Thursday, May 19, 2022

A genteel demonstration in the county town

I am not, by nature, the sort of person who enjoys demonstrations. I’m increasingly less keen on crowds as I get older (and I wasn’t wild about them even when I was young) and chanting isn’t really my thing either.

But I’d received an invitation to a demonstration outside County Hall at lunchtime and, given that my office is less than ten minutes away on foot, it seemed churlish not to show some support. The subject of the protest was sewage pollution of our rivers and coastline and, as this is both a Party priority and a matter of local interest in the Gipping Valley, it couldn’t do any harm to play “fourth spear carrier” for a few minutes.

Our County Councillors formed a joint Group with the Greens and Independents, and are the “official” Opposition, so were putting a motion to Full Council calling for action, and the demonstration was part of the publicity effort.

I arrived to find a collection of familiar faces, including my own (Green) County Councillor, Keith Welham, and a group from Mid Suffolk, and took the opportunity to get a few “politics” things done, whilst the Greens (and the odd Liberal Democrat) sang songs in a very “knit your own muesli” sort of way. Something else I’m reminded of - I’m not wildly enthused by communal singing unless a certain, albeit modest, level of alcohol has been consumed first.

That gave me an opportunity to escape, the media having taken their photos anyway and only really wanting to talk to the Group, so I walked into town for a little light food shopping before heading back to the office for a solid afternoon of compliance.

I don’t think that I’m going to change my mind on demonstrations…

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Creeting St Peter - my reign of terror is at a close

I’d always been a strangely reluctant Chair of my Parish Council, something which might surprise those who have watched me carry out my duties. But, if you’re going to do something, you might as well give it your best shot and, besides, I’ve probably benefitted from my observations of committee chairs good, bad and indifferent over the years. And, of course, I have views.

But, at last year’s Annual Parish Council Meeting, I made it absolutely clear that I wouldn’t be serving a fifth year in the role, leaving it to my colleagues to find a replacement from amongst their number. Last night saw the moment of truth arrive and, I’m pleased to say, I’ve been “relieved”, so to speak. My new role, apart from being Vice Chair, is to be the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Compliance and Street Lighting, which rather suits my skill set, and I’m already working on some of the more immediate issues, which should keep me busy moving forward.

Of course, there is the challenge which faces all former Chairs, i.e. how to avoid looking as though you think that you're still Chair. But I do believe that no organisation benefits from having the same person lead it for too long, and my successor will offer a change of perspective that will hopefully allow us to progress.

There is a strange sensation of having a weight lifted from my shoulders though, even if that sounds a bit strange. After all, how much pressure can there be leading an organisation with an annual budget of £5,500 or so? But, that said, you do have the responsibility of representing your community, trying to speak for it in the face of developments that are unpopular or unwelcome, and attempting to ensure that things happen when they're supposed to. It does weigh on you, even if only subconsciously, particularly if you take the role seriously.

It's probably far too early to assess whether or not my four years have been a success but my colleagues have been kind about my leadership, and my presence is still welcomed, so I ought to take that as an endorsement, I guess. And I still feel that I have something to offer, and want to remain engaged, so that, until next year's elections at least, I'll continue to play my part. After that, it's up to the electorate, albeit that we haven't had elections in living memory and might not in 2023 either.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Welcome to #allthestations… Liechtenstein…

Morning found me at a self-service hotel buffet, with the only staff in sight restocking and clearing away - low-paid staff are clearly kept to a minimum in Liechtenstein. But I had plans. First, a walk down to the river, stopping at the Rhinepark Stadion, home of the mighty FC Vaduz and the not-so-mighty Liechtenstein national football team, before heading for the Altebrucke, a wooden covered bridge spanning the Rhine. It would have been churlish not to walk to Switzerland and I didn’t hesitate to cross. Then on to Triesen to catch a bus to the southernmost community in the country, Balzers.


I hadn’t planned anything in Balzers but, as the bus approached, I spotted Schloss Gutenberg, built on a 70 metre tall rock on the edge of the town. It’s one of only two castles in the country, and was restored by a local architect at the turn of the last century before being purchased by the Government for use as a banqueting and conference venue, and is only reachable via a steep single-track cobbled road. And, whilst the castle itself isn’t open for public viewing, you can get into the garden in front of it.


