Thursday, December 31, 2009
The day was grey and rain and low cloud threatened, but we set off with little idea of what to expect. The River Var is a braided river, with channels of water separated by pebbled sandbanks, which join and separate seemingly at random, and acts as the main route from the Cote d'Azur over the Alps to Gap and the towns beyond. Entrevaux was clearly intended to deter invaders from using the route to reach the heart of France, and so we suspected that it might be quite dramatic.
And indeed it was, with the old town entered via a narrow bridge high over the Var, with all of the arrow slits and little structures designed to command a large area at little risk to the defenders. Above all of this, on top of the cliff face, a bastion designed to be impregnable, assessable only via a path which zigzags up the side of the cliff. It was seriously impressive, and I for one would probably have thought long and hard before assaying an attack.
The town is about halfway along the train line from Nice to the town of Digne-les-Bains, and during the winter appears to be predominantly shut - I suspect that it is crowded with tourists in the summer. If you're in the area, I couldn't recommend it more.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Grasse is renown for perfume, after Catherine de Medici encouraged the locals to take advantage of the surrounding rose gardens to found the industry that draws visitors to its steep slopes. And boy, are those slopes steep... The indicated 200 steps to the town are strictly accurate, if you factor in the long sloping bits between them. The bus, on the other hand, winds its way up the slope for a very reasonable 1€.
And Grasse is everything that Monaco isn't. Narrow streets shaded from the sun, little squares, a nice main street, fountains and interesting little shops, it is somewhere that I would recommend. All of this just over an hour from Nice, and allowing for a stop in Cannes or Antibes along the way, an excellent day out.
And yes, I did feel it necessary to purchase something for Ros...
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Well, it became my goal to visit more countries than I had birthdays, and I finally caught up in 2007. Ros, having done the arithmetic, worked out that, as my combined birthday and Christmas present, she could give me country number 50 - Monaco, the second smallest country in the world.
It is, undoubtedly, an unusual place. Covering less than a square mile (according to the guidebook), it is served by the five routes operated by the national bus company, covered by buildings seemingly stacked on top of each other, and is, of course, the unlikely venue for a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
I can now claim to have stood on the track at La Rascasse, driven through the Tunnel du Loews and climbed up towards Casino. Oh yes, in a public bus certainly, but I have done it. Given that I can't drive, it was certainly nice to leave the work to somebody else.
Monaco is an absurd country. Were it not for the entrepreneurial spirit of its Prince in the 19th century, it would be an irrelevancy, poor and purposeless. However, by becoming a place where the rich gather to flaunt their wealth at each other, it has found its niche. Every designer label worth having, yacht brokers, luxury car dealers (just how can one drive a Bentley in such narrow, twisting streets?) and, of course, the casinos.
I don't have any objection to wealth. Indeed, I quite fancy being rich myself some day, and if the opportunity arose, I wouldn't say no. However, Monaco is undoubtedly a prime example of how you can squander your good fortune. Ros and I are both of the view that, if we were wealthy enough to be able to afford to live in Monaco, we wouldn't. Even the tax breaks aren't sufficiently enticing to make up for the claustrophobic lifestyle, the intrusive policing, both uniformed and via CCTV, and the sheer expense.
I've enjoyed my daytrip to Monaco tremendously, but it won't make the list of countries I've been to and thought, "I could live here", because I couldn't.
Monday, December 28, 2009
I've just had a sensationally good rabbit dinner in a restaurant just off of Place Massena. Ros was pretty pleased with her lamb, but was most impressed with the rabbit.
Say whatever you like about the French, they do eat well...
A pleasant journey from London City Airport this morning, on a box-fresh British Airways Embraer 170, brought me to Nice, here on the Cote d'Azur, and we're checked into a very centrally located hotel, close to Place Massena.
My first impressions of Nice are good ones. The main shopping street has a nice variety of stores, there is a rather fancy tram that runs down the centre of the street, the Promenade des Anglais makes for a nice stroll, and the public transport system looks to be pretty comprehensive.
But of course, the key reason for coming here still awaits...
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
The evening was spent attending the annual Christmas Eve carol service, where Ros gave one of the readings, and the Rev. Christine gave the blessing - we're a surprisingly radical bunch in mid-Suffolk. The parish church dates back to the 12th century, and is a small, but cheery place of worship.
And so, the village is quiet, and the sense of anticipation is acute for the big day ahead.
On that note, I should really wish you all a very merry Christmas, and don't stint on the enjoyment. It only comes once a year, I'm told...
Monday, December 21, 2009
Meanwhile, chaos reigns at our stations and airports, with snow and ice causing cancellations and delays - and an awful lot of whinging. Curiously, in unusual weather conditions, things tend not to run smoothly. To get to my office this morning, I am reliant on three different modes of transport - a taxi to get me to the station, a train to get me to London, and an underground train to get me to the office. Each of them is vulnerable, with the car accurately parked in a ditch near my home testament to the treacherous driving conditions away from the main arteries.
And yet the story is one of people whining that they are being inconvenienced. No signs of anyone saying how pleased they are that rail workers, bus drivers and the like are doing their best to get people from A to B. Perhaps we need to reflect on just how amazing it is that the technology exists to get so many people to so many places with such ease (under normal circumstances) and with so little sense of adventure and danger.
So, is it me, or has that traditional sense of stoicism been lost? Are we now so conditioned to find someone to blame that the ability to conclude that things simply break or go wrong and that we should deal with it has withered away? At St Pancras International, the sounds of outrage have been loud and long, as Eurostar work out what went wrong before resuming services, and for those stuck in the tunnels as the evacuation procedure failed dismally, there are grounds for unhappiness.
