Wednesday 13 April 2011

Flogging Hackney - Lightning strikes twice

The year is 2001 – Hackney council is in disarray - Waste is piling up on the streets, exposing the tip of a financial iceberg in meltdown. Central government stepped in with an unprecedented directive to balance the books. Management were disposed, replaced with accountant consultants who found a hole in the coffers the size of £21 million - a sum that was to later balloon to a massive £70 million. What followed left the social fabric of one of the poorest areas in Britain in tatters and a council in debt and vulnerable to outside forces with an agenda. The government.

This was not meant to happen again.
Forward wind ten years and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announces to the country the biggest cuts to council budgets in recent times. Once more, Hackney council must slash their budget, and more so than nearly all councils, and with remarkable coincidence, to the tune of £70 million. Andrew Robertson investigates the devastating effects of the cuts a decade ago to present a warning of what lies ahead for the people of Hackney.

When Hackney Council announced in 2001 they were in financial chaos, residents raised weary eyes to the heavens. Another year, another crisis.
England's fourth poorest borough has a past littered with accounts of fraud, corruption and mal-administration. However, despite the welfare needs of its residents, the council's crippling debt was used as an excuse to strip the borough of voluntary sector premises and prepare public services for the private sector. The result; a cascade of property disposals leading to the closure of scores of community resources from nurseries to ethnic community centres, legal advice centres to libraries.
Hackney’s debt is historical

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, local authorities borrowed money from central government to finance housing projects. Around thirty such blocks were built in Hackney but investment in their upkeep was not maintained. Many subsequently became uninhabitable, and many were knocked down or placed in line for demolition. This left Hackney in debt, with fewer rent streams to service that debt. In a scenario familiar to third world governments, the interest on the debt grew larger than the money available for repayment.
A December 2000 policy and finance committee report, said: "In total, the council pays around £68 million in interest on capital debt. The majority of this interest is related to housing debt."

Based on this figure and multiplied by the average interest rate in 2001/02 of 8.6 per cent, the amount owed by the Council would have weighed in at a hefty £584.8 million. A sum which led groups within the borough such as UNITE and HackneyNot4Sale to campaign for the government to "Dump the Debt"; a localised equivalent to the global "Drop the Debt" lobby. However, like the World Bank and IMF, the government had no intention of dropping the debt, preferring instead to provide assistance only if the recipient followed a strict privatisation agenda.
As one community activist put it: "Hackney can't turn down money from government because this puts control back at the centre. The council succumbs to whatever government policy is."

When Tony Elliston became chief executive of Hackney Council in 1995 the Labour group had divided into two camps and the following elections delivered a hung council. Elliston presided over £30 million worth of cuts in public services, which saw the closure of the school bus service, several nurseries and half the borough's fourteen libraries.
He then resigned his position in 1999 just prior to a damning OFSTED report with claims that central government were politically interfering with council affairs.

