Sunday, March 07, 2021

A sudden pricking sensation in the arm...

Given the progress of the COVID-19 vaccination drive, combined with my somewhat advanced age, it has been becoming increasingly likely that the moment where I received an invitation to be jabbed would soon be nigh.

To be honest, it’s not something I had given a great deal of thought to - I had blithely assumed that I would get an invite, book myself in, get jabbed and that would be it. I am not, as many of my friends will acknowledge, one of the most contemplative people out there, more a day to day, dealing with the problems in front of me sort of person.

So, when it became clear yesterday that my age cohort should just go ahead and book our jabs, I didn’t just immediately go ahead and book. I wasn’t excited by the prospect, or even particularly relieved. It’s not because I’m vaccine sceptical, or that I’m afraid. I don’t particularly mind needles, and trust the medical profession and science generally and, in this instance, specifically.

I did book in though, mostly because not only is Ros keen - she worries about me - but vaccination removes one of the many hurdles before we can go to visit my step granddaughter, which is incredibly important. It did seem a bit odd that I couldn’t book at our local vaccination centre in Stowmarket, but it’s a nice enough drive to Hadleigh, and Ros was happy to drive there and back to make it possible. And so, on Friday, I would get my first jab, with the second on 28 May in Ipswich. All set, we could relax a bit...

And then, late yesterday evening, I received a text message from my surgery...
Dear Mark Valladares, your Practice is inviting you to book an appointment for a FREE COVID-19 vaccination. Please support us and book the earliest Date and Time available...

Given that, when Ros got a similar message, she was able to book a slot as early as the same afternoon, I thought that I might see if I could get an earlier, more convenient appointment. And that’s why I’ll be getting jabbed in just over an hour from now.

Am I excited? Actually, no, not really. Will it change how I interact with the world around me? I rather think not, and certainly not for the next three weeks whilst the first jab builds up its effectiveness in my system. Will it change the way I evaluate risk? Possibly, but probably not until I’ve had my second dose of the vaccine.

It will be interesting to see if there are any psychological benefits from receiving the vaccine - it has felt like a long winter, even for me - and perhaps, combined with a gradual release from restrictions and longer, brighter days, it will lift some of the gloom that hangs over so many...

 
 

NHS pay - a mistake on so many levels...

I’ve been of the view for some time that this is a lucky, rather than competent, government. Which, if you’re an opponent of it, is a part blessing - what would be it be like if they were competent as well?

Evidence of that comes after what was a pretty decent budget in presentation terms (I hold back from any suggestion that it was a good budget in economic or political terms at this stage), in that a 1% pay rise for NHS workers has gone down so badly both with the staff concerned - not unreasonably - but with the general public too.

You could argue that, in the midst of an economic crisis, that pay restraint across the public sector is a good thing. You could suggest that it sets an example to the rest of the workforce across the private sector. Admittedly, you’d be wrong, but you could try to make the case. For, as has been proved time and time again, employers across the private sector will pay what is required to keep staff and recruit them.

If the NHS was a private business - and please don’t think that I’m suggesting that it would be a good idea - senior management would be dealing with the problems of staff shortages by offering better pay scales and various arrangements to lure people away from other career choices. In the United States, nurses get rather higher salaries, and employers have to compete to employ them.

Here, the competition within the sector isn’t as great, although it still exists, but the system encourages nurses to work agency shifts because the pay is better and, because supply of nurses is outstripped by demand, there is a high level of certainty that agency work will be available. What that means is that a chunk of money is taken out of the NHS to profit employment agencies who have an effectively captive customer base.

It is a reminder that Conservatives have a very selective affinity to the market, holding the view that the public sector is immune to it. And, if by trying to persuade NHS workers that they should appreciate applause in lieu of actual money they end up losing the nurses that they’ve promised us, it will demonstrate again that, when it comes to competence, they really can’t cut it.

But, they are lucky. A supine media, a sufficiently credulous public, a sycophantic backbench and an Official Opposition still trying to get off of its knees means that there is nobody making the case that competence matters. Where else would a Government mired in procurement scandals, which has consistently overpromised and underdelivered, and has exiled most of its talent to the backbenches and beyond be ten points or more ahead in the polls?

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Corporation tax changes - haven't we been here before?

It would be fair to say that, in terms of corporation tax, I've been around the block a time or two. There was a time in my career when I spent my days dealing with starting rates, small company rates and basic rates, with marginal rate relief and associated companies. For a mathematician, it was actually quite fun to do, especially when dealing with accountants who, for want of a better phrase, weren't quite as numerate.

But that was, supposedly behind us, with one rate of corporation tax. Not any more.

We don't have a starting rate - that was a Gordon Brown invention - but we do have a small companies rate of 19% and a basic rate of 25% from 1 April 2023. What that generates is marginal rate relief for companies whose profits are between £50,000 and £250,000 to taper the step between 19% and 25% - otherwise you pay £9,500 on profits of £50,000 and £3,000.25 on the next £1. For, unlike income tax, you don't have tax bands - it's all or nothing in that sense. Tapering mitigates that somewhat.

There is, a numerate lay person may think, a way of avoiding the higher rate by simply setting up multiple companies, all of whose profits fall below £50,000. Unfortunately, we're traditionally a bit cleverer than that, and so the £50,000 and £250,000 will be divided by the number of associated companies plus one, where an associated company is (broadly) one under the control of the same person or group of people.

It's a little tricky to regulate from the perspective of a compliance body, but the information needed to do so is freely available.

I was, I admit, slightly surprised, as it does complicate corporation tax a bit more and I suspect that the accountancy profession won't be wholly delighted to see it return after eight years, but it will keep some of my colleagues in a job, and give me something to look out for whilst carrying out my current duties.

And, of course, we've still got quarterly instalment payments...

Monday, March 01, 2021

Conservatives lack an understanding of the Civil Service - which is why they're fated to make the same mistakes over and over again

I have to admit that "Centre Write", the inhouse magazine of "Bright Blue", which describes itself as;

 the independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism

is not my everyday read. Indeed, I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to read it if I hadn't been referred to it by an article in that pageturner "Civil Service World". It just goes to show how the internet works really, luring you down a darker and darker path until, lurking in the forest, you encounter a Conservative.

