Sunday, March 07, 2021

A sudden pricking sensation in the arm...

Given the progress of the COVID-19 vaccination drive, combined with my somewhat advanced age, it has been becoming increasingly likely that the moment where I received an invitation to be jabbed would soon be nigh.

To be honest, it’s not something I had given a great deal of thought to - I had blithely assumed that I would get an invite, book myself in, get jabbed and that would be it. I am not, as many of my friends will acknowledge, one of the most contemplative people out there, more a day to day, dealing with the problems in front of me sort of person.

So, when it became clear yesterday that my age cohort should just go ahead and book our jabs, I didn’t just immediately go ahead and book. I wasn’t excited by the prospect, or even particularly relieved. It’s not because I’m vaccine sceptical, or that I’m afraid. I don’t particularly mind needles, and trust the medical profession and science generally and, in this instance, specifically.

I did book in though, mostly because not only is Ros keen - she worries about me - but vaccination removes one of the many hurdles before we can go to visit my step granddaughter, which is incredibly important. It did seem a bit odd that I couldn’t book at our local vaccination centre in Stowmarket, but it’s a nice enough drive to Hadleigh, and Ros was happy to drive there and back to make it possible. And so, on Friday, I would get my first jab, with the second on 28 May in Ipswich. All set, we could relax a bit...

And then, late yesterday evening, I received a text message from my surgery...
Dear Mark Valladares, your Practice is inviting you to book an appointment for a FREE COVID-19 vaccination. Please support us and book the earliest Date and Time available...

Given that, when Ros got a similar message, she was able to book a slot as early as the same afternoon, I thought that I might see if I could get an earlier, more convenient appointment. And that’s why I’ll be getting jabbed in just over an hour from now.

Am I excited? Actually, no, not really. Will it change how I interact with the world around me? I rather think not, and certainly not for the next three weeks whilst the first jab builds up its effectiveness in my system. Will it change the way I evaluate risk? Possibly, but probably not until I’ve had my second dose of the vaccine.

It will be interesting to see if there are any psychological benefits from receiving the vaccine - it has felt like a long winter, even for me - and perhaps, combined with a gradual release from restrictions and longer, brighter days, it will lift some of the gloom that hangs over so many...


NHS pay - a mistake on so many levels...

I’ve been of the view for some time that this is a lucky, rather than competent, government. Which, if you’re an opponent of it, is a part blessing - what would be it be like if they were competent as well?

Evidence of that comes after what was a pretty decent budget in presentation terms (I hold back from any suggestion that it was a good budget in economic or political terms at this stage), in that a 1% pay rise for NHS workers has gone down so badly both with the staff concerned - not unreasonably - but with the general public too.

You could argue that, in the midst of an economic crisis, that pay restraint across the public sector is a good thing. You could suggest that it sets an example to the rest of the workforce across the private sector. Admittedly, you’d be wrong, but you could try to make the case. For, as has been proved time and time again, employers across the private sector will pay what is required to keep staff and recruit them.

If the NHS was a private business - and please don’t think that I’m suggesting that it would be a good idea - senior management would be dealing with the problems of staff shortages by offering better pay scales and various arrangements to lure people away from other career choices. In the United States, nurses get rather higher salaries, and employers have to compete to employ them.

Here, the competition within the sector isn’t as great, although it still exists, but the system encourages nurses to work agency shifts because the pay is better and, because supply of nurses is outstripped by demand, there is a high level of certainty that agency work will be available. What that means is that a chunk of money is taken out of the NHS to profit employment agencies who have an effectively captive customer base.

It is a reminder that Conservatives have a very selective affinity to the market, holding the view that the public sector is immune to it. And, if by trying to persuade NHS workers that they should appreciate applause in lieu of actual money they end up losing the nurses that they’ve promised us, it will demonstrate again that, when it comes to competence, they really can’t cut it.

But, they are lucky. A supine media, a sufficiently credulous public, a sycophantic backbench and an Official Opposition still trying to get off of its knees means that there is nobody making the case that competence matters. Where else would a Government mired in procurement scandals, which has consistently overpromised and underdelivered, and has exiled most of its talent to the backbenches and beyond be ten points or more ahead in the polls?

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Corporation tax changes - haven't we been here before?

It would be fair to say that, in terms of corporation tax, I've been around the block a time or two. There was a time in my career when I spent my days dealing with starting rates, small company rates and basic rates, with marginal rate relief and associated companies. For a mathematician, it was actually quite fun to do, especially when dealing with accountants who, for want of a better phrase, weren't quite as numerate.

