Thursday, December 31, 2009

Building your castle: lesson 1 - make it daunting...

Looking at a map of Nice, I had spotted the city's other main railway station, that of the Chemins de Fer de Provence, with a line that heads up the valley of the River Var. And so, having discovered that the line is served by little diesel railcars, Ros and I had decided to take an excursion. Agreeing to meet one of Ros's colleagues and her husband, whom we had met at London City on the way out, it was decided that we would catch the 12:55 train to Entrevaux, famed for its medieval building and Vauban-designed fortifications.

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

The sweet smell of success

It was time to escape the glitz and glamour of the Cote d'Azur, and so we headed out of Nice on the train, bound for Grasse.

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...

2009 in review (part 3): trains, planes but not automobiles...

I had gotten over the irritation of the summer, kind of, and was at least willing to explain what I thought risked being lost by the approach of some in the blogosphere.

However, a much better Autumn Conference than I had feared followed, before I headed off to India, to be the very junior member of a Liberal Democrat Friends of India delegation. In an attempt to get thrown out of the country, I challenged the National Human Rights Commission about the status of homosexuals, but failed to get an answer, drank wine and reported back to the High Commission.

It was a very international autumn, as I reported exclusively on the Liberal International Congress in Cairo, and as Liberal Democrat Voice's man in Barcelona, the ELDR Congress. I even got to play policy wonk for an afternoon, and lived to tell the tale.

I had, however, turned into Jonathan Wallace. As he gave up his unequal battle with National Express East Coast, or rather, they gave up their unequal battle with him, I was left to take up the cudgels. And when, eventually, it was announced that they would be put out of their (our) misery on the East Anglia routes in 2011, I was able to dream of a better future.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quite possibly the strangest place in the world...

So, why am I here, exactly?

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

Once upon a time, it was cute and furry...

And now it's dead, and eaten...

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...

'Liberal Bureaucracy' turns tax exile?

The real problem with the vast sums of money that roll in from the proceeds of advertising on this blog is that the United Kingdom rather selfishly wants its share of the proceeds. And so, I'm on my way to explore the possibilities that are on offer by making 'Liberal Bureaucracy' tax resident in Monaco.

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...

2009 in review (part 2): "you're going to find me, out in the country..."

Spring came, and with it my traditional hopeless candidacy in a seat with no tradition of Liberal Democrat support and little likelihood of any in the near future either. However, it wasn't without its rewards. In a contest with my own District Councillor, and the future Labour PPC for Norwich North, we were all beaten by the Green candidate, on a night when little went right for Labour in Suffolk, and the Conservatives managed to lose seats to Liberal Democrats and Greens against the prevailing tide.

However, I was to win an 'election', becoming a Parish Councillor for the idyllic village I now called home, Creeting St Peter. I even started a blog for my village life, where I report on the day to day excitement of that small mid-Suffolk outpost. Exciting things happen there almost every month...

I did fall out with the blogosphere generally, over a little local difficulty called 'MP expenses'. Oh yes, I had a view, somewhat differently informed from many of the rest of you, partly due to being married to the author of 'Because Baronesses are People Too' (may it rest in peace...). There were those who, for reasons best known to themselves, unable to understand that people might have their own perspective, regardless of the interrelationship. There were even those who thought that blogging was rather more important than doing your job, and that speed of response was more important than accuracy or discretion.

I admit that I lost my temper (sorry, Paul...) but the application of a little common sense taught me that, in the end, if people want to behave in a particular way, you are better off letting them get on with it. There are better things to do. So I did them.

There was a lot more travel, as my role as consort to the President took me to Vancouver and allowed me to cover the Convention of the Liberal Party of Canada. But there was glamour too, with trips to the Peak District, to Somerton and Frome, and even to Mundesley.

