Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Opportunity Costs of Bad Government

BFTF actually has another blog, which can be found at www.nottinghamscience.blogspot.com and is called the Nottingham Science Blog (or NSB for short).

NSB aims to summarise many of the wonderful sciency public lectures that are given at the University of Nottingham, Cafe Sci or Trent University, as well as reporting on events such as the University of Nottingham's "May Fest" where Nottingham is invited to come along see a wonderful display of hands-on activities, talks, and displays that explain what the researchers at the University are up to. It is a great day out.

And then there are British Association of Science events such as "Science in the Park" at Wollaton Hall, where, again, adults and children alike can interact with researchers to understand what they are doing.

Meanwhile, BFTF also occasionally interviews researchers and posts transcripts of the, invariably interesting, stuff they said.

BFTF loves, really loves, writing the NSB. There isn't, so far as BFTF is aware, anything else like it in Nottingham.

The UK aspires to be a knowledge economy. One would hope that a blog like NSB would be a help, in some small way, of moving towards that goal, of encouraging people to love science and to showcase at least some of the great sciency stuff that happens in Nottingham.

The Nottingham Science Blog

But if you look carefully at the stats you will see that hardly anything has been written since May 2013. Now from May to September, BFTF was on the mother of all fitness drives, hence no output during that time. But what about the three months since? Why isn't there much stuff from Sep-Dec13?

It's not like there is a shortage of material, BFTF has jotters full of scribbled notes from lectures that need to be converted to posts. And there are plenty of hi-tech companies in the region who could be showcased on the blog.

So what gives?

The answer is that Bad Government gives.

Every moment that BFTF spends volunteering to mitigate the effects of bad government policy, or to stop bad policy being implemented, is a moment that could be more productively used elsewhere, such as helping the kids with their homework, writing stuff for the NSB, interviewing scientists, learning about the UK's energy policy, growing vegetables, and many other activities...

All these things are the opportunity cost of spending time volunteering on social issues. BFTF has no doubt it is the same for most volunteers. The loss that this represents to British Society in terms of advancing and developing must be staggering.

Foodbanks
BFTF has spent a significant amount of time over the last three months helping with a foodbank. The government may think that Foodbanks are a great example of the "Big Society" but the reality is that they are ridiculously inefficient - ordinary working people get taxed and then with the little money they have left they buy food to give to foodbanks, and then Fooodbank volunteers, with the little time they have, arrange to give the food to those in need.

It's so inefficient as to be almost a sign of a dysfunctional society. And meanwhile the taxman and supermarkets take their cut along the way. Especially the taxman.

The NHS
BFTF loves the NHS and it is consistently listed as one of the institutions that people value most. When the government does something stupid that threatens the NHS, BFTF is going to act. And again the result is that other, more productive things don't get done.

Benefit Changes
A major source of people being referred to foodbanks is the slowness of implementing benefit changes. The time and effort taken to challenge local councillors (who often do not respond initially) is time and effort that could be used more productively elsewhere.

Acting like Kim Jong-Un
Imagine my surprise when, in the same week as North Koreas leader Kim Jong-Un's freshly disgraced uncle was airbrushed out of a documentary, the Conservative government in the UK decided to purge 10 years (2000-2010) of speeches from their archive. It's almost as though they don't want the public to know what they promised the British public they would (or would not) do when in government.

It seems reasonable to challenge the government on why they are acting as though Soviet Russia was their role model, and this is something that will, again, mean that more productive things don't get done.

May 2014 : Tea Bags
Coming home after a fairly busy day at work, there were many things that BFTF wanted to be doing on the evening of May 1st 2014.

Writing up a report on a fascinating public lecture by a researcher on antibiotic resistance was high on the list, with the aim of making people aware of the great public lectures that are held in Nottingham....or helping No3 son practice his maths for the SATS exams that are looming, with the aim of helping him get the best marks possible...or preparing for a talk on trees in Nottingham to some kids at BMCC.

But instead of any of these productive activities, BFTF spent the time breaking down boxes of tea bags into sets of 20 and bagging them up to go into foodparcels at the Himmah Foodbank. Foodparcels that will go to local people who cannot afford to buy enough food to live on. The top three reason people are having to resort to using foodbanks, according to Trussell Trust analysis of their data are Benefit Delays(31%), Low Income(20%) and Benefit Changes(17%).

