Sunday, November 21, 2021

Creeting St Peter - can you really go on doing things the same old way?

Our Parish Council has seen rather a lot of change lately. Two resignations have led to two newcomers joining our group, and leave me as the sole directly elected member - and I was elected unopposed, which is barely but importantly different from being co-opted. And, with our Clerk having handed in her notice - it wasn’t acrimonious, I’m glad to say - it isn’t the Council that I once chaired.

I find myself with the sense that, whilst finding a new Clerk is obviously essential, there is the question of what sort of Council do we want to be, and how do we get there?

Under my somewhat idiosyncratic leadership, we’ve possibly been more active in terms of our responses to planning applications, and my active engagement in SALC has had the benefit of opening my eyes to other possibilities. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering if we couldn’t organise things differently. That’s slightly awkward, as I am still wholly determined to stand down as Chair at our 2022 Annual Parish Council meeting.

When I first became a councillor, portfolios were the thing. I had finance and wildlife in my portfolio - I always assumed that the wildlife element reflected my almost total lack of knowledge in the field. In my second incarnation, they had been given up, and Council was more collegiate in its approach. That said, we may have devolved too much to our highly capable Clerk.

Whilst I wouldn’t have wanted to have to replace her, her departure offers an opportunity to reflect, especially with a much changed Council with a new range of skills and experience. And, given that someone is going to have to take over as Chair, it offers scope for a Chair-elect to emerge as part of the process.

It will be interesting to see who comes forward, and how they fulfil the role. Having done the job for nearly four years, I’ve learned that I really wouldn’t describe myself as a Leader figure, more an administrator attempting to maintain good order. I find confrontation stressful, and have a tendency to delay decisions until the point where they can’t reasonably be delayed much further. Here in Creeting St Peter, that hadn’t proved to be much of a hindrance - how heated can things get when you’ve got a budget of £5,500 to spend each year, much of which isn’t particularly discretionary?

That tells me that I’ve possibly found my level in local government, as I can easily imagine life at District or County level to be more intense, more stressful, with decisions that, potentially, impact significantly on people’s lives, and much larger budgets. If you like, I acknowledge that at this time in my life, I’m something of an enthusiastic amateur. You can probably get away with that as District or County level too, but I’m not sure that I’d want to test the theory personally.

But I do want to see things done well. Even though our budget is small, our discretionary spend even smaller, we can at least run our affairs and serve our residents as best we can and, with District and County Councils seemingly ever more remote, we should try to encourage residents to take advantage of the services and facilities that are available, many of which they pay council tax to support.

So, there is much to think about, even if some of it feels a bit philosophical in nature. I’m a liberal, and I believe in good governance, openness and personal responsibility. Perhaps that offers a framework for a new way of working, here in the Gipping Valley?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Creeting St Peter - a new piece of local government jargon to master

There is always something to learn in the wonderful world of local government, and this week’s phrase is “stopping up order”.

As part of the Gateway 14 development, the road between our village and the Cedars Park area of Stowmarket will be closed, to be replaced by a more direct route running through the centre of the new business and enterprise park. In addition, the footpath that similarly links us to the edge of Stowmarket (particularly useful for a gentle stroll to Tesco) will be diverted around the proposed development sites. The stopping-up order permits the closing of the old road and diversion of the footpath and technically requires the approval of the Secretary of State for Transport. Whilst I’m fairly confident that Grant Shapps won’t actually be doing anything other than leaving the matter to a member of the National Transport Casework Team, it does behove us as a statutory consulted to take it seriously.

I’m not all that bothered about the proposed footpath diversion - it’s slightly longer but not much, and the surface will be much improved when upgraded to a bridleway.

The road, on the other hand, is more of a problem. In response, I’ve drafted a response as follows;


I write on behalf of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, the boundary of whose jurisdiction lies at the point where the newly proposed road joins the existing carriageway.

Whilst the concept underpinning the proposed stopping up of the existing highway and its replacement with the new route (indicated in orange on your draft plan) is supported by the Parish Council, there are two aspects which concern us.

Firstly, the proposed carriageway linking the roundabout to the point where it joins Mill Lane is intended to be considerably wider than the road it will feed traffic into. This will create a “pinch point” for all traffic leaving the planned development the new carriageway is intended to serve.

We would therefore urge conditions that mitigate against this sudden narrowing of the carriageway, perhaps including development of the existing section of Mill Lane as it continues in an easterly direction.

Additionally, the resultant change in carriageway width will occur on the right-angled corner where the new road joins the existing one. A key planning condition for the development for which the proposed new road is the key spinal route is that a 4.5 metre tall bund, with planting on top of that, is to be developed running along the south side of the new road at the point where it approaches Mill Lane. This will evidently eliminate sight lines until the point where the junction between old road and new is reached.

We therefore strongly recommend a redesign of the junction so as to remove the two right-angled bends from the current proposal, to be replaced with a smoothed transition, improving sight lines and reducing the incidence of congestion caused by heavy goods vehicles, in particular articulated lorries, meeting at a section of carriageway unsuited to traffic of that kind. It would also offer the benefit of reducing the amount of braking, and thus noise pollution, affecting residents of the residential properties adjoining the corners in question.

