Saturday, 14 November 2009

Brent Cross and green bans

It's going to be another interesting week in Barnet politics. On Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 November there is a special, extended planning and environment committee to look at Barnet council's regeneration plans for the Brent Cross area.

This deeply unlovely part of the borough certainly needs attention, but Barnet's plans are looking less and less designed to improve life for people in the area and more and more like a cash-cow for the council, with the focus on expanding retail. Barnet council needs money, but is this a good way to make it? Neighbouring boroughs Brent and Camden have had their noses put out of joint, as Barnet's plans will impact on their own residents, but they have little say in what Barnet does.

You can see the plans on the council's website here.

A formidable coalition is forming against the plans and in favour of a call-in by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Visit the Brent Cross coalition website here. Barnet trades council has joined the Coalition, which might seem at odds with our concern for job creation, but we are for sustainable job creation, and it would not be the first time that labour movement bodies have campaigned for the environment.

An episode in labour and environmental history that deserves to be better known is the green bans imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, Australia.

This group of badly paid and downtrodden workers built a union in the post-war period on democratic participation by members and taking up bread and butter issues in their industry, particularly health and safety. As one contributor describes it, in an inspring film made about the union, "Rocking the Foundations", they set out to 'civilise their industry'.

When they had built up their own strength, they used it to support environmental campaigners objecting to particular construction projects in and around Sydney throughout the 1960s and early 70s. They imposed 'green bans' where, to take one example, construction workers in the union refused to work on a plan to build on Kelly's Bush, the last remaining undeveloped bushland in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill. They protected low-cost working-class housing schemes around the Rocks area of Sydney against demolition to make way for office blocks. And they stopped the Royal Botanic Gardens being turned into a carpark for Sydney Opera House.

Yes, that's right, they stopped construction projects that would have made jobs for construction workers, in order to protect the environment.

As one contributor says in the film, what's the point in earning a decent wage if you then have nowhere decent to live and nowhere to spend your leisure time? For very many reasons, we are a long way off being able to appeal to construction unions to slap a green ban on the current Brent Cross scheme! But the green bans episode is an impressive example of what can be done when workers are mobilised around environmental issues.

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