A leader for the Greens?

Considering some fundamental changes to the way the Green Party is run

Today was a big day for navel gazing at Green Party conference – organisational motions were discussed, but one in particular was more exciting than most. I have described before my role as 'Principal Speaker' for the Green Party, and why we don't have a single figurehead or a rigid hierarchical structure, but a pair (male and female) of principal spokespeople. This is what attracts a lot of people to the Greens, but is also something of a barrier to communicating with people who want party reps to have more conventional titles. I come up against this all the time, and invariably find myself using up valuable broadcast time explaining the curious way I have to be described.

For many years, motions to adopt the title 'leaders' or perhaps 'co-leaders' for our spokespeople have been a regular feature of conference. They always fail to pass, but recent votes have often achieved a majority in conference, although not the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.

As a result, this year, a different kind of motion was discussed. Instead of asking conference for a decision on the issue, the motion set out various changes to the constitution - including creating posts for a Leader and Deputy (or alternatively two co-leaders if a pair of candidates wanted to stand as a team) - that would instead be put out for a full ballot of all our members later this year.

As you can imagine, on such a philosophical question, passions within the Greens run pretty high on both sides of the argument, with some people frustrated we didn't take this step 20 years ago when it was first proposed, and others convinced that we should continue to emphasise our differences with the other parties and maintain the flat leadership structure we currently have. I've always been a bit torn on this. I maintain a huge fondness for the idea of having 'Co-Leaders' instead of just one figurehead, as I think that achieves some of both sides' objectives. However, I thought the motion was quite a reasonable one to vote on, and I am very keen to see the matter decided one way or the other at last so we can spend our energies doing more of what we're supposed to do – get elected.

Anyway, to continue the fascinating tale of our internal debate for a while, today's two sessions on the motion were not what I expected. There were many, many amendments submitted (changing a whole section of our constitution was never going to be simple), suggesting changes such as lengthening the timetable for the referendum, setting longer minimum membership periods for leadership candidates, making them paid or unpaid posts, and proposing different lengths of terms and different methods of recall.

Despite the contentiousness, I was delighted that discussion was so constructive. Lots of amendments were simply accepted by the proposers, others were voted in after strong speeches from members that convinced large numbers of people on the floor to change their minds, and in the end we agreed by a relatively comfortable majority to put the amended motion out for ballot.

So, what happens now? A big debate over the next six months, followed by a vote. This won't be anything like one of Tony Blair's 'big conversations'. Every local party has people on both sides of this issue and there will be lots of strong, intelligent banter going on, which will result in every member having their say.

These small insights into conference are probably not very interesting to anyone who doesn't belong to a political party. But, given the fact that the potential change in structure will mainly affect how people outside the party regard us, I'd be really interested in the views of non-members – so please do comment!

Meanwhile, I'm actually more concerned about getting my own big idea of standing a candidate in every constituency at the next general election off the ground. It's not just me thinking that a full slate is an achievable 'good plan', and there are tons of practical as well as political reasons why we should (not least the chance that any state funding of political parties coming out of the Phillips review may depend on votes cast at the next general election). I made this the main point of my keynote address to the party this morning – my first as Principal Speaker – terrifying but it went down well I thought. Any members like to comment on it?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.