However, those stuck in London, or Brussels, or Paris, claiming that they'll never use Eurostar again, do themselves no credit. As the weather improves, and the locomotive problems are resolved, I don't doubt that Eurostar will do their utmost to get everyone to where they want to go, likewise with the airlines. Isn't that as much as most people can reasonably expect?
So, as we make our erratic way to wherever it is we're going today, spare a thought for those who are trying to get you there. They're probably as frustrated as you are, they probably have as little information as you do, and they would rather be at home than take their chances in the snow and ice.
Friday, December 18, 2009
So, I'm forced to wait here at Stowmarket station. Luckily, rather than having to wait in a drafty taxi office, next door is the rather more congenial 'Kings Arms', the newly reopened pub. It's a bit of a throwback, as it looks like a private home converted into a local. However, the real ale is good, and well kept, with Woodforde's Wherry and Woodforde's Nog on draft, plus a range of visiting beers including London Pride and Timothy Taylor's Landlord, a very fine ale indeed.
The guy in the taxi office is going to fetch me when a car is available so, all in all, I could be in worse shape... A pint of Nog, landlord, if you please!
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Alright, I admit, I am a sceptic on the issue of climate change. It isn't that I dispute the science - it is clear that the chemistry is sound enough - but, as a statistician, I was trained to question any set of numbers presented to me. I'm not keen on the notion of calling those with dispute the science 'deniers' either, it all smacks of polarising the debate to the point where it isn't a debate, more a shouting match.
My scepticism is rooted in the message. Cut our emissions, we are told, and the polar icecaps won't melt. Or they may not. Or something. Whatever. The problem is that we are all aware that the climate does change, and it has in the past. If my history is correct, at one point, hippopotami grazed in the Thames Valley, which leads one to assume that it was a bit warmer here then.
The real question is, what impact does our behaviour have on the trend? Doubtless, our interference isn't helping - it seldom does. And how do we remedy that?
Actually, there are plenty of quite convincing reasons for acting, many of which appeal to something more immediate and tangible - our financial wellbeing. If I can insulate my home, I'll save money on my fuel bill, use less in the way of valuable and finite fossil fuels, and cause less in the way of carbon emissions. Like most people, I understand the former, because my wallet is slightly heavier as a result.
If, in my office, I turn the thermostat down by one degree, the cost to my employer is reduced and, as a civil servant, the cost of running the Department I work in is reduced, thus freeing up more money for nurses, teachers and policemen (and wouldn't you rather have more of them than of me?). Alternatively, it reduces the national debt - and every little counts...
As a Parish Councillor, I could replace our old streetlights with more efficient ones, reducing our electricity bill and allowing me to keep the precept low.
There is another consideration, the fact that we British are animal lovers. Tell us about some cute animal whose habitat is threatened, and we'll be there, raising funds to create places for the lesser-spotted this, or the hairy-nosed that, to live.
So, perhaps the way to encourage the British to change our habits is to appeal to our greed and our love of cute, furry animals. And on the way, we might well unintentionally save the planet...
Monday, December 14, 2009
Asked By Baroness Deech
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make proposals relating to the titles used by the husbands of women members of the House of Lords.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government have no plans to alter the existing arrangements in relation to the use of courtesy titles or styles for the husbands of women Members of the House of Lords.
Baroness Deech: I thank the Minister for his Answer, albeit that it was disappointing. The Equality Bill is wending its way through this House. Does he accept that equality between the sexes should start in this Chamber? If a male Peer’s wife is always a Lady, why should not the same courtesy be extended to the husband of a woman Peer, who I am sure has done just as much to support their spouse? If the issue is trivial, titles should either be extended to husbands or confined only to the recipient.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is an anomalous situation whereby a woman takes her husband’s title but a man does not take his wife’s. I suspect that the reason is that the UK honours system of names and titles is complex and is rooted in history. In recent history, thankfully, the position of women has changed dramatically. However, notwithstanding that, I have to tell the House that the Government are not aware of any great anxiety or urgent desire for change in this respect.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when my husband was alive, he loved being called “m’lord”; he loved putting his drinks on my bill; and it added a certain frisson to staying in an hotel together?
Lord Bach: I am absolutely delighted to hear that story and I very much hope that other noble Baronesses will bear it in mind.
Lord Wright of Richmond: Is the Minister aware that the frisson must have been much greater when the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, was known as “Mister” in an hotel?
Lord Bach: The noble Lord obviously knows much more than I do.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the House will be aware that the wives of Bishops need to be considered as well, as they do not have any title. If the Minister was minded to resolve the anomaly without addressing the concerns potentially of Bishops’ wives, he might have a deputation of them on his doorstep, which is not a prospect I should wish on him.
Lord Bach: The right reverend Prelate has scared me off already, so we will very much bear in mind what he says.
Baroness Sharples: Perhaps I may say that neither my second nor my third husband objected. I have had the same situation as the noble Baroness, when signing into an hotel did raise a few eyebrows.
Lord Bach: I thank the noble Baroness for that.
Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, in supporting my noble friend Lady Deech in her suggestion, does this matter not go a little further than that? For example, is it not the case that the wife of a Knight Bachelor has the title “Lady”? Therefore, is there not an argument for the husband of a Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to have an equivalent title as well? While I understand the Minister’s statement that the Government have no proposals on these matters, might there not be a case to refer these matters to a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House?
