Tuesday, September 29, 2020

It looks like the Government might have a fight on the hands over their planning proposals

I live in a pretty conservative part of the country - Conservative administrations are the norm rather than the exception - and local Conservatives are, generally, pretty supine in the face of Conservative governments. However, the Government's proposals, effectively giving local residents one shot at setting the limits on development and being effectively silenced thereafter, have gone down rather badly here in Suffolk.

Now, you might suggest that the reason for that is the expectation that it will lead to more housing being mandated here, and that's probably true, but the strength of the response from my local District Council is unusual, to say the least. the Portfolio holder for planning in Mid Suffolk has declared;

These proposals do not support our ambition for people to be proud to call our communities home, or the work on our Joint Local Plan to provide clarity and reassurance about when and where required new homes will be built.

We do not believe that these changes will address delays in housing delivery. However, they will have a detrimental effect on affordable housing, homes for those struggling to get on the property ladder, and funding for local projects.

I welcome the cross-party discussions with my fellow councillors – and I hope that our response, along with the views of Mid Suffolk residents who participate in the consultation, are listened to by central government.

His counterpart in Babergh (think South Suffolk) was slightly more open in terms of his reasoning;

All councillors share serious concerns about the government’s proposals, which go against our councils’ commitment to ensuring that the right types of homes are built in the right places.

The suggested changes are unrealistic and could see our district’s current housing target of 416 new homes per year almost double – impacting our communities, our infrastructure and our rural landscape.

Development is incredibly important to us all and I would urge residents and local groups to respond directly to the consultation before a final decision is made.

It will be interesting to see how Robert Jenrick responds to this, especially as Dominic Cummings is seen to be behind this...

Sunday, September 27, 2020

It could be a long, dark winter...

I have, I suspect, been quite lucky in terms of how the pandemic has affected me since March. Without the prospect of losing my job and, thanks to having had halfway decent broadband in the village since we were connected up a couple of years ago, the ability to work from home, it has been possible to function well enough.

Life is about more than work though, as those living in large towns and cities have discovered - fresh air and social interaction are an important means of dealing with the other restrictions brought about by Government efforts to clamp down on Covid-19. And again, I’ve been fortunate. The great, unpopulated outdoors is 200 yards from our door, and the longer hours of daylight mean that, whenever I’m out and about locally, I’m likely to run into another villager to catch up on events.

The challenge ahead, it seems, is how to get through the darkness of an English winter, with no end to restrictions any time soon.

I’m going to have to think about how I organise my day to ensure that I can get most of my exercise in during the hours of daylight, for example. Starting earlier, or finishing later might help for a while, but in order to find an hour to walk in mid-winter, that might mean starting work at 6 a.m. or ending after 5 p.m. - the latter seeming more attractive to this night owl than the former. Alternatively, taking a long lunch break requires a degree of flexibility that might be limited by my designated role.

It’s also going to be important to find ways of escaping the routine of work. Trips away are more challenging if you’re seeking to avoid exposure to people you don’t know - I’m increasingly uneasy in crowded places - and eating out is an increasing problem as infection rates climb. And, as the days turn wetter and colder, options for outdoor activity reduce steadily - a walk in the rain becomes ever less appealing.

Planning is going to be key, as well as a degree of flexibility - spontaneity is difficult in rural communities at the best of times, but when opportunities are limited, it becomes increasingly constrained.

And so, I’m counting on my natural curiosity, a high boredom threshold and Ros’s organisational flair to get us through this in decent shape. Oh, and remembering that there are a lot of people out there who are having it far worse than I am... 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Does a policy of meaningful federalism offer a credible option to the nations?

I don’t oppose Scottish independence, assuming that that’s what the Scottish people want. And, given that the options available to them were independence or, under a Conservative Government, a creeping clawback of powers from Edinburgh to Westminster, you could see why the debate is going the way it has - increasingly polarised.

The thing about freedom is that... it isn’t actually free. Freedom always comes with a cost, the question being, are you willing to pay it?

I tend to the view, having seen some of the financial projections out there, that independence would be costly in terms of GDP, at least in the short term. Membership of the European Union would probably follow, which would offer the opportunity for a gradual recovery. The question is, if the United Kingdom reverted from its current banana republic approach, would that be as attractive as it seems now?

A Liberal Democrat offer of a properly federal state might offer an option which attracted genuine support from both sides of the divide. The only problem is, would anyone believe that it was deliverable, especially coming from a political party which was in fourth, fifth or perhaps sixth place in Scotland?

It does, however, give us a place in the debate, should we be able to articulate it, and so long as we don’t remain hung up on the idea of the Union as a sole option. We surely don’t believe in this Union now, do we? The Union regardless of how it serves Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or even the English Regions?

Andrew Duff has always been an interesting thinker in terms of a multi-speed Europe, with an inner core which is truly Federal, and with other nations opting in to elements of the Union, and I find myself wondering if you couldn’t reconstruct the United Kingdom along similar lines, with the four nations pooling sovereignty on an agreed basis covering elements best served by fully collaborative working, leaving other elements under the control of the nations, with a working assumption that powers would be devolved unless agreed differently.

There is a catch. It would mean, in all likelihood, a federal union outside the European one, unless the European Union was likely to progress along similar lines, which I don’t think is in prospect yet.

So, it does require liberals to rediscover their belief in self-determination, but also to have a properly federal vision and a stance on what an independent Scotland might look like. And, yes, I know that current political debate demands that you take a side on the independence debate, but we don’t actually have to. We could place our trust in the people on this one...

