Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sometimes, your life changed when you least expected it...

We've been watching the Michael Palin retrospective on the BBC, in which our hero looks back at his travels, playing a thoroughly decent fellow, meeting interesting people, treating them kindly and visiting interesting places in unexpected ways. It's easy to forget, looking back, just how radical this was. And we've taken the opportunity to rewatch the original series, courtesy of BBC iPlayer.

Watching him arrive in Tallinn, under Soviet control as it was then, in the summer of 1991, brought back memories.

My travel horizons were, once upon a time, really quite limited. I'd gone backwards and forwards to Mumbai a bit, to visit family, but that wasn't as much of an adventure as it sounds, given how familiar it was. And it wasn't a lack of adventure - travel was more complex and expensive then, and far less spontaneous. I'd been on a few school trips to Europe, but done very little independent travel.

It was politics that triggered my travels, when I was sent as a Young Liberal Democrat delegate to a seminar on youth culture in, of all places, Aarhus, Denmark. One thing led to another and I discovered that meeting other Europeans was not only interesting, but accessible, especially for a bureaucrat with a decent job and what seemed like a lot of disposable income, thanks to the hospitality of my parents. Within the year, I'd managed to just about persuade a bare majority of my colleagues to elect me as International Officer and an odyssey began.

And what a time it was. I only served for fourteen months or so, from November 1989 to December 1990, but it was a time when all of the old certainties suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke. Communist governments were overthrown across Central and Eastern Europe and it looked as though liberal democracy had triumphed over totalitarianism. They were heady days...

And the travel began, first with my first wife to the United States and beyond, and then, when that ended, to the places you only normally dream of, Latin America, the South Pacific, East Asia. Then, with Ros to the Arctic and the Atacama, Patagonia and the Caribbean...

The thing about travel is that, apart from broadening the mind, which it does if you're doing it properly, it's quite addictive. And, it has gotten easier as time goes by. The internet, and the explosion of guidebooks as opposed to tourism brochures, allows you to research independently, and smartphones and wifi allow you to deal with situations as they arise.

Lost in Los Angeles? Bring up Apple Maps on your iPhone. Need a night in a hotel because your connection has been missed or cancelled? Use a hotel chain app to find one and book it immediately. Arranging your visa online, booking a flight for tomorrow, ordering flowers for a host, all can be done by pressing a few buttons without reliance on other people, contact centres or post. Bus maps in New Hampshire, baseball tickets in Caracas, restaurant reservations in Riga, or Anchorage, hotels in Santiago or Chennai, all at your fingertips.

On reflection, it's pretty amazing. My bank card has allowed me to access cash from ATMs everywhere from Port Vila, Vanuatu to Havana, Cuba, from Port Louis, Mauritius to Puerto Natales, Chile. No bank queues or travellers cheques, no worrying about exchange rates or controls, money on demand, twenty-four hours a day.

Luckily, it's never become workaday. It's allowed me to see things that the younger me could have barely imagined, have experiences that will keep me warm in my old age, meet people who entertained, educated and informed. And there's still so many places I want to see... once this wretched pandemic is over.

Friday, October 16, 2020

If the light at the end of the tunnel is the burning wreckage of our future...

I am, by nature, an optimist. When the Brexit referendum was lost, I not unreasonably assumed that the victors had a plan for getting us from being in the European Union to not being in the European Union. I admit that, even then, I understood that the various strands of the Leave campaign were mutually incompatible and were merely a means of persuading enough voters to back their cause. Indeed, Dominic Cummings acknowledged that there was no one vision of Brexit that could achieve majority support, or even agreement between the different factions. It allowed them to be all things to a good many people, at least, enough to win a one-off vote on the right day.

It turned out that I was wrong. There was no obvious plan. However, these were clever people - mostly - and there was time to work up a plan before formal notice was given. And, because, regardless of what I think about them, they would have what they perceived to be the interests of the country at heart.

