Thursday, June 21, 2018

An evening at the Suffolk Association of Local Councils Area Meeting

To Claydon this evening, for the quarterly meeting of the Mid Suffolk South Area of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the gathering of Town and Parish Councillors from the borders of Ipswich to a line south of the railway line to Bury St Edmunds.

I’ve been attending these for a while, in my former capacity as Creeting St Peter’s “Foreign Minister” (if it’s outside the Parish, Mark’s happy to go). It’s a useful opportunity to find out what’s happening across the District, and to get a heads-up on emerging issues. There is usually much talk about planning, highways and infrastructure, and whilst we don’t have much of those dots of things, we are impacted by decisions affecting our neighbours.

You also get to learn a bit about local representation and the responsibilities of a councillor, which can prove most useful.

I was slightly late due to a delayed bus, and the meeting was already underway, but there were some familiar faces, and a free seat, so I made myself comfortable and eased myself into the flow of discussion.

SALC has a new(ish) Chief Executive, who is immersing herself into the role and is developing a sense of what needs doing and how it might get done - there will be technology involved. She reported back on some of the developmental opportunities that are available to local councils, and we talked about how councillors might take advantage.

Much useful material is available via the website, but is password protected, limiting access to those who are given (and can remember) the means to access it. I suggested that we might move more of that information into the public domain, an idea that seemed to meet with some approval. At the moment, most information flows via the Parish Clerk, and whilst they usually pass that information on efficiently, not all Clerks are as enthusiastic or, worst still, competent in doing so. Whilst we’re lucky like that in Creeting St Peter, it isn’t so everywhere.

We discussed neighbourhood plans, which have run into difficulties due to the general unhelpfulness of Mid Suffolk’s chronically underresourced planning department - my fellow councillors are pretty scathing about their failings, it appears.

There was a brief discussion about possible motions to the County AGM, and I suggested two things, firstly for a SALC campaign to encourage younger people to come forward as potential Parish Councillors, the second to call for meetings to take place at more accessible times and in easier to reach places. By holding meetings during the working day, you exclude potentially good people, and send out a message that younger people aren’t really welcome.

We ended with a discussion of future guests/speakers. I suggested either one of the new Suffolk Constabulary Community Engagement Officers, or someone to talk about Suffolk Highways proposals to devolve some minor works to Parish and Town Councils. The other popular suggestion was to have someone explain what would be happening as a result of the merger of Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals, a matter of grave concern in some quarters.

It was a surprisingly good meeting, well chaired by Josephine Lea from Needham Market, and we were done pretty much on time, so I’d have to mark down the evening as a success.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Giving away surplus food is sensible, not radical. It isn’t original, either...

I was, I admit, somewhat disappointed when I saw the final shortlist for the Ashdown Prize. Yes, they were all terribly sensible, but radical? No, not really, unless you consider sensible to be the equivalent of radical. And, given that I am probably one of the least obvious to be described as a radical - I have some seemingly radical views on the importance of process, but radical bureaucracy is probably an oxymoron - if I don’t think that something is radical, it probably isn’t.

And of the three proposals, probably the least radical was to oblige supermarkets and the like to give surplus usable food to charities for distribution.

I therefore wasn’t terribly surprised to see it win.

It’s not a new idea, the French already do it, although I haven't seen anything that indicates how successful it has been. And yes, I understand that radical and original are not the same thing.

But I had heard the idea somewhere before. So, I dredged my memory and rediscovered this;
148. Another fiscal option already operated in some countries is to offer tax deductions for redistribution schemes. In the US, which has extensive networks for food redistribution on a far larger scale than European operations, Section 170(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code allows certain businesses to earn a tax deduction for donating food and can claim tax breaks on shipments of food if donated food is transported using spare capacity in delivery vehicles. Feeding the 5,000 noted that government incentives for diverting surplus food for human consumption are rare in EU countries, although France is reportedly moving towards tax breaks for businesses that donate their food for charitable redistribution. The idea of exercising such fiscal options was described by FareShare as potentially “transformational” if it succeeded in creating an economic incentive for private operators to redistribute food, beyond the current moral incentive.
Good, eh? And where did this come from?