I needed a drink after that climb and, most conveniently, at the bottom of the hill was a converted old American yellow school bus, serving burgers and local beer. I didn’t hesitate…


Back to Vaduz, and time to visit the Post Museum. There’s something about small countries and stamps, and Liechtenstein is no exception. You do get a free bookmark with your admission, and the stamps are interesting enough, if you like that sort of thing. The Art Museum is pretty spectacular though but then, when the ruling Prince is worth around €5 billion and has his own art collection, you perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that it’s rather good. The guest exhibit was somewhat quirky, courtesy of a Brazilian installation artist called Rivane Neuenschwander. The room full of dripping buckets was actually better than it sounds, and the “help yourself to an inspirational ribbon” was interesting, if somewhat alien to the normally orderly locals.

Vaduz has one of those slightly absurd land trains. But it was free, and I was intrigued to see what treats it might include. There was a lot of alpine music, and quite a lot of history, but little to lead you to believe that Vaduz is the sort of place that excites much. If you’ve got forty-five minutes to kill, it’s no worse than walking, but I wouldn’t suggest building your day of touristic activity around it.


I needed dinner and, for all of Vaduz’s charm, it isn’t price conscious. Ros had mentioned that she’d rather liked Feldkirch, across the Austrian border. And I just had time to get to Switzerland to catch the train… The somewhat occasional Buchs to Feldkirch service supplies Liechtenstein with its only scheduled train service and so I can now authoritatively claim that I have ridden the entire Liechtenstein rail network.


And Feldkirch did seem quite nice, at least what I got to see of it. The schnitzel was certainly worth the journey, although I deeply suspect that serving bad schnitzel is a criminal offence in Austria…


That left me with the task of getting back to my hotel, which is where the tri-national route 11 bus comes in. This leaves Feldkirch and runs the full length of Liechtenstein, via Schaan, Vaduz and Balzers, before ending its journey in Sargans, over the border in Switzerland, where you can connect to trains further into the country. And it’s a pretty ride too…


I got an early night, for I had an early start the next morning…

Friday, April 22, 2022

In which I learn that I’ve been pronouncing Vaduz incorrectly all these years…

It was a relatively gentle start, which was welcome after I’d arrived in Zurich just in time to catch the last shuttle to my hotel the previous evening. And it’s funny, isn’t it, how after a period travelling anywhere new, your confidence over what, prior to the pandemic, had been a relatively straightforward journey, is slightly, if not shaken, then not quite what it had been. Arriving at an airport after 10.30 in the evening felt a bit “edge of the seat”, even if I would have thought nothing of it a few years ago.


But everything had worked, and the adventure was underway.


And, if you’re going to cautiously return to leisure travel, Switzerland is a good place to start. Things tend to run reliably on time, and drama is limited to whether or not there will be chocolate. And so, a journey from Rümlang to Vaduz via Zürich and Buchs (the St Gallen one rather than any other version) ran like clockwork, with the final connecting bus arriving spot on noon for the ride into a new country.

Yes, I’d never been to Liechtenstein before, which comes almost as much of a surprise to me as it does to anyone else. But the mountains were snow-capped, and Vaduz seemed quiet and unhurried. My hotel was another new experience, a self check-in one - part of a small Swiss chain - but it all seemed to work and I found myself with time to explore.


Admittedly, Vaduz doesn’t take long to explore - it takes about six minutes to walk from one end of the central core to the other - and the key things to do are all very close together. It’s wealthy in a low-key sort of a way, and whilst there are banks - that’s what Liechtenstein does - they seem solid and unobtrusive. The castle, home of the Royal Family, looms over the town, although it in turn is loomed over by the mountain that leaves Vaduz sandwiched between a vertiginous ridge and the Rhine, which represents the border with Switzerland.

I bought a two day Liechtenstein Adventure Pass - no, not a contradiction in terms, as I’ll explain - for a very reasonable CHF29, which includes the entire national bus network and set off for the State Museum. Admission includes the Liechtenstein National Treasure next door but one and, with my entrance ticket (free with my Adventure Pass), I was given a coin to admit me to the National Treasure, which puzzled me somewhat.