Lord Bach: My Lords, there is always a case for referring any matter that is raised in your Lordships’ House to a Select Committee. I am not sure that this is the best case. The Public Administration Select Committee of another place looked inter alia at titles and name changing honours. While recognising that this issue was contentious, it recommended the phasing out of knighthoods and what it called damehoods. In February 2005, the Government’s response was that they did not believe that the case had been made for phasing out the awards of knighthoods and damehoods or knights bachelor. They said that they play a well respected, understood and valued part in our national life.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords—
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords—
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords—
Baroness Wall of New Barnet: My Lords—
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if we are quick, we could hear from my noble friend and then the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, at one level of course this is an amusing topic and we can all have a jolly good laugh at each other’s expense, but the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has made a serious point. This is not an anomaly, it is discrimination. It is discrimination that a man may confer on his wife an honour that a woman may not confer on her husband. It is perfectly straightforward and I see many heads nodding in agreement. Does not my noble friend think that there is some way of addressing a discrimination that we practise and laugh about?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I actually agree with my noble friend that this is an issue that has a serious side to it. The Government are not going to act on it in the near future, but that does not take away from the fact that this matter is serious.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I get an even greater frisson than the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, in hotels. Is it not the answer to this that you can call yourself anything you wish? Earlier this year there was a Lord in the dock who got 10 years. But surely, after today’s debate, the husband of a lady Peer should be called the “honourable breadwinner”.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord asked two questions, but I am going to mention only the first. On “frisson”, I think that the noble Lord gives us too much information.
Ah well, a title appears to be out of the question. Pity, I was just trying out 'Marquess' for size...
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Our first activity was to visit some of our canvassed supporters from the by-election, to see if they would be willing to do some delivering for us. The first two doors yielded success, much to my surprise, as did my fourth. It was clearly time to stop before I pushed my good fortune and evident natural charm too far...
A pitstop for tea, and off to a curry quiz night. Tahir, whom I had met before, and is very active, had organised the event and a decent crowd came out to support it and to hear the guest speaker. The food was excellent, although the quiz was shaping up to be one of the most difficult I've ever encountered. It was time to make my excuses and head into the night...
In the presence of the award-winning Cllr Peter Black AM, and the Audrey Hepburn-like Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, the evening sped along, although my cold was making life a little trying. A bottle of Patagonian Malbec helped a bit though, and winning a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc will doubtless aid my recovery still further.
However, the fun really started with the auction, and with Peter Black at the microphone. Tea at the Lords raised a decent sum, but the next lot, tea at the Assembly with Peter, seemed not to have the same drawing power. I suspect that most Swansea Liberal Democrats have now had tea with Peter, so I put in a decent enough bid. And won.
So, the next time I'm in the Cardiff area, I can be certain of a nice tea. Of course, Cardiff isn't particularly convenient for mid-Suffolk but...
Whilst we were ostensibly there to do a fundraising dinner for Peter and his campaign team, we had time to look at some of the successes of the Liberal Democrat-led administration. Our first visit was to the new library at the Civic Centre, with its views over Swansea Bay, a nice little cafe, and easy access to council services. The building itself is a bit on the brutalist side - brushed concrete is hard to beautify - but the location is excellent. It also sits on the new metro bus route that uses priority lanes to cut through the city, all very impressive.
Next, we visited the leisure centre, including a pretty spectacular water park, with slides that go up as well as down. The building is apparently unique, in that it is the only building to have been opened by the Queen twice, once in 1977, then again after the refurbishment in 2008.
The Waterfront Museum, built using the old Swansea Victoria railway station as its core, was our next stop. Whilst it isn't officially operated by Swansea City Council, it forms part of the development of the marina area. It's a free exhibit, very interactive and high-tech, and well worth a visit if you're in the area.
Our last stop was Swansea's Winter Wonderland, with fairground rides and a skating rink, which lasts from mid-November to early-January. Thronged with people out to enjoy themselves, it looked like fun.
Throw in the natural scenery of the Gower and beyond, you could certainly see how a week could be spent here, maybe more.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
For me, the most appropriate one is the weathered version. Very civil service, wouldn't you say?
Two weeks ago, as I wrote, we set off for Perth, en route to the inaugural St Andrew's Day dinner held by Ochil Liberal Democrats. My first question had been, "Where exactly is Ochil?", and the answer is Kinross-shire, Clackmannanshire and South Perthshire, centred on the Ochil Hills. Alright, that still isn't entirely helpful so, it's south of Perth, east of Dunfermline, west of Stirling and north of the River Forth.
Our hosts for the evening were the in-laws of Ochil Convenor Iain Rubie Dale, Ross and Pat Carruthers, who live just south of Perth in an area of fairly outstanding natural beauty. Interestingly, the farm that borders their house keeps wild boar, products of which are sold (note to self, when we go back in March, I have some shopping to do) at their shop and locally.
As someone of Scottish descent (the Valladares tartan is quite something), I've not really explored my Caledonian side, but I have to admit that the sight of men in kilts is somewhat impressive, so I was delighted to see that at least two of the attendees were in full highland dress, including the skean dhu, (small dagger).
One of them was Jamie Erskine, better known as James, Earl of Mar and Kellie or, more formally, 14th Earl of Mar, 16th Earl of Kellie, 16th Viscount Fentoun, 19th Lord Erskine, 16th Lord Erskine of Dirleton and 16th Lord Dirleton. As Viscount Fentoun, he is the premier Viscount of Scotland, and Hereditary Keeper of Stirling Castle. In that role, he welcomes the Queen when she visits Stirling, offering her the keys to the castle on a cushion. He admitted that the keys are attached to the cushion with velcro to prevent mishaps...
The dinner itself was very enjoyable, with good food and excellent company. I found myself between Iain and his wife Catherine, and we talked about their chickens, amongst other things. Sometimes, I think, it is nice not to spend all of one's time being 'political'.
But, all too soon, it was time for us all to retire, with the prospect of nearly eight hours on a train the next day...
