Monthly Archives: July 2020

Without grassroots, independent culture there is no culture

Without grassroots, independent culture there is no culture. And without culture, there’s a gaping hole in our economy and society.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, I have had a continuous, resounding, repeating anxiety when it comes to thinking about our cultural sector (when I say culture, I mean nightlife, pubs, clubs, restaurants, festivals and the arts).
My fear has been this – “What if only the strong survive?”

Polar Bear in Hull

I’ve spent a long time leading, investigating, thinking about and being a part of regeneration projects, creative development and innovation. I’ve seen the big masterplans for city regeneration, the £30 million “knock the old structures down” designs and the development corporation’s “build the business park and they will come” ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We do and will always need the big top down approaches, but what nearly always works, anywhere, across the globe from Bilbao to Brixton, Belfast to Berlin is culture and cultural regeneration.

I have come to believe that the most important players in any economy but particularly within our cultural economy are the small, the independent and often grassroots businesses. They are the innovators and the entrepreneurs. You know the ones, the arts venue built with love and a bit of MDF, the street food business that trawled the streets for years before getting its first shop, the micro-pub that is now the semi-permanent home of both your best friend and your favourite Gin/locally brewed beer. It’s the theatre in a disused building that brought you the play that then headlined at Edinburgh. It’s the old pub that your heroes played in when they were nobodies and the place most of us still gig in, whilst trying to ‘make it’. Basically – the soul of towns and villages and cities.

The ‘who we are’ of Great Britain, not the ‘what we are’ or ‘what we produce’  The character, the personality and the heartbeat of the places we love and call home.

Let’s look at the numbers: hospitality employs 3.2 million people, produces £130 billion towards GDP every year. The cultural and creative sector produces £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. When the Hospitality Union started calling for support early on in the Covid crisis, estimating 2 million jobs could be lost UK wide, I was one of the first in the North East to join their call, and I coordinated a North East response via Food and Drink North East. We got some of what we asked for but not all. When the Venues Trust and Music Trust launched their campaign for a cultural rescue plan, I quickly backed their call and added my voice to their campaign. I was pleased the government responded; but, just like so many interventions in the government’s response to the crisis, they have been slow and geared towards the big companies.

When I heard just this week about the closure of The Welly and Polar Bear in Hull, and Gorilla and the Deaf Institute in Manchester, my heart sank and my anxieties heightened. When I heard the silent mutterings about a known and loved eatery desperately worried they won’t earn back their Covid Crisis loan and unsure of how to keep their landlord at bay, I felt deeply uneasy. You see, to me, the big institutions and the multi-nationals stand on the shoulders of our small independent businesses. They come because someone came before – big corporations are rarely the pioneers, they often aren’t the risk takers and rarely are they the creators and innovators. But for a place to thrive you need all of these things. So whatever is done, at a local, regional and national level, if we don’t favour the small, if we don’t write policies with them in mind, then we may as well say goodbye to all that makes us strong. To all that makes us, us.

But the problem is, the Conservatives rarely seem to favour the small, they don’t tend to make decisions with the little guy in mind. Just look at some of their recent controversies in the Jenrick cash for favours or the type of schemes and companies being supported by our current Conservative Tees Valley Mayor. It’s the big, the flashy, the mate of the mate of at the £50,000 fundraising dinner, the headline winning proposal that has more gloss than grit. But I have come to expect little less. They are after all a party funded by the big, the rich and the powerful. They pay lip service to the small and sometimes they do ok, throwing a little cash about here and there, but when it comes down to it, when the rubber hits the road, will it be Joe’s Gin Bar and Lula’s DIY music hall that weathers the storm and gets their support, or will it be the Multi-national land owner who is second cousin of the PM? I hope I am wrong but the signs so far say we stand on shaky ground.

There’s another crisis looking, even more deadly and destructive than Coronavirus and this time we must act.

