Friday, November 24, 2023

Migration to Suffolk - a celebration

Part of moving to a new location is about building connections in the community, and one of the great assets that Ipswich has is The Hold, the relatively new home of Suffolk Archives.

Last month, Ros took me to see the exhibition there marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Wolsey and today saw the launch event of a new exhibition, celebrating migration to Suffolk. Now, I will freely admit that, before I moved to the county, I wouldn't have thought of Ipswich as being a town with a significant migrant population, but there's no doubt that the town has become more diverse in recent years. That's partly to do with the sort of trends we've seen elsewhere, with migrants coming to do the jobs that locals either can't or won't do, but the influence of the student intake at the University of Suffolk also brings people into the town from a wide variety of backgrounds.

But there was a good crowd at The Hold this evening, representing a remarkable number of groups, from across the spectrum, despite the clash with the turning on of the town's Christmas lights at the Cornhill.

The exhibition has been curated by the Suffolk Archives in collaboration with a number of groups representing migrant communities across Ipswich and Suffolk, and for those who might not be aware of the richness that they bring to our lives, and the work done to maintain their cultural roots, it's an opportunity to dip into their experiences.

It's not a big exhibition - there isn't the space for that - but it does cover a lot of ground, with a brief timeline of migration waves and policy making, a number of national costumes, and some history of minority communities in Ipswich and around the county. And it's free, which just makes it more accessible to the wider populace.

Sadly, there have been some objections both to the theme of the exhibition, but also to the fact that it has happened at all. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, especially given the rabble-rousing that comes from our MP, the ever charming Tom Hunt. His rhetoric on migration encourages the racists among us to dial up hatred and fear in our communities, whereas an exhibition like "Arrivals" allows us to see our common humanity.

We also met the town's Deputy Mayor, Cllr Elango Elavalakan, who was there to give an opening speech. I was interested to discover that he's a civil engineer by training, and worked for Oxfam, delivering fresh water infrastructure across the globe. He's also Sri Lankan, and another incomer to the area from London, like I am. 

All in all, an interesting evening, and we'll go back and visit the exhibition properly at a later date so that we can listen to some of the stories - there are little boxes which, when held, play interviews with representatives of different communities. Luckily, we've got to mid-April to do so, and I'm sure that we'll find the time, especially as it's a short walk from our home.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Wolsey 550 at the Suffolk Archives

Probably Suffolk's most famous son is Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, born in Ipswich in 1473, and thus it only seems appropriate that there is an exhibition at The Hold, the still shiny and relatively new home of the Suffolk Archives near the University of Suffolk on the waterfront a few steps from the town centre.

Ros had been particularly keen for me to see it, partly because he had a significant role in developing Ipswich, and partly because of the link between The National Archives, where she's a Non-Executive Board Member and the exhibition - The National Archives have loaned some documents to be displayed. And so, as the exhibition is closing in a fortnight's time, we wandered over this morning.

And yes, it wasn't a big exhibition - The Hold has to fulfil a significant range of functions - but what there was focused on his life in Ipswich, and highlighted the steps in his rise to power rather than how his life ended.

He was, in today's language, a exemplar of social mobility at a time when, unless you were born into a rich or powerful family, you probably didn't make it very far from where you were born. He was the son of a butcher and innkeeper, a man not beyond a bit of bad practice, but his mother did come from a wealthy family, and his uncle paid for him to go to good schools and then to Oxford.

And there was an unexpected link to Creeting St Peter, as his niece married Sir William Ferneley in Creeting St Peter in 1517. I guess that it's possible that Cardinal Wolsey turned up himself, although unless a historical record turns up with a guest list, we'll probably never know.

Amongst the exhibits are his cardinal's hat, on loan from the library at Christ Church, Oxford, and some photographs and documents from the Wolsey Pageant in 1930, from which an Eastern Counties omnibus ran on the Wednesday evening back to the Creetings at 10.30 p.m. - probably the last time a bus ran to there from Ipswich! Edward, Prince of Wales was the patron of the event, and there's film footage of his visit.

Once you've seen the exhibition, the café is pretty good, so a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich will hit the spot before a stroll along the waterfront, especially on a sunny day such as today.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

A bus ride to Woodbridge

One of the advantages of our new home is that we can use public transport much more easily than we could before. Yes, we were a ten minute drive from the stations at Stowmarket and Needham Market but, even then, we were a bit limited. Whereas, from Ipswich, there are direct trains to Norwich and London, but also to Felixstowe and Lowestoft. And, when you add buses - and we’re now a gentle stroll from the Old Cattle Market bus station, there are buses to Colchester, Manningtree, Sudbury, Framlingham, Aldeburgh and Shotley.

Today, we took advantage of the opportunities, a sunny day and the £2 bus fare scheme to take a trip to Woodbridge. It’s only thirty-five minutes on the hourly bus service which runs on to Wickham Market, Saxmundham, Leiston and Aldeburgh, and compared to a train, or driving, it’s pretty competitive in terms of time and cost.

It was a lovely day to walk along the riverbank, eat cake and drink coffee at the Tea Hut, and take in the scenery. And Woodbridge itself is a lovely little town, population about 8,000 or so, with some surprisingly good shopping on The Thoroughfare, and plenty of places to stop and enjoy the surroundings.

Our bus driver did get a bit lost on the way, diverting towards Ipswich Hospital - he clearly isn’t a regular on the 64 - but we weren’t delayed unduly. First Bus have new buses with USB points to charge your phone - it’s an hour and three quarters to Aldeburgh so you’d probably welcome the chance to recharge your phone en route - and comfy faux leather seats.

We walked along the south bank of the Deben, which is mostly mud at low tide, but the levees built to prevent flooding offer a dry route and lift you above the water to enhance the views. And, on an unseasonably warm October day, we weren’t alone - there were plenty of people out with dogs or small children (sometimes both).

