Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick …
There will be much talk over the next few days about “democracy” and about “fairness” and about “recognising the change that people want” from all sides of the County Council political spectrum. Various lines of blatant spin will be put out by the Liberal Democrats, by Labour, by UKIP, by the lefty Independents and probably by the Conservatives too. I would take it all with a big pinch of salt, if I were you.
In my opinion, what happened today at County Council had not the slightest thing to do with “transparency” or “democracy” or anything as high-minded. Some of it was about settling old scores. Some of it was about political positioning. Some of it was about power. Some of it was just people given a platform and talking for the sake of it. Oh you’ll be told otherwise by anybody that you ask, no doubt. But those decisions taken at full council today had not a thing to do with delivering for the people of the county. They were about groups both large and small scheming for and against one another, hoping to spot a way to expand their influence and looking for ways to damage their political enemies of the day. There are times when the elected county council is a proud servant of the people. Today was not one of those days.
The end result? We have a committee system coming back which will create the most wonderful opportunities for parties to stand on a “soapbox a day”, will create the most media-worthy arguments and disagreements, will let the public ‘enjoy’ their councillors endless furious storm-in-a-teacup political battles. But it will also cause a political vacuum which will engender (at best) slow painful decision-making and (at worst) the very worst kinds of “compromise” and potential paralysis. It will take what used to be an occasional arena of dispute saved primarily for full council and spin it into an all-year-round pick n’ mix of political hilarity. Fun times?
We’re also getting back Area Joint Committees. Hurrah. Goodbye to the streamlined new system that delivered fast simple and popular decisions for local people. ”Hello,” to the slow, bureaucratic, expensive four-hour meetings, endless afternoons spent deciding nothing of any note whatsoever. Lib Dems wanted this because it lets them create their little fifedom in Cambridge city. Paul Clapp for UKIP said he thought it was the “right thing to do” probably simply because he hasn’t experienced it and doesn’t realise what he has just argued for. Que sera sera, each generation must repeat the mistakes of the generation before it, I guess. A decision-making body that four out of five District councils wanted nothing more to do with, back with a vengeance. Hurrah?
Also, welcome back Policy Development Groups, hated by just about everybody and scrapped with unanimous support just a couple of years ago – replaced by the broadly well thought of Overview & Scrutiny committees. But in the brave new world of rainbow politics they’ve popped right back up. No doubt, this time, they’ll be public. More opportunity for political grandstanding. They’ve come back with a slightly different name, so that must mean they’ll be completely different, right? Right?
Finally, the suggestion that the Health & Wellbeing Board have its membership increased. Without a doubt in my mind the most destructive, stupid and ill-considered idea of the lot. But at this point it probably doesn’t matter.
The opposition parties have been proudly telling anybody who will listen that the way the public voted “proves” they want this sort of change at county council. Does it really? There are still more than twice as many Conservative councillors as there are any other group. And without wanting to pre-empt UKIP voters at all, I’m pretty confident that when they voted UKIP, whatever they were saying, it probably wasn’t: “Let’s do all that stuff the Lib Dems want.” Maybe I’m wrong?
Here’s the real problem. Most people, perhaps 80% of people, have no idea how much the workings of the county council affect their lives. They notice when they hit a pothole, but not all the many times they don’t hit a pothole. They notice when a school fails, but not all the many times a school succeeds. They notice when there is a problem in a care home, but not the thousands of people who are cared for very well indeed. They have no idea just how quickly things can change, nor will they necessarily recognise where the problem originates when the changes do come.
If I were Cllr Martin Curtis, elected leader of Cambs County Council today, do you know what I would do? (Congratulations Martin, by the way, if you’re reading this. Well done!) I would resign. I would refuse to lead the council under these new conditions and invite the “coalition rainbow opposition” to run the council. I would take the Conservatives into opposition. Radical, I know. But right now poor Martin and the Conservative group have the worst of all worlds. Almost no ability to get anything done, while the collective opposition can attack from every side and every angle and lay blame for everything on them. While the hungry media flits about overhead like carrion crows. Martin is a braver man than I and probably wont do any such thing. I wish him the best of luck. He’s going to need it.Cambs County Council | Comments (6)
Away For The Weekend
I notice that, having organised the protest in Wisbech via their activists and supporters (some of whom they later disowned), gained publicity from it for the local elections and trolled its message board for new members, UKIP decided to advise their members not to attend. Good of them, that. I chose to get out of town the weekend of the hater’s gathering protest march and spend some time with my family somewhere quiet.