BFTF resented every minute spent packing those tea bags - because BFTF pays taxes SPECIFICALLY so that we can all live in a civilised country - one where the government uses those taxes to ensure that people have a safety net, one where people have the RIGHT to expect that, if they suddenly fall on hard times, the state will be there to give them a hand up.

BFTF, in short wants to live in country of fairness, compassion and justice, not a 60million person version of Lord of the Flies.

When the government FAILS TO DO ITS JOB, the opportunity costs, in terms of what citizens have to give up to fill in the resulting gaps, is shocking - and seems to be completely ignored by politicians.

And, just to be clear, all the other members of the Himmah Foodbank team were also unable to perform other, more productive activities because of the time that they were giving to paper over the cracks left by bad government. Time that they were spending in, for example, organising food collections, or delivering foodparcels, or liasing with referring agencies.

And the Himmah Foodbank is just one (and a relatively small one at that) of the many Foodbanks in Nottingham.

A bread basket full of 20-teabag-packs, for adding to foodparcels.
Why are ordinary citizens having to give up their time to do this?

UKIP and Refugees from Syria.

Sent this email to the Nottingham branch of UKIP (BFTF's first engagement with the party)

Dear UKIP

I note the Nigel Farange said on, or around, 29th Dec that :

"I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think this country should honour the 1951 declaration on refugee status that was agreed...But the original ideas of defining what a refugee is were good ones and I think, actually, there is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people fleeing Syria, literally in fear of their lives."

And that, a day or two later, Mr Farange said :

“If we do not help these people then who will? We must as a nation help Christians who are fleeing Syria to escape death and torture by allowing some to come to the UK.”

My question is ask whether the latter comment replaces the former and, if not, how UKIP proposes to ensure that refugee status is not based on the faith of the applicant.

Update 21st Jan 2014:
Received the following from UKIP:
"It is not UKIP Policy that Syrian asylum seekers should be welcomed or turned away based entirely on religious faith. However, given that refugees are processed on need it is entirely appropriate that people fleeing religious persecution and civil war between religious factions in their home country have their religion taken into consideration. We believe It is common sense to do so..."

Friday, 27 December 2013

Are you a "Type 1" or a "Type 2" person?

There are plenty of people out there in Nottinghams Muslim community who have tried to encourage their local mosque or community centre to set up programs or events relevant to second and third generation Muslims who have grown up in the UK.

In many cases, there people have been so traumatised by the experience that they have simply given up on being volunteers.

This post aims to look at the breadth of possibilities available to those who wish to make a positive difference to society, and is based on an exasperated comment from a former volunteer asking how to tackle the "local stubbornness and politics" that had hamstrung efforts they had made to organise events at their local masjid in the past.


1) Look into your heart
2) Tackling local stubbornness and politics
3) If at first you face defeat, try again...
4) ..then do something else, no point being a damn fool about things
5) Challenging National Organisations


1) Look into your heart...
Before getting into any detail, dear reader, it is probably a good idea to ask you to read the following two scenarios and look into your own heart to see whether you tend towards being a "Type 1" or a "Type 2" person...

Scenario A:
Imagine you have talked to your local Imam about an urgent social need (homework club for kids / high levels of poverty / need for a youth club / need for a Mums and Tots facility etc)and have offered to do all the legwork and set the event or facility up. All you need is the Mosques approval and support. The Mosque has point blank refused to recognise the issue as something that the Muslim community or the mosque need concern themselves with, or perhaps refused to recognise that the issue is even real.

Type 1 : You really want to do something practical so you keep talking to the mosque leadership periodically, or you ask others to join you in lobbying the mosque committee, or you scale down the project, or talk to a different mosque, or work with another community organisation, or work on a related topic that is acceptable to the mosque

Type 2 : You have been proven right in your view that all mosques are uninterested in acting on urgent social issues. You decide to give up trying to do anything practical and, instead, complain to your friends on Facebook and spend your time circulating conspiracy theory links.

Scenario B:
You are concerned that the US (the UK's closest military ally) has a policy of undertaking "double tap" aristrikes which kill innocent first responders and rescuers - something that is a war crime. You challenge the government on this but receive a poor response, which does not address the issue at all.

Type 1 : You remain concerned about what is being done in your name, and publicise the poor response you have received, or encourage others to challenge their MP, or ask for help from other organisations, or ask your mosque to campaign on the issue.

Type 2 : You have been proven right in your view that no governments or other state organisation will ever listen to anyone. You decide to give up trying to do anything practical and, instead, complain to your friends on Facebook and spend your time circulating conspiracy theory links.