Friday, December 11, 2009
It was, I admit, pretty enlightening, and the three workshop exercises that followed demonstrated that, in planning terms, I'm likely to tend towards being fairly permissive. And ironically, we've just been notified of a new application bordering the parish in Stowmarket - a mere 122 homes in Cedars Park.
Why couldn't it have been a residential extension instead - I think I've got the hang of those?
National politics tends to be the politics of the big cities, and dominated by London. The 'choice agenda', for example, rather depends on having a critical population density. If an area 10 miles by 10 miles has a population of 10,000, there is only so much scope for schools, or surgeries or the other underpinnings of a liberal society.
But perhaps the biggest problem of national politics is that, like cities, the pace is comparatively frenetic. The combination of 24/7 news media, and the increasingly aggressive nature of political discourse, drives politicians into action, any action, in order to give the impression that something is being done. It tends to generate short-term thinking, with little analysis and a shaky grasp of the long-term implications.
In my tiny parish, I find myself grappling with decisions that are not big, and not very complex, but require a sense of long-erm planning. There may only be ten street lights, but they need to be renewed - eventually. I need to ensure that I make provision for their replacement, whilst ensuring that we can fund ongoing activities. In short, I need to think about where we might be in 2020, not just next year.
Oh yes, I accept that running a country is far more complex than running a village. However, that's what civil servants and political advisors are for. And perhaps a little time in a rural setting might give them the opportunity to kick back, watch the stars and think beyond the distractions and the glare of a big city...
Thursday, December 10, 2009
As one of the most potentially contentious aspects of the work of a Parish Councillor, I tend to think that it might be useful if I have a rather better grasp of planning law, so when the opportunity came to get some training, I naturally jumped at the chance.
And now all I have to do is get there. I've made it to Ipswich, I'm even on the train to Needham Market, and best of all, I'm on time. I'll let you know how I got on soon...
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Those of us who work in the public sector - about one-third of those employed, if the old joke is to be believed! - are bracing ourselves for the worst. Both Labour and the Conservatives, egged on by various think-tanks, are now talking about the need to streamline, modernise and, inevitably, cut jobs. They also talk about the scandal of highly paid council officers and senior civil servants.
Taking the last point first, who exactly was it that agreed these rates of pay? It was hardly the case that those employed named their own price, somebody had to agree to set the going rate. If someone was to offer me £60,000 per annum to do my current job, I would assume that they thought it represented fair value rather than saying, "Gosh, that's a bit on the high side, I'll take £50,000 instead.". Perhaps the argument has been turned around when comparing these salaries with that of the Prime Minister, when it could be argued that, based on the skills required to run the country successfully, that his salary should be a lot higher. Of course, in the current climate, with money tight and politicians unpopular, such an idea stands but a snowball's chance in hell of being discussed seriously.
In terms of making the public sector more efficient, the question which remains unanswered is, "More efficient at doing what, exactly?". There appears to be no big idea other than some vague notion of localism. We know that Labour have acted in a manner entirely inimicable towards the notion since 1997, with unitary authorities covering larger areas and appearing ever more depersonalised. Before that, the Conservatives were equally keen to withdraw power from locally elected bodies, working instead through appointed quangos and, in the case of London, abolishing an unfriendly tier of government altogether.
And whilst the genuine commitment of Liberal Democrats to localism is based om a long-held philosophical sense that people can, for the most part, be trusted to behave in their best interest, it isn't a new, big idea. So an idea which addresses public concerns whilst protecting the low paid is to be welcomed.
A £400 pay rise for an administrative assistant in London equates to about 2.5%, and will be spent, thus boosting the economy. For me, it equates to about 1.3%, about what my current pay deal calls for anyway. There are a lot of us out there, who have votes and deliver frontline services - generally those that are only noticed in their absence.
So, in terms of the 'fairness agenda', and of good politics, this looks to be fiendishly clever. Married to our tax policy, again designed to leave more money in the pockets of the low-paid, you begin to sense the emergence of a coherent philosophy going into the election campaign proper...
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
The proposal from Ipswich Borough Council seemed, to my mind at least, to produce an authority too small to be effective, unless the area covered was expanded quite a bit, effectively turning it into the Ipswich & Felixstowe option offered, but not recommended, by the Boundary Committee. The problem with small authorities is that they find it difficult to attract the best staff, have small departments vulnerable to loss of key employees, and lack the clout to make the most cost-efficient deals for contracting out services.
I fear that the writing has been on the wall for Suffolk's District Councils for some time. Increasing struggles to square the circle of tightening budgets and increasing workloads mean that recruitment suffers, staff come under greater pressure, and the need for strong, experienced leadership becomes critical. District Councils find it hard to attract that quality of leadership because they cannot compete in terms of salary levels. That reality is being addressed by sharing senior officers but this only strengthens the case for their abolition, as it is a tacit acknowledgement that size matters. The more that districts pool contracts to obtain better value, the quicker they sign their own death warrants.
The next question is, "How do we strengthen the link between the local residents, with their strong ties to town and village, with a county-wide unitary authority?". The proposal that approximately 22 Community Boards be set up across the county seems to address that, although the devil here is clearly within the detail, and the opportunity exists to gerrymander the makeup of these Boards to favour one particular political party.
There will also be the difficulties presented for villages close to dominant towns, whereby there is a genuine risk that our voices will be lost in the crowd. It will be essential that parishes seek strong representation to prevent that from happening.
In financial terms, the logic is indisputable. In terms of local democracy, the case remains unproved. But in an era of austerity, I fear that the financial case will trump the local democracy concerns every time. The head says yes, the heart has regrets...
