30 November 2011

(My own views, not necessarily those of my employer.)

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Picket line at the Barnstaple Civic Centre

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Thankfully sunny!

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Everyone deserves a decent pension

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Brother Nick

Why I went on strike today

Everyone has the right to a decent job, a decent wage and a decent pension.

Are we all in it together when the top 1% live off the other 99%? Is it fair that the bill that you and I pay for others tax avoidance is £35 billion a year (pdf)?

The £3 billion or so that the government wants to “steal” from the pension funds to help reduce the deficit is one-quarter of  what bankers are paying themselves in bonuses this year.

Times are tough. We’re all suffering from high inflation, low/no pay rises, insane increases in fuel and food prices (driven by speculators).

The government’s own figures show that there is not a pensions crisis. Public sector pensions are affordable. Some schemes are self-funded by employees and employers. Government acts as guarantor. Despite the economic crisis most schemes are healthy.

We’re not asking for the world. Just a little bit of fairness.

Thanks to those colleagues who listened and took a leaflet. Special thanks to those councillors who stopped for a chat. One supplied us with sweeties.


New neighbours

25 April 2011

Our allotments have new neighbours:

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Darracott Moor wind farm

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Fullabrook Down wind farm

Likely to be a more common sight in our parts. We’re in an area designated for wind farm development. It does blow a bit – the wind that is.

Unless we start switching out lights, not buying plasma screen TVs, DAB radios and other gadgets we don’t need, we need more power generation.

In the current climate of skewed economics and lack of a national plan, short of nuclear (too expensive, 20 years in development and, er, Fukushima), tidal (booted into touch), offshore wind (expensive to bring the power onshore), solar (inefficiencies) or biomass (local plant NIMBYed), we’re stuck with wind with all its visual intrusiveness and inefficiencies.

There is a better way: small scale, renewable, community owned and operated generation. All it takes is a bit of thought and the will to live next door to a power station.

Olympic cheat

22 March 2011

I applied for 2012 Olympics tickets yesterday.

On the face of it, this was a “no-brainer”: a decision so logical that it doesn’t require explanation. Yet, it’s also a compromise or even a cop-out: a denial of deep held views.

The Olympics is no benign sporting movement. That much, I think most people accept. It’s 19th century, Corinthian, amateur ethos was lost somewhere in a succession of games used first for political ends, more recently to extend the global reach of less than benign multi-national corporations. Though I’m sure there is an argument that the Olympic ideal died before Baron de Coubertin’s modern version rekindled the flame in 1896.

2012 Olympics host announcement 6 July 2005

2012 Olympics host announcement 6 July 2005

On an overcast and less than seasonal day, like many thousands of Londoners I crowded into Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005 around midday. The event: the announcement of the winner of the 2012 bid.

Looking back much has happened in London, in the world, in sport. Less than 24 hours later I was sitting in an office block overlooking Waterloo Bridge listening the wailing sirens, trying to comprehend the carnage across the city.

In Trafalgar Square I was expecting – as were a lot of “pundits” – to hear that Paris had been successful. The UK delegation had, by all accounts, put together a strong bid backed by a united local and national political front. Say what you will about him, but Seb Coe – who I’d never rated much when he was an MP – played a blinder.

Paris though was the strong favourite. I dearly wanted Paris to win.

That “strong bid” had many strands. It played upon Britain’s sporting heritage. The bid focused upon regeneration of East London and the promised legacy. London would be a green games. There were also words about improved transport links.

My view was and remains that no Olympic bid by any city will ever much the hype and propaganda.

There is plenty of evidence (pdf) that points out that building big sporting venues does not generate economic activity other than that directly involved in the construction of the venue. Sporting venues re-direct economic activity. The Olympics happen every four years. That economic activity will happen. The question is just where in the world the games take place.

I’d argue that the games should take place in Athens every four years. Greece spent billions building facilities for the 2004 games. Many of the facilities – baseball and hockey stadiums, for example – never to be used again.

