Saturday, 19 December 2015


In this article I look at the proposed 'Devolution Agreement' for the North-East, and highlight some of its pros and cons.

With an income 77% of the European Union average, Durham’s economy is the third poorest region in the UK.  A report by Lord Adonis in April 2013 identified three key problems:
  1. a weak private sector, lacking investment
  2. a skills shortage
  3. poor connectivity, not just of transport, but of planning and policies.
Adonis recommended that the seven local councils should cooperate to coordinate their growth, skills and transport policies, and the ‘North-East Combined Authority’ (NECA) was duly set up in April 2014 to do so.

At this point, NECA got bound up with the government’s policy of ‘devolution’.  In November 2014, council leaders in the Manchester area signed a devolution deal with the government.  Other negotiations followed – there are currently 38 in the pipeline – and NECA came under great pressure to agree a similar deal.
The Devolution Deal will not be like the one proposed in 2004, with an expensive Assembly of elected representatives.  Instead, under the Devolution Deal now proposed, an elected Mayor – with a Cabinet of the seven NECA Council Leaders – will be given some of the powers, functions and funding hitherto administered by government civil servants in London.  Meanwhile, Durham County Council (DCC) will still deliver the day-to-day services it currently provides. 
On 23 October, DCC agreed to take this Devolution Proposal forward, but insisted on a preamble which made it clear that final agreement was conditional upon “further public consultation”.  Soon after, the Council announced that – in County Durham – this would involve a poll of all electors early in the New Year.  Although legally this poll cannot be advertised as ‘binding’, devolution is a major change to local government and we won’t sign up until you’ve had your say; no other Authority has given residents such a say.

It is vital now that people learn about the Devolution Proposal, so that they know what they are voting about, because a wrong decision may ruin us
I acknowledge the fears of some that signing up could turn us into an ignored hinterland of Tyneside, getting nothing but the blame for inadequately-funded devolved services.
Equally, however, people need to realise that there is no going back.  If we do not join the Devolved Authority with the other six councils, we will spend the forseeable future administratively and economically isolated, and actually in competition against them. 
Either we go in and battle our corner against interests sometimes contrary to ours, or we stay out and watch the North-East move forward without us.

*   *   *

So what is this ‘Devolution Agreement’ that we are expected to understand and vote upon? 
‘Devolution’ is not about new powers and funding, but about transferring existing functions from the government to the region.  What you think about devolution, therefore, will depend on whether or not you think that regional officers can do a better job for us than Whitehall civil servants. 

Durham County Council Regeneration officers, for example, desperately want to control the EU funding process, and also UKTI (the department which oversees exports and inward investment) – both of which are poorly managed by the government.
There will be a £30 million a year grant.  It is true that this sum is less for the whole region than the government is cutting from DCC’s budget next year alone.  And yes, it might allow us to borrow an investment fund of £1.5 billion, but at the end of the term we will have to pay it back plus interest.  However, the opportunity here is that assured funding would allow regional officers to develop a long-term economic plan, rather than the year-by-year budgets they have at the moment.
In addition, the Devolution Proposal offers a single allocation of the Local Growth Fund to support a programme of investment – though the amount is undefined.  Again, despite disappointments over the sums, the key opportunity here is for the region – not the government – to control regional investment.  Here, therefore, is a chance for a partnership with business which will see growth policies explicitly designed to help the North-East economy.
There are some attractive further offers on the table – the area “will receive” extra Enterprise Zones to attract business.  There will be an emphasis on rural growth.  There will be a science and innovation programme with local universities to create more ‘catapult’ (innovation and development) centres in the region.  We are also promised the roll-out of 4G broadband.
Other offers are more vague.  We are assured that the North-East will not be “disadvantaged in relation to the tax freedoms granted to the Scottish government” (our greatest fear being over Airport Passenger Duty).  There is also a promise of “fair and equitable” funding to local councils in the future – whatever that might mean.

The biggest worry is the government’s scheme for Business Rate retention; because the North-East economy is so weak, this will actually mean a reduction of income to local councils.  The Devolution Proposal allows the Mayor to increase Business Rates to fund investment … but, since wealthier areas may reduce their Business Rates to attract firms, this is not a feasible policy.  Having said this, retention of Business Rates is happening anyway, whether or not we join the Devolved Authority.

Some risks, and inadequate funding ... arguably outweighed by the opportunity of greater control over our own destiny economically.
The Devolution Agreement proposes to set up an ‘Employment and Skills Board’ to review post-16 support for harder-to-help claimants, and to develop new strategies for post-16 education, deepening links with business and encouraging “vocational training, experience of work and enterprise learning”.
However, there is no funding identified, except the post-19 adult skills budget and the new Apprenticeship Levy.  The Board will be dominated by senior Whitehall civil servants, chaired by the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, and responsible to the government – so it is hard to see much ‘devolution’ going on here.

