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Broxtowe Labour Parliamentary Spokesperson
(MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010)


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Open-cast update/cards with the secret police/solar energy

5th April 2012

Hi all,

Lots of feedback urging me NOT to abbreviate my emails, they like in-depth discussion, but also a few saying yes, do get on with it, man! With 10% of the constituency reading it, there's bound to be a range of preferences. What I'll try is starting with short items for those of you with less time and/or patience, and then a more substantial discussion for those who like such things.

By the way, if you know others who you think would like to be included on the mailing list, please forward this to them and/or let me know. By the next election, I'd like to have say 15% of the constituency on the list.

This one will include the Soviet secret police anecdote and then a substantial (long) environment discussion, but first an important update:

1. Is the open-cast mining application coming? – hardening certainty

Jane Burd, who I worked with in the last campaign against open-cast development near Cossall and Trowell, has spotted a "scoping" application by British Coal. She writes: "Scoping is gathering information for the Environmental Impact Assessment and includes wildlife, geology, hydrology and all so on. If they are planning to write an EIA then this is the first step to putting in a planning application to extract coal." The application is here:

http://tinyurl.com/trowell

So it's clearly on the drawing board. If people interested in mobilising again on this issue would like to contact me, I'll put you in touch with each other. If anyone would like to coordinate the effort, please let me know. This should be a non-partisan thing and I'll be pleased to work with anyone on it.

Briefly to recap in what I'll try to make a balanced way, for those not previously familiar with the issue: open-cast coal involves stripping off coal fairly near the surface across a largish area (as opposed to deep coal, which involves going down more than across and is hence more expensive and dangerous but more limited in area). Consequently, it will thoroughly mess up a landscape for a decade or so and drive out much of the wildlife.

When they've taken all the economically viable coal, they will do their best to restore the landscape (a typical condition is that they deposit money to do this in advance, so the company can't go bust and leave the mess) and this can eventually look quite nice (see Moorgreen for a good example), but of course one's had a nasty decade of noise, dust, traffic and despoliation, and the original ecoculture may be hard or impossible to restore. It produces a few local jobs but not many – it's mostly automated and run by specialists who come into the area and push off when it's finished. Obviously it does make some money for the company and any local economic activity is good, other things being equal.

In an ideal case, the site will be horrible anyway, in which case the eventual cleanup will leave it looking much better. But this, of course, isn't the case at Shortwood Farm (near the Trowell M1 service station), so I and (in my experience) most local people oppose the idea. A further factor is that having messed up one area the temptation is to apply to move on to the next adjoining one, on the basis that the view is spoiled anyway.

2. Cards with the secret police

My mum's family was Russian. They were pretty established in pre-revolutionary Russia – they included landowners, bankers, various professionals and a minor prince (whose son is my uncle, now living in peaceful obscurity in Penzance and voting UKIP). However, they intensely disliked the erratic, oppressive and corrupt Tsarist government and some of them got involved with the Mensheviks, the (relatively) moderate social democrats who rose to power in the first revolution in 1917, when Russia was still at war with Germany in World War 1. Led by Kerensky, a charismatic intellectual not rooted in peasant and industrial worker circles (think Tony Benn), they were keen to introduce a Western-style left-wing democracy, and continue to fight Germany. My great-grandfather was his legal adviser.

They were rapidly outmanoeuvred by the Bolsheviks under Lenin. They basically (I'm simplifying a very complex political drama) said that there wasn't time for all this democracy and human rights stuff, what people needed was peace and enough to eat. That struck a chord and the better-organised Bolsheviks soon took power in a second revolution, ended the war with Germany and consolidated their grip. Kerensky went into exile in Britain (I remember meeting his widow a few times as a child).

My family were dubious about this development, but they did agree that the country needed radical change, so they decided to stay on and help to make the new era a success. Move on a few years, though, and the climate darkened, with random arrests of suspected dissidents becoming commonplace. Late one night, the secret police came calling on my grandfather, Leo: he was wanted for interrogation.

Leo wasn't very political – he was a defence lawyer in criminal cases. But the key thing about him (I remember him from my childhood) was that he was a relentlessly boisterous lover of life and people in general. "Come in!" he said affably to the policemen. "When is this interrogation then?"

"It is at 8 tomorrow morning, comrade. We must detain you in the meantime."

