Friday, 31 December 2010

Well that about does it for 2010 (thank heavens) - here's to 2011. Now how does that song go?

Another year sputters to its end. Exhausted, fractious and, like the overtired toddler, definitely in need of a rest. So what do we do? We throw a party. Not just any old party but a big party - a party where everyone has to go out, drink, make a fool of themselves, be happy, sing crappy Scottish dirges while holding hands in an odd way and get all maudlin about what good, bad or tragic occurred in the preceding 365 days.

I guess a bit of remembering is a good thing - taking a moment in time to survey the wreckage of 2010 and to peer into 2011's crystal ball. For my part, I shall look forward rather than back - mostly because 2010 was a pretty crap year for me, bad enough for me to believe that things really can only get better.

So here's some thoughts for 2011 - not predictions, I don't do predictions - just thoughts:

1. May sees an important set of elections - not just those in Scotland and Wales but across English local government. And the Coalition parties stand to do badly. For the Conservatives this is to be expected but for the Liberal Democrats it could prove something of a shock should their dire poll position continue.

In England, the Liberal Democrats will be defending 1,830 seats, Labour 1,600 and the Conservatives just over 5,000. In the equivalent elections in 2007, the Liberal Democrats polled 26% of the vote, about twice its current poll level. A third of the seats in Metropolitan councils and all the seats in the 30 unitary councils are up for election. A total of 124 district councils have all their seats up for election, and 70 have a third.

With Conservatives losing hundreds of seats (although I hope this won't be the case in Bingley Rural), it will be the performance of the Liberal Democrats that will get the focus - if they lost half the seats they are defending it will place further pressure on the deal with the Conservatives. We could see high profile defections to Labour from Liberal Democrat ranks - certainly at local level and possibly a national figure or two.

2. On the policy front, I expect to see the free schools movement accelerating - there are large places without proposals (there are none in Leeds, for example, compared to three in Bradford) and, as the first schools get closer to opening interest will rise. This is the most exciting - and I expect most change-making - of Coalition proposals and one that will benefit the lives of thousands of children many from poorer backgrounds. Coupled with the reassertion of didacticism and teacher authority, this is the most welcome change in education since 1944.

3. We will see further strikes, protests, sit-ins and such - all greated with frothing nonsense by both left and right. Two things will come of this - the police will be granted more power to deal with 'unrest' and those protesting will undermine their argument and their cause. The first is a crying shame (but always happens) and the second is the consequence of protests - 1968, 1981, 1990: remember those protests as the "people" took to the streets, were "mobilised" to fight for their rights. In each case, two years later saw the return of a Conservative Government. Most people don't like violent protest - it's as simple as that really.

4. On other fronts - the public health proposals will see the New Puritans on the rise again as the active campaign against working-class lifestyles takes on a new order. Local councils - and us councillors - will do what we do so well. Fuss, irritate, intervene and generally make a nuisance of our selves. This time in the interests of 'healthy living'. I shall be opposing all this - but will be a lonely voice.

Finally, I hope to find some more remunerative work, spend some quality time with my family and enjoy the company of those few friends I have left. Oh, and see West Ham stay in the Premiership (although this is looking a little unlikely right now). And I'll pen the odd word or two here - including a welcome return to the Friday Fungus.

I hope you all enjoy 2011 - after all 2010 has been and gone so all that rubbish is behind us. And the coming year will be a good one - I know so!


Thursday, 30 December 2010

Yes charities need a breather - but only so they can break away from the state's drip feed


David Robinson, one of the founders of Community Links, has raised the concerns that many in the charity - if you must 'third' sector - have been raising over the past several months. These concerns are that, for all the Big Society rhetoric, the impact of spending cuts (and lets be honest the decision of places like Wakefield to cut the voluntary sector before cutting their own payroll) is causing a great deal of pain and upset - plus even a little bit of anger.

The Big Society should be this sector's moment - the coming of age for social enterprise and a reawakening of mutuals, co-operatives and social action. But David Robinson sets out the concerns well - adressing the Prime Minister he says:

You have described Community Links as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations”. Over 1,500 volunteers helped deliver our services to more than 30,000 people  last year, supporting  staff who themselves often got to know us as service users or volunteers, and the majority of whom live locally. We are concerned about the future of our community here in East London, and we are concerned also about the future of our own organisation. Organisations like us are surely the bedrock of the Big Society, and we are wobbling.

Now on one level this is about special pleading from an organisation the relies too heavily on state funding - as David Robinson points out, the changes to the welfare system, the withdrawal of legal aid for benefits appeals and local government spending reductions all present problems for organisations like Community Links. Yet David Robinson makes the mistake - to my thinking - of giving succour to those who argue for the voluntary sector remaining essentially a government sub-contractor dependent on commissions and grants rather than leading on innovative social actions.

To make the change organisations like Community Links need support - support for that change not an injection of cash to keep them in the way to which they've become accustomed. And the change (and I hope government, local and national, understands this too) is to allow choices, decisions and initiatives to be made at the most local of levels. The great Christian charities of the 19th century - what became the Children's Society, Barnardo's and NCH - did not start on an assumption that government funding was there to support the organisation but on the basis that something needed to be done. Edward Rudolf, Tom Stephenson and Dr Barnardo didn't wait for government to hand over money before they started helping children they got on with the job at hand - raising money through churches and other sources to do the work needed.

Men like David Robinson come from that tradition and I hope that the plea in David's letter is for relief allowing voluntary organisations the chance to live again the reality of their name - voluntary, uncoerced, independent and radical. Please let it not be special pleading.


What do we mean by 'good'?


I have spent a moderately pleasurable day updating music, cataloguing CDs and generally playing at being a librarian. I even wore the uniform!

While doing this the matter of standards and art arose. In reality it sprung from an on-line interchange with Dave Briggs in response to a blog post I wrote about books. The interchange related to genre fiction and whether the constraints of the form limit the capacity for greatness. Thus it is less likely for a list of greats to include writing from a given genre.

To explore this, I felt it would be interesting to consider music - an area where the same snobberies and prejudices sit but where I am more comfortable with what might be termed "elite" music. However, reviewing my collection of music reveals a bewildering variety - everything from unashamed pop-rock from Bread, through more highbrow prog rock stuff (Caravan anyone?), reggae and ska, folk music - including the incomparable Incredible String Band, jazz and plenty of that elite music.

If I were forced to choose what I consider the very best - and I expect not to be so forced - it would be a tricky toss up between Bach and Led Zeppelin. Yet, in the comparison with the literary world, Led Zeppelin is 'genre' music constrained by the limitations of the rock form whereas Bach's world is limitless. But this ain't so - any more than is the case with literature.

We create categories of art, literature, music and so forth merely for our convenience - genre works like brand in this respect by providing a shortcut to decision-making. I like science fiction so that's where I head. However, such categories do not separate good from bad, the elite from hoi polloi.

Orchestral music ranges from pretty shallow and derivative work (I fear much of Vaughan-Williams falls into this definition) to the immense, shuddering majesty of Mahler or Beethoven. But where does 'good' stop and something else begin? At what point does opera become operetta and hence musical theatre? We could argue till domesday about these subtle distinctions - about whether dystopic fiction such as '1984' or 'Brave New World' is science fiction, as to how we define Neal Stephenson's magnificent 'Baroque Cycle' - is it magical realism, or historical fiction or (as Stephenson chooses) science fiction.

