Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In amongst all the sunshine about cutting taxes for hard working people...

If you're campaigning this week, spreading the good news about the increase in the personal allowance, you might be surprised to find the odd person that isn't quite so enthusiastic.

That may well be because they're a civil servant, and have discovered that the increase in the personal allowance is almost exactly cancelled out by the increase in their pension contributions...

Nonetheless, in the round, it's a very good policy, and one that Liberal Democrats should be proud of.

Well, there you have it, I suddenly have more time for blogging

No, my work status hasn't changed, but something that has taken up some of my time has. Given that it did appear to distract me from blogging myself, you may see more here in the coming months, as I experiment with whimsy, train travel and the life of a country gentleman.

So, no commitments, other than to try and have a bit more fun, and we'll see what happens...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Labour struggle with their European selection - it's about democracy, or not, as the case may be

Five years ago, arguments over the way the Conservative Party ran its European Parliamentary selections made their way into the public domain.

I wrote then;
ConservativeHome is running a piece on the way Conservative Central Office has "stitched up" their selection process for the European Parliament, then withheld the results data from members. There are suggestions that ballot papers didn't go out to all members, that candidates were barred from campaigning, and that the process was rigged in favour of women.
And now, it appears, the Labour Party are having similar problems, with accusations flying that the (extremely) shortlists to be put before members have been designed to exclude anyone likely to be a threat to certain favoured 'friends and family' of key powerbrokers within the Party.

Like the Conservatives used to, Labour favour sitting MEPs, reserving the top slots for them, and then select the remaining candidates from a list chosen by a shortlisting committee. Once shortlisted, you are guaranteed a place on the list, as only enough names to fill the required slots are offered to the membership, and choice is further limited by the application of 'zipping' based on gender.

The Liberal Democrats used zipping in 1997 to select candidates for the 1999 European Parliamentary elections, alternating two lists of men and women in each Region or State to ensure, as far as possible, gender balance. And, whilst I wasn't wildly keen about it at the time, it did work.

However, such savage shortlisting is very controversial, giving disproportionate power to the shortlisting committee which, in turn, can offer huge temptations for abuse. An independent Returning Officer, a robust appeal process and transparent selection criteria can reduce that, but I'm not aware that senior Labour figures are terribly keen on such things, using paid staff to run the process, for example.

I suppose that their actions and, in particular, their methodology, reflect the sort of organisation they believe themselves to be, but by failing to engage members, they do themselves no favours. Discouraged members do less campaigning and feel less inclined towards loyalty. For even if their preferred candidate is not chosen, the perception of a fair contest does reassure.

It is interesting to reflect that, when a selection really matters, as the Conservative one did in 2008, and the Labour one does now, with gains expected, the likelihood of heavy-handed interference increases.

There is always a price to be paid though one day, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day. Perhaps those responsible, if responsible they are, might reflect upon that...

A weekend far from the madding crowd

One of the curious things about political parties is how they are organised, and where power lies. It isn't always where you might think, and it isn't always in the hands of the people you think would have it.

Whilst most people look at elected politicians and, quite reasonably, assume that they run the show, quite often they have power in the land, but not in their Party. Parties, as opposed to governments, are run by committee. For example, the Leader might want candidate X to be the chosen one for constituency Y. However, Committee A might either want candidate Z or, preferably, not care if candidate J is chosen instead.

So, as Labour Party members have recently discovered as they select their European Parliamentary lists, victory goes not to the swift, or the brave, but the friends of the shortlisting committee or those who appointed it. And the Conservatives have experienced similar problems in the recent past.

We're lucky like that in the Liberal Democrats. The English Candidates Committee is notorious for ignoring the desires of others, fiercely defending the concept of a level playing field for candidates. Alright, it may not always get that right, but that is its hope and aim. Returning Officers do not influence the decisions of shortlisting committees unless those decisions defy the rules and intent thereof.

However, some committees are obscure and probably deservedly so. For example, I sit on the Financial Advisory Committee of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). "The what of who?", I hear you ask. "Exactly!", I reply.

We offer our financial knowledge to the ALDE Party as, if you like, a backup to the Treasurer and the Secretariat. We consider funding bids and audit reports, the membership fee structure and fundraising initiatives, amongst other things. And, given my background, I was considered to be a legitimate nominee for one of the five places on the Committee.

