Thursday, March 09, 2023

Creeting St Peter: might there be some tangible benefits from Gateway 14?

Well, work on the infrastructure needed for Gateway 14 is pretty much complete, and construction of the first (and largest) building on the site is approved and underway.

The next issue for our community is the distribution of the Section 106 (Town and Country Planning Act 1990) funds associated with the project, something that we have little experience of. Being a countryside village, as defined by Mid Suffolk District Council, we don’t get much development, and thus we’ve never been assigned any such funds in the thirteen years since I first joined the Parish Council.

I’d attended a Town and Parish Council Liaison Meeting last month, hosted by the District Council, where they updated us on key issues that might impact our sector and communities, and part of that was a presentation by the Communities Team. Their role is to interact with us to improve our relationship and help us to achieve benefits for our towns and villages.

I thought that this might offer an opportunity to deal with some of our key issues - the playground and the Church Room - and so I stopped Simon Lanning, the dedicated team member covering our area, and had a few very polite words. That led to an agreement that a more structured conversation might be helpful. And so, on Tuesday, we met on Teams, accompanied by Josh Holmes, one of his colleagues who specialises in grant applications.

My first question was to confirm the size of the pot, which turned out to be £190,000. Now, that does have to be shared with Stowmarket, but it was noted that Stowmarket do have access to other pots of cash, which means that, whilst we shouldn’t be greedy, a simple division based on population shouldn’t limit our requests.

So, resetting our playground’s slide would be smiled upon, as well as some new equipment if needed. And, whilst the only community building belongs to the Parochial Church Council, as it is the key social hub for the village, funding may well be available to make it, say, accessible for disabled users. Some of the more desperately needed repairs might be covered too, which would be very welcome.

There was also news on the footpath which links the village to Gateway 14, in that funds have been set aside for a major upgrade. Simon and Josh have agreed to seek an update from the County Council in terms of what is happening and when, which is very kind of them.

So, we may see improvements to our village, which would be lovely, and a legacy to future residents.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Enter bureaucrat stage left with the early morning call for a separate vote

So, with a bit of help from my colleagues, especially Nick da Costa, the ever helpful Chair of Federal Conference Committee, I’ve managed to navigate the Conference Standing Orders (note to self - might be worth reading them at some point) in pursuit of my proposed change to Business Motion F3.

It’s been agreed by FIRC and the current Liberal Democrat member of the ALDE Party Bureau that I am right to be concerned, and that they won’t object to my proposal, and Nick has advised that he’d prefer a separate vote. And so, I lodged the request using the surprisingly user friendly webform by the deadline and all appears well.

I am going to find out what is required of me next. My working presumption is that I ought at the very least to be in the hall for the motion, and that I ought to prepare a few words of explanation so that Hannah Bettsworth (FIRC Vice Chair) can accept it on behalf of the movers.

Now you might wonder why I’m so vague about this. Curiously, I don’t think that I’ve ever tried to amend a motion at a Liberal Democrat conference - I’m not a policy geek and, usually, not that organised. I’ve amended my name to amendments from time to time, but only as “fifth spear carrier” and not with any intention to intervene myself. So, it will be a new experience for this bureaucrat.

I will, at least, hopefully be fortified by a decent cooked breakfast…

Sunday, March 05, 2023

That'll teach me to read the Conference papers a bit earlier next time...

I'm a Liberal Democrat and I read constitutions. That makes me, it seems, slightly geeky, even by the standards of Liberal Democrats. However, occasionally, I spot something that makes me think and, having started the process of organising my diary for Spring Conference, I allowed myself to be distracted by the content.

That allowed me to spot agenda item F3: Business Motion - FIRC. It is, in the generality, a good thing, in that it tidies up the way in which the Party delegations to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and Liberal International are chosen and led, codifying what was done by custom and practice in the past. The problem is that I think that it contradicts the Internal Regulations of the ALDE Party. See what you think...

F3: Business Motion - FIRC

1. Our delegation to the ALDE Council shall comprise:

b) Any Liberal Democrat members of the ALDE Bureau, unless they already have their own place as Council members.

whilst the ALDE Party Internal Regulations say:

The following persons will be entitled to attend the meetings of the Council, with voting rights:

b) Members of the ALDE Party Bureau. Each Bureau member carries an individual vote and cannot take an additional proxy vote, either on behalf of another member of the ALDE Party Bureau or of an ALDE Party member party.

Now call me quirky and old fashioned, but that suggests that ALDE Party Bureau members can't vote on behalf of member parties, whilst the Business Motion puts any Liberal Democrat member of the Bureau in exactly that position. Doesn't it?

There is still time (just) to amend it, but I don't want to appear to be being awkward for the sake of it. Suggestions, Liberal Democrat hive mind?