MY VERDICT: One has to wonder whether the powers and funding on offer will achieve the ambitious aims, and it is very depressing to see a final proposal for a ‘Service Transformation Fund’ intended “to reduce high dependency on public services” – has the Skills part of the proposal been hijacked by the government’s Welfare agenda?
The Devolution Agreement hopes “to create the UK’s first fully integrated transport system … to bring together responsibilities for rail, local highways, metro, buses and ferries, for urban, suburban and rural communities”.  To this end, moreover, the Agreement promises the Mayor legal powers, and a multi-year transport settlement. 
The Mayor will introduce a regional ‘smart ticketing’ system (e.g. like the London Oystercard).  He will “oversee” the work of a government organisation called ‘Rail North’, which will have responsibility for rail services, rolling stock and connections in the north east.  He will control franchising of bus services, and he will have a voice in inter-regional transport issues and investment, including Highways. 
The Devolution Proposal also promises to “consider” funding a multi-year investment programme in the Tyne and Wear Metro.  This is of particular significance to County Durham residents because funding the Metro – from which we currently gain nothing – was such a worry that we secured a specific exemption in the NECA agreement, and there is no such exclusion (yet) in the Devolution Agreement.

MY VERDICT: Very ambitious, but to be welcomed if it comes off.  Doing the job properly, however, will require £-billions, and sceptics will note the absence of any specific numbers amongst the promises.  Bus-franchising powers are included in the Buses Bill going through Parliament, but this may be compromised by the recent legal defeat of Tyne and Wear’s attempted re-regulation.
The devolution agreement will not replace our existing Town and County Councils.  Neither will it set up a huge new layer of government.  What will happen is that – if the Deal is agreed – a Mayor-and-Cabinet will administer powers devolved to them from the civil service in London.
The idea of a Mayor alarms many people.  It is something that Durham County Council has resisted throughout, but on which the government is adamant – if we are to have devolution, we will have to accept a separately-elected Mayor.
However, the Mayor envisaged in the Devolution Proposal will be a ‘weak’ Mayor, who:
- will not appoint his own Cabinet, which will be comprised of the Leaders of the participating councils.
- will not have a power of veto and, if two-thirds of the participating councils disagree with a Mayoral policy, then they will be able to veto even the Mayor’s budget.
- will not have the power to raise a precept (so all the costs will have to be met from the £30 million annual grant).  The Devolved Authority will not cost you a penny.

MY VERDICT: It is arguable that – given that the Devolved Authority will be a cooperation of rival councils with very different needs – it may be better to have an independent Mayor, as long as they are little more than a chairman/coordinator/peacekeeper.
There are some other issues in the Devolution Agreement.  The Authority will have oversight of housing and climate change.  There is also the suggestion that, in the future, it might take responsibility for Health & Care, and the Police & Fire authorities – both, in my opinion, suggestions which we need firmly to refuse.  Health & Care is a financial crisis about to happen, and taking control of the Police would involve the reconstitution of the Durham Police force.
In the New Year, therefore, you will vote to decide the region’s future.
The vote cannot be a Yes-No referendum (which, legally, can only be held by the government). Thus DCC is holding a ‘poll’ asking four multiple-choice questions – on: the idea of devolution; a Mayor; the desirability of additional powers; the expected benefits. 
By law, a poll cannot be binding, but the University of Durham will take people’s answers and analyse them, and DCC will proceed accordingly.
MY VERDICTThe existing structures are not solving the region’s problems.  And whilst I am aware of the risks, ‘going back’ is not an option. 
The decision is not: ‘Is this a good or a bad deal’.  The decision is whether we go into the future as part of a regional Devolved Authority, or whether we go into the future alone and in competition with it.
John D Clare

(This is my interpretation only, and not official DCC policy.  You can read the full Devolution Proposal here: and see the (independently designed) poll questions here:

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Recently I visited my mother. She reads the Daily Mail
 Now I know that the Daily Mail is a dreadful newspaper, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there was something that leapt out at me from that Saturday’s edition that made me bring it back home with me, and to write this diatribe against it. 

 I just hate the Daily Mail. It makes my skin crawl and, if it doesn’t make your skin crawl too, you perhaps need to be asking yourself some questions.  

Friday 13 December 2013
Friday 13 December had not been a major news day, but:
•  In Syria, al-Qaida-linked rebels kidnapped 120 Kurds.
•  There were riots in Bangladesh following the execution of an Islamist leader.
•  The Belgian Senate voted to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children.
•  A French government report recommended allowing Muslims to wear headscarves in schools.
•  News broke that a Chinese naval vessel had tried to force US warship to stop in the South China Sea.

•  The Iran nuclear talks stalled amid rows over US sanctions.
•  John Kerry reported that Israeli-Palestinian talks were going well and that a deal was possible by the end of April.
•  In the USA, a student opened fire at Colorado high school.
•  In London, 59 rare Beatles songs were released for sale, and
•  The Geminid meteor showers peaked.
… so it had not been a day when there was NO newsworthy news to report in Saturday’s paper.

Did the Daily Mail report ANY of these arguably important world news stories?
No. Instead we were treated, yet again, to a manipulation of ‘stories’ designed to indoctrinate us, to brainwash us into a Daily Mail state-of-mind.

