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 cafĂ© 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...