Again, it turned out that I was wrong. It became apparent that it was much easier to campaign against something than to develop a strategy and plan for something - that mutual incompatibility thing again. Add an emerging lack of knowledge in terms of how the European Union works and a soupcon of "two world wars and one World Cup" and the foundations were laid for failure. After all, we'd heard enough from experts...

Blithe confidence in your cause, plus a rather arrogant sense of stature in the world led to the triggering of the exit process. Unfortunately, knowing what you want and having a realistic awareness of what you might get are not exactly the same thing. And, setting a deadline tends to work better if you're the 800 lb gorilla in the room. When you're 65 million people, as opposed to 430 million, with a GDP of $3 trillion, as opposed to $14 trillion, the gorilla isn't you.

And so, here we are, the clock nearly run down, a United Kingdom government led by people chosen for their loyalty rather than intellect, and in the middle of a pandemic. The Prime Minister has announced that we need to plan for a no deal outcome, demanding concessions from the gorilla. It all seems unlikely.

We are therefore dependent on one of two things - major concessions from the European Union (which might politely be described as unlikely) or from the United Kingdom. Can the Conservative Party really offer serious concessions without looking to its supporters as though it has bended the knee? And, even if it could agree on concessions, what might those concessions be, would they be sufficient and what would they gain? I don't think that they know, let alone the rest of us.

So, let's assume that they're serious, and that we reach 1 January without a deal. What might happen? And that's a bit of a mystery, given that the ultras on both sides are offering us just about everything on the spectrum from "buccaneering Singapore-on-Thames" to "critical food and medicine shortages".

My gut feeling is that things will be worse than they are now. Putting up obstacles tends to do that - the question is, how significantly will day to day life be affected, and what is the tolerance of a fickle public for inconvenience or hardship? Polling indicates a gradual drifting away of support for Brexit, associated as it is with a government which is making a mess of handling one crisis already. How much of a sacrifice are those who supported Brexit willing to make? Or were they only content so long as it was others who would bear the brunt?

And any Government would have public sympathy if things were difficult, so long as they were seen to be trying to do the right thing. This Government isn't in that place, having wasted an entire summer, at vast expense, to achieve, effectively, nothing.

I remain an optimist. Admittedly, as a Liberal Democrat, you tend to need to be one. Unfortunately, my optimism increasingly fades in terms of the near future - you really need something to sustain faith, and Messrs Johnson, Gove and Cummings just don't fit the bill. I'm also a gradualist, a believer in sustainable change over decades, and I'm going to have to pin my hopes on that. Because something is going to have to change in this country, and someone is going to have to lead that change.

In the meantime, it's time to circle the wagons, look out for those I care about and focus on the things I can actually influence...

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Creeting St Peter and the Probable Development (part 1)

The consultation process between Jaynic, the developers acting for Mid Suffolk District Council, and our Parish Council, began last night. And so, perhaps I ought to report back...

The first thing to note is, slightly surprisingly, that there appears to be no hard and fast idea as to what will go on the site and where, contrary to the impression given by the material circulated by their communications consultants. Yes, enormous logistics sheds might well emerge, but until customers actually turn up, nobody really knows - the talk is of bespoke development, i.e. the customer will say what they want and, if a deal is agreed, it gets built.

From the perspective of a statutory consultee, i.e. the Parish Council, that offers an interesting challenge. Whilst we might have a clear idea what we wouldn't like, there isn't anything concrete to object to... yet. Thus, it seems as though the obvious strategy for us is to talk about infrastructure and traffic management, and that is what we mainly focused upon.

We were told that there was no expectation of significant additional traffic on Mill Lane between Clamp Farm and the Creetings, yet the modelling hasn't been done yet, and there is an apparent sense that nearby bus stops imply that there are buses. I'm not really sure how to break it to them that the bus service consists of one bus on weekday mornings to Stowmarket, plus a mid-morning bus on a Thursday, and one bus on weekday evenings to Stowupland. And, indeed, the "bus" is a minibus.