"They had a number of education authorities they could have gone for, all equally bad," Elliston told me. "They could have done Islington or Tower Hamlets. That's not to say Hackney's education system was not bad. But it was not worse than the others. It was singled out because of political reasons. The official Labour group had been ousted and a breakaway group had taken over. Political knee-capping, that's what it was."
One departmental head after another followed Elliston. "Every single one had left within a year," he recalls. "The [government] inspectors started coming in, it was like a kind of dying animal and everyone was keen to get in and sink their teeth into it."
Various inspections took place, initially by a government body called the Improvement and Development Agency, which reported a "most grave and serious situation". This led the central government to impose section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which prevents "any potentially unlawful expenditure ... likely to exceed resources available." This draconian measure again left the council in paralysis. Dustcarts sat idle in the depot awaiting repair, maintenance on people's homes were put on hold and all staff on temporary contracts were laid off.
Next came the Audit Commission, who conducted three inspections within nine months, concluding the council would need "significant support", and recommending that government should intervene. "We have decided that it is now appropriate that the secretary of state consider(s) exercising his function under Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 to give a direction to the Council". It was the first time Section 15 had been invoked.
Under government directions the local authority began recruiting senior staff, starting with Max Caller as managing director in June 2000. Despite gross financial problems at the council, Caller's starting salary was £150,000.
Furthermore central government paid over £3.5 million in consultancy fees associated with Hackney's restructuring. A sizeable portion of this sum went to consultants Deloitte & Touche, who recruited seven temporary financial managers into each directorate. According to invoices I obtained, some of these consultants were taking home at least £2,420 a week. Their job, according to a government press release, was to "provide solid financial expertise and help tackle the borough's financial crisis."
The financial controllers took up their positions just prior to demands from government for the council to produce a three-year budget strategy. In its first year alone projected savings of £13 million meant another round of cuts and closures of vital services. More nurseries closed, surviving libraries were again under threat, Home Help support was reduced to visits of half an hour, grant money cut by 38 per cent, clothing awards for children reduced, play group funding slashed and the criteria for cheap bus passes tightened.
Workers who maintain services were also targeted. In October 2001, the council imposed a 90-day rule on all sections of the workforce except those in education. This gave workers 90 days to sign a new contract stipulating poorer pay and conditions, or face dismissal.
Members of Unison initially refused to sign and some were sacked before being offered their same jobs back with reduced workplace conditions. At this point most signed up to the new regime but sent in letters along with their contracts stating they were signing under duress. This led to a series of successful employment tribunals for unfair dismissal.

Residents and workers alike were hoping for support from central government to prevent a continuing decimation of services. When then local government minister, Nick Raynsford, announced a £25 million support package in January, it seemed the government had answered their prayers. A spokesperson for the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which has now been broken up, said the money was to "protect local government services for the people of Hackney". However this financing came attached with nine conditions, one of which stated that it could not be used to "offset failure to achieve savings". Crucially this stipulation meant the money could not be used to prevent cuts in services.
A further condition attached to the financial carrot required the council to "establish the new body for education services in the borough". Subsequent to OFSTED's condemnatory report on Hackney's education service, central government ordered the council to privatise two key areas of the service. Former Schools minister, Estelle Morris, announced the decision: "The secretary of state will now direct Hackney to sign a contract. This is the first time we have been able to take decisive action, thanks to the new powers we took in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998."

Nord Anglia Education plc were awarded contracts to run the School Improvement and Ethnic Minority Achievement services. However, in a further OFSTED report written over one year after Nord Anglia took over, it listed school improvement as "functions, which are still unsatisfactory". Furthermore the Labour councillor, Ian Peacock, told a Select Committee on Employment and Education, that Nord Anglia "has not made any difference in terms of day to day accountability."
As privatisation was unable to bring the desired results, the OFSTED report recommended "radical change". A joint team put together by the department of education and skills decided that a non-profit organisation should run education services in the borough, so the Hackney Education Trust was formed.
Parallel to that period of decision-making was an appraisal of how the financial services in the new trust should be run. For this analysis, the government selected PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) who concluded that long-term financial ownership, along with pensions, insurance and treasury management, should be carried out by Public Private Partnership (PPP). A spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister denied that by hiring PwC, government were forcing privatisation on the council: "Decisions on outsourcing are rightly the responsibility of local authorities."
However, backdoor expansion of private involvement in the new education trust could prove risky, as was noted by the joint team in their report:" The Audit Commission has signalled weaknesses in the capacity of the council to manage adequately contracts for outsourced services."
Certainly, the failure of past privatisation has left its mark. Much of the 2001 crisis could have been avoided had the outsourcing of social security benefits to a company called ITNET not taken place at all. The contract began in 1997 and by the time it was brought back in house four years later, it had cost the people of Hackney £36 million. Elderly people were left paying their rent out of their winter fuel money in fear of eviction, as benefit claims remained unprocessed. The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate stated in a report on ITNET that an estimated 64,112 outstanding items relating to 33,347 claims were left undone.

