Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A day trip to the big city

As I sit here on a late evening train back to Stowmarket, I find myself slightly disconcerted by my experiences. Perhaps I ought to explain...

I was born a Londoner, raised a Londoner, and lived in London until fairly recently. I even worked in London until January. It would be fair to say that I was comfortable in a city 'ecosystem'. Now, however, I live in a small village, in the valley of a river known to relatively few, and the biggest place that I visit regularly is Ipswich, population less than 150,000. I don't even really go there, as my office is between the station and the town centre. Life is gentler, slower if you prefer.

Today, I had reason to go to London. A former colleague was having his retirement lunch, and I fancied seeing Ros (I know, I just miss having her around...). So, it was off to Stowmarket to catch the 9.29. Or not, as National Express East Anglia welcomed me by cancelling it, leaving me to catch the 9.44 and change at Ipswich. Nonetheless, it was a perfectly charming journey in the spring sunshine.

And then I arrived at Liverpool Street... There were people... everywhere, crowds of them, some of them moving rather quickly as I pottered amongst them. The Circle Line train was dirty and uncared for, and the station attendant at Euston Square was unhelpful and ill-informed. There was traffic and a distinct lack of birdsong. In short, it was somewhat unattractive and impersonal.

Lunch was extremely pleasant, and the benefits of clean air, good food and gentle living appear to have done me good, if my colleagues are to be believed.

But London is dreadfully hard work. I'm a mite slower in relative terms, tourists are harder to negotiate, and it all seems fearfully hectic. Oh yes, there is so much to do, some amazing shopping, culture and 'buzz', but I'm not sure that I miss it so dreadfully.

And that is what I find slightly disconcerting. There is no reason why the city against which the backdrop of my life was set should have accelerated, indeed I'm slightly lighter than I was when I moved my job to Ipswich. I can only imagine that I have adapted to that gentler, somewhat slower lifestyle only too readily. Indeed, it almost feels as though I've gone into semi-retirement but on a full time basis.

I'll be buying tweed jackets with elbow patches next...
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Lies, deception and Suffolk Conservatives

I have noted in the past that 'retail politics' is something I have found slightly difficult. In Southwark in particular, the use of blatantly misleading literature by Labour never failed to irritate, and I always swore that the campaigns I had influence over would be relentlessly positive as a result. And now, as the candidate and agent, with control over artwork, message and delivery, I am doing just that, talking about what I am doing and what I believe in. The messages are local, because I am.

However, there are hints that the Conservatives across the county don't quite see it the same way. In Long Melford, the veteran Independent District and County Councillor, Richard Kemp (no, not that one, the other one...), has been confronted by a Conservative leaflet accusing him of supporting an 18% council tax increase in 2003. Curious, really, as he voted against it. His running mate, another Independent, has never been a councillor at any level above Parish. In other words, they're lying for political advantage.

And now it's my turn to experience what I might describe as dubious ethical practices on the part of my Conservative opponent. Her first leaflet, one of the poorest productions I've seen for a long time, failed to mention her name, anything she has done, or even the ward. However, she is now delivering a second, rather more professional one, claiming to be 'your local choice for Stowupland'.

Well then, she must live in the ward, one might presume. No, actually, she doesn't. Near the ward, then? Stowupland ward is bordered by six other District wards, none of which she lives in. In fact, she lives in Eye, more than ten miles away, a point which will only become clear to voters when they are confronted by their ballot paper.

Now I have no objection to her running in Stowupland ward - how could I? However, deliberately misleading voters by claiming to be something you are not is disreputable. Especially when you're on record as saying that driving to the boundary of that ward is inconvenient...
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Monday, April 25, 2011

An unexpected inheritance for my campaign

There are not that many places where there are staunch Liberals who voted in an MP in the years between World War II and the revival in the Party's fortunes in the seventies and eighties. And, rather unexpectedly, I am reaping a small reward from being in one of them.

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On the doorstep today, a voter told me that he had campaigned for Edgar Granville and said, "You'll be too young to remember him.". He was right, and so, when I got back to Creeting St Peter, I looked him up...

Edgar Granville was, in fact, the Liberal MP for Eye between 1929 and 1951, at a time when the constituency spread much further than it does now. I say Liberal, although he was a Liberal National from 1931, and an Independent from 1942, before rejoining the Liberal Party in 1945. He then managed to defend the seat in 1945 (by 949 votes) and in 1950 (by just 627 votes), before losing it in 1951.

He wasn't done yet though. In 1952, he joined the Labour Party, and then fought the seat again in 1955, losing by just 898 votes, before ending up in the House of Lords as Lord Granville of Eye.

A war hero, wounded at Gallipoli, writer of spy thrillers, he was clearly one of a kind. And, on his hundredth birthday, he was in his seat in the Lords to hear his birthday tributes on February 12th, 1998...

Lord Granville of Eye: Birthday Tributes

3.26 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I am sure some of your Lordships are already aware that today is an unusual and special occasion. Indeed, it is the 100th birthday of the noble Lord, Lord Granville of Eye--

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Richard: --and not, if I may say so, as recorded in certain manuals, notably Dod's and Who's Who, where he is recorded as being a mere 99 years of age. I am delighted too, that the noble Lord is in his place in the Chamber today.

It is not often that your Lordships get the chance to celebrate the birthday of such a long-serving and distinguished Member of this House. I am sure that all noble Lords will be awed to learn not only that the noble Lord served in the First World War but also that he fought, among other fields of action, at Gallipoli. The noble Lord was a Member of the other place as long ago as 1929 and joined your Lordships' House-- I suppose for him comparatively recently--in 1967. I ask the whole House to join with me in wishing the noble Lord a very happy 100th birthday indeed.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to be able to follow the noble Lord the Leader of the House in associating this side of the Chamber with the elegant way in which he wished the noble Lord many happy returns of the day. We echo those sentiments. As the noble Lord the Leader of the House made clear, the noble Lord is both a distinguished Member of both Houses of Parliament and a gallant former soldier with particular connections with the Commonwealth, which I believe is an institution that all sides of the House are coming increasingly to value.

I could, perhaps, suspect that the vigour of the noble Lord is a tribute not only to the rich blood that politics encourages to flow in the veins of her practitioners, but also, if I may say so, to the preservative qualities of membership of your Lordships' House. In either case, whichever is true, we congratulate the noble Lord who embodies the great virtues of continuity in his person. We look forward to many more occasions upon which we may congratulate him in the years to come.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, perhaps I may associate these Benches with the remarks made by the Lord Privy Seal and the noble Viscount. However, they omitted to say--and I am sure that it was by oversight--that the noble Lord served as a Liberal Member of Parliament for 22 years and represented that most interesting part of Britain, East Anglia, the politics of which have always fascinated us.

It has been a life of distinction and, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, one also of courage. To put it at its very least, the thought that the noble Lord is 100 years of age today makes many of us feel a great deal younger than we supposed.

