Monday, October 30, 2006
Humbled and hurting
I was still suffering today. I was supposed to go to a “spinning” class after work, but my legs still feel as if they have become these achey appendages to my body, rather than the functional limbs that they once were, so I said “no.” And today I was asked whether I wanted to do a half marathon in March! I may well take up the offer, but only once I have convinced my brain that running that kind of distance in a big circle is actually a good idea!
Doubtless if I do say yes and run the half-marathon, I shall come home immediately behind the world’s fastest octogenarian!
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Leaflets and Quizzes - Sunday's not a day of rest.
This evening I was at a charity pub quiz, in aid of Francis House Children's Hospice at a bar called Glass in Fallowfield. The evening is an annual event laid on by the people behind the Manchester club night Kindergarten, several of whom are friends of mine. It wasn't a bad turn out, and hopefully the night raised lots of money.
Another annual event sitting alongside the quiz itself is my quiz team settling for the type of mediocrity that guarantees neither a top prize or the wooden spoon. And so it was tonight as well! Although rumour has it that after I left, one of my friends pilfered a pint glass with a "The Who" band motif on it. So I won't end up completely empty handed after all...
Running in Accrington
It was described in the race-guide as “undulating” compared to Birchwood’s “flat,” and this too was a slightly misleading description. If “undulating” races take in the kinds of roller-coaster dips that this one revelled in providing, then I can only assume that genuinely “hilly” races are confined to the more mountainous areas of places like Kashmir…
My previous personal best was 55:55, set at Birchwood, and it remains my gold standard, as this time I came home in 56:20. Still, I think this was a reasonable time given the terrain (and the fact that since Birchwood I have been in America surviving on their diet for three weeks!). And I got a t-shirt for my troubles this time as well, which I might wear at a future 10k to scare the competition into believing I’m an expert at these things. Their fright might last a few seconds until it becomes blatantly obvious to all that I will complete the course in about twice the time of the quickest!
I have put the photos on my photo site, and you can see them here
Conferencing in Blackburn
Sadly yesterday was somewhat less of a grand affair than that, taking place as it did at a function room in Blackburn. Still, it was a fun and educational day.
I gave a lift to our Prospective Parliamentary Candidate and Holyrood Councillor Vic D’Albert. I think it is testament not only to my composure, but also to the rigour with which Fiat build their Puntos that, despite having the such a dignitary in my car, I didn’t hurtle through the central reservation on the M65 at any point...
Arriving in Blackburn, I was enchanted to discover that my name “wasn’t on the list.” It brought memories of many a Saturday night out in Manchester flooding depressingly back. The bouncers on the door here were a little less intimidating though. I reminded them that their reluctance to let me in contrasted markedly with the speed in which they cashed my cheque, and the situation was soon resolved.
I attended a couple of morning training sessions. One was on “Page Plus,” the Desk Top Publishing software which we use to produce “Focus.” I have just installed the copy that was purchased for me by Bury Lib Dems, so if the next Focus is slightly less professional-looking than normal, it’s because I’m doing it! The second session was on campaigning techniques, looking specifically at our recent Council by-election win in Warrington. Before our lovely lunch, I met our MEPs, Sajjad Karim and Chris Davies, and we were photographed together in support of Fair Trade products. So look out for the picture in Focus! It was a pleasure to meet both Saj and Chris (both of whom I believe are fellow bloggers, Saj certainly), and both showed a keen interest in St Mary’s. They were interested in the campaigns here, such as Save our Schools and the Retreat, and are keen to lend their support to them. It would be great to have them helping out in Prestwich with as much vigour as they work in Brussels! I reminded Saj of the piule of leaflets that exists unmoveable in Vic's kitchen, so he may come to regret his eagerness to volunteer...
The afternoon was spent with Chris Davies in a session talking about green issues, and listening to the keynote speaker Andrew Stunell MP, who is the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary. I was hoping his speech would be an hour long diatribe on the technicalities of local government performance, but I suspect he sensed that whilst I would be delighted, the other 300 people in the audience would probably pelt him with the remnants of their lunch. In reality the speech was an effective reminder of how the policies which we have championed over the years are now becoming main stream (for instance the Environment), and how we should keep up the pressure now.
My final session was to be on “speaking to young people,” which is a particular interest of mine. Sadly it was cancelled, but I id get the chance to speak to a couple of Lib Dem Councillors from the area, including Cllr Trafford from Manchester City Council, one of the younger Members of that body.
I stuck round to hear the Parliamentary reports from Saj Karim and John Leech MP (who I last met in Andrew and Ann Garner’s living room in Prestwich during the last Prestwich Focus Action Day). It was a good job the local contingent stuck to it too, as we picked up two prizes in the end of day raffle, including some House of Commons Scotch… If I don’t see the rest of them for a few days now, they may well be hungover having drunk it!
So, that was my day at conference. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’m told that the National Spring Conference in Harrogate is a much grander affair. Frankly I was happy enough with today, but I’m not one to say “no” to a treat, so bring it on! And of course, any local people (or anyone at all), interested in joining us – getting the chance to debate the issues, meet like-minded people, meet MPs and MEPs, get your face known, and have a nice lunch – please just let me know or fill in this form!
Friday, October 27, 2006
Can Local Government really govern locally now?
So forgive me this lengthy post. I know that the minutiae of Local Government White Papers aren't everybody's cup of tea. But at least you can't say you weren't warned...
As someone who works as an officer for a Council, and works with a fair few Elected Members in my spare time with the Lib Dems as well, I am fairly well placed to see arguments from all sides. On the one hand there is the incessant striving for efficiency in service provision, economies of scale, commissioning of services rather than direct provision. And on the other hand, a desire to place real power in the hands of communities at a local level, with separate localities afforded wide-ranging powers themselves to do as they please.
Whilst the two arguments seem incompatible, the proposals this week seem to go a long way to achieving both aims. The White Paper is broad in scope, and I don’t know enough about much of what was spoken about to offer a meaningful comment on it all. But I do know about Local Government Performance Assessment (because that’s what I do for a living), and I also know about how “backbench” Councillors feel, because I know lots of them. So we can talk about that.
