Friday, 23 June 2017

Imagine Brexit doesn't mean Brexit

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Do you remember when it all appeared so simple? Just a few weeks ago Mrs May was still delivering the mantra 'Brexit means Brexit'. That was before the general election. Now it doesn't appear so simple, and Brexit gets softer, and softer and....why?

Reality awakens. The truth is understood. Brexit isn't good. It isn't good for the economy, for jobs, for health and social care, for research, for fighting climate change, and so the negotiations now turn on how to ameliorate the harm it will do.

When these harmful effects were outlined in the EU referendum, they were dismissed as 'scare tactics' by the Leave campaign. But they are real. The government will try to negotiate some sort of access to the single market. It will do so because much of our economy depends on it. That access will come with a cost, and we will wonder what is better about it. "What's it all about Alfie? The question will be repeatedly asked. Why leave?

Ah, I hear it said 'to take back control!: But will we really be taking back control when we will have access to the single market on worse terms than we have now? Is that really sensible?

Of course, 'take back control' referred in large part to migration. We will take back control of our borders. Yet, what is this control? Is it really worth a can of beans?

Our health service is struggling with a staff shortage. It would be made much worse by our leaving the EU without making arrangements to recruit staff from the EU.

Mrs May is right, now and belatedly, to wake up to the problem. Up until the loss of her parliamentary majority she failed to give priority to the status of EU citizens working in the UK. It was a bargaining chip we were told. Now, a more sensible if not complete approach is being adopted. Let's hope it leads speedily to removing the uncertainty hanging over EU citizens resident in the UK.

I have been giving some thought on slogans Mrs May might adopt to regain her authority. She would have liked 'tough on Brexit, touch on the causes of Brexit'. But now  "Soft on Brexit, soft on the causes of Brexit' comes to mind.

When the impact of Brexit was put forward as a reason not to leave, we were told it was just an opinion. All at once 'experts' were dismissed as mischievous and plain 'wrong'. They didn't know what they were talking about, we were told. Their view was no better than...than anyone else.

And so it was that estimates of a loss of GDP of nearly ten percent modelled by the Treasury, NIESR and the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE were dismissed in favour of populist Brexiteers.  Hardened Brexiteers pointed to disagreement in economic forecasts as a reason for ignoring them.  It was a bit like ignoring all weather forecasts on the basis that the don't always get it right - it might rain, but then again it might not.   Uncertainty of forecasting is no excuse for ignoring it. 

Similarly, warnings from the IMF and the OECD of the negative impact on the British economy were dismissed. "Well they would say that wouldn't they?"  Would they? 

So Her Majesty's Treasury forecast was a negative impact of between at worse -7.5 and at best  -3.8.  Rubbish the Brexiteers cried.  The Centre for Economic Performance forecast negative impact of -9.5 to -6.3. Rubbish the Brexiteers cried.  The National Institute for Economic and Social Research had negative impact of -9.2 to -2.4. Rubbish cried the Brexiteers.  

It became a mantra to dismiss such forecasts.  Brexit would be good for the economy.  The trick was then to make it almost unpatriotic to suggest Britain would struggle and 'could not stand on our own feet'.  Don't talk the country down.  "Be proud to be British!: "Britain" we were told "is strong".  We are up for it.  It was macho bravado! Things can only get better!  Ah, wouldn't it just.  

Certainly the realities of Brexit are  nuanced. But that alone will not be sufficient to mitigate the damage.  The simplistic 'the people have voted' approach is I suspect turning to a more realistic assessment of whether or what they voted for.  Brexit doesn't simply mean Brexit.   To say people voted to leave and to ignore the consequences is frankly abrogating any kind of responsibility.  It is a kind of 'now look what you made me do!"   It is time politicians were honest about it.  It is time they stopped simplistic slogans and owned up to the consequences.  This they are now having to do now Mrs May has lost her majority. 

Some of our EU partners are now saying they wish we would stay.   I wish we would too. 