For that reason, I'm on a Eurostar train somewhere in East Kent, heading back from today's meeting. My colleagues, from Catalonia, Croatia, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, and I have discussed a range of issues, made some proposals for future action, and are now heading for home.

Unfortunately, it has meant more time away from the County Council campaign, although the lingering effects of shingles, combined with my study commitments, have made my contribution fairly negligible anyway.

But the sun is shining, Ros and I have enjoyed a thoroughly decent weekend in a city we both rather like, and I have six bottles of good Belgian beer in my suitcase.

Life could be far worse, couldn't it?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Have Suffolk Conservatives changed their priorities overnight?

Yesterday, I noted that Suffolk Conservatives have decided that improving their incredibly poor performance on education is not one of their key priorities. Here's their top 5 pledges, courtesy of Colin Noble...

Our top 5 pledges are
Blue TickNo increase in council tax for the next four years
Blue TickHigh-speed broadband across Suffolk
Blue Tick County-wide ‘No Cold Calling’ Zone
Blue Tick A new Travel Card for young people
Blue Tick £270million investment in care facilities.

Looking for education... looking for education... not finding education.

Ah, but I now have a leaflet from my local Conservative candidate and incumbent councillor, Gary Green. What does it say?

"To ensure our children get the resources they need to get the best education"

So, is this a pledge for Suffolk, but not a key pledge?

On the reverse, the leaflet has a picture of two people standing outside a school in Haverhill and under it are the words;

"Committed to driving up educational attainment..."

So, does that mean that they're committed to it now, in which case why isn't it a key pledge, or are they claiming that this is their ongoing stance, in which case why has Suffolk performed so badly relative to the rest of England and Wales since they took power in 2005?

It's still not one of their five pledges to you though. Suffolk Conservatives - still not caring about your children.

P.S. One last thing, if any local Conservative is reading this - it's Chilton Fields, not Chiltern Fields that you're pledging to protect...

Super-fast broadband for Suffolk... the Conservative record

According to my County Councillor, one of his five pledges is super-fast broadband for every business and household in Stowmarket, Stowupland and Creeting St Peter. And naturally, he expects me to be grateful for his hard work and that of his colleagues.

Yet, it could have happened sooner, as the Ipswich Star reported on 4 June 2011;
Last month the Government announced the county had missed out on £20million from its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).
Had it proved successful, the investment would have been coupled with a further £20m from the private sector and £2m from other sources to deliver superfast broadband across Suffolk.
But the bid was rejected, with BDUK saying a major reason was the lack of local funding support.
Bosses are set to meet with BDUK later this month to get more detailed feedback, with a view to submitting a revised bid as soon as possible.
It is understood Suffolk will need to substantially increase the local authority funding contribution to £10m.
They did finally put up a sufficient contribution, and work has begun. There is a further catch though, in that superfast broadband will not reach the smaller villages... like Creeting St Peter. We're too far from the telephone exchange, and our infrastructure isn't up to it.

So, not exactly a pledge to be proud of, or one that he has any real intention of doing much about. The work will be done due to the Coalition Government which, if memory serves, is made rather more competent by the inclusion of several Liberal Democrats, in spite of the neglect of Suffolk Conservatives.

But don't worry, Gary won't be coming to talk to you, so you won't have to worry about what you might say to him. But given that he hasn't delivered a single leaflet to the village, or met a single voter outside of the occasional Parish Council meeting, you probably were grateful for the reminder of what he looks like.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Five Conservative priorities for Suffolk - education not important to them, apparently

Alright, I did allow Colin Noble to get to me just a touch over the whole manifesto thing. After all, attacking your opponent is designed to draw attention away from your own failings, so it's natural that he should take such an approach. I didn't need to respond though, even if it did end quite well, with our manifesto pledges getting rather more coverage than they might otherwise have attracted.

Colin still doesn't like our manifesto, a point he feels necessary to broadcast, although I do wonder under what circumstances he would say anything different. We'll put it down to his ideas about political campaigning and coalition building...

I am puzzled about their five key pledges though. None of them have anything to do with education, which is intriguing and disappointing in turn.

