Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Council Cash investigation

Also at the O&S Committee on Monday it was agreed that the chief executive of Copeland Council will lead an investigation into the council's management of money invested in or guaranteed to Haven rugby club and in the arrangements to appoint and support two councillors as directors of the club.

The chief will will report back on the results of his investigation to a committee meeting held in public on 22nd November.

In particular the initial investigation will focus on a series of specific questions raised by Councillor Alistair Norwood. These are:-

Were the councillors who were appointed to the WRLC board given any appropriate training and support to perform this function?

What was the reason for removing officers from this role and replacing them with councillors? Is there any reason to believe that their decisions contributed to financial loss suffered by the club or this council?

What reporting mechanisms existed for the councillors to report back any issues that were found during their time on the board?

What reporting back to the council took place? Was the council kept fully informed of all actions of the board? Is the reporting considered to have been adequate. If not, why not? And what improvements can be put in place for the future?

Did the council get all information that was requested from the representatives during this time?

Has any evaluation been done on the performance of the council representatives with a view to improving how the council handles these matters in the future?

What was the total cost to the council of having the councillors on the board of WRLC?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bransty Schoolchildren campaign against dog mess

Members of the School Council of Bransty School came to their hopefully more grown-up opposite numbers at Copeland this afternoon to appeal for more action against dog fouling and other forms of evironmental harm associated with irresponsible dog ownership.

They gave an excellent presentation to one of Copeland Council's Overview and Scrutiny Committees, which included a description of the problems which children at the school have had to put up with. The presentation included pictures of two children from other parts of the country who have recently been seriously hurt (among other things, both were blinded) by the Toxicara Canis parasite, apparently contracted through dog droppings.

Council officers reported on the measures which are in hand to deal with this problem: there is an assesment under way about the needs of the area for refuse bins, as a result of which there will be at least two more bins on Bransty Hill.

The point was also made that you do not need a specialised "poop a scoop" bag for dog dirt: it can perfectly well be contained in an ordinary bin bag or nappy liner (and these cost an order of magnitude less.)

If anyone reading this sees someone allowing their dog to foul a public street or play area, in Bransty or anywhere else, please report it at once to the environmental health department of your local council, with as many details as you ca provide of time and place. (There is no point the council sending someone to an area at 4pm if the dog fouling is taking place at 8 am.)

Nothing in this post is intended to suggest that all dog owners are irresponsible: there are many who take care to ensure that their dogs do not make a mess in places where this causes a hazard to others, or who clear it up if they do. But there are other dog owners who need to have more consideration for other people.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Images from the litterpick yesterday

A few pictures of some of the team who helped pick up litter in Bransty yesterday and some of the bags of rubbish collected

(Left to right: County Councillor Graham Roberts, Stephen Haraldsen, Brigid Whiteside, Chris Whiteside, Councillor Allan Mossop)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Litterpick results

We had a team of eight out this morning on Bransty Hill (the Bransty ward councillors and associated volunteers) and collected about a dozen bags worth of rubbish from fast food packaging to cooking oil and bottles from the play area by Harbour View, Bransty Road, the Greens, New Road, and the footpaths between New Road and Earls road.

Pleased with the support. We will be running similar events again.

If any resident of Copeland would like to see something similar organised to clear up litter and rubbish in your area (especially if you're willing to help) drop me an email and I'll be delighted to see if we can set something up

AV in action ...

Labour leadership first round results:

David Miliband: 37.8 percent (of the total vote)
Ed Miliband: 34.3 percent
Ed Balls: 11.8 percent
Andy Burnham: 8.7 percent
Diane Abbott: 7.4 percent

The bottom placed candidate, Diane Abbott, was then eliminated and her votes transferred according to second preferences.

Second round results:

David Miliband: 38.9 percent (of the total remaining vote:)
Ed Miliband: 37.5 percent
Ed Balls: 13.2 percent
Andy Burnham: 10.4 percent

The bottom placed candidate, Andy Burnham, was then eliminated and his votes transferred according to second preferences (or third preferences in the case of votes which came to him from Diane Abbott).

Third round results:

David Miliband: 42.7 percent
Ed Miliband: 41.26 percent
Ed Balls: 16 percent

The bottom placed candidate, Ed Balls, was then eliminated and his votes transferred according to second preferences (or third or fourth preferences in the case of votes which came to him from Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, or both).


And at this point, the candidate who had been the most popular second choice among the supporters of all the other candidates overtook the candidate who had most first preferences and had been in the lead up to that point, with the following result:

Ed Miliband: 50.6 percent
David Miliband: 49.4 percent

It is worth noting that this is an almost exact parallel with the leadership election in the Conservative party immediately after we lost power in 1997.

