Monday, 26 November 2007

Sustainable Council Housing

Glyn Robbins is the former Chair of Tower Hamlets RESPECT, and a member of Unite, the largest manufacturing union in Britain, and a supporter of Defend Council Housing. This article is a contribution to the discussion at the coming Trade Union Conference on Climate Change, to be held at the University of London on February 9, 2008. For more information on the Conference, email

Tower Hamlets RESPECT won massive support from it's grassroots campaigns in defence of council housing, they organised huge meetings on council estates that saw estate after estate reject privatisation. In South Wales, RESPECT played a key role in the Swansea DCH campaign that led to two-thirds of tenants rejecting stock transfer. The Chair of the campaign went on to stand as a RESPECT candidate to continue the fightto defend public services.

The government says it wants to see 240,000 new homes built a year and that by 2016 all of them must be ‘zero carbon.’ Both of these targets are very ambitious and raise numerous serious questions about existing housing policy. The fundamental problem is that, as in many other areas, New Labour believes the private sector has all the answers, when in fact, it's a large part of the problem.

To embark on a discussion about the environment is to run the risk of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problems and this can undermine our sense that we can do anything about them. Meanwhile, environmentalism has spawned an industry of agencies and quangos, with a lexicon of jargon. It’s important that the trade union movement both demystifies and convinces rank and file members that we can change the situation, which is why the conference on the 9th February is so welcome and important.

While there are still a few people in denial, the scientific argument on climate change is now closed. Global industrialisation and consumerism are causing enormous damage to our planet and the consequences are literally disastrous. As ever, it’s the poor who suffer first and most, as graphically illustrated by the 2004 Tsunami, hurricane Katrina and the recent cyclone in Bangladesh. There are more to come. The cause of climate change is global warming which is the result of greenhouse gases that are produced by our industrial processes which depend on burning fossil fuel (gas, coal and oil). Reluctantly and belatedly, all governments now acknowledge the problem and are committed to various targets for reducing carbon emissions. Prime Minister Brown has said that he wants to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050. The target of zero carbon homes is part of this.

The homes we live in – or rather the way we live in them – are responsible for 25% of UK carbon emissions. Improving design and construction can certainly play a part in reducing this, for example better insulation and windows can substantially reduce energy used on heating. In Germany there are thousands of homes that are so energy efficient they can reduce heating costs by 90%. Less heating means less burning of fossil fuels – and lower bills, particularly important for our poor and elderly. Using solar panels can heat water for almost nothing after the initial outlay, while forms of combined heat and power (CHP) can produce cheaper energy and cut emissions by up to 30%. Recycling water could cut consumption dramatically.

Perhaps you are beginning to see part of the problem. Re-read the paragraph above and imagine that you are a fat-cat director of one of the privatized utility companies!

Technology can make a real difference, but it’s only part of the answer. David Cameron with his wind turbine on his roof is not going to get us to zero carbon homes.

I regularly attend gatherings of the house building industry – and I include housing associations as part of that industry. If government policy doesn’t change, it’s these private companies who are charged with the responsibility of building sustainable homes. They’re not going to do it.

Estimates vary, but some say that the cost of building a ‘zero carbon’ home adds up to 30% on building costs. Again, assuming that policy does not change, the expectation is that most new homes will be for private sale. Even in a buoyant housing market, a 30% price increase is not something that developers will want to pass on to their customers – much less in a struggling market we are now seeing the first signs of. Private developers are also conservative, in more ways than one! They often have a very fixed view about what a house should look like. Go round most new developments and you’ll know what I mean. Developers worry that any deviation will hit their profits and they certainly don’t want to invest in the renewable energy technology that are crucial to meeting the government’s 2016 target.

The house building industry is also wedded to a concept of individualism. Having a mortgage is the ultimate expression of this and is strongly reinforced by the government’s obsession with increasing home ownership. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with buying your own home, but we need to think about the way it impacts on our society and environment.

Take the washing machine as an example. It has become a foregone assumption that all new homes will have one (and not necessarily one of the more energy efficient models). No developer or housing association would dream of not providing for one, even in homes where space is of a premium. In flats, a dryer may also be provided, rather than communal drying space. Our use of washing machines, dryers and dish washers create five million tones of carbon a year, at a cost of £800 million. We need to add to that the environmental cost of producing millions of new appliances every year, many of which also cause serious environmental problems when they are disposed of.