Intriguing, because the county does spend 46% of its budget on children and young people, most of which presumably goes on schools. Disappointing because the county's performance relative to the rest of England and Wales is desperately poor...

148th out of 151 at primary school level
141st out of 151 at secondary school level

Those are the latest figures for Suffolk, demonstrating what the impact of cutting council tax in real terms year on year is. And if spending is not an issue, as I'm sure the Conservatives will argue, then it seems like a failure of leadership might be to blame.

Given that Suffolk is a rather nice place to live, without many of the problems that impact on teacher recruitment in heavily urban areas, or social issues, language barriers etc. it is hard to suggest that Suffolk has any particularly unique problems. Yes, the middle schools are unusual, but they only exist in part of the county anyway, and achievement in them would have to be catastrophically bad to have caused such poor performance. And if they are the problem, why is the decline only recent?

Under such circumstances, you would expect the county administration to want to do everything in its power to improve things - it would be a major priority. But not, it seems, one of the five key issues for Suffolk Conservatives.

Of course, given that the decline has taken place entirely on their watch, you can understand why they wouldn't want to draw your attention to it. So, when your Conservative candidate arrives on your doorstep, wherever you are in Suffolk, do ask them what they're going to do, and why they don't see your children's education as a priority.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A new addition to the Suffolk blogroll of taste and distinction...

My thoughts on the demise of Margaret Thatcher have attracted a comment from a fellow Suffolk blogger, one I had not come across before - Small Town Man. Normally, anyone who uses a comment to link to their own blog fills me with suspicion, but I'm glad that I put that to one side on this occasion.

Wit, irony, and Suffolk, what more could one ask for? So, onto the blogroll you go, Mr Small Town Man, and good luck!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 6) - the Local Economy

I'm not one of those people that believe that local government should be the primary driver of economic growth. However, local government can remove barriers and make strategic decisions about using the contracting process to support and encourage local provision.

Create a thriving local economy

More and more local businesses are feeling the crunch - even closing

The Tories have failed to drive economic development and oppose much of the green economy

Liberal Democrats will:
  • give local businesses equal opportunity to supply the County Council and ensure contracts do not penalise local companies
  • help local shops and businesses find loans and investment
  • educate for local employment
  • lobby Government to allow local plans to be developed and changed in realistic timescales
  • promote the development of the green economy and the growth of local green jobs
  • support and encourage sustainable local travel and tourism
  • use the Council's substantial level of reserves as a temporary cushion against funding reductions that cause significant harm to frontline services and the economy

Like a number of other people, I worry that contracting out services in big parcels tends to encourage a small number of national providers who can resource such services, leading to the risk of effective monopolies such as can be found in refuse disposal. Yes, relatively low-grade jobs are retained in the area, because most local government roles require someone to be physically present, but the profits leave the county or, worse yet, go offshore.

And yet, smaller providers can supply a more flexible, local service, and we have to ask what the overall effect of a contract is on the local economy as part of the tendering process.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 5) - Libraries

It was Suffolk Conservatives who placed the County's library service under threat, and I admire their audacity in claiming to have protected them. But the brutal fact is that they only did so when it became apparent that closures were incredibly unpopular, and their cynicism in announcing that they would be saving them just before key local elections shouldn't be forgotten.

Safety for our Library service, including mobile libraries

Under the Tories the situation of Suffolk Libraries has been perilous.

Liberal Democrats will:
  • support ALL our libraries to meet current needs and satisfy foreseeable trends
  • enable mobile libraries to continue to provide a service in rural areas
  • ensure that the new business structure for libraries is stable and that long term finance is guaranteed

In particular, I take an interest in the mobile library service, living in a small village. The halving of the number of visits to villages such as Creeting St Peter has increased levels of social isolation, and makes it easier to withdraw the service altogether, so I am naturally sceptical of any Conservative promise to protect a service that they have already cut.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 4) - Environment

It seems sensible to follow on from transport policy, covered yesterday, to the environment. As a relatively recent transplant into the county, one of the things that I really value is our natural and built environment, and we need to ensure that we do all that we can to protect it.