Friday, September 25, 2020

Going back to the office? That’ll be a “no” then...

Three weeks ago, word came out that “us slackers working for the Government should return to the office and get some work done” - I paraphrase somewhat here - as a means of encouraging people back into our town and city centres. I was, it must be said, unimpressed.

And now, lo and behold, we’re kind of back where we started, being encouraged to work from home in order to reduce the risk of catching, and spreading, the Covid-19 virus. Mind you, given that my office is currently being prepared to be emptied, I did wonder where I was going to keep essential supplies of tea - after all, if all I do is drink tea all day, I need teabags to be readily available.

Confidence is hardly being inspired here.

I’ve spent the past months supporting the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, which has required picking up, and applying, quite a few new skills. I learned to do webchat, which improved my typing speed a bit, and tightening up my occasionally ornate prose. Next, I freshened up my knowledge of the PAYE system, something I hadn’t had to know much about since 1991, when the last such work was transferred out of London to the provinces.

Bear in mind that this was done in isolation, using online resources and a support network of virtual floor walkers created overnight.

My next task was to learn how our contact centre software worked, in order to take my place on a helpline, guiding people through a brand new claims process and handling the digitally excluded, whilst a support system for three million self-employed workers was built and improved beneath us. I also got to explain to desperate/angry people why they weren’t eligible.

I, and my gallant colleagues, did all of this from home, whilst dealing with the personal implications of lockdown, from kitchen tables and rapidly constructed workspaces, because it was, and is, important - it mattered to a lot of people who needed help. If we hadn’t done it, there wasn’t anyone else who could.

So I wouldn’t actually have been going back to work, more going somewhere else, increasing my personal exposure to risk and making journeys that weren’t essential to increase my productivity by the square root of zero, if indeed by that much.

Now it looks likely that my return to office life will be delayed until the Spring, if then, so I need to think a bit harder about whether or not there’s anything I need to make work a bit easier. A kettle in the office, perhaps, a second monitor to enable me to have more information on view at a time, a more compliant office chair. Do I need to alter my routine, taking longer lunch breaks to allow me to get a long walk in during the hours of daylight, and starting earlier/finishing later?

And, looking further ahead, what does this mean when/if things return to normal? Do I want to work from home more? How do I organise my work schedule to make effective use of days in the office and days at home?

There’s a lot to think about, but at least my decisions will be made on the basis of facts and analysis, rather than in an attempt to appease the commentariat...

Ros in the Lords: Agriculture Bill, Committee Stage (3)

As the Committee Stage of the Agriculture Bill progressed, Ros's past experience as a local councillor and as Chair of an EU select committee came into play. Can the power imbalance between farmers and supermarkets be reduced and, if farmers want public money, then it is not unreasonable to ask what the public get in return. And, if farmers claim to be stewards of the land, who are they stewarding it for?

My Lords, in 2016, I chaired an EU sub-committee inquiry into building a more resilient agricultural sector. We took evidence on the financial impact on farmers of a number of supermarket contractual practices. One was overzealous specification, which could result in the destruction of up to 20% of some crops. The other was that because of such swingeing penalties for under-provision, farmers had to grow far more than they needed. Noble Lords may come on to this issue when we debate food waste in later groups of amendments, but I wanted to raise it this evening with regard to the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, because no one else has. I hope the Minister will consider it in the list of items relating to fair dealing, to which I know he will be giving a lot of thought.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 124 and 138, which I have signed. While my thinking is very much informed by questions of public access in the way that my noble friend Lord Addington’s is, there is a wider point here about the operation of this new system that is echoed in one way or another by a number of amendments in this group. While I recognise that it is positive that multiannual assistance plans will provide a level of certainty both for farmers and for the public, who are interested in these things, this ought to be strengthened by a greater understanding of how the objectives align with the public goods in Clause 1.

As drafted, the Bill refers to the Government’s strategic priorities, but it is not really very clear how one would determine what those priorities are. I shall give the Committee an example: there is a national policy on flooding, for example, and we know that there are policies around climate change and the environment. That is probably clear. However, there are no strategic priorities established for the question of public access. It is quite difficult to see how assistance under the Bill will link to a government strategic priority that does not actually exist. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a word or two about this because it would really aid clarity about what the funding is to deliver and ensure that there is a coherence in approach and predictability.

That then feeds into Amendment 138 regarding clarity in the financial assistance scheme, which I think most of us would agree is an essential part of transparency. We want to see not just what is being given to whom but how these strategic priorities—these public goods—are reflected in the spending once it has happened.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020

Sometimes, the most unexpected pieces of Parliamentary business attract a lot of comment from Peers, and this might be one of them. That said, a lot of people feel very strongly about it. Ros took the opportunity to press the Government in terms of some positive actions that might be taken...

My Lords, in welcoming this SI, I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that this is a very ​tiny amount. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of the pandemic has been to go back to plastic use where we were getting rid of it; for example, supermarkets are now delivering in plastic bags. Therefore, I wonder if the Minister might give an indication of what work is being done with health authorities to produce guidance that balances the need for good health practice and the reduction of plastic use.

Secondly, I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, about the extent of the exceptions, which do seem very wide. Can the Minister give an assurance that encouragement will be given to the research and development of alternatives to plastics that can be used in these different contexts?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Ros in the Lords: Agriculture Bill - Committee Stage (2)

Ros has been keen to play her part in the Liberal Democrat response to the Agriculture Bill, so it wasn't a surprise to see her contribute to the debate on land management. In this speech on 9 July, she wanted to note how important biodiversity was to thriving countryside...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD) [V]

My Lords, I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Greaves tabled these amendments, because it has given us a chance for debate and for the Minister to give us an idea of the Government’s thinking on this particular form of land management.