It should be noted that Mill Lane is already the primary route of access to and from the industrial facility at Grove Farm, and thus is used by articulated lorries delivering materials to, and finished products from, a concrete products factory, Poundfield Precast, and thus the question of access for heavy goods vehicles is very much a live one.

In our submission to Mid Suffolk District Council relating to the planning application creating the need for this stopping up order, we noted our concerns about the proposed road layout at Clamp Farm, highlighting the issues with drifting snow at that corner. Smoothing the corner would allow the drifting snow to gather beyond the road, ensuring that the road is open at all times.

We therefore call upon the Secretary of State to require a significant redesign of the intersection between the new road and the existing carriageway along the lines suggested above.

We trust that the issues which concern us have been raised with sufficient clarity, but would be happy to meet with you, or a colleague, to inspect the site and to explain our concerns in the context of the issues impacting upon it.

This is, I emphasise, a first draft response which I’ve asked my fellow councillors to consider, but I think that it’s a thoughtful one, given that there are some advantages to rerouting the road to Stowmarket. 

And, it’s a new piece of jargon for me to pick up, so that’s a thing, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Ros in the Lords - Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body: Annual Report

Ros served on the Sponsor Body, from its shadow period until this Summer. And, as a member during the period covered by the Annual Report, she wanted to raise some of her concerns about how the Restoration and Renewal Project was going...

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his introduction and his kind words to me.

It is interesting how much we can get accustomed to things over time. We turn up to this building and almost do not see the ever-encroaching scaffolding, the netting that was installed to stop masonry falling on us, the portakabins and the piles of rubbish that fill the historic courtyards on the ground floor. Despite this never-ending maintenance work, at a cost of around £2 million a week, the building is getting worse. We expect many of our staff to work in poky offices, some of which have little or no natural light, inadequate ventilation and poor temperature control. Colleagues with mobility issues struggle with stairs, steps, small lifts and heavy doors.

It is worth pausing sometimes to look at the faces of the tourists who look at our building, even in these rather difficult times. They cannot believe what they are seeing; frankly, I find it embarrassing that we have allowed the building to get into this state. On the other side of the building, hidden away, is a medieval cloister. It is reputed to have been the entrance that was used by Henry VIII when he came to the Palace. It has been virtually derelict for years. In these Houses, we make laws to protect buildings. We enforce them and expect other people to look after buildings to a standard that we ignore ourselves. This simply will not do.

I have been along to the small exhibition in the Royal Gallery. Pride of place is given to a small piece of masonry. It looks a bit theatrical, actually—it looks like a piece of polystyrene or something—but when you pick it up, then remember that it fell from the building, you realise, without being too apocalyptic, that it would have killed someone who was underneath it. I understand the justifiable concerns, particularly of Members of the House of Commons, about the expense of this project. I have much less sympathy with the unwillingness to leave this building, but it has resulted in the situation we see today.

Optimistic as I am, I really thought that we were getting somewhere when both Houses overwhelmingly supported the resolutions a couple of years ago. It was clear that there was to be a full decant of both Houses, and the sponsor body/delivery authority model was established. There was recognition that Parliament itself does not have the skills that are needed to undertake a project on this scale. This seemed a good way forward to me, so I supported it; I was pleased to join the sponsor body when it was formed. I put on the record now that every individual I worked with on the sponsor body was completely committed to this place. They brought skill and enthusiasm to their roles. We are lucky with the non-executives who have chosen to give their time to this project. They work well above their contracted hours and play a really important part.

However, personally, I am really worried about the future of this project—never more so than now. Although the sponsor body is intended to act as the client, it is of course Parliament that makes the key decisions. From the point of those resolutions to the point where the outline business case comes, it is the political leadership of Parliament, through these rather mysterious bodies called the commissions, which is calling the shots.

The noble Lord, Lord Deighton, and others have talked about the trade-offs; I think he talked about scope, schedule and cost. Of course these trade-offs are clear, but what troubles me about the model we have set up is that it enables some people to outsource those difficult decisions to the sponsor body. It has enabled them to say, “Just go away and make this happen. We don’t like these choices, so you go and sort it out”. I find this deeply troubling.

I am reassured that the Lords commission has been steadfast in its support for the approach in the resolutions, whereas the Commons has not been. I am perhaps not as warm-hearted as the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I understand that things change in the political world, but the problem with the timescales of this refurbishment is that there will always be a point when a new Parliament comes in. If we do not remain steadfast at some point, we will never progress.

At a point when the sponsor body should have been able to narrow down options for investigating and costing, it has had to add back in the option for a continued presence for the House of Commons, despite the fact that every individual and organisation that has looked at this for well over a decade has counselled against this approach on the grounds that it will cost more, take longer and introduce massive uncertainty. This was confirmed by last year’s strategic review, yet the Commons commission has added it back in. If this were to end up as the preferred choice of the Commons, I find it hard to believe that it would pass any of the value-for-money tests required by the Treasury. We would therefore have further extensive delays while that was negotiated and resolved.

