Monday, 11 July 2016

Could Brexit get Bristol a proper metro?

I don't like Brexit - not because of any particular technical details or economic fears (they come and go) but because I like the idea of European solidarity and exchange. However, assuming some form of Brexit happens, then it, and the accompanying political cluster-fudge, provides opportunities.*

One of those opportunities could be in infrastructure, specifically public transport.

First, there may be a need to stave off recession. The Bank of England has already indicated that more Quantitative Easing (injecting money into the economy) is on the cards. Rather than use this to simply inflate share prices, as happened before, it should be channeled into meaningful infrastructure. Many people have suggested this and it goes by the name of Peoples QE, Green QE etc...

Second there is an urgent need to boost regional economies outside London, something else the referendum made clear. Part of this may involve devolution, but much must involve investment.

Bristol is one of the UK's more successful cities but in some areas it is badly lacking, notably public transport. The weird Metrobus, dysfunctional normal bus and highly limited suburban trains are not a proper system. And that is what it needs. A - dare I say it - European or Asian style metro. Light trams, or underground trains. No fiddling around. Sure we can update the Severn Beach line etc, and we need to do more on cycling, but none of that takes away the need for a proper public transport system. And let's face it, nobody likes buses.

It would cost a lot of money. But then congestion is estimated to cost the city £350 million a year. It would also make it a much cleaner and better place to live, which would attract business. Cities compete with each other for people, so the 'story of life' is vitally important.

Finally if done properly, it will last for a hundred years, and become part of the fabric of the town.

I can hear the objections - Bristol is too small, it is too diffuse. Well, there are plenty of cities around the 500,000 mark with metros - underground or overground. Kagoshima, Rennes, Utrecht, Boston.

As for diffuse. Well Bristol's density is two-thirds that of London and the same as Rennes. Furthermore, density is a bit of a  chicken and egg situation. We know the city needs to grow, and we need to do that without trashing the countryside around it and ruining our quality of life. But a more dense city requires a public transport network to handle it. Put simply, if we build it, then it will change the pattern of city development, away from sprawling car-fueled suburbs, and towards a more modern Japanese or European style city.


*Note that this did not require Brexit in order to happen, there were no EU restriction, it is just that the ensuing political storm may provide economic space for big ideas.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The three tribes of Brexiters, and the cold logic behind Leave

Another Brexit blog. There must be millions by now. But here we go. I've been thinking more about the future in the last few days, and how Brexit fits into the broader picture. To do this I think we need to look at the people who voted Leave and why.

Aside from the small tribes of genuine racists, climate contrarians and hard-core revolutionary socialists who backed Leave, I think there are three broad groups.

Group A - the Nostalgists - have long been opposed to the EU. They are older, and remember a time in their youth when things where better and simpler and Britain cut a larger figure on the world stage. Why not get back to that? They are ill at ease with modern internationalism and its globalised culture, and the EU has only ever been a political construct. They lose nothing emotionally by leaving, and get to cut themselves off from something they perceive is (rightly or wrongly) responsible for tedious restrictions on car parking, and water use, and jug sizes and the kinds of words they can say.

Group B - the Rebels - voted out of the EU as a howl of protest against low wages, crappy jobs and corroded identity. It was a powerful rejection of the current version of free-market economics (which some call neoliberalism).  For them the EU was not a source of freedom but of penury. A system which forced them to compete with millions of others for dull jobs and which kept them locked in suburban mediocrity while the centres of London, Manchester and the rest developed into glittering playgrounds for the global hyper-connected elite. They look on leaving the EU as a route to protection, as a route to regaining cultural identity. They hope it will revive lost industries and break the cycle of debt and low incomes. Witness the impact that the planned closure of the Talbot Steel Works in South Wales had in the run up to the debate.

Group C are the Privateers. They are perhaps the smallest of the three groups, but the most powerful. They are free-market warriors who see Brexit as a way of keeping the game going a little longer. Far from protecting low paid workers, they want to strip away the social safety net. They are openly talking about turning the UK into a cold Singapore, a temperate Dubai, capitalist playgrounds where the ultra rich are waited on by indentured labour, and skyscrapers are built by workers in camps the Ancient Egyptians might well have recognised. Already some are asking for hard won rights like maternity leave to be scrapped. Environmental protections - the things that stop our beaches being covered in shit and our air being like smoking 10 cigarettes a day (as it is in New Delhi) are firmly in their sights.