I recognise that, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, mentioned, rewilding - whatever we called it then - has been around for a long time. The other week I was in Wicken Fen: I am not sure if it was ever unwilded, but it is certainly pretty wild there now. This is not new, but we have to recognise that rewilding is now being discussed more, and there is a lot more thinking about the role that landscape management can play in improving diversity, which we all know is in pretty steep decline. I am very pleased that these amendments, which I regard as probing, have been tabled.

I was struck when, in winding up on Tuesday evening, the Minister talked about balance, and we have heard a lot about that today. Among the things that make a Bill such as this so tricky are the multiple balances we are trying to strike; for example, between public access and safety, and between food production and biodiversity, and so on. Rewilding has a part to play, albeit a modest part, in helping redress some of those balances. It is possible to have a long-term approach to some habitats which will improve biodiversity but ​will not have a big impact on food production. They can be accessible and enjoyed by the public in a way that does not bring biosecurity risks and so on, which we discussed the other day.

I know that most noble Lords are concerned about the economic outlook in rural communities. There is a contribution to be made by rewilding, even if it is modest and hyper-local. Today’s Independent, for example, carried a story about a rewilding project near Loch Ness. It will involve some 500 hectares of land, with the restoration of peatland, native tree restoration and a focus on biodiversity. The estate will employ local rangers, and a small number of eco-cottages are being built by a local firm. In that small area it can make a big difference. Wildlife tourism is actually quite a big generator of income. In Scotland, interest in ospreys is estimated to bring in about £3.5 million a year in revenue. Rewilding can have huge benefits to individuals, who can better connect with nature, whether it is to relax or to learn about the countryside, which we spoke about in earlier amendments.

I recognise the problem of rewilding as a contested concept, with the fundamentalists on one side and the realists on another. There is a really good balance to be struck, which is about some of the concepts of rewilding and conventional environmentally friendly land management approaches.

Very close to me, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust is doing this very well in the Black Bourn Valley on former arable land. It is letting the former fields rewild to a certain extent, but there will be some grazing, which will help with the complexity of the vegetation structure. Turtle-doves, which we know are in steep decline, have really benefited from the development of these scrubby areas. Even here, within what is thought of as rewilding, there will need to be some intervention to keep the valley’s pond habitats in good health and to keep the variation there, so that the current biodiversity does not decline.

It comes down to this word: balance. For me, the key thing is not so much having everything absolutely nailed down in the Bill - you never get that - but having the assurances that this sort of approach will not be ruled out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Creeting St Peter: a plucky community faces a District Council over Gateway 14

One of the things that makes me most nervous about being the Chair of a Parish Council is managing expectation. Because, in truth, we don’t have much power. If somebody really wants to do something we don’t like, or don’t want, most of the levers of power are in the hands of someone else.

For example, if there is a planning application that impacts dramatically on the village, we might be statutory consultees, but it’s the District Council who make the planning decision. Now, you might reasonably note that even they have limits on their power, most of them statutory but others practical, but theoretically, as long as they adhere to planning law, they have the final say. It becomes more complex when they are, effectively, the applicant too.

Which brings me to Gateway 14...

Parish Council met yesterday evening, under my watchful eye as Chair, with the main item on the agenda our initial response to the consultation exercise initiated by the developer tasked by Mid Suffolk District Council to draw up the plans for the site. There is some pressure upon us to move fast - the consultation period ends on 31 October, and they will then move towards a planning application - so attention to detail is critical.

And there are some rather troubling aspects to the initial draft, in that the suggestion is for rather more in the way of “big logistics sheds” than had previously been the case when previous developers had been offering proposals. These buildings would be very hard to hide, and act as an ugly scar on the landscape. Mind you, given that the sites fall away quite significantly, you do wonder how appropriate they are for such buildings.

There are questions of pedestrian access and existing footpaths, the impact on the clutch of residential properties at Clamp Farm, and of noise and light pollution. We’re also unconvinced that the project is ever going to be environmentally sustainable, with public transport access currently irrelevant and the expectation that most workers on the site will drive, requiring significant (and costly) amounts of parking.

The other problem we have is how to ensure that everyone has a decent opportunity to engage with the project. The developers have sent a glossy, but actually quite fair, document to all residents, inviting them to interact, but you do need to organise that. We, as the Parish Council, want to know what individual residents care about, whilst encouraging them to raise their own issues in their own way.

Our thought is to organise some sort of exhibition, although COVID-19 makes that potentially difficult. We’re also keen to arrange Zoom presentations for both the Parish Council and residents - acknowledging that for those less enthusiastic about, or uncomfortable using, the internet, an online presentation isn’t very inclusive.

So, we’ll issue a newsletter, invite comment, and try to make such arrangements as to allow residents to have their say and to make a contribution - we do know the patch, and are realistic enough to understand that whilst the project can’t simply be opposed, by engaging positively, we are more likely to achieve our aspirations for our community.

For example, might a bus service, linking the development with both Stowmarket and Creeting St Peter, be a runner, especially if it was routed towards Stowupland as well? Could we alter the road layout to take the traffic a little further away from the homes at Clamp Farm whilst improving the sight lines for drivers? What else might we achieve?

So, much to do, especially for our Clerk, I’m afraid. But there’s no time like the present...

Monday, September 21, 2020

SALC: catching up on my reading...