All of which just leaves me still more confused - I do know what I consider good which I guess is what matters! Even when others choose to think otherwise - for sure it ain't not being a genre that makes for good or bad!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Giving by pressing a button isn't a selfless act of charity - it's a voluntary tax

Charity – that great virtue. The idea of giving without expectation of return, of using our skills, talents and hard cash for the betterment of our less fortunate brothers, for the preservation of the good in the world and for the promotion of other virtues.

How that idea has corrupted and been corrupted. To the point where our Government takes it upon itself to promote the generality of giving – indeed, a random giving to charities that undermines the very idea of that great virtue – I must admit I thought better of Francis Maude:

Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude said a new 'giving' culture could generate £4 billion for charitable causes if people agreed to give one per cent of their income.

The act of charity is demeaned by its sole definition in terms of cash. It gives succour to those righteous left-wing apologists for big government who dislike the idea of good works – it is the puritan idea of salvation through grace made real. Now Mr Maude proposes to orchestrate, manipulate and centralise our charitable acts thereby creating great charitable institutions under the control of whom? The banks? The Government? The Big Lottery?

There are, in my thinking three ways in which the charity of good folk does its work:

1. By the government enforcing ‘charity’ through the tax system – the charities, rather than rely on their own fundraising are commissioned by the Government and its agents to do ‘good work’ as defined by that government.

2. Through gifts to charitable organisations that employ people to undertake the ‘good works’ on our behalf. Money often given with little thought and no consideration of how and to whose benefit those gifts will be directed

3. Through our own actions directed at the needy cause – the few pence we give to a beggar, the fiver we freely give to some poor soul who has missed the train and can’t get home and the hours you might spend volunteering

It does seem to me that, while there’s a case to be made for each of these acts – only the third option is assuredly and genuinely charitable. Edward Rudolf really did go out into the streets of Lambeth to search out waifs and strays and Sue Ryder did volunteer to help the displaced after the Second World War. These were actions that required a degree of effort, of sacrifice and of commitment – something that isn’t encompassed by pressing an ATM button or dropping 50p in the collection box.

If the Government really is serious about charity – and I believe that it is – then the approach should be to condemn the negatives laid on charity by the left. To refute the argument that charity is somehow patronising the poor or that individual acts of generosity – whether in time, cash or spirit – are somehow made necessary only by the inadequacy of government or the paucity of tax income.

And the Government needs to face down those who wish to create great funds under the control of an elite – an essentially left-wing elite. We do not need m ore Big Lottery Funds, Clore Foundations, Comic Reliefs or Children in Needs. We need more individual acts of kindness, generosity and support.

So if you’re planning a charitable act, walk out your front door and look around at how you can help out where you live – perhaps there’s an old people’s lunch club where you can help out or a local soup kitchen. Maybe there’s a junior football club in need of sponsorship. The causes are there and you can help them directly, you can see what you give put to its benefit and you can get the pleasure of real charity.


We want referendums not patronising debates in parliament

I watched the Winslow Boy on TV the other day and was reminded of parliament’s arrogance and tendency to nonsense. I fear that nothing much has changed since those Edwardian days, parliament and government remain concerned primarily with creating the semblance rather than the reality of democratic debate. So it is with these proposals for on-line petitions to get a debate.

I have concluded that the idea of on-line petitions to get debates in parliament or even – bless – a bill proposed is a load of patronising nonsense intended as a sop to those wanting a genuine extension of participatory democracy. Indeed the dire warnings about petitions for withdrawing from the EU (yes please) and capital punishment (no thanks) reinforce just what out masters really think of us. And remember that those besuited, well-connected BBC media types are our masters too – not our friends.

From next year, voters are to be guaranteed that the petition with the strongest public backing on a government website will be drafted as a bill and put before MPs.

The Coalition will also pledge that petitions which reach a fixed level of support will be ensured time for a Commons debate.

Sir George Young, the leader of the Commons, has indicated that he intends to press ahead with the concept, conceived in the Coalition agreement, in the New Year.

The scheme is intended to reconnect voters with parliament amid concerns of waning trust in the political system following scandals such as disclosures over MPs’ expenses.

However, there are fears that the proposals could become a vehicle for campaigners
promoting populist causes célèbre, such as a return of capital punishment or withdrawal from the European Union.

So what? MPs will just ignore any serious proposals and focus – as they do now with private members bills – on the Government’s agenda. That is all that matters. The petition driven debates will be frothy and exciting but will amount to nothing in the end, will make no substantive change to a Government’s agenda and will cover up the failure to introduce a real provision for citizen referendums.

Real citizen initiatives – resulting in a question on a ballot paper for us all to vote on – would challenge the basis of our court-centred government. Rather than policy – such as avoiding a referendum on our membership of the EU – being decided in a choreographed, gentile discussion between ministers, opposition leaders, the media lobby and the top of the civil service, we might get policies that people actually want. And a real debate not the pane et circenses we get from parliament.

If it is right – and it is – to encourage local referendums on levels of council tax, elected mayors and other matters, it must also be right to encourage citizen-led national referendums. Imagine if the government had to put tax increases to a ballot? Or signing treaties? And think of the real debate that referendums on legalising pot or abolishing inheritance tax would bring?

Wouldn’t that be good for democracy?

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On receiving my first ever phone call from the Doctors


Not long before Christmas and for the first time since returning to Cullingworth, I received a telephone call from my doctor. Or rather from an anonymous person employed by said doctor for the purpose of doing such onerous tasks as ringing up patients.

Now as it happened I was out of the house at the time since the doctor (or the doctor's employee) had, of course, forgotten that many of his patients do in fact work for a living and, even where they do not, are not wont to hover over the telephone in anticipation of such a rare event as a call from a medical advisor or indeed a medical advisor's representative.

However, another person was available to take the call. Such a blessing since the matter was of significance and importance. After negotiating around the usual data protection objections so beloved of pompous organisations like the NHS, the important matter of enquiry that was the subject of the telephone call became clear.

The doctor wanted to know whether I was a smoker.

Not in connection with any ongoing medical relationship - my most recent medical encounter had finished earlier in the year. It appears that the surgery, from mere curiosity, wished to know whether or not I smoke. I suppose I should be grateful that, had I admitted to such a great sin, help would be on hand - nay forced upon me in that ever so delightful, rather passive-aggressive manner of the medical profession. The doctor would earn a little extra cash by enrolling another person onto "smoking cessation" - the targets are input targets rather than outcome targets - and the righteous would have claimed another success in their temperance campaign.

So it is with great sadness that I say:

Dear Doctors, Smoking Cessation Nurses, anti-smoking fussbuckets and general health busybodies, it really is absolutely none of you business whether or not I smoke. Unless of course I choose to make it so by asking for your help or advice.

Is that clear enough?


Monday, 27 December 2010

Why I hate English Literature!

Its funny isn’t it, those things which we get chippy about! And the sheer hypocrisy of such chippiness. However, this blogpost is about my shoulder-based chip and why it is important.

My chip is with English literature. Not the books themselves – although if I’m honest, I have tried and failed to read those books beloved of English teachers. I’ve set out to read a Jane Austen novel or two, I’ve struggled through a few chapters of assorted Brontë sisters writing and I’ve banged my head against D H Lawrence. All without success – I can find no joy or pleasure from such reading.