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, on behalf of the Cross-Benches I wish a happy birthday to the senior of our 326 Cross-Bench Peers. Long may he continue to keep that number up.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I associate these Benches with the congratulations to the noble Lord and send him our best wishes and many happy returns of the day.

Two days later, he passed away in a London nursing home...

Help, help, I'm surrounded by 2,000 NO voters!

We had been invited by the Essex and Suffolk Hunt to join them at Higham, for the Easter point to point meeting, and, whilst it would be fair to say that we are not particularly bothered by the hunting lobby, we aren't the most obvious guests. However, point to point is an important part of country life, so we got into the car and headed south, through Hadleigh, to the racecourse just north of the A12 and the Essex border, on a gloriously sunny morning.

The Suffolk countryside was on display in all of its finery, the bluebells out in the woods, the fields all green and yellow, the trees in leaf, as we meandered across country, before heading down a track through a bluebell wood to what appeared to be a rather scruffy racetrack without stands, where hundreds of people had inexplicably gathered.

We were fairly early, as we were there to see the foxhounds paraded. Gosh, they're not the sharpest pencils in the canine draw, but they're big, friendly and enthusiastic. There was a generous buffet lunch, courtesy of our hosts, before the serious business of the afternoon got underway.

It would be fair to say that Ros and I know little about horses, still less about point to point formlines, but Ros picked out a 7/2 chance in the second of the pony races, which promptly strolled in an easy winner, and earning us a tidy profit. She then picked the winner of the second race at a rather less generous 1/3, so it was time for ice cream and a browse of the stalls.

By this time, two or three thousand had turned up, and money was changing hands amongst the four on-course bookies with a flurry. Unfortunately, from then on, our money was enriching them, rather than us, but a good time was had nonetheless.

We did make one unexpected discovery though. The Countryside Alliance are campaigning for a no vote in the AV referendum, and not because they are against it in itself (although I suspect that a number are), but because they believe that if the Yes campaign win, it will kill off any possibility of a repeal of the Hunting Act. As a result, the course and the spectators were a sea of 'No to AV' posters, stickers and banners.

For the record, I think that they are wrong if they believe that they have much of a chance of persuading even a Conservative administration to act upon their wish. In order to gain power, Conservatives need to win more urban seats, the very seats where the idea of hunting with dogs is unpopular. And as they're discovering, it's much easier to stop changes than it is to make them.

It was time to go, we thought, and we headed back across country to Paradise-sur-Gipping, content in the knowledge that it had been a really good day...

Twas on the Thursday afternoon, when the candidate came to call...

I've been a bit busy for the past four weeks, being both the candidate and the agent for Stowupland ward, what with having to design my own leaflets (thank heavens for Serif PagePlus X4!), deliver a lot of them (my campaign manager, Ros, is doing more than her fair share of that), and canvass as many people as I can reach/find.

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However, Thursday morning saw a bit of an unwelcome break in the routine, as Ros made her way blearily downstairs to find that the carpet was strangely wet. Very wet, indeed positively sodden. As I was beckoned to lend my vast experience to solving the mystery of what had happened, there was a knock on the door, and our next door neighbour was apologising for the fact that their water softener had failed, causing a flood in our living room and downstairs hall.

Whilst the flow of water had been stopped, and a plumber called, we had the problem of water damage to solve. Needless to say, Ros was ready to go, and by 8 a.m. the insurance company were called, by 9 a.m. a carpet specialist was on standby, and by 11 a.m., he was there, condemning our carpets and authorising their replacement. So far, so good.

I'd taken the day off to help with the work that needed to be done, so we set to work, cutting up the old carpet and underlay with scissors and a Stanley knife (strangely satisfying...). The water was mostly mopped up, and we were just settling in with some insurance paperwork when up to the door came my Conservative opponent.

"Hello, Caroline!", said we, "What brings you here?". "I'm looking for 'Charlecote'", she said, so I told her that Janice probably wouldn't be in, anyway (she's never in when I call, at least...). I'd guessed that she was calling on postal voters, in the knowledge that I had called on all of them before postal ballots landed on doormats across the ward on Tuesday, and left personally addressed letters for each of the ones I hadn't spoken to.

A brief conversation ensued between Caroline and Ros, and she was gone.

At least I now know that she is canvassing for support. Admittedly, calling on people in the early afternoon on a weekday means that she's unlikely to find as many of them as she might, but she is giving it her best shot. Let's hope that it isn't good enough...

Monday, April 18, 2011

An open letter to Suffolk's new leader

I see that we have white smoke from Endeavour House, indicating that the Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council have elected a new leader, Mark Bee, the county councillor for Beccles and leader of Waveney Council. And so, in a spirit of welcome...

Dear Mark,

Firstly, congratulations on winning the contest to become the new Leader of Suffolk County Council! It would be too cheap a shot to note that your colleagues used AV to choose you, but it does give you greater credibility (in my eyes at least).

I understand that your election presages a rethink of the 'New Strategic Direction', and that you will be reviewing a number of your Group's more 'controversial' decisions (I'm guessing that this is shorthand for 'unpopular'). This can only be a good thing, as there are plenty of Suffolk residents out there who are less than wildly impressed with how things have been decided so far.

If I might be so bold as to offer some advice, however, perhaps I ought to suggest that you encourage your Group to be a bit more involved. Given that they, including you presumably, voted through the 'New Strategic Direction' and the budget that followed, responding to public disquiet indicates that they didn't really think through the implications beforehand. Include as many of your Group in your thinking as possible, rather than using them as voting fodder, as appears to have been the case under your predecessor.

Ironically, many Suffolk voters understand that cuts are necessary, if regrettable. However, being told what the cuts are going to be, and then effectively telling the rest of us to simply deal with it tends to wind people up. That level of confrontation is unnecessary if, like I do, you believe that the entire political community across the county has the best interests of Suffolk and its people at heart. Yes, we won't all agree on the method, or the extent, but most of us are pragmatic enough to work together, given an opportunity.

I won't suggest that you axe some of your Cabinet colleagues. Whilst I do think that some of them have been less than entirely successful, building a team is about compromise and personal relationships. You will want a Cabinet that responds to your leadership, and as I don't know that much about the personalities involved, I'll leave that for you to decide.

Whatever you do decide though, I do urge you to consult more, before cuts are announced, rather than afterwards. The district councils, the parishes and local community groups are willing and able to play their part in the management of local services, as long as they are given the time and space to make new arrangements, or to secure new funding sources as necessary.

Finally, please don't disguise transfers of spending between levels of government as spending cuts. The idea of spending cuts is to reduce public spending, not simply to pass the buck onto a lower tier of government and claim the credit for making savings.

Anyway, congratulations once again,and good luck in your new role,

Yours sincerely,

Mark Valladares

Friday, April 15, 2011

An example of 'The Little Society' in action

I mentioned the Needham Market Community First Responders in yesterday morning's posting, without providing much of a clue as to what they actually do. Perhaps I should correct such an oversight...