If you are a "Type 1" kinda person then BFTF hopes there is something useful for you in this post

If you are a "Type 2" kinda person then, you may wish to ask yourself whether you are looking to make a difference or whether you are looking for an excuse NOT to make a differnence....

2) Tackling local stubbornness and politics
First thing to say here is that BFTF is a bit rubbish at doing this, being a bit too bolshie for his own good sometimes, and also suffering from a desire to punch people who put politics above doing good.

Fortunately, there are other people in Notingham who do not have these faults and are able to spend the time and effort that is required to build relationships, and hence trust - which can then be used to move community organisations forwards.

A beacon of good practice in this regard is CitizensUK, whose Nottingham presence (which has been eye-poppingly effective in achieving positive change for the city's most vulnerable citizens) had been mentioned in this blog on a number of occasions.

Everything that BFTF has learnt about community organising and overcoming politicla barriers and excuses has come from Citizens. BFTF urges you to have a read of at least some of the posts detailing Citizens work (here, here, here, here, and here.

Relatedly, a brilliant blog post by brand expert Jon Acuff lists the three steps required to get influential people to help you:

1. Be their friend.
2. Seriously, be their friend.
3. Have you been their friend yet? Quit wasting time. Be their friend.

3) If at first you face defeat, try again...
When faced with an organisation that ignores reasonable requests and seems uninterested in moving forwards, BFTF adopts a number of approaches. These may or may not be best practice, but they are what BFTF does:

i) Keep challenging the org every few weeks / months if they said they would do something but are failing to deliver.

ii) Keep a record of how hard it is to usefully engage with the org, perhaps on a blog post (but preferably without naming the org directly, as this is only going to get peoples back up) and send this link to the org to try and shame them into action.

iii) See if another org can help (e.g the Police Domesic Violence Unit for DV issues)

BFTF should probably be asking others to lobby the mosque concerned, but doesn't because BFTF does not want others to have a bad experience in community activism and then give up it entirely.

4) ..then do something else, no point being a damn fool about things
Having said the comments above, there are such things as dead horses that are not worth flogging. And in these cases it can be best to scale down ones expectations.

For example, when foodbanks first began to sprout up in Nottingham, BFTF was very keen that Mosques, and the Muslim community, should be supporting them, which resulted in the following train of events:

i)Engage with orgs representing Muslims in Nottingham as a whole
Problem: Muslim community leadership is dysfunctional, no meaningful orgs exist

ii) Engage with "Communities Group" of City Council who should have contacts with many mosques
Problem : Very poor experience with the Communities Group, unlikely that they will do anything useful in a timely manner.

iii) Engage with mosques across city directly
Problem : No relationship with many mosques, no time to build relationships with so many orgs, just turning up results in potential argument or stonewalling. BFTF recalls a mosque chairman refusing to believe that there was anyone in Nottingham not getting enough to eat. And also two mosques whose Imams/Chairmen said that they had people coming to them directly asking for food, when BFTF asked how they had responded they said, dismissively, that they had not given them anything (yes, of course, silly me for asking)

iv) Work with a few local moques that BFTF DOES have a relationship with
This action, much smaller in scope than originally intended, did actually work! BFTF was also working with Himmah at this point.

5) Challenging National Organisations
BFTF was recently talking to a very good hearted friend and suggesting to them that, even if they felt the government or organisations such as UN were untrustworthy (which is a very reasonable view to take!) that did not absolve one of the responsibility to try and encourage government and companies to do the right thing.

And it is also worth remembering that it was NATO and the UN (not any Muslim country) who stopped the bloodbath in the Balkans. And (at the time of writing) it is UN troops who are offering at least some protection to civilians in South Sudan

People can and do make a difference. You can see that difference at work right now in the way the political parties are fighting to get tough on immigration. In the past it was exactly this kind of action that got civil rights for blacks in the US and South Africa, the vote for women and many other things.

Ain't nothing gonna change unless people campaign for it!

Every one of the charities and NGO's that BFTF has interviewed has said that engaging and challenging companies or governments is something that people need to do. Here are just a few examples of how lobbying has resulted in positive change:
http://bftfblog.blogspot.com/2013/01/proof-that-activism-really-can-work.html

And even just one or two people REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, see here for info on how just two compliants got a MailOnline headline changed from "Devout Muslim" to the infinitely more accurate "Heroin Dealer": http://bftfblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/jubel-miah-is-no-devout-muslim.html#dec

Finally, in conclusion, its perhaps going back to the key question.