If I were a member of the Labour party today I think I would be feeling something between the disappointment I felt when Ken Clarke lost out to William Hague in 1997 and the despair and fury which I felt when he lost to IDS in 2001.

William Hague, IDS, and Ed Miliband all have their strengths - indeed one of the reasons I look back on the Conservative leadership election of 1997 as a sad mistake is that someone who might otherwise have become a great prime minister became party leader far too soon.

Doubtless having won the election by appealing to Labour and the Trade Union's disgruntled activists, Ed Miliband will now tack back towards the centre. It will be interesting, however, to see how much room he has to do this.

I can't help thinking that Labour may have made the same sort of mistake that we made after losing power. It also casts an interesting light on how AV can work which may have consequences for the referendum.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Community Litter Pick tomorrow

The Bransty Ward councillors are organising a community litter pick tomorrow morning (Saturday 25th September) on Bransty Hill.

Meet at 10 am at the children's play and garage area off Bransty Road next to Harour View Nursing home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BBC Response

The BBC has made the following response - at least, it's supposed to be a response, though this is barely more than an acknowledgement - to the complaint I made on 23rd August.

I think they have a different understanding from myself of what it means "to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly."

"Dear Mr Whiteside

Thanks for your e-mail regarding 'PM'.

We apologise for the delay in replying to your e-mail. We realise that our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we’re sorry that you had to wait on this occasion.

We acknowledge your concerns that both sides of the argument weren't put across in an item comparing the election of Sheriffs in the USA with the UK Coalition government's proposals regarding Police Commissioners. We also note that you feel that the differences between these systems weren't adequately explained.

We can assure you that impartiality forms the cornerstone of our output however it's not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes. Editors are charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area. The BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view. It seeks rather to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly on behalf of the audience. Among other evidence, audience research indicates widespread confidence in the impartiality of the BBC's reporting.

We do however appreciate your views and your feedback which will be recorded on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback which is made available to our senior management, programmers and other senior figures within the organisation, including those in programme production for ‘PM'.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

John Rentoul despairs ...

Hat tip to political betting for pointing out that John Rentoul has been reduced to near despair by what the polling evidence says about the thinking of Labour party supporters.

The title of this post by John Rentoul is four words that nobody active in democratic politics should ever allow themselves even to think: he goes on to complain bitterly about the fact that more than a quarter of those proposing to vote for Ed Miliband think that David Miliband has a better chance than Ed Miliband of winning an election. As is pointed out at Political Betting, the poll also shows that more than 10% of those supporting the younger Miliband think that his elder brother would be a better P.M.

(The equivalent percentages of David Milliband supporters thinking his younger brother is more likely to lead Labour to victory and would make the best PM are both about 1%, which is more like the sort of percentage you would expect to see among people who have a strong grasp on reality. But we're talking about Labour party members here ...)

As Rentoul puts it, "Vote Ed Miliband. No Compromise With the Electorate."

Monday, September 20, 2010

The two-minute peerage

Don't normally watch the Lib/Dem conference but while we are in coalition with them it seemed worth finding out what their activists are saying.

I was watching when the Copeland Lib/Dem chairman (and PPC a few elections ago) Roger Puttnam spoke, and interested to note that he was described as "Lord Puttnam" on the television caption.

I suspect they were getting him mixed up with the film maker David Puttnam who was given a life peerage by New Labour - wrong person and wrong party.

Someone obviously told them fairly quickly and the message was corrected within two minutes. Bad luck Roger, must have been the shortest enjoyment of a life peerage on record ...

Friday, September 17, 2010

MoT Tests - council or private?

Eric Pickles has been one of the most effective members of the government at cutting bureaucracy and red tape: so I was a bit surprised to see it suggested in today's "The Sun" leader that Eric was trying to close down private sector MOT test centres and replace them with council ones.

That would not be a good idea, and unfortunately some councils may be capable of misinterpreting what the Secretary of State really said in such a way, so in that sense "The Sun" has a point.

But to be fair to the secretary of state for Communities and Local government, his objective was not to drive all private garages out of the MOT business, particularly not the ones who offer a good service, but to open up council-run MOT test centres which are used to check vehicles like buses for their safety and roadworthiness, and get them to also open their doors to the public.

This may save both the council tax payer and the motorist money by providing more competition, but good private garages (like the one I use) have nothing to fear from it. Only the cowboys are in any danger of being driven out of business by competition.

