Monday, January 31, 2011

A final Thought from the Train: is your hurry really necessary?

Funny really, the stresses and strains of modern life. Living in a big city, life seems to race away, threatening to leave you behind if you let it. On the Underground, or waiting for a bus in any London suburb, commuters stare at the platform indicator, wondering when that next Bank branch train will come, and why a minute of Transport for London's time feels like four of anyone else's. Actually, now I think about it, why is that?

But I digress. All of that tension for a train that comes every three or four minutes? What's the hurry all about? In mid-Suffolk, where the trains come every hour, the tension is lower in its intensity. I can't really arrive at the last minute, because if I do, and I miss the train, the implications are serious - I'll be an hour late. For my London equivalent, call him or her City Bureaucrat, it makes a five minute difference, hardly fatal. I suppose that choice is a factor. "Have I taken the best route, could I have got there faster via X?", I often wondered. Now, I have one route, and I'll get there eventually. No anguish, just resignation.

I tend to feel less hassled here in mid-Suffolk. It isn't that I have less to do, far from it. My commute isn't much different to what it's always been. It's just a frame of mind, I guess. I can get around, I simply need to be more organised, a bit less spontaneous, a bit more patient. And perhaps that last point is the crux of the matter, patience. So why not leave a little extra time for your journey, find a moment to chat with whoever sells you your newspaper or your train ticket. In short, just chill. You might be surprised by the results...

Ros in the Lords: Marine Navigation Aids Bill - Second Reading

It is a little known fact that I am married to the first, and so far as I know, only woman ever to be a member of the board of Lloyd's Register. And so, it might not have come as a total surprise that she was the only female contributor to the debate...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will recognise the tenacity and commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, to this important issue. I am sure that he will understand that for the reasons expressed by the noble Earl it is difficult to have a debate today in anything other than general terms on the important question of the UK system of providing aids to navigation.

However, it is useful to have such a debate at this time. It is also refreshing to have a debate on shipping in your Lordships' House because it is a topic that we seldom cover, which is interesting when we consider how important the shipping industry is to this country's economy and to our maritime heritage. I believe that it is timely to revisit the question of light dues. We are the only country in the world to have a user-based scheme for the funding of light dues. While that is not in itself a reason to change the system, it should at least give us the opportunity for pause for thought and to reflect on why we are the only country left which does it in this way.

Clearly, money is the essential driver, as it so often is. The budget shortfall within the General Lighthouse Authorities can be dealt with only in the way that any organisation deals with budget shortfalls; that is, you increase your income, you cut your costs or you do both. The original proposal to increase the budget at a time when all other departments were slashing theirs was ill advised. I am very glad that the Government have stepped in and have given some firm guidance that this is not acceptable.

I very much agree with the point made by the noble Earl that having a stop-start approach to light dues where they are frozen for many years and then increased very fast is not a sensible way to treat the shipping industry, which now has far more options available to them. As we have heard, a large number of companies are simply deciding to go to Rotterdam or to Antwerp and to use feeder ships to try to ship. This is having a serious effect on the maritime industry generally and has the effect of making the budget crisis within the GLAs even worse because they are trying to bring more money in and actually are bringing in less. They then get into a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape.

The Government need to reconsider the principle of whether a 41p per tonne levy on ships in UK waters is still an appropriate way forward, given that it is described as a user tax, when there is no mechanism for measuring whether these ships are using the lights at all. With modern navigation and so on, things have moved on. The Chamber of Shipping is adamant that this is a tax on trade. We need some clarity of thinking as to whether that is what it is.

The budgetary problems will be eased by the recent announcement of the agreement with the Irish Government that they should take on responsibility for their own lights. I congratulate the Minister, Mr Penning, on achieving what previous Governments said was impossible. Therefore, either Mr Penning has been very persuasive or we have a lot of extra leverage after having written some large cheques to the Irish Government lately. Whichever way it is, we certainly seem to have made progress that has eluded us before.

I understand that the subsidy to the Irish Lights this year is around £12 million, which will come as a significant benefit to the budget. Will the Minister say whether this saving will in part or in whole be reflected in reduced fees to the ship operators or will simply disappear into the lighthouse funds to help to deal with the pension deficit?

The issue of operating costs is important. I know that the Government are working with all sectors of the transport industry to look at why UK costs are much higher than overseas comparators. They are doing that for rail, roads and so on. I suspect that this is as much of a problem with marine navigational aids as with any other sector. As we have heard, an article in the Lloyd's List of 23 August 2010 by the former chief executive of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has highlighted how Australia transformed its lighthouse system during the 1980s, improved service quality and reduced costs. I know that a lot of other countries are looking at the Australian model and I hope that our Government are too.

On 14 January, the Government in Hong Kong announced that they will reduce fees for a range of maritime services, including lights, by about 20 per cent. Clearly, there is a wealth of international experience on which to draw. That is appropriate because shipping has well established international organisations, including the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in this area.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has done the shipping industry a service by bringing this forward today, although I hope that he will accept the difficulties of scrutinising a Bill that has disappeared before our eyes. Nevertheless, I thank him.

So, how's the openness thing going, Mark?

Last week, I raised the issue of representation and transparency within the Liberal Democrats, alighting on the English Party as a place where much of importance is decided, but where there is little light shone.Indeed, there is so little light shone that I can't find a website for it, or any sign that it actually exists for public consumption.

So, I wrote to my fellow Regional Secretaries, to see what their view was on making at least the names of their English Council representatives available via their Regional websites. And, so far, this is what I've heard...

  • South East - I didn't have to contact them, they were the first to publish
  • East Midlands - Alex Foster is on the case
  • North West - Jane Brophy and Jen Yockney are checking with their representatives as to how much, if any, information they are willing to make public
  • London - I've had a list, courtesy of their redoubtable Regional Administrator, Flick Rea.
No news yet from South Central, Western Counties, Devon and Cornwall, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber or the North East.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Another 'Liberal Bureaucracy' Court Circular...

As nobody else seems to cover this stuff, ‘Liberal Bureaucracy’ accepts its duty bring you news of our newest Peers, who are beginning to don ermine for their big day, being introduced to the House of Lords.

Future scheduled introductions to mark in your diary are;

31 January - Jenny Randerson
1 February - Claire Tyler
3 February - Mike Storey
7 February - Nicol Stephen

The only way is Essex... Basildon, to be precise...

It's been a long time since the last Presidential gig, and all of this 'enjoying a weekend at home with a beer and a roaring fire' stuff is very nice, but one does occasionally yearn for a nice local party dinner (yes, really!). So I was rather pleased when Ros accepted an invite from Basildon, Billericay and Thurrock Liberal Democrats to speak there.