In rural areas such as Mid Suffolk, it may well take some time for an ambulance to reach you if you have a heart attack. Given that best practice is to administer treatment within eight minutes, that tends to reduce survival rates for victims in the villages. And so, the concept of Community First Responders was developed.

Volunteers, trained in the use of defibrillators, are linked to the Ambulance Service's control room and, if they are within range, are dispatched to the scene of the emergency, often arriving within three or four minutes of the call, and in advance of the ambulance. Once it has arrived, the volunteer remains to assist the ambulance crew and then reports back to the control room.

And, as it is a volunteer service, it requires donations to keep going. Accordingly, once I find out which branch covers Creeting St Peter, I intend to ask the Parish Council to make a small donation to its work. After all, there aren't many of us in Creeting St Peter, and losing anyone unnecessarily would be a loss.

A victory for Suffolk anti-cuts campaigners, or an exercise in self-preservation?

In what might appear, on the face of it, to be an astonishingly cynical piece of politics, Suffolk County Council has announced that, following feedback from Suffolk residents, the planned closure of six of the county’s Household Waste Recycling Centres in May 2011 will be delayed.

The centres will now remain open until 31 July 2011 – during which time the council will be working with the district and borough councils as its partners, and Suffolk communities to develop long-term solutions to the closures. It also happens to push the closures off until after next month's District council elections.

Following the announcement to close the sites, Suffolk County Council has received 8,000 letters and opinions from Suffolk residents, district and parish councils giving their views on the proposals. 2000 people have attended public meetings. I don't imagine that they were there to give thanks for the closures.

County Councillor Lisa Chambers, Portfolio Holder for Waste, said; “We have made this decision in direct response to the views of Suffolk residents. I have personally attended 14 community meetings and the feedback has been very clear. People are telling me they are very willing to look at paying for the service rather than lose their site and would like more time to come up with new ways of working. District, parish and town councils have also asked for more time to look at alternative funding opportunities.

“I believe it is important that we listen to feedback from communities and when possible act on that feedback. In this case that is what we have done.” Or, perhaps, Conservative candidates across the county are being given a hard time for the actions of their County colleagues.

Now, don't get me wrong, I approve of the decision to allow more time to see what might be done to save these facilities. However, if Conservative county councillors don't understand the meaning of proper consultation (or managed transition, for that matter), and require eight thousand people to explain why they are necessary, it hardly demonstrates that listening is at the forefront of their thinking. They are, therefore, likely to make the same mistake over and over again.

And it looks cynical, too. Council tax bills for 2011-12 have gone out, and budgets set accordingly. The idea that, under such circumstances, parishes or districts could find funds and make arrangements by 31 July seems, how can I put it, optimistic.

So, a few months bought, at a cost of £170,000 from the transition fund, which leaves less money for libraries. Cynical old world, isn't it?...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Got children? Going to be in Mid Suffolk over Easter?

I have received an invitation from Mid Suffolk District Council, which I feel duty bound to pass on to anyone who might be in the area over Easter...

Thornham Walks near Eye is offering a range of activities for all the family to get involved in this Easter.

A free lottery funded “Drop in & Join in” event will take place on Thursday 21 April between 10am and 3pm. This “Woodland Play” event will offer a variety of activities for children such as making mobiles, musical instruments, bogarts and also a scavenger hunt.  In addition, there will also be ‘dragon activities’ from 1.30pm onwards at the newly carved dragon. 

The second event will bring a spring to your step as you and your family can take part in the Easter Egg Trial on Easter Sunday (24 April). Why not join in the search by hunting high and low for hidden eggs. It couldn’t be easier, simply follow the clues and every child who reaches the end will be rewarded with a chocolate egg. You can even guarantee you look the part by bringing along a homemade Easter bonnet, and entering a competition to win prizes.

Helen Sibley, Thornham Countryside Officer said: “Exploring the countryside is always a great opportunity to have plenty of fun. The Easter Egg Trail always manages to be an increasingly popular event, year after year.”

Admission for the egg trail is £3 for children, with accompanying adults free.

 While at Thornham, why not make a day of it and visit the relaxing surroundings of The Forge Tea Rooms & Restaurant for Sunday Dinner or lunch. Booking is essential, please contact: 01379 783035. Alternatively you could bring a picnic and enjoy the beautiful countryside around you.

It sounds like fun, doesn't it? Sadly though, I'm a bit busy at the moment...

Immigration: Cameron puts clear purple water between the Coalition partners

David Cameron has decided to launch a debate on immigration to the United Kingdom, and I for one have no fundamental objection to that. What I do have an objection to is the arguments deployed, and the promises made.

Firstly, to imply that net migration can be reduced to 'tens of thousands' easily, and merely requires the will to do so, is simplistic and misleading. If this is code for 'we're going to reduce the number of black and Asian migrants', David Cameron is probably right, and if that is what he means, then the accusation that he risks inflaming extremism has some truth to it.

The chart above demonstrates how the figures for net migration have sharply risen over the past decade or so, conveniently corresponding to the period when the Labour Party were in government. That doesn't necessarily imply that you can link the Labour Party to the rise in net migration, although there were decisions taken which might have had an impact.

So why do I say 'purple', rather than 'blue' water? Mainly because there is a Dutch auction between Labour and the Conservatives to see who can be tougher on immigration. As Yvette Cooper puts it, "He has made very big promises about the level of net migration he will achieve - but he hasn't set out workable, transparent policies to deliver it”. Not exactly objecting to the policy, more complaining that he isn't clear enough on how he'll achieve it.

On the face of it, the numbers look daunting, but breaking them down, there are some genuine questions to be answered. Firstly, EU migration numbers. These can't be stopped, although with a weakened economy, the United Kingdom is less attractive to Poles, Lithuanians and others. In addition, some of the emigration is to the European Union, to Spain, Cyprus and Portugal as elderly Britons retire to somewhere warm. Others are working in the professions, finance, law, accountancy and the like, taking advantage of that freedom of movement that makes Europe a better place to do business.

Non-EU immigration is even more complex. Where are these people coming from? Australia, Canada, the United States, amongst others. There are more than 250,000 Americans living in the United Kingdom, many of them intending to stay permanently. They speak English, have jobs, fit in. Nobody ever complains about "those bloody Americans, coming over here and taking our jobs", do they? They're like us, you see, and therefore acceptable.

Asylum seekers? We like to think ourselves as a tolerant nation, providing a safe harbour for those in fear for their lives. In any event, we don't receive anywhere near that many.

The problem is, in a global economy, companies want to move their staff around, sometimes to different countries. If we make it difficult for them, they may wonder whether or not they want to be based in this country, moving their offices elsewhere and costing jobs to the British staff who work there. Likewise, British staff travel the world, doing business, performing jobs that, theoretically, local people might do, if they had the skills.

Labour have seen through some of the contradictions in Conservative thinking, noting that the cap will only cover 20% of non-EU migrants and the government is cutting 5,000 staff at the UK Border Agency. At the same time, however, our friend Yvette is saying, "And whilst he is cutting one set of student visas, he is simply expanding another - student visitor visas - which he won't count in the net migration figures.". Perhaps that might be because they've come to study, and will then go home?