There’s another crisis looking, even more deadly and destructive than Coronavirus and this time, we must act.  We can not afford to turn away any longer.  Dealing with the Covid-19 crisis has got me thinking all the more about this next big crisis yet to come. The Climate crisis. It is going to hurt our nation and the globe in ways never imagined.  We must be prepared. We have now lived through a crisis, we have seen how quickly we needed to, but could adapt, how behaviours and ways of doing things, we never imagined possible were implemented within days. We also learned how timing is imperative. The point at which the country went into lockdown, when mass gatherings were stopped and when social distancing was introduced, all determined ultimately, how many lives would be saved.

The world’s best scientists have been warning us about the climate crisis for 40 years, their voices getting louder yet in the 40 years since we were first warned, despite many ordinary people’s best efforts, carbon emissions have risen by 60%. More CO2 in the air, means ultimately more warming of the planet. Year on year we reach record temperatures. When we reach 1.5 degrees warmer, it is game over. Life on this planet as we know it will collapse. We don’t have decades, we have years. But getting there will mean dealing with it like it really is. A crisis.

Since lockdown was called in February, cars were parked and planes grounded. Despite this, the amount of Co2 in our atmosphere still broke records in April.

The truth is, no matter how many envelopes we recycle and bean burgers we buy, we don’t have the power as individuals to make the big changes we need to stop this crisis. But as political leaders we do.

The coronavirus has showed us something astounding- we have proven that it is possible to put the old system on hold, that money can found to get us through a crisis, and that leaders can when it comes to it, put people’s lives above profits.

The question now is, do we go back to life as normal, or do we create and prepare for a new normal, a better normal, a normal that ensures a healthy and safe environment for our kids, a normal where people’s well being is given the same credence as the economy.

So let’s stop and ask ourselves, what don’t we want to come back as we move on from the Coronavirus? What can be done better? What can we do ourselves? How can we improve our communities? What can our governments do, local, regional and national?

In this country, we have all the tools, and the money we need to solve the climate crisis. They just need to be implemented.

We must demand it for our futures sake.

There are so many ideas we could begin to put in place in the Tees Valley, and we must begin by calling a Tees Valley Climate Emergency.

Some simple ideas that could  be pushed through at a Tees Valley level are

  • Supporting flexible and home working, providing incentives, guidance and recognition to companies who implement this
  • A Tees Valley environmental awards, support and framework, to support and recognise those businesses who are going above and beyond in reducing emissions and contributing to a zero carbon future
  • Increase funding to low carbon jobs, training, research and industries
  • Ensuring investment funds of local and combined authorities follows climate tackling industries, zero carbon initiatives and is divested away from fossil fuel related industries
  • Post Covid-19, build back better funding for businesses could have climate and emissions targets attached
  • Create a community energy fund and incentives for community energy and retrofitting scheme development
  • Setting up a people’s assembly on climate
  • Significant investment in cycle use including financial support for e-bikes and cargo bikes alongside fast tracking cycle route development
  • Prioritising public transport investment, including fast tracking developments at Darlington Station

These are just a few of the things we could be spearheading, there are more. But one thing I am sure of is with leadership, bravery and vision we can build back a better Tees Valley for people and for the planet. We can avert the crisis but we must do it now.

 

 

 

 

 

Sirius, the Conservative Minister and his Billionaire Friend – We are definitely not all in this together!

As revelations of Conservative donors and lucrative businesses deals, aided by friends in Government emerge, I have been deeply angered but not surprised. I have been doing some of my own investigating of the links between the Conservatives and deals done in this area and I have been left with many more questions than answers. The Conservatives have done a remarkable job at convincing working class, poorer voters that they are on their side, but the façade can not last. It is our job as opposition to expose the truth, and I and my team will be doing just that over the coming months. We will leave no rock unturned.

Firstly – let’s talk about Sirius Minerals.  According to an article in The Guardian, Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick, met with Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer in March 2018 while Jenrick served as exchequer secretary to the Treasury. The meeting between Jenrick and Ofer, the ultimate owner of UK mining firm Cleveland Potash, happened while Jenrick was determining whether to offer state support for a new potash mine being built by Sirius Minerals. The new mine would have posed serious competition for Ofer’s own mining operations. The application for funding was later rejected by the government.

A great deal of hope as well as hard cash has been invested in the plans for a £3bn polyhalite mine near Whitby, linked by an underground conveyor to processing plant on Teesside.

