Monday, November 23, 2020

Another public sector pay freeze or, for many, a continuation of the last one...

This week’s briefing that another public sector pay freeze is under consideration is going to prove to be a serious blow to morale. And yes, I get that, as a Government, you feel that you want to be setting an example for the rest of the economy. But, as I’ve noted in the past, the cost of bad governance far exceeds the price you pay to attract and retain quality staff.

Yes, the economy is going to take a hit, but it is already evident that, especially in more technical areas of the Civil Service, we just aren’t competitive in terms of pay and conditions, even allowing for an increasingly non-gold plated pension scheme. And recruiting people to fill the gaps left by people who you recently recruited and couldn’t retain is a very expensive thing to do - the initial cost of training and low productivity in the early years of employment is thus repeated over and over again.

And the comparison between earnings of public and private sector employees is increasingly distorted by the fact that most low-paid public sector employees have either been made superfluous by technology, or contracted out to the private sector. Thus, the average increases whilst the rate of individual pay falls in real terms.

And, at the same time, whilst Ministers bewail the fact that civil servants are less innovative, they entirely overlook the point that the mid-range civil servant is earning 15% less in real terms than he or she did a decade ago, and thus the temptation to seek pastures new is that much greater for the ambitious and those whose skills are in demand in the private sector. You can’t, as Margaret Thatcher said, buck the market.

I’m a minor bureaucrat in a technical field somewhat sought after in the outside world, and I know that my equivalent in the private sector is earning considerably more than I am. Luckily for everyone concerned, I’m nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I’m mortgage free and have no big financial commitments. In short, finances are not particularly pressing.

Now look at it from the perspective of a colleague in their mid-twenties. They’ve probably got student loans to pay off, they would like to find somewhere to settle down, someone to settle down with, and might want to raise a family. They have a choice - earn a salary which isn’t competitive, is becoming less so each year, and will possibly never allow them to have the sort of life we are encouraged to aspire to, or work in the private sector, with an element of vulnerability, but with enough extra income to probably have a decent lifestyle. It isn’t a difficult choice, when you think about it.

It is a difficult choice if you’re trying to run an efficient organisation, a Brilliant Civil Service, if you will. If you can’t recruit and retain the best and the brightest, you limit the aspirations you might have. You need to reduce the scope for error by process-mapping decision making because those who might be able to apply legislation imaginatively but properly are less likely to be a part of your workforce. You end up with “the computer says no” administration - unimaginative, unable to innovate, likely to make choices which are legally sound but contrary to Parliamentary intent.

And that’s how you end up with Windrush, the Grenfell Tower, Baby P. Everyone did what they were required to do, yet the outcomes were catastrophic. Nobody was able, or willing to say, “hang on, if we do this, the consequences might be injurious, and this is why.”, and be taken seriously.

At the other end of the organisation, a lot of older colleagues have strained sinews during the pandemic, keeping the show on the road, enabling the Government to support the economy. The sense of gratitude engendered by then cutting their pay (again) might be difficult to locate, and given that it will impact negatively on their eventual pension too, they may (will, in truth) decide to retire earlier than might otherwise have been the case. I’ve got colleagues who retired with a pension representing 50% of their then salary who are now catching me up year on year in actual terms, not just real ones. It doesn’t go unnoticed...

So, if there are any Government ministers reading this (admittedly highly unlikely), might I politely suggest that you think long and hard before freezing public sector pay again, and not just about the short term impact. And, if you think it’s the right, or only, thing to do, then go ahead. But don’t then complain about the quality of the advice you get or of the implementation of your policies - there is a correlation between the value you place upon something and what you’re willing to pay for it.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

It’s been twelve years, but a President-elect’s promise has been kept...

Twelve years ago, Ros was declared the new President of the Liberal Democrats in what was a bit of a landslide - 72% in a three-cornered contest can, I think, be fairly reasonably described as such. In her acceptance speech, she promised me a kitten, the cause of some amusement.

We did still have cats at this point, however, and the time never really came right to get more of them. You know how it is, life is busy, we travel a lot, and leaving cats alone for much of the day seems a bit unfair. But the pandemic changed that - I now work from home, and am likely to do so to some extent even after the pandemic recedes. And that means that the “excuse” for not having cats has also receded somewhat.