The proposals for revision to Performance Assessment are as follows: The government wants to do away with the current system of Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) and replace it with something called Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA).
CPA has many faults, in my opinion. It relies very heavily on a huge basket of national performance indicators. Its complicated scoring formula means that sometimes even strongly improving Council are stuck on a particular grade through no real fault of their own. And whilst claiming to be Comprehensive, it doesn’t take into account massive parts of a Local Authority’s role, such as that of community leader working in partnership with others.
CAA seems to address many of these issues. The massive number of indicators (there are about 1,200 overall) is being cut to around 200. This appeases those who say that Central Government controls Councils too much, and also makes the whole process a lot less cumbersome and prone to statistical volatility. Lots of the indicators will be locally based as well, with the remaining national indicators based on clear national priorities.
CAA also does away with a “cycle” of inspections and assessments, which meant that Councils sometimes had to wait many years before being re-assessed. Now scores across the board will change each year, to give local people the chance to be better informed about how the local Council is really doing.
But perhaps most importantly, CAA will make sure that Councils and other local agencies really work together for the good of local people. For the first time, Councils will be judged in the round as to how they are engaging with local communities, consulting with stakeholders, and exercising their role as leaders of Local Strategic Partnerships. Local Area Agreements, a key way of joining up policy direction for Local Authority Areas across all types of agency and area of interest, will become far more important, setting the tone for inspections and targets. I think that this is great news, and will really allow for local people to become more engaged. Lines of accountability will become clearer, and Councils will come under even more pressure to more fully engage with citizens.
As far as proposals for Members go, a clear course towards stronger local leadership has been set. At present a majority of Councils have adopted a “Leader and Cabinet” model of leadership, whereby the Council is run by a Leader, internally elected by the other Councillors. The Leader appoints his “Cabinet” members, each of whom has a portfolio area and is in charge of that. Often, Council Leaders can be challenged annually, and if replaced, this creates a shift in power and a lack of stability and strong leadership.
The “Leader and Cabinet” option was one of three available to Councils. The others involve directly elected Mayors, but very few Councils have these.
Now Councils have three new options to choose from. Elected Mayors is still one of them, but now Council Leaders will have to be elected, directly or indirectly, for a term of four years. Of course, they will remain Councillors and vulnerable to losing their seat, but at least if they are electorally secure, they can continue as Leader for four years. This will hopefully provide clear strategic direction and strong leadership. I think that it is a good idea.
More power is also being given to Backbench members, through enhanced powers for “Overview and Scrutiny” commissions, including greater powers of public access. This too is good news, as it will hopefully energise local Councillors to become more effective community activists – which is of course their primary role.
Some interesting ideas about elections have also been put forward – namely that “election by thirds” be scrapped in favour of all out elections. The practice of election by thirds is fairly common, whereby each ward has three Councillors, each up for election annually in turn, with the fourth year off (usually set aside for a General Election). This means that, at any election, only a third of Council seats are up for grabs, and this has been cited as a reason for poor turnout. Why bother voting if you can only get rid of a third of them?
All-out elections are certainly one idea to boost turnout, although it would mean that residents would be stuck with a Council for four years… It would also deprive the populous of a chance to show national government what they thought of them on an annual basis! And of course, given the current political climate, I can’t imagine many Labour Councils jumping at the chance to hold all out elections now, and consign themselves to probable opposition for four years…
One final interesting idea is the abolition of multi-member wards altogether. It is not made clear whether or not the idea is to reduce the number of Councillors by two thirds, or reduce the size of the wards and split the Councillors up accordingly. I think the former idea is undemocratic, and unfair to Councillors who’s workload would treble overnight. But creating smaller wards is certainly an idea that appeals. It would put Councillors in touch with a much smaller section of the community – but allow them to get deeper into issues and potentially resolve far more.
So those are my thoughts.
I know not everyone finds local government White Papers interesting, but I do. Which is probably why nobody has asked me out this Friday night, and I’m here typing about them…
Have a good weekend!
I'm all geared up for the Lib Dem NW Conference in Blackburn tomorrow. Significantly more prepared for that than for the Accrington 10k, at any rate...
We shall see how the weekend progresses.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
A (not really) Olympian amount of stuff on...
Apart from working long days, I have been visiting my Grandpa, who’s roller-coaster health appears to have taken another turn for the worse today. And I’m too tired of thinking about it to write about it too… I also paid a visit to Hospital Radio tonight again – it’ll be good to get back into the swing of that once the current busyness passes.
The weekend shows no prospect of a let-up in the pace. On Saturday it’s the Lib Dem North West Autumn Conference in Blackburn, followed on Sunday by the Accrington 10k. Which I should be out training for tonight. But it’s too cold. That’s hardly the Olympic spirit I know, but that’s probably why the Olympics are in the Summer!
Except for the Winter Olympics, obviously. Which makes me glad I don’t have to ski round Accrington!
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Labour in Retreat?
The Labour Council surprised us all recently with two ideas, neither of which were particularly inspiring – namely to top the glass artwork with steel, thus making it safe enough to re-open, or two replace it with a concrete wall. Much as I enjoy the architecture of the Soviet Union, massive concrete walls aren’t my idea of a good piece of community art for Prestwich.
Now, having finally listened to local residents, a third option has been mentioned, namely a green space. This is not a definite outcome, but is certainly progress, and an acknowledgement that our argument that the local residents should decide on its future ASAP was the right way forward.
It now remains for the Council to put their words into action and finally do what we’ve been saying for months – get a move on and sort this issue out once and for all. The eyesore has to go!
Monday, October 23, 2006
A busy day - and a short posting (sorry)
I had a busy day myself today – back in work, but still time to pen a couple of letters about the post-box mystery I mentioned yesterday.
And then after work I went to a “spinning” class at Oldham leisure centre, which basically involved me cycling halfway to my death on a static bike. Still, it makes a change from jogging (tomorrow’s treat ahead of the Accrington 10k on Sunday), and makes me feel a bit less guilty about the pizza I’m about to have for tea.
I hope you all have a pleasant evening!
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Action Update - Where have all the post boxes gone?
