My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;
Friday, October 30, 2020
Thursday, October 29, 2020
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
Saturday, October 24, 2020
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.
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Saturday, October 17, 2020
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
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
Monday, October 12, 2020
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
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
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
Sunday, October 04, 2020
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
- 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?