Sunday, November 26, 2006

West Cumberland Hospital: the penny drops

On today's TV politics show, the Labour MP for Copeland and the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders were interviewed together talking about the threat to local hospitals and the need for the entire community to unite to defend them.

Credit where credit is due: it was a very good interview. David MacLean MP and Jamie Reed MP agreed with almost everything each other said, particularly about the point that Labour and Conservative MPs were working together to draw to the attention of the Strategic Health Authority that their policies do not meet the needs of Cumbria.

I've made the positive point first: but I also noted with wry amusement that Jamie Reed has finally dropped the absurd position which he took at the last election. A few days before polling day, as the Labour candidate for Copeland, he said clearly and explicitly that there was no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland hospital.

Today, by contrast, when asked if he could guarantee the future of the local hospital, Jamie Reed said that he did not think anyone could give such a guarantee. This is of course completely incompatible with what he said while standing for election.

He was wrong then: he is right now. Also right is everyone else who says we need to fight for our hospitals, at Millom and Keswick as well as Whitehaven. This includes doctors, nurses, trade unionists, jounalists and politicians.

I hope there will be a huge turnout for the "Save Our Services" march in Whitehaven on Saturday 9th December: assemble at Castle Park at 9.45 am.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Support grows for hospitals march on 9th December

Support is building for the "Save Our Services" march in support of hospitals in West Cumbria on 9th December. Meet at Castle Park in Whitehaven at 9.45 am to move off for 10 am sharp.

The march has already attracted the support of local political leaders from both the Conservative and Labour parties and of many people associated with the local NHS. The local Rugby club will interrupt their training to come and support the march.

If you care about local hospitals in West Cumbria, please make sure that this date is in your diary and try to be there to support West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, and Keswick Hospital.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Younger drivers and road safety

Two things which happened in the last 48 hours have me thinking hard about road safety in general and younger drivers in particular.

The Chief Constable of Cumbria was reported in yesterday’s local papers as calling for restrictions on younger drivers, who are involved in a significant proportion of fatal accidents.

To underline the point, an elderly man is hospital with serious head injuries after being knocked down by a car on Monday night at the entrance to the road in Whitehaven where I live. Three men, all aged between 18 and 19, were later arrested in connection with the accident.

Almost every week I read in the local papers of another fatal accident on Cumbria’s roads, often on roads that I use almost every day, such as the A595. At one point earlier this year, there were two accidents only a couple of weeks apart, which claimed three lives, both on the A595 less than a mile from my home.

Of course, every time I read of yet another death on the A595 it rekindles my fury at the idiotic government decision to ignore the local community’s wishes by de-trunking this road south of Calderbridge. But the issue of road safety in Cumbria and elsewhere is far wider than one road. And I don’t think the issue of younger drivers can be ignored.

I gather that, of the people who have been killed on Cumbria’s roads this year so far, no fewer than 21 died as a result of accidents in which at least one driver was aged 16 to 20. The most recent figure on the Cumbria Safety Camera partnership website for the total number of deaths to date is 49, which appears to be slightly out of date, but it is clear that the number of fatalities involving young drivers is over a third and not far short of half the total. This is a higher proportion than you would expect if such drivers had the same risk as everyone else of being involved in fatal accidents.

Incidentally, the other figure which is being thrown around in this debate, that 25% of collisions in the county involve a driver under 25, is not dramatically worse than the proportion I would have expected given that all collisions involve two or more drivers. But the figures for deaths are both more convincing and much more serious. This in turn suggests that one of the issues is vehicle speed. A recent analysis of the causes of accidents found that speeding was a less common cause of road accidents in general than you might expect. But when there is an accident, the faster vehicles are travelling the greater the risk of serious injury or death.

It is very important that whatever measures are taken are not presented as an attack on young people, but as an attempt to save the lives of young people. Teenagers and drivers in their early twenties are not just disproportionately represented among the drivers of vehicles involved in fatal accidents, people in that age group are also disproportionately represented among the victims. One crash claimed six lives including a 19 year old driver, his 21 year old partner, their 4 month old baby son, his two sisters, and a man in another car. I point no fingers about who is to blame for that or any other individual accident, but the total number of people killed on Cumbria’s roads in accidents involving young drivers is too high not to be grounds for concern.