It’s irritating for a number of reasons. First and foremost it’s inconvenient for local people – I don’t like having to talk further to the post box, and I'm sure nobody else does either. It’s especially inconvenient for local residents unable to walk very far. I know of several elderly residents of Mountside Crescent and the far end of Gardner Road who won’t relish the prospect of having to walk all the way to the Precinct or the Post Office to post a letter, especially on a freezing winter’s day or a dark night.
Second, it comes on top of the problems with the Royal Mail in the recent past – the abandonment of the second delivery, erratic times of the remaining delivery, and confusion with the new first class pricing regime.
And third, there’s been no communication (to my knowledge) of the fact that this was happening, or why. Local residents depend on postal services, and we’re being deprived of them without a word of apology or explanation.
I shall be writing to the Royal Mail about this (assuming I can find a post box in which to deposit my letter), and will let you know the outcome.
He has been decidedly ratty about the whole thing though, as if his plans have been thwarted. For a man who’s power of speech had deserted him entirely in recent months, he has been informing us with remarkable clarity of his wishes for the last couple of days – mainly growled orders to turn off the light, or turn up his music, or to stop waking him up.
The more time I spend with him, the more I start to think about how terribly strange it must be to be in his position. He is 83 and in a nursing home. But does he know? He doesn’t ask about home, or when he’s going back there. Is this because he doesn’t realise where he is, or is it because he knows exactly where he is, and that he’s never going home?
I know he knows he’s less than he once was. I see him wring his hands with frustration when he can’t find any of the words he wants to say. And I watch him look at us confused when he gurgles a request that we can’t understand at all. But how deep is his knowledge? How fleeting are his realisations? And if they’re there all the time, how can he do anything but cry about the injustice of what he’s become?
If he could speak… But he can’t, so we don’t know what his brain is thinking. It might be clear as day. Which is why I tell him I love him and make sure he’s listening. He doesn’t respond with more than a grunt, or a word that’s not the right one, but if he’s hearing what I’m saying then at least he knows we’ve not forgotten all he was and all he did.
When they’re feeding him, does he remember a time when he could feed himself? Does he remember a time when he could buy food for himself? Earn money to provide food for everyone else? Walk the streets and drive a car and laugh and whistle and teach his grandson about Mozart and cricket and that your best friends in a car are your mirrors? Sitting on the top of the bus for hours… Does he remember?
He sleeps all day. I wonder what he dreams about? Can he speak in his dreams, and be understood? Does he dream about things from his past, and then in his first moments of being awake, realise that they’re gone forever? Or are his sleeping hours as confused and foggy as the rest?
I’ll never know. But I’ll always wonder..
I told him today that he’d be 84 next month. And he responded with a noise that sounded heartbreakingly like “It’s gone quick.”
Then I kissed him on the forehead, he barked at me to turn off his light, and I left him alone until tomorrow.
Wet Wet Wet
Still, there seems little point in delivering Focus when it is mainly in papier mache form by the time it reaches the letterbox.
Better luck next weekend, I think...
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Action Update - Flytipping
Make the Green Tax Switch!
On Tuesday night Grandpa had a very bad night, prompting the nursing staff to contact the family expressing concerns that he mightn’t survive the day. My Mum, on holiday in Sri Lanka, was informed, and decided to return home to be with him.
But it turns out that the old man is a fighter, and made what the medical staff have repeatedly called a “miraculous recovery.” So much so that when I saw him recently he looked better than before! All the while of course, my Mum was journeying a long and complicated route home (via Qatar), unaware of the change of diagnosis. Needless to say she was relieved when I told her at the airport yesterday! Although, slightly peeved at missing half her holiday!
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Climate Change night response - Am I talking a load of hot air?
We had a stall, and got a number of signatures backing Lib Dem policies on the environment, which is a great fillip ahead of the Green Action Day planned for this weekend (of which more nearer the time).
Climate Change is certainly a major issue for a lot of people. I know that some doubt the science, but everyone must agree that it’s certainly at the forefront of our politicians’ minds these days. And tonight the people of Prestwich leant their voice to the clamour for action to stop what may well become the biggest disaster facing mankind. Climate Change has the potential to irreparably damage our economy and our society; to cause conflicts across the world, and to change the planet forever. It was uplifting to see that so many people are motivated enough by the issue to give up an evening for the cause.
The debate tonight was wide-ranging and interesting, but I felt it lacked serious consideration of how best to tailor any solution to the problem to fit our current lifestyles. A failure to consider a realistic way of making everyone comfortable with “green” solutions. After all, they will only come to pass if lots of people vote for them.
There was much spoken about the evils of oil companies and car companies, and of the failures of Western governments to live up to their obligations to the planet. But there wasn’t much said about the positives that oil and cars have brought to our lives, and what the realistic prospects of us actually giving these things up are. Nobody will vote to give up their cars permanently, or vote for a party that advocates it. So many of the people tonight were hostile to cars and oil, without considering how we could work with energy companies and motor manufacturers to come up with cleaner alternatives without making unreasonable and unworkable changes to lifestyle, which voters will never stand for.
I think this is a failure of many environmental campaigners. Whilst their ideas are fantastic in theory, they fail to consider the practicalities of implementing them in a complicated world where the human race has generated wealth, health and comfort beyond its wildest dreams in the last two centuries for so many people. Some of them can work now – widespread micro-generation, for instance – but why advocate the banning of cars when surely campaigning for investment in clean cars is the way forward? We need to work with big business to make being green profitable. And the way to do this is to make green policies fit in, not stand opposed to society’s progress and our comfortable lifestyles. It might be selfish, but I think it’s realistic.
A reasonable, rational approach to climate change policy, where bloody-minded polluters too lazy to use easily accessible alternative are punished, and realistic alternatives invested in, is the best was forward in my opinion. Those tonight advocating illegal direct action, mass-protest and the abandonment of market forces do nothing to further the cause. They present the environmentalist movement as a freakish collective of tree-huggers, whereas in fact, I imagine most rational people share their general concerns.
