I had the good fortune to meet up with many of my Green Party colleagues yesterday on a tour of a solar farm near Berwick, East Sussex, where over 30,000 solar panels of a commercial operation are delivering clean, green energy into the grid day in and day out, contributing to the clean energy revolution that is sweeping across the world even in the UK despite the best efforts of the Conservative government to destroy, sabotage, eviscerate, disembowel or just plain hang, draw and quarter the entire green energy sector! We were there not just to admire the solar panels but also to show support for the proposed new community solar farm by Cuckmere Community Solar which will be built next door to the commercially owned panels if planning permission is granted in a few weeks time.
Despite the pouring rain and the gloomy November weather, spirits were high amongst us all because we can see that the future is bright because the future belongs to green energy, especially solar, which is on course to become the world’s main source of electricity by 2050. We are in the dying days of the fossil fuel industry despite the best efforts of Big Oil and Big Gas to big up their future in the face of the inevitable popping of the carbon bubble as 80% of their booked fossil fuel reserves become stranded assets once the world decides at the forthcoming UN climate talks in Paris to send the signal that rapid transition from fossil fuels has to take place in order to keep global warming to within a 2 degrees Centrigrade rise since pre-industrial times. And no amount of cheerleading for a nuclear renaissance despite the eyewateringly high costs and risks of nuclear energy can stop or sow down the green energy revolution.
So whilst squelching through the mud and huddling against the wind in a very autumnal landscape, I rejoiced at seeing the future in a field where I could see sheep munch happily underneath solar panels doubling up as umbrellas and wind breaks, and many of the newly sown wildflowers were still in blossom next to newly planted hedgerows. This is a future – visible here and now – where clean energy both keeps the lights switched on and enhances the countryside and traditional farming practices. It is a future, moreover, where community energy will be a crucial and ever growing part of the clean energy revolution, ensuring that many of the economic benefits of renewable energy flow back into local communities into projects they choose and control rather than into the hands of large financial investors and big corporations.
So am I being unduly optimistic about the clean energy revolution? I don’t think so, as even the CEO of National Grid says that the UK energy situation will change radically within the next few years as renewable energy becomes ever more important, creating the new baseload that will respond to new demand response and demand management strategies and technologies which put the individual consumer much more in control of their energy use and costs than ever before. This unstoppable trend is what the Green Party understands so well and realise could be the basis of future economic prosperity and well being for us all, especially if social justice measures guarantee that such prosperity is shared out fairly. Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, shows her sure grasp of the new realities of clean energy, and Green Member of the European Parliament, Keith Taylor’s new report on Taking Back the Power: Community Energy in the South East, is full of useful case studies and information that show how community energy groups can ride this clean energy revolution for the benefit of their local communities. I, for one, will be helping my local community energy group, Eastbourne Community Energy, to get stuck in to make smart, clean, green, affordable energy become part of the local landscape, quite literally!
I am reproducing here most of what I wrote recently for the local media on behalf of the Eastbourne People’s Assembly Against Austerity, as the media chose to ignore the main thrust of my argument that the proposed cuts to tax credits would do more than reduce drastically the income of ‘hard-working families’. The cuts would also take more than £8 million per year out of the local economy, drastically affecting many of our local businesses, especially the small, independent businesses that Eastbourne is rightfully so proud of. Given the emphasis placed by most local politicians upon the need for economic growth and increased support for local businesses, then the local media silence about the impact of tax credit cuts upon local businesses is not only unacceptable, but revealing of just how embarassing and sensitive an issue the tax credit cuts are for the political establishment. Even some Conservative MPs have woken up to the political damage to the Tories that the potential economic damage of the cuts for businesses. Here is what I wrote for the local media, slightly edited:
The cuts in tax credits proposed by George Osborne have created a political firestorm as the implications emerge of the impacts of those cuts for the household incomes of millions of families. The consensus of independent analysts is that most households affected by the cuts will see a dramatic drop in their net incomes, a drop that won’t be compensated for in any significant way by the proposed increase in the minimum wage next year. The House of Commons Library estimated that the changes will lead to an average £1,300 cut in the annual income of around 3.2 million families, including 2.7 million families with 5.2 million children in them, if they come into effect as planned in April 2016
Figures released by the House of Commons Library show that the total number of families in Eastbourne receiving tax credits is 6,800, including 12,600 children. Multiply 6,800 families by the £1,300 average loss and you get the staggering figure of £8,840,000! That’s £8.8 million per year taken away not just from local families but from the local economy, as most of that money would have been spent on local goods and services offered by local businesses. Families on low incomes generally save very little and have to spend most of their money locally as they can’t afford to travel out of area much. This is where the gross inequality created by government policies leads to gross unfairness for everybody, local businesses included! Increasing poverty in Eastbourne is not a route to local prosperity, but the exact opposite.