More and better focused environmental action

Liberal Democrats will save money and cut greenhouse gas emissions by:
  • cutting non-essential County business mileage
  • promoting LED lighting, insulation and natural source heating in domestic housing, County and commercial buildings 
  • encouraging use of the waste heat output from the Great Blakenham incinerator for district heating 
  • introduce a weekly kitchen waste collection service

I do have some doubts about the incinerator at Great Blakenham. However, we're committed now, so we have to make the best of it.

I'm also aware that there are parishes who are struggling with the costs of replacing old street lights with new, lower-cost LED lighting, and I would want to find ways of supporting them as they do so.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 3) - Transport

Welcome to the third part of my look at the 2013 Suffolk Liberal Democrat manifesto. Yesterday, it was the turn of adult and social care policy, and today, I turn to transport...

Transport recognised as a human right

Neither Labour nor the Tories have had any great interest in supporting the bus network, yet it is essential for work, health, socialising and education.

Liberal Democrats will:
  • lobby for better, more integrated public transport, especially for rural areas
  • reinstate important evening and weekend bus services that provide essential community links and benefit the economy
  • begin investment in efficient cycle infrastructures round schools
  • encourage use of Park and Ride and assess the impact of the new fare structure
  • ensure that the re-introduced youth discount travel card can be used on all buses and allow disability pass holders to travel for free 24/7
  • ensure that action on speeding, parking, and road maintenance meets local needs
  • where communities request it, consider 20mph speed limits

On a personal note, I will be looking to promote the use of the Suffolk Links services, as they provide a realistically priced, reasonably flexible service to rural communities, but are woefully under-promoted by the County at present.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 2) - Adult and social care

Yesterday, I started with education policy, and today it's time to look at how we would address concerns about looking after those who receive, and give care;

Appropriate Care provision, for all who need it

'Care' has been the Cinderella service of this Tory council.

Liberal Democrats will:

  • make sure the Tory divestment of our Care Homes does not produce a worse service
  • support Family Carers with fast, targeted, assistance, recognising they are the bedrock on which the county depends!
  • scrutinise the impact of the Suffolk Circle and, work with local organisations to develop new ways to help vulnerable people
  • improve public health by recognising and using the links between education, transport, nutrition and health
  • deliver on the new public health responsibility of the Council

Suffolk has a very significant elderly population, one which is expected to grow steadily over the coming decade. Personally, I don't have a fundamental objection towards private provision in this sector, but there is a question about democratic accountability regarding how those services are provided, so I particularly support the promise to closely scrutinise the impact of divestment of the county care homes.

Tomorrow, I'll be turning my attention to transport, one of my personal key issues.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Aaaaarrrggghhh!... another intimation of failing human

I am, I must admit, in some discomfort today, although that has rather been the case for the past week or so. At least I now know why, having been diagnosed yesterday as having contracted shingles. Fortunately, it is a relatively case thus far, concentrated around my abdomen, and manifesting itself as a rather nasty rash and some decidedly uncomfortable muscular and nerve-related pain.

I can get out and about, in moderation, and have spent parts of the weekend delivering leaflets in two of our local target divisions. Indeed, given the rather improved weather, it would be a pity not to get out and enjoy the sunshine.

I'm also adjusting to my new reading glasses, which is rather more complex than one might think. Remembering to carry them around, deciding when to wear them and when not to, working out where to perch them when I do wear them, all of this is new and slightly strange.

But I am getting there, and the glasses do make a noticeable difference. And, of course, people are going to have to get used to seeing me wearing them.

Every cloud does have a silver lining though, and I have been practising peering over them in a vaguely disapproving manner, a skill which could prove useful in time...

The 2013 Manifesto: Suffolk Liberal Democrats (part 1) - Education

As promised, here's an opportunity for anyone who wants to know what I, and my fellow Liberal Democrat candidates, are promising if elected. Today, I start with education...

Bring back Quality Education

Eight years ago, Suffolk had an enviable education system.

After eight years of Tory mismanagement the County is almost bottom of the English league table.

Liberal Democrats will:
  • get Suffolk back again into the top fifty Local Education Authorities, by increasing support to struggling schools and helping teachers to succeed
  • ensure any free schools are fit for purpose and appropriately sited
  • stop the use of Bed and Breakfast Accommodation for children in the care of the council
  • avoid the need for expensive out of County placements for children in care by developing in-county services
  • meet the needs of children in care after they reach sixteen
  • support youth services and walk-in youth clubs.