These groups have little in common, and Group B may be in for a shock when they see what Group C are up too. Protection for Port Talbot steel works? Already some of the Privateers are anticipating a flood of cheap Chinese steel if the UK signs a bilateral trade deal (see the Twitter exchange below with a chap from the Institute for Economic Affairs). That would be the end of any local manufacture.

But why would the Privateers do this? Well one reason is to keep the neoliberal machine running a little bit longer. They postulate that Europe and the West have entered a period of secular stagnation. That will mean little or no real growth, perhaps for decades, perhaps for ever. Capitalism does not really work without growth. Asia and Africa on the other hand probably have a good few decades left before they hit the same phase. Rather than dealing with the root causes of the problem, they hope that by coupling the UK more tightly to the East they can keep it all together for a few more years. You can see their point and who knows, perhaps they are right?

But are we prepared for what that might mean? Are we prepared to continue the current process which seeks to sweep away the social systems we have developed to compete on those terms? To no longer compete with low wages and laxer regulations in Greece and Poland, but with India, Nigeria and Indonesia? Will we be willing to de-regulate everything from animal welfare to planning permission? And more importantly, will those in groups A and B who also voted to Leave be happy to go along with it?

The challenge for the UK, in the coming years, will be not only to see if it can hold itself together as a country, but to see if it can forge a new path - one outside the EU, but not engaged in a race to the bottom, and one able to survive the coming environmental and economic shocks in the decades ahead.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

We need to break the Brexit-equals-racism mantra, it could be self fulfilling

Hi - as you know I am deeply upset about Brexit. I hope we can persuade people to stay (unlikely) and failing that I know we need to work for the best possible outcome.

However, I think we also need to be honest that leaving the EU is not in itself the worst thing in the world. What matters more is how we leave it, why and what kind of place we will be afterwards.

With this in mind I think we need to stop the assumption that all those who voted out are inherently racist or xenophobic. I made this point before the referendum too. Sure, some people, perhaps quite a lot, did vote for those reasons. The Leave campaign was openly racist and must take responsibility for the upsurge in reported hate crime that has happened since the referendum, but of course that does not mean all those, or even the majority of those who voted to leave are. Many will have voted to curb immigration, but remain decent welcoming people. Others will have voted because they dream of the UK being a giant Singapore, sailing the high sees of the free market. A recent poll suggests only 16% of leave voters want foreigners to have to leave the country. That's quite a lot, but its a long long way from a majority.

Why does this matter?

First for my own sanity, but more importantly because assuming they did could become self fulfilling. If we tell ourselves and the world that this was all about isolation, it will become so. If people know longer wish to move here then we will be lonely. We need to let people know that the UK is still a place where they can be welcome, and valued. England in particular is a hugely dynamic and multicultural place (far more so than many of those places now calling it Little England). That will not change overnight, and indeed, will probably not change at all.

Of course we need to make this happen. We need to stand up to xenophobia and show our 'foreign' neighbours some love. We held a demonstration in Bristol last week to try and do just this. Our government must urgently do the same. Their silence on the rights of foreigners and EU citizens is unforgivable.

We need a progressive alliance of politics to maintain kindness in government. But there is everything still to hope for.

One of the curiosities of Brexit has been people from countries significantly less open and progressive than the UK (even post Brexit) offering their condolences. We need to remember that being in or out of the EU ultimately matters much less than the kind of society we build.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Brexit catastrophe - what next, and what to fight for?

Day seven in the Big Brexit shitstorm. I'm still furious, and sad. But I'm trying to think about what next.

On the question of if we will ever leave the EU, or if there should be another referendum, I don't want to say too much, except that since the referendum campaign was largely based on lies, since two of the four constituent areas of the UK voted against it, and given the narrowness of the margin, there is no mandate for the Leave campaign to do whatever wants.