Nor do I find more recent writings any better – I waded my way through ‘Midnight’s Children’ although to this day I’m not entirely sure why I ploughed on through the indulgent, impenetrable prose as it gave me no satisfaction. And I could go on – every now and again one sets oneself to read one of these books so praised by the cognoscenti. And the result is inevitable disappointment.

So this is my chip. The intelligent press and media whenever it speaks of literature, speaks of these books. And I feel the weight of arrogant, smug, superiority from these literati – the clear impression that they are so much cleverer, so vastly more impressive since they can speak the language of “English Literature”!

So when I write words like this I mean them:

They don’t want to bury themselves in what some smug literary critic (in this case from the Guardian) calls “thought-provoking books” because, to put it pretty bluntly, most of the literary novels that clutter up the prize shortlists are really dull. A little bit of me smiles with pleasure at the fact that Katie Price (or rather whoever wrote the book with her name on) outsells the entire Booker shortlist!

This isn’t inverted snobbery – I don’t think that the potboilers churned out under Ms Price’s name are great books. But equally, I do not believe that a great book is defined by a narrow, self-referencing audience such as that which decides upon the Booker Prize shortlist and, ultimately, that prize’s winner. Such writing shoves aside – and the cognoscenti dismiss – whole areas of writing as mere ‘genre fiction’. No science fiction or fantasy book has ever graced the Booker shortlist for the simple reason that those who decide on that list believe no good writing exists within that genre (and more to the point wouldn’t be caught admitting to reading any of it).

I recall an especially snide article on science fiction in The Spectator. What struck me wasn’t that the author was snide – he’s entitled be so – but that it was abundantly clear that he hadn’t read a single SF novel and was basing his dismissal of the genre entirely on having watched a few mainstream science fiction TV shows and films.

So yes, one of my favourite TV moments will always be the expression of utter disappointment on Clive Anderson’s face when he had to announce that “The Lord Of The Rings” was the greatest English novel (or so the public had voted). And I smile serenely at some of the frothing antagonism (and allegations that the books vote was somehow fixed by hordes of “well-organised” Tolkien fans) that followed. Like from some writer I’d never heard of called O’Hagan:

O'Hagan, who was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize with his novel Our Fathers, expressed anger that the show is based upon public opinion.

"Somebody said that The Big Read was not just un-literary but anti-literary and I think that's right," he said. "It is based on the assumption that the opinion of the public is always beyond reproach."

O'Hagan added that he "hated the opinion of the population".

"Their choice in books is bound to be emetic, and so it has proved to be."

You do see why we hate the literary establishment now don’t you?


Sunday, 26 December 2010

Inbox empty

There is a mild sense of satisfaction when you walk out the office door knowing that you leave behind an empty in-box and a cleared desk! It's less satisfying knowing you'll not be going back.

However, knowing that there's nothing to be done - or perhaps more importantly, to be worried about - is a satisfaction in itself. Not only can you recharge but also the mind is free to speculate, to wander down less well-travelled paths of interest. In the end these thoughts must be directed - the active person has to take control. But meantime just thinking; "I can do that" or "I might speak with her" or "there's a real gap for that kind of work" - random ideas littering the mind, as it were are good things and undoubtedly cathartic.

So here's to a break filled with thinking, watching, reading listening and learning. Plus a fair deal of eating drinking and making merry.


Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas and Thank You

Happens every year, dunnit? Christmas, that celebration of all things good and shiny (not to mention the kitsch that we all secretly love). Or is it some religious occasion?

However you think about it, Christmas is a time when - just maybe - we think a little beyond our usual selfish bounds. Stretch our minds - if not our time and cash - towards others and their problems. This isn't some kind of indulgence but a good thing - those who try to put it down to schmaltz or whimsy are missing the point that thinking about others is the starting point for us doing something for others. Without the thought there is no action.

Now I know I talk about the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of public services - and I mean it when I say that the private sector is (most of the time) vastly superior in service quality, timeliness and reliability. However, this isn't ever meant as a criticism of individual public servants - people who, on the whole, try to do a decent job within a rubbish system. And quite often - I've seen plenty of examples in recent snowy and icy days - go above and beyond duty to serve the public.

I've no time for these people's so-called leaders - fat-cat union bosses like Bob Crow and Len McCluskey who think there's something clever in behaving like playground bullies. It isn't just the ignorant left-wing ideology but the hectoring, ranting and divisive style that does no service at all to public servants.

However, this Christmas around 100,000 public sector workers are looking gloomily at an "at risk" notice - an indication of possible redundancy - and wondering whether the sugary finger will point at them come the New Year. And there's perhaps another 100,000 who know that letter is just around the corner. All this on top of the tens of thousands of public and voluntary sector people who have already been made redundant (not of course to forget the private sector).

The Government may have run away with the idea - egged on by rapacious bankers and developers - that the magic money pit was bottomless. The country may be in a huge financial hole - much of it created by the profligacy of Blair and Brown. But it isn't the fault of those public servants with redundancy notices any more than it's the fault of the ordinary taxpayer who is about to get the bill for that criminal government we dumped in May.

So if you know someone with that letter telling them their job's "at risk" or who is counting down the days to redundancy go and give them a hug, buy them a beer or simply wish them well. It's the least we can do really. That and say...

"Happy Christmas and Thank You"


Thursday, 23 December 2010

Libraries really do need to change, you know

Yesterday, I had an interesting, if inconclusive conversation about the future of public libraries. Partly, this took place in the context of funding being withdrawn from the Bookstart** programme – a decision, some suggest will result in thousands of illiterate youths littering our streets unable to take a full part because they didn’t have “access” to books when they were at school.

Now, stepping aside from this argument (although I do note that even with this wonderful scheme we’re managing to churn out a truly depressing number of innumerate, illiterates from our schools), I think it sensible to consider the point and purpose of the public library. And, indeed whether the manner in which we organise the service continues to fit the purpose.

Bradford has 32 libraries (plus a mobile service of which more later) that get around 29,000 visits each week (which is around 1.5 million each year) from a population of 506,000 – which means that just below 6% of the district’s population visit in a given week. For a service seen as so critical to the future of the district this is a pretty poor show especially when 36% of library users are over 60 (and 31% describe themselves as “wholly retired”)*.

The truth is that public lending libraries are – to most of us – something of an anachronism. A generation of people brought up to use libraries continue to do so but there isn’t a replacement generation – or more accurately, not sufficient of a replacement generation to justify sustaining public lending libraries in their current form.

At the same time we continue to read – and in growing quantities if book sales figures are to be believed (these are for Q1 2010):

It reports that home sales have grown marginally by volume from 84.3m to 84.4m units, while value decreased by 3.3% from £287m to £278m. Conversely, export value sales grew by 2.4% from £196m to £201m, while volume sales decreased by 4.5% from 54.2m to 51.8m units.

And the biggest driver behind that increase was “volume sales of children’s books”!

Any local councillor will tell you, however, that you meddle with libraries at your peril! And you certainly don’t close them – that’s a sure recipe for petitions, protests and “more-in-sorrow-than-anger” letters to the local papers. Yet those same people protesting are often the very same people who have stopped using the library. The 94% who won’t be visiting this week.

Moreover, that 6% aren’t the needy, the poor, those who can’t afford to buy books. They are people who like the fact that they can get reading for free from the local council. Most of them are middle-class folk who also buy a lot of books. We should not kid ourselves that the poor are going anywhere near libraries – except on those one or two compulsory occasions when, in a search for scenery change the class teacher drags her charges down to the library.

