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..

Friday, June 18, 2021

GB News - is there really space for a platform for talking heads?

There’s been a lot of talk about Andrew Neil’s new venture, much of it unkind. I can’t say that I’m as surprised by some of the glitches of the early days of broadcasting - it takes time to bed things in and there will be errors as new staff work out how things are best done.

And, whilst the list of presenters doesn’t leap out and grab me, I don’t think that I’m really part of their hoped for audience, so that probably won’t cause their backers any great loss of sleep. But I do wonder if there is a sufficient market to allow GB News to survive and thrive.

There isn’t a huge audience for television news in this country, and what there is tends to repeat itself in thirty minute chunks - I don’t sense that people sit down and watch long chunks of news unless a major event is taking place. And whilst having presenters opine at length can work on radio, where you can do other things, television has to be watched, and concentrated on.

The other potential problem is that getting 1% audience share in the United States offers you a decent chunk of advertising revenue, it isn’t anywhere near as lucrative in the United Kingdom. And even the relatively low budget GB News needs to earn £25 million per annum to break even if reports are to be believed.

You can potentially square that circle by offering attractive advertising rates or audiences who are likely to have higher levels of disposable income, but that doesn’t necessarily sit well with a cast of professional provocateurs fighting the sort of culture war that Fox News does so well in the United States.

Indeed, what surprises me about the campaign to dissuade potential advertisers is not that its apparent success but why some of the companies who have announced that they won’t be advertising on GB News would have been doing so in the first place. If your target market is younger and more socially liberal, it doesn’t strike me that GB News is the best use of your advertising budget… at least, not now.

I have read the reviews, which appear to suggest that a number of the presenters are determined to fight a “war on woke” (whatever that means), which makes it easy for me to give it a miss. But, in a free society, the right to offer something different must be allowed to exist and, in a free market of ideas, to stand or fall on its own merits.

So, we’ll see if I’m wrong about whether or not there is a sufficient audience out there to make it work, or whether the management team will need to trim towards the political centre in order to make it sustainable. In the meantime, for those who are getting upset about it, I would suggest that they walk on by and save their anger. All it does is draw people’s attention to the very thing you despise…

Friday, May 21, 2021

Ros in the Lords: Remote Participation and Hybrid Sittings

Like me, Ros has been working from home since last March, and it's been something of an adjustment for both of us. Technology, and the willingness to use it, has changed how we operate. But there are always those who romanticise the way things were, and insist that nothing must change. The House of Lords has its fair share of those. Ros isn't one of them...

My Lords, that the House was able to continue doing its work almost from the start of the pandemic is nothing short of miraculous and is a real tribute to the commitment of a lot of people, including Members, who found themselves having to get comfortable — or at least able — to operate in a way that they would never have dreamt.

As a member of the sponsor body for restoration and renewal, I am well aware of the parlous state of the building and the possibility of some sort of catastrophic failure. If there is a silver lining from the last year, it is that at least we can feel that the Houses could keep going should the worst happen. As the Constitution Committee reported, there is potentially a link between restoration and renewal and new ways of working. The sponsor body is well aware of that, but I assure noble Lords that it believes that these are matters for both Houses, and it is certainly not for the sponsor body to tell the Houses how they should carry out their business.

But we have been genuinely innovative, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, set that out very well. We need to think carefully before we go straight back to the old ways of working because, first, the pandemic is not over, as the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, set out. The Indian variant shows that we are not out of the woods, so we need to take the time to make sure that we and our staff are kept safe.

It strikes me that many of the downsides which noble Lords have reported today and previously are down to the pandemic and not hybrid working per se. It is about the distancing and all the paraphernalia that comes with that. We need mentally to try to sort some of that out, because it is very difficult from this perspective to judge what hybrid working might look like if we were in a House that was operating more normally.