Distraught residents desperately turned to the Hackney Law Centre and Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for help. According to the director of Hackney CAB, Sola Ayobade, both organisations felt the impact of ITNET's failure: "You can't even think about how it was. It was the evictions. Then the landlords would come in and say look we're about to lose our properties because we can't get our rent on the tenants we've got in. So we had all parties coming in, it was quite horrendous." In the cruellest irony, funding for both Hackney Law Centre and the CAB were cut because of the debt created by ITNET's failure.
The CAB, who had already closed one of its two Bureaus in the borough to new clients, now faced further financial pressure after being threatened with a further 30 per cent cut in their grant. Meanwhile ITNET survived the ordeal, announcing a year later pre-tax profits of £12.6 million. In 2004 ITNET were taken over by the government’s favoured public sector services contractor Serco. Further unfortunate irony came after the collapse of Railtrack. Hackney Council had invested part of its pension fund in 60,000 Railtrack shares and lost £100,000 when the rail company collapsed.
In order to balance the books, Hackney Council set up a "Property Disposal Programme" which was set a target of £70 million over the financial year of 2001/2, but only managed £50 million. Once again central government stepped in to provide an "Unsupported Credit Approval" loan to bridge the gap of £20 million. This effectively put the council into yet more debt.

When selling assets local councils are supposed to achieve "Best Value" on all properties sold. However, minutes of meetings not in the public domain but seen by myself, show that Hackney Council sold a package of nine buildings in Broadway Market, south Hackney, to a property development company called Stirling & Investments Ltd for a total of just £250,000.
At the time of purchase, the main shareholder of the newly formed company was Donald Beskine, an accountant working for the British government on a scheme to marketise eastern Europe. He was also principal advisor to the Bulgarian Economic Development Ministry and the Russian Federal Commission on the Securities Market. As managing director of the International Centre for Accounting Practices Beskine was employed by the European Union, USAID, World Bank and OECD to attract foreign investment into Russian enterprises. Sterling's bid was preferred over that of the Notting Hill Housing Trust, a London based housing association.
Despite a necessity for affordable social housing in the area, these one bedroom studios were being sold at £150,000 each. Stirling & Investments Ltd. also received regeneration money to renovate the buildings although Hackney Council claim to have no records of exactly how much.
Indeed Broadway Market became a battleground in a property war involving 3 main developers. We have already seen the bargains offered to Stirling & Investments Ltd. Now another place named Francesca’s café came under attention for a Roger Wratten. The café was sandwiched between a hairdressers and an old pub, called the Market house, both of which he owned. His intention was to buy the property and wed them together to build flats or a theatre. Unfortunately for Roger, a certain Sicilian named Tony Platia had run the place for over 30 years, earned a modest living, and had no intention of giving the property away. I spent many a day in his café researching the unfolding disaster of Hackney. Tony had paid his rent always on time and had become a popular member of the community. Having committed so much time to the place, losing it felt like a crime, but there was hope.

Tony had first refusal on the property and repeatedly tried to buy it. In 1999 he sought to buy the freehold, and came close to achieving this when his confidential arrangements were leaked to a certain property developer who owned both adjoining properties. We shan’t name names. From this point on all attempts to buy the property were obstructed. Despite this, in July 2001, a report was compiled to be put before the regeneration Sub committee which recommended the immediate sale of the property to Tony Platia. The committee never got to see the report and the Council has never located its whereabouts.

The case went to Shoreditch County Court and to the dismay of Tony was lost, and he was evicted. The property was sold in 2003 to Roger Wratten and Tony was evicted. It wasn’t quite over. Tony refused to leave, the local community squatted the café and it opened again for business. The story was all over the press, and Tony even received a visit from the Mayor of Sicily.
This however is Hackney, and following a year and a half of wrangling and failed communications, on the 21st of February 2005 somebody cut the locks securing the shutters and threw in 3 fire bombs. Two weeks later, a team of bailiffs and 50 uniformed police ended the matter.1
Tony now runs a fruit juice stall on Market days outside his former café.
Residents and social groups across the borough argued vehemently that the Council was targeting asset sales on properties which were vital community resources. Atherden Nursery in Clapton was one such property. Whilst up for sale, the premises were squatted by parents of children attending the nursery in an effort to prevent closure. When the rest of the local community proved overtly supportive of the squatters stance, the council backed down and promised to reopen the nursery once vacant possession was secured. The parents moved out only for the council to renege on its promise and close it. Later in the year the property was sold for £420,000.
And there were plenty more closures to come. The three-year budget strategy at the time and agreed with central government involved £13 million of cuts in 2002, £18.2 million in 2003 and £22 million in 2004. As the Council desperately attempted to address its internal problems within the strict parameters set by central government, the future of public services and voluntary sector community projects in Hackney looked increasingly bleak. Certainly, promises that public services were to improve looked much like Atherden Nursery did after my final visit. Empty.
Stripped bare over decades of financial corruption, and failed policy and management, Hackney is battening down the hatches for another round of attacks on their services.
1. - local advocate Arthur Shuter