Directed bile
Take the front page.
The main headline – fully a quarter-page in its own right – screamed:

The headline, of course, referred to allegations made in the trial of the Grillo sisters, who were accused of defrauding Ms Lawson and her former husband, but the article (which also filled most of page 4) was much more interested in lurid accusations about Ms Lawson’s private life. ‘While the trial is about the alleged defrauding, it has often appeared to be more about Miss Lawson’s marriage to Mr Saatchi’, confided the Mail reporter gleefully (and disingenuously, given that it was he who had made it so).
What angered me most about this headline were the inverted commas - an acknowledgment that the Mail knew this was an unproven allegation ... but they were headlining it nonetheless.  Outrageous.

The other headline on the front page, under a picture of Labour front-benchers Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey, ran:

Readers were directed to a two-page spread (pp.12-13) which implicated Harman and Dromey, through their involvement in the 1970s with the National Council for Civil Liberties (later ‘Liberty’) with a group (Paedophile Information Exchange) which had sought at that time to liberalise public attitudes towards paedophilia.
Despite a large sub-head which asserted that Harman and Dromey were ‘linked to group lobbying for the right to have sex with children’, the article was exclusively smear-by-association, and most of the article focused rather upon lurid narratives about the fate of various PIE activists.

It is worthwhile remembering this Mail journalist’s technique – invoking moral outrage whilst revelling in the prurient details … we will meet it again.
However, what struck me most at the time about these front-page stories was that they were both so aggressive, directing accusation at individuals whom we seemed to be being recruited to hate.

In fact, much of the newspaper seemed determined to get us to hate and despise other people in some way or other. Worst of all was the double-page spread: ‘Platell’s People’, which simply spewed bile indiscriminately on a range of prominent and successful people. Words like ‘oaf’, ‘deluded’, ‘misguided’ and ‘demean’ peppered the page. Basically, everybody was a worthless fool, except Ms Platell.
•  On page 47, Heffer did the same, attacking such as civil servants, MPs and teachers.
•  On page 24, the police were criticised for publishing a (well-meaning) poem about arresting a sex-attacker – apparently it trivialised sex attacks.
•  Jack Dromey appeared again on page 33 – this time for describing his postman as a ‘Pikey’.
•  Damien Hirst came in for it on page 42.
•  On page 45, Susan Boyle falling ill on the Jonathan Ross Show, apparently, had sparked fresh SuBo mental health fears.
•  Page 50 was about Lord Edward Somerset beating his wife, and
•  Page 51 attacked the ‘irritating’ Gwyneth Paltrow ‘where mystical New Age crackpotism meets rampant capitalism’. 

It was all negative, and it was all nasty. I came away with a bad taste in my mouth. What is the effect, I wondered, on people who read this hate-filled bile day after hate-filled day?

Moral outrage 

Much of the Mail’s bile against humanity is wrapped in the cloak of moral outrage – a journalistic technique which allows the reader to feel justified as they hate … and at the same time to self-indulge also in mild voyeurism.

The most blatant example was on page 21, where an article claimed that parents are angry at Beyonce’s X-rated new album and video (‘which even include her one-year-old daughter’) … whilst including pictures of the pop-star nearly-nude, and phrases such as ‘writhing around on the floor in her underwear’.

The spread on pages 30-31 was even worse, detailing the story of a woman who was:

… but was now waiving her anonymity to demand justice. This story included explicit descriptions of the rape.

Similarly, page 48 detailed the activities of a boy of 14 who was admitting to 12 sex attacks; and a double-spread on pages 54-55 described a visit to the outback camp of an incestuous family cult in New South Wales, Australia … along with (as you would by now expect) explicit details of their ‘mind-numbing, wicked sex-games’.
Why is this 'news'?  What relevance does it possibly have for people in Britain ... except to mildly tittilate?  Disgraceful.

This hard-copy-through-your-letter-box edition of the Mail did not have the semi-pornographic obsession with girls-in-bikinis of the Mail Online, but even so there was enough sexual detail to leave me with a very negative image of your average Daily Mail reader, tut-tutting judgementally, whilst gobbling up the dirty details. Hopefully it’s not true, but that’s the mindset the Mail clearly believes it has to pander to.

I knew the Mail hates foreigners, but I had not appreciated the full extent of their propaganda until I started to count the xenophobic articles:
•  The EU are bad-uns, of course, and there was a story about Brussels warning the government against using English language tests to refuse entry to migrants. Those meddling eurocrats, insisting we follow the law!
•  There was a story about European countries banning unlicensed villa rentals, which will damage the finances of Brits who have bought holiday villas abroad and want to rent them out over the internet. Again, those pesky foreigners, wanting emigrant Brits to obey their laws!
•  Apparently an Iraqi is suing the MoD to stop British soldiers shouting(!)
•  A fake bride who had a baby ‘just so she could stay in Britain’ warranted an article (remember, this is bad, not sad).
•  And a double-page spread described how foreign students are ‘fleecing Britain’ by taking out a student loan and then not paying it back when they return home.