I hope that, for both those reasons, the House will decide soon to remain hybrid until well into the autumn. That would give time for the whole population to be vaccinated and for us to be assured that there was not to be a further wave. Crucially, it could offer a period where Members could make a genuine choice about whether to come in or to work from home. I think many people will come in; a lot of us miss the place. It would give us a chance to feel what hybrid working would look like in a more normal environment, so we could use it as a transitional period. We could choose certain functions, such as legislation, which would be done in the Chamber only, while others, such as committees, could be done virtually or hybrid.

For people like me, who have always believed in an elected House, the argument for the Lords as it is currently configured is that it is a House of experts: people are drawn from all walks of life and bring their expertise and professional backgrounds. Yet, once Members are appointed, everything about the way we do our business draws us into becoming full-time parliamentarians. For people outside London and the Home Counties, this is a particular issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, set out. Someone coming from Cornwall or Cumbria for a vote on a Monday and who perhaps has a Question or a committee on a Wednesday will end up spending the whole week in London for a relatively short period of active contribution.

In a system that awards peerages for life, we do need to think very hard about how the expertise that brings the Members to the House can be kept up to date, because it is difficult, if you are in Westminster all the time. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made that point really well, that like many noble Lords, he is assiduous in building up these relationships outside. That is what keeps him current, but it is very difficult to do if you are tied up in the Lords. This is not just a matter of hybrid or virtual working; it is about a whole raft of procedures and practices we have established for ourselves that somehow mean you can only be a proper parliamentarian if you are based in Westminster.

The last year has given us a chance to think afresh about that — to have a look at whether or not this is the right way to do things. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was entirely right: every large organisation is now looking at what it does and how it does it to see whether things should be changed. We will get much more respect for taking a step back and looking at that than we will for going straight back to the old ways we have always done things.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Creeting St Peter - let's play the music and Chair...

Three years ago, I was somewhat unexpectedly catapulted into a position of supreme power elected as Chair of our village's Parish Council. I hadn't sought the role - which is becoming something of a recurring theme - but wasn't quick enough to escape when I was the victim of an extremely genteel ambush by my fellow Councillors.

I had been led to understand that the Chair served two years before being replaced  by their Vice Chair, which turned out to be a ruse. But it was alright, and I had quietly enjoyed the responsibility for two years. And then the pandemic struck, and our 2020 Annual Parish Council Meeting was cancelled. It was agreed that I might as well carry on for another year, and I was happy enough to do so - not that I think that the village particularly needs an active Parish Council Chair - but to offer some stability.

Perhaps if I had known that we could expect the pandemic to last for more than a year, or that the business and enterprise zone long threatened on the edge of the Parish would turn up in the middle of it, I might have been less sanguine, but life can be like that sometimes. The past year has thus been a bit more stressful.

But you can't go on forever, in any event. I'm not one of those people who believes in holding positions for year after year, and Parish Councils need to evolve. That said, whilst I'd be perfectly happy to hand over the invisible chains of office to one of my fellow councillors, it had become clear that they, in turn, were quietly keen for me to stay on.

And so, on Monday night, at our Annual Parish Council Meeting, when nominations were sought for a Chair for 2021-22, I was duly nominated for a fourth year. I accepted, but gave notice to Council that it would be my last year - they now have a year to decide which of them wants to take the Chair going forward. I've even offered to give up the Chair for a meeting so that anyone who wants to "try it for size" can do so.

I do think that any of them could do the job. Not, perhaps, in the same way that I do it, but that need hardly be a bad thing. I'm keen on process and form, but with a Council made up of reasonable people - as ours is - different styles and approaches could work just as well, possibly better. And, in any event, I'm planning to stay on as a councillor, so the skills that I think that I offer are still available.

It has been an honour and a privilege to chair Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and I've learned a bit about myself in the process. But, in a year or so, it'll be time to hand the baton on to someone else and let them lead the band...

Friday, May 14, 2021

Ros in the Lords - Queen's Speech debate (day 3)

I particularly pick up on this speech because, as a bureaucrat, I understand that having rules that work, that can be applied and are transparent as to their intent, is important. This is what Ros said yesterday...