Conservative politicians have been happy to associate themselves with Sirius when it provided PR opportunities. Ben Houchen, Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, has talked about it regularly in the press and it being a sign of confidence in Teesside.

Sirius began asking for Government support for the project in 2018, with Ben Houchen backing their call for a loan guarantee. Robert Jenrick was assessing that request. But back in March 2018, Jenrick had met Idan Ofer, now acknowledged to be a “family friend”.  Ofer was the ultimate owner of Cleveland Potash – a rival of Sirius, also aiming to grab a share of the global market for polyhalide fertiliser. So there’s a conflict of interest. Jenrick recognised this and eventually stepped aside from decision making regarding the Sirius aid request. What we don’t yet know is WHEN he told his officials, or when he last had any input into the decision making process.

In January 2019 Theresa May (then PM) confirmed that funding guarantees were being discussed between the Government and Sirius Minerals and that although details were commercially sensitive it was exactly the sort of project that the Northern Powerhouse is all about: driving investment, driving exports, good for the north. City broker Liberum responded positively – keeping share prices from tanking.

BUT, in March 2019, another firm belonging to Ofers (as explained above, the owner of Cleveland Potash, rival to Sirius, and friend of Robert Jenrick), Quantum Pacific UK Corporation, donated £10,000 to the Conservatives. They’d never given to the Conservative Party up to that point.

In September 2019, the government refused Sirius Minerals request for support. This left the company is serious difficulties, unable to raise further finances and the share price hit rock bottom.

Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen continued to be upbeat. In a statement, Houchen claimed that he was in daily contact with the Managing Director of Sirius and remained confident

In the run up to the December 2019 General Election, Simon Clarke was campaigning in Middlesbrough with Liz Truss.  Reportedly, she was the one who picked up responsibility for deciding on the Sirius Aid request after Jenrick had eventually let go of the case, but Truss said “It’s not something I’ve made a direct decision on”.

So was she the decision maker? She doesn’t seem to be taking the credit (or blame) for it, but if it wasn’t her, and it wasn’t Jenrick, who was it?

Sirius by now was desperate to find a way to keep the project going, and had to accept a cut-price deal from Anglo American in January 2020. This wiped out the savings of thousands of small investors, many of them ordinary North Yorkshire and Teesside residents who’d been drawn to the exciting project right on their doorstep. Ofer could stand to gain from the delays and disruption to the rival Sirius plans.

So that’s the story of the Government failure to back Sirius. A failure that cost jobs, delayed the project – scaled back and only recently resuming work under the new owners – and led to many small shareholders losing their life savings.

But that is not all 

This is not the first time Robert Jenrick has been involved in controversy – Mr Jenrick struggled to get planning permission for an extension to one of his London homes until Conservative councillors intervened to approve it.

In his current role as Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick is under pressure over allegations that he rushed through a £1bn development in order to help a wealthy Conservative Party donor save £45 million (money that would have gone to the local council). Jenrick had met Mr Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner and his decision on the development was challenged in the High Court over the ‘appearance of bias’. Jenrick did not contest the case. He still has his job as Secretary of State.

And this is the point, the idea that we are all in this together, that we have the same rules and abilities to influence decisions regardless of who we are is the biggest con in living history. Money talks. Friends in high places help each other. Look at  Britain’s top 100 rich list, 1/3 of them are Conservative donors according to the Huffington Post. But it goes beyond this, it is about connections, friendships, schools you went to and clubs you were a part of. Which parties do you attend together, who do you sit next to at a fundraising dinner. Believe me, the Conservatives do not sit next to the likes of you and me. We are not in their club. We don’t get to influence decisions.

I want answers, not just in these decisions about Sirius, but in many other areas. We have a Conservative led Combined Authority that is spending millions and millions every year, investing in big projects with different businesses, people and corporations. I want to work on your behalf to ensure that there is accountability, integrity and ultimately fairness in all of those decisions.  We have to be assured that decisions made in the best interests of Teesside people, not because a friend of a friend sat next to a politician at a dinner party. We are watching very, very closely.