Friday, October 30, 2020

Standards in Public Life - is there any hope left?

Courtesy of NALC, I've received notification that The Committee on Standards in Public Life is carrying out a
landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct.

The cynics amongst us might suggest that the only way to ensure high standards of conduct in some quarters would require an electric cattle prod, especially given the increasing tendency for some politicians to simply lie on the basis that, if you lie with sufficient conviction and consistency, enough people will fall for it, or want to believe it, you can win. And, you might argue, the Brexit referendum proved that they might have a point.

Let's not get carried away though, there were some ludicrously outlandish things said by some of those campaigning to remain. On the whole, though, it required some pretty heroic assumptions for most of the promises by Leave campaigners to come close to accuracy.

I have to admit that my concerns are not really about the institutions, processes and structures, however. Mine are about consequences and punishments. The rewards for breaking the written and unwritten rules of behaviour in public life now far exceed the potential punishments and thus create an incentive to bend and even break those rules. There seems to be an increasing acceptance that the ends justify the means, whereby if you win, your side will cry justification of the tactics even if they would condemn anyone else behaving similarly.

The public and the media don't help themselves either. If you believe that those in public life should adhere to certain standards, that involves calling out those who fall short and withholding your vote from those who deliberately err.

And the problem with all of this is that it leads to politics like those of the United States, where no lie is too great, no slander too outlandish, and polarisation is almost complete. As a Liberal Democrat, that offers particular dangers, but regardless of your party politics, you should be concerned if large minorities oppose each other with little common ground.

The politics of change requires either a degree of consensus or dictatorial power. At the moment, in an era of Brexit and culture wars, we appear not to have much consensus, and whilst I still don't believe that the Conservatives believe in a one-party state, their behaviour points towards sleep-walking towards one, as they undermine key pillars of liberal democracy.

An independent Civil Service, neutral bodies to oversee elections, transparency in awarding public sector contracts, all of these appear to conflict with the Conservative Party's desire to get on with things or, perhaps more accurately, Dominic Cummings's desire to tear everything down. And yet, all of these things, and many more, protect the citizenry from the power of an overmighty state, something Conservatives have traditionally sought, for fear of what an opposition party might do in government.

Because, once you lose those restraints, they are very hard to re-establish, and even if your intentions truly are pure and just, the other side's motives might not as much so. The written and unwritten rules of behaviour in public life protect politicians too, not just society. So, perhaps W S Gilbert had the right idea about how to maintain standards in public life when he wrote "The Mikado"...
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The "Planning for the Future" White Paper - it must have friends, but they're awfully shy...

I'm not what you'd describe as an expert on planning. Yes, I do have to consider planning applications as part of my role as Chair of a small Parish Council, but I'm rarely involved in anything other than pretty straightforward stuff - Gateway 14 excepted, of course. And we're not decision makers in any sense, just statutory consultees.

That's not to say that I don't take an interest however, and in my new guise as a member of the NALC National Assembly, there is a greater obligation upon me to at least understand the wider issues that impact on the world beyond the Gipping Valley. And, in truth, the Planning White Paper currently out for consultation is one of those documents which, if left unchallenged, is likely to have some pretty negative repercussions.

It comes with a foreword from the Prime Minister - the usual blue sky, inspirational schtick - and one from Robert Jenrick, who simply misrepresents the situation on the ground (perhaps not surprising given the accusations that he is in the pocket of developers), in suggesting that reform will allow more houses to be built where they're needed. It wouldn't be cynical to suggest that were he to have a word with the big housebuilding firms, he might persuade them to use the existing planning permissions they have, rather than sitting on them.

The general consensus in the local government community is that the planning system achieves two things pretty well - disempowering local authorities through the presumption that development is good, and offering false hope to local communities through encouragement to develop local plans that can easily be overridden. Neither is a good thing.

From the perspective of a statutory consultee, my problems are generally with enforcement, if truth be told. Mid Suffolk District Council is pretty useless at policing the planning conditions it sets itself, which rather means that planning conditions, i.e. the things that protect local communities from the more egregious acts of planning applicants, become irrelevant. The White Paper doesn't really touch upon that, focussing on tightening timetables and introducing sanctions for local authorities who breach deadlines. What's the penalty for developers who breach their conditions, or seek to alter them by stealth? How are local communities compensated for breaches?

And there doesn't appear to be a lot of support out there. The National Association of Local Councils (my local government "trade union") suggests in its response that;

the current proposals would result in a democratic deficit in planning and would not tackle the key issue (housing supply), leading to a slow down in the delivery of more housing. NALC also thinks that Local Plans will need much more than the suggested 30 months to put together.

The Royal Town Planning Institute don't like it either...

While a single flat rate tax sounds appealing, it cannot work for the country as a whole,” she says. “Set the rate too high, and you risk preventing development from coming forward in struggling areas or complex brownfield sites, set it too low and profitable developments will not make a fair contribution to affordable housing and critical infrastructure. It doesn’t address the bigger issue – the lack of proper investment by government in affordable housing.

So, my sense is that this is a "developers charter", wrapped up in pretty language about local democracy, beauty and efficiency. After all, Robert Jenrick was so supportive of local authorities that he acted unlawfully to deny Tower Hamlets £45 million to support local infrastructure. Don't study what they say, study what they do...

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

NALC - virtually the 2020 Annual General Meeting...

So, my first meeting at national level, and very interesting it was too. Yes, it does seem that there are still some people who haven't really got the hang of Zoom (check the picture of you to make sure that you're both facing the camera and that the camera is facing you...), and the age profile is a bit like that of the House of Lords (which makes me comparatively young), but it's clear that the third tier of local government has adapted pretty well to the technology of virtual meetings.