It was a good event tonight, and hopefully the first of many. But I think we must be careful to work with the institutions, methods, people and businesses that have made British life so great in the twenty-first century. Together we can address climate change this way. It might take a bit longer, but investment in technologies to accomplish change without undue compromise is the only sustainable way of doing anything, and ensuring that the rest of the world follows suit.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
The future's broken, the future's Orange
But it’s fixed now.
I have begun running again. I took three weeks off to go to the USA. This extended slightly to include two weeks after I got back too. So it’s been nearer six weeks actually. But yesterday I filled in the form for the Accrington 10k a week on Sunday, so got back into the swing of things with a gentle 5k jog around the ward. I will repeat the feat tonight.
It was disappointing to see that the garages on Arthur Street and Harold Street still haven’t been fixed. I will have to get on to that again. Cllr O’Hanlon has spoken to the Council about this, but they seem to be taking their time to do anything.
There’ll be no run tomorrow night though – certainly not until after the “Combat Climate Change” evening at Prestwich Arts College. Everyone is welcome, and it starts at 19.30.
It’s a bit brief tonight I’m afraid – I have lots to do and I have only just got in from work. But if there’s anything at all that you wish to discuss, do give me a call on 0161 798 4996, or drop me a message via this blog.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Climate Change event at Prestwich Arts College on Wednesday
A busy weekend
Tamsin and I also took in a film later on in the day. We went to see “The Departed,” which was a cracking tale, although, as Tam pointed out, almost unbelievably casual in its portrayal of people getting murdered in a variety of ways.
And today, aside from making the regular pilgrimage to my Grandpa’s bedside (he was eating more and coughing less today, which is good news), I finally got around to starting to clear the garden up. It has become so overgrown during the “is it my responsibility or isn’t it?” debate with my landlord, that we could quite easily film a Vietnam epic in it. But now, after the combined efforts of Tamsin, a Flymo, two pairs of shears, a rake and me, it’s looking slightly better. We ran out of weed-killer halfway through, but that can always be rectified. And I almost died at one point attempting to chop off a particularly tall bit of shrubbery. But hopefully it’s the first step towards making the garden presentable for the neighbours, and a bit more welcoming for me.
Of course there was some time for leafleting today as well. I joined Cllrs D’Albert, Pickstone, and Andrew Garner, as well as local campaigner Steve Wright, and we tackled Downham Crescent and the surrounding streets. The time before last I was bitten by a dog on that route and had to make an unscheduled stop at the local hospital on the way home. No such drama today, although there were so many of us out that I’m pretty sure we set a course record.
Back to work in the morning…
Friday, October 13, 2006
Make recycling in Prestwich easier!
I had a fair bit to do today – chores mainly. But I did do a spot of leafleting – the Kingswood Rd / Dashwood Rd / North St area. And I did the recycling.
It’s interesting that Bury Council have decided to put a chip on people’s blue recycling bins without telling anyone, ostensibly to boost recycling somehow, whilst at the same time neglecting to make the act of recycling any easier. Today I needed to recycle my plastic bottles, my paper and card, and my cans. And I also had some clothes that I wanted to donate to charity via the clothing bins. There are three local recycling facilities, as I’m sure many St Mary’s residents are aware. There’s the tip (someone has kindly abbreviated this three-letter word to the much more convenient “Household Waste Recycling Centre”) at the bottom of Clifton Road, and the Longfield Centre car park, and also Tesco.
This is great. But why oh why do I have to visit all three of them to get my recycling done? It would be so much more convenient, and so simple surely, to provide a better mix of facilities at each one. At present, they all have paper, which is fine. But only the Longfield Centre takes plastic, only the tip takes cans, and only Tesco takes clothes for donation. The Longfield Centre doesn’t even take cardboard, which is hugely irritating. Not to mention the fact that at Tesco and the Longfield Centre, the actual recycle "bins" are often full to overflowing.
If the Council are serious about boosting recycling then they should put right these problems at the first opportunity. How are they to expect people to shift from throwing out recyclables to actually recycling them, if the effort involved is so tortuous? It took me half an hour, three separate journeys (by car, since the tip isn’t accessible by any form of public transport), and quite a bit of forethought to get everything recycled today. And I’m young, bothered enough about recycling to actually do it, able-bodied, with my own car, and no kids to look after. If I was a working parent with no car, I wouldn’t put the effort in. And no amount of costly chips in bins will change that!
I want Bury Council to provide a better mix of recycling opportunities at its facilities, and I want this to happen quickly. Only then will the people of St Mary’s ward have a realistic chance of achieving recycling rates we can all be proud of.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Vic brought me up to speed on the events at the Prestwich Area Board on Monday night, and plans to progress Children’s Centres at two of the schools in Prestwich. One is Butterstile Primary School, where I am now a governor of course. And the other is Sedgley Park Primary, where my Mum went to school in the early 1960’s, and opposite which my grandparents have had a house since 1953.
Once again it’s great to be involved with people making improvements in the area in which I grew up, and in which my family have lived for decades. The Butterstile governors were excited about being involved in the project, and frustrated by delays in it. They’ve certainly put a lot of effort into the early stages of the process. And I’m excited too. Hopefully with the Liberal Democrat Councillors locally, and support from other community groups and schools, we can see some real opportunities for children and families in the local area.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Action Update - Butterstile Primary School Governors' Meeting
The meeting today was a learning experience for me, and what I took in certainly outweighed my contributions. Hopefully as time goes on this equation will become more balanced. My girlfriend Tam is a primary school teacher herself and so I am familiar with a lot of the recurrent issues in primary education (PPA time, the increased role of classroom assistants, SEN etc), but I am clearly going to become more so, and it’s an opportunity I am grateful for.
I have been given a great opportunity to work with and for the obviously committed staff of this popular and successful school. I had the chance to meet most of the staff today, and without exception they all displayed the type of enthusiasm that most organisations can only dream of in their workforce. I’ve met a lot of teachers, through my girlfriend and through my work, and the entire profession seems gripped with an unquenchable passion for the work. It really is uplifting to see.
The meeting was in a Year 6 classroom, and seeing the displays and the children’s work on the walls made me proud to be associated with the school. It also reminded me of the dangerously unsound grasp I have of major topics of scietific knowledge. The display on mountains put me to shame...