The legacy issue (pdf) is not straightforward. As someone who used to walk the mean streets of Bow, believe me, the area needs improvement. It needs better housing, better transport and a sustainable economy (but then the same could be said of North Devon). However, the regeneration does not need a sporting event. Sure, the Olympics can act as a catalyst. But, regeneration needs investment and planning neither of which require pole vaulters or carbon fibre bikes. Of course, the construction boom in and around the area should be kicking off the economy, but those construction jobs are temporary and many of them not locals either.

The stadium legacy saga has been ludicrous. Tottenham Hotspur’s bid to remodel the Olympic stadium for football and renovate Crystal Palace athletics stadium made much more practical and economic sense. I’m glad the my club are not leaving their long time home. But, this crucial issue should have been hammered out before 6 July 2005.

I don’t know enough about the environmental credentials of these games. I’m sure that it’s about as sustainable as any other concrete laying exercise.

Yes, I have strong reservations about the 2012 games. And, I’ve not even mentioned:

  • security issues
  • forced displacement
  • bypassing the democratic planning process
  • the corporate swill trough

But, I still love sport, the thrill of walking into a vast sporting arena and the roar of the crowd. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I hope I get tickets. But, I hope we’re not paying for this beyond September 2012.

How big is my society?

14 February 2011

I have no issue with a “big society“: people empowered to better their local community.

I’m part of what I believe to be a big society project – our local community shop – filling a hole where the market has failed and where the state should not enter.

On the other hand, my colleagues and I could easily be seen as a loud minority. We’re middle class, reasonably well educated, some of us relative newcomers and with (too much) time to donate. We are fighting for scarce social sector funding and we’ve got the know-how to grab our share.

Whilst I have little doubt that what I’ve set out to achieve is for the benefit of the whole community, I’m an unelected, anti-democratic zealot.

On our small scale, this democratic inconvenience is probably not too much of an issue. But, on a bigger scale, if a self-appointed, largely unaccountable minority manages a large project with significant public or third sector funding, is that right?

Political ambition

11 January 2011

I handed in my election expenses forms this evening. A staggering £10.50 was spent in a vain parish council by-election campaign.

Not in my wildest dreams when contemplating life in Devon did I think I’d ever be standing for public office.

But, my attitudes and priorities have changed since moving out of the London rat race 4 years ago. I’m now, in contrast to my first 49 years, passionate about communities and, by extension, local politics.

Within a year of the big move, I’d objected to a planning application, become a minor wheel in community life through the local gardening club and started attending parish council meetings. For the first time in my life I was getting involved in the community where I lived.

Having worked – off and on – close to Westminster politicians, cynicism aside I guess I’ve got some admiration for those who serve in public office. So much so that I’m probably one of the few people to have a grain of sympathy – or maybe understanding – for MPs in light of the expenses scandal…er, I’ll move on…

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that I might be well suited, qualified even, to serve on the council. Vanity, maybe. Sure, I’m a policy junkie; I understand how government works; I’ve had a lot of lobbying experience. Did that make me electable?

When the second vacancy in 6 months came up in November I felt it was time to have a go. The previous vacancy had attracted only one candidate so I figured there might get in without competition. I didn’t really want to trigger an election as it costs the parish about £800. By the day before nominations closed there were already two candidates, so that question became moot.

I like to think I ran a good campaign. My platform focused on a couple of key issues with four key, achievable pledges. It’s a big area so I walked a lot of the country lanes, got  barked at by many dogs, spoke to over 70 parishioners and wound up with muddy jeans and cold ears. I enjoyed the experience.

Voting day came along and I knew victory was unlikely. It was a three-horse race. I was the least known: odds of 20-1 against in the pub. One candidate had just organised the very successful village Christmas fayre. But, at least I’d come second…

Coming third was humbling. Strangely, I’m not downhearted. It was as much the experience as getting the votes. And, on reflection, getting those votes was important, a small achievement.

I will reflect further and talk to friends. There’s another election in May. That’s another chance for me to try to make a difference.

I think £10.50 is a small price to pay.