The tax credit cuts will hit single parents hardest, especially as single parents make up 56% of those receiving both working tax credits and child tax credits. The Eastbourne People’s Assembly was contacted by Della Bentham, a single parent and an Eastbourne resident, who told us how the cuts would affect her:
“I will be worse off by £1200 a year once the cuts come into place. I am a single mum with two young children (3 & 6). I could easily claim benefits and not work since my son is below school age but I choose not to as I want to set a good example for them. I cannot hold down a normal job because both my children have a genetic condition and have constant hospital appointments, therefore the only way around it was to work for myself. I don’t want to be reliant on tax credits but while I grow my business and wait for my son to start school I simply can’t. Tax credit top up my low earnings I am not lazy I work more hours a day than most people that are conventionally employed while I try to grow a business which I hope one day will support me without the need for government top ups.
The entire thing angers me as those worst affected will be single mothers who are trying to work and do the right thing and families where one parent works on low incomes. These are people that aren’t sitting there claiming handouts for nothing. We are people that are trying to earn a living but with the cost of living today. It’s just not viable to pay rent and bills and food let alone all the other living expenses on a low or even ‘normal’ wage. The country will be a mess by the time the conservatives have finished with them making ridiculous and ill thought out cuts left right and centre. It almost makes you wonder if you would actually be better off not working, so where is the sense in that?”
71 Tory MPs, including 23 new members of parliament in marginal seats, have more families who are set to lose substantial sums than was the size of their majority last May. Eastbourne’s MP, Caroline Ansell is one of those 71 MPs. She has so far always voted in favour of the tax credit cuts in Parliament despite recently having expressed “serious concern” about the tax credits. Stephen Lloyd has, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, expressed his opposition to the tax credit cuts, and the Eastbourne People’s Assembly would welcome working with him and his colleagues to help build an effective opposition across all political parties to such brutal and inhumane cuts to local people’s incomes as George Osborne is proposing. I do hope that politicians from whatever background or political party will choose to affiliate with the Eastbourne People’s Assembly if they agree on the basic unfairness, and ultimate unworkablity, of austerity.
The Eastbourne People’s Assembly will campaign against these tax credit cuts, which threaten – like many other austerity cuts – to push even more families and children into poverty, push more of them into dependence upon charities like Eastbourne Foodbank, and create additional pressures upon social services which are themselves experiencing the effects of devastating local government cuts. Eastbourne families reliant upon tax credits can’t wait until a general election to get these tax credit cuts reversed. The cuts are an existential threat to the financial viability of too many of these households. These cuts in tax credits were not in the Conservative manifesto upon which the general election last May was fought, and David Cameron himself promised during the election that there would be no cuts to tax credits.
