Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Re-powering Streatham

Last month I attended a meeting organised by Transition Streatham, with a view to setting up a community-based energy company.

Several people locally were interested in the possibility of setting up a local not-for-profit initiative. (Similar plans are already moving forward in Brixton )

It comes as a new report from Ernst and Young suggests that falling solar costs and rising fossil fuel prices could make large-scale solar PV installations cost-competitive without government support within a decade.

The search is on for a suitable building which can house the first 10-15kW installation in Streatham (so if you know of anywhere you think might be suitable do get in touch).

If you would like to get involved, there is an open meeting on 15th September at 7.30pm, at The Streatham Business Centre, 1 Empire Mews, Streatham, SW16 2BF where the Re-powering Streatham plan will be outlined, there will be a presentation on way similar schemes have worked in Germany, and members of the board to drive the scheme forward will be selected.

If you would like to attend, send an email to film (at) to book your place.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Opposing the use of water canon

David Cameron announced this morning that water cannon will be available to London police at 24 hours' notice. It comes straight after a YouGov poll out today finding 9 out of 10 British people saying police should be able to use water cannon.

Yesterday, some information came through on water cannon (HT to Chris, a GP National Volunteer and Scott Reading) which needs to be made widely known:

Water cannon are occasionally used in Northern Ireland, but have never been used on the British mainland.

Water cannon use high power jets at 5 to 25 bar (73-360psi) well within the threshold for serious injury. Likely direct injuries include eye injuries, bruising including to internal organs, brain injuries, and strain injuries. Indirect injuries from debris energised by the water and falls are also high. In 2010, 66-year-old Dietrich Wagner was blinded by water cannon at the Stuttgart 21 protests in Germany.

Water cannon are seriously operationally limited. Using 4000 gallons in as little as 4 minutes necessitates continuous refilling, guarding water sources and use of several units at once. Additionally, the large units have restricted mobility and manoeuvrability, and so, are nearly useless against mobile crowds in narrow streets.

At a cost of around £800k per unit the initial purchase and continuous maintenance costs of water cannon are considerable and, in light of cuts to police, unaffordable.

By their very nature, water cannon are indiscriminate and cannot be used in a precise and targeted manner without also hitting anyone in the vicinity including innocent parties. They also have a long history of repressive use against the civil rights movement in the US, and protesters in the former Soviet bloc, Africa and the Middle East.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London at a crossroads

Home Secretary Theresa May made an almost throwaway comment on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning - that we have a tradition in this country of “policing by consent”.

To a large extent this is true. Our policing may have failed in many ways. But we have also avoided some of the heavier-handed and undesirable approaches evident in many countries around the world.

But we are now at a crossroads in London (and other parts of the country). The police were outnumbered and outmanoevered during the events of last night. So this can go one of two ways. There is talk this morning of the use of curfews, the army, watercannon and even rubber bullets. If these kinds of tactics are employed on a large scale, in the long run it will be hard to go back. It will likely end with more powers for the police, which it has been suggested have been part of the problem, not the solution. And it will further weaken the “policing by consent” approach, reinforcing the "us" and "them" divide.

Another way forward, and one far more in keeping with the British tradition of policing, is to use community power. We are already seeing it in action with the widespread clean-up initiatives taking place this morning throughout London, organised by local people. We have seen it too, with numerous stories last night of people helping one another and walking them home to ensure their safety, as well as local groups coming together to protect property non-violently (notably migrant communities). In contrast with groups employing social media to organise to loot and burn, there is a more hopeful story of groups organising to put things right.

But the two approaches are also distinct, and cannot easily be pursued at the same time. Again, we saw this last night, with police asking people to leave the streets so that they could get on with the job (which by implication did not involve local people). What might things have looked like if whole communities came out onto the streets instead in a well organised and intentional demonstration of solidarity?

The road that we now travel down will depend a great deal on how the problem is perceived. Despite the claims that this is “just criminality”, the picture that seems to be emerging is more specific. This seems to be largely (but not entirely) a phenomenon of some (and only a few) young people in a certain age range. The actions seem to be of a specific type – arson, robbery, looting and the destruction of property. And there seem to be socio-economic factors at work, including social exclusion and inequality.