I jest... a bit.

What drew my gaze was an article by Simone Finn, or Baroness Finn as I should correctly refer to her, who is Boris Johnson's Deputy Chief of Staff and, somewhat curiously, a Non-Executive Board Member at the Cabinet Office (that does feel like a conflict of interest, but...), in which she argues that reforming the civil service is vital for spreading opportunity.

In particular, my attention was drawn to this;

This means breaking up the current career ladder, welcoming people into the service not just for secondments but for periods of two years or more, so that the civil service can gain from people whose expertise is in, for example, renewable energy.

That rather makes me want to shout, "Miss, miss, I know the answer. You mean "Interchange"!". Because yes, we tried that more than twenty years ago - I remember it well.

I had just joined my Regional Personnel Team as the new Internal Recruitment Co-ordinator and there was talk of a new scheme to inject fresh blood in to the Civil Service, new ideas, radical new ways of doing things. And it was meant to be a two-way street, with civil servants being sent off to learn cutting edge stuff from the private sector. Indeed, it was said that taking part in the Interchange programme was going to be something that was expected of you if you were to become a mandarin. And, as somebody was needed to go to a seminar in Grantham (yes, it's all glamour), it was decided that the rookie Executive Officer could take on responsibility for it.

There were some problems. Persuading private sector experts to join the Civil Service for a period was made difficult by the drop in salary implied unless their employer was willing to fund the difference, and there was some suspicion that some of these experts were focused on trying to work out how our systems worked so as to advantage their employers. And, because politicians and the media had done a pretty effective job in denouncing civil servants for being dull-witted and wedded to vast tiers of bureaucracy, it was hard to persuade the private sector that providing opportunities to such apparently useless people was a good idea.

Interchange, not surprisingly perhaps, suffered a slow, lingering death.

And, to be honest, not that much has changed. The civil service has come under more attack from politicians and the media, not less, the pay gap has not so much grown as yawned, and it takes more than two years to embed meaningful change. Besides, if a civil servant is that good, they're more likely to be poached than trained.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Creeting St Peter - some thoughts from outside of the Parish Council box on Gateway 14

As the Chair of the Parish Council, my brief has been to stick very much to the Gateway 14 planning application itself, attempting to focus on what is in it, how it might best be altered, what is wrong with it, rather than the actual concept.

With that in mind, I encouraged the formation of a separate Campaign Group which could roam more freely without the limits that a Parish Council might feel to stay within, and they have really taken the ball and run with it, with a Twitter account and enthusiastic use of other social media. But it's more than just a mouthpiece, they've worked incredibly hard on taking the entire application apart to see how it might work (or not).

It's not easy, because understanding how the machinery of local government works, finding out who you need to talk to (and actually getting to talk to them) and creating an effective lobbying operation is something that is often left to the professionals. Instead, they have pretty much done it themselves, and been very effective. The signs, like the one shown above, are merely the visual element of their campaign, which has included effective media outreach.

Not only have they drawn up a comprehensive list of issues that will, or may, need to be addressed, but they've taken the question of the entire financial viability of the site and encouraged residents across what I might describe as the 'Greater Stowmarket' to hold their representatives to account.

You see, there is a genuine question as to whether or not this project is now too big to fail. The District Council spent a lot of money to purchase what was agricultural land with existing permission to build a business and logistics park, something in the order of £20 million apparently, and will need to spend almost as much on the infrastructure and mitigation. They do have the advantage of being able to borrow at rates that are rather less than commercial but it really does have to work, and if it doesn't, there's an uncomfortable sense that council tax payers across Mid Suffolk will be on the hook for some time to come.

And yes, they've been a bit unlucky. The site was purchased in 2017, and things have moved on a bit since then. Firstly, 2019 saw the balance of power on the Council shift significantly from huge Conservative majority to knife-edge (sixteen Conservatives and an Independent face twelve Greens and five Liberal Democrats), and then the small matter of a pandemic changed, potentially, everything. What will be needed in a post-Covid world? And will it be needed in Stowmarket?

The Campaign Group have written to every councillor on Mid Suffolk District Council with a series of challenging questions about the financial viability of the project and I admit that, if I was a Councillor, probably relying on the advice of the Council's Officers, I'd be a little nervous about what I was being asked to sign up to. I suspect that very few of the Councillors truly understand the possibilities, and some of them probably feel that they have little choice - there is little prospect of escaping the financial commitment, even if they were opposed to it in 2017.

Ultimately, I'd be surprised if the project was to be abandoned - there's too much at stake for that. But it's entirely possible that the District Council might be a little more wary in future, especially if Conservative councillors start being questioned on the doorstep and in their communities about what seem like eye-watering sums to the small towns and villages that make up Mid Suffolk.

But we'll see what effect they, and we, will have had soon enough. For the time being though, a community waits slightly nervously...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Gateway 14 - the response is written...

And so, the formal response is on its way, and I can relax just a little. Here's my summary of our thoughts as a Parish Council...

It would be fair to say that Creeting St Peter has lived with the prospect of development of the site for a quarter of a century or more, and we are realistic in terms of our expectation as to its future. However, we feel that there is an opportunity for the District Council to create something which is an exemplar in terms of the future of the workplace post-Covid, offers a positive experience not only to investors but to the workforce and reflects the villages and communities that surround it. 

The site itself is, we acknowledge, not an area of outstanding natural beauty but as part of the working countryside it serves as an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life, both for its residents and for those who take advantage of the opportunities it offers. It is a refuge for flora and fauna that would otherwise be driven further into the margins. This will be lost, and not replaced. 

We are also concerned as to the effect that Gateway 14 will have on our hamlet village. The poor state of our road network, the risks of increased traffic flows through a village without a means of separating pedestrians from other road users, and the encroachment of the site, extending Stowmarket two-thirds of the way across the gap between town and hamlet, will impact on our community for many years to come. 