European Council President Donald Tusk has quoted lyrics from John Lennon's Imagine to suggest the door remains open to the UK staying in the EU:  "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Impact on Health and Social Care should be centre-stage in Brexit negotiations.

With Brexit negotiations now underway this week the potential adverse impact on health and social care needs to be considered. The  British Medical Association, the voice of doctors in the UK, is calling on the government to protect future patient care by putting healthcare "front and centre" of its plans.

There can be little doubt that unless staffing issues are resolved the potential harm of Brexit to  health and social care is considerable.  The government should act speedily to resolve the uncertainty. 

Many health and social care professionals currently working in the UK have come from other EU countries, including 55,000 of the NHS’s 1.3 million workforce and 80,000 of the 1.3 million workers in the adult social care sector.   The NHS is currently struggling to recruit and retain staff.  Unless the future of NHS  and social care staff can be settled, then this problem is set to get worse with a deepening NHS and social care crisis.  

Since the vote to leave the EU, the BMA has been calling on the government to:
  • Give the 10,000 highly skilled EU doctors and medical researchers in the UK  permanent residence in the UK.  42 per cent of whom have told the BMA that are considering leaving in light of Brexit.
  • Ensure a flexible immigration system which meets the needs of the UK health service and medical research sector.
  • Preserve existing reciprocal arrangements, including mutual recognition of professional qualifications and measures which protect patient safety.
  • Secure ongoing access to EU research programmes and research funding, to maintain the UK's world-leading science and research base. 
  • Ensure Brexit does not hinder the UK's ability to play a leading role in European and international efforts to tackle global health threats.

Commenting ahead of the start of negotiations, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair said last week:

“With the NHS at breaking point, the government must keep the health service and its patients at the forefront during Brexit negotiations and control the impact that leaving the EU will have on health and social care across the UK."
The BMA warn that leaving the EU poses several risks to healthcare across the UK, not least in its staffing as almost half of the 10,000 doctors working here are considering leaving in light of the referendum result.

"These doctors have enhanced the UK’s medical research, brought expertise to the NHS and higher education, and filled shortages in specialties which may otherwise have been unable to cope. While we welcome the government’s pledge to provide certainty for EU nationals working in the NHS, the time has come for it to deliver fully on those repeated promises by providing them with permanent residence in the UK.

The BMA also call on the government to ensure long-term stability for the NHS by protecting life-changing medical research which benefits from European funding; ensuring that leaving the EU will not delay the UK’s access to vital pharmaceuticals, guaranteeing that leaving the EU will not hinder our efforts to tackle global health threats, and maintaining a soft border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland to help ensure that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare are not affected by leaving the EU.

The government must not use these workers as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations.  Guarantees should now be given that such workers can stay in the UK.

Update added 23rd June 2017 following Prime Minister's proposals on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK

Responding to the Prime Minister's proposals on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK following Brexit, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair has said:

“While we recognise these proposals are a starting position, they leave many unanswered questions, and only the full detail will show the potential impact they could have on medical research, and the NHS and its workforce.

“There are around 150,000 EU nationals working in the NHS and adult social care system in England. Already we know that more than four in ten doctors from the EU are considering leaving the UK in light of the referendum, with a further one in five unsure. 

“To provide stability to the NHS in the longer term, all EU doctors and academic staff currently in the UK should be granted permanent residence, regardless of how long they have been here.” 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Trump's climate change?

In my early teens, back in the 1960s I wrote a brief poem titled ‘under sunlight rays’. It was my first real statement of concern about the damage we were doing to our environment.  It was also my first attempt at poetry. 

There stood a tree in my childhood days
And there grew grass under sunlight rays
But where are these now so rare
Under the concrete lain so bare
My children Will not know
In the world in which they'll grow
They will read it in a book
And I Will say look
There grew a tree in my childhood days
And there grew grass under sunlight rays

It was my first insight into the loss of our forests of trees, but little did I know then just how important they were. 

