If you’re suffering from a post-Carnival hangover, spare a thought for local residents. Photo: Getty
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Carnival clearing, not backing Boris, and Korean comparisons: politics in Kensington

Andrew Lomas is new to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a Labour councillor. Here he tells us some truths about the area and its history, as he cleans up after Notting Hill Carnival.

I came, I saw, I carnivalled

August Bank Holiday can only mean one thing in this neck of the woods: C-A-R-N-I-V-A-L! That my ward is home to one of the biggest and best parties in the world (as well as a double Michelin-starred restaurant, the Portobello Road market, some incredible independent bookshops, and, err, endless gaggles of tourists photographing every blue door they see, just in case it's the one from the film) probably makes me the luckiest councillor in Britain. But if you’re suffering from a post-Carnival hangover, spare a thought for local residents: every year, upwards of 1m people descend on Notting Hill in less than 48 hours to variously urinate, defecate and copulate in streets, stairwells and garden squares. Few things in life are as tedious as clearing up after a party when everyone else has gone home...

Boris mania, part 85

Earlier in August, the news that Boris Johnson – zip-wire enthusiast and occasional Mayor of London – will stand for parliament in 2015 excited literally tens of people in the Westminster village. However, initial reports suggesting that the blond bombshell could seek to become the MP for Kensington and Chelsea seemed to neglect several key impediments, not least the fact that the constituency ceased to exist in 2010.

Kensington and Chelsea had a short life, only coming into existence in 1997, but one thing is certain: wherever Boris ends up standing, he would be hard-pressed to do worse than the first Tory candidate for seat. Sir Nicholas Scott – the MP for soon-to-be-abolished Chelsea – was selected despite having recently crashed his car into a pram carrying a three-year-old boy (he heroically left his secretary at the scene but was later arrested, breathalysed and convicted of three drink-driving offences). Not so long after, Scott was found face down in a Bournemouth gutter by police following “two glasses of white wine” at the Conservative party conference. Scott’s resignation opened the door for priapic Tory diarist and cuddly Hitler-fan Alan Clark to return to the Commons. Doubles all round!

I predict a Riot

Boris of course is no stranger to excessive drinking having consorted with like-minded imbibers in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. Next month will see the big screen premier of the Riot Club, the film adaptation of a play about a group of entitled posh twits who plot to rule Britain while smashing up restaurants (of course nothing that outlandish could happen in real life, surely?). Glass houses and stone-throwing considered, it would be slightly de trop of me to criticise people who spent the better part of their student years pratting about in velvet-collared tailcoats. However, the depressing fact remains that drawing the line between high-jinks and vandalism seems to be largely a question of class.

That said, destroying a restaurant seems surprisingly lacking in ambition when compared to the fate of Kensington’s Italianate old town hall. In the early Eighties, a preservation order was slapped on the building in order to derail attempts by the then council leader Nicholas Freeman to demolish it. However, Freeman was not someone to be constrained by mere technicalities: the wrecking balls were instead called in the night before the preservation order came into effect with the Royal Fine Art Commission describing what happened as "official vandalism... decided upon covertly, implemented without warning and timed deliberately to thwart known opposition". Of course, if you or I decided to take a sledge-hammer to a protected building the police might have something to say about it. Freeman on the other hand got an OBE and a suite of rooms named after him in the new town hall. Nice work if you can get it.

Democracy in action

On the topic of the new town hall, it’s fair to say it has its own distinctive aesthetic: one person I showed around remarked that, “it’s what I imagine the North Korean parliament looks like”. Of course, comparing the Royal Borough to North Korea is entirely unfair: one is a dysfunctional one-party state that tolerates no dissent whilst the other shares a land border with China.

Nowhere was the ruling Conservative group’s contempt for democracy more on show than in a recent emergency debate about transport services for disabled children. In an ingenious money-saving wheeze, someone worked out that it would cost the Royal Borough a lot less money if, rather than treating vulnerable children with care and dignity, we essentially shipped them around like boxes of freight. Instead of minibus drivers with local knowledge and familiar faces to get the kids from A to B quickly (and safely), journey times started to creep over an hour each way as drivers got lost and dropped off disabled children at the wrong addresses. Unfortunately – and entirely predictably – absent the necessary care, one child nearly died. The public gallery was packed with concerned parents eager to see their elected representatives grip some fairly obvious failings, so when conservative councillor after conservative councillor got up to pronounce that the parents were being rather silly and that everything was in fact fine, the parents started heckling. 

At this point, the Tory whip – Cllr Tim Ahern – obviously meant to say, “we understand your concerns and will do everything possible to safeguard your children”. However, for reasons only known to him, he instead bellowed “SHUT UP, YOU’RE NOT ELECTED” at the gathered unwashed masses. Observing this spectacle, a warm fuzzy feeling welled up inside me, probably reflecting a deep pride at seeing democracy in action. Either that or his naked contempt for the public had made be a little bit sick in my mouth. It’s hard to tell which.

Andrew Lomas is a Labour councillor for Kensington and Chelsea (Colville Ward). He tweets @andrewlomas. Read the first instalment of his Notting Hill Notebook here.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.