The Local Party Chair is Geoff Williams, a bit of a legend in these parts. Regional Executive member, Parliamentary candidate assessor, returning officer, local councillor, he's done and been it all, and is still doing it, in an area not perhaps renown for its liberal tradition. I've known Geoff for some years now, and it was nice to come and see him, his wife and fellow councillor, Linda, and a small but perfectly formed group of local activists, clearly in good form and good heart.

And was a treat in store after our sixty mile drive? Oh yes, with an excellent leek and potato soup to start, followed by some top quality sausages and mash with a choice of four vegetables, I was in deeply content mode. And then, joy of joys, more sausages appeared. Those of you who know me will tell you that, if there is anything better a really good pork sausage, it's another really good pork sausage. Add to that a really good syllabub, and I could rest easy in my chair.

Ros spoke of the challenges of her Presidency, and of coalition, and gave an honest account of the challenges and the opportunities, which seemed to go down well, before the raffle was drawn.There were some very nice prizes, and virtually everyone won something (as it should be), before Ros pointed the car back to mid-Suffolk and home.

All in all, a very good evening, with some new friends made, and some old acquaintances renewed. I wonder where we'll go next?...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Museums: National Gallery

An unusual question for Ros, but she's always willing to ask a question if someone asks (within reason, mind), and it serves as a reminder of how under-represented women have traditionally been in the fine arts...


Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the level of representation of female artists in the collections of the National Gallery; and whether they have had any discussions with the trustees of the National Gallery on this issue.[HL5791]

Baroness Rawlings: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has had no discussions with the National Gallery on this issue. The contents of the National Gallery's collection are an operational matter for the trustees of the gallery.

For the record, there are apparently only five works by women artists on display...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - National Parks and Access to Countryside Act 1949

You'll remember that Ros and I had visited our local nature reserve, following the proposal from Suffolk County Council to divest itself of its responsibilities for maintenance of country parks and nature reserves. It struck us as being odd that a local authority could simply walk away from its obligations like that, and so Ros decided to test the Government's stance on the issue...

19 January 2011


Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether a local authority has the power to stop managing local nature reserves which are provided under section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.[HL5720]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): It is possible for a local authority to decide to cease managing land as a local nature reserve, but any decision to do so must be made reasonably. This would require the local authority to review why it had originally considered it was expedient to provide the local nature reserve under Section 21(1) of the 1949 Act; and whether, in the current circumstances, it is expedient to continue to do so. Under Section 21(6) of the 1949 Act, the local authority would also need to consult with Natural England and consider its views before ceasing to manage the land as a local nature reserve. The local authority's ability to cease managing the land will also be subject to the terms of any management agreement and byelaws in place for the land.

Ultimately it would be for the courts to determine the lawfulness of an authority's decision.

An interesting answer for all those campaigners seeking to protect valuable and unusual habitats and ecosystems, and I suspect that we won't have heard the last of this...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dizzy Thinks... but not terribly hard...

I've not really become terribly connected to the 'Yes to Fairer Votes' campaign, although I'll be voting yes on 5 May. But my attention has been drawn to the latest outpouring from the Director of the 'No2AV' campaign, Mark Wallace. Mark has form, of course. As the voice of the Taxpayers' Alliance, he was prone to selectivity when it came to which of the facts he emphasised, but he did establish a reputation for knowing his subject.

It would seem, however, that he isn't quite so in command of electoral systems, as evidenced by a particularly shoddy posting on his blog. At least, when prodded quite hard, he acknowledges the weakness of his argument - representing something from a comedy drama as a reputable example of the effects of the Alternative Vote system is either mendacious or lazy.

However, Dizzy, apparently one of the more prominent Conservative bloggers, picks it up and carries it further. The temptation is to use an example from 'Father Ted', where Ted tries to explain perspective to Dougal - "big... far away...".However, courtesy says that I should presume some intellect in my adversary.

So, we'll take Mark Wallace's example. Six votes are cast, each for a different candidate. Under 'first past the post', the candidates and their agents are brought together, and lots are drawn to decide the winner. Easy, thus far (you are following this, aren't you, Mark and Dizzy?

Under AV, all choices with no votes are eliminated, including yellow, and the second preferences redistributed amongst the remaining live candidates. But there are no valid transfers, so all six candidates are tied. And you'll never guess what happens next, guys. Yes, the candidates and their agents are brought together, and lots are drawn to decide the winner. So, in the most freakish of outcomes, the voters are no worse off under AV than they would have been under 'first past the post'!

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but a piece of legislation which leaves nobody worse off than before is a good thing, isn't it? Or do I need to run through that again for you, gentlemen?...

Transparency and the Party

I admit that I have been guilty of the odd 'secret society' joke about English Candidates Committee in the past. But there is a serious point to be made, I believe. In a Party where our internal democracy is so important, how does democracy work if accountability and access to those who represent us is limited?

I was reminded of this point by Roy Benford, a member of the Regional Executive in the East of England, on Saturday. He is of the view that English Council is pretty useless in terms of function and accountability, and wants to be able to lobby other members. And I thought to myself, he's right. So I spent yesterday evening updating our Regional website so that anyone who wants to contact any member of the Regional Party serving on any Regional, State or Federal body can do so. It's still a work in progress, but I will endeavour to publish as much information as I can, as soon as I can.

But it shouldn't stop there. If the East of England can do it, why not all of the English Regions? So, I intend to contact each of my fellow Regional Secretaries, asking them to do the same. It will be interesting to see what the response is...

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Railways: Compensation

Having spent as much time on trains as we have in recent years, Ros and I have developed a keen interest in compensation payments and how they are made. At present, compensation comes in the form of paper vouchers but, if like me, you buy your tickets using the internet, they aren't much use. The previous government hadn't had much to say on the subject. Would a new administration be any better? Judge for yourself...

21 December 2010

Railways: Compensation


Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have plans to ensure that rail delay compensation will be made in a form which can be used by those utilising ticket machines and online booking. [HL4736]

Earl Attlee: For franchised operators, compensation entitlements for poor performance are set out in a passengers' charter. The detailed arrangements for the operation of compensation schemes are a matter for individual train operators. We have no current plans to mandate the way compensation is paid to customers.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Access to Work

Two weeks earlier, Ros had been brushed off by the redoubtable Baroness Hanham, but she's plucky, and was back with a follow-up...

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Access to Work


Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Access to Work fund can be used to assist local government councillors in the furtherance of their duty.[HL5161]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): Councillors of all principal local authorities are treated for Access to Work purposes as in employment, and thus provided they meet the general eligibility criteria are eligible for Access to Work support. Certain parish councillors who receive only reimbursement of travel and meal allowances are treated as voluntary workers and are not eligible for Access to Work.

