Thursday, May 19, 2022

A genteel demonstration in the county town

I am not, by nature, the sort of person who enjoys demonstrations. I’m increasingly less keen on crowds as I get older (and I wasn’t wild about them even when I was young) and chanting isn’t really my thing either.

But I’d received an invitation to a demonstration outside County Hall at lunchtime and, given that my office is less than ten minutes away on foot, it seemed churlish not to show some support. The subject of the protest was sewage pollution of our rivers and coastline and, as this is both a Party priority and a matter of local interest in the Gipping Valley, it couldn’t do any harm to play “fourth spear carrier” for a few minutes.

Our County Councillors formed a joint Group with the Greens and Independents, and are the “official” Opposition, so were putting a motion to Full Council calling for action, and the demonstration was part of the publicity effort.

I arrived to find a collection of familiar faces, including my own (Green) County Councillor, Keith Welham, and a group from Mid Suffolk, and took the opportunity to get a few “politics” things done, whilst the Greens (and the odd Liberal Democrat) sang songs in a very “knit your own muesli” sort of way. Something else I’m reminded of - I’m not wildly enthused by communal singing unless a certain, albeit modest, level of alcohol has been consumed first.

That gave me an opportunity to escape, the media having taken their photos anyway and only really wanting to talk to the Group, so I walked into town for a little light food shopping before heading back to the office for a solid afternoon of compliance.

I don’t think that I’m going to change my mind on demonstrations…

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Creeting St Peter - my reign of terror is at a close

I’d always been a strangely reluctant Chair of my Parish Council, something which might surprise those who have watched me carry out my duties. But, if you’re going to do something, you might as well give it your best shot and, besides, I’ve probably benefitted from my observations of committee chairs good, bad and indifferent over the years. And, of course, I have views.

But, at last year’s Annual Parish Council Meeting, I made it absolutely clear that I wouldn’t be serving a fifth year in the role, leaving it to my colleagues to find a replacement from amongst their number. Last night saw the moment of truth arrive and, I’m pleased to say, I’ve been “relieved”, so to speak. My new role, apart from being Vice Chair, is to be the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Compliance and Street Lighting, which rather suits my skill set, and I’m already working on some of the more immediate issues, which should keep me busy moving forward.

Of course, there is the challenge which faces all former Chairs, i.e. how to avoid looking as though you think that you're still Chair. But I do believe that no organisation benefits from having the same person lead it for too long, and my successor will offer a change of perspective that will hopefully allow us to progress.

There is a strange sensation of having a weight lifted from my shoulders though, even if that sounds a bit strange. After all, how much pressure can there be leading an organisation with an annual budget of £5,500 or so? But, that said, you do have the responsibility of representing your community, trying to speak for it in the face of developments that are unpopular or unwelcome, and attempting to ensure that things happen when they're supposed to. It does weigh on you, even if only subconsciously, particularly if you take the role seriously.

It's probably far too early to assess whether or not my four years have been a success but my colleagues have been kind about my leadership, and my presence is still welcomed, so I ought to take that as an endorsement, I guess. And I still feel that I have something to offer, and want to remain engaged, so that, until next year's elections at least, I'll continue to play my part. After that, it's up to the electorate, albeit that we haven't had elections in living memory and might not in 2023 either.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Welcome to #allthestations… Liechtenstein…

Morning found me at a self-service hotel buffet, with the only staff in sight restocking and clearing away - low-paid staff are clearly kept to a minimum in Liechtenstein. But I had plans. First, a walk down to the river, stopping at the Rhinepark Stadion, home of the mighty FC Vaduz and the not-so-mighty Liechtenstein national football team, before heading for the Altebrucke, a wooden covered bridge spanning the Rhine. It would have been churlish not to walk to Switzerland and I didn’t hesitate to cross. Then on to Triesen to catch a bus to the southernmost community in the country, Balzers.

I hadn’t planned anything in Balzers but, as the bus approached, I spotted Schloss Gutenberg, built on a 70 metre tall rock on the edge of the town. It’s one of only two castles in the country, and was restored by a local architect at the turn of the last century before being purchased by the Government for use as a banqueting and conference venue, and is only reachable via a steep single-track cobbled road. And, whilst the castle itself isn’t open for public viewing, you can get into the garden in front of it.

