BEIJING OLYMPICS 2008 – 1ST IMPRESSIONS

I arrived to a very hazy and humid Beijing on the day that China’s “coming-out ” party begins, wishing for some rain to break, as l meet up with some friends in an ex-pat bubble in the suburbs. This wish for some rain in the summer is not a dissimilar one for me to make on trips to South Asia during the summer particularly with this level of humidity.

Clearly we do not want any rain during the opening ceremony but certainly for all the athletics sake, abit of rain would not go amiss, helping to move the haze away. Indeed l understand this was attempted by putting silver iodide rockets into the clouds to force them to rain just before the games.  Sadly the haze has returned and something similiar will be needed to break the humidity as much as anything else like pollution levels.

In Athens in 2004, the Greeks were in celebratory mood right from the beginning of their Olympics as their boys had become European National Football Champions completely out of the blue, a few months earlier.  With the Chinese the focus has been more on the security of the games and getting their big night right with the opening ceremony rather then enjoying it but l’m sure that will come later on in the two weeks of sporting festivity that is the Olympics.

After seeing the ceremony last night, London clearly has a big act to follow but l have got to confess l find most openings rather naff.  So bring  on the sports as soon as possible starting with the basketball match between China and US on sunday night. Do not forget that Sydney 2000 had a similiarly impression opening but do most of us remember that in comparison to the very emotional Cathy Freeman winning the 400 m women race for herself and Australia. Now thats why l came on this holiday to see moments like that again here in Beijing and l am sure l’ll see them.

JOHNSON SHOWS TRUE COLOURS ON AFFORDABLE HOMES

This week we learned that Boris Johnson has failed to intervene in a bid by Hammersmith and Fulham council to scrap all the proposed rented social housing units from a key development in Shepherd’s Bush.

I am stunned at this volte-face on the part of the Mayor in failing to insist that Hammersmith and Fulham ensure that a reasonable proportion of affordable homes are available in the development at Bloemfontein Road. By not intervening in the process the Mayor has effectively removed all the social housing units originally planned for this development – around 40%. It is directly contrary to Boris’ own words at the July Mayor’s Question Time meeting where he said that he would ‘certainly’ use his Mayoral powers to direct refusal of a development if he felt the application was ‘not achieving targets that would be for the benefit of London.’

This looks like a political decision on the part of Hammersmith and Fulham council – led by Councillor Stephen Greenhalgh, who sat on Boris’ Forensic Audit Panel. If this is going to be the Mayor’s future approach to such matters then I am extremely concerned about the precedent this could set for other key housing developments. Questions certainly need to be asked about the Mayor’s views on the value of social rented housing and whether he understands that for the poorest Londoners, shared ownership is still not an affordable option – we need to know what he is going to do to help this group.

It’s another example of the Mayor saying one thing and doing another. Despite his waxing lyrical at Mayor’s Queston Time on the need to protect London’s playing fields and open spaces, he didn’t stop his chums at Kensington and Chelsea selling off part of Holland Park School’s playing fields for development. If this is a sign of things to come I’m very worried.

SIKH GIRL’S VICTORY POINTS TO MULTIPLE IDENTITIES

sarikas-bracelet 

Whatever your view on the outcome of the Sikh girl Sarika Watkins-Singh’s court case to win her right to wear a Sikh bangle to school, what l found most poignant about the matter was Sarika’s happy willingness to call herself  a “proud Welsh and Punjabi Sikh girl” in front of the High Court. 

I think we have become accustomed to some people defining themselves simply by their religion, without taking into account other key aspects of their identity – in reality we have many other dimensions to our identities, ethnic and civic for example.

Our sense of who we are and where we are from can also be relative – depending where in the world one is. For example, the place where l feel the most British is whenever l am in the United States.

The fact of the matter is you can be all or any facets of your identity at any one time and Sarika’s statement illustrated this well. And this is something a secularist like the Indian, Amartya Sen, has always indicated in his writings.

So, while most other commentators have noted the significance of the case in the papers over the last few days, l would suggest that Sarika’s comments in front of the High Court are probably much more important than the actual verdict in the case, illustrating well that young people can deal with multiple identities, more so than is usually acknowledged.

CHURCH STREET BY-ELECTION – 24th July 2008

The by-election in Church St Ward on the 24th of July called after the untimely death of Councillor Tony Mothersdale, saw for the first time in living memory a Tory Councillor for this ward in the City of Westminster.