There Is considerable anxiety about President-elect Donald Trump, and not least because he does not accept Global warming is man made. He believes it is a Chinese hoax.

The concept of global warming, he says, was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.

Trump says he wants to cancel the 2015 Paris agreement combatting  climate change.  It is an agreement signed by almost 200 nations. Is this Trump’s folly? Or do we need a new global politics?

It is difficult with Trump to know whether to take him seriously. Much of what he has said during the election campaign might have been posturing. He can pick things up only to discard them when they are no longer of use. A Trump presidency may look very different to the portrait of the campaign.  But who knows? The only thing of which we are certain is that with Trump nothing is certain.

 At a time when we need the US to engage in the world positively on climate change, the danger now is that it will withdraw into a protectionist war. 

Yet, there is a curious truth in what Trump says about the workings of the global economy.  He is also correct in saying the system is broken.  The neoliberal myth of the benefits of global free markets is exposed. It has failed. 

Putting aside his strange notion about a Chinese conspiracy, he is right to conclude that tackling climate change is made more difficult by the structure of International free trade.

Flooding the international market with cheap goods and raw materials, pushes down prices and increases consumption.  Cheap imports flood western markets.  But it also increases climate change emissions.  

Countries like the USA and the UK claim to be meeting their emissions targets.  But  this is only because the goods they consume are produced elsewhere, particularly in India and China.  Our consumption is still polluting.  

It is time for a fundamental rethink.  We need to put global politics back into economics. We need to do this because how we trade is political. It is a choice. 

The choice of whether we grow our own food, produce our own goods, and how we do this, is as much a political decision as it is economic.

If we manufacture goods in the UK, then we can invest in new environmentally friendly  technologies.  We can control the emissions produced by our production and consumption.  We cannot do this if we simply import what we need. 

Back in the early 1990s my concern for the environment and possible man-made climate change led me to read the first report of the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change.  It gave several possible scenarios based on different assumptions used in modelling the trends of global temperature. It also cautioned about inadequate data. At that time it was difficult to be certain, but their was increased concern. 

I can understand why many scientists at that time were sceptical about the interpretation of  the data, and the assumptions made in the models.   There was indeed insufficient data to be clear what was happening to global temperatures, let alone man’s contribution.  I was also sceptical.

 I considered we might be experiencing a regular cycle  of global warming.  I even wrote some letters to  newspapers about it, published in The Times amongst others.  But that was almost 3 decades ago.  As each report came through year on year, manmade climate change became increasingly certain. 

Human-induced climate change is caused by the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere mainly over the past 100 years.

Considering the increased population and rapid industrialisation in modern times, with increased output of carbon emissions, with the loss of forests, and changes in our oceans, we have drastically reduced the carbon buffering processes that help stabilise our climate. 

Climate change is real, and it is now certain we are contributing to it.  The consequences are profound. 

 We need  'global action' against climate change.  Saving the planet requires difficult choices.  But which politician is going to be brave enough to tell us the truth, that we must change the way we live?

For the most part the West has already contributed its share of global emissions. The damage is done. Now, developing countries will have to be persuaded that there are better ways to economic growth and prosperity. 

There is an urgent need to end, and reverse deforestation - We all know it.  but in what market can we effectively express that demand?  It is a political decision, and those economies affected will need to be compensated to allow them to make such decisions.  We cannot rely on price alone to stop deforestations.  

As the human population continues to grow, so does the need for more food. Rising demand has created incentives to convert forests to farm and pasture land to grow food, and make biofuels.

Once a forest is lost to agriculture, it is usually gone forever—along with many of the plants and animals that once lived there. It is the major threat to bio-diversity. 

It is estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation. Yet, some 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—equivalent to 36 football fields every minute. 17% of the Amazon rain forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching. Do we consider this when we buy a can of corned beef? 

The loss of our forests is happening as I speak, and it will continue while you listen. 

Here in the UK 85% of domestic demand for wood products is met from imports, amounting to a value of around £6 billion annually.

