Sunday, 18 May 2008

Trouble in Newtown

We made up some sandwiches for Amy and I took them down to her on six hour cordon duty after a shooting in Newtown on Friday evening. Lin had put her some cola in a little wine bottle we'd got on a flight, "Dad! I can't be seen drinking from that." I went off to the local shops at Newtown and got her a coke.
It looks as if gun crime is on the increase again after a lull with a linked shooting in Bilston. Mark Cowan and Laura Corcoran wrote in the Birmingham Evening Mail last Wednesday - before this incident:
'that the police and the council had been hoping to rely on civil injunctions to ban so-called 'nominals' (people about whom information is kept on files shared between agencies) from city streets or hanging around with each other in a novel way of ending tit-for-tat gang violence.'

Police and the council were hoping initial interim orders were having an impact.

'But two months ago, the Birmingham Mail revealed the project had hit a snag after a High Court judge dismissed an application for the first full ground-breaking injunctions in January.
West Midlands Assistant Chief Constable Suzette Davenport told a commission on gun and knife crime (video) that firearms offences had started to climb since January. "Having been very successful at the end of last year where the number of gang-related shootings were reduced, since January those figures have gone back up," she said. The figures include gun-related incidents and street robberies. Mr (sic) Davenport later stressed the number of incidents had not reached the same levels as before the operation, codenamed Malva, was launched last summer.
The gun crime setback emerged as Mr Davenport gave evidence to the Channel 4 Street Weapons Commission, chaired by Cherie Booth QC, when it came to in Birmingham yesterday to hear evidence on what could be done to tackle the problem. While the use of injunctions under Section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972 to target gang members is a break from the traditional use of the legislation, which is normally used to target dodgy traders, the authorities are confident they are on firm ground. Birmingham City Council lawyers have lodged an appeal against the decision. Mr Davenport said it was ruled that so-called Section 222 injunctions could not be used they hoped to encourage Government to work on alternatives. She added: "I am hoping we can encourage the Government that if they do not feel Section 222s are appropriate, we can look at other things which can give us an element of control over these people so they are not shooting each other or innocent people in the community."'

E-mail: Simon. Thank you for your email and your kind comments on the story. Unfortunately, it would seem a production error resulted in a few key words being changed regarding the title of Suzette Davenport, who is obviously a woman. I shall raise the matter with the news editor later to try and find out what happened. Regards, Mark Cowan

Trigger points
On Tuesday morning we have a meeting arranged by Councillor Mahmood Hussain at the Parklands Housing office off Hamstead Road to try to hasten the promised playing fields and allotments on the site of the old Victoria Jubilee Allotments (VJA). In return for building on a good third of the site the developer contracted, on 13 May 2004, when planning permission was granted to build on the site, to use the remaining space to lay out 80 allotments which would be transferred to the City Council, to provide a toddlers' play area and associated open space, a play area for older children, to pay £150,800 towards open space improvements off-site, to lay out and transfer to the city council two playing pitches and a cricket square, a pavilion changing room facility and car parking, and 24 affordable housing units on the same site. The section 106 Agreement was completed on 23rd August 2004 and we've been assured by the Constituency Planning Officer, Alan Orr, that at the end of April 2008, 'no changes to the Agreement had been made.' (e-mail sent to Mark Jackson while we were in Greece, dated 30 April 08)

According to Alan Orr 'the required affordable houses have been provided. The developer (initially Westbury Homes, and now Charles Church) entered into a partnership with more than one Registered Social Landlord, to build affordable housing on the site, and there are now more than those required under the S106 Agreement.

Alan went on to say in his e-mail to my friend - and fellow campaigner - Mark Jackson:

that in respect of the other provisions of the 106 Agreement, it is 'common practice' to work to a number of 'triggers' (my italics) depending on the stage of the overall development or the housing element of the development. Thus, the provision of the allotments and the sports pitches is related to the occupation of 40 open market dwellings on the new housing development (but, guess what? '40 dwellings' does not include the 24 affordable housing units. Currently, the sports pitches, according to Alan, have been laid out 'but their transfer to the City awaits the completion of the changing room pavilion and associated car park.'