Returning to the town, we had a gentle stroll along The Thoroughfare before heading back to the Turban Centre, where our bus would take us back to Ipswich. It was the same driver, back in Woodbridge after an hour and ten minutes to Aldeburgh, a short break and the return journey. He didn’t make the same mistake twice, and we were home in time to throw open the patio door and follow the progress of Ipswich Town’s home game against Preston North End (it ended 4-2 to the Tractor Boys) by the noise drifting across from Portman Road - we’re that close.

A nice day out, all in all, and a taster for potential car-free days out going forward…

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Haughley Junction upgrade: good news for Suffolk rail users

The announcement that some of the money to be saved by not finishing HS2 will be spent on doubling the tracks at Haughley Junction, just north of Stowmarket, where the line to Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and Ely parts company with the East Anglian Main Line, is a welcome one, even if one has serious reservations about the axing of HS2, as I do. It's been a much-needed upgrade for a long time, as it acts as a limitation to freight and passenger traffic using this key route from the container port at Felixstowe to the distribution warehouses of the Midlands.

As a rail user myself, the prospect of an hourly service between Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Ely and Peterborough, as well as capacity to link Suffolk into the East West Rail project offers easier access to the rest of the country, rather than having to pass through London all of the time.

I hadn't realised, however, that the Haughley Junction upgrade is budgeted to cost just £20 million which, given the cost of widening the A14, is buttons. In that sense, it's disappointing that this didn't happen rather earlier. I guess that a safe Conservative seat isn't a huge priority for transport spending.

Hopefully, increasing capacity across Suffolk will encourage the transfer of container traffic off of the A14 and onto trains, and a half-hourly train service between Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, serving the towns and villages in between, will encourage more people to travel to both whilst leaving their cars at home, or at their nearest station.

The next thing would be to double track the line from Kennett to Cambridge or, at the very least, improve the approach through Cherry Hinton to Cambridge. Perhaps that will come, and I'm sure that MARPA will be campaigning for further improvements.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Time to push the "cut Civil Servants" button again, it seems...

I am a civil servant. Yes, I admit it, albeit perhaps not what some might expect. I serve the Government, whether or not I agree with its policies, because that is my function. I will deliver my designated role with as much enthusiasm and skill as I possess, as my job is to ensure compliance with the law of the land as far as is possible. I even argued in my younger days that, if Government wants to reduce the number of civil servants, it's not for us to argue - it's for the Government to justify what will probably happen next, i.e. a collapse of service quality or compliance function.

And, after many, many years doing so, I am quite cynical about what elected politicians say as opposed to what they actually do when push comes to shove.

So, if it is to be the case that the Government intends to save money by freezing the size of the Civil Service, you might not be surprised if I greet the announcement with a slightly jaundiced gaze. Not because I oppose the idea that we need to deliver public services more efficiently - we do, and should. The problem is, in the nicest possible way, politicians and their enthusiasm for new laws - to be seen to be doing something.

Passing legislation, any legislation, tends to require someone to implement it, or enforce it, or support the public or businesses to understand it. That someone is almost certainly going to be a public servant, i.e. someone like me. You can contract it out, but private sector organisations have to compete in the free market for qualified staff, something the public sector increasingly doesn't bother to do. That costs and, once you've built in a profit margin (and private companies are seldom altruistic enough to want to provide a service at a loss), you may find it to be more expensive, especially if demand is not quite what you expected. A public servant can be reassigned to other work, whereby a contracted-out service will expect to be paid on the basis of the contract, not necessarily actual demand.

And, if a contracted-out service fails, or the contractor decides to walk away, Government is the provider of last resort.

Compliance is important too. Passing laws and then not seeking to ensure compliance tends to mean that bad actors won't, tilting the playing field against those who do comply. In areas of tax, as opposed to spend, you might actually want to increase the number of staff tasked with addressing attacks on the system, which can run to billions of pounds in lost revenue. 

But there is an easy way to cut civil service numbers. Digitise services so that most people deal with the issues using computers or smartphones rather than through talking to people. And, most radically, stop passing new laws and use the existing ones more effectively, even simplifying legislation where possible. Now, some things that matter might slip through the net, things that politicians think are important, but that might be a price worth paying. And the public might not appreciate having to deal with a Chatbot or guidance written by technicians for technicians.

Alternatively, you could look at public servants as part of the cost of managing an efficient economy. So, employing a few more civil servants to process asylum claims as a quicker rate would almost certainly reduce the number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation by the State, and bring about a modest reduction in overall expenditure, for example.

Freezing civil servant numbers is a blunt tool, albeit an easy to understand one. And there is no harm in asking departments to consider whether they can do what they do with less people or, if they do cut posts, indicate what won't or can't be done. For, if a minister pulls a lever of power, expecting something to happen, they might be unpleasantly surprised to find that there's nobody at the other end to carry out their wishes.

So, if it's a headline they're after, the Government have probably got one. They'll have unsettled most of the Government Departments in the process, something which tends not to aid productivity, but then most people will remember the headline rather than the results...

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

You live and learn... I live in an aspiring 15 minute town, supported by the Government...

Having written about the Conservatives and their conspiracy theory ideas about fifteen minute cities, I thought that I ought to find out more. And, much to my surprise, I am a guinea pig in just such an experiment. The map shown comes from Ipswich Central, the Business Improvement District for the town, and shows the area defined by the "Connected Town" project, launched with some fanfare in 2021 and supported by £25 million of public money supplied by... the Conservative Government. Indeed, the funding was announced by some chap called Rishi Sunak. I wonder whatever happened to him?

Yes, it was funded by the very same people who are now suggesting that 15 minute cities are designed to take our cars away from us and limit our freedoms.