However, this is part of what happens later. What is expected to happen first is that construction of the site's road network will be an early part of what we see. An indicative timeline exists and, if met, will see the road network, including a new link from near Clamp Farm to the roundabout opposite Tesco, completed by Spring/Summer 2022. The obvious benefits include taking heavy lorries from our friendly neighbourhood concrete products factory away from Cedars Park, and providing easier and more direct access to Tesco and Stowmarket for residents of the Creetings.

It's rather harder to see the benefits for residents of the cluster of properties at Clamp Farm, upon whose doorstep the new development will be. What ends up being built on the north-east quadrant of the site could be anything from a big logistics shed to a collection of smaller light industrial buildings. And yes, a "planted, landscaped mound" will provide a "significant visual buffer" between Clamp Farm and the development, but residents have been hurt before by that phrase (the Poundfield Products equivalent has never really lived up to expectations), so the proof will be in the pudding there.

We touched upon the Amenity and Biodiversity Zone, and to be honest, I'm not really sure what they mean by that, except to note that it is intended to compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat caused by the development. It would be nice if access to the river path was improved, and that will be a question for the actual planning application.

The question of the rerouting of the footpath that currently runs through the middle of the site, linking Creeting St Peter with Cedars Park, is up for discussion as well. The current proposal is to squeeze the footpath between whatever emerges in the north-eastern quadrant and the A14, and I can't help but feel that this offers a rather gloomy trudge compared to routing it around the southern edge, which would at least offer farmland on one side. And, to be frank, people walking that route aren’t going to Cedars Park, they're heading for Tesco and onwards to Stowmarket.

The roadside area is intended for, possibly, a petrol station, a hotel, a pub, some drive through fast food and, perhaps, some retail outlet(s). We'd been expecting that, given the previous planning application for that corner, so no great surprises there.

And now for a hostage to fortune of a sort. The developers and their supporting cast seem to be as reasonable as you might optimistically expect. That's not to say that they will agree to everything or, indeed, anything we would like, but the conversation was courteous, professional and, I believe, honest, and we came away with a better understanding of the project, regardless of any personal misgivings we may have.

Things will move fast too. The community consultation phase ends in just over a fortnight, and what is known as a hybrid planning application is expected to be submitted to Mid Suffolk District Council at the turn of the year. That application will cover the road network, utilities, and landscaping in detail, whilst the remainder will "establish key parameters for the development such as the maximum building height and amount of floorspace to be delivered, with the final details to be subject to further stages of design should planning permission be received.". And yes, there will be further planning applications specific to each building, or group of buildings, as it reaches the drawing board.

Next week will see an opportunity for residents to ask questions by way of a Zoom conference, with yours truly in the chair. The developers have asked to see questions in advance, suggesting that by doing so they will be able to provide fuller responses, and we've agreed to that as part of a collaborative approach to widening the consultation.

I take the view that, whilst the Parish Council should engage in a formal capacity with the project, it is vital that residents express their concerns in their own language rather than rely on us to interpret and prioritise their messages. We'll do our level best to represent our community, but our neighbours have their own perspectives and will have their own preferences for how those are conveyed. I also think that more individual comments give a better idea of the depth of feeling amongst us.

There will be much for the Parish Council to think about, and to respond to, over the coming months and, indeed, years. Given that we are five volunteers, supported by a part-time, albeit highly professional Parish Clerk, it will offer a significant challenge to our ability to scrutinise and question as the development proceeds. And therefore, the interest, knowledge and ideas of the village community as a whole will be core to our effort, and I thank everyone in anticipation.

Monday, October 12, 2020

It could be a long, hard winter...

I've now been home for nearly seven months - hard to believe, sometimes - and I've spent most of that time as part of the HMRC team staffing the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme helpline. Given my day job, that's been something of a switch, especially as I haven't been in frontline customer service since 2012 (and it was very different then, I can assure you).

