Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mid Suffolk - the Local Government Boundary Commission for England rethinks?

We’ve been awaiting the final recommendations for new ward boundaries here in Mid Suffolk for some time, and whilst the proposals are put out for final consultation are not to everyone’s liking (and that includes the Liberal Democrats), they did look like an imaginative and credible solution to the problems caused by a combination of rapid growth in Stowmarket and a reduction in the number of councillors to thirty-four from the current forty.

Creeting St Peter was proposed to be transferred from Stowupland ward into Needham Market ward, which would at least give me a reasonable prospect of living in a Liberal Democrat ward for the first time since I left East Dulwich in 2007.

The final proposals were due to be published two weeks ago, on 6 February, but on the day itself, all went quiet. So, I wrote to the LGBCE’s press office;
Dear Sir/Madam, 
I was led to understand that the final recommendations were due to be published today, until the website was updated at some point this morning to change the date to ‘TBC’. 
Is it possible to find out what the issue is that has caused the delay, and when might we find out what the final recommendations are?
Now, in truth, I wasn’t expecting a rapid response. I know the score as a public official, there is never enough time to answer random questions from ordinary members of the public, but, to my surprise, a reply came back the next morning;
Dear Cllr Valladares
The Commission has delayed publication of its final recommendations for its Mid Suffolk and Babergh reviews. We are currently examining the electorate data and forecasts that underpin all the recommendations and will be in a position to make a further announcement about the completion of both reviews following the Commission’s next meeting on 20 February. We will update the website immediately following that meeting and directly contact everyone who has taken part in the reviews thus far shortly after that.
 Apologies for the delay. Marcus --Marcus BowellDirector of Strategy and CommunicationsLGBCE
I have to admit that I was impressed. And so, the wait goes on, although today in 21 February, and there’s no sign of an update. It’s early days though, and our elections aren’t until next May, so we wait with bated breath...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

One sweet day, I’ve made her mine...

Last year, I celebrated St Valentine’s Day by presenting Ros with sixty thousand breeding pairs of Magellenic penguins. Not literally, you understand, because whilst they’re cute, they do smell a bit, and the cottage is really too small for sixty pairs, let alone a thousand times as many. But you get the drift.

And so, my task this year was to find something similarly unusual. So, why not flamingos? In the middle of a desert...

Luckily, flamingos like saltwater, and the Atacama is famous for its salt flats, in which can be found three of the six varieties of flamingo - the Andean and Chilean, plus the James’s version, a winter visitor.

But first, we had a gentle warmup, with a visit to the Valley of the Moon, so called because, well, it looks quite a lot like the moon, and it’s such a forbidding environment that NASA tested out a Mars rover there. It’s not far from town, and we had a guide, Gustavo, who would be taking care of us for the rest of our stay, organised by the hotel.

And it is pretty daunting. The recent rain had caused salt to appear on the surface, looking at first glance as though there had been a light frost. We gingerly made our way across the barren terrain, because you don’t really want to fall over onto the jagged rocks.

Our next stop was an abandoned salt mine. It seems that the miners would drill holes into the rock, insert dynamite and stand well back. If a lode of salt was found, they would dig it out and then repeat the process. It is a bleak spot, with no water other than that you could carry there, and no shade either. Perhaps it was no surprise that they abandoned the mine.

After a break for lunch, it was time to head for the salt flats. The Salar de Atacama is the third largest salt flat in the world (the two bigger ones are across the Andes in Argentina and Bolivia) and it holds about 30% of the world’s known lithium reserves. This appears not to concern the flamingos, which is fortunate, who eat the brine shrimps to be found in the sinkhole lakes that occur here and there.

Laguna Cejar is the nearest of these lakes, and is an obvious place to visit if you want flamingos. They very kindly provide some useful information to read as you follow a path through the reserve, albeit entirely in Spanish, and you get to find out how the whole thing works. And then, you get to watch the flamingos as they go about their business, dabbling the shallow water to stir up the tiny brine shrimps which somehow give them their pink colour. Don’t ask me to explain how this works, as the brine shrimps aren’t pink, but there is science involved.