The Conservatives have been entirely silent as the performance of our schools, relative to those elsewhere in England, has declined. Indeed, education doesn't feature at all in their five key pledges, so perhaps they think that Suffolk voters would rather save money on their council tax than have well-educated children. Given that you can only build a thriving economy if you can offer a well-educated workforce, I beg to differ.

Tomorrow, I turn my attention to adult and social care...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ros in the Lords - Written Question: Railways

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 26 March 2012...

Ros does like to work with our local councillors to help them with their work, and when Wendy Marchant was campaigning to obtain an access ramp for the southbound platform at Needham Market station, she was happy to do what she could to help...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the timetable for determining grants for applications made under the Access for All scheme for railway stations.

Earl Attlee (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)

Since April 2011, Access for All Small Schemes grant funding has been offered directly to train operators by the Department for Transport to deliver small scale access improvements at stations. The budget is allocated according to the number of stations each operator has and how busy those stations are. Budget allocations for 2012-13 were notified to operators on 16 March, with a request to submit their proposed schemes to the department by 31 March 2012.

At the moment, the only access to the southbound platform is via a foot tunnel with steep steps at each end, impossible in wheelchairs, and very difficult for anyone with a pushchair or a pram,  and as the town grows larger, and passenger traffic grows by 10% each year, something will need to be done.

Hopefully, it can be...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

For the benefit of my Conservative friends, I present... a manifesto (but not yet)

So much fuss over a manifesto... but, I have been referred to the Liberal Democrat manifesto for Suffolk.

I can't post it in a way that does it justice via my BlackBerry, so I'll make sure to post it this evening when I get home...

Ros in the Lords: Broadcasting : Re-transmission fees

I am still fearfully behind with Ros's contributions, and here's one from 15 February last year...

As part of Ros's Industry and Parliament Trust Fellowship on Media, she has discovered much about how our television companies operate, and discovering that the BBC pay Sky to broadcast their programmes, she was moved to wonder why this should be...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have plans, as part of consultations on the draft Communications Bill or otherwise, to review the "must offer" obligation and the level of payment required from the BBC to BSkyB in exchange for the broadcast of BBC programmes on BSkyB platforms.

Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat)

The question of re-transmission fees (paid by broadcasters such as the BBC to platforms such as BskyB) will be considered in the communications review Green Paper to be published early this year.

I suppose that I ought to find out what happened in the end...

Suffolk Conservatives - flattering themselves, somewhat...

I've had an amusing exchange with Colin Noble, one of the leading Tories on the County Council, and partner of Lisa, about manifestos.

I've always had a love hate relationship with manifestos - they're a lovely thing if you have time to write one, but the Party centrally does spend time drawing up a stack of policy, so I'd rather see the time spent campaigning rather than drafting a manifesto which four people will read and forty deliberately misinterpret.

So, the absence of a manifesto wouldn't particularly bother me - after all, putting out a leaflet that says what I stand for is rather more direct than pointing to a document I didn't write. It is nice that the Conservatives found time to write one though, even though much of it is fairly vacuous (yes, I have now read it - it didn't take long...). I will be reviewing it in due course.

On the other hand, I asked Colin some questions about the performance of the Conservative administration, and he's promised me an answer. Now, is that a promise, or an aspiration, Colin? Or will you employ somebody else to do it?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

CAPTCHA - still evil, but unfortunately necessary...

I have been experimenting with the removal of word moderation on this blog for five months now, and whilst the reminders of my old blog entries by random spam merchants has at least allowed me to recollect some of the more interesting memories of the past seven years, my patience has finally run out.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I turn CAPTCHA back on.

Sorry, Jennie...

Hasn't @askcolinnoble got anything better to do? Like campaign on his own record, perhaps?

I see that Colin Noble is wondering aloud about the absence of a Liberal Democrat manifesto for Suffolk.

Funny really, because you'd think that in a year which is going to see Conservative losses from their 2009 high water mark, he'd be focussing his attention on supporting some of his colleagues who are rather more vulnerable than he is.

He could, alternatively, tell people on the doorstep why his administration has presided over eight years of decline in educational attainment and how guaranteeing a reduction in the county's spending each year in real terms will allow them to change that.