Middle class conscience salved

13 January 2010

I used to think of charity as an unattractive legacy of Victorian society. I still do.

But, it’s become more complex as I’ve got older and, you might say, wiser. Two events in 2001 helped temper my views.

In October I visited Mongolia. Not pleasant to admit, but my task was to take money out of the hands of the Mongolian government. Strictly speaking it was not money to which the government was entitled. Nevertheless, experiencing third world conditions for the first time whilst bullying the Mongolians tugged on my guilt strings.

One evening as we drove through the less than salubrious outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, I asked our hosts – rather naively, I suspect – what could I do to help the Mongolians help themselves.”Donate to charity” was the answer. Not really what I wanted to hear. I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and help in a more direct and practical way. Well,what could a bureaucrat do? Not a lot.

A few months later, I donated my Christmas Day to a homeless shelter. Cliche: it was a real eye opener. It was tough. Although I’d got to the stage that Christmas didn’t mean much to me, I was acutely aware that it was crappy for the men and women I met to be on the streets at Christmas. To be honest, I wimped out and only did one out fo the several days I’d volunteered to do. But, it probably made some difference.

My view had softened, if that’s the word. Not a dramatic change and it wasn’t as though my wallet had opened up.

Fast forward a couple of years: up a ladder on Boxing Day painting the front bedroom withe Radio 5 in the background, I listened and tried to comprehend what was going on in Thailand. A day or so later, watching the awful pictures on TV, I finally decided to cough up some money to charity. Yep, I did wrestle with my conscience. I wanted to know where my money was going. I wanted to know what I had done. Then again, that didn’t matter. People who, at that time, could not help themselves, needed help. I could help. With money.

Now, a few quid goes to Oxfam every month. And, tonight I’ve paid more money than I can afford at this time to help those in need in Haiti. Or Sudan. Or Bangladesh. Or disappearing Pacific islands. Does it matter?

I guess my middle class conscious has been salved.

Postscript: more money than I can afford has also gone to bail out reckless bankers. Can I humbly propose that the reckless and feckless bankers donate the bonuses they are about to receive to the DEC Haitian appeal.

Postcode database: reply to Geoffrey Cox MP

3 November 2009

Geoffrey Cox MP
Torridge and West Devon

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Dear Geoffrey Cox,

Thank you for your letter of 28 October in reply to my email about the postcode database. I am grateful for your speedy response.

Your letter raises a number of points which I feel need to be addressed.

As far as I am aware, this issue is not before courts. Legal action by Royal Mail has forced the developers – ErnestMarples.com – to disable their service.

I am not suggesting placing restrictions upon Royal Mail. The issue here is releasing data which is of public interest. In this case, the developers wish to use the data for solely non-profit purposes with benefits for all citizens.

Any data held by or on behalf of public bodies should be treated as a public, not a commercial, asset. This is the case in the United States and other countries.

In the UK, you may be aware of the Cabinet Office initiative to make public data public. The Digital Engagement blog has further details:

A number of local authorities – such as Lichfield DC – are also going down this road.

The government has asked Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, to advise on the open data issue. I am encouraged that the Conservative party has also recognised the need for better digital engagement. In this respect, the appointment of MySociety’s Tom Steinberg as an advisor, though seen as controversial by some, is a positive step.

On the question of the postcode database, I do not see why Royal Mail’s overall profitability should determine treatment of public data, especially where it is being used on a non-profit basis and for public benefit.

You comment on the use of early day motions (EDMs). As a former civil servant who used to brief ministers on replying to EDMs, I am aware of the volume of motions that are tabled before the House of Commons. Whilst some EDMs may be viewed as frivolous, in many cases this is the only way to raise awareness of important local or national issues. What would you propose in place of EDMs?

As to the administration cost, again from my experience, I am sure this pales into insignificance compared with the costs of correspondence between MPs and government departments or answering parliamentary questions.

I hope you can support open access to public data, particularly the postcode database, irrespective of signing an EDM.

I would prefer any replies by email as this saves paper and taxpayers money.

Yours sincerely,

Peter McClymont