It turned out that the National Treasure was self check-in too, as you placed the coin in a slot machine at the entrance which triggered the door to get inside, thus saving on the cost of a member of staff. And the National Treasure is a bit quirky, with everything from a Fabergé egg to one hand painted by one of the Princesses. But it’s quite impressive, all things considered. And the State Museum isn’t bad either, offering a potted history of what is a very small country. For example, I learned that, whilst Liechtenstein became a free nation in 1719, its rulers only took up permanent residence in 1938, after Anschluss. And, given what it is known for now, it was considered a bit rural and poverty-stricken until fairly recently.


Next up was a bus ride to Malbun, Liechtenstein’s ski resort, via a stop in Triesenberg. The latter was reached via a series of switchbacks - uphill in Liechtenstein is really steep - and I found a rather sleepy little village, filled with houses with sensational views and possibly even more sensational sunsets. Malbun, on the other hand, was cold and snowy still, although ski season had clearly recently ended.

I headed back to the relative warmth of Vaduz, before heading to Schaan, Liechtenstein’s transport hub, for a gentle stroll. For, not only does Schaan have a bus station, but also one of the country’s very few railway stations, immaculately kept and in an unusual shade of pink. There aren’t many trains, but neither the Swiss mainline station at Buchs, nor the Austrian mainline station at Feldkirch, are very far away.


I needed dinner though, so back to Vaduz for food and an early night. And now that I was paying attention, I realised what was puzzling me about the announcements. Vaduz is pronounced with an extra ‘t’ before  the ‘z’, which I’d not appreciated. Now, I live in Suffolk, where we like to include letters that aren’t pronounced, so being somewhere where letters are pronounced but not written was a twist. I wonder what else I’ve been missing all these years…

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

The Party is looking for a Returning Officer for Federal Elections. It isn't going to be me...

I've been a Returning Officer for the Party for many years. Many, many years. I've run everything from European selections to Associated Organisation ballots, from House of Lords Parliamentary Party elections to committee ballots. I've even been a Returning Officer for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe. And, for the most part, I've gained a certain satisfaction in doing a good job. Indeed, many of the people I've worked with have been surprisingly pleasant about it afterwards which, I guess, is an endorsement of sorts.

One of my perceived strengths is that I like to support candidates as far as possible. Running for anything means putting your ego on the line, with little in the way of gratitude, especially if you don't win. I therefore see one of the roles of a Returning Officer as a nurturing one, helping candidates to navigate the rules and procedures, providing clear guidance and flagging up areas of concern as early as possible. And, ultimately, enabling the electorate to have as much information as possible in deciding who will represent them.

I know my way around the Party, retain a modicum of credibility and am capable of handling difficult people when necessary. So, you might think that I'd be, potentially, the sort of person who might make a good Returning Officer for the party's Federal elections.

I'm not going to apply though. You see, I've already been put through the process of applying for two difficult, unpopular voluntary jobs in the Party.

In the first instance, I was up for reappointment, and my Regional Party made such a hash of it, debating my character behind my back, that I concluded that I really didn't want to be treated in such a manner. Admittedly, they originally thought that they were debating my character in my presence but used an incorrect e-mail address for me (as if that would have made it any better).

In the second instance, I was directly approached and asked if I would apply for a position that I had previously decided not to apply for, given the impression that the interview was a formality, and then rejected. I begin to realise why I find headhunters to be so loathsome.

The role of Returning Officer is going to be a challenging one. And, asking people to voluntarily apply for a role requiring a (promised, but probably insufficient) commitment of seventy-two hours over a twelve-week period to do the job is, I suspect, more than many people will fancy. I certainly don't think that the "honour" of being treated with disrespect by people who assume that you're paid to do this (and thus at their beck and call) justifies me putting my ego on the line a third time.

