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.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

NALC - elections are coming

I am, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, Suffolk's representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC). And, in that capacity, I have received this notice;

Nominations are open for NALC's National Assembly members for the upcoming elections in December 2021.

The primary objective of the National Assembly is to oversee the delivery of NALC’s objectives as set out in the constitution, to represent the interest of the local (parish and town) councils in England to provide support and coordination to as aspects of the work of local councils.

NALC is looking for passionate, committed, enthusiastic local councillors with the right skills to serve on its National Assembly and governing committees and support county associations' work.

Hmmm... my bureaucrat antennae twitch at the thought of running for election in an organisation which might benefit from my organisational skills and sense of process. I am, as bureaucrats go, sympathetic towards the politics of our sector and am lucky enough to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience possessed by Ros, i.e. she is perfectly willing to patiently explain why my slightly random musings might be undeliverable, impractical or unnecessary. That is a good thing, let me assure you. Think of it as the difference between a practitioner and a theoretician...

There are a range of roles up for grabs;
  • Chair
  • Vice-chair (finance)
  • Vice-chair (member services)
  • Management Board (six vacancies)
  • Finance and Scrutiny Committee (five vacancies)
  • Policy Committee (seven vacancies)
  • Larger Councils Committee (four vacancies)
  • Smaller Councils Committee (five vacancies)
noting that I'm ineligible to stand for the Larger Councils Committee.

As a relatively new member of the National Assembly, I wouldn't have the audacity to run for Chair or Vice-Chair, and the Management Board, I feel, requires a rather firmer grasp of the culture and environment of NALC than I can reasonably claim at this point.

That rather simplifies the options, although there is a fourth option, which is not to run at all. Organisations need chiefs and Indians, and I'm probably better qualified to be the latter than any other member of the National Assembly - I'm half-Indian, remember. You could, and I would, argue that committees need someone to ask questions of them from the outside, so to speak.

I've not traditionally been a policy wonk, although I have an enthusiasm for ideas and a sense of the possible, whilst my professional background suggests that I could contribute to the Finance and Scrutiny Committee. On the other hand, I am passionate about ensuring that micro councils like mine aren't overlooked in the rush towards local devolution deals and empowerment - there's only so much empowerment that small communities can handle.

Luckily, I've got nearly five weeks to ponder over whether to run or what to run for. It will also be interesting to see if people actually campaign or whether there is any organisation of slates - you can learn a lot about an organisation by how it runs its elections.

First though, I've got an election of my own to deal with...

Monday, September 20, 2021

Parish Council doesn't meet, which gives me some time to reflect...

There is one obvious peril when you only have five councillors, which that it doesn't take much to jeopardise quoracy and thus the ability to hold meetings. Holidays, ill health and, occasionally, sheer misfortune, can interfere with the smooth running of local government and, tonight, that combination gained me an unexpected evening off.

Luckily, we're in a quiet part of the cycle at the moment. Gateway 14 has been approved but there is no sign of activity yet in terms of the infrastructure needed before actual buildings can go up. There are no outstanding controversies, and although there are things that could be done, none of them are exactly urgent.

I admit to a vague sense of relief in that sense, in that I find myself slightly distracted in the generality - there's a lot going on, and I've grown unused to that during the pandemic. Maintaining focus across a range of disparate roles does not entirely come naturally, especially when they don't really interconnect.

But life is slowly beginning to return to normal here in the Creetings. Church services have resumed, the first coffee morning for eighteen months has taken place - I was on duty supporting the Parochial Church Council and thus missed it - and there are even going to be pub nights in the foreseeable future.

I'm also attempting to manage the transition from Chair to, well, ordinary Councillor really, by leaving a bit more space for my fellow councillors to fill. I don't have to offer an opinion if there is an emerging stance, my colleagues can take on responsibilities that I might have picked up, and I'm trying to feel less obligated.

It's not that I'm any less committed to the wellbeing of my community, it's just that I really believe that organisations ossify if the leader doesn't change from time to time. I like to think that I'm fairly adaptable, and not prone to dominating the debate but there's a real danger that you settle into a comfortable regime, especially if unchallenged. A new approach, a new style, can be a good thing.

And I still have ambitions, both personal and collective. The pandemic has rather distracted me from some of my thinking on how a small Parish Council might operate, and I still have my roles with the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and as their representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils.

So, as I enter my last six months as Chair - and I really mean it - it's time to lift my eyes to the horizon and ponder the future...

Monday, August 30, 2021

An interesting, perhaps trying, day in the office beckons…

It’s been a long time now since I was in an office with other people, nearly a year and a half, in fact, since we were told not to come back to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic took off last March. 

I was a mite daunted to begin with, as the idea of working at home was not something I’d ever particularly felt attracted to. But, with the launch of the various financial support schemes, I was kept busy enough, and it was quite satisfying to be of real help to people in need.

