Monday, February 28, 2011

Welcome back after that break...

I've only posted twice in the past eighteen days, probably the most barren patch since I started blogging more than five years ago. So perhaps I had better explain...

Simple, really. Ros and I have been away on something called a holiday, as part of the process of returning to a normal life after the Presidency. In past years, we've only easily been able to get away during the summer, but now that young Mr Farron has taken over, we are less in demand, and can escape for some late winter sun.

And, since you ask, Jamaica was very nice. The sun was warm, the sea calm and the living easy. But now I'm back, with much to do...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stowupland loses its Sunday and evening bus services

I've been waiting for the promised consultation on local bus services for some time now. It would appear that, like an 87A bus on a Sunday, it will never come, as the announcement of what survives the 53% cut in subsidy has been made via the Suffolk Onboard website. From a personal perspective, the announcement falls into two parts, the effect on my own village, and that on the village next door.

In Creeting St Peter, we've lost our market day bus, route 453, which connected the Creetings with Stowmarket on a Thursday. To be honest, very few people even seemed to know that it exists, and with the new Suffolk Links service, villagers are probably better connected than they were before. Overall, the changes benefit us, although bus ridership figures are probably very low - you wouldn't really choose to live in Creeting St Peter if you didn't already drive.

In Stowupland, on the other hand, losing all evening and Sunday services is a real blow. There are plenty of people, especially at the Reeds Way end of the village, for whom the bus service is important, connecting them to family in Stowupland or Needham Market, and who will now be dependent on expensive taxis. What I find mystifying is that the service connects Cedars Park to Stowmarket as well, and whilst the journey is walkable, it probably isn't with shopping, or children, or if you're elderly. Effectively, this decision removes the service from about 8,000 people in Stowupland and Cedars Park, and if you add on those people in Needham Market and Stowmarket, whose connection with Ipswich is lost, there are a lot of people affected by this decision.

It needn't have been like this. The Liberal Democrat Group on Suffolk County Council proposed changes to the budget that would have saved services to Stowupland for at least a year, giving time to see whether other arrangements could be made. Frankly, I could have accepted the loss of market day services given the expansion of the Suffolk Links services, reducing the cost of bus subsidy somewhat, but the principle of maintaining a network of buses remains a sound one. The Conservatives, however, chose to ignore the opportunity.

The lack of consultation bothers me too. Yes, we all accept that cuts have to be made, but the idea that you withdraw bus service from places where new houses are being built in large numbers (another 300 or so under construction in Cedars Park as I type), seems ludicrous. Add to the fact that there is a significant elderly population in Stowupland, and also a fair bit of social housing, likely to be inhabited by people who can't afford cars, and this looks like a poor decision taken by a portfolio holder who doesn't care.

I should declare an interest. I don't drive, and use the community bus that serves Creeting St Peter to go to work. I don't actually use route 87 or 87A, but if I lived in Stowupland, I would. What I do know is that, in a county that has a 'Greenest County' portfolio, cutting a main public transport artery like this sends out a clear signal that the Conservatives talk a good game but act like vandals.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Big Society, and why the Conservative Party is its worst enemy

I was listening to Shaun Bailey, one of the new Conservative envoys for the Big Society, on the BBC yesterday evening. He was being treated courteously enough, although the questioning was robust, and then he said something that really caught my attention, claiming that there was no civic society in this country. Now, I don't know much about Hammersmith, the seat he fought at the General Election, or about whether he gets out much, but I do know one thing. He's wrong.

Not only is he wrong, but the approach of his colleagues is designed to put the backs up of all of the very people who might be core to what they purport to seek. The threatened closure of much loved facilities, combined with suggestions that local communities take them over is too transparent. There is an evident stick, without even the illusion of a carrot. Combine that with the message that dramatic cuts are required in public spending, and Eric Pickles' caveman approach to relations between central and local government, and you create the perfect climate for cynicism. Labour, who did more to discourage volunteerism, now find themselves presented with an open goal.

As the Presidential consort, I met Liberal Democrats across the country, and one of the things I noticed again and again was how many of our members and supporters were active in their community. Not just as political activists, but as church wardens, scout troop leaders, friends of this, volunteers in that, giving of their spare time without fuss or expectation of reward. As a Londoner, I was impressed, as I had never really engaged in, or been engaged by, local community groups.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not seeking to claim that Liberal Democrats are particularly virtuous. Indeed, I'm sure that members of all political parties do similar things. Put simply, there is, unbidden by government, plenty of civic society out there.

