Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to life, back to National Express East Anglia...

Alright, I need to get to work. So, I head for the station to catch the 9.12 to Liverpool Street which, to add to the gaiety of nations, I find is being terminated at Ipswich this morning, for reasons unexplained. So far, so NXEA. And then, an announcement. "For passengers on platform 1 awaiting the 9.12 service, we regret to announce that this service has been cancelled.".

Ho hum, thinks I, I'd be better off on the 9.29 anyway, so I cross the footbridge and head for the station shop to buy a newspaper. As I head back along the platform, the warning sounds for the closing of the level crossing next to the station can be heard, so I look over my shoulder, only to see the cancelled 9.12 pulling in to Stowmarket. Best of all, it has 'London Liverpool Street' on the front. So I scuttle over the bridge and ask the driver whether or not he is actually going to London. "I don't know", he admits, "but I'd recommend that you get on this and change at Ipswich." "To the train that stops here after yours?", I respond. "Well you know more than I do then!", he exclaims.

It's good to be back, no, really it is...

The Coalition - time to demonstrate a sense of compassion, perhaps?

"We're out of money!", appears to be the constant refrain of Coalition spokesmen when called to account for the latest 'unfortunate' consequence of its policy decisions. And yes, they have a valid point - if you're an economist or a market trader. The problem is, most of us aren't. Worse still, the public aren't either.

Let's be honest for a minute. If you're going to cut a structural deficit on the scale created by the Labour Party, someone, somewhere, is going to get hurt. Actually, make that quite a lot of someones, virtually everywhere. The key question, and one that is going to have to be answered if the Coalition is to survive is, "what is the cost of making that cut?". It isn't just an economic question, but a social one too. And given the number of my friends and colleagues who are so deeply troubled by the actions of the Coalition, people whose emotional intelligence I trust, the answer needs to be more than just a rhetorical one.

This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that the June budget will be regressive in its effects from 2012. As I'm not an economist, I'm not in a position to judge the accuracy of their claim although, as a credible commentator, their comments should be treated seriously. And whilst it has been suggested that their analysis is partial (perhaps incomplete is a better word to use here), it is probably better not to get into an argument about datasets and predictions based thereon.

It is all about perception, and if people are convinced that the Coalition are bent on evicting widows from their homes and taking the bread from the mouths of infants, then that is what we will be judged upon.

And that's why I have to be critical of some of the elementary mistakes that have been made so far. Failing to undertake an equalities audit of the budget proposals was foolhardy in the extreme. All right, they may fail, in which case, why not go back to the drawing board once you know what the issues are? Proposals to cut housing benefit to those on Jobseekers Allowance for more than one year smack of token victimisation rather than a meaningful strategy (and yes, I'm not blind to the logic - there are some who will respond to a stick rather than a carrot).

There is more to my concern than just these two aspects, although these two do come to mind most readily. Others might choose to feature reports from elsewhere in government. However, most of us entered politics to make things a bit better, not to manage increased levels of hardship, and if only the Coalition could express itself better in terms of what steps it is taking to ameliorate the impact of spending cuts for those in most need, we might be rather more enthusiastic in our defence of, and support for, it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

We apologise for the unannounced disruption to our service...

It's all been a bit quiet here at Planet Bureaucrat of late, with tumbleweed blowing across the blog. And given that some of you have been kind enough to nominate me for the BOTY for best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office, perhaps I should explain. Ros and I have been away on holiday to Canada, primarily to attend a family baptism.

But we're back now, so I can catch up. So, what can you expect? Well, here are just three things I'll be writing about. Topless women in city centres, incredible, appearing salmon and bunny rabbits - yes, Ros has finally discovered the key aspect of my psyche that explains everything.

It's good to be home...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Coalition - did you ever get the feeling that you're being watched?

Having taken some time off to write my memoirs, I've been catching up with things. You know, the 1500 pieces of e-mail awaiting filing, reading or action, that sort of thing (it's going quite well, since you ask...).

Now, I've dipped back into the outside world, only to discover that our little relationship with the Conservatives is under the spotlight. The Economist's recent front page, depicting David Cameron with a Union Jack mohican, suggests that Britain may have one of the world's most radical governments. Now, whilst radical isn't necessarily good, it does attract attention.

