Sunday, November 21, 2021

Creeting St Peter - can you really go on doing things the same old way?

Our Parish Council has seen rather a lot of change lately. Two resignations have led to two newcomers joining our group, and leave me as the sole directly elected member - and I was elected unopposed, which is barely but importantly different from being co-opted. And, with our Clerk having handed in her notice - it wasn’t acrimonious, I’m glad to say - it isn’t the Council that I once chaired.

I find myself with the sense that, whilst finding a new Clerk is obviously essential, there is the question of what sort of Council do we want to be, and how do we get there?

Under my somewhat idiosyncratic leadership, we’ve possibly been more active in terms of our responses to planning applications, and my active engagement in SALC has had the benefit of opening my eyes to other possibilities. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering if we couldn’t organise things differently. That’s slightly awkward, as I am still wholly determined to stand down as Chair at our 2022 Annual Parish Council meeting.

When I first became a councillor, portfolios were the thing. I had finance and wildlife in my portfolio - I always assumed that the wildlife element reflected my almost total lack of knowledge in the field. In my second incarnation, they had been given up, and Council was more collegiate in its approach. That said, we may have devolved too much to our highly capable Clerk.

Whilst I wouldn’t have wanted to have to replace her, her departure offers an opportunity to reflect, especially with a much changed Council with a new range of skills and experience. And, given that someone is going to have to take over as Chair, it offers scope for a Chair-elect to emerge as part of the process.

It will be interesting to see who comes forward, and how they fulfil the role. Having done the job for nearly four years, I’ve learned that I really wouldn’t describe myself as a Leader figure, more an administrator attempting to maintain good order. I find confrontation stressful, and have a tendency to delay decisions until the point where they can’t reasonably be delayed much further. Here in Creeting St Peter, that hadn’t proved to be much of a hindrance - how heated can things get when you’ve got a budget of £5,500 to spend each year, much of which isn’t particularly discretionary?

That tells me that I’ve possibly found my level in local government, as I can easily imagine life at District or County level to be more intense, more stressful, with decisions that, potentially, impact significantly on people’s lives, and much larger budgets. If you like, I acknowledge that at this time in my life, I’m something of an enthusiastic amateur. You can probably get away with that as District or County level too, but I’m not sure that I’d want to test the theory personally.

But I do want to see things done well. Even though our budget is small, our discretionary spend even smaller, we can at least run our affairs and serve our residents as best we can and, with District and County Councils seemingly ever more remote, we should try to encourage residents to take advantage of the services and facilities that are available, many of which they pay council tax to support.

So, there is much to think about, even if some of it feels a bit philosophical in nature. I’m a liberal, and I believe in good governance, openness and personal responsibility. Perhaps that offers a framework for a new way of working, here in the Gipping Valley?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Creeting St Peter - a new piece of local government jargon to master

There is always something to learn in the wonderful world of local government, and this week’s phrase is “stopping up order”.

As part of the Gateway 14 development, the road between our village and the Cedars Park area of Stowmarket will be closed, to be replaced by a more direct route running through the centre of the new business and enterprise park. In addition, the footpath that similarly links us to the edge of Stowmarket (particularly useful for a gentle stroll to Tesco) will be diverted around the proposed development sites. The stopping-up order permits the closing of the old road and diversion of the footpath and technically requires the approval of the Secretary of State for Transport. Whilst I’m fairly confident that Grant Shapps won’t actually be doing anything other than leaving the matter to a member of the National Transport Casework Team, it does behove us as a statutory consulted to take it seriously.

I’m not all that bothered about the proposed footpath diversion - it’s slightly longer but not much, and the surface will be much improved when upgraded to a bridleway.

The road, on the other hand, is more of a problem. In response, I’ve drafted a response as follows;


I write on behalf of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, the boundary of whose jurisdiction lies at the point where the newly proposed road joins the existing carriageway.

Whilst the concept underpinning the proposed stopping up of the existing highway and its replacement with the new route (indicated in orange on your draft plan) is supported by the Parish Council, there are two aspects which concern us.

Firstly, the proposed carriageway linking the roundabout to the point where it joins Mill Lane is intended to be considerably wider than the road it will feed traffic into. This will create a “pinch point” for all traffic leaving the planned development the new carriageway is intended to serve.