Tuesday 12 April 2011

London 2012: one big party or one big prison?

Security precautions for London 2012 include the construction of a 17.5 km, 5,000volt electric fence, topped with 900 daylight and night vision surveillance cameras spaced at 50 metre intervals. On first sight of the fence you could be forgiven for thinking you had slipped through a wormhole in the space-time continuum to find yourself on the perimeter of a Soviet era Gulag. Mike Wells investigates security for the Olympic games.

The Code of Practice for the operating CCTV at the London Olympics states that:

The threat of hostile individuals attempting to gain access through the perimeter is believed to justify the use of CCTV

As part of the Command Perimeter Security System, CCTV will be deployed.

Security Fence: The 17.5 km fence has 900 day and night vision cameras and is topped with many strands of 5,000 volt electrified wire. It gives the feeling of a prison rather than of a party venue. © Mike Wells

The use of military terms like hostile individuals and Command Perimeter Security System highlight a contradiction between the Olympic promise and reality, between the sporting party image and a security paranoia now made visible in the form of the Olympic perimeter fence. But there is a large and profitable industry supplying equipment and research to feed the paranoia of a new security mindset identified by author Matt Carr who comments…

A new genre of military futurology has emerged which owes as much to apocalyptic Hollywood movies as it does to the cold war tradition of ‘scenario planning. Often outlandish and bizarre in its prophecies, and always dystopian, this new military futurism sees threats to the western way of life emanating not only from rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism but also from resurgent nationalism, conflicts over dwindling resources, migration, disease, organised crime, abrupt climate change and the emergence of failed cities where social disorder is rife.

Joint Metropolitan Police and special forces anti-terror exercise: This exercise was so realistic that amputees were used as fake casualties, as can be seen from the bloodied leg. Loud explosions and gun fire was heard during this exercise. I left the scene as soon as the commanding officer threatened to arrest me under the Official Secrets Act for taking photographs

Other security measures to be implemented for London 2012 will include facial and iris recognition, finger-print and hand recognition, guards with attack dogs and search dogs. New software is planned to integrate all of London's CCTV cameras, and will have the capability to follow you through the city. A scheme to search people and vehicles will include machines capable of looking through your clothing. The Air Force will deploy its Reaper pilot-less drone aircraft, which will carry laser-guided bombs and missiles including the Hellfire air-to-ground weapon. While on the Thames, the Royal Navy will deploy its new £1 billion Daring class Type 45 destroyer. These are also to be fitted with laser-guided missile systems able to shoot down a target the size of a cricket ball.

It is rumoured the London’s Met Police are planning to use remotely controlled mini aeroplanes with surveillance cameras (spy drones) at the Olympics. A company likely to supply the equipment is AirRobot UK Ltd. Air Robot UK’s website tells us that…

AirRobot UK was chosen as the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] system to cover aerial surveillance at the London Olympics 2012 Handover Ceremony during the late summer of 2008. The system was deployed at The Mall and Buckingham Palace to provide real time images to emergency services at the event. (2)

The Home Office website alleges that...

Ensuring the safety and security of the 2012 Games will be one of the largest, most complex security challenges the UK has ever faced.

