What You Can Get Away With » 2012 » December

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.

,

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?

, , ,

I don’t have the full result yet, but I have been informed that, along with Janet Nunn and Nigel Quinton, I’ve been elected as one of the members of the East of England Liberal Democrat Regional Policy Committee. Thank you to everyone who voted for me – I look forward to having the chance to get on with the things I wrote about here.

There are other places on the committee still to be filled, and there are three places available for Liberal Democrat councillors in the region, as well as two from the region’s parliamentarians and two from the regional executive. If you are a councillor and interested in one of those positions, then you should have received details from the regional secretary about how to put yourself forward as a candidate.

I’ll hopefully be providing some updates and feedback here during my time on the RPC, and I’m always open to hear your thoughts and comments.

,

Discussing the Cabinet’s Jubilee gift to the Queen:

Asked whether she might have enough table mats already before today’s gift, Mr Pickles said: “One can never have too many table mats.”

Further comment is superfluous.

, ,

I’ve recently finished reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking which I found interesting, though it suffered a little from trying to cover a lot of territory. There were many times when it felt like she’d just begun to explore an area and then turned away to head on to the next topic and the book felt somewhat uneasily balanced between being pop science, sociology, psychology and self-help, attempting to cover lots of bases without going into depth on any one of them.

However, reading the book did chime with me a number of levels, not least because it connected with some of the writing and thinking I’ve done about politics recently. One of Cain’s key points is that Western culture is in thrall to what she terms the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, where it’s seen as important to have a big and outgoing personality and it’s important to be at the heart of the group and drawing attention to yourself. There’s some fascinating sequences in the book where she visits places like Harvard Business School and sees how this ‘Culture of Personality’ is stressed as the only way to be a success and a leader – despite there being plenty of evidence that companies and organisations led by people with an introverted style have a tendency to be more successful.

It struck me that this same culture is part of our politics. A couple of years ago, I went on one of the LGID’s Leadership Academy programmes for councillors, part of which involved doing a Myers-Briggs test. I’m sure it won’t surprise many of you to know that the majority of people there were ranked as Extroverts by Myers-Briggs, with Introverts like me a small number. That, I believe, is the usual balance for those courses – from my experience of meeting councillors, I would expect extroverts to dominate, and I suspect the same is true at any level of elected politician.

This shouldn’t surprise us as the current image of a successful politician is someone who’s a fluent public speaker, full of hail-fellow-well-met good heartedness and the ability to ‘connect’ with the ‘ordinary voter’. Charisma and projecting yourself is important, and policy? Well, that’s something the wonks can sort out in the backroom, what’s important is that you get out there and campaign.

I wrote a few months back about how we spend too much time treating politics as a game (see this post as well) and I was reminded of it by a passage in Quiet. Talking about the results of a study in which extroverts and introverts played either a competitive or co-operative game, Cain points out that (on p231 of the hardback edition):

Introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts, extroverts prefer those they compete with.

That, to me, explains a lot. I’ve written many times here and on Twitter about how disheartening I find watching Parliament, Question Time or other political coverage most of the time. Watching politics turn into a contest of who can shout the loudest or get the most people to bray along in agreement with me doesn’t appeal to me at all, and I often find it bewildering that people can be hurling abuse at each other one moment, then being all friendly soon after. But then, if most politicians are extroverts, then this is entirely natural as it’s all just part of the game to them. Is it the case that if politics – or at least, the public face of it – is dominated by extroverts, then it’s going to naturally be this way?

Another political thought that reading Quiet sparked in me was whether the extrovert/introvert dichotomy is also reflected in whether people are interested in campaigning or policy. Stereotype extroverts love the idea of getting out there, knocking on doors, glad-handing strangers in shopping centres or arguing at hustings, while the stereotypical introvert would much rather be with a smaller group of people discussing ideas in depth to come to a solution. Is it the Extrovert Ideal that’s pushing us into a narrative whereby everything is seen through the prism of campaigning – who’s up and who’s down in the polls, how many doors have you knocked on today and how many leaflets have you delivered? – rather than what we might actually do with power? And when we do discuss policy, are we best served by having those discussions in big adversarial conference debates – often characterised by the leadership winning or losing votes – rather than something quieter and more discursive?

Finally, is there potential to change this? Or more fundamentally, is there a desire to change or are people happy with the system the way it is?

, ,

Jennie’s post on the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire reminded me of a Twitter conversation I had a while ago with Richard Gadsden where we discussed the possibility of creating a major women’s cycling race in Britain.

One of the reasons for the Tour de France coming here in 2014 is because cycling is one of the fastest-growing sports in Britain. Bike sales are up, viewing figures for cycling on TV are high and cycling events bring out huge crowds to watch, whether they’re in a velodrome or on the road. Obviously, the sponsors want to tap into that market and the way to do that is to bring major races here. The problem is that – in men’s racing at least – there’s very little space in the calendar to bring races here. Aside from Grand Tour starts (and don’t be surprised if the Giro D’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana starts in Edinburgh in 2015 or 2016), there’s no space on the World Tour calendar for a race in Britain, and the UCI seem keener to create new races outside of Europe anyway.