Monday, December 07, 2009
From a personal perspective, it is a bit disappointing, in that my campaign in Stowupland ward looks likely to come to a sticky end, with the new unitary divisions likely to be at least three times the size of the district wards. However, there's never any harm in sticking leaflets through doors so, until the Secretary of State makes his decision, the campaign continues.
Interestingly, however, the alternative proposal from the Boundary Committee for England, two unitaries - one based on Ipswich and Felixstowe, the other to be called Rural Suffolk, is still on the table, as is the original proposal from Ipswich Borough Council (note to Boundary Committee, not City, as stated in the summary news release).
As for Devon and Norfolk, the recommendations are for unitary counties (Plymouth excluded in the former instance).
So, a bit more uncertainty to come, but my gut feeling is that Suffolk will see Unitary and Parish elections in 2011.
On one hand, flinging around such huge sums appears wholly irresponsible, especially when the only reason they are able to do so is that we, the taxpaying public, were willing to bail them out. Effectively, they are using our money to enrich themselves and there is a sense whereby they should be making good rather than making off with the cash. On the other hand, one is loathe to interfere with the right of a private company to determine its own remuneration policy.
So perhaps it would be right to leave the decision in the hands of the banks' management, yet provide an incentive to reduce these to a less eye-watering level.
My mind is drawn to the concept of a 'luxury tax', introduced by Major League Baseball in the United States, whereby there is a salary cap for each team. If a team chooses to spend more than that cap, a tax is paid in proportion to the overspend. This serves to increase competition, discourage reckless expenditure in search of short-term advantage, and provide funds for redistribution.
I am still convinced that having a range of banks, from those focussing on 'vanilla banking' to the more exotic investment banking, is a good thing. Indeed, I see no reason why risk-taking should be discouraged. However, we need to change the overriding culture of the financial industry so that there is a sensible balance between risk and reward, and where those who get that balance wrong face the reality, and the consequences, of failure.
A 'luxury tax' would leave senior management in charge and allow us to claw back some of the billions that we have invested. Worth a thought?...
Creeting St Peter is not exactly a hive of commerce. We do have a concrete factory of sorts, but it's mostly about farming. Oil-seed rape in the spring and early summer, wheat as autumn approaches and last but not least, sugar beet. Here, the sugar beet is still in the ground, awaiting the harvest. However, for reasons that, hitherto, have remained unclear, the period when the beet is harvested and transported to the sugar factory is called a campaign.
For locals, the campaign is a time when the roads are busy with big lorries, mostly heading for the enormous British Sugar factory next to the A14 at Bury St Edmunds. The lorries present an unusual hazard for drivers, in that an escaped sugar beet, falling off of a lorry, is a lethal projectile if your windscreen is in its path. Naturally, there are rules, in that the lorries have to have nets to secure their loads but that doesn't always work.
The campaign started in these parts in late-September, whilst we were in Bournemouth. And yet there still seem to be beet in the fields between the village and Stowmarket, and no signs of activity. Is there such a thing as winter beet?
Friday, December 04, 2009
As a Parish councillor, I am responsible for a precept of £4,000, 70% of which is spent on the salary and expenses of our Parish Clerk. In the case of Creeting St Peter, we're rather lucky, in that we have a very good, very knowledgable one. However, because we pay the going rate, we are left with little in the way of resources to do much more than light the streets and cut the grass. We could do more potentially, but we would need to increase the precept quite significantly to do so, and I for one am not keen. Times are hard, and any extra services would need to add tangible value.
Of course, the trend in local government is for units at the same level to come together, sharing senior officers, pooling contracts to achieve financial savings. The Government in Westminster has pushed for a new unitary tier, abolishing the counties and districts to strip out one tier of bureaucracy but increasing the sense of remoteness between governed and governing.
Whilst we all want our representatives to be accessible, and we want to have an opportunity to influence those decisions that affect us, are we willing to pay the price that such access entails? Instead, should we bring smaller units together to retain a local strand whilst reducing costs? It is an uncomfortable question to ask, and yet we have a duty to consider what might be best for our communities.
At the moment, Suffolk is in the midst of the Local Government Review process. If either of the proposals is adopted, Creeting St Peter will be the only representative unit between a unitary county or unitary 'Rural Suffolk'. Will it be sufficiently robust to handle the strains of an uneven power relationship? Will it be in a position to take on responsibility for additional services currently provided by the District Council, and will the Unitary be able to manage the implications of differential devolution of responsibilities to Town Councils like Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket and to Parishes like Creeting St Peter and Badley?
You see, size matters. And whilst we villagers have a certain pride in our little corners of paradise, that pride comes with a price tag. At some point in the future, the question of whether that price is an acceptable one will come a-knocking, and Parish councillors like myself will be steeling themselves to come up with an answer. It isn't something that I'll be looking forward to...
I'm still waiting, ladies and gentlemen...
- Shut up. Every time you talk about your personal tax affairs, you provide more ammunition for those campaigning against you. If £10,000 is a marginal amount for you, it isn't for most people. There are more of them than there are of you, and they have votes.
- Check your Constituency Association's website to make sure that it doesn't cause you any personal embarrassment - references to taxing 'non-doms' in particular - it only encourages people like me to speculate on how much money you're actually saving.
- It might be worth checking whether or not there is anything else you ought to tell your Constituency Association, or that nice Mr Cameron, before someone leaks it. One awkward secret is perhaps excusable, two might be a bit hard to gloss over.
- Take your medicine like an adult. You've been made to look like a bit of a hypocrite, deservedly or not, it doesn't matter. Trying to justify yourself won't help.
- Don't wrap yourself in the Union Flag. Your domicile status implies that you feel no long term loyalty to it and will lead to further charges of hypocrisy.
If you have any further questions, feel free to ask...
