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.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Can the tide of political unpleasantness be turned?

I spent some time this afternoon talking to some political colleagues about the problems that arise when people disagree. It was an interesting discussion and offered me an opportunity to express some of my concerns about modern politics and how the way people treat each other undermines how political parties function.

Unfortunately, that seems to be a problem that gets worse with time rather than better, and it distracts from the cause, whatever cause that may be. For a bureaucrat not generally seen on the front row of political activity, I don’t tend to be involved in the competitive element of politics, even within my own Party. It does risk appearing somewhat sheltered from the reality of campaigning, especially when you consider that, in my quiet corner of England, politics is relatively genteel.

That said, I do understand how much it can matter to people. I’m not naive. Indeed, I have a pretty good understanding that, when a contest really matters, people can be tempted to bend, even break, the rules for personal advantage. The first round of list selections for the European Parliament in 1997 was a case in point, when the prospect of becoming an MEP was a real one for whoever topped their regional list (and in some cases, the runner-up too).

That led to some interesting strategies being employed, but in the absence of social media, it was for the most part fought in good spirit. Had we tried to repeat the process twenty years later, I have a nasty feeling that it might not have been quite so easy to manage. There are, unfortunately, those who have less restraint in terms of the language they use, or allegations they make, especially if done remotely.

And, to make things even harder, as time has passed, the rules and procedures are more prescriptive, more complex, more open to misinterpretation (deliberate and accidental) and the implications of getting it wrong more severe, and not just to the person committing the “offence”.

The danger is that you have to dedicate more and more resource to dealing with the unhappy, the unreasonable and the unlucky. And, given that most people join political parties to change things or gain power, finding people to handle that burden becomes more difficult. It is, in short, a challenge that seems to grow as the years pass.

Ultimately, political parties, like societies, operate better and more effectively if people behave reasonably both in general and towards each other. It seems like such an obvious truism that you might wonder why it needs to be expressed. However, people often forget that political parties are not monoliths, where everyone agrees, but coalitions loosely wrapped around a philosophical concept, where arguments can rage over what outsiders may see as trivia.

Thus, the existence of rules to guide behaviour, ensure due process and compliance, covering everything from meeting etiquette to candidate selection. You hope that they don’t have to be enforced much, by offering training, encouraging mutual respect and providing guidance. You hope that it’s taken up and applied and, when things do go wrong, that there is someone to remedy the situation.

So, apply the rules, maintain them, recommend changes to them as the situation requires, but defend them and the ethos that underpins them in the hope that people learn and improve. Because, regardless of the organisation you’re a part of, if you can’t treat your colleagues decently, you’re probably not going to treat anyone else very well…

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Creeting St Peter - goodbye, Alice, and thanks for everything...

Small villages like Creeting St Peter tend to rely heavily on a small number of people who are willing to take on key, often unsung roles. That's especially true if the population is younger and thus busier with work, children and all of the other aspects of modern life that reduce the time available to do other things.

In our case, there are two organisations which tend to dominate civic life - the Parish Council and the Parochial Church Council. For the latter, there is the perpetual struggle to maintain the fabric of a historic building, i.e. the church itself. If your church serves a population of 275, many of whom are not particularly religious, that struggle becomes more acute.

Accordingly, the Parochial Church Council fundraises, and part of that fundraising is through village coffee mornings and pub nights, which are the backbone, indeed almost the totality, of the village's social activity. And residents turn up in sizeable numbers, buying cups of tea, homemade baked goods, catching up with each other and discussing the burning issues of the day.

Someone has to organise that though, chivvying people along, creating rotas, being "bossy". And, for some years now, that "someone" has been Alice. Alice describes herself as bossy but, in her role as Church Warden, she has worked incredibly hard to keep the show on the road. Unfortunately, that is about to come to an end, as she, her husband Mark and her family are moving away... a long way away.

And so we gathered in the churchyard yesterday evening to pay tribute to her. Jenny, the Treasurer of the Parochial Church Council, made a lovely speech to mark her contribution to the Church, the village and its residents, and our Vicar, Philip, offered a few remarks to remind us of her efforts.

It was a good crowd too, despite the rather dank, gloomy weather that had replaced the warm sunshine of previous days, which rather demonstrated how much we appreciate, and will miss, Alice.

As Chair of the Parish Council, I've been lucky enough to have a good relationship with Alice - indeed, I can't really see how I could have a bad one with her. She works hard, is incredibly effective and gives of herself freely. Every village should have an Alice, and I suspect that there are many that do.

Hillary Clinton wrote that "it takes a village". That's probably true, but villages need an Alice too, because without leadership, nothing that gets done is ever quite as effective as it might be.

So, thank you, Alice, and the best of luck in your new life. It won't be quite the same without you..

Friday, June 18, 2021

GB News - is there really space for a platform for talking heads?

There’s been a lot of talk about Andrew Neil’s new venture, much of it unkind. I can’t say that I’m as surprised by some of the glitches of the early days of broadcasting - it takes time to bed things in and there will be errors as new staff work out how things are best done.