My sense, having spoken to plenty of non-politicians, is that they want to see clear rules, applied rigorously and fairly. At the moment, they don't see that, and they don't trust politicians to create, maintain and resource such a system. As a result, when times are hard, and politicians speak with forked tongue, voters are tempted by people who offer glib, simplistic answers.

The British people aren't stupid, or intolerant. They have, for the most part, a sense of fair play and decency. Politicians would be wise to stick to the facts, rather than play to the gallery...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Learning an important lesson about being a Parish Councillor

As a parish councillor, I represent the most local level of public representation. Obvious, I know, but important to bear in mind. And yet, I never have anyone come up to me and ask me for help or advice on anything. Given my relative lack of power or influence, that perhaps doesn't come as a surprise, or at least it didn't until now.

As I wander around Stowupland and Creeting St Peter, leaflets in hand, I run into local residents in their front gardens or wherever. Being a polite soul, I say hello and introduce myself - I am the candidate, after all, and residents have had half a dozen pieces of paper with my name and face on them, so there is a degree of recognition.

Occasionally, they mention something that annoys them, or causes concern, or that they just feel would be a good thing to do, and I ask them, "Have you spoken to X about that?". The answer is often a negative one, which makes me wonder whether more direct interaction between our political representatives and those they purport to represent would make for a healthier community.

Those Liberal Democrat campaigners of long standing would describe this as 'community politics', and they would be right. However, community politics is intended as a means of building support for a future candidate in, presumably, a contested election. As a parish councillor, I wouldn't really expect to have to fight any of those, thus removing the obvious justification for doing it.

On the other hand, I can connect up village residents to the various tiers of government, and perhaps encourage them to engage with their local community. At the same time, I get to learn more about the village, its residents and its day-to-day issues. I may even be inspired to develop ideas for simple improvements to service delivery from the District or the County councils.

All of this may make me a better parish councillor. It surely can't make me a worse one...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another cat rescue story, at no cost to the Suffolk taxpayer...

There's nothing like a human interest story, except perhaps a cat interest story, and following the drama of the Leiston rescue last week, the East Anglian Daily Times brings news of another rescue.

Wendy Wilson, of Little Bealings, travelled 600 miles to rescue a cat from a roof near her second home in the village of Cruzy, in south-west France, flying to Carcasonne and then hiring a car, after hearing that a stray tabby that she had adopted was trapped and could not be rescued (one presumes that the local fire brigade takes a more laissez-faire view of trapped cats).

Arriving on the scene, she was able to coax the cat to safety. But the story doesn't end there. Wendy arranged for the appropriate innoculations and a passport, so that the cat could be brought to Suffolk, and Sandy, the cat in question, now lives with Wendy's friend, Peggy.

Last minute flights on Ryanair? Expensive. A hire car. Not cheap either. Innoculations and a pet passport? Don't ask. A purring cat? Priceless...

Monday, April 11, 2011

For goodness sake, people, just give Ryan some money!

As one of the relatively battle-scarred veterans of the Lib Dem blogging scene, I've been linked to Lib Dem Blogs since 2005. And whilst my blog has changed a bit since then, the one consistent feature is the traffic directed to it from Lib Dem Blogs.

Not only that, but Lib Dem Blogs has been a jumping-off point for some of the most successful Liberal Democrat blogs, with new names emerging, flaring brightly for a time, and then sometimes burning out. It is, if you like, a platform for new talent.

As a result, I've tended to support it over the years, occasionally chipping in money when Ryan needs it. This month, as I'm feeling generally benevolent towards the world, I've contributed the equivalent of £1 per month for 2011, i.e. £12. That works out at about one-thirtieth of the funds needed to support it for a year, if my arithmetic is correct. I can afford it, although I appreciate that some can't.

So, if you do have any money sloshing about, and you can genuinely afford it, why not give some of it to Ryan so that he can keep this going and, better still, not have to plead for a while...

An object lesson in why you shouldn't attack your political rivals too soon...

There are times when attacking your political rivals seems like the 'easy' thing to do.After all, you want the job that they, or their colleague, has. It is too easy to forget that, whilst you may not agree with their politics, they probably entered the political arena in an attempt to serve the people they represent, or have responsibility for.

This week, I have taken my campaign for better bus links for Stowupland a stage further. Rather than just bemoan the loss of the Sunday bus service for Stowupland and Cedars Park, I wrote to Guy McGregor, the portfolio holder for transport on Suffolk County Council, in the expectation that he would either not reply at all, or give me some vague answer implying that there is no money and that it is all too difficult.

You can therefore imagine my surprise on receiving a reply within fourteen hours (including the hours of darkness), indicating that he would ask the officers to look at the idea, copying an officer in on his reply. Yes, he did mention the cuts but, not knowing who I am, how would he know what I know?

So, I replied, thanking him for getting back to me so promptly, and supplying some more information that might assist the officers in evaluating whether or not a small subsidy might enable an extension of the newly introduced commercial service between Stowmarket and Ipswich, operated on Sundays by Galloways.

And again, in less than four hours, I received a reply, suggesting that the developments in Cedars Park, which I had prayed in aid of the proposal, might be a source of Section 106 funding. I'm not sure if it isn't too late for that to be a factor, but it was a sensible suggestion, and I'll be following it up.

In truth, this may all amount to nothing in the end, but it does demonstrate that, if politicians work together for the good of their communities, and treat each other with respect, the outcomes for local residents might be rather better than they sometimes are now.

So, I offer an apology to Guy McGregor for calling him a weasel in early January. Admittedly, by the standards of the blogosphere, that's pretty mild but, in retrospect, it was unnecessary. That said, I still think that he was wrong then...

A charity lunch in Needham Market

It's coming up to the end of Mike Norris's term as Mayor of Needham Market, and as an old friend of Ros's - he now holds the Mid Suffolk District Council seat that Ros won in 1991 - we were invited to a charity lunch to raise funds for the Mayoral charity, Needham Market Community First Responders.

I did feel rather underdressed, as a number of civic leaders were there, many wearing the chains of office. Sadly, Creeting St Peter doesn't have any chains of office, not even a lapel pin, but we were surrounded by friends and acquaintances (mostly of Ros's, I must admit), so there were plenty of people to talk to.

There were even things to do as we mingled, and I discovered a game whereby forty-five different playing cards were randomly stuck to a large piece of paper in neat rows, the idea being to take an identical pack and place as many of them on their match in one minute. When I arrived, the best score was twenty-one, which seemed to be pretty good, but with the honour of our Parish Council at stake, I gave it my best shot. The result? I achieved twenty-seven, which set the marker for all of those to follow.

Dinner was served, with much of the menu sourced locally, and with plentiful helpings (how often at these things do people come round offering seconds?) and the conversation flowed easily. Sheila, Mike's wife, organises the Annual Dinner for Bury St Edmunds Liberal Democrats, and her stellar organising skills were again on display. She asked how my campaign was going, and I gave her an appraisal of how I thought the position was.