The Home Office’s suggestion appears an overstatement. Securing Britain form Nazi Germany during the second world war, and preventing global nuclear destruction during the Cold War would fit their description, but as Matt Carr comments… In recent years, the military establishments of the US and the UK have produced a series of reports that attempt to ‘think the unthinkable in imagining future threats to the security of the West.

The Olympic Act, which sets out various laws relating to the Olympics, gives the right of forced entry into private property to remove unauthorised advertising or protest banners. Even more worrying is that the right of forced entry is extended outside the police force to staff contracted to the ODA.

According to The Times security measures for the London Olympics will include the nationwide use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, allowing police stop and search without suspicion. The London Olympics and its security does not exist in isolation but in a continuum of increasing state surveillance and security hysteria. Any extra powers gained by the state over the citizenry should ring alarm bells because of the danger they will become accepted and permanent.

A subcategory of Military Futurism known as Red Teaming is a way of assessing your own security from the point of view of those who would attack you, as though you are your own enemy. It is promoted as a way of thinking without preconceptions or boundaries. Red Team journal comments that …

[S]ome events also are so unlikely that their very randomness lowers all obstacles to them occurring. […] This poses a particular problem for red teaming and threat analysis. How can we plan for every conceivable scenario? Or, to take a different tack, should we? Being strong everywhere means being weak everywhere. One can easily drain organizational resources planning for “movie-plot” WMD terrorism only to be surprised by a group of men with machine guns. But protecting the national interest is a [sic] task that must be accomplished regardless of human weakness.(4)

The idea that we should “protect the national interest regardless of human weakness” sounds more like a line from a Hollywood B movie than something that should be taken seriously by government agencies, and yet looking at the development of the London Olympic Security one can imagine this is a way of thinking that has taken root.

Emergency services anti-terror exercise.: Simulation of a biochemical attack.

Concerns over surveillance, security and privacy led a group of academics to draft a public statement over these issues at the Vancouver winter games.

having analyzed past and planned Olympics and other mega events, from a variety of historical and international perspectives, we recognize:

* that recent Games have increasingly taken place in and contributed to a climate of fear, heightened security and surveillance; and
* that this has often been to the detriment of democracy, transparency and human rights, with serious implications for international, national and local norms and laws.

These academics seem to have a point. Extrapolating further along the graph of surveillance and securitisation one would predict that the military/security/prison industrial complex will become increasingly embedded, effective and difficult to dislodge. What would satiate the appetite of this sector of the state apparatus would logically be a point at which dissent becomes impossible.

CCTV Control Centre in Tower Hamlets London.: It is planned to integrate all of London's CCTV cameras in time for the Olympics.
New security technologies will make it possible to monitor populations with only a small number of personnel and hence at minimal cost. In theory this means a small minority could have the ability to control a whole population and this should be seen as a potential threat, ironically it should perhaps be a scenario Red Teaming should plan against, however Red Teaming smacks more of maintaining an incumbent elite than preventing it careering out of control.

Military futurism’s predictions of a dysfunctional society full of threats could be a self-fulfilling prophesy, because as it attempts to do the impossible, in “protecting” from all “conceivable scenarios”, it must necessarily turn us all into suspects. Hence it has to reduce our trust in each other, and eventually in the state apparatus itself. London’s police force recently refused a Freedom of Information Request on their plans to use spy drones, saying that

this [their reply] should not be taken as necessarily indicating that any information that would meet your request exists or does not exist.

In other words this is secret. AirRobot UK’s drone is small, silent and difficult to spot. It can also be landed (perched) in hidden locations such as rooftops in order carry out covert surveillance.

MI6 Building: Also known as the British Secret Intelligence Service Building at Albert Embankment in London

Enhanced by new technology Britain seems to be sleep walking towards a big-brother state, which is camouflaging itself as means of protecting ordinary “hard working families”. Yet life cannot exist without risk and in this case trying to eliminate risk carries the greater danger of dis-empowering and separating us from each other while at the same time leaving a window of opportunity for a small elite to monitor and control us.