The continued presence would be for the Commons only. I suspect that it neither knows nor cares about what happens to the House of Lords operationally or the impact it would have on costs. A full decant, or even a partial decant, is contingent on having somewhere to go. In the case of the Commons it is Richmond House, which is not under the control of the sponsor body; it is under the remit of the House of Commons.

Could the noble Lord, Lord Best, say what progress the Commons is making on a possible decant to Richmond House? My fear is that, if it does not get on with that, we will end up defaulting to a continued presence because it has nowhere else to go. The nightmare scenario is that picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, which is that, if the faults with the building turn out to be far worse than we think, the Commons would be committed to a continued presence in a building that is in a far more parlous state than we could have thought.

As well as these well-documented potential additional costs and risks with a continued presence, there are significant potential security risks with having hundreds of contractors working in the building while MPs are sitting. I understand that this is a sensitive area, but I hope that ways can be found to make the full security implications of this option crystal clear to those making the decisions.

The decant option for the Lords is, as we have heard, the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. It is owned by the Government, but it is a building that itself needs some considerable work on its core services, as well as to bring it up to the requirements for temporary accommodation for the Lords. A consequence of the Commons pushing on with a continued presence will be to lengthen considerably the amount of time the Lords will need to be in the QEII. I would have thought that would further add to the costs, because a building that is converted to a standard for five years might have to be rather differently dealt with if we are going to be in it for 10 or 15. Despite issues around commercial sensitivity, these costs again must be spelled out.

I am worried that the very real consensus that emerged across both Houses and all parties when we voted on the resolutions is now in danger of collapse under all sorts of competing pressures. I may be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that this House would ultimately vote for an option that it knows would cost considerably more, add risk to the project, and consign it to an extended period in temporary accommodation.

As we have heard, this will be the biggest restoration project undertaken anywhere in the world. It is an opportunity to preserve this building for the generations to come and to create a better working environment for the staff. I absolutely understand that the people who are answerable directly to an electorate in a way that we are not have real reservations about trying to make a case for spending money on this building, but the problem is that they are not doing it for themselves or for us. We could limp on somehow or other, but the building cannot limp on indefinitely. We owe it to future generations of parliamentarians, staff and the public to get on and deal with this now.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

NALC - it’s election time!

A few weeks ago, I mused upon whether or not to run for one of the various committees of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

Nominations closed on Monday, and with all of the three key leadership roles up for grabs (our Chair and both Vice-Chairs are term-limited), it will be interesting to see who emerges to take them on at a time of flux. There are significant challenges ahead as devolution bids roll out across the shire counties - how do town and parish councils sit in terms of service provision, for example? The new leadership will need to make sure that our voice is heard whilst establishing strong relationships with ministers and opposition spokespersons to maximise our influence.

We'll also need to develop our "asks" too. We've been successful in some areas - business rates on public lavatories, avoiding referenda on precept increases - but can we think bigger than that?

The elections take place in two stages;
  • voting for Chair, Vice-Chairs (finance and member services), Management Board and the Finance and Scrutiny Committee will occur between 10 and 22 November 2021
  • voting for the Policy Committee, the Larger Councils Committee and the Smaller Councils Committee will occur between 22 November and 6 December 2021
Results will be announced on 8 December, so I await my ballot papers and may the best candidate(s) win!

In the end, I did dwell on the question of whether to put my name forward but came to the conclusion that I was happy to be in an outer tier both actually and organisationally. I've sat on a lot of committees over the years (and I do mean a lot), and there's a danger that you end up sitting on a committee because you can rather than because you genuinely have something to offer.

Now that isn't to say that I have nothing to offer the right committee, but I'm also a great believer in scrutiny and there has to be someone on the outside willing to do that in a supportive, constructive way. I hope that one of those "someones" can be me, representing the voice of the many micro parishes who, because of their lack of capacity, tend to get overlooked to some extent. The very fact that I don't know everything, but bring my professional curiosity to the arena, will perhaps help.

Whatever happens though, I look forward to working with all of those who have committed themselves to work in support of taking NALC forward over the coming years. It is an organisation that will doubtless continue to play a huge role in terms of strengthening local government, and anyone who is part of that effort deserves my respect.

Friday, October 29, 2021

I appear to have become a grandfather...

Those of you who know me well will, perhaps, be slightly surprised by this news given my evident lack of children. But then, that's the thing about "second time around". Not only are you hopefully a bit better for the lessons you learned from a previous failure (in my case), but you benefit from the experiences of your new life partner.

Apart from the obvious general loveliness that is Ros, there are my two stepchildren, to whom I have become the evil stepfather they never knew they needed. In fairness, they've been generous and welcoming, which is not always how these things go. And now, there is a granddaughter.

And, despite my total lack of experience of small children - and at this point, I ought to reflect that I wasn't the best of uncles to my nephew and nieces (it's a long story which gains little value in the telling) - I have been surprised at how much fun this grandfathering has been.

It is early days, I acknowledge, and having spent six days with her, I suspect that it won't always be quite so blissful, but it is amazing how quickly you feel a sense of protectiveness towards a small person. It was certainly worth travelling more than three thousand miles for.

