often finds a way to mess it up with the very best of intentions.

The result of this has been one reorganisation after another, the introduction of an internal market and the imposition of a maze of often contradictory targets and initiatives. This has led to the latest brave new idea, namely that brining in a private company to run care services for some of the sickest patients will be more efficient than letting the NHS go on running things, not a view that has much convinced anyone apart from its backers in government.

Labour, the party that gave Britain the NHS back in 1948 and hasn't let anyone forget it since are violently opposed to the plan, on the surface at least. Dig deeper and things become a little more complicated, their role as defenders of free healthcare for all has been compromised by local MP Tristram Hunt describing opposition to the 'outsourcing' of cancer care as a 'knee jerk reaction' amidst suspicions that powerful interests were pulling his strings.

There is a stirring in the crowd, the march is finally here, hobbling into the park of three day old blisters with banners flying, as it crosses the bridge there is cheering and applause.

There might though be something of an 'edge' to the cheers, several friends in the crowd who had been there when the march got under way tell me there is considerable dissent over how the march seems to have been hijacked by the Labour Party. Looking around I notice there are several leading local Labour politicians milling about in the crowd looking for photo-opportunities.

Apparently the route was altered at the last moment to go through an estate where Labour grandees fear losing votes, leading to the Green Party and TUSC contingents pulling out.

The impression that we've somehow arrived at a Labour Party jamboree by accident is further confirmed by the majority of the speakers who address the crowd. First up is Phil Hunt, a Labour health spokesman in the Lords who tells us the march is a 'great signal' to the people of Britain that they should unite to defend the NHS, by voting for Labour of course. Only they will defend it from the Tory wreckers who want to smash it up, invoking an age old binary in a speech that sees mealy mouthed piety trampling real content underfoot.

Later Tristram Hunt will wrap things up with a studiedly dull speech high on pious mentions of how previous local M P s had used the NHS to raise living standards for working people. He doesn't, of course, allude to his own somewhat more problematic relationship with the service and its possible future. Quite what those decent socialists of the past would have made of such a piece of work is anyone's guess.

Rather more interesting speeches were made by ninety two year old Harry Smith who took the Labour Party conference by storm with his memories of life before the NHS. Here he spoke movingly about hearing through open windows in the community where he grew up the cries of people who couldn't afford pain medication dying in agony. He was, he said, 'haunted' by the fear that were the NHS to be privatised we would return to the days when healthcare was a luxury only the rich could afford. The creation of the NHS had, he said, played as great a part in the making of Britain as magna carta.

Less eloquent, but equally powerful, was the testimony of Sarah Perry, a 38 Degrees campaigner who had herself survived cancer thanks to being treated on the NHS. Her words served as a welcome reminder that behind the political wrangling is a whole library of human stories of pain and hope winning out over suffering.

Ray Tallis, a distinguished clinician and author of a book on the future of the NHS flayed the prophets of privatisation with weapons grade rhetoric. They were, he said, 'predators' who saw suffering as an 'opportunity to make a profit'; 'smarmy barrow boys' peddling a plan based on 'lies, myths and deception.'

The NHS was, professor Tallis said still the best, safest and most cost effective health service in the world, privatisation would, he said, damage services and put lives at risk. He ended by calling on his audience not to let 'Tory greed write your death sentence or that of your family.'

Equally stirring were the words of Christine Venables of Derbyshire NHS SOS, she said the plan to privatise cancer care was 'utterly wrong' and represented 'bad economics' and described its proponents as being 'harsh and manipulative' and 'pitiless profiteers.' There was, she said, no place for a market in the NHS.

Walking away past people who had come to the park to enjoy a rare sunny afternoon and been surprised by all the banners and speeches I reflected on what I had heard. There is still a deep passion on the left for defending the principle of healthcare being free for all, one people with no political affiliation tend to share. The worry remains though that what politicians of all stripes mistakenly think to be pragmatism could still write the death sentence of the NHS.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Tory tax promises are a smokescreen for an all out attack on welfare and public services.

As the election campaign moves into its final week Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged that if returned to office a Conservative government would pass legislation guaranteeing there would be no rises in income tax, national insurance or VAT before 2020.

Mr Cameron said a Tory government would be able to make the 'difficult decisions' needed to balance the public finances through spending cuts, reducing waste and clamping down on tax avoidance without 'reaching into the pockets of hard-working people and taking their money.'

He added that 'as the economy recovers' he wants people to be able to keep more of their money 'to spend as you choose.'

No tax rises for five years, it sounds good; too good to be true.