There is an alternative – the launderette! Many council estates were built with on-site launderettes and drying rooms. Admittedly, this was in a time when owning your own washing machine was not an expectation and along with the rest of council housing, these facilities have suffered from neglect and under-investment. But the idea is sound and it’s the type of thing we need to urgently revisit if we are serious about low carbon homes. With improved technology and especially if linked to a CHP, communal launderettes could make real savings on emissions and bills, but they could also serve another important function, by restoring part of our ever diminishing public realm.

We here so much from government about ‘community cohesion’ and yet we live in a society where individualism and private ownership is deeply enshrined. The aspiration of private home ownership is also directly linked to our patterns of consumption. Dixons and Currys don’t want to see a revival of the launderette, just as General Motors don’t want us to reduce our use of petrol.

To meet the 2016 zero carbon homes target will require a radical rethink of housing policy, but it is one that government must make for a number of other reasons. As repeated Labour Party conferences and all the big trade unions say, we must start building council housing again. The most obvious and pressing reason for doing this is that there is a critical shortage of genuinely affordable housing, but we should also see a restoration of municipally owned and democratically controlled housing as a vital step in helping our environment.

We need our house builders to be properly accountable, to us, not their shareholders or Boards. As well as affordable rents and security of tenure, we need homes that people can afford to run and heat. In fact, a lot of our council housing stock is already far more energy efficient than the alternatives and has far more potential to benefit form the new technologies than the individual suburban semi, but it will take proper, public investment.

But as well as the physical improvements, we need to foster a more communal approach to how we live. Tower Hamlets, where I live, has the poorest recycling record in the UK. It also has one of the most disadvantaged and poorly housed populations.

These things are connected. We need homes where people feel a greater and more genuine sense of community and can see the point of taking care of our environment.

Expecting the private sector to do any of this is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Cardiff RESPECT will be supporting the UK Climate Change March to the US embassy in London on Saturday 8 December. Coaches will be going from Cardiff, Newport and Caerphilly. For more info. contact:

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Northern Rock - Government: Money for Banks, Not for Homes

The private troubles of Northern Rock are fast becoming a public scandal. With no democratic debate in parliament, the government has committed over £25 billion of our money to bailing out the failed company. With the hard earned savings and jobs of thousands of workers at stake, there is no doubt that the government should intervene, but how?

The crisis is a direct consequence of some of the most grotesque features of New Labour and its conversion to global neo-liberalism. Northern Rock is in trouble because it was gambling in the international casino economy so beloved by Gordon Brown. In particular, it hoped to profit from the unscrupulous selling of the "sub-prime" mortgages that have led to the collapse of the US housing market. The resulting panic has seen huge losses for banks around the world and now poses a serious threat to the UK economy

When people place a bet on a horse, it's on the understanding that they will lose their money if the horse doesn't win. That's not how the rules work for big business. Now that the Northern Rock's gambling addiction has been exposed, it wants to use public money to cover its losses and Chancellor Darling has fallen over himself to oblige. BBC sources say that he has underwritten Northern Rock for up to five years, with little or no guarantee that the public will get its money back.

There is another way. Instead of flogging a dead horse, the government could use this opportunity to address the failure of its housing policy. The Northern Rock should be nationalized and become the nations housing bank. The value of its existing mortgages could be added to its other assets, along with the public money it has received.

In future, the bank could be used as the publicly-owned vehicle for investing in housing, particularly the new-build council housing we so desperately need. It could also provide mortgages for the many so called "low cost" housing products that are currently earning fortunes for housing associations and private lenders, with all proceeds to be ploughed back into a public housing investment programme.

If the government can find billions to prop up Northern Rock, it can also do it to invest in genuinely affordable housing.

RESPECT is proud to have been at the heart of the struggle to defend council housing in Wales. In Swansea, Paul Lynch, Chair of Swansea Defend Council Housing led a grassroots campaign of working class people on his estate that led to two-thirds of council tenants voting AGAINST the multi-million pound campaign by the LibDem council to sell off council housing.
We believe that this kind of political organising at the grassroots is the ONLY way to beatback the neoliberal offensive against working people. Paul went on to stand as a RESPECT candidate in the Assembly elections to fight against privatisation and war, and help build a grassroots socialist alternative to the 4 major parties in Wales, a different kind of politics that empowers ordinary working people to take control of their lives and futures.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

2007 - Year of Climate Catastrophe

Climate change is not a danger, it’s a reality. Its effects are hitting the poor now, and the rich and powerful are making things worse. Whether it’s war, earthquake or climate change, the poor pay the price. Phil Hearse writes:

For the small hard-core climate change deniers, no amount of evidence will make much difference. But there is evidence aplenty that in 2007 environmental damage has been accumulating because of global warming, and doing major damage to communities, nations and continents. As ever, it has been the poor who have been the most vulnerable, and who have lost most in terms of lives, possessions and livelihoods; in most places it is women and children who bear the brunt.

