Monday, April 15, 2013

Council Meeting Update Pt 1 - Margaret Thatcher

I note from the local and national press that somebody has decided to be offended by the decision of most Labour councillors not to join in Tuesday's minute's silence for the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was a personal choice by many councillors and not a collective Group decision and we were actually joined by three Liberal Democrat councillors, although I suspect that only one was joining our abstention. Some Labour councillors remained in the chamber and I respect their decisions to do so.

Some points to make - we did not 'flounce' out of the meeting, as some of the press have put it. The Lord Mayor put the silence at the very start of the meeting and we didn't enter the chamber until the silence had finished. It is rather hard to flounce out when you haven't even been in the room.

As one of the first filing quietly back into the chamber, I was disappointed that some of those present decided to hiss at us. Nobody had made a scene or staged a walkout and the decision to mark Baroness Thatcher's passing was respected - people just chose not to take part in it. Enforced public demonstrations of sorrow are not worthy of my country and are demeaning to those grieving.

I don't speak for anyone but myself on this - this blog has always been my personal voice and is not the mouthpiece of the Labour Group. As I have said since the news was announced on Monday, I don't find joy in the death of another human being - she had friends, family and close employees who should be allowed to grieve for their loss. I separate the politics from the personal and her politics were, on balance, bad for Britain and bad for the people of Birmingham. Britain became more selfish, more profit orientated and more socially divided. We are still paying the price for that today and Birmingham continues to suffer from the children of Thatcher who dominate the government - from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties - and who have taken her policies further than she ever dreamed possible, keeping the flame alive.

As for the flag not flying at half mast? It wasn't lowered for the deaths of Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Alec Douglas Home or Harold Macmillan. It was lowered for both Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, but because they had been honoured with the freedom of the city. In this, we join Ealing, Wakefield, Eastbourne, Bradford, Bury, Camden, Islington and Slough, to name but a few.

There is also something particularly hypocritical in those eulogising her now, so many of whom gathered to force her from office in 1990. Cameron may well come to regret being so much to the fore of the public mourning - he will not come off well in comparison. Whatever you may think of Thatcher, she had a clear direction of travel and broad command of her party. Cameron is a sapling, twisted by every change in the wind direction and barely tolerated by many of his party. These days, the nearest the government gets to a conviction politician is Chris Huhne.

Margaret Thatcher was the first prime minister to really impinge on my consciousness - I was at secondary school and then university for most of her time in office. Lucy Mangan puts it really well in this weekend's column and like her, I remember.

I can remember the leaking school roofs, the lack of books, the dole queues and the rising waiting lists. I can remember that when the Tories were thrown out in 1997, their big idea on health was to promise treatment within eighteen months of diagnosis. By the end of Labour's time, we were confidently delivering treatment within eighteen weeks. When the Tories accuse Labour of not fixing the roof when the sun was shining, I can remember the schools and hospitals rebuilt after decades of neglect, where the roofs fixed were not merely metaphors. I can remember the rise in crime under the Thatcher years. I can remember her and her acolytes creating a culture that celebrated the individual and denied the reality that we achieve more together as a society. I remember that families, children and whole communities were left behind by an ideologically-driven economic shift, all just so much collateral damage.

Those memories are why I didn't stand on Tuesday and I make no apology for my choice.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Scrutiny Committee Report on Cycling

I didn't get called to speak, but here's the speech I would have given.

It has been a great introduction to the life of this council to have served as part of a group that has shown such cross-party agreement in setting a transformational direction for cycling and other forms of low-carbon transport in our city. In that mood, it seems appropriate today to borrow from the Thatcherite's Thatcherite, Norman Tebbit, as we encourage the people of Birmingham to get on their bikes. Indeed, only last weekend, one of my children went solo on his bike for the first time.

In particular, I welcome the recommendation that specific targets should be set - it was a criticism of the last strategy document that it was long on words, but short on measurable outcomes. This report has not made the same mistake and I welcome the executive commitment to take it through to delivery. We have a chance to build on the legacy of the Olympics, to seize the moment to take this city forward, but it takes commitment at the highest level amongst officers and executives to deliver on the ambitions.

This report is also about road safety - I would particularly encourage the spread of 20mph zones and limits across appropriate roads in the city. These will help make our neighbourhoods better places to live as well as delivering proven benefits in terms of reducing casualties and the severity of injuries. There is safety in numbers - the more people we can encourage to get on their bikes, the safer it becomes for them, as drivers get used to their presence, as Cllr Barnett pointed out.

A public outcry over road safety brought about a massive change in the Netherlands. They made the same mistakes that we did after the war, building cities and towns designed around car ownership. It was only at the start of the 1970s, following a rise in injuries to children, that they took a political decision to change direction and embarked on building the system that we see today. Make no mistake, this is a long term project that will take decades, but we need to make a start and this report is a good point.

As a committee, we have had sterling support from cycling evangelists like CTC and Sustrans, in the gallery today, as well as individual enthusiasts in the city, for which we are grateful, but the are not our target audience. We need to deliver, but not for those hundreds of indefatigable cyclists, who will resort to two wheels no matter how hard we, as a council have made it over the years. We need to deliver for those thousands, or tens of thousands, who will cycle if we make it easier and safer. We need to deliver on this for future generations.

Build it and they will come.

Location:Chamberlain Square,Birmingham,United Kingdom

Monday, April 08, 2013

And so farewell to Margaret Thatcher

I cannot celebrate the death of another human being. Margaret Thatcher had family, friends and people who cared about her, especially in her declining years. We can allow them the space to mourn her death by separating Thatcher the person from her policies.

She was, without question, the towering figure of British politics in the 1980s, a globally-recognisable symbol of the age and one that still casts a long shadow over politics in this country.

Her policies have outlived her and have been given new force and direction by this current government, which has picked up on policy proposals that she was unable to implement even at the height of her powers. If you want to get angry, direct yourself towards them - don't fight old battles when we have enough to do today.