We should begin to think more creatively about libraries – co-locating them with schools, increasing the use of mobile libraries that allow places like Cullingworth to have a service despite not having a library, targeting specific groups such as the housebound and disabled (particularly those with impaired vision where the general market doesn’t always suit) and making use of the library buildings for a wider range of services.

Above all thought should be given to what attracts folk – the old reading room concept no longer works, the lending library function is declining and specialist services (film, music and such like) are often better provided on-line. It beats me why great town centre libraries like that in Keighley don’t partner with one of the coffee chains – taking a leaf from the bookshop book so to speak. And why should we not charge those borrowing books a modest subscription? Most could afford £25 a year to use the library (and we could give discounts to children and workless) and that would go some way towards securing the service.

Lending libraries came about because books – and they were hardback books – were expensive. It meant that people who couldn’t afford all those pricey publications could have access to them – could read the wonders of our great canon of literature (or – as is more common – six romance novels a fortnight).

Today it isn’t the price of books that stops people from reading, it’s that people aren’t interested in reading. They don’t want to bury themselves in what some smug literary critic (in this case from the Guardian) calls “thought-provoking books” because, to put it pretty bluntly, most of the literary novels that clutter up the prize shortlists are really dull. A little bit of me smiles with pleasure at the fact that Katie Price (or rather whoever wrote the book with her name on) outsells the entire Booker shortlist!

The time has come to free local councils from the straitjacket of their statutory duty and to allow a new generation of creative centres of knowledge, learning and pleasure to replace the old, stale and declining public lending library.


*I will add a caveat to this by saying that the user survey – because of the way it is conducted almost wholly fails to capture numbers of users under the age of 15

**As a slight aside - I fail entirely to see why the publishing industry, filled as it is with wealthy, righteous lefties like Paul Hamlyn can't find it in its heart and deep pockets to find £10 million or so to carry on the programme. That seems a more honest and honourable approach than holding a gun to the taxpayers' heads

Les choses sont contra nous

Why? Just why?

Two days before Christmas when half the populace have stopped working, the temperatures are plumbing new global-warming inspired lows and we would rather be powering down in anticipation of a pleasant, food and drink filled festive break - two days before the ever older relatives arrive the bloody boiler breaks down. Why?

There is, of course, a theory - a philosophy brought to us English speakers by that great thinker Paul Jennings. He writes:

This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialisin, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre. In transferring the dynamic of philosophy from man to a world of hostile Things,’ Ventre has achieved a major revolution of thought, to which he himself gave the name ‘Resistentialism’. Things (res) resist (résister) man (homme, understood). Ventre makes a complete break with traditional philosophic method. Except for his German precursors, Freidegg and Heidansiecker, all previous thinkers from the Eleatics to Marx have allowed at least some legitimacy to human thought and effort. Some, like Hegel or Berkeley, go so far as to make man’s thought the supreme reality. In the Resistentialist cosmology that is now the intellectual rage of Paris Ventre offers us a grand vision of the Universe as One Thing – the Ultimate Thing (Dernière Chose). And it is against us.

Ah yes - les choses son contra nous. I knew it had something to do with the French.

Well, just so you know 'things' - some of us are fighting back! While Jennings reports:

Resistentialism thus formalizes hatred both in the cosmological and in the psychological sphere. It is becoming generally realized that the complex apparatus of our modern life – the hurried meals, the dashing for trains, the constant meeting of people who are seen only as ‘functions’: the barman, the wife, etc. – could not operate if our behaviour were truly dictated by the old, reactionary categories of human love and reason. This is where Ventre’s true greatness lies. He has transformed, indeed reversed the traditional mechanism of thought, steered it away from the old dogmatic assumption that we could use Things, and cleared the decks for the evolution of the Thing-process without futile human opposition. Ventre’s work brings us a great deal nearer to the realization of the Resistentialist goal summed up in the words, ‘Every Thing out of Control.’

...some of us are at the forefront - nay, the VANGUARD - of a new order where man reasserts his god-given authority over things. Antiresistentialism is born!

So look out boiler, I'm coming for you first!


Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"We are all guilty...": some thoughts on Vince Cable

I was quite taken by the Vince Cable episode. Not because is revealed the scale of the twinkle-toed sage of Twickenham's self-importance and arrogance although that was very clear from the transcripts:

"Can I be very frank with you, and I'm not expecting you to quote this outside. I have a nuclear option, it's like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don't have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far I can walk out of the government and bring the government down and they know it. So its a question of how you use that intelligently without getting involved in a war that destroys all of us."

Clearly the passing resemblance between Vince and a certain Yoda has gone to his head!

However, this isn't the thing that has taken me. I am fascinated by the manner in which the event - a gentle little honey trap on a self-important cabinet minister - has played out. Not only are we continuing to debate whether the "Coalition" is going to hold on but we are also discussing the ethics of the Daily Telegraph's 'sting', the nature of debate around the ownership of media and whether Liberal Democrats are now revealed as evil, blood-sucking monsters from the planet Tory!

Moreover, the entire affair yet again reveals the presumption - reinforced by the Wikileaks saga, the revelations about MPs expenses and a whole host of revelations within out newspapers - that much is conducted in secret and that people lie. Politicians lie, businessmen lie, trade unionists lie, footballers lie and film stars lie. Indeed, the only place where the truth remains untarnished is within the media, those stalwart champions of honesty and decency!

Put simply this is all rubbish. The sting on Vince Cable reveals his pomposity and self-importance and much of the Wikileaks stuff merely shows that is suits people sometimes to be a little duplicitous. And in doing so these people - be they diplomats, cabinet ministers or nine-year-old schoolboys - lie. They lie because we all lie - it's convenient, quick and most of the time pretty harmless. So-called transparency - whether through the theft of private information or through the recording of private conversations - serves only to change the basis on which we lie not the fact of our lying.

So when people clamber up onto their high horses over Vince Cable's revelations they serve no purpose other than to demonstrate the essential - and hideous - truth. The biggest sin isn't to lie, to cover up or to deceive. The biggest sin is to get caught out!

In the end we get the politicians we deserve - lying, duplicitous, double-dealing. As Heinz Kiosk would have out it....

"We are all guilty!"


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Looking both ways...thoughts on the Coalition

When the coalition deal was first struck, those of us with something of a liberal inclination smiles a bit. Indeed, even some of the more rabid libertarians pointed to the proposals with acclaim. Some folk suggested that the coalition - oh, how the media savoured that word - meant that the nasty Tories would be reined in by sunny, smiling, progressive liberal democrats.

And some good has come to pass - the Government has got to grips (more or less) with the fiscal train wreck left behind by Gordon Brown. We have begun to see a welcome loosening of that great bastion of social control, the planning system. The great lumpen barriers to individual progress - out benefits system, our school system and our housing system are being challenged. And the horses are getting frightened - even the 'catch 'em and string 'em high' brigade have been pushed back as Ken Clarke begins to inject some sanity into our criminal justice system.

Those who know me will appreciate that I would go a great further and rather more quickly but for once I happy to cheer on the government - indeed a government that puts an end to the arbitrary tyranny of speed cameras is one to be celebrated.