At the end of the meal, the prizes for the games were announced. Apparently, the name of the gnome was Cedric, which was good enough for a scarf for Josephine Lea, one of the Town councillors. The prize for the 'match the cards' game was won with a score of twenty-seven by the junior parish councillor for Creeting St Peter, and I look forward to eating the Fairtrade easter egg at some point in the near future...

All too soon, it was time to go, as there were leaflets still to deliver, and I had work to do on the campaign...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The sun is shining, it's time for tea with the Parochial Church Council

I may have mentioned one of the more recent features of village life in Paradise-sur-Gipping, the now monthly coffee morning and cake sale at the Church Hall.

Having missed last month's, due to the small matter of a Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Sheffield, it was back to small talk and a slice of orange polenta cake (at least, that's what I think I was told it was) on a sunny day in mid-Suffolk.

Ros and I wandered down The Lane in anticipation, only to discover that there were two horses and a pony outside the Church Hall. Given that last month, we had managed to arrange for the mobile police station to be parked outside for the event, it did cross my mind that someone had arranged for some animal interaction for the children. As it turned out, it was mere coincidence, and the riders had taken the opportunity for a refreshing cup of tea as they were passing. I did stroke the muzzle of one of the horses though, and it seemed to enjoy it, so all was well.

There was a good crowd in attendance as well, and the event has really taken off - I was told that it was standing room only in March. Given the fine weather, a few people stood outside with their tea whilst children played around them.

I chatted with a few of the people gathered around us, although I didn't take the opportunity to campaign, as it seems a bit presumptuous to gatecrash someone else's event for personal advantage. After all, win or lose, I still have to live here afterwards, even if some of my opponents don't...

An Englishman proclaims his faith in God

Whilst I'm not the most devout of people, I do have an abiding love of the expressive works of Henry Purcell (1659-95), and this is one of my favourites...

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Public and Commercial Services Union: run by the hard left, for the hard left?

I would probably be the first to admit that I am not the most obvious member of a trade union. And yet, having joined the Inland Revenue Staff Federation in my first week as an employee, I am now approaching a quarter century of continuous membership of my union, now the Public and Commercial Services Union following a series of mergers.

Our General Secretary is Mark Serwotka, who is a prominent voice against the cuts. I don't object to that, after all, it is the public sector unions whose membership is most at risk from the Government's spending cuts. I tend to disagree with his rather simplistic view of the world, and his incredibly naive view that not only is there a tax gap of £120 billion per year, but that it can be closed in full - frankly, if tax avoidance could be clamped down on to that extent, many of those affected would relocate offshore.

However, he is entitled to that stance. What I find particularly difficult is being a member of an organisation that believes that the Government is evil and eats babies. Evidence of that arrived on my desk yesterday in the form of the papers for the Revenue & Customs Group Executive Elections.

The slogan emblazoned across the bottom of the manifesto booklet says "Election 2011 - It's up to you who runs our union". Up to a point, perhaps. There are effectively two slates and the occasional independent, offering very little scope to vote for individual candidates on their merits.

The biggest, and clearly most organised slate is the Left Unity list. Describing themselves as democratic socialists, they tend to offer manifestos which are of the 'cut and paste' variety. Given that, as a liberal, I prefer candidates who talk about the issues rather than doing as I'm told, they start with a huge disadvantage in terms of attracting my votes. Indeed, the idea that they are representative of the actual membership is almost entirely absurd.

Most of the rest of the candidates indicate their independence, yet urge me to vote for a list of others. However, their manifestos tend to be different from each other, talking about their record, and their frustration and anger at the activities of senior management. Given that I have my doubts about how the Department is led, that helps.

I fear, however, that the result is going to disappoint, as an analysis of the vacancies, and the number of Left Unity candidates might indicate;
  • Group President (one vacancy, one Left Unity candidate out of two)
  • Group Vice Presidents (two vacancies, two Left Unity candidates out of three)
  • Assistant Group Secretaries (ten vacancies, nine Left Unity candidates out of fifteen)
  • Group Executive Committee (twenty-one vacancies, twenty-one Left Unity candidates out of thirty-eight)
I have, at least, cast a ballot this year, which has not always been the case in the past. After all, you can only really justifiably complain about the result if you take part. However, it is getting to the point where I don't feel that my union represents me any more, and there comes a point whereby spending £120 or so a year to be vilified goes beyond tolerance and becomes masochistic.

Besides, it would pay for about 3,500 A4 leaflets for Stowupland ward...

A gentle nature ramble in Stowupland

It is an awfully long way from London to Mid Suffolk in terms of campaigning experience, and on a glorious spring day of the kind we have been experiencing this week, I really do experience rural campaigning in all of its glory.

Ambling around the ward, environmentally friendly bag full of leaflets in one hand, I am accompanied by the sound of birdsong, including something I had never noticed in the city, collared doves. They're much prettier than pigeons, and they make a warm cooing sound.

But that isn't all, so far I've spotted rabbits within ten feet of me, quail and enough mallards to feed an army. A heron flew lazily overhead as I walked up Mill Street, much to my surprise. There are pheasants in the fields that surround both of the villages in the ward, and the odd deer lurks on the edges of woodland.

Of course, there is the distraction of leafletting...

DWP targeting strategy exposed - when scaring the innocent becomes the easy option

And so we discover that the Department of Work and Pensions had secret targets for the number of benefits claimants to be referred for sanctions, after the issuance of denials that such targets existed. Of course, the Department is run by evil Conservatives, under the leadership of Iain Duncan-Smith, so naturally such behaviour would be encouraged. Except that the targeting started in 2009, when the Government was run by the Labour Party...

I have been consistent in my view that targets distort behaviour, and if ever there was an example that proves the rule, this is it. If staff are instructed that there are targets, and that they risk sanctions if they don't meet them, they will obviously look to protect themselves first, and pick the 'low-hanging fruit'. That means finding those who are most easily dissuaded from claiming, often the most vulnerable because, after all, if you're improperly claiming benefits, there is an element of subterfuge in place already.

I was talking to someone yesterday, who takes a keen interest in issues surrounding the mandatory medical assessment of incapacity benefit claimants. He pointed out that for those who would like to work but genuinely can't, the idea of being told that they might risk losing the very benefits that enable them to live with a little dignity generates real fear. And yet, if you genuinely want to remove illegitimate claims from the system, you do need to be a little more assertive.

As a result, in theory the public want to see 'benefit scroungers' caught and punished, yet they are squeamish about the notion that genuinely ill people might suffer from intrusive and undignified examinations. After all, we probably all know someone who is a legitimate claimant, a friend, a family member, perhaps. We wouldn't want them to experience that fear of being falsely accused of fraud.

I have noticed that there are those who attack this Government for wanting to crack down on the vulnerable and the disabled, yet the current policy is a leftover from the dying convulsions of a Labour administration. Right concern, wrong scapegoat.