The Eastbourne People’s Assembly hopes that local politicians and local people from all backgrounds will unite in condemnation of what are clearly punitive cuts in the basic income of many local families, harming children’s life chances and causing extra stress to hard-pressed public services. The tax credit cuts are, in effect, a work penalty, which is ironic and perverse in view of the government’s wish to make work a route out of poverty! Now that the House of Lords has forced the government to think again about the cuts, we all have another chance to make our voices heard on this issue. If anybody wishes to be involved with Eastbourne People’s Assembly campaigns, please contact:email@example.com
So another Green Party conference ends as another glorious sunset of this glorious Indian summer reddens the sky over the sands of Bournemouth. Being at a conference by the sea is always very meaningful for me as such close contact with the untameable wildness of the sea and the vast expanses stretching to the horizon helps to keep me grounded and connected to a nature that defies all human projections and constructions, especially those that are tossed around with abandon in the hurley-burley of conference debates. Walking two miles from my B&B each morning along the promenade to the conference centre in the radiant sunshine, and walking back two miles in the evening under a brilliant moon, helped put all the intense events of the day in perspective as well as keeping me healthy and free from cobwebs!
But what was poignant about this conference was the acute awareness felt by pretty much all present about the urgency of the existential crisis posed by the imminence of catastrophic climate change, of a natural world so polluted by human endeavours that it is about to inflict damaging impacts upon us all that may well undermine the very ability of humanity to cope effectively with such dramatic environmental change. Time and again all policy discussions had to be placed in the context of ever-worsening climate impacts across the globe. The UN Paris climate talks in December is the next opportunity for the world to take decisive action and again civil society has to step in to help pressurise governments to go further that just protecting their own national interests and to genuinely act together to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible.
It was so strange to relax in between conference sessions in the pleasantly warm sunshine, looking out upon the calm seas and the crowds enjoying the beach life yet knowing deep down how damaged our natural world is in so many ways and how out of equilibrium it is as a result of humanity’s collective actions during the industrial age of fossil fuel powered growth. It takes a certain inner mental strength acquired over years of personal struggle and maturation to be able to hold the paradox of both enjoying the pleasant conditions experienced right now and the existential pain of knowing what the future holds for those vulnerable to climate change now and for those future generations who will be even more vulnerable to climate change. That inner work is ongoing for me, and perhaps never-ending, just as supporting others in that same inner work is also never-ending as well as being such an important part of compassionately helping others to cope constructively with the climate change issue.
The struggle to tame the dragon of climate change is the greatest struggle of our times because, as was noted several times at this conference amidst much impassioned debate, it is central to all other struggles to gain social, economic, and environmental justice too. It also challenges us to deepen our own personal development, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, so as to generate, and maintain, the strength, courage, and creativity needed to stay engaged with the climate change issue and constructively work with others to both mitigate climate change and adapt to its inevitable impacts.
It was an immense privilege to listen to so many inspirational and well-informed speakers at this Green Party conference, and it makes me so proud to belong to a political party and social movement that not only takes climate change more seriously than any other UK political party but also sees clearly how everything needs to change in order to not only deal with climate change effectively but also to ensure such change creates opportunities to build a fairer, greener, healthier, more democratic society that is better than the present one, addicted as it is to an outdated model of unsustainable economic growth that ignores the limits imposed by nature.
Last night I wombled along with a few friends to a public meeting in the People’s Republic of Brighton & Hove, where refugees from the surrounding area are welcome if they want to escape from the terrifying wilderness that is the sea of Tory blue throughout South-East England. The meeting was a rally against austerity, with a star-studded line of speakers that included Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, and Yanis Varoufakis, the ex-Finance Minister of Greece, ‘rock star’ of the economics world, and himself a refugee from the terrrifying autocracy that is the Troika devastating Greece with an excruciating programme of austerity by fiat.
