There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.

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I spent yesterday in London at the first ever Councillor Camp. This wasn’t a group of local government people hanging around in tents and/or pretending to be Kenneth Williams, but a version of BarCamp especially for councillors who wanted to look at ways we could use social media to better carry out our roles. It was organised by the LGIU and Futuregov, and we were very lucky to be hosted by Facebook, who gave us the run of their London training and meeting room, complete with Doctor Who-themed room names.

Unlike most local government events that I get invited to, this was a free event, and rather than having a rigid schedule, it was run as an ‘unconference‘ where most of the sessions and what they covered were determined by the participants, not by some schedule determined in advance. Another key feature of the day was that we were all encouraged to keep electronic devices on throughout the day and so as well as what was happening at the event itself, there was lots of discussion on the #cllrcamp hashtag on Twitter.

The day started with a number of different speakers offering a variety of perspectives on the use of social media in local politics. Again, this differed from normal conferences in that they were only allowed five minutes each to speak, and thus none of the presentations turned into death by PowerPoint. (“Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.”) This meant they had to boil things down to a few key points, which helped to set the tone for the day, rather than telling everyone what to think. Some key points I picked up from those speeches:

  • Brighton and Hove Council created their own Twitter hashtag – #bhbudget – to promote online discussion of their budget, and councillors were active participants in the online debate, which did feed concrete proposals into the budget
  • Denmark’s tax authorities use their online presence to post details and pictures of what people’s taxes are used for
  • “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” “Your residents are human, so be human.” Politicians need to be on social media as themselves, not constructing a separate online personality.
  • After those brief talks, we were into the main meat of the day, with people filling out a huge number of post-it that were then collated together into a grid of different sessions, where we could talk about what we wanted to. These discussion sessions were, for me, more useful than breakout sessions at other events. Again, there was no sitting round watching one person PowerPoint us to death, and the fact that people had come to a session because they wanted to be there and had chosen the topic meant people were much more willing to participate.

    (And in itself, letting people define the terms of their engagement and interaction, not having it rigidly imposed from on high is something local government could and should learn to do)

    I could go on for ages, but some of the thoughts I’ve had from Councillor Camp are likely going to generate posts in themselves over the weeks to come, but here are some of the key points for me:

  • Engaging in social media means giving up some control – councils and councillors can create and start discussions, but can’t determine where it goes after that.
  • There has to be more work done to get more people involved and online, so the discussion isn’t just amongst the most savvy.
  • Any social media strategy has to be capable of evolving to recognise the growth of new networks and platforms.
  • A new generation is coming through who see being online and involved in social media as entirely natural and integral to their lives, not an added extra (see this quote fromDouglas Adams). That councillors are generally much older than the population they represent could create issues here.
  • The effectiveness of your social media presence is linked to authenticity – people expect you to be yourself and respond as such, not a programmed drone.
  • Interactivity is expected, not an added-extra. People will expect to interact with the social media presence of councils and councillors and get a meaningful response.
  • There’s more to come – and some of it might link with the thoughts I’ve had after reading The Political Brain this week – but overall Councillor Camp was a great experience, and I’d recommend any follow up and repeat events to other councillors, especially those who aren’t as engaged online and want to discover how to go further. One idea suggested was the potential for regional events, to get more people involved in a more convenient location – anyone fancy a Councillor Camp East?

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    I’ve seen a few people talking this morning about how ‘Westminster Council’ are planning to strip benefits from obese people who don’t exercise. Now, that’s a very silly idea – and Stavvers points out the reasons for that in this post – but the key point that people have missed is that these proposals don’t actually come from Westminster Council.

    The stories are based on this report on the LGIU (Local Government Information Unit) website. While Westminster Council were part of the process in coming up with the report – through some vaguely described ’round table discussions’ with the LGIU – the executive summary of the report (on page 2) states quite clearly:

    Recommendations are, however, made independently by the LGiU and do not necessarily reflect the views of WCC.

    Which actually makes this worse. This isn’t a rogue report floating around one council – this is an officially sanctioned and published LGIU report that will be circulated to hundreds of councils all across the country. Westminster’s name is attached to it as they appear to have been the only Council consulted in drawing up the report and recommendations, but this isn’t their policy unless they choose to adopt it, just like anyone else.

    It’s worth noting that most of the report is pretty standard stuff that’s been seen in many other reports and recommendations 4 and 5 particularly could appear in just about any LGIU report with ‘public health’ replaced by whatever the topic at hand was. The problems mostly stem from one line on page 6:

    Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax
    benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents.

