Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

Current interests. I’m: •an active Exeter Green Party member, •an openness campaigner •a contributing editor at Exeter Observer •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •a blogger, mostly on Exeter, environment, society and public policy, and Formerly: •Chairman, Plunkett Foundation •Vice-Chairman, CPRE Devon (Campaign to Protect Rural England)o •member, CPRE national Policy Committee •board member, Community Council of Devon (now Devon Communities Together) •board member, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England); •Deputy Director at Defra, MAFF, Department of Social Security (and other types of civil servant) •Standards Committee member at Thames Valley Police Authority •secretary of a village community association when we lived in Bucks.

So I’m a Twirlie?

This morning I was sitting on a bus waiting for it to leave the terminus.  As it was after 0930, I had used my old persons’ bus pass, as it appeared had all the other passengers.  The driver, a jovial man, turned to the passengers and said:

“Do you know what we drivers call you lot?  Twirlies!   Why?  Because round about half nine you turn up at the bus and ask “Is it too early?”

Ah, the richness of the English language.

 

It’s not just the infrastructure, stupid!

Making better use of what transport services we have already will provide quicker and cheaper solutions.

Down here in Devon discussions about transport invariably end up talking about improving the resilience of transport infrastructure on the peninsula. Whether it’s dualling the A303 to provide an alternative to the M4/M5 or building another railway between Plymouth and Exeter, there is a real head of diesel fuel behind the campaign to give Cornwall and Devon better physical transport connections to the rest of the country.

The collapsed railway on the Dawlish sea-front in February 2014 has become the icon for what’s wrong with the peninsula’s rail services. The fact that Cross-Country Voyager trains still regularly break down on the sea-front because the waves chuck seawater into their diesel engines is presented as another reason for “doing something about Dawlish”. Commentators generally ignored the quicker and cheaper solution of replacing those trains with ones that can withstand a bit of sea water, such as Great Western Railway’s ageing 125s.

Every so often, a body called the Peninsula Rail Task Force pops up with yet another report aimed at persuading central government to find a lot of money to provide a new railway line across Devon. This body, which is made up of local authorities and the two Local Enterprise Partnerships (aka the Plymouth business lobby), focusses almost entirely on improving resilience through capital expenditure. Leading local politicians and MPs read from the same song book, though since all but one of the MPs are Tories their demands for more public spending are inevitably unconvincing.

So we have a campaigning mindset focussed on infrastructure. That’s not wrong but it’s not the whole story. The problems with our transport network extend well beyond the this. One of the greatest disincentives to using public transport is the lack of good local connections between rail services to or from the rest of the country and those communities without a railway station.

Much of the problem is due to the lack of evening bus services. Someone living in the South Devon town of Kingsbridge who needs to do a day’s work in London will get the first bus to Totnes station, wait over an hour and then a train to Paddington arriving at 11.24am. Several meetings later, the same person just manages to catch the 5.03pm from Paddington arriving at Totnes at 7.55pm. Sadly, the last bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge left at 7.05pm. The well-off will have no problem summoning a taxi, but not everyone is well-off. So our traveller drives from Kingsbridge to Totnes and back again, because there is no public transport option at the end of the day.

These examples are replicated all over the Westcountry, and beyond. What they show is, despite the endless rhetoric of politicians about “integrated” transport, nothing changes. There was a publicly-funded Commission on Integrated Transport which lasted from 1998 until its abolition in 2010, presumably on the grounds that it hadn’t actually integrated anything. When I mentioned the importance of better connections at a meeting where train and bus operators were present, their representatives looked at the ceiling and shook their heads.

In our system of public transport which depends on private sector operators, the needs of passengers regularly come second to the needs of the companies’ owners to make a profit. So if it’s not profitable to run a bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge in the late evening, and Devon County Council has insufficient money to subsidise one, it won’t run.

Is there a solution?   There is, and the government already has the statutory powers to achieve it.

The Railways Act 1993, which privatised the railway network, contains the relevant powers.  They just haven’t been used to their full potential.

The key point is that the Secretary of State for Transport is under a general duty “to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods” (section 4 of the Act). So far so good, but general duties need to be put into practice. Again, the Act provides the power and the rail franchising system provides the mechanism.

Almost all rail passenger services in the Westcountry are provided by Great Western Railway (GWR) under a franchise agreement. This is a legal contract between the government and the company. The revised GWR franchise agreement runs to 581 pages, plus three more substantial documents about levels of services to be provided. There are only two references to bus services in the entire franchise agreement, both relating to the conditions in which bus services may be substituted for rail. Nothing in the agreement compels GWR to coordinate its services with buses.