Part of the project is to encourage the building of housing in the centre of the town to replace the retail and offices that lie empty or soon will be. We all know that, as online shopping has become an established way of buying goods, that retail outlets are failing due to the costs of shopfronts and sales staff that their online competitors don't have. And therefore, finding ways to revitalise our town centres and bringing more people into them is probably the most obvious way forward.

America offers a preview of what happens if your town and city centres decay -residents stay away as crime levels climb and the only people still around are the poor, who can't afford to move out to the leafy suburbs, and those who have no choice but to frequent the area.

Luckily, Ipswich has a town centre university, and a surprising amount of "stuff", all things considered. And, as I now live somewhere pretty central, I am no more than fifteen minutes from pretty much all of the good things indicated on the map (with the exception of Ipswich School, which is uphill). I can hear when Ipswich Town score, even with the windows closed, I'm three minutes from the waterfront (if the traffic lights on the gyratory are friendly).

That includes the bus station serving the wider county, Sainsbury's, my office, Christchurch Park, two cinemas, two theatres and Dance East, my new doctor's surgery and our mainline railway station, with its three trains an hour to London.

This strikes me as a good thing, allowing me to cut my personal carbon emissions significantly, enabling me to walk to most things I need, whilst buying me additional time to do other things and saving me significant sums. And all without denying me any of the freedoms that Conservatives seem so keen to take away from me whilst claiming to be doing the exact opposite.

Sadly, I'm expecting our local MP to jump on the conspiracy theory bandwagon, condemning the plans he so lauded two years ago, but given that the only weapon apparently left at his, and the Conservatives, disposal is scare tactics and culture wars, it will come as no great surprise.

I've never been a supporter of the Conservative Party, and I do not see the day when that will change. But the country needs a credible right-of-centre political grouping, socially and economically conservative, a balancing force in a healthy political ecosystem. Sadly, it currently resembles an extremist cult which hates the country it wants to rule. And when even the likes of Mark Harper pander to the conspiracy theorists and the zealots of the right, the hope that we might have a more rational politics in our country is a faint one.

The "15 minutes city" debate is an important one for our towns and cities, and for the rural communities that they service. It could be a major contribution towards achieving Net Zero, improving public health and wellbeing, and growing the economy (or perhaps, helping us to adapt to a low economic growth future). Is it the answer? Possibly, we'll have to see. But mainstreaming the anti-New World Order, anti-World Economic Forum conspiracy theorists threatens our civil democracy and drives the reasonable and the genuinely curious away from the public arena, and Conservative supporters should be ashamed that their leaders are not only enabling this, but positively encouraging it.

Monday, October 02, 2023

15 minute cities: what is it with the Tories and stupid?

I've spent the past decade and more living in a small village. Not exactly a remote one - it's not as though Creeting St Peter is out in the wilds or anything, but it is small. And one of the things that persuaded me to leave was the question of access to facilities.

You see, in a small village, the chances are that, in order to do anything, you need to leave the village. There is nothing within a fifteen minute walk except the church, which isn't exactly useful in terms of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, and that means that residents are pretty much reliant on something with an engine.

Buses? We hadn't had one of those since 2011, when the once a week market day bus left the village mid-morning to head to Stowmarket and returned in the early afternoon. As far as I know, it wasn't terribly well used - my then colleagues on the Parish Council didn't seem to know that it existed - and probably required significant subsidy for very little value.

So, medical treatment, shops, schools, all of the things that we take for granted, none of them within fifteen minutes on foot, and often more than fifteen minutes by car.

And now, I live in the heart of Ipswich, with everything except a hospital within a fifteen minute walk. As I get older, I appreciate having things within easy reach, and the knowledge that, if neither of us (i.e. Ros) could drive, we wouldn't risk isolation or reliance on others.

Designing communities so that they have most key facilities within easy range is a sound idea, allowing us to use our cars less (if we want to), reducing air pollution in centres of population and thus improving public health. And nobody serious is suggesting that you can't drive around, or that you're going to be limited in terms of where you can go.

Which makes me confused as to why the Conservatives appear to want to side with the conspiracy theorists on the question of urban planning. Our historic town centres were never really designed for the motor vehicle until, in some cases, we tore down vast chunks of them to drive highways through. Finding incentives that encourage people to use their cars at home and use other means to travel to work or leisure opportunities makes sense, unless you want to use potentially valuable space building car parking.

There has never been a war on motorists, quite the reverse. Politicians have tended not to want to mess with the car lobby, weighting the economic argument in favour of cars and against public transport over decades. But, ultimately, trying to deny the direction of urban development is going to make us worse off, as urban centres hollow out through retail closures. Encouraging people to live closer in, providing the facilities to support them, and creating more lively communities will be the salvation of town centres, and as a liberal, I would like to see policies that reflect that aim.

But culture wars need to have tropes, I guess, and even if there isn't any factual evidence to support your claims, conspiracy theories will have to do...

Sunday, October 01, 2023

So, about the local politics...

So, I don't live in Mid Suffolk any more, thus goodbye Greens, hello Labour, who run Ipswich most of the time - there was a Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration from 2004 to 2011 but nevertheless...

In truth, I've never paid much attention to the politics here. Ipswich has surprisingly little impact on its neighbouring authorities, even though it is the county town and largest centre of population, and it is, in a traditional sea of electoral blue, a red island, albeit a real bellwether parliamentary seat, swapping hands as power has done nationally.

At the moment, the constituency is held by Conservative Tom Hunt, whose manner and attitudes don't exactly attract my sympathy. Mind you, as Labour need a 5.5% swing to take the seat next time, he may not be around long enough to bother me unduly.

