Saturday, June 06, 2020

Creeting St Peter - dreaming about local government finance?

One of the personal advantages of the pandemic is that, as I’m working from home, I have rather more time to think - the eight hours or so I would usually spend commuting are mine to enjoy, for the time being. Now, I acknowledge, that isn’t necessarily an entirely good thing, because it does tend to lead me to think of things that I might do. However, given that life is usually quite hectic on Planet Bureaucrat, it is nice to have some relative downtime.

But, simultaneously, I don’t have anywhere near as many responsibilities as I might have done in the past. As part of the ongoing process of tapered withdrawal from anything other than local Liberal Democracy, my activity is more focused and less burdensome - I do things that I want to do, rather than those that other people would like me to do for them. Thus, the things that I ought to, or might, dedicate more time to are fewer.

The biggest one, or at least, the role with widest significance, is Creeting St Peter Parish Council, which I have the astonishing privilege of chairing. It isn’t an obviously onerous job, although I probably spend more time on it than I tend to suspect. And I’m moved to dwell on what it is that I, and we, do.

We are, in local government terms, well resourced relative to our activity. We have a clutch of ring-fenced funds which are intended to support various aspects of village life, and healthy levels of reserves - probably healthy enough not to require further bolstering. That said, financial management is light touch - we don’t meddle, and don’t have a philosophical stance on capital expenditure excepting that we understand that you have to spread its cost rather than simply spend as issues arise. We are, I should emphasise, highly rated by our auditors in terms of record keeping, due diligence and transparency.

So, the question is, what might we do better? That takes me back to a point that one of our councillors raised last year when we considered this year’s budget - should we maintain, increase or, whisper it quietly, reduce the precept given the health of our finances?

But you know how it is, life intervenes, and you “park” the idea at the back of your mind, fully intending to act upon the thought at some point. And then, that point never really arrives. It’s a bit like that e-mail you get that you think, “I really must read that at some point, it looks really interesting.”, and then find in a pending folder six months later, long after the information stopped being useful.

And now, I suddenly, at least theoretically, find myself with some time. So, I’ve decided to look at our ring-fenced funds, to see what we might to with or about them. There are opportunities to clarify functions, increase participation and, perhaps most importantly, do some good.

Wish me luck. I may be gone some time...

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a tricky planning application lands...

One of the joys of Parish Council life is our status as a statutory consultee when it comes to planning applications. Admittedly, some of them are pretty straightforward, for example the recent application from Muntons, the local malt business, who wanted to build a new staff car park. Given that you couldn’t see the site because it’s hidden from view by... a bloody great malt factory... there didn’t seem to be much for an issue.

However, a proposal last year to knock down a house in the centre of the village and replace it with five “executive homes”, leaving scope to extend the development into a neighbouring meadow, went down rather badly. Unfortunately the applicant failed to make any effort to consult, and their application drew a justifiably hostile response from the owners of neighbouring properties.

Indeed, nobody seemed to much like it, as it extended beyond the village’s planning envelope as laid down on the District Council’s Local Plan, thus potentially setting a troubling precedent. Highways didn’t like it, and it was rather emphatically turned down by Mid Suffolk District Council on the basis that it breached a large swathe of their planning policies.

Eventually, I was asked by the applicant for a meeting, in my capacity as Chair of the Parish Council. That made me nervous, as I prefer transparency, so I offered him an opportunity to present to a Parish Council meeting, should he wish to proceed with a revised application, an offer which was taken up.

It would be fair to say that the meeting which followed was... lively. It was, at least, mostly amicable, although tempers did occasionally flare. The views of the citizenry were made clear to the applicant and his planning consultant, and there was a sense that the message had gotten across.

Two weeks ago, a revised planning application was notified to the Parish Council. Five executive homes had become four bungalows, access to the meadow was now removed, and there was a sense that, whilst the unhappiness at the prospect of new housing remained, there had been an attempt to respond to some of the concerns.