Two issues which many people get very upset about concern speed cameras and the systems which allow drivers to detect them. Ross Brewster wrote a very powerful blog piece a few weeks ago attacking those who drive too fast, and he also took aim at these detectors.

Where people buy a detector with the intention of driving faster when it isn’t warning of the presence of speed cameras, I think they deserve every word of Ross Brewster’s criticism. However, the figures suggest that many of the people who buy them do so for exactly the opposite reason - to ensure they slow down in areas with cameras. People who have detectors fitted can actually get lower insurance premiums because they have fewer accidents. That suggests that the sort of person who buys one is less likely to be a boy racer looking to drive faster and more likely to be a cautious person who doesn’t want to lose his licence and is taking steps to ensure he does not accidentally break the speed limit down where there are cameras. When detectors are fitted for this reason they slow people down at the camera sites - which will usually be in areas where speed is linked to a risk of accidents – and reduce the risk of accidents at those sites, which is exactly what the cameras were meant to achieve.

Speed cameras themselves are also controversial, but it is a myth that they are always unpopular. In my old ward of Sandridge there was a spontaneous public demonstration a couple of years ago, after a fatal accident, by local residents who wanted speed cameras in the village. Where cameras are located in an area where the speed limit changes a lot – and don’t let anyone tell you there are no such cameras – it brings the whole system into disrepute. But where safety cameras are located at a site where people have been killed, most people usually accept them. My regular journey to work used to take me through a former blackspot where there had been several fatalities. There are now clearly visible cameras at the site, plus plenty of equally visible speed limit signs, they do slow the traffic down, and there have been no more deaths.

Specific measures targeted at young drivers must be clear, easy to understand, and enforceable. I have my doubts that differential speed limits or curfews would work – some of these measures have been tried abroad and proved hard to enforce.

Limits on the engine capacity of cars which people under 21 or who have passed their test within a couple of years can drive may be another matter – anyone who insures a car has to tell the insurance company who will drive it. With the co-operation of the insurance companies, which it is in their financial interests to give, it should be possible to influence what sort of cars younger people are allowed to drive.

Perhaps we also need to see training in driving skills as something which comes after passing the test as well as before. Maybe there should be a mandatory driving safety course which all new drivers are required to attend between six months and a year after passing the L-test ? There are Advanced Driver Training courses run by ROSPA: I’ve never got round to taking one of these myself and am starting to think that perhaps I should. Maybe some incentives and more publicity for these courses would be a good idea – particularly if we can work with the youth media to persuade young men that being an “Advanced driver” is “cool.” It ought to be a lot easier to spin that one than to persuade them of many of the more ridiculous messages that the government spin machine puts out.

The above measures may have some impact on the behaviour of law-abiding people. For the small but dangerous minority of lunatics who regularly defy driving bans, drive without insurance or a licence, we have only one option. Make sure the courts put them inside before they put anyone else six feet under.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Help for Fayrepack victims

The collapse of Fayrepack threatens to adversely affect this year's Christmas for many families in Cumbria. But as is so often the case, a problem within a community brings out much of the best in it's people, in both imagination and concern, as people look for a solution.

Whitehaven Credit Union, which is a non-profit community savings and lending organisation, has been advertising a savings scheme targetted to to help Fayrepack victims and ensure that their Christmas celebrations are not entirely ruined. And a group of Cumbrian ladies have emulated the W.I. "Calendar girls" by bringing out a calendar to help the Fayrepack victims - on sale now for £5, all of which goes to help the victims as they were printed free of charge by Print Express of Whitehaven.

All the local MPs have backed calls from Cumbrian MP David McLean for a criminal investigation into the collapse. While I think this is right, I wonder if the Labour MPs who backed this call have thought through the implications if the principle of prosecuting people who take money from people but don't deliver on their contracts were applied to politicians who make election promises, impose taxes to pay for those promises when elected, but fail to deliver ?

