Monday, May 13, 2024

A committee debut looms for a liberal bureaucrat

I did mention that I'd intended to get a bit more engaged with things this year and, whilst that has been more of an aspiration than actual activity, I have made a few steps towards achieving that.

It seemed that, having mentioned the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), someone noticed, and I was invited to become the Executive Committee member representing the East of England (the position had been vacant for a little while). And now, I have my first meeting on Thursday. The agenda doesn't look to be anything other than gentle, which allows me to hopefully ease my way in and get up to speed with what is happening.

In some ways, you kind of wonder why I haven't been more involved over the years. After all, I've been involved in the international work of the party for more than thirty-five years on and off, I've attended ALDE Party Congresses and Councils for so long, I remember when it was ELDR, and I've served on Federal International Relations Committee. Perhaps I was too busy, or minded to leave the campaigning element to someone else, but whatever the reason, I'm hoping to add a little value to the work of the group.

That might be through my links to Liberal Democrat Voice, by helping with the management of the organisation, or by building links within my Region - we'll see. It helps that I already know most of the Executive Committee, in particular Rob Harrison, who I first worked with at a meeting of the Liberal and Radical Youth Movement of the European Community (LYMEC) in Paris in 1989. Ah, memories...

So, I'd better read my papers, I guess...

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Culture to the left of me, culture to the right of me…

I do flatter myself that I am a relatively cultured soul. That is despite the minor detail that I read little fiction, go to the cinema only on rare occasions, don’t tend to visit galleries or museums when I travel and, even when I lived in London, was hardly a devotee of the city’s vibrant cultural scene.

I do, admittedly, enjoy classical music, and travel to interesting and (often) faraway places. But I’m not a participant and, for the most part, haven’t been much of an observer either. That is, until now. With our new urban existence has come opportunities to engage with the cultural scene of our county town.

We have three theatres, two of which we’ve attended in recent weeks, there is a bit of classical music - we attended a performance of Bach’s St John Passion (admittedly, I prefer the St Matthew Passion) at Easter - and, thanks almost entirely to Ros, a few launch events at The Hold, Suffolk’s quite new archives and exhibition space.

We also have Dance East, on Ipswich’s waterfront, two multiplex cinemas within walking distance of the house, the Ipswich Institute, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and the Corn Exchange with its arts cinema.

However, whereas in London there are millions of tourists to support the spectrum of arts and culture, Ipswich, and Suffolk, have to be a bit more self-reliant. In other words, if you want a diverse cultural ecosystem, you have to turn up occasionally, and hand over some cash to support those who create and perform.

A key funder of the arts in rural counties is local government, and Suffolk has been no exception. So, when budget proposals from the County Council were released, proposing to axe the entire arts grant budget, there was something of a wailing and gnashing of teeth across the sector. But, more importantly, there was a strong response from the public, sufficient to persuade the Conservative administration to row back on the idea - at least for now.

But local government finances aren’t likely to get any easier in the medium term, and thus it’s necessary to find and develop other income streams, be it through fundraising or by diversification. So, for example, Eastern Angles have their Copperfield Supporters programme, which allows you to make small(ish) regular donations to support their productions and their highly regarded outreach work, taking theatre to the smaller towns and larger villages across East Anglia.

So, I suspect that I might be attending a few more events in the coming months. I ought to get out more, I suppose…

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Feed me! The Little Shop of Horrors comes to Ipswich

I’ve worked within walking distance of the New Wolsey Theatre pretty much since I moved to Suffolk and yet, for no particular reason, I’d never been into it, let alone seen a performance (and it does apparently have a decent café). But we’d had a strong recommendation to go and see the touring production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and, as we were free last night, and tickets (although not many) were available, we thought, “why not?”. And I’m glad that we did, because we would otherwise have missed an incredibly spirited and utterly enjoyable show.

It's a joint production by the New Wolsey Theatre, the Hull Truck Theatre, the Octagon Theatre Bolton and Theatre by the Lake Keswick, and features just ten performers, including the drummer. And the advantage of the New Wolsey is that you're never going to be very far from the stage, so it feels strangely intimate.