Saturday, March 04, 2023

National Grid: bringing power lines to a village near you whether you like it or not

One of the challenges of changing the energy mix is that you need infrastructure to support it. So, if you're going to build a swathe of new offshore wind power generation, you need to get that electricity onshore and to the places that it is desperately needed. And, in Suffolk, that means that we're a bit in the way. 

We get that, we really do. However, what we'd really like is that, if you're going to run overhead cables across the countryside, we'd like to be consulted and we'd like them not to run over the village. We aren't even a big village, so it wouldn't take an awful lot to meet our wishes.

I ought to admit that, when the East Anglia Green project was first mooted, I wasn't terribly engaged. In the absence of a Parish Clerk, I was rather more focussed on keeping the Parish Council show on the road and my "bandwidth" was somewhat limited as a result. But, now that I have taken a closer look at it, one thing stands out. Whilst, in the rest of the county, the preferred route for the new overhead transmission lines avoids villages, in our case, the graduated swathe (the purple stripe on the map) passes straight over us. And yes, the darker colours (where they would ideally route the pylons) are just to the east of the village, but they might well be very close to our small community.

So, because I'm curious like that, I rang the East Anglia Green consultation hotline three weeks ago. I reached a recorded message thanking me for my call but, at the end of that message, instead of encouragement to leave a message or, better still, a human being to talk to, there was silence. I waited for a while but nothing seemed to be happening. Perhaps there had been a glitch and I had been cut off so I rang again, only for the same thing to happen. This time though, I waited... and waited... and waited... for more than two minutes until, suddenly, another recorded voice invited me to leave a message.

A little bit later, I received a telephone call, apologising for the fact that I hadn't gotten through. A very polite woman listened as I explained the problem with their telephone line and assured me that someone would call me, either later that afternoon or on Monday, to answer my question and any others I might have.

Fair enough, I thought, and awaited a call. I'm still waiting for it.

My suspicions should have been aroused by what happened when I rang the hotline in the first place. It did seem as though, by accident or design, that it was a means of putting off potential questioners. And, if they hadn't noticed the problem already, it offers a sense that they don't really care.

I'm not opposed to having pylons. They've got to go somewhere, and the existing infrastructure means that a north-south route across Mid Suffolk is inevitable. But we'd like to talk about the type of pylons used - we'd quite like the more modern T-shaped ones - and we'd like to input our thoughts into the exact route.

But I have a nasty feeling that being reasonable is, in their eyes, the same as being a doormat. And they wonder why local communities are so opposed to major infrastructure projects on their doorsteps...

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Creeting St Peter - a little bit closer to McDonalds…

It would be fair to say that the Gateway 14 development has been a part of my life for the best part of five years now, with the initial controversy over the placement of a business and enterprise park on our doorstep succeeded by the long and wearying hybrid planning application phase during which a plucky parish council, working alongside a residents actions group, strove to improve the original proposals.

In the end, the District Council, the owners of Gateway 14, pretty much got their way, as was fairly inevitable. We did get some mitigations, with a bund to screen the site from the nearby group of properties at Clamp Farm, a promised electric bus service to transport workers to and from Stowmarket town centre and improvements to the lighting and ecosystem protection.

Last week saw a ceremony to mark the commencement of work on the new distribution centre for "The Range" and today we had the official opening of Gateway Boulevard, the spine road for the development.

So far, so meh. But, for residents of Creeting St Peter, it meant the final closure of our old road to Stowmarket, and its replacement with a new, more direct route to Tesco (our nearest supermarket), Stowmarket and the A14. And so, a few of us turned up for the opening ceremony.

What had been a bright and sunny morning had become a rather raw, cloudy afternoon, heavy with the threat of rain, but the local dignitaries had turned up, councillors, the Mayor of Stowmarket and the board of Gateway 14 Ltd, to witness the cutting of a ribbon by James Caston, Chair of Mid Suffolk District Council.

With the official opening complete, there was an offer of tea and cake. However, given that it was a bit bleak, and I had work to get back to, Ros and I decided to skip the free calories and drive home... using the new road. In the picture, you might make out a yellow van, out of which an employee of the contractors got before kicking the cones into the nearby ditch and thus effectively opening the road to through traffic, which makes us the second people to drive out of Gateway 14 towards the Creetings.

I'll remember it for the rest of my days.

It must be said though that, finally, the whole Gateway 14 thing feels a bit more real and, for residents of Creeting St Peter, there is a tangible benefit, in that our journey times are reduced and a few existing highways problems have been solved.

It also means that we feel a little less detached from Stowmarket which, if you don't live here, might seem a bit strange. But our village has always been far enough away from Stowmarket to feel as though we're not connected, yet close enough for residents to benefit from a convenient mainline railway station and the services that a decent-sized town has to offer. I do wonder if, in time, it will change the dynamic of our community.

