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…