Saturday, March 23, 2024

Feed me! The Little Shop of Horrors comes to Ipswich

I’ve worked within walking distance of the New Wolsey Theatre pretty much since I moved to Suffolk and yet, for no particular reason, I’d never been into it, let alone seen a performance (and it does apparently have a decent cafĂ©). But we’d had a strong recommendation to go and see the touring production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and, as we were free last night, and tickets (although not many) were available, we thought, “why not?”. And I’m glad that we did, because we would otherwise have missed an incredibly spirited and utterly enjoyable show.

It's a joint production by the New Wolsey Theatre, the Hull Truck Theatre, the Octagon Theatre Bolton and Theatre by the Lake Keswick, and features just ten performers, including the drummer. And the advantage of the New Wolsey is that you're never going to be very far from the stage, so it feels strangely intimate.

I won't recount the plot, partly for spoiler reasons if you've never seen the film or the stage musical, but needless to say that there isn't a duff tune in it and you'll find yourself humming one or more tunes as you leave.

So, whilst you've missed your chance if you want to see it in Ipswich, you can catch it as follows:

  • 27 March to 20 April at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
  • 24 April to 18 May at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton
  • 22 May to 8 June at Hull Truck Theatre
  • 18-22 June at the Theatre Royal, Windsor
And, obviously, I'd strongly recommend it.

It reminds me that there's a strong cultural life outside of London too, something that, as a Londoner relocated to Suffolk, it can be easy to be sniffy about.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

SALC Mid Suffolk meets - some thoughts from your host...

One of my less onerous responsibilities is being Chair of the Mid Suffolk South branch of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. Let's rephrase that. The chairing is easy, although the rest of the role is quite responsible, intellectually challenging and engages my intellect in a way that I might not have expected at the outset.

My primary function as Chair is to manage/lead two out of the four branch forums which take place each year - the Chair of the Mid Suffolk North branch, Julie Bell, deals with the others - and tonight was my turn.

We had a guest speaker from Suffolk County Council, Matthew Ling, who gave us a quick whirl through the details of the new Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Fund, which is intended to establish on-street vehicle charging points, something badly needed in urban streets where off-street parking doesn't exist, and in villages, where it might not be easy to install personal charging points. There's quite a lot of money available (approximately £7 million) but, if you're going to motivate people to switch from petrol and diesel to electric, making it easier to charge up the vehicle is going to be key.

As a non-driver, I hadn't realised the scale of the price differential between charging at home, using an overnight tariff, compared to the cost of charging elsewhere, and with the proposed new charging points priced somewhere between fast charger points at supermarkets or service stations and the domestic cost, it will hopefully make the switch to electric a little more inviting.

There followed an enlightening discussion, with a series of really good questions emerging from those in attendance, and an offer from our colleague in Coddenham to find out more about what they're doing there. It's a sign of the times that Parish Councils are getting involved in such projects, but good news for rural residents.

We had a brief discussion about community engagement, and there are some emerging themes. There's a sense that we don't always use our websites as effectively as we might, and with new housing being built in so many villages, engaging with the new residents, who might not know much about what we do, active outreach is key. There is, on the positive side, increasing use of social media, although it takes time to build up followers and establish an exchange between residents and council.

Not unexpectedly, highways issues, including potholes and flooding, were raised during our information exchange. It's clear that whilst there is a lot of work that needs doing, and very little in the way of funding to do it, bringing communities together to focus on shared issues is a potential way forward and makes our voices louder. I'm not an optimist, but perhaps if we could focus on some of the key routes, we might at least mitigate the worst problems.

I flagged up the increasing pressure to move towards having gov.uk websites and e-mail addresses for town and parish councils - we can expect to see comments in our internal audit reports this year - noting that there is funding available to support the transition. I also pre-announced the launch of a new NALC network focussing on micro-parishes, something I'm ever so slightly proud of given that I've lobbied hard for it.

Our Chief Executive, Sally Longmate, gave us a brief whirl through what SALC itself is up to, and I was able to bring the meeting to a close almost on the dot of the predicted finish time, which was nice.

Our next meeting is on 4 June, and it'll be Julie's turn to chair, so I can relax just a little...

Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Conference speech I didn’t get to make


In all honesty, the prospects for being called to speak in a forty minute debate on the crisis in local government finance were always pretty slim, especially in a Party whose strength in local government is very much on the up. But, given that I’d prepared a short intervention, and that nobody really touched upon the aspect I was going to, here it is…

Good morning, Conference, from one of the more unlikely Cinderellas you’ll ever encounter. I’m here to remind my fellow Liberal Democrats of the bit of local government overlooked by the motion in front of you today.