His Labour opponent will be Jack Abbott, who was the county councillor for Bridge (which we now live in) from 2017 to 2021, and my old friend, James Sandbach, is the Liberal Democrat candidate. It doesn't look as though the Greens have picked a candidate yet, although they haven't really made a breakthrough in the town at local government level, and this may not be a priority for them with Waveney Valley so close by.

At County level, as noted above, we're now in Bridge division, which is geographically quirky, with a small sliver of the town centre north of the Orwell, but the bulk of it south through Stoke and Maidenhall. Turnouts are quite low, and, whilst the Conservatives got within 91 votes in 2021, that would be hard to imagine being replicated in 2025. Coming third would be progress for the Liberal Democrats...

At Borough level, we're in Alexandra ward, which covers most of the town centre, the waterfront and up the hill past Alexandra Park as far as California. It's been a safe Labour ward for some years now, with the Conservatives in second place, increasingly pressured by the Greens. The ward includes a chunk of the University of Suffolk, has a high population churn, and is a devil to deliver as there are significant numbers of flats and some doors are hard to find. That might explain why the turnout is usually around 30%. This isn't Liberal Democrat territory these days, although we did hold the ward over a decade ago, on what I sensed was a combination of a strong candidate and the collapse of the Labour vote at the end of the Blair/Brown years.

I will admit that, at the moment, I'm not minded to get too involved in town politics. Yes, I'd like to know how it works, the players and the key issues, but I'm happy to be a Liberal Democrat spear carrier for the time being - if I didn't really have the time to be a District councillor, I certainly don't currently have the time to be a Borough one.

I don't doubt that the issues that drive politics here in Ipswich are quite different to those of Mid Suffolk, and whilst I have plenty of experience of city politics from my days in London, Ipswich doesn't feel the same. So, time to get a sense of what's going on as I potter around the town...

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Will the right-wing media eat its own enfants terrible?

I admit that I've probably watched the Lawrence Fox drama play out with a certain sense of wry amusement. Perhaps that's because I understand that, with actions, come consequences. And, if you don't want to accept the consequences, your options might not be terribly palatable.

That means that there are certain rules to be adhered to. For example, the right to free speech is balanced by an acceptance of the consequences of expressing them. If you really are a free speech warrior, then that's actually quite easy. Say something vile, be thought of as vile by a bunch of people, some of whom may have the ability to alter your life. You may conclude that the benefits of being vile outweigh the penalties.

Alternatively, you can restrain yourself from expressing some of the things that you might otherwise want to say, in order to protect the things you care for - wealth, family, loved ones.

But saying something stupid and unpleasant and then apologising in order to protect what you have means that you're not a free speech warrior, you're actually more than a little cowardly. You've suddenly realised that you don't fancy the consequences and would really like to wriggle off of the hook.

It tends to come to all of the (predominantly) right-wing media exponents of extreme positions in the end. There's a buzz to being paid to say things that most people wouldn't either have the nerve to say publicly or want to espouse in the first place. And our media pay well for those who rise to prominence. The catch is that there are plenty of people who hold, or are willing to express, opinions that are provocative or sensationalist, and thus to maintain your lucrative position, you have to push a little further all of the time until you reach the tipping point where your viewpoints aren't just edgy but widely accepted to be offensive.

And that's when your average media company usually decides that their brand is more important than your salary, and you get canned. They need the advertising revenue and, in a world where social media campaigns can very effectively persuade advertisers to look elsewhere, standing by an offensive columnist is just not worth it financially.

How to replace that buzz of attention is the next problem, and that means attracting attention by being even more "out there", shouting into the void. And yes, you can probably make a living, for a while, appealing to a smaller and smaller, albeit more fanatical, audience until you end up like Katie Hopkins (remember her?) - reduced to travelling the world being ever more childishly outrageous in search of the next cheque.

Alternatively, you can row back from your more outré positions and attempt to re-enter the mainstream of commentary. But does that mean that your original statements were made simply to earn money, and that you never believed them in the first place? And what does that say about you as a person, or about your integrity?

And, as the media cycle gets shorter and shorter, and as technology allows more and more people to express themselves and their opinions, the time taken to go from enfant terrible to friendless embarrassment reduces too, and the financial benefits shrink accordingly.

So, Lawrence, was it really worth it? Only you can tell...

Friday, September 29, 2023

Au revoir, Creeting St Peter…

The moving bears* have come and gone, the uncertainty of a number of months has ended, and Ros and I are slowly adjusting to our new urban lifestyle. Time, perhaps, to reflect a little.

I loved Creeting St Peter, which wasn’t entirely expected, I admit. As a “big city boy”, having grown up and spent the first forty-five years of my life in London’s zones 1-4, the move to a village of seventy or so houses and no public transport was an unlikely one, and I wouldn’t have done it at all if Ros hadn’t been in my life. But I took to it like a slightly urbane duck to water, joining the Parish Council and becoming a part of my village community.

I never did learn to drive though - a combination of fear (me, in charge of a metal box on wheels, you are kidding, aren’t you?) and prevarication - which did make me vulnerable to an increasingly erratic public transport system, and the lack of facilities meant that the idea of “popping out” for, say, a pint of milk, was only going to become more undesirable as I aged. And so, the conclusion that we were going to have to move to somewhere with “stuff” began to loom larger.

A combination of budget and availability pointed towards Ipswich, and we eventually found something that works. I won’t bore you with the process stuff - now that it’s over, I’m hoping that it will recede to a dusty corner of my memory never to be recovered - but better it were done while we’re both mentally sharp and physically able.