The answer is, a House of Lords report called “Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Prevention”, published by the European Union Committee, Sub-Committee D. Their conclusion was that;
there are fiscal tools available to support the redistribution of surplus edible food, ranging from value added tax (VAT) exemptions to tax deductions and tax breaks.
The report was published in 2014, and moved in the House of Lords by none other than the Chair of the Sub-Committee, one Baroness Scott of Needham Market, a name which seems strangely familiar. That’s right, the person I am astoundingly blessed to be married to.

And whilst I would be delighted to see the idea come into practice, and it will help some people who need help badly, it isn’t radical. Finding a way of helping people to reach a level where they don’t need food banks, now that would be radical...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Is Western democracy a nut to be squeezed between Trump and Putin?

It has been obvious for some time that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no friend of the western democracies, enthusiastically supporting political forces determined to undermine the existing consensus, as a means of weakening our political structures and our economies.

Such a strategy is so much cheaper, and more effective, than military action, and whilst Russia has a nuclear arsenal, its conventional military is less of a threat then it theoretically was during the Cold War. And so, if you can level the playing fields by using the strengths of western democracies against themselves, why not? Vlad does enjoy his judo, after all.

What is more shocking though is that Donald Trump appears to have the same strategy, blatantly misrepresenting events across Europe so as to strengthen the nationalist and populist forces that undermine the open, tolerant societies of Europe. His intervention in German politics, so soon after the open confession of his newly appointed Ambassador that he would seek to support groups such as Alternative fur Deutschland, has been an unwelcome blow to Angela Merkel’s attempt to stabilise German politics after an inconclusive election.

We know that he is happier dealing with dictators rather than democratic leaders - a dictator can make a deal knowing that he isn’t accountable to anyone, whereas a democratically elected leader knows that he or she has to secure enough support to seal any bilateral arrangement. We also know that he doesn’t play by the conventional rules.

His working assumption seems to be that, for America and Trump to win, somebody else has to lose, and the currently preferred losers are America’s traditional allies. From our perspective, that’s deeply worrying. Europe is too dependent on America for its security to be anything other than fretful about the possibility of an isolationist Administration.

And yes, Europe does need to step up to the plate in terms of defence spending, but it also needs to be smarter, more collaborative, more disciplined than in the past. Multinational brigades, greater purchasing co-ordination to ensure that allied forces use similar equipment for ease of combined strike capacity, that sort of thing. Taking advantage of national specialisations, rather than each country attempting to cover the entire range of threats independently.

That means a European defence strategy, linked to that of the EU External Action Service, which would stray into territory that the British, Liberal Democrats included, have staunchly opposed over the years. Ironically, Brexit offers an opportunity for the rest of Europe to develop such a strategy, isolating Britain yet further from the core of European defence infrastructure.

Under other circumstances, one would seek to renew links to the United States leadership, overcoming the scepticism of an unenthusiastic American President. I’m not convinced that this is a credible option at the moment, given the stances that Donald Trump is taking, and the historical perspective of those from whom he takes advice.

And so, we British isolate ourselves further in a world of regional blocs. Depressing, really...

Monday, June 18, 2018

An unexpected encounter at dusk...

I have walked around the village quite a lot over the past two and a half years. My laps get longer in the summer, and cleave closer to the village core in winter, especially during the week.

But, as a result, the village is very familiar, and anything unusual tends to catch my attention. I ought to be our Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, I guess.

This evening, my evening constitutional was delayed somewhat by the England game - and wasn’t that a nerve-shredding affair? - so the light was beginning to fade as I wandered down Pound Road towards the bridge over the A14. And then I noticed something black, sitting on the gravel outside 7 Peterhouse. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed out of place.

Suddenly, it moved, and to my surprise, a small rabbit was heading onto the road towards me. It stopped in front of me, and clearly wasn’t a wild one. So, I scooped it up.

I knocked on the door of number 7, small, cute rabbit held tightly against my chest. It wasn’t theirs. But I had someone to help, as we knocked on doors to see if anyone had lost a rabbit. At number 11, we had our first lead, and I headed down the street. And yes, a rabbit had been lost, the rabbit in my arms.

I handed it over to a happy owner.

Job done.

It’s never dull in Creeting St Peter...

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils to pilot pioneering developer contributions database

I don’t normally reproduce Council press releases, but this one might be of wider interest...

Residents and those in the development industry will be able to see how money collected from developers as part of planning agreements is being spent on providing infrastructure for local communities when a new database goes online. 