The Government is also committed to introduce extra support for disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials following recommendations of the Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation in January 2010, and intends to consult shortly on options, including an Access to Elected Office Fund.

So, good news for our representative democracy, and great news for those with disabilities that might have put them off of the idea of running for election. And if you know anyone who might benefit from this information, please pass it on.

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Disabled People: Employment

For some time now, there have been concerns expressed by councillors with disabilities that, instead of support, they are encountering barriers that prevent them for being as effective as they might be. After hearing of a particularly egregious case, Ros felt that she needed to raise the subject...


Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government what public funds are available to assist elected councillors with disabilities in the furtherance of their duties. [HL4737]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): It is for each council to decide what arrangements to make to assist councillors with disabilities and how these arrangements should be funded.

Local Government Leadership has published a guide for prospective councillors, which includes advice for those with disabilities:

It must be said that this was a particularly useless answer. But if at first you don't succeed...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goodbye, big city, hello, county town!

It's been a long time, forty-six years to be precise, since I was born a Londoner. Most of my childhood was spent in North London, the dramas of my first marriage were played out in inner South London, before a shuttle first north, then south, of the river. Virtually all of my politics was done in a city where I had an almost anorakish knowledge of public transport options, and my family, the UK resident part at least, remain snug and warm in North London's suburbia. If you had ever said that I would leave, and of my own volition too, I would have looked at you as if to suggest, "you are mad, aren't you?".

And so it is with some surprise that I can announce that I'm leaving - permanently, I suspect - having sought and won a transfer to the Corporation Tax Operations office in Ipswich, where I start on 1 February. Same job (pretty much), different people, and my view will not be of central London but central Ipswich.

As a result, London will become the big, rather crowded, terribly rushed place where Ros works, a place that I will visit surprisingly frequently, but a place where other people do apparently glamorous things. In truth, I'm not really a doer of glamorous things, although I had the occasional moment when I thought that I might try - exposure to the blowtorch of reality was usually enough to put a stop to such daydreams.

What is unexpected though is the ease with which I have adapted to life beyond the Home Counties. I enjoy the rather slower pace of life, the need to organise social activities, the time to stop and look, rather than have to snatch a quick glance and run. In short, I have been seduced by the relative gentility of country life.

No, I'm not painting a sugar-coated picture of village life, and the notion of a sylvan countryside where bad things never happen is so far removed from the reality that one might wonder why I'm so comfortable. I suppose that I've found my niche in a place where the politics is gentler, where ideology takes something of a backseat to community, in short somewhere where my political style sits better.

So, to my London friends, au revoir. Don't worry, I'll be back from time to time, mainly to see friends and family, and to do things with Ros. There might even be the odd meeting, if I feel the urge. But it's time to build a home and a life, and there's nobody and nowhere else I'd rather do it...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It's dark, and I've got a shovel...

Yes, I've been to another Parish Council meeting, and the big news was that Rosemary, our Parish Clerk, had our new grit bin... in the back of her car.

And so it was agreed that Steve, our Chair, and I would put it in its designated spot, next to the postbox in The Lane after the meeting. Luckily, it's made of plastic, so it wasn't heavy, as Steve proved by carrying it himself down the street and placing it, still wrapped in plastic, on the ground.

My job was then to remove the wrapping, and put the grit already next to the postbox in to the new grit bin, making it too heavy to steal - us country folk, we're not daft, you know. Of course, only having nine street lights meant that I was doing this effectively by moonlight, but it takes more than that to stop a Parish councillor.

So I grabbed my trusty shovel and did the deed. So now we have a grit bin, with grit in it. Best of all, our county councillor has agreed to pay for it out of his 'quality of life' budget and they'll be filling it tomorrow, we're assured.

And now I sit, in front of my computer, with a bottle of honey porter from the Vieira Brewing Company by my right hand. Yes, it's another perfect day in Paradise-sur-Gipping...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A quick visit to Meerkovo

You may recognise this as the 'Queasy Mongoose' in Meerkovo, the latest addition to the wonderful world of However, for those of us who live in Suffolk, it's probably better known as 'The Bell' in Kersey, where the advert was filmed.

Kersey is probably best known in these parts for its 'splash', where a tributary of the River Brett runs across the main street, and it is a remarkable chocolate box confection of a village.

And now that Ros and I have a little time to ourselves, Ros has taken to showing me bits of the county that I haven't seen before, so we drove through Bildeston and on across the gently rolling countryside that is South Suffolk. It isn't dramatic, and consists almost entirely of arable farmland, but the beauty of the county is in its built environment. Oh yes, once upon a time the wealth of the country lay in villages like Kersey, with wool bringing in the money.

And upon the small hill overlooking the village is the church, much bigger than you might expect from a village the size of Kersey, but again the result of the wealth generated by the wool trade with Flanders.

Of course, beyond the hill is the council housing, out of sight of the main village, and something not exactly unusual in Suffolk villages, where council housing tended to be built on the edges. But you wouldn't expect to see that in Meerkovo, would you?...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ed Milliband wants me to show courage. The courage of a lemming, admittedly...

And so Ed Milliband has made his big speech to the Fabians, and he thinks that the labour Party should work with 'courageous' Liberal Democrats, i.e. those that agree with him. So, what did he have to say?

The decision of the Liberal Democrats to join a Conservative-led government was a tragic mistake, and I hope they come to see that in time.

I'm assuming that you think that going to coalition with Conservatives would always be a mistake. In which case, if we're only ever going to work with you, what would be the point of us existing as an independent political party? No, I forget, you'd really rather we didn't.

Forgive me if I decline to join those who are gloating at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.
But weren't you the one who said that we should be eradicated? Or am I confusing you with another Milliband?

Because their mistake means they are part of a government attempting to shift politics to the Right.
No, we're part of a government that is attempting to make up for your wastefulness, extravagance and cowardice, and because it doesn't have you in it, it is less left-wing than you were, not exactly political rocket science.

I am certainly pleased that many Liberal Democrats now see Labour as the main progressive hope in British politics.
Many Liberal Democrats what? Members? No, don't think so. Supporters, maybe? Voters, certainly? But what are you offering them? A false hope that, miraculously, the massive overspending that the Coalition inherited will just go away all by itself? An option of throwing up your hands and saying that nothing can be done? Hope of what, exactly?

Thousands of them have joined us since the election. 
Really, or was it just people who support you anyway and have joined because they hope that you might save them from the fate you brought them?

I want them to find a welcome home in our party – not just making up the numbers, but contributing actively to the strengthening of our values and the renewal of our policies.
So, let me get this right, you want us to join because, as liberals, we fit right into your party's agenda of removing civil liberties, increasing centralisation, slavish indulgence of American foreign policy, a larger role for the state in people's lives? For pity's sake, can't someone send him a copy of 'On Liberty'?