So, instead of a twenty-five minute walk across the fields and through Gateway 14 to Tesco, it’s two minutes to Sainsbury’s, five to one of two cinemas, or a theatre, and there’s public transport galore (at least by the standards of most of Suffolk). I’m even five minutes from my office…

As for my Parish Council responsibilities, I’m still eligible to serve until 2027 and, whilst I’d happily hand over the chair to a colleague, and stand down as a councillor so that someone actually resident can take my place, Council has made it clear that, at least for the time being, they’d rather like me to stay on. I’ve done so on the basis that, if they feel that I’ve outstayed my welcome, I’ll resign without hesitation - I’m not going to be precious about it.

And so, it's time to move onto a new phase in our life - new opportunities, new challenges - and see where we go from here. Let the adventure begin...

* Ah yes, the moving bears... Our grand-daughter has been learning about moving house from a book, and the moving company is staffed by bears. We rather liked that, and so it's stuck.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Federal Council: Standing Orders cometh...

When last I wrote about Federal Council, I was perhaps slightly unfair to my colleagues and their failure to adopt Standing Orders after three meetings.

Having reflected on the matter somewhat, it seems reasonable to ponder upon the question of, when founding a new organisation, who should take responsibility for producing Standing Orders and ensuring compliance withy the constitutional niceties.

The previous constitutional review, during the Presidency of Sal Brinton, established a requirement for each committee to provide its own secretariat, and I do wonder whether or not this was brought to the attention of the new Federal Council after it was elected. That said, it would have required someone to volunteer to take on the role, knowing what was likely to be required, and acting upon that. And, having fulfilled that role myself when Federal International Relations Committee was formed, I did have the advantage that we were a continuation rather than a founding.

But, we are where we are, and given that the Party's Company Secretary effectively acts as our Secretariat, managing meetings, supplying documents and suchlike, it was entirely understandable that there was a hesitancy to act. Besides, very few people join Party committees to act as "house bureaucrat"...

And so, Federal Council meets on Sunday to consider the work of a small working group tasked with drafting our Standing Orders. My sense is that they've done a pretty good job, reflecting the constitutional restrictions placed upon Council, although, like with most rulebooks, you only really know how good they are once someone has decided to test them. So, my working position is to adopt them, on the basis that, if there are any serious oversights or omissions, they'll emerge over time.

We have been given some choices though, and I thought that I might explain them and indicate how, and why, I'm planning to vote as I am.

The first question is related to Paragraph 2.9:

The Chair will share with the President and the Federal Council any reasons given by those members who requested a matter is called in and…

OPTION A: will respect and uphold a request by any member to keep confidential that they have or have not requested a call-in.

OPTION B: will, if a matter is called in following the request of 13 member, share with the Council a list of those members who requested the call-in. 

My personal sense is that, if I am to be held accountable by those who elected me to Federal Council, there should be a record of my actions (or lack of them). I acknowledge that there may be individuals who would rather not have their identity revealed, and I respect their preference, but I tend towards transparency and, if my choices are out of line with the membership, it is right that they have more than just a manifesto to go on. So, I'll be supporting OPTION B.

The second question is related to Paragraph 2.11:

A member may…

OPTION A: withdraw their call-in request before the meeting of the Federal Council at which the decision is to be considered by informing the Chair. If a withdrawal reduces the number of requests to fewer than 13 then the decision ceases to be called in (i.e. there cannot be a motion to overturn it) but may remain on the agenda as an item for discussion.

OPTION B: not withdraw their request to call-in a decision after the Chair has notified the President and Council that a decision is to be called in.

This is a somewhat more difficult question. Prior to our last meeting, a decision of the Federal Board had been called in by the required thirteen members (and no more). Accordingly, the President was invited to prepare and make a presentation to the Council in relation to that decision, requiring expenditure of time and resource to do so. Subsequently, one of the thirteen withdrew their request, making that item unnecessary.

On the one hand, before indicating that you wish to call-in a decision, you are beholden to your colleagues and to the wider Party to obtain as many facts as you can prior to submitting that call-in. On the other, more information may emerge after the deadline which satisfies you and gives you grounds not the want such a call-in.

However, I'm minded to choose OPTION B because, I think, having required a response from Federal Board, we should treat that response, and the effort expended in providing it, with the respect that it deserves. It also acts to focus minds and discourage "frivolous" call-in requests (I'm not entirely happy with the word "frivolous" in this context, but a better word escapes me for the moment).

And finally, perhaps the least contentious of the three choices is over whether to have one or two Vice-Chairs. I think that, as a means of encouraging a more diverse leadership of Federal Council, I'd plump for two, with some requirement to seek diversity amongst the three leadership roles. That shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the current leadership - I don't have cause for concern about the current team - but more a marker for future choices.

Hopefully, our meeting on Sunday will be uncontentious, although you don't always get what you want, and whether or not my preferred options are the ones chosen, ultimately, I'll be voting to accept the Standing Orders in their final version. Committees need a framework and rules to live by, and Federal Council is not exception.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

NALC National Assembly - a reminder that my colleagues have legs…

It is occasionally hard to believe how long I’ve been a member of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils - more than two and a half years now - and today I met my colleagues “in the flesh” for the first time.

There’s little doubt that meeting in person comes with certain advantages. For example, you can read a room rather better and decide whether or not you really need to add your voice to a debate - and the answer is often… well, no, not really. And you can exchange muttered comments with those around you, which offers a degree of entertainment and amusement.

So, I set off from my small, but perfectly formed, village on the Connecting Communities bus at a rather civilised 8 a.m. to catch the first off-peak train to London and, after a perfectly relaxed journey, I eventually found the new NALC headquarters between Holborn and Tottenham Court Road in time for a cup of coffee and an 11 a.m. start.

