Category Archives: Local Authorities

Capping housing benefits

This isn’t the first time we’ve been here and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Twitter is not the right place to try to conduct a political debate. I know that. My guess is that you know it too. But we try and we keep on trying and it nearly always ends in tears. This is because you can’t really express yourself properly on Twitter. We use shorthand and that leads me to an exchange I had with Lynn Cook (@Cook470Lynn) yesterday which demonstrates exactly what I mean.

All tweets are in italics – my thoughts in Roman.

It started when I saw this:

LC to RW: #Tories will rue the day they insisted on #bedroomtax especially for disabled/carers etc Let them lament it in tears

Now, not being entirely stupid, I actually knew what LC was talking about but I am sick and tired of the use of “popular names” which are used not as an abbreviation (something that makes sense on Twitter) but, as in this case, as a deliberate act of propaganda. The fact that this particular one is used so freely by people such as Shelter (an organisation for whom I have great respect) underlines the value of such a tag when it comes to putting over a point of view. However, it is not a tax and, as such, that “popular name” is misleading and so . . .

RW to LC: Sorry, what bedroom tax? Could we try to get our facts right?

There was a speedy reply.

LC to RW: Pardon ? Not sure of your meaning

At this point things began to fall apart and it was really my fault. I was busy on other matters and this was a bit of a distraction. That being the case, the right thing was to forget all about it and leave well alone. Not me, of course. Instead a quicky which was, with hindsight, also pretty silly.

RW to LC: Precisely my point. You don’t get it and you never will

This tweet was one of those that was bound to be misunderstood and so, sure enough . . .

LC to RW: Rest assured I know my facts

This, quite unwittingly, pressed a few buttons. Now for a personal opinion. There are no facts in the world of politics and much misery is caused because politicians really do believe they know what they are talking about. In short, people who say they know their facts are dangerous.

Anyway, hence this retort (another tweet I should have kept to myself) and one which was intended to lighten the atmosphere – as if . . .

RW to LC: My distortion, your facts, his or her downright lies. Sorry, it’s not a tax. You may not know that. RR should.

(RR by the way refers to Rachel Reeves MP)

LC to RW: Does that make you happie?, Using all the terms uses up the tweet characters so #bedroomtax is shorter

And then – and I think LC must have looked at my profile first . . .

LC to RW: Do you use earwigs as wigs on your ears Mr wordsmith? Is a mongoose a bird? #bedroomtax has a hashtag

And . . .

LC to RW: So I will use the #bedroomtax hashtag and call it what I will, It is the content that matters Not a tax

Again I decided to lower the temperature (after all LC was not to know that I am seriously deaf) – again I made a mess of it.

RW to LC: You remind me of Alice 🙂

This is probably a generational thing. Lewis Carroll’s Alice is talking to the Red Queen (I think – I am sure you will put me right if it was the White Queen) and they have a conversation which goes something like this. Alice: “At least I mean what I say . . .” The Queen, interrupting: “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” I fear the LC had no idea what I was tweeting about.

LC to RW: I consider you rather rude. What do you actually know about #bedroomtax anyway ? As in actual facts?

The rude bit puzzled me and I really rather felt that we should stop . . . now.

RW to LC: Sorry but this is silly. You hold one view – I another. That’s life.

But . . .

LC to RW: It is a far bigger subject to ‘its not a tax’ Any decent person would not agree with it= fairness/justice

Yes, it is LC. And because it is I wanted to find out what the effect of giving the right to local authorities to reduce housing benefits (when a person or family was deemed to be occupying more living space than they needed) was having in my neck of the woods. So I asked a number of people who I thought would know (community nurses, social workers, carers and so on) and none of them knew of a single case. I uncovered two cases where people had moved as a result of an impending reduction in benefit – both within the same village – but neither of these widows seemed to mind. Meanwhile, one of the vacated home now houses a young couple with a small baby who had been desperate to find somewhere to live near his work. I have no information about the people who have moved into the other one. So I tried to explain.

RW to LC: I have been trying to find one person who has been unreasonably penalised. To date the score is zero.

I failed.

LC to RW: Is that a joke? Spouse carers have to pay to sleep in another room Is that fair if a person had stroke etc?

Suddenly I found I was actually rather cross.

RW to LC: Not a joke. A fact. Read what I said again.

The reply made me even crosser.

LC to RW: Where is this fact from exactly? Plse give link etc. Fact not ur opinion plse. Ur reseach is v poor

Why can’t people READ!!!!! Oh well, one more try . . .

RW to LC: The FACT is that I have been trying to find one person who has been affected and I have asked around with no success. >>> That is what I said first time around. You call me rude – are you not also rude? 

Another waste of effort.

LC to RW: Have you checked out the tribunal judgements? Maybe you should expand ur circles as u do not appear to live in real world

LC to RW: ? I am not rude, I have not called u Alice, askig u to back ur ‘fact’

At last I know in what way I was thought to be rude. I tried to put that right.

RW to LC: It was a reference to Alice in Wonderland and words meaning whatever. I have no idea what you thought I meant.