The Bills contained in this programme will no doubt receive the thorough and robust scrutiny of this House, but as we pass them we will no doubt be delegating dozens of new powers to government and government Ministers, because the volume of secondary legislation has grown enormously in recent decades. The process of EU exit and Covid-related emergency law has added to that.

Many reports and debates in recent times have drawn attention to the shortcomings of both Houses when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation, and that includes the excellent report published today by our Constitution Committee. Too often, the very good work carried out by the staff and the members of the Secondary Legislation Committee and the Joint Committee for Statutory Instruments passes by the House because of procedures that we have ourselves established and agreed. This House has a duty to carry out effective scrutiny, as well a responsibility to ensure that the legitimate business of government can be carried out.

But I am not alone in feeling that, increasingly, the Government are not carrying out their side of the bargain. We have to give this some thought. The Government are increasingly using secondary legislation for significant policy changes that ought to be in primary legislation, and would have been in past years. In its 52nd report, the Secondary Legislation Committee cited changes to the Town and Country Planning Act that were fundamental to our planning system and ought to have been brought forward in a Bill.

In recent years, we have also seen a growth in statutory guidance, which receives virtually no parliamentary scrutiny at all. Again, the SLSC cited the recent grass and heather burning regulations, which were noted because the instrument was passed even though all the detail was in statutory guidance which had not even been published at that point. So the Government are getting three bites of the cherry: the Act itself, the secondary legislation and then the statutory guidance. In effect, this allows for constant post hoc changes to the law, with no parliamentary scrutiny.

These trends have accelerated rapidly during the pandemic. We have taken a pragmatic view that the public health emergency justifies some sacrifice of parliamentary scrutiny, but I think the Government have now taken this too far. The Constitution Committee report highlights that 424 Covid-related SIs have been laid. These include fines of up to £10,000, lockdowns, business closures and quarantines. Whatever position you take on those issues, surely they deserve timely and effective scrutiny — yet 397 of those SIs were either made affirmative or made negative. In other words, they take effect before any scrutiny has taken place, and Parliament can only act retrospectively. The SLSC reported that two came into force before they had even been laid. The Government argue that time pressures in the pandemic make this necessary but, in the case of face coverings, the policy had been trailed for weeks, so it is very hard to see why the regulations in draft could not have been published.

The scheduling of SI debates in both Houses means that they are quite often completely superseded by the time we ever get to debate them. The pressure of work in departments is leading to errors and non-compliance with agreed processes. Preliminary figures from the JCSI show that it reported 194 instruments on 248 separate grounds, including defective drafting and doubtful vires.

We see increasingly important policy announcements being made at press conferences; they get reported in the media and become firmly planted in the public consciousness. When the regulations appear, they are often far less draconian than the announcement but, as a result, there is widespread confusion about what the Government see as desirable and what they see as mandatory. It is not just the public but public authorities themselves - the enforcement authorities - that are struggling with this, as reported by the Human Rights Committee. The Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services said that the difficulty for police officers was made much worse by widespread confusion about the status of government announcements and the law. A Crown Prosecution Service review found that 27% of cases had been incorrectly charged, and no doubt many people have paid penalties rather than go to court. This is grossly unjust. It is a drain on our criminal justice system and very unhelpful to maintaining trust in the police force.

There are times when the state has to control what individuals do, but surely it must be through properly enacted legislation that is thoroughly scrutinised and fairly enforced.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A country gentleman returns to Federal International Relations Committee...

And so, this evening saw my first FIRC meeting since my restoration, and interesting it was too. So, what happened, and what did I do?

Joining a committee part way through its term can often be challenging - every committee has a dynamic all its own, and if you’ve been involved in a previous iteration, there is a danger that you respond as though nothing has changed and create something of a culture clash. Frustrating for you, and for the committee you must hope to influence. So, in truth, I tended to stay out of things whilst I get a sense of how I might fit in and what I might contribute.