The meeting itself was an efficient one. Having dealt with minutes of our last meeting, we discussed our leadership and committee structures in the hope of encouraging both members of the National Assembly and the wider Parish and Town Council community to serve on our various committees. I admit that, to some extent, I’ve been guilty of standing back a bit, working on the basis that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the inner workings of NALC to add value. There are, in all likelihood, people who have probably have more useful experiences or skills, or are more ambitious, and I’ve not been minded to stand in their way. 

However, there were vacancies on a number of committees that needed filling, and I concluded that, perhaps, my stance wasn’t sustainable any more, so I’d put myself forward to serve on the Smaller Councils Committee - they don’t get much smaller than Creeting St Peter, and I feel that the perspective of “micro-Parishes” can easily be lost amidst the talk of service provision and project funding. Our needs are less complex for the most part but, when we need help, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Large infrastructure projects, complex planning applications, these are often a major challenge to a small group of inexperienced volunteers with little professional resource to call upon. And so, I’ve got my first meeting of Smaller Councils Committee next Tuesday…

Our Chief Executive, Jonathan Owen, updated us next on some of the strategic work that is being done, both internally and externally. The Levelling Up Bill has allowed NALC to make some progress on its goals for the sector, enabling stronger ties with our Parochial Church Councils and allowing local councils to make Dependent Carer Allowance payments. Our President* and Vice Presidents have been extremely active in promoting our agenda in Parliament and achieved some success in persuading Ministers that we offer some quick, easy wins in terms of their agenda too, and the professional team who “provide the bullets for Parliamentarians to fire” can and should take pride in that success.

We also took a look at how the organisation is led and managed to ensure that we reflect the needs of our member councils and the County Associations. So, did we need to create new structures or tweak the existing ones, and how do we engage with a wider cross section of our members?

The pre-lunch session ended with a pleasantly brisk run through of a series of constitutional changes. And yes, many of them were tidying exercises, reflecting changes in the local government ecosystem, but nonetheless necessary. But my surprise was reserved for the adoption of STV for our internal elections going forward. There had been an attempt to make such a change earlier this year, which fell despite achieving a simple majority, and I expected some meaningful dissent, but it was passed with little opposition.

Lunch gave me an opportunity to tag along with a building tour to show a small group of National Assembly members the office space and the building facilities in NALC’s “new crib”, following the disposal of its old headquarters building. I’m of the view that, not only are the financial implications important, but the impact on our professional team is too. Does a hybrid working arrangement work for them? Are we taking advantage of the opportunities on offer? I also asked if an ergonomic assessment had been carried out because working on fixed desks with laptops doesn’t always work, especially for those of us who are, and I put this politely, more advanced in years and vulnerable to musculoskeletal problems.

The afternoon was occupied with presentations linked to our Net Zero agenda, talking about some of the actions our sector is, and will be, taking to support it. Given that even a micro-Parish without premises can make a contribution to the Net Zero agenda - Creeting St Peter recently replaced its ten aging streetlights with new LED ones which use far less electricity, cause less light pollution and reduce our expenditure significantly - our sector should play its part where possible, setting an example for those we serve.

The afternoon continued with a series of committee reports, culminating in a very detailed and thorough financial report. I’d been surprised by the relatively ad hoc nature of financial reporting when I first joined the National Assembly but must acknowledge that my concerns were not only listened to but acted upon, and I’m now comfortable that I can properly fulfil my scrutiny function based on the information at my disposal.

We ended our meeting with a discussion of a proposal from the Devon Association of Local Councils to produce a medal that might be awarded to long-serving Parish Councillors in recognition of their commitment to their communities. I’d consulted my County colleagues, who had mixed feelings about the idea, and it seemed that they weren’t alone. We agreed that this sort of recognition might be more effective coming from a county level, and thus County Associations might consider acting upon the idea.

And with that, we were done. A few of us retreated for drinks and an opportunity to reflect on what had happened, which I found particularly useful and interesting. One of the problems of operating in effective isolation from those you work with is that you lose the spontaneity and occasionally random conversations that add context to our efforts, especially if you’re relatively new to an organisation, as I am in this instance.

I think that I’m going to have to come to a few more of these…

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

ALDE Party Congress - is your journey strictly necessary, sir?

I am not a morning person, as Ros will testify. And so, rather than catch the very early morning flight on the Friday, I’d booked myself onto the mid-afternoon flight the previous day, allowing myself a leisurely journey from the Gipping Valley to Heathrow’s Terminal 5, plus a decent night’s sleep in Stockholm prior to the Congress.

And all had gone well, to the extent that I arrived more than four hours before my flight, having stopped at Westfield Stratford to buy a hat, leaving me time to have lunch (and perhaps a glass of something sparkling) in the British Airways lounge. I was settled and relaxed.

That is, I was, until 3.30, when there was a flurry of activity and the announcement that the 4.40 to Stockholm had been cancelled for reasons unknown. It suddenly became a bit chaotic, as we were first directed towards a gate and then advised to leave the airport.

So, what was a bureaucrat to do?

The first priority was to rebook my flight but, with thousands of people trying the same thing, and the British Airways app rather out of commission, I rang their call centre, taking advantage of my Silver status. They weren't able to get me on the evening flight, but there was a seat on the (horribly early) 7.05 the next morning.

Next priority, a room for the night. The Intercontinental Hotels Group app came up with a hotel within a short bus ride of Terminal 5 at a rate I was willing to pay, so I could then inform the hotel in Stockholm that I would be a day late.

And finally, clothes, given that my luggage was trapped somewhere in Terminal 5's baggage handling system. A quick trip to Richmond and a raid of Marks & Spencer did the trick before dinner and a gentle bus ride or two to my hotel.

I awoke early the next morning, far too early, and set off to the airport for attempt number 2. As advised, I called in at the assistance desk, arranged for my luggage to be linked to the new flight and checked in. Back to the lounge for breakfast and a glass of consolatory prosecco, and fingers crossed.