Both Babergh and Mid Suffolk are working with the software provider Exacom as part of a pilot exercise involving two other local authorities to hone this innovative, new database which will transform the way that information is held for developer contributions paid for by legal agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils Section 106 and CIL data will be used by the software provider in the launch of the Planning Obligations Public Facing Module across the country. This will be hosted on the Councils’ websites later in the summer and will enable people to search for information by district, ward, parish or infrastructure type with details of where monies are collected, allocated and spent. It will also allow people to see legal agreements secured as part of the planning process. The information will be updated daily.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk expect to be able to host this database on their websites in the summer. Today, their data was used as part of the national launch of the database by Exacom. 

The Public Facing Module, comprising of information on infrastructure funding in Babergh and Mid Suffolk can be viewed online at:

Ralph Taylor and Geoff Kirby, Directors of Exacom, said:

We believe that this is a revolution in planning obligation transparency and will set the future standard in planning obligation transparency for the rest of the UK. We would like to thank Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council for their assistance in launching this project with their planning obligation data.

Babergh District Council’s Cabinet Member for Planning, Councillor Nick Ridley, said:

This is ground breaking technology and we are sure that residents across the district will be interested to see how contributions secured from developers as part of planning applications are benefiting their local communities. We are proud to be the first local authorities in the country to demonstrate this database.

Mid Suffolk District Council’s Cabinet Member for Assets and Investment, Councillor Nick Gowrley, said:

This exciting project is the culmination of two and a half years’ work which will bring together a range of detailed data on our website in the summer for the benefit of residents, people in the development industry, our Parish Councils, Councillors and community groups. This speaks to the Council’s agenda of openness and transparency and the database will provide information in real time in that it will update every 24 hours.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Pedalling frantically towards the cliff edge?

It may be because I am, at heart, someone who believes that you can affect real change only by building coalitions of interest, that I find myself increased perplexed by what this country has become in the past two years.

Winning a referendum by a relatively small proportion was hardly a staggering endorsement for leaving the European Union, but I did expect there to follow an inkling of the strategy that might lead us to a stable outcome. I was to be disappointed it seemed.

I then assumed that those tasked with guiding the country through the negotiations with the European Union would understand the issues, plus the implications of a range of choices. And, when negotiating with an institution that is extremely rule-bound, understanding what their red lines were likely to be. Again, I was to be disappointed, as minister after minister demonstrated an apparent absence of any knowledge of how the modern, interdependent world operates, where production lines cross and recross national borders, and where standards are increasingly set by multinational groupings or institutions.

It was all rather depressing.

I reassured myself with the thought that, regardless of any lack of knowledge or understanding, no government would be insane enough to drive the country off of a cliff by leaving the European Union without a pretty conclusive deal. After all, when 80% of your exports are financial or other services, and you’ve made your way in the world by encouraging international investment to your country as a gateway to the wider European market, wilfully cutting yourself off seems like the height of madness.

And I still don’t believe that the government intend to do that. The problem is that, as is so often the case in British politics, they seem to think that the European Union has;
  1. More to lose than we do, and;
  2. The ability to be almost infinitely flexible in pursuit of a deal.
The first argument has been pretty conclusively trashed - yes, the amount of trade at risk is weighted in cash terms in our favour, but in terms of relative proportions of each economy, we are much worse off.

But the second argument is undermined by the very different approaches to politics, which brings us back to the rules-based nature of the European Union. Yes, the European Union is often involved on last-minute bargaining amongst itself. The catch is, there is a status quo to revert to if a deal can’t be cut. That’s not true here, especially as any deal must be at least acceptable enough to all. That limits the European Union’s room for manoeuvre - there are a whole slew of things that simply aren’t negotiable.

Our negotiators seem to disregard that, which appears to demonstrate a terrifying naivety. Not only that, but our view of politics as a game is positively toxic in an environment where, if a government says it intends to do something, then there is a working assumption on the other side of the table that it will do exactly that, and that it understands and accepts the consequences.

The European Union will shake its head sadly, and walk away, having been given little alternative by a group of people will think that their opponents will blink first.

And then we’ll find out whether or not the whole “Global Britain” thing is credible or just fantasy. I hope, for our sake, they have a plan for that phase which doesn’t just evaporate in the face of reality...

Friday, June 15, 2018

I may not be what Mid Suffolk District Council expect...

I take my newly awarded responsibilities as Chair of my Parish Council seriously, as one should. 