I don’t even know much about the school at the moment, beyond the basics, but I can’t wait to get stuck in! I have been nominated to three sub-committees of the governing body (Finance, Performance Pay Appeals, and Staff Dismissals), which will give me more opportunities to get to know the issues as well.
I share a place as governor with Cllr Donal O'Hanlon, my St Mary's Lib Dem colleague, so hopefully we can work together for the good of the school as well.
I have been paired with a class, 3B, which I will follow through the school. Their teacher is Mrs Bladen, and apparently I will be asked in to meet her and the children soon. I don’t know how Tam does it, facing 30 kids day-in and day-out, but I think when I’m invited in I may have to get some tips from her about how best to work with the children! I don’t think a diatribe on the future of the NHS would go down too well... Perhaps I could ask them to name their favourite liberal philosopher? Or start a debate on the merits of Keynesianism.
Or perhaps not.
Being a local activist is about so much more than leafleting (despite what regular readers of this blog may think!). The more issues I am exposed to, the more opportunities I get, and the more people I meet, I wonder why more people don’t do this kind of thing. Having the chance to play my part in maintaining a successful school, no matter how small that part may be, is wonderful, and today was an experience I am looking forward to repeating.
Sometimes I wish I'd been born Brazilian
It’s not so much the result that annoys me. Every team loses every now and again, and I can’t remember the last time England lost a competitive match in normal time. And, let's be honest, at least if we lose a few qualifyers it means that we won't suffer losing in the major tournament concerned. We'll all be safe at home!
It’s the performance, again, which makes me wonder why I consistently waste hours of my life in smoky pubs watching the team play so very badly indeed.
I doubt there is a better-paid squad of players in international football. Rio’s on a hundred grand a week for God’s sake. Even SWP’s on £60,000, and he barely gets off the bench for club or country! Nor, I reckon, is there a better starting eleven on the planet. With a full strength team out I wouldn’t swap anyone in there for anyone else. Unless Downing was playing.
And yet we consistently under-perform. I don’t think it’s Mclaren’s fault. Of course he was the wrong choice for the job – I’d have liked Sam Allardyce if we couldn’t get Scolari, and although he got Boro to the UEFA Cup final, Second Choice Steve did nothing with them in the league and was far too close to the Sven debacle. Plus, I saw him scribbling in his note-pad after the second goal today. What were you writing exactly Steve? "Don't let the ball trickle under your feet and into the goal?" Tactical genius at work...
I don’t think it’s the formation that's to blame either. I heard Graham Taylor moan earlier that 3-5-2 meant that we were unfairly “Moving the goalposts” for the team. This from the same man who moaned so consistently in the summer about how much Sven needed to change from 4-4-2. Full time professionals should adapt to whatever formation they're playing in.
I think it’s the players’ fault, fairly and squarely. With the exception of Gary Neville, Hargreaves when he's fit, and maybe one or two others on occasion, the whole team looks as if it couldn’t care less. Even Gerrard, a lion for Liverpool, just doesn't look bothered for England. It looked like that in the Summer during the World Cup tragedy, and it still looks like that now. Rooney’s anonymous, Lampard the same, and frankly Downing and Parker aren’t good enough to be in the squad.
We were unlucky with the bobble tonight for the second goal, but we didn’t create a single chance in the entire second half. Where was the urgency? Where was the passion? These are some of the greatest players in the world. All they do EVERY DAY is play football, so why can’t they string three passes together for England?
I honestly don’t know. Which is why I’m not a professional football pundit…
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Money for soldiers and my chips for free
Other than that, I’m afraid I have little else to report today. A day of drudgery in the office, beginning at 08.30, and ending at 17.45, punctuated only with entirely unnecessary gluttony which saw me eat not only my own lunch, but also a bag of crisps, half a chocolate bar, and devour three vegetable samosas and four chicken satay sticks from a lunchtime buffet.
That and the lack of jogging is no good at all…
I was cheered up on the way home though, when I heard about the government’s financial gift to the armed forces. Although I think it’s a little tokenistic, I don’t begrudge them a penny of it. If we must be in Iraq and Afghnistan (and that’s a debate for an evening when I’m not on the way out to see James Dean Bradfield…) then at least give our soldiers more than a pittance to put their lives on the line.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Leafleting in the moonlight
I’d forgotten how difficult leafleting actually is in the dark. I take for granted the perils of navigating my own garden path during the night, as familiarity has taught me the location of the various pot-holes and rickety steps. I can do it with a fair degree of confidence that each step will not be my last! Sadly, the same can not be said of the 180 others driveways I had to negotiate this evening. I must apologise to the families and friends of the countless snails that fell victim to my clomping shoes. And also to the local residents I inadvertently scared witless by fiddling noisily with their gates for a very long time indeed as I tried to fiddle with latches in the gloom.
But most of all I apologise to the very many householders who probably received two or even three copies of Focus. Crossing the road, going back and forth between houses and trying to cover them all, means it’s very confusing remembering which have been done and which haven’t, even in the daylight. At night I just didn’t stand a chance. One house looks very much like another, which is why, as I zig-zagged with an increasingly furrowed brow and look of despair upon my face, several of the houses in the locale received more than their fair share of Focuses.
And the trauma didn’t end on my return home. I have a list of Members wishing to get more involved, and Members-to-be wishing to get involved full stop. And tonight I rang three of them to try and get them to sign on the dotted line, with the following thrilling results:
1) Member-to-be number one told me that she “didn’t want to be a Member any more,” which was probably the quickest I’ve ever been rejected by a girl. Normally they see my face at least, before saying “no.”
2) Member number two couldn’t get to the phone because, according to the BT robot who addressed me “the number you have dialled has a fault. We are trying to repair it, please call back.” Two done, one to go…
3) Member number three has a lovely mother. But sadly Member number three herself has left town, and won’t be back until Christmas.