Thursday, December 03, 2009
From the Liberal Democrat benches, Baroness Scott of Needham Market (usual journey Stowmarket to Liverpool Street) commented, "As a poor benighted passenger of National Express East Anglia, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware of the steady deterioration in services with regard to cleanliness, refreshments, repairs to carriages et cetera, which is making the travelling experience pretty miserable? Can he assure passengers that in the new franchise more attention will be paid to ensuring that the new company operates a decent service?".
Lord Walpole (Norwich to Liverpool Street) was less scathing from the crossbenches. "My Lords, like the last speaker, I use this service regularly. I could not agree more about the lack of service, which is getting worse and worse. The punctuality is not too bad, but the service suffers from Railtrack problems, such as level crossings that do not shut so that we have to wait for 10 minutes, which meant, I am afraid—addressing the right reverend Prelate—that I missed Prayers the other day."
In response, the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, acknowledged that, whilst punctuality levels were improving, he was keen to see improvements to the service. He does make the mistake of believing that running the trains on time is what really matters, a point which I mostly agree with. However, if you're paying for a service, you expect clean trains, a decent refreshment service and satisfactory levels of information when things go wrong. That's a fail for National Express on all counts then...
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead): My Lords, last week, Her Majesty the Queen made a state visit to Bermuda, the Bahamas and to Trinidad and Tobago. Her Majesty attended the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago. In Port of Spain, at the summit, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister met the Caribbean Heads of Government and emphasised strongly the value of the UK's relationship with the Caribbean region and its people. Before attending the summit, I visited Jamaica and met Ministers and others.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Is the noble Baroness aware of the very widespread perception in Caribbean countries that the UK Government have much less commitment to the Commonwealth Caribbean than they previously had? Is she aware, for example, of the widespread anger among Jamaican parliamentarians that, if they wish to attend meetings in Brussels, they have to transit through the UK and are now required to have a visa simply to change planes?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: I thank the noble Baroness. I am aware and, indeed, acknowledge that some disquiet has been felt by the Caribbean Governments in particular. We are making every effort to address that. I have been engaging with the diaspora in the UK. I have had a round table with representatives of the Caribbean community and a UK-wide event with the diaspora. I have plans in hand to deal with issues such as trade and industry, the relationship with DfID and, I hope, with the border authority as well, so I am making a serious effort to address some of the concerns that have been raised.
The noble Baroness referred to visas. We believe that we get more efficiency and more flexibility, and that the system has more integrity, by delivering Jamaican visas from the United States. The visa system has to have quality and consistency and it was discussed with the Prime Minister at the meeting that I mentioned earlier.
In other words, that would be a non-answer. The reasoning behind the question is one of visas for Parliamentarians and officials attending meetings in Brussels. Nowadays, following retrenchment amongst Caribbean airlines, there are very few direct flights to Europe, which means a connecting flight via London for most Caribbean island states. The new border regime means that they need visas to transit London. Not stay in London, you understand, not to even leave the airport, but simply to transfer from one flight to another.
Quite often, meetings are called at short notice, and a delay in obtaining a visa means that the meeting cannot be attended. Of course, if the application has to go to the High Commission in Kingston, for example, then onto the United States and then back to Jamaica, delay is inevitable. Given the power imbalance between the European Union and small island states, an inability to press their case is only likely to make life more difficult.
Baroness Kinnock's answer implies that she doesn't care, that she mistakes holding meetings for actually taking steps that might make life easier for Parliamentarians and officials from our former colonies. I presume that she does care, however, so wouldn't it be nice if she found some way in which her Department could help?
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
It would certainly be fair to say that there has been a rush to seek approval, as those who have ignored Valladares's First Rule of Candidate Approval (never assume that, just because there isn't a vacancy now, one might not unexpectedly appear) seek to remedy that. Indeed, three assessment days took place last weekend, with three more scheduled for this one coming.
Once nominations have closed, I'll have a look at what happens next, as the selection committee grapple with the challenge of filtering the applicants down to probably five final contenders...
This means that I have e-mail on demand, the ability to blog as I walk or ride the Tube, and all sorts of other things that are terribly exciting.
On the flip side, the display is completely different, all my settings have been lost, as well as my contacts, and there are some new features that, to be honest, I don't understand yet.
However, on balance, it's good news. Next task, to find out how Twitter works...
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Apparently, the policy of Suffolk County Council is that you have to have a bus stop on each side of the road. The bus stop has to be placed next to a raised curb to allow easy entrance to the bus for those with disabilities. Therefore, we need a site on the other side of the road that passes through the village, so we're forced back to the drawing board.
There is an irony here, in that, with the exception of our one regular bus service each week, the bus that serves Creeting St Peter is the community bus, which has a rear entrance designed for wheelchair users. Therefore, for them to board the bus at a new, accessible bus stop, the bus would need to reverse at right angles to the traffic. That isn't going to be good, is it?
Time to revisit this project, I think...
Monday, November 30, 2009
Baroness Deech to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make proposals relating to the titles used by the husbands of women members of the House of Lords.
Now I don't know where this question comes from, and I'm not sure what Baroness Deech's motivation is, but I am certainly intrigued by the prospect of an answer.
However, it isn't clear to me what title one might give. Of course, the wife of a male Peer is given the honorific 'Lady' (I'm not sure if this applies to the civil partner of a female Peer - anyone know?), but 'Lord' seems somewhat inappropriate. A life baronetcy perhaps, although Sir Mark has a bizarre ring to it.
No, I tend to think that things will be left as they are. After all, if all political parties are committed to reform of the second chamber and a mostly or fully-elected House, why bother with further fripperies? And if this Government were that bothered, you would have thought that Harriet Harman would have acted before now...