However the Act empowers the Secretary of State to set conditions in a franchise agreement (section 29(5)) which give effect to the general duty to develop an integrated system and, specifically, which may require the franchisee as a condition of its operating licence to enter into an agreement with other bodies to achieve the requirement to achieve integration (section 9).

So it’s all there. What is now needed is the will to make it happen. As we saw above, part of the integration problem is that the bus operators will not run late evening services on some routes. Using the franchising system places the duty to secure integration on the rail operator rather than the bus company. This is inevitable because bus services are not regulated in the same way railways are.

Before the train operating companies dismiss the idea out of hand, they might reflect on their ownership. GWR is part of First Group which runs bus services in most of Somerset, much of Cornwall, and the Plymouth, Tavistock and South Devon area. Stagecoach buses – part of Stagecoach Group which runs the London–Salisbury–Exeter rail franchise as South West Trains – cover the rest of Devon. Instead of running their bus and rail divisions as if they were on separate planets, they should look for beneficial business opportunities arising from a more integrated approach.

More challenging is engaging the other Westcountry bus operators which are not owned by train and bus conglomerates. They may see market opportunities in providing services to connect with trains, and then publicising them – something the bus industry as a whole is lamentably poor at. The train operating companies make good profits from their rail businesses. Putting a little back into supporting connecting bus services could improve their public image as well as encouraging people to make better use of their own services.

Yet at the end of the day the experience of voluntary integration in this country outside the metropolitan areas has been poor. Big companies like First Group and Stagecoach are, at bottom, about making profits for their shareholders and will not provide commercially unviable services. Local authority funding for subsidising such services has been severely cut. Central government has the tools to put this right, and should be prepared to do so.

 

 

 

 

Reopening Devon’s second main railway line: impacts in pictures

Burn Valley and Brent TorThis is the valley of the River Burn between North Brentor and Mary Tavy in west Devon. The Campaign to Protect Rural England wants to build a main line railway through it.

My blog The wrong kind of evidence on the line challenged the CPRE’s claim that its recent report made a case for reopening the dismantled railway line between the Devon towns of Okehampton and Tavistock. The trackbed runs along the north and west edges of Dartmoor. The scheme would form part of a larger project, supported by the Plymouth business lobby, for a second main line between Plymouth and Exeter. Further background in my other blog – please read it.

This new blog attempts to show pictorially the changes and damage that rebuilding the dismantled line would cause. It’s worth remembering that the line would need to be rebuilt to modern engineering and safety standards: it wouldn’t be a case of just chopping away some trees and bushes and then laying the track.

Click on the pictures for a bigger view!

Impact on cyclists and walkers

The stretch of trackbed between Okehampton and Lydford forms part of national cycle route 27, as well as a generally flat path for walkers.

Sourton Down cycleway

Trackbed as cycleway at Sourton Down

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Meldon Viaduct, Okehampton end

Though some parts of the path have trees and bushes on either side (which form a useful windbreak), there are stunning views too.

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

Looking north-east from Meldon Viaduct

The Tavistock viaduct is a very attractive footpath with fine views of the town. It seems unlikely there would be room for pedestrians and cyclists if the railway were put back in place.

View from Tavistock viaduct

View from Tavistock viaduct

Rail safety regulations would specify a minimum distance, as well as barriers, between the railway line and a cycle path or footpath, so not only would peace and quiet go out of the window but also the landtake would be significant.

Impact on homes and farms

Most, perhaps all, of the old trackbed south of Lydford is in private ownership. Some is now in farm use, and elsewhere stations buildlings have been converted into private homes with the trackbed itself forming part of the garden.

Brentor stn view twds Tav

Brentor station is now a private house and garden

At Tavistock, offices and private houses surround the old North station and block the viaduct.

Housing at Tavistock North station

Housing at Tavistock North station

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

House at east end of Tavistock viaduct

Impact on structures

Meldon Viaduct is a structure of historic interest. Whether it could be strengthened to take trains again seems doubtful since Network Rail have in the past said a new structure would be needed if the line were to reopen.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct

Elsewhere, stone overbridges have disappeared and would have to be replaced. Network Rail bridge architecture is not renowned for its sensitivity to the natural environment.