We would therefore urge conditions that mitigate against this sudden narrowing of the carriageway, perhaps including development of the existing section of Mill Lane as it continues in an easterly direction.

Additionally, the resultant change in carriageway width will occur on the right-angled corner where the new road joins the existing one. A key planning condition for the development for which the proposed new road is the key spinal route is that a 4.5 metre tall bund, with planting on top of that, is to be developed running along the south side of the new road at the point where it approaches Mill Lane. This will evidently eliminate sight lines until the point where the junction between old road and new is reached.

We therefore strongly recommend a redesign of the junction so as to remove the two right-angled bends from the current proposal, to be replaced with a smoothed transition, improving sight lines and reducing the incidence of congestion caused by heavy goods vehicles, in particular articulated lorries, meeting at a section of carriageway unsuited to traffic of that kind. It would also offer the benefit of reducing the amount of braking, and thus noise pollution, affecting residents of the residential properties adjoining the corners in question.

It should be noted that Mill Lane is already the primary route of access to and from the industrial facility at Grove Farm, and thus is used by articulated lorries delivering materials to, and finished products from, a concrete products factory, Poundfield Precast, and thus the question of access for heavy goods vehicles is very much a live one.

In our submission to Mid Suffolk District Council relating to the planning application creating the need for this stopping up order, we noted our concerns about the proposed road layout at Clamp Farm, highlighting the issues with drifting snow at that corner. Smoothing the corner would allow the drifting snow to gather beyond the road, ensuring that the road is open at all times.

We therefore call upon the Secretary of State to require a significant redesign of the intersection between the new road and the existing carriageway along the lines suggested above.

We trust that the issues which concern us have been raised with sufficient clarity, but would be happy to meet with you, or a colleague, to inspect the site and to explain our concerns in the context of the issues impacting upon it.

This is, I emphasise, a first draft response which I’ve asked my fellow councillors to consider, but I think that it’s a thoughtful one, given that there are some advantages to rerouting the road to Stowmarket. 

And, it’s a new piece of jargon for me to pick up, so that’s a thing, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Ros in the Lords - Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body: Annual Report

Ros served on the Sponsor Body, from its shadow period until this Summer. And, as a member during the period covered by the Annual Report, she wanted to raise some of her concerns about how the Restoration and Renewal Project was going...

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his introduction and his kind words to me.

It is interesting how much we can get accustomed to things over time. We turn up to this building and almost do not see the ever-encroaching scaffolding, the netting that was installed to stop masonry falling on us, the portakabins and the piles of rubbish that fill the historic courtyards on the ground floor. Despite this never-ending maintenance work, at a cost of around £2 million a week, the building is getting worse. We expect many of our staff to work in poky offices, some of which have little or no natural light, inadequate ventilation and poor temperature control. Colleagues with mobility issues struggle with stairs, steps, small lifts and heavy doors.

It is worth pausing sometimes to look at the faces of the tourists who look at our building, even in these rather difficult times. They cannot believe what they are seeing; frankly, I find it embarrassing that we have allowed the building to get into this state. On the other side of the building, hidden away, is a medieval cloister. It is reputed to have been the entrance that was used by Henry VIII when he came to the Palace. It has been virtually derelict for years. In these Houses, we make laws to protect buildings. We enforce them and expect other people to look after buildings to a standard that we ignore ourselves. This simply will not do.

I have been along to the small exhibition in the Royal Gallery. Pride of place is given to a small piece of masonry. It looks a bit theatrical, actually—it looks like a piece of polystyrene or something—but when you pick it up, then remember that it fell from the building, you realise, without being too apocalyptic, that it would have killed someone who was underneath it. I understand the justifiable concerns, particularly of Members of the House of Commons, about the expense of this project. I have much less sympathy with the unwillingness to leave this building, but it has resulted in the situation we see today.

Optimistic as I am, I really thought that we were getting somewhere when both Houses overwhelmingly supported the resolutions a couple of years ago. It was clear that there was to be a full decant of both Houses, and the sponsor body/delivery authority model was established. There was recognition that Parliament itself does not have the skills that are needed to undertake a project on this scale. This seemed a good way forward to me, so I supported it; I was pleased to join the sponsor body when it was formed. I put on the record now that every individual I worked with on the sponsor body was completely committed to this place. They brought skill and enthusiasm to their roles. We are lucky with the non-executives who have chosen to give their time to this project. They work well above their contracted hours and play a really important part.