But there's another since - the side of "nudge". Or rather "ramming you fist into my midriff". This is the world of the fussbuckets - legislation will arrive over the hill to control the "sexualisation of children". We can expect more weaponry to be handed over to social workers who, caring though many of them are, remain almost wholly uncontrolled and unaccountable.

There is no sign of the puritans losing their grip on public health - we're going to get yet more passive-aggressive attempts to stop us smoking, drinking, eating burgers and other lifestyle choices. The denormalisation of our choices is one of the great offences of government and anyone laying claim to the title of liberal should oppose the smoking bans, controls over alcohol and the failed war on drugs.

And we are witnessing the 'good cop, bad cop' approach to the Internet. On the one hand, the Government recognises that the web ain't free and resists trying to regulate how ISPs and search companies operate. This is great. But at the same time, we are told that access to pornography must be controlled - "for the children". And will this be followed shortly by bans on violence in computer games, by the tightening up of licensing regulations and by a "you can only look at what we approve" attitude to the Internet?

I have no doubt at all that the coalition - how that term still sticks in my craw - is vastly better that the Labour alternative. But, we still have too much "Government by Daily Mail Headline" and not enough extending the bounds of freedom.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Those moments

You know you get those moments? Instants of utter despair, hair-tearing upset and distress? Whatever it might be – a death, a financial crisis, a lost job…whatever. Nothing, no person can understand how you feel – the agony, the loss, the bleakness of tomorrow.

Those moments stood on the platform wondering whether a quick dive in front of the train would take it all away. The frisson of temptation as you cross the high bridge – thirty seconds of agony in exchange for an eternity free from mental pain.

Don’t tell me you don’t know those moments.

Such moments are the darkness of tomorrow – the negation of hope. If you must, the Devil’s temptation. Nothing comes of them – no peace, no happiness, no joy. And if you set such a moment in aspic by acting on its impulse, you serve no purpose in doing so.

We are not friendless, alone or deserted. If we sit on the stone and look out at the sea we’ll be embraced – not by the cold waves but by those we saw as enemies. By all means cry. But do not despair.


The one thing we all know about Tonka Toys is that they are indestructible. So - around 40 years ago - my brothers and I decided to put this to the test. The experiment was comprehensive - or as comprehensive as nine and ten year olds can make these matters.

The tests included:

Bashing with various blunt implements - bricks, mallets, hammers and stray lumps of metal.

Dropping from a great height (in this case the top of our cherry tree)

Burning - ultimately by making a fire over the top of the said Tonka

Running over with the garden roller

Throwing against the wall

The tests were repeated for much of an afternoon. And the conclusion....

....that Tonka Toys were (aside from the rubber caterpillar tracks) pretty much indestructible!


Sunday, 19 December 2010

Thoughts on comfort food and the making of meatloaf!

While we get excited about the miraculous creations and combinations of the great chefs, when it comes down to reminiscing about food our thoughts don’t turn to great restaurant meals but to those cheap supper dishes mum used to make. I could tell you about a recipe for “hostess supper” that came off the side of a macaroni packet or of ‘spaghetti muck’ a dish of cheese and tomato pasta. These dishes speak of more than taste – although they do taste great. The remind us of family, home, comfort and safety, of those lost days when we were young, happy and pretty carefree.

And it’s not just me who feels this way – I’ve joked often and found agreement that nursery food and food you eat with your hands is the best. We don’t turn to fancy dishes when we’re down but to pizza, to stews, to casseroles and to curry. Frankly we’d rather an egg sarnie or tomatoes on toast. Here’s Antonio Carluccio talking about his mum’s meatloaf:

“I distinctly remember the tremendous satisfaction with which this dish used to appease our appetites when my brothers and I were young. It had two advantages: the sauce in which it was cooked provided an excellent dressing for the pasta which was served up as a first course. Then the meatloaf – cut into slices – appeared as a tasty main course accompanies by peas with ham.”

Your mouth’s watering isn’t it? And you’re thinking of that special dish – whatever it may be! I’ve been making Carluccio’s meatloaf for so long now it has become something of a family special. And how flexible can you get – not just that great tomato sauce but a loaf you can serve hot on a cold winter’s evening or cold with salad in the sunshine of a Summer garden party!

For the meatloaf:

2lb Minced beef
6oz Bread crumbs made from stale bread
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh parsley
2 oz freshly grated parmesan
Salt and black pepper
4 eggs (maybe fewer)
Oil for frying

For the sauce:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 Clove garlic
2 cans tomatoes
10 fresh basil leaves
Salt & black pepper

In a large bowl mix the beef, breadcrumbs, parsley and parmesan thoroughly. Add seasoning. Beat the eggs lightly and add to the mixture which should stick together so you can form it into a large oval loaf – a bit like a bread bloomer. In my experience you seldom need all four eggs – the amount depends on how damp the mince is and how dry the breadcrumbs are. I add one egg at a time until the mixture is sticky enough to form a loaf. It’s always an idea to have some extra breadcrumbs to hand in case the mixture gets too sloppy!

In a heavy casserole heat the oil and fry the loaf until it is golden-brown on the outside – take care turning it to avoid it breaking! Set this aside to make the tomato sauce.

In a separate pan, fry the onion and garlic and then add the tomatoes. Cook for 5-10 minutes breaking up the tomatoes and then season and add the basil. Pour this sauce over the meatloaf in the casserole and bring back to the boil. Turn the heat right down and simmer for an hour – it’s best to turn the loaf occasionally during this process to ensure it’s evenly cooked and doesn’t stick. It the sauce is a bit thin, take the lid off the pan for the last 15 minutes to thicken it. Alternatively, the casserole can be cooked in a moderately hot oven for about an hour. There’s no need to turn the meatloaf if it’s cooked this way but you may have to reduce the sauce a little after removing the loaf!

Serve the tomato sauce with good short pasta as a first course Italian-style followed by the loaf – either with peas and ham or any other vegetable! Or refrigerate the loaf and have cold for a great lunch with pickles and salad!



The Commission President's Party!

Seems this huge advertising effort did work for some:

Other sources have revealed that Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission President, has become concerned about his expanding waistline because, as a frequent visitor to Mr Van Rompuy, he is unable to keeps his hands off the Ferrero Rocher chocolates that are piled in bowls scattered around the office.

And I thought Belgium's sole purpose was to show others what chocolate should taste like?


Saturday, 18 December 2010

UK Uncut's campaign is offensive, immoral and wrong


Today I have been sorely tried indeed. Not, dear reader, as a result of problems with the weather – we can’t really get cross with nature however annoying she may be and however futile our hubristic pretence of control. No, my irritation has been sparked by UK Uncut and their offensive, immoral and selfish mission to:

…become part of an army of citizen volunteers determined to make wealthy tax avoiders pay.

The basic premise of this campaign is that individuals and businesses that have done nothing wrong, have broken no laws and, in reality, contribute enormously to the betterment of our nation must be targeted because they are “tax dodgers”.

Alright, I hear you, how can you describe these protests as ‘offensive’ and ‘immoral’ – surely folk have a right to protest? Well let me explain a little.

The first thing to observe is that governments determine the nature and level of taxation not businesses or individuals – however wealthy or successful. Any complex tax system – and dear old Gordon made ours among the most complicated – contains contradictions, loopholes and provisions that can be used to reduce tax liability. The businesses and individuals being attacked by UK Uncut are not responsible for the problem (assuming we see it as a problem) – the British Government is responsible. And let’s remember that, for the arrangements criticised in Vodaphone and Sir Philip Green’s case, it was a Labour Government.

