My statement to the Mayor’s Cabinet meeting on Bristol Central Library

“Once you’ve lost a public space you’ve lost it for good.”

The Library

Of course, some have tried to argue that the 270,000 reference works are not currently kept in a “public space”…but when it’s in the basement of Bristol’s Central Library and is utilised daily by library users, how can it not be seen as a public resource?

Others have argued that you will still be able to access these materials, they will just be elsewhere. This is true.

However, this is a decidedly inconvenient way of organising our public affairs. As a council, we should be fighting to protect library services in a convenient base in the centre of Bristol – not disperse them and render them less useable by the public.

Clearly, we need to update our library services and push the digital inclusion agenda forward. The Citizens Online initiative being run as a council service helps many older citizens into accessing online services every year, and more needs to be done to join this up with library services in-house.

Cllr Cook has argued that those who use the reference materials are “specialist users”. I disagree. They are just users. Knowledge, by its very nature, is specialist. To discover, find or research something requires you to move from being someone who comes into a contact with a service merely for functional reasons (e.g. no home internet access, a relative who needs some books during a period of ill health, etc.)

Libraries are a vital resource for those on lower incomes (and those who aren’t) to gain knowledge and information about the world for free. Many will be presently unable to access services online, and this raises key questions about our service provision. Do we see access to knowledge as a right in society, or a luxury?

Added to this, Grade 1 Listed Buildings are normally best used for their original intention – and Bristol’s Central Library is no exception.

The School

I have met with the Principal of Cathedral Choir School, Neil Blundell, about their potential annexing of a public building.

We exchanged robust dialogue and talked of the potential for increased use of the library by children and the challenges of digital inclusion.

However, our conversation did not convince me that the Cathedral School has a good case for expanding their provision.

There are heavily oversubscribed schools in the south and north of Bristol and primary schools should have a local focus – local schools for local children is a key principle of a 21st century education system. Catchment/priority areas are not an old-fashioned idea – they will increasingly help us to define the terms of the debate about education provision and inclusion.

There are also key concerns that have yet to be answered about how the school would ensure a good environment – both indoor and outdoor – for children.

The proposals seem to suggest there will be lots of walking from one point to another (e.g. walking to a dining hall in a separate building, daily, in all weathers). This will have a significant impact on their quality of life.

The Scrutiny Commission report also suggests that primary aged children will be sharing a dining hall with secondary aged children. I actually like the idea of mixing age groups in school (it is a bit unnatural to segment children by age) but what plans have been made to sensitively manage this?

The report also references a ‘slight lack of natural light’. As pointed out by the Scrutiny Commission,‘slight’ is not a scientific term. There are serious concerns about the long-term effects of lack of natural light on children and their ability to learn.

There is no evidence on this in the report that suggests they have considered this.

Additionally, there is not the space for children to be able to access both indoor and outdoor play areas. Physical recreation is crucial for the development of children’s understanding of health & wellbeing and for developing social and team skills.

Finally, there is perhaps the biggest concern – that low-income families will not be able to access this provision. There are concerns with admission arrangements, with it being compared to a ‘lottery system’. We need a clear statement from the Mayor that this should not apply to a primary school. There is a definite pattern emerging with free schools. Many are proposals for middle class parents who do not want their kids to go to a traditional state school.

We must look carefully at this in Bristol. There are clear benefits for children from different socio-economic backgrounds mixing together, and there is no evidence that this school appeals to the wide range of people that I know it hopes to.

The Mayor

The campaign to save the Central Library’s basement reference collection has been a truly cross-party campaign. Conservative councillor Richard Eddy started the e-petition, Green councillors Daniella Radice and Rob Telford have campaigned, Labour councillors Peter Hammond and Fabian Breckles have spoken out, and Lib Dem councillors have expressed reservations too.

The Mayor has made clear prior to today’s meeting that “no decision has been taken”.

With that in mind, he will be willing to listen to the Love Bristol Libraries campaign’s view that the Cathedral School proposals damage the good reputation of Bristol as a knowledge economy and do not give adequate provision for children in Bristol.

Children should be treated as children not as ‘numbers’ or ‘places’. There are lots of use of the words ‘places’ in this report which assumes that children are numbers. We need to give, first and foremost, consideration to the needs of real, live children.

The Central Library is a lifelong, democratic educational institution that is not limited to a specific age-range or socio-economic status. It is a great example of archictecture and sits at the heart of our city’s civic centre.

It would be bizarre for an architect of George Ferguson’s standing to fail to see that the huge benefits that keeping reference materials in the basement of the library brings to our civic life and our city’s cultural offer.

“Once you’ve lost a public space you’ve lost it for good.”