Tony Blair would certainly be in even bigger trouble. He's already facing an interview with the police over the "cash for peerages" scandal, but if politicans were accountable for broken promises he would have to help the police with their inquiries on at least two more grounds. First would be his promise in 1999 that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist within five years. Seven years on, not only are thousands of Cumbrians who were then without an NHS dentist still looking: in fact thousands of those who did have an NHS dentist have lost that service.

And then there was Mr Blair's promise to students in 1997 that he would not introduce tuition fees and in 2001 that he would not increase them with top-up fees. Not only did he break these promises, he described the bill to do so as "central" to his government's programme.

Of course our local MPs would not escape either. Jamie Reed, then the Labour candidate for Copeland and now the MP, stated on the front page of the Whitehaven News during the election campaign that there was "no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland Hospital."

Is it any wonder that people like the Carlisle ladies turn to each other rather than our politicians to put right the injustice which has been done to them.

Trust in politics needs to be rebuilt in this country. But this is much easier to say than to do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An interesting co-incidence

The people who plan the timing of the Prime Minister's diary were presumably unaware that this week Copeland had the annual contest to find the "World's Biggest Liar."

Otherwise I doubt if they would have scheduled Tony Blair's visit to Copeland for the following day.

This naturally reminded me that it had been suggested last year at Copeland Borough Council - and by a councillor who had originally been elected on the Labour ticket - that the council should officially invite the PM to come to Copeland to take part in the competition.

Almost immediately after his visit to West Cumbria, Mr Blair flew to Pakistan, where he told the truth but apparently didn't intend to.

In a TV interview today, responding to a suggestion from David Frost that the situation in Iraq is seen by many people as something of a disaster, Tony Blair began his reply with the words "It is."

Needless to say, Downing Street insists that this was a slip of the tongue.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hospital supported at Children in Need meeting

In support of Children in Need today there was a "Cash for Questions" session at St Nicholas's church in Whitehaven. Panellists included the local MP, the leader of Copeland Council, the Rev John Bannister, and various press and business speakers.

Anyone who gave some money to Children in Need could ask a question. So I went along and asked how we as members of the community can best support our local hospitals.

There were very good answers given on all sides for the need for the whole community to work together accross party political and other lines to defend our hospital services. These include the need to get a good attendance at the "Save our Services" march on 9th December, and for everyone to lobby the Strategic Health Authority and ministers. As was pointed out, the head of the NDA has spoken out about the serious concern for the nuclear industry if there were not a good range of hospital services much nearer to Sellafield than Carlisle or Barrow - we need the other key public services to make the same point from their perspective as well.

Milton Friedman R.I.P.

Milton Friedman, who died this week, appears to be being remembered as a populariser of free-market ideas, which he was, but he was also one of the four most brilliant economists of the 20th century.

It always seemed to me that there were almost two Milton Friedmans - the brilliant academic, who was objective, balanced, nonpartisan, and immensely insightful, and the doughty champion of free markets, who presented a far more simplistic picture and came out with some memorable word pictures.

Of course, many of the things which people think they know about Friedman were myths assiduously spread by people opposed to the political message he spread. The classic example was the suggestion that that he supported the Pinochet regime in Chile. I can still remember, pretty much word for word, a Bernard Levin opinion piece from The Times of 30 years ago on the subject:

"Professor Milton Friedman (Boo) has been writing to The Daily Telegraph (Boo) about Chile (Boo). The poor devil has been trying to explain that he is not economic adviser to the Chilean government, which he isn't, and that he never has been, which is likewise so"

Levin added that he called Friedman a poor devil because he had "about as much chance of dislodging that particular myth from the minds of the left" as he had of persuading them of various other things which you would not expect a left winger to believe.

I can remember the full quote but I don't want to repeat it for reasons which are a sad reflection on the way political debate takes place in 2006. I regard the former Pinochet regime in Chile as a disgraceful bunch of mass murderers. Taken in context the full quote from Bernard Levin supports that view, but it would be possible to take the final phrase out of context in a way which could be twisted to mean something different.