My expectations were not great but, with some good fortune, I arrived in Stockholm pretty much on time, as did my luggage, giving me time to get to my hotel and arrive at the Waterfront Congress Centre just in time for our first delegation meeting.

It was time to get to work...

Monday, June 12, 2023

Post-Federal Council, some musings on internal Party democracy and accountability

At the end of Federal Council last week, I raised with my new colleagues the question of reporting back - how, and to whom. I wasn’t trying to start a debate, more an attempt to give them something to dwell on.

My personal view is that, having been elected by the members (at least, those engaged enough to want to take part), I have some obligation to tell them what I’ve done and why, so far as is appropriate. Naturally, I will do that in my own mostly light-hearted way - I’ve never been one to take myself too seriously - but I will respect the responsibility that has been placed upon me.

That isn’t always easy. There have been those, many on the committees concerned, who are uncomfortable with transparency, and I do get that. Indeed, I take the view that there are some things too sensitive to be aired publicly, in which case I will not mention them or do so in a neutral manner designed to indicate that the subject has been discussed but no more.

I will also adhere to whatever rules that Federal Council decides upon in terms of confidentiality. There are some issues that require discretion, especially where they relate to individuals, in particular, staff. As a Federal Council member, I have an obligation to treat others with respect and courtesy, as made clear by the Member Code of Conduct.

This disappoints some people, who think that liberal principles require us to be utterly transparent. I judge that to be naïve, knowing as I do that our opponents would never make the same mistake. And, given that our strengths include hard work and an element of surprise, why give anything away that might jeopardise either?

My personal policy has survived the best part of two decades now, from my time on the London Liberal Democrats Regional Executive, its East of England equivalent, via English Candidates Committee to Federal International Relations Committee, and I’ve tried to be pretty consistent throughout.

That means that my reports aren’t “official” - that would require me to be the Chair, which I’m not. And they represent my perspective, based on what I know, which means that they might not be perfect - I may have missed nuance, or be unaware of institutional history/memory. But they’re mine, and I’m accountable for them.

So, when (or if) I choose to run for re-election, voters will have rather more than a brief, carefully curated, manifesto upon which to judge my worth. It is for my colleagues to decide how, and if, they do something similar, and I wouldn’t criticise their decision either way - they’re busy people with their own priorities and personal styles. Some will be more restrained, others not used to blogging or other social media. We are all different.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

ALDE Party Congress - where your correspondent did go to the (meat)ball…

The world turns, and things change.

For many years, going to an ALDE event meant being led by the suave, and occasionally cynical, Robert Woodthorpe Browne, whose almost legendary ability to cut deals meant that our influence somewhat outweighed our numerical strength. And now, we have a new leader, David Chalmers, whose first Congress this was.

Naturally, David operates rather differently, although he clearly gets that, in a post-Brexit environment, Liberal Democrats have to work harder (and smarter) to get things done. And, whilst he’s still trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his core delegation, and work out whether or not individuals can be trusted, he’s being cautious in terms of how much room for manoeuvre he can grant us. Discipline is the watchword.

There is a logic to that, in that we’re obviously not in a position to freelance - we’re bound by Party policy, of course, and there are relationships with other sister parties that we want to maintain.

In truth, it affects me less than some. I’m not much of a policy wonk, at least I know that I’m not expert enough to assert much. And my “specialist subject”, i.e. the inner workings of the ALDE Party, is seldom of critical import, or, if I’m frank, of interest to my colleagues. Except when it is…

And this Congress was one of those rare events, with some rather significant proposals on representation of non-EU member parties, the abolition of the Individual Members in their current form, and a clearer structure for the appointment of future Secretary Generals. Having served on a small working group appointed by the Bureau to look at the Individual Members and Secretary General issues, I at least had a grasp of what was happening and the background before it.

There were a lot of policy resolutions - forty-three in total, plus six urgency resolutions - far too many to allow any meaningful discussion, although they had been ranked in order of perceived significance to ensure that some of the most far reaching ones got debated.

But I did at least have a job of sorts. There was a time when Returning Officers mattered. With paper ballots, a count was required and ALDE’s somewhat bizarre elections rules - first past the post but with a stipulation that voters must vote for as many candidates as there are vacancies - meant that you did at least have to think a bit. Now, with electronic voting, once polls close, the ballot technician pushes a button, the results are displayed, and that’s it.

But the rules still state that a Returning Officer is necessary, and my German colleague, Daniel Obst, and myself are apparently acceptable to the Secretariat - I don’t imagine that the Bureau care much - and so we are informally approached in advance, agree to resume our double act and all is well.

All that was required was to get to Stockholm…

Monday, May 08, 2023

Mid Suffolk elections 2023 - if you thought that 2019 was bad for the Tories...

The 2019 District Council elections saw our local Conservatives take something of a hiding but, with the aid of the friendly "Independent" from Combs Ford, they retained control of Mid Suffolk District Council on the casting vote of the Chair.

Now you might have thought that they would then display a degree of humility and at least show some respect for the combined opposition parties following such losses but alas, it was not to be. And thus, on Thursday, they paid the price, courtesy of our local Greens.

In truth, everything favoured the Greens in Mid Suffolk, with an invisible Labour Party fielding just eight sacrificial lambs in predominantly unwinnable wards at the best of times, and the Liberal Democrats effectively trying to do little more than retain their five seats won in 2019 under the disadvantage of losing four incumbents to well-deserved retirement. And, apart from two Reform UK candidates who barely stirred public consciousness, that left twenty-nine Greens facing twenty-eight Conservatives.

And, when an early result saw the demise of the Conservative Group Leader in the Stonhams, Friday promised to be grim for Mid Suffolk Conservatives. As it turned out, grim really wasn't sufficient to describe their fate.