I even have my official grandfathering mug, designed so that I have tea whilst administering valuable advice on which way up to hold up a plastic star so that it fits through the hole in the top of the box it is stored in, or whether raspberries are more appropriate to the season than blueberries (the answer, by the way, appears to be "hardly ever"). It also has my official "grandfather name" on it, which will remind me who am I as I am overtaken by the inevitable "senior moments".

It is, I guess, a factor of modern life that with families more far flung than hitherto, that more grandparenting is in two dimensions rather than three, something which at least comes more naturally to me, with a family scattered across twenty time zones on four continents. But, it must be said, it's better in person...

Thursday, October 28, 2021

SALC: the Board meeting!

I have to admit that I've rather gotten behind with my reporting of events. You know how it is, you look at the blog and think "I really ought to write something" but never quite get round to it. I ought to do better...

But enough mumbling, and on with events.

I've now served a whole year on the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and, having been re-elected by Mid Suffolk South Area last month, I got to return for another term. The first item of business? Elections.

We've got a new Chair, Andrew Lewis, from Walberswick Parish Council, where he's their Chair too. He has a tough act to follow in William Sargeant, the Chair of Botesdale Parish Council, whose calm, dry wit and sense of ordnung served us so well. I think that Andrew will be just fine though - he's not one to allow meetings to drift into anecdotage, which I appreciate, and he brings a sense of professionalism to the task which suits our needs well.

I admit that I rather leant on Julie Bell, the Chair of Gislingham Parish Council, to take on the role of Vice-Chair, having noted how nice it would be to have a gender balanced leadership team. The fact that Julie is highly experienced in local government helps and she's a good meeting chair too, having had the pleasure of working with her at Mid Suffolk joint meetings.

Russ Rainger gamely agreed to continue as our representative on the East Suffolk Council Community Partnership Board, and I was reappointed as our representative on the NALC National Assembly - I think that my rather curious enthusiasm for the role surprised my colleagues.

I reported back on National Assembly matters before we turned to our finances. We're lucky in that we have a good Finance Officer and, being Suffolk, a cautious sense of the possible when considering expenditure, so it's fair to say that all is as well as one might hope.

We then turned to the knotty problem of membership subscriptions, something I've experienced before in other organisations. The challenge is to create a fee structure that is fair, relatively easy to explain and likely not to repel potential and current members. And, just as in my days on the Financial Advisory Committee of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, the basis upon which members are billed is a bit of a moving target, especially as development leads to sudden, dramatic population increases in relatively small communities. I believe that we have a workable solution, but we need to communicate it to member councils rather than just drop it on them from a height.

I was able to offer a solution to the question of pay awards for our professional staff which allows us, hopefully, to somewhat reflect their hard work and dedication in the face of the pandemic. Sometimes, being a mathematician by training comes in handy.

We considered the activity report and I continue to be impressed by the sheer volume of activity generated by a small team of dedicated professionals, including increasing collaborative working with neighbouring counties. There are definite advantages to pooling some services on a regional basis and, if we can develop sufficient capacity to play a leading role in that, I am sure we will.

There's a new Code of Conduct to consider, developed in conjunction with the Local Government Association, and whilst it can never resolve all of the problems that arise in the various tiers of local government, it at least offers a set of guidance that it consistent across the tiers, especially welcome to those amongst us who operate at more than one level.

We ended by renewing our Complaints and Motions policies, making sure that they're as up to date as they can be. Something that the pandemic has brought is a greater appreciation of different ways of doing things, especially through technology. I accept that, especially at Parish level, not everyone is comfortable with online working, but it offers access to those who might otherwise be excluded from the opportunities and training we offer - those with caring responsibilities, or disabilities, or who simply might not find it easy to get across the county to a physical meeting.

So, all in all, a very successful evening. Next up, our annual strategy meeting in February, which should be interesting and another step on my personal learning curve.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Sometimes, a lack of drama is most welcome…

It’s been a year since I somewhat unexpectedly became Vice Chair of the Mid Suffolk South group of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, and last night saw the election cycle come around to reset. It is occasionally hard to believe that it’s been a whole year but…

In truth, there wasn’t a huge rush to challenge me. After all, the job of Vice Chair is quite undemanding, but the Chair of the County Association was kind enough to say that I’d added value as the County’s representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils, which was appreciated - people seldom say thank you these days.

We discussed planning issues and there is a genuine sense of frustration that, having been encouraged to produce neighbourhood plans, these seem to be disregarded by the District Council when considering housing development. I admit to being a cynic about neighbourhood plans, although it had never really seemed like a valid use of our time to produce one for Creeting St Peter.

But if you insist on engaging local communities into developing a plan, and tell them that these will be critical in determining the future of their village, and then disregard them subsequently, you might not be surprised to find that those communities then look at you with suspicion thereafter.

As a Hamlet village, as defined by Mid Suffolk District Council, we’re basically excluded from consideration for more housing, given our complete lack of services. That tends to mean that our interest in any Local Plan extends as far as checking the map to see if they’ve changed the settlement boundary. And, given that, why would we go to the trouble and expense of preparing a neighbourhood plan?