And so, kittens. Two of them, to be precise, obtained from a cat rescue centre in mid-Norfolk which Ros had spotted in the Eastern Daily Press. They were, coincidentally, in need of homes for a number of kittens and it was a case of right place, right time. We’d been up to Mattishall a few weeks ago, been approved as appropriate cat owners and were asked to wait whilst the kittens were weaned, vaccinated and prepared for their new life.

Accordingly, last Sunday, we drove back up the A140 in the pouring rain, equipped with a newly purchased cat carrier, to collect the little monsters adorable creatures, and then brought them home, mewling most of the way.

They settled well, exploring the living room, where we had chosen to confine them on their first day so that they might slowly acclimatise themselves to their new home, and using the litter tray that we had bought for them - they came litter trained, thankfully. And, reassuringly, they were very “people friendly” from the outset, sitting on us, purring, and all the behaviours you might hope for.

Naming them was a bit of a challenge, especially as we weren’t sure whether they were male or female when we picked them - they’re both male as it turned out. But, after some discussion, we settled upon something topical, calling them Penn and George, after two of the key states in the recent American elections.

Penn is almost entirely black, with a small wisp of white fur across his chest, whilst George is black and white, albeit mostly black. We’ve expanded their area of operation to the kitchen and conservatory, and eventually, once they’ve been neutered, they’ll be allowed outside - the lucky devils get to miss the worst of an English winter.

They’ve got toys, an occasional box to play with, a scratching post/tower to lie on, destroy and otherwise torture, and seem to spend much of their time asleep or lying on one or other of us. So far, so good...

There is something of an irony, in that whilst the kittens are twelve years late, Ros is still President... albeit of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors rather than the Liberal Democrats, but a President is a President for all that.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a kitten on my shoulder which needs my utmost attention...

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

October 2020 - Parish Councillor report

October was a busy month in the life of this Parish Councillor, dominated by two things - Gateway 14 and something more personal.

Two meetings with the developers managing the Gateway 14 project took place virtually, one for the Parish Council, the other for village residents. Each had its own flavour, the first being slightly more formal, as befits a statutory consultee, the other more freeform.

As I noted after the first meeting, I'm of the view that Jaynic are a serious operator and, regardless of whether they are genuine in their intention to take our concerns into serious consideration or not, they have at least responded to concerns raised - this is no "fly by night" proposition. And, in many ways, they are the messengers, in so much as they are operating within a brief outlined by the District Council.

What concerns me more is whether or not the District Council is accountable in any meaningful way, because we need to know who, ultimately, makes the decisions, so that we can most effectively seek changes where we need them, and benefits where we can obtain them. And, in that sense, it is a bit of a David versus Goliath scenario, in that they have the size and power, and we have to rely on our wits and intelligence. But, a campaign group, independent of the Parish Council, has emerged, and I look forward to working with them in the best interests of our community.

On a personal note, I appear to have been the beneficiary of a rapid double promotion in the world of third tier local government, having started the month anticipating life as a new member of the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. By the end of the first day, I was the county's representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

Since then, I've attended NALC's AGM, which was interesting but not of immense relevance to our village (yet), and gotten up to speed with some of our key priorities as a County Association. NALC is our main route through which to lobby Parliament and the Government on issues that affect communities like this, and to enable us to do more, more effectively and with greater accountability.

What doesn't change, however, is my focus on Creeting St Peter. As Chair of our Parish Council, I have little, if any, power. What I can do is lobby on behalf of the village, use my contacts to argue our needs and priorities, and ensure, with my fellow councillors that we use what resources we have most efficiently.

Parish Council meets again on 16 November, with Gateway 14 and our draft budget for 2021/22 at the heart of the agenda. It's going to be another challenging month, I suspect...

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Meanwhile, a bit further down the Gipping Valley

One of the borders of Creeting St Peter is the River Gipping, which flows in a south-south easterly direction towards Ipswich where it mysteriously becomes the Orwell. Once upon a time, it was a major trade artery for mid-Suffolk, eventually being "improved" to form the Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation in 1793.

It was, apparently, a profitable enterprise for about fifty years, with agricultural produce heading south, and coal and other heavy goods heading the other way. And then the railway came...

Nowadays, the river is seldom more than a foot deep, and most of the infrastructure is in poor condition. Fortunately, the River Gipping Trust has stepped up to restore it, with a long-term goal of restoring the navigation between Ipswich and Stowmarket. There is a public footpath between the two towns which follows the river, which makes a pleasant walk on a dry day.

