Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stopping the destruction of blanket bog

Earlier on this year, I wrote a blog about blanket bog, flooding and climate change to raise awareness of the problems occurring in Walshaw Moor near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. Blanket bog is a rare, valuable habitat that supports biodiversity, and also has a very useful flood protection role (the Calder Valley including Hebden Bridge is very flood prone).

At that time environmental activists and local residents were concerned that damage to the blanket bog on Walshaw Moor might represent a breach of European environmental legislation that protects special habitats called the EU birds and habitats directive. I subsequently sent an official question to the European Commission (EU civil service)'s Environment department, which investigates possible non respect of EU environmental laws. I asked the Commission whether the inappropriate land management being undertaken on Walshaw Moor such as repeated burning of areas of blanket bog in order to provide a habitat for red grouse, and the construction of tracks to enable access for commercial grouse‑shooting, was breaching the legislation. 

This week I received a written answer to my question, which reads as follows:

"The Commission has very recently received a complaint regarding the management and protection of a part of the South Pennine Moors managed by the Walshaw Moor Estate Limited. The Commission is currently analysing this complaint and will ask the UK authorities to provide information in response to the alleged issues. Should it become apparent that the national authorities have not fulfilled their obligations in this respect, the Commission will take the necessary steps to ensure full compliance with the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Given that the Commission has not yet had an opportunity to assess the complaint and the allegations made with regard to the situation at Walshaw Moor it is not at this stage possible to answer the first question."

The official complaint mentioned by the Commission is the one lodged by the RSPB for the third time in its history. The RSPB complaint claims that Natural England, the government agency responsible for enforcing the EU birds and habitats directive, is failing to do so in Walshaw Moor. 

Natural England was undertaking legal proceedings against the Estate for 43 breaches of an environmental stewardship agreement, proceedings which were dropped following the conclusion of a new agreement, which the RSPB say is flawed as it essentially permits and even financially funds the very same destructive activities.  The RSPB say that Natural England has failed to take the steps needed to ensure the landowner does not continue to damage the land at Walshaw Moor and that they restore the degraded areas of blanket bog. 

I am supporting the RSPB complaint in any way I can, as from what I have seen there is a great danger that the land at Walshaw Moor will be damaged permanently from this failure to respect environmental legislation.  
It is vital to act in such a situation to stop destruction of beautiful and special parts of the Yorkshire countryside and to make sure that other protected habitats are given the protection they need, protection which by law they should have.

If you are concerned about the Walshaw Moor situation and would like to know more or find out what you can do, please contact my office at - European Commission Environment Department

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Liberal Democrat Michael Beckett - the kind of MP Rotherham needs!

Rotherham and Barnsley Liberal Democrats have selected Michael Beckett as their candidate in the Rotherham by-election. Michael comes from North Yorkshire where as well as being a local councillor, he has worked for the Citizen's Advice Bureau, a mental health charity, and run his own small business. 

Michael has dedicated his professional life to helping people, often the most vulnerable in society, which is very good training for the job of an MP, who should stand up for and help local people. Michael's sometimes frustrating experience of contacting MPs on behalf of CAB clients was one thing that motivated him to stand for Parliament: "I found that some MPs did very little to help their constituents and I thought that I could do a better job" he commented. Michael's experience running a small business also means he understands the problems business people face and the importance of supporting small businesses. 

As many people are no doubt aware, the parliamentary by-election has been called following the resignation of Rotherham's Labour MP Denis MacShane for fraudulent parliamentary expenses. An official report into Mr MacShane's expenses described his case as "the gravest ever investigated". 

Police are currently considering whether to bring criminal charges against Mr MacShane for the fraudulent activities he has now admitted in letters to parliamentary authorities. 

Labour have been in control in Rotherham for decades, yet many residents feel badly let down not only by an MP with no respect for public money, but also by an ineffectual Labour run Council recently embroiled in a child abuse scandal.

It is definitely time for a change in Rotherham and replacing a Labour party expense cheat with another Labour MP would seem to reward Labour for a corrupt MP and a council that failed to protect children. 

I was out talking to voters in Rotherham on Saturday with Michael Beckett and am happy to report that he was very well received on the doorstep. Many residents, including long term Labour voters, agreed that it was time for some real change and that they would like an MP who would be dedicated to working for the people of Rotherham. 

On the doorstep Michael gave people a number of good reasons to vote for him including:

- His first priority would be to be to serve the people of Rotherham;

- His extensive experience of helping people makes himself very well qualified to be a good constituency MP for Rotherham;

- Liberal Democrats are in government getting things done and pushing for policies that help ordinary people, like increasing the tax threshold to £10k. 