I'm told that interest in our Federal Conference from overseas is higher than ever before, and people want to know how coalition works in our generally confrontational style of democracy. Our sister parties, such as the Liberal Party of Canada, are particularly keen to get a grasp of how the internal management of a party such as ours holds together under the stresses created by its factions. Interestingly, in their case, they want to understand how a bigger party, as they are, handles a smaller one, such as the New Democrats, in a coalition environment, should such a scenario come to pass.

The ongoing debate about the size and form of government and the public sector is of interest in a number of countries. The emphasis on budget cuts rather than tax rises is in contrast to that of a number of our neighbours and major trading partners - albeit that our deficit was relatively larger to begin with.

How we handle this will define our maturity as a political force. I hope, for example, that the way in which we interact with our international sister parties will improve, that we learn from their experiences and open ourselves up to new ideas. At the same time, it would be reassuring if the Party chose not to circle the wagons, to maintain its belief in open debate of sometimes sensitive issues, and hold true to its tradition of inclusivity and involvement.

I will watch developments with interest...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I like me just the way I am. Now change?

I live an unusual life. By day, I am a mild-mannered tax official, doing a job which doesn’t exactly stretch me. But away from the office, my life is… complex. I switch from the (relatively) intellectual slow lane to a life of high drama, low politics and intrigue, albeit some of it vicariously.

You can see my problem, perhaps. Or perhaps not. You see, I quite enjoy having a low-octane job in that sense, as it comes as something of a relaxant, a relatively straightforward task which, without false modesty, I’m pretty good at. I can apply some intellectual rigour, explore the morality of what I do and to whom, experiment with organisation and process, and work in a way which suits the way I feel. I’m kind of lucky like that, in that my manager and I have reached a position where he trusts me to deliver, and I do just that.

I do enjoy the rest of my life. I enjoy politics, I enjoy the sense of doing things to help others, I enjoy the strategic manoeuvring, even if I’m not horribly good at it. The touch of glamour that infiltrates my existence appeals to my sense of theatre, and the opportunities to meet amazing, fascinating people are just that, amazing and fascinating.

I’m even happily married. Trust me, this isn’t something that I take for granted. I’m amazed at my good fortune, and would never have thought, after my previous experience, that I could find someone that could deal with my idiosyncrasies, baggage, cats and taste in shirts. Ros has persuaded me to relocate to a small village in Suffolk, where I appear to have found my metier at the lowest level of local government, and am more connected to be community than I have been at any point in my adult life.

So why on Earth am I musing about change? There are, I think, two aspects to the question, what do I want to change and why? The question is easier than the answer. After all, what would you want to change if you’re happy in yourself? Work, social life and relationship are all good, and whilst the definition of ‘good’ is entirely subjective, it’s my definition and I can ‘tick all of the boxes’.

I’ve been travelling today, and I tend to do most of my ‘big thinking’ when I’m on a long journey. I’ve reached life-changing decisions in Paris, on a train between Strasbourg and Brussels, and in a resort in Borneo. And perhaps I’ve had one today.

It is high time I paid myself more attention. Alright, I accept that this sounds a bit selfish but, hear me out, I may have hit upon something. The thing is, I’ve been so caught up in enjoying myself, that I’ve rather forgotten that, like anything else, the whole mechanism that is my life has been rather neglected. It isn’t like a Swiss watch, it’s more robust than that, but it does need to be maintained and nurtured, protected from misuse and generally cared for. A bit more sleep, a better diet, more attention to the running repairs that a soul requires from time to time.

So I’m going to try to do just that for a while. I don’t have any goals, or targets, there are no big achievements that I want to define. I simply want to be able to be better at the things that matter. Interestingly, I’m not sure that anyone will notice the effects.

Lucky that I’m not doing it for effect, really…

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fantasy football - Deportivo Creeting is unleashed upon an unsuspecting world...

Having received an invitation to take part in a Liberal Democrat Fantasy Football League, I felt, what the hell, why not give it a whirl? It appears that I am not alone, as there are now sixty-two teams signed up - a worthy contest indeed, including as it does the Member of Parliament for Torbay, Adrian 'Bites Yer Legs' Sanders.