That said, the Party's internal democracy is one of the things that makes the party what it is, and it needs someone with a steady nerve and strong character to front the organisation of our internal elections. It may be you, gentle reader, and if you think so, here's the link to the advert. And, if you do apply, may I wish you the very best of luck.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Compromise is the hardest thing to do…

There are certain advantages to being a councillor on a very small Parish Council with an equally small budget. For one thing, the things you consider are not likely to be hugely contentious. You’re hardly going to argue about whether or not to maintain the play area, or the streetlights. It’s more likely that disagreement is personal, rather than political, given that party politics seldom impinges on micro-councils. And, heavens knows, a disagreement in a small village is likely to be as much about personalities as about strategy. People bring their agendas with them when they run for public office, and whilst that’s usually not a problem - you can often give them responsibility for that aspect of the Council’s activity - you occasionally get someone whose agenda is narrowly focussed on their own regard.

I’m lucky in that, whilst my colleagues have issues that motivate them to get involved, all of them work for the best interests of the village and its residents. And, as a result, we can discuss any given issue with mutual respect and common purpose. What that means is that, if we don’t entirely agree, we can reach a mutually acceptable compromise without any difficulty.

It seems to get harder to do that the further up the political ladder you get. Compromise increasingly seems to be taken by others as a sign of weakness and grounds to seek further concessions. If I win, you have to be seen to have lost, a stance which discourages anyone from taking the first step and exacerbates the confrontational nature of our politics.

You could reasonably argue that, as a Liberal Democrat, I would say that. A member of Britain’s perennially third placed political party, burned by the coalition years (even as I still believe it was the right thing to do), our position near the pivot point in the political spectrum means that broad-based political endeavour probably means that we should have a part to play regardless of which of the two bloc parties are in power. Our voting system means that, in reality, that isn’t how it actually works.

But I believe in broad-based political and societal change and it’s harder to achieve that if a minority can, and does, impose its will on a nation. It’s why I believe in fairer voting, in devolution of power to states, regions, communities, in transparency in government and a whole bunch of things that only seem to matter to people who understand how government works and see the possibilities.

That also makes me a bit of an idealist. Not, I hasten to add, in a naïve way but in terms of how a public body should operate. I’m not a policy dogmatist - I simply think that better decisions are made when the process is transparent and inclusive. It means telling people what is happening and why, being willing to justify your stance. I actually believe that, by operating in such a way, you get better governance.

It does make you more vulnerable as a civic leader. You have to be consistent in terms of your approach. But, in the long run, it’s probably better to adhere to a set of principles that reflects who you are and the community you hope to represent.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

A solar farm in Badley? Competing pressures for self-sufficiency...

Whilst Creeting St Peter has had its own planning issues over the past few years, the one thing we haven't had is an application for a solar farm. But now, whilst we don't, the parish across the River Gipping, Badley, does.

There is a dilemma here. The proposed site requires the loss of prime agricultural land - we've got a lot of that here on the East Anglian prairie - and at a time when self-sufficiency in food is a live topic of discussion, one does wonder how the loss of farmland helps that. But the war in Ukraine reminds us that dependency on hydrocarbons from authoritarian states who aren't necessarily our friends is problematic too, before you even start on climate change mitigation.

And, whilst the gently rolling fields of Suffolk are superb for wheat, barley and other grains, they also make for easy to maintain solar arrays. If you're a farmer, with the prospects of a downward squeeze on agricultural support payments and the knowledge that selling land for development is likely to be lucrative, especially if your land is near a town or village earmarked for housing development, point you in one direction and one direction only.

The rural economy is changing and whilst people may want farmers to produce food as cheaply as possible and in sufficient quantity, farmers aren't altruists - they need to make a living too, otherwise why do it?

My perspective is a fairly neutral one but I do find myself wondering how, at a time when fuel poverty is becoming a big thing in this country, we can carry on resisting renewables development in our localities. Wind turbines are apparently too big, solar arrays too ugly, and whilst offshore wind is growing nicely, the Government has failed to support tidal energy and encourages rural communities to object to anything that might impact on their local countryside.

There needs to be one of two things, a plan for renewables which goes beyond simple targets to discuss what is needed and where it might go, or investment in renewable facilities in other countries where the revenue generated might help build stronger economies and communities.

Of course, the optimal answer would be smaller, more effective solar arrays and wind turbines, but we may just have to accept that, if we want to maintain our current lifestyles, we're going to have to make some concessions in terms of how our countryside looks going forward