Good luck to Michael on Thursday 29th November!

Monday, 12 November 2012

UPDATE: Harrogate Liberal Democrats take Tory Council seat

Friday 16 November 2012:

Congratulations to newly elected Liberal Democrat Councillor David Siddans and the Harrogate Liberal Democrats! David took the Tory council seat of Rosset with a massive 25% swing towards the Liberal Democrats, leaving him with 48.9% of the vote on a 38% turnout. 

To see the full results, please click here


The Liberal Democrat campaign to snatch a Tory council seat in Harrogate in the forthcoming Rossett ward by-election has hit the ground running. The by-election was caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Michelle Woolley, who stepped down due to a new job. 

The Liberal Democrat candidate is David Siddans, a local resident with a long history of community involvement, including in the Harrogate Library and the Harrogate Civic Society. 

The key campaign issue is a plan to build 680 houses in the Cardale Park area of Rossett ward. The Conservatives back the development, but the Liberal Democrats oppose it because the current plans would see the new houses built on a green field site without any provision made for additional infrastructure such as roads and school places. 

Being a local resident and a civil engineer, Liberal Democrat candidate David Siddans knows only too well that a housing development of this scale in this area would need appropriate investment to avoid to overloading existing infrastructures.

I went to Rossett today to spend a couple of hours helping the by-election team. Local Liberal Democrat activist Les Parkes told me that "David has been getting a great reception on the doorstep in Rossett; local residents clearly recognise he would make a great councillor for the area". 

Good luck to David this Thursday!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Scandal, intrigue, tobacco and unanswered questions

As some people may already be aware (it`s been reported in UK national media and international media like the Wall Street Journal), the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, John Dalli from Malta resigned his post last week in the wake of an alleged dodgy lobbying incident involving the tobacco industry. I will try to summarise the events as concisely as possible, which might not be easy.

Mr Dalli was asked to resign by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 16 October 2012 following an investigation by OLAF, the EU anti fraud office concerning a Maltese entrepreneur known to Mr Dalli who was allegedly acting as a middleman for a Swedish tobacco company. The Maltese entrepreneur was said to have been preparing to offer money to Mr Dalli in order to obtain meetings between the Commissioner and the tobacco company to influence a forthcoming EU law on tobacco products. The offer was never made and it was the tobacco company concerned Swedish Match, which made a complaint to the Commission which led to the OLAF investigation.

As part of  his health and consumer protection role, Mr Dalli had led Commission work on a new EU law on tobacco products, which was rumoured to include strict measures like plain packaging for cigarettes. However, the incidents relating to the potential dodgy lobbying that never happened are said by OLAF and the European Commission not to have affected the work done on the draft new tobacco products law, as they occurred after the final draft was completed by Mr Dalli's staff.

Mr Dalli was not accused of having accepted or even been offered the alleged bribe; the OLAF report instead claimed that he knew his name was being used in vain. Mr Dalli has said that he has never seen the OLAF report, but was read the conclusions on 16 October after which he was asked to resign and did so verbally in front of Commission President Barroso and two witnesses.

Coincidentally, within 48 hours of Mr Dalli's resignation, the offices of several Brussels based public health NGOs active on tobacco control were burgled. During that burglary, only computers and documents belonging to staff working on tobacco control were stolen. Evidence indicates that the burglary was a well organised professional job.

This week, the Chair of the Supervisory Board of OLAF resigned, initially thought to be related to the Dalli investigation, but now OLAF has confirmed that it was unrelated.

Whether Mr Dalli is guilty of misconduct or not (this is about as clear as mud right now), what is of great concern is that this may now delay the (already delayed) new law on tobacco products. This law is needed to upgrade Europe`s fight against tobacco, which kills over 600,000 EU citizens each year and causes long term ill-health in many more.

Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission and Mr Secovic, the Commissioner temporarily taking over Mr Dalli`s responsibilities at DG SANCO (Health & Consumer Protection), have both said that the tobacco products directive is a top priority and will only be delayed as long as it takes to get a permanent replacement for Mr Dalli. Malta has nominated Mr Tonio Borg as Mr Dalli`s replacement and Mr Borg will attend a hearing to assess his suitability for the role in the European Parliament on 13 November 2012.