So, having unexpectedly gotten myself elected to be Vice-Chair of my Branch of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, I am also a member of the County Board, which is a bit of a step up for the Chair of a small, albeit perfectly formed, Parish Council. And that means that I have to take it rather more seriously than I might have done hitherto.

For me, a key task when joining an experienced and knowledgeable group on a committee is to find out exactly what its role is, make sure you understand the rules, and acquaint yourself with the key issues. Now, for some, perhaps many, of you, that seems pretty obvious, but in my experience, there are plenty of people who go into things with their own agenda and attempt to shoehorn the organisation to fit. It seldom ends well - better to establish the lie of the land, the group culture, before attempting change (assuming that change is really needed, of course). Luckily, SALC has made all of that freely available, in the form of an explanation on its website. So, the SALC Board;
meets every 6 months and is made up of experienced councillors who provide guidance and strategic direction. The Board maintains SALC values, determines mission and identifies the long-term objectives. The SALC Board appoints the CEO and delegates business administration to the SALC Executive Committee.

That doesn’t sound too onerous, does it? “Experienced councillor” might be stretching it a bit in my case, although I have served for eight years now, and am in my third (glorious) year as Chair. On the other hand, I have a reputation for liking good organisational order, and for supporting our professional staff, and I strongly believe in SALC’s value to local councils, especially smaller ones like mine.

There is a constitution, which has undergone serious revision recently, and looks to be in good order - like many organisations, its constitution had suffered from years of bolt-ons to the point where it didn’t entirely make sense any more. Been there, rewritten that t-shirt...

And, most importantly, there is a business plan and an experienced group of professional staff, led by our Chief Executive, who are ambitious to take the organisation forward. That reassures me, although not as much as the news that I will have an induction session in a fortnight’s time. If it merely serves to help me to avoid looking daft at my first meeting, it will be time well spent, but I have a feeling that it might be more valuable than that.

Time to start reading, I think...

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere...

At least, so sang Simon and Garfunkel. It’s hard to tell how sincere a giraffe is - how could you possibly tell? - but they are rather charming creatures.

You might therefore guess that, today, we’ve been to the zoo, Banham Zoo, to be precise, tucked away in a quiet corner of mid-Norfolk. We’ve been making sure to get out and about at weekends, and whilst we usually find a National Trust property, I though that a change might be nice. Besides, zoos have been hard hit by the pandemic, and need the visitors. And, Banham Zoo offers a giraffe feeding experience, bookable on the day.

Luckily, giraffe appear not to be as much of an attraction as the big cats, so on arrival I was able to book a slot, allowing us to take a gentle wonder around the zoo first. In fairness, Banham doesn’t have a huge selection of animals - it’s a regional zoo rather than a national one, but there’s enough to keep you occupied for a couple of hours and, on a sunny day, it makes a change to watch alpaca, penguins and lemurs, to name but a few.

The big moment soon came along, and a keeper showed us up to the upper level of the giraffe enclosure, where we stood at the end of an extended platform. The giraffes knew why we were there, and were ready with their big eyes, long eyelashes and even longer black tongues, waiting to be fed.

We were given a quick briefing - “hold the branch tight, they’re pretty strong”, “don’t get too close” - and were then let loose with some small, leafy tree branches. Those long black tongues and teeth are very effective at stripping the leaves and soft bark off and, given that an adult giraffe can eat 70kg of leaves a day, that’s probably a good thing.

You do get very close to the giraffes, but the platform is designed so that, whilst they’re at head height, they can’t easily get to you, so you get the advantage of proximity without the risk of injury, or industrial amounts of drool - the latter probably being the higher risk.

It does make me think that we really ought to see some in the wild at some point. Maybe, some day, this wretched pandemic will be halted...

Are Liberal Democrats too busy talking to themselves to reach out to the electorate?

I have to admit that I drafted this a month ago for Liberal Democrat Voice, but decided not to publish it at the time - I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed the grief that would probably come from offering it up to a (probably) larger audience than it would get here. But, the nagging thought in my mind won’t quite go away... so here it is. It isn’t necessarily my final word, nor is it a perfect distillation of my views, although it does seem to reflect the views of our new leader, perhaps unexpectedly.

As we come to the end of a leadership contest which feels as though it has lasted forever - and I admit to not having cast my vote yet - it has occurred to me that we seem to have spent a lot of time lately having leadership contests (or, in the case of Vince’s coronation, non-contest). Tim vs Norman, Vince vs the radicals, Jo vs Ed, Ed vs Layla. Four leadership elections in five years, and a lot of talk about what happens next.

Or not, really.

To win a leadership contest, you have to persuade members to feel good about themselves. That means that we talk about issues that matter to our members. It isn’t, however, necessarily the case that the campaigns talk about issues that matter outside that group, i.e. to the overwhelming majority of the public.

Now, some of you will be thinking that I have an unspoken agenda here. “Don’t talk about minority issues, talk about schools and hospitals, jobs and crime instead.”, might be running through your head. And, perhaps, you may have a point.

I’m proud of our opinions on minority rights, on social reforms that allow everyone (and I do mean everyone) to live their lives in the way they choose, subject to the restraints of law designed to protect us from harm. Our policies on those issues are well thought out, easy to articulate, and will make a real difference to lives. Making sure that we express those views when we’re talking to those who want to hear them, or those directly affected, is exactly what a radical, social reformist political party should do.