But that was, supposedly behind us, with one rate of corporation tax. Not any more.

We don't have a starting rate - that was a Gordon Brown invention - but we do have a small companies rate of 19% and a basic rate of 25% from 1 April 2023. What that generates is marginal rate relief for companies whose profits are between £50,000 and £250,000 to taper the step between 19% and 25% - otherwise you pay £9,500 on profits of £50,000 and £3,000.25 on the next £1. For, unlike income tax, you don't have tax bands - it's all or nothing in that sense. Tapering mitigates that somewhat.

There is, a numerate lay person may think, a way of avoiding the higher rate by simply setting up multiple companies, all of whose profits fall below £50,000. Unfortunately, we're traditionally a bit cleverer than that, and so the £50,000 and £250,000 will be divided by the number of associated companies plus one, where an associated company is (broadly) one under the control of the same person or group of people.

It's a little tricky to regulate from the perspective of a compliance body, but the information needed to do so is freely available.

I was, I admit, slightly surprised, as it does complicate corporation tax a bit more and I suspect that the accountancy profession won't be wholly delighted to see it return after eight years, but it will keep some of my colleagues in a job, and give me something to look out for whilst carrying out my current duties.

And, of course, we've still got quarterly instalment payments...

Monday, March 01, 2021

Conservatives lack an understanding of the Civil Service - which is why they're fated to make the same mistakes over and over again

I have to admit that "Centre Write", the inhouse magazine of "Bright Blue", which describes itself as;

 the independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism

is not my everyday read. Indeed, I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to read it if I hadn't been referred to it by an article in that pageturner "Civil Service World". It just goes to show how the internet works really, luring you down a darker and darker path until, lurking in the forest, you encounter a Conservative.

I jest... a bit.

What drew my gaze was an article by Simone Finn, or Baroness Finn as I should correctly refer to her, who is Boris Johnson's Deputy Chief of Staff and, somewhat curiously, a Non-Executive Board Member at the Cabinet Office (that does feel like a conflict of interest, but...), in which she argues that reforming the civil service is vital for spreading opportunity.

In particular, my attention was drawn to this;

This means breaking up the current career ladder, welcoming people into the service not just for secondments but for periods of two years or more, so that the civil service can gain from people whose expertise is in, for example, renewable energy.

That rather makes me want to shout, "Miss, miss, I know the answer. You mean "Interchange"!". Because yes, we tried that more than twenty years ago - I remember it well.

I had just joined my Regional Personnel Team as the new Internal Recruitment Co-ordinator and there was talk of a new scheme to inject fresh blood in to the Civil Service, new ideas, radical new ways of doing things. And it was meant to be a two-way street, with civil servants being sent off to learn cutting edge stuff from the private sector. Indeed, it was said that taking part in the Interchange programme was going to be something that was expected of you if you were to become a mandarin. And, as somebody was needed to go to a seminar in Grantham (yes, it's all glamour), it was decided that the rookie Executive Officer could take on responsibility for it.

There were some problems. Persuading private sector experts to join the Civil Service for a period was made difficult by the drop in salary implied unless their employer was willing to fund the difference, and there was some suspicion that some of these experts were focused on trying to work out how our systems worked so as to advantage their employers. And, because politicians and the media had done a pretty effective job in denouncing civil servants for being dull-witted and wedded to vast tiers of bureaucracy, it was hard to persuade the private sector that providing opportunities to such apparently useless people was a good idea.

Interchange, not surprisingly perhaps, suffered a slow, lingering death.

And, to be honest, not that much has changed. The civil service has come under more attack from politicians and the media, not less, the pay gap has not so much grown as yawned, and it takes more than two years to embed meaningful change. Besides, if a civil servant is that good, they're more likely to be poached than trained.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Creeting St Peter - some thoughts from outside of the Parish Council box on Gateway 14

As the Chair of the Parish Council, my brief has been to stick very much to the Gateway 14 planning application itself, attempting to focus on what is in it, how it might best be altered, what is wrong with it, rather than the actual concept.

With that in mind, I encouraged the formation of a separate Campaign Group which could roam more freely without the limits that a Parish Council might feel to stay within, and they have really taken the ball and run with it, with a Twitter account and enthusiastic use of other social media. But it's more than just a mouthpiece, they've worked incredibly hard on taking the entire application apart to see how it might work (or not).