I've already had one opinion which is the opposite of what I think attributed to me this month in a letter to the Whitehaven News from someone who should have known better. I'm not going to write anything which makes it easy for anyone to try the same trick again. Isn't it sad that anyone with aspirations to public life has to watch not just the actual meaning of everything we say and write in public, but how it could be twisted and misrepresented?

Friedman the propagandist came up with some great phrases - "There aint no such thing as a free lunch" was perhaps the best and it will be remembered. I suspect that fewer people will remember the sayings that Friedman the brilliant economist came out with - I think it's an absolutely safe bet that very few indeed would believe that "We are all Keynsians now" was one of them. But it was.

Friedman the propagandist has been represented as an ivory tower extremist as part of the attack on Thatcherism, but ironically even those who helped give him that reputation, such as New Labour, have been very quick to use the ideas of Friedman the great economist. To give one simple example, the terms under which Gordon Brown delegated to the Bank of England and it's Monetary Policy Committee the power to set UK interest rates were exactly the sort of policy which Friedman advocated.

Those who study economics seriously will remember Friedman for two things. The first was his studies of the monetary history of the United States and particulaly the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which he demonstrated the role of banking failures and the collapse of the money supply in helping to cause and greatly exacerbate that recession. This was the work for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

The fact that governments and central banks had absorbed the lessons which Friedman pointed out is one of the reasons that none of the stock market crashes or recessions since the 1980s have been allowed to deteriorate into an economic disaster of 1930's proportions.

Friedman's second great contribution was to explain in 1968 why the "Phillips Curve" relationship which correctly predicted the relationship between unemployment and wage increases between the late 19th century and the late 1960's was about to collapse. From the 50's, governments started to use the "Phillips Curve" as a means of policy, believing they could make a trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and this did work for nearly two decades.

Friedman's insight followed on from the Keynsian concept of "money illusion" e.g. when inflation fools people about the value of the money they were being paid in. He argued that if a government tries to reduce unemployment at the price of higher inflation, people will not stay fooled. Once inflation becomes embedded in the economic system, people will start to take it into account when they are looking at the value of their wages and the prices they pay, so that higher and higher levels of inflation become necessary to fool people and reduce the level of unemployment. Eventually everyone measures all price and wage changes against current and expected increases in the published inflation indices and the trade-off between inflation and unemployment collapses. This is exactly what happened in the late sixties and seventies.

You can see from the paragraph above that, although Friedman has a reputation as the arch monetarist, he was quite willing to take ideas from Keynes if he thought they were right. This goes both ways. A very prominent Keynsian economist, Modigliani, once paid tribute to Milton Friedman's work, and specifically referring to Friedman's comment that "We are all Keynesians now" he responded that in the sense that almost all economists recognised that we can learn from Friedman's work, "We are all monetarists now."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Death of Common Sense

Earlier this week I was returning to Copeland on the train having been working in London. Unfortunately the West Coast Main Line trains were disrupted by a suicide on the line near Lancaster, causing both myself and a number of other people to miss their final connections home.

The railway organised hire cars or taxis for the people who were stranded through no fault of their own due to missed connections.
The driver who took me back to Whitehaven was polite, efficient, and in terms of the rules as they exist today, helpful. Nothing that I am about to write is meant as a criticism of him. However, I do think that the way people are expected to operate today is sometimes a great deal less sensible than the way the world used to work ten or twenty years ago.

As the delay to the West Coast main line had caused me to miss the last train from Carlisle to Whitehaven, a car was booked to take me to Whitehaven station. This is a journey of about 40 miles, which means that the driver's round trip that evening was about 80 miles. I was the only passenger in the car.

My home is about a mile from the station. As we approached Whitehaven, I asked if there was any way to arrange matters so that the driver could drop me at home instead of at the station. The minor modification this would have required to the last part of the route might have increased the total distance travelled by a few hundred yards: I would have been happy to pay for this.

However, the driver said that his contract required him to go from station to station. Knowing how paranoid large organisations are these days about the letter of the rules, I didn't press the point. So he drove an 80 mile round trip, to drop me, shortly before midnight, about a mile from where I actually wanted to go.