So that you know how likely I am to threaten at the top of the table, here is my team;

1. Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur)
2. Dawson (Tottenham Hotspur)
3. Haugeland (Fulham)
4. Vermaelen (Arsenal)
5. Toure (Manchester City) (captain)
6. Etherington (Stoke City)
7. Parker (West Ham United)
8. Malouda (Chelsea)
9. Arteta (Everton)
10. Rodallega (Wigan Athletic)
11. Anelka (Chelsea)

The substitutes are;

12. Robinson (Blackburn Rovers)
13. Van Persie (Arsenal)
14. N'Zogbia (Wigan Athletic)
15. Alcaraz (Wigan Athletic)

It may well prove to be a wild ride...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Coalition - why having genuine policy debate matters

It is noticeable that, whilst young Mr Clegg has come under fire for some of the things he has said, most of the policy glitches have come from Conservative-inspired ideas. Nick's so-called gaffes on child detention and Iraq merely underlined our world view as Liberal Democrats, and revealed that he hasn't yet been captured by the moderate(ish) Conservatives we are currently working with. Whilst the media, who hate us anyway, will snipe away, he'll be the better for it.

I am less sanguine about some of the policy initiatives coming from the Conservative side of the coalition. It isn't that I am unsympathetic to the aims of some of it, or even that I radically disagree, it's more that the concept of delivery and consequences appears to be only tangentially considered.

Liberal Democrat policy making is seen as being a bit hidebound, a bit London-centric and a mite elitist, and I won't revisit that argument here. However, by having a working group look into a policy field, filtering it through the prism of the Federal Policy Committee and then presenting it to Federal Conference for debate, any significant idea can, and often will, be pulled to pieces to see how it ticks. It isn't flawless by any means, but most of the obvious flaws, implications and consequences tend to be uncovered.

The Conservatives, just like Labour, tend to present policy to their adoring masses. Designed by fearfully clever people like Oliver Letwin, it sometimes lacks a grounding in actuality. A concept which looks good on paper runs into the sands when someone in the real world says, "But how does Section 14 of the Paper Clips Act 1985 interact with this?", (as someone always does) creates a sense of uneasy shuffling.

One of the things that frustrated me so much about Labour in power was their ability to create confusion by legislation. Poorly-drafted bills would be rammed through the Commons by an over-mighty Executive, creating a need for remedial legislation to fix the flaws in the original.

If the Coalition is to succeed, it needs to get its policy-making right first time, especially given the ideological divide to be bridged at every stage. And that means trusting and then involving a wider group of people than is currently the case in the Conservative Party. I have become aware that there are some in the blue team who look at our internal processes and democracy with a degree of envy.

The challenge for Liberal Democrats next month is to remain as committed as we can to that debate, and not to retreat into a cautious shell in fear of what twelve journalists from the Daily Mail might think. And if we do, maybe the Conservatives will take courage and do the same...

Is that a Liberal Democrat Council Group I see before me?

Here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy', we do like to perform a public service from time to time, and this is one of those times...

The great minds of Liberal Democracy in England have come together and produced this definition;

A Liberal Democrat Council Group shall be automatically recognised if;

(a) Firstly; it comprises only Party members,
(b) Who all went through formal approval as candidates and,
(c) Who were sanctioned as official Liberal Democrat candidates by the D.N.O. and
(d) Secondly; it has Standing Orders that comply with the Party Constitution and,
(e) Provide that group offices should be filled by open and democratic election by the members of the Group.

It isn't all over if a Group does not fulfil all of these criteria, however. The Regional Party may recognise as a Group if it is considered unlikely to bring the Party into disrepute - Suffolk's Liberal Democrat and Independent Group would be approved, for example.

So, if you are a councillor at County, Unitary, Borough or District level, do check to see if your Group has been recognised by your Region. And if you have any questions, contact your Regional Secretary. We know everything...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How to recognise a Council Group - a bureaucrat reflects...

I know what you're thinking. "What is he on about this time? Doesn't he know a Council Group when he sees one?"

Alas and alack, life is not that simple when you're the Regional Bureaucrat. Since last year, Regional Parties are required to recognise Council Groups as a means towards connecting them back into the Party. You see, anyone was entitled to describe themselves as a Liberal Democrat Group, regardless of their actual status, membership or relationship to the Party, either at Local Party or Regional level.

Accordingly, the English Party has added Article 8 to its Constitution, which came into force at close of poll on 6 May - don't worry if you hadn't noticed, we were probably all busy worrying about other things at the time... Therefore, as a Regional Party, we were obliged to recognise our various Groups across six counties by 31 July. We're a bit behind, in truth... having failed to recognise a single Group thus far. We don't even have a process for dealing with applications for recognition, and I am hurriedly designing one to be adopted as soon as the appropriate Regional committee can do so.