For those of you whose knowledge of parish councils is perhaps limited to Jackie Weaver and the Vicar of Dibley, there are nearly 10,000 town and parish councils across England, ranging in size from Salisbury City Council (which will spend approximately £7.5 million in this fiscal year) to my own Creeting St Peter, with its rather more modest budget. They are led and run by 100,000 mostly unpaid volunteer councillors, spending more than £1 billion per annum.


And the anaconda-like squeeze on local government finance impacts on us too.


The amount we spend is growing fast, as our sector attempts to absorb some of the non-statutory services that hard pressed principal authorities are having to divest or abandon. We aren’t capped in terms of precept rises, which offers obvious opportunities and challenges. But because we are often hyper-local, deeply embedded in our communities, raising funds through precept rises is uncomfortable.


To take on those services that principal authorities cannot fund, and that our residents value, we’re having to gain new skills, professionalise as councillors, access new funding sources. As an example, parish and town councils are now able to apply for funding through the Community Ownership Fund, following a lobbying campaign led by Baroness Ros Scott in her capacity as Honorary President of the National Association of Local Councils.


We perform our role with little help - unlike the LGA, the National Association of Local Councils gets no financial support from central government - and often have a sense that principal authorities aren’t very keen on us.


So, Conference, when you vote overwhelmingly in support of this motion, as I dearly hope you will, please don’t forget about us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Ipswich's Jewish community

Having touched upon the subject of the Jewish community in Ipswich yesterday, and given that I've been studying the history of Ipswich at the Ipswich Institute for the past ten weeks or so, I thought that I ought to find out a bit more about the history of Judaism in the town, given the prominence of Ipswich as a trading hub in medieval times.

And sure enough, Ipswich has had a Jewish community at various points in the past, dating back to at least the twelfth century, during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). But the initial community didn't last - there was a pogrom in Bury St Edmunds in 1190, with the survivors expelled - and was gone by 1290 as part of Edward I's expulsion of the entire Jewish population of England.

It was not until 1730 that a Jewish congregation was again to be found in Ipswich, and they met in a room in St Clement's until they were able to gather the funds to build a synagogue in Rope Walk, which opened for use in 1795. There must have been a decent-sized population, or at least the expectation of one, because it was designed to seat "no more than a hundred persons". There was a cemetery too, a little distance away off Fore Street, which is still there.

However, by the 1860s, the synagogue had fallen out of use, and was demolished in 1877, leaving no trace that I can ascertain, and I can't easily find an image of it anywhere. The Jewish community continued to fade away, with apparently only three Jewish residents of the town remained in 1895. But the cemetery remained, with its walls preserved, and when there wasn't a Jewish community left to look after it, it was maintained by the business which occupied the remainder of the site, R & W Pauls Ltd.

The cemetery is now maintained by the growing Jewish community in the area, and the walls are Grade II listed, which should help to protect the site for future generations.

For the time being, there isn't an Ipswich Jewish community as such, but there is the Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, which describes itself as "a small collection of people living in Suffolk and surrounding areas, who have a shared interest in meeting other Jewish people and pursuing Jewish matters". Given that Ipswich now has a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara and a mosque, perhaps there will be a place for Jews to gather once again before very long.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Learning something new about blue octopi

In apologising for attacking an innocent student on X, Baroness Foster introduced me to a concept that I had previously been utterly unaware of, that a blue octopus is a known antisemitic trope.

Now, I have to admit that, as a non-practicing Catholic, living in the county town of rural Suffolk with its very small Jewish population (there is a Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, formed comparatively recently), this might well have passed me by. I did attend synagogue for a number of years, and perhaps it came up and I forgot about it. But one of the things about Ipswich is that we have a very prominent blue octopus, Digby, the litter picking octopus.

He's a bit of a thing here. You'll find him on street sweeping machines, on dustbins, and most obviously of all, on the wall of the old R & W Paul Ltd building at St Peter's Dock.

And it's not a recent thing, he's been there for more than a decade. He's so renowned in the town that, when they refurbished the children's playground in Holywells Park, they included a Digby the Octopus seesaw.

Now I may have views about the competence (or otherwise) of Ipswich Borough Council, but I don't think that they, or the people of Ipswich generally, are antisemitic. Sometimes, a blue octopus is just something funny and amusing, rather than sinister and offensive. And perhaps, just perhaps, Baroness Foster may have learned that it is better to check first rather than display her evident prejudices on social media.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

An evening of passion in Ipswich’s heart

Ros and I took the short walk to St Mary-le-Tower last night, for a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion. Not a piece that I’d actually heard before, but I do enjoy his St Matthew Passion, so what could be the harm, right?


