Thursday, May 19, 2022
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Monday, April 25, 2022
I needed a drink after that climb and, most conveniently, at the bottom of the hill was a converted old American yellow school bus, serving burgers and local beer. I didn’t hesitate…
Vaduz has one of those slightly absurd land trains. But it was free, and I was intrigued to see what treats it might include. There was a lot of alpine music, and quite a lot of history, but little to lead you to believe that Vaduz is the sort of place that excites much. If you’ve got forty-five minutes to kill, it’s no worse than walking, but I wouldn’t suggest building your day of touristic activity around it.
I needed dinner and, for all of Vaduz’s charm, it isn’t price conscious. Ros had mentioned that she’d rather liked Feldkirch, across the Austrian border. And I just had time to get to Switzerland to catch the train… The somewhat occasional Buchs to Feldkirch service supplies Liechtenstein with its only scheduled train service and so I can now authoritatively claim that I have ridden the entire Liechtenstein rail network.
And Feldkirch did seem quite nice, at least what I got to see of it. The schnitzel was certainly worth the journey, although I deeply suspect that serving bad schnitzel is a criminal offence in Austria…
That left me with the task of getting back to my hotel, which is where the tri-national route 11 bus comes in. This leaves Feldkirch and runs the full length of Liechtenstein, via Schaan, Vaduz and Balzers, before ending its journey in Sargans, over the border in Switzerland, where you can connect to trains further into the country. And it’s a pretty ride too…
I got an early night, for I had an early start the next morning…
Friday, April 22, 2022
It was a relatively gentle start, which was welcome after I’d arrived in Zurich just in time to catch the last shuttle to my hotel the previous evening. And it’s funny, isn’t it, how after a period travelling anywhere new, your confidence over what, prior to the pandemic, had been a relatively straightforward journey, is slightly, if not shaken, then not quite what it had been. Arriving at an airport after 10.30 in the evening felt a bit “edge of the seat”, even if I would have thought nothing of it a few years ago.
But everything had worked, and the adventure was underway.
Yes, I’d never been to Liechtenstein before, which comes almost as much of a surprise to me as it does to anyone else. But the mountains were snow-capped, and Vaduz seemed quiet and unhurried. My hotel was another new experience, a self check-in one - part of a small Swiss chain - but it all seemed to work and I found myself with time to explore.
It turned out that the National Treasure was self check-in too, as you placed the coin in a slot machine at the entrance which triggered the door to get inside, thus saving on the cost of a member of staff. And the National Treasure is a bit quirky, with everything from a Fabergé egg to one hand painted by one of the Princesses. But it’s quite impressive, all things considered. And the State Museum isn’t bad either, offering a potted history of what is a very small country. For example, I learned that, whilst Liechtenstein became a free nation in 1719, its rulers only took up permanent residence in 1938, after Anschluss. And, given what it is known for now, it was considered a bit rural and poverty-stricken until fairly recently.
I headed back to the relative warmth of Vaduz, before heading to Schaan, Liechtenstein’s transport hub, for a gentle stroll. For, not only does Schaan have a bus station, but also one of the country’s very few railway stations, immaculately kept and in an unusual shade of pink. There aren’t many trains, but neither the Swiss mainline station at Buchs, nor the Austrian mainline station at Feldkirch, are very far away.
I needed dinner though, so back to Vaduz for food and an early night. And now that I was paying attention, I realised what was puzzling me about the announcements. Vaduz is pronounced with an extra ‘t’ before the ‘z’, which I’d not appreciated. Now, I live in Suffolk, where we like to include letters that aren’t pronounced, so being somewhere where letters are pronounced but not written was a twist. I wonder what else I’ve been missing all these years…
Wednesday, April 06, 2022
Sunday, April 03, 2022
Saturday, April 02, 2022
Whilst Creeting St Peter has had its own planning issues over the past few years, the one thing we haven't had is an application for a solar farm. But now, whilst we don't, the parish across the River Gipping, Badley, does.
There is a dilemma here. The proposed site requires the loss of prime agricultural land - we've got a lot of that here on the East Anglian prairie - and at a time when self-sufficiency in food is a live topic of discussion, one does wonder how the loss of farmland helps that. But the war in Ukraine reminds us that dependency on hydrocarbons from authoritarian states who aren't necessarily our friends is problematic too, before you even start on climate change mitigation.
