Monday, August 31, 2020

August 2020 - Parish Councillor report

August is traditionally a quiet month in the Parish Council year - we take the month off from meetings as both Clerks and Councillors alike head off on holiday. Admittedly, this year is a bit different, what with COVID-19, but the principle remains broadly the same. I’ve not been idle though, and so it seems appropriate to report what I’ve been doing.

In terms of Council business, I’ve focussed on Fen Alder Carr, the nature reserve that we took over responsibility for a few years back. Residents will probably know that it has been closed to the public for some time, as the wooden boardwalk that represents the only means of access to the site is in a dangerous condition. Given that the only options are repair or replacement with earthwork embankments, both of which are massively outside of our ability to fund, I fear that our only option is to “hand the keys back” to Suffolk County Council, or to leave it closed indefinitely.

Unfortunately, we hold the site on a 99-year lease, with a break point at 25 years, i.e. in 2039, so handing the keys back is unlikely.

The County Council recently announced that they would be created “healing places” for people who have lost loved ones through COVID-19, so I did write to the relevant County Portfolio Holder, Richard Rout, and our County Councillor, Gary Green, to see if they might be interested in using Fen Alder Carr in such a way. But, whilst their responses were very polite, it doesn’t appear to suit their published intentions.

I’m also looking at the terms of our lease to ensure that we are complying with its requirements, which has proved to be quite interesting.

Otherwise, I’ve reported the water leak which sprang up last week at the junction of Pound Road and The Lane, and can advise that, within three hours of my report, Jordan from Anglian Water had contacted me to confirm the location and visited the leak to... confirm that there was a leak. Engineers will be out to take further action shortly. If you do see a water leak somewhere, here’s the link that allows you to report it...

I’ve also reported the damaged direction marker at the bottom of Pound Road where it meets Mill Lane - it seems that the sign itself has come adrift of the bracket that holds it in place. It would be nice if Suffolk Highways are able to repair or replace it shortly, but given budgetary pressures at County level, I’m not holding my breath. Again, if you see a damaged piece of road or a broken sign, you can report that using the Suffolk Highways reporting tool.

The Parish Council will next meet on 21 September, almost certainly virtually. If you have any concerns, or if there’s anything we can do to help, feel free to get in touch with any of the five of us. I can often be found walking around the village as part of my exercise regime, and I’m pretty friendly, so don’t be shy.

Is the urging back to our offices in any way altruistic?

I am a bureaucrat, thus my days are usually spent in an office, in a town centre location. I go for a walk at lunchtime every day, mostly to get my 10,000 steps a day, but occasionally to pick up the odd thing that I need - a loaf of bread, perhaps, or a birthday card, or a sandwich. At least, I did, until five months ago. I haven’t been back to my office since.

It has been an interesting time. Without the need to catch a community bus at about 7.45 every morning, I can sleep in a little and still start work at 8.30, and I can finish at 5 and make dinner, leaving time for an after dinner stroll around my village. I save a sizeable chunk by not having to commute, about 10% of my gross salary, some of which is spent on slightly higher utility bills, and extra groceries.

I can, if I prefer, work different patterns, depending on what I’m doing, or can break up the day into chunks, working say a four hour shift in the morning, taking a long lunch break, and working another four hour shift in the afternoon, if that suits. Think of it as an extended version of flexible working hours - my employer gets my time when I’m more motivated to work and I am thus, theoretically, more productive.

Richard Littlejohn and a bunch of other people whose views can usually be categorised as right-wing, believe that I should be “back at work”. Admittedly, most of us in the despised public sector never actually got furloughed - one of those nice tax officers helping people with their claims under the Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme is me, for example. His assumption, that if you’re not in the office, you’re not working, is pretty bloody offensive, if you ask me.

Of course, there are casualties. All of those outlets which exist to service office workers may well not survive and those that do will have to adjust. On the other hand, a lot of people working in the service sector can’t afford to live in, or even near, the inner city, and thus ironically are commuting to follow those working there. Potentially, that means that I might use a barber in Stowmarket or Needham Market instead of in Ipswich, or buy a sandwich there. Somebody will still need to cut my hair, or make my sandwich, but they won’t be commuting either and they can either reduce their prices to reflect their reduced overheads, or maintain prices and make greater profits.

And, if your livelihood depends on commercial property, you might have a bit of a problem. On the other hand, if you’re renting out office space by the hour, day or week, like WeWorks (for example), you might have more opportunities for business. Housing costs will be reduced if you really don’t need to live in expensive urban areas, and work-life balance is likely to be enhanced for many.

