26 February 2005

Norfolk needs less development, built better

By Andrew Boswell

This week's column is an open letter to the Deputy Prime Minister on the East of England Regional Authority's (EERA) draft Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS), currently under public consultation at http://www.eera.gov.uk/ until March 16th 2005.
Dear Mr Prescott,

The RSS is a plan of enormous significance for the future of the East of England. Despite efforts by our local media, many in Norfolk have probably still never heard of it, and EERA are widely thought not to have promoted the consultation effectively.

I hope, though, that the response this time may be better than the previous consultation, to which only 88 individuals from a regional population of 5.4million responded - that is, about 0.001% of the adult population. A 'public' consultation with such a limited response cannot provide a true representation of people's views.

Norfolk born people are familiar with the region's environmental and natural beauty, relaxed pace, quality of life, and local character, whilst others of us have come here to enjoy these lifestyle benefits. Yet the majority in Norfolk may still be blissfully unaware that the RSS proposes 478,000 new homes to be built across the East by 2021 - a build rate of nearly 24000 a year, with 72,600 being in Norfolk.

These new homes will inevitably bring new roads, shops and other commercial infrastructure. Expansion in schools and hospitals will be needed too - although the plan fails to show how this public infrastructure will be funded. We can expect triple accounting and further PFI Fiascos to leave Council Tax payers with the bill for decades to come.

Not just costly, supercharged growth and business development will destroy this region's way of life: business and construction industry interests will come first, the needs of our people poor second. Similar growth plans for the South East will fry that already overheated region, and extend the pressure on our Eastern region too. Fast-life stress and London/SE pace will become ever more common place in Norfolk.

Whilst some growth is inevitable, it should be at a natural pace, not rapid and forced. Many Norfolk people feel their justifiable concerns are being ignored by your government's policy to "develop" the South East and Eastern Regions at the expense of other UK regions, as rapid large-scale private construction will spread concrete and tarmac over ever greater areas of our beautiful county.

The enormous strain on local services, the environment and infrastructure, lagging behind development in both regions, will fuel a housing crisis amongst the worst off in our society - the RSS also doesn't offer enough low cost housing to keep pace with such massive growth.

In short, your regional development plans need rethinking. You should:
  • rebalance economic activity across the whole country;
  • bring empty homes back into use in regeneration areas, such as the North, via an effective empty homes policy.
Then less development would be necessary in the South East and East.

The RSS directly contradicts your own Government's stated position of making climate change a key global issue. EERA accepts "climate change will be inevitable over the period of this strategy" and only advises reactively 'adapting' the region to it. Beyond some small scale sustainable energy, the RSS sets no pro-active policy vision for Norfolk's role in reducing carbon emissions. This is an unacceptable renunciation of responsibility - planners and developers must take responsibility for carbon reduction, as much as governments, industry and individuals.

This can only be achieved by making all planning processes "carbon emission aware". You should show a real commitment to tackling climate change by legislating that all planning and transport decisions must quantify their carbon emissions, and prove they meet strict limits. Without existing legislation, the EERA plan should put be on hold until it is resubmitted with a full assessment of the carbon emission costs of its every development.

Greenpeace have recently suggested ten "climate steps", necessary to your government's credibility on climate change: immediately adopting the following would enable the "built better" sustainable development of our region:
  • setting tough environmental standards (zero emission levels) for all new buildings;
  • subsidizing domestic renewable power such as solar and state-of-the-art energy efficiency;
  • requiring all new buildings to include combined heat and power plants; and
  • promoting a much greater expansion of renewable energy production.
We need clear policy and vigorous action on Climate Change from the top. Please will you, and Tony Blair, address this. At the level of regional planning, your office could rapidly make significant beneficial impact on all our climate propects by adopting the above 'Less Development, Built Better' policy. Norfolk people who cherish our unique 'Do Different' way of life would benefit greatly.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Boswell

19 February 2005

Selling non-proliferation on the streets of Norwich

By Marguerite Finn

Visitors to Norwich City Centre yesterday may have seen the veteran peace campaigner, Bruce Kent, engaging members of the public and persuading them to sign a petition calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

Bruce - formerly a Catholic priest and currently Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - has been active in this cause since 1958. He is 76 now and his visit to Norwich is part of a 2-month, nation-wide tour taking in 21 cities. The tour is organised by CND and Bruce will be meeting Mayors and local dignitaries and inviting them to become 'Mayors for Peace' in time for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bringing 100 Mayors from around the world to the Conference calling for immediate negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. We can be proud that the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Joyce Divers, is one of a growing number of Mayors for Peace.

The petitions collected by Bruce will be taken to the NPT Conference to signal the British peoples' desire for nuclear disarmament.

What drives a 76 year old man, in the depths of Winter, to embark on such a gruelling campaign ? Why should he - or we - care so much?