Going from perhaps receiving one or two telephone calls to receiving them all day does require a shift in attitude too. As an investigator, people don't tend to want to talk to you whereas, when there's the prospect of a grant, they're rather more enthusiastic. And often with good cause, given the state of household financial resilience - more people live on the financial edge than some would suspect. The grant received can be vital to having a roof over your head, or food on the table, and we talk to people whose ability to earn a living has been utterly wrecked.

It is amazing how people have adapted in order to keep the show on the road and a mark of how innovative they can be when pushed. But that isn't always possible. Anything that is usually done indoors but can be done outdoors has found a way, and with the summer easing of infection rates, even jobs that are wholly indoors (our chimney sweep, for example) have picked up through necessity. But there are plenty of self-employed people, delivering a variety of household services, who have suffered financial loss.

The first round of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme paid out 80% of average earnings for a three month period. What that meant was that, if your income was down even quite a lot, you were probably still better off than you might otherwise have been and, even if you had no income at all, you weren't losing too much. Admittedly, that might be critical if your income wasn't great to begin with, and you were living on the financial margins, but it was pretty generous.

The second round pays out 70% (it's still live until 19 October), and so for those whose losses are marginal, it's actually profitable, as there is no minimum threshold for qualifying as adversely affected. However, for those whose income is a small fraction of what it might ordinarily be, it's becoming increasingly marginal. Also, for those with ongoing expenses that can't be dropped or mitigated - premises or equipment leases, for example - the scheme doesn't entirely help.

And, with autumn now upon us, and no sign that the pandemic is easing - quite the reverse, sadly - many of those people who have found a way to operate outside, from fitness instructors to mobile hairdressers, cleaners to childminders, will find that their options become increasingly limited, with the inevitable drop in earning potential that that means.

There has been a good deal of unhappiness about ongoing support, with the attention mostly on those being furloughed. They'll get, theoretically, 67% of their usual pay, and for those on or near the minimum wage, it will obviously be difficult. For the self-employed, the grant for the third scheme will be 20% of average earnings. That's really going to hurt some, who will doubtless be directed towards Universal Credit to help fill the gap.

You might expect me to criticise Rishi Sunak under such circumstances, demanding that he be more generous. In truth, I don't know what advice he's receiving, or what other plans he has. And, in any case, trying to predict what might happen next is a bit like crystal ball reading. The emergence of a vaccine sooner rather than later would be a huge help, but we really can't count on that.

All we can do is support each other and, if you know someone who is self-employed and needs support, do point them towards the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme* if they aren't already aware of it.

* there are exceptions to eligibilty, however, and this guide from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales is clear and concise.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Local Tories break the code of omerta

It's fair to say that, traditionally, I've not been a huge fan of the local Conservatives. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that I'm not alone - many of the county's Conservative MPs had rather faint, if any, connections to Suffolk prior to being selected, which might lead one to guess that the locals aren't that highly rated within the wider Conservative Party. But, they tend to win elections regardless of the weight of talent available, or the campaigning zeal displayed - Suffolk is that kind of place, I fear.

Our own County Councillor, for example, doesn't campaign outside of election time, doesn't report back and probably could pass unnoticed by 95% of the population of Stowmarket North and Stowupland. If that's what the public want though, that's what they get.

But today's news that a number of senior Conservative councillors have been apparently defenestrated by their own members in advance of next year's County elections in favour of presumably fresh new faces does come as a bit of a surprise.

Colin Noble is something of a marmite figure in West Suffolk. Personally, I think that he's a bit of a bruiser albeit an occasionally thin-skinned one. He didn't seem to like the fact that, when he referred to me as the husband of Ros, I responded by referring to him as the husband of Lisa. He became leader of the Conservative Group on the County Council after what was described as a bruising contest, and lasted three years before being overthrown. And now, he's been deselected by his local Conservative Association, having lost his District seat in 2019. But, regardless of what I might think of him, he is a "big beast" in local Conservative politics, having held senior positions in the regional party structure.

Jane Storey has gone too from Thedwastre North in Mid Suffolk. Funnily enough, she lost her District Council seat in 2019 as well - to the Greens - just when she might have become Leader of the Council (the former Leader had lost his seat to us earlier in the day).

