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Kevin Smith is the press officer at Global Justice Now. He tweets from @kevinjgsmith

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Kevin Smith is the press officer at Global Justice Now. He tweets from @kevinjgsmith

Local councils tearing strips off TTIP

ttipblog.jpg

GreenSEFA under a Creative Commons Licence

Politicians in both Brussels and Westminster have taken great pains to try and brush off people’s many concerns about the toxic trade deal being pushed through by the EU and the United States.

An exciting new front is emerging in the battle against TTIP, harnessing the energy of grassroots groups to push opposition to the corporate power grab up the political food chain via the power of local councils. In Britain and across Europe, TTIP Free Zones are popping up like people-power mushrooms.

On the one hand, it may be seen as a symbolic gesture to get your local council to declare itself a TTIP Free Zone - after all, these councils don’t have a direct say in whether or not the deal would be passed. But there is a real political value in creating pressure in this manner – it’s a powerful expression of grassroots opposition that MPs and MEPs might otherwise not be exposed to.

But TTIP Free Zones are equally important as a means of promoting an understanding the impact TTIP would have on the powers of local councils. TTIP could also affect existing powers granted to local authorities such as planning. The decision of Lancashire County Council to deny planning permission for fracking in the local area is the sort of decision that would be harder to make under TTIP – first because such a decision could be challenged under ISDS, and second because of the pressure to ‘harmonize’ energy regulations.    

The provision of local public services and procurement could also be affected. Current EU rules allow for environmental and social considerations in awarding contracts. For example, local governments can decide to buy only fairtrade or organic produce. Local authorities are also allowed to ensure that procurement benefits small and medium-sized businesses in the area – for instance a number of cities, including Manchester and Glasgow, have become Sustainable Food Cities, and are trying to use more locally sourced, sustainable food in the public sector.

This could all be threatened under TTIP because the European Commission, keen to access US local markets by getting rid of 'Buy America' schemes across the Atlantic, has said it wants TTIP to open local procurement to greater competition. This means that procurement could be constrained far more by price alone – giving US multinationals more access to markets at the expense of the local economy and the environment. Official EU estimates are that TTIP will induce a 25-50% liberalization of government procurement.

So it’s not surprising that in a short space of time, 19 local councils across Britain have, to some extent, declared themselves TTIP Free Zones, including Sheffield, Glasgow and Bradford city councils. Chas Booth, a Green Party councillor for Leith, Edinburgh, which is one of those 19 councils, said:

'In Edinburgh, we are proud of initiatives such as the Edinburgh Guarantee which aims to ensure employment or training for school leavers. Likewise, the Edible Edinburgh initiative aims to encourage local and seasonal food. These are just two of the possible targets from corporate lawyers if TTIP goes through unchallenged.'

And it’s not just Britain. In Austria, Germany, France and Belgium there are significant numbers of TTIP Free Zones being declared by local authorities. When negotiators in Brussels leave their meetings they immediately walk out into the Brussels municipality which is itself a TTIP Free Zone. There are 39 'no TTIP' councils in Spain and a good covering in Northern Italy. This is a Europe-wide movement of local resistance to the corporate power grab that TTIP represents.

There’s still a long way to go. There’s over 400 local councils of different kinds in Britain, so there are a lot of opportunities for local groups who are concerned about TTIP to raise the issue. Fortunately, Global Justice Now has worked with Unison, the public sector union, to produce a campaign pack, consisting of briefings, posters, leaflets, badges, stickers and a sample motion for you to use in getting your local council to come on board with the TTIP Free Zone campaign. They’re free and can be ordered here.

The biggest threat of TTIP has always been to democracy – the threat that corporations could have more say about what we eat, what we wear and how we structure our societies. So it’s fitting that one of the most exciting forms of pushback happening right now is at the local democracy level, less impeded by the corporate lobbying so prevalent in Brussels and Westminster. Get in touch with your local councillors about becoming a TTIP Free Zone and let us know how you get on.

Read the briefing on local authorities and TTIP. Donate to the crowdfunding appeal to get as many TTIP Free Zone packs out to people as possible.

Kevin Smith is the press officer at Global Justice Now.

Campaigners cheer a bad week for Shell

Anti-Shell protest

Campaigners in Canada protesting proposed drilling in the Arctic. Tavis Ford under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been a bad week for Shell. On the international stage, a lawsuit from indigenous communities and environmental groups has scuppered their chances of drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic, while in London, it was announced that Shell was no longer going to be the sponsor for the 14/15 Classic Series at the Southbank Centre. Two events of a very different scale to each other, and on different sides of the world, but connected through the concept of the ‘social licence to operate’.

In order for an oil company to produce oil and transport it to the global market, it needs either the support or the silence of the population in those areas of the world where this takes place. Where the necessary support – or ‘social licence to operate’ – is not forthcoming, the ability of that company to carry out its business becomes seriously impaired.

The building of this social licence takes place to some extent in the countries of the distant oil fields, but to a far greater degree in the cities of the Global North, such as London. BP and Shell have between them sponsored almost all of London’s most prestigious museums and cultural institutions over the course of the last decade. Shell wasn’t sponsoring classical music at the Southbank because it was a benevolent patron of the arts; it was doing so as an integral part of its business strategy in attempting to carry out controversial, risky drilling places like the Arctic.