There is no doubt that this Government needs to wear its compassion on its sleeve, and a good place to start would be to make the medical assessment more transparent and better resourced. Yes, we need to catch the benefit cheats, but we need to ensure that, in a hurry to do so, that we don't sweep up the innocent with the guilty. That means no rushed assessments, it means that those assessments are genuinely independent.

So, I urge Iain Duncan-Smith to announce that the targets will be dropped, and that he will personally ensure that those responsible for setting them are exposed and, if appropriate, punished. A little less rhetoric in terms of intended savings might help too...

Friday, April 08, 2011

A little night music for those who need something soothing

Telegraph writes utterly inaccurate headline to story in its desperation to attack Government...

My attention has been drawn, courtesy of Global Post, to a gloriously misleading piece of journalism, written under the byline of the Telegraph's Consumer Affairs Editor, Harry Wallop. Here's the headline...

Government Twitter Tsar to be on £142,000 salary

The Government is to hire a "Twitter Tsar" on an annual salary of £142,000, making the successful candidate one of the best paid civil servants in Whitehall.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? You can hear the rumblings from the Taxpayers' Alliance already. Except, the real story is somewhat different, as the article itself goes on to explain...

The Government made clear that the new job will not only take on far bigger responsibilities, but is also advertised at a lower rate. "Twitter will be a tiny part of the job," said a Cabinet Office insider. “To call this role a Twitter Tsar is like calling Richard Branson a flight steward.”

Crucially, it will take on the both the role of Mr Stott, who has now retired, as well as running Directgov – a website that supplies consumers with information about tax and benefits, as well as providing details of consumers' rights when it comes to dealing with utility companies, landlords or local councils.

Martha Lane-Fox, the entrepreneur and the Government's unpaid digital adviser, was instrumental in setting up this latest post and she took to Twitter to say that calling it a "Twitter Tsar" was "mean" and misleading, pointing out that it was essential the government ran a cheap, simple website to help citizens.

So, not a 'Twitter Tsar' then, but a serious job, ensuring that information about government services is made as accessible as possible. And we know that communications professionals don't come cheap. You may query why that is, but if that's what the market will bear, that's the way it is. It is a lot of money though, so will the lucky applicant have anything else to do?

The new role combines the work of the Chief Executive of Directgov (Jayne Nickalls) and part of the work of the Director for Digital Engagement and Transparency (Andrew Stott), and will bring considerable savings to the taxpayer. The Executive Director will be responsible for over 100 staff and for saving at least £6 million from Directgov’s annual budget.”

So, the new appointee will save costs on salaries (one post instead of two), and be charged with saving forty-two times their salary in running costs. Pardon me for saying this, but that's good, isn't it? Isn't it?

Ironically, Harry Wallop has a Twitter feed, and is pretty prolific, so one really can't claim that he doesn't 'get' Twitter. But if you were only to read the headline, and not delve further into the article, it wouldn't be unreasonable to experience a touch of 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'.

There are plenty of people out there for whom the phrases 'digital outreach' and 'social media' are a bit of a mystery. Publishing headlines like this one merely act to discredit the concept of 'e-government' in their eyes.

Unless, of course, you're a conspiracy theorist who believes that the Daily Telegraph is the plaything of two secretive brothers who want to undermine all of the institutions of our State...

Mid Suffolk welcomes careful social media

Alright, so I'm a local political activist, and I want to know what's going on in my area. Keeping up to date with local affairs can mean waiting for the local 'dead tree' media to publish a story and then commenting on it. And whilst that's good as far as it goes, one likes to be ahead of the news, rather than one step behind.

So I decided to explore the Mid Suffolk District Council website, to see how 'social media friendly' it is. The website itself is pretty basic, although all of the things you would expect to find are there. There appears to be no Twitter feed, unlike Suffolk County Council (who admittedly don't appear to have posted there since 18 January). I haven't had any problem finding out the information I need though, so it does its job.

The press releases appear to be a bit out of date, however, so I decided that it might be nice to connect with the publicity department of Mid Suffolk District Council. In fairness, I suspect that it isn't very big, as Mid Suffolk is not a large authority, and the same name seemed to appear on most of the press releases. So I rang Vicky Smy, the Senior Communications Officer, and asked whether or not the council had a policy on social media.

She was very friendly, telling me that they were still considering one, and would be doing so along with her colleagues at Babergh District Council (the two authorities are integrating a lot of their back office functions) in the near future. So I asked if it was possible to receive press releases, and was delighted to get a positive response (none of this, "I'll need to talk to someone more senior" nonsense).

And so I should in future receive their press releases, and be better able to carry out my functions as a Parish councillor. Vicky did warn me that I wouldn't be inundated, which I find strangely reassuring.

So, Vicky Smy, this blogger salutes you for being reasonable, helpful and friendly. As a bureaucrat myself, I know that such an approach isn't always standard, so a big thank you cfrom one of the denizens of our quiet corner of England...

Is the leadership of Suffolk County Council dysfunctional?

It is unusual for the management of a county council to be splashed all over the national newspapers, but for the past few weeks, the Chief Executive, Andrea Hill, has been the subject of much coverage, most of it entirely unflattering. Personal coaching, 'glamourous photoshoots', stays in supposedly expensive hotels and, above all, her salary (£218,000 per annum) have become matters for heated debate in the local media.

In truth, she is a divisive figure, seemingly lacking in empathy for Suffolk residents, and in danger of becoming the 'point man' for the cuts that are being made. But, whilst her actions may to some extent be unwise, there is a danger that, amongst the public outrage, something important is being missed.

Andrea Hill didn't decide upon the level of her salary, three Conservative county councillors did. It was Jeremy Pembroke, Jane Storey and Graham Newman who voted to increase the salary above the amount originally offered, with the Liberal Democrat and Labour Group Leaders (Kathy Pollard and Julian Swainson) voting against.

The District Auditor was, it is fair to say, unimpressed. Whilst he felt that surcharging the three was not in the public interest, he made a string of recommendations for improvements to the recruitment and appointment processes of the county council.

In fairness, there were some unusual circumstances. The appointment was made in the context of a likely reorganisation of local government in the county and the creation of one or more unitary authorities, meaning that the job might well have a limited life expectancy. However, it is hard to see how that would have merited a £70,000 hike in the salary, compared to her predecessor, Mike More.

But, if you're offered a grossly inflated salary, you'd probably take it, and it would be a rare person indeed who wouldn't. You might reasonably assume that your new employers have decided that you're worth it to them. You might wonder if they are competent to lead a local authority, and how you might deal with them, but you'd take the money.

So I don't entirely blame Andrea. Yes, she does appear to have some issues in terms of how she relates to politicians and council staff, but the blame should be placed firmly on the shoulders of Suffolk Conservatives. They claim to run the county, they are responsible for the appointment, and their behaviour in this matter demonstrates that they are not up to the task of stewardship of public money, our money as Suffolk council tax payers. I was particularly impressed by Jermey Pembroke's comment, "We are a £1 billion business. In order to command the best you have to pay the best."