Still, as someone once sang, none out of three ain’t bad…
Which was almost enough to make me disheartened. But happily all was not lost this evening, as I had a great chat about recycling with a local resident in the street. She shared my opinion that Bury Labour’s decision to spend £50,000 of taxpayer’s money on bugs for recycling bins (the front page story in Focus) was not a wise move. I agreed when she said that it would generate little but ill will towards the Council. Wer were both of the opinion that if the Council had that amount of money to spend on recycling, it might be better spent upgrading recycling facilities locally so that it wasn’t quite such a monumental effort visiting numerous recycling sites to get everything recycled. How about, instead of spying on us to see who is recycling and who isn’t, let us know a bit more about where we can recycle, and make it easier to do so by providing more facilities to do it. That seems like a better idea to me, since it’s going to have to be done anyway once the results come in from the bugs!
So, even in the darkness, it was good to get some positive feedback from local people. The snails weren’t sacrificed for nothing!
Saturday, October 07, 2006
On the road again
We leafleted Agecroft Rd today, and I did a bit more around my house when I got home. We were handing out the new issue of St Mary’s Focus, highlighting some of the issues I’ve been working on locally with Cllr Donal O’Hanlon, such as mini motor-bikes and the anti-social behaviour challenges we’re facing. It was also a chance for the first “Westminster View” column from Vic D’Albert, recently elected our Parliamentary Candidate.
I know we wanted a candidate with vision, and anyone who can view Westminster all the way from here in Prestwich certainly has that!
It was good to be out on the streets again delivering. It really is very useful in letting us see first-hand any issues like dog-fouling, broken street-lights, cracked pavements, inexplicable roadworks and the like. And of course we also get to meet lots of local residents to talk things through.
And, given that I haven’t been for a run since I got back from holiday, it also is a bit of long-overdue exercise!
Friday, October 06, 2006
The Euston Hokey-Cokey
Working for Oldham MBC isn’t the most glamorous job in creation, but occasionally I do get to travel down to London, and yesterday was one of those days. Today was my return journey, and due to the off-peak ticket I’d purchased, the 15.05 was the last train I could get without paying over £100 extra or waiting until very late indeed.
I have had to catch this train before, and am always amazed by the lengths that the train companies appear to go to to make the entire experience as unpleasant as possible for the passengers.
First there is the trial of actually boarding the train at all. For some reason, the signs for trains on popular routes like London-Manchester don’t indicate the correct platform until just a few minutes before departure time. As the seconds tick by, prospective passengers assemble by the hundreds on the station concourse, maintaining a hawk-like watch on the departures screen, waiting for the moment when the platform is revealed. The reason for the steadfast observance is because at the very second that the information is unveiled, every one of them must rush towards the relevant platform to secure a precious seat before they are all filled.
Coping with the need for this mad dash to the train can be attempted in a number of ways, all of which I have observed during recent trips down South:
First there are those who maintain an air of casual nonchalance, seemingly uninterested in the platform, and munching on something bought from the ubiquitous Cornish Pasty outlets which throng mainline rail stations these days. But do not be fooled by their casual gait. They are in fact permanantly watching the information board from the corner of their unblinking eye. The crust of a pasty can be, and is, used as a weapon to bash people out of the way once the platform information is made available.
Then there are those, like me, who engage in what I have termed the “Euston Hokey-Cokey,” an elaborate dance involving all four limbs, the aim of which is to gain a slight advantgae. I try to second-guess the station staff by calculating the likelihood of a particular platform being the right one, and then I make a small movement towards it, perhaps using only my left leg. Anything more obvious would alert fellow passengers and put me at a disadvantage. Anything less and I could start from behind and never stand a chance. However, as other trains come and go, and platforms become available that were once occupied, the thinking changes, and in comes the left leg, out goes the right. Up goes the right arm, down comes the left. All very confusing. And difficult to do whilst eating a pasty and holding an umbrella, as I discovered today.
But the people I feel sorry for are those that don’t know what’s going on at all. Often confused with those in the ifrst category, these people’s lack of concern is actually genuine. And deadly. WHetehr they think that the crowd of people on the concourse are there for the sheer delight of basking in the ambiance of a trian station, or whether they are just so excited by the journey as to not notice them at all, they have no idea what's going on. At the moment of truth, as the station concourse empties like a giant bath tub with the plug pulled out, these poor souls are left to stare blankly towards WHSmith, before glancing in horror at the newly revealed platform sign, and joint the back of a very, very long queue.
Once on the train, we are presented with a uniquely British problem. On a 8 car train with about 1,000 passengers, most of whom have scrambled to catch the last off-peak train they can, why on earth are half the carriages First Class, and therefore empty?
Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to stick a few less first class carriages in there, or a couple more standard class ones? I know us plebs aren’t worth much, but surely we can do better than sitting in the aisles whilst 200 First Class seats are empty?
I know I joke, but if people are serious about coaxing car-users onto public transport, it’s the little things that count. Punctuality is much better now, and that’s great. But I don’t care if the train arrives on time if I have to stand for the whole journey because there aren’t enough carriages. And I don’t care if it leaves on time if I have to beat old ladies out of the way with my suitcase just to get a seat, as 700 people who’ve been left standing on a concourse for half an hour sprint like maniacs towards the train three minutes before it leaves.
At £57 return, it's barely any cheaper to get the train than to drive. So comfort and convenience have to be the swaying factors. Running to catch a train that I'm half an hour early for, then standing up the whole way home, is neither comfortable nor convenient. It's just hugely annoying.
I know that trains are more popular now, but it's expriences like this that put people off public transport as a whole. And it can't be that difficult to sort out, surely?
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Action update - meeting with Cllr Donal O'Hanlon
We talked about lots of things going on in the Ward at the moment. I am way off the pace at the moment after my three weeks away. But there’s lots that your local Lib Dems are currently involved in, and that we talked about tonight. Here are some of them:
- Plans for the future of “The Retreat,” the art-work/building site outside the Longfield Centre. These are now up for consultation, so contact Bury MBC for more details on how you can have more say
- Parking problems around OLOG Church and the surrounding streets, caused by Radius, M&S, Post Office parking and lots of other local attractions. We’re trying to come up with workable solutions to alleviate the problems here.
- The mysterious case of the vanishing post boxes, including my own local post box on Church Drive. We’re liasing with the Post Office at the moment about what’s going on
- The recently formed local business forum, and its plans for the future of business in Prestwich Village
- The next meeting of Prestwich Area Board, which is this Monday, and which I will give more details of at the weekend. Anyone can attend.