We headed out towards Great Yarmouth and stayed in a little village near Caister, in a small chalet in a campsite. It was a very pleasant weekend despite the lack of Summer showing more than a glimpse of its face. We walked on the beach, jumped on the dunes, went swimming, played in the penny arcades and enjoyed ourselves in the Pontins-style clubhouse with the sixties cover band and the dodgy puppeteer. Much like I remember doing when I was a kid, actually. It’s not gotten any less awesome since then. I guess my family and I have simple tastes. Nothing wrong with that!Family | Comment (0)
Off With His Head
So apparently the Cambridgeshire county Lib Dems have unceremoniously booted out their old leader and replaced him with somebody who has just been elected. Harsh.
Kilian Bourke was an all-round good guy. As is always the case with opposition I often disagreed with his politics, but he was a gentleman and decent councillor. He was always polite and pleasant and he was good company. You might say: “What use is this?” To which I’d respond: “More than you might think.” You can tell a lot about a person by how unpleasant they are to be around, I’ve found.
To be fair he could have been a bit stronger – but then he was up against Nick Clarke who would make any Liberal Democrat look a bit soft. I wasn’t sure he always picked his battles well, nor that he thought his political strategy through well enough. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, after all most people would prefer councillors just trying to do good and use common sense rather than spending all their time in Machiavellian policy manoeuvres. He was, in my view, a genuine conviction politician of the old school and a reasonable and balanced leader of the opposition.
This new bloke isn’t actually a new bloke at all. He was Lib Dem leader in some hazy time back before all the banks exploded and when the sun was shining on Labour and they still hadn’t decided to fix the roof. Some would call him “experienced” while others might suggest he was yesterday’s man. I don’t know him at all, so I can’t comment. I have looked at the Lib’s key plans going forwards. ”Cutting waste.” That old chestnut. I’d be terrified if I was a comm’s officer right now. Casting a “critical eye” on the A14 upgrade – so that’s dead then. Bye bye infrastructure and future business growth. And “greater use of renewable energy.” Oh joy. Skyrocketing energy bills. Solar farms instead of actual food. Power instability for decades. Wind farms on county land, anybody? No to concrete for roads, yes to concrete for pointless windmill bases. Enjoy.Filed under Cambs County Council, Liberal Democrats | Comment (1)
A New Mayor
My friend and colleague Cllr. Samantha Hoy became mayor on Friday. It was a great day and the ceremony went off smoothly and was most enjoyable.
There is no doubt in my mind that Sam will be a terrific and dynamic mayor for this terrific and dynamic town.
In the evening we had a little party. That was fun too.
This post is a little short. It’s a busy weekend. But I’ll add some photos to it later!Wisbech | Comment (0)
Winter, In May.
We’ve just put the heating back on in our house. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
Meanwhile, the news is talking about last winter as the “Coldest winter for a generation” or somesuch – though every month some record or other seems to be broken so it’s hard to keep them all at the front of your mind.
At the beginning of this month we were told we might be heading into a drought – though it’s rained for about half a year. Since that announcement its rained more days than not.
I’m sure we’ll get a bit of Summer at some point, but like last year, and the year before, and the year before that – it’s not exactly rushing forwards to make itself known, is it? The sun has not precisely “got his hat on.”
None of this really meets with what the warmist doommongers predicted and many people are noticing the doom-laden figures being fudged revised of late. Of course “weather is not the same as climate” – except when it suits the warmists to say it is of course. But even so, has anybody else noticed the gentle easing out of the Warmist message. Fewer TV programs, fewer mentions (and more cursory when it is mentioned.) It’s become almost like the bogeyman. Presenters and spokespeople mention it in passing, like warning of something lurking in the closet or under the bed.
You really have to wonder how many years of no warming and failed predictions are required before even those dwindling proponents of catastrophic man-made global warming begin to run out of wriggle room. I’m sure the day must be getting quite close.
“Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don’t fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.” – Jim RohnFiled under Global Warming, Panic Panic! | Comments (3)
View From The Top
I had a meeting in London today in the “Gherkin” Building.
Such a nice venue, it’d have been a pleasure to just sit up there and enjoy the view and the ambience and drink a lot of wine. But it’s a long trip home to Wisbech so this wasn’t an option.
Very interesting meeting with some very nice people from the Conservative Way Forward organisation. Sharing a drink and a chat with proper Thatcherites is my idea of a nice evening. : )Conservatives, London | Comment (0)
New councillor Alan Lay has put up a message in pubs around the area.
“Alan Lay thanks you and asks for your help. I need information regarding the Lighting issues, I have been unable to get any updates from Steve Tierney.” Please let me know your concerns as soon as you can”
Alan is suggesting I haven’t offered him help, despite the fact that I have offered him advice on this blog and it was reprinted on the front page of the Wisbech Standard last week. But then I am told that he suggested I had not responded to his email requesting help, a statement he apparently made to Newton Parish Council. I’m sure that Alan’s election literature made the claim that as a UKIP councillor he would always tell THE TRUTH! So, here’s the email he sent me and my reply. Decide for yourselves if I failed to help him or not.
Alan Lay <email@example.com> Sun 05/05/2013 18:30
Hello to Steve Tierney.
As you have written, a Councillor can be thrown in at the deep end, but I love a challenge, so, to help the folk of your previous constituency
with the on-going light problem, perhaps you could leave me the information you have, so that I can follow up with your work.
May be you could leave some papers at your Mothers house, with an address and contact phone No. Then I could call and collect.
Yours sincerely. Alan Lay.
And my response.
Steve Tierney <firstname.lastname@example.org> Sun 05/05/2013 20:12
I’m afraid I cannot as the emails have the “confidential” disclaimers on them that limit their circulation. But it should be easy for you to get copies. Email Peta.King-Parcell@bblivingplaces.com and ask for the “de-illumination” emails and documents for Newton, Gorefield, Leverington, Tydd St Giles and Wisbech.
I wouldn’t go to my mother’s house if I were you. : )
Just to be clear. Alan Lay was elected to the job and he should not be expecting me to do his legwork for him, nor to send him copies of old documents which have been marked as confidential. Nevertheless, because I don’t want to prevent him looking after the people in the villages I did the best I could. I told him who to email (which he could have found out himself by asking Member Services) and I told him exactly what to ask for (which he could have found out himself by asking Member Services.) A simple email, using the information I provided, would have garnered the information he required. There would have been no need to plead to pub-goers for information that Balfour Beatty have (not sure why he thought that would help him). Arranging the leafletting and public meetings as I previously suggested would also have been a good idea, but I’m not surprised he didn’t as he told the newspaper he “wouldn’t be taking advice from me.” And thinking about it – why is he asking me for advice which he has already told the newspaper he won’t take anyway?
Finally, in case anybody is in any doubt, here is the disclaimer which prevented me from forwarding him the emails and meant that he had to write an email himself (hardly the worlds greatest chore.)
This email may contain information which is confidential and is intended only for use of the recipient/s named above. If you are not an intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any copying, distribution, disclosure, reliance upon or other use of the contents of this email is strictly prohibited. If you have received this email in error, please notify the sender and destroy it.
Now I really don’t want to spend a lot of time pondering Alan Lay’s work. But if he’s going to suggest I didn’t offer him help when I clearly did then I’m afraid I’ll have to point out that he’s being economical with the truth. It’s a short journey from: “I will always tell the TRUTH!” to “I can’t manage the first task at hand and I want to blame somebody else” isn’t it?Filed under Roman Bank & Peckover | Comment (0)
What Is Actually Going On At CCC?
This post is personal opinion. Where individuals are named, this is what the writer supposes and the named individual may well take a different view.
So you’ve probably seen all the newspaper coverage about UKIP and the Lib Dem’s shenanigans at Shire Hall and you’re probably thinking – what is this all about? Or, more likely, if you’re a normal person you’re probably thinking: “What a load of pointless faffing about.” But I thought it might be useful to give you the insight of an outsider who nevertheless knows a thing or two about the politics and the people involved. That’s me, by the way. : )
Okay, so first of all most councils are run by what is called the “strong leader” system. This means that each year the ruling group elects a leader and that leader chooses a team, called a “cabinet”, to be in charge of each of the main policy areas. The leader and cabinet then take many of the key decisions at the council – in consultation with their backbenchers and under the watchful eye of their scrutiny committees and confirmed at intervals by meetings of the full council.