The Choir of St Mary-le-Tower were joined by the Tower Sinfonia and, whilst the acoustics seem somewhat flawed, it was enjoyable enough to reward the attention of a decent enough audience. Daniel Joy, appearing as The Evangelist, as well as the odd additional aria, held things together rather well in what is an arduous role, and his placement above and behind the choir (in the pulpit, no less) was well chosen.


St Mary-le-Tower has a solid choir, befitting of being Ipswich’s civic church, its own musical director - a bit of a step up from Creeting St Peter, I admit - and a series of lunchtime concerts (note to self, check for chamber music…). And funnily enough, I’d never been in the place, so the concert offered an opportunity to study the architecture highlighted a few weeks ago in an instalment of our course on the history of Ipswich.


So, what do I think of the St John Passion? On the whole, I still prefer the St Matthew Passion, which came three years later, but possibly benefits from a greater freedom to experiment. Nonetheless, it represents a pinnacle in the output of one of history’s greatest and most prolific composers, and I rather enjoyed it. And I note that there’s a splendid recent recording featuring the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the baton of John Eliot Gardner, whose recording of the St Matthew Passion I deeply enjoy.


So, live music adds another string to Ipswich life as I adapt to urban living. Who would have thought that what began as a means of simplifying and future proofing our lives would pay such additional dividends?…

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Federal Council - the bureaucrat cut


I did promise in my manifesto for Federal Council that I would report back, and so I offer some personal thoughts on Wednesday night’s meeting.
 
 

Our agenda revolved around three key items - a briefing on General Election planning and organisation, a review of the Federal Board’s decision making on the fate of Autumn Conference, and a briefing on the revisions to the Party’s disciplinary processes.


Bearing in mind that I’m really not a campaigner, and perhaps don’t match the classic definition of activist these days, I thought that Neil Fawcett explained the strategy with a level of credibility that you might (a) hope for, and (b) expect, from a hardened campaigner like Neil. There will doubtless be an inquest into the outcome, regardless of what it is, but decisions should only be made on the basis of the available facts and I think that, as far as medium and long term strategy can be deduced, I’m content that the decisions are in good hands. As for short term strategy, we can probably only hope that those in the campaign’s wheelhouse have the good sense to respond rather than react, and resist the temptation to chase rainbows.


There has been a great deal of unhappiness about the suggestion that Autumn Conference might be axed in anticipation of a General Election after the summer. And I do wonder whether or not the risks have been selectively placed before members. But I suppose the argument rests on a number of key points:

  • Opportunity cost - does cancelling, or truncating, conference risk the loss of valuable media coverage?

  • Staff cost - can our limited professional team cope with both an Autumn conference and a General Election?

  • Financial cost - what effect would proceeding with Conference or cancelling it have on the funds available for a General Election campaign?

I was prepared to be swayed on the decision, and listened to the arguments as they flowed backwards and forwards. But overshadowing the discussion is the uncomfortable truth that we have a Conservative administration whose decision making is difficult to assign logic to. And with the media all over the place in terms of opinion, I don’t envy Federal Conference Committee in their choices.


It isn’t necessary to make a decision quite yet, but my suspicion (and it’s no more than that) is that some sort of glorified rally will take place if Rishi doesn’t go in May. If our campaigning is still ramping up at the end of the summer, will activists in target seats want to up sticks and head to Brighton for a few days? I’m not sure that I would. But I’d want the decision to be based on an airing of all of the facts, and I’m not sure that they’ve all been made available yet.


But Council have made some recommendations for any decision making process that follows, and hopefully that will help.


The disciplinary process has been an area of much concern in some quarters within the Party and, as a former member of the Appeals Panel for England, I’m more aware than some of the ramifications of getting it wrong. But political parties are increasingly bound by the impacts of legislation and case law, which place a potentially heavy burden upon them in an increasingly litigious society. Doing what’s right, philosophically and legally, becomes an increasingly costly “luxury” when placed in the context of financing political campaigning yet, if you yield to anyone who threatens you with lawyers, what hope is there for philosophical coherence or political unity?


Unfortunately, by the time we got to the presentation on it, we had overrun somewhat, and members were drifting off. That meant that a useful discussion was missed by some colleagues, and we may be obliged to address the issue further in the future.


I do wonder though if part of the problem is a sense of distrust in some quarters as to whether or not any disciplinary process might be used to ensure adherence to one particular view or other. Is that distrust supported by the facts? I’m not convinced that it is but must accept that others have a different perspective.


As someone who believes in an element of policy difference within a broader party canvas, I tend to the view that behaviour is more of a problem than policy disagreement, and respectfully arguing your case shouldn’t be, in itself, a reason for disciplinary action. But if, in expressing those views, you disrespect or otherwise mistreat others, then there probably ought to be consequences.