- Progress on some of the other issues I’ve picked up on recently, including mini motor-bikes (which seem to have disappeared from local streets after our conversations with police), and anti-social behaviour.
There was lots of other stuff we talked about as well, that you can read about in the new issue of St Mary’s Focus, which should be arriving over the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, Donal had to leave after 90 minutes to go and play football. It’s one of his rare free nights. He showed me his diary which proved once again that anyone accusing all local Councillors of not putting the hours in is not in possession of the full facts! Aside from his fulltime job, Donal seems to be at one (or more) Council-related meeting or another every single night of the week, not to mention party activities like leafleting. Or visiting local residents.
Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to serve – and that will seriously threaten my blogging time!
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Carbon Off-setting from your local travel agent!
So thank you Co-op!
Who pays for Grandpa?
I went to visit my Grandpa in his new abode yesterday, and again today. He has been moved out of ward E6 at North Manchester General Hospital, and into Parklands Nursing Home in Broughton. He has a fairly nice room with a TV (which he never watches) and a bathroom (which he can’t use because he is bed bound), and a view out over the gardens.
It’s not his house though. And it costs him £500 per week for him to stay there and be looked after.
I have always had a problem thinking about who should pay for elderly care. And now I have a personal connection to it for the first time. And it’s made me see the various sides of the argument.
My Grandpa isn’t a rich man, but he owns his own house and a few bits and bobs of other stuff. He’s also paid his taxes his whole life. That tax money paid for services at the time he paid it. He wasn’t paying into a pot marked “Grandpa” for him to raid when he was old. And he benefited from it at the time anyway – his children went to school, his roads were built and maintained, and if he ever set his head on fire, the fire brigade would put it out free of charge.
So do we owe him now, out of our tax pounds? Should we pay the cost of keeping him cared for at £500 a week? After all, he’s got an asset that would pay for his care for the next five years sitting empty a few miles down the road (his house).
What would he want? Well, first off, I doubt he’d want us to be having the argument at all! I imagine he’d want to have died long ago, before he sank into himself and lost the ability to live without constant care. Either that or, like me, wish to live in a state of intellectual and physical perfection until the age of 200. But either way, he’d want what he worked for to be passed on to his nearest and dearest, so that they can enjoy a more comfortable life themselves. He’d want the government to pay the costs, and to leave his assets alone.
But is this fair? Why should the government pay? After all, public finances are always stretched. Like it or not (and believe me, I don’t), my Grandpa is dying. The £500 makes him feel more comfortable sure, but it won’t make him better. The £500 might make a premature baby better, or a cancer patient. Or it would buy a school 50 books.
I have heard the arguments for putting up taxes to cover the costs of caring for the elderly – costs that have risen immensely and will continue to do so because medicine now allows people to stop dying for decades, even if their quality of life and mental health deteriorates markedly before they finally die. I support these arguments. I’d pay more, and I’d like people who can afford to pay much more pay much more. After all, these are our grandparents, and they deserve to be cared for. It will allow those who have saved and lived moderately prosperous lives to pass down their assets to their children untouched. The current system, whereby the middle-ranking majority are reduced to the level of those who’ve never saved a penny, strikes me as highly inequitable.
But lots of people don’t want to pay more taxes, which is fair enough. So could Inheritance Tax be the answer?
If people who die pay tax on their estates, why not allow this tax money to be used to fund the dying person’s care before he/she dies? Estates are calculated prior to death now anyway in order to work out how much of a care bill is to be paid. So why not perform the same calculation, levy the appropriate charge as if for Inheritance Tax, and make this the total sum that the person has to pay for their care. The rest will be funded by the state, and the remainder of the old person’s estate will pass down to the next generation. It wouldn’t all be paid at once – there’d be contributions like now. But there’d be a defined total maximum contribution which would be the same amount as the total Inheritance Tax liability should the old person die.
There may well be some obvious practical or financial reason why the idea won’t work. Or it might just be rubbish. Please tell me if I’ve missed something. But it seems sensible to me. Yes, family homes might have to be sold, but the problem would be no worse than at present, because the estate would be liable for Inheritance Tax anyway. It would just bring the whole thing forward a bit.
It would also allow for some certainty and finality. At the moment there is the horrible scenario whereby we say things like “Well, if he lives for three years then 20% of the value of the house will have gone. But if he lives for 15 years, then it will all have gone.” If the total liability is calculated at the start, it doesn’t matter quite so much, because there’d be a maximum figure from day one. If the old person lives on, the state will shoulder the burden. If the old person dies earlier, then the rest of the liability is paid as Inheritance Tax anyway.
And of course, the less well-off wouldn’t pay a penny, because they’d be exempt from Inheritance Tax.
My Grandpa clings onto life with a grin on his face. I don’t know if he knows what’s going on, but if he does then he’s a braver man than me to do anything but cry. He’s had speech problems and strokes for a few years. Where once he was wise and erudite, now he mumbles sounds and the occasional word. Maybe, just below the surface, he knows what he wants to say. But I don’t know.
And now he's got this thing whereby he absorbs no food at all. He weighs 5 stone 7 pounds. Painfully thin. This big head on a tiny frame that looks like it could crumple in the draught from a door opening. He hasn’t stood in four weeks and I don’t think he will again. Some days he can swallow. Other days not.
Whatever he’s thinking, it’d be a shame for him to know that his house was under threat to pay the bills. One way or another, it should be made fairer, easier and less cruel to our elderly and their families to ensure adequately funded and excellent quality care.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Battling the heavy eye-lids
I am severely jet-lagged. Since arriving home at 07.00 on Saturday, I have slept for 21 hours, which is probably just about the right amount of time over two nights to sufficiently recover. Sadly, all 21 hours came between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, meaning that I haven’t had any sleep at all for 26 hours.
Add to that the fact that I had to return to work today, and operate my car on the left hand side of the road (having driven on the right for three weeks), and it is truly miraculous that I am here at all.