There have been some changes whilst I’ve been away, with sub-committees set up to look at the European Union and Brexit, as well as China, which seem to be a positive step, and a fundraising group, which I’m going to avoid, given my professional role.

The Committee is pretty high-powered too, with a clutch of Peers (of which I approve) and former MEPs amongst its number. I may be slightly out of my league here, but we’ll see how that goes.

It was a rather longer meeting than I am used to, and quite tiring as a result, but with a new Chair, Phil Bennion, and two significant deaths (Jonathan Fryer, the Chair of the Committee until last month, and Hans van Baalen, the President of the ALDE Party) to dwell upon, it should have been predicted. I must note at this point that Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett said some very thoughtful things about Jonathan in his tribute, and I was touched by his warmth and emotion.

In response to the discussion on China, there was some thought given to whether what is being done to the Uyghurs. There is a degree of unease about describing it as genocide, but I noted that the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention pointed to Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs meeting the definition. It may be na├»ve to suggest that it would be easy to use this as a stick to “beat” the Chinese with, and one must be aware of the “realpolitik” of the situation, but I do think that if you give anyone a free pass on such behaviour, you shouldn’t be surprised if others see it as a green light to treat their minorities in a similar fashion. It will be interesting to see what policy stances emerge from the sub-committee though.

I’m pleased to see that Isabelle, the Party’s International Officer, has survived in post, given HQ’s low prioritisation of the post in the past. She’s not been in the office for a while, but she brings a sense of Nordic calm to her work, and it’s nice to be able to work with her again.

My successor but one as the Committee’s Secretariat (the role isn’t necessarily that of just a Secretary) announced her resignation in advance of our meeting, and a replacement was sought. No, it won’t be me, although I did think about it. I’ve done the job once, and whilst I could probably do it again, I don’t want to. The danger in doing the job is twofold - that you don’t really get to contribute to the international work of the Party except by freeing up others to do it, and that, if you do it the way I think it should be done, you end up frustrated and irritable - there is very little interest in process, rules or constitutions, regardless of their importance. Life is too short for that. That said, the Committee really needs someone, and if you think that you might be that someone, do get in touch.

I will say this though, I thought that Denali Ranasinghe did an excellent job in the role, and she will be missed. She is polite, helpful and committed, and other organisations will benefit from her evident skills over many years to come.

There followed a series of reports from various groups, all of which were quite promising in terms of things that are being done to improve Party knowledge on international affairs, and indicate that the internationalist wing of the Party is a vibrant place.

The meeting concluded with discussions on the crisis in Israel and Palestine, and on India. I warned the Committee that the BJP are intent on establishing control over things such as aid from overseas for political advantage. We do need to be careful about how we relate to the current Indian Government - India would make a valuable partner in our relations with China and, as a democracy, it offers potential leadership across South Asia and beyond.

So, all in all, an interesting and stimulating meeting. I’ll try to contribute where I can going forward, although I’m not planning to join any of the sub-committees yet - I’d rather analyse their work from the outside for the time being, especially as I don’t consider myself an expert in those fields.

We meet again on 19 July, although there’s an event in between...

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

And so, in a not entirely welcome turn of events...

Seventeen months ago, in a set of internal party elections whose outcome was not entirely unexpected, I lost my place on the Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC) and failed to be elected back onto the ALDE Party Council delegation, the latter despite a second bite of the cherry granted to me by the party's (relative) success in the December 2019 General Election.

I wasn't that far from success in either contest but, if you haven't won, you've lost. And, in fairness, looking at who had won, and indeed at some of those who had lost, I couldn't in all fairness have much complaint. I don't offer the electorate promises on policy that aren't actually salient - ALDE Party Council seldom discusses policy and is more like a rather large Finance and Administration Committee - and my reputation is as a bureaucrat rather than an internationalist (that'll teach me to care about structure and process, won't it?). And, the candidates who beat me could claim experience and knowledge that, in truth, I can't match.