Funny that. Mike More was paid £150,000 per year, and was only replaced because he successfully applied for the post of Chief Executive at Westminster City Council, one of the most prestigious local government jobs in the country. Was Jeremy Pembroke implying that Mike More wasn't good enough, because that's what it sounds like?

Increasing the number of staff employed in the early stages of a recession, increasing pay for senior staff by large amounts, and an approach to consultation which amounts to, "This is what we're going to do, what are you going to do about it?", all these demonstrate the failure of the County Council's leadership. Jeremy Pembroke has gone as leader, but it's the same old faces, the same old strategy, and the same old outcomes.

It isn't good enough, and the sooner that the people of Suffolk get to have their say at the ballot box, the sooner the county council can be led by people who understand the impact of their decisions and who care enough to protect the services that residents care about so deeply.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Launching the campaign in Mid Suffolk

Today saw me take an afternoon off to attend a meeting of the Liberal Democrat team in Mid Suffolk, where our campaign was launched. Whilst in some places there is glitz and razzamatazz, we're not really like that here, and it was more of a chance to find out what the plans for the campaign were, what our key issues are, and how we're going to approach the challenges presented by our political opponents.

Luckily, we've got some really good people, well attuned to the needs of their communities, and we're optimistic for the four weeks ahead until polling day. I brought along some of the material that I've produced for the campaign thus far, which seemed to meet with approval, and drew real encouragement from our leadership.

Given that I am relatively new to the campaign team, that's very important, as there are always cultural issues to be considered when you're coming into a long-established team who are used to each other's style and approach. It is only too easy to blunder in, thinking that you know everything when, in reality, you're surrounded by people who have won their seats through hard work and personal contact. They know what they're doing.

Of course, I'm really fortunate, in that I have Ros to guide me through the potential pitfalls and to manage the activity. And regardless of what happens in the next four weeks, I couldn't possibly have come this far without her help, support and encouragement.

One rescued cat, one change of policy for the Fire Service in Suffolk

There has been a rapid reaction to yesterday's cat rescue story, it is reported.

In future, a duty officer will be sent to evaluate the situation before calling in specialist teams. It's probably bad news for cats that are attracted by the sight of men in uniforms, but for council taxpayers in Suffolk, it can only be good news.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Esther Rantzen is watching over me. It's not creepy, really it isn't...

I've had an e-mail this morning with a smiley picture of Esther Rantzen on it, asking "How much is your injury claim worth?". Which is slightly odd, because, as far as I am aware, I haven't been injured.

Of course, I am about to take part in the highly dangerous activity of leaflet delivery, with potentially savage dogs behind every door, and trip hazards on every front path. I may even contract a repetitive strain injury from contact with letter boxes over the coming weeks. If so, I will have to approach the agent for any compensation which, in turn, will be complex as I am the agent... and the candidate.

But on a serious note, the e-mail has come to me from a company called Accident Advice Helpline Direct Limited, apparently on the basis of information provided to them by the UK Lifestyles survey I filled in. It represents a new low in the ignoble tradition of ambulance chasing lawyers, desperate to play on people's greed to extort as much money out of 'people who deserve to be punished' as possible.

It is entirely right that those responsible for ensuring a safe workplace should be held accountable for their failings, which is why we have a Health and Safety Executive and lots of regulation and training (sometimes, a mite too much, I think). However, by encouraging people to effectively try their luck and seek compensation for what is sometimes their own contributory failing, all of us are impoverished slightly (after all, we have to pay the compensation through higher than necessary taxation and purchase costs), and only the lawyers are laughing.

As a child, I was encouraged to look where I was going and to pick up my feet rather than shuffle. Given that our home has a myriad of low doorframes and beams, and trip hazards, it has stood me in good stead, i.e. most of my body is still attached rather than scraped off by large, hard pieces of wood.

So, whilst I really appreciate Esther's concern, perhaps if she spent her fee on making the pavements of, say, Luton a little safer, her friends at Accident Advice Helpline Direct Limited could have the time to do some pro bono work helping vulnerable people, rather than chasing ambulances that haven't even been called yet.

How much does it cost to rescue a cat from a roof?

When Teresa Saunders heard a cat crying from the roof of a nearby two-storey building, she did what any animal lover would do, and called the fire brigade, setting in train an episode which gives health and safety a bad name.

Whilst the local fire station at Leiston responded, a turntable ladder was dispatched from Bury St Edmunds (60 miles away), and firefighter crews with specialist training in working at heights were on their way from Bungay (20 miles) and Felixstowe (30 miles). Fortunately, they hadn't got far when one of the Leiston fireman climbed a ladder, retrieved the tabby cat and brought it safely to earth.

So far, so faintly ridiculous. However, it did draw the attention of the Taxpayers' Alliance who, not unreasonably, pointed out what a waste of public money it was (obviously not cat people then). Admittedly, they didn't ask the question, "why send so many fireman to rescue one cat?", but then that might have been too much logical for them to cope with. However, they almost certainly exaggerated the cost of the incident - clearly counting is not always one of their most prominent attributes - given that the various crews would have been being paid anyway.

The award, though, goes to the local Fire Brigades' Union branch chair who claimed that the incident demonstrated that "we need more people to make sure we have enough cover to cope with the demands of the service". No, I think not. What it demonstrates is that sending five crews to rescue one tabby cat is patently absurd.

And the cat, I hear you ask? It ran off as soon as it got down, and was perfectly fine, as far as Ms Saunders could tell...

Hattip to the East Anglian Daily Times for this story...

And the runners and riders in Stowupland ward are...

As I had previously mentioned, Mid Suffolk didn't hang about in terms of publishing the nominations, and now we know what the opposition looks like. There are four candidates in the fray in Stowupland as follows;
  • Byles, Caroline Elizabeth (Conservative)
  • Snell, Ronald Derek (Labour)
  • Theobald, Craig (Green)
  • Valladares, Mark Jonathan (Liberal Democrat)
Caroline is the sitting councillor, Ron was the paper candidate for Labour last time, and Craig is the unknown quantity, that is, he'll know about me, and I don't know him.

I've started delivering the A3 leaflet in Creeting St Peter, and will be hitting the streets of Stowupland tomorrow. It's just twenty-nine days to polling day, and I suspect that my campaign manager has plans for all of them...

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Just another typical weekday morning commute...

Don't hurry, the train isn't due for another seven minutes...

The joys of Google on the campaign trail...

One of the things that I like to do at the beginning of a campaign is check out my opponents, if only to get to know them better. Admittedly, I know the incumbent Conservative quite well, in my capacity as one of my village's parish councillors.

I was, however, interested to find this article from the BBC News website. I already knew that Caroline was fighting to save her local Household Waste Recycling Centre, but perhaps she ought to be a little more cautious with the media in future. If she was, she might not make comments such as;

"It's also an environmentally poor idea. I live in Eye and the tip is a 15 minute round trip away."