What Eric Pickles actually said while visiting a council MOT test centre in Wandsworth recently was that "Pushing up parking charges is in many ways the lazy approach to raising revenue. MOT schemes show that there are plenty of opportunities for councils to raise extra income without turning motorists into cash cows.

"With a little bit of innovation and creative thinking councils can use the skills and resources already at their disposal to charge and trade in a way that boosts town hall coffers whilst helping rather than hitting the pockets of drivers.

"There is nothing inherently wrong with councils making the most of opportunities to generate extra cash offering and charging for services. In many cases this is happening as an add on to their normal business.

"When the approach is sensible, local people are likely to support trading and charging particularly where doing it helps to protect other services, keeps council tax bills down or when residents themselves can benefit from the services on offer."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Not the most effective strike ever planned ...

So BBC staff are planning a walkout during the Conservative party conference (but not the Labour one) timed to coincide with David Cameron's speech.

I'm sure DC and the Conservative leadership will be quaking in their boots at this terrible threat ...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Community Litter Pick - 25th September

The Bransty Ward councillors are organising a community litter pick on the morning of Saturday 25th September on Bransty Hill.

Meet at 10 am at the children's play and garage area off Bransty road next to the nursing home.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quote of the week

I don't always agree with Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP (that is something of a understatement) but his diaries have often been entertaining, interesting, and insightful.

If you want to order them from Amazon, follow these links to the first volume: "A View from the Foothills" or the newly published second installment, "Decline and Fall."

I was particularly amused this week to read Mullin's account of a comment by Nicholas Soames MP, who has one of the best senses of humour in the Commons. (On an occasion when I did myself great damage through giving too much rein to my sense of humour, Nick Soames was the only person in the room who got the best joke, so much so that he nearly fell off his chair laughing.)

Anyway, Mullin quotes Nick Soames on the idea that the House of Commons is operated like a gentleman' club as follows:

"I run a gentleman's club which has been in existence since 1712, and if it was run the way this place is run it would have died 200 years ago."

I should jolly well think so

Elected politicians are often accused of arrogance, and if the truth were known, this if a pitfall most of us need to watch out for: there is often a thin line between standing up for one's beliefs, and arrogance.

But if elected public servants have to watch out for this problem, that is as nothing to the temptation to arrogance which can afflict senior unelected public servants. And I can think of no better recent illustration than the fact that David Hartnett, Permanent Secretary for tax at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), had to be ordered to apologise after it turned out that 5.7 million people have been charged too much tax or too little.

You really would expect that someone who is paid a £160,000-a-year salary (bigger than David Cameron's) would appreciate the crass insensitivity of his pre-recorded comments on Radio 4's Money Box programme, when he was asked if he would say sorry to those facing unexpected bills, and replied "I'm not sure I see a need to apologise."

If it is true that George Osborne was "incensed" by this, he was quite right to be.

So when I heard that Mr Hartnett had belatedly issued a personal apology, apparently on the orders of the Chancellor, I thought, "I should jolly well think so."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eric Pickles on replacing the new regional strategy

Eric Pickles, the Local Government and Communities Secretary, has written the following article on "Conservative Home" about the new strategy the government is following for the regions, under the title

How we rebuild our local economy

Looking beyond the spending review, one of the toughest challenges we face is the way to rebuild our fragile economy. Let’s start with what not to do. We cannot ever again become so dependent on one industry, or reliant on an over-inflated housing bubble. Nor can we allow the economy to become so London-centric: with the growth, prosperity and wealth concentrated in the South East, while the rest of the country lags behind.

The economy is completely unbalanced: both geographically and across industries. And frankly, the legacy of regional development agencies which we inherited was totally inadequate to address these problems. So, as I’ve written before on ConHome, that’s why over the past few months, we’ve axed everything regional-related: not just the development agencies, but the spatial strategies, and assemblies too. The Regional Development Agencies spent their time bidding for, and spending, taxpayers' money: concentrating on their relationship with Whitehall rather than the needs of local economies.

Even more importantly, the whole concept of ‘regional economies’ is a non-starter. Arbitrary dividing lines across the country for bureaucratic convenience ignore the fact that towns probably have far more in common with their neighbours than with another town in the same region but many miles away. It’s the businesses, councillors and residents of Liverpool, Bristol, or Cambridge who should be deciding how to attract investment, drive growth and create jobs. Not me. And certainly not unelected, unaccountable officials.