All in all, an interesting and occasionally challenging meeting, albeit we still feel reactive rather than responsive. But it’s for members to draw a conclusion as to whether or not we add value either collectively or as individuals, and we can only strive towards doing so.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Some old thoughts on the Israel/Palestine situation…

It’s said that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, and whilst it would be difficult to compare the current crisis in Gaza with previous ones, if only because of the scale of the resulting deaths, those who have observed events there over decades will have shuddered at the prospect of an Israeli response of the type we have seen since 7 October.

But I am reminded that I wrote the following fifteen years ago…

To be blunt, most of those who entirely support the rights of the Israeli people to live in peace and security within recognised borders within our Party are rightfully uncomfortable with the results of the Israeli campaign. Most people will have no objection to Israel defending itself against attack, as long as that response is proportionate. However, the deaths of innocent civilians in large numbers is not something that many people can endorse with a clear conscience, and I would be disappointed if there was a Liberal Democrat who could find it in themselves to do so. 
However, you are entirely right in one sense. Whilst my point about the use of conventional warfare methodology against terrorists said exactly what I intended to say, I could, and probably should, have expanded on that point. So I will. 
In recent years, we have seen a move away from wars of nation against nation towards more random attacks by small, ideology-driven groups of fanatics against predominantly civilian targets. The campaign by Hamas against Israel is, to a great extent, an example of just such a conflict.  
Hamas 'fighters' launch hit and run attacks, and are extraordinarily difficult to confront and defeat by the use of aircraft and artillery in an area such as Gaza. Their willingness to use densely populated areas and public buildings as a base for rocket launches means that any counter-attack using conventional methods will simply lead to collateral losses that are unaccepted to a viewing public easily swayed by pictures of injured or dying women and children. As integrated into their communities as they are, if Israeli forces attack, they can melt back into the populace and disappear, waiting for the next opportunity to probe at possible Israeli vulnerabilities. 
Lest we forget, we are talking about an organisation that has cynically played upon the heartstrings of the world's media. Accusations that Hamas have prevented the injured from being evacuated in order to generate more martyrs demonstrate that all that matters is the ability to generate undeserved sympathy whilst blackening the reputation of the Israeli people in the eyes of neutrals beyond the region. 
But enough of the context. What are my thoughts on how to proceed? Any successful attempt to combat terrorism is based on an effort to deny oxygen to terrorist movements, to cut off the flow of new recruits, to isolate them from the communities they purport to fight for and, finally, to persuade communities that these people present a risk to their peace and security. 
Such a campaign comes in three parts, political, moral and military. In the first instance, it is necessary to stop the bloodshed. Given the imbalance of casualties, it is perfectly legitimate to take obvious steps to achieve quick gains - one presumes that preventing the deaths of innocent civilians is a legitimate aim - and if cutting off the flow of armaments to Israel is one means of doing so, then I'm comfortable with that. If it requires a guarantee from the United States to defend Israel whilst the next stage proceeds, so be it. A ceasefire secured, action is then required to build a meaningful civil society in the West Bank and Gaza. It means investment in infrastructure, in building a politically neutral military and police force, in developing independent media and genuine political parties founded on ideas and not hatred. By building up the Palestinian economy, citizens will develop an interest in maintaining peace. Here, I plead the example of Northern Ireland, where investment flourished and wealth increased accordingly after the bombing stopped. 
Alongside this, work must be done to root out the terrorists. This is, perhaps, an opportunity for the Arab League to demonstrate their commitment to a two-state solution. Whilst a working civil society is being created, those within the community who seek peace need support to overcome those who believe in the bomb and the bullet. Whereas a wholly military answer is unlikely to succeed, an effective police action is far more likely to work. I believe that a contingent from other Arab nations could do the job effectively, if they are genuine in their willingness to find solutions. The European Union, if it can get its act together (and here I am less optimistic), can also play a major role. 
The reward for compliance? More investment, both for Israel and Palestine. In the long run, both sides will be better off, better able to protect and nurture their citizens and, perhaps one day, normalise relations and work together for the good of all. Alright, that last bit might be a bit naive, but it does at least indicate that there is hope for a positive outcome. In return, the Israelis can address those issues which have so inflamed Arab opinion. Illegal settlements can be dismantled, the wall demolished where it lies in disputed territory - there can be no objection to a nation building a wall on its own border. 
Establishing genuine peace requires a different mindset on the part of the two sides in this dispute. An eye for an eye has, so far, left both sides blind, and yet there are so many in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who yearn for peace and a better life for their children. The regional powers and the United Nations have an opportunity to achieve something that has evaded us all for sixty years, and if preventing the Israelis, albeit temporarily, from shooting themselves in the foot is the price, then perhaps it is a price worth paying. Otherwise, we will, all of us, continue to suffer the costs of international terrorism and instability in a region that influences us all.