It's not easy, because understanding how the machinery of local government works, finding out who you need to talk to (and actually getting to talk to them) and creating an effective lobbying operation is something that is often left to the professionals. Instead, they have pretty much done it themselves, and been very effective. The signs, like the one shown above, are merely the visual element of their campaign, which has included effective media outreach.

Not only have they drawn up a comprehensive list of issues that will, or may, need to be addressed, but they've taken the question of the entire financial viability of the site and encouraged residents across what I might describe as the 'Greater Stowmarket' to hold their representatives to account.

You see, there is a genuine question as to whether or not this project is now too big to fail. The District Council spent a lot of money to purchase what was agricultural land with existing permission to build a business and logistics park, something in the order of £20 million apparently, and will need to spend almost as much on the infrastructure and mitigation. They do have the advantage of being able to borrow at rates that are rather less than commercial but it really does have to work, and if it doesn't, there's an uncomfortable sense that council tax payers across Mid Suffolk will be on the hook for some time to come.

And yes, they've been a bit unlucky. The site was purchased in 2017, and things have moved on a bit since then. Firstly, 2019 saw the balance of power on the Council shift significantly from huge Conservative majority to knife-edge (sixteen Conservatives and an Independent face twelve Greens and five Liberal Democrats), and then the small matter of a pandemic changed, potentially, everything. What will be needed in a post-Covid world? And will it be needed in Stowmarket?

The Campaign Group have written to every councillor on Mid Suffolk District Council with a series of challenging questions about the financial viability of the project and I admit that, if I was a Councillor, probably relying on the advice of the Council's Officers, I'd be a little nervous about what I was being asked to sign up to. I suspect that very few of the Councillors truly understand the possibilities, and some of them probably feel that they have little choice - there is little prospect of escaping the financial commitment, even if they were opposed to it in 2017.

Ultimately, I'd be surprised if the project was to be abandoned - there's too much at stake for that. But it's entirely possible that the District Council might be a little more wary in future, especially if Conservative councillors start being questioned on the doorstep and in their communities about what seem like eye-watering sums to the small towns and villages that make up Mid Suffolk.

But we'll see what effect they, and we, will have had soon enough. For the time being though, a community waits slightly nervously...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Gateway 14 - the response is written...

And so, the formal response is on its way, and I can relax just a little. Here's my summary of our thoughts as a Parish Council...

It would be fair to say that Creeting St Peter has lived with the prospect of development of the site for a quarter of a century or more, and we are realistic in terms of our expectation as to its future. However, we feel that there is an opportunity for the District Council to create something which is an exemplar in terms of the future of the workplace post-Covid, offers a positive experience not only to investors but to the workforce and reflects the villages and communities that surround it. 

The site itself is, we acknowledge, not an area of outstanding natural beauty but as part of the working countryside it serves as an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life, both for its residents and for those who take advantage of the opportunities it offers. It is a refuge for flora and fauna that would otherwise be driven further into the margins. This will be lost, and not replaced. 

We are also concerned as to the effect that Gateway 14 will have on our hamlet village. The poor state of our road network, the risks of increased traffic flows through a village without a means of separating pedestrians from other road users, and the encroachment of the site, extending Stowmarket two-thirds of the way across the gap between town and hamlet, will impact on our community for many years to come. 

Under such circumstances, it is not unreasonable to ask what Mid Suffolk District Council is offering to our community in terms of benefits that might accrue. Simon Knott, the highly regarded chronicler of East Anglia’s churches, wrote of our Parish Church; 
“St Peter is separated from its village by the four lanes of the A14, the roar of which can be heard from the churchyard. How has this happened? Simply, Creeting St Peter consists mainly of council houses and farm cottages, working people’s houses. People like this do not get asked if they want a motorway at the bottom of the garden.” 
In this instance, whilst we acknowledge that we have been asked, we want to know that we are being listened to as well, and we trust that you will take our reasonable concerns into account in reaching a judgement on the acceptability of this planning application and the conditions you set upon it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Drafting, drafting and more drafting - a Parish Chair and a planning application response...

It is, in all probability, the most challenging planning application that Creeting St Peter Parish Council has had to deal with in many a long year, and the stakes are high. A 156 hectare business and logistics park, featuring a range (in both senses of the word) of "megasheds" (as the Gateway 14 Residents Campaign Group refer to them) on the edge of our village is not something that a micro-parish such as ours is really equipped to deal with, given the imbalance of resourcing.