Sweden, Latvia, Finland, Russia and Estonia together account for nearly 90% of all UK sawn softwood imports.  We need to build more housing and this will require more wood unless other materials are used. We know that whatever we do there is an environmental impact both locally and globally.  In terms of environmental impact, we are not an island. Our choices have impact on others across the globe and on future generations. 

The cost of pollution is real, but it is rarely factored into ‘production costs’. The cost of polluting now is met by future generations or by the public in clearing up the mess, or adjusting to the consequences of climate change. Those who produce greenhouse gas emissions are therefore imposing potentially huge costs on other people over time, yet our tax system and the prices we pay do not reflect this.  We are using the world’s resources, but  future generations will have to bare the cost. 

Melting glaciers will initially increase flood risk and then strongly reduce water supplies, eventually threatening one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China, and the Andes in South America.

Declining crop yields, especially in Africa, could leave hundreds of millions without the ability to produce or purchase sufficient food. 

Climate change is expected to increase worldwide deaths from malnutrition and heat stress. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever could become more widespread if effective control measures are not in place.
Rising sea levels will result in tens to hundreds of millions more people flooded each year with warming of 3 or 4°C.

Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15 - 40% of species potentially facing extinction. And ocean acidification, a direct result of rising carbon dioxide levels, will have major effects on marine ecosystems, with possible adverse consequences on fish stocks.

President elect Donald Trump is correct when he says the system is broken.  He is not alone in saying so.  We need a new approach. The best way to stop migration is to address the issues driving it - war, poverty and opportunity. It is estimated that climate change will be a major factor in driving migration as ecosystems fail. 

But are we prepared to pay the price to stop and reverse this?  Would voters elect a leader who promises to increase the price of food?  Or to increase taxes to help pay for new environmentally friendly technologies? I doubt it.

You can also hear this on The Thin End:

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The foolishness of Brexit

The warning from the British Bankers Association that some banks are considering relocating to Europe in the new year because of Brexit, reminds us once again of the perilous state we are in.

The problem is not that politicians lie to us. The problem is that they have not the courage to tell us what we don't like to hear. The government knows Brexit will hurt millions of people in the UK, but they won't acknowledge it. They know it is set to seriously harm our economy and competitiveness in the world, but won't tell us. They can't tell us the reality because it would destabilise the markets. So we are stuck in fantasy land. 

We go on with the belief, I would say delusion, that somehow all will be ok, but it won't. Even if we take the most optimisitc scenario of Brexit from economists such as Patrick Minford we are in for a very hard knock. 

Just as in war, everyone becomes an expert. In the comfort of their armchair in front of the television it is easy enough. Suddenly people who haven't a clue will pontificate on economics as though their judgement carried the same weight as expert analysis by economists. And so the economic forecasters are dismissed as 'doom sayers'.

Of course we can look to the 'new opportunities' it might create - but opportunities for who? My prediction is that it will not be the poorest who will find any benefit or opportunity. Nor will it be middle income earners whose jobs are on the line or are relocated. A 'hard' Brexit would take us out of the single market, but what is the price of a soft exit? We don't know, but there will be a price.

There is a kind of blind stupidity to the Brexit case that runs something like 'Europe needs Britain more than we need Europe'. It sounds good and was used by Farage regularly over the years. It is meaningless twaddle - a politicians sound bite. We could rephrase it "Britain needs Europe as much as Europe needs Britain'. It is still meaningless. What isn't meaningless is that almost 50% of our trade is in the single market, and that is why a hard Brexit would be devastating to our economy.

We have no plan for Brexit, and nor can the government find any coherent consensus on what it will seek from it. Mrs May has no plan and no mandate. The reason she uses the mantra 'Brexit means Brexit' is because it doesn't. She knows that, but she hasn't the courage to tell us.

But, there is a further stupidity. Imagine someone putting a hole in the bottom of a boat. You have, say, thirty minutes to man the lifeboats and get everyone to safety. Everyone runs around frantically looking for the lifeboats, but none are to be found. That is Brexit. The captain of the ship hollers 'don't worry, think of the opportunities!'.  

