Sunday, September 27, 2020

It could be a long, dark winter...

I have, I suspect, been quite lucky in terms of how the pandemic has affected me since March. Without the prospect of losing my job and, thanks to having had halfway decent broadband in the village since we were connected up a couple of years ago, the ability to work from home, it has been possible to function well enough.

Life is about more than work though, as those living in large towns and cities have discovered - fresh air and social interaction are an important means of dealing with the other restrictions brought about by Government efforts to clamp down on Covid-19. And again, I’ve been fortunate. The great, unpopulated outdoors is 200 yards from our door, and the longer hours of daylight mean that, whenever I’m out and about locally, I’m likely to run into another villager to catch up on events.

The challenge ahead, it seems, is how to get through the darkness of an English winter, with no end to restrictions any time soon.

I’m going to have to think about how I organise my day to ensure that I can get most of my exercise in during the hours of daylight, for example. Starting earlier, or finishing later might help for a while, but in order to find an hour to walk in mid-winter, that might mean starting work at 6 a.m. or ending after 5 p.m. - the latter seeming more attractive to this night owl than the former. Alternatively, taking a long lunch break requires a degree of flexibility that might be limited by my designated role.

It’s also going to be important to find ways of escaping the routine of work. Trips away are more challenging if you’re seeking to avoid exposure to people you don’t know - I’m increasingly uneasy in crowded places - and eating out is an increasing problem as infection rates climb. And, as the days turn wetter and colder, options for outdoor activity reduce steadily - a walk in the rain becomes ever less appealing.

Planning is going to be key, as well as a degree of flexibility - spontaneity is difficult in rural communities at the best of times, but when opportunities are limited, it becomes increasingly constrained.

And so, I’m counting on my natural curiosity, a high boredom threshold and Ros’s organisational flair to get us through this in decent shape. Oh, and remembering that there are a lot of people out there who are having it far worse than I am... 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Does a policy of meaningful federalism offer a credible option to the nations?

I don’t oppose Scottish independence, assuming that that’s what the Scottish people want. And, given that the options available to them were independence or, under a Conservative Government, a creeping clawback of powers from Edinburgh to Westminster, you could see why the debate is going the way it has - increasingly polarised.

The thing about freedom is that... it isn’t actually free. Freedom always comes with a cost, the question being, are you willing to pay it?

I tend to the view, having seen some of the financial projections out there, that independence would be costly in terms of GDP, at least in the short term. Membership of the European Union would probably follow, which would offer the opportunity for a gradual recovery. The question is, if the United Kingdom reverted from its current banana republic approach, would that be as attractive as it seems now?

A Liberal Democrat offer of a properly federal state might offer an option which attracted genuine support from both sides of the divide. The only problem is, would anyone believe that it was deliverable, especially coming from a political party which was in fourth, fifth or perhaps sixth place in Scotland?

It does, however, give us a place in the debate, should we be able to articulate it, and so long as we don’t remain hung up on the idea of the Union as a sole option. We surely don’t believe in this Union now, do we? The Union regardless of how it serves Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or even the English Regions?

Andrew Duff has always been an interesting thinker in terms of a multi-speed Europe, with an inner core which is truly Federal, and with other nations opting in to elements of the Union, and I find myself wondering if you couldn’t reconstruct the United Kingdom along similar lines, with the four nations pooling sovereignty on an agreed basis covering elements best served by fully collaborative working, leaving other elements under the control of the nations, with a working assumption that powers would be devolved unless agreed differently.

There is a catch. It would mean, in all likelihood, a federal union outside the European one, unless the European Union was likely to progress along similar lines, which I don’t think is in prospect yet.

So, it does require liberals to rediscover their belief in self-determination, but also to have a properly federal vision and a stance on what an independent Scotland might look like. And, yes, I know that current political debate demands that you take a side on the independence debate, but we don’t actually have to. We could place our trust in the people on this one...

Friday, September 25, 2020

Going back to the office? That’ll be a “no” then...

Three weeks ago, word came out that “us slackers working for the Government should return to the office and get some work done” - I paraphrase somewhat here - as a means of encouraging people back into our town and city centres. I was, it must be said, unimpressed.