And, whilst the gently rolling fields of Suffolk are superb for wheat, barley and other grains, they also make for easy to maintain solar arrays. If you're a farmer, with the prospects of a downward squeeze on agricultural support payments and the knowledge that selling land for development is likely to be lucrative, especially if your land is near a town or village earmarked for housing development, point you in one direction and one direction only.
The rural economy is changing and whilst people may want farmers to produce food as cheaply as possible and in sufficient quantity, farmers aren't altruists - they need to make a living too, otherwise why do it?
My perspective is a fairly neutral one but I do find myself wondering how, at a time when fuel poverty is becoming a big thing in this country, we can carry on resisting renewables development in our localities. Wind turbines are apparently too big, solar arrays too ugly, and whilst offshore wind is growing nicely, the Government has failed to support tidal energy and encourages rural communities to object to anything that might impact on their local countryside.
There needs to be one of two things, a plan for renewables which goes beyond simple targets to discuss what is needed and where it might go, or investment in renewable facilities in other countries where the revenue generated might help build stronger economies and communities.
Of course, the optimal answer would be smaller, more effective solar arrays and wind turbines, but we may just have to accept that, if we want to maintain our current lifestyles, we're going to have to make some concessions in terms of how our countryside looks going forward
Friday, March 25, 2022
One of the key projects for the National Association of Local Councils is improving ethical standards in local government, so you might reasonably imagine that the publication of the Government’s response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of local government ethical standards would be studied very carefully.
And, at the end of last week, it arrived.
It would be fair to suggest that it didn’t receive much of a welcome from our sector. Cllr Keith Stevens, the recently elected Chair of NALC, said;
I am bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response to the CSPL report on local government ethical standards. It will do nothing to help stamp out poor behaviour in councils at all levels where it exists, and I would strongly urge ministers to have a rethink.
I am, I admit, not terribly surprised. After all, this is an administration whose collective stance on ethical and moral standards of behaviour is to see them as a potential barrier to eliminated rather than respected. The idea that there might be restraints upon their behaviour is something to be condemned rather than celebrated. Rules, it seems, are for other people.
But there is a debate to be had. Is it for central government to design a set of rules for conduct in public life and the sanctions to be imposed for breaking them? The Standards Boards weren’t exactly a roaring success. And sanctions are a weapon in the hands of a cynical majority group, enabling them to marginalise dissenters and opponents.
In an ideal world, a local authority, at whatever level, would publish its code of conduct for local councillors, make it easily available to the public and encourage them to challenge poor behaviour where they saw it. Voters could, and should, punish bad behaviour with the ultimate sanction of rejection at the next election.
I am, however, cynical about the likely outcomes, with partisan individuals and groups using the code of conduct to harass those who don’t agree with them. And, as for the prospects of voters punishing errant councillors by voting them out, we saw after the expenses scandal that, if you had a sufficient majority, you could ride out even the most egregious offences. The public anger is limited, as is voter interest in the behaviour of their public representatives, especially in terms of elections where two-thirds of eligible voters opt out.
Ultimately, well run councils will adopt codes of conduct that deter bad behaviour and encourage a wider range of candidates and potential councillors, whilst bad ones will pay lip service to the idea of behavioural standards and continue to underperform.
Here in Creeting St Peter, under my leadership, we’ve tried to engage with residents and, this month, invited all residents to consider whether or not they might want to be a Parish councillor. I want us to be inclusive, and knowing as I do that there is a range of skills amongst our residents that would help our community to be more effective, putting the idea into people’s heads that they might make good councillors seems like a means to that end.
But they are less likely to step forward if they think we’re irrelevant, or if we operate in an aggressive, disrespectful manner. So I’m torn. You need rules that people respect, but you also need people who respect rules and each other. And, you need effective sticks for those who don’t play nice whilst ensuring protection for minority or opposition perspectives.
There are obvious tensions there, and perhaps you can’t truly balance the competing dilemmas. But, ultimately, we’re spending public money and our behaviour should be above reproach, so there will need to be some properly independent body able to step in and deal with the more egregious abuses.