Under such circumstances, it is not unreasonable to ask what Mid Suffolk District Council is offering to our community in terms of benefits that might accrue. Simon Knott, the highly regarded chronicler of East Anglia’s churches, wrote of our Parish Church; 
“St Peter is separated from its village by the four lanes of the A14, the roar of which can be heard from the churchyard. How has this happened? Simply, Creeting St Peter consists mainly of council houses and farm cottages, working people’s houses. People like this do not get asked if they want a motorway at the bottom of the garden.” 
In this instance, whilst we acknowledge that we have been asked, we want to know that we are being listened to as well, and we trust that you will take our reasonable concerns into account in reaching a judgement on the acceptability of this planning application and the conditions you set upon it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Drafting, drafting and more drafting - a Parish Chair and a planning application response...

It is, in all probability, the most challenging planning application that Creeting St Peter Parish Council has had to deal with in many a long year, and the stakes are high. A 156 hectare business and logistics park, featuring a range (in both senses of the word) of "megasheds" (as the Gateway 14 Residents Campaign Group refer to them) on the edge of our village is not something that a micro-parish such as ours is really equipped to deal with, given the imbalance of resourcing.

However, we are going to give it our best shot and, as Chair, I feel obliged to lead the effort. What is a Chair otherwise, if not to lead, after all?

But it is daunting, as I've noted previously. How do you balance the fears of the community against what is credible? What evidence is there, and can it be properly interpreted? Can you avoid mission creep, whereby existing problems are conflated with the possible but unevidenced impacts of the new development?

And so, I've spent a week mulling over our response, incorporating the contributions of my fellow councillors where I can, praying in aid the concerns of various statutory consultees - Natural England, Suffolk Highways, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to name but three - and professional Council staff where their credibility is likely to be higher than ours but where their issues reflect ours.

It isn't easy. You have to create something which is likely to be taken seriously by the various councillors who sit on the Mid Suffolk Planning Committee, makes the points that really matter, but doesn't bury them in surplus verbiage. That isn't always one of my strengths - I tend to write like a slightly cautious Victorian bureaucrat. Given that I am a slightly cautious early twenty-first century bureaucrat, perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

The fear is that, in attempting to be reasonable and realistic, you end up failing to sufficiently press the community's case but I have concluded that my only option is to be as true to my beliefs as possible and write a response which is honest, balanced and credible. At least, that's what I think it is.

We'll see soon enough, I guess...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Conservatives and their contradictions over free speech

Let’s be honest here, Conservatives don’t believe in free speech. They don’t even really believe in freedom of speech within the confines of what might generally be accepted as reasonable, i.e. restrictions on hate speech, or topics that would offend the overwhelming majority. In truth, most Conservatives tend to believe in freedom of speech to say things that they approve of.

They are, unsurprisingly, now attempting to intimidate academic institutions to express only those opinions which meet with their view of British history - for which one should almost certainly read “English history”, given that most teaching of British history tends to revolve around the English conquering by force or via politics the other three parts of the United Kingdom.

And, given that history tended to be written by the winners, there is a tendency to highlight British successes rather than challenge the perceived wisdom. So, for example, your perspective on World War II might differ if you were living in Bedfordshire or Bengal, where more than two million died as a result of what is widely regarded as a man-made famine under British control. You might look upon the Anglo-Zulu War as a great triumph against the odds - although highly disciplined troops, heavily armed, tend to have a significant advantage over tribesman armed with spears - yet not want to emphasise the invention of concentration camps when fighting the Boers twenty or so years later. After all, we’ve established that gathering populations in a confined space and allowing them to die through starvation and disease is a bad thing, right?

And history changes too. Take, for example, the English Civil War, where Conrad Russell was, apart from being an adornment to the Liberal Democrat benches in the Lords, a leader in re-evaluating how it came to pass, looking at source material in new ways. History moves on, as we collect more data, as researchers share their findings in ways not easily matched before the advent of the internet.

The Empire offers a number of significant challenges. Was it a summarily good thing, or are you merely measuring the outcomes in relation to the incredibly low bar that is the Belgian Congo? If the British Empire was such a boon to economic development, why was India’s share of the world economy estimated at 23% before invasion, and just 4% at independence? It might be fairer to say that, if you were a white colony, the Empire wasn’t so bad. If, on the other hand, you were one of Rhodes’s natives to be treated as a child and denied the franchise, it might reasonably be said that the Empire was a brutal oppressor.

Yes, building railways and other infrastructure was a useful inheritance when countries gained their independence, but as none of it was built with their interests at heart - it was built to enable military control and to extract the wealth - that smacks of post-event justification.

So, as a liberal and as someone of Indian descent, I oppose what is, effectively, the imposition of a repressive world view on the rights of academics, and anyone else for that matter, to express a variety of perspectives on events that have taken place, in order to create an idealised perspective on a divided country.

No people are perfect, no nation’s impact on the world around it is uniformly benevolent, and history is meant to inform and educate - we are supposed to learn from our history and the mistakes we make. But then, this Government doesn’t like to be reminded of its failures, and it refuses to learn from its mistakes.

Our job as liberals is to hold the Government of the day to account, to suggest means to improve the state of the nation and its people. That means allowing debate on events past and present, and encouraging diversity of thought, and so we need to shine a light on this Government’s desire to suppress views it doesn’t much like.

Because, if they get away with that, they’ll happily suppress political dissent and opposition by inches, as we see in their restrictions on political campaigning, their attempts to neuter the Electoral Commission and their move to change constituency boundaries based on registered voters rather than population.

History is written by the winners. Perhaps it would be nicer if more of us were able to be winners...

Friday, February 12, 2021

So, you're thinking of moving to Suffolk...

It seems, from today's East Anglian Daily Times, that many of you are. That is, if you currently live in London. Now, having made the journey myself a decade or so ago, I can entirely understand it - some charming countryside, decent beer, good food and, above all, house prices that allow you to sell your house in the suburbs, replace it with something with a bit of character and bank a large chunk of cash to spend on having a good time.