Most of all, 2007 has been the year of the flood. But is has also been the year of the forest fire on several continents, most notably in Greece and the United States. Climate change experts have long warned that global warming could have devastating consequences:

* More than a billion people may face freshwater shortages by 2050, especially in Asia, where rising living standards for the middle class will lead to increased water demand.
* Millions more will be threatened by floods due to rising sea levels, with island inhabitants and populations in large river-delta regions in Asia most at risk. Dry areas may become drier, with crop yields dropping by as much as 50 percent in sub-tropical regions by 2020.
* Higher rates of climate-related illness, including malnutrition, malaria, dengue fever, and heatstroke could take effect.

Mega floods

Increased rainfall in many area (although not all) is one of the obvious consequences of global warming. This year we’ve seen:

* Two waves of massive flooding in China in June and September-October in the centre and south of the country that have killed more than 1000 people.
* Connected with the same storms over southern China, Vietnam suffered widespread flooding in October and November which by the time this was written (early November) had killed more than 120 people.
* The worst floods in living memory in Central Africa, stretching from coast to coast, devastating crops and drowning hundreds.
* Unprecedented flooding in north and central England in June.
* What the Mexican president called the "greatest natural disaster of the country’s history" as the state of Tabasco was submerged for the second time in a decade, leaving dozens dead and making 100,000 homeless.
* Hundreds died in India in several waves of flooding from Mumbai, where 500 dies, to Bihar where a similar trail of devastation occurred.
* Several waves of flooding in the south east of Australia that wrecked the wine crop in many areas.

Much of this catastrophe has hardly been reported in the Western media; the fire risk to homes of Malibu celebs is of course of much more interest to the right-wing media than millions of workers and peasants in Africa or Asia!


Twenty-two African countries are experiencing their worst wet seasons in decades, and experts say that global warming is to blame. Devastating rains and flash floods have affected 1.5 million people across the continent, killing at least 300 since early summer.

West Africa has seen its most severe floods in years, as torrents swamped the Democratic Republic of the Congo's capital of Kinshasa in late October, killing 30 people in less than 24 hours. In northern Ghana, more than 300,000 people have been uprooted by devastating downpours.

In East Africa, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have been displaced and scores killed in Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

As the rains continue, African meteorologists are warning that these events may be fulfilling predictions that the continent will suffer some of the worst effects of global warming. "Africa will be the hardest hit by climate change," said Grace Akumu, director of the Kenya-based nonprofit Climate Network Africa. "This is happening even faster than expected."


The China news agency says more than 1300 people have died in China this summer as a result of flooding. Another 332 missing; crops on at least 15.43 million hectares of farmland have been destroyed and 1.22 million houses ruined.

Direct economic losses were estimated to have amounted to 155.8 billion yuan (US$19.3 billion), according Vice-Minister of Water Resources E Jingping . The middle and downstream of Xijiang River in the Pearl River basin suffered a disastrous flood, and Hunan and Heilongjiang were hit by serious mountain torrents, mud-rock flows and landslides.

The hardest-hit areas include the provinces of Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang and Hainan in southern and eastern China, which have also been plagued by seven typhoons and cyclones that claimed 221 lives.

However, continued heavy rainfall during the National Day holiday has caused the biggest flood in a decade along the lower reaches of the Weihe River and the middle reaches of the Hanjiang River in Shaanxi and Hubei provinces.

Sections of the rivers running through Shaanxi in northwest China overflowed, forcing 359,000 people to be evacuated. More than 4.6 million people in 61 counties were affected by floods and mud slides, which ruined 79,800 hectares of crops and destroyed 39,200 houses.

India and Bangladesh

Floods in the monsoon season are normal in the sub-continent, but this year have been particularly severe, with hundreds killed in Bihar and Mumbai. In Bangladesh two-thirds of the country was submerged and 164 people died in flooding this year. The monsoon rain is getting heavier because of warming oceans, but the human impact on the poor is made worse by poverty, the caste system and state corruption and indifference.

In Bihar more than 2 million people were forced out of their homes and overwhelmingly it was women who had to take the responsibility for finding food, firewood and shelter for themselves and their children. A high proportion of the worst affected were Dalits – so-called ‘untouchables’.