Just another example of how the unnecessary behaviour of a small minority leads to more bureaucracy for the rest of us to have to deal with…
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
Monday, March 21, 2022
Sunday, March 20, 2022
One of the toughest elements of being a very small Parish Council is how you fund capital projects. Now, admittedly, we’re not likely to have huge ones, but with a budget of around £6,000 per annum, much of which is committed to day to day running costs, anything much above £500 needs some thought and, preferably, some anticipation.
Monday, January 24, 2022
- Lower fares for the under-25s
- Service frequency review, especially on “key corridors”
- Daily fare caps and Oyster card-style ticketing
- Bus decarbonisation
- Integration of school bus routes with the regular network
- Improved bus priority measures
Sunday, January 23, 2022
I don’t like to refer to the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday as a rule, especially as we don’t often share a world view. But this morning’s headline does give me a sense that I ought to respond.
I’ll start with the obvious stuff. Most civil servants don’t work in Whitehall, indeed, increasingly those that did don’t any more. The greater proportion of the Civil Service has always been based in towns and cities across the United Kingdom because that’s where we interact with customers. You can’t, for example, readily interview a self-employed trader and look at their records without being where they are, or at least modestly near it.
So, for example, HMRC has, or will shortly have, thirteen principle offices - Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Croydon, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Stratford. There will be a few additional specialist outposts, and a small presence in Whitehall. We’re talking less than 1% of our staff. And most of the big Government departments are like that - we’re operations and not mandarins.
The idea that a bunch of us have bought nice houses in the country and intend to stay in them regardless of what Ministers want is absurd. Many of us could now barely afford to buy the houses we currently live in, let alone “nicer” ones, in the same way that we aren’t spending our days on our Pelatons. And, we have a tendency to follow orders. If Ministers want us in the office five days a week, all that they need to do is give the order and we’ll be there. Or resign, possibly, in some cases, but that’s hardly a concern to the Mail headline writers who hate civil servants anyway.
Ironically, if we do all turn up though, the chances are that there aren’t desks for us. And that’s because, as part of the drive to cut the costs of the bureaucracy, we’ve reduced the size of the estate. New offices have a set ratio of desks to staff, and it isn’t 1:1, it’s perhaps 3:5, based on the theory that we won’t all be there at any one time. We don’t have a fixed workspace either, no desk that we go to every day. No, instead, we turn up and hunt for a free desk. If there isn’t one, there are collaborative spaces with armchairs. Not, perhaps, terribly suitable for working on a laptop or a tablet, and certainly not ergonomically appropriate. Oh yes, we don’t work from fixed computers with phones on desks any more. Everything is portable.
No, the system is designed on the basis that some of us will be working elsewhere for at least some of the time. In some cases, we’ll be on the road, in others, at home. And that works pretty well, actually. Much of my work is contemplative in nature. Evidence is submitted to me, I examine it, test it, ask questions, seek an understanding of the formulae and assumptions that underpin records and accounts. I can contact my manager, or a technical expert, or a support officer by e-mail or video call, and never actually meet with them in person.
Does it therefore matter where I perform my duties, or is it more important that they simply get performed, and performed effectively and efficiently? I would argue that, in a modern bureaucracy, you want to encourage every individual civil servant to perform their duties in the way and in the location that maximises their performance. For some, that will mean an office and there are a slew of reasons why they might choose that. You might not have a suitable work space at home, or you may be inexperienced and benefit from being surrounded by colleagues. You may find working from home stressful, and the office offers an escape from an unhappy relationship or a noisy environment. Some people even enjoy the company of colleagues.
Others will be more productive without the wearying effect of a long commute, might be happier for having the extra hours to live the non-work elements of their lives, or might carry out volunteer work in their new found free time. Their lives might, whisper it gently, be better and their willingness to accept the relatively low pay scales in various sectors that bit greater.
So, a good employer will see this as an opportunity to improve both performance and recruitment and retention. Unless of course, Ministerial decision making is performative, designed to send a message to those you seek to persuade, rather than rooted in good governance.