Which brings us to the morality of all this. Rightly or wrongly, the UK Government has settled the tax affairs of these organisations and individuals for the money to which UK Uncut refer. We may feel that not enough tax has been paid but it would be wrong – unjust, to use the sort of language beloved of protesting folk – to retrospectively change the tax treatment.

A second problem with UK Uncut’s morality is their belief that it is right for them to demand other people hand over more money to the government – to, in effect, demand money with menaces. Not, I might add, to argue that government should change the rules on which we are all taxed but to demand specific extra taxes from identified individual people and businesses. Simply because UK Uncut has decided that these people did not pay enough. Not only are such demands offensive they are again immoral – attempts to use mob violence to force voluntary payments from individuals is a negation of liberty.

Finally, we should remind ourselves of the selfishness these protests represent – that uniquely smug selfishness we associate with some on the left. Some kind of magic garden filled with money trees has been identified – look there at those rich people, they have money. Take it off them and, you’ve guessed it, give it to us. Or we will disrupt you business – and the lives of ordinary folk who just want to do a bit of Christmas shopping. As Labour blogger, Luke Bozier put it:

No group of protestors has the right close down a store which is operating legally. It's illegal and wrong to walk into a store and stop it from carrying out its legitimate business. Who on earth do UK Uncut think they are to stop people from using popular shops like Topshop and Marks & Spencer? The customers and staff are adversely affected, the company loses money from the sales lost and ultimately the state suffers from a reduced tax receipt.

And all to preserve whole floors of policy officers, rooms full of equalities advisors, armies of training officers, HR consultants and cabinet support teams. To carry on taxing ordinary – and some creative and extraordinary people – to penury so as to maintain a bloated, arrogant and ineffective state system. A system where millions are spent on a CCTV system that can’t identify the thugs who hammered my son. Where we double the spending on schools and get more semi-literates. And where we pour money into the bottomless pit of the NHS and get a service-free, ignorant and nannying health system that sees us less healthy and shorter-lived compared to our near neighbours.

The Big State has failed. It’s not just the need to reduce spending because of the deficit – although that’s to be sorted. It’s that the model – the tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend – does not deliver what we want; good services. We should stop pretending that our public services are – in any respect –comparable in service quality to the typical standards in the private sector. And we should also stop pretending that those public services offer value-for-money – compared to the private sector they are expensive, rules-bound and ineffective.

So get off your high horses UK Uncut – your campaign is immoral and your objectives would condemn our nation to further decline, higher unemployment, poorer services and a depressed, cowed public. Or at least the ones who can’t plan their escape!


Dehumanising (or more from the New Puritans)


From a non-smoker an important message for you all:

And the dehumanising has another effect: we are ostracising our fellow man. The fact that someone smokes is not an indicator of whether or not they are decent human. Yet many smokers are being talked to and treated like, well, shit, by anti-smokers (and increasingly non-smokers) and when they respond in kind, their attitude is taken by the anti-smokers as validation of the smoker's selfish attitude rather than a reflection of perhaps an understandable reaction to aggressively impolite approaches.

There is, of course, a bigger picture here. First it was the smokers, now the pseudo-science is ramping up the 'evils' of being overweight and of enjoying a tipple or two. Next (I suspect) it will be activities that regularly cause personal harm - so I hope you don't like cycling or playing rugby or football. And don't undertake any home improvements by yourself, as why should you expect the rest of us pay for you dropping that hammer on your foot - especially as you're unqualified. The point is obvious: once we start dehumanising those aspects that make us human we can find any excuse to make our fellow man sub-human and second-class; that's real discrimination.

Read the whole piece here.

H/T Dick Puddlecote

Why do we do this?

There has been much debate - and a modicum of understandable schadenfreude - at the departure of well-known "right-wing" bloggers from the scene. Most recently has been the departure of Iain Dale mostly it seems to me in preference for other more interesting and more lucrative activities.

I was struck by this little comment from Paul Evans, where I think he comes close to understanding why bloggers find it hard to sustain their activity especially when it is subject to constant attack by those - from all sides and with a range of motivations. With the compulsory (for left-wing bloggers) snide sideswipe at Nadine Dorries, Paul says:

Tom H, Nadine and Iain have distinguished themselves by being more-active-than-average online. None of them have been able to do the useful things that social media allows them to do - at least in part -because the personal engagement crowds out the political / policy conversation (though I suspect Nadine would just be a little puzzled by the concept in the first place). If you place yourself in full view online, you leave yourself open to disruption. Keep quiet and you don't.

The question for those in the 'public eye' is whether to take the risk of conversation - the whole point of social media - or remain aloof. Most politicians and political celebrities do not engage with the process - they give their opinion (very carefully) and refuse to engage beyond that point. Blogging allows the conversation to take place but, as I often point out about this blog, politicians cannot take the risk of allowing a conversational free-for-all since your comment on my blog is as likely to offend, upset or be exploited as my own thoughts.

To be quite honest we do this for selfish - rather preening - reasons. As a politician I am opinionated - indeed an unopinionated politician would be decidedly oxymoronic. Blogging and social media provide a platform for me to get my opinion across - whether that opinion's about the national debt, the clearing of snow or the winner of X-Factor. More importantly, having an opinion is what I'm good at - it is my special talent and the world is better for everyone to have the chance to hear my opinion. Or maybe I'm just an arrogant git with a big mouth!

What I do know is that something may come along that grabs my attention, engages my interests, even excites...and then, like all those others who have quit blogging, I'll be off. Until then I afraid you'll have to put up with me!


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Thanks Bob, maybe now we'll get an informed debate about drugs and prohibition

Every now and then a politician says something that opens up debate by breaking a taboo. Today, in his clunky, slightly ill-informed way Bob Ainsworth, a former Labour cabinet minister, did just that by says drugs should be legalised. Well nearly – what he actually said was that drugs should be medicalised which isn’t quite the same thing.

"I am not a libertarian. I don't believe that you should buy heroin on street corners and get yourself zonked out. But we have to treat this as a medical problem."

But what matters is that a politician actually broke ranks and challenged the dreadful – killing – orthodoxy about drugs.

“Prohibition has failed to protect us. Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harms to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit. We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children.”

Of course the reaction has been just as we might expect with current ministers and Bob Ainsworth’s ineffectual party leader condemning his for saying such a terrible thing. After all think of the children:

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said today that the legalisation of drugs would send out "the wrong message" to young people as he distanced himself from a Labour backbencher's calls for a "grown-up debate" on the issue.

So no grown-up debate from Red Ed then! However, the genie is out of the bottle – us politicians are able to speak out on the subject (rather than, as my father did, waiting until retiring to declare that drugs should be legalised). For what it’s worth here’s a few thoughts from me:

1. I see no good reason to keep drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy (plus mushrooms of course) illegal – millions of people use them (mostly without causing anyone any bother at all) and the drugs are produced here in the UK. I am happy to listen to contrary arguments but my feeling is that this single act of decriminalisation would have a hugely beneficial impact on crime and disorder

2. For drugs imported from other places – chiefly heroin and cocaine – there’s more of a problem since we would be bringing the drugs in from a place where growing and producing the substance is still illegal. Liberalisation can only work if it is co-ordinated internationally

3. The liberalisation agenda is not well served by the denormalisation of smoking and drinking – high levels of duty and distribution controls are creating new criminal enterprises

4. The medicalisation of drugs (and for that matter tobacco) is, in reality, only a marginal improvement on prohibition – probably right for heroin but not for less harmful drugs

5. I may be completely wrong – the only answer might be violent repression, the death penalty for possession and more intensive searches. My feeling however is that if that’s the answer we’re asking the wrong question

Whatever comes of the debate – the fact that we now might start to have one that isn’t conducted exclusively with the Daily Mail’s op ed page in mind is very welcome. I hope some other MPs jump off the “war on drugs” juggernaut and begin to examine how liberalisation might actually reduce the harm and damage drugs do to our communities.