Alan believes the trigger point for the allotment provision 'has been, or is soon to be reached' and claimed to be arranging a meeting with representatives of Charles Church to ascertain their detailed timescales for the delivery of the sports pitches and allotments to the City Council.

'The provision of the tertiary (older children's) play area and associated open space is required within 6 months of the completion of the final residential unit of the housing development, and the sum of £25,000 towards the provision of a secondary play area (off-site) is to be paid on commencement of the laying out of the open space. The sum of £150,800 (to be used towards open space improvements in Handsworth Park) is to be paid by the developer on approval by the City Council of the works carried out to provide the allotments and sports pitches. '
There's much room for fudge and further prolonged delay, especially if Charles Church are not marketing these properties with any enthusiasm - and housing sales have slowed. I ran a check on Parklands in Handsworth and came up with nothing - though Midland Heart, one of the area's prominent Registered Social Landlords, has property for sale on the Parklands site. The collateral impact of playing fields, allotments and play areas in this area of city can help fight crime as surely as greater contentment can help people's health. I'll say as much at the meeting on Tuesday morning with the developer's representatives, ward councillors, Alan Orr and the chairman of Handsworth Cricket Club, Basil Hylton. We can only perservere.

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I have had a phone chart with Paul, my stepfather's biographer, about the VJA after he pointed me towards a website on which he's doing podcasts about allotments - the Allotment Channel. He also pointed me towards another interesting site which I've linked to Democracy Street - Home Farmer. Narrowcasting works so well for important interests that aren't as yet mainstream.

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I've been enjoying a variety of journeys to work in the Midlands this week - negotiating the canal between home and campus and taking the bus and tram on the way to Dudley on Friday. I got change for a tenner from the conductor on the Centro tram. "Gosh that's nice" I said to a chap older than me even as he handed me my change. "Like the old days" he said with a smile. I have the conviction that were the cost savings of single staffed buses and the disappearance of park keepers balanced against the cost of the harm done to urban civility by these so-called savings, the wages of those who provide stewardship of public space would have been amply justified. But you can cost putting out a fire. It's far trickier to cost stopping it happening in the first place. How do you measure and justify the tax bill for prevention and maintenance. I conjecture that rather as the Titanic disaster and the recent Asian tsunami produced almost immediate responses in early warning measures, regardless of cost, so the slow burn growth of public squalor in the wake of the widespread withdrawal of stewardship of public places, has taught us that if people are to return in large numbers to public transport, to parks and urban streets, they must be confident such spaces are afforded protection. Our learning is the product of a long slow decline, lasting over 40 years. It will take as long to recover, and in the meantime we have trickier lessons to learn - about how to ensure our inclination to acquisitiveness, or in the case of most of the world the need to have reliable food and shelter, while protecting and sustaining the Earth's diverse yet mutually supporting system of living things. We are just learning 'to wake from a 300 year old dream' and challenge the tragedy of the commons.

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An exchange with my friend Jan about my talk in Tokyo:

Dear Jan. Just getting acclimatised to England again. Hope you're well. I'd appreciate your views on the talk I need to give in Tokyo to Japanese civil servants in June on 'how to ensure standardisation of services across local governments'. Yes, they want me to talk about that - not how to nurture local choice. Best S

Hi Simon. Good to hear from you. I've kept in touch via your blog. Regarding 'how to ensure standardisation of services across local government', it seems to me that Britain is the perfect example. Despite verbal utterances to the contrary this is exactly what the Government has tried to impose and with some success through: targets, national indicators, inspection regimes, intervention (e.g. Hull & Lincolnshire), ring-fenced funding, capping, 'naming & shaming', to mention but a few. The postcode lottery has been used as an excuse. In the present political climate where Conservatives and Liberals are the dominant forces at local level I can not see any significant decentralisation take place. In fact I think there will be further neutering of local democracy under the banner of local democracy. Sorry to be so pessimistic but I simply cannot see any meaningful 'place shaping' taking place in the foreseeable future other than rhetorically and tokenistic. Hope I am wrong! Best Jan