Perhaps the cherry on the surveillance cake, and a technology that could eventually make dissent difficult, is Threat Assessment and Behavioral Analysis Software. This new innovation has the ability to monitor CCTV images and recognise patterns of behavior. It is reported to be under consideration for the London Olympics (3).

Text and photos © Mike Wells

Slouching Towards Dystopia: the new military futurism by
Matt Carr in Journal of Race and Class. Jan 2010; 51: 13-32


Saturday 9 April 2011

The Dutch are streets ahead

Cycling in the UK is on the increase. Cycle lanes are appearing in all our towns and cities, providing safer routes for school runs, commuter routes for workers and country trails for those of us wanting a leisurely ride. We are undoubtedly on the move and it would appear, in the right direction, but Andrew Robertson asks, how far have we come, and how far do we still have to go before we are able to compare ourselves to the the most advanced cycling nation on Earth - the Dutch?

I start with a few facts:

1. There are more bicycles in the Netherlands than there are people.

2. There are twice as many bicycles as cars.

3. In 1992 Amsterdam residents voted to decrease car parking in the City centre.

4. During peak hours, on work days, up to 10,000 bikes are parked at Amsterdam Central station 1.

5. In Gronigen, cyclists are allowed to do right turns at junctions when the light is red, when cars are not. Cyclists also get an advance green light.

So how did this former car dependent country turn into a cyclist's paradise?

Let's start with the topography. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is as flat as a flounder, with approximately 27% of the land being below sea-level. The highest point is 322.7 metres (1,059ft), which in most countries would be called a hill - but not in the Netherlands where they have humorously named it 'Mount Vaals'. There’s no doubt about it; a land whose highest point barely pokes its nose above the ground lends itself towards an activity such as cycling. But it takes more than a friendly terrain to get a population out of a car and onto a bicycle. As we know, the UK is hillier than Holland, but that didn't stop the rise of the bicycle in Britain during the Victorian era. In fact, once mass production began in 1890, everyone was using them for both work and leisure. It was trendy, affordable, practical and common. So the hills can't be blamed for cycle apathy, and nor can the bike itself. It's perfectly capable of steep gradients with a little assistance from its rider.

One of the first requirements to encourage bicycle use, and perhaps the most obvious, is a proper cycle infrastructure, a network that allows children to cycle to school, and people to go to work without fear of losing their lives. One of the many reasons people give for not travelling by bicycle in London for example, is the fear of motorised vehicles; or rather the fear of being hit by one. On London's manic roads, it often reaches war-like status, with bike lanes blocked by parked cars, and bus lanes shared between cyclists and stressed out taxi drivers. It's a recipe for disaster. There's no talking to your cycling companion on your journey and you can’t even signal properly in case your wheel hits a bump and sends you into oncoming traffic. Delicate sounds of bird whistles, if they exist, are drowned out by the revving of engines and the beeping of horns from irate drivers shouting encouragement like, 'C'mon out the facking way!' So high is the noise level of car engines that if it were measured in a nightclub, the authorities would close it down. The roads are full of vehicles moving at an average speed of 9mph, which is slower than in the days of horse and cart! Static traffic fills the air with toxic car breath, increasing incidents of asthma in children. But despite this hellish environment, for many, it remains their preferred way of getting around the city.

It is irrefutable that the car is the major reason why cycling almost disappeared from our streets. The benefits it offered at a time when our roads were less full must have been tremendous, and as the cost of the car fell down, then unsurprisingly the mass population switched their mode of transport. Back in 1950, according to the Department for Transport, the bicycle made up 37.48% of all road traffic vehicles, today that figure is 0.98%. Between 1961 and 1965, the greatest period of growth in car use in the UK. Car traffic rose by 70.29% in that period. In the same period bicycle traffic fell by 41.67%.

This clearly didn't happen just in the UK.