Coupled with the obviously very disappointing result for Labour in Glasgow east, it is easy to write Church Street off as another casualty of national factors, but it is important that other local factors are also taken into consideration.

The turnout in Church Street was very low – 24 per cent – which resulted in a Tory majority of 303. More usually the turnout is around 30-35 per cent – a low turnout can have a significant effect on the results, particularly in a by-election. In this case, it is unsurprising that lcaol voters were feeling jaded and not inspried to vote, having only recently been caleed to the polls for the Londdon Mayo and Assembly elections just two months ago.

It is also interesting to note the figure for each of the three polling districts in Church Street Ward, notably that which covers the Lisson Green Estate where the Bangladeshi community voted for the Bangladeshi Conservative candidate. Therefore l feel the result had relatively little to do with national policies and more to do with politics of ethnicity in a London Estate. I’m not saying that the national picture didn’t also play a part, but local factoras can not be underestimated, especially in a low turnout by-election, which comes on the heels of a major regional poll.

I’m also sorry to say that the campaign was also marred in its final stages by the allegations of homophobia and intimidation. The outcome of further enquiries on this is yet to be seen, but most professional and principled politicans of all parties would prefer to see a fair fight.

Whatever else, l can sfaely say that Tony is spinning in his grave as a result of this outcome. As always we will need to consider carefully the implications of the loss of Church Street and work with the whole community to ensure that when we go back to the ballot for the ward in 2010, it will have a much higher turnout and return it to the party that truly represents normal people.

MAYOR JOHNSON’S SPORTING DELUSIONS

Murad Qureshi Am shows where Mayor Johnson should have been last sunday
Having read Mayor Johnson’s columns in the Telegraph over the past few weeks, its quite apparent to me that he’s a frustrated sports commentator – which is no bad thing. And the veiled volley exchange between him and Steve Norris was quite entertaining, illustrating well who is actually running the show in London. But the idea that the attendance of politicians at major sporting events – such as the Wimbledon final – will encourage the future prospects of British sportsmen and women is pretty deluded. What would really help is investment in sporting infrastructure – for example making sure all neighbourhoods have access to community sports facilities – not just affluent parts of town like Chiswick, and protecting what playing fields we have already from being sold for development. Moreover, as well going to the glitzy, high profile sporting events, he should try and attend events like the BB London Youth Games, which took place last weekend in Crystal Palace. This is where we are likely to see some of London’s best future Olympic prospects emerge. It’s a question of priorities and commitment, and this is something Boris has a chance to influence as Mayor, rather than just enjoying the big moments as a privileged spectator.
 
 
 
 

 

FOOTBALL – THE NEW RELIGION ?

 

As another thrilling football tournament comes to an end with the pre-tournament favourite Spain winning Euro 2008 last night, many of us will have withdrawal symptoms in the pubs and front rooms of the country.

Even without a British team involved in the tournament hosted successfully by Austria and Switzerland, it was not to hard to be absorbed into the nightly entertainment and drama as many were in the UK, very often adopting other national sides as their team. This bodes well for how it is possible for people’s loyalties to change from solely nationalist ones and be driven by which is the more entertaining side as teams like Holland, Russia and Spain were happily adopted by the British public.
Also credit has to be given to those hosting such events, as to all intents and purposes all those travelling fans who went to Euro 2008 enjoyed themselves. I witnessed this for myself most recently when I went to the Champions league final in Moscow in the spring – it was clear that a great deal of good organisation had gone into a successful and safe event and the host nations must be congratulated.

In an increasingly secularised Britain, I wonder if football is not beginning to take on almost the resonances of a new kind of organised quasi-religion? The Church of England’s regular attendance figures are continuing to steadily decline while a whopping 8.9 million viewers tuned in to the match on Sunday evening.  As a football fan myself I regularly experience, alongside thousands of others, a kind of Saturday afternoon pilgrimage to the hallowed turf of my favoured team and stood united in worship of our chosen idols.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast numbers of those regularly attending matches and watching them on television and those regularly attending worship – across all organised religions. Is football taking over a role in our culture previously occupied by those religions and if so why?  It is certainly an interesting debate which could throw up some interesting conclusions about modern society!

 

Save Holland Park School Playing Field!