But, in spending so much time talking to ourselves over the last five years, we seem to have stopped talking about things that actually affect large numbers of people, many of whom just want to feel that someone is listening to them. Yes, we spent a lot of time talking about Europe - our members would want little else given the reason why so many of them joined. We tended to be unequivocal about how much better being in the European Union was, rather than arguing the case for working together. There was a worrying tendency by some to assume that those on the other side were racist or stupid, or both, rather than being ill-informed by our media, or despairing of the day to day grind of lives that weren’t so fortunate. But whilst we were focussed on that, we stopped expressing ourselves about the other stuff.

How much did we talk about housing, when so many young people are struggling to find a place they can afford? What did we say about the instability of work in an era of zero-hour contracts and the gig economy? What did we say about how the tax system and the finance sector distort our economy and encourage short-term investment strategies? Was it anything more than sound bites designed to attract a moment’s attention?

Can you remember? I can’t. And, perhaps, that’s the problem.

It seems to me that, where we’ve been successful over a long period, it’s because we talk to people about the things that matter, we offer solutions that resonate, and we have a passion to serve those communities. It isn’t where we take a purist approach, insisting that people sign up to the overwhelming majority of our policies. Hell, I don’t sign up to all of our policies, and I’ve been a member of the Party and its predecessor for thirty-six years.

So, whoever wins when the votes are counted, we need to talk to people where they metaphorically live. No, that doesn’t mean pandering to them, even if it’s tempting. It means addressing the things that, if fixed, would make their lives genuinely better, making the case for the changes we think will work, and being patient.

Being a Liberal Democrat isn’t easy. If it was, everybody would be one. We aren’t going to go from 6% to glorious victory in one electoral cycle, or even two or three. But, if we have any aspiration to do so, we need to start talking to them, not just us.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A sunny September stroll on a Saturday in Suffolk

One thing that has made the restrictions of the pandemic more tolerable is that, here in Suffolk, there’s plenty of space, and not so many people. And those people that are here seem to be more likely to practice social distancing and behave in a manner more considerate of those around them. That’s an observation based on my personal experience, and not a statement of fact though.

There are also plenty of places to walk, but today offered a rare opportunity to enjoy the grounds of Euston Hall, the family home of the Dukes of Grafton. It’s only generally open for a few days a year, and we’d only spotted the dates last week when driving through Euston on the way back from Felbrigg Hall. And, with the money raised from ticket sales going to a good cause - various local charities via the Suffolk Community Foundation - it seemed like an enjoyable way to spend a hour or two.

And the grounds are lovely, in part laid out by John Evelyn - yes, the diarist - in the seventeenth century, and developed further with water features by Capability Brown. They’ve been restored by the current Duke and Duchess, and a fine job they have done too.

Normally, there’s a tearoom and access to the Hall, but in these times of pandemic, neither option was open to us although, it must be said, we’re rather keener on the walking and scenery than in the insides of grand houses. And so it was that, having finished our stroll around the grounds, we drove the short distance to Wyken Vineyards for coffee.

There are a surprising number of vineyards in Suffolk, and the proprietors have made this into an attraction, with a very good restaurant, the Leaping Hare, an outdoor market, a shop for your wine needs and the sort of decor stuff that you might not actually need but impulse buy. From the outdoor market, we picked up some rather nice sourdough bread from Wooster’s Bakery in Beardwell, and some beer from the Old Felixstowe Brewery Company.

Coffee drunk, we headed back out, stopping only to buy a couple of bottles of wine and eat ice cream (well, we’d have only been at a National Trust property eating cake...) from Spoonstruck. If you happen to be in Cambridgeshire, their ice cream is extraordinarily good, if the apple cinnamon I had was anything to go by. Oh, and yes, the woman who sold it to us was wonderfully generous and entertaining.

So, all in all, a rather nice day out. Must do this more often...

Getting to the County town, even if it isn’t necessarily where you want to go...

A fellow Liberal Democrat colleague from the north-east of the County has made the point that, if you want to go to the County town by bus, you can’t, at least not directly. Indeed, you can’t even do it with a single change of bus, although there is a direct train service.

And, as I think about it, that’s true for a large chunk of the county - there’s no direct bus from Bury St Edmunds, or Newmarket, or Haverhill, to Ipswich, let alone Beccles or Lowestoft. So, unless you live within striking distance of a railway station, Ipswich becomes more remote and thus less useful.

And that matters because services are seldom provided on any basis other than countywide. If, for example, you wanted to engage with the National Citizen Service scheme, and you live in Haverhill, you have to get to Ipswich, regardless of the fact that there is a regular, reliable bus service to much nearer Cambridge. For Lowestoft, Norwich is a far more attractive destination than Ipswich is, and much easier to reach. Which, of course, is why we have “Travel to Work Areas”.

As someone who had previously paid little (alright, virtually no) attention to the minutiae of local government previously, becoming a Parish councillor introduced me to a whole new world of stuff, including the idea of a “desire path”. And public transport works like that. As a planner you might think that people want to go from A to B, but the reality is that they’d rather go to C, or D, or even E. County boundaries don’t necessarily reflect that, especially if a county is large, or the major conurbation is less than entirely central, as Ipswich is, for example.

And, if a bus route isn’t commercial, and the local authority either can’t, or won’t, fund it, it will inevitably be lost.

In truth, it would possibly be sensible to reconfigure local government to reflect the Travel to Work areas, although I can see the outrage if traditional counties were, effectively, abolished. People are strangely romantic about counties, even though they have less visible presence than they once did - perhaps cricket is the last obvious theatre where counties have a meaningful and dominant place. And I admit to sharing a sense that counties are important, as much as a source of identity as anything else, although even then, some counties have a more obvious identity than others.