A double-page spread on Kim Jong Un in Korea followed a familiar angle. Again, we were encouraged to fear and despise the dictator who has moved from PlayStation to murder … but the text treated the reader to tittillations such as ‘arms and legs scooped up by the bulldozer’, ‘one prisoner blown apart by mortar rounds’ and his Moranbong girl-band ‘who wear spangly mini-skirts and heels’.

Of course, foreigners who are morally questionable are even more hateful, and we were treated to a half page (p.33) with photographs of a father in China flogging his semi-naked son for truanting, and a long article on page 40: ‘This is how we do it in India, said doctor as he groped a patient’s breasts’.

Page 14 was an ideologically confusing page, with half of it devoted to an attack on the BBC for its ‘excess’ of reporting on the death of Nelson Mandela (an issue repeated in the leader), whilst the other half was an article on … the death of Mandela.

Right-wing trash
Women 'who choose to look after their children full-time’ are, of course, right up the Mail's anti-feminist, traditionalist street, so I could have expected an article bewailing the financial pressures they face – the Mail would have all women out of the workplace and into the kitchen.

But I was surprised by how few ‘bash-the-benefit-scroungers’ articles there were.
One headline complained that ‘three in four benefit cheats avoid prosecution’ – as it turns out, the DWP often choose to give fraudsters a ‘civil penalty’ (a fine of up to £2000) rather than take them to court

Page 10 had a full-page article headlined:

… a dream article for the Mail, because it allowed them to be enraged about immigrants AND the union Unite at the same time. These bloody unions, thinking that people should know their legal rights!

Page 12 offered the Mail another double-whammy – a witch who had won an unfair dismissal case against her Sikh employers, who she accused of mocking her religion. A textbox headed ‘Naked Ritual and Plenty of Spells’ offered the vital information: ‘some Wiccans perform rituals in the nude’.

Be afraid, be very afraid
By contrast, however, I was alarmed at just how many articles encouraged readers to be afraid, and depressed at the ‘terrible’ state of the world today.

According to this Saturday’s Daily Mail:
•  A ‘Bank Chief’ had warned that the housing market was ‘at risk of boiling over’ (he hadn’t at all, by the way - on the contrary, he had welcomed the upturn in housing, and simply assured people that the Bank would watch the market to make sure that it didn’t overheat as it had done in the past).
•  Pages 16-17 carried a double-page spread by Dominic Sandbrook entitled ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ – it was about how ‘our modern obsession with materialism is destroying communities, friendship and self-discipline'.
•  One woman had been mauled by her ‘maniac moggie’ (you’re not safe even in your own home).
•  Police were hunting yobs who had beaten a pony and left it in a canal to drown (p37).
•  A PSCI had brought a claim after she fell over a fence on a 999 call – a classic ‘what-is-the-world-coming-to’ Mail article.
•  An arguably ‘feel-good’ article about how a young wife had chased away a raider who had attacked her husband was a two-edged sword, because it held out the image of a world where you can answer your door … and find a knife-wielding robber there.

Yesterday, by sheer chance, I listened to someone else criticising the Mail on YouTube, and he told the story of his Mail-reading grandfather, who – when asked whether he would like to be young again – had said not, because the world today was just such a more awful place than it was in his youth. This man had lived through the Depression, the Second World War and three decades in fear of nuclear annihilation, but he still genuinely thought things were worse today.
The speaker openly blamed Mail’s ‘modern-life-is-shit’ propaganda for ruining his grandfather’s dotage; the Mail, he claimed, had helped to transform his grandfather into a frightened old man, who locked his doors and windows to keep out a world he was convinced was evil in every way.

What kind of person reads the Daily Mail?
Are all Daily Mail readers right-wing, prurient misanthropes, leching over the sexual details as they condemn the world from their armchairs?
I fear some of them are, but I fear much more that that is what the Daily Mail is turning its readers into.

What must be the long-term effect on these people’s state-of-mind, I wonder, when they are bombarded, every day, with a world-view which tells them that the world is full of evil, crime and failure?
The Mail is a daily dose of the most negative, harmful bile, and I am horrified to think of the damage it must be doing to its readers’ attitudes.

We get worried when youths watch too many ‘video-nasties’, or spend too long playing violent computer games. We fear that it will warp their minds, and we make them come downstairs and do something wholesome.

But do we not need to ration how much of the Daily Mail our pensioners are allowed to read?
Do we not need a ‘health warning’ on the Daily Mail:


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Great Council Tax Lie

The government has just announced its funding settlement for next year, entitled:
'A fair deal for councils and fair bills for taxpayers'.

It is a lie - it is not fair at all.

If you live in the north of England and have ever moaned about your Council Tax, read this.

At our end - Council Tax
County Durham has 237,000 properties. Not all are liable equally to Council Tax - smaller properties pay less, larger properties pay more. 85% of County Durham properties are in Council Tax bands A, B or C ... 60% of them are in Band A. Thus, although County Durham has 237,000 properties, their money-raising potential is reduced because they are generally low-value properties.

This is not the case throughout the country.  Take, for instance, Surrey.  Surrey has just 23% properties in Bands A, B and C, of which just 1.5% only are in Band A.  Thus Surrey County Council's council-tax-raising potential is high because it has generally high-value properties.