As I say, I am not criticising the driver. These days nobody dares use their initiative or common sense. But remembering how drivers used to operate up to about ten years ago, I'm prepared to bet that if this had happened back before that time, the driver would have asked me without prompting whereabout in Whitehaven I wanted to be dropped and done so without a second thought, provided the passenger didn't take the mickey.

I hope that I will live to see the pendulum swing back to the point where we can use a bit more gumption to do what makes sense.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

They shall grow not old

There are some words which seem to mean more to me every time I hear them. One example which seems more powerful every year is the exhortation which precedes the two minute silence on Rememberance Sunday and the Kohima epitaph which follows the silence.

Almost everyone who reads this will know these verses but I make no apologies for repeating them. By comparison with these timeless words anything else I could write here today would seem too trivial.

"They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
we will remember them."

And after the silence another veteran often a representative from the Burma Star Association reads the words from the Kohima memorial to the fallen of the Burma campaign:-

"When you go home tell them of us and say
for your tomorrow we gave our today."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Flanders Fields ....

Today is the anniversary of the armistice which ended the First World War. For many years this was commemorated as Armistice Day, with a minute's silence at 11 am, which was the moment the guns fell silent on 11th November 1918. Then the commemoration was switched to Remembrance Sunday, which is the nearest sunday to the 11th of November. In recent years it has become common to mark both dates.

There has been a certain amount of argument over the past few days about the wearing of poppies. Newsreader Jon Snow has complained in unfortunately robust languange about being put under pressure to wear a poppy while on air: a religious think tank has suggested that Christians should wear a white poppy rather than a red one.

No matter how strongly I may disagree with people on this subject, and no matter how tempting it is to come up with clever or sharp rejoinders, harsh language about Remembrance Sunday is never appropriate.

Whatever else they may or may not have achieved, the remembrance day ceremonies which I have attended every year since I was a small child have always brought home to me the terrible human cost of war.

The red poppy was adopted as a symbol of the price of war because it grows prolifically on the Flanders Fields where so many young men died in one of the bloodiest wars in history.

There are a small handful of people left alive who remember the first world war, but it has been drawn repeatedly to my attention over the past 12 months. When we were clearing out the bungalow we rented in Gosforth, I found the certificates which had been awarded to a Great War military engineer, including one which stated that he had been mentioned in despatches. (We were able to arrange for their return to his family.)

I was present at a deeply moving special ceremony when Bristol University Court awarded an honorary degree to one of the last six surviving World War One "Tommies" (who had also helped to build one of the University's main buildings.)

My own grandfather was lucky enough to return from his service in the army during that war, but he lost his father, mother and a brother to the war and the outbreaks of disease which took place during and immediately after it. My great-uncle was killed in action while barely more than a boy just a few weeks before the end of the war.

Let all those who choose to remember the dead do so in their own way. Against the background of the loss of so many millions of lives in both world wars, to start insulting other people over whether or not to wear a poppy or what colour it is, just makes yourself look petty.

Some people may choose not to wear a poppy, or only to do so in private. That is their right and it should be respected. Some people - apparently about 45,000 - will commemorate the dead by wearing a white poppy. That is their right, and it should be respected. About 36 million people will commemorate the dead by wearing a red poppy. I will be one of them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jedi Jamie gets it wrong again

The M.P. for Copeland has been slapped down in the House of Commons again for getting parliamentary procedures wrong.

When the government's energy review came out, Jamie Reed M.P. was interrupted by the Deputy speaker when he tried to continue after asking a point scoring question about David Cameron. The Deputy Speaker explained that he had the opportunity to ask one question: by asking a trivial point-scoring question about David Cameron he lost the opportunity to ask the serious question about the nuclear industry which he had apparently intended to put.

This week Jedi Jamie asked a question about the government's white paper on "Communities" and the structure of local government. He was concerned about the idea of a single local authority for Cumbria - it appears that his issue was how this would affect the nuclear industry. A good question which deserved to be raised in a more effective manner.