It was not long after I moved up here that the Evening Standard ran one of those regular features, you know the type, "Why not live in...", suggesting that Needham Market was the sort of place where you could commute into London. Given that Needham Market last had a direct train service to Liverpool Street in heaven knows when, the connection at Ipswich could be a bit dicey and an annual season was of the scale of "How much? You are kidding, right?". You wouldn't, and even now very few do.

Now, a season ticket from Stowmarket comes in at over £8,000, and your job really does have to be a good one to justify that, and the three hours plus you'll spend each day commuting. But, if you can get the salary and not commute...

And that's what's happening. Heavens, even my usually cautious employers in central government are suggesting that I may never need to work more than three days a week in a big glass and steel box. I suspect that, if I can demonstrate that I'm as effective at home as I am in an office, I may not even need to do that.

So, we're seeing a steady flow of people who have seen the possibility of escape from the endless London suburbs and realise that, for the price of building a small garden room to use as an office, they can get a nice home, a chunk of money and a bit of extra time to spend on family, friends or just kicking back. And Suffolk is close enough so that, if you do have to go into London occasionally, it doesn't feel like so much of a burden. The seaside isn't far, there's plenty of open countryside. What isn't there to like? We even have opera.

Taking my example, not commuting into Ipswich gives me back about seven hours a week and about £2,000 in travel costs. Not commuting into London would be about seventeen hours a week and £9,000.

And, to give you an idea of the property options that Needham Market has to offer, here's something on the High Street. £475,000, Grade II listed, four bedrooms, it even has a Needham Market Society blue plaque. There's a decent pub across the street, the station is two minutes away, and buses to Ipswich stop almost outside the front door (the bus stop has a stone plaque to mark the Diamond Jubilee... of Queen Victoria).

Don't all rush...

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Creeting St Peter - the learning curve doesn't get any less steep...

Small Parish Council, not much of a budget, nice bunch of fellow councillors, able Clerk, how difficult could that be, eh? Perhaps they'll write that on my tombstone when I'm gone.

And, indeed, most of the time, it's been pretty straightforward, keeping things ticking along, cleaning the odd road sign, signing the odd cheque. However, the arrival of a series of increasingly complex planning applications has caused me to find out more about local government than I had ever had a desperate urge to know.

Today saw me take part in a virtual meeting with the District Council and the developers, hosted by the Gateway 14 Campaign Group, to discuss the latest developments as part of a four-weekly cycle of discussions. It was my first, as I feel that I should give the Campaign Group the space to explore the wider issues as they choose, including some that don't necessarily impact on my responsibility as the Chair of a statutory consultee.

The big developments have been the submission of the hybrid planning application and the announcement that the site is to be part of the Freeport East bid. It was confirmed that, as far as Mid Suffolk District Council are concerned, there will be no impact on the S.106 funding that the project will generate, which is welcome news.

It does strike me that there is a great deal of uncertainty in terms of the impact of the Freeport bid. We now know that the entire 156 ha site will be included in the tax site which, whilst interesting, doesn't have a huge impact on the current application. However, the question of the customs site is somewhat more complex, and that's important, because it will need "robust perimeter security measures such as fences, controlled access gates and lighting".

We were assured that this area won't be that large, although the bidding prospectus notes that part of the customs site will need to be designated as a temporary storage area, as per the standard United Kingdom customs import rules. Now, given that one of the potential types of occupiers would be businesses assembling products using components produced abroad, there might be more or less space required. That in turn potentially impacts on access, in particular the footpath that has been rerouted through the northern part of the site.

That offers a challenge, because we may need to seek planning conditions that will address the possibility that the footpath might require diverting again, for example.

And that, of course, sums up the challenges of a hybrid planning application - you're attempting to nail a jelly to a wall, as you don't know what the site will eventually look like, because that in turn depends on who turns up as a potential customer and what their needs are. It is all too easy to let your imagination run riot, and to experience mission creep. As a statutory consultee, should I worry about the financial viability of the site, or whether or not it provides value for money? As a council tax payer, I probably should.

But the next stage is an Extraordinary Meeting of the Parish Council to discuss the planning application on Monday. I've got a lot of documents to read before then, and it's not likely to be an easy meeting, even though there is unlikely to be anyone saying that we should just ignore it...

Monday, February 08, 2021

It’s still snowing in the Creetings...

Overnight, the snow kept falling, which did lead one to worry a bit about how easy it might be to drive out in either direction. Early reports that the road to Stowupland was blocked by snowdrifts were, fortunately, replaced by word that one of our local farmers had been out with tractor and JCB. And yes, the road conditions weren’t ideal, but people were getting away with caution.

I had a couple of stray newsletters to deliver, so I took the opportunity offered by a slight lull in the snow to sneak up the farm track towards Roydon Hall Farm, only to be confronted by a courier in a white van, looking to see if the route was passable. Given that he was evidently from somewhere in Eastern Europe, where snow is commonplace, his judgement was that it wasn’t so bad as to be impassable, and he made it easily enough.

As it turned out, he had something for us too, so I’m glad that he did.

This is the second time in recent years that the village has been affected by snow, but luckily, as many of us are working from home this time, the impact has been somewhat less of a nuisance than it might otherwise have been.

But the forecast is a mite ominous, with snow forecast on and off until Thursday, and sub-zero temperatures pretty much continuous until the weekend. There’s plenty of snow on the fields, and the risk of further problems caused as it drifts onto the roads, particularly at Clamp Farm where the properties act as a barrier to further drifting.

It may be necessary to hike across the fields at some point if this keeps up...

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Creeting St Peter - the Chair goes forth into the snowy landscape...

Due to a slight mix-up between myself and our Clerk, I found myself with all of the Parish Newsletters, rather than just those for the core village - the Church Warden, Alice, usually delivers the outliers, which is very generous of her.

That meant that I rather felt that I ought to deliver themselves myself, but the distances involved required me to do so in two tranches - Clamp Farm and Creeting Hall in one walk, and the southern end in another.