When calculating the tax-base, therefore, Councils tend to use a notional number of 'Band D equivalent' properties to indicate their council-tax-raising capacity.
Durham - with a population just shy of half-a-million - has 129,047 Band D equivalent properties (one Band D property for every 3.8 people).
Surrey - with a population a little over one million - has 493,987 Band D equivalent properties (one band D property for every 2.2 people).
In raw terms, therefore, £1 on the Council Tax raises almost twice as much revenue for the County Council in Surrey as is does in Durham.
Put another way, the Council Tax a Band D property pays in County Durham has to meet the needs of nearly four people - in Surrey, a Band D house has to pay for the needs of just over two people.

At their end - Government Grants
All this would be bad enough, but those four people in County Durham need much more care than the people in Surrey,  In County Durham there are generally more elderly people, more people out of work, more deprived families, more ill and disabled people etc. than there are generally down south.  So, while the money-raising capacity of taxable properties is much lower in County Durham, the needs they have to meet are much higher.

In the past, the government used a formula-funded grant to meet these needs, but this government has changed all that.  'Needs' are no longer paramount.  At one point government grants supplied four times as much of the County Council's revenue as the County's Council Tax receipts.  No more.  By 2017, the government will have more-or-less halved the grant-funding to County Durham - a total cut of £223 million a year on 2010. 

Instead, the government is allowing Councils to keep half of the business rate - which is all well and good, apart from the fact that County Durham's industry is weaker than business in other parts of the country.  Thus, in 2014-15, Surrey is expecting to get £140 million from the business rate - County Durham (half the size of the population), just £32 million (less than a quarter of the revenue).

If you're happy for the weak to go to the wall, I suppose this is fine and dandy, but is it 'fair'.

In the middle - why is my Council Tax so high?
I am often asked why our Council Tax is so high.  I hope this article goes some way towards explaining.

At the one end, because we are generally a poorer society than down south, our properties yield less per £1 of Council Tax, but have to fund a greater need.  At the other end, we face a government which refuses to acknowledge need, and wants regions to provide their own revenue via the Business Rate.

By any moral yardstick, this cannot be regarded as 'fair'.  It produces the scenario we face at the moment - of a Council forced to cut its services to make ends meet.

The Street Lighting changes which have caused so much complaint in the local newspapers will save just £1 million.  The Garden Waste collection charge which has created so much anger will save another £1 million.
By 2017, the Council has to save £100 million - a cause for sober reflection.

So, ask yourself - do *you* think that the government's funding settlement is 'fair'?

Friday, 15 November 2013

Aycliffe Needs to Respond to a Time of Change

Few people who voted for the Tories and Lib Dems in 2010 can have had any idea how radical this government would turn out to be. The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 has ushered in a devastating series of measures – of which universal credit, the benefit cap, job-seeker sanctions, ATOS disability assessments and the ‘bedroom tax’ are only the most high-profile.

How should Newton Aycliffe respond to this challenge?

The Contributory Principle
The Tories and Lib Dems have changed the underlying principle on which our society is based. Newton Aycliffe is famous as the town which embodied Beveridge’s post-war ‘Welfare State’, and we have lived ever since under the protection of a regime which accepted in principle the old socialist adage: ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’.
The ‘Welfare State’ – at least in those terms – is now dead and gone. A structure of benefits and protections remains in place, but the underlying principle has changed and we live now under the canon of: ‘to each according to their contribution’. It is deemed ‘fairer’, and it plays well with many people. So if you wanted a world where benefits were cut until they were inadequate to live on, where disabled people were mercilessly reassessed, where unemployed people were proactively sanctioned, and where some people on benefits were harried out of their homes… you’ve got what you wanted!
Of course, these changes affect some parts of the country more than others, depending on the level of local deprivation. Researchers estimate that the County Durham economy stands to lose £188million a year because of the welfare changes – a cut equivalent to £565 per working-age adult. The national average cut is £470 per adult. The south-east is generally less-affected.

Cuts to Councils
What has been happening to individuals, of course, has been mirrored in the government’s treatment of councils. The government has also been changing the principle by which it allocates funding to local councils – away from the old Rate Support Grant (which distributed support according to deprivation), giving them instead half of the Business Rate. This, of course, is very good news for the City of London. It is not such good news for County Durham, where the economy is relatively weak, but cuts to government grants will reduce the County Council’s income by £222million by 2018.
The result is that – at the very time our most needy and vulnerable people are being hit by welfare cuts – the power of the Council to step in and compensate has been removed. Durham County Council is barely half-way through the process and, as the financial noose tightens, we face eye-watering cuts to front-line services. People are, understandably, angry about changes to street-lights and garden waste collections; yet the County Council still has £100million more to cut from its expenditure.

What can we do?
These changes are being imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems on ideological grounds, and they are coming whether we like them or not. And while I am confident that Aycliffe people will vote for a Labour MEP in 2014 and a Labour MP in 2015, the colour of our government in the future will depend on how people vote elsewhere.
So what can we do, as a community of people upon whom these changes are being imposed?