It is rather depressing that this might still represent some, perhaps many, elements of a potential way forward, although the prospects of US intervention are probably weaker than they have been in times past. On the other hand, a regional peacekeeping force might have greater credibility than it did given (at least until recently) improved relationships with neighbouring Arab nations, including key power brokers.

That Liberal Democrats are calling for an immediate bilateral ceasefire strikes me as something that is right both in humanitarian and political terms, even if our voice is unlikely to be heard by those with the ability to directly influence events. We’re fortunate to have, as our Foreign Affairs spokesperson, someone with a meaningful perspective on Gaza and who has been remarkably measured in her comments given the personal impact on members of her family.

It will be a long road to recover from the catastrophe that was 7 October and the events that followed. The people of Gaza and Israel will have their lives clouded by it for years and years to come, with lost ones to mourn, the wounded to live with physical and mental scars. But the rest of the world will need to find ways of encouraging a long-term peace in the region, which will include investments in essential infrastructure in Gaza, pressure on political leaders to adhere to international law, encouragement of steps likely to aid reconciliation and efforts to support mutual security moving forwards.

I am not an optimist in terms of the Israel/Palestine situation. There are too many people on both sides in key positions who appear to see no benefit in compromise - at least, no benefit until their side is in a dominant position over the other. And the fear and distrust that has been struck into so many ordinary people in both Gaza and Israel will be difficult to shake.

But the effort must be made, for if the international community is unable to influence events positively, it augurs ill for the future.


Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Is it really popular if you have to tell people it is?

It is perhaps a sign that a number of senior figures in the Conservative Party are looking towards a future out of office where their particular world view defines where it goes from here. And today’s launch of “Popular Conservatism” suggests that, if you are enthused by the idea of a sensible conservative political force, you may have to wait a while for one to emerge from the expected electoral wreckage.

A group led by Liz Truss, managed by Mark Littlewood and with Lee Anderson and Jacob Rees-Mogg as key figures is likely to be pretty disruptive as the Conservative Party seeks to recover in the next Parliament. It does strike me though as having some built-in self-destructive tendencies though.

Firstly, the whole low-tax, small state libertarian schtick, much beloved by Liz and Mark, and based on the idea that allowing people to spend their own is better than having the state do it for them. It’s superficially beguiling - who likes paying tax, after all? - but given Mark’s record of claiming that the public support the notion without telling them how he proposes to do it (answer - a whole bunch of things that a large majority of people would be horrified by), and Liz’s utter incomprehension about markets, you can hardly expect honesty in terms of the choices to be made.

But how do you marry libertarianism with the “Red Wall interventionist” stance of Lee Anderson and the moral hypocrisy of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Anglo-Catholicism?

Now, I do see some emerging themes - opposing the “nanny state” in the form of a smoking ban, for example, is consistent with support for personal freedoms. And whilst I don’t take a particularly strong view on Rishi Sunak’s approach, it does seem an unlikely policy from a Conservative Party. But modern-day Conservatives do have a very erratic approach to personal liberty based, it seems, on their personal prejudices. They’re currently against the right to protest, the right to organise, and free and fair elections. You might, and I would, suggest that their support for freedom extends as far as that which they approve of and no further.

So, when Mark talks about “transferring power to families, communities, businesses and individuals”, he might be talking about balancing the needs of those different groups, but he’s more likely to be calling for a minimalist state where no group has protection from the predations of others. In other words, don’t be poor, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be a minority, for might is right, weakness is to be punished.

But, if he’s serious, he and his friends are going to have to undue vast swathes of Conservative legislation designed to limit our freedoms and to make it difficult for us to choose who rules over us. And he’s not going to do that, partly because his friends ultimately won’t let him, but also because freedom requires transparency, and his record at the Institute of Economic Affairs demonstrates his lack of commitment to that.

For me though, the biggest thing that stands in the way of this new ginger group is the word “popular”. Having one of the country’s least successful and most ridiculed politicians at its head isn’t a great start but, if you have to explain to people that what you are calling for is popular, that suggests that you’re simply trying to convince yourself that you have support beyond your narrow circle of friends.

I wish them luck though, for if they succeed, the Conservative Party could be out of power for a generation…

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Civil Service reform: another Minister speaks

I’ll be honest. When I hear that a Government Minister has made a speech on Civil Service reform and modernisation, in my heart I expect not to like what they’ve got to say. More often than not, I don’t. There’s a tendency for politicians to see us bureaucrats as being an obstacle to change, a barrier between the world they want and where we are now. Accordingly, reform and modernisation are a shorthand for giving the Civil Service a bloody good kicking.

