Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Decade of Austerity

For the last couple of days I have been away at the County Council Network' annual conference.  It was extremely useful.  In particular, I picked up quite a few ideas about Adult Social Care that I will look at in more detail and discuss with officers at Cambridgeshire.

There was, of course, lots and lots of debate about budgets and "austerity".  It is absolutely clear that the financial issues that Councils face are here until at least 2020. The phrase "the decade of austerity" was used a number of times.

It was also stressed that one of the ways that Councils needed to deal with this was through saving money by working closer with the rest of the public sector and especially that County Councils need to work hand-in-glove with Districts to cut costs. It' a message that I welcome, one of the benefits of being a "dual-hatted" Councillor is that you can use the role to develop mutual understanding of issues to make that joint working happen.

This joint working is already happening in Cambridgeshire; it needs to be better, but it is happening.  Arguably, the best example is the 2020 vision for Wisbech.

The "S" Word Again

Over the last few days a draft report for the proposed repeat supermarket planning meeting has been discussed and, indeed, circulated.  That draft report is just that, a draft, it has been prepared in the run up to January to allow both Sainsbury and Tesco to comment as a way of preventing the technical error that caused the problem after 29th August.  So it is likely that they will change before they are (potentially) discussed by the planning committee in January.

The recommendations in this draft report are exactly the same as they were on 29th August; to refuse the combined Sainsbury Supermarket and Country Park application, to refuse the proposed business park and to approve the Tesco application. I am really disappointed by this and will be putting in some challenge about the reports, in particular about the role of localism in decisions like this, given these comments by the previous Planning Minister.

However, I still have a number of concerns about the proposed January meeting.  Not least that I have my doubts it will happen, my suspicion is that there will be a legal challenge prior to it taking place (although I have no evidence to say this definitely will be the case).

From the very point that these applications descended into chaos I have made the case that Fenland District Council must consider Whittlesey people when they sort things out, to date I don't believe that has happened.  Prior to January's meeting a couple of issues need to be thought about:
  • How can anyone expect Whittlesey people to have confidence in any decision when they do not have a clue why what looked like a perfectly good and legal decision to approve a Sainsbury supermarket and country park is being revisited (and it needs to be stressed that on 29th August Planning Officers at Fenland District Council agreed that the reasons for appoval were good planning reasons)?
  • Don't Whittlesey people have the right to know exactly what the sequence of events was between 29th August when the Tesco supermarket was refused and 19th September when it was so controversially approved? Unless this happens they cannot know that the situation has been properly and appropriately dealt with - and therefore they cannot have confidence that this fresh decision is going to be the open and and honest one that they expect and deserve.  You only have to go and look a some of the comments on various internet forums and social media sites to realise that this is definitely not the case at the moment.
There is one other important issue.  It has been suggested to me that the proposed ratification of the Fenland Core Strategy in December will be used as an opportunity to shore up the planning policy around the supermarket sites in order to strengthen the officer recommendations.  I don't believe that will be the case, but if there are changes to the Core Strategy that relate to the proposed supermarket sites then for the sake of public interest and confidence Fenland District Council must publish the audit trail that demonstrates why any change to the Draft Core Strategy proposals was needed.

I suspect that this blog will again make uncomfortable reading for some, but I am only doing what I need to do, which is to make sure the interests of Whittlesey residents are considered in this process.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The BBC is starring in its own farce (again)

The current situation at the BBC would be laughable were it not for the fact that they have potentially ruined the rest of someone's life by falsely naming and shaming them as a paedophile.  Of course it also matters that our money is paying for this mess.

I had a conversation with a regional BBC journalist earlier this year about how the BBC's bloated centre was not dealt with sufficiently in the cuts and that instead they focused too much on cutting back local broadcasting.  In my view, that bloated centre is as more the cause of what has happened over the last few weeks as the failings of the now resigned Director General who has been in his job for just 54 days.  It is clear that the DG did not have his finger on the pulse - but that is because of the nature and culture of the modern BBC, something he would not have been able to change during his short tenure.

Change has become inevitable, but I hope it is focused specifically on Newsnight as much as it is on the BBC in general.  We need to move beyond the current ethos that dominates National political interviewing.  Constant interruptions and rude and brusque questioning puts the ego of interviewers ahead of the views of politicians.  In my view the best interviewers allow politicians to have their say so people are able to judge and challenge both them and the organisations they represent.  Of course some depth of knowledge from interviewers is important, but the very fact that the BBC is funded by the licence fee means that it, above all, needs to make sure it is listening to and reflecting the opinions of its viewers.  The world of social media has made that easier now than ever before - it allows a step change, with political programming able to act as an intermediary between the public and politicians rather than simply controlling and setting the agenda. 

The current disaster provides huge opportunity for the BBC; they need to change and learn, but also to seize the opportunity and make its political programming much more viewer focused.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

What can Conservatives learn from the Republican defeat in the US?

Like most people with involvement in politics I was up for much of last night watching the American elections.  Unlike many in my party, I was not particularly enamoured with Mitt Romney and I am happy that he didn't win.  That said, I have concerns about Obama too; he has a bit of Tony Blair about him, promising much, strong in rhetoric, but not delivering enough.  I just think the little that he has done outweighed the shortcomings I saw in Romney.

Whilst the system that the US uses to elect its President is very different from ours, there are lessons that I believe the Conservatives need to learn.  In the UK much of the political focus at election time is on target seats (those with the smallest majorities that political parties need to win to secure a majority), huge effort and funding is put into these areas compared to others; in the US Presidential elections huge amounts of time and money has been put on the so-called swing states - those that are close calls where success makes the difference between winning and losing.   At the time of writing Romney has won just one of these states and seems likely to lose all the others, although Florida is still being counted. So in the areas where Romney and Obama put the most effort, Romney has failed to make an impact.

I believe there are two reasons for this, the first is that the Democrats seem to have a much better operation on the ground than the Republicans.  I don't think that is an issue for the Conservatives in the UK, I think our campaigning on the ground is as good as, if not better than, others.  It is the second reason that UK Conservatives have to learn from.  Romney won the Republican nomination by being forced to the right of centre by his opponents and and he never recovered from that in the Presidential campaign.  In particular, the American elections were always going to be won and lost on economic grounds.

If the Conservatives are to win an outright victory in the next General Election it is clear that we have to listen to the voice of the centre ground on the economy.  That means making sure that we balance the need to be economically prudent with a sense of fairness. We are perfectly capable of doing that, but there are those within the party that believe it is "only" about economics, Conservatives will not succeed if their voice wins in policy terms.  Conservatives are believers in responsibility and enterprise - but they are not separate issues - good economics is about getting the balance between enterprise and responsibility right; ignoring the opinions of the struggling working family in the way we work our way out of the economic doldrums is both irresponsible and a recipe for electoral failure (and I don't believe we are doing that now). In contrast to us, the Labour Party just do not understand the need to be economically responsible - which is why we are in a financial mess now (and also why Conservatives inherited a financial mess in 1979).

However, there are other areas where the Conservative Party's right wing position is both right and holds popular support - such as on immigration, the EU (provided the leadership listen and agree to hold an in/out referendum) and ending benefit dependency.

I must admit, I hate the terms left-wing and right-wing, they are too generalist.  As you examine issues across international boundaries it becomes clear that the perception of what is and is not left-wing or right wing varies considerably.  The difficulty is - how do you write a blog post such as this one without using those terms when they are so widely understood?