The analysis is only just beginning, and the issues are complex. We shouldn’t rush in with sweeping generalisations. We should not engage in knee-jerk reactions which we will later come to regret. But neither can we afford to ignore what lies beneath. What we believe the problem to be will also shape the approach employed. Both the way we want to be policed and our beliefs about what has gone wrong, will determine our response.

It has been put well by Ally Fogg (reproduced here and hat tip to Mark Braud) who says:

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer.

When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism & looting we've seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

There are few things more dangerous to a society than a populace with nothing left to lose.

What we may well be seeing is young people engaging in criminal acts due in part, or at least made far easier, by their disconnection, alienation and exclusion from society. (This is not an excuse, but to point to a potentially significant contributory factor). If this is the case, the answer is not more social exclusion, but social re-engagement and inclusion. Indeed, to fail to engage local communities and resorting primarily to heavy-handed approaches, may be inadequate in the short-term and make things far worse in the long-term.

There is no magic wand to wave. But a way forward surely lies in encouraging as much as possible the engagement and mobilisation of communities – particularly the friends, families, institutions and networks around the people at the centre of the current troubles - to address together the problems which lie at their heart.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Responding to Tottenham - and now Lambeth

The trouble that began in Tottenham has now spread to Lambeth.

Some politicians and commentators have gone no further than expressions of outrage, suggesting simply that what has happened isn’t supported by the overwhelming majority of people in a community, and heaping the blame on a few ‘criminals’.

But this does nothing to explain the timing, let alone make any headway in getting to the root of the problems and issues involved.

Several observations can be made, and there are concrete actions that should be taken:

1. To locate those involved in the rioting and looting ‘outside’ our communities is to wash our hands and abdicate responsibility. No one exists in a vacuum. What is taking place affects all our lives. Those directly involved also have friends, families, and surrounding networks, whose attitudes, opinions and behaviour will have a direct influence and bearing on what is going on. This is not simply about the behaviour of a handful of people, but the feelings and actions of whole communities.

2. Central are the relationships of these communities with the police, both in the broadest sense, but also in the events which were the catalyst for the rioting and looting - the shooting of Mark Duggan and the subsequent protest.

3. The Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 were triggered by the death of Cynthia Jarrett, who suffered a stroke after police officers searched her home. As we saw over her death the truth is a vital part of the healing and restoration process. A full and urgent investigation is needed into the shooting of Mark Duggan.

4. We need an urgent independent review of the wider relationship between police and local communities, and in particular of stop and search powers. I travelled through Brixton every day at the time of the Brixton riots 30 years ago, when the 'Sus' law under which anybody could be stopped and searched if officers merely suspected they might be planning to carry out a crime, were used. The Scarman report which looked into the riots eventually led to their abolition. But the impact of current laws needs to be urgently examined.

5. It is notable that the trouble has not taken place in the leafy suburbs, or the richer areas of London. The wider economic climate, in particular large rates of youth unemployment must be taken into account. The situation is made all the more worse by cuts to youth services. In Lambeth there have been cuts of £11.85m to the council’s children and youth services budget, including a £250,000 reduction to the youth offending team budget alone. This makes the possibilities of addressing the underlying problems even more remote. We need swift action to restore vital youth services.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Campaigning Dad selected as Green candidate for Lambeth and Southwark

A dad who confronted David Cameron during the last general election campaign over his plans for disabled children, has been selected as the Green candidate for Lambeth and Southwark in next years London Assembly elections.

Jonathan Bartley, who has lived in Lambeth and Southwark all his life, was also the national spokesperson for the 'Yes' campaign in the recent referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons. People in Lambeth and Southwark backed the change.

A regular panellist on BBC1's The Big Questions, and Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show he writes for the Guardian newspaper and is a paper reviewer for BBC Radio London.

He says: "Next year's London elections are about the kind of London we want to live in at a time of economic hardship and cuts. We have a clear choice between a city which favours the wealthiest, or one which champions equality, inclusion, sustainability and accessibility for all.

"It is shameful that one of the richest cities in the world should also be one where the gap between the richest and poorest is one of the widest. It is important to fight cuts to housing benefit, the NHS and youth services, but it is also important to propose alternatives. The Greens who have been elected to the London Assembly over the last ten years have done this successfully. I look forward to working with then, and others, to ensure we get more Greens elected in 2012 and make the alternative vision a reality."