Are you a "Type 1" person?

Or a "Type 2" person?


Monday, 23 December 2013

Bad Behaviour in the Commons

The House of Commons recently held a debate on the rise in the number of Foodbanks. The debate was provoked by a Change.org petition calling on the House of Commons to debate hunger and the rise in Foodbanks. Incredibly, the petition managed to get over 100,000 signatures (the number required to get debated in Parliament) in just two days. As someone who is peripherally involved in Foodbanks, BFTF paid attention to the debate and has written a post with some of the comments made by MP's here.

This was not a debate on some arcane aspect of law. This was a debate demanded by the British public, on a topic of urgent humanitarian concern.

It was, in short, important - and people were watching.

So one would expect MP's to:
a) be present and
b) be on their best behaviour.

Neither of these things happened.

The Government side of the House in particular was very sparsely populated and some measure the behaviour of the MP's can be gained by the fact that Eleanor Laing the Deputy Speaker of the House, had to intervene some 14 times in the first hour of the debate alone, as shown below :

1) Order. I must warn hon. Members that if everybody takes four minutes, plus the time allowed for interventions, only about a third of those who wish to speak will be able to do so. One would hope that Members, out of consideration for others, might take less than four minutes where at all possible.

2) Order.

3) Order. The hon. Gentleman should make a brief intervention, but it must be heard by the House. He may now make his intervention, but briefly.

4) Order. I cannot hear the shadow Minister, but she is speaking perfectly clearly. There is too much noise in the Chamber. Members should have the courtesy to listen to the hon. Lady moving the motion

5) Order. I do not understand why there are conversations going on all around the Chamber. [Interruption.] I can see where they are taking place. If Members are here to take part in the debate, they must listen to the hon. Lady who is proposing the motion.

6) Order. This is not a football match. Do not shout at the Minister. She will give way when she is ready.

7) Order. There is no point in having a debate if nobody listens to the person who is speaking. Be quiet.

8) Order. There are too many people standing up. The Minister is not taking interventions at this point. Allow her to make her speech.

9) Order. We cannot hear the Minister.

10) Order. [Interruption.] Order. The House should pause for a moment, calm down and listen to the Minister. Everyone will have a turn to make their point in due course. [Interruption.] Order. I call the Minister.

11) Order. If hon. Members do not keep quiet and listen to the Minister, she will have to repeat her speech over and over again—[Interruption.] Order. If the House keeps interrupting me, I will call order again and again, and very few hon. Members will have the chance to make the speeches they have prepared. Let us have silence. I call the Minister.

12) Order. Members must not shout at the Minister. It is clear that she does not intend to give way, and she is not going to give way if you shout at her. Please be quiet, allow the Minister to finish her speech and then everyone will have a chance to make their contribution.

13) Order. The hon. Lady must be brief, but she must be heard.

14) Order. Hon. Members will allow the Minister to conclude her speech.

Interventions by the Deputy Speaker during
the first hour of the Foodbank Debate 18 Dec 2013

BFTF asked No3 Son (10yrs old) what he thought of the behaviour of the MP's and his comments were:

"Not a good example...worse than children...they should show respect to each other...Say "If I may" instead of shouting...Shouting is rude...by the look of their behaviour they shouldn't be running the country...they shouldn't say anything about children's behaviour until they have sorted out their own behaviour."
BFTF wonders whether MP's ever feel, frankly, ashamed at their behaviour in Parliament and poor impression it gives of their ability to run the country.

Commons attendance during the Foodbank Debate 18 Dec 2013

Friday, 6 December 2013

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States. The negotiations aim at removing trade barriers (tariffs, unnecessary regulations, restrictions on investment etc.) in a wide range of economic sectors so as to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.

There are many areas of concern regarding this trade agreement, most notably that it may allow companies to sue governments who try to protect areas of social policy from commercialisation (e.g. Heathcare). Some of these issues are described in more detail below.

1) Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
2) Lack of Protection of Social Policies such as Healthcare
3) Cautionary tales from other Free Trade Agreements
4) NAFTA - Framing, legalese and adverse effects
5) Petitions etc and feedback from politicians
6) Further Links

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1) Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
ISDS procedures are a component of many Free-Trade agreements and allow companies to challenge governments if they believe their rights to free investment have been curtailed, even if this has been as a result of government action for environmental, health or other social good reasons.

