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...