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…

Back to Vaduz, and time to visit the Post Museum. There’s something about small countries and stamps, and Liechtenstein is no exception. You do get a free bookmark with your admission, and the stamps are interesting enough, if you like that sort of thing. The Art Museum is pretty spectacular though but then, when the ruling Prince is worth around €5 billion and has his own art collection, you perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that it’s rather good. The guest exhibit was somewhat quirky, courtesy of a Brazilian installation artist called Rivane Neuenschwander. The room full of dripping buckets was actually better than it sounds, and the “help yourself to an inspirational ribbon” was interesting, if somewhat alien to the normally orderly locals.

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

In which I learn that I’ve been pronouncing Vaduz incorrectly all these years…

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.

And, if you’re going to cautiously return to leisure travel, Switzerland is a good place to start. Things tend to run reliably on time, and drama is limited to whether or not there will be chocolate. And so, a journey from Rümlang to Vaduz via Zürich and Buchs (the St Gallen one rather than any other version) ran like clockwork, with the final connecting bus arriving spot on noon for the ride into a new country.

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.

Admittedly, Vaduz doesn’t take long to explore - it takes about six minutes to walk from one end of the central core to the other - and the key things to do are all very close together. It’s wealthy in a low-key sort of a way, and whilst there are banks - that’s what Liechtenstein does - they seem solid and unobtrusive. The castle, home of the Royal Family, looms over the town, although it in turn is loomed over by the mountain that leaves Vaduz sandwiched between a vertiginous ridge and the Rhine, which represents the border with Switzerland.

I bought a two day Liechtenstein Adventure Pass - no, not a contradiction in terms, as I’ll explain - for a very reasonable CHF29, which includes the entire national bus network and set off for the State Museum. Admission includes the Liechtenstein National Treasure next door but one and, with my entrance ticket (free with my Adventure Pass), I was given a coin to admit me to the National Treasure, which puzzled me somewhat.

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.

Next up was a bus ride to Malbun, Liechtenstein’s ski resort, via a stop in Triesenberg. The latter was reached via a series of switchbacks - uphill in Liechtenstein is really steep - and I found a rather sleepy little village, filled with houses with sensational views and possibly even more sensational sunsets. Malbun, on the other hand, was cold and snowy still, although ski season had clearly recently ended.

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

The Party is looking for a Returning Officer for Federal Elections. It isn't going to be me...

I've been a Returning Officer for the Party for many years. Many, many years. I've run everything from European selections to Associated Organisation ballots, from House of Lords Parliamentary Party elections to committee ballots. I've even been a Returning Officer for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe. And, for the most part, I've gained a certain satisfaction in doing a good job. Indeed, many of the people I've worked with have been surprisingly pleasant about it afterwards which, I guess, is an endorsement of sorts.

One of my perceived strengths is that I like to support candidates as far as possible. Running for anything means putting your ego on the line, with little in the way of gratitude, especially if you don't win. I therefore see one of the roles of a Returning Officer as a nurturing one, helping candidates to navigate the rules and procedures, providing clear guidance and flagging up areas of concern as early as possible. And, ultimately, enabling the electorate to have as much information as possible in deciding who will represent them.

I know my way around the Party, retain a modicum of credibility and am capable of handling difficult people when necessary. So, you might think that I'd be, potentially, the sort of person who might make a good Returning Officer for the party's Federal elections.

I'm not going to apply though. You see, I've already been put through the process of applying for two difficult, unpopular voluntary jobs in the Party.

In the first instance, I was up for reappointment, and my Regional Party made such a hash of it, debating my character behind my back, that I concluded that I really didn't want to be treated in such a manner. Admittedly, they originally thought that they were debating my character in my presence but used an incorrect e-mail address for me (as if that would have made it any better).

In the second instance, I was directly approached and asked if I would apply for a position that I had previously decided not to apply for, given the impression that the interview was a formality, and then rejected. I begin to realise why I find headhunters to be so loathsome.

The role of Returning Officer is going to be a challenging one. And, asking people to voluntarily apply for a role requiring a (promised, but probably insufficient) commitment of seventy-two hours over a twelve-week period to do the job is, I suspect, more than many people will fancy. I certainly don't think that the "honour" of being treated with disrespect by people who assume that you're paid to do this (and thus at their beck and call) justifies me putting my ego on the line a third time.