And now, lo and behold, we’re kind of back where we started, being encouraged to work from home in order to reduce the risk of catching, and spreading, the Covid-19 virus. Mind you, given that my office is currently being prepared to be emptied, I did wonder where I was going to keep essential supplies of tea - after all, if all I do is drink tea all day, I need teabags to be readily available.

Confidence is hardly being inspired here.

I’ve spent the past months supporting the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, which has required picking up, and applying, quite a few new skills. I learned to do webchat, which improved my typing speed a bit, and tightening up my occasionally ornate prose. Next, I freshened up my knowledge of the PAYE system, something I hadn’t had to know much about since 1991, when the last such work was transferred out of London to the provinces.

Bear in mind that this was done in isolation, using online resources and a support network of virtual floor walkers created overnight.

My next task was to learn how our contact centre software worked, in order to take my place on a helpline, guiding people through a brand new claims process and handling the digitally excluded, whilst a support system for three million self-employed workers was built and improved beneath us. I also got to explain to desperate/angry people why they weren’t eligible.

I, and my gallant colleagues, did all of this from home, whilst dealing with the personal implications of lockdown, from kitchen tables and rapidly constructed workspaces, because it was, and is, important - it mattered to a lot of people who needed help. If we hadn’t done it, there wasn’t anyone else who could.

So I wouldn’t actually have been going back to work, more going somewhere else, increasing my personal exposure to risk and making journeys that weren’t essential to increase my productivity by the square root of zero, if indeed by that much.

Now it looks likely that my return to office life will be delayed until the Spring, if then, so I need to think a bit harder about whether or not there’s anything I need to make work a bit easier. A kettle in the office, perhaps, a second monitor to enable me to have more information on view at a time, a more compliant office chair. Do I need to alter my routine, taking longer lunch breaks to allow me to get a long walk in during the hours of daylight, and starting earlier/finishing later?

And, looking further ahead, what does this mean when/if things return to normal? Do I want to work from home more? How do I organise my work schedule to make effective use of days in the office and days at home?

There’s a lot to think about, but at least my decisions will be made on the basis of facts and analysis, rather than in an attempt to appease the commentariat...

Ros in the Lords: Agriculture Bill, Committee Stage (3)

As the Committee Stage of the Agriculture Bill progressed, Ros's past experience as a local councillor and as Chair of an EU select committee came into play. Can the power imbalance between farmers and supermarkets be reduced and, if farmers want public money, then it is not unreasonable to ask what the public get in return. And, if farmers claim to be stewards of the land, who are they stewarding it for?

My Lords, in 2016, I chaired an EU sub-committee inquiry into building a more resilient agricultural sector. We took evidence on the financial impact on farmers of a number of supermarket contractual practices. One was overzealous specification, which could result in the destruction of up to 20% of some crops. The other was that because of such swingeing penalties for under-provision, farmers had to grow far more than they needed. Noble Lords may come on to this issue when we debate food waste in later groups of amendments, but I wanted to raise it this evening with regard to the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, because no one else has. I hope the Minister will consider it in the list of items relating to fair dealing, to which I know he will be giving a lot of thought.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 124 and 138, which I have signed. While my thinking is very much informed by questions of public access in the way that my noble friend Lord Addington’s is, there is a wider point here about the operation of this new system that is echoed in one way or another by a number of amendments in this group. While I recognise that it is positive that multiannual assistance plans will provide a level of certainty both for farmers and for the public, who are interested in these things, this ought to be strengthened by a greater understanding of how the objectives align with the public goods in Clause 1.

As drafted, the Bill refers to the Government’s strategic priorities, but it is not really very clear how one would determine what those priorities are. I shall give the Committee an example: there is a national policy on flooding, for example, and we know that there are policies around climate change and the environment. That is probably clear. However, there are no strategic priorities established for the question of public access. It is quite difficult to see how assistance under the Bill will link to a government strategic priority that does not actually exist. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a word or two about this because it would really aid clarity about what the funding is to deliver and ensure that there is a coherence in approach and predictability.

That then feeds into Amendment 138 regarding clarity in the financial assistance scheme, which I think most of us would agree is an essential part of transparency. We want to see not just what is being given to whom but how these strategic priorities—these public goods—are reflected in the spending once it has happened.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020

Sometimes, the most unexpected pieces of Parliamentary business attract a lot of comment from Peers, and this might be one of them. That said, a lot of people feel very strongly about it. Ros took the opportunity to press the Government in terms of some positive actions that might be taken...