In May 2006 I conducted a “˜rapporteurship’ into the selling off of public and school playing fields on behalf of the London Assembly Environment Committee, of which I am the Deputy Chair. My report into the issue can be found at http://www.london.gov.uk/assembly/reports/environment/playing-fields.pdf ), Since then I have been contacted by a number of local groups and individuals about the selling off of playing fields and the instance at Holland Park School has cropped up a number of timesThe great effect of the loss of small areas of open space in densely populated areas is not always appreciated. I wholly endorse Tony Benn and the Campden Hill residents in their effort to halt development on this land and am prepared to make representations to the new Mayor with a view to his using his new planning powers to intervene in the application if deemed necessary.

SOS Bangladesh @ European Parliament

This month l went to the European Parliament to take part in a session on ‘SOS Bangladesh’, covering the human rights issues of the present political impasse and the impact of climate change is having on the region.

I was there to make my contribution on the latter, given that – if present trends continue – the country will disappear under the waves by the end of the century. I found myself inspired by our hosts, Belgian MEPs Johan van Hecke and Bart Staes, who are keen to argue for proper rights and support for climate change ‘refugees’.

On my last trip to South Asia in August 2007, l left the British Isles coping with our floods. By the time l arrived in Delhi, we were hearing about floods making their way along the Ganges through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from the Tibetan glaciers. When l got to Dhaka we were hearing that the floods were also coming down along the Brahmaputra through Nepal and Assam from the same source. And as l left India via Calcutta, both hit the Bay of Bengal causing one of the most severe floods the country has experienced in recent times.

There is no doubt that both the frequency and intensity of these events have increased in this part of the world; China is another country suffering increased flood risk from the melting Tibetan glaciers.

Unfortunately this is only one part of the story. The Bengal delta is in for a double whammy due to rising sea levels. In recent times several small islands in the Bay of Bengal have disappeared, including two on the Indian side. With global warming of 3-4 o C, further rising sea levels will result in tens of millions more people being displaced by floods every year.

Last year two reports on the science and economics of climate change were published. The first, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), clearly established the link between human actions and global warming. More than 2,500 scientists found that there was a 90 per cent chance that humans were the main cause of climate change and called for drastic action.

The second was the Stern Report, which argued that the benefits of strong early action clearly outweighed the costs, as ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth.

If we fail to act now and over the next few decades, we risk major disruption to economic and social activity later in the current century and beyond. The resulting catastrophe could be on a similar scale to those during the great wars and economic depressions of the first half of the 20th century.

What is clearly happening on the ground in Bangladesh and the surrounding area is that people are voting with their feet. We are beginning to see massive rural migration to the mega Asian cities like Dhaka and Calcutta. This is not surprising and is something humankind has been doing since the beginning of its existence – moving around the earth to find a secure home.

The difference now, though, is that the climate change inducing such movements has been linked to human lifestyles and activity in other parts of the globe – thousands of miles from those affected.

It is in this context that we are hearing louder calls for the acknowledgment of “climate change refugees” who may end up with similar needs to those who fled their homes in the early part of the 20th century in response to war or economic disaster.

At that time the Geneva Convention was put in place to guide the world’s response. We now need something similar to be developed that will guide the response to those who are forced to flee their homes due to flooding and the climate change related environmental disasters of the 21st century.

I welcome this move believe the European Union is the right place for this idea to develop, as the previous century’s movements all evolved in mainland Europe and can thus draw from this experience and perhaps provide useful precedents. It should be noted however that, unlike the population movements of the last century, most of this climate change induced migration will be localised within regions rather then between continents.

The Bay of Bengal scenario is a good example of this – where most of the movement is from rural areas to the large cities. Those cities and others facing a similar situation in the future may well need support from the global community to adjust to their rising populations and to cope with providing for the needs of people who have had to abandon their homes and way of life.

What is clear now more then ever, to quote a columnist from the Independent newspaper: “It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this.” We owe it to these modern day refugees to ensure that we do our best protect their threatened homelands and take responsibility for the damage being done by our way of life.

Donegan vs. Shiekh Mohammed El-Salamouni

Last week I was at Southwark Crown Court to observe the harrowing trial of Brian Donegan who last August launched a vicious unprovoked attack on the Imam of Regents Park mosque, Shiekh Mohammed El-Salamouni. Sheikh El-Salamouni was left lying on the floor of the mosque with horrific injuries and is now blind for life. In its symbolism to those in the Muslim community, the attack would be comparable for Roman Catholics to an attack on an archbishop at Westminster Cathedral. To add to the local community’s distress, the fall-out from the attack is that Imams from Al-Azhar University who have provided us with the Imams at Regents Park for many years could now leave London if the Egyptian authorities do not feel they will be adequately protected in London .