Accordingly, I had reconciled myself to the outcome and was hardly pining for a return - life is too short, and there's a whole world out there for someone with a sense of intellectual curiosity and a desire to understand as far as possible.

A vacancy had arisen, following the resignation of one of the directly elected FIRC members, both from the committee and the Party, but I wasn't the runner-up, and you seldom see that many resignations, even in a three-year term. And so, Jonathan Fryer's untimely, and extremely unfortunate, demise created an unexpected vacancy on both FIRC and the ALDE Party Council delegation.

Having been consulted on how the vacancies should be filled, for reasons I don't entirely comprehend, I pointed the Committee to Jack Coulson, the Party's very capable Company Secretary, who handles such things in accordance with the Party's constitution, and left matters to take their course.

Internal by-elections are often quite hard to call, especially when you're effectively eliminating someone with a considerable number of first preferences. The way they split isn't easily predictable, especially if, in the original count, their preferences weren't transferred as part of the process. Looking at the original result, there were a number of candidates potentially in the frame, so I didn't get my hopes up. And, as already noted, I wasn't desperate to return.

The result was a bit of a surprise, in that I was now successful in both elections. There was, however, something unexpected, in that the Constitution says that, in the event of a recount, no previously elected candidate should lose their place, and, in the ALDE Party Council recount, exactly that had happened. And so, I appealed, knowing that, if my appeal was successful, I would lose my newly gained place.

I should be somewhat embarrassed by the fact that my appeal was unsuccessful - * long time bureaucrat in interpretation fail * - but sometimes you don't have all of the facts and it turned out that the interpretation of the constitutional validity of the initial declaration of the result of the 2019 election had not been widely known.

And so, I am back, at least until 31 December next year. I'm not planning to get comfortable, and I don't know if I'll even run for re-election - we'll see how it goes. But you can expect some coverage here about what I'm doing on the Committee and elsewhere, for there's little point in my representing those people who kindly voted for me, and indeed, those who didn't - I didn't take it personally, I promise - otherwise.

So, bureaucrat, parish councillor and international activist. It's an eclectic collection of roles, but each offers me the opportunity to contribute to making things better, even if only slightly. And, at the end of the day, if you're making things better, you are making a contribution towards the wider community, and isn't that something we should all aspire to?...

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

2021 County Council elections - looking beyond Mid Suffolk...

So, time to take a wider view of events in Suffolk...

Beyond the boundaries of Mid Suffolk, we entered the elections holding County Divisions in Woodbridge, St Margaret's and Westgate (Ipswich) and Peninsula (think the triangle of land between the Stour and Orwell estuaries).

We'd lost Peninsula before we started, as the sitting Liberal Democrat and former Group Leader, David Wood, had retired, and the seat wasn't even defended - it went to the Greens.

Woodbridge stayed resolutely Liberal Democrat, with Caroline Page scoring 63.5% in a two-horse race against the Conservatives, leaving St Margaret's and Westgate as a potential gain - we held both seats for the first eight years of its existence (2005-2013) and Inga Lockington has managed to fend off both Labour and Conservative opposition to hold one of them ever since - the second seat went Labour in 2013 and Conservative in 2017. Sadly, whilst Inga's personal vote held up nicely, the new Conservative candidate retained her seat and Oliver Holmes came fourth, behind one of the Labour candidates.

