Now I Get It

Now I Get It

You know when you are really puzzled by a turn of events and then suddenly you get a new piece of information and you’re like: “Oh, now I get it?” Well, I had one of those moments tonight thanks to the mysterious Twitter person “The Fen Watchman” who pointed out the following statement from a meeting of March Town Council earlier in the year:

156 Fenland District Council Update

Since Councillor Owen was not in attendance, no update was obviously provided by him.
However, the Leader of FDC, Councillor John Clark, provided the following information:
a) With the increasing District budget pressures and limited resources, it is likely that the cost implications will be felt by all Town and Parish Councils. Services currently provided free-of-charge are likely to become chargeable or cease altogether.
b) After May 2015, it is possible that any future Leader may have to give consideration to the dissolution of Fenland District Council, with the four market towns coming under the auspices of various surrounding authorities.

The first part seems to be an early reference to things like the Free/Paid Parking debate.  But it is the second part which caught my eye.  So, the Leader of Fenland District Council, feels that consideration will need to be given to closing Fenland District Council entirely.  And was happy to make this statement publicly in a Town Council meeting while being minuted?

I’m puzzled that the Leader of FDC would feel that such a turn of events would be the Leader’s decision to make.  It wouldn’t.  It would be the job of the leading party’s group and then of the whole Council.  I’m also uncertain why a statement like this would be made without consultation with the wider group or Council.  Maybe it was an error in communication?  I can only hope.  Either way, I think it would take a quite extraordinary Leader to be able to convince his entire group to vote for their own dissolution.  Which is a good thing, since breaking up Fenland District Council would be a poor result for our Market Towns and Fenland as a whole.

Who Do You Follow?

Who Do You Follow?

Watching this Friday’s Daily Politics I was struck by the long argument caused by the fact that some Scottish MSPs are apparently “following” cyber-bullies, an example being a Twitter account whose name was “Yes! Thatcher Dead.”  Andrew Neil continually asked: “Why are you allowing your colleagues to follow these people?”  To which, the SNP lady kept saying: “But Labour do it too…” and so on.

What a stupid argument.

Since when does it matter who you “follow” on Twitter?  The only people who that would matter to are people who don’t understand Social Media, or people who just want to score points at any cost.  It’s ridiculous.  Following somebody on Twitter, or on Facebook, doesn’t indicate that you agree with the things they say.  That’s such a bizarre notion and yet it tied several commentors on the program up in argument for nearly ten minutes.

Following somebody doesn’t mean you like the person, that you agree with the person, nor even that you want to draw attention to the person.  Following somebody on Twitter is no different to reading about somebody in a newspaper.  Everybody who reads about some terrorist in The Sun isn’t suddenly condoning terrorism, are they?  They are just reading about it.  That’s what following somebody is.  You do it because you want to see what they say.  It might be because you liked something they said in the past and wanted to see what else they came up with, but even in that instance it doesn’t tie you to some tacit agreement of everything they ever say after that.  It might equally be that something they said shocked and appalled you in the past and you want to keep an eye on them, perhaps to counteract their arguments, or to demonstrate the paucity of their ideas through debate.

It gets muddier still though.  On Twitter you can change the name of your account any time you like – not the original signup name, but the screen name.  Even in the early days when you only have a few dozen followers nobody is going to check them all constantly to see if their names have changed.  Neither are you always watching their comments, so you certainly can’t be expected to always see what they are saying.  And even if you did see what they are saying, the fact that you are following them doesn’t indicate support of those statements.  So let’s say you follow somebody whose Twitter name is “happy_Cat.”  Then, while you are sleeping they change their name to “Iluvhitler” and post a load of anti-semitic hogwash, then go quiet for a few weeks.  Next morning you won’t notice they’ve changed their name, their nasty comments will already have been lost way down the Twitter Feed, you will have no clue.  So if you are asked, three months later, why you are following somebody called “Iluvhitler” who has expressed a desire to commit genocide, is that in any way reasonable? Of course it isn’t.

This is a really slippery slope, as anybody who watched Daily Politics will have seen.  The SNP lady could have said: “Who I follow has no bearing on my views, that’s crazy talk” but instead she responded with accusations about politicians from other parties and the people they follow.  Before you know it, the Social Media Police (self-appointed) will be scouring the lists of who everybody follows and compiling all the most “juicy” ones into a damning – yet utterly nonsensical – list.  Members of the public who don’t understand Social Media, and they are legion, will simply nod and say: “I knew they were all wrong-uns.”  It’s yet more destructive hogwash and everybody should challenge it before it goes too far.