And last, but not least, as far as we know so far, Guy McGregor has gone in Hoxne and Eye. In fairness, he's been around for a long, long time, having initially lost his seat in the great Tory rout of '93. He hasn't exactly seen eye to eye (not an intentional pun, I hasten to add) with his MP, Dan Poulter, over the years, but then he's apparently not alone in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Conservative Association.

How do I know all this? Because it's all over the East Anglian Daily Times which, in turn, means that people have talked. And it's unusual, given that incumbent councillors normally go at a time of their choosing. And they certainly haven't chosen, if the story is to be believed, because they've all appealed against the decision.

Now, regardless of what I think of them individually, I have no idea how effective they've been at County level, although the bar isn't always set terribly high. And I also know how difficult it is to find candidates, even where you're likely to win without much effort - being a councillor is hard work in terms of the sheer number of meetings you have to attend, let alone casework, Parish and Town council meetings to attend, etc. etc. So, presumably, the Conservatives have found someone else, someone able to meet the criteria laid down by their selection process rather better than Colin, Jane and Guy. Or, alternatively, the Suffolk Conservative leadership have decided that they've got to go, and the local Associations have quietly complied.

But, regardless of what I think of their policies, they have attempted to serve the people of Suffolk to the best of their ability, and that should always be respected, regardless of who, and where. At a time when politics, and politicians, are pretty widely derided, those who are willing to give their time and energy to public administration should be thanked.

That said, next year's elections could be difficult for the Conservatives across Suffolk. In 2019, it seemed that voters would, if given a credible alternative, vote for it over the Conservatives. That was certainly the story in Mid Suffolk. And, with the impact of Covid-19 on employment, and the uncertainty of what happens after 31 December when Brexit becomes a reality, being a Conservative candidate could be a very uncomfortable experience.

This might turn out to be a very good election to sit out...

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Lords takes a stand for decency and humanity on immigration

I'm afraid that I've always assumed that, when Conservatives talk about immigration, what they really mean is allowing white people to flow in and out relatively easily, compared to anyone else. Of course, in more recent years, that former group became more restricted - poorer Europeans weren't very welcome either.

Having made it as difficult as possible for poor people from developing and under-developed countries to come here by means of expensive visas, restricted access to the application process and, in truth, a system which favoured the wealthy, they turned to Europe. There were, as the likes of Farage said, too many foreigners coming here to steal British jobs and British benefits, driving wages down and overwhelming public services.

The fact that we had very low levels of unemployment, and thus thousands and thousands of vacancies, and that the minimum wage had consistently risen by above the rate of inflation, was irrelevant. The fact that freedom of movement in Europe worked both ways was conveniently overlooked. And the fact that the decision not to invest in our public services - increasingly staffed by those very same European nationals - was a choice of Government, was camouflaged by using European citizens as scapegoats.

There was a curious irony that, as Europeans were increasingly discouraged from coming here after the Brexit referendum, the number of non-Europeans coming to live here increased dramatically despite the controls placed upon them. It was almost as though successive Conservative Home Secretaries were determined not to practice what they so loudly preached. And yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you.

Naturally, with Brexit looming ever closer, there is another Immigration Bill, mean-spirited and petty. And, with a Government majority of 80 in the Commons, made up of a clutch of MPs who are always unhappy about something, but rarely actually rebel (and yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you again...), there's little prospect of any improvement there.

Thus, any hope for the insertion of some compassion in the legislation is left to the Lords. And, yesterday, the Government were given the sort of kicking that one only wishes could be metaphorically given to much of the Cabinet. Losing one vote is bad enough, but they were three down even before Oral Questions, due to a carry over of votes from the previous session (the online voting system had given up the ghost for the day).