During the 1960’s, the Dutch were also on their way to car dependency. Until 1960, the number of passenger kilometres travelled by bicycle was greater than by car. However just as in the UK, bicycle use declined sharply thereafter and by 1974 had returned to its 1950 level. What happened next was both remarkable and radical, changing the entire vehicular landscape of the Netherlands. Good old-fashioned lobbying in the 1970’s by the Dutch cyclists union, Fietserbond, persuaded the forward-thinking administration of the time to invest heavily in a nationwide bicycle infrastructure. A proposal was made as early as 1972 to create separate routes for bicycles and moped traffic, which resulted in a 'bicycle traffic plan.' Change had begun, and the traffic circulation plan of 1978 said priority should be given to 'projects under preparation within the Bicycle Route Network'.

Broad political support arose for developing the network and expanding facilities.2 And what was the result? Nearly a third of all journeys today are made by bicycle. It is a way of life. Every road planning scheme considers the safety of the cyclist, the bicycle has priority. Even in the flat lands of Denmark they can't compete, where a respectable 19% use the bicycle for their wanderings. And yet they still don't sit on their laurels. The standard amount of funding for cycling initiatives in English local authorities is around £1 per citizen, per year. In contrast, Dutch towns such as Amsterdam are currently spending around £10-20 per year.

So it is little wonder then that in the UK, under 3% of all journeys are made by bicycle. We remain a nation of car lovers, who make up 79.49% of all road traffic vehicles. In 2003, the government chose to spend £5 billion on expanding the M25 in a PFI initiative, and made much ado about providing £140 million to the quango Cycling England. That said, cycling is on the increase, a momentum is taking place which appears unstoppable. So are we finally moving towards the Dutch mentality, where priorities to the bicycle are both cultural and financial?

Different parts of the country are on the saddle significantly more than the national average. Especially those that were selected as part of the 'Cycling Demonstration Towns Programme' (CDTP), which began in 2003 after the Labour government gave Cycling England the £140 million. The initiative saw six towns across England receive European levels of funding to increase their cycling levels, as well as provide 500,000 10-year olds with cycle proficiency, and connect 500 schools via traffic calmed or traffic free routes to the wider national cycle network. It worked. All six towns saw an increase in cycling of 27%, and cycling to school more than doubled where towns invested most in children. We do have a national cycle network in the UK, but for the most part, it only exists because of the valiant efforts of the Sustrans charity who through a combination of determination and ingenuity pieced together a patchwork of routes and trails that spread throughout the country. However, it is a million miles from the Dutch model. However a further £50 million to expand our network was part of a lottery fund that was voted for by the public, showing the desire is there. Initiatives such as the Cycle to Work programme and the hire bike scheme in London are continuing to advance use. The number of cyclists in London has soared by 83% since 2000. The expansion is taking place everywhere. A new initiative, the Concorde project has begun in South Gloucestershire with the aim of providing cycle connector routes between secondary schools in the area - allowing pupils to travel to lessons between schools as part of the curriculum. Cycle Blackpool have a project for the disabled that offers a large range of adapted bikes to allow people with disabilities to take up cycling with weekly 'try it', sessions.
But what now? A new government brings changes, and despite having a prime minister who enjoys cycling, the Conservative government have decided to abolish Cycling England. As Philip Darnton the former chairman of Cycling England said "it is the loss of the nationally extended network of enthusiasts, with their acquired knowledge, skills and expertise which is the real waste". The government have announced that cycling will make up part of a sustainable transport programme within local authorities, but they have failed to announce how cycling will fit into the overall programme. What if certain councils have a car enthusiast at the helm?The Conservative led council of Brighton & Hove have recently announced they want to remove the cycle lane which connects South Downs national park with Hove's seafront with a claim that it is not well used. It was completed in 2008, and was part of the centrepiece of Brighton & Hove's successful bid to become a Cycle Demonstration Town.
We have come far, but have we reached critical mass? Climate change, hard economic times, with the added pain of having the world's most expensive railway system all lead towards a likelihood of continued cycle infrastructure expansion. In amongst it all is our love of the bicycle. Change is taken place, and a few dinosaurs are not about to drag us back to a world of car dependency. Let us remind Philip Hammond the current head of the Department for Transport what his own department said in 2008 in a document titled 'A sustainable future for cycling'. 'Air pollution is currently estimated to reduce the life expectancy in the UK by up to 7-8months with estimated equivalent health costs of up to £20 billion. So if he is looking for cuts, then it should not be in cycling.