1. Budget-setting
On 23 November, if you go to the Participatory Budget event in the Youth Centre (11am till 3pm), you will be asked to take part in a ‘Monopoly-board’ exercise where you can have your say on where the cuts should fall.
Taking part in this exercise is the first thing we can do. Indeed, I cannot stress how important it is that people take time out to attend and undertake this exercise, because – as it struggles to balance the budget over the next 5 years – the County Council will make its cuts in those areas you have indicated are least unacceptable. We cannot stop the cuts, but we can protect certain areas – at, of course, the expense of others. If you do not have your say, you may find that cuts are happening to which you have not given your consent.

2. Business

The second thing we must do, as a community, is embrace economic growth. Changes to benefits and council funding – with the multiplier effect – will strip perhaps 10% a year out of the County Durham economy … money that would have been spent on food, and wages, and clothes, and a myriad of other things on which the business life of our county depends. Hitachi offers us a wonderful opportunity for growth, but Hitachi alone will not even begin to compensate. We need to become a community geared for growth, where our planning regime attracts businesses, where our schools equip students for the world of industry, and where our town buzzes with entrepreneurial energy. If you attend on 23 November, please do not vote to cut the Regeneration budget, because without economic growth our society cannot survive … not in the present climate.

3. Charity
And the third thing we will have to do is to grow in charity. Because the Tories and Lib Dems have got it wrong. You cannot force everybody into work when there are eight times as many applicants as vacancies. You cannot fine people into smaller homes where there are no properties with fewer bedrooms. And simply declaring people fit for work does not allow a disabled or ill person to get a job. A ‘welfare’ system governed by the contributory principle is no welfare at all, because it ignores the simple fact that some people cannot, or have never had the opportunity to, ‘contribute’.
So, in our merciless new world, society has to step in where government has withdrawn; which is why I welcome my wife’s decision, as this year’s Mayor, to support the foodbank at St Clare’s.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Why Russell Brand is a false prophet

This post comes well into a long and acrimonious debate.

It was started by Russell Brand, who called for 'revolution'.
Brand was then challenged by a number of writers, not least Robert Webb.

He was then supported by Nafeez Ahmed.

This is my comment on the debate, with particular reference to Ahmed's article: 

Democracy under attack
Ahmed's article is simply one vapid nincompoop supporting another.

It is reminiscent of many of those writers in the 1930s who attacked 'broken' democracy and encouraged people to step outside the system and seek a 'better' way (in the 1930s, that meant fascism).
And Ahmed and Brand are as wrong now as Moseley and Northcote were in the 1930s.

The thing about democracy - its one advantage as a political system over all others - is that, when it is 'broken', it carries within it the mechanism to put things right.
That mechanism is the vote.

Of course, Brand and Ahmed are bit players in the political game, and it is typical of the Left that we should spend so much time ripping apart the very people who should be fellow-travellers! 

Democracy faces a much more coherent and organised threat from the corporatists, who are using the recession to take over whole states.
But the defeating of them is just the same - the vote.

And that is why I can agree with Brand - effete, rich, hypocritical, immoral elitist that he is - right up to the point where he urges people to abandon the democratic system.
At that point, what he has to say is simply music to the ears of the corporatists.
Because that, of course, like the fascists in the 1930s, is exactly what they want.
If they can reduce democracy to apathetic chaos; if they can consign it to the dustbin of the rejected ... then the way is open from them to move in.
And the form of government with which they replace democracy will not allow of any real change ... without revolution, real revolution, bloody revolution.

A recipe for disaster
For the moment, however, Ahmed and Brand are posturing within the cocoon of safety offered them by the very democracy they seek to overthrow.
Brand wouldn't last two minutes in a real revolution. And Ahmed is living in a fool's illusions where he is going to wave a magic wand and, shazam, the world is going to right itself.

Read Ahmed's article. Apart from re-iterating, yet again, the 'broken democracy' themes, it is only at the very end that he tells us what we might do to bring in the millennium.
Here, therefore, is the critical paragraph:

"Civil disobedience and occupying public spaces ... occupying mainstream political spaces ... intensive, organised grassroots campaigning, lobbying and dialogue with political actors; occupying media narratives [and] new equitable forms of production, consumption and exchange; occupying food and energy spaces by pooling community resources to grow our own food and produce our own energy in our communities; and so on."
By this, apparently,
"a new, emerging post-carbon paradigm will be co-created by people themselves from the ground up".

Best of luck.

Firstly, of course, how do you organise all this in an anarchic world where you are extolling the virtues of disengagement? It will be interesting whether we see Dr Ahmed sleeping rough outside Parliament this winter, or whether he chooses to continues his desk-bound career as a writer for the Guardian instead.

But, secondly, does anybody with even the smallest smattering of historical knowledge think that an extended Occupy campaign and a resurrected Digger movement will dislodge the corporatist oligarchy which currently dominates our government? All it will do at most is give the excuse for the authorities to further restrict our democratic freedoms, and hasten the fall of our only real way-without-bloodshed back to power.

