Monday, February 26, 2007

I stand accused

I'm under attack. Or, at least, I would be if they hadn't fluffed their lines. What my opposite number in the Labour group, Ed Turner -- a hard-working councillor, by the way, and an asset to the Town Hall -- intended to say in Council today was something like: see that man sitting there ouzing insouciance when we can make him tremble with the revelation that tergiversation would most aptly be his nom-de-guerre.

Perhaps I haven't quite caught Ed's tone, but you get what he meant. I stand accused of changing my mind. What is more, they say they have the evidence to prove it, brandishing a copy of a Focus leaflet from last spring.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect: what benighted soul was set on duty going through the back-catalogue of Stephen Tall's website to unearth this gem? Have they outsourced it to some god-forsaken corner of the country where there is nothing to do in the evenings except to surf virtually, presumably in the hope of finding soft porn and having to be satisfied with Headington residents' surveys instead? And do they really think that if we post something on-line, we don't want people ever to see it?

That aside, I should also say that, in principle, I'm in favour of changing my mind. It's good gymnastics for the intellect; it's evidence of being at least slightly more alive than brain-dead; it's something we should all, everyone of us, try now and again. The problem for Labour is that, in this case, no about- turn, no volte-face has occurred.

The detail, it will not surprise the more avid reader(s), relates to recycling. In the leaflet, I am quoted as saying:
We do not believe wheelie bins will be suitable in all parts of the city –
especially in areas like New Headington with a lot of terraced
housing opening out straight onto the street. Every household
should have a choice between a wheelie bin and sacks.
According to my accusers, those sentences can not accord with the policy the LibDem Council is now implementing. To which I respond: I stand by what I said and I stand by what we're doing. It's only someone who really hasn't been listening -- or only listens to their own voice -- who could imagine there's any conflict.

As I have written recently, the policy we have is to encourage as many people as possible to take a wheelie bin as the safest and best receptacle for waste but, at the same time, the Council is being flexible. We know that there are some houses where it might be difficult -- like the terraces facing straight onto the street that the leaflet mentions. Some residents living in those houses have actually chosen to take a bin to sit out the back; others have elected to take sacks. There is an element of choice -- something which was lacking when Labour first proposed the new scheme and when this leaflet appeared.

It must be said that local Labour's godfather across the water has insisted that they changed their mind from their early policy of imposition. If so, that's all to the good -- there's very little from what they're saying and what we're doing. The only difference is that I, for one, never envisaged the 'aesthetics' of a bin being a reasonable basis on which to want to refuse to join the recycling revolution. That's the banner under which Labour are now fighting. The defence of sensitive aesthetes is fast becoming the workers' party's clarion call, Labour's only USP on this issue.

In the end, Labour must be desperate if they dig out old Focuses and try to point up a contradiction when there is none. I suppose at least they are showing an aptitude at some sort of recycling. Let's hope this mastery of recycling proves a transferable skill and they actually start helping the real thing. Then they might actually prove that their support for the scheme is not just fine words belied by their actions -- and I could gladly change my mind about them.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Is this the way to oppose recycling?

Oxford is a battleground. There’s a war on waste but there’s also a war about the war. While recycling sounds like a cause akin to loving Mandela and wanting world peace – a progressive’s no-brainer – it has become in this city a cause for the barricades. Yes, in Oxford, which prides itself on its intellectual and liberal credentials, even here there’s a backlash against raising the city’s appallingly low rate of recycling by the tried-and-tested method of wheelie bins and alternate weekly collections. For anybody who’s interested in how a political dog-fight can threaten to derail even the most uncontentious of causes, it’s a salutary tale.

A couple of things need to be made clear at the outset. First, there has long been a significant majority in this city for the introduction of recycling. It’s been advocated for years by both LibDems and Greens and, last municipal year, Labour came on board. But – and this is the second point – there are a few Labour councillors who have become champions for the claim that they are in favour of ‘choice’ instead of ‘forcing’ people to recycle.

Some background is necessary. It is simply not the case that Oxford’s recycling scheme forces everyone to have a wheelie bin: if a house can’t cope with a bin, then the council’s staff will arrange for the inhabitants to have waste collected in sacks; if a resident can’t cope with moving their bin, then fortnightly assistance will be arranged. It is a flexible policy, more so than in many cities. But that’s not enough for some councillors. A recent Council motion, proposed by a Labour councillor, asked the administration not to ‘force’ people to have a wheelie bin. The Greens presented a helpful amendment outlining what is present policy: that if there are ‘access, storage or safety concerns’ at a property, then alternatives to a wheelie bin are available. As the LibDems supported this phrasing, it seemed as if there might be a consensus. But the dealbreaker came from the proposer of the motion: he would only accept the amendment if it also envisaged residents rejecting a bin on ‘aesthetic’ grounds. It’s on this that the debate about ‘choice’ revolves: whether you can stand in the way of recycling if you can’t stand the colour green.