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2) Lack of Protection of Social Policies such as Healthcare
The Health and Social Care Act 2012 mandates that compulsory competitive tendering for NHS services.

This, of itself raises issues relating to the lack of evidence that private operators are more efficient than the NHS, the administrative burden tendering imposes, the risks of disrupted care (imagine your GP "provider" switching your GP around every two years), and poorer working conditions for medical staff - but these are issues for another post.

The mandatory tendering of health services may allow large US healthcare companies, who come from an environment that lacks the public service ethos of the NHS, to grab and hold parts of the NHS - and prevent future UK governments from bringing those parts of he NHS back into public hands. One wonders how bad a service such large companies will be allowed to provide before their contracts are terminated.

Given that they can take the UK Government to court, the answer may well be "very".

More information on this at www.stopttip.net (yes, they are biased, but it is the only info BFTF has available at this point).

The UK could exempt the NHS from TTIP (as the French have done with their media industry).

In a world class example of doublespeak, David Cameron responded to a direct question on this issue as follows (Hansard for 19th June 2013:
"Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister confirm that the NHS is exempt from the EU-US trade negotiations?

The Prime Minister: I am not aware of a specific exemption for any particular area, but I think that the health service would be treated in the same way in relation to EU-US negotiations as it is in relation to EU rules. If that is in any way inaccurate, I will write to the hon. Lady and put it right"

George Monbiot has written about ISDSs in the Guardian, commenting that :
"The hearings are held in secret. The judges are corporate lawyers, many of whom work for companies of the kind whose cases they hear. Citizens and communities affected by their decisions have no legal standing. There is no right of appeal on the merits of the case. Yet they can overthrow the sovereignty of parliaments and the rulings of supreme courts."
Adding that one of the judges has commented that:
"..it never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all ... Three private individuals are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from parliament."
And there is a chilling effect on new legislation, with threatening letters from corporations ensuring that new public protection laws are watered down or dropped entirely, especially in the case of environmental legislation.

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3) Cautionary tales from other Free Trade Agreements
Philip Morris sued Australia for billions of dollars in lost profits when the government there took action to reduce teenage smoking by introducing plain cigarette packaging. Unbelievably, the tobacco company simultaneously claims that there is no evidence the legislation will reduce smoking and is also suing for lost profits. So, Philip Morris, which is it?

Canada is being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly for revoking the patent on drugs because (according to the Canadian Government) they were not as effective as claimed in the patent (Straterra) or that they did not meet Eli Lilly's promise of being significantly better than other drugs in the marketplace (Zyprexa). In contrast, Elli Lilly wants the Canadian legislation to change so that even a "scintilla" of evidence, no matter how dubious, is enough to grant and maintain a patent.

Dutch healthcare firm Achmea initiated arbitration proceedings against the Slovak government because of the possibility that the administration would nationalise the existing private healthcare providers to create one single, public health insurance company. Achmea claimed that the proposals would go against the Bilateral Investment Treaty between the two countries. The tribunal ruled against Achmea in this case, although it is a little bit more complicated than that. Full story here.

Read this on how Canadian asbestos mining interests attempted to overturn Frances, health risk related, ban on the import of asbestos.

South African healthcare reforms are under threat from GATS.

Lots more examples at the NAFTA Wiki page

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4) NAFTA - Framing, legalese and adverse effects
Dr Elaine Bernard at the Harvard Law School has written about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), commenting that :
"The intellectual property provisions are just one example of how there is extensive protectionism in this so-called "free trade" agreement. However, this protection applies only to corporations, not to workers, consumers or small farmers.
The "free trade" aspect of NAFTA can be found in the serious restrictions that the agreement places on a government's ability to regulate. It explicitly requires, for example, that governments treat social institutions -- such as education or health care -- as service commodities open to the competitive pressures and the dictates of the marketplace."

Dr Bernard also gives an example of the impenetrable language used in the agreement :
""Nothing in this Chapter shall be construed to prevent a Party from providing a service or performing a function, such as law enforcement, correctional services, income security or insurance, social security or insurance, social welfare, public education, public training, health and child care, in a manner that is not inconsistent with this Chapter."[Chapter 11. Section 4 of Article 1101 on Scope]

and explains that :
"Double negatives such as "not inconsistent" are common language in many trade agreements. They are a trade lawyer's version of a positive assertion. That is, they allow the drafters to avoid a clear assertion that something is permitted. Instead, activities are crypticly permitted as "not inconsistent."

