Boris's large fiscal hole

Sian helps launch a new cross-party, cross-NGO initiative to ask Boris Johnson what the dickens he’s

After all the election excitement, I’ve been enjoying some glorious (if skint) ‘resting’ time over the past few weeks, getting some fresh air in the Lake District and having long lunches with everyone I’ve not seen in months.

Last week, I went to a preview screening of a new film about climate change called ‘The Age of Stupid’. Part sci-fi, part impressive documentary, this is a much more interesting piece of work than Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My colleague Jim Killock has reviewed the film properly, and I’d encourage everyone, from teachers to trekkies, to see it.

And of course I couldn’t stay away from campaigning for long. This week, I have helped launch a new cross-party, cross-NGO initiative to ask Boris Johnson what the dickens he’s going to do about greener transport in London.

There was so little information on this subject provided during his election campaign that campaign group London Living Streets was forced to leave a blank space next to Johnson’s name under two of their policy areas when they compared the candidates for Mayor in April. With admirable understatement they concluded, “Living Streets is disappointed at the lack of policies on this issue”.

The key problem with all this vagueness is that it’s very unclear how he’s going to balance the transport budget, when most of his published plans actually involve taking vital money out of Transport for London’s revenue stream.

Add up the cost of cancelling the CO2 Charge scheme (£50m a year), ditching the Western Extension (£65m), cancelling the deal with Venezuela that gave people on income support half-price fares (£16m) and swapping bendy buses for a newly designed and built routemaster (think of a large number, then double it), and you get a very big fiscal hole indeed. In the absence of a magic wand, this can only be filled with cuts to other programmes or by higher fares.

Green transport activists are now understandably worried that our favourite schemes, among them the £50 million a year cycling budget, walking initiatives, school and workplace travel plans, the Paris-style bike scheme and the hybrid bus programme, are going to see red lines drawn through them in the near future. Along with the loss of the CO2 Charge, all this could spell real problems for air quality and road safety, and put a stop to people in London switching from cars to public transport, walking and cycling.

Given the excellent progress we’ve seen since 2000 in all these areas except the stubborn problem of air quality, this is all very worrying. So, please join us in writing to Boris and asking him how he’s going to sort this mess out – you can download a stylish letter from the 4x4 campaign’s website.

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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.