Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Creeting St Peter - a hint of illegality?

I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a huge fan of Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Setting aside the suggestions that his integrity might not be wholly unsullied, my problem is that he doesn't necessarily understand how local government works.

As a small (but perfectly formed) Parish Council, we have been permitted to hold our meetings online, and it has gone fairly well so far. I am, admittedly, somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that online meetings effectively exclude those who either don't have, or don't want, the required technology. But, if you can't meet anyone from outside of your household, there is little option other than to abandon having the Parish Council meet at all. And, given that we've had three controversial planning applications in the past year, that really wouldn't be appropriate.

Our year revolves around two things, the setting of an annual precept, which we do in January, and the Annual Parish and Annual Parish Council Meetings, which generally take place in May.

The Annual Parish Meeting must take place between 1 March and 1 June and has a general power to discuss parish affairs and pass resolutions, although any such resolution shall not bind the Parish Council. In Creeting St Peter, it tends to be an opportunity for our representatives, including myself as Chair, to submit reports to the residents.

The Annual Parish Council Meeting must take place in May, unless it's an election year, in which case it must take place four days after the election or within fourteen days thereafter. Not unreasonably, for convenience, we tend to combine the two, running them consecutively. We elect our Chair then, although here, there doesn't tend to be a contest.

They're not generally very exciting affairs, which is kind of consistent with the fact that we don't do that much, but the whole village is invited and can attend if they see fit.

We're due to meet on 17 May, which complies with the legislative framework under normal circumstances. That is, if you ignore the small detail of a global pandemic, something that Robert Jenrick appears inclined to do. You see, I was going to get round to him eventually.

So, here's my problem. I must, by law, convene a meeting. The legislation allowing me to do it remotely expires on 7 May, so I could move the meeting forward by two weeks to allow it to take place virtually. Unfortunately, that means that our Parish Clerk would need to be available, and she isn't.

There is only one possible venue for any physical meeting, the Church Room which, conveniently, is in the village, rather than at the church, half a mile away. Unfortunately, the Church Room isn't that large, has only one narrow entrance, and would barely hold the Parish Council if the two metre rule is to be applied, which it must be until at least 21 June. I have to say that a risk assessment offers all sorts of unhelpful challenges.

It is suggested that we offer remote access to the public, but given that any technology would have to run off of the available mobile signal, and we'd need to have access to sufficient technology to make it work (and we don't), it does make rather a farce of the thing.

Thus I am left with the insidious choice of breaking the law either by delaying the meeting until after 21 June, by effectively excluding the public or by abandoning the two metre rule.

And all because the Government can't find the time to pass a simple enabling piece of legislation which would be utterly uncontroversial. It looks like we'll be seeing you in court, Mr Jenrick...

Monday, March 29, 2021

Boris wants me to return to my office... again. I'm sorry to have to disappoint him...

In September, I wrote about the Government's suggestion that I return to my office. Admittedly, I thought that it was humorous, but no more than that. But now, Boris suggests that I should stop slacking - I paraphrase, although not that much.

Well, I wish him the best of luck with that.

Admittedly, in my case, I don't really have an office to return to - my old office closed on 28 February, and its replacement isn't ready to be occupied yet - but now that I am expected to work no more than three days in an office even after things return to "normal" (whatever that is), I'm beginning to reconcile myself to a rather different work/life balance.

I've now been working from home for over a year and it has had some interesting impacts. The obvious ones - the reduction of my commuting costs from £2,000 per annum to... nil has been very nice. The improved access to snacks and drinks is certainly welcome, and I've even managed to lose a few pounds against the apparent trend.

I can also schedule my day to get in a little light exercise - a brisk walk mid-morning or mid-afternoon gives me the space to run a few thoughts through my mind in terms of case strategy and prevents me from squinting at my Surface Pro too much - we're advised that we should take short, regular breaks to maintain our health, both physical and mental.

And, if I need to do something during the regular workday, I can slip away for a little while to do it, as long as the hours are made up either at the beginning of the day or at the end.