But then, as if a miracle had occurred, the house in Kingsbury was sold, and I was officially a rural blogger. I also fell victim of a desire to be a local councillor, having studiously eschewed the possibility for twenty-five years. Yes, I wanted to be the District Councillor for Stowupland ward on Mid Suffolk District Council. I even delivered a leaflet, and may do so again in the future, as long as it doesn't upset too many people.

I did lose my temper one last time, with Irfan Ahmed (not entirely a surprise there), who soon after withdrew from the Liberal Democrat blogging arena and then from blogging altogether, after finding a whole new group of people to offend, many of whom seemed willing to make their unhappiness known in person, if you know what I mean.

It was a quiet summer, relatively speaking. The autumn would be anything but...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 in review (part 1): exploring the limits of being the 'First Husband'

Here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy', we've grown used to reviewing the year gone by, and 2009 is no exception...

The year began with a dawning realisation that life was about to become very different. The unique role of Presidential husband - yes, I am the first (or should that be "no, I'm Spartacus") - was likely to be a bit of challenge to a slightly impulsive bureaucrat. I didn't realise just how much of a challenge it would turn out to be.

However, there were trips to make, conferences to attend and travel plans to make. The first of these was to Wales, but I would be just about everywhere before long. Trains were a personal bugbear, and my unhappiness over National Express's axing of my much-loved Monday morning full English breakfast spilt over to a general criticism of the cheeseparing greed and incompetence of various train operating companies, South West Trains being an early target. And whilst, occasionally, I would be nice about trains from time to time, my personal grudge against National Express would keep me warm for months to come...

Another feature of the early months of the year was expenses. I had already spotted that there would be trouble given the freedom of information legislation that had been passed, and it was clear that some Parliamentarians didn't really get it. And sure enough, they didn't, and boy, what a mess they found themselves in.

I'm not an easy person to provoke, and yet I was obviously becoming more sensitive. I picked fights with Iain Dale over Israel, Irfan Ahmed over just about everything, James Graham over his attack on Paddy Ashdown, and I hadn't even started on Liberal Vision yet. I needed something to keep me occupied, clearly. Ah yes, being Liberal Youth's Returning Officer would keep me usefully engaged. How difficult could that be, after all?

Ah yes, Liberal Youth... and there I was, in the middle of one of the most unpleasant contests in the history of youth politics in this country. Who was it that sang, "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right"? If that seems a bit harsh, and it is in retrospect, I was at least "stuck in the middle" with Ros. And yet, in spite of everything, I managed to emerge from the whole sorry saga with my credibility intact, and Liberal Youth went on to be much more successful, so it must have been worth it.

I was now beginning to take an interest in my new neighbourhood too. A Local Government Review was underway in Suffolk, albeit falteringly, and although I still owned a house in London, there was no intention that this situation would last...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Just another typical Christmas in Creeting St Peter...

Ah yes, Christmas in rural Suffolk. We've been wrapped up in all of those last minute activities that are so much a part of village life. First, the trip to Mr Allard's farm butchery, to collect the 'Christmas meat' - turkey and roast pork this year, and then a quick swing past St Peter's Church to confirm timimgs before heading back to the demesne to drug the cat prior to another visit to the vet. We were somewhat delayed in doing so by a traffic holdup - a quail was walking down the middle of the road and we didn't want to run it over.

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

Thoughts from the Train: the death of the British stiff upper lip?

Here in the warmth of my first class carriage, somewhere just outside Colchester, it is tempting to be grateful for small mercies. Yes, it's crowded, and we're not moving very quickly - reports of overrunning engineering works between Manningtree and Colchester, of points failures at Witham and the fact that it is really quite chilly have contributed to that - but I will get to London eventually.

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

On being forced to drink beer...

What with the snow and all, getting back to Mid Suffolk has proved to be a little trickier than usual. It isn't possible to book a taxi from the station, and I really don't want Ros out on the roads.

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!

Glorious moments in local democracy (part 4,391)

I have recently found myself with something of a (temporary) dilemma. As a Parish Councillor, I am responsible for considering any planning application that falls within the boundaries of Creeting St Peter - we are a statutory consultee. However, the latest application was from me, or to be more accurate us.