Pressure has intensified on the Southbank Centre in the last year over its dubious relationship with Shell. The Shell Out Sounds choir conducted creative interventions, performing ‘harmonic disobedience’ at Shell-sponsored events. When anti-fracking activist Yoko Ono curated the Southbank's Meltdown festival in June, campaigning group Platform highlighted Shell’s global fracking plans. Margaret Atwood raised the issue during her talk there. And on the 18th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, a number of artists who had performed or lectured at the Centre, including Mark Rylance and Helon Habila, signed a public letter calling for Shell to be dropped as a sponsor.

Ken Saro-Wiwa remains a particularly resonant figure in the face of the environmental devastation and social injustice caused by Shell. While Shell seems keen to spend money on cultural sponsorship in cities like London, it has yet to start paying the $1 billion that a UNEP report in 2011 stipulated is needed as an initial sum to start cleaning up Ogoniland in the Niger Delta after five decades of pollution. As Celestine AkpoBari from Social Action in Nigeria said in 2013, ‘The arts sponsorship that Shell is giving out is blood money, because people in Nigeria are suffering and even dying as a result of Shell’s operations.’

There’s a lot of work still to do in preventing the British cultural sector from being exploited by oil companies. This particular arrangement between Shell and the Southbank Centre may no longer be happening, but there’s a need for arts institutions to develop ethical funding policies that explicitly exclude oil money in the way that they might do about tobacco money. And BP’s five-year sponsorship cycle with Tate, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House will be up for renewal in 2016.

Disrupting the sponsorship relationships with arts institutions will not on its own prevent the destructive practices of oil companies, but it is an important step in both stigmatizing them and undermining their powerbase, which in turn strengthens the hand of other campaigns and social movements going up against them. The Southbank Centre has a real opportunity to show leadership in being one of the first of the major cultural institutions to explicitly turn its back on oil money made from trashing the climate and devastating communities.

Platform's interactive timeline shows the activities leading up to the Southbank decision:

Kevin Smith works for Platform London. Follow Platform on Twitter.

Tate faces members’ revolt over BP


Liberate Tate: Human Cost, Tate Britain, June 2011. Photo: Immo Klink.

Tensions ran high at the Tate Modern on Friday 7 December. At the members’ AGM, the Tate Members Council and Director Nick Serota were met with yet another barrage of criticism over their longstanding sponsorship arrangement with controversial oil giant BP.

For some time campaigners have argued that BP sponsorship is not an act of art-loving philanthropy, but a shrewd business deal contributing significantly to BP’s construction of a ‘social licence to operate’.This helps them to evade public or political pressure even though its operations involve such terrible consequences to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the last couple of years, this has driven art-activist collective Liberate Tate to use Tate gallery spaces to carry out a series of dramatic, unsolicited performance interventions that contextualize the reality of BP’s operations.

The Tate Members Council isn’t really a decision-making body, but it is there to represent the views of over 100,000 fee-paying members. It is the largest membership body of any cultural institution in Britain, generating more than £5 million ($8 million) annually. This year, some members sent a letter to the council laying out a number of concerns about the sponsorship relationship, and came along to the AGM to flag it up in person.

At the very start of the meeting, the council’s chair, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, acknowledged that space would be given to discuss the BP issue, but I don’t think he or Nick Serota or deputy head Alex Beard were expecting the tricky questions to come so thick and fast as they did, and not only from those representing the letter-writers.

Tate’s Ethics Policy states that Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when: ‘The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.’

Earlier this month, BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion settlement for criminal charges regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, on top of a number of similar court cases in recent years. Serota defended the stance, saying that BP’s operations aren’t ‘fundamentally’ criminal – but it seems like an awful lot of criminality is stacking up as part of the whole picture.

The meeting’s discussion kept returning to the sum of money that Tate is getting from BP. Despite being a public body, and having been the subject of numerous Freedom of Information requests, Tate refuses to disclose the actual sum, saying that it would be ‘harmful to commercial interests’. It seems that this might be a convenient strategy to cover up how little the sum might actually be.

The dominant discourse that Tate likes to maintain is that ‘terrible things will happen if we don’t have the BP money’ – but not disclosing the amount of money prevents any real debate from taking place about what those ‘terrible things’ may be, and whether there might be any alternatives. Under information law, the ‘commercial interest’ defence can be outweighed by the ‘public interest’ argument – so what Tate is effectively doing is prioritizing BP’s commercial interests in the sponsorship arrangement over the public’s interest in discussing how Tate could find alternatives.

At the end of 2011, BP made a sponsorship deal worth £10 million ($16 million) over five years with four different cultural institutions, including Tate. If you divided it equally, and if this is the only money that Tate is getting from BP, you’re talking about just £500,000 a year. That’s a tenth of what Tate raises from its membership scheme, prompting one woman at the AGM to exclaim, ‘is that all?’ In the 2011/12 financial year, Tate’s incoming resources were £113 million ($182 million). So this possible contribution from BP represents less than half of one per cent of Tate’s total income. Could  Tate really not accommodate a budget shortfall of less than half of one per cent?

Here are a couple of ideas for starters – how about holding a referendum among Tate members to see if people would be willing to increase their membership fee by a couple of pounds to accommodate the shortfall? Why not aggregate a bunch of smaller, but more ethical, companies to co-sponsor Tate in a co-operative fashion?

Tate seems to be making excuses for institutional inertia after having received BP money for more than 20 years. With an increasingly climate-conscious public, and the certainty of more disasters like Deepwater waiting to happen, it’s high time it took concrete steps to disentangle itself from Britain’s most controversial corporate sponsor.