It is of scant consolation to Sheikh El-Salamouni, but Brian Donegan will be imprisoned indefinitely in a secure hospital after he was declared insane by the court. His punishment and the fact he will spend the rest of life behind bars needs needs to be properly explained to the local community and users of the mosque, some of whom are concerned that the lack of a traditional “guilty” verdict means Mr Donegan has somehow got off lightly. This of course is not the case. It would take the intervention of the Home Secretary for Mr Donegan’s sentence ever to be revisited – something I do not envisage happening and something I will do everything in my gift to prevent.

I have written to Jacqui Smith the present Home Secretary to press home this fact and to emphasise to her that the likes of Mr Donegan must not be allowed to harm our excellent record of harmonious community relations here in London.

Clearly , in the meantime, security needs to be improved in Regents Park mosque and reviewed at other mosques and religious buildings . In light of this horrific experience , it is important that we at least have security outside the room when an Imam is giving counsel – along the lines of that given to MP’s during their surgeries. Mosques should be encouraged to liaise with local police and Safer Neighbourhood Teams for advice on ensuring that religious buildings are as secure as possible for both staff and worshippers.

I sincerely hope this is not the prelude of us losing the Imams from Al-Azhar University in Cairo at Regents Park mosque. Over the years they have provided an invaluable service to the local Muslim community, stretching right back to the appointment of the much-respected Zaki Badawi as Chief Imam in 1978 .

l have written to the Foreign Secretary to outlining my concerns and to ask him to reassure the Egyptian authorities that their Imams can in future continue to feel safe in London.

BIKE HIRE SCHEMES IN LONDON – YES PLEASE BUT !

On a recent weekend trip with friends in Paris, l spent a whole day using the famed velib ( short for free or freedom bikes in French ) bike scheme in the city and it was certainly a joy to use as a tourist. Not surprisingly while on my bike l imagined how a similiar scheme would work in London.

Last summer the Paris authority launched the Velib bike scheme, depositing 20,000 heavy duty bicycles in 750 or so special racks around the city and anyone who wants one simply swipes they travel card and pedals off wherever they want to go. Subscribers must pay 29 euros ( £ 20 ) a year, give their credit card details and leave a 150 euro credit deposit. This buys half an hour’s pedalling a day and a card to lock and unlock bicycles from automated stations spaced every 300 metres in the city centre. Visitors to Paris can buy a daily velib card for 5 euros. The bikes have already been borrowed 1.2 million times, that is on average 6 journeys a day largely short ones.

Nowhere is the project being watched with greater interest then in London itself with the previous mayor having asked Transport for London to develop similiar plan for London and bring together several schemes across the whole of the city. In many ways an investment in such a scheme would be a much better initiative to encourage cycling then bringing the Tour de France back London again, as l’m not convinced that bringing an elite sport actually gets people on their bikes.

It was also immediately apparent some of the problems the bike hire scheme was having in Paris. For example to was clear that some stations were more popular for bike hire then others like those at low-level stands rather those at higher levels. Thus one would have to have a major exercise each night to move the bikes around. When you did find a bike it was often punctured and not roadworthy, so maintenance is a key issue as well. At present in Paris, the advertising company JC Decaux provides all this for free-advertising in Central Paris but it will be interesting to see how long this continues. Moreover it is suspected that useage will be seasonal, that is the real test will come with the end of summer and return of the winter months.

A number of ” free-bike” schemes have been road tested in London like the OY bikes in Hammersmith & Fulham three years ago. Here the bike could be hired for 30 minutes with a £ 10 registration fees using the OYbike call centre. It’s biggest issue was its geographical coverage as it was restricted to the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham and for any scheme to be successful it would need to cover the whole of Central London. Surprisingly in University towns like St Andrews and Cambridge when it was tested all the bikes had been stolen in the early pilot schemes. And in cities like Southampton and Bristol lack of cooperation from rail operators was felt not to have helped the bike hire schemes.

That said it would be great to see a comprehensive bike hire scheme in London learning from similiar exercises across the world and not just Paris. On my return to London after the weekend trip to Paris, l was reminded that the original bike hire scheme in Europe was in Barcelona with their Bicing cycle scheme achieving over 90,000 subscribers, 2 million hires, 960 reduction in CO2 emissions and the scheme being extended to cover all the city districts in 2008. It sounds to me that I should take my next private research trip there!