We also have to, it appears, re-recognise Council Groups annually, and this brings with it further bureaucratic pressures. I can see that I'm going to have to design an annual stencil to be issued to every Council Group in the six counties. Ah well, it could be worse, we might have to recognise Town and Parish Council Groups too...

Oh, we do...

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Could you be an ELDR Congress Delegate?

A message reaches me from the Liberal Democrat European Group...

The Liberal Democrats are still short of sufficent delegates to activate all of our votes at the ELDR Congress this autumn. It is in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday October 14th-15th, with a reception the night before. Direct flights on BA from Heathrow and Easyjet from Manchester.

Contact Natalie Darby in the Lib Dem International Office for details at Lib Dem HQ on 0207 222 7999. The deadline to confirm names on our delegation list is August 13th.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Suffolk - we're going to live forever... but where?

Apparently, the Office for National Statistics has released figures which indicate that Suffolk is going to be knee deep in old people by 2031. Being a relatively rural county, that perhaps comes as no great surprise, but the extent to which the county is expected to age is quite astonishing. There is, naturally, a health warning to be given with this data, in that the projection is based on a premise that the current population will remain unchanged between now and then - a very rash assumption, to my mind - but the numbers are nonetheless interesting.

At the current time, 19.3% of the population of the county is aged 65 or over, a proportion which is predicted to increase to 26.3% by 2031. The figures for Mid Suffolk are even more daunting, with the elderly population predicted to increase from 19.4% to 28.1% (including me, I have to admit).

Meanwhile, our Conservative county council is making threatening noises about the future of all of the residential care homes currently run by it which, given their track record, should come as no great surprise. Doubtless, the current financial position means that there does need to be a careful review of all spending, but the suggestion that the council may pull out of in-house provision of such care, leaving it all to the private sector, is a concern.

There are other issues too. Transport is of critical importance as we age, especially those of us who live in villages, and become less confident behind the wheel of a car. The cost of providing services in relatively thinly populated rural districts increases - who gets the wheelie bin to the curb? - and the impact of distance on basics such as meals on wheels brings organisational difficulties. One alternative is to drive the elderly out of their villages and into towns, another blow to rural communities which already depend on the retired for much local activity.

I dearly hope to grow old in Creeting St Peter, having served forty years on the Parish Council, pottering around the place as I please. It looks like I won't lack for company...

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Social housing - Cameron catches 'foot in mouth' disease...

As one of those people who blame Conservatives for creating the current crisis in social housing, and Labour for being too useless to remedy the situation in thirteen years in power, David Cameron's comments on term-limited social housing are another sign that we need to step up our game in seeking to restrain those in the Conservative Party with an urge to attack those segments of society who don't fit in with their vision of society.

Interestingly, I never had a problem with the notion of 'Right to Buy'. It was the reality of the programme which was so destructive. Discounted sales produced a transfer of wealth from the community, in the form of local government, to aspirational individuals, an idea which was very nice for those who benefited, but which punished those whose rates and community charge payments had paid for the properties in the first place. By then preventing local councils from building new stock with the proceeds, they reduced availability of social housing, creating the ghettos of deprivation that now blight the lives of those condemned to them and those who live with the consequences - crime, anti-social behaviour and the like. And, of course, by encouraging people that home ownership was a must, they prepared the ground for the boom in house prices - remember supply and demand, my Tory friends?

Labour could have done so much better. If they had encouraged local councils to build as part of a balanced housebuilding programme, we might have had a better balanced housing market, as well as avoiding the price bubble that drove first-time buyers out of the market in 2005/07.

There is much in the Coalition's proposals that is good. Improving the scope for mobility will enable those in council housing to move to where the jobs are, should they be able to. Encouraging people to reassess their needs as their circumstances change will hopefully free up larger properties so badly needed at present. But indicating that you might introduce limited-term tenancies, thus creating uncertainty in the minds of tenants, is not a particularly useful contribution.

Firstly, just as long-term rail franchises are meant to provide an incentive to train operators to invest in improvements, the possibility of settling in a home, albeit one provided by the State, is an inducement to build, and contribute towards, stable communities in areas with high levels of social housing, to establish more socially diverse estates. In short, the 'Big Society' that David Cameron himself witters on about at such length. Dave, a big society includes everyone...

So, no more destabilising talk, let's be a bit more radical. Why not give local councils more power to borrow money to build new social housing. It would provide housing for our young, our vulnerable and our poor, boost the construction industry, and rebalance the housing market. Freedom means allowing everyone to take part on equal terms...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

'Liberal Bureaucracy' announces a new celebration day...