But . . .

LC to RW: Maybe you would like to research and blog the truth about #bedroomtax u may well find it very interesting

It was getting late so I sent this and so . . .

RW to LC: Oddly my guess is that we are on the same side but our approaches are very different.

Not very surprisingly I have heard nothing since but I did get an intelligent response from Paul Rutherford ‏@PaulRutherford8 

PR to RW: In your ‘discussion’ earlier today about #BedroomTax [just a popular name] did you mean nobody was unfairly affected by it?

To this I made two responses.

RW to PR: No – just that I had been unable to find anyone who had been. I shall be writing a blog on this later.

. . . and . . .

RW to PR: Oh – popular names are fine. Names chosen for purposes of propaganda require inspections.

So where does all that leave us?

Well, with two subjects for discussion, I think: political tweeting and housing benefits. The first is quick and easy.

Political Tweeting

Too many people who use Twitter for political purposes fall into the group I call “the dividers”. They seek to make issues of almost everything and come out, guns blazing, seeking a fight against all and sundry who not agree with them. I rather suspect that winning a verbal fight is what really turns them on bit I may be wrong – perhaps they really do believe this is the way to change the world. Then there are “the uniters”. I try to be one of these but am not always very good at it. These are the people who believe that the way forward is to listen to all sides of an argument and then to work together to find a solution that is the best available in that place at that time.

It is because I think that the bigger the “place” the less likely it is that this can be achieved that I believe in serious devolution of both decision making and tax collection but put that to one side.

Combining those thoughts with the simple one that 140 is not the most reliable form of communication confirms me in my view that talking politics on Twitter is a mistake. That will not stop me doing it, of course.

Housing Benefits

This is either very simple or huge depending on how you look at it. Lets start with the simple approach.

The state rightly supports people who through infirmity (age, illness – physical and mental – or accident) are unable to cope. In order to be able to afford to ensure that such people really do receive what they need (including a full time carer if applicable), we have to make sure that all state aid is properly restricted. Otherwise we just run out of money and then everyone suffers.

This leads us on to the difference between aspirations and action plans. I deliberately do not use the word ‘policies’ because politicians mix these two up in a confusing and rather pointless way (and I could prove that by quoting from all the leaflets now arriving prior to the European election).

When I said to LC that “my guess is that we are on the same side” I was talking about aspirations. I would be surprised if we did not both aspire to a society in which everyone with any problems could to solve there problems one way or another. When I said “our approaches are very different” I was thinking about those action plans. Since we are on the subject of what is wrongly called a bedroom tax, let’s use that as an example.

We have limited housing stock. We have people needing (not wanting) homes and not being able to find them. We have people wanting to live in accommodation that is larger than they need and expecting the state to meet the costs of that accommodation. Sorry but I think that is wrong and that there has to be a way of dealing with it. I think that the government got it about right: make it possible for local authorities to penalise those people who are putting their wants ahead of society’s needs. Note that they do not demand that the penalties be imposed but that they may be imposed if it is deemed needful.

Now for the huge bit.

This framework has to be actioned by local authorities. Sadly the decisions made by these authorities are made by people. In my experience (and I have been a councillor) people make stupid decisions – and often it is when they are driven by ideology rather than pragmatism that they make the worst decisions. This is not an argument for central control – when the centre takes a bad decision the effect is far greater: it effects more people.

However, some authorities will come up with solutions that I like and you hate. Some authorities will come up with solutions that you like and I hate. Some will be very flexible – others will be very rigid.

Now this means problems at grass roots. There will be cases where bad decisions are made and people are penalised in situations where they should not have been penalised (although that is also going to be a subjective opinion) and it is right that there be some appeal mechanism to put right such bad decisions. LC suggests that this appeal procedure shows that this is a bad policy. I would suggest that this appeal procedure shows that this demonstrates that the system is working: it acknowledges that there will be human errors and provides a mechanism to correct such errors. There may still be cases where one feels that the appeal procedure failed to correct an error (another subjective opinion)

There is another way – the rigid way, the tick box way (which some local authorities have adopted). The trouble with this is that some fallible human has to create a tick box system that will be right in all circumstances and will not result in any unexpected consequences. No, it is better by far to allow for muddle.

Whether or not a penalty should be imposed should depend on a host of matters (some always changing). These will include the available housing stock (if this person/family is forced to move is there somewhere suitable and available to meet their needs), on how important it is for their health and wellbeing that the person remains in the neighbourhood (yes, the house is too big but but her daughter lives down the road and she keeps her going but it would be a mistake to expect them to move in together) and so on. It means local authorities allowing someone to use their common sense and a robust appeal system that is readily available to deal with objections.

Above all we have to accept that there will be hard cases. Yes, these should be dealt with if at all possible but we should never forget that ‘hard cases make bad law’. As a seriously deaf person I could dream up all sorts of laws that would make my life a lot easier. No doubt many of you would find they made you lives a good deal harder. Life is not always fair, is not always kind.

What do you think?

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

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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.