There are a number of remaining problems, however;
  • the development still extends well beyond the village’s planning envelope - would approval offer an opportunity to others to do likewise?
  • the status of the village, defined by Mid Suffolk District Council as “countryside”, indicates that no new housing is permitted
  • The absence of any facilities - shop, school, public transport - mean that new residents would be obliged to drive, contrary to policy encouraging environmentally-friendly means of travel
None of these have really been addressed by the new proposals, other than in effectively wishing them away.

And so, we held our first virtual Parish Council meeting to discuss it, inviting those residents that we could reach via social media - which is a surprisingly large number. Concerns were noted and recorded, the District Council planning guidance referred to, and civility prevailed.

Our Vice-Chair was prevailed upon to draft our reply, and life moved on. And then, Suffolk Highways intervened.

They noted that the access to the road was partly-owned by a third party, i.e. one of the neighbours, and that the access road itself wasn’t wide enough, and didn’t have a footway. Cue men with tape measures. Now, admittedly, there is an issue over access, and this does complicate matters somewhat, so we’ll see whether or not any alterations can be made to remedy this.

Ultimately, however, the rejection of the original application included the following;
The proposed development would be more than 2km from the nearest services in Stowupland and Stowmarket, resulting in the likely reliance on private motor vehicle use and increase in traffic, less integrated communities leading to poor social cohesion and failure to take opportunities to design for functional communities. There is insufficient access to public transport alternatives available within short walking distance from the site to otherwise outweigh other considerations of the location and poor access to services outlined. In conclusion with consideration of the above, the NPPF states that decision- taking authorities should approve development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay, actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus significant development in locations which are or can be made sustainable. 
As such it is considered that the proposal represents unsustainable development, contrary to the NPPF. In all circumstances the LPA is of the opinion that no residential development would be supported on this site. 
This new proposal doesn’t address this core issue, and I suspect that, whilst any other issues may be an obstacle, this particular difficulty might well prove to be Himalayan.

And so, we’ll see how it goes. Or not, as the case may be...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Creeting St Peter - a Chair suspects...

Two years ago, I was the victim of what I might best describe as a genteel ambush, and became Chair of our Parish Council. Let’s be frank here, and note that we’re not talking about an empire here - our annual precept is just over £5,000, and the population for which I am theoretically in charge of is comfortably under 300. But, regardless, it is a responsibility that I take seriously.

The idea, I was informed, was that I would do two years and pass the role onto my Vice-Chair. And, I will admit, I was perfectly relaxed about that - power is not to be hoarded, it is to be shared, devolved. That said, I’d enjoyed my two years, and had found an unexpected niche in village life.

Annual Meetings take place in April or May usually, and we generally combine the two into one evening, the Annual Parish Meeting first, where various local worthies, the Parish Council Chair included, submit reports for consideration by Parish residents. There then follows the Annual Meeting of the Parish Council, where we elect officers and, if appropriate, sign documents.

Coronavirus put a stop to that, however, leaving us the question of what to do with the leadership of the Council. It was quickly decided that I should carry on for another year which either means that nobody else wants the job, or that I’m performing adequately. Of course, both could be equally true...

It would be fair to say that I’m not a radical Chair. I like short meetings, but encourage participation, maintain a reasonably tight grasp on procedure but am not fixated by it, and recognise the efforts of my colleagues, our Clerk and our residents. That doesn’t sound like rocket science, and it isn’t, but I see my role as being one of listening to people’s concerns, reflecting on what might be done, and using the tools available to us to achieve things.

Walking around the village as part of my 10,000 steps a day habit doesn’t hurt either, especially during the spring and summer when people are out and about. Admittedly, it does mean that a walk tends to take longer than it might otherwise do sometimes, but I learn a lot from the conversations I have.

And, of course, I have access to the incredible knowledge and experience of Ros, who has probably forgotten more about local government than I will ever know. Any rash notions I might have are usually tempered by a few words of wisdom from her, which makes me a better Chair.