This method replaced the old “committee system” which works quite differently. Instead of the cabinet making financial and policy decisions those decisions are made by a committee of various councillors from various parties.
Both models have their fans and both models have their pros and cons. The Strong Leader model, or “Executive” model as its sometimes known, enables a course to be steered which is very much in keeping with the ethos of the ruling group. Decisions can be made quickly and without a lot of fanfare. It is, in essence, rather like the way private companies are often run. It tends to be favoured by larger groups who, having won a significant portion of the seats, feel that there is a mandate for their policy positions to be at the fore.
The Committee model is arguably more “democratic” in that all elected members are likely to be on a committee somewhere and adding to the decision-making process. It tends to be favoured by small parties and groups because it allows them to command influence perhaps greater than their representation merits.
My personal view is that the committee system is bonkers. Clever speakers can certainly spin it as “democratic” but in truth it is a clunky, slow and flavourless method of government. Anybody who has spent any time in a committee with people of widely differing viewpoints will know that getting agreement is laborious and that when that agreement is reached it is often the very worst of “compromises” featuring nothing that either side would have chosen individually, but have been forced to adopt because of their wide variance of position. It creates a platform for every ego to parade their wares endlessly in escalating circles of rhetoric. Worst of all – it leads to politicking of the worst kind on even the most important issues, as different “sides” (and yes, Independents definitely count as a “side” too) play off against one another for strategic and tactical, rather than policy-based reasons. They’ll all tell you they don’t do any such thing. They all do.
So you may wonder why UKIP and the Lib Dems (an infernal alliance if ever there was one) are proposing this at Cambs County Council. I would propose the two parties have similar – though not quite the same – reasons. The Lib Dems see an opportunity to stop the Conservatives being in charge and get into a position where they can punch above their weight. That’s really all they want to do. UKIP, on the surface, want the same thing. But there’s more to their game than that. Their leader is playing a combination: “Everybody should hate the Tories” strategy alongside a “Balance of power” strategy. He knows that while UKIP have a core of support, many of their votes come from protesting Conservatives. He wants to brainwash those voters into moving permanently to UKIP and this is why his language in recent media has become so hostile: “They think they have the right to rule” type comments. He surely knows this is nonsense, but it suits his strategy. The Balance of Power thing comes from sitting between Conservatives on one side (who, in my experience, he broadly agrees with on many county issues) and his left-wing “allies.” His intention will be to try and claim credit for anything popular and blame all the other sides for anything the public don’t like. Very much the “have your cake and eat it” type policies that UKIP are currently favouring across the country. It will work for a while, then people will get wise to it, then it’ll crash and burn. But such things take time.
My guess is that one of the non-Conservative groups will either vote against the motion or abstain from it. I suspect Peter Reeves knows this too, which is why he made the “unless somebody gets cold feet” comment in the paper. Whichever group doesn’t vote the way he wants them to will get both barrels of his: “The old parties are sticking together to stop UKIP” gun. This is the plan. Pretend to be hard done by. Pretend that you’re the underdog. Rattle your sabre a lot. It’s predictable, but it will fool some people for a while.
But, of course, there is a chance that all the opposition will vote for the committee system and we will get the committee system. And if you’re the average person you’ll probably say: “Who cares?” After all, many people don’t really know which council does what or how their lives are affected by it. Trouble is, by the time you find out, it’s too late.
The fact is – you either support a right-wing style of government, or a left-wing one. While trying to compromise sounds lovely in a Disney movie, in the real world it doesn’t always work out. Or, as the old saying goes, if one person wants to eat dog poo and the other wants to eat yoghurt – a compromise is still not at all palatable.
For a simple idea of the sort of dynamics of a committee system – a method whereby compromises between wildly differing viewpoints must be found before policies can be set you need not look far. Look at the coalition government. Think about that for a while.