My Lords, in welcoming this SI, I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that this is a very ​tiny amount. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of the pandemic has been to go back to plastic use where we were getting rid of it; for example, supermarkets are now delivering in plastic bags. Therefore, I wonder if the Minister might give an indication of what work is being done with health authorities to produce guidance that balances the need for good health practice and the reduction of plastic use.

Secondly, I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, about the extent of the exceptions, which do seem very wide. Can the Minister give an assurance that encouragement will be given to the research and development of alternatives to plastics that can be used in these different contexts?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Agriculture Bill - Committee Stage (2)

Ros has been keen to play her part in the Liberal Democrat response to the Agriculture Bill, so it wasn't a surprise to see her contribute to the debate on land management. In this speech on 9 July, she wanted to note how important biodiversity was to thriving countryside...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD) [V]

My Lords, I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Greaves tabled these amendments, because it has given us a chance for debate and for the Minister to give us an idea of the Government’s thinking on this particular form of land management.

I recognise that, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, mentioned, rewilding - whatever we called it then - has been around for a long time. The other week I was in Wicken Fen: I am not sure if it was ever unwilded, but it is certainly pretty wild there now. This is not new, but we have to recognise that rewilding is now being discussed more, and there is a lot more thinking about the role that landscape management can play in improving diversity, which we all know is in pretty steep decline. I am very pleased that these amendments, which I regard as probing, have been tabled.

I was struck when, in winding up on Tuesday evening, the Minister talked about balance, and we have heard a lot about that today. Among the things that make a Bill such as this so tricky are the multiple balances we are trying to strike; for example, between public access and safety, and between food production and biodiversity, and so on. Rewilding has a part to play, albeit a modest part, in helping redress some of those balances. It is possible to have a long-term approach to some habitats which will improve biodiversity but ​will not have a big impact on food production. They can be accessible and enjoyed by the public in a way that does not bring biosecurity risks and so on, which we discussed the other day.

I know that most noble Lords are concerned about the economic outlook in rural communities. There is a contribution to be made by rewilding, even if it is modest and hyper-local. Today’s Independent, for example, carried a story about a rewilding project near Loch Ness. It will involve some 500 hectares of land, with the restoration of peatland, native tree restoration and a focus on biodiversity. The estate will employ local rangers, and a small number of eco-cottages are being built by a local firm. In that small area it can make a big difference. Wildlife tourism is actually quite a big generator of income. In Scotland, interest in ospreys is estimated to bring in about £3.5 million a year in revenue. Rewilding can have huge benefits to individuals, who can better connect with nature, whether it is to relax or to learn about the countryside, which we spoke about in earlier amendments.

I recognise the problem of rewilding as a contested concept, with the fundamentalists on one side and the realists on another. There is a really good balance to be struck, which is about some of the concepts of rewilding and conventional environmentally friendly land management approaches.

Very close to me, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust is doing this very well in the Black Bourn Valley on former arable land. It is letting the former fields rewild to a certain extent, but there will be some grazing, which will help with the complexity of the vegetation structure. Turtle-doves, which we know are in steep decline, have really benefited from the development of these scrubby areas. Even here, within what is thought of as rewilding, there will need to be some intervention to keep the valley’s pond habitats in good health and to keep the variation there, so that the current biodiversity does not decline.

It comes down to this word: balance. For me, the key thing is not so much having everything absolutely nailed down in the Bill - you never get that - but having the assurances that this sort of approach will not be ruled out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Creeting St Peter: a plucky community faces a District Council over Gateway 14

One of the things that makes me most nervous about being the Chair of a Parish Council is managing expectation. Because, in truth, we don’t have much power. If somebody really wants to do something we don’t like, or don’t want, most of the levers of power are in the hands of someone else.

For example, if there is a planning application that impacts dramatically on the village, we might be statutory consultees, but it’s the District Council who make the planning decision. Now, you might reasonably note that even they have limits on their power, most of them statutory but others practical, but theoretically, as long as they adhere to planning law, they have the final say. It becomes more complex when they are, effectively, the applicant too.