There are so many events to be marked - National Orgasm Day, National Sausage Week to name but two - that trying to find time for another is quite difficult. However, I do feel that we need to find time for one more. So, I'd like to announce...

National Hug a Lib Dem Day

After all, we're in the firing line a bit at the moment, and with the degree of existential doubt out there, a reassuring hug is just what the doctor ordered.

My contribution? Well, apart from a big hug for Ros, I'd like to send virtual hugs to Caron Lindsay and Jennie Rigg, with an extra order of hug for Jennie. As for the rest of you, you know it makes sense...

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Referenda for council tax increases - that's another pickle you're getting into, Eric!

To be honest, I've never really rated Eric Pickles - his bluff, 'I'm a Yorkshireman' style doesn't convince me of his integrity and his supposed common sense approach is merely a poorly-disguised populism. And, unfortunately, his proposal that voters might be able to vote down a council tax increase in a referendum is one of those superficially attractive ideas that will be very popular until it starts to be used.

In my experience, very few councils want significant increases in the level of council tax. Given that there are councils that have elections in three years out of every four, you can hardly hope that profligacy will be forgotten by the next election. And, in the current circumstances, very few will seek to levy significant increases.

But let's assume, for the sake of the argument, that there are some councils determined to increase their council tax rate by more than the rate of inflation. There could be good cause - something that central government won't fully cover like free bus travel for the elderly. It might be that local voters desire extra services. A referendum is triggered, costing however much - I'm told that the cost of Parish Council elections for Creeting St Peter is about £1.10 per elector, so you can use that as a guide.

If the proposed precept is lost, what is it replaced by? Does the Council return to the drawing board and how long will it have? Because time is of the essence, council tax demands have to be issued, direct debits updated, staff paid, after all.

And who campaigns for the two sides of the argument? Would the minority opposition group be effectively constraining the elected administration? Would the costs of running the referendum exceed the resultant reduction in income?

For most district and parish councils, the burden is likely to exceed the benefit, and the consequential effects in a place like Mid Suffolk are serious indeed. Given that the District collects the precepts of the County, the Parish and the Fire Authority, all of whom might be blameless, how is the circle squared?

All in all, this is a dog's breakfast of a proposal. The Daily Mail will doubtless love it, as they hate government at every level, but voters will quickly discover the downsides. But it will glean a few favourable headlines, just as Labour were so adept at doing. They were good at promising the moon and delivering nothing too...

Ros in the Lords: Statement (27 July 2010)

As part of the attempts to reform the House of Lords, it has been decided that Peers should be given the opportunity to leave. At the moment, Peers may, if hereditary, renounce their Peerage. They may also go on leave of absence, a state which can be reversed at any moment, although it is generally a prelude to informity or death. As part of the reforms proposed by David Steel over many years, a working group has been set up to look at some options for clearing the benches...

House of Lords: Working Practices


The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): Further to the announcements I made on 29 June (Hansard, col. 1667) and 12 July (Hansard col. 514) I have set up two Leader's Groups.

A first Leader's Group, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral, has been appointed to identify options for allowing Members to leave the House of Lords permanently. Baroness Scott of Needham Market, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton, Baroness Murphy and Baroness Sharples have agreed to serve on the group...

The problem I foresee is this. How do you persuade people to go before they are too infirm to attend without some sort of incentive? And given the hesitation about financial inducements, is it even possible to offer a meaningful incentive? The gender balance is interesting though...

Ros in the Lords: Written Answers (2 August 2010)

Curiously, the House of Lords still ticks over during the summer, with the backlog of Written Questions to the Government to be dealt with...



Asked by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to introduce new rules covering change of use from family homes to houses of multiple occupation.[HL1699]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): We have sought the views of key partners on our proposals to amend the planning rules for houses in multiple occupation. Subject to consideration of their responses, our aim is to have the revised legislation in place for 1 October 2010.

Monday, August 02, 2010

News of another Labour failure on immigration...

I am one of those people that firmly believe that, if you are to have laws, then you have to have enforcement. After all, failure to do so tends to lead to a view that laws can be broken, and the inevitable undermining of public order. Immigration law being one of those emotional issues that it is, enforcement is all the more relevant. So, the news that the Home Office was failing to ensure that it was represented at 41,141 successful appeal hearings against rejected asylum applications, deportations and refusals of entry between 2006 and 2009 comes as a huge disappointment to anyone who believes in an honest, transparent immigration system.