*In this metaphor the Conservatives are neither the dog poo, nor the yoghurt. We’d be fish and chips. Just saying.Filed under Cambs County Council | Comments (4)
Mayoral Rehearsal & Other Stuff
This morning I had the pleasure of taking part in a rehearsal of the Mayor Making Ceremony which will take place on Friday. One of the things I love about Wisbech is the maintenance of all the historic pomp and ceremony that has been a part of the town’s life for hundreds of years. The Mayor Making ceremony, where the old mayor hands over the chains of office to a newly-elected mayor, is one of the key items of business for the town council each year.
The rehearsal went smoothly and everybody seemed to know their roles. Come Friday, Wisbech will have a new mayor. And, if it’s who I hope it is, she will be a fantastic, lively, energetic and positive new mayor for the town.
This afternoon I cleared a backlog of emails and paperwork, including an exciting new venture I’m helping with in Leverington (more info coming soon!) and I did some work on the new website for the ABC Nursery in Tydd St Giles, who I’m working with.
This evening I met with a subcommittee of the Newton Village Hall team to help plan forthcoming events in the village and in other neighbouring villages.
It’s been a busy day, but tomorrow will be even busier as I’m off to the Gherkin building in London to meet with some people about a potential opportunity there. Apparently, the meeting will be on the top floor. Which is brilliant! Who wouldn’t want to look out over London from the top floor of the Gherkin? I’m excited about it, anyway.Leverington, Newton, Tydd St. Giles | Comments (2)
Wisbech Town Center – Part Two
I had a few emails agreeing with my recent post about Wisbech Town Center, but then challenging me as to what I would do to “put things right.”
Well, before I start I suppose I should make clear that I don’t believe it is the State’s job, either through government or through local councils, to “put everything right.” This business about the state nannying every aspect of society from cradle to grave seems to have crept in everywhere so that even otherwise independent-minded people are quick to demand “something must be done” instead of “what can I do about this?”
With that out of the way, though, I’m happy to respond to the challenge. If only because there’s nothing worse than generic criticism without any constructive suggestions to back it up. It may well be that readers don’t agree with some or all of my ideas – and that’s fine. I never claim to be right, only to be willing to think about and suggest things. I often find that those who most strongly disagree with me on an issue seldom come back and explain why or make a counter-proposal. They just call me names, or pour scorn on ideas without clarifying their own creative solutions or even the reason for their opposal.
First – Identify the real problem
Before you can try and address a problem you have to actually know what that problem is. Often, the things people propose as problems are actually symptoms of some deeper issue. Fixing the wrong problem solves nothing and often makes things worse. So, broadly, I’d like to suggest there are perhaps five reasons why our specific town center is having a hard time – and then I’d like to propose solutions to each of them.
Problem 1: Competition from the internet and out-of-town retailers
We can’t close the internet down, nor ban supermarkets. I know some would like to, but the fact is that the reason such shopping outlets are doing so well is because they are popular. I’m sorry that you don’t like the consequences of doing your big shop once a month at Tescos, but if many people choose to shop that way then those consequences will happen. Rather than looking at banning out of town retailers, wouldn’t it be better to try and bring them closer to the center of town? Sure, it’s too late now. But things change and opportunities arise. We should be looking for them. The closer you bring big retailers to the town the more footfall is generated for those smaller businesses who rely on them to survive. For this precise reason – I do not share others’ dread of the Post Office possibly moving into the town center. We must protect the services they offer, but if that can be maintained I think the presence of the Post Office in the middle of town will help it grow and improve. I think it a shame that FDC’s One Stop Shop is not in the middle of town too, as its well-used and it would be helpful if such things were a central resource, bringing people together right where the businesses and traders are. But maybe this is something that will change in future?
Problem 2: High running costs for town businesses
There’s nothing we can do about wages and employment rights, which form probably the largest cost for most businesses. That balance is for the government to argue about. Business rates already have some fairly generous discounts. But what about rent? Shops sit empty for a long time because the property owners are wealthy enough to hold out for a high rate of return on their property. This means that the only businesses likely to open are those which can be sure to get a quick and reliable income or which can work on low staff costs – and you know what sort of businesses those are; betting shops, places which sell alcohol, charity shops, etc. What is being frozen out by high rent are the entrepreneurial newcomers willing to take a chance with their own time and money but with an untried idea.