The REAL - and much easier - answer
And what makes all Ahmed's twaddle particularly galling?
The irony is that we do not need Occupy movements. 

We do not need to go back to our allotments and prepare for food-exchange.
We already possess the power to change things.
It is called democracy.

First, we all join the Labour Party and force it to adopt the grassroots socialist policies it ought to be advocating. Then we all go out in 2015 and vote it into power.
Couldn't be easier - no sleeping rough, no spadework ... just meaningful mass-engagement.

But then we live in a world where people are too apathetic to attend political meetings or put a cross on a piece of paper.
So I suppose it is easier still to sit and roar with approving laughter at a comedian who is advocating a course of action few of his audience will have any intention of even considering.

The abiding danger in this, however, is that democracy's enemies - of which Russell Brand is a self-declared ally - will have reduced our democracy to an impotent shell before people realise that they have to get off their backsides and change the system.

Because - if they succeed in that - we will have by our inaction have condemned our grandchildren to a world where terrorism, bloodshed and suffering are the only way to change the government.

So please, people, wake up!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Pick a side and step along...

A tweet by Labour Left partisan @MagsNews has summed up the conferences and hit the nail on the head for me: 
"Cameron turns his guns on young claimants while Mr Miliband puts energy moguls in his sights."

The Fat Cats state their case
It sums up the current difference between the parties, and gives us a real hook for campaigning: 

Who do you blame for the country's current problems - the NEETs, or the fat cats?

Of course, the fat cats - along with IDS and the Daily Mail - would have us believe that it is the NEETs, with their lazy 'something for nothing' attitudes, who are bringing this country to the verge of collapse. The fat cats call themselves 'wealth creators', and tell us that unless we give them more and more money, we risk armageddon.

Personally, I've know some NEETs who were naughty, but they've never struck me as being in the 'destroyer-of-worlds' category. Ultimately, I cannot see the justice in punishing people for some misfortune of health, redundancy or birth. It strikes me as simply unfair to fine people for having a spare bedroom when there are no other houses available, or to sanction jobseekers when there are not enough jobs.

The Tories are bailing out the bankers, handing over the NHS to the corporations, giving tax breaks to the rich - everywhere I see the fat cats being rewarded ... but for what? There is no 'trickle down', and things are simply getting ever-harder for the majority. 

The Labour alternative
By contrast, Ed has set out a Labour stall which promises an appropriately firm approach to welfare and spending (nobody is suggesting that we want class war) ... but which nevertheless also demands an appropriate contribution to the benefit of society from the fat cats

No wonder they and their media lackeys are squealing.

Labour is saying that it's time we ALL played our part for the good of our society.

Pick a side and step along.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Motion to Full Council of 18 September 2013 to mitigate the ‘bedroom tax’

The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ has been a social catastrophe for many of our communities’ most vulnerable people. I have therefore submitted to Council a motion which uses the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 to make a proposal to government to mitigate the social damage of the under-occupation penalty.
This blog explains why this approach is worth a try and, hopefully, will persuade councillors to support this motion.

The Sustainable Communities Act (2007)
The Sustainable Communities Act (2007) was a Labour measure. The idea of the Act is that – if a community thinks a certain rule or regulation is damaging the local economy, harming local democracy, or undermining social inclusion – it can go to the local council and ask it to submit a proposal, under the Act, for the government to remove that barrier/problem.

As soon as I found out about it, it struck me that this Act was a perfect vehicle to mitigate one of the effects of the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’).

The Social Catastrophe of the ‘bedroom tax’

The 'bedroom tax' - whatever you thought of the principle behind it - has turned out in its application to be a social catastrophe.  This has been well-documented in the newspapers.

There is one aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’, however, which I think is particularly cruel and unjust … which is where affected tenants get trapped because they are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

One vulnerable gentleman I met whilst I was campaigning this May sticks in my mind. He had moved to Newton Aycliffe many years ago. Because no one-bedroom accommodation was available at that time, the then Sedgefield Borough Council had put him into a three-bedroom council house. Now, however, on his £70 a week, paying the ‘bedroom tax’ on two spare rooms was utterly impossible for him. There was, however, still no one-bedroom accommodation for him anywhere in Aycliffe. So he was being fined under the under-occupation penalty, but was unable to leave for a smaller house … and simply stacking up arrears. It struck me as a kind of retro-active entrapment.
There was some talk of him perhaps being able to get a place in Ferryhill Station – a suggestion which enraged his neighbours, who had looked after him for a decade. The cost to this gentleman, even if he managed to escape the financial trap of the ‘bedroom tax’ was the loss of all his social support mechanisms, all his contacts, and all the security that he so desperately needed.

It was, in fact, an unarguable example of a rule or regulation damaging social inclusion in its application.

And it is this aspect of the ‘bedroom tax’ (therefore) which we should be able invoke the Sustainable Communities Act to mitigate.

The Basic Idea
My suggestion, therefore, is to ask Durham County Council, under the Sustainable Communities Act, to submit a proposal to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

That proposal will ask, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, that tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them. The justification will be that this will allow Registered Providers a breathing space to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation for them (which we all know they are trying very hard to do already).