A matter of some interest?


I'm sure, my friends, that you are aware of my dislike for the "standards" system imposed on Councillors by Tony Blair's Labour Government. The intention was to deal with the scandals associated with Labour rotten boroughs like Doncaster but the result was onerous, officious, distrusting and, ultimately, a vehicle for political spite rather than the raising of standards.

The Code of Conduct enshrined in the 2000 Act contains many things to criticise but no-one seems to challenge the manner in which it treats what are called "interests". The Code requires that Councillors register interests and, where a matter of Council business concerns that interest, declare that interest. The problem here isn't the requirement for disclosure - that seems entirely right and proper - but the accompanying need to withdraw from the vote where the interest is "prejudicial". And the code places a pretty broad definition on "prejudicial":

A member of the public, who knows the relevant facts, would reasonably think your personal interest is so significant that it is likely to prejudice your judgement of the public interest.

Consider this for a moment - it could cover a huge array of considerations. And it has led to the most common of problems - predetermination in regulatory matters. It appears that the new Localism Bill intends to amend the regulations to allow someone elected to office on the back of opposing a proposed development to actually vote to try and achieve what it was that person was elected to do! However, there is a bigger problem and to illustrate this I will refer to a colleague on Bradford Council - Carol Beardmore.

Now Carol has a very specific personal interest that under some circumstances might be portrayed as prejudicial - she is the parent of a severely disabled person. So that member of the public referred to in the Code might perceive that, for Carol, the funding of services for disabled adults is a prejudicial interest. However, I believe that the Council's consideration of these matters is made worse by excluding Carol from debate - which is the requirement of the Code. Indeed, most Council Monitoring Officers would not even allow Carol to attend a meeting at which the matter of her prejudicial interest was discussed.

By way of comparison, let me speak of MPs. Just like Councillors MPs make declarations of interest and, in debate, it is custom and practice for a member to refer to an interest at the outset of a speech. However, no constraints are placed on the MP in terms of speaking, voting or attendance. Indeed, in many cases, MPs with the sort of deep personal interest that Carol Beardmore has are listened to attentively and carefully because what they say is usually better informed and has the weight of personal knowledge and experience.

It seems to me that the majority of "interests" act to enhance the knowledge and understanding of the Council rather than to compromise decision-making or promote some form of corruption. The problems in Doncaster were about Councillors taking backhanders to fix planning not those Councillors voting on issues where they have a personal interest. In the end the electorate - a wise old bunch in the main - are capable of distinguishing between Councillors using their position to promote personal interests and Councillors whose interests coincide with those of the place and people they represent.

There should be no requirement beyond declaring the interest - if Councillors are daft enough to vote on their own house extension or their farm's new barn then the public (and I suspect the local party too) will rumble them and show them the door. We do not need complicated Codes of Conduct and phalanxes of expensive lawyers to manage such a process.


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Broadcasting Council Meetings - why all the fuss?

Yesterday Bradford Council met - the 90 Councillors (well most of us) gathered together to debate motions on cheques, post offices, the challenges facing the district, regeneration and litter. On the face of things it wasn't an extraordinary agenda - especially given these extraordinary times and the previous day's announcement of Bradford's central government grant settlement.

Everything started in the normal manner - the Lord Mayor made announcements, we stood in silence a remembered a recently deceased former Councillor and we welcome Russell Brown as the new member from the Worth Valley (succeeding Kris Hopkins the new MP for Keighley and from times now long past one Eric Pickles). We voted through a few procedural and technical motions, received a couple of petitions and dealt with questions to the leader.

And then - towards the end of our first debate - something quite unusual happened. We got an audience. Into the public galleries trooped a motley collection of protestors many clutching A4 posters emblazoned with the word "traitor" (sadly too far away from me to tell who or what was a traitor although I gather it was something to do the "The Cuts"). Believe me, dear reader, this is almost unheard of! We simply don't get an audience for our deliberations - over the years we've reorganised schools, closed libraries, accused eachother of terrible things and had some of the most unedifying rows. All without a real public audience.

Now I suspect that, for the protestors, this was their first visit to the (rather splendid) Council Chamber and some took the opportunity to take a few photographs. A not unreasonable expectation and hardly - even with the flash - an intrusion into the smooth running of the meeting. However, the Lord Mayor decided to tell them to stop taking pictures because they had not asked for prior permission (or at least that was what I think his reason was).

For me this response - as well as a rather over-the-top reaction to a couple of quite mild-mannered heckles and boos - illustrates our problem as a local democracy. And perhaps why the public don't bother to turn up. Our self-importance and overweening sense of occasion gets in the way of robust debate. For me - and I said this yesterday - there is no issue with the public taking pictures of a public meeting. And it's great that some members of the public actually turned up for a change (even if they all trooped out during my quite brilliant speech)!

We should encourage this engagement. We should welcome photography, smile a little at the odd heckle and should stick our proceedings up on the web for all to see. If that bunch down in Parliament can broadcast all their debates, I see no reason why Bradford Council can't do likewise. If we believe in openness and transparency, it's time to make more effort to show the public what it is we do on their behalf.

Install the web-cam, start tweeting and live blogigng the occasion - make it more engaging, more interesting and, maybe, a little more responsive.


A good day in Denholme


Today, Bradford Council refused permission for the development of a landfill site at Buck Park Quarry near Denholme. In the greater scheme of things a rather minor decision but, for the village concerned, a day for smiles all round. For several reasons.

Firstly, landfill is dirty, messy and mostly unnecessary. The UK's preference for sticking rotting rubbish into holes in the ground rather than using more responsible (and economic) approaches such as waste to energy remains a mystery. I know that the greenies like Friends of the Earth seem to think that incineration is a greater sin than allowing the rubbish to rot slowly into the ground but, in truth it is the most environmentally damaging method of disposal.

Secondly, Denholme villagers campaigned long and hard against the proposals. A previous application was refused by Councillors (against the wishes of planning officers) and only granted permission at an appeal where - shamefully - Bradford Council refused to submit evidence on the specious grounds that they might lose and be awarded costs. To say this spat in the face of local people and the Councillors who voted to refuse permission is an understatement. For technical reasons the development was stopped as local people - again without Council support - took the developer to the High Court where they won. With the result being that the planning permission lapsed (and the Council then won a further High Court case brought by the developer).

Thirdly, the outcome today vindicates the only pledge I made to the electorate four years ago - that I would vote against any proposal or policy that would make landfill more likely even if that proposal was from my party. I did this - voting against the Council's waste management strategy in full council because my group had accepted a Liberal Democrat amendment ruling out waste to energy as a disposal option.