My employers are still fairly conservative in terms of the workday - roughly what one might describe as usual office hours - and that is one thing that hasn't really developed yet. You see, I'm not really a frontline employee, in that customers seldom call, or even write, and that leads to the question "does it really matter when I work, as long as I'm contactable by customers and my scheduled hours are worked?".

And that's an interesting point. Previously, I worked the hours I worked because of the availability of public transport and because that's when the building was open. You couldn't really get in before 7 a.m. and you had to leave before 7 p.m. because the alarm system was turned on. Working from home, I could theoretically wake up at 3 a.m. having had a eureka moment, go downstairs, walk across the patio to my home office, crank up the Surface Pro and draft a letter to an accountant or customer. I'm not saying that I would - I suspect that Ros would be less than impressed - but I could.

I am an owl, rather than a lark, and it might suit me, and my employer, if I operated when my brain operated more efficiently, rather than obliging me to fit an arbitrary schedule of their design. And yes, that would mean occasionally making appointments with customers and accountants to speak on the telephone or via video link but flexibility potentially benefits everyone.

And it enables my employer to use office space rather more efficiently, whilst improving our environmental impact through reduced travel.

It's not for everyone - many of my colleagues organise their lives around family and caring commitments and a predicable work schedule is probably easier to manage - but if the only things that matters are staff satisfaction and outcome delivery (and I think that the two are closely interrelated) then offering staff a greater degree of freedom in how they managing their work is likely to be a good thing.

But, going forward, I could envisage getting to the gym midweek when it's relatively quiet, using the commuting time saved to better effect, or slotting in an eye test at a convenient time, rather than having to have it at lunchtime or at the weekend. My employers get the time that they pay for and a better motivated employee, I get a decent work/life balance and everybody wins.

So, Boris, lay off with the snide comments about my workrate and productivity and give some thought as to how you can increase freedom by liberating people from the nine to five box, rather than sacrificing us at the altar of your commercial property owning mates.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Liberal Democrat manifesto for Suffolk

Whilst I might be best described as semi-detached from party activity in Suffolk - you only really appreciate what's going on if you hold some sort of organisational position unless you work at it - I do still get the various e-mails, and today news reached me of the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto for May's County Council election. And, as someone who 'has views', you won't be surprised to hear that I read it with some curiosity.

I have to admit that I'm impressed - it actually looks like a programme for (local) government - and I particularly approve of the transport section, which reads;

Integral to our plan is providing a safe, carbon efficient, and high-quality transport system, and attending to our neglected roads, cycle routes and public transport. Our transport plans include:

  • Introduce county-wide electric vehicle charge scheme by 2023, and no new home should be built without one.
  • All council vehicles to be zero emission by 2029 by securing a pool of electric cars for staff business use.
  • Support for rural public transport with a council owned bus company motivated by service, not profit, with buses to be ultra-low emission by 2025. We will start with a demand-scoping exercise on where priority demand is for bus routes.
  • Re-enable the use of concessionary bus passes on community transport.
  • Encourage cycling with electric bike grants and more cycle lanes, improve cycling infrastructure and maintain existing routes.
  • Implement more 20mph areas where they are supported by residents and couple these to the Quiet Lanes project.
  • Lobby for more direct rail freight network investment to our port.
  • Investigate alternative options to relieve the northern traffic inflow into Ipswich, such as more park and rides into town, improvements for cyclists, better traffic management, and possibly a second Orwell crossing, rather than the expensive and environmentally ruinous Northern Bypass.
It makes perfect sense to start building infrastructure to support electric vehicles and, in a county where most households have at least one car, building new homes with their own charging point should be a no-brainer.

I like the idea of a council owned bus company, because one of Suffolk's weaknesses is that its bus network is highly fragmented, with First Group and Ipswich Buses competing in the county town and its environs, and the rural network split between a myriad of small providers until you get to the Cambridge hinterland, when Stagecoach dominate.