And so, yesterday I trudged through the rain and murk, for neither rain nor snow, nor gloom of night shall stay the deliverer from his duty. Today offered more of a challenge though, what with the snow being swept in from Ukraine on a stiff easterly wind. But I’m a dogged soul, and besides, it gave me a chance to see how things were at that end of the Parish.

There will doubtless be those who, being less than usually generous, will assume that, as a card-carrying Liberal Democrat, I might have a motive to go out in such conditions. There are, after all, elections due in May, and my view as to the quality of service we get from our Conservative county councillor is not a tremendously high one. However, not only do I have no intention of running this year, but the Parish newsletter is decidedly non-political.

And besides, it provided a more than respectable reason for my 10,000 steps - I might as well do something both useful and healthy.

Properly wrapped up for the conditions, with waterproof trousers and the parka jacket I brought back from our Alaska cruise in 2019, it wasn’t too bad out, and with the roads as quiet as you might expect, the walking was pretty easy. A bit of early-seventeenth century music for voice and lute kept the spirits up too.

I did run into one of our residents, whom I had never actually met before, and we had an interesting (and socially distanced) chat on her doorstep. Reassuringly, given her isolated location, it turned out that one of my near neighbours is watching out for her, a reminder that, in our small village, the informal support network remains efficient.

So, another day in the life of a Parish councillor is completed. It isn’t all about shouting at each other over Zoom, you know...

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Freeport East - the bid has landed

I've already mentioned the Freeport East proposal (coming to a parish near you very soon), and it has now been formally launched, with a rather soft focus video, and lots of talk about jobs, development and innovation. And, I have to say that it all looks very impressive.

So, what might it mean for our community, given that a major tax and customs site will be located on the edge of the Parish (we're the teal coloured circle towards the top of the map)?


I'll set aside the planning application for the time being.

Stowmarket, our neighbouring town is a bit of a poor relation to its neighbours, as an industrial hub and railway junction. Aspiration is not as high as it might be, although unemployment rates are low. An innovation hub may attract new industries, and offer better paid jobs to a town that has little in the way of attractions - we only got our first McDonalds last year, and fine dining is predominantly (although not wholly) something you leave town for. The shopping area is a bit limited, compared to similar sized towns and, in short, if you've got money to spend, you'd probably go to Bury St Edmunds or Norwich.

On the plus side, housing is reasonably priced even for Suffolk, transport links are good, with express trains to Norwich and London, plus regional services linking Ipswich with Cambridge and Peterborough. Throw in the A14, and you can get quite a long way quite easily.

In short, there is potential that could be unlocked by a successful bid that lives up to the hype.

The proposed location of the only tax and customs site outside the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe themselves, Gateway 14 is ideally located between the mainline railway and the A14, both of which act to frame the site, so providing a direct link to a major trunk road linking Felixstowe and Harwich with Cambridge and the Midlands.

Do I wish that it was further away, less immediate? Well, yes - I like the setting of my village as it is. But that isn't a viable stance, the site has been earmarked for developed for three decades now, and if I were a developer, it is exactly the sort of location I would want to get my hands on. And, as someone who wants the best for the wider Mid Suffolk community, an  influx of potentially well-paid jobs in innovative industries and technologies can only improve the lives of local residents, encourage new retail and cultural opportunities and support new facilities.

That offers me two contrasting challenges. As the Chair of the Parish Council, I want to seek a design for the development that makes it less intrusive on the eye, protects our rights of access and reduces the impact on residents (particularly those whose properties will be right up against the boundary of the site). I also have to have an eye on what possible benefits that might accrue to the community - new street lights, perhaps, or road improvements that improve traffic flow and reduce the need for braking. Will there be benefits in terms of s.106 funding?

As a council tax payer, I want the development to be as efficient as possible, in terms of generating revenue for the District Council, who own it, and in terms of bringing quality jobs to the area. I do wonder if the somewhat limited ambition of the developers, who talk about logistics and distribution, matches up with the aspirations of the Freeport team, who talk about innovation, green energy, and links to the universities across the region.

The former challenge is an immediate one - a hybrid planning application is all about setting down a marker in terms of landscaping, transport plans and building heights. In fairness, I tend to the view that the landscaping is pretty generous, and the potential road network offers some decided advantages in terms of addressing long existing issues such as the sharp curve at Clamp Farm. The proposed building heights are a significant improvement on what was originally suggested, but whilst 21 metres is still pretty intrusive, it may be difficult to reduce that much further. The devil will be in the detail, and the detail is a Parish Council issue.

As for what ends up on the site, the idea of large sheds is a bit depressing, but each of them will be the subject of a rather more concrete planning application, open to challenge. And, as it isn't clear who will want to take up the space, it is conjecture to start visualising the site as it might look in ten years time. Ironically, the Freeport East Board will probably have a lot to say about what their priorities are for potential customers, and my initial impression from sources is that their view is somewhat different to that of Jaynic, the developers appointed by Mid Suffolk District Council to manage and promote the site. It isn't a Parish Council issue, however, although the Campaign Group will be addressing the question, as I understand it.

So, my challenge is to keep the two issues at arms length from each other, focussing on what we know and are being asked to judge, as opposed to what might or might not be at some point in the undefined future. Fortunately, I've got Ros to ensure that my concentration doesn't wander...

Friday, February 05, 2021

Handforth Parish Council - a reminder that technology is not without its perils

https://youtu.be/lgGmYeAm0jk

It's not common for the deliberations of a Parish Council to go viral - in truth they're generally not that interesting. However, the unfortunate events during a Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council's Planning and Environment Committee have led to the video being watched more than a million times. Given that the population of Handforth was just over 6,000 in 2011, that's rather impressive.

Unfortunately for the Parish councillors concerned, their struggles with technology and, in some cases, basic courtesy, have made it look like a bit of a shambles (I paraphrase in order to protect the innocent). In the midst of the mayhem, the acting Clerk, Jackie Weaver, attempts to create some structure, whilst councillors walk away from their cameras, attempt to speak whilst muted, and talk over each other.