According to the Dalit campaign for Human Rights, relief was least likely to reach the low-caste villagers: "The relative neglect of low-caste villagers was a reflection of how, even at a moment of shared hardship, the rules of caste dictate how Indian society operates, he added. The culture of discrimination which runs through Indian society intensifies in times of crisis."

Aid distribution is often done in town centers, where well-off, upper-caste groups are more likely to live. Those who are geographically marginalized in low-lying, remote villages, far from the national highways, find that supplies dwindle by the time they arrive in town, if they are able to make the journey.

A heart rending account of the misery suffered by in Bihar State came last week with the story of an upper-caste police officer accused of drowning two lower-caste girls in the river after they stole firewood from his orchard.

Dry tinder has become a precious commodity in Bihar, vital to survival in the damp post-flood period. According to a villager who complained to the police, when the police officer found Chandani Kumari, 6, and Kamali Kumari, 13, taking wood from his property, he threw them into a fast-moving river. Neither of the girls could swim.

The officer was suspended and a compensation payment of 100,000 rupees, or $2,400, was given to the girls' parents S.L. Das, the local police superintendent, said, adding that he believed the girls were chased, not thrown, into the river.

In Bangladesh flooding relief put big pressure of the national budget. The World Bank has insisted that to improve national finances the government must put up the price of heating fuel – and thereby deal a cruel blow to the vast majority of poor families who depend on it for heating and cooking.

The Bihar experience shows how wrong flood-control strategies, unscrupulous politicians, unresponsive bureaucracy and corruption have left thousands displaced and economically ruined. Since Independence, successive Bihar governments have sold embankments as an answer to floods, despite warnings that these earthen structures only exacerbate the problem.

The reason behind this pro-embankment policy is easy to understand: it helps perpetuate the well-oiled politician-technocrat-contractor nexus. Cuts and kickbacks are the order of the day, as politicians get a rake off from the construction company friends, who receive large amounts of aid money for rebuilding the embankment levees, which again make the problem worse.


In 1998 the Mexican state of Tabasco was inundated and in late October this year it happened again. The worsening of tropical storms in Central America and the Caribbean is the direct result of sea warming in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition 16 rivers overran their banks in the rebel state of Chiapas. The effects of this flooding are still ongoing as this article is written. According to the BBC (4 November):

"Beyond Mexico's borders the effects of the tropical depression have been felt in other Central American states. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador have already suffered from three weeks of heavy downpours."

In total more than 50 people have been killed and 100,000 have been forced to evacuate. Some large areas are facing epidemics and food shortages. Millions of dollars worth of crops across the region have been ruined and outbreaks of malaria, cholera and dengue fever have been reported in some of the worst hit areas The floods completely wiped out crops in the region, and a farm association estimated losses at 480 million dollars.

Health officials have meanwhile started to fret about looming health risks from open sewage and the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Dengue, cholera and diarrhea outbreaks now are very real possibilities.

What has really animated the state and national government is that the hungry people of Villhermosa, capital of Tabasco have started to loot supermarkets to get food. Thousands of desperate and hungry people cannot be allowed to breach property laws for the mere purpose of getting something to eat!


Many parts of the Greek countryside burnt with savage ferocity this summer as temperatures reached 460 C, and more than 60 people were killed in cut-off villages. Even if some of these fires were started by arsonists, they widespread effect can only be explained by global warming.

The ecology of Greece is changing permanently. An arid country is threatened with becoming a desert if Mediterranean countries continue to experience routine temperatures above 40o in the summer.

Brush fires are normal events in California, part of the natural cycle, but events like this year’s fires are not. According to American writer Mike Davis:

"The Los Angeles Times had an article that said climate change wasn’t a factor in the fires. This is probably balderdash. Everything that’s happening, including the dramatic number of mega-fires in the rest of the West, accords with the simulations generated in the climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not only are extreme events becoming more common, but it’s possible that the base climate of the Southwest and most of the rest of the West is itself changing."

Davis also points out how an alliance of Republican politicians and property developers have been responsible for continued house building in the fire-prone backlands, despite repeated warnings about fire dangers. He also showed how the media had highlighted the danger to the houses of celebrities like John Travolta and Sting, rather than the much worse plight of poor people in areas like San Diego.

Capitalism Collides with Nature

There have always been floods and forest fires. But the intensity and widespread nature of these events is vivid evidence of the impact of climate change. No one can now possibly believe that climate change is a victimless crime; thousands of people are dying each year from its effects, many thousands more are being made ill, being made eco-refugees or losing their livelihoods.