Naturally, I support the Quiet Lanes initiative - Ros "invented" them as part of her input into the 2000 Transport Act - and they may improve pedestrian and cycling usage.

But, perhaps predictably, my warmest welcome is for the reference to re-enable the use of concessionary bus passes on community transport. Here in Mid Suffolk, the County Council signed a contract which meant that the contracted provider didn't accept them, which seemed hugely unfair given the number of small villages without regular bus services and the number of elderly residents who would certainly benefit from the community transport option.

It's a bit of a longshot for the Conservatives to lose control here in Suffolk - the combined Opposition are coming from a long way back with the Conservatives holding 49 out of the 75 seats, with two more ex-Conservatives in the chamber - but you never know after what happened here in Mid Suffolk in 2019.

It is, I admit, nice to see a manifesto that offers a meaningful programme of change, and hopefully it will be a means towards arguing the case for more liberalism in a county that's been a bit short of it in recent times.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Creeting St Peter - an evening with Helen and Simon (and Jennie)...

It's been a pretty hectic year as Chair of my small, but perfectly formed, Parish Council. The impact of the pandemic on our community has been challenging enough, but a string of controversial planning applications affecting the village have made life that bit harder.

I was therefore slightly perplexed to receive an e-mail via our Clerk offering a meeting with the two members of the newly formed Communities - Planning and Engagement team, who wanted to talk to us about the Gateway 14 project and planning application. A bit late in the day was my initial thought, and there was a temptation to give the thing a miss - I'm busy and a bit stressed, and given that the consultation period is now closed, there seemed on initial reflection to be little point. But they were keen, and I'm a kindly soul (occasionally), so I asked Jennie, our Parish Clerk, to arrange a get together.

I admit that it had somewhat slipped my mind when my iPhone buzzed with a reminder an hour before the assigned time. We're gracious hosts in the Creetings, however, and I made sure to be in front of my desktop in good time.

As it turned out, it was just the four of us, Helen and Simon from Mid Suffolk, Jennie, our Clerk, and me, which rather let me take most of the scheduled hour bemoaning the fate of small Parish Councils in the face of large developments and District Councils who occasionally give the impression that we're a bit of a nuisance.

And there is a problem. How does a volunteer Parish Council of five, with a budget of £5,500 per annum and a very part-time Clerk properly scrutinise and respond to a planning application of the scale of Gateway 14? How can we consider elements like environmental degradation, traffic plans, design codes and planning policy without training and, most importantly, time? Is it reasonable to expect five people, all of whom have full-time jobs and families, to give up hours and hours of their time to review 155 documents, develop sufficient understanding of the technical arguments and meaningfully consult village residents in, potentially, four weeks?

Fortunately, it wasn't just me kvetching about Gateway 14 (and yes, it is stressful, and yes, I fret about it more than perhaps I should).

We did talk about how the District Council communicates. So, for example, the Council decides to offer grants for small businesses affected by the pandemic. I signed up to the Council's press releases some years ago, and so I get the press release and, because I'm public-spirited enough, I publicise the information via the village's informal Facebook group. If you're a resident of Creeting St Peter, how would you find out otherwise? Do you read the local newspapers? Possibly. Do you check the Council's website frequently, just in case? Really? How sad are you?

I likened it to the theory that a Parish Council can simply rely on the Parish noticeboard to inform and advise. It's static, you have to go to it and, if you don't have to walk past it, would you really stop to check it frequently?

We discussed some ideas for getting messages from the Council to a larger audience through Parishes, and I'll be interested to see if anything comes of it. In truth, most reasonable people understand that, when any organisation is struggling for resources, communication tends to fall by the wayside - officers are, not surprisingly, trying to do their core jobs and communicating to the public doesn't usually fall into the category of essential in so far as it is a mandatory requirement.

In the end, it became more of a feedback session than anything else and, as I'm a relatively thoughtful soul, I have given much thought to questions of governance over the years. I only hope that I haven't scared them...

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.