"That's nine hours away! What a waste of time! Sit down and have a drink. Do you play cards?"

They did indeed play cards. And for the rest of the night, they swigged vodka, drank tea from the bubbling samovar and played. In the morning, they staggered off to the interrogation centre, all half-cut. "He'sh a good fellow," one of them muttered to the bemused interrogator. "Go eashy on him, eh?" And after half an hour of perfunctory questions, he was sent home.

Why didn't they arrest his father, the genuinely political one? Why did they let any of them go? Because in those days the whole country was still chaotic, and the systematic terror imposed by Stalin was still years away. By 1922, though, the family could see the writing on the wall, and most of them emigrated, mostly to Britain.

But what's nice about the story is that my granddad wasn't cunningly manipulating the policemen. He really did think that the best way to spend a night was to drink vodka and play cards, and he just assumed that the secret policemen would feel the same way. The fact that it made them like him was an incidental by-product. When he came home, he made light of the whole thing to his anxious family: "They were pleasant fellows! No problem!" (I like to think I've inherited a little bit of his cheerful buoyancy – it's a key to enjoying life.)

Anecdote next time: my accidental porn movie and an early expenses scandal.

3. The environment – yesterday's issue, or tomorrow's?

One of the things that happens in difficult economic times is that the environment takes a back seat in the political debate. If you're well off and contentedly piling up savings and taking nice holidays, it seems natural to worry about the climate and conservation of rare species. If your job is at risk and you're worried you might lose your home, or you're disabled and the government has just cut your support, the future of the great crested newt seems a frivolous distraction.

As always, politicians react to voter mood, so you don't hear much from the parties about the environment at the moment. It's easy to be cynical about this slavish tracking of the opinion polls, but we do want politicians to pay attention to their voters' concerns, so it's unreasonable to complain if they do exactly that. However, it's also part of politicians' job to draw attention to issues that they think voters might be underrating. It's unfashionable to like Tony Blair, but one thing I always admired about him is that he was never afraid to take on people who disagreed with him and try to get them to have another think.

The thing about the environment is that any policy relating to it needs to be sustained. Some people believe that it's all nonsense and the planet will be just fine without any special effort. That's a coherent view, if in my opinion a mistaken one. But what you can't sensibly believe is that it makes sense to make an effort on the environment for a few years and then drop it. That's a waste of time and money.

Take solar energy. This isn't the ideal country for it, but it's better than you might think, since photo-voltaic cells don't require sunshine to gather energy, just brightness. Accordingly, a few years ago we introduced "feed-in tariffs" for solar energy, effectively subsidising people to fit solar panels on their roofs, reduce their energy usage and even earn money by selling surplus energy back into the grid. The objectives are:

(a) Making Britain less dependent on imports of oil and gas from places like Algeria and Russia
(b) Making you personally less dependent on central energy supply
(c) Reducing Britain's carbon emissions and pollution
(d) Saving Britain imports in the long term.

Subsidies cost money, and as the Daily Mail periodically "reveals" with horror, 10-20% of your current electricity bill is going on green subsidies like this. We could scrap them and rely on that nice Algerian Government to send us gas forever, but would that be wise?

However, if you want people to invest in anything – solar panels, fish finger factories, night clubs, whatever – you need to offer them a reasonably stable environment. And what's happened is that people who invest in solar panels are being stuffed: the tariff they get for producing solar energy is being whittled away a few years after it was introduced. The Government tried to stuff them retrospectively, but that's been rejected by the Supreme Court (see http://tinyurl.com/solarchange ), so it's now only new investors who are losing out. This, though, means that people who produce solar panels have a less healthy market, and it risks future investment in one of the new competitive world industries that we say we're so keen on.

Now I'm conscious that I'm irritating some of you by going on about this when the world is in economic difficulty, but let me annoy you further by being unfashionably pro-European. This is really an area where EU cooperation makes sense – indeed not just the EU. Before I was voted out in 2010, I was involved in supporting the European Supergrid project. The idea here is an electricity network covering the whole continent and North Africa, on the basis that we have different weather at different times. If winds in Britain are low, reducing wind energy output, they're probably high in Italy or Poland, and vice versa. If the sky is heavily overcast in Denmark, it's probably bright in Spain.