However, personally, I am really worried about the future of this project—never more so than now. Although the sponsor body is intended to act as the client, it is of course Parliament that makes the key decisions. From the point of those resolutions to the point where the outline business case comes, it is the political leadership of Parliament, through these rather mysterious bodies called the commissions, which is calling the shots.

The noble Lord, Lord Deighton, and others have talked about the trade-offs; I think he talked about scope, schedule and cost. Of course these trade-offs are clear, but what troubles me about the model we have set up is that it enables some people to outsource those difficult decisions to the sponsor body. It has enabled them to say, “Just go away and make this happen. We don’t like these choices, so you go and sort it out”. I find this deeply troubling.

I am reassured that the Lords commission has been steadfast in its support for the approach in the resolutions, whereas the Commons has not been. I am perhaps not as warm-hearted as the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I understand that things change in the political world, but the problem with the timescales of this refurbishment is that there will always be a point when a new Parliament comes in. If we do not remain steadfast at some point, we will never progress.

At a point when the sponsor body should have been able to narrow down options for investigating and costing, it has had to add back in the option for a continued presence for the House of Commons, despite the fact that every individual and organisation that has looked at this for well over a decade has counselled against this approach on the grounds that it will cost more, take longer and introduce massive uncertainty. This was confirmed by last year’s strategic review, yet the Commons commission has added it back in. If this were to end up as the preferred choice of the Commons, I find it hard to believe that it would pass any of the value-for-money tests required by the Treasury. We would therefore have further extensive delays while that was negotiated and resolved.

The continued presence would be for the Commons only. I suspect that it neither knows nor cares about what happens to the House of Lords operationally or the impact it would have on costs. A full decant, or even a partial decant, is contingent on having somewhere to go. In the case of the Commons it is Richmond House, which is not under the control of the sponsor body; it is under the remit of the House of Commons.

Could the noble Lord, Lord Best, say what progress the Commons is making on a possible decant to Richmond House? My fear is that, if it does not get on with that, we will end up defaulting to a continued presence because it has nowhere else to go. The nightmare scenario is that picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, which is that, if the faults with the building turn out to be far worse than we think, the Commons would be committed to a continued presence in a building that is in a far more parlous state than we could have thought.

As well as these well-documented potential additional costs and risks with a continued presence, there are significant potential security risks with having hundreds of contractors working in the building while MPs are sitting. I understand that this is a sensitive area, but I hope that ways can be found to make the full security implications of this option crystal clear to those making the decisions.

The decant option for the Lords is, as we have heard, the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. It is owned by the Government, but it is a building that itself needs some considerable work on its core services, as well as to bring it up to the requirements for temporary accommodation for the Lords. A consequence of the Commons pushing on with a continued presence will be to lengthen considerably the amount of time the Lords will need to be in the QEII. I would have thought that would further add to the costs, because a building that is converted to a standard for five years might have to be rather differently dealt with if we are going to be in it for 10 or 15. Despite issues around commercial sensitivity, these costs again must be spelled out.

I am worried that the very real consensus that emerged across both Houses and all parties when we voted on the resolutions is now in danger of collapse under all sorts of competing pressures. I may be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that this House would ultimately vote for an option that it knows would cost considerably more, add risk to the project, and consign it to an extended period in temporary accommodation.

As we have heard, this will be the biggest restoration project undertaken anywhere in the world. It is an opportunity to preserve this building for the generations to come and to create a better working environment for the staff. I absolutely understand that the people who are answerable directly to an electorate in a way that we are not have real reservations about trying to make a case for spending money on this building, but the problem is that they are not doing it for themselves or for us. We could limp on somehow or other, but the building cannot limp on indefinitely. We owe it to future generations of parliamentarians, staff and the public to get on and deal with this now.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

NALC - it’s election time!

A few weeks ago, I mused upon whether or not to run for one of the various committees of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

Nominations closed on Monday, and with all of the three key leadership roles up for grabs (our Chair and both Vice-Chairs are term-limited), it will be interesting to see who emerges to take them on at a time of flux. There are significant challenges ahead as devolution bids roll out across the shire counties - how do town and parish councils sit in terms of service provision, for example? The new leadership will need to make sure that our voice is heard whilst establishing strong relationships with ministers and opposition spokespersons to maximise our influence.