We also discussed 20 mph speed limits. Again, I’m a bit cynical about their effectiveness given our experiences. Without enforcement, or engineering to slow speeding drivers, our 20 mph limit acts to provide almost false reassurance to pedestrian road users. And, without pavement, those on foot are sharing the space with metal boxes on wheels that tend to come out better in the event of a collision. I’d almost rather encourage pedestrians to take extra care when walking around the village.

I gave a brief report on events as the National Assembly, noting that we were expecting a 1% increase in the NALC membership fee based on the recommendation that would go to October’s Annual General Meeting. We discussed the payscale for Clerks, noting that the current pay offer has been rejected by their union.

At the end of the meeting, I asked if we could seek a briefing on devolution proposals for Suffolk, given that a bid has been put in by the County Council in conjunction with the Districts and Borough. That seemed to gain support, so we’ll see what comes of that. I find myself wondering what impact it might have on the ability of town and parish councils to influence decision making by the principal authorities.

So, all in all, an interesting meeting and I’d like to think that those councillors who attended found it useful.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

NALC - elections are coming

I am, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, Suffolk's representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC). And, in that capacity, I have received this notice;

Nominations are open for NALC's National Assembly members for the upcoming elections in December 2021.

The primary objective of the National Assembly is to oversee the delivery of NALC’s objectives as set out in the constitution, to represent the interest of the local (parish and town) councils in England to provide support and coordination to as aspects of the work of local councils.

NALC is looking for passionate, committed, enthusiastic local councillors with the right skills to serve on its National Assembly and governing committees and support county associations' work.

Hmmm... my bureaucrat antennae twitch at the thought of running for election in an organisation which might benefit from my organisational skills and sense of process. I am, as bureaucrats go, sympathetic towards the politics of our sector and am lucky enough to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience possessed by Ros, i.e. she is perfectly willing to patiently explain why my slightly random musings might be undeliverable, impractical or unnecessary. That is a good thing, let me assure you. Think of it as the difference between a practitioner and a theoretician...

There are a range of roles up for grabs;
  • Chair
  • Vice-chair (finance)
  • Vice-chair (member services)
  • Management Board (six vacancies)
  • Finance and Scrutiny Committee (five vacancies)
  • Policy Committee (seven vacancies)
  • Larger Councils Committee (four vacancies)
  • Smaller Councils Committee (five vacancies)
noting that I'm ineligible to stand for the Larger Councils Committee.

As a relatively new member of the National Assembly, I wouldn't have the audacity to run for Chair or Vice-Chair, and the Management Board, I feel, requires a rather firmer grasp of the culture and environment of NALC than I can reasonably claim at this point.

That rather simplifies the options, although there is a fourth option, which is not to run at all. Organisations need chiefs and Indians, and I'm probably better qualified to be the latter than any other member of the National Assembly - I'm half-Indian, remember. You could, and I would, argue that committees need someone to ask questions of them from the outside, so to speak.

I've not traditionally been a policy wonk, although I have an enthusiasm for ideas and a sense of the possible, whilst my professional background suggests that I could contribute to the Finance and Scrutiny Committee. On the other hand, I am passionate about ensuring that micro councils like mine aren't overlooked in the rush towards local devolution deals and empowerment - there's only so much empowerment that small communities can handle.

Luckily, I've got nearly five weeks to ponder over whether to run or what to run for. It will also be interesting to see if people actually campaign or whether there is any organisation of slates - you can learn a lot about an organisation by how it runs its elections.

First though, I've got an election of my own to deal with...

Monday, September 20, 2021

Parish Council doesn't meet, which gives me some time to reflect...

There is one obvious peril when you only have five councillors, which that it doesn't take much to jeopardise quoracy and thus the ability to hold meetings. Holidays, ill health and, occasionally, sheer misfortune, can interfere with the smooth running of local government and, tonight, that combination gained me an unexpected evening off.

Luckily, we're in a quiet part of the cycle at the moment. Gateway 14 has been approved but there is no sign of activity yet in terms of the infrastructure needed before actual buildings can go up. There are no outstanding controversies, and although there are things that could be done, none of them are exactly urgent.

I admit to a vague sense of relief in that sense, in that I find myself slightly distracted in the generality - there's a lot going on, and I've grown unused to that during the pandemic. Maintaining focus across a range of disparate roles does not entirely come naturally, especially when they don't really interconnect.

But life is slowly beginning to return to normal here in the Creetings. Church services have resumed, the first coffee morning for eighteen months has taken place - I was on duty supporting the Parochial Church Council and thus missed it - and there are even going to be pub nights in the foreseeable future.

I'm also attempting to manage the transition from Chair to, well, ordinary Councillor really, by leaving a bit more space for my fellow councillors to fill. I don't have to offer an opinion if there is an emerging stance, my colleagues can take on responsibilities that I might have picked up, and I'm trying to feel less obligated.

It's not that I'm any less committed to the wellbeing of my community, it's just that I really believe that organisations ossify if the leader doesn't change from time to time. I like to think that I'm fairly adaptable, and not prone to dominating the debate but there's a real danger that you settle into a comfortable regime, especially if unchallenged. A new approach, a new style, can be a good thing.