The effect is to make us all less dependent on local weather and to smooth out supply across Europe, which means that we actually need to invest less in generating capacity. Obviously we have to invest more in the grid to make it work, but that's largely a one-off and can be done gradually (like extending a motorway network). You can read a good summary here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_super_grid . The whole thing is still at the drawing board stage, but if I do get back in 2015 it's one of the issues I want to resume pushing.

Happy Easter!

Best regards,

Nick

By-elections, Fair Trade and NET meetings

4th March 2012

1. By-elections

By-election campaigning is now in full swing. The candidates in the Toton borough council by-election are:
Jane Marshall (Lab), Barbara Carr (LibDem), Khaled Halimah (Con), Keith Marriott (UKIP).

I've known Jane for a long time – she's one of the most active local members, and comes from a family with a long tradition in Broxtowe Labour. She is particularly committed to protecting public services in the current climate of cuts.

Barbara was previously a Beeston North councillor, but stood down there last year. She is traditionally critical of Labour, like her husband Steve, who remains a councillor but left the LibDem group because he opposed the Lab-Lib coalition.

I've not met Khaled yet, but Keith is a veteran UKIP campaigner.

I hope you'll support Labour's campaign, and if you'd like to help with the leafleting, canvassing or final push on election day March 15, please contact Jane on marshalljane@rocketmail.com or tweet her on @jazi68.

The candidates is the Toton and Chilwell by-election are John Doddy (Con), Lee Waters (UKIP), David Watts (LibDem), so we have the novelty in this traditionally Tory area of the LibDems having a clear run to challenge them. John is a long-standing Conservative activist and local GP: he helped launch Anna Soubry's 2010 campaign. David Watts is the former borough council leader and part of the Lab-Lib coalition on the council. He stood for Parliament against me in the last two elections and is clearly the most experienced of the three in council issues, though I've not yet met Lee.

2. Local events

FAIR TRADE: Tuesday 6 March, 6pm for 6.30 until 8.30, Beeston Town Hall, Foster Avenue, Beeston

Moses Renee, a Fairtrade banana producer from St Lucia in the Windward Isles, is coming to Beeston to talk about his experiences of Fairtrade and the benefits it has for his community. Fairtrade Beeston is delighted to be able to invite you to hear Moses talk about his experiences and answer your questions. You will also be able to visit stalls and sample a range of delicious Fairtrade products, and find out more about Fairtrade and how people in Beeston can get involved. Most of us try to buy Fairtrade products, but have only a general idea of what the benefits are for producers, so the organisers hope to give new insights for consumers and encourage the Fairtrade boom even further. The event is free. To help them with planning, if possible please reserve a place by emailing contact@fairtradebeeston.org.uk

Also on March 6, NET will be holding an information evening about progress on the tram and what is likely to be happening next at Eskdale Junior School, Eskdale Drive, from 5.30pm to 8.00pm on March 6th. People are welcome to drop in at any point during these hours, so you can go to both events for a varied evening!

Best wishes

Nick

New acting council leader/Rylands controversy/Toton news

9th February 2012

1. New acting council leader

Broxtowe's council leader, Milan Radulovic, has stepped aside for the time being to concentrate on defending the alleged fraud case, due to come to court next month. Pat Lally has been elected as his deputy and is expected to lead the council until the issue is resolved.

2. Rylands controversy

A nasty controversy has broken out over a small Hindu temple site in Rylands. There are two levels to this. At one level there are perfectly legitimate concerns about parking: the normal attendance is expected to be limited, but people want contingency arrangements to avoid congestion, especially during a festival event planned in 2013. The temple organisers, who are local businesspeople, have said they're happy to instruct attendees only to use designated car parking and for the festival to have no local parking at all and bring in participants by bus.

Parking is always difficult in the Rylands so it's reasonable to raise these concerns and any others (e.g. noise): everyone involved seems keen to plans sensibly and avoid any problems. As one step in the preparation they organised a public meeting with local councillors to listen and respond to objections, and this unfortunately turned nasty, with a local Methodist preacher being shouted down, organisers being told to "get back to your own country", and disruption to the point that the police were called. The windows in the temple building have now been smashed twice by hooligans and it appears that some non-local extremists are taking an interest: it's been eagerly reported on a BNP blog.