That said, the Party's internal democracy is one of the things that makes the party what it is, and it needs someone with a steady nerve and strong character to front the organisation of our internal elections. It may be you, gentle reader, and if you think so, here's the link to the advert. And, if you do apply, may I wish you the very best of luck.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Compromise is the hardest thing to do…

There are certain advantages to being a councillor on a very small Parish Council with an equally small budget. For one thing, the things you consider are not likely to be hugely contentious. You’re hardly going to argue about whether or not to maintain the play area, or the streetlights. It’s more likely that disagreement is personal, rather than political, given that party politics seldom impinges on micro-councils. And, heavens knows, a disagreement in a small village is likely to be as much about personalities as about strategy. People bring their agendas with them when they run for public office, and whilst that’s usually not a problem - you can often give them responsibility for that aspect of the Council’s activity - you occasionally get someone whose agenda is narrowly focussed on their own regard.

I’m lucky in that, whilst my colleagues have issues that motivate them to get involved, all of them work for the best interests of the village and its residents. And, as a result, we can discuss any given issue with mutual respect and common purpose. What that means is that, if we don’t entirely agree, we can reach a mutually acceptable compromise without any difficulty.

It seems to get harder to do that the further up the political ladder you get. Compromise increasingly seems to be taken by others as a sign of weakness and grounds to seek further concessions. If I win, you have to be seen to have lost, a stance which discourages anyone from taking the first step and exacerbates the confrontational nature of our politics.

You could reasonably argue that, as a Liberal Democrat, I would say that. A member of Britain’s perennially third placed political party, burned by the coalition years (even as I still believe it was the right thing to do), our position near the pivot point in the political spectrum means that broad-based political endeavour probably means that we should have a part to play regardless of which of the two bloc parties are in power. Our voting system means that, in reality, that isn’t how it actually works.

But I believe in broad-based political and societal change and it’s harder to achieve that if a minority can, and does, impose its will on a nation. It’s why I believe in fairer voting, in devolution of power to states, regions, communities, in transparency in government and a whole bunch of things that only seem to matter to people who understand how government works and see the possibilities.

That also makes me a bit of an idealist. Not, I hasten to add, in a naïve way but in terms of how a public body should operate. I’m not a policy dogmatist - I simply think that better decisions are made when the process is transparent and inclusive. It means telling people what is happening and why, being willing to justify your stance. I actually believe that, by operating in such a way, you get better governance.

It does make you more vulnerable as a civic leader. You have to be consistent in terms of your approach. But, in the long run, it’s probably better to adhere to a set of principles that reflects who you are and the community you hope to represent.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

A solar farm in Badley? Competing pressures for self-sufficiency...

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

Civility in public life - why it matters and how easily it is destroyed

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

A community governance review is announced… sort of…

I suspect that there aren’t that many people who actively seek to be on the e-mail list for local government press releases. But, for a Parish Council Chair, they often serve as the easiest means of finding out what is going to happen to you next. Indeed, it slightly surprised me that more of my colleagues don’t do likewise.

For, whilst they are sometimes irrelevant - I’m not sure why I get Babergh’s press releases, for example - you get the odd one which might be of genuine value to some of our residents, if only they knew. Grant schemes, school transport programmes, new services, news of which seldom reaches the general public unless they catch a story in the local press or the grapevine picks up on it. I can pass it on to our village Facebook group and perhaps enable someone to benefit.

But last week, I was checking the District Council’s website for timings for its upcoming Full Council meeting when I noted the agenda included a proposal to initiate a full Community Governance Review, covering the entire district. The idea is to examine the town and parish councils to see if boundaries need altering or if mergers (or demergers) might be appropriate.

I was slightly surprised. After all, I’m on the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the representative body of Town and Parish Councils across the county, so you’d think I’d have heard something. But no, not only had Mid Suffolk District Council not given SALC a heads-up, the briefing paper for councillors made no reference to us at all.

Having checked with our highly capable Chief Executive, and discovered that not only had we not been told, that similar reviews were being initiated in East Suffolk and West Suffolk too and in neither case had we been informed either.

It isn’t good enough, if I’m honest, but I contacted an old friend and proposed member of the committee intended to oversee the process, Penny Otton, to see if something could be done. I was also somewhat unimpressed by some of the drafting, which was of the “cut and paste” variety - the briefing paper suggested that information would be published on the Lichfield District Council website, for example, and started the consultation timeline in January, some two months before the process would be approved by Council - and asked her to raise this.

Penny was as good as her word, the paper was redrafted and she sought, and won, our inclusion in the consultation process.