And, as a gentle introduction to the upper echelons of the National Association of Local Councils, the Annual General Meeting is a pretty good place to start.

The Chair, Sue Baxter from Worcestershire, manages meetings briskly, which suits me fine, and the reports were succinct and to the point. NALC is in pretty good financial shape, which is reassuring, and there's evidently a wide range of knowledge and experience, which helps.

We cast a few votes, to adopt the annual report, to agree the increase in membership fees and to adopt the budget, and there weren't any evident signs of dissent, with all the votes being won overwhelmingly.

The centrepiece of the event, however, was a brief speech from a junior Minister at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Luke Hall. His portfolio is regional growth and local government, and he delivered a speech which rather skirted our "asks" as a sector - we'd like direct access to funding rather than having to go cap in hand to principal authorities - and appeared to face issues of Districts, Counties and Unitaries at times.

He did refer to the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill which, whilst it has little relevance to Creeting St Peter, is of real importance to Towns and larger Parishes, who have taken on responsibility for public conveniences and have to shoulder the additional burden of business rates for public lavatories. 100% relief will be doubly guaranteed when it completes its various stages in the Lords.

The rest of the speech was somewhat weighted down with platitudes, but those gathered were particularly exercised by talk of further reorganisation of local government, with the proposals for North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset raising issues about the relationship between Towns and Parishes and new Unitary authorities. It was clear that there are limits to the creativity of local people, in that it will ultimately be the decision of Ministers as to what proposals will or will not be accepted.

From a personal perspective, there are questions about devolution of power and adoption of services. If towns and larger villages take on service provision, what happens to small parishes like mine? Will we be forced to combine with other villages or nearby towns in order to achieve economies of scale, or will we simply be left to our own devices?

He didn't stay too long - about twenty minutes or so - and it would have been nice to explore more than the three issues that could be fitted in before he left, but one can only assume that his schedule didn't permit it.

Other than that, one thing that slightly puzzled me was that, in most of the organisations I've been involved with, the Annual General Meeting sees the election of Officers and the like, and it doesn't seem that NALC's AGM does that, although it does elect the President and Vice-Presidents. So far, I haven't been able to locate the Constitution, but it's only a matter of time...

We finished nearly half an hour ahead of schedule, which allowed me to get an early lunch, and I do wonder if virtual meetings tend to discourage the sort of meandering interventions which slow business. I guess that we'll find out when this wretched pandemic is over...

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme - why 40% is both not enough and too much...

It’s got to be admitted that the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme has been one of the most effective contributions in addressing the problem of how to support those whose livelihoods have been most affected by the pandemic. Set up quickly, easy to claim and requiring no knowledge of tax whatsoever, it has now processed more than five million claims, and been a real lifesaver to those who have successfully claimed.

It isn’t without its flaws - anyone who started self-employment after 5 April 2019 is excluded, as well as a sizeable proportion of those who started during the 2018/19 tax year. And, in fairness, some of the kinks were ironed out as time went by to reduce some of the more egregious oversights. A scheme which might fairly have been described as “quick and dirty” at the outset was honed to a fairly precise implement within weeks.

There is little doubt that the scheme was a generous one to start off with, and it did need to be given the impact of lockdowns on the ability of many self-employed people to get out and about. It was something of an eye-opener to encounter people whose earnings came from carrying out tasks that were impacted in ways that might be hard to evaluate without talking to the person concerned.

By the time the second scheme went live, in mid-August, some sectors were beginning to either return to something like normal, whilst others were adapting and innovating to repurpose their businesses. For them, a grant representing 70% of their declared average earnings for a quarter was, in truth, profitable - if your profits were reduced by less than 70%, you were suddenly in profit. On the other hand, if your job required you to perform in people’s homes, you might be struggling, and 70% of your earnings was very useful. And, naturally, for those who were scraping by pre-COVID, there hadn’t been an awful lot of slack in the family budget anyway.

And so, when it was originally announced that the third scheme, expected to go live in mid-November, would pay out just 20% of average earnings, there were concerns. For some of the self-employed, particularly in white collar activities, things were beginning to return to something like normal and a little support to cover additional costs was welcome but not as critical. On the other hand, if you’re, say, a mobile hairdresser, with a mostly elderly customer base, the ability to function is very limited - your income and profit are almost certainly down a lot more than 20%, and you probably weren’t making that much to begin with.

So, even at 40%, there will be those who are ironically better off than they would be ordinarily, and those who will be in pretty desperate straits. The challenge for the Government is to find a way of targeting support to those most in need.

And that’s where you run into difficulties. A one size fits all scheme is easy to operate, and the beauty of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme is that it uses information already held in HMRC’s computer systems through individual Self Assessment tax returns. The basic criteria for eligibility are really simple too;

  • you must have submitted your 2018/19 tax return by 23 April 2020 (some twelve weeks after the statutory deadline);
  • your average annual profit from self-employed activities must have been under £50,000 over the period from 6 April 2016 to 5 April 2019; and,
  • at least half of your income, either in 2018/19 or over the three years to 5 April 2019, must have come from self-employment.
You can claim online as long as you can verify your identity with either a U.K. passport, a U.K. driving licence (with a photograph) or via your credit history - it takes five minutes or less. And, if you can’t self-verify online, lovely people will handle your claim over the telephone.