I was quite excited to find a lizard, which patiently stood still whilst I photographed it, but the flamingos were undoubtedly the stars of the show, gracefully making their way across the shallow water. Generally, we see them in zoos or parks, against a green backdrop, and whilst they look pretty, they seem vaguely uninteresting. But, against a background of crystalline salt, they look somehow more real and slightly less garishly pink, as though painted onto the landscape. Helpfully, Andean flamingos are paler than their Chilean counterparts, which allows you to tell them apart.

But it was time to head back, we had a dinner to eat and sleep to get before the next adventures...

Breathe deeply... very deeply...

We had to leave the seaside goodbye, for our next stop was beckoning. An efficient transfer to Santiago Airport got us there in good time for our flight to Calama, in the north of Chile. Calama is a mining town, the centre of Chile’s copper industry, and apparently relatively unlovely as a result. But we were onbound to an oasis.

San Pedro de Atacama is just that, an oasis in the heart of the Atacama Desert. And, as you might guess, it’s dry, very dry, so I was somewhat surprised to be greeted on our first evening by a gentle shower of rain. This seems sensible, as the town is on the western side of the Andes range, and my ancient geography lessons taught me that the western side of a mountain range is usually wet. But the cold current that runs along the shoreline to the west apparently sweeps rain clouds south, so San Pedro de Atacama receives, on average, about 42 millimetres of precipitation per year - about 1.67 inches.

The town is also at approximately 8,000 feet, which means that altitude sickness is a factor. And, let’s face it, anything above 80 feet in Suffolk is a hill, so we were determined to take our time before rushing off into the desert or the surrounding mountains.

I still had to get in my 10,000 steps though, which meant strapping on oxygen tanks and going for a walk. Luckily, all that time on treadmills walking steadily uphill meant that, whilst taking it easy, I was able to ease my way to the town’s bus terminal, located on the edge of town, to see what opportunities existed should I ever find myself in San Pedro de Atacama with a need to get out of town quickly.

I was reminded that we weren’t far from either the Argentine or Bolivian borders, and there are regular bus services to Uyuni in Bolivia and Salta in Argentina. Admittedly, they involve long journeys over mountain passes - over 4000 metres in each case - but you could if you really needed to, I guess.

The other task was to arrange our excursions. And we were to have a stroke of luck there...

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A day on the beach with the Chileans...

Valparaíso is the port town, and its neighbour, Viña del Mar, is the beach resort. The two are connected by Metro Valparaíso, which runs a very efficient service, seven days a week, at frequencies of as little as every six minutes. Fares are about 50p to travel from one town centre to the other, and it seemed like the easiest way to get some time by the seaside.

And indeed it turned out to be as simple as it looked, despite my total lack of functional Spanish. I managed to buy us a Bip card, the local equivalent of an Oyster card, with enough cash on it to get us to Viña del Mar and back, and off we went.

The line follows the shore in Valparaíso, and then cuts under the coastal highway before diving underground and following the main thoroughfare that runs up the valley. I’d successfully worked out which station to get off at, and we set off for a gentle stroll down Avenida Valparaíso before cutting right towards the Hotel del Mar and a pleasant cafe across the street, where we stopped for an emergency coffee break to watch the pelicans.

On a sunny day, it seems like everyone is either out for a stroll or headed for the sand, but as we aren’t really beach people, we settled for a promenade along the shore. And it’s a very nice stroll, with people selling various handmade art, or useful beach stuff. So, we strolled on, enjoying the sunshine, watching the people.

Eventually, we needed lunch though, and so we retraced our steps until we found the Sheraton Hotel, perched on an outcrop on a curve of the shoreline. Now normally, big chain hotel means garish monstrosity, but I have to give Sheraton credit, they’ve done a decent job here, putting something airy and sympathetic to the landscape. Their barbecue chicken wings aren’t bad either, and sitting on the terrace with a cold beer was a very civilised way to bring our outing to a close.

I managed to find the Miramar station, and we were off back to Valparaíso...

Journeys by trolleybus, a quirky solo adventure...

I am, still, methodically recording my 10,000 steps each day, and I needed another walk to make sure that I got there on our second day in Valparaíso. And what better way than to take a properly long trolleybus ride?

So, I walked down the hill, boarded the ascensor, and made my way to the trolleybus stop near to the Armada de Chile headquarters - a wonderful building in the French style that was apparently popular when it was built.

And, as luck would have it, one of the elderly Pullman built American trolleybuses rolled up almost immediately. I handed over my C$280, found a seat, and settled back for a gentle glide across the city to Avenida Argentina, which defines the northern limit of the flat, coastal part of the city.