It seems to me that a “retail protected area” could be created – a circle around a town center – where vacant properties were charged a significantly higher business rate cost after a reasonable amount of time had passed to allow them to refill their premises. You wouldn’t want this to be too prescriptive because sometimes property sits idle for perfectly good reason. But when years pass and the “for rent” sign is still hanging over the empty shopfront, or when a building is falling steadily into decay and nothing is being done about it by the owners, I think most people would support some sort of gentle but enforceable policy. Perhaps a shop within the defined “retail protected area” would be allowed six months empty, after which the cost of its rates would double every six months it remained vacant? This is only a vague proposal – so don’t quote me on these figures – but think about it. You would immediately create an incentive for owners of property in the town center to be more reasonable with their rent offer or to be more willing to take a chance with a short-term let or new business. You would also create an increasingly painful incentive for those owners of derelict buildings to stop sitting on their hands and either do something about their property, or sell it to somebody who will. Just an idea – please feel free to suggest improvements or make a counter-argument.
Problem 3: Lack of big high street names to draw shoppers in
There are two reasons why big names don’t come here. (1) Not enough footfall to make them believe they will make a profit. (2) Not suitable premises for the sort of store they want to open. The first problem I am dealing with elsewhere on this list and once you increase the footfall you will get more big names interested in coming. The second is tougher. This is a town with many listed buildings and protected areas. So we have a few choices. We must either be a lot more flexible about what people can do with and to those buildings, or we must build some more premises. I know some people will bemoan the 99p Store – one of the largest buildings in town – and would prefer some other brand in there. But we have no power to refuse a certain type of store from opening – nor to close it down just because some people don’t like it’s style of retail. Nor should we. Such tampering with the free choices of local businesses and shoppers would be economically disastrous. Once the footfall is up and the town looks and feels better, more businesses will want to come. It’s as simple as that.
Problem 4: The look and feel of the main shopping area
I don’t subscribe to the view that the town center looks like the aftermath of World War III. Such hysterical rhetoric does more harm than good, since it creates an invalid image of the town that deters visitors. In fact, most of the town remains very attractive. It’s an old town and there are worn buildings and indeed some badly damaged buildings (see my Retail Protection Area proposal elsewhere) but it’s still a great-looking town in many ways. That said – there’s always more we can do. I was thinking about how much we spend in places like the memorial gardens on the Crescent (which usually looks beautiful) and I wondered what the effect of planters and flowers and a yearly new coat of paint might have? There are actually all sorts of ways the town council and local organisations could chip together to capitalise on what we already have and make it look amazing. But it would require spending a fair chunk of money. And there is only so much money to spend. It’s definitely a debate worth having though. In my view, the town center is the very key to the town – it’s heart. If you have to spend money anywhere – surely it’s there?
Problem 5: Parking
I think we’ve made a mistake with the parking in town. But it was a mistake the public demanded. It’s too late now – but imagine if the 99p store building had been bought and turned into an indoor market for the market traders to use? The center of the town would then have been clear. The road could have been slightly widened and pavements raised and improved. The way through could have been made one way and there would have been no need for two “pedestrianised days.” There would have been room for parking and for some of the other ideas that have been bandied around; a bandstand, public toilets, decorative features. I always said that pedestrianisation, while populist, would have consequences. The predicted consequences were that after it happened businesses would start to close and that the closures would accelerate. Some businesses would be unaffected due to the nature of their trade, but others would be crippled. You see, just like the internet and out-of-town shopping, you can complain about the modern world but that doesn’t make it go away. You can equally complain about the fact that modern retail is all about convenience, but that doesn’t stop it being true. Failure to recognise reality leads to unfortunate outcomes.
Anyway – I don’t claim anything here solves all our problems overnight. Nor that there is a magic bullet. But you will notice that I am, at least, making some suggestions while others do little more than whine and whine and whine. I’ll get shot down by my opponents and no doubt somebody will take a small piece of what I’ve said and use it out of context. But if even a handful of readers are prompted to start thinking about solutions instead of criticism, or to consider what the real problems are rather than the manufactured ones, it’ll be a hit well worth taking.Filed under Wisbech | Comments (3)