Saturday, January 22, 2022
Friday, January 21, 2022
I have, over the years, had minimal interaction with medical professionals. That is possibly because I’m not the most active of people, spending my working days behind a desk for the most part, have little appetite for participation in extreme sports (or any sports, really) and my hobbies are generally not those likely to risk personal injury. But, accidents do happen, and my fall before Christmas sits neatly within the category of unexpected misfortune.
And so, yesterday afternoon, I placed myself in the hands of a physiotherapist, as suggested by Ros. Joanne was very friendly, but extremely professional and, having run a series of tests on my wounded shoulder, diagnosed a grade 2 tear of one of the rotator cuff tendons. In other words, it’s not a minor injury, but it will, with a little care, mend itself over time without the need for anything invasive. Given the pressures on the NHS, that’s probably a very good thing.
I’ve been sent a set of three very simple exercises, designed to keep the shoulder from deteriorating and to stretch but not break the set of four tendons that make up the rotator cuff. I’ll try and do those, as the alternatives don’t sound like fun.
It is, as I’ve already noted, a reminder that I’m not as young as I was, although it does demonstrate that I’m still pretty robust, given the possibilities. And, thanks to Ros, I eat pretty well, get more exercise than many of my contemporaries and am in, if not great shape, then good enough shape to do virtually anything I need to do. That isn’t to be sneezed at.
And so, I have weeks of making like an orangutan to do - that’s one of the exercises - and there might be the odd painkiller taken from time to time. But that’s a price worth paying to get me back into good working order so, if you’ll excuse me…
Thursday, January 20, 2022
Not having a Clerk is, in itself, never likely to be helpful, although Jennie, our outgoing Clerk, very thoughtfully included a copy of the form that needs to be completed and sent to Mid Suffolk District Council. And I'm good with forms...
Budgeting for the Clerk's salary for 2022/23 and related costs, however, is more complex. I don't even know if we'll have a Clerk when the financial year starts - we'll be advertising shortly, but trained Clerks are not exactly in abundance in Suffolk. And, given that this represents nearly 50% of our expenditure in a "normal" year, it leaves quite a lot of scope of variance. In truth, the only thing we can reasonably do is draft a budget that assumes that costs will remain as they are.
Our street lights are, frankly, on their last legs. They're rather aged, inefficient and prone to failure, and cost much more to run than modern LED ones would. The County Council are in the midst of a huge programme of renewal, and they are offering to install new ones for us, at a cost yet to be determined. We can probably find the money from reserves, from grants from councillor locality budgets and, if necessary, a loan from the Public Works Loan Board (chargeable at a pretty reasonable 2% or so). We may even be able to get a s.106 grant but, for the timebeing, whilst we know what the size of the pot is, it's divisible between ourselves and Stowmarket - and there's a lot more of them than there are of us. How do you budget for that?
The rest of it is pretty straightforward - we've already signed off the cost of grass cutting, and been told how much we'll be charged for having the dog waste bins emptied (it's all glamour here, I assure you). Everything else requires an uplift for inflation, but the impacts are marginal at worst.
In the end, we've settled for what is, at the end of the day, a standstill budget, increasing the precept by 0.46%, or £24 (I do always say that we're a very small Parish Council!). There is a twist though, in that our tax base has increased from 99.03 in 2021/22 to 101.56 in 2022/23, and that means that our band D charge actually falls from £52.27 to £51.20, a drop of 2.04%.
If we're wrong, our existing reserves policy should protect us, and given that the risks predominantly point towards an underspend, I'm reasonably confident that we'll be alright. We will need to review our reserves policy in a year's time though. Hopefully, there'll be a lot more certainty by then.
Creeting St Peter - I am, if only for a little while, the possessor of a narrow, but extensive, hat collection
It came as something of a surprise when our Parish Clerk asked me if we could have a chat in early November. And it came as even more of a surprise when, in the course of that chat, she advised that she would be handing in her notice.
Jennie has handed over an immaculate set of records, as well as a fulsome handover guide and the administration was wholly up to date. She had even prepared the documentation for our next meeting, which was a weight off of my mind.
Getting a replacement is not a straightforward process, however. We could just advertise the post on the same basis as we had previously, but that seems like a wasted opportunity to re-evaluate our needs as a Parish Council. Do we need the same things? Should Councillors take more responsibility for things previously left to the Clerk?