And, whilst the list of presenters doesn’t leap out and grab me, I don’t think that I’m really part of their hoped for audience, so that probably won’t cause their backers any great loss of sleep. But I do wonder if there is a sufficient market to allow GB News to survive and thrive.

There isn’t a huge audience for television news in this country, and what there is tends to repeat itself in thirty minute chunks - I don’t sense that people sit down and watch long chunks of news unless a major event is taking place. And whilst having presenters opine at length can work on radio, where you can do other things, television has to be watched, and concentrated on.

The other potential problem is that getting 1% audience share in the United States offers you a decent chunk of advertising revenue, it isn’t anywhere near as lucrative in the United Kingdom. And even the relatively low budget GB News needs to earn £25 million per annum to break even if reports are to be believed.

You can potentially square that circle by offering attractive advertising rates or audiences who are likely to have higher levels of disposable income, but that doesn’t necessarily sit well with a cast of professional provocateurs fighting the sort of culture war that Fox News does so well in the United States.

Indeed, what surprises me about the campaign to dissuade potential advertisers is not that its apparent success but why some of the companies who have announced that they won’t be advertising on GB News would have been doing so in the first place. If your target market is younger and more socially liberal, it doesn’t strike me that GB News is the best use of your advertising budget… at least, not now.

I have read the reviews, which appear to suggest that a number of the presenters are determined to fight a “war on woke” (whatever that means), which makes it easy for me to give it a miss. But, in a free society, the right to offer something different must be allowed to exist and, in a free market of ideas, to stand or fall on its own merits.

So, we’ll see if I’m wrong about whether or not there is a sufficient audience out there to make it work, or whether the management team will need to trim towards the political centre in order to make it sustainable. In the meantime, for those who are getting upset about it, I would suggest that they walk on by and save their anger. All it does is draw people’s attention to the very thing you despise…

Friday, May 21, 2021

Ros in the Lords: Remote Participation and Hybrid Sittings

Like me, Ros has been working from home since last March, and it's been something of an adjustment for both of us. Technology, and the willingness to use it, has changed how we operate. But there are always those who romanticise the way things were, and insist that nothing must change. The House of Lords has its fair share of those. Ros isn't one of them...

My Lords, that the House was able to continue doing its work almost from the start of the pandemic is nothing short of miraculous and is a real tribute to the commitment of a lot of people, including Members, who found themselves having to get comfortable — or at least able — to operate in a way that they would never have dreamt.

As a member of the sponsor body for restoration and renewal, I am well aware of the parlous state of the building and the possibility of some sort of catastrophic failure. If there is a silver lining from the last year, it is that at least we can feel that the Houses could keep going should the worst happen. As the Constitution Committee reported, there is potentially a link between restoration and renewal and new ways of working. The sponsor body is well aware of that, but I assure noble Lords that it believes that these are matters for both Houses, and it is certainly not for the sponsor body to tell the Houses how they should carry out their business.

But we have been genuinely innovative, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, set that out very well. We need to think carefully before we go straight back to the old ways of working because, first, the pandemic is not over, as the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, set out. The Indian variant shows that we are not out of the woods, so we need to take the time to make sure that we and our staff are kept safe.

It strikes me that many of the downsides which noble Lords have reported today and previously are down to the pandemic and not hybrid working per se. It is about the distancing and all the paraphernalia that comes with that. We need mentally to try to sort some of that out, because it is very difficult from this perspective to judge what hybrid working might look like if we were in a House that was operating more normally.

I hope that, for both those reasons, the House will decide soon to remain hybrid until well into the autumn. That would give time for the whole population to be vaccinated and for us to be assured that there was not to be a further wave. Crucially, it could offer a period where Members could make a genuine choice about whether to come in or to work from home. I think many people will come in; a lot of us miss the place. It would give us a chance to feel what hybrid working would look like in a more normal environment, so we could use it as a transitional period. We could choose certain functions, such as legislation, which would be done in the Chamber only, while others, such as committees, could be done virtually or hybrid.

For people like me, who have always believed in an elected House, the argument for the Lords as it is currently configured is that it is a House of experts: people are drawn from all walks of life and bring their expertise and professional backgrounds. Yet, once Members are appointed, everything about the way we do our business draws us into becoming full-time parliamentarians. For people outside London and the Home Counties, this is a particular issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, set out. Someone coming from Cornwall or Cumbria for a vote on a Monday and who perhaps has a Question or a committee on a Wednesday will end up spending the whole week in London for a relatively short period of active contribution.

In a system that awards peerages for life, we do need to think very hard about how the expertise that brings the Members to the House can be kept up to date, because it is difficult, if you are in Westminster all the time. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made that point really well, that like many noble Lords, he is assiduous in building up these relationships outside. That is what keeps him current, but it is very difficult to do if you are tied up in the Lords. This is not just a matter of hybrid or virtual working; it is about a whole raft of procedures and practices we have established for ourselves that somehow mean you can only be a proper parliamentarian if you are based in Westminster.

The last year has given us a chance to think afresh about that — to have a look at whether or not this is the right way to do things. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was entirely right: every large organisation is now looking at what it does and how it does it to see whether things should be changed. We will get much more respect for taking a step back and looking at that than we will for going straight back to the old ways we have always done things.