It remains so that the Dutch is our standard bearer, for there is no doubt when it comes to the Tour de Cycle Infrastructure, the Dutch are wearing the yellow jersey.

1. At the frontiers of cycling. Policy innovations in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany- Rutgers University

2. The Dutch Bicycle Master Plan - Ministry for Transport, Public Works and Water Management - March 1999

Monday 4 April 2011

Over 50s ageism in the councils

Over the course of two months - Andrew Robertson and Philip Mortiboy conducted research for the over 50s campaign and support organisation Wise Owls to see if London Borough or English County Councils were being ageist in their recruitment and redundancy practices. Using the Freedom of Information to secure data from the councils, the findings made stark reading if your an older worker.

In October 2010, we contacted all the FOI teams of all the London Borough and English County Councils requesting the age diversity of their staff including the age spread of those recruited and made redundant in the last year. The age breakdown was under 25, 25-49, 50-64, 65+.

The data revealed that over 50s made up on average nearly 60% of all redundancies within the councils. This is over three times the average of the UK workforce nationally, which also shows over 50s redundancies across the UK to be at their worst rate for over a decade (ONS). These figures come at a time when massive cuts are still to take place throughout the public sector, leaving older workers on the fearful for their future.

This calculation is not simply a calculation of the percentage of all redundancies within the workforce that are over 50. It is calculated based on the existing over 50 workforce, so the age structure of the workforce is already taken into account

Further condemnation focussed on the recruitment practices of the councils after FOI data showed the over 50s are less than half as likely to be recruited than the under 50s. The proportion of new recruits to the councils in the last year who were over 50 accounted for as little as 18% of recruits for County councils just and 10% of recruits in London Boroughs. This is despite 35% of the councils’ workforce being made up of over 50s.

A further blow to the job security of older workers is the liklihood of over 50s finding reemployment. Analysis of the ONS data showed that since the recession began, the reemployment rate of over 50s has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. In the ‘boom’ years of 2004-2006, over 50s accounted for over 20% of all reemployment nationally. In the last year that figure fell to 16%.

It is clear that age is now the leading factor in making staff redundant and that it is the over 50s women and men from all backgrounds who will take the biggest hit from the Coalition’s cuts.

Chris Walsh the Director of Wise Owls, said: ‘There seems to be a complacency within government that by forcing staff aged 50+ to take redudancy it will be less painful than for younger workers.'

Traditionally older workers have been ‘encouraged’ to take ‘voluntary’ redundancy when cuts are needed and it looks as if that mindset has not changed. However experience from the last cull of older council workers in the 90s showed that those made redundant often failed to get another job, leaving themselves and their families in poverty, while denuding the council of key knowledge and experience, which meant some had to be re-hired as consultants.

The research was carried out as part of Wise Owls wider ‘Age Equality’ campaign aimed at promoting age diversity in the workplace, demanding that the government carry out an Age Equality Impact Assessment to include an age audit of employees across the public sector.

Currently the government has failed to analyse the impact of the cuts on age, either in relation to the numbers being laid off or by those who suffer from the impact of the cuts in public services. There are no existing government baseline figures to show whether age equality in the workplace is improving or getting worse. The lack of interest in the matter was highlighted when the Shadow Solicitor General Catherine McKinnell asked the Chief Secretary Danny Alexander if " he will estimate the proportion of those made redundant in the public sector during the comprehensive spending review period who will be aged 50 or over at the time of being made redundant?" His response was brief. The Office for Budget Responsibility has not published forecasts for individual age groups. It will be for individual employers to determine the exact work force implications of their settlements."

Mr Walsh added: "We think the lack of any movement on an age audit is because either they don’t care or do not want the public to know the full extent of employment ageism in the public sector. These statistics offer a starting point for the government to take up this issue by publishing a league table of all public sector employers in relation to age and employment and to start to carry out and publish age impact assessments of their cuts. This blatant attack on staff because of their age is both immoral and illegal.”