He could also explain what he was doing when his colleagues were appointing Andrea Hill on an extortionate salary, one that they increased in a manner described as 'potentially unlawful' by the District Auditor, and why they were allowed to remain as senior figures within the administration.

Or, if he has an answer, he could explain why he and his colleagues were so keen on the 'New Strategic Direction' until it became clear that Suffolk residents didn't like it and why, if it was so necessary then, it isn't now.

Alternatively, he could get on with running his campaign instead of worrying about his opponents. After all, on a uniform swing from 2009, he's got a bit of a fight on his hands in Row Heath, against the same UKIP candidate who achieved a 30% share in 2009...

Monday, April 08, 2013

RIP Margaret Thatcher... and now for the pointless vitriol...

The news that Baroness Thatcher has passed away comes as no great surprise. Ros had noted that she was an increasingly infrequent attender in the Lords and looked quite frail when she did turn up.

And now that her passing has been reported, the world and her grandmother have been quick to impart their wisdom (or otherwise). Oh yes, I do have my views on her impact on politics, on our country and our world, but there's time enough for that.

However, it's been many years since she was Prime Minister, and a lot of the actions taken by her Government have stood the test of time. You might not like them much, especially if you were on the wrong end of them, but much of what was done needed to be done, and was never undone, even by a Labour administration with big majorities.

Sadly, there are already reports of people celebrating her passing, and that's rather sad. She was, after all, a human being, doing what she thought was best, and had a democratic mandate to do it.

So, it would be nice if those critics focussed on what she did, and why it was wrong, rather than abuse a caricature of the person they longed for her to be.

I won't be holding my breath...

I hadn't entirely seen that coming...

I have, it must be admitted, been denying the onward march of time for a while now. And, of course, being human, and made out of skin, bones, and stuff, bits of me are likely to wear out at various points. At least, that's the theory. It's the practice that I have attempted to deny. But, at 48, I have managed to avoid the need to carry around very much stuff with me, and having retained my eyesight intact all of that time, spectacles are something that hasn't gotten in the way.

Most people's eyesight tends to fade a bit as they enter their forties, yet until now, I had been very fortunate. But recently, my close range vision had been becoming a mite fuzzy. Not horribly so, but enough that I could notice it.

Of course, being male, and rather stubborn, I would normally choose to ignore the problem and hope for it to go away, but I really didn't feel that I could on this occasion. I have a lot of study to do, and there is nothing to be gained by making it any more difficult than I need to.

And so, on Saturday morning, I had an appointment with a local optician who shall remain nameless (unless sponsorship is a possibility), where a very polite young man explained that my distance vision was still exceptionally good (he may have been being kind, but I don't think so) but my short-range vision was past its prime. Reading glasses were prescribed accordingly.

Again, being male, I have very little design sense (you've seen my collection of vivid shirts, so you know that I'm not being modest), so Ros was retrieved from her tea and newspaper, and choices were made. After some experimentation, two different frames were selected, and my new accessories will be ready for collection next week.

All I have to do now is;
  1. Remember that I have them, and;
  2. Try not to lose them.
I have picked frames that allow me to peer over them at people in a disapproving manner, which is something that I've always had a yen to do, so it's not all bad, is it...

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A new blogger in the village... yes, @BaronessRos is back. But not in the way you'd expect...

I have occasionally mentioned to Ros that it would be nice if she were to start blogging again, if necessary under rather controlled circumstances. But it hasn't worked. She doesn't like the aggressive tone of some of those who comment on political blogs, she doesn't always think that what she's doing in Parliament is that interesting. And so, I haven't succeeded in persuading her to dip her toe back into the water.

And now, all of a sudden, she is back. There is a twist though, in that she isn't blogging about politics, nor does she intend to. Her new blog is about her quest to uncover her family tree, and the unexpected discoveries that she has made along the way.

There have been some frustrations already. Trying to link her blog to Facebook has driven us both slightly crazy with frustration, and she's still mastering Blogger (she'll get there eventually, I'm sure). But if you're intrigued by your family history, I'm sure that her discoveries will be of interest, or even help, to you.

And, if anyone can explain, in extremely simple language, how we might connect her blog to her Facebook page, we'd both be very grateful...