Stay away from a fool, for you will not find knowledge on their lips.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Opportunities for Labour, and why Labour can win

The Labour leadership election is over. Yes, it really is. Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected, as expected with a substantial majority. His supporters like to call this his 'mandate'. Yet it is doubtful this alone will resolve the problem for the Labour Party. The problem for Labour isn't simply leadership - it is direction and change.

The party conference season has been and gone. It was more noticeable for the renewed statement of the party's multilateralist position on the nuclear detereent. Jeremy Corbyn was crowned, but the problems fester. The issue of anti-Semitism in the party rumbles on, not least because of the ham-fisted response to the criticism from the House of Commons select committee. There are many who remain disaffected about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. To some, it is a battle for the heart and soul of Labour. As such it is a battle that may destroy the party. But it is also an opportunity - the possibility of a new consensus in the party, and a new way forward, meeting the challenges of today, not the problems of yesterday. It is time to look at the positives for Labour.

The first positive is that Jeremy Corbyn has put together a reasonably effective shadow cabinet. Labour can now take the fight to the Tories in the house of commons and hold the government to account. It has made a good start on Brexit and in demanding parliamentary scrutiny. They put the government front bench on the back foot and helped expose divisions in its ranks.

If Labour can rise to the challenge the country faces, it can still succeed. As the Tories struggle with the economic prospects of Brexit, they have been forced to abandon their old narrative of austerity. They also now talk of investing in infrastructure. The targets for balancing the books have been put on hold, and the strategy wasn't working in any event. This economic vacuum provides Labour with a chance to get its message across, if only it could decide what that message is.

It is often said Theresa May is shifting the Tories to the centre ground. But this is I think a mistaken view of what is happening. The Tory language may certainly be changing, but May's government is potentially more right-wing than Cameron's, and the more dangerous as it cloaks itself in the 'one nation' language. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

So how should Labour respond?

Labour must stop believing it can think for the working class. It is no good saying 'we are the party of the working class' if the party simply tells them what to think. Little can be gained by browbeating voters with 'principles' and socialism. Nor will Labour convert millions of voters to vote for socialism.

Labour needs to listen. It needs to listen to the concerns of ordinary working people. Only by doing that can it address the disconnect the party has with voters - and the disconnect with Labour is a growing chasm. This is why UKIP made inroads into Labour territory.

Labour must address the anxieties ordinary people have about their communities and their opportunities. Labour's policies must be seen to have relevance and speak to those concerns.

Electorally, Labour has a mountain to climb. But there are positives for Labour, and reasons to be optimistic, and we should not lose sight of them. Labour must now turn those positives to its advantage.
Labour has now the advantage of a leader who has the overwhelming support of its members. That is a great asset, but only so long as it doesn't simply become a personality cult. Labour must listen to criticism of its leadership and find ways to respond where that criticism is positive and relevant.

Labour is not the only party struggling. There is unrest across the political spectrum. There are problematic issues in all parties. UKIP struggles over its leadership and in finding a role post Brexit. The Tories have yet to get over the hurdles of Brexit and have a leader who is Prime Minister without a mandate.

Labour has a massively increased membership, many of whom are new to political engagement. They are enthusiastic and idealistic. It just is not my experience that these new members are all a bunch a raging leftwing lunatics. They care about our public services and social infrastructure. They believe in creating a fair society in which opportunity is not simply predicated on the accumulation of wealth and privilege. They believe in social justice. They want to make a difference. Above all, they are angry with past failure. They want Labour to stand for something.

The Labour leadership campaign was bruising, but Labour remains a broad church. There will be continued struggle over the direction of the party and its leadership. That has always been so. But there is now an opportunity to refocus and develop a coherent set of policies to address a fractured society.

