Tag Archives: Local politics

The To Do List

 

Blog 2013 09 12Nearly half way through September; children back at school; people back at work; the end of the silly season and so time to pick up the threads and decide on the priorities for the next few months before the feasting and the fun of whatever it is you celebrate around 25 December. Does writing a public “to do” list mean it will be more likely to be achieved? I don’t really know the answer to that one but I’ll try and see what happens. Here, then, is my “to do” list.

  • The signs regarding parking charges in the South Hams of South Devon. I feel quite strongly about this, Despite – or because of – the silence of the elected representatives and the nonsensical (sorry but they are) letters from the council’s “communications officer” who, oddly, writes to me on a letterhead carrying the address of the SHDC in Totnes sent in an envelope posted in Tavistock and franked by the West Devon Borough Council (don’t ask) I feel that this dishonesty should stop. It is not, as “they” seem to think that I feel the charges are wrong but that the public is being misled because the signs offer deals that are not available and suggest others without pointing out the additional costs involved. As to the charges: well it is a national disgrace that they are as high as they are. The people that suffer are the poorest and that is not right. Expect to hear more from me on this score.

  • Governance. Some of you will know that I am concerned about the fabric of governance in the UK which I believe no longer works as it should for the benefit of the people of the UK. I suppose by that I mean the majority who, by definition, are neither rich nor powerful. Depending on how you look at it, this is a problem for politics or for the way we are governed or (of course) both. Everyone concentrates on the politics – I am inclined to think more about governance. Under my guidance we tried to do something: hence 2020UK and Team UK. Both failed but I hope none of us involved will give up. Perhaps it could be third time lucky but at the moment I am at a loss as to what can be done.

  • The Friday Blog. Some of you will know that this is all to do with touching base with Marcia’s readers. It appears every Friday and has done so for a number of years. It seems to be very popular and is read throughout the English speaking world as well as a few unexpected places (such as China).

  • Blogs I follow. These are written by people I consider worth listening to and I will continue to try to support them as much as I can.

  • This blog. I want to try and put up short thoughts more often rather than long pieces. This is mainly because I really do want comments that help to create debate and that means somehow turning the blog more into a meeting place than one in which I express my thoughts: yours are equally important if not more so. I also intend to try and put photos on it – for no reason other than that they can offer a bit of amusement.

  • Hattie’s Mill Revisited: Hattie’s Mill was Marcia’s fifth novel but the first one in which we started to work together. She, of course, continued to provide the creative bits and her characterisation is all her own but I, starting with this book, have become more and more involved in finding the locations (and then taking the photographs from which I create a montage or two which she keeps to hand whilst writing) and basic research. The idea behind this booklet is to give readers an insight into how the book was written and how, between us, we gently distorted the real landscape to fit the requirements of the novel (eat your heart out, Einstein). Anyway, this is going quite well and I hope to see it delivered to the printers before the end of the year.

  • Pace myself. Health wise the last few years have been a bit of a roller-coaster. One problem is that the moment I feel a bit better I start rushing around again and – bang! I really must learn to be more sensible (another case of triumph of hope over experience, I fear).

That’s it for now. May I wish you all a really happy and worthwhile autumn.

Car parks – councils making as much as they can?

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Some will remember that I have been asking why the signs on the car park ticket machines in the South Hams of South Devon say one thing but, under certain circumstances, “sell” another. This is demonstrated by the picture above. The sign advertises a parking charge of £1 for 1 hour. This ticket was bought at 17.31, cost £1.00 and is valid until 18.00, That is, of course, 29 minutes worth of parking and not the advertised 60.

The first blog I wrote, To park or not to park: that is the question, describes the situation in some detail. There was a brief exchange with the SHDC in the form of comments under that blog. That was on 10 June.

This was followed by Parking charges and the separation of duties a couple of days later. In that piece I tried to explore the relationship between the elected representatives sitting on the council and the officers employed by that body. When I was a councillor (many years ago) this relationship was clear: councillors determined policy and officers implemented it. There was, and always has been, a requirement for officers to give councillors advice and especially so when the matter under scrutiny requires some technical expertise. Now, or so it seems, the waters are far less clear.