I have taken advice from the County Council’s legal officers – who say that such a proposal would indeed be valid under the Sustainable Communities Act. So I have submitted a motion to that effect to the Full Council of 18th September.

Arguments for the proposal
I fear that, for many people, this will seem too mild a proposal – they would have preferred instead a full-blooded demand for the abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’.

I, too, have many problems with the ‘bedroom tax’.
I have campaigned against it, and attended demonstrations against it.
In a perfect world, I would do more than simply ‘mitigate’ it.

However - given the fact that there is a 'bedroom tax' and that for a number of years to come we are stuck with - it makes sense that, if there is a mechanism to mitigate it, we might as well take advantage of that mechanism to try to do so.

So I would ask you to give the idea a chance, and to think about it.
I hope you will agree that it is worthy of support.

Firstly, my motion does not try to make the moral argument against the ‘bedroom tax’ and demand its abolition – to be blunt, plenty of people (including the United Nations, no less) have done that and the government has just ignored them. My suggestion, by contrast, uses a government law against the under-occupation penalty. It asks the government, not to abolish the ‘bedroom tax’ law, but merely to use another law to mitigate its effect, in a specific circumstance … in the exact way the Sustainable Communities Act was in fact enacted to do!

Moreover, since all it is seeking is a two-year moratorium to allow RPs to adjust, it therefore presents as quite moderate and reasonable – instead of trying to overturn the whole 'bedroom tax' (to which the government would just say no) it is simply asking for a change to the exemption rules to mitigate the negative social impact on County Durham.

Indeed, I would suggest that it is almost unarguable! Surely there can be few people who can find any grounds on which to insist that someone who has nowhere to move should not be given time whilst we find them somewhere to move – one has to be very cruel to say: 'no, these people are trapped and we’ll make them pay and pay’! I am therefore hoping that I will be able to persuade, not just the Labour Group, but the whole Council, of the justice of my suggestion.
Thus I am hoping that Councillors will be able to give unanimous support to the motion.

Secondly, an advantage of going through the Sustainable Communities Act is that, under the Act, the government cannot simply dismiss the idea out of hand – it has to give a reason for its decision. Moreover, if the government rejects the proposal (on whatever grounds) and Durham County Council does not agree with the grounds of rejection, we can ask a body called the ‘Selector’ to consider challenging the government’s decision. Since the Selector is the Local Government Association, moreover, I would hope that the Selector would support our case, which would therefore be resubmitted with all the authority of the LGA behind it.

Thirdly, if the County Council submits my suggestion under the 
Sustainable Communities Act  it will trap the government on the horns of a dilemma. If the government actually cares about releasing the housing (which it claims is the justification of their ‘bedroom tax’) it will be able to agree to my proposal, since its under-occupation measures are not actually releasing the housing whilst tenants are thus trapped in their houses. If the government denies the application, however, it will be seen to be intentionally implementing a measure which harms vulnerable people.

Finally, my proposal would move the onus of finding alternative accommodation from the tenants - many of whom are vulnerable people - onto the RPs … which would further reduce the psychological pressure the 'bedroom tax' places upon them. If we get the two-year moratorium, it will practically all-but-end the issue of the bedroom tax for many people in County Durham until we have a new government which - Labour or not – might be prepared to reconsider the whole issue. This would bring monetary and psychological relief to thousands of people across the County. The worst that can happen is that we are seen to be seeking reasonable legal relief for vulnerable people, whilst the government is demonstrated not to care. 

None of the above means that I accept the 'bedroom tax' or agree the 'bedroom tax'.  If there were a motion asking to abolish it I would vote for it.
All my motion asks is - given that there is here an opportunity to oppose a specific fault of the bedroom tax - that we might try it.  

Before we can submit a proposal…
The rules of the Sustainable Communities Act require that we undertake a consultation; we cannot just submit the suggestion. The consultation would involve local RPs, tenants and other interested parties. It may well be that that consultation will lead to changes in the suggestion – for example, the two-year moratorium might be considered too long or too short.
Thus the proposal is that the Council asks its officers to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to bring back to the Council, when councillors will have a chance to look at it again and, hopefully, submit it.

I am not aware of anyone else trying this approach. But it is very persuasive and – if it succeeds – it will relieve thousands of people in County Durham of a housing nightmare. Surely it is worth a try.

The text of my motion is, therefore:

Recent figures have proved that the under-occupation penalty (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’) is having severe consequences for many social housing tenants. Hardship is particularly unjust where affected tenants are unable to downsize because there is no suitable accommodation available.

The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 allows Councils (provided that interested parties have been consulted) to submit proposals to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government where the proposal would increase social inclusion.

Council therefore resolves to consult with interested parties and thereafter prepare a report to Council seeking authority to make a submission to the Secretary of State proposing that, for a period of two years, where suitable alternative accommodation is not available, tenants liable to the under-occupation penalty should be exempted, until suitable alternative accommodation can be found for them, in order to allow registered providers time to implement adjustments and strategies necessary to find/create alternative accommodation.