i-daniel-blake-posterIn Bournville yesterday – and at other community screenings – people flock to see the film I, Daniel Blake which director Ken Loach hopes will be a catalyst for change. In it, a middle-aged carpenter who applies for benefits payments after a heart attack encounters a range of problems accessing state welfare payments.

His experience mirrors the experience of many over the years. An account of 82 people who have died or committed suicide soon after dealings with agencies such as ATOS and the government’s Department of Work and Pensions was recorded in the Dorset Eye. At the same time, reports of directors and other officers of the DWP receiving new year’s honours for ‘services to welfare reform’ were published.

The film compellingly shows the systematic inefficiency of automated phone systems (aka call queues) and the struggles of people who have never used a computer to apply online.

Catherine Pickford, an Anglican minister who had regularly worked in the Newcastle foodbank, seen in the film writes:

“I spoke to people exhausted from trudging the streets looking for jobs that they knew they would not have the physical stamina to carry out. I saw people so hungry that they sat in the foodbank eating straight from the tin. I watched people gradually deteriorate, physically and mentally, as insecure accommodation turned into full-blown homelessness. I also spoke to jobcentre employees, who were desperately trying to hang on to their sense of personal integrity while administering a system that they knew to be unjust”.

One Bournville viewer stated that the system is deliberately rigged to delay making due payments. When asked for proof by another at the event, she pointed out that the evidence was clear: although those designing the system are well aware that record numbers are successfully appealing against Government decisions to refuse personal independence payments and employment and support allowance, they do nothing to improve the system.

The film is being cited in many news reports about a planned overhaul of the system for assessing claimants for disability benefits.

SNP MP Mhairi Black has spoken to the House of Commons about “the brutal and sobering reality of what life is like for those struggling most in today’s society” shown in this film and her recommendation is: “Watch it, get angry, and do something to change this horrible system.”

*

Note:

After the Bournville viewing a member of the audience spoke about The Project, based in Longbridge, which saw another increase in the number of people needing its services last year. Its website reports that the levels of support provided have increased in all areas, reflecting the current homelessness crisis facing Birmingham and the UK. It records research carried out by the Homeless Link charity which found that 5196 homeless applications were made just to Birmingham’s local authority during 2015 with 3416 people accepted as homeless. Government figures published in June 2016 showed that at the end of March 2016 there were 71,540 households across the UK living in temporary accommodation.

There will be another community screening in Stirchley Baths on Friday, 10 February 2017 from 19:30 to 22:30: watch this site or access https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/i-daniel-blake-community-screening-in-stirchley-tickets-31092593785

 

 

WEST MIDLANDS NEW ECONOMICS GROUP

Thursday 26th January 5-7 pm

FOE Warehouse, 54 Allison St, B5 5TH

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AGM followed by discussion of future topics/speakers/meetings.

All are invited to join Hazel and Alan Clawley at the Warehouse Café afterwards.  Those who decide to do so should book their own place as it is a popular venue.

The dates of the next three meetings may be seen on the website: WMNEG meetings 2016-2017

”””””””””””””””””””

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Residents’ Rally 11.00am, Sunday 22nd January

Assemble In Top Field Entrance from Woodloes Road

Solihull Ratepayers are pressing for a reduction in the numbers of proposed new housing in the area and protection for public amenity land around the Woodlands and Badgers Estates

A rally to protect the council owned site is planned for 11.00am next Sunday 22nd January on the threatened section near the Woodloes Road Access to the fields (see photo below)

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The public amenity land around the Woodlands and Badgers estates

SRA’s Membership Secretary writes:

“Having lived and brought up my family on the Woodlands Estate I understand the importance of this longstanding public amenity area and the wooded corridor to the Bills Lane Bridleway to the health and well being of the local community and we mustn’t let it be swallowed up by development.

This section of land is owned by Solihull Council who represent us the community and they cannot blame greedy developers this time.

If you possibly can take time out on Sunday morning please attend for a photo shoot to demonstrate the level of public support to retain this reasonable section of green buffer around the South Shirley estates.

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Keep up with further developments on https://en-gb.facebook.com/solihullratepayers/ which may be read by unregistered people.

 

 

 

Seven Combined Authorities have already been established and a further seven proposed – read in detail here.

