Saturday, August 27, 2022

It’s going to be a brutal winter, so we ought to be thinking ahead…

I have to admit that, reading the various reports on the prospects for household finances, my blood runs somewhat cold. If, like me, you’ve been paying attention to the data on household financial resilience, you’ll know that there are already alarming numbers of households where something like a boiler failure would send them into debt. The prospects of finding thousands of pounds to pay heating bills will add two or more million households to that group, and any extended period of high gas prices will add more and more.

And, whilst attention has turned to energy costs, households are also facing food inflation which feels higher than the already painful 10% as reported. The loaf of bread from Tesco that cost £1.10 not so long ago is now £1.40. Worse still, all the evidence points to food inflation rates being higher for the poor than the rest of us, with rates of up to 18% reported.

One of the things about living in a small, somewhat remote, village is that we don’t actually have mains gas - we evidently weren’t worth connecting up - and so mostly rely on heating oil for heating and hot water. That might be somewhat to our relative financial advantage over the coming months but, up and down the country, village communities are going to face problems.

We’re already hard hit by the increased cost of petrol - many households run more than one car by necessity in the absence of meaningful public transport - and for those villages that do have mains gas (and 85% of all households have gas heating), the older your house is, the harder it is likely to be to keep it warm. Village halls and what public facilities remain will be more expensive to keep warm, whilst retail and small businesses that are already marginal will struggle to keep going. And, once your village butcher has gone, you probably aren’t going to get them back.

As a Parish councillor in a micro-Parish, my problems are inconsequential compared to some of our neighbouring villages. We don’t have a building and, fortunately, our aging streetlights are all due to be replaced with brand new, highly energy efficient, LED lights imminently. But I deeply suspect that colleagues elsewhere would welcome support to enable them to open up village halls as “heat banks” for elderly residents, or to improve energy efficiency and/or insulation for these key community assets.

We may also need to think more strategically about solar farms in rural areas. They are seldom popular, with accusations of agricultural land being lost and landscape blight. But solar energy is going to become an essential part of the diversified energy mix needed to keep the lights on at a price we can afford, and there’s going to have to be a little more give and take, especially if we want to improve self-sufficiency in energy. It may not help this winter, but it will eventually.

In addition, many rural homes are suitable for solar panel installation - we’re mostly detached or semi-detached, with roofs open to the sun. Not only can we potentially supply much of our own electricity needs, but with the right incentives, some of us can supply power back to the grid. We’ll need some to power our electric vehicles, but even so, it’s a good investment all round.

There’s a crisis coming, and it’s going to be grim. But, in solving the immediate problems, we shouldn’t give up on planning for the future…

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A new constitution to play with...

I guess that I should be flattered to have received the call. After all, it's not every day that you get invited to join a working group set up to look into aspects of a major organisation's statutes and rules of procedure, and an international one at that.

And thus, part of my morning was spent with colleagues from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, North Macedonia and Spain, as well as the ALDE Party's Deputy Secretary General and its new HR Manager, looking at how to address the issues within our remit. I wasn't in Dublin when the debates took place which caused our group to come into being, so it was interesting to establish the "backstory" and thus the context underpinning what we have been asked to do.

It is perhaps a sign that I am mellowing but I found myself resisting an urge to stray into the politics of the decisions we are asked to reconcile with the Statutes and Internal Regulations. After all, we are an advisory group, tasked with drawing up proposals to go before the Party Council and Congress, not a decision making body. I see our goal as one of reflecting the wishes of Council and the Congress in such a way as to give them what they want, as far as is possible within the framework of Belgian law and of good organisation.

Now I accept that what I've said so far is opaque to the point of total obscurity - "What is the bureaucrat on about?", I hear you mutter - but I'm not actually sure how much of what I'm being asked to consider is in the public domain and, even if it is, I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the notion of discussing it too widely - yet.

Regardless, it was nice to be doing something which demonstrates that I still have a role and have something to offer.

So, here are some general perspectives which will guide my contributions over the coming weeks;
  • constitutions should protect all parties as far as is possible
  • change should not stem from personalities, but from situations, even if the personality has created the situation
  • complexity should be kept to a minimum
  • the laws of the legal jurisdiction should be at the core of constitutional change
I've spent far more time than is necessarily healthy reading constitutions over the years - partly because nobody else ever seems to - but a grasp of the rules of any game tend to help you to play it more effectively. And you develop a philosophical position over the years which either becomes more rigid or more questioning - I've personally gone for the latter.

As I understand it, we are to report back to Council in Bratislava at the beginning of December, so time is short, especially if, as I hope, we don't "spring" our proposals on an unsuspecting room full of delegates. And now, I must draft something for my colleagues...

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Not so fast, Cllr Valladares...

Three months ago, I reported that my reign of terror four years as Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council was at an end. And I absolutely meant it, having persuaded a colleague to take over. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out, as said councillor resigned last month, both as Chair and as a councillor. Naturally, the Vice Chair acts on a temporary basis until such time as Council can meet to elect a successor. That would be me then... 

I've discussed the matter with my remaining colleagues and they have decided that they'd really rather I return to the post. Under the circumstances, I don't really feel that I've got a choice - Council must have a Chair, and if nobody else will do it... well, I'd rather do it with good grace than grudgingly.

There is some good news though, in that our organisational problems appear to have been solved, with a new Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer starting on 1 September. Unusually though, especially for a small micro Parish, they're two different people.

Another Parish Council in Suffolk has been innovative in doing this, and it seemed like a perfect solution for us. So, having approached their Chair, I was told that their Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer might be willing to act for us too. I spoke to them both, and was impressed by their enthusiasm and expertise, and Council was happy for me to proceed. Hopefully, that will make my role less onerous than it had become, and I won't lie awake at night wondering what I've missed.

Council meets again in less than four weeks, and I'm hoping that we can also fill the two vacancies that have arisen over the summer - we're currently only just quorate with three councillors. I also intend that we take the Civility and Respect Pledge, not because we have a problem with that but because I think that it sends out a message to both those we represent, but also those beyond the Parish with whom we interact.

And so, I'm a responsible adult again. At least, more responsible than I had been. Wish me luck...