Don’t get me wrong. As a bloodied veteran of the public sector trenches, I would be the last to suggest that all is well. But, living the experience every day for more than thirty-seven years gives you a perspective that politicians seldom see. They’re, for obvious reasons, several steps removed from the reality of service delivery, the daily battle to achieve not the targets set necessarily, but to do your best and achieve something tangible that is for the public good.

So, John Glen’s recent speech to the Institute for Government, just ten weeks after he became the Minister for Civil Service Reform, was always going to grab my attention.

And, actually, it wasn’t a bad speech. Yes, he talked about reducing numbers - hardly novel, or a surprise for that matter - but there was a sense that he perhaps understands some of the changes that are needed. His speech revolved around three key themes -embedding technology, embracing simplicity, and enabling people’s potential. 

There can be no doubt that we need to use technology more effectively and I’ve seen much new technology introduced over the course of my career, some of it better than others. But AI is, according to Mr Glen, a potential game changer. Admittedly, for a dinosaur like myself, the impact is likely to be minor but, if it can make it easier for our customers (a word that I still vaguely struggle with in this context) to comply or to get what they need, then it can only be a good thing.

That might also allow for a smaller Civil Service and, whilst you never want to see jobs lost unduly, we will never be a group that attracts mass public support. If the public want fewer bureaucrats and administrators, that’s what they should get, so long as the potential consequences are broadly understood and accepted. Alternatively, it might free people up to do the jobs that currently aren’t done and might benefit from attention.

I’m slightly more cynical about “embracing simplicity”, in that much, if not all, of the complexity is the result of Government intervention, passing more laws. Now I’m not saying that Government shouldn’t be doing that, but the consequence of more complex legislation is that it becomes harder to administer. But, coming back to how technology can be our friend, enabling more and more people to get the information they need without the need for human intervention should be a good thing.

As for “enabling people’s potential”, there does appear to be a little wishful thinking going on. To suggest that sinews are being strained in order to make pay rates in certain key roles become competitive might imply that salaries have been too low for too long. And I cannot bring myself to believe that Ministers really want to make Civil Service salaries properly competitive, especially after everything that has been said by Government ministers in the recent past.

The rest of it was a bit “motherhood and apple pie”, talking about making it easier to get rid of poor performers and improving management skills. And there was the mandatory warning about staff working from home. I've already addressed this - it's about where people are most effective, and about management that addresses poor performance and has the right data to judge - but it's clear that the Government aren't going to let up on this.

Of course, the probability that Mr Glen is going to be around long enough to actually have any impact appears to be vanishingly small. I wonder what the Labour Party is thinking...

Monday, January 22, 2024

Ă€ la recherche d'un village perdu

As some of you will know, I am now the remote Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, in that I don't live there any more. And you aren't alone in wondering whether or not this is a good idea. There is, I suspect, every possibility that you come across as the Parish Council equivalent of a colonial administrator, without any real skin in the game.

I've been conscious of that all along, and am entirely up front about being willing to go should Council conclude that the arrangement doesn't work for them or for the residents of Creeting St Peter. But, for the time being at least, everyone appears to be content and are happy for me to continue.

And so, this evening, I made my way back to Creeting St Peter on a cold, damp evening for our first meeting of 2024.

Luckily, we'd made most of the difficult decisions in our November meeting, including settling on our 2024/25 budget, so the meeting was mostly about reports and "box-ticking", in the company of our Liberal Democrat District Councillor, Terry Lawrence. And that meant that I was able to steer us through the business in about fifty minutes, allowing me to catch an earlier train back to Ipswich.

One of the things about having an efficient Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer is that everyone can read the papers in advance, minimising unnecessary debate and make quick decisions, even allowing opportunities for councillors to raise any point they feel they need to. And that means that business is brisk but open - I'm even relaxed about bringing in members of the public to speak should they wish to.

And I'm fortunate in that my fellow councillors, Ayse, Dan, Davin and Lynne, are committed to their responsibilities, are active in village life, and pay attention to what's going on around them. Not every Chair of a Parish Council is as lucky.

So my reign of terror leadership continues, at least until May, and the Annual Parish Council Meeting. May everything continue to run as smoothly as it has so far...


Sunday, January 21, 2024

A windy walk in the park

As part of our adaptation to urban life, Ros and I have taken to exploring the wider town, and this morning, we took a short drive to one of Ipswich’s less crowded parks (especially on a windy, grey day), Bourne Park, in south-west Ipswich.

It's not a park I was terribly aware of, although it can be clearly seen from the train as you approach Ipswich from London, out of the left-hand windows. So, what's there to do?

The park is based around Belstead Brook as it flows towards the Orwell at Ostrich Creek (no, I didn't know that either until I looked at a map just now), and includes a rather nice playground with a children's paddling pool which, I guess, is quite lively on a summer afternoon. There's also quite a nice looking picnic area and some public toilets (no, they haven't all been closed!).