I had hoped that by now the matter would have been resolved but, not terribly surprisingly, it feels as though everyone wants to divert attention away from the actual problem by focusing on other matters.

The main problem arises between 5 pm and 6 pm. The signs advertise that you can park for an hour in exchange of £1.00 but the “PAID UNTIL” time remains at 6 pm – even if you buy the ticket as late as 5.59 pm. I am told that this doesn’t matter as the Parking Wardens, “take a sensible view when it comes to checking tickets around the 6pm transition period. They would see you had paid £1 and arrived at 1730 so if you were still there at 1820, for example, they would be unlikely to issue a fine. However, after 1830 they would expect you to either leave or pay the £2 overnight fee.”

I will leave you to judge whether or not you consider that reasonable. I don’t. It assumes that the Warden can see the time of arrival which is not always the case – the time of arrival is on the bottom edge of the ticket – and when I checked on 2 out of 10 it was obscured (by the wipers or the moulding around the windscreen).

I find the phrase “they would be unlikely to issue a fine” worrying. If a person has bought an hour’s parking for the advertised fee there should be no question of a fine being issued.

So I suggested that the simple solution was to put a notice on the ticket machines pointing out that tickets where the fee paid is £1.00 remain valid for one hour from the issue time regardless of the time indicated and that the ticket must be displayed so that the arrival time is visible. That is really all that is needed pending a rethink on a number of issues which can wait.

Because South Hams District Council operates the “Cabinet” system, this whole matter of parking is the responsibility of the Councillor Rufus D Gilbert who is the representative for Kingsbridge North. He is also the Executive Member for Environmental Services which, of course, include parking. Anyway, it seemed reasonable to telephone him and he was happy to talk although I did not find what he had to say was terribly satisfactory.

Some of you will know that I am pretty deaf and if you are deaf it is terribly easy to get the wrong end of the stick. So, before I mention anything that anyone says to me in public, I like to make sure that has not happened.

Thus I sent Cllr Gilbert (both by email and by letter) a copy of the notes that I had taken during that conversation and asked him to confirm or otherwise what I had recorded him to have said. That was well over a week ago and there has yet to be a reply so I can only assume that there is nothing there to which he objects. Here is what I said in my letter to him.

Further to our telephone conversations, I would be pleased if you would confirm the accuracy of the notes that I have taken. If they are to be placed in the public domain, I would wish for them to be as accurate as possible.

The concerns that have been expressed are threefold:

  1. That the sign-age on the parking meters in some car parks under the control of the SHDC are misleading and, as such, appear to be contrary to section 3.1 of the Advertising Standards Code. The result is that the “time purchased” for £1.00 at any time after 1700 hours results in the PAID UNTIL time as shown on the parking ticket to be 1800 hours which is not in accordance with the advertised rate of one hour for a charge of £1.00.
  2. That the machines are so programmed as to require a minimum charge of £2.00 from 1800 hours until 0800 hours the following morning. Thus during this period the advertised charge of one hour is not available.
  3. That as a consequence of (1) it would seem that persons who have paid the required charge for one hour of parking are liable to further penalties as they will have exceeded to PAID UNTIL time.

I understand that you agree that the position is unsatisfactory but that you feel there are no measures that can be taken to correct what would seem to be a badly executed implementation of policy.

The option of providing explanatory notices is, you believe, too complex and the general public would not understand them.

You rule out the possibility of reprogramming the machines.

You are happy with the present position regarding enforcement as put by the council officials in the following sentence: “Our Civil Enforcement Officers (Parking Wardens) take a sensible view when it comes to checking tickets around the 6pm transition period. They would see you had paid £1 and arrived at 1730 so if you were still there at 1820, for example, they would be unlikely to issue a fine.” (This overlooks the fact that in several cases when tickets are placed against the windscreen the issue information cannot be read – in fact on one occasion only 80% of those were placed so that this information was visible.)

You suggest that the entire policy on car parking charges will be reconsidered at some time in the future and that, in the meantime, you would encourage the use the RingGo service. (Incidentally, you failed to mention that this service results in a 20p surcharge on all charges. I am making further enquiries as to how easy visitors find it to use this service and you will remember that my particular concern is with the negative impact on visitors of the concerns I have raised).