Remainers also have every right to keep campaigning to change the minds of those who wished to Leave, and therefore stay in. That is what the Leave campaign have done for 40 years, since they lost the last referendum.

There is also a very strong argument for a new General Election before proper negotiations begin, within 6 months. 

But if we assume that something is happening, and that there will be some form of Brexit, what should we do? What should we work for?

I have thought about this, and while I am by no means an expert on all of this, I have some ideas:

1. We need to gain assurances that EU citizens currently in the UK will be allowed to stay indefinitely. 

2. We should seek for the UK to remain part of the European Economic Area (Common Market - and ability to work anywhere). There is no mandate to withdraw, given the narrowness of the result and the plethora of reasons people may have voted out.

2. We need to stand together to combat racism and xenophobia unleashed by the referendum. We must call on all Parties to do the same.

3. We need voting reform. People vote when their vote counts. We need to move to PR.

4. We need regional devolution. Many of those areas which voted to leave feel left behind. Proper devolution. particularly in English regions would help, and might address the huge London bias in the country. For cities like London and Bristol their vote to stay should be recognised, and an accommodation reached to allow them to remain open, connected, European cities.

4. We need a Green New Deal to help tackle economic inequality. Mark Carney has already indicated a need for more quantitative easing. It should be Green, and channeled into renewable energy, insulating homes, new sustainable housing, public transport and research and development.

5. We should use the opportunity of exiting the CAP to reform the UK's agricultural policy to work for wildlife and nature, as well as people.

6. We must fight to defend hard won rights that have flowed from the EU - parental pay, workers' right, the Habitats and Birds Directive which protects the countryside and wildlife.

7. We must continue close integration of scientific research and funding. The UK is a world leader in science and research, and has developed as part of the EU. That must not be put at risk.

This is obviously by no means exhaustive, but its a start. But we will need to be motivated. In order to protect those things that are important, and to build a movement necessary to achieve them, we will need to be much more politically active than previously. Joining Parties, supporting NGOs and standing up for each others rights.

So what to do right now? 

Write to your MP expressing your concerns, and demanding that the UK stay in the EEA or whichever of these you agree with. Make the case that the Leave campaign has no blank cheque.

Take part in the rallies that reflect whatever aspects you agree with.

Join/support campaign groups like Friends of the Earth (declaration, I work for them, although they have nowt to do with this blog or action) or Hope Not Hate.

Write to your crime commissioner urging them to tackle racism and xenophobia.

Set something up! Think of an idea to advance one or more of your goals, find some people to help and go with it. Every campaigner knows that a lot of what you try won't get off the ground, but it doesn't need to. Some ideas will, and that's enough.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Do we need a Minister for dolphins?

I've recently become aware of the movement for dolphin suffrage. No seriously. It's an idea with suggests that as dolphins are really smart, and as human actions have huge impacts on them, they should have democratic representation.

Now on one hand this is silly. Dolphins can't vote, and would not understand the process. Registration would be difficult. But it does cast light on an important issue. Should we set aside democratic space to represent non-human interests? Increasingly I think yes.

While it is true that we are discovering ever more about the depths of intelligence and emotions of animals, and have come a long way from when Descartes dismissed their cries of pain as the 'squeeking of a poorly maintained machine', this is not really the point. We should show compassion and responsibility to other living creatures regardless of their level of intelligence.

And yet that is not how we behave. Quite the opposite. The relationship most of us hold to animals is one of absolute horror and destruction. We hide it and look the other way, but from filling the oceans with plastic, to battery farmed pigs or monitor lizards hung in markets with spikes through their sides, its the truth.

Our current systems of government are not really equipped to deal with it either. Most environmental ministries are there to balance the needs of industry and people in accessing and using the environment. Farm ministries balance the needs of farmers, consumers and occasionally, animals. That all makes sense - after all, they are there to represent people, but given the abject state of the natural world, it is hardly enough.

Would there though be a place for a Minister for dolphins? Someone whose jobs it is to imagine that they represent a completely different constituency, and start debates and initiate policy discussions on that basis? It could go further - a Minister for farm animals or the oceans? It wouldn't be a cure, but it could be a useful tool, something to widen our horizons.