Dr Bernard also mentions the summary of NAFTA made by Michael Walker, chief economist with the right-wing economic think tank Fraser Institute in Canada who said:
"a trade agreement simply limits the extent to which the U.S. or other signatory governments may respond to pressure from their citizens."

Regarding protection of standards, Dr Bernard comments that :
"If a standard in one country is higher than the standard in another countries, such legislation and regulation could be challenged as "technical" or "non-tariff" barriers to trade. Once challenged, the onus is on the defending country to prove that its regulation is "based on scientific principles" and "risk assessment.".

And the focus on product instead of process undermines environmental and food safety legislation :
"The trend in regulation that NAFTA promotes is to regulate product not process...Regulating product means that if you grow a tomato and use DDT or other chemicals that are banned in this country, we cannot prohibit the import of that tomato. We can simply inspect it at the border to assure that any DDT residue is within legal limits, but we cannot regulate process, that is, how it is grown. Ultimately, this undermines our domestic regulation."

Of particular interest to the UK, is the way in which national healthcare systems can be targeted under free trade agreements :
"U.S. corporations [are ] pointing out that the Canadian government run health care insurance system works as a de facto government subsidy to industry -- and therefore could be viewed as a violation of the trade agreement. Lee Iacocca has stated that he saves $700 per car by producing in Canada because of the free (for him) Canadian health care system. He does not have to bargain with the Canadian auto workers over rising health care costs...so for Iacocca it's like getting a $700 government subsidy per car."

Some more information on the danger that TTIP poses for the NHS at this NHA Party article

Dr Bernard points out that, in contrast to NAFTA, the EU has mechanisms in its Single Market that reduce equality - such as allowing free movement of labour, the Social Charter and structural adjustment funds for poor regions.

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5) Petitions etc and feedback from politicians
A petition from SumOfUs regarding TTIP

You can read TTIP straight from the horses mouth, as it were, by visiting this European Commission page.

A Q&A section can be found here. Note in particular that it says that the treaty must be approved by the European Council and the European Parliament before it becomes law.

An anti-TTIP group points out that for every one NGO seen by the EU, over 20 trade representatives are seen.

BFTF has asked the local MP and Conservative Party how they are going to ensure that the TTIP agreement will prevent abuses of corporate power as described above.

And also, for example, will food goods coming into the UK from the US have to have the (sensible) EU format for dietary information which states calories per 100g - or will the US format which states calories per arbitrary serving amount be allowed?

Labour Response
Received a response from BFTF's local MP saying that "So far, the Government has demonstrated no intent to bring transparency and accountability to to bear to these talks..." and that no impact assessment has been carried out of the deal on the UK.

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6) Further Links
Open Democracy Article

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Talk : The Hyson Green Eco-House

Cafe Sci hosted a fascinating talk recently entitled "The Hyson Green Eco-House" and presented by Moby Farrands from the Partnership Council and Dr Amanda Smith who is a Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Nottingham Trent University. This post is based loosely on the contents of the talk, with some added reference material thrown in.

Combating Climage Change
With some 80% of climage change emissions being caused by cities, they have become a focus for efforts to reduce C02 emmissions. Not least because it is often hoped that the rich mix of creative people and the way they are always changing and developing will allow innovative solutions to develop.

However, "top down" solutions imposed or parachuted in from central government simply do not work in the current economic and social climate, with factors such as transient populations and the economic downturn making it hard for projects to gain traction.

Fortunately, government thinking has moved on and the current thinking is in terms of "community resilience" and also encouraging "community organising"

Nottingham, of course, has an awesome community organising..er.. organisation in the shape of Nottingham Citizens, who are currently campaigning on the issue of the Living Wage and who have been featured on the BFTF blog here, here, here, here and here

A Nottingham Citizens Event - It's where change happens.

The Partnership Council and Area 4
The Partnership Council works on a model that empowers local people to influence decision makers. You can read more about their work at www.partnershipcouncil.co.uk. They have noted that within Area 4 (which is a broad strip of the city running from New Basford in the north, through Hyson Green and down to the Park) there are some areas where there is a big fuel poverty issue, and where deprivation is severe even on a national scale.