It was not to be, however, for this time Speaker Martin himself told off the MP for Copeland for getting the rules wrong and terminated his contribution. Parliamentary rules require that supplementary questions actually are questions rather than speeches, and they must be brief.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Save our hospitals - March on 9th December

It is confirmed that there will be a "Save our services" march in support of West Cumbria hospitals on Saturday 9th December in Whitehaven.

I hope as many people as possible will support the march. Assemble at Castle Park at 9.45 am ready to move off by 10 am.

The march is already receiving support from right accross the community. Obviously a lot of the focus is on the West Cumberland Hospital but we should remember that all the Community hospitals in Cumbria including Millom Community Hospital and Keswick Hospital are also under threat.

The welcome confirmation that this march is up and running comes at the same time as the less welcome, but hardly surprising, news that the government has included both the newly formed Cumbria Primary Care Trust (PCT) and the North Cumbria Acute Services NHS trust on a list of health trusts with the worst financial problems.

When I was a health authority member in Hertfordshire before moving to West Cumbria, 50,000 people signed a petition, and thousands lined the streets to protest during a ministerial visit, rather than quietly accept a proposal to close the local hospital, making patients and their families travel eight miles for A&E and maternity services. If we lose our hospitals we are looking at a trip to Carlisle or Barrow - a far longer journey over much more difficult roads. People in London or Hertfordshire would never have accepted that and I am certain that people in West Cumbria won't accept it either. So let's prove it by getting the maximum possible attendance on 9th December.

On Vandals, wreckers and ASBOs

The main concern on my mind at the moment is for the future of our hospitals. However, because of recent events at both ends of the country and the public debate about ASBOS, the issue of crime and disorder has run it a close second.

I put down an entry a few days ago about the firework party which a household in Foxhouses Road decided to hold in the early hours of November 5th (between about 2.45 am and 3.00 am.) While this showed an unfortunate lack of concern for the residents of a large part of Whitehaven, it turns out that this was by no means the most inconsiderate thing to happen in the town in the early hours of that morning. Between 1am and 3am the keyholders were called out after at least eight shops had doors, windows or both smashed by vandals.

On Monday they were still clearing up the damage, while 300 miles away the school where I was an LEA governor for many years was re-opening after being closed for several days due to an arson attack.

We live in one of the richest countries in the world, at a time when even the poor in most countries are better off in many ways than even the most affluent people were for most of human history. Yet a few lunatics feel they have to get their kicks by wrecking things for everyone else. It will not do.

It is worth having another think about the effectiveness of Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs)

There is widespread disenchantment with ASBOs with the suggestion that thugs want them as a "badge of honour." I suspect the problem is not with the idea of ASBOs so much as that in many parts of the country they have been over-used.

If the police and the courts issue thousands of ASBOs but devote little attention to enforcing them, they will become an ineffective merchanism which is little better than a joke - and in some parts of Britain that is exactly what has happened. Frankly, the authorities responsible for imposing ASBOs to deal with trivial issues like a lady who came to the front door in her underwear are guilty of bringing the system into disrepute.

However, if ASBOs are

1) used sparingly and reserved for cases where there is a serious issue which cannot easily be dealt with under other laws and procures, and

2) the police and courts effectively monitor whether they have been obeyed and come down like the proverbial ton of bricks on breaches

then there is a good chance that they will have a real effect.

I'm tempted to suggest that there should be a limit on the number of ASBOs which can be in effect in any one time in each police "Basic Command Unit" area (for example, Copeland and Allerdale are a "Basic Command Unit) equal to so many ASBOs per thousand residents. This should be linked to a policy that all the ASBOs which are imposed are given a reasonably high enforcement priority.

A community in which ten ASBOs have been imposed, all of them have been monitored, and one or two individuals have been jailed for breaching them, will see a much bigger impact on behaviour than a community in which fifty ASBOs were imposed but no effort was put into enforcing them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Save our Hospital - Trust's position clarified

Since their original statement, which indicated that they were still committed to a new hospital in Whitehaven without using the words "acute" or "District General" the Primary Care Trust and the North Cumbria Acute Services NHS Trust has made clear that they still want to provide an Acute hospital in West Cumbria.