That’s why our emphasis is on local enterprise partnerships, which will cut out the middle man and transform the way that businesses and local government work together – without interference either from regions or the centre. Earlier this week, myself and Vince Cable confirmed that we’ve received 56 bids from different places wanting to set up a local enterprise partnership; reflecting the enthusiasm for this new approach from people finally freed from the shackles of regionalism.

What’s so radical about this approach is that neither myself nor Vince has ever, or will ever, say that partnerships ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that. We believe that local people who know and understand the needs of their area can develop their own strategy for economic growth; creating the right conditions for local prosperity by reflecting local industries, circumstances and strengths. And because of that, we’ve seen huge variation in the aims and proposals in these bids. Some are based around major cities; some will draw on the knowledge and ideas of the local university. Some will choose to focus on skills; others might look at unblocking the local planning system. Unsurprisingly, several cross the old regional boundaries: such as the proposal to link up Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire with Luton and Milton Keynes.

We can never underestimate the powerful pull of local identity; the historic connections, traditions and shared history which shaped communities long before regional government was even invented. That sense of local pride is a tremendous asset in these difficult times. Local enterprise partnerships will enable councils and businesses to work creatively together in ways, without second-guessing from regions and prescription from Ministers. They promise to be a radical, effective and ambitious model which will rebuild our national economy by shaping stronger local economies.

Eric Pickles MP

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Another daft letter from the anti-nuclear brigade ...

About a fortnight ago I received a letter and enclosures from the "No need for nuclear" campaign, which I wrote up on this blog under the title "Elevating stupidity into an art form."

Today I received an almost identical letter with another copy of the same enclosures, but where the first letter had been addressed "Dear Councillor," this one was addressed to me by name and "as a former parliamentary candidate for the Conservative party."

Like the previous letter it is riddled with false statements such as the suggestion that "the government has never carried out an assessment of future electricity demand."

This is nonsense.

The previous government did just such an exercise last year, under Ed Miliband. They gave the results less publicity than in my opinion they should have, but nevertheless they did publish it online as an annex to of the "Low Carbon Transition Plan", launched in July 2009. This was picked up both by the Conservatives and the Daily Telegraph. As the Telegraph wrote here at the time, the annex "details supplies and expected demand between now and 2030."

They projected power demand out to 2030 and compared it to expected supply, and found that there was a serious risk of power cuts by 2017. The projected “energy unserved” gap in that year was 3000 megawatt hours per year - the equivalent of the whole of the Nottingham area being without electricity for a day.

By 2025 the former government projected that the situation would get worse with the shortfall hitting 7000 megawatt hours per year. That is the equivalent to an hour-long power cut for half of Britain.

Greg Clark who was then the Conservative spokesman on Energy and Climate change, assessed that exercise while we were in opposition, and although he wasn't terribly impressed with it, he concluded that if anything Ed Milliband was understating the risk of a serious shortage of electricity in the later years of this decade and an even worse one in the mid to late 2020's. You can read the comments he made at the time here.

All this was reported on this blog at the time: see my post "Left in the Dark" dated 2 September 2010.

Hence the central argument of the "No need for nuclear" campaign, that the government has never carried out an assessment of future eletricity demand, is just plain wrong.

But quite apart from the fact that the key arguments of the "No need for nuclear" campaigners are pure, 100% fertiliser, what I find amazingly inept about this letter is that, like the previous one, it asks me to write to my local MP.

What are these people on?

If you are sending letters to 2010 parliamentary candidates who are not now MPs themselves, who are their own local MPs going to be? Answer: their political opponents and personal rivals, making the former candidates just about the worst possible people through whom to try to influence those particular MPs.

However it is entirely possible that many Conservative or Liberal former candidates may have some political influence, not through the Labour MPs they fought, but through contacts with colleagues who are now ministers or sit on the government's backbenches.

The vast majority of Conservative MPs and candidates are pro-nuclear, but if the "No need for Nuclear" campaign had two working brain cells between them, they would know that if they can persuade a small minority of former Conservative candidates to help them, that help would be far more effective if they asked them to lobby their friends and contacts in government, not their own local opponents.

I am reminded of a statement by Voltaire: "I have only prayed one prayer in my life: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Feedback from Bransty and Harbour Neighbourhood Forum

The B&H Neighbourhood forum met this evening in the United Reform Church.

Main item on the agenda was the proposals for a new Bus/Rail interchange at Bransty station in Whitehaven on land which is partly the current station site and partly occupied by Tesco.

Details of the proposals will be displayed in an exhibition at Whitehaven Library and Bransty station from later this week (probably from Thursday or Friday) for several weeks.