So far, so murky (or should that be smoky?!). There are a lot of unanswered questions and missing pieces of information including:

- What is the "circumstantial evidence" that OLAF found that indicates Mr Dalli was aware of the potential dodgy lobbying? (NB Mr Dalli denies knowledge of the plan to bribe him)

- Why was Mr Dalli not allowed to see the report accusing him of misconduct?

- What delay will the tobacco products law be subject to?

- How can we be sure that the tobacco products law will not be watered down from the version that Mr Dalli`s staff had prepared (which was rumoured to be very strong)?

- Who could believe that a Health Commissioner could (even if they were so persuaded) credibly change the draft version of a new tobacco products law to make it favourable to the tobacco industry? (NB Mr Dalli`s position on tobacco control was considered very strong by public health activists)

In addition to the need to further protect public health from the scurge of tobacco, the whole affair with unanswered questions and vital information withheld from public view (and from the view of the European Parliament, which has a role in appointing Commissioners!), does not give a good image of the EU institutions.

A friend working in EU affairs informed me that his Mother raised the Dalli affair with him after seeing various media reports. Her view?

"I don`t know anything about the tobacco law, but all this secrecy and cover-up in the newspapers bothers me. Why can`t people be told what he (Mr Dalli) did wrong?. It seems that big companies are getting away with a lot and I don`t like it!"

So, worrying developments for Europe and for public health in Europe. Not good : (

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

An MEP's life?

Since starting my new life as an MEP I have been asked by both family (including my 7 year old niece!) and friends just what it all involves. It therefore seemed timely to write a piece about my life as an MEP.

Firstly, I have quickly learnt that there is no such thing as a typical day.   Secondly, there are many misunderstandings about the life of an MEP. It does not, for example, mean that I have moved back to Brussels.  Typically I’m there 8 to 10 days a month. 

It is also not the case that I am now well acquainted with Business class on British Airways.  I became an MEP 6 months ago and I'm yet to fly in the line of duty! I travel, like other MEPs from the north, from home to Brussels (5 hours, 2 trains) and Strasbourg (8 hours, 3 trains) taking advantage of high speed rail travel. Not only is this less damaging to the environment, but I find it a less stressful and more productive way to travel. 

Being an MEP is a job of two halves; working both in your region and the parliament. There is thus always the need to balance the demands of both sides of the role.

Given the nature of the work, and the long hours involved, none of my work could be possible without support, and I have an excellent team in both the region (Angela, an office manager/caseworker and Mike, a communications officer) and Brussels (Sam who manages the Brussels diary and helps me with environment committee work and Marzena (Maz) who supports me on the legal affairs committee). There is also currently Daniel, a recent graduate from North Yorkshire who has a 6 month (paid) internship.

So what exactly does an MEP do? 

The work in the region includes dealing with casework from constituents – such as assistance to apply for EU funding, or supporting local community groups.  It involves meeting and supporting regional businesses, trade bodies and interest groups.  I have also attended and spoken at community and business events.  There is also the media work, promoting my work or that of the party in the region.  I am also keen to work alongside fellow Liberal Democrats on their campaigns.

In parliament my committee work has seen me take a lead on a number of key issues.  These have varied from cross border health issues, dealing with flooding and supporting the effort to make big business more transparent about their tax affairs.  This is with the added complication of having the meetings occasionally timetabled at the same time and meaning I have to fly (not literally!) from one to the other.

There is also a lot of group work, both within the Liberal Democrat group and across the wider Liberal group for Europe, known as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – ALDE.  This is important, particularly for agreeing common positions before we go into committee.

Just as in the region, in Brussels too I will often meet with business or other groups or attend breakfast meetings, working lunches or seminars.  These can be any time of the day, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.   There are also groups who will come to me to lobby on behalf of a particular cause or campaign.

Contrary to popular belief, money/big business does not always win the lobbying game. In September, the Legal Affairs Committee voted in favour of requiring multinational companies to disclose their payments to governments on a global basis, thus taking a position advocated by Non-Governmental Organisations like Oxfam and Publish What You Pay, rather than the view of large oil and mining companies.

An MEP's schedule does require a lot of moving around. I can travel as frequently as every 4 days, so I have become an expert in packing light! I spend 8-10 days a month in Brussels, 4 days per month in Strasbourg (a ridiculous situation which I hope will end soon, see for more info) and the rest of the time (15 or so days) in the region.

When i am in the region, I work pretty much standard working hours either in my Hull office or at home in Leeds, although I do regularly have evening and weekend engagements. When I am in the Parliament (in Brussels or Strasbourg), days tend to be long; they can start as early as 0745 and go on until 1900 or 2000. My Brussels staff do their best to make sure that my time is well used, so my diary can be a bit jam packed sometimes.