Why government – and employers – want a directly-elected mayor

A directly-elected mayor is a presidential form of local government, accountable only in direct elections every four years with no right of removal.  It means the government can deal with a single leader and one not tied to local political parties as a council leader is – an arrangement that suits the private sector too. Directly-elected mayors offer the possibility of a Tory mayor, or at least an independent, being elected in Labour-dominated urban areas. And they are ideally suited to the media’s fondness for reducing politics to personalities.

Democratise the Combined Authorities: London has an elected Assembly – why not the West Midlands?

 

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Richard Hatcher points out on BATC’s website that there is a precedent, the scrutiny arrangements in London: “There ongoing public accountability of the directly elected mayor and the Greater London Authority is ensured by a directly elected London Assembly.  The London Assembly has 25 elected members. They are not just existing councillors drafted onto a Scrutiny Committee, they are elected by citizens who vote for them specifically because they are going to fight for their interests. And they aren’t just reactive to policy, they act as champions for Londoners proactively investigating concerns through not just one but 15 issue-based committees and raising their findings and their policy demands with the Mayor and with the government itself”.

The Constitution of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) does not exclude the option of an elected Assembly, Hatcher asks “If it’s right for London why isn’t it right for the West Midlands?”. Three principles are laid down and seven positive steps – read on here.

Scrutiny?

His article written earlier this month describes the WMCA Scrutiny Committee as being ‘seriously incapable’ of carrying out that responsibility: “The Scrutiny Committee only has 12 councillor members. It is scheduled to have only four meetings during the year, for two hours each.  It is inconceivable that the Committee can engage with the huge range of activities of the WMCA, select issues to scrutinise and carry out a serious process of scrutiny in that time. (Each set of documentation for the monthly CA Board meetings typically amounts to a hundred pages or more, let alone those from the other dozen or more committees.)”

Be aware of conflicts of interest

The Scrutiny Committee allocates 3 places to representatives of the 3 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), the employer-led bodies representing business interests. Hatcher comments: “This is an extraordinary decision which seems unique among Combined Authorities”. For example, there are no LEP representatives on the Greater Manchester CA Scrutiny Committee. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report into devolution and Combined Authorities, published in June 2016 said:

“It is alarming that LEPs are not meeting basic standards of governance and transparency, such as disclosing conflicts of interest to the public.

LEPs are led by the private sector, and stakeholders have raised concerns that they are dominated by vested interests that do not properly represent their business communities”.

So far two of the three LEP places have been taken up by named representatives. One is Sarah Windrum, founder and CEO of Warwickshire technology company The Emerald Group, on behalf of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP. The other is Black Country LEP Board Member Paul Brown, Director of Government Services for Ernst & Young, a global accountancy company.

Ernst and Young serves as auditor and tax adviser to Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – the businesses which have come under the most fire for avoiding taxes. As its website says, it is closely involved in the formulation and delivery of policy “across a wide range of central Government departments”.  Given the controlling role of government in the WMCA, Hatcher thinks it inevitable that Paul Brown, as Director of Government Services, would be exercising scrutiny on behalf of the CA over policies which his employer, Ernst and Young, would have been involved in formulating and delivering.

Other members of the Black Country LEP have a direct interest in investment in land for construction. The Chair of the BC LEP is Simon Eastwood, Managing Director of Carillion Developments, Carillion Plc. Carillion plc is a British multinational facilities management and construction services company with its headquarters in Wolverhampton. It is one of the largest construction companies operating in the UK. Among its projects in the West Midlands is the redevelopment of Paradise Circus in Birmingham city centre. Read on here.

Hatcher concludes: “In the absence of an elected Assembly, the Scrutiny Committee is the only instrument of public accountability of the WMCA. Its credibility depends on there being no suspicion in the public mind that there are actual or potential conflicts of interest. For that reason we believe there should be no representatives of LEPs on the Scrutiny Committee”.

 

 

 

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After meeting a pleasing new neighbour and walking to Stirchley Street station – renamed Bournville (why?) – I travelled by train to New Street, now Grand Central (why?) and got on the Metro to Colmore Row. The usual blissfully silent glide became an endurance test as a cacophony of loud squeals and grating noises accompanied the journey. The conductor said it needed oiling (!)