In order to target support, you need more data, and probably some human intervention, which is where things get tricky. People don’t always tell you everything that they might, or describe their activity somewhat vaguely, none of which matters much when they’re declaring income, but when you’re trying to categorise them, it offers challenges. And, with computerisation having stripped out many of the clerical staff who might hence have been available to assign to such work, there is a question of capacity.

And so, the Government is torn between the cost of supporting people whose needs vary from virtually nothing to nearly everything and all points in between, and its perceived need to staunch the flow of cash out of its coffers. So far, the impact of a gradual withdrawal of support has been relatively low but, as the pandemic hovers over an upcoming winter, and people’s financial reserves, if they ever existed at all, are increasingly burned through, there will be increasing hardship, and increasing clamour to act.

It’s a challenge that I wouldn’t fancy myself, but in the ever-changing situation that we find ourselves in, with a potential “no deal Brexit” getting closer, the Chancellor, the Treasury and senior HMRC officials may have to find ways of squaring the circle sooner rather than later. You can only wish them the best of luck, because I fear that they may need it...

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The unbearable lightness of chairing

One of the slightly unexpected things about my political activity over thirty-six years is that I have seldom held down what you might describe as a leadership role. Secretary, yes. Treasurer, when there really isn't anyone else, perhaps. Organisational job that means turning up, delivering a defined outcome and leaving again? Over and over again. But being the person in charge of the show? Looks rather desperately for someone else.

People do kind of assume that, if you're politically active, you crave the limelight, that you want to lead. And, quite often, that's true. It can help to have that sort of mindset if you want to get elected, to achieve things. Being the Chair offers control, albeit with a large side order of responsibility. I've tended to avoid that - thankfully, somebody usually wants power more than I do.

I did chair my then Local Party, Dulwich & West Norwood, for a couple of years, with a modicum of success in terms of outcomes - best General Election result (second in 2005), first councillors elected (2006), but in truth my role was primarily enabling competent people to do their jobs with minimal interruption, one that I was happy to stick to.

Other than that, not much.

And so, becoming Chair of my Parish Council has been occasionally disconcerting. I worry about the job more than you might expect, although Ros is of the view that that's probably a good thing. Without much experience of being a Chair, and with plenty of competing advice on how it might be done, I've had to fall back on the experience gleaned from being subject to a variety of Chairs, and my personal preferences.

As a habitual Secretary, you appreciate short meetings, focussed on key issues, so as Chair I try to insist on having as much information circulated in advance as I can. Short meetings also free up everyone's time to do other things which, when people have busy lives, is surprisingly popular.

Control is important, and most committees have a member who tends to chunter on, blissfully unaware that everyone else is beginning to look intently at their timepieces, so I do tend to move meetings along once it's clear that all of the salient points have been made. Reading the room is important, so I switch from reading glasses to distance and back as required so that I can see everyone.

But you can't just sweep people along - they have to feel that their viewpoint is being heard, so I'll frequently pause to invite comment or questions to give my fellow councillors a chance to contribute. Given the diverse experiences of my colleagues, there's always valuable insight to be gleaned.

It's public meetings that I worry most about though. A Parish Council meeting has a structure, and rules, and a Clerk to guide me when I'm unsure. Public meetings often no such reassurance, especially when the subject is controversial, such as a significant planning application. A degree of neutrality is required which isn't always entirely appreciated and, as I don't much like confrontation, it can be a struggle when passions erupt.

So far, my colleagues are happy enough with my performance. The occasional words of encouragement are hugely appreciated, and allow me to operate on the assumption that I'm broadly in the right place as Chair. The only thing I need to worry about is keeping it like that...

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sometimes, your life changed when you least expected it...

We've been watching the Michael Palin retrospective on the BBC, in which our hero looks back at his travels, playing a thoroughly decent fellow, meeting interesting people, treating them kindly and visiting interesting places in unexpected ways. It's easy to forget, looking back, just how radical this was. And we've taken the opportunity to rewatch the original series, courtesy of BBC iPlayer.

Watching him arrive in Tallinn, under Soviet control as it was then, in the summer of 1991, brought back memories.

My travel horizons were, once upon a time, really quite limited. I'd gone backwards and forwards to Mumbai a bit, to visit family, but that wasn't as much of an adventure as it sounds, given how familiar it was. And it wasn't a lack of adventure - travel was more complex and expensive then, and far less spontaneous. I'd been on a few school trips to Europe, but done very little independent travel.

It was politics that triggered my travels, when I was sent as a Young Liberal Democrat delegate to a seminar on youth culture in, of all places, Aarhus, Denmark. One thing led to another and I discovered that meeting other Europeans was not only interesting, but accessible, especially for a bureaucrat with a decent job and what seemed like a lot of disposable income, thanks to the hospitality of my parents. Within the year, I'd managed to just about persuade a bare majority of my colleagues to elect me as International Officer and an odyssey began.

And what a time it was. I only served for fourteen months or so, from November 1989 to December 1990, but it was a time when all of the old certainties suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke. Communist governments were overthrown across Central and Eastern Europe and it looked as though liberal democracy had triumphed over totalitarianism. They were heady days...

And the travel began, first with my first wife to the United States and beyond, and then, when that ended, to the places you only normally dream of, Latin America, the South Pacific, East Asia. Then, with Ros to the Arctic and the Atacama, Patagonia and the Caribbean...

The thing about travel is that, apart from broadening the mind, which it does if you're doing it properly, it's quite addictive. And, it has gotten easier as time goes by. The internet, and the explosion of guidebooks as opposed to tourism brochures, allows you to research independently, and smartphones and wifi allow you to deal with situations as they arise.