But equally there are many Liberal Democrats who have decided to stay and fight for the progressive soul of their party. Most of them do not want to see their progressive tradition sacrificed for personal ambition.
Actually, I'm staying because I intend to fight for the liberal soul of my party. The word 'progressive' is so meaningless, so devoid of philosophical fibre, that it can only be the last refuge of a political movement that only believes in what will get it elected. And as for political ambition, what does your CV include, Ed? A proper job doing anything outside of the Westminster bubble?

I respect their choice too and I understand how painful it must be to watch what is happening to their party.
Actually, my Party gives me a say in that, unlike the Labour Party. I got to take part in a debate on whether or not to go into coalition, I get to vote for my leader on the basis of one person, one vote, I get to make policy at our conference. Oh sorry, I really shouldn't have mentioned the second bit, should I?...

We do not doubt that they hold sincere views and we will co-operate, where we can in Parliament and outside, with those that want to fight the direction of this government.
And take it in which direction, Ed? Oh, but you can't tell me, can you. You can tell me where you won't go, or might not go. But you don't actually know. Perhaps you could provide me with a philosophical roadmap, so I could make an educated guess. Ah, but that hasn't been agreed yet. All I can tell is that you're in favour of protecting the poor, the vulnerable and the under-represented. So am I. However, because you spent all of the money (ask Liam Byrne, he'll explain that to you...), we can't do all of the things that you borrowed money to pay for.

It is our duty to work with progressives everywhere.

Which perhaps indicates that you don't buy the word 'progressive' either. If you were one, you'd have said 'fellow progressives'. Thanks, but no thanks...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Motion on Turkey

Just when you thought that you'd had enough turkey to last you until next Christmas, up pops a debate on Turkey in the Lords, called for by Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece from the Liberal Democrat benches...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I join the congratulations to my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece on securing this important debate today, on her excellent introduction to it, and on giving us the opportunity to hear important contributions from across the House-in particular, from my noble friend Lord Sharkey, who I thought made an extremely good maiden speech. I know that the whole House will look forward to hearing from him again on this and other topics.

The Motion refers to the role of Turkey in international affairs. I shall address my remarks to one geographically very small area of Turkish influence, but one that has enormous strategic importance. I refer to Cyprus. The motive behind my contribution is simple. It is born out of a great interest in and huge affection for Cyprus. I lived in Nicosia and in Limassol as a small child when my Air Force father was stationed at the early warning radar station in the Troodos mountains, and I have been a regular visitor ever since, most recently in October, for the wedding of my daughter in Paphos. After that event, I took the opportunity to cross into northern Cyprus-at the invitation of the Government-to have a look and to have a series of meetings and to pay some visits over what was a very busy and interesting three-day period. I used the Ledra Palace crossing-which is a strange experience: a 500-metre walk in bright sunshine through abandoned, very quiet and war-damaged Nicosia suburbs. The whole thing had something of a John Le Carré feel to it. In fact, it is said, perhaps apocryphally, that modern-day Berliners like to try the experience just to remind themselves of how it used to be.

So what should be done about this long-standing division of Cyprus? It is worth reminding ourselves that Cyprus has been divided since 1963 and that the United Nations has been keeping the green line between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since then. It is not something that happened since 1974 and the arrival of Turkish troops.

With the ease of crossing, perhaps the outside world wonders whether it is worth bothering to try to find a solution to Cyprus-everybody is getting on, everything is all right. I believe that it would be a big mistake to think that way. First, for the people of Cyprus, all of whom are EU citizens, there is a high price to pay for the current lack of an agreed settlement: both sides live with large numbers of troops; economic development, especially in tourism, is damaged by a division which looks inexplicable to modern visitors from outside; and property markets are damaged by uncertainty over title. Perhaps most important of all, infrastructure decisions on this small island, which ought sensibly to be made on a whole-island basis, are being made separately. The most obvious example is water, where the Greek Cypriot solution to the chronic water shortage is to build desalination plants, while the north is planning a water pipeline direct from Turkey.

It seems to me that the role of the United Kingdom in helping to resolve the Cyprus question is absolutely key, because of the historic links of Empire and Commonwealth, because of our status as one of the guarantor powers, because of the strategic importance of the sovereign bases in Cyprus and because of our EU membership-and because we, above all, are the promoters of Turkish accession to the EU. That gives us a moral obligation, as well as a policy obligation, to try to move the impasse forward. We have to be sufficiently realistic to admit that there is now a stalemate in Cyprus.

On the Greek Cypriot side, there is undoubtedly an emotional desire to see reunification of the island. But the evidence is that it is very doubtful whether that sentiment is matched by any kind of commitment to reach a settlement which offers Turkish Cypriots the protection that they need; and the astounding rejection by Greek Cypriots of the Annan plan was hardly going to engender confidence on the Turkish side, which had voted for it. The acceptance of the Republic of Cyprus into the EU was a mistake and has left a total absence of leverage on the Greek Cypriot side to make any concessions at all.

In contrast, in northern Cyprus the most important factor is not unification but the need for security, representative governance and autonomy. There is a widespread and understandable feeling that Turkish Cypriots have been let down by the international community ever since unrest escalated in Cyprus during the 1960s. The policy of economic isolation for northern Cyprus is simultaneously creating an economic disparity on the island that makes unification less likely, which makes any kind of resolution less likely and is, indeed, driving Turkish Cypriots into a growing economic dependence, as well as a cultural and social dependence, on Turkey. It is a fact that fewer Turkish Cypriots speak Greek now than was the case in 1974 and that can only make life more difficult.

Yet, having spent a little time in northern Cyprus, it is clear to me that this policy of isolation, while hindering northern Cyprus and stopping it reaching its full potential, is actually not damaging it enough to make the sort of difference that perhaps its opponents might want. It looks to me as though northern Cyprus is thriving despite all of those problems and is not about to cave in any time soon to the pressure of isolationist economic policies.

It seems to me that it is high time for a rethink. First, all sorts of international organisations, particularly sporting organisations, need to rethink their current policy of bans. These things really do matter to countries. We also should accept the reality that thousands of people fly into Ercan airport but are inconvenienced by the extra time required for a touchdown in Turkey and the extra costs of flights. Finally and most importantly, the EU regulation which would allow direct trade between the EU and northern Cyprus must be implemented. This was promised to Turkish Cypriots and has been blocked since 2004. The Lisbon treaty now gives an opportunity to bring that forward. If this were to be passed, not only would the economic situation in northern Cyprus improve but Turkey would then open up ports and airports to Greek Cypriots, which would help their economy too. I hope the Minister can assure the House that normalising relationships on Cyprus, which is the key to unlocking the accession of Turkey to the European Union, is a high priority for the Government.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A 'Liberal Bureaucracy' public service announcement

Tax returns. "Yes,", I hear you say, "and what of them?" Well, for those of you due to file a personal self assessment tax return for the year ended 5 April 2010, the deadline is fast approaching.