And I still have ambitions, both personal and collective. The pandemic has rather distracted me from some of my thinking on how a small Parish Council might operate, and I still have my roles with the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and as their representative on the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils.

So, as I enter my last six months as Chair - and I really mean it - it's time to lift my eyes to the horizon and ponder the future...

Monday, August 30, 2021

An interesting, perhaps trying, day in the office beckons…

It’s been a long time now since I was in an office with other people, nearly a year and a half, in fact, since we were told not to come back to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic took off last March. 

I was a mite daunted to begin with, as the idea of working at home was not something I’d ever particularly felt attracted to. But, with the launch of the various financial support schemes, I was kept busy enough, and it was quite satisfying to be of real help to people in need.

Spring turned to summer, summer turned to autumn, and still there was no prospect of a return to normal working. I did go into the office once, to clear my desk by appointment, as we were scheduled to transfer to a new office and it was necessary to retrieve my personal possessions. Apart from the cleaner and the security guard, I was entirely alone.

And strangely, I began to grow used to being, for all intents and purposes, alone in my workspace. We’re lucky in that, when I moved in with Ros, we replaced an old wooden workshop with a purpose built office, so my working conditions were probably a step up on what I had in St Clare House. I can listen to music - mostly chamber music and early music -  whilst I work without disturbing anyone, I’m not distracted by colleagues - I’m quite easily distracted, I fear - and I can bat ideas around in my head whilst attempting to determine how best to solve a problem. I do talk to myself out loud from time to time…

There are some disadvantages - you can’t throw problems into the air to see if your colleagues have useful and relevant experiences to share, for example - and I do have a great deal of respect for them and their abilities. And there are some things that really can’t be done outside of the office for reasons of data security.

On the other hand, having to rely more on your own judgement can build a sense of confidence as long as things are going well, and I think that I’ve benefitted in that sense. It’s hard sometimes to judge whether or not you’re a good fit in a role, especially one which by its very nature is likely to be confrontational sometimes, but when you’re effectively operating without the usual “safety net”, the apparent absence of problems suggests that you might be doing something right.

But I do feel that I’m becoming slightly less of a social animal. Or, perhaps more accurately, that I am more relaxed about not seeing other people (apart from Ros). I find people fascinating, but it feels these days although it’s sometimes on an almost academic level. I don’t care any less, and my commitment to my various communities remains strong, but the horizons in which I effectively operate seem to have shrunk somewhat.

Which brings me to tomorrow. Our new building is open, and we are required to attend an induction day to collect our new building pass and be told where everything is and how it works. We can’t return to work until this is safely navigated though, and so I’ll be in Ipswich at lunchtime for my turn.

I’m not wholly enthusiastic. It’s not that I’m fearful, for I’m a naturally cautious soul anyway, and have tended to adhere to both the spirit and the letter of Government guidance. It’s just that I’ve benefitted from the freedom that comes from working at home, and actually think that I’m more effective working in an environment which is liberating rather than one encouraging rather more conformity.

In fairness, I’m not being pressured to return to the office. I expect to spend one day a week there from mid-September, and probably two days a week from some time in October. Eventually, that may stretch to three days a week, but it’s not expected to go beyond that if the mood music is to be believed.

So, wish me luck. It’s going to be interesting…

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Creeting St Peter: a few words from the Chair…

One of the joys of leading a Parish Council is drafting my column for the Parish Newsletter…

If I had thought for one moment that chairing the Parish Council was going to be easy, recent events have demonstrated that there is no such thing as “too quiet”. So, time for a quick run-through of what’s happened over the past few months…

We’ve got a new County Councillor in Keith Welham, who won the Stowmarket North and Stowupland division by 139 votes over outgoing Cllr Gary Green. Keith is familiar with our issues here, having served as our District Councillor between 2015 and 2019, and has hit the ground running. We look forward to working with him in the years ahead.

We’ve also got a new Parish Councillor in Lynne Jardine, who was co-opted at our Annual Parish Council meeting in May. She has already set to work on issues relating to Poundfield and the local footpaths on the western side of the Parish, and we’re pleased to have her onboard.

No news from Gateway 14. Despite the initial expectations that the planning application would be heard by Mid Suffolk District Council at the beginning of the year, there is still no sign of a date for its hearing. Both the Residents Campaign Group and the Parish Council have made full submissions, as have many of you as individuals, although the remaining delays seem to revolve around highways, with Highways England having sought a delay until mid-September whilst their concerns are addressed.

Mid Suffolk District Council says no to extended hours for PoundfieldAfter more than eighteen months of uncertainty, the application was rejected – the company failed to supply the required noise and light reports required. The Parish Council will now focus our attention on seeking enforcement of the existing operation hours restrictions, and welcome reports of working outside those hours

The conditions are as follows;

No machinery shall be operated, no process shall be carried out and no deliveries taken at or despatched from the site outside of the following times;

8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays with no working on Sundays or on Bank Holidays.

Please send your reports to our Parish Clerk.