Another element is time. Any bus journey from Lowestoft to Ipswich would take a while, unless there’s a significant demand for an express bus to match the one that exists to Norwich. And, even if there was, the A12 is hardly an express route, unlike the A47 across Norfolk which is much improved.

So, it seems likely that trains are going to be the major mid-distance public transport option going forward, and that the bus network will continue to reduce over the coming years.

Friday, September 18, 2020

That’s a nice County Council you’ve got there... pity if something happened to it...

It’s been a decade since the demise of the last attempt to restructure local government in Suffolk, when some of the dying breath of the Labour Government was wasted on a futile attempt to persuade the local political leadership to agree on a new structure. It was, in truth, doomed to failure, with the Labour leadership in Ipswich never likely to quietly accept any settlement that minimised their prospects of power, plus a whole bunch of Conservative District Councillors unwilling to abolish themselves. One of the first decisions of the Coalition was to kick the idea as far into the long grass as possible.

Ironically, as Ros noted at the time, with District Councils increasingly coming under financial pressure, the resulting mergers and pooling of back office functions acted as a gradual but inevitable driver towards larger councils - St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath combined to form West Suffolk, whilst Suffolk Coastal and Waveney came together to form East Suffolk. And yes, you still had three tiers, but the outline of possible new unitary authorities was, and is, emerging.

But financial pressures continue to mount, and the pandemic has driven all local authorities closer to crisis. The lurking attraction of creating unitaries becomes ever more alluring - a former Finance portfolio holder at County level, Richard Smith, estimated the financial benefit at £80 million - and harder to resist.

I do get the arguments against it - the loss of local representation, the difficulty in campaigning for insurgent candidates, the challenge to councillors in getting around their larger patches and to grasp the issues across multiple parishes, to name but some. But, ultimately, you have to ask the question, “do you want any locally supplied services beyond the statutory ones?”. And, regardless of what some might wish, the public do want buses, libraries and much else besides.

The challenge for towns and parishes is how to stay relevant when more remote from the principal authority. What opportunities will there be to take on service provision and can they be accessed in an รก la carte fashion, depending on the size and ambition of the Town/Parish? Lowestoft, or Stowmarket, will be much more activist than, say, Creeting St Peter or Darmsden.

My sense is that, given the Government’s suggestion that authorities covering a population of 300-400 thousand people work best, Suffolk’s future is, ironically, its past - the recreation of East Suffolk and West Suffolk, based in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds respectively. Dividing the county into Greater Ipswich and “Rural Suffolk” risks creating one authority lacking in cohesion and another made up of an inner urban area in conflict with a more rural doughnut surrounding it.

So, we’ll see how this goes. I suspect that the political leadership in the county haven’t really progressed in their thinking on the subject, but that they’ll end up being driven, either by a centralising Government that firmly believes in centralising things, or by financial necessity, into restructuring. It might not be pretty for any of us...

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A newly elected Vice-Chair emerges blinking into the world....

Ever since I became a Parish Councillor, one of my responsibilities was what you might call external liaison, i.e. attending meetings of bodies that reach beyond our small (but perfectly formed) parish. That really consisted of two things, the Stowmarket Area Road Safety Committee and the local branch of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils.

And, in truth, I have enjoyed both of them, albeit that I played a central role in bringing the Road Safety Committee to an end (it had become clear that the committee had run its course). But, and I know this may come as a surprise to many, I’m not always very good at promoting myself, so tend to take on organisational roles rather than leadership ones. I only became Chair of Creeting St Peter because I was the victim of a very genteel ambush by my fellow councillors.

The local branch of the County Association is a little more serious. I am an active participant in its meetings, partly because of my natural curiosity - I still feel like a newcomer after a decade or so, and my colleagues have a lot of knowledge and experience that I appreciate - and partly because, thanks to Ros, I have a far better sense of how local government works (or doesn’t).

And so, this evening, I logged into the Mid Suffolk Autumn Area Forum, held on Zoom. There was an issue that I wanted to raise - punctures sustained on local roads - but apart from that, I hadn’t given much thought to further input. We were due to elect a Chair and Vice-Chair for another year, but given that the incumbents were both able to run again, and had been effective thus far, it struck me that we would just renominate them and move on to the rest of the business.

Josephine Lea is the Vice Chair of Needham Market Town Council, and is a very well-established figure there. And, given that Needham Market is a rather more serious entity than, say Creeting St Peter, she brings a wealth of practical knowledge and pragmatism to our meetings that is highly valued. I was therefore a little surprised when she announced that she wasn’t going to restand, instead suggesting that her Vice Chair, Sheona Warnes, should take over. Sheona is the Chair of Offton and Willisham Parish Council, off to the south-west of Needham Market, although she used to be a member of Needham Market Town Council, I understand. There wasn’t any dissent, nor was there any good reason for any, so Sheona was duly elected.

That left a vacancy for Vice Chair, and I thought to myself, why not? And so, I declared my interest and found myself the sole candidate. Thus, I am the newly-elected Vice Chair of the Mid Suffolk South Area of the Suffolk Association of Local Councillors and, by extension, a member of the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councillors.

I’m not going to get carried away here - after all, the Board meets but twice a year and has a strategic oversight role rather than a “hands on” management one - but it allows me a deeper insight into the issues that face local councils whilst allowing me to contribute in a small way to the work of a really valuable organisation. And, interestingly, it allows me to apply my political philosophy in a non-Party political environment.