We need new solutions to address a changed world, and to correct the failures of neoliberalism. We need a new approach to economic growth. We need a new narrative. We need also to address our crumbling infrastructure, a housing crisis, and failing social and health care system.

If it did anything at all, the leadership campaign further demonstrated a paucity of ideas on the left of British politics. The left is stuck, but not without hope. We are stuck with outdated solutions, and where there is a glimmer of a new narrative, it is but a sketch. New thinking is there, but it lacks clarity.

The left shivers in its nakedness. The clothes we once wore have been discarded and gleefully picked up by Mrs May's Tories, as she plays for the centre ground whilst shifting to the right. This is why Labour must not ignore the centre ground. But deciding what that means isn't easy.

Where is the centre ground? It isn't simply found by dividing ideas by half or by using focus groups. Half-baked ideas are not the centre, and nor are they radical. It does mean meeting the aspirations of hard working people - aspiration they have for themselves, their families, and for the future of their communities. Aspiration must not, for the left become a dirty word. Labour will only succeed if it can develop a strategy that can make a reality of those aspirations. The centre ground doesn't really exist as a set of policies. It is a kind of media abstraction. The centre ground can be built. The centre ground is a narrative accepted by voters. This is why Labour must reach out to voters and not simply talk inside a bubble. It must contribute to creating the centre ground - a fundamental shift of voter perception.

So, this is why Brexit and the government response to it gives Labour a chance to stake out a new centre ground.

You don't find the centre ground and shift to it. You define it.

Here lies a problem - new ideas on the left are currently half-baked. Yes, there are commitments to spend on infrastructure, vague notions about changes in ownership and control. There are commitments to spend, but little idea on how it can be funded. There is but one answer: borrowing. Without a coherent narrative, Labour will struggle for economic credibility.

In previous articles I have argued for a new economic approach and a new political narrative. Relying on growth alone, without strategies to achieve social redistribution of the benefits of that growth, is unlikely to be effective.

Growth that destroys the planet is not the growth we need. Nor is growth that increases inequalities.

Yet, we are locked into the politics of growth rather than the politics of fairness. We talk about the engine of the economy as if simply by raving it up it will solve all our problems. Growth becomes a good, an objective rather than a means. Instead of addressing the vast and ever growing inequalities in distribution of wealth and of opportunities, we are lured into a false premise - that if we grow fast enough it won't matter because the poor will benefit even if the rich get richer. But it doesn't work. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The beneficiaries of austerity have been the rich, with an ever widening gap between the rich and poor. Poverty is increasing along with health inequality as the rug is pulled from health and social care.

But here is the political trick. We are all locked into the system. The consequences of breaking the system are profound. Before breaking 'the system' we need to know how to put in place a new one.

Yet we must break free. Brexit presents Labour with an opportunity to do just that. It must now put aside its problems of leadership and concentrate on seizing that chance.

The old economic certainties have been ripped away. The Tories have had to abandon their balanced budget approach. Their narrative is in tatters as they struggle to develop a new one.

There is a void, and the left must now step up to fill it. The neoliberal myths are exposed.

When the system breaks down we tend to repair it using the same faulty template. We need a new template.

If our objectives are to make poverty history, or to make the world a less unequal place in which to live, then we need something different in the way we do things.

We see a yearning for this here in the UK and elsewhere, but if the left does not get its act together that desire for change will be swept up by the right. Across Europe we can see far right parties in ascendence, and the left struggling for traction. We see it also in the Trump phenomenon in the US presidential election.

We need a new political-economic settlement that puts social objectives and people at the heart of economic activity. This requires politicians, businesses and finance to work together to achieve fair growth. We need growth, not for its own sake, but for a purpose - the purpose of increasing well-being for all, whilst protecting the environment on which we depend.

The question is whether this is possible with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. I don't know the answer. But for all his faults, he is the leader of the Labour party, and he will be the leader in the years running up to a general election. Labour needs now to put aside the question of leadership and concentrate on the narrative and developing an effective campaign. For this, Jeremy Corbyn needs to build unity, not simply call for it. Calling people into line is not sufficient. This is why how he deals with the PLP is crucial. It requires pragmatism and fairness, not intolerance.