In so far as it goes, this is very welcome.

However, I remain very concerned for the future of all our local hospitals, including the West Cumberland, Millom, and Keswick.

The trust have not made clear what services the new acute hospital will provide. There is a strong hint that it will include A&E. My concern is that you cannot provide A&E services without a critical mass of other services and infrastructure. We need a much clearer idea of how this will be provided and how the steady trickle of services away from the West of Cumbria will be stopped.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Labour headline competition extended

Thanks to those who have sent in entries for "The New Labour Headline competition.

I'm offering a small prize for the funniest headline consisting of an admission of the blindingly obvious from an appropriate Labour minister.

Doesn't absolutely have to be made up - one of the best entries so far was a real one from 2004

"Iraq may not have weapons of mass destruction, admits Blair."

Deadline for entries is now extended to the end of November

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Some real fireworks

From time to time I have been lobbied as a councillor by people who believe that stricter controls on Fireworks are needed - e.g. more local by laws banning people from setting them off or restricting their use.

I do think it is a good thing that safety controls on Fireworks are much more rigorous than they used to be. The health and safety mafia do not get everything right, but fireworks were originally designed as weapons and it does make sense to be very careful when using explosives for entertainment.

However, I have been and remain reluctant to go down the road of draconian restrictions on when people can let off fireworks. If people on both sides are willing to exercise a certain amount of consideration and common sense it ought to be possible for those who want to put on a firework display to enjoy their fun while allowing everyone else a reasonable opportunity to enjoy peace and quiet.

Unfortunately that kind of consideration was singularly lacking in the early hours of this morning. Having been down south for a few days, I arrived home after a long drive at 2.45 am today. As I stepped out of my car a loud explosion rang out from a couple of hundred feet above my head.

I turned round and was astonished to find a firework party in full flow, apparently in the rear garden of a house in Foxhouses Road, which continued until about 3.00 am. It included several more of the type of fireworks which climb a couple of hundred feet before exploding with a loud bang which can be heard half a mile away. I suspect the party may have awakened almost every light sleeper in the Corkickle area of Whitehaven and probably a good chunk of the rest of the Town.

As I say, I would regret the introduction of draconian controls on fireworks. The vast majority of those who use them are much more responsible. But if the minority who don't think of others carry on waking up dozens of their neighbours at three o'clock in the morning, the political pressure for such controls will become irresistible.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Conservative Future Nuclear Debate

I attended an excellent debate this evening on the proposition "this country needs nuclear energy".

The debate was organised for Conservative members and supporters by Conservative Future (the organisation which replaced the Young Conservatives and Conservative Students) and took place at the House of Commons.

There were good speeches on both sides. I was expecting the pro-nuclear side to win, but had expected the result to be closer than it was.

In fact the motion was carried unanimously.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rail Freight Terminal Application - Live Webcast Tonight

The planning application for a huge rail depot in the south of St Albans district comes to the planning committee tonight. The meeting is being webcast from 7 pm on the St Albans council website, see link on right.


The meeting took three hours not to make a decision. The massive report to the meeting listed a large number of possible reasons for refusal. However, the Highways Agency had directed St Albans council not to give permission for the development yet as they were still looking at the impact of the proposal on local motorways.

It would have been possible to refuse permission at the meeting, but the council's officers recommended that it would be better to wait for a final response from the Highways Agency to see if they proposed an additional reason for refusal.

The officers recommended that the council should state that it is minded to refuse the application on the grounds they have identified but will take a final decision when the Highways Agency reports in the new year.

I must admit that given the Highways Agency direction, my preference would have been not to call the meeting until they established what advice or instruction they were giving to the council. However, given that the meeting had taken place, and after about three hours of discussion and debate, I proposed that the officer recommendation should be approved and this was unanimously agreed by the councillors.

Result - ten councillors, a similar number of highly paid professional experts, and hundreds of members of the public took part in or listened to three hours of debate with the end result that no final decision was taken. The issue is likely to come back to committee early in the New Year.