It was formally opened by Prince Henry, the third son of George V, on 7 October 1927, and Ipswich Borough Council have kept the dedication in surprisingly good condition, which is nice.

We walked the length of the park and back, sticking mainly to the path as the ground is a bit soft what with all the rain we've had lately, before heading to the nearby supermarket for some provisions.

I rather think that we'll be back...

Saturday, January 20, 2024

It’s the little things…

Living in a small village does little for the concept of spontaneity. Indeed, I began to make the case for the benefits of having to plan things in advance, something I didn’t really do much of as a Londoner, back in the day. But, having now reverted to urban living, I’ve begun to realise just how nice it is to have things on your doorstep.

Today, a lampshade was purchased for the lamp in the living room, one a bit larger than we’d previously had. As a result, it needed a support, and the wonderful lighting store on Butter Market sold us just the thing. But the man in the shop said that, if it was the wrong height, we could replace it. So, we took the lampshade and support home, tried it out and found that, yes, we needed something a little shorter.

The four minute walk back to the shop meant that the job could be done, the light fitting restored. Very nice, very efficient.

This afternoon, we had a yearning for ice cream. There’s an ice cream parlour close by, which we studiously avoid most of the time - we try to avoid temptation where we can. But, as a treat, it’s very nice.

There’s little doubt that urban life is simpler in a range of ways, some obvious, some not so. The trick, I guess, is not to take it for granted…

Friday, January 19, 2024

The medieval churches of Ipswich

Day 2 of our course on the history of Ipswich took place last night and it was a slight diversion from the timeline, as we considered the surviving Domesday churches in the town.

I have to admit that I'm not a huge architecture enthusiast. Yes, I can admire a well-turned arch as much as the next man but, in general, I'm not really a detail person. However, Elizabeth Serpell was a lively guide to Ipswich's collection of old churches.

It's my suspicion that Ipswich's gradual fade from one of England's major towns to a relative backwater meant that its churches survived, after a fashion, in that most of them survived, albeit rebuilt and, in some cases, drastically redesigned.

There are exceptions. St Mildred's, which was on the Cornhill, became the Guildhall and was then demolished to make way for the Victorian-era Town Hall. But churches like St Mary Elmes, St Helen's and St Clement's, which are in locations that are slightly off the main thoroughfares, tend to go unnoticed. You know that they're there, but their exact location tends to escape your mind when asked.

In truth, you could argue that Ipswich's churches are not particularly marvellous, particularly in the context of Suffolk. Indeed, Simon Knott, in his glorious paean to the churches of the county, doesn't include a single Ipswich church in his top sixty in the county


Monday, January 15, 2024

The Conservative dilemma over when to call a General Election reminds me of a poem…

Framed in a first-storey winder of a burnin’ buildin’
Appeared: A Yuman Ead!
Jump into this net, wot we are ‘oldin’
And yule be quite orl right!
But ‘ee wouldn’t jump …
And the flames grew Igher and Igher and Igher
(phew!)

Framed in a second-storey winder of a burnin’ buildin’
Appeared: A Yuman Ead!
Jump into this net, wot we are ‘oldin’
And yule be quite orl right!
But ‘ee wouldn’t jump …
And the flames grew Igher and Igher and Igher
(strewth!)

Framed in a third-storey winder of a burnin’ buildin’
Appeared: A Yuman Ed!
Jump into this net, wot we are ‘oldin’
And yule be quite orl right!
Honest!
And ‘ee jumped …
And ‘ee broke ‘is blooming neck!

(Anonymous)

You do have to wonder at this point whether or not, in holding onto power as long as possible, the scale of the electoral train wreck that ensues when Rishi Sunak does go to the country gets ever greater.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

It's going to be a cold night in political hell on Monday...

I was drafting a piece for Liberal Democrat Voice to be published on Monday morning, and I was reminded that there's a pretty brutal weather system in America's Midwest at the moment.

So, I turned on the weather app on my phone and found this...

And that's in Celsius! Yes, on Monday, it's predicted to be no warmer than -19°C (-2°F) in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, where the first Republican caucuses are due to take place.

But is it likely to have any major effect?

You might reasonably argue that the more fanatical Republican activists will turn out regardless, but that urban delegates (perhaps more socially liberal) might be more likely to reach their caucus venues. Research published yesterday by the Washington Post suggests that Democrats are more deterred by bad weather than Republicans. But bad weather also depresses risk tolerance amongst voters.

I'm not sure what that means in a Trump/DeSantis/Haley contest. From a European perspective, Trump looks like the risky option, but he is the former President, after all, and so many American voters seem to have decided that Trump is a victim and not a criminal.

So, we'll see if Iowa throws us all a curveball in the early hours on Tuesday morning...