I'm keen to separate the two issues. Parking and noise concerns are absolutely normal about any community facility and they need to be properly addressed. However, if it was, say, a scouts centre or a Catholic church, I doubt if people would start shouting insults and abuse and smashing windows, and it's obviously upsetting for the organisers (who have lived in the borough for a long time) to feel that some people are determined to make them unwelcome. That's something we should try to remedy. Matt of the Beestonia blog (http://beestonia.wordpress.com/) has suggested this:

"Here's what to do - it'll take five minutes. Send the Temple a `Welcome to Beeston' card. Grab a card, tell them that you have no problem with them being here, and beat the nazis with simple goodwill. Go on, do it now. You're bound to have a card knocking about somewhere that will be fine, pen a greeting, bang it in an envelope and address it to

The Sri Thurkkai Amman Temple, West Crescent, Beeston Rylands NG9 1QE

Drop it in a postbox and know that in a small but significant way that you have pushed a bit of hate out of the world."

Seems like a very good idea to me.

3. Wilkos

My strictly unofficial understanding is that a way forward has been found and Wilkinsons will be back after a break, but that it could take a year or more before the reopening. I'll continue to report anything I hear.

4. County council reprimanded by Government

In a very unusual development, the Conservative County Council has been reprimanded by the Government for excessive cuts, proving that even they draw the line somewhere. The Conservative Minister commenting, Oliver Letwin, responded to the Nottingham City Labour MP Lilian Greenwood: "The hon. Lady is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written in extremely uncompromising and tough terms to the county council in question, reminding it that there is statutory guidance, and that the proportion by which the voluntary and community sector is cut should be the same as the proportion by which the council's own budgets are cut. I am delighted to pay tribute, unusually, to the hon. Lady's own council, which, despite coming from a different political party from mine, has actually followed that rule, cutting both by roughly similar proportions. (Hansard 08/02/12 Col 289)"

5. Housing development proposals

The developers seeking to build on green space in Toton offered to brief me even though I'm opposed to the proposal, so took an hour to hear what they had to say. They will be holding a public exhibition at the Japanese Water Gardens on Tuesday 21st February 2pm – 8pm.

One twist to the issue that I'd not realized before is that the Localism Act put through by the Government recently pushes responsibility for housing down to borough level. This positive-sounding change is problematic, because it means that it's no longer possible for Broxtowe to argue that we don't have the space for 6000+ new homes and they should be located in, say, the open spaces of Rushcliffe: Broxtowe now has to accept all the housing (or prove that it isn't needed, in the teeth of the Government's preferred demographic projections). If Broxtowe proposes a smaller number and it's rejected, they will then be unable to prevent development anywhere in the borough. The awkward consequence of this is that the council may be forced into an unpalatable choice: Toton (already opposed by a unanimous full council vote), Field Farm (also unsuitable and highly controversial) and some higher-density developments building in Beeston (the least bad option in my view, but many disagree).

That said, I still think the site is unsuitable, but if you live in the area, have a look at the exhibition and see what you think. I've alerted the local TEPS group and they are encouraging concerned residents to attend. As always, I'll keep you posted.

Best wishes,

Nick

Discuss 40 years in politics with David Blunkett/Economic policy

23rd January 2012

Hi all,

Following the very positive response to my unorthodox comments last time on the EU, this one is going to grasp the thorny nettles of the economy and the political dilemmas which get in the way of intelligent discussion. But first an invitation and a reminder:

1. Discussion with David Blunkett

[The meeting will be held at 7.30pm on Thursday 2nd February at Inham Nook Methodist Church in Pearson Avenue, Chilwell, Nottingham.]

I'd like to invite you to an evening discussion with David Blunkett. He's going to be focusing on Labour's alternative to the current government, but also reflecting on his life in politics over the last 40 years. I'll be chairing the meeting and contributing my own comments. In addition, there will be ample opportunity to ask questions about anything you like. David is stimulating and frank and has always been committed to the issues of making British life better (rather than merely winning elections. Ironically, although he's blind, I found he was almost the only Minister to add personal notes to official civil service-drafted replies, often drawing on his own experience in the tough Sheffield environment where he grew up.

The meeting has a dual function: it's also a fund-raiser. In the run-up to the last General Election, we were outspent by the Conservatives in Broxtowe by a 3-1 margin. While there are limits to how much electoral success money can buy (the swing from Labour in Broxtowe was once again one of the lowest in England, even though we did just lose the seat), it's obviously unsatisfactory if one side can send out much more campaign literature than the other. I'd like to invite you to contribute £5 (or £2 if you're not currently employed) on the evening – more if you can afford it! – to help redress the balance and level the playing field next time. If you can't attend but would like to contribute, you can find a donation button on our website www.broxtowelabour.com.