My own, rather small, village is a case in point. Without any facilities, the social life of Creeting St Peter is a bit limited, and the only communal space we have is the church hall. However, the Parochial Church Council felt that a monthly coffee morning would be a good way to bring the community together, and so they organised it. So far, it's been a huge success, and it provides an excuse for people to meet and chat.

What communities like ours need is not a Big Society, but the opportunity, and the freedom, to form our own community structures. Don't send us volunteer co-ordinators, just take away the barriers that make community activism more hassle than it's worth. Call it civic society, if you like, talk about strengthening it, if you must, but don't force it. Civic society has strong roots where people take pride in their surroundings and where the state treads lightly.

Civic society is one of the big dividing lines between the three parties. The Conservatives do see it as a way of reducing the size of the State, regardless of what David Cameron might claim. Labour don't trust it, as the notion of individual communities going their own way is the antithesis of 'big government'. Liberal Democrats see it as a way of devolving power to those best equipped to make decisions appropriate for those impacted by them. It might not be the cheapest option, it probably won't produce consistency, but it will create a sense of community engagement. In other words, give people genuine choices, and the information needed to make the best decisions, and they'll get involved.

But if the Big Society is genuinely meant, and the Conservative element of the Coalition want it to succeed, they need to be much smarter. Firstly, if you want community involvement, you need to engage with whatever already exists. In Suffolk, the Conservative-run County Council is incredibly bad at that, preferring to announce that it is going to divest itself of services and only then casting around for someone to take them on.

You also need to support the transition. Cutting the budgets of key voluntary sector groups isn't support, in case anyone asks. If you must cut their grants, do it in such a way that allows them to adapt.

Finally, accept that society has changed. With households where both adults work, the time available for voluntary activity diminishes. Government has stepped into that breach, paying people to do things that once might have been done by a young mother, or a woman whose children have moved out. These people aren't just going to materialise once the government withdraws. Instead, think about whether these things need to be done at all.

So, Shaun, come and pay us a visit in mid-Suffolk. Ros and I can show you around, meet a few of our friends, explain how civic society works in a rural community. You might be surprised at what you find...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Matthew Oakeshott - fired from a job he doesn't have?

I've got quite a lot of time for my noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. Always entertaining company, always ready with a witty, or barbed, comment for the media. He has reliably said what many Lib Dem activists are thinking, and his credibility as someone with a long track record in the financial industry certainly gives weight to his comments.

So, the news that he has been sacked as the Party's frontbench Treasury spokesperson in the Lords has come as a bit of a blow to a number of my colleagues. I am, however, not angry, or upset, but confused. If Danny Alexander has effectively sacked him on national television, I'm actually rather surprised. Why? Because not only can't Danny fire him (only the Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the Lords, Tom McNally, can do that), but Matthew doesn't hold a position that he can be fired from.

No, the person I feel a mite sorry for is Dick Newby, who has been our Treasury spokesman in the Lords since 1998. And it's not a particularly glamorous job either, highly technical, with a number of former Chancellors still knocking about, playing Statler and Waldorf roles. So, rather than mourn the non-sacking of Matthew Oakeshott, why not raise a glass to Dick Newby instead?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The divine purpose of the iPhone is finally revealed to us...

The news that there is a new 'app' for the iPhone that allows users to make confession with a virtual priest over the internet, comes as no great surprise. Indeed, I am amazed that it has taken this long.

There will, I suppose, be those who condemn the idea of 'instant confession', and will see this as another step towards the breakdown of the Catholic Church. I'm on the opposite side of that particular argument. If the app is faithful to doctrine, and encourages individuals to ponder over the morality of their actions, it can only be a force for good.

It does list Acts of Contrition in English and Latin, it is approved by senior church figures in this country and in the US, and the words at the end of the confessional process carry an implicit invitation to visit a priest. And when you're done, you get a spiritual quotation from a saint, some of them female (and that's pretty radical for Catholics). For those Catholics far from home, or in places where professing your faith is potentially dangerous, this advance may well be very gratefully received.

And quirkily, it is in tune with the words of Pope Benedict XVI, urging Catholics to make good use of their presence in the digital world. Consider it done, your Holiness...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Al-Megrahi - just the final nail in the coffin of that ethical foreign policy

So, it turns out that the Labour administration knew an awful lot more about the release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi than they had let on. Indeed, it looks as though they lied to Parliament, to the victims of Lockerbie, to the British people and to our ally, the United States. Poor old Robin Cook must be spinning in his grave by now. An illegal war in Iraq, a lack of genuine commitment to Europe, and now putting trade above justice and lying about doing so.

This shabby deceit reminds you exactly why Labour went from 1997 hero to 2010 zero. It wasn't the policy necessarily, it was the hypocrisy, saying one thing for the Guardianistas, another in private.