So, another year starts, albeit under rather strange circumstances. We’ve held our first virtual meeting to deal with another controversial planning application and some financial management issues, and that seemed to go well enough. The leaflet that we circulated around the Parish with contact details in the event that anyone needed help has led to a couple of requests that have been taken care of, which is nice, although most people here are either wholly self-sufficient or have neighbours or nearby family who are looking after them.

And I really ought to write an annual report for circulation, I guess. I might leave out any reference to the absence of a plague of frogs this year - can’t be too careful...

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Matt Hancock tells me that I have a civic duty to follow the instructions. There's a word for that sort of person...

Look, let's be honest, I have no desire to catch COVID-19. Likewise, as someone who believes that community is important, I don't want to spread it either. I have responsibilities, as a public servant and as the Chair of my Parish Council, and should set an example. And so, I will.

But I will say this, it sticks in my throat that someone who is giving me instructions is, simultaneously, defending the right of the Prime Minister's senior advisor to disregard them as he sees fit.

And yes, you might reasonably say, I would be less than entirely friendly towards the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I'm not a supporter of his party. On the other hand, I do talk to my neighbours who, for the most part aren't terribly party political. And their responses have been interesting, in that there is genuine unhappiness about Dominic Cummings - "one law for them, another for us" is the general (unbidden) response.

The good news is that his stupidity and lack of integrity isn't likely to change people's behaviour here at least - we're a cautious bunch for the most part. And, in truth, given that public opinion has rather led the Government rather than the reverse, perhaps that doesn't come as a surprise. But what it does mean is that people will have an excuse if they're asked by Matt and his mates to do something that they aren't enthusiastic about.

And what will the Government do if parents decide that they'd rather not send the children back to school in the absence of clarity over their safety there, or if people choose not to comply with the instructions of contact tracers? That's when the loss of moral authority bites, and with it the ability to persuade. Loyalty is a two-way street.

The public don't like hypocrisy, and they certainly don't like being treated as fools. And whilst the issue of Dominic Cummings' job security might blow over, especially given how desperately senior members of the Cabinet are trying to defend him, observers of the 1992-97 Major Government will remember what happens when the public first lose respect for, and then start laughing at, an administration.

And so, I will comply for now, for the sake of my family, my friends, my neighbours and my community. But I will not forget, or forgive, those who made it clear how little respect they had for our sacrifices.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

A heady social whirl in Creeting St Peter

In truth, being locked down in the Creetings is not quite the same as being locked down in a town or city. Yes, we adhere to the “one outing for exercise” rule, and go shopping once a day only, but as most of us don’t shop daily anyway, and the village is surrounded by fields laced with empty public footpaths, it isn’t quite as onerous as it is for some. I’ve managed to keep up with my 10,000 steps each day - it allows me to check the Parish footpaths to see what condition they’re in - and we’re lucky enough to have benefitted from some creative thinking on the part of local food producers, so we’re eating well.

But it is nice to interact with the neighbours from time to time, and whilst one runs into people on the daily walk - maintaining proper distancing, naturally - the opportunity for a chat is limited. And so, the news that an online quiz night was to be organised was a pleasant surprise.

We’ve had the odd quiz night amongst the village pub evenings, but Ros and I hadn’t attended too many of late due to other commitments, so it was a nice to be able to take part via the medium of Google Meet. I’ll say this for the lockdown, I’ve learned more about video meeting software than I ever thought likely.

Each team was able to set a round of ten questions, and these ran the gamut of Suffolk music, Creeting St Peter, geography, musicals, food, Harry Potter and, our offer, politics, courtesy of Ros, amongst others. And it was pretty competitive too, with the lead changing hands regularly.

There were at least three rounds where Ros and I would have happily “phoned a friend”, but we managed a respectable third place finish, which I’d have been happy with at the beginning of the night.

There's talk of a virtual pub night next...

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Leadership delayed - and that's why being Party President is difficult...

I see that the Party President has run into a mild storm - see, I can do understated - over the decisions to a) postpone the leadership election until next summer, and b) suggest that Autumn Conference might not take place, at least not as a physical event.