Glide is the right word, for they move almost silently, the only sound being that of the tyres on the road surface. They’re very comfortable, despite their age and the upholstery, which is amazingly similar to that on buses in Mumbai, a green plastic material. Luckily, unlike Mumbai, it doesn’t get as warm, so you don’t get burnt by the seats.

At Avenida Argentina, I took a gentle stroll towards the shoreline, stopping only to explore a local hypermarket. Prices are not too dissimilar to those at home, although as you might expect, the cost of Chilean wine is significantly cheaper. Otherwise, ignoring the language differences, you might find yourself in familiar circumstances.

The western end of Avenida Argentina has a commuter rail station, of which more later, and, having checked it out, I headed back to the trolleybus terminus, detouring only to explore the long-distance bus terminal.

Now I would be the first to admit that my interest in buses is limited to local ones, but it is interesting to see where you can get to from any particular town or city, and Valparaíso is very well connected, not only to Santiago, but to cities up and down the country, as far north as Iquique, and as far south as Puerto Montt, which is broadly where the roads end and ferries take over. They’re long rides though...

I caught a Swiss trolleybus back, stopping only to take some photographs... of trolleybuses.

I’m beginning to really like this country...

Friday, February 16, 2018

A gentle stroll amongst the cerros, and an antique ride...

Our hotel, amongst its many virtues, offered a walking tour of the city as part of our stay, and the next morning, we were greeted by Cynthia, who has been leading walking tours in Valparaíso for seven years or so.

We started with a gentle stroll around Cerro Alegre, our own area of the city, before taking the ascensor down to Plaza Sotomayor. The highlights of the square were duly noted, but we were then led to the side of a building to take a ride on the city’s trolleybus route.

Alright, I can sense your thought - why a trolleybus, and why is it interesting? Well, Valparaíso has the oldest trolleybuses still in service anywhere in the world, some of which date back to 1947, and they are American in construction. The newer ones, a mere fifty years old, were imported secondhand from Switzerland, but all of them still serve the locals admirably, and the fare is very reasonable.

Now, I admit to being a bit of a bus enthusiast, indeed, a public transport enthusiast, so a ride on an obscure and unusual form of transport suited me just fine. It was a short ride though, as Cynthia needed to make a stop at her preferred butcher, which gave us an interesting glance at Chilean life, plus lots of free samples of cured pork and salami.

Back on the trolleybus, our next stop was the Queen Victoria ascensor (see, I told you that the British influence is strong here!), which was our link to Cerro Concepción, the other prime hill of the city. The architecture is... unexpected, with a lot of buildings clad with corrugated iron sheets, including the various churches.

For Valparaíso was indeed an international city, and permission was given to the Anglicans and the Lutherans to build their churches, so long as they weren’t too obvious. Apparently, they have the best pipe organ in South America, but I’m unable to personally vouch for that.

All that was left to do was to get back to the hotel, made slightly more complicated by the need to get from one hill to another. It meant climbing up the hillside, cutting across and then making our way back down again.

Luckily, we’re both a lot fitter these days...

Unexpected perfection on a cluttered hillside...

And so to Valparaiso, Chile’s primary port, via a brief but pleasant stop at a vineyard in the Casablanca Valley for a bite of lunch and a sensational Syrah.

I had found a recommended hotel but, you know how it is, the guidebooks and the website don’t always tell you the full story. And so it was with a little trepidation that our driver pulled up at the end of a dead-end street. A cheery greeting from the desk clerk was a promising start, and we were shown to our room, all dark wood and comfy furniture. And then I opened the door onto the balcony...

Laid out in front of us was the port, with enormous container vessels at the quayside, plus a chunk of the Chilean Navy, the main Plaza Sotomayor, with its monument to the War of the Pacific (of which, more later), and views out over the surrounding cerros.

The hotel turned out to be an old mansion, on five floors, with a rooftop terrace for evening drinks, a very good restaurant, a pool, sauna, jacuzzi and spa, sprawling down the hillside. Everything was going to be alright...

It was time to explore, so I set off down the hillside, past the Museum of Fine Arts, in search of the Ascensor El Peral, an interesting means of connecting the hills to the central core of the city. Built at the beginning of the last century, they are very steep funiculars, once steam powered but now electrically driven, and very reasonably priced at C$100 (about 12p). They’re certainly well used, with long queues to use them during the morning and evening peak hours.