I won't recount the plot, partly for spoiler reasons if you've never seen the film or the stage musical, but needless to say that there isn't a duff tune in it and you'll find yourself humming one or more tunes as you leave.

So, whilst you've missed your chance if you want to see it in Ipswich, you can catch it as follows:

  • 27 March to 20 April at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
  • 24 April to 18 May at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton
  • 22 May to 8 June at Hull Truck Theatre
  • 18-22 June at the Theatre Royal, Windsor
And, obviously, I'd strongly recommend it.

It reminds me that there's a strong cultural life outside of London too, something that, as a Londoner relocated to Suffolk, it can be easy to be sniffy about.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

SALC Mid Suffolk meets - some thoughts from your host...

One of my less onerous responsibilities is being Chair of the Mid Suffolk South branch of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. Let's rephrase that. The chairing is easy, although the rest of the role is quite responsible, intellectually challenging and engages my intellect in a way that I might not have expected at the outset.

My primary function as Chair is to manage/lead two out of the four branch forums which take place each year - the Chair of the Mid Suffolk North branch, Julie Bell, deals with the others - and tonight was my turn.

We had a guest speaker from Suffolk County Council, Matthew Ling, who gave us a quick whirl through the details of the new Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Fund, which is intended to establish on-street vehicle charging points, something badly needed in urban streets where off-street parking doesn't exist, and in villages, where it might not be easy to install personal charging points. There's quite a lot of money available (approximately £7 million) but, if you're going to motivate people to switch from petrol and diesel to electric, making it easier to charge up the vehicle is going to be key.

As a non-driver, I hadn't realised the scale of the price differential between charging at home, using an overnight tariff, compared to the cost of charging elsewhere, and with the proposed new charging points priced somewhere between fast charger points at supermarkets or service stations and the domestic cost, it will hopefully make the switch to electric a little more inviting.

There followed an enlightening discussion, with a series of really good questions emerging from those in attendance, and an offer from our colleague in Coddenham to find out more about what they're doing there. It's a sign of the times that Parish Councils are getting involved in such projects, but good news for rural residents.

We had a brief discussion about community engagement, and there are some emerging themes. There's a sense that we don't always use our websites as effectively as we might, and with new housing being built in so many villages, engaging with the new residents, who might not know much about what we do, active outreach is key. There is, on the positive side, increasing use of social media, although it takes time to build up followers and establish an exchange between residents and council.

Not unexpectedly, highways issues, including potholes and flooding, were raised during our information exchange. It's clear that whilst there is a lot of work that needs doing, and very little in the way of funding to do it, bringing communities together to focus on shared issues is a potential way forward and makes our voices louder. I'm not an optimist, but perhaps if we could focus on some of the key routes, we might at least mitigate the worst problems.

I flagged up the increasing pressure to move towards having websites and e-mail addresses for town and parish councils - we can expect to see comments in our internal audit reports this year - noting that there is funding available to support the transition. I also pre-announced the launch of a new NALC network focussing on micro-parishes, something I'm ever so slightly proud of given that I've lobbied hard for it.

Our Chief Executive, Sally Longmate, gave us a brief whirl through what SALC itself is up to, and I was able to bring the meeting to a close almost on the dot of the predicted finish time, which was nice.

Our next meeting is on 4 June, and it'll be Julie's turn to chair, so I can relax just a little...

Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Conference speech I didn’t get to make

In all honesty, the prospects for being called to speak in a forty minute debate on the crisis in local government finance were always pretty slim, especially in a Party whose strength in local government is very much on the up. But, given that I’d prepared a short intervention, and that nobody really touched upon the aspect I was going to, here it is…

Good morning, Conference, from one of the more unlikely Cinderellas you’ll ever encounter. I’m here to remind my fellow Liberal Democrats of the bit of local government overlooked by the motion in front of you today.

For those of you whose knowledge of parish councils is perhaps limited to Jackie Weaver and the Vicar of Dibley, there are nearly 10,000 town and parish councils across England, ranging in size from Salisbury City Council (which will spend approximately £7.5 million in this fiscal year) to my own Creeting St Peter, with its rather more modest budget. They are led and run by 100,000 mostly unpaid volunteer councillors, spending more than £1 billion per annum.