Saturday, April 06, 2013

2013 County Council Elections: I have in my hand a piece of paper...

Yes, I am once again, a candidate for the Liberal Democrats in next month's County Council elections, this time in the Eastgate and Moreton Hall division which covers parts of Bury St Edmunds.

Given that we achieved less than 9% of the vote in 2009, I wouldn't say that I was over-confident as to my prospects, but given that these could be very volatile elections indeed, anything could happen... and probably will.

My opponents are the incumbent Independent, Labour, Conservatives and UKIP. And, if you live in the Division, and have any questions, feel free to ask. I'll answer them as best I can.

Barn owls over Suffolk

One of the pleasures of rural life is the wildlife, something that, as a transplanted Londoner, one doesn't take for granted.

And as 'wildlife monitor' on the Parish Council, I've taken more of an interest in conservation. I'm a member of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and spent a slightly frustrating evening in their badger hide last year, watching the badgers... hide.

We were encouraged to keep an eye out for owls last year and, occasionally, I would see one out in the fields, hunting for field mice at dusk. They are rather impressive, and they glide silently over the wheat bringing death to any unwary small rodent they might spot.

It is therefore good news to hear that the recorded number of breeding pairs of barn owls in Suffolk has increased from 108 in 2007 to 427 last year, on the back of an initiative to install nest boxes across the county, through the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project. So successful has their work been that they reckon that there are more barn owls now than there were in 1932.

I understand that they are giving away free barn owl boxes and fixing them for community projects, so I might well be in touch...

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Creeting St Peter: an open letter to Therese Coffey MP

Dear Therese,

I understand that you are supporting calls by one of your parliamentary colleagues to ban tax hikes by town and parish councils without a referendum.

You are, if the Ipswich Star is to be believed, proposing that any 'excessive' increase should require endorsement at a general meeting, or at a special general meeting, with a secret vote.

Unfortunately, the position of parish councils is rather more complex than you appear to understand, so perhaps some information might be useful.

Firstly, almost as an aside, you should note that Parish Annual Meetings - the ones where we elect a Chair, review our finance policies etc. - must take place in May. The Annual Parish Meeting, which is when we take reports from the Chairman and our District and County Councillors, must take place between 1 March and 30 June, i.e. after the deadline for notifying our precept proposal to Mid Suffolk District Council. So, I'll take it that you want us to hold a special meeting instead.

And yes, we have increased our precept this year by more than 2%. Most of our increase is, however, very much against our will. Both Suffolk County Council and Mid Suffolk District Council have frozen their precepts in part by devolving services, functions and/or costs to us. Mid Suffolk now charge us for emptying dog waste bins, introducing a £10 per bin charge last year, and doubling it this year. They also charge for emptying the village litter bins. Suffolk County Council decided that they couldn't afford to maintain the Local Nature Reserve in the village, so we ended up with it. It is an expensive undertaking for a small parish (our population is about 260), but who else was going to take it on? We need to make provision for that too. We've also taken on responsibility for the new village playground, the object of much community fundraising over the years.

Complicating matters further, the impact of your government's devolution of council tax relief to local authorities, combined with the lateness with which the Department for Communities and Local Government provided guidance to Mid Suffolk District Council meant that our planned percentage increase was trebled after we had set it.

If called upon to hold a referendum by law, we would do so. Admittedly, the cost of such a referendum would represent approximately 20% of our annual precept, and we won't be alone in being in such a situation. Given our responsibility to maintain adequate finances, we would need to find those funds from our rather limited reserves. Alternatively, we could cut back on services, or reduce the hours worked by our Parish Clerk, neither of which is awfully viable - we don't actually provide any services apart from grass cutting and street lighting, and our Clerk only works three hours each week.

There is, of course, another option in such circumstances - put up the precept substantially... Oh, but we'd need to hold another referendum, wouldn't we?

So, Therese, given that you either don't know much about the finances of small parish councils, or don't care to find out, I'd be grateful if you didn't interfere with our finances. We don't get any support from central government, nor do we want any. Our electors know exactly who we are, and have the right and opportunity to vote any, or all of us, out every four years.

And I trust my friends and neighbours to exercise rather greater common sense than you and your colleague have done in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr. Mark Valladares

Creeting St Peter Parish Council
(writing in a personal capacity)