I wandered down to the waterfront, taking in the railway station along the way, and took a stroll along the streets that parallel the shore. Valparaiso is never going to win awards for glamour, it’s a working port city that has seen some pretty tough times, but it has an intriguing history, and some unique features worthy of a visit. It also has a strong British connection, which is not overlooked.

But we had a walk planned, and a gentle bus ride. And not just any old bus...

Monday, February 12, 2018

A sombre reminder of the inhumanity of a dictatorship

Modern day Chile, with its stable democracy, modern economy and emerging tourism industry, seems like such a serene place relative to its neighbourhood, so it is easy to forget that, less than thirty years ago, it was a dictatorship which inspired worldwide protests.

And, as has been the case in a number of similar countries, it had to go through a process of reconciliation and recognition. Part of that process was the building of the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memories and Human Rights), which seeks to tell the story of the military coup of 1973, the oppressive regime that followed and the campaign to bring democracy back to the nation. It is not a cheerful place, but it is an inspirational one, demonstrating the power of the human spirit and the yearning to be free.

The building itself is quite remarkable, a piece of modern architecture which looks rather forbidding on the outside, but offers a wonderful multimedia display space for the films, photographs and displays that make up the collection.

You are taken through the events of the dictatorship from the aerial attack on the Presidential Palace, on to the roundup of political opponents to torture and execution, the emergence of protest groups both inside the country and in exile, and the battle by the ruling junta to suppress dissent through a mixture of fear and constitutional reform.

They rather graciously don’t mention the support received from right wing politicians in Europe and the United States which, given what eventually happened to General Pinochet, is probably a blessing for United Kingdom-Chile relations.

It is a bit squeamish in parts, with witness testimony of torture, both physical and psychological, but coming from a country like Britain, where we don’t really do that sort of thing, it is a poignant reminder that we are comparatively fortunate in terms of the democratic structures we have, and the freedoms we blithely enjoy.

Yes, the exhibits are in Spanish for the most part, but there is a very good audio tour, which takes you through the entire exhibition, so you get a true feel for what you’re seeing.

And, importantly, admission is free. Ros was of the view that you wouldn’t want to charge admission, as that might be seen as seeking to profit from the dark events of the dictatorship, and it also serves to make the exhibition open to all, keeping the light shining on the heroism of so many of the Chilean people.

All in all, a humbling experience, and one that should cause all of us to reflect on how fortunate we are to live in an established, mature democracy.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Time to make like a snowbird...

It was snowing in Ipswich. Admittedly, whilst it was surprisingly heavy, it wasn’t destined to last, and it was mere coincidence that, beside my desk at work was a large purple suitcase, packed with a surprising amount of warm weather clothes... For it was time to head for the airport again, and despite the weather, I made my way to Heathrow’s Terminal 5 without alarm to catch a British Airways flight. Next morning, I would awake in Latin America.

The Santiago flight is, by long haul standards, pretty civilised. You leave London at 10 p.m., and arrive at 9.45 a.m., which means that, if you can sleep, you arrive reasonably fresh and can emerge into the bright sunlight in good order.

Best of all, our hotel room was available despite our early arrival, and we could freshen up with a shower before heading out into the warmth. From snowfall to temperatures in the high eighties could be a bit of a shock to the system (albeit not as much as the switch in the opposite direction), but we’re fairly adaptable these days. I was able to organise a massage to get the knots of travel out of my aging body, and a walk in the area around the hotel enabled me to nail down another 10,000 step day.

So, what brings us to Chile so soon after our last visit?

Simple really, we rather like the place. Warmth is pretty much guaranteed unless you head south, the food and wine are great and, unlike much of Latin America, things work here. Hotel staff are efficient but friendly, there are no unexpected surprises other than good ones, and you do get the impression that they’re glad that you came.

And so, another adventure begins...

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Ros in the Lords - Environment: 25-year plan

On Monday, Ros was in action again, during a debate on the Government's 25-year plan for the environment. Now, one must always be suspicious of any document which talks about aspiration but leaves much of the detail to the imagination, especially from a Government as inadequate and incompetent as this one, but...