My day of chronic fatigue has not been aided by a number of problems:
1) My holiday photos won’t upload properly
2) I needed some information on the mortgage I’m getting for my flat (the sorry tale of which is something I will doubtless blog about at a later date), but couldn’t because I didn’t know the answer to HSBC’s questions about me, and therefore couldn’t verify my own identity.
3) Whilst I’ve been away, an impasse has developed in the office over Christmas leave, meaning that it looks as though I’ll have to go in during Christmas week
4) My internet keeps disconnecting for no apparent reason
5) My attempts to sort out the mess that is my garden / fence, and is so annoying to my neighbours, has stalled due to a mixture of landlord idleness and incessant rain.
None of these on their own are more than petty irritants. But taken together, and added to my headache-grey weariness, I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep until they’ve all miraculously gone away.
Still, I did have some successes today:
1) I cleared 285 unread emails from my work inbox, by deleting 260 of them immediately, and dealing with only those deemed so urgent that to ignore them would be a sacking offence
2) I made contact with Vic, Andrew and Donal about a resumption of leafleting and local campaigning ASAP
3) I am about to go and visit my Grandpa in his new abode, and can write about that tomorrow.
So it’s not all bad. And at least my security problems just involve a phone call to the bank – if I was a Conservative I’d be stood outside their conference just waiting for clearance!
Anyway, I am off to see my Grandpa, and then I need to get to bed...
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Despite the jet lag, I planted some trees!
I’m not going to say that it’s “ethical” to offset CO2. I don’t think that there are many ethical absolutes (if any at all), and who am I to say what they are? Where CO2 is concerned, my ethics are mine, and your’s are your’s. But I felt that I should, so I did. And now I have the chance to say how and why I did it, so maybe you might consider doing the same if you think it’s wise.
I’m no environmental scientist or climatologist, but I have read widely about climate change and I think that, where possible, I should try and minimize my carbon footprint. And this is a remarkably easy way to do it. The site I used explains it all and allows me to do it easily and quickly (the whole thing took about 10 minutes).
And it’s cheap too! For a small sum, trees are planted in forests which, over their lifetime, will offset the CO2 I generated on my trip. You can read all about it here, as well as finding out more about CO2 emissions and off-setting in general.
Here’s how my holiday panned out in terms of costs:
Manchester – Chicago return - £13
Chicago – San Francisco return - £9
3,000 miles in a Chrysler Crossfire (I didn’t know the engine size, so I guessed at “large” since the car was ridiculous) - £10
Total - £32 – which pays to offset the CO2 for my whole trip.
I don’t think this is a huge sum at all – it equates to about 5% of the cost of the tickets and car hire, or about the cost of a good meal. Actually, it’s about the same amount as I spent on tat from duty free.
And it’s even cheaper for other trips. I know that lots of people are concerned about the CO2 impact of low-cost flights. Well, I plucked a random Easyjet route from memory (Liverpool – Malaga) and found that this can be offset for £9 return! Not bad at all. And even very long flights aren’t very expensive. Manchester – Sydney is only £34 return.
As I mentioned, this is a personal choice. I’m not saying everyone should do it, nor am I saying that I’m any better for doing it that someone who doesn’t. But I do think that opportunities like this give people the chance to consider steps that they can take to reduce their carbon footprint and neutralize the effects that they have on the world in terms of CO2. The site I used helps people to CO2-balance things far more common than air travel (domestic heating, for instance).
I’m not against air travel or big cars. I think both are fantastic. I can’t see the world without air travel, and I can’t go “wow” at a passing Bentley without big cars.
Motor manufacture and usage, together with the aerospace industry and air transport, are absolutely crucial to the UK and the world. The reason I drive a Fiat Punto rather than a BMW X5 isn’t because trees shrivel when the BMW drives past. It’s because I can’t afford an X5. I suspect that anyone who claims differently about themselves may well be lying!
But if I could afford to drive a big 4x4, I could also afford to pay a little more to offset the increased emissions. And I for one would do just that. That’s why I am all for the Liberal Democrat policies on green taxation – one of which is to charge higher polluting cars more to use the roads.
I’d also love to see websites, travel companies and airlines give customers the option to offset their carbon emissions at the time of purchase of travel tickets. I for one would gladly pay. I think the reason people might not pay at the moment is because it’s not very easy to find out about it, or how to do it. And people may think that it’s very expensive. The idea could equally be applied to other things like domestic bills, cars, insurance premiums, and lots of other things. I know that this kind of thing exists already. For instance, Climatesure offer insurance products where a % of the premium is used to offset. And there are some others too.
If it was made easier to do, people would see that it isn’t very expensive at all! And I think they’d do it. After all, I just did!
Suffice to say that the combined effects of San Fransisco, LA, Las Vegas, the Mojave, Joshua Tree National Park, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite and the rest COULD make my blog an unreadable splurge of superlatives for about the next 10,000 words. It is merely my generosity (and jet lag) that prevents it. Should anyone WANT to hear about my holidays, please feel free to give me a call. If it's your phone bill, I can go on for hours!
Having tried my utmost to get over the jet lag (by sleeping for 21 hours), I have now got back towards the realms of reality:
I am currently uploading my photos, and will provide the link when they're done, should anyone want to see them.
I am also contemplating a return to some kind of running schedule, having survived on American portions from American menus for three weeks, and therefore ballooned in size.
And I am thinking about work. It seems like only a moment ago that I was gleefully typing my "out of office" auto-email-reply. And yet now, precisely one blink of an eye later, I am a few hours from the office again...
Obviously, having been away for three weeks, I am not up to speed with the latest Prestwich news. But I'll be in touch with other local Lib Dems tomorrow to find out what's been going on.
From a personal point of view, the last three weeks has seen my Grandpa finally moved out of North Manchester General Hospital. His stay was so lengthy that they were within hours of naming the ward after him. He is now at an old people's nursing home somewhere in Salford, which I will track down tomorrow night. Apparently he is pointing at my photo and angrily demanding to know where I've been for three weeks. I think he may suspect that I have run off with that nurse he liked. Sadly for us both, it's not true.
Back to daily blogging from now on as well, with any luck. So if there are any local issues you'd like the Lib Dems and I to look into, or if you'd just like to comment on the blog or say hello, then please do drop me a line.