The answer lies in politics, and the will to change the direction of economic policy. It requires an economy harnessed for social and environmetal well-being. It requires Labour to reach out to voters and develop an engaging narrative - one that reflects genuinely their concerns whilst offering radical solutions. Credibility comes not just by appealing to those concerns, but presenting solutions that engage them in the process. Labour must respond to aspirations, not negate them.

This is why it must be pro-business, pro-enterprise, and pro-people. Public ownership should be promoted where necessary, but not as a totem. Labour won't succeed with sterile debate about nationalisation or privatisation. Yes, we need socialisation. Socialisation need not be anti-business, but it needs a new social contract with private enterprise. Business can flourish with a sound infrastructure, but infrastructure is not simply transport or housing. It is also people and communities.

We can no longer simply push the growth button without asking what kind of growth it is, or what kind of growth we need. To achieve the right kind of growth we need a leap in investment. Investment that will push us out of the old environmentally challenging production and consumption - we need a fundamental change in the balance of our economy.

Imagine growth in education. Imagine growth in environmentally friendly farming. Imagine growth of environmentally friendly energy, and of environmentally friendly transport. Imagine the development of communities and their engagement in the fight against crime, building safe environments.

In his speech to the Labour party conference the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell identified one of the answers - a new technological revolution harnessed to creating wellbeing, social justice and saving the planet.

That leap requires investment in the infrastructure necessary to harness it. It requires access for all, and the development of new skills. McDonnell in his speech also quoted Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz in saying “we have to rewrite the rules of our economy”.

Indeed we do. And if Labour succeeds in doing that, then it will win. There is a mountain to climb. Let's start climbing!

Friday, 7 October 2016

England needs a coherent national approach to waste

England has more than 300 different recycling systems. Some councils collect waste commingled - some separate food waste, and about another 260 do not. Recycling plastic differs across the country. This is why plastic packaging is often labelled 'check kerbside'.

There are different sizes and colours of bin, different types of truck, different types of recycling system and different types of anaerobic digesters consuming waste. Waste recycling is a post-code lottery.

The harmful effects of waste is a national problem. It requires a national solution. Cash-starved local authorities struggle to meet needs.

It is estimated that in London alone £19 million a year could be saved with a standard recycling system. The savings across the country could be immense.

We spend more than £3 billion a year simply collecting waste.

A single, harmonised system across the country, could drive up recycling rates.

WRAP recycling scheme data suggests that 97 per cent of English households are served by a recycling collection for plastic bottles.  However, the proportion of households served by mixed plastic collections (i.e. including non‐bottle rigid plastic packaging, such as pots, tubs and trays) is significantly lower, at just 57 per cent.

Plastic film collections do not exist on any notable scale.  

The absence of collections of non‐bottle plastics is likely to be a significant factor in the low recycling rate for this material.

But still my concern is with the amount of non-recyclable plastic being used in our supermarkets.

Yesterday when shopping I decided to count the number of items wrapped in non-recyclable plastic - apples, onions, carrots, potatoes, plums, red peppers, bananas, courgettes....on and on. Almost every item I picked up was wrapped in non-recyclable plastic. Some items had no information at all. This is from a leading supermarket claiming to have a strategy for reducing the environmental impact of packaging.

Just 15% of household plastic is recycle. Tonnes of the stuff ends up in landfill. There is no point blaming the consumer if the plastic is non-recyclable. But councils were unable to recycle 338,000 tonnes of waste in 2014-15 because of contamination - up from about 184,000 tonnes in 2011-12.

The cost to local authorities of re-sorting so-called contaminated recycle bins is said to be the primary reason the vast majority of the waste is being rejected.

Councils say they are working to stop people putting the wrong items in bins. I have seen very little sign of such work. Our waste strategy is a shambles. 

We need a more coherent nationwide strategy.