Manchester’s pat on the head

George-Osbourne

At the end of last year I wrote an article about the growing number of cities and regions (and even countries) that are committing to a transition to 100% clean energy by 2050.

I’m a member of the campaigning group, Avaaz. So when they asked for members to start their own petitions to try and convince their cities to commit to 100% clean, I jumped at the chance. I thought it made sense for Manchester, where I live. I thought Greater Manchester looked perfectly placed for this with a new DevoManc deal announced in November and a new mayor on the cards. At first I was quite enthusiastic about this devolution deal that had come from out of the blue.

Devolution is good right?

Sure it is. The UK is now far more centralised than other countries of a similar size, but it wasn’t always this way. As Steady State Manchester have pointed out, since the Thatcher era, local government has been “hollowed out” with “limited autonomy and ever reducing responsibilities”. Remember the Manchester Corporation? Before my time, but apparently it was local government that established our water, sewage, power and telecommunications, as well as part of the health service!

The Green Party believe that power should flow from the most local levels of Government to the higher levels. Their policy states “The highest form of democracy is direct participation. This is best achieved through the decentralisation of society, so that decisions can be made through face to face discussion.” This is undoubtably true. Making decisions more locally should lead to policies that are more aligned to the needs and interests of people locally.

So what’s the problem?

Well first of all, we didn’t ask for this DevoManc deal. It’s been conceived through secret negotiations between Howard Bernstein and George Osbourne and then announced as a fait acompli. The whole process has been totally undemocratic and let’s face it, condecending! Why can’t we decide how we should be governed, rather than have George Osbourne tell us?  As The Green Party Public Administration Policy states: Power should flow “upwards from the people”. The people of Greater Manchester are not being given any say in these arrangements – although there is now a campaign and a growing number of protests for a proper consultation and referendum.

Secondly, the deal doesn’t go far enough. Most of the city’s new powers will be regulatory. They won’t include some big budget items such as secondary education or welfare payments, although will now include the NHS (thanks for that poison chalice, George!). But crucially, we won’t be given any power to raise taxes. Scope to raise and account for taxes is the touchstone of local democracy. A New York mayor has discretion over seven local revenue streams (including income tax). Central grants cover just a third of local spending in New York, a quarter in Berlin and 17% in Paris. The equivalent figure for English cities is a humiliating 95%. Local government is a mere agency of the centre. All these new powers will give us is the power to distribute some of the crumbs from the Westminster table and then get the blame that the funds were insufficient. Did somebody mention the NHS?

Further devolution would be required before Manchester could take full control of tax raising alongside significant public spending in Greater Manchester and George Osbourne isn’t going to grant these kind of freedoms lightly.

Furthermore, the new arrangement does not provide any proper democratic accountability. There would be no assembly, with too much power in the hands of the mayor and their posse of nine council leaders. As pointed out by Steady State Manchester in their excellent recent blog on the subject, “as any systems scientist can tell you, it takes diversity to represent, interpret and act in an environment characterised by diversity but what we are getting is a technocratic-managerial fix, poorly suited (if sharp-suited) to heal the legitimation crisis of our failing democracy.”

The 1974 defined boundary of Greater Manchester may work well in terms of a joined up transport system for the city and its surrounding areas, but as Steady State Manchester and Campaign for the North have argued, it doesn’t work in terms of being a self-sufficient region. Going back to The Green Party policy on Public Administration: “A community cannot be self-determining unless it is to a large extent self-reliant. Self-reliance is the ability to satisfy needs without being excessively or unequally dependent upon anyone; self- sufficiency is one way to achieve self-reliance, but is by no means the only way.”

This takes us back to my original subject of climate change and the need to achieve 100% clean energy. We can install solar panels on all our houses and other urban buildings like schools, offices, factories, hospitals etc., but that won’t be enough. Much of the energy that Greater Manchester needs would need to be generated in the wider areas around the north west of England; from wind turbines on the hills of Lancashire to hydro-electricity along our rivers to potential sources of tidal power on the coast. We rely on farming in our rural areas in the north, even if we are currently far from self-sufficient. We should also consider positive policies to capture carbon dioxide by using our upland and wetland areas for reforestation instead of our obsession with covering our bare hillsides with sheep!.

In other words, rather than a Norther Powerhouse, we need an eco-region!

 

 

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Who Benefits From Fracking?

By Jon Crooks, published on The News Hub on 12th February and Campaign for the North blog on 17th February

 

The question was asked last week at a Guardian Live event in Manchester entitled ‘Fracking – friend or foe?’ On the panel was Dr Nick Riley, formerly Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society and clearly an enthusiastic supporter of fracking. He tried to look sincere as he answered that it was “for the people”. He was drowned out by laughter.

The room was inevitably filled with concerned citizens from around the north west, and there’s no doubt from the comments and questions that here it very much feels like fracking is for the benefit of the fracking industry and central government and not for the people at all. As one member of the audience put it: it feels like it is being “done to us”.

Lancashire is the Front Line in this Battle

Lancashire has been at the forefront of the UK’s nascent shale gas industry and two Cuadrilla sites on the Fylde may soon become the test bed for the so called shale gas revolution.

Small earthquakes caused by Cuadrilla’s activity in 2011 saw a moratorium put in place, but once it was lifted the company submitted plans for up to four wells at each of two sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre wood. Each of these sites would see hundreds of fracks – the high pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals – to see how much gas can be released.

Planning officers last month concluded that the increase in night-time noise from the operations would be too great at both sites and that heavy truck movements would involve a “severe” increase in traffic, particularly HGVs. The decision by the council was therefore deferred for eight weeks to allow for further public consultation, but this has angered some people as it gives Cuadrilla more time to tinker with their application and manipulate the planning system.

Removal of Democracy

Many at the debate in Manchester last week argued that there has been a removal of democracy from the whole process from start to finish. As one Lancashire councillor who was in the audience pointed out, plans to introduce fracking in the UK wasn’t in any of the election manifestos of the three main parties in the lead up to the last General Election, yet all three are supportive of this new fossil fuel industry in some form.

The coalition government came to power promising Localism. But when they don’t like local decisions, they change the rules. The humongous ‘Infrastructure Bill’ that has now been passed into law will in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent. A new quango will be set up, to be known as the Homes and Communities Agency, where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just two inspectors will control many of our planning decisions. This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.

Also part of this enormous piece of legislature is the Trespass Law, which allows drilling beneath our homes without our permission.

Whilst it seemed at first that Labour would only back the bill if the Tories agreed to their strict regulatory protections, these protections were ultimately watered down. The new protections will rule out fracking in certain protected areas such as national parks, but it is not yet clear if this will include all the areas initially intended. Groundwater source areas should also be protected, but this is clearly not a priority for government or the opposition as the definition was weakened in the final draft by removing reference to Groundwater Source Protection Zones 1-3, as defined by the Environment Agency.

In any case, these new protections will not effect Cuadrilla’s two sites in Lancashire. So now ministers need to explain why if fracking is too risky in our National Parks, how is it safe for the rest of the UK? As Louise Hutchins at Greenpeace UK has said, why is it “too risky for the South Downs, but perfectly safe in the Lancashire countryside?”