Monthly Archives: June 2013

A pot mess called the UK

It really is time that we completely rethought the way in which the UK is governed. Yes, I know this is a recurring theme in my blogs and other writing but that is because it is something we need and need quickly – and it is very difficult to see how to set about it. All efforts so far have failed. Why? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Nobody believes it is needed
  • Nobody believes it is possible
  • Nobody is really prepared to think about what should be done
  • Nobody is really willing to work our how “what should be done” can be put into doable practice
  • Nobody cares

Have I left anything out? What other reasons are there for a country to be:

  • running on empty
  • shuffling what we have to those that don’t need it at the expense of those that do
  • failing to earn a living in the modern global economy (although there are some really good examples of private enterprise bucking the trend who tend to be forgotten)
  • driving the real wealth producers (entrepreneurs, that is) abroad
  • ending up with a rotten health service
  • ending up with poor education for our children
  • reducing the freedoms we enjoy
  • reducing tolerance to those who are “different”
  • creating a society in which people no longer want to take responsibility for themselves
  • creating a society in which the people no longer trust the police, the politicians or anyone else on whose services we rely

What a mess.

Defending the UK

On Dr Alf’s blog, John Gemini takes a hard look at UK defence spending. This I think is well worth reading.

To me it seems that we have a created a total muddle when it comes to defence. We have no real idea against whom we need to protect ourselves and our interests – in other words we have not properly identified the threats that face us – and we have done nothing to protect ourselves in the event of a major conflict that may have nothing to do with us. So, some quick bullet points and then a bit of musing. 

  • we need to identify the threats that face us today
  • we need to reduce as much our dependence on importing things vital to our lives
  • we need to realise that our interests are at great risk if seaborne trade is threatened (whether by pirates or nations)
  • we need to stop trying to impose our ideas of democracy on other cultures since this achieves nothing and creates great animosity


 Some of you may remember that last year I made great efforts to try to find out “why Trident”. I failed. Most of the defence brigade (I have a lot of ex-service friends) passionately agree that Trident is an essential deterrent and that it would be folly to lose it. However, not one was able to give me any answer as to who was being deterred. The nearest to a logical explanation was, “we don’t know but we must be prepared”.

Not being privy to the government’s intelligence I cannot list the threats we face. Since those threatening us know that they are a threat (at least that would seem to be an obvious conclusion) then I can see no harm in naming them and their capability. Does it enhance a threat if the threaten-er knows that we know? Surely quite the reverse is the case. So, let’s have this in the open. If we, the taxpayers, are to be asked to pay for some piece of defence kit, we have the right to know why we need it.

Dependence on others.

John is right, in that blog, to talk about agriculture. In simple terms we should be almost self-sufficient as far as essential food is concerned. Obviously it is nice to have goodies from overseas that cannot be grown here or even things that can when they are out of season – but we can manage without them.

Meanwhile, we should be using our land as productively as possible. Being a rural person I have watched our agriculture wax and wane during my lifetime. It is now, when we have far more knowledge and understanding of good husbandry, that it is at its lowest ebb. Ignore the impression given by Countryfile. That is to a parody of the truth.

One problem is that in order to increase productivity per hectare you need more manpower (yes, and/or womanpower) but is that such a bad thing? Agreed the work may not present a great intellectual challenge but it can offer a good deal of satisfaction. This is not to ignore technology (including the advantages of GM crops) nor to ignore the environment – we are just beginning to realise how important maintaining a balanced ecosystem is. Certainly yields of apples are way down thanks to the lack of insects to pollinate the flowers. More thought is needed to create a good balance of land use and so on. It could be done.

We should be able to generate all our own power. Whilst we will have to rely on fossil fuels for a while, we should give up wasting resources on crack pot renewables and concentrate on researching for new sources (fusion?) whilst creating sufficient nuclear power station to meet all out needs – all of them including heating, lighting and transport.

Seaborne Trade

Historically this has been the life blood of the UK and, even if we start changing that now, will continue to be so for some time. This is a known threat and yet we have done little to counter it.

My solution does revolve around aircraft carriers but carrying fairly low-tech aircraft. We should build more jump-jet Harriers and helicopters to proven designs and service. We are dealing with chronic threat here – not high-tech acute threat. A few strategically placed carriers would do more to protect us than all the submarines in the world.

While we are on the subject of seaborne trade: we are an island with hundreds of small but accessible harbours: ideal for modern small ship control systems which can operate in shallow tidal waters with no difficulty. Few places in the UK are much more than a hundred miles from the sea. Thinking in terms of all the goods that are transported by road and are not “time sensitive” and especially those that are containerised or capable of being containerised, there is no more economical way to transport these things than by water to a point as close to the delivery address as possible and then transfer the container to a lorry.

Incidentally, money spent on bring our canal network into the modern era might prove far more cost-effective that a high speed rail network

Creating enemies

There has been much said about Syria in recent times. From my perspective sitting in my study in so-called democratic UK, I find the regime in Syria to be appalling. At the same time I cannot persuade myself that the “rebels” there would, if in power, be any less appalling. Part of this is a cultural thing. Interestingly there was a recent TED lecture by Manal al Sharif

“You know that all over the world, people fight for freedom, they fight for their rights. Some battle aggressive governments. Others battle aggressive societies,” she said. “Which battle do you think is harder?” 

She dared to drive is Saudi, from where she comes. This is actually not against Saudi law but is condemned by Saudi society. Clearly she thinks that aggressive societies are harder to beat that aggressive governments. If that is the case (and I find her arguments to be convincing) then what is the point in our culture interfering in other cultures? We should let them deal with their own problems in their own way and in their own time. Otherwise all we achieve is more enmity and so become the target of so-called terrorists (who are NOT deterred by the fact that we have a few Trident submarines).