Lost in Los Angeles? Bring up Apple Maps on your iPhone. Need a night in a hotel because your connection has been missed or cancelled? Use a hotel chain app to find one and book it immediately. Arranging your visa online, booking a flight for tomorrow, ordering flowers for a host, all can be done by pressing a few buttons without reliance on other people, contact centres or post. Bus maps in New Hampshire, baseball tickets in Caracas, restaurant reservations in Riga, or Anchorage, hotels in Santiago or Chennai, all at your fingertips.

On reflection, it's pretty amazing. My bank card has allowed me to access cash from ATMs everywhere from Port Vila, Vanuatu to Havana, Cuba, from Port Louis, Mauritius to Puerto Natales, Chile. No bank queues or travellers cheques, no worrying about exchange rates or controls, money on demand, twenty-four hours a day.

Luckily, it's never become workaday. It's allowed me to see things that the younger me could have barely imagined, have experiences that will keep me warm in my old age, meet people who entertained, educated and informed. And there's still so many places I want to see... once this wretched pandemic is over.

Friday, October 16, 2020

If the light at the end of the tunnel is the burning wreckage of our future...

I am, by nature, an optimist. When the Brexit referendum was lost, I not unreasonably assumed that the victors had a plan for getting us from being in the European Union to not being in the European Union. I admit that, even then, I understood that the various strands of the Leave campaign were mutually incompatible and were merely a means of persuading enough voters to back their cause. Indeed, Dominic Cummings acknowledged that there was no one vision of Brexit that could achieve majority support, or even agreement between the different factions. It allowed them to be all things to a good many people, at least, enough to win a one-off vote on the right day.

It turned out that I was wrong. There was no obvious plan. However, these were clever people - mostly - and there was time to work up a plan before formal notice was given. And, because, regardless of what I think about them, they would have what they perceived to be the interests of the country at heart.

Again, it turned out that I was wrong. It became apparent that it was much easier to campaign against something than to develop a strategy and plan for something - that mutual incompatibility thing again. Add an emerging lack of knowledge in terms of how the European Union works and a soupcon of "two world wars and one World Cup" and the foundations were laid for failure. After all, we'd heard enough from experts...

Blithe confidence in your cause, plus a rather arrogant sense of stature in the world led to the triggering of the exit process. Unfortunately, knowing what you want and having a realistic awareness of what you might get are not exactly the same thing. And, setting a deadline tends to work better if you're the 800 lb gorilla in the room. When you're 65 million people, as opposed to 430 million, with a GDP of $3 trillion, as opposed to $14 trillion, the gorilla isn't you.

And so, here we are, the clock nearly run down, a United Kingdom government led by people chosen for their loyalty rather than intellect, and in the middle of a pandemic. The Prime Minister has announced that we need to plan for a no deal outcome, demanding concessions from the gorilla. It all seems unlikely.

We are therefore dependent on one of two things - major concessions from the European Union (which might politely be described as unlikely) or from the United Kingdom. Can the Conservative Party really offer serious concessions without looking to its supporters as though it has bended the knee? And, even if it could agree on concessions, what might those concessions be, would they be sufficient and what would they gain? I don't think that they know, let alone the rest of us.

So, let's assume that they're serious, and that we reach 1 January without a deal. What might happen? And that's a bit of a mystery, given that the ultras on both sides are offering us just about everything on the spectrum from "buccaneering Singapore-on-Thames" to "critical food and medicine shortages".

My gut feeling is that things will be worse than they are now. Putting up obstacles tends to do that - the question is, how significantly will day to day life be affected, and what is the tolerance of a fickle public for inconvenience or hardship? Polling indicates a gradual drifting away of support for Brexit, associated as it is with a government which is making a mess of handling one crisis already. How much of a sacrifice are those who supported Brexit willing to make? Or were they only content so long as it was others who would bear the brunt?

And any Government would have public sympathy if things were difficult, so long as they were seen to be trying to do the right thing. This Government isn't in that place, having wasted an entire summer, at vast expense, to achieve, effectively, nothing.

I remain an optimist. Admittedly, as a Liberal Democrat, you tend to need to be one. Unfortunately, my optimism increasingly fades in terms of the near future - you really need something to sustain faith, and Messrs Johnson, Gove and Cummings just don't fit the bill. I'm also a gradualist, a believer in sustainable change over decades, and I'm going to have to pin my hopes on that. Because something is going to have to change in this country, and someone is going to have to lead that change.

In the meantime, it's time to circle the wagons, look out for those I care about and focus on the things I can actually influence...

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Creeting St Peter and the Probable Development (part 1)

The consultation process between Jaynic, the developers acting for Mid Suffolk District Council, and our Parish Council, began last night. And so, perhaps I ought to report back...

The first thing to note is, slightly surprisingly, that there appears to be no hard and fast idea as to what will go on the site and where, contrary to the impression given by the material circulated by their communications consultants. Yes, enormous logistics sheds might well emerge, but until customers actually turn up, nobody really knows - the talk is of bespoke development, i.e. the customer will say what they want and, if a deal is agreed, it gets built.

From the perspective of a statutory consultee, i.e. the Parish Council, that offers an interesting challenge. Whilst we might have a clear idea what we wouldn't like, there isn't anything concrete to object to... yet. Thus, it seems as though the obvious strategy for us is to talk about infrastructure and traffic management, and that is what we mainly focused upon.

We were told that there was no expectation of significant additional traffic on Mill Lane between Clamp Farm and the Creetings, yet the modelling hasn't been done yet, and there is an apparent sense that nearby bus stops imply that there are buses. I'm not really sure how to break it to them that the bus service consists of one bus on weekday mornings to Stowmarket, plus a mid-morning bus on a Thursday, and one bus on weekday evenings to Stowupland. And, indeed, the "bus" is a minibus.