An appeal for the “Meadows” site. Residents of the surrounding properties will be aware that an appeal has been made to the Secretary of State regarding the second refusal of planning permission to demolish the property and build four new ones in its place. The Planning Inspector will consider all of the evidence already submitted, and Mid Suffolk District Council are expected to actively defend their position given the potential impact on the Local Plan. We have no timeline for any announcement.

New street lightsResidents of the core village will know that our ten street lights are not in good condition, and some of them have been out of order for some time. They’re expensive to maintain and increasingly obsolete. Suffolk County Council have announced a programme of replacing some 43,000 street lights with modern LED versions, and there is a possibility that we might be able to piggyback on that. We’ll keep you updated on that.

An e-newsletter for Creeting St Peter? One of the key lessons from the pandemic is finding better ways to keep residents informed. Producing newsletters and delivering them by hand is slow and expensive, whereas if we could e-mail them to most residents, it would cut costs, allow us to issue newsletters more frequently, and improve our reporting back. We need to make sure that we’re GDPR compliant though, and that those who don’t, or can’t, use the Internet aren’t excluded. However, we’ll be looking to seek your agreement to this over the coming months so, if one of us knocks on your door, don’t be too surprised.


Finally, life is slowly returning to something more familiar as normal. However, there are still those amongst us who need support, and I know that many of you are looking out for friends and neighbours. Thank you to everyone who has gone out of their way to help, and whilst the path out of the pandemic is still a bit fuzzy, I’m hopeful that this will continue as long as it is needed.

Monday, July 19, 2021

I'd like to make myself believe that Planet Creeting turns slowly...

It's been an evening of two meetings here in the Gipping Valley - one that I chair, one that I don't.

First up was Federal International Relations Committee (I don't chair that!). Fortified by a (if I say so myself) decent risotto prepared by my own fair hands, I threw myself into what became a somewhat unsatisfying meeting. Now I wouldn't blame anyone for that - it's the problem when you know that you aren't going to be there see the whole thing through - but we probably allowed ourselves to get bogged down in the mechanism of how to do things rather than just making quick decisions and allocating the work to committee members.

I still feel slightly out of place amidst a group of people with seemingly more practical experience than I have, and I have to fight a persistent urge to use the Standing Orders as an offensive weapon, but there is some really interesting stuff being done. It might reasonably be said that the Committee shows dangerous signs of living up to my hopes for it when it first took on its current form five years ago. Perhaps I should have been more patient.

And yes, I still think that there's scope for improvement, but a relatively new Chair and a new Secretary (and thank you, Adrian, for volunteering) should be given the opportunity to make their mark, so again, I ought to demonstrate that I can "do patient".

But time and Parish Councils wait for no bureaucrat, and I had to sign off from Zoom in order to see real people up close (well, closeish, as we're still attempting to maintain reasonable social distancing here in the Gipping Valley).

I do find chairing my Parish Council vaguely reassuring. The debate is measured and pragmatic, I'm encouraged to move things along briskly, and there's seldom much in the way of stress or opposition.

In some ways, we're in the lull before the storm, with Gateway 14 still awaiting planning consent, and the concrete products factory now refused permission to extend its operating hours (somewhat to our pleasant surprise, it must be said).

There are some issues of concern - the work going on next to Flint Hall (are they seriously planning a dirt bike track?), traffic speeds on Mill Lane, the state of local footpaths - but we're a persistent group, and we'll keeping writing letters in the hope that Mid Suffolk District and Suffolk County Councils will do their jobs.

We were done in fifty-two minutes though, and I was almost tempted to log back into FIRC to see if they were still going. Almost, but not actually...

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

There are occasions when you realise that you were right the first time...

Readers will remember the end of my term as a member of the Party's Appeals Panel for England or, at least, how it ended. I was astonishingly discreet about the actual details which were, in truth, a bit wounding - having a Regional Executive debate your future in front of you as though you weren't there is never likely to be anything else.

Talk of appointment on a temporary basis whilst they took stock, complaints about a lack of transparency (it's an Appeals Panel, for pity's sake...), as a means of demonstrating respect for a volunteer doing a job which offers little but pain and aggravation, it lacked a certain something.

And so, I graciously withdrew my name from consideration, allowing the Regional Executive to proceed as they saw fit. I notified everyone concerned, and that was that. At the time, it was suggested to me that the English Party would be looking to fill its vacancies on the Appeals Panel for England and that I might throw my hat into the ring. I wasn't enthusiastic - the idea of further rejection wasn't high on my list of desirable outcomes.

My mistake was to allow myself to be persuaded to do it anyway. Admittedly, I was approached directly by a senior member of the English Party and given the impression that I was needed, and there are very few of us whose ego wouldn't be stroked by that.

Funnily enough, I don't mind that I didn't get the job. Even before the news came that I'd been unsuccessful, doubt had begun to gnaw away at me. But I wouldn't have applied had I not been asked to in such a way as to suggest that the interview was more a hurdle to be cleared than a meaningful competition. I did it because I thought that the Party needed me, when it turns out that it didn't. I am reminded why my views on corporate headhunters are so negative.