Elsewhere, there were respectable second places in Belstead Brook, Blything, Kessingland and Southwold and Stour Valley, but otherwise there wasn't an awful lot to get excited about. The Liberal Democrats are now the fourth party of Suffolk politics at County level, with Suffolk County Council now constituted as follows;

  • Conservatives - 55 seats (plus 5)
  • Greens - 9 seats (plus 6)
  • Labour - 5 seats (minus 6)
  • Liberal Democrats - 4 seats (minus 1)
  • West Suffolk Independents - 1 seat (no change)
  • Independent - 1 seat (minus 4)
The votes received were as follows;
  • Conservatives - 124,969 votes (48.0%)
  • Labour - 56,223 votes (21.6%)
  • Greens - 39,283 votes (15.1%)
  • Liberal Democrats - 25,885 votes (9.9%)
  • Independents - 11,723 votes (4.5%)
  • West Suffolk Independents - 1,959 votes (0.8%)
  • Communist Party of Britain - 293 votes (0.1%)
  • Burning Pink Party - 168 votes (0.1%)
The Conservatives did what you might expect, given that the polls favoured them, in increasing their grip on the County. But, whilst they achieved a net gain of five, two of those were merely regaining seats where the sitting Conservative councillor had been deselected and "gone rogue". They also took five seats from Labour, penetrating Suffolk's equivalent of the "Red Wall". However, they lost four seats to the Greens (Beccles, Halesworth, Stowupland North & Stowupland and Thedwastre North) and swapped seats with the Liberal Democrats (Gipping Valley for Stowmarket South). They did at least remove the last trace of UKIP from the County Council.

It was a pretty disastrous night for Labour - reduced to five seats in Ipswich. It's not their worst performance - they won just four in 2009 - but it's pretty close. Once upon a time, they held seats in Lowestoft, Haverhill, Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, all now an increasingly distant memory. In the rural Divisions, they are all but irrelevant, and it's hard to envisage a repeat of 1993, when the Conservatives were caught in a vice between Labour in the towns and the Liberal Democrats in the villages.

It's probably fair to say that the big winners were the Greens, trebling their number of the County Council from three to nine, and now the official Opposition, should they choose to end the partnership with the Liberal Democrats and Independents that existed before these elections. They have a few promising second places which might drive their strategy over the next four years, but they, like the Liberal Democrats and Labour grow weaker as you travel westwards across the county. Where the opportunities to really challenge the Conservatives come from is not easily spotted... yet.

The obvious route for the combined opposition is a "progressive alliance", but, as is usually the case, it is impossible to envisage Suffolk Labour taking such an approach - they still don't play nice, even in their current state. It probably wouldn't mean too much risk from their perspective, they're not competitive in much of the county, yet they run candidates who achieve little other than to make the Conservatives harder to beat, especially now that there is no other right-wing competition to chew away at their support.

Next year is a year off for most of Suffolk, with only Ipswich due to hold elections (it's a "thirds" council, before the Districts are all up in 2023. Will the Conservatives retain their current popularity, or will there start to be a gentle whittling away of their support post-Brexit and post-Covid? Will meaningful opposition emerge in the villages? That remains to be seen...

Monday, May 10, 2021

2021 County Council elections - so, what happened in Mid Suffolk? (part 2)

Yesterday, the first part of this review was a tale of Liberal Democrat disaster and Green triumph. Today, at least from a Liberal Democrat perspective, I offer you something a little more edifying...

If ever there was a message that persistence pays off, Stowmarket South provided a tale of triumph for Keith Scarff at the fifth attempt. His first attempt saw him come third in 2005, 540 votes adrift in a respectable third place. By 2009, he'd got within 73 votes in second, and got even closer in 2009, losing by 40 but coming third in a knife edge contest. 2017 saw a small step backwards, losing by 132 but, this time...

  • Keith Scarff (Liberal Democrat) - 1,030 votes (40.3%)
  • Nick Gowrley (Conservative) - 854 votes (33.4%)
  • Emma Bonner-Morgan (Labour) - 380 votes (14.9%)
  • David Card (Independent) - 292 votes (11.4%)
So, round 4 of the contest between Messrs Scarff and Gowrley brought the score between them to 2-2, with the Conservative triumphant in 2015 (Mid Suffolk) and 2017 (Suffolk), and losing both seats in 2019 and 2021. In two elections, Keith has beaten the Conservative Leader of Mid Suffolk, and the Conservative Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Housing and Enterprise.