The catch is that the Trust is very much a volunteer-led operation, and money is short for anything much more than maintenance. Their latest project is to restore a bridge near Baylham, which would allow walkers to follow the intended route, rather than having to hug the railway line, and they need £25,000 to finance this.

It helps, we're told, to have support from the local community when pursuing grant opportunities and, accordingly, I've written a letter on behalf of the Parish Council, indicating how valued their efforts are, even if we can't offer financial support ourselves.

But, if you have something to spare, and you want to support a good cause, here's the link to their fundraising page.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Standards in Public Life - is there any hope left?

Courtesy of NALC, I've received notification that The Committee on Standards in Public Life is carrying out a
landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct.

The cynics amongst us might suggest that the only way to ensure high standards of conduct in some quarters would require an electric cattle prod, especially given the increasing tendency for some politicians to simply lie on the basis that, if you lie with sufficient conviction and consistency, enough people will fall for it, or want to believe it, you can win. And, you might argue, the Brexit referendum proved that they might have a point.

Let's not get carried away though, there were some ludicrously outlandish things said by some of those campaigning to remain. On the whole, though, it required some pretty heroic assumptions for most of the promises by Leave campaigners to come close to accuracy.

I have to admit that my concerns are not really about the institutions, processes and structures, however. Mine are about consequences and punishments. The rewards for breaking the written and unwritten rules of behaviour in public life now far exceed the potential punishments and thus create an incentive to bend and even break those rules. There seems to be an increasing acceptance that the ends justify the means, whereby if you win, your side will cry justification of the tactics even if they would condemn anyone else behaving similarly.

The public and the media don't help themselves either. If you believe that those in public life should adhere to certain standards, that involves calling out those who fall short and withholding your vote from those who deliberately err.

And the problem with all of this is that it leads to politics like those of the United States, where no lie is too great, no slander too outlandish, and polarisation is almost complete. As a Liberal Democrat, that offers particular dangers, but regardless of your party politics, you should be concerned if large minorities oppose each other with little common ground.

The politics of change requires either a degree of consensus or dictatorial power. At the moment, in an era of Brexit and culture wars, we appear not to have much consensus, and whilst I still don't believe that the Conservatives believe in a one-party state, their behaviour points towards sleep-walking towards one, as they undermine key pillars of liberal democracy.

An independent Civil Service, neutral bodies to oversee elections, transparency in awarding public sector contracts, all of these appear to conflict with the Conservative Party's desire to get on with things or, perhaps more accurately, Dominic Cummings's desire to tear everything down. And yet, all of these things, and many more, protect the citizenry from the power of an overmighty state, something Conservatives have traditionally sought, for fear of what an opposition party might do in government.

Because, once you lose those restraints, they are very hard to re-establish, and even if your intentions truly are pure and just, the other side's motives might not as much so. The written and unwritten rules of behaviour in public life protect politicians too, not just society. So, perhaps W S Gilbert had the right idea about how to maintain standards in public life when he wrote "The Mikado"...
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The "Planning for the Future" White Paper - it must have friends, but they're awfully shy...

I'm not what you'd describe as an expert on planning. Yes, I do have to consider planning applications as part of my role as Chair of a small Parish Council, but I'm rarely involved in anything other than pretty straightforward stuff - Gateway 14 excepted, of course. And we're not decision makers in any sense, just statutory consultees.

That's not to say that I don't take an interest however, and in my new guise as a member of the NALC National Assembly, there is a greater obligation upon me to at least understand the wider issues that impact on the world beyond the Gipping Valley. And, in truth, the Planning White Paper currently out for consultation is one of those documents which, if left unchallenged, is likely to have some pretty negative repercussions.

It comes with a foreword from the Prime Minister - the usual blue sky, inspirational schtick - and one from Robert Jenrick, who simply misrepresents the situation on the ground (perhaps not surprising given the accusations that he is in the pocket of developers), in suggesting that reform will allow more houses to be built where they're needed. It wouldn't be cynical to suggest that were he to have a word with the big housebuilding firms, he might persuade them to use the existing planning permissions they have, rather than sitting on them.

The general consensus in the local government community is that the planning system achieves two things pretty well - disempowering local authorities through the presumption that development is good, and offering false hope to local communities through encouragement to develop local plans that can easily be overridden. Neither is a good thing.