Sunday, November 29, 2009
- you must be born outside of the United Kingdom
- your father must have been domiciled outside of the United Kingdom at the time of your birth
- you must have come to the United Kingdom for the purposes only of employment (including self-employment) and must intend to resume employment abroad when that employment ceases
Friday saw me on the 14.00 Aberdeen service from London King's Cross, bound for the Edinburgh Pentlands St Andrew's Day dinner, in the company of John Barrett and his wife Carol, where an excellent meal (game terrine, chicken stuffed with haggis, Lanark Blue cheese with oatcakes) was enlivened by an excellent speech from the guest for the evening. So that was a second element of the Unconference achieved...
Saturday opened with with a mince pie and mulled wine event for Edinburgh North and Leith, where I ran into the godfather of Scottish Lib Dem blogging, Stephen Glenn (the third element), before heading to a Christmas Fayre in Edinburgh West, where I paid £2 for a go on the 'water or wine' stall. The idea is that there is an array of sealed gift bags with bottles in. You pick one and it either has a bottle of wine in it, or a bottle of water. On the basis that you stick with your party colour, I picked a yellow one and was most gratified to find a bottle of sparking rose in mine. John Barrett, who had an unblemished record of winning bottles of water, took my advise and picked a gold bag. Sure enough, there was a bottle of wine in it.
By this point, we had met up with Mike Crockart, and I pointed out a yellow bag with white polka dots - I was beginning to suspect some subliminal Liberal Democrat bias by this point (does a 13,600 majority cause that?). And yes, when Mike picked it, there was a bottle of wine inside.
But, it was getting on, and our day wasn't finished. I did, however, have time for a haircut. It appears that I got a bit carried away though, and Ros is still slightly traumatised by the result. It is very short, I fear. The one disconcerting moment was when my barber took out a piece of wire with a lump on the end, set fire to it and announced that I shouldn't worry about the naked flame being held close to my ears. Apparently, this acts to singe the hairs on the ears, making it easier to remove them.
Next stop, Perth...
Friday, November 27, 2009
Having read through it, here are the key proposals;
Trains will run at least hourly on all routes. We have ways of making them run on time.
New services and special arrangements
It is our intention to run more services to Stansted Airport and to Harwich from across the Region, with the intention of making it easier for East Anglians to travel to European cultural centres such as Berlin, Munich and Heidelberg, and for central Europeans to travel to important towns such as Stowmarket. We see particular potential in running special services for those seeking to make pilgrimages to worship before Dalai Russell in Colchester.
We intend to reinstate the restaurant car, where the finest local food will be served, alongside a range of German beers and wines, as well as classic bierkeller snacks such as pretzels and weisswurst, all served by staff wearing traditional outfits.
Naturally, we will introduce an accordian player on mainline services to provide an opportunity for passengers to sing traditional drinking songs as they return after following Colchester United, Ipswich Town and Norwich City to away games. Whilst we understand concerns about drunken and unruly fans, we are confident that, by providing them with good German lager, brewed according to the ancient laws that still control beer production in Germany, they will be happy to behave positively.
Naturally, we expect to seek an anschluss with the franchise covering services from Fenchurch Street, and will look to seeking to extend operations across Cambridgeshire to Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in due course.
Well, I don't know about you, but I'd sign up to that...
In fairness, Malcolm Pearson is probably ideal for the job, in that he is of the view that between them, Islam and the European Union are determined to destroy the country that we love. Indeed, there are enough people out there who agree with that view to attract a rather more than infinitesimal share of the vote.
His big problem at the moment is the issue regarding a very large donation, over £350,000, which is to be returned, due to the donor not being on the electoral register. It appears that he is of the view that being on the electoral register should merely be optional, and must therefore assume that he would be happy to receive money from anyone, regardless of their link to this country - an odd thing to believe for someone who believes in pulling up the drawbridge, but there you go.
He also supports those who believe that the Koran should be banned, yet demands the right to freedom of expression. Perhaps, in this case, he means freedom to express that which he agrees with. Of course, he is consistent here, in that he believes that Islamism has taken over. As he asked on 23 March,
On House of Lords reform, he is of the view that it should only take place once the United Kingdom has 'reclaimed power from Brussels' and reformed the House of Commons. That would be never then...
I suppose that we should be reassured in a way. With Pearson of Rannoch at the helm, UKIP are clearly not intending to be anything other than an anti-European, anti-Islam political party. In other words, completely irrelevant to the day to day needs of mainstream public opinion. Thanks, Malcolm, thanks very much...
There has been, for some time, a sense that National Express were doing just enough to meet the performance targets built into the franchise agreement. However, the loss of the restaurant car service, the increasingly shabby rolling stock, with faulty toilets and deteriorating standards of cleanliness, and the claims that removing customer service staff would improve the service provided to passengers all pointed towards a corner-cutting, asset-sweating approach by a company in financial difficulties.
Perhaps we will get a better deal from a new franchise agreement this time. It would be nice if passengers were more involved in drawing up such an agreement, although I am not optimistic on that score.
Interestingly, the withdrawal of the last three years of the agreement allows for a bringing together of the currently separate East Anglia and Fenchurch Street to Southend franchises, the latter, held by c2c at the moment. I have little doubt that a foreign bidder will emerge, and that likelihood will only be increased if the two franchises are brought together. The significant commuter traffic from East London and Essex will provide the backbone for the income stream, whilst the rural routes in Norfolk and Suffolk will offer potential growth linked to population growth.
To be honest, I'd been tempted by any bidder who offered to put the breakfast service back at the pre-2009 levels... ah, pork...