Let us look at the history of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a cornerstone of international security. It aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to states that do not already possess them and obliges existing Nuclear Weapon States to negotiate, at an early date, the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

When the Treaty became law in 1970 it was signed by 5 nuclear powers: US, Britain, Russia, France and China. Despite this, nuclear weapons proliferated - first in Israel, then India and Pakistan and recently in North Korea. When the NPT was reviewed in 2000, a six-point Plan of Action for progress in nuclear disarmament was agreed.

Unfortunately, since 9/11 the US now regards this plan as 'history' and 'incompatible' with the new "War on Terror". It is feared that they - possibly supported by Britain - will not re-affirm their "unequivocal undertaking" to pursue total nuclear disarmament, which is the key part of Article V1 of the original Treaty. Without this undertaking, the nuclear arms race could escalate out of control.

This is what concerns Bruce Kent and drives him on to the chilly streets of our cities. It should concern all of us. We are facing a new, unpredictable and largely invisible enemy - terrorism - against which nuclear weapons are useless. Terrorists are stateless adversaries without the infrastructure to build/house nuclear weapons systems. Nuclear proliferation and escalation is already happening and the Non-Proliferation Treaty remains the only internationally accepted barrier - however imperfect - to further incidences. In 2002, in flagrant breach of the spirit of the NPT, the US administration launched its Nuclear Posture Review, calling for new types of nuclear weapons to be built and proposing new roles for their use.

The dangers inherent in this policy cannot be overstated. In the first place it sends a signal to nuclear and non-nuclear states alike: 'Smarten up - Proliferate'! Secondly, 'low-yield' nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional warfare making nuclear war more "thinkable." Regardless of what they are called, they are still nuclear bombs and the designing, building and testing of them directly contravenes the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A third danger lies in President Bush's decision to merge the forces carrying out nuclear and conventional global strikes - by allowing an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry either a nuclear or a conventional warhead and to put in place a new computerised planning and command structure that would make it faster and easier to launch a nuclear attack. In a crisis, it would be impossible for countries to distinguish what kind of weapon a plane, or missile was carrying, thus increasing the possibility of escalation.

So, where does Britain stand with regard to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons? Apart from 110 US nuclear weapons stationed at Lakenheath, Britain has its own Trident Nuclear Submarines. Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, recently announced that the decision on whether to replace or upgrade Trident would be taken during the next Parliament. That decision-making process has almost certainly begun, as evidenced by the huge new building programme at AWE Aldermaston.

That is why Bruce Kent wants people to sign the petition for the abolition of nuclear weapons and why it is so important that both the US and UK honour their pledges to the Non-Proliferation Treaty - because, without Britain and America on board, the Treaty is doomed - and so, possibly, are we.

I am grateful to Norwich CND for their input.

12 February 2005

Supporting the people of Aceh

By Jacqui McCarney

We are awash with table top sales, fund raising lunches and coffee mornings for tsunami victims. The bucket is out in pubs, churches, community centers and local shops. This pattern of generosity is repeated throughout the country with businesses and celebrities becoming involved.

The shocking events of Boxing Day tsunami, which killed and made so many people homeless, touched our hearts and moved us to act to ensure these people had a future. We are now familiar with the names of remote areas like Aceh. This hardest hit area was levelled, with the disappearance of vast areas of coastline and whole communities wiped out. The Indonesian people have suffered unimaginable losses.

Our connection with these people is now one of deep sympathy and support. However, there is a connection forged between the people of Norfolk and the people of Indonesia long before the tsunami. A connection less advertised, more shameful and sadly more sinister.

As well as giving these people money to build new lives we are also, rather illogically, helping to destroy their lives. Currently Norfolk County, through its Pension Fund, has 663,215 shares in the arms company GKN, which has total military sales of $2.1 billion and sells arms to Indonesia. Our City council is involved too, as a participating employer in the County Council pension scheme

The Indonesian government is engaged in a 'dirty war', against the people of Aceh and West Papua who it has colonized and subjugated. In its 2002 report, Amnesty International says the action of the Indonesian Government has led to "hundreds of cases of extrajudicial execution, disappearances, torture and unlawful arrests". Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asian Division notes, "in case after case, soldiers have gone into Acehnese village and publicly executed or beat people seemingly at random". Tragically, these attacks on the people of Aceh - as they struggle not just for their freedom but for bare life itself - resumed within a week of the devasting Boxing Day tsunami.

Alison King, the Leader of Norfolk County Council and the chairperson of the investment Committee, deciding on investment policy, defends the Council's investment in the arms trade "in order to keep down the costs to the council taxpayers".

However, ethical investment does not necessarily cost a penny more; and some local authorities, such as Nottinghamshire County Council, have made a positive first step of investing a percentage of their Pension Fund in portfolios which exclude arms companies. Such ethical restrictions then could be introduced here in Norfolk, too. I do not think Norfolk County Council, whose role is to look after people in this county, should invest in companies that cause misery to other people around the world.