If you haven't filed, you'll need to do so online and, if you haven't registered to use the service, you should do so now, as you cannot file online with your authorisation code, which is posted to you on application. So, hurry, hurry, hurry, and avoid the risk of a penalty.

Alternatively, if you're going to fail to get your return in on time, but know what your tax liability is, make sure that it is paid by 31 January, as the initial penalty is £100 or the amount of tax unpaid, whichever is the lesser.

For more information, head for the HMRC website...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

PAYE coding 'fiasco' - what happened next...

A written statement has been made to the House of Commons by David Gauke MP, the Exchequer Secretary at HM Treasury and the minister responsible for HM Revenue & Customs;

I am now able to give the House a report on HMRC’s progress in resolving the issues on which I made a statement on 8 September 2010. Lesley Strathie, chief executive of HMRC, will be writing to the Public Accounts Committee and Treasury Select Committee separately today.

HMRC have been working hard to clear the long-standing backlogs of unreconciled tax cases.

Since September they have made rapid progress on working through the nearly 6 million adjustments needed to ensure that the correct amount of tax is collected for the tax years 2008-09 and 2009-10. By the end of last year in 90 per cent of cases where HMRC had received all relevant information, customers had received a refund notice or a calculation of overpayment in respect of these years.

In cases where an underpayment was due HMRC have sought to take a flexible and sympathetic approach to collecting the tax that is due. In the minority of cases where the unexpected bill has been caused by HMRC’s failure to act promptly on the information received, HMRC have considered claims to be written off under an existing concession (ESC 19).

In addition:

  • HMRC estimate that there are about 250,000 cases in respect of 2008-09 and 2009-10 where a taxable state pension has been paid by DWP and the tax due on this pension should have been collected through a tax code adjustment. These pensioners have not yet been issued with a notice of underpayment but would have a strong case for their underpayment to be written off in line with the concession. HMRC will not require these pensioners to claim the concession individually, but will instead write off all the relevant underpayments.

  • HMRC are working to clear the backlog of cases from earlier years. They will work all cases where a taxpayer is due a repayment for earlier years.

  • Further underpayment notices will not be issued for years earlier than 2007-08. For 2007-08, where possible, any amounts due will be included in the tax code for 2011-12 so that the money is collected over the course of the year through PAYE. HMRC will apply the same treatment to these cases as to those for 2008-09 and 2009-10. HMRC will not be collecting sums for less than £300 for that year and will allow people to spread payments in cases of hardship. Taking these concessions into account, HMRC expect to be in touch with around 450,000 people before the end of March to collect underpayments to the value of some £180 million.

  • The annual exercise to set tax codes for the 2011-12 tax year is about to begin. HMRC have reviewed the experience of last year when transitional issues with the new system led to some taxpayers receiving incorrect tax code notifications, and have conducted extensive additional testing designed to prevent a recurrence of these issues this year.

  • HMRC are continuing the process of modernising PAYE for the 21st century through the introduction of Real Time Information (RTI). This will help reduce the need for reconciliations in the future.
  • Monday, January 10, 2011

    Cute little fellow, isn't he?

    This furry little fellow is a water vole and, I discover, we have some here in Creeting St Peter. As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited by the prospect.

    However, there is a catch. The water vole apparently live in our Local Nature Reserve (and the capital letters are deliberate). Unfortunately, the Reserve is one of the many things that the county council no longer wish to be responsible for, and they're trying to get parish councils to take up the reins.

    That would be fine if we were a bigger parish, or maybe even a town. However, as a parish of just 260 souls, the cost of maintaining the reserve is almost certainly more than  we could manage. So, I've been trying to find out more about the situation...

    Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 allows local authorities to create Local Nature Reserves, on the basis that they will be maintained. Unfortunately, they can de-declare (Section 19(3) of the same Act), but the option to apply to Natural England for enhanced status as a National Nature Reserve exists.

    So, it looks like I'm going to have to make a few telephone calls... 

    Sunday, January 09, 2011

    When cutting your spending doesn't reduce public expenditure

    Here in Creeting St Peter, the Parish Council doesn't have vast responsibilities. Cutting the grass, lighting the streets, enabling planning consultation, that's about it. Accordingly, our precept is small, at around £40 per household. The money comes from our friends and neighbours, so we're fairly cautious about spending it.

    However, we are now being invited to take on new commitments. For example, the County Council want to cut the amount they spend on subsidising bus services. Fair enough, you might think, until you realise that their preferred outcome is that Parish Councils take up the burden. As a parish councillor, I like to think of myself as being fairly knowledgable, but I've never sought tenders for a bus service.

    Indeed, I wouldn't, as the idea of a dedicated bus service for a village of two hundred souls, virtually all of whom drive, is almost absurd. On the other hand, a bus service which links a cluster of villages to the nearest town is a different proposition. We could get involved in such a tendering process, but it would involve coordinating a number of parishes. Perhaps it might be better getting one tier of government responsible for managing services across the area to do that, like a county council, for example. You could describe it as an 'economy of scale'.

    If a service is essential, or valuable, devolving it down to a lower tier of government does not save public money, it merely allows you to say that you've cut your spending, and makes no difference to the council tax payer. here in Mid Suffolk, my council tax is split four ways - county, district, parish and police authority. From my perspective, if expenditure is cut by 20%, I should reasonably expect to see my council tax bill cut by 20%, and I believe that most people would see it the same way.

    However, all that appears to be happening is a passing of the buck. Central government cuts the rate support grant, but my income tax bill doesn't fall. The county council cut services, some of which are devolved to districts and parishes, but their slice of my council tax doesn't fall. The district and parish take on more responsibilities, but the precept increase is capped.

    Yes, it's a huge over-simplification, but if you going to get less in the way of services, most ordinary people would expect to see council tax fall in actual terms, not just real terms. It won't...

    Another of the advantages of country life... vegetarians might wish to look away...

    Doesn't this look delicious? It's a brace of pot roasted pheasants, the sort of thing you see on those rather fancy cookery programmes. The only catch is that they're quite expensive and one pheasant only really feeds two people.

    Or not, if you live in mid Suffolk, where an oven-ready pheasant costs £3.00, and there is plenty of game available, supplied by people who shoot for sport or as pest control. And at that price, braised in madeira, for example, they become very reasonable.