And then the "Dubs amendment" came up for debate. Alf Dubs has been attempted to nail down the Government's declared intention to accept an agreed number of child refugees. Strangely enough, whenever anyone attempted to hold them to that commitment, Ministers always wriggled out from under their promise, and Baroness Williams of Trafford was never going to be an exception to that rule. The problem she has is that nobody really believes anything that the Government say any more, either through a lack of competence or, in some cases, basic integrity. And despite her plea that the amendment be withdrawn, there was no quarter offered and the Government fell to a ninety-four vote defeat.

The settled status scheme for EU national comes without any physical evidence - verification of settled status is only available via a website - and there have been persistent calls for the provision of physical documented proof. Naturally, the Government isn't keen, having learned nothing from the Windrush scandal. Besides, the hostile environment is no accident, it is design (and thank you, Theresa May, for absolutely nothing...). Even the Conservative benches weren't wholly friendly, and whilst Baroness Williams felt that she had total faith in the computer systems and the Home Office (and mustn't that be a lonely hill to stand on?), the Lords disagreed, handing her and Priti Patel a 106-vote defeat. It was particularly pleasing to see a Liberal Democrat Peer, Jonny Oates, moving that one.

I've admitted to being a big fan of Sally Hamwee in the past. Hard-working, thoroughly liberal, and with a keen eye for poor legislation, she is an exemplar of the strengths of the Lords. She had picked up on the indefinite limits on detention for immigration purposes. Now, it seems reasonable not to have an upper limit where it may not be possible for someone who is in the country legally to be deported (albeit that you would never want to detain anyone for long), but there is no such problem for EU/EEA nationals. Sally wanted to restrict the period for which such people could be detained to twenty-eight days. Naturally, the Government merely wanted to assure everyone that, most of the time, people are deported within twenty-eight days.

Ultimately, any immigration system should be efficient and humane. The problem is that the Home Office isn't efficient, and the Government don't really do humane (Moldova? Papua New Guinea?). And, again, the problem of the Government's slipperiness rears its ugly head again, so despite the late hour (it was nearly midnight by the time the Division took place, the Government lost again, by 28 votes.

That also meant that amendments addressing the criteria for, and duration of, initial detention and bail hearings were passed consequentially.

It was a good night for decency...

Monday, October 05, 2020

1,691 days... and counting...

It’s coming on for five years now since I started what seemed like a vaguely heroic quest - for me at least - of trying to walk 10,000 steps every day. I started in midwinter, on the basis that, if I could do it then, I could probably keep it up. And, for seven weeks, I did just fine. On day 50, I contracted food poisoning in an all-inclusive resort in Cuba. I may be one of the very few people to have left an all-inclusive resort weighing rather less than I did when I went in...

I lost three days but, by day 4, I was able to get back on track. That was 18 February 2016, and I haven’t missed a day since.

That sounds rather impressive as I think about it. Despite rain, snow, hurricane force winds, I’ve doggedly got my 10,000 steps, walking around airport terminals, making deck circuits with a view of the polar pack ice, trudging through a blizzard across the New Hampshire/Maine border. But mostly, those steps have been done within a short distance of home.

I’m lucky in that regard. Ros is very encouraging, sometimes arranging things (and me) to make getting those steps easier, but generally allowing me to disappear for half an hour here, or an hour there to get them done - it takes about an hour and forty minutes of continuous walking to get to 10,000 steps, especially as I tend to the view that running is for people being chased by tigers (there are very few tigers in mid-Suffolk).

And, as you might expect, there are benefits too. I’m nearly twenty kilos (forty-two pounds or three stones) lighter than I was then, slightly more limber than before, and rather less vulnerable to the Valladares curse - type 2 diabetes. I’ve also expanded my wardrobe towards something more dapper, which is nice. And, and this is quite important given one of my great loves, fitting into aircraft seats is a less traumatic experience.

One unexpected plus is my increased exposure to village life. People have a habit of stopping for conversation, which gives me fresh insight into how my village works, and what troubles it. As Chair of the Parish Council, that can be incredibly useful, as it gives me ideas for things that we might do to help, or to improve the village. They may be small things, but they matter, and that should be what community activism is about.