The fact that much of the housing is rented and terraced effectively puts the homes outside of many of the available insulation or energy generation schemes (landlords not interested, grants not available to tenants, no gardens for heat pumps, roofs too small to install usual solar panel kits etc)

And yet the houses are some of the most in need to help to reduce fuel costs, as front doors often open straight into the living room, roof insulation levels are low and solid walls lose a great deal of heat.

And there are few, if any, resources available online that are applicable to houses such as these.

So The Partnership Council are working with local residents to develop energy reduction approaches that are either very cheap, or that the tenants can take with them when they leave.

Wollaton Park, Nottingham

TimeBanks
A key piece of the jigsaw is the use of "Timebanks".

Time Banking began in the UK in 1998 and it works by people giving their time, rather than money.Participants ‘deposit’ their time in a Time Bank by helping and supporting other participants free of charge. They are able to ‘withdraw’ their time when they need to ‘pay’ for free help and support of their own.

In Area 4, the Time Bank project is called the "Skills Exchange", which has over 300 members including individuals and organisations. Those members have ‘exchanged’ an amazing 7,100 hours of free help, including ironing, jewelry repair, tuition to learn English and British Sign Language, gardening and DIY. For instance, one member ‘house-sat’ and looked after another member’s cat, whilst other members without cars have got help with lifts to and from places like the vets or health centre.

Implementing Change
The traditional approach to implementing change in local communities has been to hold meetings in libraries, print out leaflets etc and generally carpet bomb the area with information.

The only problem is that it doesn't work.

Moby commented on how the transient, often immigrant, communities in the most deprived areas of Area 4 will not visit libraries as they view them as places for students or old people trying to stay warm.

And they are under such stress from simply making ends meet that they do not have time to read complicated leaflets and fill in forms.

Also, in a comment that had BFTF searching his own heart, these communities are sick and tired of their children being lectured to at school about eco light bulbs (which they cannot afford) and Fairtrade food (which they also can't afford)

What DOES work, however, is genuinely engaging with the community and giving them something that is immediately useful to them, such as a social get-together with some freebies and useful items such as potted vegetable seedlings at a neutral, very local, venue.

In this context, timebanks can then allow the tenants to take advantage of their collective talents to reduce heat loss with simple approaches such as using old duvets to make insulating curtains, or installing Portiere curtains to reduce drafts and heat loss (see also here).

The Partnership Council then uses the opportunity of these initial low cost measures to inform tenants, hopefully in a more amenable atmoshpere, about other technologies such as the those eco-light bulbs mentioned earlier.

Encouraging people to have pride in their homes is another aim of the project, and again the timebank is key to allowing tenants to easily and cheaply access skills such as making window boxes.

After several years of delays in actually getting a lease signed, the Partnership Council have been given a house in the area at a peppercorn rent and hope to be using it to showcase many of the low cost technologies that are most relevant to the local residents.



Alain Job and his African fare - at an (unrelated) Area 4 community event

A comparison with Aspley
During the Q&A it was asked why there was such a difference between Hyson Green, say, and the large areas of Aspley had been fitted with solar panels. The response was that whereas in Aspley the homes were social housing, all owned by the Council, in Hyson Green the homes were owned by a multitude of independant landlords. This made it hard to implement the large scale program that was undertaken in Aspley

It was also noted that solar panel program in Aspley can clearly demonstrate a reduction in climate emissions (the leccy company will know how much energy is being generated by the panels and this can easily be converted to a CO2 saving). In contrast, the savings in areas such as Hyson Green may be much harder to quantify. It may even be that, after the energy saving measures have been implemented the energy use is exactly the same - it is just that instead of freezing all winter the tenants are now living in a reasonable level of warmth. This is not to denigrate such an achievement. A warm house allows children to study effectively, stops damp and prevents chest infections and asthma developing. It would only take a few saved hospital admissions for the monetary savings to become significant.

But it needs to be understood that energy companies are looking to demonstrate CO2 reductions, because that is what they are being motivated to deliver.

Whereas The Partnership Council is all about community, so the softer issues such as pride in ones house, a warm room for the kids etc are all important factors.

Lack of communication
One startling comment from the presenters was their observation that at the various conferences held around the UK, the climate change people do not seeem to talk to the fuel poverty people !

Examples of best practice
The Yellow House
West Bridgford Eco Houses

UPDATE 11 Dec 2013
Informed by the magic that is Twitter that "Areas were reorganised 2 yrs ago so Berridge (Forest Fields, Hyson Green, New Basford) is now part of Area 5 with Sherwood"