As you can see it's a very varied and usually very interesting role.  It means working all hours, depending on the demands of the time.  It is certainly rather difficult to get bored. I also get to see many parts of the region that I perhaps would not visit otherwise and to meet people from all walks of life with a point to make (even if I don't always agree with them!).

So for those people who wonder what an MEP does, the answer is not straightforward and depends on just what part of the continent they are in at the time.  Hopefully, however, this sheds a little light on the matter!

For more information on how the European Parliament works, visit

Monday, 15 October 2012

Reporting back from Eurocommerce's SME day

SMEs are the backbone of the twenty three million companies based in the EU, and Eurocommerce’s SME day (10 Oct 2012) was a chance for representatives from the European Parliament and Commission, as well as SME associations and entrepreneurs themselves, to come together and look at concrete steps needed to create an economic environment favourable to SME growth while encouraging entrepreneurship in people of all ages and backgrounds.

ALDE MEP J├╝rgen Creutzmann was the first to stress that better access to finance and markets for SMEs needed to be translated into real action. He proposed reducing the time and cost of obtaining a licence to set up a new business to three days and 100euros respectively by 2020; creating “one-stop-shops” for entrepreneurs in each member state to go to for business start ups; and channelling fifteen per cent  of the EU’s budget towards SMEs. Mr Creutzmann also highlighted that around €300bn of EU programmes have not been accessed within the current budget and that it is essential that small businesses are made aware that they can participate in these.

With regards to smart regulation, the floor heard from Elizabeth Golberg of the Commission’s Secretariat General, who maintained that regulation is essential in order to protect and facilitate exploitation of European markets, while agreeing with Mr Creutzmann that SMEs can feel over burdened by heavy regulation, which can often lead to failure. To combat this, Ms Golberg highlighted the Commission’s commitment to simplifying the system, reducing general administration by twenty five per cent (which would subsequently save around €40bn), and canvassing SMEs to find out what are the most burdening pieces of legislation for them.

The panel also included several entrepreneurs and SME leaders who gave first hand testimonials of their experiences in setting up a business, as well as putting forward their own ideas for encouraging entrepreneurship. Mr Marco Lardera, a twenty-five year old property website founder from Italy, told of the problems facing young people in his country with regards to a lack of confidence from banks and the authorities. Mr Heinz Werner, founder of a child and teenage jeanswear company, spoke of the worry of many possible SME leaders of being suffocated by corporate social responsibility rules, and stressed a need for a bigger focus on education in order to train the very best possible candidates to enable continued SME start ups and growth.

This was echoed by a second panel focusing on “boosting the spirit of entrepreneurship”, which expressed a need for entrepreneurship to be taught in schools “from the very beginning”. The panellists agreed this would build self confidence, increase awareness, and teach young people how to be independent. A fear of the stigma of failure was identified as a big problem deterring potential entrepreneurs from setting up a business by Imelda Vital of direct-selling company AMWAY- to which Mr Christian Verschueren, Director General of EuroCommerce suggested that the EU should follow the example of the United States, where, according to Mr Verschueren, failure is often seen as a golden opportunity for more entrepreneurship!

By Daniel Callaghan, intern for Rebecca Taylor MEP

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Lib Dem party conference - a beginners guide

As it is autumn, it is party conference season. We Liberal Democrats had our conference last week, this week it was Labour’s turn and the Conservative conference will follow.

So why have party conferences at all and what happens at them? As a Liberal Democrat I know they are a key part of how our party operates, on both a political and social level.

There is more to a conference than the few hours you might see on the television.  Here is a quick overview of what happens at Lib Dem party conference:

- There is, of course, discussion and debate on policy, both in meetings and the main auditorium.   This means, unlike the other main parties, Lib Dem members still set party policy.  Crucially, the leadership can be defeated even now – as happened just last week on the issue of secret courts.

- There are keynote speeches by senior parliamentarians, which for the Liberal Democrats now includes Cabinet Ministers such as Danny Alexander, as well as other leading members like Sharon Bowles MEP.  Traditionally, our conference always ends with the Leader’s speech, sending party members back home on a high note.

- Party members also get the opportunity to put questions to senior party members from different parliaments in special Q&A sessions.

- There is also the chance to meet charity and commercial exhibitors, as well as party organisations, at an ever impressive exhibition.  The best always have some exciting goodies or games to play!