    However because of the nature of the report, this isn’t backed up with any evidence as to who or where it’s come from, why anyone thinks it might be effective or whether the person who wrote it stared deep into their soul before doing so and realised exactly what it was they were proposing. Unfortunately, that advice is now being pushed out all across the country, so expect it to emerge in lots of places other than Westminster with proponents claiming ‘it was in an LGIU report, it must be a good idea!’

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    The trouble with writing a blog post about Eric Pickles is that just when you think he’s dug down to a whole new unbeatable low, he finds himself a better shovel and heads down deeper.

    So today we have the news of the latest round of local government cuts which are about as awful as everyone was expected. But in an effort to claim that any cutbacks in services that result from this aren’t the fault of the Government, we get to hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government telling us that there are easy ways for councils to make more savings.

    “What is it, Eric?” Councils ask eagerly, hoping that the great minds of DCLG have stumbled upon some magical ways to make easy savings without service cuts. “What great idea have you stumbled upon?”

    “It’s not just one suggestion – it’s fifty!” Booms the Secretary of State, and magically sends a list to every Council throughout the land.

    “Wow!” Exclaim the councils. “Fifty ways to save money! Thank you, oh wise and knowledgeable Secretary of State. We’re so grateful for this advice that we won’t even make a Fifty Shades Of Grey joke.”

    “Never fear, my friends.” The Secretary of State says. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate my sage advice.”

    Eagerly the Councils opened their guides and read them quickly, wanting to find what ways the geniuses of Whitehall had found for saving money. What incredible new schemes might they have found? What new advice on making the most of meagre money did they have to impart?

    “Wait a minute!” One small and plucky council finally shouted. “This is just a list of things most councils are doing already, mixed in with some political dogma about Common Purpose and trade unions.”

    “We’re already doing most of these.” Said another.

    “We are too!” Others cried, and soon the calls of agreement became a cacophony, occasionally interspersed with bitter laughter at the idea that Councils might not have noticed that Town Halls made good wedding venues.

    “But wait.” One of them finally asked. “If the geniuses of Whitehall think that this is all new and useful information, and not just reminding us of the same things we’ve all been doing and talking about for the last few years, what are they doing with their time? Are they looking at what councils are actually doing, or is the Secretary of State too busy obsessing over bins and talking to ‘Conservative madrassas’ to bother with finding out what local government is actually doing?”

    And they looked to the Secretary of State for an answer, but he’d departed, leaving just a newly emptied bin in his place.

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    For what sins committed in a previous life have we found ourselves inflicted with Eric Pickles in this one? I’ve written many times about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, each time sure that he’s reached a new nadir, that he can go no lower, and then every time he confounds expectations to find an even lower common denominator. Indeed, so bad has be been at DCLG that he makes councillors I’ve met from all parties positively wistful for the days of Hazel Blears.

    One of the main problems I have with Pickles’ reign at the DCLG is the centralist localism he’s continually prescribed. The paradox in that description is intentional – Pickles et al talk about a new age of localism for local councils, but it only means that you’re free to decide locally which shade of his policy you wish to implement. It’s a ruse to try and get councils to take the blame for centrally-imposed funding cuts that will reduce services to the bone. See for instance, the Barnet Graph of Doom, or Birmingham’s Jaws of Doom for a view of how perilous the situation is. As council leaders are warning today, things are dire, and a further 2% cut could be catastrophic.

    In this light, the fact that Pickles could find £250m from his budget to pay for councils to keep weekly bin collections does seem an odd priority. (Full disclosure: Colchester Borough Council is receiving money from this fund) It’s right that MPs question this – as Tristram Hunt did in the House of Commons on Monday. Their exchange is worth recording:

    Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): In towns and cities across England, local authorities are being forced to close museums, shut care homes and end library provision, but the Government found £250 million to empty the bins more regularly. What kind of abysmal, philistine, reactionary Government put dustbins above library books?

    Mr Pickles: The people who are putting dustbins above those things are people who care about the general service provided to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a luvvie, so no doubt he is looking intensely at the drop in culture, but that is a matter for local decision, and he is wholly wrong. People should look at how an authority can get more money in by exploiting and using its cultural heritage. Frankly, he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies. He should listen a little bit more.

    There we have it – bin collections are part of ‘the general service provided to the electorate’ but libraries and culture are just something for ‘a bunch of luvvies’. That’s the Pickles view of the world, where weekly bin collections are sacrosant, but the work of libraries is irrelevant. Who needs culture when you can have a black plastic sack instead?

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    I thought it might be useful if I wrote a post to explain some of the ways in which planning and development control work – at least, how they do in Colchester – in an effort to give people a bit more insight into the way the system works, and the role councillors like me have in it. I think some – though not all – of the issues people have with planning come from not understanding how the system works, and how much councillors can and can’t achieve.

    One of the first points to understand is that there are two parts to the planning process. Planning applications aren’t decided within a vacuum, but in the light of various policies and plans. There are lots of different things that make up planning policy in its totality, but the key ones are the National Planning Policy Framework and the Colchester Local Development Framework (currently turning into the Local Plan, as renamed by the NPPF). These set out the broad strokes of what can and can’t be done, and the LDF/Local Plan is particularly responsible for allocating different areas for different types of development.

    Strategic planning like this isn’t dealt with by the Planning Committee. Rather, it’s the remit of the Local Plan Committee, the Cabinet and the Council to decide on what goes into the Local Plan, and that plan then has to be approved by a Government-appointed planning inspector before it can be properly adopted. For instance, changing the Plan to include the Tiptree Jam Factory proposals had to go through an inspection before it could be allowed.

    So it’s within these frameworks that planning applications are submitted and decided on. When an application is submitted to the Council, it has to be judged against the rules, not just arbitrarily judged according to whatever criteria someone wishes to apply at the time. If an application is to be refused, it has to be for distinct and justifiable reasons on planning grounds, not whatever personal or political fiat seems a good idea.

    As you can see from my planning update posts, or from looking at the list of applications on the Council website, many planning applications are submitted to the Council every week, but only a few come before the Planning Committee. This is because the bulk of applications that come into the Council are relatively uncontroversial and can be decided on by the planning officers with powers that are delegated to them. In certain cases – for instance, on a major application with objections from the public – an application will automatically go to the committee, but otherwise it has to be called in by a councillor to appear before the committee.

    This is why most applications that appear before the committee come with a recommendation of approval. On minor applications, ones that are recommended for refusal are rarely called before the committee, and for major applications, much work takes place between the applicants and the council planners to come up with an application that can be recommended for approval. Large applications that are recommended for refusal are normally withdrawn and resubmitted in amended form before they can come to the committee.

    The Planning Committee itself is what’s referred to in local government circles as a ‘quasi-judicial’ committee. This doesn’t mean we get to dress and up and pretend to be judges – or even quasi-judges – but that applications have to be decided on based on evidence and policy, not personal bias. This is why members of the committee can’t announce before a meeting how they’re going to vote on an application, as that would be to pre-judge their decision before they’ve heard and seen all the evidence.

    This means that if the committee want to reject an application, it has to be done on planning grounds. These grounds, referred to as material planning considerations (click on the link for a list) are the valid grounds on which the Council can refuse an application and one or more of them must be cited in any rejection of an application. Other reasons outside of the list can be stated, but these can’t be the grounds on which the application is rejected.

    “Ah,” you might think, “surely if the Council decides it wants to reject something, it can go ahead and do it on whatever grounds it wants?” Well, it can do, but if someone has an application rejected, they can appeal that decision to the Planning Inspectorate. Note though, that only a rejected application can be appealed – if one is granted, objectors can’t appeal that decision, though they could seek a Judicial Review of the application if they so wished. Granted applications can also be sent to the Inspectorate if the Secretary of State (at present, Eric Pickles, in the Department for Communities and Local Government) requests it to be sent there.

    The appeal determines whether the right decision was made by the Council in rejecting the application and whether the grounds on which it was rejected are sound. There are many ways in which the Inspectorate can conduct an appeal, from assessing it purely on written submission, all the way up to a full multiple-day public inquiry into the application. At the end of the process, the inspector will issue an opinion that either upholds or overturns the original decision, and can also award costs against one side or the other if they feel the case justifies it. For instance, if a Council’s original decision to reject an application was regarded as not being based on sound reasons, it would likely have to pay the costs of the appellant. This is one reason why the planning committee needs to find sound reasons to object, otherwise the costs of a protracted case could cost the council thousands of pounds to unsuccessfully defend.

    I hope that’s given some insight into how the planning process without going into the specifics of any particular application. It’s a complicated system that I hope I’ve shed some light on.

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    Reading Stephen Tall’s Lib Dem Voice post on police commissioners this morning, I found myself thinking about elected mayors and how some of the claims that are made for them and their potential effects.

    One thought that occurred to me is that while there’s been lots written on elected mayors and the arguments for and against them (see this pdf from the Warwick Commission for a good summation), there doesn’t appear to have been any quantitative research into their effects. (But if you are aware of any, please let me know)

    Because of the piecemeal way in which the mayoral system has been introduced across the country, it seems to me that there’s the basis for doing some interesting comparative research between local authorities with and without mayors. There are currently 16 mayors outside London, in a wide range of different types of local authority – metropolitan boroughs, London boroughs, unitary authorities and non-metropolitan boroughs all have mayors – and pretty much all those authorities with mayors have comparable authorities without them.

    I’d suggest that there’s scope for doing statistical research comparing boroughs with elected mayors to similar ones without. It could look at a wide range of information about those areas and see how they’ve changed over the past ten years – for instance, at what rates have their economies grown, what’s happened to their unemployment rate, how much external investment have they attracted, how have educational attainment and qualification rates changed, how much tourism have they attracted, how many new houses have been built etc – and then compare the results for mayoral areas with non-mayoral ones to see if the system of government has had any noticeable statistical effect on their area.

    I think there are important questions around democracy, accountability and other issues before making any changes like that – one reason why, if we’re going to have PCCs, they should have been trialled for effectiveness first in areas that wanted them rather than imposed everywhere – but it would help these debates if people who claim that one way or another is a better form of local government for an area could have some statistics to back that argument up.

    I apologise for returning to the subject of Eric Pickles once again, but the man just keeps generating material. This time, it’s because he believes Council spending is responsible for the deficit:

    In comments that will further inflame council leaders from all parties, Pickles told Society Guardian: “Local government is a massive part of public expenditure. It has lived for years on unsustained growth, unsustainable public finance. People blame the bankers [for the country's economic woes] but I think big government is just as much to blame as the big banks.”

    So, let’s see what Mr Pickles’ own department has to say on the matter, and see how much that ‘massive part of public expenditure’ is. And look, here’s a DCLG publication on local authority revenue expenditure and financing (pdf file, other information here) with the information we need for this year.

    In total, local government is expected to spend around £120bn in 2010-11. I’m sure some of you are gasping in shock and horror at that amount, imagining all those horrible council fat cats being rolled around in their gold-plated wheelie bins while issuing political correctness dictats to terrified homeowners, but let’s see what the money is actually spent on. As the charts show, the four biggest pieces of local government expenditure are on education (£47bn, the majority of which comes from central government grants), social care (£21bn), police services (£12.5bn) and highways & transport (£7.7bn). Add in the fact that the £16bn of housing benefit and council tax benefit costs are also included as local expenditure, and that’s over £100bn of that initial sum. That remaining £16bn or so covers everything else Councils do across the whole country – waste collection, libraries, parks, planning services, development control and all the rest.

    Almost £50bn of that cash is raised locally though domestic and business (NNDR) rates (though Councils have no say in the level of business rates, they have to collect them and then send all the money to Whitehall to be redistributed) and before you start complaining that Pickles is right and we’re living beyond our means, look at pages 15 and 16 of the report that detail the grants Councils get. These are almost all for carrying out things that central government requires Councils to do – like running schools – and almost all of those schemes listed there has quite detailed rules on what it can and can’t be spent on. For Pickles to complain that this is ‘a massive part of public expenditure’ and somehow responsible for the deficit just says to me that he doesn’t understand his brief at all.

    Would I be breaking some sort of coalition rule by calling Eric Pickles an idiot?

    I’m just wondering, because I’m sure that being the Cabinet minister responsible for a Localism Bill, yet only speaking about things in bizarrely anti-localist terms are the actions of either a satirical genius or an idiot. And as I don’t believe his performance is directed by Armando Ianucci, that doesn’t really leave many other options.

    I could just about take his habit of proclaiming that he was setting local councils free – even though the rhetoric rarely matched the reality – while also laying out what they should and shouldn’t do, as being merely Whitehall doing what it always does in a vacuum: filling it with guidelines. I could even explain away his pronouncements on how often Councils should collect household waste as merely him expressing his opinion in the way many ex-Councillors like to berate those of us currently in the role for changes to what they thought was a perfectly organised system when they were sitting in the council chamber.

    There’s no way to explain away the latest bit of DCLG madness though. We all knew that the 12 largest cities were going to have Whitehall attempt to foist mayors on them (yet suggest direct election of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the same people and watch them run screaming) in the name of local accountability without any hint that they’d even registered the potential irony in that policy. That was somewhat justifiable, though, on the grounds that there was a precedent in London and such Mayors would be subject to confirmatory referendums.