Most councils in the third tier aren’t really very political in the sense of Party labels. In the villages, most of us don’t run under a political label - like many, I’m not entirely convinced that party policy offers much steer in terms of deciding who cuts the grass on the playing field, or what commentary might be offered on a planning application. It is different on larger councils, those that provide meaningful services, for example, for there you find more political cut and thrust with serious money to be spent and managed.

However, how you interact with residents, how you communicate, the approach you take towards problems is influenced by your belief system. I’d like to think that I’m keener than some to encourage residents to do things for themselves, using the various communication tools to raise their concerns directly with appropriate bodies, rather than acting as an intermediary. That isn’t a laissez faire approach, with the Parish Council doing very little, but a collaborative approach, allowing residents to make their point in their way, rather than having it interpreted by us and then passed on. Our job is both to provide a forum for debate, as well as to summarise views and convey them in our role as statutory consultees.

So, a new role, with new responsibilities, albeit I’ll be the very junior member of the Board, but one that I’m looking forward to...

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Kind Hearts and Coronets route to a place on a Federal Committee?...

Readers may recall that my campaigns for election to the Federal International Relations Committee and the Party’s delegation to the ALDE Party Council were less than entirely successful - I was the second runner-up for both. And that was alright, as I’m a great believer in democracy and have never seen myself as having a divine right to do anything. Besides, it’s not as if I don’t have other things to keep me entertained.

However, news reached me the other day that, after only eight and a half months, the Federal International Relations Committee has a vacancy, following a resignation. I know this because the Committee’s Chair contacted me to ask who would fill the vacancy, assuming that I had been the Returning Officer. I was slightly perplexed for a moment, given that I had been a candidate myself, but courteously pointed him in the direction of the Chief Executive, who can arrange for a recount to fill the vacancy.

And so I wait for news of the newly-elected member of FIRC. Given my somewhat lively past as a member, I won’t be lying awake at nights hoping that it will be me, although I still think that I have a different perspective to offer.

In truth, FIRC has not really achieved what I had hoped for it - a useful resource for the wider Party, bringing together expertise and marrying it with political strategy for the benefit of the Foreign Affairs teams in Parliament and for local campaigners who might come across specific issues in their local campaigning. It feels a bit like a bolt-on, rather than an integral part of the Party’s policy and campaigning effort.

Reporting back seems to have stopped too, although somebody would have to have the will to take the role and just take responsibility for it.

We’ll see what happens though...

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Suffolk Circle via the Stour Valley

I had set aside today for some internal Liberal Democrat stuff but, for reasons beyond my control, it was cancelled. What to do instead on what turned out to be such a lovely day?

Well, another bus ride seemed like a good idea, as Ros was speaking in the Agriculture Bill debate and really didn’t need my presence. And, having dropped me off at Needham Market, it was time to pump some more money into the public transport sector.

I hadn’t actually ridden on a train since the original lockdown, so the short journey to Ipswich seemed like a gentle introduction, and Greater Anglia’s shiny new trains are still pretty quiet, meaning a stress-free journey. People are wearing masks for the most part, which is reassuring.

My plan was a mite high risk, with some tight connections for buses that run every two hours, but as I’m an optimist, what was the worst that could happen?

Beestons run one key bus service in Suffolk, route 91, which links Ipswich with Sudbury, via Hadleigh. It’s a pretty journey, heading west through the undulating countryside that is south Suffolk and, at the end of it, is Sudbury, a town that I quite like. Yes, the planners haven’t done it any great favours, as is often the case in Suffolk, but the core is nice and the setting equally so. You could argue that its lousy connections to London have protected it - there’s no direct train service, and the connection at Marks Tey is unreliable at best.

I had time for a gentle stroll around the town centre before possibly Suffolk’s best bus ride, the Chambers operates 236 route to Clare, via Glemsford. The upper Stour Valley is glorious at this time of year, still green and rolling, with small villages hidden away and always a new vista to enjoy. Sadly, I had a very short connection at Clare, which rewards a walk, with the castle and the country park which includes the old railway station, for I needed to get to Haverhill.

It might be harsh to suggest that Haverhill is seldom a place where people feel a need to be, unless they live there. That’s probably because it’s a town surrounded by 1950s and 1960s housing, built for an outflow of Londoners at that time. Lovely, it isn’t, although compared to some recent social housing builds, it at least has some community spirit and has aged well enough. Mind you, sunshine tends to make most things look better...

I had another very short connection at Haverhill, to a Stephensons of Essex operated route 18 bus to Saffron Walden - a very different kettle of fish. Saffron Walden is genteel, middle-class, with a town centre Waitrose and all the things that go with that. The railway station is at Audley End, so that it doesn’t get too crowded. You’d almost forget that you’re in Essex. The bus runs through Helions Bumpstead, one of those villages whose name must be made up, mustn’t it?

A snatched lunch in Saffron Walden allowed me to catch the hourly Stagecoach bus to Cambridge, following the railway line through Great Chesterton, Whittlesford and Shelford, through a series of villages that probably benefit from their proximity to Cambridge.

It was time to head for home now, meaning a rather longer train ride on a rather busier train. I did have a four-seat section to myself as far as Bury St Edmunds, where college had let out. The teenagers sitting opposite me needed a reminder to cover their noses with their masks, but did at least have sufficient thoughtfulness to adjust them when asked.

So, all in all, another nice day out, although if the passenger numbers are anything to go by, it could be “ride the bus whilst you still can”, as I increasingly wonder how they can remain economically viable.

Monday, September 14, 2020

So, I went into the office...