It is, perhaps, a demonstration that winning the job is sometimes easier than doing it.

Being Party President does often mean doing things that annoy/upset/distress/anger people. Mind you, not agreeing with the unreasonable and unrealistic demands of some is sufficient in itself to attract ordure if you're nominally in charge. Occasionally though, it is enough, when offered a gun, to demur from pointing it at your foot and pulling the trigger. And I can't help feeling that postponing the leadership election so drastically is one of those decisions that will rumble on for a while.

In truth, I have no fundamental objection to Ed Davey as Leader. I voted for him over Jo Swinson, although I had no problem with her winning. But leaving someone in an interim position for so long offers its own risks.

I used to manage internal recruitment schemes, and one of our golden rules was that a temporary promotion shouldn't last more than six months without damned good cause - it undermined any open competition for the permanent vacancy that might follow. That was especially true if the temporary vacancy had not been filled competitively.

We also have declared contenders for the post - Wera Hobhouse and Layla Moran have already publicly declared - and whilst I have no doubt about their loyalty both to the Party and to Ed, their every utterance will be parsed by some, including a normally unfriendly media, for dissent.

Yes, running a leadership election offers certain challenges under current conditions, and I know that there are some who enjoy a good hustings - I even chaired the first Clegg vs Huhne event in 2007 - but in truth, the artificiality of hustings do little to change people's minds and very few people will actually attend them relative to the size of the electorate. Indeed, it is my increasing suspicion that the resources lavished on them would be better used on personal contacts.

There is an opportunity to explore new ways of engaging with members, to experiment with new media, in short, to do things differently. And yes, that will take a little time, but perhaps we should allow the ingenuity of liberals some freedom.

On the other hand, there are some human factors to be considered. Being the Leader is difficult, demanding, and to have uncertainty hard-wired into the mix by having an indefinite term is unhelpful to say the least. Ed is owed that much for, regardless of whether or not you think he should be the Leader, he is a decent man, doing a decent job.

So, I would have gone for a three or six month postponement, with a review option for extension by agreement of the Federal Board and Ed. That way, you offer potential candidates a degree of certainty and, should the decision be taken to have a contest, time to organise their campaigns.

But, of course, hindsight is 20:20, I'm not privy to the information upon which the decision was based, and it is entirely possible that the decision is fully justified. I'd need convincing though...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats have a new Secretary...

So, the absence from frontline politics lasted less than a fortnight before I found myself a new project, that of my own dear Local Party.

In fairness, I had made a promise to take over as Secretary, as our previous Secretary had served six years in the role and was keen to hand it on. Admittedly, she and I had made it a personal bargain, so much so that, at Thursday's AGM, it required drawing the attention of the Chair to the fact that it wasn't simply a case of re-electing the incumbent. And so, I have a new job.

One of my first tasks is to establish what our Local Party Constitution looks like, which isn't necessarily the simple task it sounds. The Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats only came into existence on 1 January 2014, following a reorganisation of the County's Local Parties from Parliamentary boundaries to District/Borough boundaries. Ros and I may have had something to do with that...

There are two places where the Constitution should be;
  • The Regional Party - a copy of the Constitution should be lodged with the Regional Secretary after each adoption/revision. Admittedly, that doesn't always happen...
  • The Local Party Secretary - if they were handed one by their predecessor...
In our case, a copy turned out to have been held by our former Agent. It isn't entirely clear that what he held was actually adopted in that form, but we'll see. It can always be readopted at the next Annual General Meeting to ensure peace of mind...

Another task is to establish who is actually on the Executive Committee. Thus far, some people who probably think that they are on the Committee don't appear to be, which may lead to fun and games.

And, finally, I'm trying to create a directory for the Local Party, in the first instance for my own use, so that I know who to contact as and when, but perhaps for wider circulation if it appears to be of value.

So, I have my role, and an outline plan for delivery. Let bureaucracy commence...