    So, when will such confirmatory referendums take place? Why, after said mayors have been elected and taken office, of course! Because there’s nothing more localist than making the decisions for a city from afar and then asking them to tell you just how right you are a little further down the line, is there? And in this new age of austerity for Councils (it must be happening, I had an invite to a £400 one-day conference to discuss it), just who pays for the organisational changes that will have to happen to accommodate these new mayors? And who foots the bill if the public are so ungrateful as to decide they don’t actually want them?

    I was prepared for the Localism Bill to not live up to the hype of how it would completely liberate councils, even before Nick Boles started playing the mood music for the abolition of districts and boroughs, but wasn’t expecting it to be this ridiculously centralist and dictating. Though I do live in hope that someday someone will tell Eric Pickles that he’s going to be replaced by a directly-elected Secretary of State, and if he objects to that then he can have his say in the entirely balanced and not at all rigged consultation that his successor will arrange.

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    About a year ago, I wrote a post about how Councils were having to choose between two new structures for organising themselves, both of which required a huge concentration of power into the hands of one individual – either a ‘strong leader’ or an elected Mayor.

    However, after the General Election and with the Labour Government being replaced with the Coalition, it looked like this would be something that would quickly fall by the wayside, especially with the statement in the Programme for Government which stated that while the twelve largest cities would have the opportunity to decide on whether they wanted elected mayors, for other Councils there was this:

    We will give councils a general power of competence

    We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.

    So, no need to carry on with the old process and a chance for Councils to determine for themselves what the best way of running their affairs would be. Sounds great, until someone realised that they hadn’t got rid of the old legislation requiring Councils to go through the changes, and so that would stay in place until the Localism Bill finally made its way through Parliament. Yes, we have to change systems in 2011, and then change them again in 2012, no doubt all in the name of efficiency.

    But that’s not what I really want to write about today. As the local press have reported, we’re now in the process of deciding which of the two options we want (pdf file) – strong leader or elected mayor. While I still remain somewhat ambivalent about the choice being offered in themselves – it’s somewhat akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or out of a helicopter – I think that the elected Mayor option should be strongly opposed and rejected.

    This isn’t because I’ve become a fervent supporter of the strong leader system, but because that option is the one that’s easiest to amend in the future when we have the power to do so. I’m opposed to systems where power is concentrated in individuals and I think the best Council structure would be one where power is dispersed back to committees, area panels and the like rather than concentrated upwards. It’s much easier to switch to something entirely new from the strong leader situation than it would be if we had an elected Mayor in place – you’re more likely to get a leader who’ll give up their powers than a Mayor who’ll happily abolish their entire existence.

    Of course, that’s at the heart of my opposition to elected Mayors – this idea that concentrating all the power of the Council into one person is somehow a good thing and will solve all problems. (It’s also very similar to the arguments Mussolini and the Fascists used in the 1920s and have been used by anti-democrats ever since – democracy and consensus have failed, only a strongman leader can solve these problems) No matter what living in an elected dictatorship might have taught us, democracy isn’t just about voting every once in a while and then forgetting about it. It’s a system of checks and balances that should be there to prevent, not encourage, the exercise of arbitrary power by anyone. The way the Mayoral system is established in Britain doesn’t allow for this – the Council is reduced to little more than a rubber stamp (just look at how little power the GLA has to check the Mayor of London) and huge chunks of what the Council does can be determined solely by Mayoral fiat.

    ‘But that’s what we want!’ Some people say. ‘Let the Mayor smash through red tape, bureaucracy, political correctness, council jobsworths and whatever other nonsense the Daily Mail says is blighting the country!’ What they fail to realise they’re assuming in this is that they’ll get a Mayor who agrees with them. I know we all like to assume that the majority agree with us, no matter how silent they might be when asked, but just imagine what someone you fundamentally disagree with could do with that unchecked power over your Borough. Concentrating power into a single post might increase the reward for winning an election, but there’s always that matching risk someone you don’t like will get all that power – all it takes is one good election campaign, one last minute scandal as people go to vote, one slip up in an interview or at a hustings and suddenly someone you never wanted running your life has a huge say over it.

    I’m not claiming that the alternatives are perfect political systems for local government, but they do have the advantage of diffusing power, of ensuring everyone has the chance to have their say, not just the coterie who get to surround the winning Mayoral candidate, and there’s a recognition that individuals are fallible. Checks and balances may not lead to the supposedly dynamic and efficient government that seems to be perennially just one reform away from us, but they do keep the arbitrary abuse of power away.

    What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings.

    Karl Popper, The Open Society And Its Enemies

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