Which brings me to Gateway 14...

Parish Council met yesterday evening, under my watchful eye as Chair, with the main item on the agenda our initial response to the consultation exercise initiated by the developer tasked by Mid Suffolk District Council to draw up the plans for the site. There is some pressure upon us to move fast - the consultation period ends on 31 October, and they will then move towards a planning application - so attention to detail is critical.

And there are some rather troubling aspects to the initial draft, in that the suggestion is for rather more in the way of “big logistics sheds” than had previously been the case when previous developers had been offering proposals. These buildings would be very hard to hide, and act as an ugly scar on the landscape. Mind you, given that the sites fall away quite significantly, you do wonder how appropriate they are for such buildings.

There are questions of pedestrian access and existing footpaths, the impact on the clutch of residential properties at Clamp Farm, and of noise and light pollution. We’re also unconvinced that the project is ever going to be environmentally sustainable, with public transport access currently irrelevant and the expectation that most workers on the site will drive, requiring significant (and costly) amounts of parking.

The other problem we have is how to ensure that everyone has a decent opportunity to engage with the project. The developers have sent a glossy, but actually quite fair, document to all residents, inviting them to interact, but you do need to organise that. We, as the Parish Council, want to know what individual residents care about, whilst encouraging them to raise their own issues in their own way.

Our thought is to organise some sort of exhibition, although COVID-19 makes that potentially difficult. We’re also keen to arrange Zoom presentations for both the Parish Council and residents - acknowledging that for those less enthusiastic about, or uncomfortable using, the internet, an online presentation isn’t very inclusive.

So, we’ll issue a newsletter, invite comment, and try to make such arrangements as to allow residents to have their say and to make a contribution - we do know the patch, and are realistic enough to understand that whilst the project can’t simply be opposed, by engaging positively, we are more likely to achieve our aspirations for our community.

For example, might a bus service, linking the development with both Stowmarket and Creeting St Peter, be a runner, especially if it was routed towards Stowupland as well? Could we alter the road layout to take the traffic a little further away from the homes at Clamp Farm whilst improving the sight lines for drivers? What else might we achieve?

So, much to do, especially for our Clerk, I’m afraid. But there’s no time like the present...

Monday, September 21, 2020

SALC: catching up on my reading...

So, having unexpectedly gotten myself elected to be Vice-Chair of my Branch of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, I am also a member of the County Board, which is a bit of a step up for the Chair of a small, albeit perfectly formed, Parish Council. And that means that I have to take it rather more seriously than I might have done hitherto.

For me, a key task when joining an experienced and knowledgeable group on a committee is to find out exactly what its role is, make sure you understand the rules, and acquaint yourself with the key issues. Now, for some, perhaps many, of you, that seems pretty obvious, but in my experience, there are plenty of people who go into things with their own agenda and attempt to shoehorn the organisation to fit. It seldom ends well - better to establish the lie of the land, the group culture, before attempting change (assuming that change is really needed, of course). Luckily, SALC has made all of that freely available, in the form of an explanation on its website. So, the SALC Board;
meets every 6 months and is made up of experienced councillors who provide guidance and strategic direction. The Board maintains SALC values, determines mission and identifies the long-term objectives. The SALC Board appoints the CEO and delegates business administration to the SALC Executive Committee.

That doesn’t sound too onerous, does it? “Experienced councillor” might be stretching it a bit in my case, although I have served for eight years now, and am in my third (glorious) year as Chair. On the other hand, I have a reputation for liking good organisational order, and for supporting our professional staff, and I strongly believe in SALC’s value to local councils, especially smaller ones like mine.

There is a constitution, which has undergone serious revision recently, and looks to be in good order - like many organisations, its constitution had suffered from years of bolt-ons to the point where it didn’t entirely make sense any more. Been there, rewritten that t-shirt...

And, most importantly, there is a business plan and an experienced group of professional staff, led by our Chief Executive, who are ambitious to take the organisation forward. That reassures me, although not as much as the news that I will have an induction session in a fortnight’s time. If it merely serves to help me to avoid looking daft at my first meeting, it will be time well spent, but I have a feeling that it might be more valuable than that.

Time to start reading, I think...