2. Field Farm feedback – still worth commenting

Although the official deadline for the consultation has just been reached, I know from experience that late feedback is considered until the planning committee actually meets. So if you'd like to respond and haven't yet, please see tinyurl.com/fieldfarm .

3. Politics and the economy

Given that Ed Balls has said that we can't promise to reverse the Government's spending cuts, many people – notably some union leaders – have been asking whether Labour actually has a distinct economic strategy? Does Labour's policy amount to doing much the same, just a bit less harshly?

This misunderstands what Balls said (essentially that we can't credibly promise now what we can do in 2015 when the economy may be very different from now), but there are some genuine dilemmas that I'd like to explore.

First, briefly, about debt and deficits. As I've written before, the widespread belief that we have or had an unusually high debt level is simply wrong. In 2007, just before the banking crisis, the key debt:GDP ratio was lower than in 1997, when Labour first took over. It remains lower than most countries – it is, for example, better than Germany's. That's why we are not yet under severe market pressure. We do, however, have a deficit problem (debt is what you owe; deficit is the annual increase in what you owe) – our deficit is higher than most countries, because the size of Britain's financial sector meant that a bigger banking bailout was needed than in, say, Germany. If that isn't addressed, we *will* eventually have a debt problem.

The dilemma is that we also have a recession, and recessions reduce tax revenue and increase unemployment payments, making deficits worse. If the deficit is tackled by severe cuts, as the Government is doing, the recession deepens and we risk ending up making the deficit worse – which is what happened in the 1930s. That's the reason that it now looks very unlikely that the Government will reach its target of eliminating the deficit in this Parliament. There is an entirely separate argument about each individual cut, but the economics of cuts during recessions are generally that they're unhelpful and simply reduce everyone's standard of living without solving the problem.

On the other hand, we can't just indefinitely run a deficit and hope for the best. So the challenge facing every government is to find the `sweet spot' (or `less sour spot' might be a better description) of a level of cuts or tax rises that reduce the deficit without depressing the economy.

Whether that actually exists is really not clear: every government is groping for it. But plainly some cuts and tax rises hurt the economy more than others – from the purely economic viewpoint, the abolition of the regional Business Link advisory service network for small business is probably a lot worse than, say, reducing the coastguard service. Cuts that affect poorer people have a more severe impact on the economy because people on low-incomes normally spend what they get (feeding back into then economy), whereas someone who is already wealthy may spend the same whether their current income rises or falls.

In responding to this, Labour has two difficulties. One is that most people have bought the "Labour left us in unmanageable debt" narrative, so by disagreeing we look as though we're in denial – yet we can't really apologise for something that didn't happen. That issue, however, is historical, and by 2015 many people will have lost interest in arguing about who did what when. More seriously, because we believe that the Coalition's programme will actually shrink the economy, anything we promise in today's terms may be unrealistic by 2015. Really we'd like to fast-forward to 2014, by which time we'd have a concrete situation to talk about.

Hence the complex message –

(a) we don't agree with the scale of the cuts, and believe they will shrink the real economy.

(b) We don't agree with many of the specific cuts, such as reductions to policing, the damage being done to the disabled and low paid, and the squeeze on the NHS, though we accept a public sector wage freeze if it's a genuine alternative to mass redundancies.

(c) We genuinely can't predict what we'll be able to promise to reverse in three years' time: we expect to reverse the most damaging cuts, but promoting a recovery will need to be the first priority.
It's awkward, but it's better to be honest, and if we want to win in 2015 we simply have to be frank about the economy. It's difficult, but worth discussing - I hope that many of you will come to the meeting and tell us what you think!

Incidentally, a Beeston resident has put up a petition which some of you might want to consider supporting: he argues that there should be a review of the German economic model (with more emphasis on manufacturing, intervention and employer-union partnership) to see what we can learn in Britain. To read the text and consider signing, see http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/27047

4. Local news

Community activist Richard Macrae is trying to get Neighbourhood Watch alerts to more people in Staplefoird North – if you email him on richardmacrae187@hotmail.com he'll add you to the group to get updates.

Best regards

Nick

 

 

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