Denholme isn't free from the threat of landfill just yet - I fully expect the developer to appeal. But this time - after fifteen years of equivocation - the Council is on the side of local people. Fighting the appeal won't be down to local fundraising, the odd bit of pro bono work from lawyers and planners and the research efforts of residents. I have every hope that we will win the appeal and that, at last, we will see Denholme free from having the District's rotting rubbish dumped in this convenient hole in the ground.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Nothing much to say.... instead a rather atmospheric snap of Fountains Abbey.

How are the mighty fallen?

Monday, 13 December 2010

Wither localism - initial thoughts on the Bill


Although the Bill won't be published until later this afternoon, the Government has released an essential guide to the Bill. These notes are drawn from that guide and are accompanied by my commentary. My focus is on the "community rights" elements of the Bill rather than on the local government reform elements such as the (welcome) abolition of the Standards Board for England, transparency requirements and elected mayors. One observation on transparency however is that local councils may begin to pass some of these requirements on to suppliers and partners. Certainly organisations contracting with local government should be prepared for new rules on disclosure and transparency.

The "community rights" elements are:

1. A Community Right to Buy - as ever the devil will be in the detail. However, this is expected to give local communities the 'right' to take over local assets (presumably subject to finances) threatened with closure. It is clear that this extends to private assets such as pubs, shops and post offices as well as public assets such as halls, libraries and youth centres.

2. A Community Right to Challenge - again the details of this will be important but its essence is to provide the same community right for revenue funded services as the "Community Right to Buy" grants for assets. The proposals seem quite limited at present - it isn't clear whether a community will have the right to take over a service or whether the right is limited to "challenge" (meaning the Council can simply ignore the community!)

3. A Community Right to Build - allowing communities that meet certain criteria (including capacity to deliver and a significant level of local support for proposals) to avoid planning requirements. Linked to the New Homes Bonus, the Community Infrastructure Levy and existing s106 provisions, this 'right' could present a real opportunity for developers, housing associations and local authorities to partner with parish councils or community groups to deliver new housing. The clash of NIMBY and BANANA instincts with real incentives to improve local facilities will be interesting to watch (and could prove politically explosive in some places)

4. Local referendums - again we can expect there to be significant strings attached to these proposals (and we should worry a little that the possibility exists for proposition 13 type outcomes - which may cheer ardent taxcutters but could handicap local councils). However, with the granting of a General Power of Competence to local authorities - jokes about which are likely to be legion - the scope for community-driven policy initiatives is a real opportunity

5. Neighbourhood Plans - probably the most controversial element of the Bill, we can expect the planning industry (and probably the large developers) to oppose these proposals. It will be very interesting to see what type of place takes up the opportunity and whether any local councils see this plus the power to vary business rates and 'tax increment financing' as the chance to create a 'freeport' environment with relaxed planning and lower taxes. Not sure this is what Eric Pickles would expect but it could prove an exciting option for some communities.

These are just initial thoughts and need to be seen in the wider context - not least the impact of this year's local government settlement on council net budgets. However, the changes should help create greater initiative and creativity in local government as well as within different communities which can only be a good thing.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

Theresa, can we get a little perspective please?


We had some riots. A few people were injured but probably fewer than are injured on a typical Friday night in Leeds or Manchester. There was some offensive but temporary damage to a couple of statues as a result of students being a brainless and stupid as students have been wont to be down the years. And the Duchess of Cornwall had a stick prodded at her.

As far as I know, nobody's dead. No-one's been abducted. Normal life - or what purports to be normal life continues. It's no big deal. There will be another protest sometime with much the same result - more froth and bother than anything of substance.

So can I make one thing very clear....

We do not need water cannon.


X-Factor isn't ruining the music business - that pass was sold before Simon Cowell was born!

On one level X-Factor is the encapsulation of the entertainment business’s shimmering deceptiveness – thousands of “hopefuls” are whittled down to a final few from which one “winner” is chosen. And that winner is chosen by the public – this is victory for the market. Or is it?

Last year I pointed out that Simon Cowell’s modus operandum was to exploit what I called the “Bestseller Syndrome” – to take advantage of our tendency to follow the herd. Especially when it comes to matters of taste. Now some see this as some sort of indictment for the music industry – symbolising how Simon and his demon hordes manipulate our choices for their own profit.

We suppose, I guess, that unscrupulous business-minded impresarios are some kind of modern invention? That the entertainment business has somehow been corrupted by Simon Cowell’s evil manipulation leaving us with less than we had before? But this is not new – we can go back into history:

The company owners, wrote the young United Company employee Colley Cibber, "who had made a monopoly of the stage, and consequently presum'd they might impose what conditions they pleased upon their people, did not consider that they were all this while endeavouring to enslave a set of actors whom the public were inclined to support." Performers like the legendary Thomas Betterton, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry, and the rising young comedienne Anne Bracegirdle had
the audience on their side and, in the confidence of this, they walked out.

The actors gained a Royal "licence to perform", thus bypassing Rich's ownership of both the original Duke's and King's Company patents from 1660, and formed their own cooperative company. This unique venture was set up with detailed rules for avoiding arbitrary managerial authority, regulating the ten actors' shares, the conditions of salaried employees, and the sickness and retirement benefits of both categories. The cooperative had the good luck to open in 1695 with the première of William Congreve's famous Love For Love and the skill to make it a huge box-office

London again had two competing companies. Their dash to attract audiences briefly revitalized Restoration drama, but also set it on a fatal downhill slope to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Rich's company notoriously offered Bartholomew Fair-type attractions — high kickers, jugglers, ropedancers, performing animals — while the cooperating actors, even as they appealed to snobbery by setting themselves up as the only legitimate theatre company in London, were not above retaliating with "prologues recited by boys of five, and epilogues declaimed by ladies on horseback".

This manipulation of public taste is a feature of entertainment and has been an especial feature of the music industry – whether we talk of the song factories of Tin Pan Alley, the mob connections of the swing era or Berry Gordy’s Motown business, we see exploitative businessmen taking advantage of ambitious performers (and particularly singers). A moment looking at the contract disputes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, come to think of it, just about every top performing artist of the 1960s and 1970s reveals the Faustian deal most performers enter into with promoters – sign here and we make you rich but only so long as you do what we want you to do.

I’m not sure Simon Cowell is of an honourable tradition – although his understanding of what the public will buy is essential. Just as Berry Gordy sustained Motown on the (very cheap) unique sound created by his in-house backing band, Simon Cowell works from a limited palette in terms of music. There is not a “Cowell Sound” but it is striking to see how most of the performers who get through to the public votes in X-Factor conform to a limited set of stereotypes – strong female singers usually black or mixed race, pretty young boys (singly or in groups) with light voices but a degree of sex appeal and slightly scruffy blokes with high voices.

This is the Cowell model and the performers are them squeezed into a lowest-common-denominator approach by recycling songs from within the bounds of expectation. The focus is on the money note, the song choice and “movement” leaving some songs destroyed by the need to fit in a ‘top C’ or wailing arpeggio. But we’ve always known this sells – plenty of opera scores were fiddled with so the big stars could have their note and Cowell merely continues this tradition (albeit with less good singers).

We should not moan about X-Factor spoiling the music industry – that spoiling was done long before Simon Cowell was born. Instead, we should wonder at how fantastic singers, musicians and composers still get success without selling their souls to the “industry” – like this! Or for that matter…this!

Who needs Simon Cowell!