However, this is part of what happens later. What is expected to happen first is that construction of the site's road network will be an early part of what we see. An indicative timeline exists and, if met, will see the road network, including a new link from near Clamp Farm to the roundabout opposite Tesco, completed by Spring/Summer 2022. The obvious benefits include taking heavy lorries from our friendly neighbourhood concrete products factory away from Cedars Park, and providing easier and more direct access to Tesco and Stowmarket for residents of the Creetings.

It's rather harder to see the benefits for residents of the cluster of properties at Clamp Farm, upon whose doorstep the new development will be. What ends up being built on the north-east quadrant of the site could be anything from a big logistics shed to a collection of smaller light industrial buildings. And yes, a "planted, landscaped mound" will provide a "significant visual buffer" between Clamp Farm and the development, but residents have been hurt before by that phrase (the Poundfield Products equivalent has never really lived up to expectations), so the proof will be in the pudding there.

We touched upon the Amenity and Biodiversity Zone, and to be honest, I'm not really sure what they mean by that, except to note that it is intended to compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat caused by the development. It would be nice if access to the river path was improved, and that will be a question for the actual planning application.

The question of the rerouting of the footpath that currently runs through the middle of the site, linking Creeting St Peter with Cedars Park, is up for discussion as well. The current proposal is to squeeze the footpath between whatever emerges in the north-eastern quadrant and the A14, and I can't help but feel that this offers a rather gloomy trudge compared to routing it around the southern edge, which would at least offer farmland on one side. And, to be frank, people walking that route aren’t going to Cedars Park, they're heading for Tesco and onwards to Stowmarket.

The roadside area is intended for, possibly, a petrol station, a hotel, a pub, some drive through fast food and, perhaps, some retail outlet(s). We'd been expecting that, given the previous planning application for that corner, so no great surprises there.

And now for a hostage to fortune of a sort. The developers and their supporting cast seem to be as reasonable as you might optimistically expect. That's not to say that they will agree to everything or, indeed, anything we would like, but the conversation was courteous, professional and, I believe, honest, and we came away with a better understanding of the project, regardless of any personal misgivings we may have.

Things will move fast too. The community consultation phase ends in just over a fortnight, and what is known as a hybrid planning application is expected to be submitted to Mid Suffolk District Council at the turn of the year. That application will cover the road network, utilities, and landscaping in detail, whilst the remainder will "establish key parameters for the development such as the maximum building height and amount of floorspace to be delivered, with the final details to be subject to further stages of design should planning permission be received.". And yes, there will be further planning applications specific to each building, or group of buildings, as it reaches the drawing board.

Next week will see an opportunity for residents to ask questions by way of a Zoom conference, with yours truly in the chair. The developers have asked to see questions in advance, suggesting that by doing so they will be able to provide fuller responses, and we've agreed to that as part of a collaborative approach to widening the consultation.

I take the view that, whilst the Parish Council should engage in a formal capacity with the project, it is vital that residents express their concerns in their own language rather than rely on us to interpret and prioritise their messages. We'll do our level best to represent our community, but our neighbours have their own perspectives and will have their own preferences for how those are conveyed. I also think that more individual comments give a better idea of the depth of feeling amongst us.

There will be much for the Parish Council to think about, and to respond to, over the coming months and, indeed, years. Given that we are five volunteers, supported by a part-time, albeit highly professional Parish Clerk, it will offer a significant challenge to our ability to scrutinise and question as the development proceeds. And therefore, the interest, knowledge and ideas of the village community as a whole will be core to our effort, and I thank everyone in anticipation.

Monday, October 12, 2020

It could be a long, hard winter...

I've now been home for nearly seven months - hard to believe, sometimes - and I've spent most of that time as part of the HMRC team staffing the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme helpline. Given my day job, that's been something of a switch, especially as I haven't been in frontline customer service since 2012 (and it was very different then, I can assure you).

Going from perhaps receiving one or two telephone calls to receiving them all day does require a shift in attitude too. As an investigator, people don't tend to want to talk to you whereas, when there's the prospect of a grant, they're rather more enthusiastic. And often with good cause, given the state of household financial resilience - more people live on the financial edge than some would suspect. The grant received can be vital to having a roof over your head, or food on the table, and we talk to people whose ability to earn a living has been utterly wrecked.

It is amazing how people have adapted in order to keep the show on the road and a mark of how innovative they can be when pushed. But that isn't always possible. Anything that is usually done indoors but can be done outdoors has found a way, and with the summer easing of infection rates, even jobs that are wholly indoors (our chimney sweep, for example) have picked up through necessity. But there are plenty of self-employed people, delivering a variety of household services, who have suffered financial loss.

The first round of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme paid out 80% of average earnings for a three month period. What that meant was that, if your income was down even quite a lot, you were probably still better off than you might otherwise have been and, even if you had no income at all, you weren't losing too much. Admittedly, that might be critical if your income wasn't great to begin with, and you were living on the financial margins, but it was pretty generous.

The second round pays out 70% (it's still live until 19 October), and so for those whose losses are marginal, it's actually profitable, as there is no minimum threshold for qualifying as adversely affected. However, for those whose income is a small fraction of what it might ordinarily be, it's becoming increasingly marginal. Also, for those with ongoing expenses that can't be dropped or mitigated - premises or equipment leases, for example - the scheme doesn't entirely help.