And the anaconda-like squeeze on local government finance impacts on us too.

The amount we spend is growing fast, as our sector attempts to absorb some of the non-statutory services that hard pressed principal authorities are having to divest or abandon. We aren’t capped in terms of precept rises, which offers obvious opportunities and challenges. But because we are often hyper-local, deeply embedded in our communities, raising funds through precept rises is uncomfortable.

To take on those services that principal authorities cannot fund, and that our residents value, we’re having to gain new skills, professionalise as councillors, access new funding sources. As an example, parish and town councils are now able to apply for funding through the Community Ownership Fund, following a lobbying campaign led by Baroness Ros Scott in her capacity as Honorary President of the National Association of Local Councils.

We perform our role with little help - unlike the LGA, the National Association of Local Councils gets no financial support from central government - and often have a sense that principal authorities aren’t very keen on us.

So, Conference, when you vote overwhelmingly in support of this motion, as I dearly hope you will, please don’t forget about us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Ipswich's Jewish community

Having touched upon the subject of the Jewish community in Ipswich yesterday, and given that I've been studying the history of Ipswich at the Ipswich Institute for the past ten weeks or so, I thought that I ought to find out a bit more about the history of Judaism in the town, given the prominence of Ipswich as a trading hub in medieval times.

And sure enough, Ipswich has had a Jewish community at various points in the past, dating back to at least the twelfth century, during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). But the initial community didn't last - there was a pogrom in Bury St Edmunds in 1190, with the survivors expelled - and was gone by 1290 as part of Edward I's expulsion of the entire Jewish population of England.

It was not until 1730 that a Jewish congregation was again to be found in Ipswich, and they met in a room in St Clement's until they were able to gather the funds to build a synagogue in Rope Walk, which opened for use in 1795. There must have been a decent-sized population, or at least the expectation of one, because it was designed to seat "no more than a hundred persons". There was a cemetery too, a little distance away off Fore Street, which is still there.

However, by the 1860s, the synagogue had fallen out of use, and was demolished in 1877, leaving no trace that I can ascertain, and I can't easily find an image of it anywhere. The Jewish community continued to fade away, with apparently only three Jewish residents of the town remained in 1895. But the cemetery remained, with its walls preserved, and when there wasn't a Jewish community left to look after it, it was maintained by the business which occupied the remainder of the site, R & W Pauls Ltd.

The cemetery is now maintained by the growing Jewish community in the area, and the walls are Grade II listed, which should help to protect the site for future generations.

For the time being, there isn't an Ipswich Jewish community as such, but there is the Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, which describes itself as "a small collection of people living in Suffolk and surrounding areas, who have a shared interest in meeting other Jewish people and pursuing Jewish matters". Given that Ipswich now has a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara and a mosque, perhaps there will be a place for Jews to gather once again before very long.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Learning something new about blue octopi

In apologising for attacking an innocent student on X, Baroness Foster introduced me to a concept that I had previously been utterly unaware of, that a blue octopus is a known antisemitic trope.

Now, I have to admit that, as a non-practicing Catholic, living in the county town of rural Suffolk with its very small Jewish population (there is a Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, formed comparatively recently), this might well have passed me by. I did attend synagogue for a number of years, and perhaps it came up and I forgot about it. But one of the things about Ipswich is that we have a very prominent blue octopus, Digby, the litter picking octopus.

He's a bit of a thing here. You'll find him on street sweeping machines, on dustbins, and most obviously of all, on the wall of the old R & W Paul Ltd building at St Peter's Dock.

And it's not a recent thing, he's been there for more than a decade. He's so renowned in the town that, when they refurbished the children's playground in Holywells Park, they included a Digby the Octopus seesaw.

Now I may have views about the competence (or otherwise) of Ipswich Borough Council, but I don't think that they, or the people of Ipswich generally, are antisemitic. Sometimes, a blue octopus is just something funny and amusing, rather than sinister and offensive. And perhaps, just perhaps, Baroness Foster may have learned that it is better to check first rather than display her evident prejudices on social media.