Friday, January 12, 2024

Local Government finance: it seems that I may have been right all along...

It would be fair to say that I am a fiscally cautious soul. I've loathe to borrow in order to fund expenditure, I believe in balancing the books as far as possible, although I do endorse the notion of investing to save. And as a Parish councillor, I am not bound by legislative restrictions on precept increases, unlike principal authorities.

As a result, most town and parish councils are in modestly good financial shape. The same cannot be said for our principal authority counterparts, many of whom are showing increasing signs of financial stress.

Here in Suffolk, our County Council is looking to make £64.7 million worth of savings over the next two years, and has borne the brunt of increases in costs of children's services and social care. And that has meant something of a slash and burn across the non-statutory services - funding for the arts and culture will be reducing to nil in 2024/25, for example. It hasn't been popular, to say the least.

I am sympathetic... to an extent. The Council is where it is, and to continue spending as it had would be catastrophic in pretty short order. Hard choices have to be made.

However, the Suffolk Conservatives brought this upon themselves with their rather fanatical devotion to freezing council tax under the leadership of the likes of Colin Noble - they didn't increase council tax at all between 2010/11 and 2015/16. By doing so, rather than essaying modest increases in council tax charges year on year, they effectively denied themselves income in each successive years by increasing amounts and, with the Government's cap on council tax increases squeezing increasingly tightly thereafter, it was inevitable that the financial settlement would get more and more uncomfortable.

There were those of us who warned of that at the time but we weren't heeded - the desire for electoral success trumps financial reality most of the time.

And Suffolk is far from the worst affected authority. Counties didn't get involved in commercial property for the most part, and the series of calamitous failures that have dotted the past two years or so tend to feature Boroughs, Districts and big city Metropolitans, but they're now sending up distress signals ever more frequently.

There's no obvious signal that the Government is going to appear over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry, and an incoming Labour administration may have plenty of other calls upon the resources it can muster. Which means, I fear, that life in our communities will become that much more basic, and councillors will be reduced, effectively, to delivering services specified by Central Government. So much for local democracy.

There is a small (very small) consolation, in that some of the slack may be taken up by Town and Parish Councils. And we've seen recently some of the fruits of that, with nineteen Local Councils successfully bidding for grants under the Community Ownership Fund - the first time that they've been able to do so. That had to be actively sought through the lobbying efforts of the National Association of Local Councils, something that Ros played a leading role in as part of her role as its Honorary President.

But, regardless of what happens this year, an incoming administration needs to think seriously about giving local authorities the freedom to make their own choices, to raise funds according to their needs and to encourage them to innovate, rather than apply centralised shackles. And whilst I'm not convinced that the control-freakery tendency within the Labour Party will want to relinquish that power, I would suggest that, if they want much local democracy to survive, it is a road they need to travel.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The first (of many) evenings about Ipswich

1780 map of Ipswich, credited to
http://www.ipswich-lettering.co.uk/map1780.html

When Ros suggested that we might join the Ipswich Institute, and take a course on the history of Ipswich, I was, I admit, slightly sceptical. But I was persuaded and, this evening, the first part of the course, on Saxon and early medieval Ipswich, took place, led by the former head of the County's Archaeology Unit, Keith Wade.

I'm not a historian, although I do have an interest in history, and I was somewhat surprised to be told that there wasn't much documentary evidence if Ipswich prior to the seventh century, but I presume that there wasn't much documentary evidence of many places where the Romans weren't until they became properly established.

But it is clear that Ipswich was an important place in the pre-Norman period, as both a point of entry for East Anglia and as a community. And, unusually, Ipswich is pretty much where it has always been, with a modern town plan heavily influenced by developments prior to the Norman Conquest.

As a relative latecomer to Suffolk, most of what I know about the county and its history is what I've picked up as I've gone along - the wool trade of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the fishing industry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example - so there was clearly a lot to learn about our county town.

Keith took us through the development (or, in some cases, the regression) of the town through the Saxon and Norman periods, noting that Ipswich had suffered from Viking predations and then, after William the Conqueror came, from royal vengeance in 1075. He also told of how Ipswich's influence in the region declined as other centres (Norwich and Thetford) emerged as competitors.

And, now that we live in the heart of the town, the logic of the street layout makes perfect sense - why streets run as they do, why key thoroughfares are where they are. What did surprise me was that Ipswich developed on both banks of what was a very wide river, far wider than the current River Orwell, as that seems quite unusual based on my experiences of European geography. Keith suggested that the Orwell may have been bridged more than 1200 years ago which seems remarkable to me, albeit logical.

All in all, it was a fascinating two hours or so, and if the other ten weeks are as interesting, I'm going to be much better informed about the place I now call home. Next week, we look at churches, something that Suffolk is famous for...