We'll also need to develop our "asks" too. We've been successful in some areas - business rates on public lavatories, avoiding referenda on precept increases - but can we think bigger than that?

The elections take place in two stages;
  • voting for Chair, Vice-Chairs (finance and member services), Management Board and the Finance and Scrutiny Committee will occur between 10 and 22 November 2021
  • voting for the Policy Committee, the Larger Councils Committee and the Smaller Councils Committee will occur between 22 November and 6 December 2021
Results will be announced on 8 December, so I await my ballot papers and may the best candidate(s) win!

In the end, I did dwell on the question of whether to put my name forward but came to the conclusion that I was happy to be in an outer tier both actually and organisationally. I've sat on a lot of committees over the years (and I do mean a lot), and there's a danger that you end up sitting on a committee because you can rather than because you genuinely have something to offer.

Now that isn't to say that I have nothing to offer the right committee, but I'm also a great believer in scrutiny and there has to be someone on the outside willing to do that in a supportive, constructive way. I hope that one of those "someones" can be me, representing the voice of the many micro parishes who, because of their lack of capacity, tend to get overlooked to some extent. The very fact that I don't know everything, but bring my professional curiosity to the arena, will perhaps help.

Whatever happens though, I look forward to working with all of those who have committed themselves to work in support of taking NALC forward over the coming years. It is an organisation that will doubtless continue to play a huge role in terms of strengthening local government, and anyone who is part of that effort deserves my respect.

Friday, October 29, 2021

I appear to have become a grandfather...

Those of you who know me well will, perhaps, be slightly surprised by this news given my evident lack of children. But then, that's the thing about "second time around". Not only are you hopefully a bit better for the lessons you learned from a previous failure (in my case), but you benefit from the experiences of your new life partner.

Apart from the obvious general loveliness that is Ros, there are my two stepchildren, to whom I have become the evil stepfather they never knew they needed. In fairness, they've been generous and welcoming, which is not always how these things go. And now, there is a granddaughter.

And, despite my total lack of experience of small children - and at this point, I ought to reflect that I wasn't the best of uncles to my nephew and nieces (it's a long story which gains little value in the telling) - I have been surprised at how much fun this grandfathering has been.

It is early days, I acknowledge, and having spent six days with her, I suspect that it won't always be quite so blissful, but it is amazing how quickly you feel a sense of protectiveness towards a small person. It was certainly worth travelling more than three thousand miles for.

I even have my official grandfathering mug, designed so that I have tea whilst administering valuable advice on which way up to hold up a plastic star so that it fits through the hole in the top of the box it is stored in, or whether raspberries are more appropriate to the season than blueberries (the answer, by the way, appears to be "hardly ever"). It also has my official "grandfather name" on it, which will remind me who am I as I am overtaken by the inevitable "senior moments".

It is, I guess, a factor of modern life that with families more far flung than hitherto, that more grandparenting is in two dimensions rather than three, something which at least comes more naturally to me, with a family scattered across twenty time zones on four continents. But, it must be said, it's better in person...

Thursday, October 28, 2021

SALC: the Board meeting!

I have to admit that I've rather gotten behind with my reporting of events. You know how it is, you look at the blog and think "I really ought to write something" but never quite get round to it. I ought to do better...

But enough mumbling, and on with events.

I've now served a whole year on the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and, having been re-elected by Mid Suffolk South Area last month, I got to return for another term. The first item of business? Elections.

We've got a new Chair, Andrew Lewis, from Walberswick Parish Council, where he's their Chair too. He has a tough act to follow in William Sargeant, the Chair of Botesdale Parish Council, whose calm, dry wit and sense of ordnung served us so well. I think that Andrew will be just fine though - he's not one to allow meetings to drift into anecdotage, which I appreciate, and he brings a sense of professionalism to the task which suits our needs well.

I admit that I rather leant on Julie Bell, the Chair of Gislingham Parish Council, to take on the role of Vice-Chair, having noted how nice it would be to have a gender balanced leadership team. The fact that Julie is highly experienced in local government helps and she's a good meeting chair too, having had the pleasure of working with her at Mid Suffolk joint meetings.

Russ Rainger gamely agreed to continue as our representative on the East Suffolk Council Community Partnership Board, and I was reappointed as our representative on the NALC National Assembly - I think that my rather curious enthusiasm for the role surprised my colleagues.