And, with autumn now upon us, and no sign that the pandemic is easing - quite the reverse, sadly - many of those people who have found a way to operate outside, from fitness instructors to mobile hairdressers, cleaners to childminders, will find that their options become increasingly limited, with the inevitable drop in earning potential that that means.

There has been a good deal of unhappiness about ongoing support, with the attention mostly on those being furloughed. They'll get, theoretically, 67% of their usual pay, and for those on or near the minimum wage, it will obviously be difficult. For the self-employed, the grant for the third scheme will be 20% of average earnings. That's really going to hurt some, who will doubtless be directed towards Universal Credit to help fill the gap.

You might expect me to criticise Rishi Sunak under such circumstances, demanding that he be more generous. In truth, I don't know what advice he's receiving, or what other plans he has. And, in any case, trying to predict what might happen next is a bit like crystal ball reading. The emergence of a vaccine sooner rather than later would be a huge help, but we really can't count on that.

All we can do is support each other and, if you know someone who is self-employed and needs support, do point them towards the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme* if they aren't already aware of it.

* there are exceptions to eligibilty, however, and this guide from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales is clear and concise.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Local Tories break the code of omerta

It's fair to say that, traditionally, I've not been a huge fan of the local Conservatives. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that I'm not alone - many of the county's Conservative MPs had rather faint, if any, connections to Suffolk prior to being selected, which might lead one to guess that the locals aren't that highly rated within the wider Conservative Party. But, they tend to win elections regardless of the weight of talent available, or the campaigning zeal displayed - Suffolk is that kind of place, I fear.

Our own County Councillor, for example, doesn't campaign outside of election time, doesn't report back and probably could pass unnoticed by 95% of the population of Stowmarket North and Stowupland. If that's what the public want though, that's what they get.

But today's news that a number of senior Conservative councillors have been apparently defenestrated by their own members in advance of next year's County elections in favour of presumably fresh new faces does come as a bit of a surprise.

Colin Noble is something of a marmite figure in West Suffolk. Personally, I think that he's a bit of a bruiser albeit an occasionally thin-skinned one. He didn't seem to like the fact that, when he referred to me as the husband of Ros, I responded by referring to him as the husband of Lisa. He became leader of the Conservative Group on the County Council after what was described as a bruising contest, and lasted three years before being overthrown. And now, he's been deselected by his local Conservative Association, having lost his District seat in 2019. But, regardless of what I might think of him, he is a "big beast" in local Conservative politics, having held senior positions in the regional party structure.

Jane Storey has gone too from Thedwastre North in Mid Suffolk. Funnily enough, she lost her District Council seat in 2019 as well - to the Greens - just when she might have become Leader of the Council (the former Leader had lost his seat to us earlier in the day).

And last, but not least, as far as we know so far, Guy McGregor has gone in Hoxne and Eye. In fairness, he's been around for a long, long time, having initially lost his seat in the great Tory rout of '93. He hasn't exactly seen eye to eye (not an intentional pun, I hasten to add) with his MP, Dan Poulter, over the years, but then he's apparently not alone in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Conservative Association.

How do I know all this? Because it's all over the East Anglian Daily Times which, in turn, means that people have talked. And it's unusual, given that incumbent councillors normally go at a time of their choosing. And they certainly haven't chosen, if the story is to be believed, because they've all appealed against the decision.

Now, regardless of what I think of them individually, I have no idea how effective they've been at County level, although the bar isn't always set terribly high. And I also know how difficult it is to find candidates, even where you're likely to win without much effort - being a councillor is hard work in terms of the sheer number of meetings you have to attend, let alone casework, Parish and Town council meetings to attend, etc. etc. So, presumably, the Conservatives have found someone else, someone able to meet the criteria laid down by their selection process rather better than Colin, Jane and Guy. Or, alternatively, the Suffolk Conservative leadership have decided that they've got to go, and the local Associations have quietly complied.

But, regardless of what I think of their policies, they have attempted to serve the people of Suffolk to the best of their ability, and that should always be respected, regardless of who, and where. At a time when politics, and politicians, are pretty widely derided, those who are willing to give their time and energy to public administration should be thanked.

That said, next year's elections could be difficult for the Conservatives across Suffolk. In 2019, it seemed that voters would, if given a credible alternative, vote for it over the Conservatives. That was certainly the story in Mid Suffolk. And, with the impact of Covid-19 on employment, and the uncertainty of what happens after 31 December when Brexit becomes a reality, being a Conservative candidate could be a very uncomfortable experience.

This might turn out to be a very good election to sit out...

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Lords takes a stand for decency and humanity on immigration

I'm afraid that I've always assumed that, when Conservatives talk about immigration, what they really mean is allowing white people to flow in and out relatively easily, compared to anyone else. Of course, in more recent years, that former group became more restricted - poorer Europeans weren't very welcome either.

Having made it as difficult as possible for poor people from developing and under-developed countries to come here by means of expensive visas, restricted access to the application process and, in truth, a system which favoured the wealthy, they turned to Europe. There were, as the likes of Farage said, too many foreigners coming here to steal British jobs and British benefits, driving wages down and overwhelming public services.

The fact that we had very low levels of unemployment, and thus thousands and thousands of vacancies, and that the minimum wage had consistently risen by above the rate of inflation, was irrelevant. The fact that freedom of movement in Europe worked both ways was conveniently overlooked. And the fact that the decision not to invest in our public services - increasingly staffed by those very same European nationals - was a choice of Government, was camouflaged by using European citizens as scapegoats.

There was a curious irony that, as Europeans were increasingly discouraged from coming here after the Brexit referendum, the number of non-Europeans coming to live here increased dramatically despite the controls placed upon them. It was almost as though successive Conservative Home Secretaries were determined not to practice what they so loudly preached. And yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you.