There will be the Ride London Classic next year, and the Tour of Britain continues to attract a good field of riders because of its proximity to the World Championships, but unless World Series Cycling actually comes to pass and Britain gets one of the ten races, then there’s very little chance of a regular major race here.

However, it’s a completely different story when we look at women’s professional cycling. As is the case in so many other sports, it’s the men’s version that gets all the coverage and the money, while the women get the few bits that are left over, and as we’ve seen recently, also suffer the cutbacks before the men do. Nicole Cooke has spent large parts of her career winning races in the same style Bradley Wiggins has managed this year (she was World and Olympic champion in 2008) but gets a fraction of the coverage (and the sponsorship) that he does.

What this means is that unlike men’s racing, there are nowhere near as many women’s races, and there’s a huge dearth of them at the top of the sport. There are a bunch of small races, and ones a handful of stages, but only recognised Grand Tour – the Giro Donne (Giro d’Italia Femminile), and even that isn’t certain for next year.

It seems to me that Britain would be a good place to hold a high-profile multi-stage race, and professional women’s cycling is in need of the same. Doesn’t it make sense for the two to come together? The Olympic crowds turned out just as heavily for the women’s road race as they did for the men’s and I believe that you could both get the crowds out for a women’s Tour of Britain as well as getting the media coverage for it. Because it would be pitched as a Grand Tour, and thus at the top of the field, it could feature a lot of the tough climbs that the men’s race avoids – why not have a stage or two in the Lakes, the Highlands or across the steepest part of the Pennines?

Britain has a long tradition of women cyclists who didn’t get anything like the same attention as the men. Jennie mentioned Beryl Burton and I’ve already talked about Nicole Cooke, but there are others like their fellow world champion Mandy Jones or Yvonne McGregor who never got the recognition they deserved. There’s a new crop of great young British women cyclists – Lizzie Armitstead, Laura Trott, Jo Rowsell, Dani King, Lucy Garner and others – who are desperately looking for the opportunities that are easily available for their male counterparts. Giving them a major race at home, with a home crowd cheering them on and a media that’s already shown lots of interest in them, could be just what we need to kick off a real step change in cycling and attitudes to women’s sport in Britain.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say what a good idea this is, as I’ve not got the money to invest in trying to make something like this happen (though it is on my list of ‘things to give money to’ if I ever have a EuroMillions win) but what would be the steps to make this happen? What sort of funding and backing would be needed, and where would it come from? The original Grand Tours and major cycle races came about mainly because newspapers wanted to make a name for themselves and generate exclusive content that their rivals wouldn’t have. One hundred years on, perhaps we should be looking to websites that want to make a name for themselves?

,

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and his comments on Essex County Council’s Tories are worth noting:

Tory-controlled Essex County Council decided this week not to sue their disgraced former leader Lord Hanningfield for the £287,000 of ratepayers’ money he spent flying around the world with cronies and dining in style. This is a rash move.
In four and a half months, the council is up for re-election. I am appalled that Essex Tories have such a cavalier view of financial accountability. Anyone who votes to put them back into office next May is mad.

(Emphasis added)

I also believe that Labour voted with the Tories at last week’s Essex County Council meeting to block the Liberal Democrat motion on this.

, ,

What an Omnishambles: Discussing the state of the Brtish media with Ian Hislop – An interesting and very open interview with the Private Eye editor.
Invasion of the cyber hustlers – “The cyber-credo of “open” sounds so liberal and friendly that it is easy to miss its remarkable hypocrisy. The big technology companies that are the cybertheorists’ beloved exemplars of the coming world order are anything but open. Google doesn’t publish its search algorithm; Apple is notoriously secretive about its product plans; Facebook routinely changes its users’ privacy options.”
The Innocent Man, Part One (and Part Two) – Very long but fascinating tale from Texas of Michael Morton, who was convicted for the murder of his wife in the 1980s and then proved innocent of it in 2011.
Town planning: Infrastructure – A hypothetical from Mark Wadsworth that makes some interesting points.
Newtown and the madness of guns – “So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.”

, , , , , , ,

And the spreadsheet breaking down Have I Got News guests by gender is now updated. After last night, the figures are now:

  • 29.63% of guests this series, and 23.43% overall, have been women
  • 3 out of 9 guest hosts this season have been women, and 23.08% overall
  • Charlotte Church broke a run of six straight male hosts, though it was the fourth week in a row with at least one female guest
  • There’s one more show in this series (next Friday) and I think after that I might do a post on some of the experiences I have had since I started collecting and publishing this information. It’s been quite interesting to see some of the justifications various men have given for these numbers.

    ,

    122063: Change of use from shop to cafe/restaurant, Queen Street.
    122181: Variation of conditions on permission 121289 regarding tree/shrub planting, Leisure World, Cowdray Avenue.

    Please note that I am a member of the Council’s Planning Committee for this municipal year. This means that I’m required to act in a ‘quasi-judicial’ manner with regard to applications before the Committee and as such, can’t make comments in favour or against planning applications as I may then have pre-judged them before they come to Committee. I can give advice on planning issues and what to do if you have a comment or objection. However, my ward colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes aren’t members of the Committee, so they’re free to comment as they wish.

    ,