Time to outlaw new first cousin marriages

Sometimes new scientific knowledge means that the case against a practice which has previously been regarded as acceptable, perhaps even normal, reaches the point where society is justified in discouraging or banning that practice. This can be hugely controversial, particularly in communities where the practice concerned is more common and who may feel that they are being targetted. Any change in legislation has to be sold and enforced in a way which ensures that such a charge neither is, nor is seen to be, justified. But sometimes nettles need to be grasped.

I am now convinced that Britain has reached that point in terms of new marriages between first cousins because of the increased risk that children of such unions may experience crippling or lethal defects due to doubled recessive genes.

Almost all societies have some form of taboo or rule against incest, but there are variations in how close a relationship has to be before it is banned. Almost all societies ban brother-sister marriages, for instance: some allow marriage between first cousins while others do not.

Due to improving understanding of genetics, we now understand why the children of closely related parents are much more likely to suffer from certain crippling or fatal defects.

Every cell in the human organism contains not just one, but two complete sets of blueprints for making a human being. We have a full set from each parent. One set of these genes - 50% of those from each parent - is actually used to build us, and are known as the dominant genes. We also have a backup set known as the recessive genes, which do not impact on our own bodies but can be passed on to our children. Half the genes we get from each parent are dominant in that parent, the other half are not. That's why two parents with brown eyes can have a child with blue eyes.

Some genes - those for brown eyes are an example - are always dominant if present. If you and your wife have brown eyes and she gives birth to a child with blue eyes, you have nothing to worry about - this just means that both of you have recessive genes for blue eyes. However, if you and your husband both have blue eyes, and you give birth to a child with brown eyes, you may have a great deal of explaining to do.

The mechanisms in our bodies which convert these blueprints into actual human beings appear to include effective means of screening out damaged or harmful genes or combinations of genes when selecting the dominant ones. Many people appear to have damage to their genetic code which does not cause them any problems because the genes concerned are recessive, and their dominant genes are fine. When they in turn reproduce, their children are likely to be healthy provided they don't inherit the same damaged gene from both parents.

However, when closely related individuals have children together, those children are vastly more likely to get the same damaged gene from both father and mother. The consequences can range from stillbirth or miscarriage, to the live birth of a child with expectations only of a few years of pain or disability. This can be agonising both to that child and to loving parents.

The average risk of a serious genetic disorder is about 2%. But the conditional probability of such a disorder in a child whose parents are first cousins rises by a factor of five to about 10%. According to a BBC report, a Primary Health Trust study in Birmingham found in 2005 that 10% of children born to first cousins in the city in previous years had either died or developed a serious disability.

The human and emotional cost of trying to forcibly separate existing marriages between first cousins would be enormous, and attempting to do so would almost certainly undermine any legislation on this subject. Particularly as it's going to be hugely controversial anyway in some communities.

But we can, and in my opinion should, legislate to set a date in the near future beyond which contracting a new marriage between first cousins in this country will be illegal, and marriages between first cousins contracted abroad and taking place after that date will not be recognised.

Every effort should be made to emphasise that this legislation will apply to every ethnic and religious group, and does not represent any criticism of those who have supported cousin marriage in the past.

But if we do not grasp this nettle, thousands of children every year will be born with avoidable crippling or lethal disabilities.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Duxford "Battle of Britain" air display

Don't know if this blog has any readers in the East of England area but given my past political career before moving to Cumbria it's not impossible, so here is a travel tip.

If you are planning to go to the second day of the "Battle of Britain" air display at the Imperial War Museum's Duxford site tomorrow, I strongly recommend that you make a very early start indeed.

If you are not going to the air display, but might otherwise be travelling on the roads anywhere remotely near Duxford, and especially on the M11, A11, or A505, FIND ANOTHER ROUTE as far away from Duxford as you can manage if you can possibly do so.

A huge number of people attended today - or tried to - completely filling all the approved car parks at the venue and causing almost total gridlock on roads around the area. We were told on the radio that the event was full and the organisers had closed the gates, though when we passed the entrance there were still vehicles queuing to get in. The impact on the A505 was one of the worst transport problems I have ever experienced - significantly worse than the average effect on British roads of a foot of snow, or a bad set of M1 or M6 roadworks.

From what we saw of the air display from nearby roads during the three hours we were stuck in traffic while attempting to get through the area on the way home from holiday, it was quite magnificent. But if we had realised how completely the local transport infrastructure would fail to cope with this event, we would have chosen a different way home.

Blogging resumes

Apologies to those who posted messages while I was on holiday - I was expecting to be able to access the internet and the arrangements I made met with a technical hitch. Blogging will resume as from today