Spring turned to summer, summer turned to autumn, and still there was no prospect of a return to normal working. I did go into the office once, to clear my desk by appointment, as we were scheduled to transfer to a new office and it was necessary to retrieve my personal possessions. Apart from the cleaner and the security guard, I was entirely alone.

And strangely, I began to grow used to being, for all intents and purposes, alone in my workspace. We’re lucky in that, when I moved in with Ros, we replaced an old wooden workshop with a purpose built office, so my working conditions were probably a step up on what I had in St Clare House. I can listen to music - mostly chamber music and early music -  whilst I work without disturbing anyone, I’m not distracted by colleagues - I’m quite easily distracted, I fear - and I can bat ideas around in my head whilst attempting to determine how best to solve a problem. I do talk to myself out loud from time to time…

There are some disadvantages - you can’t throw problems into the air to see if your colleagues have useful and relevant experiences to share, for example - and I do have a great deal of respect for them and their abilities. And there are some things that really can’t be done outside of the office for reasons of data security.

On the other hand, having to rely more on your own judgement can build a sense of confidence as long as things are going well, and I think that I’ve benefitted in that sense. It’s hard sometimes to judge whether or not you’re a good fit in a role, especially one which by its very nature is likely to be confrontational sometimes, but when you’re effectively operating without the usual “safety net”, the apparent absence of problems suggests that you might be doing something right.

But I do feel that I’m becoming slightly less of a social animal. Or, perhaps more accurately, that I am more relaxed about not seeing other people (apart from Ros). I find people fascinating, but it feels these days although it’s sometimes on an almost academic level. I don’t care any less, and my commitment to my various communities remains strong, but the horizons in which I effectively operate seem to have shrunk somewhat.

Which brings me to tomorrow. Our new building is open, and we are required to attend an induction day to collect our new building pass and be told where everything is and how it works. We can’t return to work until this is safely navigated though, and so I’ll be in Ipswich at lunchtime for my turn.

I’m not wholly enthusiastic. It’s not that I’m fearful, for I’m a naturally cautious soul anyway, and have tended to adhere to both the spirit and the letter of Government guidance. It’s just that I’ve benefitted from the freedom that comes from working at home, and actually think that I’m more effective working in an environment which is liberating rather than one encouraging rather more conformity.

In fairness, I’m not being pressured to return to the office. I expect to spend one day a week there from mid-September, and probably two days a week from some time in October. Eventually, that may stretch to three days a week, but it’s not expected to go beyond that if the mood music is to be believed.

So, wish me luck. It’s going to be interesting…

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Creeting St Peter: a few words from the Chair…

One of the joys of leading a Parish Council is drafting my column for the Parish Newsletter…

If I had thought for one moment that chairing the Parish Council was going to be easy, recent events have demonstrated that there is no such thing as “too quiet”. So, time for a quick run-through of what’s happened over the past few months…

We’ve got a new County Councillor in Keith Welham, who won the Stowmarket North and Stowupland division by 139 votes over outgoing Cllr Gary Green. Keith is familiar with our issues here, having served as our District Councillor between 2015 and 2019, and has hit the ground running. We look forward to working with him in the years ahead.

We’ve also got a new Parish Councillor in Lynne Jardine, who was co-opted at our Annual Parish Council meeting in May. She has already set to work on issues relating to Poundfield and the local footpaths on the western side of the Parish, and we’re pleased to have her onboard.

No news from Gateway 14. Despite the initial expectations that the planning application would be heard by Mid Suffolk District Council at the beginning of the year, there is still no sign of a date for its hearing. Both the Residents Campaign Group and the Parish Council have made full submissions, as have many of you as individuals, although the remaining delays seem to revolve around highways, with Highways England having sought a delay until mid-September whilst their concerns are addressed.

Mid Suffolk District Council says no to extended hours for PoundfieldAfter more than eighteen months of uncertainty, the application was rejected – the company failed to supply the required noise and light reports required. The Parish Council will now focus our attention on seeking enforcement of the existing operation hours restrictions, and welcome reports of working outside those hours

The conditions are as follows;

No machinery shall be operated, no process shall be carried out and no deliveries taken at or despatched from the site outside of the following times;

8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays with no working on Sundays or on Bank Holidays.

Please send your reports to our Parish Clerk.

An appeal for the “Meadows” site. Residents of the surrounding properties will be aware that an appeal has been made to the Secretary of State regarding the second refusal of planning permission to demolish the property and build four new ones in its place. The Planning Inspector will consider all of the evidence already submitted, and Mid Suffolk District Council are expected to actively defend their position given the potential impact on the Local Plan. We have no timeline for any announcement.

New street lightsResidents of the core village will know that our ten street lights are not in good condition, and some of them have been out of order for some time. They’re expensive to maintain and increasingly obsolete. Suffolk County Council have announced a programme of replacing some 43,000 street lights with modern LED versions, and there is a possibility that we might be able to piggyback on that. We’ll keep you updated on that.