I reported back on National Assembly matters before we turned to our finances. We're lucky in that we have a good Finance Officer and, being Suffolk, a cautious sense of the possible when considering expenditure, so it's fair to say that all is as well as one might hope.

We then turned to the knotty problem of membership subscriptions, something I've experienced before in other organisations. The challenge is to create a fee structure that is fair, relatively easy to explain and likely not to repel potential and current members. And, just as in my days on the Financial Advisory Committee of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, the basis upon which members are billed is a bit of a moving target, especially as development leads to sudden, dramatic population increases in relatively small communities. I believe that we have a workable solution, but we need to communicate it to member councils rather than just drop it on them from a height.

I was able to offer a solution to the question of pay awards for our professional staff which allows us, hopefully, to somewhat reflect their hard work and dedication in the face of the pandemic. Sometimes, being a mathematician by training comes in handy.

We considered the activity report and I continue to be impressed by the sheer volume of activity generated by a small team of dedicated professionals, including increasing collaborative working with neighbouring counties. There are definite advantages to pooling some services on a regional basis and, if we can develop sufficient capacity to play a leading role in that, I am sure we will.

There's a new Code of Conduct to consider, developed in conjunction with the Local Government Association, and whilst it can never resolve all of the problems that arise in the various tiers of local government, it at least offers a set of guidance that it consistent across the tiers, especially welcome to those amongst us who operate at more than one level.

We ended by renewing our Complaints and Motions policies, making sure that they're as up to date as they can be. Something that the pandemic has brought is a greater appreciation of different ways of doing things, especially through technology. I accept that, especially at Parish level, not everyone is comfortable with online working, but it offers access to those who might otherwise be excluded from the opportunities and training we offer - those with caring responsibilities, or disabilities, or who simply might not find it easy to get across the county to a physical meeting.

So, all in all, a very successful evening. Next up, our annual strategy meeting in February, which should be interesting and another step on my personal learning curve.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Sometimes, a lack of drama is most welcome…

It’s been a year since I somewhat unexpectedly became Vice Chair of the Mid Suffolk South group of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, and last night saw the election cycle come around to reset. It is occasionally hard to believe that it’s been a whole year but…

In truth, there wasn’t a huge rush to challenge me. After all, the job of Vice Chair is quite undemanding, but the Chair of the County Association was kind enough to say that I’d added value as the County’s representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils, which was appreciated - people seldom say thank you these days.

We discussed planning issues and there is a genuine sense of frustration that, having been encouraged to produce neighbourhood plans, these seem to be disregarded by the District Council when considering housing development. I admit to being a cynic about neighbourhood plans, although it had never really seemed like a valid use of our time to produce one for Creeting St Peter.

But if you insist on engaging local communities into developing a plan, and tell them that these will be critical in determining the future of their village, and then disregard them subsequently, you might not be surprised to find that those communities then look at you with suspicion thereafter.

As a Hamlet village, as defined by Mid Suffolk District Council, we’re basically excluded from consideration for more housing, given our complete lack of services. That tends to mean that our interest in any Local Plan extends as far as checking the map to see if they’ve changed the settlement boundary. And, given that, why would we go to the trouble and expense of preparing a neighbourhood plan?

We also discussed 20 mph speed limits. Again, I’m a bit cynical about their effectiveness given our experiences. Without enforcement, or engineering to slow speeding drivers, our 20 mph limit acts to provide almost false reassurance to pedestrian road users. And, without pavement, those on foot are sharing the space with metal boxes on wheels that tend to come out better in the event of a collision. I’d almost rather encourage pedestrians to take extra care when walking around the village.

I gave a brief report on events as the National Assembly, noting that we were expecting a 1% increase in the NALC membership fee based on the recommendation that would go to October’s Annual General Meeting. We discussed the payscale for Clerks, noting that the current pay offer has been rejected by their union.

At the end of the meeting, I asked if we could seek a briefing on devolution proposals for Suffolk, given that a bid has been put in by the County Council in conjunction with the Districts and Borough. That seemed to gain support, so we’ll see what comes of that. I find myself wondering what impact it might have on the ability of town and parish councils to influence decision making by the principal authorities.

So, all in all, an interesting meeting and I’d like to think that those councillors who attended found it useful.