The meeting was the best political rally I’ve ever attended, with Caroline Lucas explaining that there is already a Green New Deal ready to go to provide the investment in green infrastructure that would create well-paid jobs and increase tax receipts to the extent that public services could easily be paid for and welfare benefits could be reduced, whilst ensuring we all still have a safe, livable climate too. She also expressed her horror of the Trade Union Bill about to be unleashed by the Tories, which would destroy so many valuable workers rights and seriously undermine their ability to secure fair pay and working conditions. Caroline pledged to even take direct action if necessary to defend the rights of trade unionists. And when Caroline says ‘direct action’, she means it, as her record in opposing fracking at Balcombe demonstrates! Now that’s my kind of opposition MP!
Yanis stepped up the plate and demolished austerity in one fell swoop: “austerity doesn’t work, so an alternative to austerity is not needed because austerity itself is not an option”. Yanis went on to say that Quantitative Easing (QE) could easily be adjusted so that instead of the Bank of England buying bonds from financial institutions and just creating asset bubbles with minimal stimulus of the real economy, a new publicly-owned investment bank could be created that would issue bonds for public investment projects (especially projects as identified in the green economy within the Green New Deal) and these bonds could be sold to financial institutions in the City of London and elsewhere. This would enable investment in jobs and services that benefit everybody whilst still giving opportunities for financial markets to make safe, valuable investments in a non-inflationary way. QE under democratic control is not printing money, but using money for what it should be used for, supporting the real economy and creating the infrastructure that both public and private sectors need. Instead, as Yanis explained, we are increasingly stifled by austerity cuts that in effect turn us all into refugees, desperately searching for ways out of the austerity that makes our lives increasingly insecure and unsafe.
Then up stepped John McDonnell MP, campaign manager for Jeremy Corbyn in his successful Labour leadership campaign (and speaking just hours away from being appointed as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in Corbyn’s new Shadow Cabinet), explained how the budget deficit could be eliminated, and public services paid for, with plenty of money to spare on top of all that, if enough tax inspectors were employed by HMRC in order to claw back the £120 billion of tax avoided, evaded, or simply uncollected from big corporations and rich individuals. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS Union weighed in with a clarion call not only to fight austerity but also to transform our failed electoral system by bringing in proportional representation so that never again do we get a majority government like this present Tory one that was voted in by only 24% of the electorate entitled to vote.
All the speakers got standing ovations in a hall packed to the rafters by a crowd given fresh determination, courage and inspiration to fight austerity and win, not only in the UK but across the world in solidarity with anti-austerity activists everywhere, creating a fairer, kinder, more compassionate society in the process. For me, this rally was the perfect preparation and curtain-raiser for the public launch of the Eastbourne People’s Assembly that will take place on Saturday 19th September, a launch which I’ve been privileged to play a part in setting up. I now look forward to it eagerly, knowing that we who will be attending the launch are not alone but are part of a rapidly growing grass-roots mass movement against austerity that so helped the Green Party and the SNP in the general election and which has now helped sweep Jeremy Corbyn to victory in the Labour leadership election, and which has led to People’s Assemblies mushrooming across the UK. We may all be refugees now in one way or another, but there’s enough of us now to start turning our country back into a place of safety, a true refuge!
We all know that climate scientists are saying that global warming is causing significant climate change and that this will have severe impacts upon the UK. We also know that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense, and this was dramatically illustrated by the ‘wettest winter ever’ that we had in 2013/14. We also know that the melting of the ice caps is leading to a rise in sea level which threatens the viability of coastal town and cities around the world, including the UK. But up until now the predictions for sea level rise have been worrying but apparently safely beyond the time horizon of most of us living today; the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of about 1 metre by 2100. Difficult, but not impossible to cope with, given enough money and political will for adaptation measures like improved sea defences.