Six months in

I thought it was worth taking stock after six months of being a city councillor in Bristol. So here’s a blog.

I was elected on Friday 3rd May 2013. (If you want to know the kinds of things our campaign was talking about, try here, and here, and here.)

It was a tense count, with three parties believing they had a chance. The real surprise for us was that Labour came second and the Lib Dems third. I I knew we had put the time and effort in and had managed to canvas the entire ward, so I felt OK with the whole thing. Plus, I was knackered, so it’s hard to feel much!

The emotions when I won didn’t fully arrive as I thought they would. It felt natural and I got no huge surge of adrenaline after we were privately told the results. When you get up to make your acceptance speech, it is nervewracking – and it’s especially good as not everyone in the room knows who has won – and it was only when I got up there that it hit me how much emotional energy I’d been investing in it. I’m amazed I got any words out at all.

Thankfully, you get a three-day weekend to recover from the six-month campaign you’ve just fought, and try and get some perspective and energy back to focus on the task ahead.

My first three months were dominated by three small letters: RPS. Gus and I hastily set up some consultation meetings, but I was initially frustrated that such an impactful policy shift could be implemented before conducting any level of community consultation in three of the four areas (Montpelier, St Andrews and St Werburghs). St Pauls had been consulting on the possibility of a scheme as long ago as 2006.

When it comes to it on big issues like this, your opinion as the local councillor doesn’t matter. We were clear about what we thought (see here), and I personally support the principle of a residents’ parking scheme, but you have to keep an open mind and let residents say what they’re thinking as the first priority, otherwise you can’t represent their views.

For me, the most challenging aspect of the job is the quantity of council meetings. This might seem obvious (and I was perfectly prepared for it, having attended Full Council meetings for a year or more before being elected), but it is particularly pronounced when you are on a small political group. I sit on five committees (Development Control Central, Governor Recruitment, CYPS, Elections & Democracy, Overview & Scrutiny Management), not to mention Full Council, Cabinet, Neighbourhood Partnership/Forum/Sub Groups, community groups,  one-off meetings and working groups that form. There are days when you can have four two-hour meetings in a row, which if you want to get things done (rather than just talk about getting them done) is a bit frustrating.

At the same time, it’s necessary for building relationships. There has been some good dialogue going on between councillors from different parties and since becoming the Green group whip (I don’t use it – the other Green councillors can vote how they like, and we have voted different ways a few times – although I think we are all agreed that we should never abstain), it’s felt like moving up a gear in terms of civil but frank conversations. I still feel strongly that we need more Green councillors on the Council, as there are many votes that would have gone in a more progressive direction.

Internally, we meet as a group of councillors twice a week – once as a group, and once with the wider party. It must be difficult for the two independent councillors – it really helps having a group of people behind you and pulling in the same direction.

What else…a LOT of emails. You soon learn that there will be a daily battle between being proactive and reactive – the temptation to just do the latter is always there. Many of the emails/phonecalls you get are positive and attempting to change things for the better – from residents, the council, for the city – but there are some that require coordinated action across different agencies for the resident to be well-served or access the right council services. There are people in Ashley who need a lot of support and I try to never turn down a meeting. It’s important to meet residents face-to-face wherever possible or preferable.

This is the space I want to push into in the next six months – meeting more residents and getting more of their ideas for community solutions to some of the problems we face. It’s hard to know 10,000+ people, but you’ve got to try, haven’t you?

Free Cashpoint letter to St. Werburgh’s Community website – a superb success!

Hi there

Thanks for writing this article on the cashpoint campaign 6 months ago: http://www.stwerburghs.org/index.php?section=news&story=%28Bristol_Post%29_Area_needs_free_cash_machine~_says_petition.txt

And thanks for the article in the last couple of days (http://www.stwerburghs.org/index.php?section=news&story=payPoint_answers_call_for_free_ATM_for_St_Werburghs_residents.txt) A great success for this campaign.

I just thought I should point out that in the newer article the picture of Stephen, Jon and others suggests that Stephen has supported the campaign.

As the person who put the petition and campaign out there (still found here: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/bristol-city-council-and-all-banks-put-free-cashpoints-in-st-paul-s-in-bristol) and having checked the list of signatories, Stephen Williams’ name does not in fact appear. Neither does that of Jon Rogers, despite him being a local councillor. This is a bit disappointing, as they seem to be claiming partial credit for it.

It is probably worth pointing out in the main text a link to the campaign petition (see above) and a suggestion that people continue to support this campaign for the neighbouring area of St. Paul’s, which is in even more desperate need of a cashpoint.