Detail regarding how a government bound by such legislation would be able to respond to the a volatile world economy was notable absent from his statement.

He was also noticeably vague as to how the policy would be funded, many governments promise to reduce waste, few manage to actually do so and this one has been decidedly toothless when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance by large corporations.

The burden of making this policy work would fall on spending cuts, which is exactly where Mr Cameron wants it to. This isn't an act of generosity aimed at helping 'hard-working people'; it is a smokescreen that would allow the continuance of the assault on public services and the benefits depended on by many families to make ends meet that began in 2010.

The Green Party believe things do not have to be like that, there is another and much better way of organising our society and economy.

We believe in bringing an end to austerity and restoring our country's battered pubic services, in doing so creating one million jobs that pay at least the living wage. Scrapping tuition fees and investing in further education to give people the skills for tomorrow's economy. A publicly funded National Heath Service that is free at the point of use and in which there is no place for privatisation.

By 2019 this would be paid for by raising £30 billion annually through cracking down on tax dodging by big corporations, using a 2% wealth tax on people worth over £ 3 million to raise £25 billion per year and raising another £20 billion a year through a 'Robin Hood' tax on bank transactions.

The Green Party believe it is possible to create a political system that 'puts the public first' and an economy that 'gives everyone their fair share', having a tax system that ensures everyone pays their fair share towards the services on which we all depend is a vital part of that.

Adam Colclough is the Green Party candidate for Springfields and Trent Vale.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Power to the people- but will we want to use it?

Penkhull Village Hall on a sunny but still chilly April evening is as good a place as any in which to sit and think about how things will be when the election is over.

It is the evening of the annual general meeting of the local residents association, there are maybe forty people milling about in the hall drinking free tea and coffee and being gently badgered into buying raffle tickets.

The hall itself is the site of the former church school, built in the mid-nineteenth century by concerned local worthies to offer an education to the poor, and revived a century and more later by local people giving their time and effort for free.

Things may have changed in almost every other respect, but the feeling of being untied by a willingness to do something for the the good of the community that motivated those Victorian villagers is still very much apparent.

The star turn of the evening is a talk on Community rights and Neighbourhood Planning given by Andy Perkin, a community and enterprise consultant with Potteries Heritage Society. At first glance the subject mater may sound dry, its substance though is very much of the moment.

Mr Perkin gives an outline of what the Potteries Heritage Society does, as the name implies they work to protect and promote the unique character of the six towns making up Stoke-on-Trent as expressed through its historic buildings.

The 'community rights' he has come to talk about are a product of the localism that was all the rage during the coalition's salad days flirtation with the big society. That project collapsed under the weight of, often understandable, public cynicism; it left behind though some useful powers for communities that want to protect the things that make them distinctive.

The most valuable of these is, perhaps, the power to protect things like shops, pubs and community halls from being used for other purposes or even being demolished by registering them as assets of community value.

In the context of Penkhull, a village that had its historic heart decimated during the demolition frenzy of the 1960's this is more than usually pertinent. Half a century on and villagers are using these powers to give the former infants school and the village hall where we are sitting a new lease of life.

Communities also have the right to challenge how services are delivered and to bid to take over running them, something that sounds attractive, but may in practice be problematic. The recent experience of community campaigners in Fenton springs to mind, it is easy to involve people in a emotive issue like protecting to former magistrates court from demolition; and rather harder to get them to engage with something like the referendum over setting up a community council necessary to making the autonomy that would give it a long term future a reality.

In his jeans and open necked shirt waving a laser pointer at images on a projector Andy Perkin has the look and teaching style of a lecturer at a good red brick university. The case he makes is a persuasive one, embracing these powers and taking an active interest in planning issues would give communities the say over decisions over the decisions that impact on their lives so many people claim to want.

Unfortunately these good intentions tend to founder on some awkward realities, the first of which is all too evident in the room tonight. For a community event the turnout is impressive, though still small given the population of the village, there is also a noticeably older demographic in the room, most people present are over sixty and there is nobody there under forty, where will the next generation of community activists come from?

This is an issue that will become ever more important in the years to come. As the election winds down it is clear that no individual party will win a majority and that whatever coalition is assembled after the event will have to work within tight financial constraints.

If they want to protect not just the services they depend on but the buildings and way of life that make them places worth living in then communities are going to develop a new way of thinking. They are going to have to stop seeming themselves as a collection of individuals mostly pursuing their own objectives in near isolation and start recognising what shared values make them into a coherent entity.

They are going to have to start thinking a lot more like the villagers who decided that Penkhull needed a school of its own more than a century ago and the ones who work to keep it functioning as a community venue today.