Britain is a major global player in the arms industry. It is the second largest arms exporter (after the United States), with a quarter of global trade. The majority of people killed in wars are the victims of small arms, and Britain has granted 1,500 small arms export licenses under the Labour Government to dozens of countries. Since 1997 weapons have been sold to Algeria, Columbia, Israel, Nepal, the Philippines and Russia. All of these countries have terrible human rights records and are currently involved in conflicts. We are therefore, complicit in massive human rights abuses in several countries, exacerbating regional tensions in areas of conflict and violating our own and EU's guidelines on arms export.

In 1997 East Timor's Bishop Belo implored the British Government, "my people have suffered terribly from the effects of armaments made in countries far from our shore… appeal to the government of the United Kingdom…. Do not sustain any longer a conflict which without these sales could never have been pursued in the first place, nor for so very long."

It is clear that the people of Norfolk wish to express good will and generosity to all those who suffered in the tsunami. In a democracy, these sentiments should be fully represented by our local and national Government. The Campaign against the Arms Trade, recommends you write to the councils, and to your City and County Councillors. As council tax-payers, the people of Norfolk, have the status of beneficiaries, and therefore the right to comment on Norfolk County's Pension Fund. It is time to end the hypocrisy, if we truly want to help the victims of the tsunami, we the citizens of Norfolk must stop investing in the very arms that are used so cruelly against them.

5 February 2005

Ethics or aesthetics?

By Marguerite Finn

When Cervantes made his knight errant Don Quixote ride at full tilt against a windmill, that impulsive charge was the principled reaction of an honourable if eccentric man against a monstrosity defiling the green and pleasant Spanish landscape. Whether wind turbines creep towards National Parks or raise their questionable heads around Shipdam, they provoke the same sort of intuitive objection. The Bishop of Hereford described a plan for turbines on Cefn Croes in mid-Wales as an act of vandalism equal to the destruction of the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan by the Taliban. One's aesthetic senses bristle against such disfigurements.

The International Climate Change Task Force suggests that the threat of irreversible climate change is even more urgent than we supposed. Stringent measures have to be taken within the next ten years if we are to avoid reaching the levels of carbon dioxide in the air that trigger run-away climate effects; we have not got until 2050 as we thought, which itself did not seem long enough to save the planet. We begin to see maps that show the North Sea lapping at the doors of Norwich Cathedral; but even so, our problems will be trifling compared with low-lying Bangladesh. There, irregular and extreme weather would probably kill millions, displace tens of millions and destroy thousands of square kilometres of unique habitat. Cataclysms of comparable scale involving desertification may affect China and South American countries from loss of snow-melt water. As always, the poor would suffer disproportionately from the greed of the rich.

That is what is to blame for excessive global warming gases: our desire, as the rich of the world, for every short-term comfort that profligate energy expenditure may buy. And who can blame the developing countries for increasing their own harmful gas emissions to seek those comforts they have watched us enjoy? We are responsible for tempting them towards their own appalling destruction, which will make Boxing Day 2004 seem mild in comparison.

Such considerations are profoundly ethical. So long as we are our brother's keeper, we have a duty to do everything we can to avoid inflicting those calamities upon him. And the fact that the victims may indeed be as closely related as brothers, and not some descendant distant in time and place, as we used to imagine, concentrates the mind upon finding ethical solutions.

The huge scale of the problem suggests that we need to employ every sensible option, from drastically reducing our energy consumption and wastage, to developing fuel cells, carbon sequestration and a hydrogen economy without delay, and every benign form of renewable energy. The panacea of nuclear energy is illusory, since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) advises us that nuclear stations cannot possibly come on stream quickly enough, even if they were acceptably safe. And they are not. Their radioactive waste would litter the world for 240,000 years, to add further to our intergenerational shame. The World Bank will not invest in current nuclear technologies - even to fight global warming.

Other positive contributions come from more efficient and less used vehicles, energy efficient buildings (including new-build homes), moving from coal to gas generation, biomass, afforestation and conservation tillage. No one knows yet what the problems of each may be, so we must proceed with each, cautiously but at once.

Panting healthily on the crest of a windswept moor or gazing out between the chintz curtains of the best bedroom, of course one is aesthetically disconsolate at the awesome march of the wind turbines. Yet every little helps, including them. In comparison with the future disconsolation of the Bangladeshis, such heartache of ours is trivial. Just as in wartime we melted down fabulous wrought-iron work to make guns, covered the fells in conifers for pit-props and tore up well-loved gardens to dig for victory, so we must swallow our aesthetic pride and bite on the ecological bullet, to avoid this far worse enemy - one we have created ourselves.

No one is quite sure what Cervantes meant by parodying courtly honour in the ridiculous figure of his quixotic hero but, as I remember the story, the knight was always true to himself after his own fashion. Perhaps we can be truer to ourselves in the current critical situation, if we forego the aesthetics to hold on to the ethics.

Norwich citizens can march in London on Saturday, 12 February, - to persuade world governments fully to back the Climate Treaty to restrict greenhouse gas emissions now. For travel details / tickets ring the Greenhouse on 01603 631007.

I am grateful to the Editor of Resurgence Magazine for ideas from letters therein from Rob Collister and Peter Harper.