In fairness, some of those appeals might very well have succeeded even if the UK Border Agency and its predecessor been represented, but it is a sign of a immigration system under immense stress. It also demonstrates that, if a system is discredited, more people will attempt to confront it or circumvent it.

There is an irony, in that this country was seen as a 'soft touch' for immigrants in the past, when it probably wasn't, whereas Labour in recent years talked tough on immigration and quietly dismantled the machinery that allowed it to be managed and controlled. Some of that machinery will need to be reassembled, with additional staff to handle appeals, the re-introduction of exit controls and to handle the backlog in the meantime. At a time of economic hardship and budget cuts, the idea that the Government may have to spend more money on this work whilst cutting other spending will be highly controversial.

And yet it must be done. Given the general dishonesty of the debate on immigration during the election campaign, and the deception over migration from Eastern and Central European countries in the European Union, in order to clear the air, the immigration system needs to be properly enforced.

That doesn't mean 'send them all home', as the BNP would like. It means that all applicants should be treated with respect, without undue delay and after consideration of the facts. It means that genuine asylum seekers should be allowed to work, rather than be forced to live off vouchers provided by the State. It means that overstayers are pursued whilst the system doesn't discriminate on the basis of race.

Think of it as an investment. A properly functioning immigration system will reduce the number of appeals, reducing in turn the cost of maintaining that system. It will allow those who can contribute to the life of our nation to gain access, it will enhance our reputation in the world (and never underestimate how that helps in our international relations) and allow a proper debate on what kind of immigration we want or can successfully manage, free of casual racism and uninformed cynicism.

If the Coalition can create a genuinely compassionate immigration policy, which allows genuine asylum seekers to gain admission, avoids the need for long-term detention and provides clear criteria for likely refusal, it will rise in my estimation. I expect the Liberal Democrat elements to lead the way in such a quest...

The Coalition: the good, the indifferent and the rest...

It's been, in many ways, a good week. For those of us who believe that giving people more freedom is a good thing, proposals to remove the mandatory retirement age and abolish the age limit for purchasing annuities are to be applauded. Yes, people should have the right to retire at a fixed age but there are many who would like to work on as long as they are enjoying it. And as for having to buy an annuity on your seventy-fifth birthday, it seems nonsensical that you cannot be trusted to calculate for yourself when you would like the money that is, after all, yours.

The pupil premium is an entirely Liberal Democrat idea, and will make a real difference to the education of those with genuine issues requiring particular attention. And even David Cameron's somewhat entertaining attempts at diplomacy pick out some interesting new messages - a welcome to Turkey, a blunt warning to those in Pakistan who wish to play both sides off against each other, a rebuke to Israel over Gaza - which Liberal Democrats might not be particularly uncomfortable about.

There are some elements that I'm not wild about, however. The proposals to allow voters to veto council tax rises are populist and ill-informed (should I be surprised that Eric Pickles is so attached to the idea?), and I still have some residual doubts about elected police commissioners.

On balance though, I'm still comfortable about the direction of the Coalition. It isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than the prospects of having to do business with a bunch of authoritarian deficit deniers in the Labour Party...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Whatever happened to the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway?

There are railway lines and there are railway lines. There are the famous, like the Great Western. There are those that have history, such as the Stockton and Darlington, or the Liverpool and Manchester. There are the heroic failures - the Mid Suffolk Light Railway springs to mind, a railway which was bankrupt from the day it opened. And then there are those who are, for the most part, forgotten, their track removed, only preserved through the endeavours of a few slightly mad, utterly romantic, individuals.

The Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway is in the latter category, originally intended to link East Anglia to the Midlands. It was no small affair either, with a network linking Bourne in Lincolnshire, and Peterborough, with Yarmouth via Fakenham, Melton Constable and North Walsham. There were loops serving Cromer, Sheringham and Mundesley, plus a line to Norwich via Drayton.

And yet, and yet, there are some surviving fragments. The Sheringham to Cromer line operated by National Express East Anglia is the only section within the control of National Rail, and the North Norfolk Railway very successfully operates between Sheringham and Holt.