But that has probably all changed now: a new paper by a group of climate scientists, the most famous of which is James Hansen, was published last week which predicted that sea level rise may become exponential and increase by as much as 3 metres within the next 50 years. If true, that is a game-changer, a potential death-knell for many towns and cities around the world, including Eastbourne. A large part of Eastbourne and its surrounding countryside is at, or just above sea-level, and was always going to face a challenge adapting to a 1 metre sea-level rise, but now it is facing the truly enormous, possibly insurmountable, challenge of a 3 metre sea-level rise within the next 50 years! That is a real existential challenge for Eastbourne, a real call to arms for the urgent action that is needed not only to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible but also to implement the adaptation measures that will be needed to protect the lives, homes, and businesses of Eastbourne residents. Adaptation planning has to start now and proceed in all seriousness, not only at local government level but across the whole local community. There is no time to waste, as 50 years is not long at all when it comes to defending an entire town from the power of nature unleashed on this scale! And bear in mind that long before the 50 years is up Eastbourne will be feeling the effects of the rapid sea level rise through more frequent and more intense storm surges that will be much bigger than 3 metres! The Pevensey Bay sea defences very nearly got over-topped in the storms of last winter!
- an Eastbourne Flood Forum should be established urgently, along the lines of the successful Coastal Futures Group set up in the Ouse Valley, bringing together all community and business representatives and statutory bodies, to look at adaptation options and flood protection measures.
- there should be an immediate ban on all new building projects in Eastbourne anywhere below 1 metre above sea level, and building anywhere up to the 3 metre mark should only be allowed if the very best flood protection measures can be demonstrated.
- there should be urgent discussions undertaken with the Environment Agency and other relevant government departments to look at what help can be provided to Eastbourne in developing the most robust flood protection measures possible, and how vital transport infrastructure, like the south coast railway, can be better protected. That help must include a significant increase in the funding available for improving flood defences and whatever additional flood protection measures may be needed.
- Eastbourne should form alliances with other coastal towns in the UK and around the world to share information and advice on how sea level rise and its impacts can be adapted to.
- Eastbourne should start thinking the unthinkable and start looking at which areas of the town are just too difficult to defend in the long term, planning now for the gradual evacuation/reconfiguration of those areas.
These are just some initial ideas and no doubt the above list can be extended or altered as discussion about the urgency of flood protection for Eastbourne gets underway. But a meaningful conversation that leads to meaningful action we must have, and we must have it now!
Of course, the paper by Hansen et al has only just come out, and the peer-review process on it has only just begun, with the predictions of the paper possibly turning out to be not quite as valid as the paper’s authors claim. But the paper is based on the latest real world observations and data, much of it available only after the IPCC published its latest report. Most of that data indicates a speed of ice melt that is far larger and far more rapid than even the most pessimistic predictions of the IPCC indicated. Already the first peer-review of the paper praises its thoroughness and the depths of its insights. So the probability is that the climate science will be more on the side of Hansen and his colleagues than it will be against. And anyway, the 3 metre sea levels rise prediction is a serious prediction by serious climate scientists based upon a thorough review of all the available evidence. So it should be taken as a serous possibility and acted upon seriously by all those concerned about the future of Eastbourne. We knew we were all in a climate emergency, but now we know that Eastbourne is about to go into the intensive care unit of the climate A&E!
One of the few positive aspects of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2015 was its apparent commitment to community energy, and its first ever official community energy strategy promised a future in which there would be genuine government support for a community energy revolution that would radically change the energy market in this country. This helped to galvanise people across the country, myself included, to volunteer many hours of their spare time to develop community energy projects in their local community in the idealistic hope that those communities would start to get a fair share of the financial and economic benefits of the burgeoning renewable energy sector. I and my colleagues poured our energies and enthusiasm into setting up a new co-operative, Eastbourne Community Energy, and we trained ourselves up assiduously through the peer-mentoring course run by Community Energy South, a course financed by a grant from the Cabinet Office. We even got as far as developing plans for a solar PV project with a local sports club.