- Some of these organisations, as well as a number of others, also hold fringe meetings.  These are a chance to debate an issue or sessions on training and advice.  While some are exclusively for party members, others are open for anyone to attend.  This conference, I had the privilege of speaking at a number of fringe meetings.  These covered topics as varied as internships, regional transport policy, the EU and body image/eating disorders.  I also had time to attend fringe meetings on youth employment and training, NHS reform, the Scouting movement, and manufacturing. 

- Conference is also an ideal opportunity for organisations to meet with elected LibDems to raise concerns or discuss ideas. I found myself on both sides of this exercise.  As an example, I met with representatives of several trade and professional associations concerned with specific EU legislation as well as a regional utility company.  My turn to put the points to an elected official came when I met with Lib Dem transport minister, Norman Baker, to discuss rail issues in the Yorkshire and Humber region, pushing the case for more investment in the region’s transport infrastructure. 

- One of the many unique parts of Lib Dem conference is the Glee Club, a tradition going back many years.  This is an old fashioned sing along on the last night of conference. Here we see many Lib Dems, some of whom may have had a few (or more!) drinks at the bar, singing specially written lyrics to well known tunes.  A classic is one such song about Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes, which describes "Simon Hughes and his black and white cab" sung to the tune of Postman Pat. The regions also get an outing.  I joined fellow Yorkshire Lib Dems on the Glee Club stage singing "Ilkley Moor bar t'hat". There is also always at least one refrain of the old Liberal anthem "The Land".  The current Glee Club pianist is Birmingham MP John Hemming, which he explained during a transport fringe, is why he has to drive to conference, as he can't get his piano on the train!

-  Not least of all, in fact a big attraction for many conference attendees, is the chance to meet up and socialise with old friends from around the country.  For many, conference is the only chance they meet, but the friendships are no less strong for it.  For me, as I became an MEP since the last conference, a lot of LibDem friends and colleagues at conference naturally wanted to speak to me to ask how I was settling in to my new job.  The fact I got to do this in bar made it no less enjoyable!

So conference is made of many parts.  All have their highlights.  I certainly enjoy it and I am sure it has something for everyone too.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Croatia - the next country to join the EU?

This summer I has the pleasure to spend 10 lovely days in Croatia for my summer holidays. I visited Dubrovnik, the islands of Korcula, Hvar and Kolocep, and the city of Split.

Like thousands of people before me, I was blown away by the beauty of Dubrovnik ("the pearl of the Adriatic"), which has to be one of the most stunning cities in the world. I was also greatly impressed by Croatia's Adriatic coastline and islands with their pretty seaside towns, spotless beaches and clear sea. With the weather being in the mid 30s most of the time, a dip in the sea was a great way to cool down : )

Dubrovnik's Stradum (main street) at sunset

I found good quality customer service, pretty good infrastructure (at least in the tourist areas), and buses and ferries that arrive and depart on time for which buying tickets was pretty easy. I also found Croats (those working in tourism and fellow holiday makers) to be friendly and at ease in foreign languages; virtually all Croats speak English and many speak German and Italian as well. Many were eager to find out if I was enjoying my holiday in Croatia (and happily I could honestly answer that I was!). 

I got to enjoy Croatian food (lots of vegetables grilled in local olive oil for a vegetarian like me), excellent coffee, decent wine, and expertly made cocktails. I thoroughly appreciated the fact that virtually all hotels and cafes had free wifi for guests/customers (other countries please take note!). This allowed me to annoy friends who were not on holiday by posting pictures of lovely sunny beaches on facebook without paying hefty non EU data roaming charges : )

Looking down on Hvar Town
from the Spanish Fortress

On the subject of EU membership, views were mixed. On one hand, Croats feel a strong European identity and could see that joining the EU would have benefits for the country. However, they were concerned that as a small country within the EU, Croatia might not have enough influence to fight for its interests, and that changes required on the economic front could be detrimental to certain sectors of the economy. 

Another point somewhat relating to EU membership, although not one any Croats mentioned to me directly, is the issue of the indictment and imprisonment of high ranking Croat 
military personnel by the International Criminal Tribunal on former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the 
Hague.  Croatian cooperation with the ICTY to extradite those wanted by the Hague was 
seen as a vital step towards EU membership.

Those tried, found guilty of war crimes and imprisoned by the ICTY include the Croat 
Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. Many Croats consider the imprisonment of 
these Generals to be unjust, as the military campaign they were undertaking, named 
"Operation Storm", led to the recapture of Croatian territory that had been seized by Serb 
paramilitaries backed by the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The Generals are 
considered to be national heroes for their role in Croatia's war of independence (often referred to as the "Homeland war").