From an outsider's perspective, it does look as though the Parish Council requires the mediation skills of a senior United Nations diplomat, although once Jackie (who is the Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils) had started excluding those behaving badly, the meeting did seem to be rather more cordial.

But, regardless of the circumstances that surrounded the meeting, it is a reminder to those of us in a similar position that, when you're in a virtual meeting, especially one where there are opposing factions, you need to be on top of your game or, at the very least, paying attention to the picture of you that everyone else is seeing.

That can be a challenge, especially in areas where broadband speeds are less than optimal, and where you have councillors who are unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, with technology. And sometimes, people behave as though there is nobody watching, which can produce some rather bizarre moments, as Handforth councillors demonstrate vividly.

The role of the Chair is criticial. Not only do you have to steer the meeting in order to complete the business, but you need to watch the screen to ensure that people can contribute. And, for most of us, that's a relatively new challenge, one that most of us aren't trained for, and it's a real test of your skills as a Chair.

I'm very fortunate in that, having served on far more committees than is really healthy over the years, I have a reasonable sense of what does and does not work. My colleagues have re-elected me twice, so I'm hoping that that represents an endorsement. But I wouldn't call it easy, especially if it's what one might describe as an "open mic session", where it's necessary or useful to open the discussion beyond just the councillors.

For those with less committee experience, there is training available through your County Association of Local Councils, and I would strongly recommend it, although whether or not the training material is designed to cope with virtual meetings is a question I can't personally answer. The basic skills don't change, however.

The basic courtesies don't change either. Allowing people to finish before you speak, keeping your interventions brief and to the point, judicious use of humour and encouragement and staying muted unless you want to intervene, help the Chair and the Clerk in their roles.

I hope that Handforth Parish Council finds a resolution to the problems it clearly has, but when Parish Councils go sour, it can be a hard road back...

When Freeports attack... and why I'm annoyed with Mid Suffolk District Council

So, what do we now know? A hybrid planning application was submitted for the Gateway 14 project a week or so ago, and the one hundred and fifty plus documents are awaiting our attention, with a current publicised deadline of 17 February for responses. As you might understand, that feels rather daunting.

We now also know that Gateway 14 is intended to form an integral part of the Freeport East bid, centred on Felixstowe and Harwich, which is due to be submitted to the Government by Friday, February 5th (i.e. today). it even comes with a rather snazzy video...

Does the planning application make any reference to this? No, of course it doesn't and, as a result, I've had what I would describe as a challenging conversation with Nic Rumsey from the developers, Jaynic, who appear not to have known anything about this until a week ago. I've had a very good relationship with him so far but he gives the impression of attempting to tapdance on the head of a pin, as he can't honestly give any guarantees about what Freeport status might imply. I don't blame him for that, because how could he? 

Have the owners of Gateway 14, effectively the District Council, mentioned this at all? Not to us, they haven't. One must assume that they have been talking to other interested parties about this - East Suffolk Council, Suffolk County Council and the like, and that the bidding team for the Freeport proposal will have at the very least mentioned potential adoption of the Gateway 14 site as the location for a customs site.

And yet, they have allowed the planning application to proceed thus far as though none of that was happening.

I am not impressed.

I have been concerned for some time with regard to the conflict of interest between Mid Suffolk District Council as owner and 100% beneficiary of the profits accruing from Gateway 14, and Mid Suffolk District Council as the planning authority responsible for consideration of the planning application. I am assured that no such conflict applies, and that the planning process is entirely independent. Of course, that is legally true, although many local residents don't believe it for one minute, fairly or unfairly.

From a personal perspective, as a professional bureaucrat myself, I tend to the view that Council officers will do the best that they can. Indeed, given that other developers may wish to make applications for similar projects, setting the wrong precedent makes their lives more difficult going forward.

But, if it is the case that someone at Mid Suffolk District Council is negotiating with the Freeport East team over inclusion of the Gateway 14 site, they might reasonably have an idea as to the potential impact, but are choosing to remain silent. That might be due to commercial confidentiality - the Freeport bids are competitive, after all - but if there is an impact on the site, and adjustments need to be made that affect residents of Creeting St Peter, it would be nice to know now, rather than later, so that we can respond appropriately.

So far, the discussions revolving around the Gateway 14 project have taken place within a promise of openness and transparency, and local residents have engaged in that spirit. And so far, whilst there are elements that are unpopular, there have been useful adjustments and improvements to the original plans which have gone some way towards reassuring us.

It now seems apparent that Mid Suffolk District Council might not be able to be relied upon to uphold their end of that bargain, and my fear is that the sense of mutual respect might be jeopardised as a result. Residents of Creeting St Peter are, I believe, realistic about the likely outcome, but want their concerns to be heard and at least acknowledged, and for credible mitigations to be offered, so far as is practical. 

Therefore, my next task will be to seek reassurances about the impact of potential Freeport status on the development in advance of the Parish Council's Extraordinary meeting on Monday week.

It's a very steep learning curve for a small Parish Council and its Chair...

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Creeting St Peter - a few words from the Chair...

It's that time again, as another Parish Newsletter is circulated to a breathless readership...

Another year has come to Creeting St Peter, and not in the manner we all might have hoped, with all manner of restrictions upon us, and with the pandemic still dominating our lives. I hope that all of you are coping as best you can, but don’t forget, if there is anything that the Parish Council can do to help, be it having someone to talk to, or shopping or prescriptions that need collecting, we’ll do what we can.
 
Indeed, many of you have supported friends and neighbours throughout, and I am grateful to you for doing so. It is one of the things that makes village life special, that sense of togetherness and of looking out for each other. We may be short on facilities, but long on self-reliance.
 
As far as the Parish Council is concerned, we have two major issues which I suspect are familiar to you all - Gateway 14 and Poundfield Products.
 