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

Missing bridge over a road at Prewley Moor

 Impact on wildlife

I’m no wildlife expert but it’s reasonable to assume that those parts of the trackbed now covered in vegetation are home to all manner of beesties.

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Trackbed at North Brentor bridge

Impact on landscape and tranquillity

Although the rumble of the A30 traffic is audible around Meldon, the area around Brentor and Mary Tavy is silent save for the occasional bleating of sheep. It is unspoilt and nature has reabsorbed the dismantled railway back into the landscape.

Mary Tavy

Mary Tavy

As a lobbying group, the CPRE ought to take seriously the government’s stated policy that the natural environment can be valued as part of any investment appraisal process. Sadly, there’s no evidence that this figures in CPRE’s current thinking about reopening rural railways.

The wrong kind of evidence on the line

The Campaign to Protect Rural England – CPRE – used to pride itself on evidence-based (or at least evidence-backed) lobbying. The publication last month of a report on the rebuilding and reopening of the old railway route across Devon between Okehampton and Tavistock [1] raises questions as to whether spin has now got the upper hand at CPRE HQ.

For those unfamiliar with Devon and its railways, the key facts are these. Before the Beeching closures in the 1960s there were two main line routes between Exeter and Plymouth: one south of Dartmoor via Dawlish and Totnes, and one to the north of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock. Following Beeching the latter line was closed to passenger traffic and the track between Meldon Quarry (just west of Okehampton) and Bere Alston (south of Tavistock) removed. Within this 15-mile “gap”, much of the trackbed is now part of the national cycling network and the rest in private hands. Following the two-month long closure of the remaining main line when the sea wall at Dawlish was breached in the winter of 2014, there has been considerable debate about the value of reopening the line via Okehampton.

Now back to CPRE.

In his foreword to the report CPRE’s Chief Executive states: “this report makes a compelling case as to the economic, social and environmental benefits of restoring sections of rail lines that were axed in the 1960s, turning them from dead ends into through routes again.”

The CPRE press release is similarly bullish: “a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has today found that the case for reopening rural railways in England is becoming irresistible.” [2]

Having long argued for a Plymouth-Exeter route that avoided the Dawlish sea wall, the local business lobby lapped this up. The head of the Local Enterprise Partnership was quoted as saying in relation to the idea of reopening: “Improved connectivity will increase productivity and growth by enabling economic sites across rural areas to be opened up for increased business.” [3]

Now to be fair to the authors of the report, they are a bit more cautious about what can be claimed. They point out that they are not making an investment case itself, but rather that the findings “offer a basis for developing an updated business case” (p8).

However, the authors state the focus of the report is the “local social and economic impacts” of a new line (p6). The evidence for these “impacts” are drawn from interviews, a literature review (primarily the West Devon Borough Council Local Plan and some business surveys), and a workshop at which “experts….validated the findings” (p6).

Having defined its focus, the report wanders off into unrelated territory. For example, it states that one of the factors to be considered in an investment appraisal is “Meeting the strategic needs of the naval dockyard in Plymouth” (p7). However much one may admire the Royal Navy, this objective is at some distance from CPRE’s own charitable goals.

There are vague and unsubstantiated statements. For example, the Dartmoor National Park Authority is held to appreciate “the obvious benefits that improved connectivity will bring to Dartmoor” without giving an inkling as to what these benefits are (p17)

The section on the local economy and its development (pp19-22) regurgitates a load of information from the Local Plan and the LEP’s Strategic Plan, but doesn’t link any of this to the rail investment case. There is one reference to a separate survey of businesses which found that 53% of the 300-plus businesses questioned reported that poor public transport links were seen as contributing to difficulties in recruiting staff. The CPRE report does not point out that this survey covered two other district council areas in addition to West Devon, nor does it record that only 20% of the businesses in West Devon identified public transport as inhibiting recruitment [4].

Many statements simply do not support the contention that there are economic and social benefits from reopening. Take four examples.

First, an investment appraisal factor is “The enlargement of the Exeter catchment both in terms of travel to work/education and more widely for day out/shopping” (p7). It’s not clear why encouraging people to spend in Exeter is an economic benefit to the rural areas, nor indeed why anyone is going to travel from Tavistock round the northern edge of Dartmoor to Exeter when Plymouth is bigger and nearer.

Second, the report notes that there are high levels of commuting from West Devon to Plymouth and Exeter, contrary to the Council’s policy aim of residents finding employment within West Devon. So it’s a bit surprising that anyone should be enthusiastic about making it even easier to commute out of West Devon (p16).