You further stated that there had been no increase in charges at Torcross for some time. In fact the hourly rate at Torcross (as shown on the sign-age) was 80p but the machines required a minimum payment of £1 and so you could argue that the cost of parking has not been increased although the charge has.

Lastly, you declined the invitation to have your thoughts recorded at this stage.

So, what now? Well, I have written a further letter – this time to the council’s Communication Officer as that seems to be the way it is these days – and I will let you know what happens when there is something to report.

Epilogue

Having decided that the time has “go public” on this – simply because neither councillors nor officers are answering letters and emails – I was astonished to discover this in the Times on Line. This is, of course, the digital version of The Times and today there is an article headlined “£2bn profit for councils as parking charges soar”. This is not the place to explore that but underneath among the comments was this.

Some of the parking charges are iniquitous and grossly unfair and even amount to theft. On holiday recently and wanting to stop a short while in Totnes, Devon, the charge in one car park stated I had to pay something like £3 which was the charge for the overnight fee from 6pm. There was no flexibility to pay less and the notices in the car park threatened a huge fine for those who didn’t pay! “

Here, in the area controlled by the South Hams District Council, a great deal of our income comes from two sources: the retired and the tourist. This comment confirms what I have suggested – the way we handle car parking charges can have a marked effect on the districts income.

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.

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.

Marks and Sparks get their knickers in a twist

Not many political bloggers use their blogs to explain that they tend to live in briefs supplied by Marks and Spencer. Indeed, I hear a few voices saying, “enough already – too much information”. Stick with it, I have a serious point to make.

Confession number two: I am over-weight, not much but a bit. My waist measures just under 42 inches in the winter and rather less as summer progresses only to increase again as the weather gets colder. M & S size their briefs using letters: X Large is for those with 30 to 41 inch waists while XX Large covers those more rotund measuring from 42 to 44. No doubt you begin to see the problem. 

All briefs wear out in time – probably because of all that aggressive washing – and some of mine are now ready for retirement. So I wanted some more: ideally I wanted more of the same only, why am I surprised? – my knickers are a discontinued line. So I ordered what I thought would be the closest equivalent. These duly arrived and I sent them back with the following letter which is, I think, self-explanatory. 

Please find enclosed four pairs of trunks recently ordered and supplied as attached paperwork (copies have been kept). 

These are to replace old trunks which are nearing the end of their lives. The old style is no longer available – a 3 part set 6983 789. The size is XX Large. It seemed looking at your web site that the nearest equivalent was the 2 part set 07910227 and so these were ordered in the same size. 

Putting to one side that it is extremely irritating to have a 41½” waist when sizes come in X Large (39-41) and XX Large (42-44), what is astonishing is that the enclosed are so much larger than the ones they are to replace (see photograph). I cannot believe that the old ones have shrunk that much. 

This poses a problem: have they been wrongly labelled and I need XXL or should I have ordered XL? 

If the former, please replace with correctly labelled XXL – if the latter please replace with XL.”

This morning I received an email from M & S thanking me for being a customer and so on – and advising me that my account had been credited with a refund. Grrr. 

Now for the serious stuff. I have been talking about the need to employ more people and the fact that there are times and places when men are better than machines. This is just such a one. I assume that this is all the problem of computers driving people rather than the other way around. No doubt whoever unpacked the return parcel was forced to select one of a limited number of reasons for the return of the goods and the computer took over from then on. My guess is that two boxes were ticked: “wrong size” and “refund”. 

A person reading the letter would have dealt with this situation very differently and I am sure that many reading this would agree that the thought of having to contact “customer services” tends to send a shiver down the strongest of spines. 

We should not blame these companies: employing people to do things better is only acceptable if at the same time they more than cover their costs. In the final analysis, people are an indirect cost that hits the bottom line and should, therefore, be kept to a minimum. This, of course, impinges on the unemployment statistics. Lower the cost of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people: lower the administrative costs of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people. 

Thus there are two areas where the government could do something to help: scrap NI which is no longer a contributory insurance payment (much though politicians would have us believe otherwise) and scrap most of the employment laws leaving behind a general duty of care (which would work both ways: employers having a duty of care to their employees and employees having a duty of care to their employers). Note I say nothing against the minimum wage which should remain in force albeit perhaps with more steps. 

There is a third. Make it far far easier for people to slip into and out of unemployment benefits. Many will not take a temporary job because it is then almost impossible to get back onto benefit in a reasonable time scale. 

Yes, there would be less protection for employees – is that such a high price to pay for a more fluid employment market with less people unemployed? 

What about the loss of revenue caused by scrapping NI? Put it all on income tax: that way you begin to narrow the gap between the net income of poorest and richest (although in this context, many of the “rich” already think of themselves as “overtaxed”). 

 

Austerity – or what?

There are plenty of arguments as to the way forward for the economy. They fall into a number of broad groups such as fiscal and monetary and names of great men crop up from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (why does one always have to resist the temptation to type “Milton Keynes”) but, and this is just as I see it from my Devonian hideaway, none of these address the unique situation in which the developed western economies find themselves today. Many situations in the past have crept up and found us completely unprepared to deal with them. Often we did not properly understand the cause let alone have any idea of how to cure the problem and them with hindsight, we look back and we are amazed at how incompetent were the reactions. Let me offer two example of what I mean and then we’ll return to this business of “austerity”. 

First the Black Death. Here in the UK we had plenty of warning that a plague was advancing – sometimes slowly and sometimes in leaps and bounds – across mainland Europe towards us. We did nothing to stop it arriving. How could we? We did not even know what it was let alone how it was carried across from country to country. It changed everything for years following the event. 

You could say that the Black Death was outside our control but what about the Great War? How come we ended up with a line of trenches which divided mainland Europe and took the lives of millions – to what end? Yes, war is the failure of diplomacy and as sure as hell is hell diplomacy was found wanting. Even after that war, serious mistakes were made – mistakes which laid the foundation stones for the second world war. Looking back now we can see with stark clarity what mistakes were made: before the great war, during the great war and between the wars. Diplomacy failing, failing and failing again. 

Now, another personal view, the problem is debt – national debt and personal debt – at levels that we never, ever seen before. The position is new and yet all the old economic ideas are being trotted out with one group believing one economic system will provide the solution and another group looking at another economic system for salvation. And none of them will work. If war is the failure of diplomacy, the level of debt we have today is the failure of economics. You could say that every boom and every bust has been a failure of economics in that each time there have been warning signs which have been ignored or, more probably, went by unnoticed. 

Common to the Black Death, the Great War and the economic situation today is that we do not know how it happened and we do not know how to put it right. 

Like every one else, I have little to offer. In any event, my essentially rural and small community experiences mean I am hopelessly unqualified to make suggestions for urban UK. Since, however, ignorance is no great bar to most commentators in the media generally (including the blogosphere) I have decided to ignore my ignorance and make a small suggestion. 

At the macro scale, government can do nothing. If it tries it will have to increase its debt and we shall end up with a Great War equivalent of the Somme where so many died to no purpose. On the micro scale, however, communities can do a great deal. 

Take housing – something we all agree is needed. Within any community there are tradesmen, there are people with skills and no jobs, there are people with no skills and no jobs, there are people with a bit of spare cash, there are properties that are empty and need work to make them habitable, there are people who need a home and there is a small unit of government – a Parish or Town Council. If the best that every one of these small units can do is to organise just one house refurbishment per annum then that adds up to a total of about 10,000 ‘new’ homes every year. No problems with the need for expensive new infrastructure, no need for a new school or another hospital or a new sewage system, water main, etc. 

All it needs is to relax a few regulations, give these councils a bit more power and start looking at them as organisers and mentors rather than rulers – creating a company to buy, refurbish and let property into which local people may invest: invest in something that they can see and from which they can make a profit. Yes, you can use the power of persuasion at a local level but not at a national one but even then, if you cannot get local people to come up with the funds it could well be because what you are suggesting is not sensible. Wouldn’t it be good if we could with-hold taxes when we feel that what the government is doing is just not sensible. 

You can use the same argument for all sorts of aspects of life. It could be that the proper engines of “growth” are these Town and Parish Councils and not central government, bankers or big business after all. 

Worth a bit of thought or is it just a crazy idea?