In that capacity, I see myself having a role in lobbying for things that we need or want, and in attending meetings so that I might better anticipate things that might impact on us sooner or later. And so, the receipt of an invitation to attend a Town and Parish Council Liaison Meeting, organised by Mid Suffolk District Council, seemed like an obvious thing to attend.

I was, I have to confess, therefore somewhat surprised to discover that the meeting would take place at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, in Walsham-le-Willows.

In fairness, Walsham-le-Willows is a very nice place for a meeting, especially on a summer’s morning. It is, unfortunately, rather a long way from a railway station, and the only buses run between Bury St Edmunds and Diss every two hours or so, making it rather hard to get to if you don’t drive.

That is trying enough as a non-driver, but I find myself wondering what message it sends about the sort of people who might be Town or Parish councillors, that it is thought appropriate to hold a meeting on a work day, during regular office hours. I am, I suspect, fairly common in having a job, and for most people who have jobs, attending a mid-morning meeting requires the taking of leave from work. The assumption must therefore be that Mid Suffolk District Council expect most councillors to be retired, hardly an indication that they represent the broadest swathe of our community.

We’re lucky in Creeting St Peter, in that our councillors come from a broad spectrum of age groups, and I tend to think that this means that we have a diversity of views and approaches that makes us more effective than we would be if we all had a similar perspective. But Mid Suffolk District Council doesn’t appear to think that diversity of representation either exists or is important if it does.

The accessibility issue troubles me as well, although I acknowledge that, as one of the 10% of rural people who don’t drive, I am rather more of a minority that the under-65s are.

It sends out a message though, a message that I am not particularly welcome, and that younger councillors aren’t worth making an effort to engage with.

Trust me, I will be making this point loud and clear at the meeting, and will press Mid Suffolk District Council to hold at least some of these meetings in more accessible locations and at more convenient times for people with jobs. And, unless these events are designed simply to be convenient for the District Council, I expect them to at least understand why I’m annoyed.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Eight hundred and forty-six days, and still counting...

When I started my original “Building a Better Walrus” programme at the beginning of 2016, the intention was to walk 10,000 steps each day. It was, if you like, an aspiration which soon turned into something rather more serious. And, as the days went by, the idea of not reaching my target became rather like an obsession. That was, until I contracted food poisoning in Cuba and was confined to a sofa for three days.

I’d managed forty-five straight days of 10,000 steps and was feeling quite proud of myself, and was determined to get back into my stride, so to speak. My first day back wasn’t pretty as a rather pale and shaky bureaucrat ambled slowly around our beach resort. That was February 18, 2016.

I haven’t missed a day since.

Admittedly, I’ve had to be pretty creative at times. Walking around the promenade deck of a small cruise ship forty-eight times was one solution on the day we didn’t go ashore due to the lack of shore. Airports have become a means to cover distances rather than buy duty-free. And I am often seen walking up and down station platforms if I get to the station early enough. You never know, after all, what might stand in your way later in the day, so better to get those steps in early.

And one interesting side effect is that, as I am able to walk further, I become more likely to do so, and have taken to walking journeys that would have seemed onerous before. For example, when I come to London for FIRC meetings, I walk from Liverpool Street to Westminster, varying my route according to the time available. Last time, I crossed the Millenium Bridge for the first time and followed the South Bank from there to Westminster - it’s a rather pleasant stroll.

Best of all, everywhere feels so much closer, something which became obvious after two Spring Conferences in York. The first time, one tended not to walk as much whilst, a year later and somewhat lighter, on the second trip, we tended to arrive at places rather earlier than expected.

Now I acknowledge that walking isn’t for everyone - friends of mine have a variety of methods for keeping, or getting, active - but if, like me, you’re not keen on rushing about, a gentle stroll is quite a nice way of stirring the blood. And if you happen to have some leaflets, all the better...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Highways maintenance: was I accidentally surfing a wave in the Creetings?

A couple of years ago, I decided to clean a road sign that was annoying me. It seems as though somebody was paying attention, because Suffolk County Council have concluded that this is something that Parish Councils should be taking on.
Suffolk Highways is currently developing its Community Self Help offer. The scheme will aim to enable local community groups, including town and parish councils, to undertake work that Suffolk Highways does not have the budget to undertake.
However, it seems that their intention goes a bit further than just cleaning the odd road sign...
So, how can our communities help? We know that many are willing and able to help in undertaking minor works in their areas. We have been considering what our community self help offer would look like. In order to ensure that our offer meets the needs of the community we approached town and parish councils across Suffolk to better understand what areas communities are most interested in doing for themselves. This is not about communities undertaking work that we are able to and do undertake, but about how communities can add to and undertake more, on top of what we provide.
I can’t say that I’m keen. With a total budget of about £6,000, and a disproportionate amount of road per resident, I can’t see that we could do very much other than to clean the odd road sign, and tidy away any foliage that might be obscuring it. And it does raise the question, once again, as to what the County Council does for villages such as ours.