    As a long-time 'big city' person, I grew used to eating pork, beef or chicken. Lamb is a bit expensive, and anything more 'exotic' than that was pretty pricey. Not here, where you can get quail, partridge, rabbit and hare in the local butchers, all properly prepared, skinned and ready to cook.

    And yes, I can hear the cries of cruelty, and yes, I understand that the creatures have been shot, but that's how it works out here. When I hear the sounds of gunfire in and around Creeting St Peter, I know that the local wildlife is under fire. In London, I then expected the sound of police sirens. The pheasants are bred, with bird feeders set out for them, and the rabbits and hares are shot to keep numbers stable in the absence of obvious predators - I haven't actually seen a fox in the three years I've lived here, whereas they were an everyday occurance in South London.

    It's all part of the different quality of life that rural communities have to offer, not necessarily better, just different. I get cheap pheasant, but it's a bit of a drag to the nearest Thai restaurant. On the other hand, if I'm organised, I can have just as diverse a cultural life, whereas in London I could be more spontaneous.

    Just another phase of the adjustment, I suspect...

    Saturday, January 08, 2011

    More tea, Vicar? - a day in the life of Paradise-sur-Gipping

    Living in a small village does mean that you can expect to be a bit short of facilities. Activities are community-based rather than commercial and they rely on the efforts of volunteers. So, Ros and I were pleased to be invited to a coffee morning and produce sale in the Church Hall, at the end of The Lane, organised by the Parochial Church Council.

    Now, when people think of parishes, they tend to think 'Vicar of Dibley'. Ironically, the meetings that you see there are of the Parochial Church Council, but the concept is similar, church-based rather than quasi-political.

    We were apparently the first through the door, and caught the organisers in the midst of an informal council meeting, but were welcomed with a cup of tea (donations welcome) and the offer of cake. And you know something, it was really friendly. I was able to catch up with a little Parish Council stuff, as we use the Church Hall for Parish Council meetings, and owe money for room rental - we haven't actually been invoiced, and our Parish Clerk is a stickler for that sort of thing. So, I suggested to Jenny, their Treasurer, that she bill us.

    There was then a discussion about the burial path, and Ros's knowledge of rights of way legislation came into play. Ironically, the old burial path ran from the church hall in a straight line to the church, until the building of the A14 cut the path in two. Now, you have to cross the A14 via the road bridge out of the village to the south before heading along its southern edge and rejoining the original route.

    The problem is that of horses. The path isn't a bridleway, and when horses use it, it gets badly cut up. Worse still, because it is relatively narrow, when riders encounter walkers, there is very little room for manoeuvre. Dogs make the situation even more complex, and finding ways of keeping horses off is proving to be a bit difficult.

    And as we talked, more villagers arrived for tea, and maybe a jar of preserves, and before we knew it, there were more than a dozen people, some with children, chatting away, with our vicar wandering amongst them.

    The hope is that they'll hold more such events on the second Saturday of each month, and I for one will be supporting them if I can. Ah, the joys of village life...

    Friday, January 07, 2011

    38 Degrees - failing to mind the tax gap

    I note that 38 Degrees have started a campaign to encourage the Government to close the tax gap. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that's as good as it gets...

    Starting with an implied accusation that the Chancellor is evading tax, unwise unless you've got evidence that he is - don't get me wrong, he's avoiding tax (legal, if a poor example), but he's using the tax regime perfectly legitimately. However, using as your headline figure for the tax gap a figure roundly condemned as a serious exaggeration by most credible sources is not what I expect from a credible campaigning organisation.

    However, the tax gap is a big one, £42 billion, according to HM Revenue and Customs itself. However, just because it's big doesn't make it easy to close. The figure includes excise duties lost through smuggling, for example, white van man driving back from somewhere in Europe where duties are lower - for personal use, of course, and then selling them to his 'mates down the pub', up to major operations where millions of illegal or contraband cigarettes are shipped in. Cash in hand payments to builders or carpenters or electricians, or those nice men with some spare tarmac and time to relay your drive.

    Individuals claiming to be self-employed when they aren't, one man companies where income is paid in dividends rather than salaries to reduce the tax and national insurance liabilities, unvouched or overstated expense claims, the little fiddles around the edges, paying untraceable cash, it's amazing how it adds up.

    And yes, the Government, in the form of HMRC, could probably gather quite a lot of it. The cost would be a level of intrusive enquiry and fishing expeditions that would drive the majority of taxpayers to fear and loathe it. And when you achieve that level of fear, the enthusiasm for avoiding tax increases, and tax revenues begin to fall again. A bit of a mixed blessing, if truth be told.

    So, I'll see what return we get on the £900 million to be invested in additional compliance activity yields before I get terribly carried away about the prospects of huge amounts of pain-free additional revenues for the public purse...

    Thursday, January 06, 2011

    It's been an interesting day on Planet Bureaucrat...

    My debut as Liberal Democrat Voice's new columnist took place early this afternoon. And having been the first guest editor in July, I now find myself with a fortnightly gig. I'm glad that I don't have to produce more than that. You see, the Liberal Democrat Voice team combine between them a range of virtues that I don't really possess. Think of them as the three P's...

    Prolific. There is always new material for the discerning reader, on a vast range of topics. And for an all volunteer team, their ability to write, commission and encourage is quite impressive.

    Partisan. There is an element of attack dog which I can't do myself. And yes, pretty argument of the intellectual contest is great, but occasionally you have to put the boot in. 

    Pluralist. It is a bit easier for liberals to be inclusive. After all, we're used to having to work with others because we have little experience to governing alone. But the urge to stray towards ridicule is a hard one to resist.

    So I'm proud to be a distant cousin of the Liberal Democrat Voice family. And on the subject of distant, I've been paying a visit to another part of the Revenue & Customs empire today, but that's a story for another day...

    Wednesday, January 05, 2011

    A Welsh councillor defects to Labour - not many hurt?

    One of the disadvantages of having travelled the length and breadth of the country is that you get to meet a lot of people. Now I know what you're thinking, "He means advantages, doesn't he?". And normally, you'd be right. But not always...

    The news that John Warman, the councillor for Cimla on Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, has defected to Labour has triggered a touch of regret on my part. You see, during the Presidential campaign, Ros and I went to Cimla, to meet John, Frank Little and Des Sparkes, and some of the small, but committed, group of Liberal Democrats, striving to keep an entrenched Labour council vaguely honest. They gave us a warm, generous welcome, and organised a short but enjoyable schedule of events for us to participate in.

    John, in particular, had ploughed a lonely furrow on the council for many years, and I admired their determination, against the odds, in fighting on, when the temptation to settle for an easier life and join Labour would have been strong. And let's not mess around here, Neath Port Talbot is an old-style Labour fiefdom - when we visited, full Council lasted sixteen minutes, including a gracious welcome to Ros from both the Mayor and Leader.