So, onwards into my sixth winter. I’m better equipped, with the rain gear I picked up in Chile, sensible walking shoes from Clarks, with the back-up of proper hiking boots from Timberland, and a flat cap made of Harris Tweed to keep the rain off my eyebrows. I’m also in a groove - a day feels incomplete until my FitBit wristband buzzes to let me know that I’ve completed another 10,000 steps.

Wish me luck...

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Quiet Lanes - an opportunity to be seized, or a risk to be avoided?

Twenty years ago, a young Baroness moved an amendment to the Transport Bill then under discussion which was intended to make it easier to establish Home Zones and Quiet Lanes. At the time, the Minister, Lord Whitty, was not entirely convinced but wanted to take it away for more thought. The outcome was Section 268, Transport Act 2000, and the young Baroness, who had been in the Lords for less than three months, was Ros.

The significance of that certainly didn’t hit me at the time - not only did I not know Ros, but the relevance of the legislation to an urban bureaucrat would not have been obvious.

However, this week, the idea of Quiet Lanes has been raised, as Suffolk County Council have launched a £235,000 tranche from its Suffolk 2020 Fund – a one-off pot set up for projects this year – to encourage town and parish councils to apply for potential quiet lanes in their area. Now, living in a village which has suffered from speeding for years - we have no pavements and the road through the core village is single track - the headline rather caught my eye as a potential opportunity.

There is a problem, however, in that there are only two routes into the village, both of them lengthy stretches of single track road. A 2006 circular, issued by the Department of Transport, suggests that the Quiet Lanes option is suitable for roads with less than 1,000 traffic movements per day.

You’d think that a village with a population of 200 would struggle to reach that, yet if you add in all of the vehicles that visit the village from outside, delivering things, carrying out tasks, visiting residents, the amount of traffic mounts up. We’re also an increasingly useful cut through allowing traffic to bypass Stowmarket.

So, there is a question of simple eligibility. However, there’s also a question of desirability. Do we, as a village, want to limit speeds on roads that don’t see so much non-vehicular traffic? What actual benefits might we see in return for any investment? 

The obvious solution is to consult with my colleagues, and with village residents as far as is possible. Luckily, we’ve got a village newsletter going out soon...

Friday, October 02, 2020

September 2020 - Parish Councillor report

It's been another surprisingly eventful month, given how quiet things have been in recent years, with the emergence of the Gateway 14 project dominating our thoughts.

There's no doubt that, with the District Council as the developer, something will happen, although what that is may take some time to emerge, especially given the damage to the economy caused by the pandemic, and the changes in how we are likely to work going forward.

Parish Council met on 21 September to agree our strategy, and concluded that, whilst the plans are effectively just a draft outline, our aim should be to influence the thinking at an early stage, seek potential benefits for our community, and encourage residents to both engage and offer their own thoughts on the project, positive or negative, constructive or otherwise. That means seeking briefing meetings for both Council and residents, as well as attempting to support those who can't, or don't want to, engage online.

My initial thoughts are;
  • can we redesign the road network to address the concerns of residents at Clamp Farm?
  • can we keep the majority of vehicle movements further away from the village by focussing any logistics site closer to the river?
  • pedestrian access, especially the main footpath from the village to Cedars Park, needs to be protected and encouraged
  • is there potential for new public transport links to the site, given the number of new jobs to be created?
There is also a conflict here, in that the District Council have invested a lot in the purchase of the site, and that's effectively our money, so we have some interest in the success of the project in that income generated will fund local services.

On a personal note, I have become the Vice Chair of the Mid Suffolk South group of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the umbrella group for Town and Parish Councils across the county, which enables councillors to come together and discuss issues of mutual interest, and to lobby both District and County Councils where helpful. It also provides training for councillors to improve our knowledge and skills bases.

At its September meeting, I raised the issue of punctures, as residents had reported increased tyre problems, to see if this was an issue elsewhere. There wasn't much of a response, although the Chair of Offton and Willisham Parish Council shared my concern. I find myself wondering if it might be linked to the top dressing of rural roads, so it might be worth raising with Suffolk Highways.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

A slightly stunned parish councillor makes it to the big league?