It might have taken some of the pressure off of the Salmond administration, but no, there is more than a hint that they were bargaining with London to see what might be gained in exchange for al-Megrahi's release.

At some point, someone is going to work out that putting anything in writing means that, in the future, it might come back to haunt you. After all, you can't trust anybody with principles when you haven't got any yourselves...

CSI: Creeting St Peter - move right along, nothing to see here...

A new website allows you to type in your postcode, and discover how much street crime and anti-social behaviour has taken place in your area in the most recent month for which records are available. 

So, your intrepid researcher had a look, entering IP6 8QR, i.e. the heart of Paradise-sur-Gipping, and here are the results;
  • burglary - zero
  • anti-social behaviour - five
  • robbery - zero
  • vehicle crime - zero
  • violent crime - zero
  • other crime - zero
So, where's all of this anti-social behaviour then? Closer examination indicates that the figures are for an area covered by a circle with a radius of one mile. As it turns out, the Parish boundary is less than a mile away in some directions, and every incident took place in Cedars Park, part of Stowmarket.

But I'm not taking any chances, we've got the mobile police station coming to the village next month...

Free Schools: an argument for the defence?

I'll start with a confession - I don't know an awful lot about education policy. I've not produced and raised children, I've never been a local councillor, or a school governor, in fact, it would be fair to say that I've had no contact with schools since I left Kingsbury High School in 1983, before some of you were born. So, why take a stance, you might ask?

Perhaps the place where I live might be a clue. I live in a small village, population about 200, without a school of any kind. The children of the village ride buses, or are driven by their parents, to neighbouring villages, or to Stowmarket, our nearest town.

The free schools movement, led by the likes of Toby Young, are keen to encourage communities to form their own schools, with their own specialisms, ethos and teaching methods. The response of the teaching unions and the political left, by no means mutually exclusive, has been to throw their hands up in horror at this attempt to break down the concept of a good education for all, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not all children actually do get a good education.

For the most part, Toby and his friends are middle-class, ambitious and aspirational, and there is nothing wrong with these things. Some, although not all of them, want the best for their children, regardless of the impact on other children, whereas others want the freedom to teach their children what they believe to be best for their development. The catch is, their pitch is all about choice.

In urban areas, or decent-sized towns, the concept of choice in education is a significant one. When I was in primary school in north-west London, I attended the nearest school to my home, Roe Green. I could, had my parents been so inclined, have attended Oliver Goldsmith, Kingsbury Green or Fryent, all within a mile or so, or St Robert Southwell had my Catholic father wanted to convince the priests back home of his devotion to his faith. Had I been Jewish, Mount Stewart wasn't that far away either. And, before long, Islamia Primary School, Britain's first Islamic faith school, opened in the borough.

Each of the schools had its strengths and weaknesses, but as suburban schools in nice areas, they tended to produce more than their share of bright, well-adjusted kids with a better than average chance of getting into university.

And the problem with free schools in urban areas is that choice already exists, whereas one suspects that some of their enthusiastic supporters are keen to raise the drawbridge and exclude those children who might 'lower the tone'. Already, as a parent, you can get involved in your local school, become a governor, influence the way it is run, and all within the current regime. But it might be a bit too democratic for some people's taste.

But here's the twist. There are places where choice in education is much less in evidence, places where, in order to exercise real choice, your children might not have to travel an extra 400 yards, or even a mile, but five. Those places are our rural communities, especially the villages. Some villages, like mine, don't have a school, or have a school threatened with closure because of its small size.

For those communities, where the school is part of the heartbeat of daily life, a free school offers an escape from the grind of driving your children seven miles there, and seven miles back, making earning a living that bit easier. Here in Suffolk, where the County Council have decided that middle schools are too difficult to keep going, local communities might well take the free school route to keep what they have and treasure.

So, my urban dwelling friends, oppose free schools if you must. But remember, one person's threat is another's opportunity, and in an increasingly urban-dominated policy-making environment, we forget our rural districts at our peril.

Monday, February 07, 2011

It looks like I'm part of the vole-untary sector... a weekend in Suffolk...

My cute friend here is suddenly a minor celebrity in these parts, having appeared in the latest Stowupland Focus, as part of a story about the threat to our local nature reserve.

Yes, it's time for another Focus, with stories on buses - bad for Stowupland, good for Creeting St Peter, waste disposal and local government reorganisation, and Ros, Jamie and I were out in the brisk south-westerly winds, delivering them across the ward, and I'm delighted to say that we've very nearly finished, with just a few outliers still to deliver.