So, my next job is to attract the attention of the designated Council officer and arrange a briefing for SALC and its member councils. And time is short, the intention is to wrap up the review by the end of the year, in time for elections on new boundaries (as need be) next May.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Another promotion for the slightly hesitant organisational mountaineer…

I am, I freely admit, not a fan of the “strong leader” school of local government. As a liberal, I believe in sharing power, in encouraging others to act for themselves as far as possible rather than create dependency. And, as a lifelong bureaucrat, I don’t really see myself as a leader anyway. And, for that reason, I’ve tended to yield to others who want power more than I do.

There are, perhaps, opportunities that I have missed through reticence but, on the whole, I know my strengths and cleave to them like a hermit crab does to its shell, occasionally moving on to a different home when my time is up or I sense a loss of enthusiasm.

It’s been slightly different in the Parish and Town Council sector though. Whilst I didn’t seek to be Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council - it was rather thrust upon me by my colleagues - I’ve rather got into the idea of leading a team of equals. I’m hardly an enforcer, bending my colleagues to my will, instead I seek to engage with them to enable them to steer those specific elements that attracted them to be a part of Council in the first place.

As everyone seemed happy enough, I rather allowed the situation to drift along, and I like to think that we’re pretty effective, all things considered.

My innate sense of curiosity led me into the wonderful world of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC), a means of bringing together Parish and Town councillors from across, in my case, Mid Suffolk South, to discuss shared concerns and solutions. And, whilst it was occasionally interesting and often useful, my engagement was limited to turning up.

Attendances are not huge, however, and I somewhat unexpectedly found myself as the only person in the room even willing to countenance the idea of being Vice Chair of the Branch. Odd, really, because Vice Chair is usually a pretty responsibility-free job - you’re at best a spare in case of emergency. But it did grant me a seat on the SALC Board, which I hadn’t known at the time. That in turn led to becoming Suffolk’s representative on the National Assembly of the English representative body, the National Association of Local Councils.

And then, the “emergency” happened, as the Mid Suffolk South Chair resigned - I know not why. So, when the Branch met to elect a new Chair, there were only three eligible people to fill the vacancy. And the other two didn’t want it. That makes me the Branch Chair, I guess…

Just in time for Mid Suffolk District Council to make an announcement…

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Creeting St Peter - replacing the streetlights

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.

When I returned to duty as a Parish councillor in 2016, it dawned on me that, in order to deal with these sorts of things going forward, we’d need a capital reserve, and to make regular contributions towards it. I did persuade my colleagues that this was a good thing but the key questions were “how much?” and “over what period?”. That was made more challenging by a lack of data.

We only really have two key infrastructure items - our village play area and our ten ageing street lights. There is a community lottery which is intended to renew or extend assets that residents may want, but the streetlights shouldn’t really be funded like that.

My logic was based on an estimated cost for each new streetlight of approximately £1,000, or £10,000 in total. They are expected to last for twenty-five years and so I calculated that £400 per annum was a decent ballpark estimate. Yes, it didn’t allow for inflation, and starting from scratch means that we were very much behind the curve, but it was a start.

We’re now in the third year, but there has been some good news. The County Council are replacing 43,000 of their own streetlights with new, energy efficient LED ones, and have offered Parish Councils the opportunity to tag along, thus benefiting from the economies of scale that such a big purchase offers. Indeed, it’s such a good deal that the cost to us is not £10,000 but £4,300, a huge reduction and a much easier sum to find.

I’m recommending to Parish Council that we take up the offer, as it will reduce our energy costs, provide more reliable lighting and contribute to our share of cutting emissions. We can cover 30% of the cost from our capital reserve, and find the rest from a combination of sources - County and District Councillor locality budgets, community funds and our own reserves. And, as we still don’t have a Parish Clerk, there’s an extra £1,000 already in our revenue budget to chip in as necessary.

And, going forward, I can trim the annual contribution to our capital reserve from £400 per annum to, say, £250, which would still give us quite some leeway in terms of funding new streetlights in 2047…

Monday, January 24, 2022

Is the Government missing its last bus?

Buses. Not terribly glamorous, their use was seen by Margaret Thatcher as a sign of failure in life. And yet, there were more than four billion local bus passenger journeys in the year to 31 March 2020, or around sixty journeys for every person in this country. A lot of people use buses, a lot of people who have votes.

And so it was quite astute of the Prime Minister to announce a £3 billion fund to “Bus Back Better”. More reliable, more frequent bus services, using more energy efficient, less polluting vehicles, what isn’t there to like? Unfortunately, it looks as though it was just another deception, if reports from the media are to be believed.