Naturally, with Brexit looming ever closer, there is another Immigration Bill, mean-spirited and petty. And, with a Government majority of 80 in the Commons, made up of a clutch of MPs who are always unhappy about something, but rarely actually rebel (and yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you again...), there's little prospect of any improvement there.

Thus, any hope for the insertion of some compassion in the legislation is left to the Lords. And, yesterday, the Government were given the sort of kicking that one only wishes could be metaphorically given to much of the Cabinet. Losing one vote is bad enough, but they were three down even before Oral Questions, due to a carry over of votes from the previous session (the online voting system had given up the ghost for the day).

And then the "Dubs amendment" came up for debate. Alf Dubs has been attempted to nail down the Government's declared intention to accept an agreed number of child refugees. Strangely enough, whenever anyone attempted to hold them to that commitment, Ministers always wriggled out from under their promise, and Baroness Williams of Trafford was never going to be an exception to that rule. The problem she has is that nobody really believes anything that the Government say any more, either through a lack of competence or, in some cases, basic integrity. And despite her plea that the amendment be withdrawn, there was no quarter offered and the Government fell to a ninety-four vote defeat.

The settled status scheme for EU national comes without any physical evidence - verification of settled status is only available via a website - and there have been persistent calls for the provision of physical documented proof. Naturally, the Government isn't keen, having learned nothing from the Windrush scandal. Besides, the hostile environment is no accident, it is design (and thank you, Theresa May, for absolutely nothing...). Even the Conservative benches weren't wholly friendly, and whilst Baroness Williams felt that she had total faith in the computer systems and the Home Office (and mustn't that be a lonely hill to stand on?), the Lords disagreed, handing her and Priti Patel a 106-vote defeat. It was particularly pleasing to see a Liberal Democrat Peer, Jonny Oates, moving that one.

I've admitted to being a big fan of Sally Hamwee in the past. Hard-working, thoroughly liberal, and with a keen eye for poor legislation, she is an exemplar of the strengths of the Lords. She had picked up on the indefinite limits on detention for immigration purposes. Now, it seems reasonable not to have an upper limit where it may not be possible for someone who is in the country legally to be deported (albeit that you would never want to detain anyone for long), but there is no such problem for EU/EEA nationals. Sally wanted to restrict the period for which such people could be detained to twenty-eight days. Naturally, the Government merely wanted to assure everyone that, most of the time, people are deported within twenty-eight days.

Ultimately, any immigration system should be efficient and humane. The problem is that the Home Office isn't efficient, and the Government don't really do humane (Moldova? Papua New Guinea?). And, again, the problem of the Government's slipperiness rears its ugly head again, so despite the late hour (it was nearly midnight by the time the Division took place, the Government lost again, by 28 votes.

That also meant that amendments addressing the criteria for, and duration of, initial detention and bail hearings were passed consequentially.

It was a good night for decency...

Monday, October 05, 2020

1,691 days... and counting...

It’s coming on for five years now since I started what seemed like a vaguely heroic quest - for me at least - of trying to walk 10,000 steps every day. I started in midwinter, on the basis that, if I could do it then, I could probably keep it up. And, for seven weeks, I did just fine. On day 50, I contracted food poisoning in an all-inclusive resort in Cuba. I may be one of the very few people to have left an all-inclusive resort weighing rather less than I did when I went in...

I lost three days but, by day 4, I was able to get back on track. That was 18 February 2016, and I haven’t missed a day since.

That sounds rather impressive as I think about it. Despite rain, snow, hurricane force winds, I’ve doggedly got my 10,000 steps, walking around airport terminals, making deck circuits with a view of the polar pack ice, trudging through a blizzard across the New Hampshire/Maine border. But mostly, those steps have been done within a short distance of home.

I’m lucky in that regard. Ros is very encouraging, sometimes arranging things (and me) to make getting those steps easier, but generally allowing me to disappear for half an hour here, or an hour there to get them done - it takes about an hour and forty minutes of continuous walking to get to 10,000 steps, especially as I tend to the view that running is for people being chased by tigers (there are very few tigers in mid-Suffolk).

And, as you might expect, there are benefits too. I’m nearly twenty kilos (forty-two pounds or three stones) lighter than I was then, slightly more limber than before, and rather less vulnerable to the Valladares curse - type 2 diabetes. I’ve also expanded my wardrobe towards something more dapper, which is nice. And, and this is quite important given one of my great loves, fitting into aircraft seats is a less traumatic experience.

One unexpected plus is my increased exposure to village life. People have a habit of stopping for conversation, which gives me fresh insight into how my village works, and what troubles it. As Chair of the Parish Council, that can be incredibly useful, as it gives me ideas for things that we might do to help, or to improve the village. They may be small things, but they matter, and that should be what community activism is about.

So, onwards into my sixth winter. I’m better equipped, with the rain gear I picked up in Chile, sensible walking shoes from Clarks, with the back-up of proper hiking boots from Timberland, and a flat cap made of Harris Tweed to keep the rain off my eyebrows. I’m also in a groove - a day feels incomplete until my FitBit wristband buzzes to let me know that I’ve completed another 10,000 steps.

Wish me luck...

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Quiet Lanes - an opportunity to be seized, or a risk to be avoided?

Twenty years ago, a young Baroness moved an amendment to the Transport Bill then under discussion which was intended to make it easier to establish Home Zones and Quiet Lanes. At the time, the Minister, Lord Whitty, was not entirely convinced but wanted to take it away for more thought. The outcome was Section 268, Transport Act 2000, and the young Baroness, who had been in the Lords for less than three months, was Ros.