Thanks
Rob Telford
Green Party candidate for Ashley ward (2013)

These are national cuts on local government

I received an email from Bristol & District Anti-Cuts Alliance this week. I nearly always agree with BADACA, but on this occasion I think they need to have a look again at the situation that all of us in the anti-cuts movement find ourselves in.

I went on the march on Saturday against the regional pay cartel that the Coalition is foisting on South West health workers. It was an occasion that showed the economic illiteracy of the government’s approach and strengthened the resolve of all those present to fight the cuts at all levels. I have also been helping with the 38 Degrees CCGs campaign in challenging the Clinical Commissioning Groups to use their constitutions to keep services in-house and not make them open to “any willing provider”.

However, I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding of the role and scope of local government as it presently stands. In Bristol, we in the Green Party have always argued for greater abilities to raise and retain revenue. In Barcelona, over 50% of all taxes raised and spent in the area are handled by the city authority, but in the UK the percentage is more like 17%. This creates a significant imbalance between central and local government, which recent policies, such as business rate relocalisation, do not go far enough to address.

So this is the context in which I read everything. The BADACA email began:

BRISTOL & DISTRICT ANTI-CUTS ALLIANCE BULLETIN – 30th November 2012

Ferguson’s Cuts Cabinet – Outside Fighting Is The Place To Be

Mayor George Ferguson is committed to carrying out the government’s dictat – £32 million more cuts in Bristol’s jobs and services next year. His attempt to lure Labour and Green councillors into his cabinet should have been seen for what it was – trying to show that these parties have no alternative to the cuts and then to share the blame as the opposition grows. As such it was an invitation that should have been rejected out of hand.

Labour’s decision not to take part, although made rather ham-fistedly, is entirely correct. But the alternative is not to sit in the council chamber making minor criticisms of the mayor’s cuts package. It is building resistance to the cuts. Is that where we’ll see Labour councillors and Labour party members? And will the Greens withdraw from Ferguson’s Cuts Cabinet too? The first meeting of the Cuts Cabinet is now scheduled for December 20th.

Here is my response:

1) Yes, mayor George Ferguson is committed to carrying out the government’s cuts. So would any of the other candidates for mayor, including the Green, Respect and TUSC candidates. You cannot set a needs budget without it being deemed illegal and civil servants stepping in to do your job for you.

2) I admit that there is a widely-held suspicion that George is some sort of Machiavellian schemer, but even I baulk at the idea that his intention for getting all parties to the table to advise him was a plot to show that Greens have no alternatives to the cuts. Within the first month of the Coalition government, Green MP and former leader Caroline Lucas had this to say: http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2010-06-19-callous-cuts-report.html

Greens have alternatives to the cuts and we will be working both inside and outside the cabinet, in a variety of ways, to fight austerity and deliver the fairest possible budget for Bristol.

3) The Green Party will not share the blame for these cuts. They are not ours. They are the Coalition government’s.

In that sense, neither should local councilors be blamed. The only thing that local government can do to reduce the scale of the cuts is increase council tax. Last year we  proposed the maximum legal increase of 3.49%. This increase would have meant that we would have been £6.3m better off this year.  No other party supported us with this measure, preferring to freeze council tax and accept the government bribe. George Ferguson has announced that he will be increasing the council tax by the maximum amount, which has now been reduced to 2% by the Coalition. We support this rise, although it will not be universally popular.

So the “choice” (such as it is) is between cutting services or raising council tax. There are more opportunities to mitigate the effects of council tax rise, and so I think it is better to do this, particularly as there are a lot of people in the city who can afford to pay a bit more.

4) George, being an economic liberal, has a different approach to the Green Party in many ways. But is it better for one of us to be sitting there saving vital local services, or carping from the sidelines and having no direct line of influence? Essentially, with this mayoral model (which the Green Party campaigned against vociferously, but now have to accept until there is an opportunity to change it), you are either in the mayor’s cabinet and influencing it, or you are without any executive power.

5) Scrutiny and opposition are DOUBLY important now we are working under the mayoral model, and those of us in the anti-cuts movement should be bringing our activism to bear on these committees and meetings.

6) The Labour Party national policy is not significantly different to the Coalition’s. The Green Party’s national policy involves radical change, including an end to austerity: http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2010-06-19-callous-cuts-report.html

Bristol City Council is not the correct place to to argue about national policy. Indeed, no part of the Tory-led Coalition’s policy can be changed by speeches at City Hall (nee Council House). Just remember: when you begin to hear Labour Party councillors make speeches about how terrible the cuts are (and they will be right), please ask yourself: “nationally, who has argued against the cuts at every turn and provided reasoned economic alternatives, and who blithely accepts that it is just the pace and quantity of cuts that can be altered?”