It's funny, but I actually enjoy delivering leaflets in my ward. People are surprisingly friendly, and they take a polite interest as I amble around, leaflet in hand. Occasionally, I get caught up in conversation, and it's a great way to get a perspective on what's happening in the community. And it has other positive effects, as I appear to be a bit lighter than I was when the campaign really got under way. I suspect that, if I am lucky enough to get elected, there might be a book in it, "The District Councillor Guide to a Better You".

But our weekend wasn't just about leaflets, there was an outing to Sudbury, where we had been invited for tea. I'd never been to Sudbury before, an omission which certainly surprised Ros, and it's a lovely little town, on the end of a little branch line off of the main East Anglia line at Marks Tey, on the River Stour. Andrew Phillips, our host, and his wife Penelope live in a house which runs down to the river, and we had a lively early evening before it was time to head back to mid-Suffolk.

On the way back, Ros had a moment of genius, and suggested that we have dinner at the Bildeston Crown, a 15th century coaching inn. Ros had the bream, whilst I plumped for the pigeon, served as roast, confit and pithivier (a miniature pie, with the leg bone of the pigeon stuck in the top). It was a mite on the fussy side for us villagers, but very good none the less, and washed down in my case by Suffolk's own lager, Calvors.

As we left, Ros noted some press cuttings, and her attention was drawn to a report of a rather rowdy public meeting during the 1885 General Election, when the Riot Act was read to the assembled throng, and seven, yes seven, policeman were required to restore order. Those were the days...

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Question - Airports: Heathrow

The Lords tends to 'take an interest', and oral questions are a good opportunity to briefly raise the issue of a subject, prodding a Minister to do something, and Ros has used this tool herself in the past. Monday saw a question from Lord Gavron about the pre-Christmas disruption at Heathrow. His stance was typical of Labour, sniping at foreign ownership of British assets, whilst missing the key point. Ros didn't though, raising the point that annoyed so many people caught up in the chaos...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a bad situation last year was made infinitely worse by the seeming inability of the airport operator and the airlines to give passengers adequate information that was not contradictory? Have the Government looked at the matter and at who should be giving information?

And here was the Transport Minister's reply...

Earl Attlee: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right; we touched on this last week as well. There are two reviews. One was commissioned by BAA. The other will come from the South East Airports taskforce. No doubt both reviews will consider that very important point and come back with suggestions on how we can avoid the problems in future.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Job losses make civil servants unhappy. Is that a bear I see in the woods?

It has to be said that, occasionally, the word 'analysis' is abused to the point of torture, and I therefore have to bring your attention, gentle reader, to the 'effort' produced by the Institute for Government, headed by Andrew Adonis. This five page document, including three pages of charts, includes a few interesting statements, but barely scratches the surface of what is happening. So, I should take a closer look...

Interestingly, if you analyse the results by Department, you'll notice that one of them, HM Revenue & Customs, performs consistently badly, a point thought to be unworthy of recognition by the boffins at the Institute for Government. Here's the data of HMRC's ranking on each of the six charts;

Employee engagement index - 17th (out of seventeen)
I have a clear understanding of my organisation's purpose - 16th
I have a clear understanding of my organisation's objectives - 15th
I believe that the Board have a clear vision for the future of my organisation - 17th
I am able to acces the right learning and development opportunities when I need to - 13th
When changes are made in my department they are usually for the better - 17th

I leave it to others to conclude as to whether such cynicism and despair is a good thing in an organisation that brings in more than £400 billion per annum.

The Department for International Development sounds like a nice place to work though...

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ros in the Lords: Written Question - Volunteer Centres

Whilst the Government talk a good game about the 'Big Society', there is already a thriving corner of the voluntary sector matching volunteers up with community needs. In Stowmarket and Haverhill, to name but two far from large Suffolk towns, Ros has met with people whose efforts underpin a culture of volunteering. Besides, you can hardly hand over key services to volunteer groups without helping them to build sufficient capacity, can you?

And it would be worse if the Government attempted to build new support frameworks rather than use the existing ones, wouldn't it?... Ros thinks so, certainly...

27 January 2011

Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the England-wide Volunteering Infrastructure Programme will provide funds to existing as well as to new volunteer centres.[HL6109]

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The Volunteering Infrastructure Programme will connect people with local volunteering opportunities and support organisations to manage volunteers. The Government are currently considering the shape of the programme, including the eligibility criteria.

There will be further announcements on the volunteering infrastructure programme in the coming months.

Now call me quirky, but doesn't that sound as if the Conservatives hadn't really thought through the consequences of the 'Big Society' before the election? Or enough since?