Perhaps too they could be installed on a different electoral cycle to the main Parties, with a clear remit to make the awkward points? Imagine a discussion on offshore mining, if there was someone whose job it was to speak up for those with nothing to gain and everything to lose? It would be no replacement for embedding environmental values across other ministries (and that is the great risk), but done properly it would be a useful mirror, something in which we could see our judgements reflected back at us. That would benefit everybody, humans most of all. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Lapwings in the Somerset Levels

Hi - it's been a while, so I thought I'd post this little video of a large flock of lapwings I saw at a little nature reserve in the Somerset Levels. All the birds in the film are lapwings, and they went on and on into the distance. Must have been thousands of them. 


No doubt this was once a common sight, but it is by far the largest flock I have ever seen.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Take heart. Renewable energy is much bigger than this government.

In 1433 the Chinese Emperor grounded the Imperial fleet. At the time, it was probably the greatest naval power in the world. No one is 100% sure why this happened, but the Emperor may have felt the cost was unjustified. Ships continued to sail from China and trade with its neighbours went on, but the huge armadas which had dominated the Indian Ocean, conquered lands and projected Chinese military and economic might around the region were finished.

A few decades later two relatively weak European nations, the Portuguese and Spanish, discovered routes to Asia and, most importantly, the Americas. The rest is history.

It need not have happened that way. The Chinese, the Venetians, the Ottomans and even some West African Kingdoms might all have been the ones to ‘discover’ the Americas and lead the conquest and colonization and genocide that followed. Or perhaps they would have done things differently. We will never know.

My point is that technological advances in the 15th and 16th centuries meant that it was only a matter of time before the oceans opened up. New ships and methods of navigation were making what had previously been flukes or rare journeys more reliable and possible. The desire to access essential commodities provided the political and financial support, which in turn drove more innovation.
In Europe, as in other places, some administrations turned their back on overseas voyages. Other embraced them.

The argument I am trying to make is that I believe we are seeing something similar with renewable energy. We are at a stage now where the technology is advancing faster than either policy makers or commentators can keep up with, and it is global in nature. The nexus of advancing renewable technology, IT and political pressure means that energy systems that just a few years ago seemed hopelessly expensive are now outcompeting fossil fuels. Costs are plummeting. Utilities are buckling under the strain. Grids will need redesigning. Fortunes will be made and lost. There will be huge changes to come.

So far the UK has done okay in promoting renewables, and is on course for 30% of electricity supplies by 2020. Sadly things are now changing. The new government appears to have gotten cold feet and is actively hacking away at the energy framework – slashing subsidies and imposing planning restrictions and market barriers to lock out technologies that no longer need support. Its reasons are often spurious. At the same time they are backing more polluting and more expensive systems, for political reasons. Perhaps this is all just a prelude to a fantastic new raft of policies, but I will not hold my breath.

Fortunately I’m an optimist.  Every time one of these new policy attacks is announced there is pressure from the press and some of my colleagues to cry out that the government is ‘killing renewables’ and that all is lost. So far I have tried to resist. The reason is simple. I don’t think this government has the power to kill renewables.

I think renewables are bigger, further reaching and more powerful than this government. We may risk falling behind, the UK may be overtaken by newer, more confident entrants to this field, but the changes unleashed by renewables are huge and ongoing. Like the French government, which tried to develop an alternative internet in the early 1990s, the UK government will be overtaken by events.
I am not suggesting that this means that the government’s attacks on renewables don’t matter – they do, and not just because the UK risks falling behind in the global renewables stakes.

Climate change demands urgent action, and rich countries must be willing to lead. At the same time locking us in to high-carbon infrastructure could put up emissions for years to come, no matter what we do. There are problems too of the kind of new energy system that may emerge – will it benefit the many or be rigged for the few. Nor is the cost of renewables the only relevant factor. In the absence of alternatives we would be advocating renewables to tackle climate change anyway.

I think what I am trying to say is ‘take heart’. This are moving in ways we cannot predict, and this government will no more be able to kill renewable energy than the Emperors of China killed ocean going travel.