The Treasury may very well have grounds for their apparent decision to interfere, or it might have been that the £3 billion figure was plucked out of the air by a man whose relationship with truth is accidental at best, but it sends out a message that, far from wanting to level up trailing parts of our nation, the aim is to fool enough of the people for enough of the time.

Here in Suffolk, the intention was to use some of the proposed funds towards the following goals;
  • 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
There isn’t necessarily much in this for me, but there are plenty who might benefit from such enhancements. Unfortunately, with bids expected to total £9 billion, reducing the available pot from £3 billion to £1.4 billion will mean that most bidders can expect to be disappointed. And, as Suffolk is not exactly heaving with marginal Parliamentary seats, we’re probably going to fall within the “disappointed” category (again).

On a wider note, that disappointment will ripple outwards as just another instance of a Government announcement that heightens expectations only to dash them a little while later. You can get away with that when you’re popular but it’s not so easy when you aren’t - we’re reminded of past failures.

It’s also a pity, as the money invested in buses supports so much of this Government’s alleged agenda - reducing congestion and air pollution, tackling climate change and rural isolation, levelling up disadvantaged communities and supporting the working poor. Sadly, it demonstrates the paucity of actual ideas behind the levelling up slogan, and the lack of will to change that.

Government is more than catchy three word slogans, it’s about delivery of things that improve lives for the maximum number of people, especially those whose lives are most in need of improvement. And this Government, focussed on “red meat” and culture wars, seems particularly ill-equipped to make promises it can keep or find ways to improve society.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Civil Service and the return to the office - a non-member of the Blob reflects…

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

I’m thinking about travel again. Does that mean that things are beginning to feel normal?

Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiastic traveller. Trains, planes and automobiles buses are one of my passions although, whilst I’m probably more knowledgeable than most about the machines that convey me, they are the means to an end, rather than the focus of attention. No, it’s about the journey, the idle glance out of the window, the sense of being somewhere new, or interesting or, preferably, both. I’ve been to a lot of places as a result - not as many as some, but enough.
I kind of blame one person for this, a former International Officer of the Young Liberal Democrats, who packed me off to a seminar in Aarhus, Denmark. Internationalism started me off, and the sense of adventure took over. And yes, it helped to have family, at first in India and then, later, across the globe. So, if you’re out there, John, many thanks!

But the pandemic rather put a stop to that, and even had I wanted to travel, the various restrictions would have made it, if not difficult then unpredictable and, frankly, my life is not such that I can afford to be trapped on the wrong side of an international border or in quarantine. And I was reconciled to that - my appetite for risk is not huge or reckless. Leisure travel is just not worth the hassle.

As things eased though, travel resumed. There was the trip to Quebec to see our granddaughter, and Christmas saw us in Maine to spend more quality time with her and her parents. And, whilst travel is not as casual as it was pre-Covid, it is possible if you make sure that you are top of the guidance.

And so, I’m beginning to ponder the possibility of a trip around the Easter break. Nowhere too complex, as I don’t want to be anywhere where the health system is weak, or where the Government is prone to draconian restrictions. I’d like a new country though, as I haven’t been to a new one for a while. That’s a consideration because I have an informal goal of visiting more countries than I have birthdays. For now, I’m ten ahead.

So, what’s left in Europe? Well, a chunk of the Balkans - Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania - Belarus (I think not), Ukraine (probably best avoided for the time being), Lithuania, Azerbaijan and Iceland. But my mind is probably set on the two microstates left on my “outstanding list” - Liechtenstein and San Marino. It’s about nine hours from Vaduz to Rimini, and I haven’t traveled on Italian railways very much.

There’s little point booking anything yet - the news of a possible new variant, and the case numbers across Europe linked to the Omicron variant make everything uncertain at best. But making some provisional plans does offer some gentle amusement in these gloomy winter evenings, and we all need something to look forward to, don’t we?…

Friday, January 21, 2022

I wish that I knew less about rotator cuffs…

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

Creeting St Peter - setting a budget in a time of flux...

It's that time of year again, when a young councillor's thoughts turn to the annual precept. Here in Creeting St Peter, it's been a little more challenging than usual.

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

Painkillers and anti-inflammatories - a reminder of a moment of carelessness

I’ve been in some discomfort, and occasionally pain, for a few weeks now. I’d not been in Maine for very long when the weather took a turn for the worse, with heavy snow making walking difficult.

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…

Time to push the reset button…

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…