Two weeks ago, I was merely the Chair of a small, albeit perfectly formed, Parish Council of a small village in a backwater of mid-Suffolk. I had, in all honesty, only become Chair due to a friendly ambush by my fellow councillors, who had decided that I might make a half decent job of the role. They have subsequently re-appointed me twice, which might suggest that I'm doing a halfway decent job of it, although it might equally be that they don't fancy the job much.

Two weeks ago, I "turned up" at a virtual meeting of the Mid Suffolk South branch of the County Association of Local Councils, only to find that there was a hitherto unexpected vacancy for its Vice Chair. And, as nobody else wanted the job, I was elected without competition. So far, so good.

That position also gave me a place on the Board of the County Association and, in that capacity, I joined a Zoom meeting this morning for our Autumn meeting. All very nice, all very friendly, and no great surprises. That was, right up until the point where the elections took place...

Our Chair was re-elected without challenge, but a new Vice-Chair was needed. There was a little shuffling until a volunteer was found, which was good. We reappointed our representative to the East Suffolk Council Collaborative Communities Board (I'll admit that I don't know what that does, but as I don't live in East Suffolk, that isn't critical, I suspect) and then came to the last election, that of our representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils, the English umbrella body for the third tier of local government and our equivalent of the Local Government Association.

There didn't seem to be anyone who wanted the job and, as a rookie Board member, I thought it wise to ask what it did. An explanation was given, which seemed harmless enough, but there still wasn't any great rush to take on the role. I was then asked if my question implied some interest and, perhaps foolhardily, suggested that, if nobody else came forward, I'd do it. Nobody did. And so, I got the job.

Each County Association has one member of the National Assembly, so it's not exactly a huge body, but I appear to now have a national platform. And yes, my job is to represent the interests of my county and its town and parish councils, but as a crash course in how the third tier of local government works, it's likely to be pretty intense.

Luckily, I have a strong support network, expert guidance at my disposal, a highly efficient Chief Executive to keep me on the straight and narrow and a predecessor happy to share his insights and experiences. My first meeting is in early December, so if I thought that I had a lot of reading to do a fortnight ago, I've got a lot more on my hands now...

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

It looks like the Government might have a fight on the hands over their planning proposals

I live in a pretty conservative part of the country - Conservative administrations are the norm rather than the exception - and local Conservatives are, generally, pretty supine in the face of Conservative governments. However, the Government's proposals, effectively giving local residents one shot at setting the limits on development and being effectively silenced thereafter, have gone down rather badly here in Suffolk.

Now, you might suggest that the reason for that is the expectation that it will lead to more housing being mandated here, and that's probably true, but the strength of the response from my local District Council is unusual, to say the least. the Portfolio holder for planning in Mid Suffolk has declared;

These proposals do not support our ambition for people to be proud to call our communities home, or the work on our Joint Local Plan to provide clarity and reassurance about when and where required new homes will be built.

We do not believe that these changes will address delays in housing delivery. However, they will have a detrimental effect on affordable housing, homes for those struggling to get on the property ladder, and funding for local projects.

I welcome the cross-party discussions with my fellow councillors – and I hope that our response, along with the views of Mid Suffolk residents who participate in the consultation, are listened to by central government.

His counterpart in Babergh (think South Suffolk) was slightly more open in terms of his reasoning;

All councillors share serious concerns about the government’s proposals, which go against our councils’ commitment to ensuring that the right types of homes are built in the right places.

The suggested changes are unrealistic and could see our district’s current housing target of 416 new homes per year almost double – impacting our communities, our infrastructure and our rural landscape.

Development is incredibly important to us all and I would urge residents and local groups to respond directly to the consultation before a final decision is made.

It will be interesting to see how Robert Jenrick responds to this, especially as Dominic Cummings is seen to be behind this...

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...