The ICTY did not question the legitimacy of Operation Storm, but found the two Generals 
guilty of war crimes including the forced deportation of around 90,000 Serb civilians and aiding and abetting the killing of several hundred as part of a deliberate policy to rid the region of its Serb population. A third Croat soldier Colonel General Ivan Cermak was acquitted. There were protests in Croatia at the time of the verdicts. 

During my stay in Croatia, I saw many posters featuring the photo of a man in military
uniform and thought that they might be election posters of a candidate. Upon asking a 
shopkeeper in Dubrovnik whose window displayed one of these posters, I found out that the man on the posters was General Gotovina.

Reminders of the war are everywhere despite massive reconstruction. On Kolocep, a small  
island near Dubrovnik, one former hotel was so badly shelled that it was not worth repairing. As no-one had come forward to demolish it and/or rebuild something else, it remains as it 
was (with appropriate safety measures taken of course).

War damaged former hotel in Kolocep

In Dubrovnik, I went to the War Photo exhibition, which was very moving. It was particularly 
striking to see photos of a deserted Dubrovnik in the midst of being shelled with buildings on fire, then to walk outside and find oneself in a thriving elegant city packed with tourists.

Croatia is due to join the EU in 2013 and there are now Croatian observers in the European Parliament including one in the ALDE group, Mr Jozo Rados an MP from the Croatian Liberal Democrat party. Upon learning that I was an MEP, many Croats asked if I knew for sure whether Croatia would join the EU in 2013. I had to answer that I was not personally involved and had no special knowledge, but that I had not heard anything to the contrary. 

Croatia is a beautiful country with hospitable people and great weather and I would strongly recommend a holiday there. I also hope to be welcoming Croatia into the EU fold in 2013.

Sunset on Kolocep island


Croatian national tourist board

European Commission DG Enlargement - status of Croatia

Croatian war of independence

BBC news article on ICTY Croatia verdicts

Monday, 27 August 2012

Blanket bogs, flooding and climate change

Last week, I went up on to the moors above Hebden Bridge with activists from Treesponsibility, a local environmental group, to learn about blanket bogs and the important role they play in the ecosystem. 

The Calder Valley, where I grew up, has pretty towns and stunning countryside, and an unfortunate tendency to suffer flash floods. On 22 June this year a months worth of rain fell in a few hours and resulted in serious flooding in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd (see my blog post: Flood relief in the Calder Valley). Further, albeit less serious floods also occurred in mid July (see media article: Flash flooding hits the Calder Valley again)

There are many factors at play in a flood including drain capacity, river floodgates, rainfall and as I learnt this week, blanket bogs. Healthy blanket bog has lots of Sphagnum moss, which absorbs huge amounts of water and releases it slowly. This is particularly useful in the event of heavy rainfall as it can lessen the impact of flooding. 

 This is what healthy Sphagnum moss looks like

Blanket bog is also a rare habitat protected by national and European legislation including the EU Habitats Directive and the EU Water Framework Directive. Due to the fact that the Sphagnum moss in blanket bogs is what stimulates peat production, blanket bogs are often also classed as sites of special scientific interest (SSIs). 

Treesponsibility have discovered that the blanket bog on Walshaw moor above Hebden Bridge is currently very degraded, which is of great concern for a flood prone town.  Walshaw Moor is privately owned by Walshaw Moor Estate limited whose main activity is the organisation of grouse shooting.  

Me being shown some rather unhealthy looking sphagnum moss
on the blanket bog at Walshaw moor

Sphagnum moss needs very wet conditions to thrive and the many drainage ditches currently found on Walshaw moor have dried out the ground and may have contributed to the degradation of the blanket bog. Digging ditches and pathways (we saw pathways that appear to go beyond their original boundaries as per ordinance survey maps of the area) also exposes peat, which releases carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for global warming, in to the environment. 

In addition, heather burning has been taking place on Walshaw moor. As grouse breed and feed in young heather, the land owners are allowed under the Heather and Grass Burning code to undertake some heather burning to allow new heather to grow. 

However, the amount of heather burning that had taken place and how close it was to the blanket bog, was of great concern to the Treesponsibility activists, who feared that it might be a key factor in the degradation of the blanket bog. 

Walshaw Moor Estate is legally bound to meet the requirements of an Environmental Stewardship Agreement (ESA) laid down by Natural England.  Natural England had begun legal action against the Estate for breaches of a previous ESA. This legal action was halted with the conclusion of the new ESA. 