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Walking along Colmore Row I was perturbed to see that what had been the restored, award-winning Grand Hotel (see June 2016 post) was apparently now a café called Gusto . . . and further down a large site was being demolished by Considerate Constructors  – what had been there before?

A far more cheering sight was the Java Lounge (see a November 2015 post) which now has a golden sign unobtrusively erected, replacing the Hudson name.

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Further down in Chamberlain Passage, it was cheering to see that Jake (see an October 2015 post)  has survived and prospered to some extent. He now has a well-furnished canopy at the left of the kiosk and tells me that – as hoped – the German Market had been very good for business.

On to one of the city’s gems (below) and a good, inexpensive lunch in the members’ room.

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Birmingham and Midland Institute

There were changes: The Birmingham College now occupies the premises used for many years by a firm of architects and a host of students were to be seen, including Mariam from the Gulf, improving her English before going on to business studies. Most of the top floor, formerly occupied by Central England Co-operative, has been used by the Conservatoire whilst their new premises were being built. Noting that the ‘topping out’ ceremony has been performed, it was expected and regretted that they would leave, as planned, some time in 2017.

A couple of well-informed folk at the BMI told me that the demolition site had formerly housed the NatWest building and that the Grand Hotel was indeed still to be an hotel, reduced in size, with the entrance in Church Street. I walked back and found that door but it was still being renovated and the six workers standing by the entrance greeted me cheerfully, “Hello Bab”. I walked down the side and saw the storeroom and many other intriguing rooms, noting signs of ongoing work by Hortons Estates.

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Then on to the Great Western Arcade, a restored Grade II listed Victorian  shopping arcade with a remarkable clock (see this and many others in the city here).

beadleThere I met the security guard and told him about the beadle who used to promenade there, ringing a bell, reminiscent of a town crier.

Less colourful than the beadle, but equally polite and informative, the guard – who came from London to work there three years ago – told me about his routine supervision duties, in between halting and redirecting a cyclist and asking a man to stop smoking whilst passing through.

On the return by Metro again there was another distressing cacophony of loud squeals and grating noises and I heard from a passenger – who was to get off at Kings Norton station – that it is located in Cotteridge (Why? Even William Dargue does not explain?).

 

A golden day

 

 

 

 

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Bloomberg reports that thirteen energy, transport and industrial companies are forming a hydrogen council to consult policy makers and highlight its benefits to the public as the world seeks to switch from dirtier energy sources, according to a joint statement issued on January 17th from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Council members Toyota Motor Corporation, BMW AG, Daimler AG, Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., gas companies Air Liquide SA and Linde AG, miner Anglo American Plc, electric utility Engie SA, rail company Alstom SA and motorcycle and heavy equipment manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd plan to invest a combined 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion) in hydrogen-related products within five years.

John Lippert, the author of the report, quotes Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden: “The world of energy is transforming very, very fast. Hydrogen has massive potential.”

Rather than using batteries to reduce pollution from cars, homes and utilities that are contributing to climate change, fuel cell vehicles are a cornerstone of Toyota’s plan to rid 90% of carbon dioxide emissions from its vehicles by 2050. It believes that it’s easier to convince consumers to use gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel cell vehicles rather than battery-electric autos, which tend to have less driving range and take longer to recharge than filling up with gasoline or hydrogen.

Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s chairman and a council co-chair, said “In addition to transportation, hydrogen has the potential to support our transition to a low-carbon society across multiple industries and the entire value chain”.

There are also pilot projects in hydrail and hydrogen-fuelled boats and barges – see in March 2016: Birmingham planners and engineers focus on clean transport.

 

 

 

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We followed up this emailed reaction – a response to the recent post on air pollution in Birmingham which referred to three city projects:

A link given to Aston’s Intelligent Transport, Heating and Electrical Control Agent – ITHECA – led to this information:

Birmingham is leading the way with multiple district heating networks (DHN) powered by natural gas combined heat and power (CHP) engine systems. These networks provide heat and electricity to key buildings and areas across the City including Aston University, Birmingham New Street Station and Birmingham Council House amongst others. These district networks are currently being joined together to create a city centre wide network.

During operational hours, CHP systems are usually used for their electricity production and so a significant proportion of the heat produced is not utilised. Itheca addresses these inefficiencies which restrict the environmental and economic potential of existing localised energy systems, as well as the viability of potential new systems. Birmingham’s own DHN will be decarbonised by connecting the European Bioenergy Research Institute’s heat generation as a third party heat exporter.