In terms of Gateway 14, the Parish Council has been working with the developers to encourage and enable dialogue, supporting residents by providing an opportunity to offer their input and suggestions on ways of making the project less intrusive and to seek some mitigations for our community. I accept that the idea of having a logistics park on our doorstep is far from ideal, but the District Council, who own the site, are obliged to proceed. I must thank the quickly established Campaign Group, who have been extremely effective in engaging with both the developers and the District Council whilst surmounting a steep learning curve in terms of the workings, or otherwise, of local government. By the time you read this, it is expected that a formal planning application will have been submitted, and we will be looking very closely at it to ensure that our issues are clearly heard.
 
Turning to Poundfield Products, there are two separate issues awaiting a decision from Mid Suffolk District Council. An application to extend their operating hours made before Christmas 2019 is still pending, as is the recent application to extend onto agricultural land they own. The Parish Council has objected to both – we are concerned, as is the Senior Environmental Health Officer, about the impact on those living near to the site, and the damage done by too many heavy goods vehicles using the inadequate roads that link it to the A14.
 
Apart from that, you might be slightly surprised to hear that the Parish Council has declared a “climate emergency”. We are, in truth, a bit slow off the blocks – both the County and District Councils have already declared one. However, there are things that we, and you, can do, and we’ll be seeking to find ways of reducing our impact on the environment around us going forwards. 

Finally, I’ve been using the County Council’s online highways reporting tool to notify them of things that need repair – they are going to take away the discarded road sign lying on the verge just beyond Highfields shortly. If you see a pothole, or a damaged road sign, or a damaged piece of road, please do report it – the website address is highwaysreporting.suffolk.gov.uk. The more people who report problems, the more likely it is that something will be done.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

A freeport for Creeting St Peter - not as unlikely as it sounds...

One of the Government's more interesting ideas is the creation of a number of freeports around the country. According to the consultation document issued last year;

Because freeports still offer that same story of trade and prosperity across the modern world. From the UAE to the USA, China to California, global freeports support jobs, trade and investment. They serve as humming hubs of high-quality manufacturing, titans of trans-shipment and warehouses for wealth-creating goods and services. The UK will recreate the best aspects of international freeports in the brand-new, best-in-class, bespoke model set out in the following pages.

I admit that, when this was first signalled, I didn't pay it an awful lot of attention - after all, why would Creeting St Peter be in the frame? And, besides, it wasn't anywhere near as radical an idea as was being touted - we'd had freeports, and they weren't that fantastic for, if they had been, we'd hardly have gotten rid of them.

But, suddenly, our business and enterprise park problem is now potentially a freeport problem, as East Suffolk Council announced their support for "Freeport East", based on the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich but with the added element of the Gateway 14 project as the freeport hinterland. This does raise some interesting questions.

Firstly, it does make the project potentially much more viable, as the site can now offer something that local competition can't, which in turn accelerates the likely timetable for development - we had been led to believe until now that it might take 10-15 years for the site to be fully developed.

The park will need to be secure though, as stated in Paragraph 3.11 of the Government's response to their consultation;

Although a few respondents (24%) advocated using technology instead of physical fences, the government considers a physical perimeter to be a robust solution. However, we welcome the inclusion of additional technology as part of the security process and would encourage bidders to set out what they can achieve. Additionally, the government remains open to exploring alternative security measures in the future if they can be demonstrated to be effective and not burdensome for businesses.
which leads to an interesting problem for us in the village, as our only direct access to Stowmarket and the A14 westbound is currently intended to bisect the development. Is that viable, given that it will risk cutting the site into two discrete parts? And, if not, what happens to us, and what will be the impact on traffic levels through the village?

The development may also be far more disruptive to local residents, as it will have a far higher proportion of logistics space, with resultant higher volumes of heavy goods traffic and the likelihood of noise and light pollution around the clock.

To make matters worse, the hybrid planning application for the Gateway 14 development landed just over a week ago, and the formal consultation process closes on 17 February. Can anyone really say if the plans as currently published are suitable for a freeport when the Government hasn't even determined exactly how they will work yet?

I have a bad feeling about this...

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Are face masks going to part of the new normal?

Like, I suspect, many of my readers, there's always seemed to be something odd about the Far East concept of wearing face masks when out in public during the winter months. We tend to take for granted the idea that we can see people, when they're smiling, or nervous, or disinterested, without a barrier. Perhaps that what makes some people uncomfortable around Muslim women who are masked, although I fear that it's simply an excuse for intolerance.

But I had spotted a report from Australia in late summer that suggested that there was a link between face mask wearing and far lower incidences of colds and influenza in the population. Of course, that might have been a coincidence, but data from the United States suggests that it has contributed to an enormous drop in the incidences of hospitalisation due to respiratory problems this year. And yes, the fact that most of us are staying at home is probably an even bigger factor, but it is food for thought.

I don't envisage governments requiring us to wear face masks after this pandemic is mastered, although if Covid-19 and its mutations become endemic, there might be more thoughts on that point, but I do wonder if the more cautious among us might not consider doing so going forward, at least during the winter months. If vaccination strategy requires an ongoing programme, as influenza does, then perhaps more of us will.

With that partially in mind, and because I needed "something pretty" as a treat, I purchased these from the London Transport Museum shop. The moquettes are, from top to bottom, the New Victoria, the District and the Routemaster, and I have to admit from an initial "test wear", they're pretty comfortable.

I admit to having bought some socks to go with them, and whilst my friends and colleagues won't get to see their true majesty for a while yet, it'll be something to look forward to as and when I see them again.

So, if I am going to want to wear a face mask going forward, at least I'm going to do it with style...

Monday, February 01, 2021

Who is this mystery Parish Councillor?... a reprise

It appears fashionable, all of a sudden, for people to want my photograph and a brief biography. That is, two organisations have asked in quick succession, this time my own Parish Clerk for our village website. And, whilst I could have simply recycled the first one, these are my friends and neighbours, so I thought that I ought to put a little more detail in this time...

Mark Valladares
is the Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and has been since 2018, having been on the Council in this incarnation since 2016. With decades of experience watching other people chair organisations well (and badly), he has developed a relaxed yet efficient style of chairing on the basis that meetings are usually dull and people (including his fellow councillors and the Clerk) are better off doing things as opposed to talking about them. His particular fields of interest are governance and finance. 