Then the shutters started to come down. The local council, Eastbourne Borough Council, who we had to negotiate with, became not just unhelpful but downright obstructionist. Then the government started moving the goalposts several times, redefining the legal frameworks and tax regimes within which community energy co-ops could operate, making life a lot harder as far as developing renewable generation projects was concerned. Now, with the latest savage roll-back of support by government for renewable energies of all types, community energy co-ops now face the virtual extinguishing of any hope for many of their renewable energy generation projects, as George Monbiot points out. I despair, for now, of any progress in getting community renewable energy projects off the ground in the Eastbourne area, which saddens me enormously as I firmly believe that Eastbourne could benefit enormously from the stimulus to the local economy and the boost to energy security that community energy could bring.
This is the not the end for Eastbourne Community Energy, though, as I and my colleagues will regroup and pursue a different community energy strategy, one that will deliver new services to our local communities despite, not because of, the lack of support from both local and central government. Community energy is too important to be sacrificed to the ideological whims of politicians who are ignorant about renewable energies and their potential for supporting a sustainable energy future and a more prosperous local economy. But, in my opinion, community energy will have to develop, in the Eastbourne area at least, by casting a very sceptical eye on what politicians say, both locally and nationally, as their fine words are often not to be trusted, and projects will have to be developed very much on the basis primarily of grass-roots support and using forms of finance that bypass the normal channels of grant funding or loans from traditional banking sources, channels which have been compromised too often by political interference and institutional indifference to community concerns.
Being a social entrepreneur has always been a tough path to tread, but I feel I’ve had a harsh lesson in how tough it can be. But now that I know a bit more about who can be trusted and who can’t, that path is at least a little bit clearer, and it’ll involve developing a really close relationship with local communities and relying on the traditional co-operative virtues of self-reliance and self-help. The clean energy revolution can’t be stopped anyway, and the struggle to make the benefits of it shared more equitably with everybody, not just the privileged few who can afford to invest in it, goes on.
I’m very happy to have my good friend, Helen Burton, as my guest blogger today, reporting on her fascinating first year attempting to live more ethically. I think you’ll find her report fascinating. Her report has already appeared in the Eastbourne Herald, where she is a regular columnist, but it is re-posted here with her kind permission.
Over a year ago I decided to try to live more ethically and began to research what that meant and what changes I would need to make to my lifestyle in order to live as ethically as possible. What a year it’s been!
I took a break from writing my column on leading an ethical lifestyle in order to stand as a Wealden District councillor. As I learnt more about ethical issues I became more interested in politics as the two subjects are so intertwined. I went from believing that all the parties were the same to joining my party of choice and standing in the election! I am now much more aware of the big issues of our time and have become quite a campaigner on many subjects close to my heart. I have also become a Pevensey parish councillor to try to help my local community.
I founded Incredible Edible Pevensey and Westham and I am working on setting up a ‘Real Junk Food Project’ in Eastbourne too. I have met some wonderful people over the last year who care about people and the planet as much as I do and I have learnt a lot from them. After ten years as a committed singleton I have even started dating again having met someone who shares my interest in community and social justice. It’s amazing what can happen when you start to get involved in your locality!
In trying to eat more ethically I have made changes to my diet which mean I am also healthier than before. I now drive an electric car and have saved a lot of money in doing so. I swapped my bank account to an ethical bank and gained a £100 ‘reward’ in the process as well as £25 going to my choice of charity. Soon I’ll be changing my electricity supplier to one that supplies ‘green’ energy sourced from renewables. Insurance policies have been switched to more ethical companies and whenever I purchase anything now I look for the most ethical choice. I put a lot more thought into how I spend my money and where it goes. I try to remember “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”. (Anna Lappe)
Things aren’t perfect, it’s a work in progress and I’m no paragon of virtue, but I am doing my best to make the right choices and whatever I do I am more mindful of the effect each of us as individuals can have on the world.
Every week in my column I will be addressing another ethical issue and sharing my own efforts to live an ethical lifestyle. From ethical purchases to adventures with chickens and beekeeping, as I explore what it means to live ethically I will share my dilemmas with you and give you something to think about as you make your own choices.