Fine, you might think. Declare interest, withdraw from discussion, problem solved. Unfortunately, in Creeting St Peter, life is not that simple. We have never been at full strength - five - and at the moment are just three in number. So, by declaring an interest, I thus made the body inquorate, and they could not reach a view. Not ideal, I would suggest.

At least the neighbours were consulted, and a sign went up notifying the village that our application was in. However, it does seem wrong that a public meeting didn't take place to discuss the matter, even if we had taken every precaution to ensure that we fulfilled every dot and comma of planning law.

Ah well, we did get planning permission, and building will start shortly on the office that I've always dreamt of...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Climate change - is scaring people the right approach?

As the snow falls over Central London, and the prospects for a deal on climate change ebb away in Copenhagen, I find myself wondering whether our approach is the correct one.

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

Frankie Howard and Leslie Phillips - alive and well in the House of Lords

Clearly, the House of Lords retains a sense of humour, as today's exchange indicates;

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

Wokingham - where it's easier to sign up deliverers than to answer the quiz...

After a lengthy, but quite pleasant journey, we arrived at Earley, where we had an engagement to meet Steve Scarrott, victor of the recent Radstock by-election, and Prue Bray, our Group Leader on Wokingham Council and PPC for Wokingham.

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...

On Liberty or, to be more accurate, in Liberty...

Yesterday evening was spent attending a black tie dinner in support of Swansea and Gower Liberal Democrats. Not having had much detail about the event in advance, I was pleasantly surprised that we would be in Swansea City's swish new venue, Liberty Stadium (how appropriate is that for a Liberal Democrat event?).

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...

Swansea - not exactly what you might expect

Two weeks ago, Scotland. This weekend, Wales, and in particular, Swansea. After a lengthy train journey - engineering works causing a detour via Gloucester, we were met by Peter May, the PPC for Swansea West, a key target seat for 2010, and John, the campaign organiser.

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

The Valladares tartan - I wasn't exactly joking...

Alright, the concept of a Valladares tartan is stretching the notion beyond breaking point. However, I am a Gordon on my mother's side, and we do have a tartan or, to be more accurate, a number of variations.

For me, the most appropriate one is the weathered version. Very civil service, wouldn't you say?

Men in kilts, starring the Keeper of Stirling Castle

I haven't had a chance to report back on my trip to the Gateway to the Highlands but, as I'm in the midst of a four hour train journey, this seems like a good time.

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

Planning for absolute beginners

And so I made it to Needham Market, and found myself in a small lecture theatre with a group of Parish Councillors and Clerks for a brisk runthrough of planning law. It wasn't overly technical, and focussed mostly on the basic principles to be applied in most circumstances.

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?

Thoughts from the Train: star light, star bright...

One of the key differences between living in a big city and a countryside village is the diminished level of light pollution. On the sort of evening we had last night, cloudless and crisp, the sky over Creeting St Peter is an explosion of pin-sharp stars, and even galaxies. You can see the constellations clearly, which reminds me of one of the other pleasures of escaping the big city, the seeming ability to see things that are further away more clearly...

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

Old tricks for new councillors

I'm on my way to Needham Market, or to be more precise, the Lecture Theatre at the offices of soon to be abolished Mid Suffolk District Council, to attend a training session on planning.

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

PBR: don't you wish that you'd never got out of bed?

Alright, the economy is completely screwed, and there is going to be pain aplenty over the next three years or more. But the need to survive an election has spoken louder than the state of the economy. Little has been done to address the deficit, little to address the needs of the low paid. Most tax changes are regressive rather than progressive, and the predicted growth of 3.5% in 2011 falls into the category of fairy tale rather than economics textbook.