It isn’t a utopia. For some people, working from home is challenging. Creating a clear division between work and home is difficult if both are located in exactly the same space. Being in the same place as your loved ones all of the time can have an impact on relationships - we all need some personal space and time sometimes - and for those of whom see work as an escape from an otherwise dull or depressing life, the loss of that escape can lead to mental health issues.

Some will prefer the office existence, others will be happy to go in two or three days a week, varying on their personal circumstances. What it does offer is freedom and choice, two things that right-wing commentators are usually rather keen on. Clearly, it wasn’t the sort of choice and freedom they had in mind. Or, perhaps, the idea of freedom and choice was intended for them alone.

But, ultimately, a key decider of our working future is what is profitable or advantageous to our employers. If they see an advantage to having more staff working from home, be it in terms of reduced costs or higher productivity, they’ll probably encourage it, and all of the whining from the likes of Richard Littlejohn will have absolutely no effect.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Me, myself, I... him, her, they...

One of the things about life is that, if you’re paying attention, you learn more about the world about you and about the people that inhabit it. This summer has been a case in point.

A chunk of it was spent acting as Returning Officer for the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats - an independent Returning Officer is required for such groups - and I was seriously exposed to the world of pronouns for the first time. There’s no doubt that the world we live in has become more complex and, as our society becomes more diverse in every sense, the range of linguistic options becomes wider. And pronouns are a part of this widening that, for my generation (I’m in my mid-fifties), can feel a bit daunting.

In an era of “culture wars”, there appear to be two ways of dealing with that, the first being to simply ignore it, refer to people as he or she, and not worry too much (or even at all) about whether you offend people. You’re probably the sort of person who complains about political correctness and lives in a relative monoculture. Given that I’m a self-described liberal, you might guess that this doesn’t work for me.

Suffolk is, for the most part, a relative monoculture. Whilst I’ve rather fallen in love with my small village in the Gipping Valley, minorities are highly noticeable because there are so few of them. It’s comfortable and, in some ways, unchallenging. And so, having to interact with a group of people who are extremely diverse, such as LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, is a reminder of how diversity and mutual respect should work. From my perspective, that was about getting pronouns right, using phrases such as “ladies and gentlemen” which, when you’re addressing a group which you know includes non-binary people, is actually just gratuitously rude.

I was taught early on in life that you should try to treat people as I would wish to be treated myself, and it strikes me that, in order to gain respect, you have to show some. And, by referring to people using their preferred pronouns is a part of that. Their preferred pronoun is a part of who they perceive themselves to be, so how much harm is it doing to me to use it?

And it does puzzle me why people get so angry about pronouns. What impact that it have other than asking you to think a little about the people you interact with, and why is that a bad thing? In a society where people seem increasingly to forget the impact that their actions have on other people, and often give the impression of not caring about that, wouldn’t it be great if people were a little more self-aware?

It isn’t necessarily “easy”, and people like me will get it wrong from time to time. A polite correction should suffice to enable us to get it right going forward though, and making an effort to overcome years of social upbringing and environment should deal with the rest.

So, bear with me - I am trying...

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Are the Liberal Democrats manageable? - the bureaucrat’s cut

Last Wednesday, I had an article published by Liberal Democrat Voice and, I think, was well received. But perhaps I should take the opportunity offered by my own blog to expand a little... the original article is in italics...

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece questioning a proposal for managing the Party through a Steering Group, pointing out that, based on what I had been led to understand, it appeared to duplicate existing bodies while adding another step between those in charge and those to whom they are accountable. Subsequently, there were reassurances given, which I think were reasonable.

But today, I have another question.

When the Liberal Democrats were formed, it was said that it was a merger of one Party whose motto was “never trust the members” with another whose motto was “never trust the leadership”. The problem is, that the two beliefs continue to run in parallel, and are reflected in how we run our Party today.

Our Committee structures are designed to ensure that there are myriad people whose role is to reflect and defend the views and positions of their “client group”, and others whose purpose is of oversight without apparent responsibility. So, for example, the Chairs of the various Federal Committees are members of the Federal Board so that they can be held accountable. Meanwhile, the Federal Board appoints representatives on the various Federal Committees. Why? Do they not trust the Chairs to report backwards and forwards faithfully?

So, perhaps somebody might like to explain the following;
  1. What are the Federal Board’s representatives on its subsidiary committees for?
  2. What instructions are they given in taking up their roles?
  3. To whom are they accountable and how?
We could slim down the various Federal Committees by stripping out some of the duplication - how many of the represented groups have members who have been directly elected in their own right, for example, and wouldn’t that be better anyway? Does the Federal Board need to be represented on every other Committee?