Treesponsibility organised a "ban the burn" march on Sunday 12 August to draw attention to the problem of heather burning and the degradation of the blanket bogs on Walshaw moor.

Activists and concerned local residents join the "Ban the burn" march on 12 August 2012

One of the Treesponsibility activists has asked Natural England for some clarifications in relation to a number of specific aspects of the new ESA to understand what Walshaw Moor Estate is now required to do, what they cannot do, and whether they are respecting the agreement. 
As a Calder Valley person and a member of the European Parliament's Environment Committee, I am following this issue closely and looking forward to seeing Natural England's response to the Treesponsibility information request. 

Adding my support to the ban the burn campaign

Media coverage:

My visit to Walshaw Moor

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

My thoughts on the Olympics

These last few days I have had the privilege to attend a couple of events at London 2012* and to be in the city at this exciting time. I wanted to give my reflections on the Olympics.

Firstly, I was like many people very happy that London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics back in 2008. It shines a positive spotlight on the country and not just on London as events were taking place outside London too.  The mood in the country has shown how so many people have got behind the games starting with the torch going all over the country (along with many of my neighbours, I got up early in the morning to watch it go past the end of my street in Leeds), and culminating with the start of the sporting events. Major events like these show how we can come together as a nation.

The first event I attended was the women’s football on Tuesday 31 July where I was able to watch the British team beat Brazil (that never happens with the men's team....) at Wembley Stadium to go top of their group and qualify for the quarter-finals.  The atmosphere at Wembley was fantastic and with just over 70,000 people in attendance, it was a record crowd for women's football too.

On Thursday 2nd August, I went to see the first day of the Dressage Grand Prix at Greenwich Park. The setting was stunning and although I had cheap tickets, I got a good view of both the dressage performance area and the London vista from my seat. Not being an expert in dressage, it was not always easy to distinguish good from excellent performances, but it was still impressive watching the amazing partnerships between horses and riders. This being the UK, I also managed to get both sun-burnt (forgot my sunscreen...) and soaked to the skin by torrential rain while at the event!

While there has been some problems with the games, the issue of empty seats being much talked about, there is no doubt that it is so far looking to be a successful Olympics – not just in terms of number of medals won by the UK either!  The fears about travel disruption have been largely unfounded, various friends in London told me about contingency plans their employers had made including working early and late shifts and working from home, but most found them unnecessary. When I travelled to the dressage, I had to take
the underground at 8am, which (when I lived in London) usually involved waiting 3 or 4 trains before cramming myself on to the train to stand sardine-like for the whole journey, but to my great surprise (and delight) I waltzed on the first tube train that arrived and got a seat about 4 stops later! It seems that many Londoners took heed of official advice and either went on holiday or worked from home.

I also managed to speak to several of the many thousands of Olympics volunteers. They came from many different walks of life, but all said that while volunteering at the games was hard work, it had been an amazing experience and the atmosphere among fellow volunteers, paid staff and the armed forces doing security work was fantastic.

What is also good to see is that while it is the London Olympics, events have been staged across the UK, meaning the whole country can get behind the celebrations.  Well done to all involved – it is truly something to be proud of.

* I would like to make it clear that I bought all my Olympics tickets myself through the normal channels and did not get any special privileges (I even bought the dressage tickets long before became an MEP)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Liberal Democrat by-election win in Calderdale

The Calderdale Council seat of Warley in Halifax now has a new Liberal Democrat Councillor in the shape of businessman and long term LibDem and No2ID activist James Baker. James lives just outside Warley with his partner and six month old son and co-runs a printing company in Hebden Bridge which specialises in working for charities. On Thursday 19 July there was a council by-election in Warley in Halifax, Calderdale. The by-election was called due to the resignation of a Lib Dem councillor due to health reasons. Warley has traditionally been a straight fight between the LibDems and the Tories, but this changed in May this year, when (for the first time in years), Labour managed to win a Council seat, just pipped James at the post with 113 votes more. James had worked very hard in Warley both campaigning and helping to find solutions to local issues like some missing war memorial plaques and local bus services, so I was disappointed that he was not elected in May. It was therefore good news that James agreed to be the by-election candidate as he could build on his previous good work. I was able to help out a few times during the by-election including on polling day and the mood on the door was good; many residents recognised the efforts that James had made to serve the Warley community and recalled that the Liberal Democrats had a history of hard working local councillors who stood up for the area. The final results were: James Baker, Liberal Democrat 1066 votes (elected) Jonathan Timbers, Labour 896 votes Christopher Pearson, Conservative, 454 votes Charles Gate, Green, 140 votes Well done James! Links:

Monday, 9 July 2012

Flood relief in Calder Valley

As some of you may know (it made the national news), three towns in Calder Valley - Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd - suffered flooding just over 2 weeks ago when torrential rain caused the river Calder to burst its banks.