At our last Parish Council meeting, I did ask our County Councillor if he had any understanding as to what this might imply for us, but he seemed to know as little as we did.

However, we are apparently going to find out at some point this month, and I look forward to discussing it at the Mid Suffolk South meeting of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, scheduled to take place in a fortnight’s time. I have a funny feeling that I might not be the only person with concerns...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Creeting St Peter welcomes careful (and somewhat slower) drivers...

On returning to the Parish Council some two years ago, I was told that an application was in train to introduce a 20 mph speed limit in the village. And, subsequently, at every meeting, the apparent lack of progress was noted, despite the promises made by our County Councillor.

Well, in fairness, I should report that, on Friday, the Order was published confirming that traffic through the village will need to be a bit more cautious in future. The new speed limit comes into effect tomorrow, and all credit is due to my fellow councillors and to Gary Green, the Conservative County Councillor for Stowmarket North and Stowupland.

The speed limit covers the area north of the A14 bridge to the northern edge of the village, as well as The Lane, so not a huge inconvenience to those who drive through on their way to the great metropolises of Stowupland and Needham  Market, I trust.

I assume that there will be some new street furniture, with the 30 mph signs replaced by 20 mph ones, and some road markings will need to be redone, but I’m hoping that this will follow shortly.

There is a modest irony in all of this, in that I was once quoted by the BBC as being opposed to mandatory 20 mph speed limits in built-up areas, and I stand by that. Here, though, the village wants it, and thus I have no cause to oppose it. We don’t have pavements, so children, walkers and other pedestrians are sharing the road space with traffic, and having it travel more slowly is frankly in everyone’s interest. It also makes it a little safer for traffic emerging from The Lane, given that the hedge on the corner makes visibility a little tricky.

But it also demonstrates that a Parish Council with a strategy and a simple plan can achieve something for its community, and I think that that’s something we can all get behind...

Building a better walrus - time for phase 2...

Nearly two years ago, my stepson and his lovely fiancée got married. This meant that I would have to wear a suit and, having concluded that having a similar build to that of a walrus would make that less than enjoyable, I concluded that shedding some weight was necessary. The target I set myself was to lose twenty-eight pounds, or thirteen kilograms, and by dint of walking ten thousand steps a day (and often more) and cutting my calorie intake, I made it with a bit to spare.

And yes, I was still carrying a lot more weight than might have met with the approval of the medical profession, but I was in much better shape. By last summer, and our trip to Svalbard, I’d actually lost twenty-one kilograms - about forty-six pounds, and was, if not sprightly, then comfortably mobile enough to climb in and out of zodiacs, hike across the barren wilderness and outrun at least one other member of our party (I assumed that a polar bear would eat the easiest of us to catch and then concentrate on that, leaving me to get away).

Since then, unfortunately, I took my foot off of the pedal a bit. I was still walking at least ten thousand steps a day, but the diet was rather more haphazard. The pounds were slowly creeping back on.

In Sofia, I decided that enough was enough, and I’ve climbed back on the “diet and exercise horse”. Calorie counting is in, extra steps are being walked, and I’m broadly back where I was this time last year. And I have seen a future.

Now, despite the fact that I am still somewhat heavier than I ought to be, my health is remarkably good, as demonstrated today during my work-organised health check. Blood pressure is well-nigh perfect, blood sugar level is almost dead centre of the recommended range (given my genetic risk of Type 2 diabetes, that’s very welcome) and my cholesterol level is far better than my love of cheese might suggest.

Really, my only significant risk factor is those extra pounds.

So, time for phase 2 of the “Building a Better Walrus” programme, I think. My target date this time is my birthday, and my aim is to lose ten kilograms from my weight after Sofia. It’s an achievable target, albeit a stretching one, and it would leave me lighter than I’ve been for some years. It would also offer an excuse to go shopping, and I’ve seen a jacket that would be a suitable reward.

Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye...