Thursday, August 30, 2012

Flooding hits West Cumbria

For the third time in less than a decade Cumbria has been severely hit by flooding.

Enormous quantities of rain fell in the St Bees, Egremont, and Calderbridge areas last night and this morning.

Many homes have been flooded - over a hundred in Egremont alone -  and a train derailed just south of St Bees when it hit a landslide on the tracks - fortunately none of the hundred or so people on board were hurt.

An emergency centre for people who have had to leave their homes has been set up in Egremont Market Hall.

Areas affected include Egremont, St Bees, Gosforth, Beckermet, Calderbridge, Moresby, Ravenglass and Sandwith.

The Environment Agency described the rainfall which produced these flash floods as "Incredible" with 52 millimetres if rain (for the old fashioned, that's a whisker over two inches) falling in Egremont in six hours, and 15 centimetres falling in a quarter of an hour at Calderbridge

I gather than the emergency services have been brilliant. A big thank you to all those who worked to help the victims of these floods.

At least one bridge was closed, in Beckermet, though the BBC says that it has now reopened.

The relief train which was sent to rescue stranded passengers from the derailed train was itself forced to stop by another landslide and they had to be evacuated by road. It is unlikely that normal service will resume on the coastal railway line which runs from Carlisle to Barrow via Whitehaven before Monday.

 There may have to be a review of the maintenance of some of the drains and watercourses in the area which failed to cope with the amount of water. This level of rainfall would previously have been considered exceptional - but then again, if one county gets three instances of severe disruption and damage as a result of exceptional levels of rain in a decade, perhaps we need to review our definition of what is exceptional.

I don't think you could argue that Cumbria has had three instances of once-in-a-thousand-years rainfall in only seven years.

Follow that - and they did!

It was always going to be difficult for the opening ceremony for the Paralympic games to follow the extravaganzas which had been put on at the opening and closing of the Olympics.

And yet they managed it.

The conribution from Stephen Hawking was particularly inspired, but the whole thing was brilliant.

A pity that some wretch of a TV presenter decided to conduct an interview while the main ceremony was featuring one of my favorite pieces of music - Purcell's Frost song - but the ceremony was a magnificent tribute to the human spirit and the wonder of the Universe.

Monday, August 27, 2012

UK overtakes France and Germany in Broadband speed

The average speed of Broadband service available to UK customers has overtaken France and Germany, and plans are in place to improve it further.
Nine out of 10 homes and businesses in the UK should have access to superfast broadband, and the UK should have the fastest broadband network of any major European country by 2015, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced.

The Government has allocated £530m to providing the UK with the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015.

“In my very first speech as a Minister I said that I wanted us to have the “best” superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015,” said Jeremy Hunt.

“In defining ‘best’ you include factors like price and coverage as well as speed. But over the past two years it has become clear, as Usain Bolt wouldn't hesitate to say, to be the best you need to be the fastest.

“So I am today announcing an ambition to be not just the best, but specifically the fastest broadband of any major European country by 2015. Indeed we may already be there.”

The market is expected to provide superfast broadband to around two thirds of the country. The Government is supporting the roll-out of superfast broadband in areas like rural Cumbria so that it will reach the third of UK homes and businesses who would otherwise miss out.

The UK has made good progress on internet speed:

  • Average speed in the UK has increased by about 50 per cent since May 2010
  • In the last year alone average speed increased from 7.6 Mbps to 9 Mbps, overtaking France and Germany so the UK now has the fastest broadband of any large European Country
  • Two thirds of the population are now on packages of more than 10 Mbps, higher than anywhere in Europe except Portugal and Bulgaria

But the Culture Secretary added that we cannot afford to fall behind in providing high speed internet access: “We simply will not have a competitive broadband network unless we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds.”

Neil Armstrong R. I. P.

As a small child I recall being woken in the middle of the night, because my parents thought that I would want to see immediately the TV images which showed Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

To this day the music for "Thus Spake Zarathustra" as used by Stanley Kubrick at the start of the film 2001 (below) and which was also played on contemporary images of the Saturn V launch vehicles blasting off for the moon, makes me think about what an extraordinary achievement this was.

Communications satellites and weather satellites have generated enormous wealth and saved millions of lives. The rest of the space programme has yet to produce great benefits for mankind, but the time will come. For a start, we have yet to fully exploit the advantages which zero-G manufacturing could bring. For another, there are huge quantities of raw materials in the asteroid belt.

But the third reason mankind may ultimately be very grateful for the technology which put Neil Armstrong on the moon is this. Sooner or later within the lifetime of this solar system, it is statistically almost inevitable that an asteroid or comet at least as large as the one which apparently did for the dinosaurs will be on course to collide with earth.

If this happens while humans still have a high energy civilisation, the techology which put men on the moon may be the starting poing for a solution which saves most life on earth.

If that happens, the world will owe a huge debt to Neil Armstrong, who has just died. Either way his courage and the human achievement which his "One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind" represented will be long remembered.

Rest in Peace

Sunday, August 26, 2012

MRSA deaths fall by a quarter

Hospitals in Cumbria have always taken cleanliness very seriously and our local acute hospitals have some of the better records on death and illness from hospital acquired infections.

Nevertheless it is excellent news that deaths from one of the most common hospital acquired infections, MRSA, have dropped dramatically in the past year.

New figures from the ONS have revealed that the number of people dying due to MRSA infections in hospitals has fallen by more than a quarter in the last year, to a 15 year low.

MRSA deaths rose by more than 450 per cent from 1996 to a peak of 1,651 in 2006. Since then infections have been brought down by 78 per cent and are now lower than at any point since 1996.

Health Minister Simon Burns said:

‘The news that MRSA deaths are lower than at any point in the last 15 years is a testament to the hard work and dedication of NHS staff across the country.

‘We have a zero tolerance approach to all hospital infections and we have taken the unprecedented step of publishing infection rates on a weekly basis to ensure there is absolute transparency.

'Every avoidable death is a tragedy. We must continue to do more to keep hospital infections at their lowest levels on record and ensure no patient dies because of MRSA.'

Good news for Cumbria from DEFRA

Jim Paice MP announces £3.5m for new jobs and businesses in Cumbria during his Rural Roadshow.

Blogging resumes

Have been away on a short family holiday in Norfolk without access to the internet. Just starting to catch up on what happened while I was away.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

As a brilliant set of games comes to an end

If you'd told us in 2005 how much the hosting the Olympic Games would cost, and that it would fall due in the middle of the longest double-dip recession since WWII, most of us would probably have said that it wasn't worth doing.

Yet we would have been wrong.

Even if the huge publicicity boost worldwide which the games have given to Britain doesn't help our salesmen sell more abroad - and I think it will, though nobody will ever be able to prove it, and even if David Cameron is wrong that the "massive self-confidence boost" doesn't help us fight the recession, the sheer excitement and pleasure which the  Olympic Games have given to Britain has been worthwhile on their own merits.

Opinion polls at the close of the London Games demonstrate a significant public pride both in the country's team and its ability to host a successful global event, and rightly so.

There will be naysayers and grumblers who say it was a waste of money - there always are, and if moaning and whining was an Olympic sport that would have guaranteed Team GB a 29th Gold medal. But I believe they are wrong and completely out of touch with the spirit of Britain.

So many people, from the Team GB members themselves to all the volunteers, the police, soldiers and others who provided security, the public who turned up to support the games, have given so much hard work and dedication

And I agree with  the Prime Minister that the success of the Games showed the UK could "turn things around".

"It is an enormous confidence-booster about who we are as a country, what we can do, what we stand for, and the fact that we can make our way in a very tough and competitive world,"

he told BBC News.

"We do face a very tough economic situation and I do not belittle that at all. It is a very tough economic world that we are in.

"But in a way what these Games show is that if you work hard enough at something, if you plan something, if you are passionate enough about something, you can turn things around.

"I think that is the lesson people can take from these Games."

What they thought of the games over the pond ...

Yahoo Sports US site published a review of the London 2012 games from a US perspective which you can read on their UK site here.

Here are a few extracts with some of the highlights and lowlights as seen by our ex-colonial cousins ...

So how did London fare?

Crowds: B+ The ones that got in were terrific. Eighty thousand per night at track and field, swimming and boxing packed, basketball overloaded, even nearly 30,000 for dressage. The locals were into it, and London was accessible to so many nations. Plus, this is one of the most, if not the most, diverse city in the world, so many who live here now could root on the nation they left behind. The energy was incredible. The only downside was the traditional plague of empty seats courtesy of sponsor and IOC sections. London was slow to react with a plan to fill them with people who couldn't get a ticket in the first place.

Venues: A Perhaps no city in the world could produce such a combination of traditional landmarks, historic sporting grounds and modern construction. The marathon finished by Buckingham Palace, beach volleyball was at the Horse Guard Parade, equestrian in a park founded in 1427, archery at the two-century-old Lord's Cricket Grounds, tennis was at Wimbledon, soccer was played Wembley and Old Trafford in Manchester and so on. London is about history and the Games showcased it brilliantly. The city then added a terrific Olympic Stadium for athletics, including a fast track, a spectator-friendly set up for rowing, and a number of perfect smaller spots such as badminton, combat sports and BMX. There wasn't a bad set up out there.

Transportation: A Blessed with an extensive subway system and a country that long ago invested in rail services, London was a in a great spot. They then upped the number of trains to avoid congestion and, to the luck of visitors, a lot of locals took off and left the streets free of major congestion. Everything worked. And we minded the gap.

Closing times: D Apparently the Brits like to get to bed early. Many kitchens close at 10 p.m., many bars by 1 a.m.. Much of the rest of the world likes to hang out a bit later — in many countries, particularly around the Mediterranean, you don't even go out until midnight. This was a culture war. We're on the side of keeping things open late.

Tomato soup: A British restaurants aren't much for vegetables but across the board they made a mean bowl of tomato soup. (CJW comment - yes, and we know how to pronounce it!)

Air conditioning: F Unless you like a soft push of lukewarm air to cool you off.

Royal family: C The Queen acted in an opening ceremony video. The rest of them mugged it up for every camera available in a shameless bit of look-at-us-we're-normal-fans. (CJW comment - at least the royals was one group who can't be accused of leaving their seats empty, and their enjoyment - particulaly that of the Duchess of Cambridge - was infectious. And the royals took part in every way - I wonder how many Olympic medallists have, like Zara Phillips, been in the postion of being presented with their medal be their mother (the Princess Royal) as their country's OIC representative at a games formally opened by their grandmother (HM the Queen))

Beer: C+ Zero consistency on temperature, pour or taste, although it was always readily available.

Mascot: F That thing (Wenlock) is creepy. Bring back Bei Bei and Jing Jing. (CJW comment - too right!)

Newspapers: A This may be an internet site, but it was a throwback to be in a city where reading the paper, or six or seven papers, was a regular part of the day. Tabloids ran from entertainingly trashy to respectable. Broadsheets were serious and well written. Everyone liked running big pics of Princess Kate, Jessica Ennis and women's beach volleyball.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

When democracy and ethics conflict ...

It happens surprisingly often that rules designed to prevent corruption can, if applied too legalistically and without common sense, seriously interfere with the normal functioning of democracy.

The "predetermination rule" which the government has just rightly scrapped, was designed to make sure that councillors who had to make a decision on an issue attempted to keep an open mind in advance of the vote.

The problem was that it all too often meant that a candidate for election as a councillor who tried to be honest with his or her voters about a key issue in the ward risked finding if elected that the council solicitor told him or her not to attend or vote at the meeting where that issue will be decided because those comments have "prejudged" the issue.
Another good example was the "Standards Board" system of local government ethics which the present government rightly scrapped earlier this year.

The problem with it was that a system designed to prevent councillors from abusing their position to enrich themselves or their families and friends had grown into a frankenstein monster which regularly prevented councillors from putting forward the cases they had been elected to support and which their electorates wanted them to support.

I have previously listed some of the cases where this happened on this blog but here are a couple:

In November 2005, some 26 members of Cumbria County council were advised to withdraw from a debate about nuclear issues. The legal advice was that not just councillors who themselves work at Sellafield or had close relatives who do, but any councillor who even had a friend who works at Sellafield might be “prejudiced.” As Tim Knowles, a Labour councillor, rightly pointed out, “Virtually everybody in West Cumbria has a friend working at Sellafield.” And “West Cumbria needs to be represented on what is a key issue for its wellbeing.”

As I wrote myself at the time, those of us who live in a community where 17,000 jobs depend directly or indirectly on civil nuclear power, might well be influenced in our views on nuclear issues. But isn’t that exactly the sort of interest which democracy is supposed to reflect ?
Similarly when there was a proposal in to build hundreds of houses on a former school playing field in St Albans, which was a matter of intense interest in the ward concerned, the most recently-elected councillor for the ward was advised by the solicitor to the council not to attend the meeting at which the planning application was to be determined because she was also secretary of the local residents' association which was campaigning against the plans.

Thanks to the present government's reforms neither of these problems would happen today, but this week we have another example of a clash between democracy and principles designed to prevent a conflict of interest.

There have been rules for centuries designed to limit the participation in politics of serving judges and police officers. There are good reasons for these rules, but they nevertheless represent a serioius check on the democratic rights of the individuals affected. Society should think carefully before extending those limits - by, for instance adding magistrates to the list of people affected - which in my opinion ought to be the reponsibility of the legislature and not the judiciary.

That view is apparently not shared by one of the most senior judges in England and Wales, who has put the cat among the pigeons with an unexpected ruling that sitting Justices of the Peace cannot put their names forward to be Police and Crime commissioners unless they resign as magistrates.

For thirty years, until very recently, magistrates have formed a significant part of the existing Police Authorities whose powers the Police and Crime Commissioners will take over when they are elected on 15th November.

Admittedly, there are people who have argued against this because they believe that the relationship between the police and magistrates should not be too close. The counter argument was that the experience of magistrates was relevant to the functioning of the police authorities and that magistrates therefore brought useful knowledge to those bodies.

Similarly the experience of having served as a magistrate could be very relevant to someone's ability to do the job of Police and Crime Commissioner, and the electorate, should be able to pick such people for the job.
When parliament passed the law under which Police and Crime Commissioners will be established, they carefully specified various groups of office-holders who will not be eligible to stand for the post without resigning their current positions, and magistrates were not among them. That, most people would have expected, made the position clear. But the Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales, the Rt. Hon Lord Justice Goldring, has ruled otherwise, issuing a circular which demands that “Magistrates who wish to stand for election, upon announcement of their intention to do so, should resign immediately.”

Sam Chapman wrote in his excellent blog, Top of the Cops that

"Judges are disqualified from being elected as PCCs, but the law does not prevent Magistrates from standing, so Lord Justice Goldring has decided that he will stop them from standing."

This looks perilously close to deciding to implement the law which he thinks parliament should have passed rather than the act which has actually been put on the statute book. As Sam continues, Lord Justice Goldring's view about a non-political judiciary "seems so extreme as to in itself constitute a political statement."

Incidentally this will not affect the situation in Cumbria where, although the Conservative candidate to be Police and Crime Commissioner served as a JP for many years, most recently in Barrow, he has already stepped down from that office.

Book Wars

Amazon UK has released the information that it now sells more e-books for it's Kindle reader than it does hard copy books.

A few months ago e-books including free copies overtook paperbacks on the site, now actual sales - not including free books - have overtaken paperbacks and hardbacks combined.

Apparently for every 100 printed books sold through Amazon UK this year they have had 114 titles sold for the Kindle not including free books.

The Independent was  getting upset earlier in the week when they noticed this, about Amazon's increasingly dominant position in the world of publishing.

I don't think we need to panic yet because there are still many ways to publish and get hold of books, and frankly the policies of mainstream publishers appear to be a bigger constraint on the ability of people to publish their ideas than those of Amazon. There are also serious rivals to the kindle as ways to read books electronically, such as the iPad.

I hope the competition authorities are keeping an eye on the world of publishing but although Amazon are clearly heading towards the position where they have what is known to economists and competition lawyers as "Significant Market Power" I am not convinced that there is material evidence either that this power has been abused or that government intervention would be in the public interest.

What the raw figures don't show is how many of those Amazon sales are of short stories, often by new authors. It is my belief that a very considerable proportion of Kindle sales represent the creation of an enlarged market with new publishing niches rather than business taken away from conventional bookshops and publishers.

Dare I say it - perhaps even "May you be born at an interesting time" should no longer be seen, as it was in the days of Confucius, as a curse.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Constitutional Reform

I support both reform of the Upper House and the review which the Boundary Commission has been undertaking to improve the blatantly unfair constitutency boundaries for the House of Commons.

Given the catastrophic economic and fiscal position which the present coalition government inherited from the previous Labour administration, it is unsurprising that this is not top of the public list of concerns, which is headed by bread and butter issues such as the cost of living (especially fuel costs), jobs, and services like the NHS.

However, there is no good time to reform the constitution, but it does need reform.

It is no criticism of the present members of the House of Lords to say that Tony Blair's incomplete "reforms" made the composition of the present chamber indefensible.

Ironically what appears to have happened this summer proves how right the Conservatives were when Blair took most of the hereditary peers out to call for "no stage one without stage two."

Those Labour voices who were serious about reform suggested that the Blair House of Lords was so indefensible that it was bound to be further reformed soon, but Conservatives at the time argued that agreeing reforms was always difficult and we might be stuck with this model for a long time. That was nearly thirteen years ago and the first serious attempt at "stage two" appears to have just failed.

A majority of MPs including most Conservative MPs have consistently voted for reform and it was in the last Conservative manifesto (and those of the other parties) to replace the upper house by a wholly or partly elected upper chamber. Reform of the House of Lords was not a "Lib/Dem" policy, it was supposed to be the policy of all three major parties.

The Clegg proposals were not perfect - a fifteen year term was a bit much, and I detest regional party lists as a system of election, although the open lists proposed were not as undemocratic as the closed party lists introduced by Labour for several kinds of election. But these could and should have been addressed during debate on the bill, and even with these flaws the bill was far preferable to the present system.

I am extremely disappointed that reform has been stalled by an unholy alliance of Conservative rebels and a Labour party which as usual, talked the language of reform while sabotaging it for the most destructive of self-interested sectarian reasons.

I expected nothing better from Ed Miliband - given a range of options you can always rely on Labour to take the worst, and they'll never let you down or display the tiniest atom of principle. Just as John Smith did over Maastrict, Labour have demonstrated that they will fall overthemselves to abandon what they claim to believe if they see the slightest opportunity to damage a non-Labour government no matter how much collateral damage they do to the country.

But I did hope for better from the rebels who, I'm afraid, have played right into Labour's hands. I am sure that Mr Miliband is delighted with himself today, but the rebels should not be.

This is not going to kill the coalition because the country needs this government to last the course in order to finish sorting out Labour's economic mess.

But I hope that everyone in parliament in both the coalition parties will reflect over the summer on what constructive measures can be agreed to re-start the process of reform.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Murray's richly deserved gold medal

There has been such a lot of fantastic sport over the past two days. Perhaps the most moving after the disappointment of a month ago was Andy Murray's incredible performance against the formidable Roger Federer to win the olympic Gold in the tennis men's singles.

During the Wimbledon championship both were brilliant but Federer deserved his win. This time Federer still played like a champion - he was far better than the straight sets score would suggest - but Andy Murray was truly brilliant.

I don't know what on earth they are going to do about Sports Personality of the Year this time. There are at least five people, from Andy Murray to Bradley Wiggins, from Ben Ainsley to Sir Chris Hoy, not to mention Jessica Ennis, and the betting firm which has already paid out on Bradley Wiggins may have jumped the gun.

And as for the mens 100m final, in which Usain Bolt became the first person ever to successfully defend an olympic title in that sport - what an amazing race.

All we need now is a good result in the cricket ... 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Bad news sells papers ...

I don't mean to stigmatise the Whitehaven News which is an excellent local paper: almost any other paper these days, or a TV news outlet, would have done what I am about to highlight.

This week, as recorded a couple of days ago, the UK Treasury finally gave signoff of a full business case approval for £77 million for the the rebuild-refurbishment plan for West Cumberland Hospital, the final hurdle for a £90 million uplift to secure the future of a District General Hospital in West Cumbria.

If the business case had been rejected this would rightly have been seen as a disaster and would have been front page news in the Whitehaven News and other local papers. Any suggestion of delays or doubts to the approval had been greeted with front page headlines like "Do We Need Another March, Prime Minister?"

Yet the final approval of the scheme was relegatd to page five. The front page headline of the Whitehaen News this week was the news that the government is considering a proposal to ban cars from Sellafield to improve security. Obviously a very important local story - but more so than the future of the hospital?

Friday, August 03, 2012

Congratulations to Team GB on more medals

Congratulations to Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins whose victory in the women's double sculls brought Team GB a fourth Olympic gold in 24 hours - and the total to six so far at London 2012.

Particularly good to see Katherine Grainger pick up a gold medal as she was a silver medallist at three previous games.

Other rowng medals: in the men's pair  George Nash and Will Satch won bronze. And Alan Campbell then won bronze in the men's single sculls.

Quote of the Week

"I worry about accusing politicians of making gaffes when they've uttered remarks that would be regarded as plain common sense if anyone else had said them.
We in the media risk forcing them to tame all their opinions until they are so bland as to be dishonest."

That quote comes from Mark Mardell on the BBC Website after the so-called "Romneyshambles."

And whether or not you think it applies in that instance the point is certainly valid in general.

WCH Upgrade clears final hurdle

The final business case for the rebuild/refurbishment of West Cumberland Hospital has been signed off by the Treasury.

This is fantastic news.

We still have to fight to ensure that the magnificent new building contains all the services which were promised under "Closer to Home" but at least this represents a confirmation of a clear commitment by all the levels of authority from the NHS to the government to a continuing  District General Hospital in West Cumbria and they have put the money where their mouths are.

Team GB hits Gold ...

Congratulations to Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Sir Chris Hoy for their Gold medal in the team sprint cycling, to Peter Wilson for his Gold medal in Shooting - Men's Double Trap, to  Tim Baillie & Etienne Stott for their Gold medal in the Canoe Slalom and to the Team GB competitors who won a further three Silver medals today.

Polly loses the plot

Polly Toynbee has written an engagingly mad article in the Guardian entitled As the scales tilt in Labour's favour, this is a pivotal moment for ED Miliband.

If she's as far off in the title as she is in some of the details of her analysis, Labour will be out of power for twenty years as they richly deserve.

As an example of the sheer insanity of her arguments I give you this quote:

"Arguments can be turned: a cap of £26,000 on total benefits sounds eminently reasonable – but less so once people know most goes straight to landlords, often rack-renting slums at shameless prices."

Excuse me?

Let's get this straight Polly - you've noticed that much of the money handed out in benefits goes straight to landlords, sometimes the worst kind of Rachmanite ones.

* And that the effect is often to put the price of rented accomodation up to ridiculous levels.

* You might have added that one knock-on effect of this is to similarly boost the price of entry level owner-occupied homes to unaffordable levels.

* Hence finding affordable housing is made much harder for large parts of the population.

* So having established that higher levels of these benefits means taking more money from taxpayers, including lower-paid taxpayers, to go straight into the pockets of landlords while distorting the housing market so as to crucify the young and the low-paid, you actually imagine that the majority of taxpayers and people looking for homes will see this as an argument AGAINST capping those benefits?

Now where did we put those forms for detention under section 2 of the Mental Health Act ....

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Wiggins takes Gold

Congratulations to Bradley Wiggins who followed up his Tour de France victory with olympic gold in the cycling men's time trial event, finishing in 50 minutes 39 seconds for the 44km course.
This gave him a 42 seconds lead over Germany's Tony Martin who took silver. Congratulations also to Chris Froome, runner-up to Wiggins in Paris, who took the bronze.

Today's win takes Wiggins to seven Olympic medals - four golds, a silver and two bronzes - passing the six medal haul of rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave.
Congratulations also to team GB swimmer Michael Jamieson who has won a silver medal for Britain in the 200m breaststroke event, setting a new  British record of two minutes 8.2 seconds for the event in his semi-final.

Congratulations to Helen Glover and Heather Stanning

on their gold medal in the Olympic rowing ladies pair.

They have both claimed Team GB's first gold medal in the 2012 olympics and become the first British female rowers to win an Olympic title.

Stanning is a serving officer in the Royal Artillery and said "Thanks for all the support in Afghanistan, I'm so proud to be associated with you."