Around 900 homes and businesses were affected, with many residents finding their cellars or even ground floors rapidly filling up with water as the river Calder and (at least in Todmorden) the canal overflowed. Although flooding is sadly not uncommon in the upper Calder Valley, the amount of rain that fell on Friday 22 June was almost unprecedented. I have heard reports that the equivalent of a month's rain arrived in only a few hours.

Responding to the floods
There was some criticism by local people that initial relief efforts were not well coordinated, but  pretty quickly community spirit kicked in as local volunteers and council workers came together to organise relief efforts.

Word spread via social media, council flyers and local charities and soon donations came rolling in. I was in fact alerted to the voluntary efforts by an old school friend with whom I am connected on Facebook. People gave both money and items such as bedding, towels, kitchen equipment, furniture and toys to help those whose own possessions had been damaged or destroyed by flood water.

The need to replace essential household items is, at least in the short term, urgent, as even people who can claim on their house insurance face a delay in receiving money and in the interim it is very difficult to manage without basic items. There were many requests for white goods, particularly fridges, from people whose kitchens were flooded.

Some of the people flooded were those unable to afford home insurance due to living in a property with flood risk, which is an issue I am currently investigating. I know that some other European countries e.g. France, pool flood risk, so that the cost is shared between all insured householders, which means that home insurance is no more expensive for people living in flood risk areas as those who live elsewhere.

Calderdale council set up temporary relief operations in each of the affected areas to distribute donations and the supplies consisting mainly of mops, buckets, brushes and disinfectant cleaning products, which were in part purchased by the Council and partly donated by local businesses and charities.

Clean up operations were also organised from the relief centres and council workers and volunteers were duly dispatched to help mop up flood water for those flooded householders who were not able to do it themselves.

My visit
Being a Todmordian myself, I went over to the flood relief centre last Friday to offer my help and to find out what was going on and if I could do anything in my official capacity to help. I was able to help by taking supplies to some flood struck residents, handing out flood cleaning up packs to people who came in, and moving boxes around the hall.

I made indeed a very modest contribution compared to those who had spent hours cleaning up flood water from people's homes.

Here I am at Calder College, Todmorden at the temporary flood relief centre having relief activities explained to me by Council worker Ben Crowther.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Energy and Jobs in Yorkshire

Last week, a public consultation began on a proposed project to build the UK's first power station using carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Yorkshire. Local residents and other interested parties are invited to give their views on the building of the new £3 billion Don Valley Power Project in Hatfield.

The week before, I met with a representative of the project who explained that while the project is still in development, it looks to be on its way to receiving sufficient investment for 2013/14. This investment includes funding from the EU research programme 'The European Energy Programme for Recovery'.

The power station in Hatfield will capture millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide which would then be stored on North Sea oil fields. In a recently published report by the National Grid, it was predicted that at least 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted by the coal-fired plant will be captured. 

Following recent innovations in the US, the project also involves plans to extract the remaining oil from the North Sea using carbon dioxide which will be stored in those fields. Traditionally large oil firms have abandoned fields shortly after they have reached peak production levels. This new technology will enable extraction of any remaining reserves.

The development is also aimed at becoming the ‘hub’ of a cluster of other CCS projects in the region.  The Yorkshire and Humber region is an ideal location for kick-starting a global CCS industry, due to its high concentration of power stations and large industrial plants that release a large amount of carbon dioxide.

The building of the Don Valley Power Project is potentially good news for our region, as not only will to decrease the region's carbon footprint, it will also create employment. It is estimated that around 2800 temporary jobs will be created to build the infrastructure needed and another 500 permanent roles to run the operations. 

A pipeline will have to be constructed to carry carbon dioxide from Hatfield, across the River Humber and over Hull through the Holderness Coast. Local residents can put their views across during the consultation, and it goes without saying that all environmental factors must be considered.

Yorkshire is at the forefront of a renewable energy revolution.  Our region has topped the UK renewable investment league for the last year. I am proud that our region has invested almost two billion pounds in renewable energy projects, creating over 5,400 jobs in the process.  

Useful links

Media coverage