Stowmarket went from three Conservatives, two Greens, a Liberal Democrat and an Independent to six Greens and a Liberal Democrat, whilst Conservative councillors were also ousted in Claydon & Barham, Debenham, Eye, Palgrave, Thurston and Walsham-le-Willows.

Amongst the Conservative losers were Tim Passmore, the County Police and Crime Commissioner, despite moving to Palgrave from Claydon and Barham, and Nick Gowrley, the former Group Leader, who lost his Combs Ford seat in 2019 and re-appeared in Claydon & Barham in an attempt to return. The Deputy Group Leader bit the dust too, effectively decapitating the Conservative Group. 

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the loss of one of two seats in Needham Market (to a Green) means that the town has a non-Liberal Democrat District Councillor for the first time since 1991, when Ros was elected as a rookie councillor.

So, Mid Suffolk ended up:
    • Greens - 24 seats (up 12)
    • Conservatives - 6 seats (down 10)
    • Liberal Democrats - 4 seats (down 1)
    • Independents - no seats (down 1)
which makes it the first Green majority administration in the Northern Hemisphere and only the second globally.

It will be interesting to see what they do with power, having very little experience of it anywhere, and having never had to have sole responsibility for decision making. If I were a member of the Liberal Democrat Group, the prospect of constructive opposition to a ruling Group with whom relations are good would be a potentially enticing one, offering a possibility of gains for those we represent that probably didn't exist under the Conservatives.

Finally, these elections results represent an outcome that the "Local Conservatives" thoroughly deserved. They don't campaign in any meaningful way, relying solely on the historic record of Suffolk voting Conservative. And even though they knew that the Greens were coming for them, they still seemingly couldn't be bothered to do anything about it. If the Greens dig in as I expect them to, whilst they'll probably lose seats in 2027, they may not face much organised opposition.

Indeed, the best prospect for a Conservative recovery in four years time is for the national party to be thrashed in the next General Election and for an unpopular Labour administration to emerge from it. But I sense that it will come despite the quality of local Conservatives rather than because of it.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Now that we've found Federal Council, what are we gonna do... with it?

Well, I've now been a member of Federal Council for more than a fortnight and, due to the small matter of some local elections, not much has happened. I've got a meeting pencilled in for 8 June and I'm assuming that there's an outline meeting schedule for the rest of 2023 but other than that, Federal Council remains a bit of a mystery.

It's not as if I've not got a bunch of other things to do, so I can at least be more sanguine about this. In the meantime, I've read the Federal Constitution, which says of Federal Council:

9.12 There shall be a Federal Council which shall consist of the following voting members:

a. Twenty-one people who shall be party members elected by all members of the Party except that persons who, at the date of the close of nominations for election under this paragraph, are members of Parliamentary Parties set out in Article 17 shall not be eligible to be candidates for election under this paragraph. Casual vacancies amongst this group shall be filled in accordance with the election regulations;

b. Three members from each State Party, elected according to their own procedures;

c. Three principal local authority councillors, elected Mayors or Police and Crime Commissioners, elected by the principal local authority councillors, elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners of the Party;

d. Three members of the Young Liberals, elected according to their own procedures;

e. Three representatives of the Parliamentary Group as set out in Article 17.5; and

f. The Chair of the Federal Audit and Scrutiny Committee.

9.13 The Chair of the Federal Council shall be elected by its members.

9.14 Members of the Federal Board may attend and speak at meetings of the Federal Council but may not be voting members of the Federal Council.

9.15 The Council shall be responsible for scrutinising the work of the Federal Board, including ensuring that decisions are being taken in line with the party strategy as voted for by Conference, and may require a response on any issue from the Board.

9.16 The members of the Federal Council shall be sent the Board agenda, decisions and relevant papers. Within five working days of the publication of the decisions any 13 members can request that the Chair of the Federal Council call in any decision by the Federal Board to a meeting of the full Federal Council. The President of the Party will be required to attend this meeting and can bring any others they feel relevant in order to speak in favour of the decision. Any decision of the Federal Board called in can be overturned by a vote in favour by at least 27 members of the Federal Council.

9.17 The Council shall be considered to be a Committee of the Federal Party for the purposes of Articles 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 8.2, 8.5, 8.8 and 8.9.

I've also looked to see, as far as I can, who got elected to serve on it and whilst I have worked with some of them, or know them because of Ros, there are others who, to be honest, are more of a social media presence. That doesn't entirely surprise me, given that I've kept a relatively low profile within the wider Party for a while now.

And, finally, I've re-read my manifesto. This is what I said I would try to achieve if elected...

But what are my ambitions if elected to serve?

  • Establish the Federal Council as an effective scrutiny body, engaging all of its members in its work and using their strengths to establish its credibility
  • Build a relationship with the Federal Board based on mutual understanding and respect
  • Represent and engage with groups across the Party and Federal Conference to ensure that we focus on what matters to members rather than simply promoting any narrow agenda
  • Create reporting channels that allow members to hold us accountable

So, no great challenge there...

And on reflection, that did look rather like a manifesto for Chair of Federal Council, rather than an ordinary member. So, perhaps I ought to scale back my ambitions a little. How about this:

  • Work with fellow Council members to establish the Federal Council as an effective scrutiny tool
  • Engage with groups across the Party to ensure that I focus on what matters to members rather than simply promoting a narrow agenda
  • Report back using my blog and, if appropriate, Liberal Democrat Voice

There are some things that matter to me - good governance, the Town and Parish Council sector, the Party's international work, for example - which I hope to promote during the next two and a half years. But I like to think of myself as being fairly open minded, willing to hear and consider the arguments whilst not assuming that anyone in a position of authority in the Party has a secret agenda that I should be deeply suspicious of.

And so it begins...