Better still, there are those who have a dream. The Mid Norfolk Railway is intended to be a heritage railway and a commercial venture, running trains from Dereham to Norwich, connecting through to the Norwich to Cambridge line at Wymondham. It also runs north to County School Station, where once the East Norfolk Railway ran trains to Wroxham via Aylsham. Meanwhile, the Holt, Melton Constable and Fakenham Railway Company dreams of connecting up County School with Holt, forming the Norfolk Orbital Railway.

So, just maybe, the 'Muddle & Get Nowhere' may yet have a new lease of life. After all, Lord Bonkers doubtless used it to get to engagements in Norfolk, and such things should not be let go of too lightly...

Mr Cameron, meet a coming superpower...

I am, unsurprisingly, delighted to see my Government finally taking India seriously. Being partly of Indian extraction, and a semi-frequent visitor to the country, I've seen for myself the progress that is being made in Mumbai, in Bangalore and even in Delhi.

But if the United Kingdom is to be taken seriously, the relationship with India needs to be about more than just us selling things to them. It is about immigration, about cultural exchange, about India's place in the world as much as ours. So, here are a few suggestions for the Government;
  1. Make it less difficult for Indians seeking to visit the country. Note that I use 'less difficult' rather than 'easier'. There is a fairly well-founded impression that, by various means, people with darker skins are given more hurdles to clear than their white counterparts. Consular buildings are more thinly-spread, there is a presumption that they will overstay that is not applied to visitors from Australia, Canada or New Zealand, and the non-refundable fee that accompanies any visa application is designed to put off as many people as possible.
  2. Encourage our universities to create joint programmes with Indian partner universities. The exchange of ideas will foster a better long-term relationship, and offer opportunities to British students that they might not find elsewhere.
  3. Encourage tourism to this country. Indians are beginning to travel and, with the number of flights between London and a number of Indian cities already high, it is only a matter of time before we can potentially attract significant inward traffic.
  4. Start to recognise degrees from Indian universities as valid for Civil Service recruitment purposes. Current policy is to utterly disregard them, and I have seen some very bright individuals languishing at relative low levels as a result.
These aren't big ideas, they need not cost much. What they do is send a message that we are interested in India, not just because we think that they have money and might put some our way - most Indian leaders, in politics, in business, are much smarter than that - but because we have a link in terms of history.

But most important, if the future is that of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), then shouldn't we be taking the one with whom we have most in common seriously? And that isn't the Chinese, who have had so much attention lavished on them up until now...

I'm looking over an Andrew Clover that I'd overlooked before...

I would be the first to admit that I am generally less than kind about Norfolk. And, given that I live in Suffolk, that might not come as much of a surprise, even when bearing in mind that I studied in Norwich for three years in the mid-eighties. Ros, on the other hand, likes Norfolk, and when she was invited by friends to visit them for an evening of culture, was keen to accept... and bring me along.

So, I caught an early afternoon train from Liverpool Street and was met at Stowmarket by Ros, with the car and a small suitcase, for the journey to Burnham Overy Staithe, a small village on the North Norfolk coast, between Hunstanton and Wells-next-the-Sea. It isn't an obvious journey, and our route took us across country via Ixworth, Thetford, Swaffham and Fakenham, through some rather gentle, although still pretty, countryside. Eventually, we reached our destination, checked into our bed and breakfast, and watched the peacocks in the garden whilst we chilled out.

Our hosts, Tom and Henrietta, host fundraising events for local charities from time to time, and the evening's event was to raise money for the Wells Community Hospital. Luckily, they have a small performance space built into their home, which seats about fifty, including six up on the balcony at the back. We were seated up there...

It turned out that we were to see the final rehearsal of a show bound for the Edinburgh Festival - 'Love Rules', a one-man show by Andrew Clover, a comedian of some repute. Andrew is probably best known for his column in the Sunday Times, 'Dad Rules', in which he describes the trials and tribulations of parenthood. Alright, not perhaps the obvious material to interest a childless forty-something, but why not give him a chance, I thought.

And he was pretty funny too. I won't spoil things for anyone who might be in Edinburgh and was thinking of catching his show (6 p.m., 4th - 29th August, Pleasance Courtyard Below, booking available here) but, prepare for plenty of audience participation, references to Runcorn and a tie that could blind at fifty paces.

Tom and Henrietta had invited us to stay for dinner afterwards, and I got to talk to Andrew over a bowl of pasta. He's the first comedian that I've ever really met up close, and it was interesting to chat with him over a glass of wine.

And so to bed, with North Norfolk to look forward to in the morning...