From the perspective of a statutory consultee, my problems are generally with enforcement, if truth be told. Mid Suffolk District Council is pretty useless at policing the planning conditions it sets itself, which rather means that planning conditions, i.e. the things that protect local communities from the more egregious acts of planning applicants, become irrelevant. The White Paper doesn't really touch upon that, focussing on tightening timetables and introducing sanctions for local authorities who breach deadlines. What's the penalty for developers who breach their conditions, or seek to alter them by stealth? How are local communities compensated for breaches?

And there doesn't appear to be a lot of support out there. The National Association of Local Councils (my local government "trade union") suggests in its response that;

the current proposals would result in a democratic deficit in planning and would not tackle the key issue (housing supply), leading to a slow down in the delivery of more housing. NALC also thinks that Local Plans will need much more than the suggested 30 months to put together.

The Royal Town Planning Institute don't like it either...

While a single flat rate tax sounds appealing, it cannot work for the country as a whole,” she says. “Set the rate too high, and you risk preventing development from coming forward in struggling areas or complex brownfield sites, set it too low and profitable developments will not make a fair contribution to affordable housing and critical infrastructure. It doesn’t address the bigger issue – the lack of proper investment by government in affordable housing.

So, my sense is that this is a "developers charter", wrapped up in pretty language about local democracy, beauty and efficiency. After all, Robert Jenrick was so supportive of local authorities that he acted unlawfully to deny Tower Hamlets £45 million to support local infrastructure. Don't study what they say, study what they do...

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

NALC - virtually the 2020 Annual General Meeting...

So, my first meeting at national level, and very interesting it was too. Yes, it does seem that there are still some people who haven't really got the hang of Zoom (check the picture of you to make sure that you're both facing the camera and that the camera is facing you...), and the age profile is a bit like that of the House of Lords (which makes me comparatively young), but it's clear that the third tier of local government has adapted pretty well to the technology of virtual meetings.

And, as a gentle introduction to the upper echelons of the National Association of Local Councils, the Annual General Meeting is a pretty good place to start.

The Chair, Sue Baxter from Worcestershire, manages meetings briskly, which suits me fine, and the reports were succinct and to the point. NALC is in pretty good financial shape, which is reassuring, and there's evidently a wide range of knowledge and experience, which helps.

We cast a few votes, to adopt the annual report, to agree the increase in membership fees and to adopt the budget, and there weren't any evident signs of dissent, with all the votes being won overwhelmingly.

The centrepiece of the event, however, was a brief speech from a junior Minister at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Luke Hall. His portfolio is regional growth and local government, and he delivered a speech which rather skirted our "asks" as a sector - we'd like direct access to funding rather than having to go cap in hand to principal authorities - and appeared to face issues of Districts, Counties and Unitaries at times.

He did refer to the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill which, whilst it has little relevance to Creeting St Peter, is of real importance to Towns and larger Parishes, who have taken on responsibility for public conveniences and have to shoulder the additional burden of business rates for public lavatories. 100% relief will be doubly guaranteed when it completes its various stages in the Lords.

The rest of the speech was somewhat weighted down with platitudes, but those gathered were particularly exercised by talk of further reorganisation of local government, with the proposals for North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset raising issues about the relationship between Towns and Parishes and new Unitary authorities. It was clear that there are limits to the creativity of local people, in that it will ultimately be the decision of Ministers as to what proposals will or will not be accepted.

From a personal perspective, there are questions about devolution of power and adoption of services. If towns and larger villages take on service provision, what happens to small parishes like mine? Will we be forced to combine with other villages or nearby towns in order to achieve economies of scale, or will we simply be left to our own devices?

He didn't stay too long - about twenty minutes or so - and it would have been nice to explore more than the three issues that could be fitted in before he left, but one can only assume that his schedule didn't permit it.

Other than that, one thing that slightly puzzled me was that, in most of the organisations I've been involved with, the Annual General Meeting sees the election of Officers and the like, and it doesn't seem that NALC's AGM does that, although it does elect the President and Vice-Presidents. So far, I haven't been able to locate the Constitution, but it's only a matter of time...

We finished nearly half an hour ahead of schedule, which allowed me to get an early lunch, and I do wonder if virtual meetings tend to discourage the sort of meandering interventions which slow business. I guess that we'll find out when this wretched pandemic is over...