"If that tip was to close I would have to drive all the way to Stowmarket, and that's a 30-mile round trip."

Given that she represents Stowupland ward, whose boundary is just 200 metres from the Stowmarket Household Waste Recycling Centre, perhaps she shouldn't emphasise just how inconvenient it is for her...

Decision day comes early in Paradise-sur-Gipping

I would freely admit that the likelihood of a contested election in Creeting St Peter is low. Indeed, in 2007, the last time that an election was due, only two candidates put their heads above the parapet, making the Parish Council inquorate from its outset.

Luckily, there has been progress this year, and all five sitting councillors have been elected unopposed, making this the first external election I have ever won. I'm not unique in that respect, as my fellow councillors, Dan and Dean, had never even fought an election, let alone won one.

So, what do we do now? Our first priority is to take over responsibility for the playground project, as the village's community council has found it difficult to attract volunteers to take on organisational roles. Given that the community council has the equivalent of more than two years of our budget in the bank, it rather increases the scale of our responsibilities, and I'm going to have to keep a close eye on the funds, given my position as 'parish councillor who does numbers'.

Up until now, I haven't really considered myself to be a 'proper' councillor, without a mandate or visible support. However, I have put myself before the electorate of Creeting St Peter, and whilst the lack of opposition is not perhaps a ringing endorsement, it does grant me four years to see how far we can progress the village.

I think that it's going to be just fine...

Good morning, world! There's been a bit of a change here...

For five and a half years now, this blog has been called 'Liberal Bureaucracy'. It's an original name, reflects who I am, has some name recognition, so far, so good. The downside is that, how can I put this, it's a bit constricting, in that it defines me by what I do, rather than who I am.

So, to reflect my new circumstances, it's time for a change. It's probably far too early to tell what difference it will make, but perhaps it will become more fun than it has been of late...

Monday, April 04, 2011

Should we really be surprised that NHS reform has been botched?

I am not in the habit of saying, "I told you so", especially as there have been so many occasions when I didn't. However, I did take a look at Conservative health policy a year ago and noted the sea of contradictions that existed then. And, as far as I can tell, not much has changed.

This explains an awful lot, and is a precursor for future potential difficulties. You see, the Conservatives don't really get localism or at least, they don't really understand its implications. With localism, you get difference, not consistency, and you place your trust in local people. And that in turn means that they will make the choices that suit them. What is good for Barnsley may not work so well for Bury St Edmunds, and vice versa.

In an environment where politics is often about playing off one group against another, the dangers are obvious. If government devolves power to a community, and that community makes a choice that an opposition party doesn't like, who gets the blame? You can hardly blame the community, so you blame the government. The government, under fire from the media, starts to think about regulating for minimum standards. The more minimum standards are set, the less scope there is for the community to make choices, and before you know it, the benefits of localism are lost, and you've created another bureaucratic structure that is now purposeless.

The notion of localism underpins the 'Big Society' concept, but the desire to shrink the size of government is in stark contradiction to those Conservative strands of thinking that are paternalistic in nature or suspicious of empowering people that aren't like them. That isn't to say that all Conservatives are paternalistic, or that they distrust ordinary people per se, it's just that being socially conservative presents them collectively with a number of philosophical dilemmas.

The problem of creating a free market in healthcare overlooks a societal presumption that the NHS is the health provider of last resort. If the private sector cannot, or will not, provide a particular treatment, the public assume that the NHS will. This is not the basis of a free market. It must also be assumed that, in a free market, there will be a degree of surplus capacity, and in a sector where the element of choice is not so clear cut, who pays for that surplus capacity? Indeed, why should the private sector be expected to create it? No, far better to have the certainty of long-term contracts, which effectively limit the options of 'customers' (I'm sorry, I really hate the word, but 'patient' doesn't quite cut it).

Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms smack of a 'back of an envelope' calculation, and every retreat and every compromise simply demonstrates just how poorly thought out the original concept was. If the Coalition partners are going to emerge from the current cycle of budget cuts with any credibility intact, each of them is going to have to display a much more transparent and coherent approach to the changes that our economy and our country needs.

And whilst I still believe that the Liberal Democrats policies coming out of Government are fairly robust, the same cannot be said of the Conservatives...

In search of inspiration - is there a niche within the Liberal Democrat blogosphere for someone like me?

Those of you who know me fairly well will know that I am, at heart, reasonable. A bit impetuous at times, yes, but generally slow to anger. City life can be a bit irritating, but even when I'm annoyed by something, my response is generally argued rather than ranting. In short, I'm not the classic angry blogger.

However, being vaguely annoyed by something acts as a motivation to comment, and has kept me going as a blogger for more five years. And that's my problem. Since I transferred my job to Ipswich, a lot of the things that irritate me have been removed. Life is slower, and I've adjusted rather well, almost too well.

It plays havoc with the motivation to blog. I'm not a councillor, so I don't have any particularly interesting stuff to report back - Creeting St Peter Parish Council is not, in truth, somewhere where big, exciting things happen. I'm a bit isolated from the wider Party now that I live outside London and Ros is no longer President. And, as I may have mentioned before, life is good.

So I suppose I'm in search of inspiration - is there a niche within the Liberal Democrat blogosphere for someone like me?...

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A day out across the Stour (yes, the only way IS Essex)

Once upon a time, when Ros was the portfolio holder for tourism (amongst other things) on Suffolk County Council, the idea of opening up some of the rather special, but private, properties strewn across the county was mooted.

It proved to be an attractive proposition, and so 'An Invitation to View' was born, whereby for a fee, a limited number of guests could be shown around the property on a strictly limited number of days by the owner. The package might include coffee and cake, or a light lunch. Indeed, it proved to be so successful that, when the county ran out of money to support it, the various owners kept it going.

Eventually, Suffolk wasn't the end of it, as properties in Essex and Norfolk joined in, and now it spreads its wings to include Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. Bookings are organised through the website of the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, and you can pick from a list of fifty-four properties, including Stowupland's own fourteenth century moated manor, Columbine Hall (and yes, I have to deliver the two cottages next to it).

Ros has been a keen supporter of the project over the years, so it was time for me to make my first visit. Our choice, the tallest Tudor tower in England, at Layer Marney, built in the early sixteenth century by Henry Marney, who rose to the heights of being the 1st Lord Marney, and Lord Privy Seal to Henry VIII.

And it is quite lovely. Parts of it are open to the public, the Long Gallery and the main tower, but the private rooms are only accessible through the 'Invitation to View' programme, and you get a huge amount of detail about the history of the building, the architectural features and how it has been restored.

On a decent day, you can enjoy the view from the main entrance, across the gardens to the estuary of the Blackwater, with the Bradwell nuclear power station on the far bank, and its sailing dinghies when the wind is fair.

All in all, a good day out, and if you're in the area, I'd recommend a stop. Essex gets a bad press, but North Essex has much to commend it, in a quiet way - even if it is on the wrong side of the Stour...