The significance of that certainly didn’t hit me at the time - not only did I not know Ros, but the relevance of the legislation to an urban bureaucrat would not have been obvious.

However, this week, the idea of Quiet Lanes has been raised, as Suffolk County Council have launched a £235,000 tranche from its Suffolk 2020 Fund – a one-off pot set up for projects this year – to encourage town and parish councils to apply for potential quiet lanes in their area. Now, living in a village which has suffered from speeding for years - we have no pavements and the road through the core village is single track - the headline rather caught my eye as a potential opportunity.

There is a problem, however, in that there are only two routes into the village, both of them lengthy stretches of single track road. A 2006 circular, issued by the Department of Transport, suggests that the Quiet Lanes option is suitable for roads with less than 1,000 traffic movements per day.

You’d think that a village with a population of 200 would struggle to reach that, yet if you add in all of the vehicles that visit the village from outside, delivering things, carrying out tasks, visiting residents, the amount of traffic mounts up. We’re also an increasingly useful cut through allowing traffic to bypass Stowmarket.

So, there is a question of simple eligibility. However, there’s also a question of desirability. Do we, as a village, want to limit speeds on roads that don’t see so much non-vehicular traffic? What actual benefits might we see in return for any investment? 

The obvious solution is to consult with my colleagues, and with village residents as far as is possible. Luckily, we’ve got a village newsletter going out soon...

Friday, October 02, 2020

September 2020 - Parish Councillor report

It's been another surprisingly eventful month, given how quiet things have been in recent years, with the emergence of the Gateway 14 project dominating our thoughts.

There's no doubt that, with the District Council as the developer, something will happen, although what that is may take some time to emerge, especially given the damage to the economy caused by the pandemic, and the changes in how we are likely to work going forward.

Parish Council met on 21 September to agree our strategy, and concluded that, whilst the plans are effectively just a draft outline, our aim should be to influence the thinking at an early stage, seek potential benefits for our community, and encourage residents to both engage and offer their own thoughts on the project, positive or negative, constructive or otherwise. That means seeking briefing meetings for both Council and residents, as well as attempting to support those who can't, or don't want to, engage online.

My initial thoughts are;
  • can we redesign the road network to address the concerns of residents at Clamp Farm?
  • can we keep the majority of vehicle movements further away from the village by focussing any logistics site closer to the river?
  • pedestrian access, especially the main footpath from the village to Cedars Park, needs to be protected and encouraged
  • is there potential for new public transport links to the site, given the number of new jobs to be created?
There is also a conflict here, in that the District Council have invested a lot in the purchase of the site, and that's effectively our money, so we have some interest in the success of the project in that income generated will fund local services.

On a personal note, I have become the Vice Chair of the Mid Suffolk South group of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the umbrella group for Town and Parish Councils across the county, which enables councillors to come together and discuss issues of mutual interest, and to lobby both District and County Councils where helpful. It also provides training for councillors to improve our knowledge and skills bases.

At its September meeting, I raised the issue of punctures, as residents had reported increased tyre problems, to see if this was an issue elsewhere. There wasn't much of a response, although the Chair of Offton and Willisham Parish Council shared my concern. I find myself wondering if it might be linked to the top dressing of rural roads, so it might be worth raising with Suffolk Highways.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

A slightly stunned parish councillor makes it to the big league?

Two weeks ago, I was merely the Chair of a small, albeit perfectly formed, Parish Council of a small village in a backwater of mid-Suffolk. I had, in all honesty, only become Chair due to a friendly ambush by my fellow councillors, who had decided that I might make a half decent job of the role. They have subsequently re-appointed me twice, which might suggest that I'm doing a halfway decent job of it, although it might equally be that they don't fancy the job much.

Two weeks ago, I "turned up" at a virtual meeting of the Mid Suffolk South branch of the County Association of Local Councils, only to find that there was a hitherto unexpected vacancy for its Vice Chair. And, as nobody else wanted the job, I was elected without competition. So far, so good.

That position also gave me a place on the Board of the County Association and, in that capacity, I joined a Zoom meeting this morning for our Autumn meeting. All very nice, all very friendly, and no great surprises. That was, right up until the point where the elections took place...

Our Chair was re-elected without challenge, but a new Vice-Chair was needed. There was a little shuffling until a volunteer was found, which was good. We reappointed our representative to the East Suffolk Council Collaborative Communities Board (I'll admit that I don't know what that does, but as I don't live in East Suffolk, that isn't critical, I suspect) and then came to the last election, that of our representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils, the English umbrella body for the third tier of local government and our equivalent of the Local Government Association.

There didn't seem to be anyone who wanted the job and, as a rookie Board member, I thought it wise to ask what it did. An explanation was given, which seemed harmless enough, but there still wasn't any great rush to take on the role. I was then asked if my question implied some interest and, perhaps foolhardily, suggested that, if nobody else came forward, I'd do it. Nobody did. And so, I got the job.

Each County Association has one member of the National Assembly, so it's not exactly a huge body, but I appear to now have a national platform. And yes, my job is to represent the interests of my county and its town and parish councils, but as a crash course in how the third tier of local government works, it's likely to be pretty intense.

Luckily, I have a strong support network, expert guidance at my disposal, a highly efficient Chief Executive to keep me on the straight and narrow and a predecessor happy to share his insights and experiences. My first meeting is in early December, so if I thought that I had a lot of reading to do a fortnight ago, I've got a lot more on my hands now...