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Well, yes and no. Firstly, there are those of us who are still struggling through the reorganisations wrought by the Lyons Review, published in 2004, which called for transfers of work out of London. As a result of that, corporation tax work for most of the City of Westminster (my old office) was transferred to Hull, and that for South West London was transferred to... Dundee. To go for another reorganisation so soon would certainly be challenging but, if that's what Government wants, that's what Government will get.
Indeed, Lyons wasn't the first transfer of work out of London. In 1991, the final tranche of PAYE work left London, in the case of my then office, Hendon, it went to Salford. I was moved to deal with wealthy self-employed individuals and those with significant investment income in Maida Vale, only for that work to be transferred to Leicester in 2001.
There is little of the local network left in London nowadays, with much of the work transferred to enormous sheds in Washington, Merthyr Tydfil and East Kilbride (to name but three). And yet the intention is that we should be closer to our communities? Does that mean that the work already transferred out of London will suddenly materialise back into the city? No, of course not, that would be consistent. In other words, the community only matters if it isn't in London and the South East, and the warm words are merely intended to provide cover for another transfer of jobs to Labour supporting areas in the North and the Celtic fringe.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the transfer of work out of London. The arguments about the cost of accommodation, of London weighting and about retention and recruitment all hold some merit. However, if you believe that a national civil service is about providing a high quality of service everywhere, it means that you need to provide that service everywhere. Technology means that much of the work can be done remotely, especially where it involves processing of documents. However, you do need people to provide the face to face service, and there comes a point where you cut numbers beyond that required.
I am astonished that it took Liam Byrne seven months to come up with this proposal. Given that all he needed to do was pull the Lyons Review off of the shelf, get someone to update it a bit, and then act upon those recommendations that haven't yet been carried out, it shows that any sense of originality has been drained from an increasingly desperate Government.
The phrase 'Speakers Conference' is meant to reassure, to provide the cover of apparent cross-Party agreement for an authoritarian attempt to blackmail other political parties to adopt the sort of 'nanny state' positive discrimination that, as liberals, we prefer to eschew. However, a closer look at its membership reveals that, far from being cross-Party, there is an inbuilt Labour majority, with nine Labour members, four Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats (Andrew George and Jo Swinson) and one Democratic Unionist.
So, unsurprisingly, it has gone for a 'name and shame' approach in its efforts to make Parliament more representative of the nation. If that is the best that they can come up with, then we should be demanding our money back.
I fundamentally object to being told that I must betray my Party's philosophy and principles in order to achieve the goal of fair representation. As a liberal, I believe that everyone is equal, and that equality of opportunity is something that we should strive for. That doesn't mean equality of outcome regardless of merit, it means creating processes that do not discriminate, and providing support and encouragement for anyone who wishes to offer themselves up for consideration.
More than most people, I know that Liberal Democrats have wrestled with the desire for proper representation with the idea that we select on merit, with the only consideration being ability. We believe that Local Parties are sovereign, with the only roles for the centre being in setting minimum quality standards for candidates and designing the processes for approval and selection. I've been at the heart of the debate for a long time and I know that we haven't always got it right, but we have tried.
For smaller Parties without deep-pocketed funders, it is difficult to provide the training and support that candidates, regardless of background, need. We do our best given the limits placed upon us, trying to be smart rather than omnipresent. And given the evident lack of support for state funding of political parties, I suspect that it is a problem that will not go away.
However, it seems that they have also fallen into the classic trap of believing that numbers are all that matters. As I have pointed out, and won the subsequent argument, the number of women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay candidates is far less important than the numbers in those categories who can actually win. In the past, I have heard positive reports that we selected, for example, eighteen BME candidates in London. The fact that none of them had a hope in hell of winning was considered to be of less importance.
On the contrary, this is not like the Olympics, it isn't the taking part that matters, it's the winning, and only the winning, that matters. The runners-up don't sit in Parliament, they don't count towards the diversity statistics that anyone cares about - the number of women/BME/disabled/gay MP's.
So, Mr Speaker, if you think that you'll make friends and influence people with a report like this, you're wrong. Oh yes, your new Labour friends will love you. But remember, they auctioned off their principles to the highest bidder years ago...
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Yes, the deadline for filing your papers to apply for approved candidate status for the 2010 General Election is just six days away. Hurry, hurry, hurry...
Oh yes, and the deadline for nominations for the Cambridge selection is coming closer too - 5 December is the cut off date. It will be a quick turnaround affair, with the calling notice reported to be scheduled for issue before Christmas. Watch this space!
Which brings me, once again, to the subject of George Osborne. It appears that he has managed to make a mess of his claim for mortgage interest expenses, claiming £1,400 for his second home in October, when the limit is just £1,250. His office claim that it was a 'submission in error'.
Error it may be, but it is indicative of a general level of sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail. In an aspiring Chancellor of the Exchequer, that can't be good, and it demonstrates once again that, whilst George hit gold once with his inheritance tax proposals in 2007, he has added very little to the sum of human knowledge since. One presumes that his retention as Shadow Chancellor is linked to something other than his skills in finance and economics, especially with Phil Hammond lurking in the shadows - a far more comforting option, might I suggest.
All this said, George does have form with expenses. Who could forget the £440.62 chauffeur bill for driving him from his second home in his constituency to London (he was entitled to a 5% discount for prompt payment but claimed the full amount anyway)? Or the rebuke for using public money to pay for an overtly political website? And, of course, the charge of 'flipping' after his rather fancy footwork over his mortgage arrangements?
All in all, not a pretty picture. Combined with his seemingly sub-GCSE grasp of economics, it does make you wonder... Perhaps Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got it right, and so the final word goes to Peggy Lee. Take it away, Peggy...