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The European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI): world-class bioenergy research and knowledge transfer

The EBRI generator, based on the Aston University campus, can be fuelled by biofuels – organic wastes such as sustainable bio-liquid fuels, food waste and sewage sludge – rather than fossil fuels. The improved system will also incorporate interoperable distributed energy technologies to enable the energy system to access some of the new revenue opportunities in the future energy system.

In times of surplus generation capacity the system will self-balance itself by charging electric vehicles (EVs), whilst in times of high demand the vehicle charge can contribute to the building demand. The project will see the instalment of the first bioenergy powered EV charging infrastructure in Birmingham’s city centre.

The Itheca project is also developing innovative control software to manage the distribution of energy throughout the DHN, optimising revenue generation and carbon savings, and helping National Grid to balance the electricity system through a new frequency response product.

This innovation will enable small-scale generators and sites with under-utilised generation assets to access a host of balancing market services, passing value to the site owner rather than back to less efficient centralised power generators.

 

 

 

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In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, gave additional taxpayer ­subsidies to the biggest builders – Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt and Berkeley Group – who have missed affordable housing targets while watching profits soar. He announced a grant of £1.4bn into the affordable homes programme and £1.7bn for developers building on public sector land. But two-thirds of this pot is said to be old money re-packaged from three pre-existing funds, including the build-to-rent fund set up by George Osborne in 2012.

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The ‘big four’, who are all in the Home Builders Federation say that house building is a high risk business” and affordable housing targets are financially unviable. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) found than they plan to pay out £6.6bn in extra shareholders’ dividends by 2021.

Eight directors working for major housebuilders together earned £230m in the past five years. Two chief executives, Tony Pidgley and Rob Perrins, of Berkeley, have taken £141m in pay and share sales since 2011. They have shares totalling £440m.

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Meanwhile the country’s housing crisis escalates. The BIJ investigation highlights that as industry profits have ‘gone through the roof’, government statistics released in September show the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England increased 45% in the last six years to 73,120. Despite this, the number of affordable homes for rent or sale built fell to a 24-year low this year.

The big four built 50,000 houses in 2016, but have 450,000 empty building plots – ‘land banks’. The prices of their ‘aspirational’ housing have risen five times more than average wages in the last five years and the four biggest firms together made more than £2bn in pre-tax profits last year. Low supply and high demand has enabled housebuilders to charge substantial prices for the houses they sell – in some cases making an average profit of £127,000 per house according to the Bureau’s analysis.

How much the country gets in tax from these individuals and companies is called into question by Private Eye. Following a Freedom of Information request it was revealed – in great detail – that of £600m lent to five large property developers in the past three years under build-to-rent, a total of £167m – more than a quarter of all loans – went directly to companies with British names, based in the tax havens of Jersey and Guernsey, where, it comments, ‘any gains made are likely to escape tax’.

18 other blogs on the important subject of housing may be seen here: https://ourbirmingham.wordpress.com/housing-18-blogs/.

Next: Housing 20: Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust

 

 

 

Those who did not see the acclaimed 2016 film “I Daniel Blake” at MAC, other cinemas and the Birmingham Co-operative Film Club, may see it at St Francis Church Hall, Bournville, on Saturday 21st January at 7 p.m. It is a British film by award-winning director Ken Loach in which a 59-year-old joiner, unable to work due to a recent heart attack, befriends a young single mother as they both struggle with the benefits system. At the latest Cannes Film Festival it received the highest award – the Palme d’Or.

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“Homeless Sunday” is on January 22nd, and profits from the showing will go to the charity “Shelter”, a charity that emerged from the production of the  BBC film (1966) “Cathy Come Home” also directed by Ken Loach.

 

 

 

 

Michael Overduin, Director of Science Capital and Professor of Structural Biology in Birmingham, leads a laboratory studying protein mechanisms involved in cancer and genetic diseases

He draws attention to a petition which ends tonight and needs 60,000 more signatures: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/150220, adding “We’re not political, but this is important for UK science, medicine, engineering”.

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Young researchers are starting to leave the country to go to receptive countries including Canada, as reported in Nature today.

The writer signed, though realising that applications of some scientific, medical and engineering research have been far from beneficial.