I start by offering a welcome to this 25-year plan for the environment, even though it is by no means perfect and has been justifiably criticised as heavy on aspiration and light on detail. The plan outlines some progress that has been made: it highlights significant improvements in water quality made in recent decades. Most of us in this House are old enough to remember that we were once “the dirty man of Europe”; bathers waded through raw sewage on their trips to the seaside. So what does success look like? Last May the European Environment Agency reported that in 2016 96% of Europe’s beaches met the basic standards and 85% met the most stringent requirements. How do you achieve such success and what can we learn from it?
It started with campaign groups making a fuss and raising awareness among the general public, leading to political pressure. The response to that was legislation that included binding targets, an enforcement regime and penalties. This changed behaviour. Pressure groups continue to act to highlight shortcomings and the whole process becomes iterative. Of course, because water quality is a cross-border issue, EU legislation such as the bathing water directive and the water framework directive were the legislative underpinning. It seems to me that campaigning groups are fundamental to holding Governments’ feet to the fire. In recent years changes to charity law have been made regarding what the Government describe as “lobbying” but is in fact the rightful campaigning role of this sector. The rules have been described as having “a chilling effect” on charities’ ability to get their concerns across, especially during election time. These groups must be able to tell truth to power.
The plan recognises that many of the proposals will need to be put on a statutory footing. However, there is already a huge body of existing EU legislation which does much of this work: around 80% of the UK’s environmental law comes from the European Union. A number of environmental organisations have expressed the view that the provisions in the withdrawal Bill simply do not provide sufficient safeguards, while constitutional experts query the legal status of retained EU law: we will continue that debate tomorrow. Many of the objectives in the plan are weak, they lack statutory force and targets remain aspirational. The Government have already missed non-binding targets for halting biodiversity decline, phasing out horticultural peat, achieving good ecological status for water and others. Some objectives are unambitious. For example, the target for water quality does not set a date for achieving good ecological condition, unlike the water framework directive, which does. Experience of climate change legislation shows that targets should include realistic delivery dates, with milestones for achieving them.
As we have heard, the plan commits to an independent environmental watchdog as a replacement for enforcement at EU level. For such a body to be effective, it must be properly resourced. We are currently seeing serious funding issues with other statutory regulators, such as the Charity Commission, Natural England and the Marine Management Organisation. This has to be a concern. Such a body must have an effective complaints mechanism and access to remedies for the whole of ​civil society, and should definitely be accountable to Parliament, not to government. As the Minister emphasised, cross-border working is essential to delivering the plan. A new post-Brexit framework for international co-operation must be a priority. The Defra website names 40 international agreements on environmental matters to which the UK is a signatory. Can the Minister say how many of these we are signed up to as a consequence of EU membership and how many in our own right? Are there any we would not seek to rejoin? I am sure that the House would like an assurance that the fact that many of these agreements are justiciable in international courts will not be a bar to our continued membership.
The 25-year plan must address the UK’s impact on nature overseas. We are dependent on natural resources embedded in our imports: 70% of the water consumed here comes from imports, as does about one-third of biomass. Is the Minister able to give an assurance about the important role played by European funded research projects? Can he say that every effort will be made to see that the UK remains engaged in the same way that other non-EU member states, such as Norway, currently do? This issue was highlighted in the EU Select Committee report into regional co-operation in 2015. We noted then that the economic and environmental importance of shelf seas, such as the North Sea, is four times higher than the open ocean. We found that a lot of data is collected but not widely shared or fully utilised. However, one mechanism that exists for doing this is the European Marine Observation and Data Network, so can the Minister say whether we will continue to participate in its projects? In a similar vein, the RSPB has highlighted the value of European funding for environmental projects such as LIFE and BEST, not just here in the UK but in the British Overseas Territories. Is the Minister able to tell the House the current thinking on projects such as these?
Last summer I fulfilled a long-held dream to visit Svalbard and came away with both wonderful memories and serious concerns about the rapid environmental changes which were evident even to a visitor such as me. We were given strict instructions to leave nothing behind and take nothing away. The one exception to that rule was litter, which we were encouraged to collect and take back to the ship. Among my stash, there in the high Arctic, just a few hundred miles from the North Pole, I found, washed clean by the ocean’s currents, a polystyrene burger box. It is a reminder that pollution and environmental problems know no boundaries and that we can tackle them only if we work together.