    So, whilst some may question John's decision to join the Labour Party, I can only regret the loss of a stalwart councillor. Not a big name, perhaps, but there are very few instances where a defection is welcomed. My condolences go out to Frank Little, Des Sparkes and the Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats. They're a decent, warm-hearted bunch, and they deserve better.

    Tuesday, January 04, 2011

    A twenty-first century tax authority - yes, HM Revenue & Customs is on Twitter!

    httpI am somewhat surprised, although I guess that I shouldn't be. But it has been announced that HMRC will be experimenting with Twitter in the run-up to the Income Tax Self Assessment deadline. So, for your tax fix, follow @HMRCgovuk.

    Curiously, they signed up on Twitter on 22 January last year, but with the first tweet on 21 December, and just 607 followers, they could do with some more friends. If you're an accountant, or simply interested in tax stuff, why not join the 607?

    Merger with the Conservatives? I think not...

    It is a sign that we may be the only ones playing the 'new politics' game, but I'm intrigued by the mutterings coming out of the Conservative right wing, and the conjecturing of the supposedly intellectual media that there will be some sort of deal between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives before the next General Election, perhaps even a merger.

    Intrigued because I find myself wondering which Liberal Democrats they are talking to when journalists write this stuff. Nobody ever talks to me about electoral pacts or merger, either within the Party or without. That could be because none of us are interested - we're Liberal Democrats, not Conservatives or Labour. If we were either of the other two, we'd have joined, after all, it's so much easier to get on in the 'ugly sisters', with their safe seats, relatively vast resources and cosy media supporters.

    No, for those of us for whom ideology or philosophy is important, being a Liberal Democrat is a matter of what is in our intellectual DNA. And so, presuming anyone was daft enough to propose a closer working relationship with the Conservative Party, I would expect it to be rejected by our Conference overwhelmingly.

    And that is where all the intellectual waffle runs into the sand. Yes, I acknowledge that, in the Conservative Party, the idea that members and activists are consulted on big decisions is almost absurd. They're used to doing what the Leader tells them to do, without questioning why. But Liberal Democrats are different. We're argumentative, analytical, and sometimes, as far as our leaders are concerned, a pain in the neck. But it's our Party and not theirs.

    For the most part, that is respected, even if it is discomforting. It's the reason why, at every Conference, we have a debate that is presented as a potential rebuff to the leadership, generally by journalists who haven't bothered to do anything more the peremptory research. And we debate, and passions are raised, and at the end we say "goodbye, see you next year". It's about mutual respect, when all is said and done.

    So, until we see on a Federal Executive or Federal Conference agenda an item on closer working relationships with another Party, relax, it won't happen. And, if that day comes, and the Party votes to go along with it (both astonishingly big ifs, I'd say), they is clearly a body of people who would go off and form a continuing Liberal Democrat Party. And I'd probably be one of them...

    Guy McGregor - ITWA (It's that weasel again...)

    Yes, he's back again, and this time it's our local bus services that are under threat.

    As Suffolk County Council continue their hapless mission to cut spending without any thought for the consequences, the latest news is that they want to cut £2.3 million from the public transport budget for next year. That would be out of a budget of £4.2 million, i.e. a 55% cut.

    Apparently, young Mr McGregor is negotiating with officers and cabinet colleagues to save some of the routes potentially under threat, but he'll probably struggle. And, ironically, one of the places most at risk is Eye, in his own division, which may lose all of its bus services.

    Now I will admit that some of the county's bus services are a massive drain on the public purse. Ros, a former county councillor and Lib Dem group leader, notes that some of the subsidies were as much as £12 per passenger, a level of subsidy which would be hard to justify in good times, let alone the hard ones we're currently experiencing.

    So, for example, route 453, which links the Creetings to Stowmarket on Thursdays (one journey in each direction), could probably go, given the introduction of Suffolk Links Gipping North, a demand-responsive bus service not bound by a timetable. Originally intended to be a market day bus, it links our village to a market that now barely exists. And frankly, I'd rather travel at a time better suited to my needs than at a fixed time and day.

    On the other hand, core routes, such as the 87/88 route from Ipswich to Stowupland via Needham Market and Stowmarket, or the 384 which links Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds need to be protected, so make sure that they survive.

    And, just in case Guy has forgotten, there is a cross-subsidy between school services and the rest of the public transport system. Axing those services that use vehicles that would otherwise only be used twice a day would increase the costs of home to school services - we're a rural county, remember? - and likely have an impact on the education budget.

    But returning to Eye for a moment, their plucky representative on the county council has suggested that the county might need to talk to parishes to see if they want to support community transport. Well, we might, but we're all agreeing precepts this month for 2011/12, and without proper data, no sane Parish Council would risk taking on a potentially huge (in relative terms) commitment.

    To give you an idea, if Creeting St Peter had to find £1,000 to subsidise a bus service, that would be the equivalent of adding 26% to our precept. And, under the new Localism Bill, local residents will have the power to veto excessive council tax increases. You did talk to your friends about this, didn't you Guy?

    Sometimes, the sheer inadequacy of our county council leadership is enough to drive one to despair. Oh, and yes, I'm still waiting for your wretched consultation document. Or did you decide that giving us the information required to represent our electors was too expensive?...

    Monday, January 03, 2011

    "Wrong tax, wrong time", says Milliband. And the right tax, right time would be?

    In the absence of any report back from Richard Grayson, it appears that the Labour denials continue. Yes, by all means oppose what the Coalition is doing if you've got an alternative, but until you've got one to offer, you might well choose to keep your heads down.

    At every stage, Labour have decried the cuts as too fast, too soon, without ever suggesting what they might cut and when. And it really is becoming tiresome. During the election campaign, Labour talked about £44 billion of cuts. They weren't alone, although none of the three major parties were entirely clear about how they would do it. But now that they don't have a general election to salvage, all is quiet on the prudence front.

    And there are only two options - cut expenditure or raise taxes. Obviously, with a Conservative Party averse to tax hikes, and with Liberal Democrats keen to take the poorest out of the income tax bracket altogether, there is some tension. But there are no Labour proposals on which taxes to raise, only protests about increasing VAT.

    And on cutting expenditure, again Labour are too busy shroud-waving to offer anything that smacks of constructivism. No, we can't cut subsidies to public transport, no, we can't cut the Educational Maintenance Allowance, no, we can't cut civil service numbers. Alright then, what can we cut?

    When you're as deep in the fiscal hole as the United Kingdom is, you need to act. That means either doing things better, doing less of them, or raising more money. And if every time you try to do so, you're attacked for putting vital services at risk, or cutting critical functions, or risking the recovery, without initiating a debate on what might be done instead, all you do is mislead the public.