An e-newsletter for Creeting St Peter? One of the key lessons from the pandemic is finding better ways to keep residents informed. Producing newsletters and delivering them by hand is slow and expensive, whereas if we could e-mail them to most residents, it would cut costs, allow us to issue newsletters more frequently, and improve our reporting back. We need to make sure that we’re GDPR compliant though, and that those who don’t, or can’t, use the Internet aren’t excluded. However, we’ll be looking to seek your agreement to this over the coming months so, if one of us knocks on your door, don’t be too surprised.


Finally, life is slowly returning to something more familiar as normal. However, there are still those amongst us who need support, and I know that many of you are looking out for friends and neighbours. Thank you to everyone who has gone out of their way to help, and whilst the path out of the pandemic is still a bit fuzzy, I’m hopeful that this will continue as long as it is needed.

Monday, July 19, 2021

I'd like to make myself believe that Planet Creeting turns slowly...

It's been an evening of two meetings here in the Gipping Valley - one that I chair, one that I don't.

First up was Federal International Relations Committee (I don't chair that!). Fortified by a (if I say so myself) decent risotto prepared by my own fair hands, I threw myself into what became a somewhat unsatisfying meeting. Now I wouldn't blame anyone for that - it's the problem when you know that you aren't going to be there see the whole thing through - but we probably allowed ourselves to get bogged down in the mechanism of how to do things rather than just making quick decisions and allocating the work to committee members.

I still feel slightly out of place amidst a group of people with seemingly more practical experience than I have, and I have to fight a persistent urge to use the Standing Orders as an offensive weapon, but there is some really interesting stuff being done. It might reasonably be said that the Committee shows dangerous signs of living up to my hopes for it when it first took on its current form five years ago. Perhaps I should have been more patient.

And yes, I still think that there's scope for improvement, but a relatively new Chair and a new Secretary (and thank you, Adrian, for volunteering) should be given the opportunity to make their mark, so again, I ought to demonstrate that I can "do patient".

But time and Parish Councils wait for no bureaucrat, and I had to sign off from Zoom in order to see real people up close (well, closeish, as we're still attempting to maintain reasonable social distancing here in the Gipping Valley).

I do find chairing my Parish Council vaguely reassuring. The debate is measured and pragmatic, I'm encouraged to move things along briskly, and there's seldom much in the way of stress or opposition.

In some ways, we're in the lull before the storm, with Gateway 14 still awaiting planning consent, and the concrete products factory now refused permission to extend its operating hours (somewhat to our pleasant surprise, it must be said).

There are some issues of concern - the work going on next to Flint Hall (are they seriously planning a dirt bike track?), traffic speeds on Mill Lane, the state of local footpaths - but we're a persistent group, and we'll keeping writing letters in the hope that Mid Suffolk District and Suffolk County Councils will do their jobs.

We were done in fifty-two minutes though, and I was almost tempted to log back into FIRC to see if they were still going. Almost, but not actually...

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

There are occasions when you realise that you were right the first time...

Readers will remember the end of my term as a member of the Party's Appeals Panel for England or, at least, how it ended. I was astonishingly discreet about the actual details which were, in truth, a bit wounding - having a Regional Executive debate your future in front of you as though you weren't there is never likely to be anything else.

Talk of appointment on a temporary basis whilst they took stock, complaints about a lack of transparency (it's an Appeals Panel, for pity's sake...), as a means of demonstrating respect for a volunteer doing a job which offers little but pain and aggravation, it lacked a certain something.

And so, I graciously withdrew my name from consideration, allowing the Regional Executive to proceed as they saw fit. I notified everyone concerned, and that was that. At the time, it was suggested to me that the English Party would be looking to fill its vacancies on the Appeals Panel for England and that I might throw my hat into the ring. I wasn't enthusiastic - the idea of further rejection wasn't high on my list of desirable outcomes.

My mistake was to allow myself to be persuaded to do it anyway. Admittedly, I was approached directly by a senior member of the English Party and given the impression that I was needed, and there are very few of us whose ego wouldn't be stroked by that.

Funnily enough, I don't mind that I didn't get the job. Even before the news came that I'd been unsuccessful, doubt had begun to gnaw away at me. But I wouldn't have applied had I not been asked to in such a way as to suggest that the interview was more a hurdle to be cleared than a meaningful competition. I did it because I thought that the Party needed me, when it turns out that it didn't. I am reminded why my views on corporate headhunters are so negative.

It reminds me that political parties don't always treat volunteers all that well. That's not necessarily deliberate, although recent events have made me wonder, but it's sometimes because they're given contradictory messages. And, occasionally, people are stupid, or unkind, or make bad choices for worse reasons.

I had put the events of the past few months behind me, however. Life is too short, and I have other things to do.

And then, this morning, I received an e-mail asking me to serve on a hearing of the Appeals Panel for England. It's not that I despair - I'm too old for that and I've seen too much. But perhaps I ought to look upon it all as a hint.