Wednesday, September 26, 2018

@ALDEParty - I’m still helpful after all these years...

I’ve spent the day mostly in Brussels, in my capacity as a member of the ALDE Party’s Financial Advisory Committee, fulfilling a slightly different role to the one I’ve traditionally filled, that of institutional memory and provider of context.

The Committee is undergoing a process of transition at the moment, with the five original members (including myself) on our way out - two this year, three next - and six new members coming in. And that means that they have a bit of a learning curve, just as we did when we started.

Questions of why we do what we do, and how we do it aren’t entirely written down, as our role has evolved somewhat, and whilst the minutes record faithfully our decisions, it isn’t always obvious why. Given that our role, whilst low profile, has significance for both the Bureau and the Secretariat, who we advise and scrutinise to some extent, we also act to ensure that member parties are protected from reputational risk by association.

Admittedly, the Secretariat has been equally zealous in ensuring compliance with both the legal and organisational frameworks of the European Parliament, and has explored ways of raising funds without cutting ethical corners. They take this very seriously, which should be a reassurance to us all.

We make suggestions, examine proposed actions, probe expenditure patterns, and act, I suppose, as an audit and compliance board would. It is an important function, and an enjoyable one at the same time, as it allows me an opportunity to work with the management team and the staff, and to get a better grasp of what they are doing.

But the end is drawing near, as my final term ends next year, and I’ll pass the baton onto Birshen, Mats, Claus, GaĆ«lle, Adrian and Iztok. They’ll do just fine...

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Cabaret night - Needham Market style...

Three times a year, the Barrandov Opera holds a short series of gala evenings and Ros and I usually attend one of them. Now I’d be the first to admit that opera is not entirely my first musical choice, but the opportunity to hear emerging talent from around the world in little old Needham Market is not one that can be missed.

And so, last night, with friends, we were there for a night of culture, with a Serb soprano, Polish mezzo-soprano, Korean tenor and Polish baritone, singing a selection of arias, accompanied at the piano by Peter Bailey, the one constant over the years.

I’d also admit that the image of opera as consisting of robust, slightly immobile people singing about absurdly ludicrous plot twists is one that has stuck with me - opera can feel like it’s being done to you from a distance. But, at the Barrandov, set out dinner style, with the performers moving amongst you, gives a completely different feel to the thing. And, as was the case last night, when the performers actively engage with the audience, and give the impression that they are utterly relaxed and enjoying themselves, it brings home to you that music is as much about context as it is content.

Our guests had heard of the Barrandov Opera, but how one gets tickets is not entirely obvious - there is a website but numbers are very limited (about 150 per evening), and regulars like ourselves tend to book more than a year in advance. They were, quite reasonably, expecting a stage, so when, during the opening number, the soprano wandered down a flight of stairs into the audience, laid her hand on our friend’s shoulder and lingered for a few moments whilst she sang, it was clear that this wasn’t your normal concert experience.

The performance is broken into three parts, between each of which part of a buffet supper is served - nothing overtly complex, salads, quiche, salmon and local ham carved from the bone, plus lots of dessert and a cheese board should one be so inclined.

There’s a bar, so you can ensure that you’re suitably refreshed, with quite reasonable bar prices none of your Royal Opera House “how much!” sort of thing.

And there’s no sound system, what they sing is what you get, but as you’re never more than twenty yards away from the action, and opera singers can really project, it is opera in the raw.

So, if you happen to be free in mid-April, mid-September, or the weekend before Christmas next year, and you’re in the area, you might want to sort out your tickets now...

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The practice of supreme power and how it doesn’t apply on a good Parish Council

So, I’m four months or so into my reign of terror term as Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council. No-one has died yet, the Council is still at full strength, and our Clerk is still talking to me. So far, so good.

In those four months, we’ve seen the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit, the erection of a new noticeboard and the installation of a defibrillator. I take no particular credit for any of this, as what we do is entirely a team effort, with decisions made by consensus, trust placed in our Clerk, and a willingness amongst councillors to roll up their sleeves and do things as required.

Meetings have been briskly efficient, and whilst I’m not a dictatorial Chair, I don’t like to allow meetings to drift - people have homes to go to, and families to enjoy, after all - so I tend to move the business along.

The July meeting lasted fifty minutes, including an impromptu site visit to the location of a planning application. I take the view that a look at the physical space is more useful than poring over diagrams, and we were able to reach an agreed position quickly and efficiently, with the assistance of our esteemed District Councillor, whose expertise in planning issues is greatly appreciated.

This month’s meeting ran to just forty-six minutes, although I could probably have trimmed that to half an hour had I really wanted to. However, Council meetings are pleasantly chilled, with no sense of internal dissent or ill feeling, and a little bit of “anecdotage” puts people at their ease.

In short, it all seems to be working, I’m enjoying myself, and stuff is getting done. Perhaps I should be advising the Prime Minister...

