Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Rats and Recycling

Those of you who visit this blog from outside Oxford may well have recycling schemes including the alternate weekly collections that go with them. In our city, we have been behind the times. The recycling revolution is only now beginning. A third of the city is on the new scheme and already the recycling rate has jumped from 19% to 27%. Many people in my own ward have welcomed the new scheme but, quite understandably, some have had real worries about what feels like a leap into the unknown. And there is one fear that journalists have thought particularly newsworthy and which is worth sharing with you. It’s about a visceral phobia, about what happens in Room 101: it’s all about rats.

One lady in our city has recently had the very unpleasant experience of having rats in her house. I know how disturbing this can be because other Oxford residents I know had a similar experience a few years ago. For the lady in question, the arrival of rats coincided with the new recycling scheme. She herself has said that she doesn’t imagine that the scheme has created a rat problem in the city; her point, as I remember her saying, is that as the city is known to have rats, she argues the recycling scheme should not have been introduced.

The first thing to do is to put our hands up and admit: we in Oxford are no different from any other urban area – everywhere is living with rats. Not just rats but other vermin like foxes as well. They are here and have been here, in large numbers, for years. The situation hasn’t been helped in the past by the previous Council’s plans to save money by cutting pest control, but the main reasons for the national increase seem to lie elsewhere. The National Pest Technicians Association cites six reasons, top of the list being the privatised water companies failure to clear vermin from the sewers. As, in my experience, Thames Water sometimes doesn’t know where their drains are or what state they’re in, that sadly comes as no surprise.

The issue is not whether there are rats but whether their presence should stop us humans introducing a recycling scheme. And this is where I have a different take on matters. I want it both ways: I want us both to deal with the vermin and to get on with recycling. We know how important it is that we improve our recycling rate. It’s not just about the government fining all of us if we don’t decrease the amount we send to landfill. Much more positively, it’s about promoting more sustainable living, about all of us thinking about our habits and our lifestyles. It would be a counsel of despair to say ‘there are rats, so we can’t improve recycling.’ Not just that: it wouldn’t send the rats packing. Even if we had remained with the bad old system of waste collection, with bin-bags everywhere rather than wheelie bins where we can, there would still be people having to call out Pest Control officers to deal with vermin. Indeed, the figures suggest that there were even more incidents of vermin when the old scheme was in place. As the rats are here, we must deal with them. But that’s no reason to call a halt to other good deeds we have to do. Too often in local government, scarse resources mean we have to make impossible choices between competing good causes. In this case, I think we can be ambitious: we can – and must – deal with both issues side by side.

If any of the group of opponents of Oxford’s recycling revolution are reading this, I realise what I say will leave them with many more questions to ask. And, yes, there are many more issues about coping with recycling that deserve discussion. Bear with me and I’ll try to come to those in future postings. For those of you from outside Oxford, I wanted to share with you a tale that may well resonate with your own experience of introducing recycling.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

There's only one Stephen Tall

It must a humbling experience, really, for my ward colleague, Stephen Tall. He is well-known to all you denizens of Bloggoshire (a village community if ever there was one). He has even acheived a certain fame, with his appearances on various television channels, as well as being a guest star on a internet chat show filmed up some back-alley in London. What must have chuffed him most, though, was appearing on the back page of LibDem News last autumn, with a photo showing how terribly pleased he was to be standing next to the MP and indomitable blogger, Lynne Featherstone. And now he's done it again! He's there on the back page of the latest issue of LibDem News -- except ...

It would be nice if they'd got his name right. The editor, perhaps imagining that a forename resonant of Christianity's protomartyr was not politically correct, has rechristened him 'John Tall.' But it's him, all right, including a link to his blog. Perhaps LibDem News noted his middle initial was J and surmised he was an honest John. But, no, this blog can exclusively reveal, Stephen's middle name is Joseph. Of course, he's no ordinary Joe, even if he's apparently not as memorable to print journalists as he is in the frebrile blogosphere.

And what was the link that the News highlighted? His end-of-year poll on LibDems with a certain primeval animal attraction, an irresistible sexual charisma. Not only do they get his name wrong, but they choose out of all his intelligent disquistions on the minutiae of liberal values, that post. As I say, humbling.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The defect in defecting

So, while I was chumping away on the mince pies, a frisson has tango'ed through Tory spines, I hear. It might not have made any Christmas headlines but, apparently, in Smith Square (or is it 18, Doughty Street?) they can hardly keep their excitement under seemly wraps. Whisper it, if you dare: not one, not two but three former LibDems have, as they imagine it, swum with the tide and been marooned with the Cameroons.

Bless them. All political hacks, let's face it, muster some semblance of delight at a defection to their ranks. Every week there's some sort of Brownian motion of little political molecules moving in all directions to create something akin to equilibrium. They even happen here in Oxford -- not to the Tories, of course, since garlic and a sharpened stake has paid put to them. We LibDems have on occasion been the benificiaries. More recently, our council group saw two defections -- one to become a lone independent (which is rather like owning up to being billy-no-mates) and one to Labour. Their departures could provide the script for an episode of Twin Pique.

If we were honest, though, we'd admit that most defections make very little difference. Few people outside the oxygen-starved blogosphere take notice and they usually say more about an individual's changing outlook on life than any real shift between the parties.

So, certain bloggers of other persuasions, as reported by a worthy wordsmith, have crowed that the act of the Christmas trio of not-so-wise men is come-uppance for the LibDems, the truly nasty party, and heralds a revival of two-party politics. Their typing fingers clearly work quicker than their gray cells: on the one hand, they want the LibDems to be recognised as just as bad as the rest of the political world and, on the other, they want to deny the LibDems are part of that world as, they insist, there is only room for two to compare the size of their polls.

Some people can only think in binary. Anything more than a two-party state confuses them inordinately. And, it's true, the road to mature democracy with multiple parties is taking decades -- look how long it took for tactical voting to be recognised as an essential tool for voters in our cock-eyed electoral system. For those who can count only from 0 to 1, they must feel that they have found kindred spirits in their new converts. And here's the defect in their rhetoric: if politics were, by nature, two-party, defections into Labour or the Tories would be nothing more than the usual run of affairs. In a bipolar world, the only remarkable event would be the decision, week on week, for members of either of those parties to make the opposite decision, to move on and find their natural home in the Liberal Democrats.

I can't stop, however, without some comment on this idea of 'two parties.' If Britain was to be served by the two centre-right cohorts of New Labour and their imitators in the Witney wonder's Tories, God pray for democracy. In the LibDems, we pride ourselves on not being either 'right' not 'left' but there now is surely an urgency in trying to keep alive some remnants of the post-war consensus around the Welfare State which the 'big two' are bent on burying. That's a large topic for another time. I realise I might not win universal support for what I say within my own party: we hear there may be a few in our midst who imagine being economic liberal can come before being social liberal, and that they might fail to recognise that social liberalism puts brakes on economic liberalism. But, by the sounds of it, that minority has just got smaller. A good start to a good year.

New Year's Resolutions are so passe'

So I won't make any, except to say, in 2007, I'll only blog when I actually have something to say.

Which gives this posting the piquancy of suitably post-modern irony.

Happy New Year!