I would argue that it does not. “Report up, scrutinise down”, should be the thread that runs through the Party’s committee structures. And besides, wasn’t one of the key concepts of the last Governance Review that people shouldn’t, as far as possible, serve on more than one Federal committee?

And members don’t help. Every three years, we elect a bunch of people to Federal Committees to “break up the Establishment” and then, as soon as they’re in post, we charge them with being “the Establishment” and display as much distrust of them as we ever did their predecessors.

I’m afraid that I’ve observed this too often. People are elected on the basis of their claims that they can change things without necessarily understanding why things are as they are or, in a few cases, caring to find out. Federal Conference Committee is a case in point - a committee which has, from an outsider’s perspective, been rather well run over the years, with a willingness to engage. And yet, we go through a regular cycle of members complaining about the lack of variety in terms of venues, running for election to FCC, and then discovering that the criteria for a successful physical conference are surprisingly restrictive.

The problem is that the Party’s democracy is performative, not real. We have elections, but accountability and scrutiny are poor. Finding out what the Committees do between elections is difficult - the various minutes are seldom published, very brief reports go to Federal Conference. Here at Liberal Democrat Voice, we publish reports as they are sent to us, but we’re an imperfect way of reaching the wider membership. Meanwhile, it is difficult for individual Committee members to report back on their own personal activities, which makes voting on their records challenging and occasionally unfair when they run for re-election.

Jennie Rigg made the very reasonable point that it isn’t easy to report back as an individual, as she noted in her frank comment;
When I was elected to FCC by the wider membership I blogged about what happened, and included vote numbers in my blog posts. There was significant pushback against this from almost all of the rest of the committee. I took to instead saying things like “unanimous” “large majority” or “close vote” instead because one doesn’t like to upset people, but it just shows that even someone like me can be pushed into being less transparent than they would like by the urge for secrecy from others….
I feel her pain, having written extensively on the dilemma eleven years ago. It gets no easier, and with the fragmentation of social media, it becomes harder to reach a wide audience in any event. Is the angst worth it?

Openness and transparency are supposedly liberal values. They’re certainly mine, even allowing for the fact that there are certain subjects where discretion is not only appropriate but wholly necessary. But for openness and transparency to be practical, you need trust - on both sides. Is anyone willing to start the process of building that trust?

I would courteously suggest that the Party President takes a lead on this, preferably not via his own blog, but through official Party media. Whilst as individuals, our cynicism doesn’t necessarily create difficulties for the Centre, we have little means by which to make change happen. The Leadership, on the other hand...

Friday, August 21, 2020

Memories of sea otters

It is hard to believe that, a year ago, Ros and I were coming to the end of our Alaska cruise, still hoping to see sea otters up close and personal. The cruise hadn't been quite what we had originally intended, for which I blame the US authorities - a ban on non-US citizens driving zodiacs meant that we weren't able to do all of the things that we had intended. This put a bit of a cramp on the wildlife element of the trip.

Indeed, we'd reached the last full day of the trip, and I was beginning to get a bit edgy about the lack of sea otters. So, why sea otters?

Well, how can I put it, they're incredibly personable creatures, with a relaxed attitude, a sense of fun and the most wonderful fur. Cute too, as anyone who's seen a video of a baby sea otter will testify. We'd seen them in aquariums, but seeing wild ones was very high on the bucket list indeed.

As our ship edged slowly into Cordova, our penultimate stop, the cry went up that there were sea otters. And, indeed, there were. Not too close, but close enough to make them out with binoculars. And maybe, just maybe, we might see more.

On coming ashore, I wanted to look at the harbour, only to be confronted with a rather nonchalant sea otter, floating idly by the edge of the harbour wall. Catching Ros's attention, we watched as it bobbed about a bit, did a few turns and dived beneath the surface. It turned out that the harbour at Cordova was a bit of a sea otter hangout - they were everywhere, determined to put on a show for any tourists who might drop by.

It was simply wonderful.

They are bigger than you think, about the size of a large spaniel, with sharp teeth, and making a welcome comeback after having been nearly hunted to extinction for their fur. Indeed, they've done so well that the local First Nation groups are concerned about their competition for fish stocks. Admittedly, the sea otters got there first, so my sympathy is a bit limited, especially as sea otters would probably bring significant tourism revenue into the Alaska coastal communities.

Lemurs next, I think...