And now, we're all going to have to get used to using different routes to get back to the village. I'm sure that we'll adapt eventually...

Friday, January 27, 2023

Ros in the Lords: Net Zero

I was asked at a recent Parish Council about the action we have taken towards Suffolk's goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. And yes, even a tiny parish like Creeting St Peter can make a contribution, as Ros noted yesterday...

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for securing today’s debate so soon after the publication of this excellent report. In his report, Skidmore says that
“there must be more place-based, locally led action on net zero. Our local areas and communities want to act on net zero, but too often government gets in the way. The Government must provide central leadership on net zero, but it must also empower people and places to deliver.”
I could not agree more. At this point, I should declare an interest as President of the National Association of Local Councils, the representative body for town and parish councils. They cover everything from the tiny parish in which I live, with a precept of a few thousand pounds, to some of our largest towns with budgets of many millions.

So, as the first tier of local government, they should not be overlooked in the delivery of net zero. Many are already providing place-based, locally led action. Many have put climate change on their agenda and are actively looking for ways in which they and their communities can play their part in delivering net zero. If time permitted, I would share with the House some of the many case studies of strong local leadership and practical projects, such as tree planting, recycling schemes, car charging points and much more.

With their clear place-based remit, they are uniquely positioned not just to act themselves but also to act as a catalyst for community and faith groups, local businesses and local government at other levels. Crucially, they can ensure that action is not just concentrated in large urban centres, and that even rural parishes can play their part. So, when the Government come to consider recommendation 20 on the establishment of trailblazer net-zero communities, I do hope that at least some of them will be led by ambitious town and parish councils with a proven track record. But they could do more. These councils need to be empowered by extending the general power of competence, and by the removal of administrative barriers.

Government funding streams are, frankly, a mess. Across government, there are too many funding streams that are too complex, too expensive to administer and deliver and often incoherent. That is not just my view but that of the NAO. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee has made many of the same points on this agenda. Local authorities now find that they cannot bid because they simply cannot afford to. The Government should undertake a massive simplification, particularly with regard to net-zero funding, and ensure that, this time, town and parish councils are entitled to bid and play their part, because they are often denied access.

I would add the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to the list of Bills that have already been mentioned. There is an opportunity to do some of this quite quickly, since what I have said reflects not just what Skidmore said but what all the organisations that gave evidence to him said. Parish and town councils are leading the neighbourhood planning revolution, and they will be vital to the next stage of delivering net-zero neighbourhood plans with their communities and their buy-in. However, that Bill offers some challenges to the neighbourhood plan process, and we will explore that as it progresses. Can the Minister assure us that the levelling-up Bill will be assessed against Skidmore’s report to make sure that it is not actively working against it?

Polling shows that there is a great public appetite to do more, but people are unsure about how best to contribute. It all feels somehow remote and too big for them as individuals to make a difference, but local action can bridge that gap by involving people and communities and making a real contribution to net zero.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

I am, for the first time in a long time, without a role within the Liberal Democrats. It feels... okay.

I am, as I've admitted in the past, the consummate Liberal Democrat bureaucrat. I have a seemingly unlimited curiosity about how the organisation works, read constitutions and standing orders because they matter and serve on committees so long as they interest me and I can make a contribution.

I stood down from Federal International Relations Committee at the end of last year having not sought re-election. I felt that I had pretty much run out of purpose - the Committee is running well, it's far more politically effective than it was when it first emerged from the last Governance Review, and there are some really good people leading it forward. I could have run - I might even have won - but I'd come to a good endpoint.

I did run for Federal Council - as much because I felt that my skills would be useful than out of a desire to take part in the wearying internal conflict over transphobia and its definition. But I lost, albeit narrowly, and was fairly relaxed about it. And I did earn a place on the Party's delegation to ALDE Party Council, which I'm still really pleased about.

For those of you who voted for me, many thanks.

But that leaves me with the responsibility to attend two meetings a year, somewhere other than in the United Kingdom. It's not exactly onerous, is it?

In truth, I find British politics a bit depressing. The never-ending sense that we have a government led by people who don't understand the importance of ethics and morality is bad enough, but I increasingly fear that they don't care, that they are actively attempting to undermine most of the truths I hold dear - that good governance is at the core of a successful, thriving state.

I've got my Parish Council responsibilities, which I take seriously enough, and my new roles at County and National level within the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and the National Association of Local Councils, where I sit on committees and offer up my thoughts in a scrutiny role. It's a bit like the Liberal Democrats but without the angst.

I am planning to attend Conference in York though - a hotel room is booked - so it's not as though I'm giving up the whole yellow thing. Perhaps a rest will be as good as a change...