Each of the floods and fires referred to above has its own unique causes. But behind each one of them is increasing global temperatures, and in particular rising sea temperatures. It’s rising sea temperatures off West Africa which start many of the tropical storms that end up as hurricanes in the Bay of Mexico; it’s the warming of the same seas that triggered the floods in central Africa this year. Sea warming is worsening the monsoons affecting the sub-continent and South East Asia.

In each case it’s the poor, living in flimsy houses in marginal areas near dangerous dams, levees or mountainsides that are the victims of the flash floods and the mudslides. In each case it’s the poor who are the victims when disaster relief money is siphoned off by the rich and corrupt officials. And it’s the poor who have no back-up resources when their fields and crops are damaged, their homes are destroyed.

Climate change is not a danger, it’s a reality. Its effects are hitting the poor now, and the rich and powerful are making things worse. Whether it’s war, earthquake or climate change, the poor pay the price.

Capitalist productivism, the incessant production of more and more useless commodities, is responsible for this crisis. Solving the crisis means ending the system.

Cardiff RESPECT will be supporting the global day of action on Climate Change on December 8th and joining people demonstrating at the American Embassy in London. For transport from Cardiff email:

Monday, 12 November 2007

Support Constance Nzenu's Anti-Deportation Campaign

The rich are allowed to move to which ever country will give them the biggest tax break but poor and working class people face demonisation and harrassment. Cardiff RESPECT says: No deportations!

Constance arrived in the UK in April 2005. Her asylum claim has been rejected and she is now facing imminent removal to Cameroon, the country from which she fled.

Constance left Cameroon because she was being forced into an arranged marriage that she did not want to engage in. Constance was living a happy life in Cameroon; she had completed her second degree in Law and was about to enroll for her PhD until the direction of her life was taken out of her hands.

Her father had made an arrangement with his friend for Constance to marry him in exchange for a large amount of money. Constance was not consulted in this matter. The man she was being forced to marry was from a different tribe. He is a Muslim. Constance is a Christian. She would be his third wife.

The condition on which Constance was to enter into this marriage was that she would undergo Female Genital Mutilation, which is widespread among Muslim communities in Cameroon.

Nationally, the United Nations estimates that about 20 percent of women in Cameroon are victims of circumcision, which can be carried out at any stage: at birth, during early childhood, in the course of adolescence, just before marriage or after the birth of the first child.

USA Report on Human Rights Practices:

Cameroon 2006

“Cameroon law does not prohibit female genital mutilation (FGM), Internal migration contributed to the spread of FGM to different parts of the country. The majority of FGM procedures were clitorectomies. The severest form of FGM, infibulation, was performed in the Kajifu region of the Southwest Province. FGM usually was practiced on infants and preadolescent girls. Public health centers in areas where FGM is frequently practiced counseled women about the harmful consequences of FGM; however, the government did not prosecute any persons charged with performing FGM. The Association of Women Against Violence continued to conduct a program in Maroua to assist victims of FGM and their families and to educate local populations. During the year breast ironing emerged as another form of violence against women, practiced in an effort to protect prematurely well-developed young girls from predatory older men. NGOs were leading public awareness campaigns to combat this practice.”

Constance refused to enter into this marriage and the matter was taken to court by the ‘fiancé.’ Constance similarly refused to go to the court hearing because she knew, from her education in Law in Cameroon, that the outcome of the case would be in the man’s favour.

Constance then left her family where she had been living, a search warrant was issued and the police became involved. Her Father also put an announcement out in a national newspaper offering a reward for anyone who returned her to the family because if the marriage didn’t go ahead they would owe the ‘fiancé’ the dowry money and be shamed within the community.

If Constance is forced to return to Cameroon she faces an uncertain and unhappy future: there will be recriminations from the police, the court, the ‘fiancé’ and her family, all because she refused to engage in the arranged marriage and the consequences of this marriage.

Constance would like to be free of persecution in Wales where she now lives; allowed to remain in Britain and become a European citizen in order to be able to work her way up in life and bring up her British born child in a Human Rights friendly environment.

‘Friends of Constance and Andrea’ are now campaigning to keep them in Cardiff.

Constance Nzeneu is an asset to the Cardiff community where she has lived for 2 years and three months. Her son Andreas was born here. Andreas’s father is German. He works in between Germany and the UK, and they have an ongoing relationship.

In the years she has lived in Cardiff, Constance has actively participated in the community and has made many friends here. She is an active member of the Heath Evangelical Church and Refugee Voice Wales and she has volunteered for Displaced People In Action and Black African Women Stepping Out. All these organisations have valued her contribution highly.

For more information about how you can help Constance, see here