Before you know it the focus will have moved from who you follow, to who follows you.  This is even more crazy than the original assertion and will then lead to some activists and politicians deliberately following their rivals with dummy accounts which then switch names and profiles to sound horrific.  It’s all just so pointless and overblown, but potentially very destructive.

Finally, every politician at every level will be forced to run a dummy “public account”, sanitised by constant scrutiny and terrified censorship of online links.  This will lead to a withering of genuine debate and the anodyne politically-correct responses that everybody hates to hear from the mouths of those that represent them.  As ever, we are encouraging a regime which strengthens and normalises all the worst things about our political communications.

Don’t let it happen.  Online connections are just like telephone connections.  You are no more responsible for who you follow than you are for the people who answer the phone when you ring out.   it’s just another witch hunt.  Don’t be a part of it.

Bumpy Ride

Bumpy Ride

Independent Councillor Virginia Bucknor made the following Facebook statement today:

FDC have already outsourced Building Control. Staff from Peterborough Planning have been contracted to Fenland Council for a long time as we’re under-resourced, FDC are planning (if the Conservative-controlled councillors support) to outsource Parks and Open Spaces later this year – this will be a particularly terrible loss for Wisbech.

FDC have agreed to contribute £850,000 to the A14. (I was the only councillor to vote against as there was no evidence of how Fenland residents would benefit).

We are now paying £1/2 million for a Pensions gap as we have one employee in the Port pensions group.

I suspect Licensing will be moved to King’s Lynn.

What do I think? The council is driven by difficult budget cuts, easy options (cut staff or move them elsewhere) and short-term goals. The expertise and local knowledge will be gone and FDC will cease in 4 years and the community will be much the poorer as our current committed officers who are already suffering low morale and some working under extreme lack of staff, will be small fish in a big pond – based somewhere else.

We will also be left with councillors whom residents will hope are competent to fight Wisbech’s corner – probably on Norfolk County Council and King’s Lynn. Whittlesey will be part of Peterborough. March and Chatteris probably moved to Huntingdon council.

A very sad future for Fenland.

Unusually, her comment was lacking in any political “sting” and was broadly factual.  With that in mind, I thought I’d have a look at it.

So first – what she is right about.  She’s right about the things that have been out-sourced and she’s right about the things that might be out-sourced – as much as you can be right about a “might be” situation, anyway.  She’s also right about the contribution to the A14.  But what about her gloomy prognosis?

I would be surprised if Licensing moved, but then I was surprised by today’s announcement in the press that the Leader had decided to share Planning.  Don’t get me wrong, I have some information which wasn’t in the public domain and so I was not yet able to share, but I am unsure why any of this appears to be a foregone conclusion?  It hasn’t been to Overview & Scrutiny as a pre-decision item.  It hasn’t been discussed by Full Council, nor by the ruling political group at this point either.  So if it is a foregone conclusion, then I guess it’s one of those things decided behind closed doors.  I very much hope this isn’t the case, since this is precisely the sort of thing which backbenchers always complain about, and which new leaders always claim they won’t do.  If the full level of input that non-Executive Councillors will have on something this significant is going to be a seminar and a brief chat, then that would be a real shame and, in my opinion, a mistake.  But let’s hope not.  Maybe everybody has the wrong end of the stick?

Mrs Bucknor talks about “easy options” and then refers to staff cuts.  I’m not sure I would agree that its an “easy option” to cut staff, particularly not now that the Council is quite lean.  These are, after all, real people with real families who have worked hard for us for years.  There’s nothing “easy” about telling people they might lose their jobs.  But I understand what she means – if you’ve got difficult budget decisions to make then its probably easier to just slice here and dice there and share the other thing than to really use your imagination to look for innovative solutions.  Where I differ from Mrs Bucknor is that I’m prepared to admit that such imaginative new ways to do business are not easy to find.  Which is why neither she, nor I, are suggesting any in our critique.  Though I have a few ideas I will suggest over the next few weeks.

I do agree with her on the danger of a “cuts at any cost” approach, though.  Rushed, ill-considered, or even Officer-led cuts can be counter-productive and can indeed be a false economy.  Incorrectly applied, we could well end up with the situation she describes – losing experience and skills, sacrificing local service and knowledge before an altar of “savings”, many of which may turn out to save nothing at all. Some of which will ultimately come to cost, rather than save, money.

And yes, I am genuinely concerned with a quiet momentum that seems to be building.  A momentum that points to Fenland eventually doing and managing so little that it is mothballed, that services and representation is fielded out to a variety of other authorities, while Wisbech – which sits so comfortably on two borders – is stretched like a medieval torture victim on the rack.