It reminds me that political parties don't always treat volunteers all that well. That's not necessarily deliberate, although recent events have made me wonder, but it's sometimes because they're given contradictory messages. And, occasionally, people are stupid, or unkind, or make bad choices for worse reasons.

I had put the events of the past few months behind me, however. Life is too short, and I have other things to do.

And then, this morning, I received an e-mail asking me to serve on a hearing of the Appeals Panel for England. It's not that I despair - I'm too old for that and I've seen too much. But perhaps I ought to look upon it all as a hint.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Can the tide of political unpleasantness be turned?

I spent some time this afternoon talking to some political colleagues about the problems that arise when people disagree. It was an interesting discussion and offered me an opportunity to express some of my concerns about modern politics and how the way people treat each other undermines how political parties function.

Unfortunately, that seems to be a problem that gets worse with time rather than better, and it distracts from the cause, whatever cause that may be. For a bureaucrat not generally seen on the front row of political activity, I don’t tend to be involved in the competitive element of politics, even within my own Party. It does risk appearing somewhat sheltered from the reality of campaigning, especially when you consider that, in my quiet corner of England, politics is relatively genteel.

That said, I do understand how much it can matter to people. I’m not naive. Indeed, I have a pretty good understanding that, when a contest really matters, people can be tempted to bend, even break, the rules for personal advantage. The first round of list selections for the European Parliament in 1997 was a case in point, when the prospect of becoming an MEP was a real one for whoever topped their regional list (and in some cases, the runner-up too).

That led to some interesting strategies being employed, but in the absence of social media, it was for the most part fought in good spirit. Had we tried to repeat the process twenty years later, I have a nasty feeling that it might not have been quite so easy to manage. There are, unfortunately, those who have less restraint in terms of the language they use, or allegations they make, especially if done remotely.

And, to make things even harder, as time has passed, the rules and procedures are more prescriptive, more complex, more open to misinterpretation (deliberate and accidental) and the implications of getting it wrong more severe, and not just to the person committing the “offence”.

The danger is that you have to dedicate more and more resource to dealing with the unhappy, the unreasonable and the unlucky. And, given that most people join political parties to change things or gain power, finding people to handle that burden becomes more difficult. It is, in short, a challenge that seems to grow as the years pass.

Ultimately, political parties, like societies, operate better and more effectively if people behave reasonably both in general and towards each other. It seems like such an obvious truism that you might wonder why it needs to be expressed. However, people often forget that political parties are not monoliths, where everyone agrees, but coalitions loosely wrapped around a philosophical concept, where arguments can rage over what outsiders may see as trivia.

Thus, the existence of rules to guide behaviour, ensure due process and compliance, covering everything from meeting etiquette to candidate selection. You hope that they don’t have to be enforced much, by offering training, encouraging mutual respect and providing guidance. You hope that it’s taken up and applied and, when things do go wrong, that there is someone to remedy the situation.

So, apply the rules, maintain them, recommend changes to them as the situation requires, but defend them and the ethos that underpins them in the hope that people learn and improve. Because, regardless of the organisation you’re a part of, if you can’t treat your colleagues decently, you’re probably not going to treat anyone else very well…

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Creeting St Peter - goodbye, Alice, and thanks for everything...

Small villages like Creeting St Peter tend to rely heavily on a small number of people who are willing to take on key, often unsung roles. That's especially true if the population is younger and thus busier with work, children and all of the other aspects of modern life that reduce the time available to do other things.

In our case, there are two organisations which tend to dominate civic life - the Parish Council and the Parochial Church Council. For the latter, there is the perpetual struggle to maintain the fabric of a historic building, i.e. the church itself. If your church serves a population of 275, many of whom are not particularly religious, that struggle becomes more acute.

Accordingly, the Parochial Church Council fundraises, and part of that fundraising is through village coffee mornings and pub nights, which are the backbone, indeed almost the totality, of the village's social activity. And residents turn up in sizeable numbers, buying cups of tea, homemade baked goods, catching up with each other and discussing the burning issues of the day.

Someone has to organise that though, chivvying people along, creating rotas, being "bossy". And, for some years now, that "someone" has been Alice. Alice describes herself as bossy but, in her role as Church Warden, she has worked incredibly hard to keep the show on the road. Unfortunately, that is about to come to an end, as she, her husband Mark and her family are moving away... a long way away.

And so we gathered in the churchyard yesterday evening to pay tribute to her. Jenny, the Treasurer of the Parochial Church Council, made a lovely speech to mark her contribution to the Church, the village and its residents, and our Vicar, Philip, offered a few remarks to remind us of her efforts.

It was a good crowd too, despite the rather dank, gloomy weather that had replaced the warm sunshine of previous days, which rather demonstrated how much we appreciate, and will miss, Alice.

As Chair of the Parish Council, I've been lucky enough to have a good relationship with Alice - indeed, I can't really see how I could have a bad one with her. She works hard, is incredibly effective and gives of herself freely. Every village should have an Alice, and I suspect that there are many that do.

Hillary Clinton wrote that "it takes a village". That's probably true, but villages need an Alice too, because without leadership, nothing that gets done is ever quite as effective as it might be.

So, thank you, Alice, and the best of luck in your new life. It won't be quite the same without you..