    You cannot have Scandinavian levels of public services and American tax rates, there has to be a compromise somewhere. And whilst cutting services is hardly a pain-free option, waiting for the markets to force a gruesome slash and burn of our public services and social welfare net will be unspeakably ghastly. Is that what Ed and his friends really want? Is power so much more important than the public good?

    One of our County Councillors is a weasel...

    Here are two pictures, one being a long-tailed weasel, the other Guy McGregor, the portfolio holder for Transport on Suffolk County Council. One of them is cute, furry and has a basic honesty of purpose, the other is a Conservative.

    This week, it has been announced that the Safecam Partnership, which funds speed cameras across Suffolk, is in jeopardy because of budget cuts. If the funding is axed, the County will save £1.2 million but, and this is a big but, there won't be any speed cameras in the county.

    Now, as a non-driver, I don't have an axe to grind on the subject of whether speed cameras are a good thing or not. However, I do know that, especially in villages, traffic speed is a very sensitive issue. And where those villages are on busy roads, such as the A140 which links Ipswich and Norwich, there are a sense that speed cameras save lives.

    Ultimately, you have to decide whether the cost of maintaining cameras outweighs the costs of loss of life and serious injury when excessive speed causes accidents. Yes, you can argue that people should obey the law, preventing the need for cameras, but the reality is that some drivers will speed if they think that they can get away with it. The rest of us pay for their stupidity by paying for traffic calming measures, speed cameras and the like.

    But Guy McGregor doesn't think like that. He is quoted in the East Anglian Daily Times as accepting that the SafeCam Partnership had been very successful, and hoping that it would be able to continue as a service provided by the police. Or in other words, it's a really good idea, and we hope that the police will take it off of our hands. Saving to the council taxpayers of Suffolk? Nil. That is, if they can afford it.

    Because, lest Mr McGregor forget, Suffolk Constabulary will need to find savings of about £6 million each year for the next four years, all of this from a relatively small budget - Suffolk has some of the lowest policing costs in the country.

    So, Mr McGregor, if speed cameras are worth spending money on, then let's face the music and pay for them. If not, then we won't. But please spare us the weasel words as you pass the buck to someone else...

    Sunday, January 02, 2011

    Did I really hear Grant Shapps correctly?

    For those who think that locking increasing amounts of the nation's wealth up in bricks and mortar is a nonsense, today's news that Grant Shapps believes that we should be looking for a gradual, but sub-inflationary, increase in house prices in coming years will come as welcome news. It's also one of the first intelligent things to come out of the Conservative part of the Communities and Local Government team since the election.

    Combining this with reports that, without parental support to get onto the housing ladder, the age at which someone can expect to have raised the currently required deposit will be thirty-six, it is clear that something has to be done.

    The idea of home ownership for all, a concept rather more alien to our European neighbours, is a nice one in principle, but if the cost of housing takes up ever larger proportions of household income, we have a societal problem. Combine that with a shrinking of the public and social housing sector over twenty years, the increasing number of small, often poorly capitalised, private landlords, and a pattern of building flats rather than family homes, and the issues are clear.

    So, how does Grant get his wish? Firstly, there has to be an expansion of social housing provision. Giving local government the opportunity to invest in new homes will improve the social mix of social housing developments, take some pressure off of the private rental market (thus removing some of the inflationary pressures in parts of the country), and reduce the need for young people to buy, thus keeping house price inflation low.

    And in a jobs market where loyalty to, and from, employers is increasingly a thing of the past, the flexibility that comes with renting rather than ownership should be encouraged. That may mean the encouragement of house rental, rather than flat rental, and again local government can play a part here. The proposals to encourage mobility amongst council tenants in the Localism Bill are a sign of positive intent on that score.

    So, it appears that Grant and Eric may have learnt a few tricks over the Christmas break. They're still not off the hook though, and I'm delighted that Andrew Stunell is there to keep an eye on them...

    Fantasy Football: Lib Dems in the Fantasy Cup - 3rd Round

    Thirty teams out of one hundred and six made it into the third round, and with a mere 524,258 barriers between them and glory, Liberal Democrats were doing a bit better than expected. It wasn't to last...

    So, here are some of the highlights from the third round;

    Easiest victories

    Ian Wallace's 'The Red n Blue Army' cruised past 'FC Riviera Luzern', winning 58 - 34, an excellent result against a team ranked 167,515 places higher at kick-off. Patrick Fancett's 'Winch United', faced a wild card, 'Vaginas Are Cool' (where do people come up with these names), whose late arrival on the scene meant that, whilst rated nearly 1.2 million places worse, on form this was anyone's guess as to who might win. However, Patrick's men came through 55 - 35 to seal a place in the fourth round.

    Most effort-free victories

    In a week when the average score was again forty-three, the lowest winning score was achieved by James Blanchard's 'Almondbury Athletic', who sneaked past 'Andy's Rovers' 29 -27. And yes, neither side is that great, but you can only beat whatever is put in front of you. In fairness though, 'Andy's Rovers' were ranked more than two hundred thousand places higher.

    The top guns

    Utter carnage amongst the remaining teams in the top ten of the league saw Carrie Henderson's 'Excaledonia' fall 33 - 57 against 'kadg', ranked more than four hundred thousand places worse, Andrew Emmerson's 'Team Extreme' lose 31 - 40 to 'citrus united', ranked nearly a million places worse and Amit Patel's 'F.C MI-LO' went down 34 -46 to 'champions elect'. I wonder if they will be, although as they were ranked 1,369,089 coming into the round, they're going to need a lot of luck to make it.

    Meanwhile, Ross Hardie's 'RBC Rossendaal' comfortably defeated 'PostmanPatters' 47 - 35, making them the only team currently ranked in the Liberal Democrat top ten left in the Fantasy Cup.

    MP corner

    it was the end of the road for John Leech's 'Mike's Dodgy Beard', as they fell 43 - 54 against 'Fish's Football Team'. Disappointing really, as they were strong favourites on form, ranked more than 1.1 million places higher.

    And finally, another classic Liberal Democrat underdog victory...

    Quietly going about their business, David Camp's 'CamponFilm' had made it through to the third round despite being ranked 1,944,730 in the overall league, and whilst the draw had been generous, pitting them against two equally poor sides thus far, their next opponents, 'team ftw' were at least ranked nearly six hundred thousand places higher. It didn't help them though, as 'CamponFilm' made it into the fourth round fairly comfortably, '49 - 38'.

    And the damage is...

    Eighteen down, just twelve into the fourth round. And given that only seven of them are in our top fifty, it isn't looking good...

    And so, until next time, cue the 'Match of the Day' theme...