Having said that, on a personal basis we should do all we can so support people like Manal al Sharif as they strive to change the cultures in which they live.


Parking charges and the separation of duties

Today I want to think about the relationship between elected representatives and the officials with whom they work. It seems to me that we are in danger of muddling the quite separate roles that these two groups should be playing.

 Probably it is the fact that I have seen both sides from very close quarters that makes me so aware when things appear to be going wrong. After my civil engineer father left the Royal Engineers after WWII, he became the Surveyor of the then Cuckfield Urban District Council in Sussex whilst his sister was the Acting Clerk to the nearby Burgess Hill Urban District Council (they could never bring themselves to promote a woman to be Clerk in those days – besides it meant they did not have to pay so much then or as a pension afterwards). Thus my formative years were hearing from them how important it was that the council’s officers should never, under any circumstances, take policy decisions. That was the role of the elected Councillors. Indeed, that was really the only role the elected representatives were supposed to play other than ensuring that the officers carried out the implementation of policy decisions in a proper manner.

 I remember long discussions with my father on the subject of advice from officers to Councillors. He would say that there was always more than one way to solve a problem and that he would do his best to present the Councillors with three alternative proposals – the three he considered the most workable and/or economical. Each would be presented with the upsides, the downsides and the costings: then it was up to the Councillors to decide which option they should approve.

 Then I became one of those Councillors and I began to see things from the other side. Like all Councillors, I had aspirations. I still have aspirations – most of us have them. On its own, an aspiration is of no great use. To give a simple example: I might aspire to ensuring that there should be no deaths caused by a road traffic accident in the ward that I represent. That is an excellent aspiration but how do I intend to achieve the required result? Make the entire ward a no-go area for vehicles? Even enforcing a speed limited of 2 mph (assuming that to be possible) would not completely ensure the desired result.

 Sadly far too many who seek election confine their manifestos to a list of aspirations and do so in a manner that suggests they know what can be done to meet these when, in fact, they have no better ideas on that front than most other people.

 Now for the real life case of parking charges in a tourist area on a beach which, of course, harks back to my last blog and the comments thereunder.

 What exactly was the policy decision taken by the Councillors in this case? Did they actually take one or did they nod vaguely at a set of proposals placed before them by a group of officers? What advice did the Councillors seek and receive? I cannot answer those questions at the moment – the only person I can in all fairness ask is the South Hams District Council representative for the ward in which I live and my attempts to contact that person have yet to be bear fruit.

 This is not a simple matter: we rely on tourists to keep the economy in this part of the world bubbling along. Another factor is that Devon has more retired people per capita than any other county in the UK – no doubt because it is undeniably a nice place to live if a difficult place in which to earn a living. What is the impact on the economy of the South Hams of parking charges at places such as beaches where the natural amenities are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike? What impact does this have on the businesses (and thus the employment levels) local to these amenities? Finding the best policy is not easy and it is the job of the Councillors to take the policy decisions.

 Then it is back to the officers to implement those policy decisions – decisions which should include in the case of parking charges, how they are to be enforced.

 In the case of the Torcross parking ticket machines, clearly the officers have failed in their duties – if only because they have not ensured that the machines operate in accordance with the charge structure displayed on them.

 There is also a question mark as to whether the way the machines operate actually fulfill the policy decisions taken by the Councillors (assuming that they were so taken).

 Thus it is that a simple problem (which I shall continue to explore and report on) can indicate a serious departure from the traditional methods employed in local government. Could this be why the general public no longer respect local authorities and no longer believe that they truly represent the people they are intended to serve?

To park or not to park: that is the question


There are few places more interesting and special than the south coast of Devon between Strete Gate and the village of Torcross with the sea to one side and the freshwater lake – known as Slapton Ley (pronounced “lee” not “lay”) – on the other. We know this stretch of road by the name Torcross Line.

Had you been there shortly after lunch-time on the Saturday of the Eastertide in 1958 or 1959 (I forget which) you would have witnessed a very young me at the wheel of a fairly elderly Riley Pathfinder (the same model as the police used at that time) driving at just over a hundred miles an hour for the very first time. This was, of course, when there were very few cars on the road and there was no speed limit. The road was clear, the weather perfect, the temptation too much: both car and driver struggled to push the needle into three figures and I seem to remember that we were both glad when, the feat achieved, we could drop back to a more sedate pace.

Marcia and I have been spending quite a bit of time in that area: I have been taking photographs and video clips for my Friday blog. Job done for the day, we stopped at the car park in the middle of Torcross Line to drink a cup of coffee. Nowadays, you pay to park there which is fair enough but . . .

We arrived at just after 5.30 pm. I duly put my £1 coin into the machine which advertises one hour of parking for that amount. The ticket I received showed a leave-by time of 18.00 hours which was twenty-eight minutes after arrival. Thus, the South Hams District Council was advertising one thing and selling another. This has a number of names: I will let you call it what you will.

A couple of days later, we arrived at the same place but about an hour later. Again I inserted a £1 coin. I received a message: “Minimum payment £2”. This I considered unacceptable so I retrieved the coin and read the charges again. Sure enough, the rate for one hour was the same: £1. Underneath are the rates for longer periods: the Overnight Rate is £2. Clearly what is happening is that the machine resets at 18.00 hours and all tickets issued between 5 pm and 6 pm are timed to 6 pm regardless of the time of arrival. Also, if you only wish to spend less than an hour there during the least popular time of the day (after 6 pm until the following morning) the charge is £2 and I assume that all tickets issued after 6 pm give you the right to stay until the following morning. 

That, however, is not what it says on the machines. Again I invite you to decide what to call it – I know what I call it. There is also a question as to whether this is a sensible idea. That I shall discuss with our representative on the South Hams District Council. I will let you know how it goes.