Dear Jan. I think much can occur in the informal space between legislation and politics. Humans are ingenious. What I have found fascinating from preparing this talk - hardly more than 30 minutes (with translation) - is that in Japan which certainly contains distinctively different areas, the idea of standardised services across the country is a matter of pride and their absence regarded as a problem to be put right quickly. Local choice is not high on the agenda. So I am unclear what this man's work involves.
And what am I to make of this - the local decentralisation law. Thanks for your response. I'm delighted you are taking a look at my blog. Best Simon

Simon. This is fascinating stuff. I suppose national cultures play an important role in all this. I think he is the equivalent of a local government minister in the national government. I also get a strong sense of local ADMINISTRATION being the most important element of decentralisation rather than local GOVERNMENT. I do think developments here since 1997 are interesting in terms of what localism now has become and what the drivers are. The content of Local Area Agreements are almost identical in every locality. The same goes for Community Strategies. Variations, as they exist , tend to be linguistic and in terms of impact and emphasis rather than substance. Everywhere you will see safer & stronger communities, healthier communities, sustainable communities, economic development, wellbeing of the vulnerable, being the priorities. The reason for this is that these are the national priorities upon which LAs are judged through CPA and other inspection regimes and their star rating determined. Also LAs can only access additional funding though performing well on national priorities (e.g. stretched targets). Decentralisation can never be absolute but the absence of powers to raise revenue for local priorities based on popular demand is a major obstacle to local democracy. I think the profiles of local councillors and turn-out in local elections tell their own story. Best Jan

Yes indeed, Jan. The core fact is that only 4.71 pence of every one of my tax pounds is paid directly to local government (I dug that out from Chris Game this morning). I know more is clawed back through grant - but with many many conditions as we all know. In Japan far more of people's tax yen are raised locally. Thanks for your other thoughts. All grist to my mill on this complex subject. S

Simon. Although I remain sceptical, perhaps in a paradoxical and perverse way the present circumstances may just be conducive to more meaningful decentralisation. Given the government's unpopularity they may throw caution the wind and be more inclined to pass powers downwards (it helps with the blame!!) although their track record is not good and I don't think it is in Gordon's nature to give up any powers. There's a Scottish bean-counter for you! It is more likely this debate will ebb and flow with changes hard won and substance difficult to achieve. 'Place Shaping' can only ultimately happen with more powers (of the positive kind, not spying on people's bins or surveying people for school catchment areas) and more revenue being collected locally. It means fundamental questions about policing, health, transport, development, being given much higher local determinants. There are dangers in too much power at local level e.g. Southern states of USA in 50s & 60s re race is a sobering lesson. Only federal intervention turned it around. The dark forces of local determination must somehow be curtailed by national government or counterbalancing forces locally; a real conundrum. Some real challenges for officers and members - local collusion vs professional engagement, corruption - moral & financial. You can see the Japanese anxiety. Best Jan

This is great, Thanks Jan. Yes I know the horror stories. The village can be a source of companionship and care and the locus of a lynch mob. Simon

Good luck with your trips to Australia and Japan. Keep writing your blog so I can keep up with what you are doing. Let's get together when you're back. Best Jan

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From Kalamos Books: A law extending a smoking ban in Turkey to most enclosed areas - including taxis, ferries and shopping malls - came into effect Monday 19 May. Outdoor smoking was also banned in locations such as stadiums and playgrounds. A ban on lighting up in bars, restaurants and coffeehouses will be implemented next year. Smoking is already barred on buses, airplanes and in larger offices.

Petition to save forests in Greece.
The Save our forests and give our planet a chance Petition to The Greek Parliament,The United Nations,The European Union was created by and written by Konstantina Stafylaki (ambelos_village@yahoo.com).

One of the best issues of Carfree Times is just out - edited by Joel Crawford, author of Carfree Cities. There's a fascinating conversation with the traffic scientist Professor Hermann Knoflacher of Austria in this issue.
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On 17 May it was Arthur's 90th birthday, enjoyed at home with Dorothy in Bevan Lee Road in Cannock. Lin decorated the cake.

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