I did deliver a few leaflets for him, but in all honesty, Keith has done the hard yards pretty much on his own, and all of the credit for his success must go to him.

The second blue on blue contest was Thedwastre North, and I did suggest that this might allow the Green to sneak through. Sure enough, Jane Storey's very respectable result left enough space for Andy Mellen to snatch the seat. It wasn't actually that close...
  • Andy Mellen (Green) - 1,472 votes (40.9%)
  • Harry Richardson (Conservative) - 1,226 votes (34.0%)
  • Jane Storey (Independent) - 702 votes (19.6%)
  • Ursula Ajimal (Labour) - 199 votes (5.5%)
It's another area of genuine Green strength at District Council level, and I suspect that, if Andy digs in, he'll be very hard to shift in four years time.

Penny Otton had her easiest contest yet in terms of winning margin, but it wasn't that easy in Thedwastre South.
  • Penny Otton (Liberal Democrat) - 1,435 votes (46.0%)
  • John Augustine (Conservative) - 1,321 votes (42.3%)
  • Philip Cockell (Labour) - 364 votes (11.7%)
I'm pleased for Penny, and Ros and I did do some leafletting for her in Great Finborough but it comes down to years of hard work, as well as her solid support in Rattlesden, her District Council seat.

There was never any serious prospect of the Conservative Leader losing his seat in Thredling and, sure enough...
  • Matthew Hicks (Conservative) - 2,084 votes (63.2%)
  • Helen Bridgeman (Green) - 602 votes (18.3%)
  • Kathleen Hardy (Labour) - 417 votes (12.7%)
  • Mark Pearson (Liberal Democrat) - 192 votes (5.8%)
And, in truth, it would have been a real upset had Upper Gipping changed hands, given that the Greens dominate the area at District Council level, and Andrew Stringer had no trouble in defeating the Conservative sacrificial lamb.
  • Andrew Stringer (Green) - 2,250 votes (63.3%)
  • Kieren Lathangue-Clayton (Conservative) - 1,075 votes (30.2%)
  • Julie Reynolds (Labour) - 231 votes (6.5%)
So, the final outcome across the ten seats in Mid Suffolk was;
  • Conservatives - 5 seats (down 2)
  • Greens - 3 seats (up 2)
  • Liberal Democrats - 2 seats (no change)
From a Liberal Democrat perspective, it was a bit disappointing but not awful. I still think that Bosmere is entirely winnable, although work needs to start now, and campaigns launched in Ringshall & Battisford and that part of Onehouse that falls in Bosmere. Gipping Valley is, perhaps, less easily regained, given our weakness in Claydon & Barham. That said, the paperless candidate there gained 30% of the votes in 2019, so there may be a latent, and accessible, Liberal Democrat vote out there if someone wants it badly enough.

The Conservatives face a dilemma. Whilst Hartismere and Thredling seem pretty safe, winning back Stowmarket South and Thedwastre North may prove to be challenging. They have very little in the way of a ground war - leaflet deliveries are paid for and their campaigning material is highly generic. On the plus side, the default position is to vote Conservative in Mid Suffolk in the absence of an organised challenger.

The Greens can look forward. They may hope to gradually supplant the Liberal Democrats in their current strongholds, and they can look to Hartismere as a potential next target. They're also now the official opposition on Suffolk County Council, and it'll be interesting to see how they perform at Endeavour House. There are plenty of weaknesses for them to highlight.

And finally, Labour. They ran a candidate in every Division, averaging 12% across the board, but never achieving more than 16.1% anywhere. Their support is broad and shallow, and they didn't appear to be trying anywhere. Frankly, if you're looking for a Progressive Alliance to emerge, Mid Suffolk demonstrates that Labour have no interest in playing nicely. On the other hand, their vote is eminently squeezable - they did better in Conservative held seats - so that does suggest a route forward for Greens and Liberal Democrats.