He can normally be seen wandering around the village as part of his 10,000 plus steps a day habit, and is thus fairly approachable once you've attracted his attention (if alone, he's listening to music via headphones). A former Londoner, he has had a steep learning curve to reach his current level of knowledge of how villages do, and might, work, although a bus service would be very nice (he doesn't drive). 

In the rest of his life, he is married to Ros (who is far more interesting), and works as a civil servant in a large building in Ipswich. He writes about life as a Parish councillor and villager here and can be found on Twitter at @honladymark.

If that doesn't persuade residents to vote me out of office in 2023, then nothing will...

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Creeting St Peter - some thoughts on Poundfield Products

As possibly expected, Monday night saw a slightly uncomfortable meeting. A packed agenda saw us adopt our 2021/22 budget and set our precept - we have not raised the band D charge, leaving it at the same £52.27 that it is this year. We declared a Climate Emergency without challenge, and dealt with the rest of the business in our usual efficient manner.

Of course, the spectre of Gateway 14 hangs over us still, but until the actual planning application comes in, we’re in limbo to a certain extent. However, we did have the application from Poundfield Products to expand their facility to consider. Their Managing Director had sought an invitation to attend - the same gentleman who had announced by e-mail that he would have nothing to do with the Parish Council whilst I was still Chair. You might guess that my welcome might be a less than entirely warm one.

The problem, I suspect, is that he has little understanding of what a Parish Council does. He seems to be under the impression that we should be supporting a growing local business, whereas our role is to represent the interests of our residents. That does lead to a degree of conflict.

It turned out that he wanted to do two things, firstly to explain what his company were doing to meet our concerns and why we should support expansion, secondly to express his unhappiness about the objections from local residents. I did have to politely explain that we had no control over the right to free expression of the citizenry, nor would we seek to influence them - they have a right to express their concerns, just as he does. However, we had to measure the likely impacts of expansion on our community.

We are concerned about the impact on local roads of additional heavy goods vehicles given that they are not designed to handle such weights and are suffering significant, and potentially dangerous, degradation already - the road edges are already collapsing in a number of places, offering hazards to traffic after dark. The rural location of the facility is already impacting on overlooking properties, and by encroaching towards the valley of the River Gipping, it jeopardises the ecosystem of the valley floor.

And finally, the expansion, combined with the company’s continued attempts to overturn the restrictions on operating hours included as part of the conditions for approval of the facility in the first place, will cause disturbance and loss of amenity to those living on Mill Lane and Fen Lane, as heavy lorries and staff arrive as early as 5.30 a.m.

In truth, it was a remarkably stupid place to put such an industrial facility in the first place, with poor infrastructure, no public transport for staff to use and little in the way of parking. However, that fight was lost long ago and whilst relocation to a more appropriate, better resourced site would probably be in everyone’s interests, it is acknowledged that too much capital investment has been sunk into the current site for that to be a credible option.

We voted to object, as was probably always likely, although there was some sympathy for what Poundfield Products are trying to do. The problem is that the business has a long and somewhat ignoble record of subverting planning conditions, and the initial exchange went badly wrong from their perspective. I do not, for example, take kindly to be talked over at a meeting by his local plant manager.

There was an unexpected ending though, when Mr Roddy offered us £7,000 towards Parish projects. I admit to having been taken somewhat by surprise, especially as we had just voted to object to his company’s planning application. I wasn’t really sure what to say in response but took the sensible view that, if in doubt, seek advice. Subsequently, I’ve let the Parochial Church Council know that there are funds potentially available, and that they should approach him - the Church Room needs work done on it, and £7,000 would go a long way towards funding that.

So, another eventful meeting came to a close, and I could retreat to my armchair and ponder over what I had learned...

Friday, January 22, 2021

Why are so many right-wing commentators so touchy?

Gosh, such fuss about a bust of a foreign political leader! Or rather, why should the presence or otherwise of a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office really say so much about the future of United States/United Kingdom relations? Indeed, does it say anything other than the new President wanted to decorate it with things that mean more to him?

Yes, that's one of the things that is exercising right-wing commentators this week. Rather than address the fact that the United Kingdom has one of the worst death rates from Covid-19 in the world, or that we borrowed £31.6 billion in November to deal with a crisis made so much worse by the Government's dithering and desperate need to feel loved, they prefer to create a manufactured outrage about a foreigner's interior design choices.

It is, I'm afraid, all rather sad and pathetic. So much, it seems, for the idea of taking back control, being independent, standing tall in the world. No, apparently, we should feel slighted by the decision of the most powerful man in the free world to change the decor in his office. That really does send out a message to the world, albeit possibly not the one intended.

But then, they'd pinned so much on Donald Trump and the prospect of a beneficial trade agreement. Why that should be was anyone's guess, given his actions in withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership, renegotiating NAFTA to benefit the United States rather more than it had previously done and using tariffs as a stick to beat anyone who didn't worship at his altar. It could not have been more na├»ve to believe that a Trump administration was going to come to the rescue of the Brexiteers.

Now that we have an administration that is more minded to support the framework of free trade agreements, it's hard to credit that their priority isn't going to be the Trans Pacific Partnership and the European Union - that's where the big money is. What, exactly, do we offer the Americans that they can't get elsewhere? And given that English is widely spoken across our continent, language isn't really a barrier in the way it was before.

But it acts as a reminder that, for all the talk of British influence and pride, so many on the political right turn "snowflake" about things that aren't actually of any great significance, get all moody when called on it, and would rather misdirect their readers rather than admit that there might be some negative impacts from their beloved project. Admittedly, those negative impacts almost certainly won't impact on them, and they almost certainly don't care about the people they're attempting to stir to anger, which is perhaps the point. They want you to believe that it's never their fault, and their judgement is without flaw.

And, the longer and harder they fight a culture war, the more likely it is that their victims will hopefully forget what it is they've had done to them, and look for someone to blame other than the people who got them into this mess in the first place. The bust of Churchill is merely another arrow in their quiver of outrage, an attempt to distract us from asking them why their friends are making such a mess of things.