Friday, September 21, 2018

Drifting through the voids of British politics...

It’s been a long time since I ventured into the blog. Yes, I’ve written a few things for Liberal Democrat Voice as the mood, or a sense of vague obligation, has inspired. It hasn’t been easy though.

I had begun to wonder if I wasn’t beginning to drift into mild depression but, whilst there is much “out there” to despair over, it is, to a great degree, one step removed from my day to day existence. After all, Ros and I are happy together, work is alright (and does not dominate my life in any sense), and life in the village continues on its quietly satisfying way. I have much to be grateful for.

Beyond that though, it is hard to feel inspired. Our politics is not unsatisfying, it is broken, our nation led by the inept and incompetent, the Official Opposition equally uninspiring, the loudest voices being those who would be better silent. Closer to home, local government appears to be a desperate battle to preserve even a semblance of the services that our communities have taken for granted until now.

To make matters worse, the combined impact of social media, the mainstream media and of a public prone to believe in short sentences delivered with passion regardless of the facts has served to increasingly drive out the rational, the genuinely doubtful, those inclined to listen to the argument before reaching a conclusion.

Government, under such circumstances, whilst not impossible, is difficult and constrained, especially given the ease with which the underpinnings of our democracy - an independent judiciary, the rule of law and a neutral Civil Service - have been discredited by the extremists and fanatics.

The question one asks oneself is, “Why bother?”. The answer should be easy - if democracy and civil society matter so much, someone needs to fight for them. The motivation to act on that urge is, however, hard to find. If the British public want to try out cliff-jumping to see if it might be enjoyable, is it for me to stop them, or should I work on the basis that people, and perhaps a nation, should bear the consequences of their actions?

What causes me to hesitate before I quietly amble away into the sunset is those people I know who are vulnerable, or different (which can sometimes amount to the same thing). If Brexit happens, and it goes as wrong as some people suggest it might, the great British public may well look for someone to blame. And yes, that may include politicians, but more likely it will include those who are different, those who stand out.

And, of course, if it does end badly, what will become of those who rely on support from the State? There’s hardly likely to be funds spare to fund the welfare system we currently have, and I doubt that the NHS will be sufficiently funded to keep pace with demand.

But I am not really a campaigner. I’m the person that enables campaigning by freeing up the rather more passionate to focus on that. I’ve always rather seen myself as the political equivalent to a village telephone switchboard operator, connecting people who should be connected, directing people with questions towards people with answers.

So, perhaps the solution is to focus on the stuff that I understand and can make a useful contribution towards. And, stop worrying about the other stuff...

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Do Liberal Reform really want Manhattan on the Gipping?

I suppose that I ought to be wary when I see Liberal Reform pushing something supported by the Adam Smith Institute, but the suggestion that individual streets should be allowed to come together to build up to six stories high ranks as one of the more challenging ones.

In theory, building taller buildings for people to live in would increase housing density in areas of high demand. It would also create, if successful, a collection of ‘concrete canyons’ which would be pretty unfriendly and dark.

But, let’s take a look at this more closely, and I’ll take as an example my old stomping ground of East Dulwich. Made up of long terraces, occasionally broken up with small paths along the sides, with small, 30 feet long gardens and a minute front garden, the footprints of each home are rather small, and not really designed for anything much more than three stories.

And yes, you could extend them all, but if we’re talking about a whole street, or even part of one, the disruption caused by building work on a large scale, or even as a series of individual projects, would be highly disruptive.

The suggestion is that the street would decide for itself, which leads one to question how that decision would be taken, what would be done in the case of conservation areas (and it never ceases to amaze me how many of those there are), and what compensation would be paid to those negatively impacted by the development, and by whom.

Yes, you can devolve power down to quite small units, but in cities, the inter-relationship between streets and the impact on shared infrastructure, means that the level of sovereignty that this implies is to some extent limited. Increased housing density, unless matched by enhanced provision for schools, surgeries and the like, not to mention roads, public transport and drainage, actually causes more problems than it solves. And don’t start me on parking, unless you believe that having a car is unnecessary (which it could be, but feels like an effective restriction on choice).

Of course, the inference is that my street, here in the Gipping Valley, could do likewise. The notion of a clutch of six storey buildings in my quiet country village is risible, but I can’t imagine that anyone would seriously suggest the idea.

I note, however, that the article linked to by Liberal Vision suggests that parishes could develop their green belt. I welcome their suggestions as to how a parish like mine, with a population of 270 and an annual precept of about £5,000 could credibly carry out such a scheme.

Housing policy should be holistic, not hot air, it should take into account the needs of a wider community, not narrow self-interest, and I’m afraid that the only people likely to benefit from this are those who already own property and would benefit from the benefits of planning gain. As for everyone else, I wouldn’t get too excited...