Many have said that this is a pre-budget report for the 2010 election. I disagree, this is aimed at the 2014/15 election, when Labour will fancy gaining seats from a Conservative government forced to make, and take responsibility for, a gruesome combination of swingeing cuts and unpopular decisions. Ironic, given that recent polls give Labour a sniff of a chance for the first time in more than a year.

Now I tend to the view that the next election isn't sewn up by any means. The signs are that our MP's are proving to be rather more resilient than the Conservatives had hoped and, as the election looms large, the absence of meaningful policy (as opposed to pretty soundbites) is beginning to prove problematic. And that's why one wonders why Labour appear so insipid.

Most people are braced for bad news, the public sector for lousy pay rises, the self-employed and small company owners for tax rises and yet, what do we get? A freeze in corporation tax rates, a 0.5% increase in National Insurance Contributions, promises of further efficiency savings, a cut in bingo duty to show that Labour are still for, and of, the people, whatever that means.

What does it mean? Well, the Conservatives can continue their policy-free route to power, we'll continue to do all of the intellectual heavy lifting, courtesy of Vince, and Labour will continue to drift towards electoral defeat. And the unmitigated horror of a George Osborne budget gets just that little bit closer. May God have mercy on our souls...

Public sector pay: Vince, you may just be a genius!

The recent proposal from Vince "I've forgotten more than George Osborne will ever know" Cable that pay rises in the public sector be limited to £400 is one of the more astute suggestions to have been made in recent weeks.

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

Boundary Committee report - on reflection, it's probably for the best...

Now that I've had a chance to sleep on things, I tend to the view that the recommendation of a unitary county for Suffolk is a sensible one.

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

The Boundary Committee for England regretfully advises...

Well, they've reported back, and will be recommmending a unitary authority to cover all of Suffolk.

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.

Banking bonuses - making the strike zone a bit tighter

All of this talk about taxing bankers' bonuses has had me a little confused.

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?...

Have I missed the campaign?

Yes, I know what you're thinking, how could you miss it? As one of ALDC's newer members, I get frequent exhortations to start campaigning for my District Council seat as early as possible. However, there is more than one campaign taking place in Creeting St Peter. Let me explain...

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

Thoughts from the Train: is there a point where local democracy becomes an expensive vanity?

I am a democrat to my very fingertips. It was my fascination with enabling people to take an active role in determining those who should represent them that led me to take my first steps into the political arena, and I remain an enthusiastic supporter of campaigns to improve our democracy. And yet, I find myself wondering about what is an appropriate size for a democratic unit.

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...

On the eighth day of asking, National Express gave to me... absolutely nothing

UB40 sang "I am the one in ten", but it appears that I am too. According to National Express East Anglia, they aim to respond to 90% of complaints within six working days. Well, today is day eight.

I'm still waiting, ladies and gentlemen...

Hey Zac, stop digging!

Occasionally, we here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy' like to help those in need of some good advice, and it has been brought to our attention that Zac Goldsmith is in need of some just at the moment. So, here are our first thoughts...
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

National Express - still getting a good kicking...

Following on from the truncation of their East Anglia rail franchise, today saw a question from Baroness Hanham, seeking to find out what the current position is. Luckily, a clutch of their regular victims were there to kick the company whilst it is down.

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...

A duty of care to our former colonies?

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad from 27 to 29 November, how they are building a constructive relationship between the United Kingdom and Caribbean Commonwealth countries.

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

Cambridge: the hills are alive with the sound of candidates

Luckily, I have absolutely nothing to do with the Cambridge candidate selection, although I am picking up the odd rumour as to who might be applying.

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...

Back from the dead - I have my BlackBerry back!

Yes, after the best part of four weeks undergoing repair for a wonky mouse wheel, I am reunited with my beloved BlackBerry.

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

Health and safety gone mad - a village mourns the loss of its bus stop

You may remember that I was keen to get a bus stop for my village, and the process of obtaining one was duly kicked off, with a request to the County Council. A potential site was found, and I was really quite optimistic, especially when our site was judged to meet the criteria. However, we now have bad news to report.

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...