The mantra of ‘choice’, so beloved of New Labour and fresh-faced Tory policy wonks, is a smokescreen: waft it aside and what you find is a threat to recycling itself. I am not saying that’s the intention of the Labour councillors, but there’s no doubt that would be the impact. The system works, of course, on the change of habits which comes with alternate weekly collections, encouraging all of us to reconsider how we deal with different elements of our waste. In turn, alternate weekly collections only work if residual waste can be safely stored and that is possible in wheelie bins: the more sacks you have, the more you have a danger of a public health risk – and, as we already know, Oxford is like any other city in sharing its space with a population of rats. As we are running a flexible policy, the percentage of sacks is already high. If you added to that a wrecker’s charter, allowing anyone to reject on a whim a wheelie bin, then you would undermine the practability of the system. The ‘aesthetes’ would consider landfill taxes and pollution preferable to a green bin in their own garden.

As I said, I’m not convinced this is what those clamouring for fewer wheelie bins actually want, if they stopped to think about it. And this is where it gets interesting, for the politicians are not in control of the issue, instead the momentum has taken hold of them. There are two councillors who are pushing this cause. They are ward colleagues and are doing so because their patch includes streets where there do seem to have been more difficulties than elsewhere. Some of us would think the answer is not a change of policy but everyone – including local councillors – working together to alleviate problems and to reassure residents, rather than stoke their concerns. Of those two, one has been heard to say it is a pity to have introduced recycling now when it could have waited a couple of years. But, while neither is the most ardent advocate of the environment, the stance of both of them seems to me to be formed by assumptions, however mistaken, about what is best for their small patch.

What’s made this larger than a ward issue is that the Labour leadership have jumped on it as if were political gold-dust. They have their reasons to do so: it trumpets their New Labour credentials with the catchword ‘choice’, at the same time painting the LibDems against type as they would describe us as usually preaching individual freedom at the expense (they would say) of collective responsibility. It also might not be a coincidence that the tempo has quickened in the days following the budget session where Labour felt that had lost out in the negotiations. (They are wrong on that, as I’ve said before, but that’s by the bye).

And then there’s the matter of the Greens. On this I differ from my learned friend, the other councillor for Headington. I hear that elsewhere, in Reading, the Greens have decided to oppose alternate weekly collections, but I don’t sense the same inclination here in Oxford. If anything, they find themselves in a quandary, in principle in favour of the scheme, but worried about its impact in what passes for their heartland, where there are many students and terraced houses. It’s an understandable dilemma, but my money would be on principle winning out this time.

To return to Labour: what fascinates me is what a gamble their stance is. Promoted by a couple of backbenchers and adopted as a group line, it has a real disadvantage for them. Labour’s environmental credentials have never been strong but this is liable to weaken them further. Already the press are painting their position as a route to madness and lower recycling. The longer they allow the issue to run – and they show no desire to end it – the more likely it is that the public will rumble their rhetoric and write them off as anti-recycling. There are few votes in that, let alone any good sense. If that’s the battle they want to have, we’re up for it. But I’d much prefer it didn’t have to be a battle. I, for one, hope saner counsel prevails amongst their ranks.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bringing out the best and worst in people

Hello, silence, my old friend. It's been some time since I've dropped in on my own blog. I must say I'm glad to see that more accomplished bloggers than myself are feeling drained of inspiration at this time of year. I wonder whether that's despite or because it's been an eventful time in Oxford politics -- we have what can only loosely be called the delights of budget-setting.

Those of youwho are aficionados of council meetings will need no telling that setting the budget provides the biggest bun-fight of them all. It's long, it's febrile and, by God, it's depressing. This year's meeting was no exception in length -- it started at four, teatime, and finished at quarter to midnight, after the restaurants are closed (I am no more grumpy than when I am starved. And sober). And it had it's own form of drama, with adjournments being called, political groups rushing in and out of the chamber huddling into their cabals. But, at the same time, there were elements of this year's process which were, for once, actually positive.

The budget which was finally set was certainly a compromise -- each of the three political groups on the council got something, no-one got everything. What was impressive was that a large part of the budget was agreed by tripartite discussions in the days before the meeting and on the day itself. It was actually proof that we could all be mature and work constructively with each other.

But, as if the parties felt we shouldn't let anybody know that we can be constructive behind closed doors, the last part of the budget debate really did sink into the mudbath, with metaphorically brown-caked figures rising to lob insults in one direction or another at top volume. We can all do it -- perhaps none of us can resist the allure of the kindergarten -- but it struck me on this occasion more than ever that it does us little credit. Especially when the figures actually at stake were a minute part of the overall budget; when there was no audience to watch us preening ourselves, and when, in the end, there was probably little difference across the chamber on the principles supposedly at issue.

I would hope that, after ten days to reflect on this, all parties would feel that they had actually achieved something in the process and that the final budget set was better for not being the work of a single party. But, there again, the budget has proved only an interlude in the battle over recycling, on which my colleague, Stephen Tall, has written recently. Now, if you want depressing, that's the debate to follow. Come to think of it, it deserves a posting of its own here. Perhaps I have re-found the urge to blog.