It’s been six months since I received the fateful message that we would be working from home for a while. And, until Friday, I hadn’t been back - there was little reason to do so, as I’ve been as productive at home as I would be in an open-plan office and the restrictions on travel made it unnecessarily complex to try to get there.

But we’re due to move offices soon, and in order to ease the move, we’ve been asked to empty our personal lockers until the move is complete. And so, in order to get it over with, Ros and I set  off towards Ipswich on Friday morning.

I’d completed a risk assessment, confirmed that I didn’t feel as though I’d be forced to go back in, and had brought something to carry my possessions.

Our regular security guard was on duty, which was strangely reassuring, and asked how I was and how long I’d be in, before explaining some of the basic COVID-19 compliance rules for the building. And, with that, I set off to the lift lobby. Only one person is allowed in a lift at a time, as social distancing isn’t possible due to their size, but I didn’t have to wait.

It’s amazing the things that you forget when you’ve been away for a while - doorcodes being the most obvious one. Given that my memory is fuzzy if I’ve been away for a fortnight, six months was a bit challenging, but I was able to get onto my floor, which was empty of life.

I emptied my locker of a lifetime supply of pens, tea, coffee, stationery and all of the other stuff you accumulate over time - the model of a Melbourne tram is now sitting on my home office windowsill - before setting to work on organising the work records that I’ve got, putting it all in folders for ease of storage.

Surprisingly quickly, everything was done, and it was time to get out. It was, I have to admit, a slightly odd experience - you do become a bit institutionalised if you’ve been in the same building long enough - but I can’t say that I miss it particularly. There’s no doubt that there are a few things that are easier done in the office, but not that many, and open-plan offices do not necessarily aid concentration or, for that matter, encourage original thinking.

And so, we await news on what one might call “the future of work”. The pandemic has massively accelerated thinking in terms of where we need to be and when in order to deliver our responsibilities and management are probably running to keep up. How do you manage staff if you’re not able to physically oversee them? How do you ensure that your staff stay up to date? These, and many other questions require thought and sensitivity, and time is short.

Much to think about, I suspect...

Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is apparently an acceptable level of law breaking...

So, apparently, suggests... the Lord Chancellor? You are kidding me, right? It seems not.

What that means is one of four things;

  • He actually believes that, in which case, he needs to come up with a definition of “acceptable”, and fast, or;
  • He didn’t mean that, in which he needs to clarify the position, or;
  • He doesn’t understand the significance of what he said, or;
  • He believes that retaining his job is far more important than the rule of law, which means that he is unfit for public office.
Actually, he probably needs to go in cases 1, 3 and 4 but, given that I am yet to see that case 2 is pertinent, he probably just needs to go.

This is, for anyone in a regulatory role, more than a little troubling. If the Lord Chancellor suggests that there is an acceptable level of law breaking, there is the obvious question, “And why doesn’t this apply to me?”. It is, under such circumstances, not a wholly unreasonable question.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that, if the law is designed to protect citizens from anything from personal violence to abuse by an over-mighty state, anything that undermines it offers potential risks to us all. And yes, I do hear the argument that breaking the law for a righteous cause is defensible, but the response I would offer is, what if somebody else’s righteous cause is decidedly harmful to others? Not so sure now, are you?

And, of course, a government deciding what parts of the law are acceptable or unacceptable and trying to change them in Parliament is one thing - it happens all of the time - but doing it to an international agreement that you signed and stating publicly that you’re going to do so is quite another, especially if you’re hoping to conclude a whole bunch of other international agreements. You see, people talk to each other, they read our press, they see the statements of our politicians in real time. In other words, this isn’t a game where, if you’re losing, you can just quit playing without consequence and start again.

But then, this increasingly seems to be a government which operates on the principle that the rules don’t apply to it. And maybe, domestically, that’s true to a certain extent - you only need to convince enough people of your credibility to win a majority, and there are a lot of very trusting, or very naive, or very stupid, or a combination of the above, to allow a group of people for whom lying appears to have no consequence to hold and use power. It isn’t true internationally.

International agreements tend to hinge on two things - power and trust. If you’re China, or the United States, or the European Union, you have power, either economic, military or both. If you’re Norway, or Canada, or New Zealand, you have trust - people tend to think of you as the “good guys” whose word can be relied upon. Alternatively, you’re Zimbabwe or Venezuela - nobody trusts your government, you have no military or economic power, and you’re isolated in your misery.

Britain had both - as a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as the fifth largest economy - although the value of the size of your national economy does drop off quite quickly (the United States had a nominal GDP of $21.4 trillion in 2019, China at $14.1 trillion, the United Kingdom in sixth place at $2.7 trillion). That was significantly augmented by our membership of the European Union (nominal GDP of $18.7 trillion).

That latter figure kind of explains why the European Union can throw its weight around in talks with China and the United States, and why the United Kingdom alone can’t.

So, if you can’t play with the big boys on equal economic terms, and you can’t threaten them militarily, you have to rely on your reputation and trustworthiness. can see where the problem is with having a government which plays hard and fast in its dealings with its neighbours.

In a proper government, the law officers are there to ensure that the law is adhered to. Their advice should be above reproach, untainted by politics. Here, that really can’t be said, which means that there is nobody to say, “hang on a moment, you really can’t do that”. And when a Cabinet Minister gets up in Parliament and says, “we are breaking the law”, and the response of the Lord Chancellor is to quibble about the extent to which the law is being broken, we have a system of governance which is broken.

Can you run a country like that? If you can, what would it look like? We may be about to find out...