And, ironically, our first response to the new situation was to reintroduce the concept of Councillor portfolios, partly because I think we had somewhat begun to leave the organisational heavy-lifting to the Clerk, something I realise I was guilty of.
My portfolio is finance, compliance, street lighting and transport (which reminds me…), and this is probably the most intense time in the Council year for financial matters. We need to agree a budget and set a precept, and notify the latter to the District Council, and there’s a deadline to be met.
I eventually concluded that finding a locum Clerk to cover our January meeting was going to be quite difficult, and so determined to minute the meeting myself - I’m a very experienced minute secretary and the minutes needn’t be that complex. That is somewhat complicated by my role as Chair…
But, with the co-operation of my colleagues, and with little complexity in the agenda as a whole, the meeting itself ran relatively smoothly. All I have to do is process the resultant paperwork…
I’d better get on with finding a new Clerk though, as attempting to be Chair, Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer all at once is probably not viable for too long…
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
The converted barn we had rented was lovely, but the driveway had become somewhat icy and, having returned from an expedition into Portland, I was heading for the front door when I suddenly found myself moving dramatically in an unintended direction, landing rather heavily on my right shoulder.
I lay there on my back, turtle like, for a moment or two, cursing the fates, before realisation set in that, whilst I was in some pain, I was going to have to get up and get on. That proved to be somewhat difficult, what with the ice, but I did manage it and, after a restorative lie down and a cup of tea, I felt sufficiently able to carry on. And so I did.
The problem is that, whilst I’m mostly functional, my upper right arm and shoulder clearly aren’t right. Mere bruising should have resolved itself after four weeks, but the pain isn’t consistent in nature. And so, having been persuaded by Ros, I have booked an appointment with a local physiotherapist to see if there’s anything that needs to be done.
I’m not great with pain - partly because I haven’t experienced very much. And I don’t enjoy the unexpected feeling of vague vulnerability, in that I’m a little more cautious in my movements, which is something I’m not used to having to think about either. It is, I suspect, a precursor of old age, albeit a distant one.
Luckily, whilst the discomfort is sporadic, I am able to function without much, if any, limitation, other than the pre-existing ones - and those are all about competence, or enthusiasm, or focus, rather than physical capability. And pharmaceuticals help, even if I try to take as few of them as I can.
And so, tomorrow will be a new experience, in that I don’t really know what’s wrong with me, but I’m hoping that a professional can explain it to me and do something to help. It should be interesting…
It’s been a while since I dusted off my keyboard and put my thoughts down via this blog. In truth, I haven’t felt terribly engaged nor have I had much that seemed worth writing down. And that’s ironic, because the blog has never been a means of self-promotion. At least, if it was, I’ve done a pretty useless job of it!
There have been times when there has been so much happening that this was a useful means of recording everything that was going on - Ros’s wildly successful campaign to become Party President, for example. And, as a means of recording my travels, and my thoughts as I visited various weird or unlikely places, a blog is hard to beat, especially if you can include some photographs.
It hasn’t helped that I feel increasingly semi-detached from Party politics. That’s partly a result of events locally, but it also reflects a growing sense that the way our country is run is corrupted. How do you respond to a political scene where people not just seemingly condone dishonesty but actively vote for more of it? As someone who has a powerful belief in order and process as being core to the running of society and, in particular, civil society, watching this Government has been pretty painful.
And the pandemic has encouraged the slightly reclusive part of me that is always there. I like people, and find them never-endingly interesting, but can occasionally find myself comfortable with relatively little interaction. Not travelling to work has accelerated that process too.
In short, my world has shrunk, with me as a willing accomplice.
That makes it sound as though I’m unhappy, or depressed, but that isn’t really so. I find happiness in things that I might once have taken for granted - a home cooked dinner, prepared with Ros, or a nice walk. I’ve also gotten to spend more time with Ros, which has been one of the better impacts of the pandemic. Travel would be nice though…
And so, I’m going to try to reset things, and see if I can’t shake off some of the dust that has accumulated over the past couple of years.
But first, some running repairs…