However, we are going to give it our best shot and, as Chair, I feel obliged to lead the effort. What is a Chair otherwise, if not to lead, after all?

But it is daunting, as I've noted previously. How do you balance the fears of the community against what is credible? What evidence is there, and can it be properly interpreted? Can you avoid mission creep, whereby existing problems are conflated with the possible but unevidenced impacts of the new development?

And so, I've spent a week mulling over our response, incorporating the contributions of my fellow councillors where I can, praying in aid the concerns of various statutory consultees - Natural England, Suffolk Highways, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to name but three - and professional Council staff where their credibility is likely to be higher than ours but where their issues reflect ours.

It isn't easy. You have to create something which is likely to be taken seriously by the various councillors who sit on the Mid Suffolk Planning Committee, makes the points that really matter, but doesn't bury them in surplus verbiage. That isn't always one of my strengths - I tend to write like a slightly cautious Victorian bureaucrat. Given that I am a slightly cautious early twenty-first century bureaucrat, perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

The fear is that, in attempting to be reasonable and realistic, you end up failing to sufficiently press the community's case but I have concluded that my only option is to be as true to my beliefs as possible and write a response which is honest, balanced and credible. At least, that's what I think it is.

We'll see soon enough, I guess...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Conservatives and their contradictions over free speech

Let’s be honest here, Conservatives don’t believe in free speech. They don’t even really believe in freedom of speech within the confines of what might generally be accepted as reasonable, i.e. restrictions on hate speech, or topics that would offend the overwhelming majority. In truth, most Conservatives tend to believe in freedom of speech to say things that they approve of.

They are, unsurprisingly, now attempting to intimidate academic institutions to express only those opinions which meet with their view of British history - for which one should almost certainly read “English history”, given that most teaching of British history tends to revolve around the English conquering by force or via politics the other three parts of the United Kingdom.

And, given that history tended to be written by the winners, there is a tendency to highlight British successes rather than challenge the perceived wisdom. So, for example, your perspective on World War II might differ if you were living in Bedfordshire or Bengal, where more than two million died as a result of what is widely regarded as a man-made famine under British control. You might look upon the Anglo-Zulu War as a great triumph against the odds - although highly disciplined troops, heavily armed, tend to have a significant advantage over tribesman armed with spears - yet not want to emphasise the invention of concentration camps when fighting the Boers twenty or so years later. After all, we’ve established that gathering populations in a confined space and allowing them to die through starvation and disease is a bad thing, right?

And history changes too. Take, for example, the English Civil War, where Conrad Russell was, apart from being an adornment to the Liberal Democrat benches in the Lords, a leader in re-evaluating how it came to pass, looking at source material in new ways. History moves on, as we collect more data, as researchers share their findings in ways not easily matched before the advent of the internet.

The Empire offers a number of significant challenges. Was it a summarily good thing, or are you merely measuring the outcomes in relation to the incredibly low bar that is the Belgian Congo? If the British Empire was such a boon to economic development, why was India’s share of the world economy estimated at 23% before invasion, and just 4% at independence? It might be fairer to say that, if you were a white colony, the Empire wasn’t so bad. If, on the other hand, you were one of Rhodes’s natives to be treated as a child and denied the franchise, it might reasonably be said that the Empire was a brutal oppressor.

Yes, building railways and other infrastructure was a useful inheritance when countries gained their independence, but as none of it was built with their interests at heart - it was built to enable military control and to extract the wealth - that smacks of post-event justification.

So, as a liberal and as someone of Indian descent, I oppose what is, effectively, the imposition of a repressive world view on the rights of academics, and anyone else for that matter, to express a variety of perspectives on events that have taken place, in order to create an idealised perspective on a divided country.

No people are perfect, no nation’s impact on the world around it is uniformly benevolent, and history is meant to inform and educate - we are supposed to learn from our history and the mistakes we make. But then, this Government doesn’t like to be reminded of its failures, and it refuses to learn from its mistakes.

Our job as liberals is to hold the Government of the day to account, to suggest means to improve the state of the nation and its people. That means allowing debate on events past and present, and encouraging diversity of thought, and so we need to shine a light on this Government’s desire to suppress views it doesn’t much like.

Because, if they get away with that, they’ll happily suppress political dissent and opposition by inches, as we see in their restrictions on political campaigning, their attempts to neuter the Electoral Commission and their move to change constituency boundaries based on registered voters rather than population.

History is written by the winners. Perhaps it would be nicer if more of us were able to be winners...