None of this has to happen, though.  It is one outcome of many possible ones.  And it would be such a shame because – moaners and naysayers aside – Fenland District Council has been a rather successful authority.  It has managed to weather the austerity storm, because of sound financial management, strong leadership and no small measure of luck.  I wont deny that I am worried by the speed and nature of some of the proposed changes.  I’m worried by the way things seem to be rushed through with little input or scrutiny from any but a select group.  I’m worried by the way we seem to totter from one situation to another, like a boat tossed on a violent sea of public opinion.  I’m worried by the way communication seems to be an afterthought, rather than an intrinsic part of a strategy.

But most of all I’m worried because I don’t know what the Big Plan is.  Beyond some fancy buzz words I don’t know what the vision is for Fenland.   And without a vision, you are simply reacting to events, rather than being proactive.  It’s a very difficult position to maintain successfully.  I have every faith that there is a Plan – because I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy and I like to believe the best.  I would hate to believe that Mrs Bucknor is right about the “sad future for Fenland.”   But now, leaders and higher-ups, would be the time to start talking about that vision.  To start telling us how all this fits together, and where it goes.  If we’re going on a journey, that would be a great way to avoid a bumpy ride.

Superfast Broadband

Superfast Broadband

This email was received today.  Put on my blog for public information purposes.

Hello,

Connecting Cambridgeshire is pleased to confirm that new fibre broadband cabinet(s) have gone live in your area and are accepting orders for superfast broadband.

We need your help to inform local residents and businesses of the good news, and how they can upgrade to superfast broadband. We have also sent this information to your local broadband champion, if you have one, to help spread the news.

To support this, we will send the Parish Council a pack of posters and postcards highlighting the arrival of superfast broadband and how to get it, to distribute locally. We have also attached generic articles, which may be useful for your village newsletter, community website or Facebook pages to spread the word.

A coverage map showing the new live cabinets serving each postcode area can be seen on the Connecting Cambridgeshire website ‘my area’ pages for each area together with useful upgrading advice on ‘How to get superfast broadband’.

The best way for people to check if their premises are connected to a new cabinet that is now offering a better broadband service is to try to order a fibre package through an Internet Service Provider.

The broadband speed delivered depends on a number of factors including the length of the line from the cabinet, the line quality, and the equipment and internal wiring within premises. There may be some premises connected to an upgraded cabinet that are simply too far away to receive a fibre service and some residents may have to wait a little longer to get improved broadband.

We hope you can also help us to make businesses in your district aware that they can apply for Government connection vouchers up to £3000 to install superfast broadband through our Destination Digital business support scheme. Businesses can find out more at www.destinationdigital.info

We are happy to support local meetings or events to promote take up of fibre broadband and are also looking for good stories to share on the website about how better broadband is benefiting communities and businesses across Cambridgeshire.

You can contact the Connecting Cambridgeshire team by email, or call 01223 703293 if you need further information.

Kind regards

Connecting Cambridgeshire team

Ouroboros

Ouroboros

Today, I was thinking (as you do) about Ouroboros. For those not familiar with the ancient Egyptian legend, Ouroboros is a huge serpent usually depicted eating its own tail. The Norse version of the creature has it growing so large it could circle the world, but it rather seems to me that something which is dead set on consuming itself would be more likely to get smaller and smaller and smaller.  Magical enchantments aside.  :)

Now don’t get me wrong. Small is beautiful, no doubt. Particularly in regards to local Councils. Nor would I deny that, starved of external sustenance, any organisation is going to be left with little choice but to eat itself. Starving animals do the same thing, by consuming their fat reserves first and then their muscle reserves, before succumbing to the eventual ending of every case of long-term severe resource deprivation.

When a Council is huge, bloated, top heavy – it can stand a little of this. Or a lot, sometimes. The unsightly mass goes, replaced by a lean, mean working machine. The unnecessary and the overly bureaucratic and the vanity projects disappear, in a perfect world, leaving the key services on which people depend.

But at what point have you gone too far?  If you have a dozen key services; but you “share” out five of them, close down two of them, turn three of them into voluntary organisations and then begin “consulting” on the “rationalisation” of the other two, what have you got left?  At what point does astute Leadership become self-destruction?

Ouroboros has been variously considered to represent the first living thing, eternity and entropy. But the huge world serpent isn’t real, to the best of my knowledge. It’s a metaphor, and a pertinent one. My personal view is that any organisation which is forced to eat itself will eventually come to a point where the “hard decisions” are no longer: “Do I keep doing this?” and “Can we afford to do this?” Instead, the decision becomes much simpler. “Do we still do anything at all?”  And “Why are we here?”

At that point, perhaps the serpent will have consumed itself entirely and will be quietly replaced with something else. Maybe that’s the point?