Third, presumably as evidence of the need for the rebuilt railway, the report cites a business based in Holsworthy complaining how difficult it is to find transport services to send employees away for training (p18). OK, but Holsworthy is 20 miles from Okehampton and 23 miles from Tavistock.

Fourth, health. The report notes that people needing acute hospital services travel to Plymouth if they’re in the Tavistock area and to Exeter if they’re in the Okehampton area. It also notes that the “main hospital sites are poorly located for future access by train” (p19) so no help there for the investment case.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the report is that it fails to make any coherent case for joining up the gap between Okehampton and Tavistock. The attitudinal survey reports that Okehampton residents are interested in a train service to Exeter (where the track remains in place) but not to Plymouth (p26). There are complaints about the bus service, which could be resolved far more cheaply than rail reopening by local authority subsidy. Similarly, Tavistock residents favoured a rail link to Plymouth, but said nothing about getting to Exeter (p31).

The report is more convincing when it reviews the practicalities involved in rebuilding the line. Not least the challenge of what to do with the Victorian iron-built Meldon Viaduct, now a much loved cycle route and public footpath, and the need to demolish houses in Tavistock that have been constructed on the trackbed (pp37-39). Retaining the amenity of the 6-mile cycle route is also recognised as a challenge, though one suggestion is to reroute it well to the north, thus ruling out any realistic possibility of its use by cycling commuters between Okehampton and Tavistock, a policy that CPRE campaigns for nationally.

What on earth is the CPRE doing promoting all this? The organisation that has demonstrated how tranquillity in the English countryside is being lost now supports a scheme that would lead to noisy diesel trains (we don’t get new trains down here in the southwest) belching fumes into the atmosphere, shoving walkers and cyclists aside, and destroying peoples’ homes. See my related blog for pictures of the impacts. The scheme would also, on the report’s own admission, lead to increased car traffic to the new railhead stations which – particularly at Okehampton – would involve the development of park and ride facilities, necessarily on greenfield.

There may indeed be a case for rebuilding a railway between Tavistock and Okehampton. The CPRE’s report does not make it, and nor do the report’s authors claim that it does. But the spin given to the report, not least the unsubstantiated claim in the CEO’s foreword quoted above, means that a document with an ambivalent evidence base will continue to be held up as a “compelling case” for destroying a much-valued and accessible area of tranquillity in West Devon.

NOTES:

[1] Rural Reconnections – the social benefits of rail reopening, written by Greengauge 21 for CPRE, June 2015, available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/rail/item/3986-rural-reconnections

[2] http://www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/3987-persuasive-case-for-un-beeching-south-west-railway-has-national-implications

[3] Western Morning News, 17 June 2015, Inland rail link ‘vital’ to unlocking the South West’s potential at http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Inland-rail-link-8216-vital-8217-unlocking-South/story-26707587-detail/story.html

[4] DR Business Survey: South Hams, Teignbridge and West Devon, March 2015, at http://drcompany.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/DR-Business-Survey-Final-Report-Mar-2015.doc.pdf See the chart on p22.

Five steps to providing more homes without trashing the environment

Let’s start by putting aside the debate about whether we need more housing. It’s been done to death, and the overwhelming consensus is that we need more homes if the law of supply and demand is not to make housing already more unaffordable than now.

The real-world debate is about where those new homes should be built. There are broadly three options: within existing settlements, both rural and urban; extending the boundaries of those settlements; or creating new settlements. Reality means a combination of all three, but striking the balance is the difficult bit.

A key tension is how we create enough housing while preventing unnecessary damage to the natural and built environments. Can we proceed in a way which will not inflame town against country? Can we deliver development with minimum adverse impacts on the natural environment – of which we are temporary stewards – and maximum positive impacts on the built environment? Can we avoid building sprawl which changes the character of communities, often for the worse?

There is no magic wand, but we could begin with a simple toughening-up of some planning policies.

First, force house-builders to stick to their commitments on providing affordable housing. When a developer says a specific proportion of the houses on a development will be affordable, that is the figure that should be delivered. The final plans for the Sherford new community near Plymouth show a reduction from the initial 40% proposal to 15%. Affordable housing benefits local people on modest incomes.

Second, to make better use of what we already have, there should be restrictions on second homes. This will assist the housing shortage and prevent communities from being turned into ghost villages. An outright ban on owning more than one home would certainly be unenforceable and probably politically unacceptable, but some form of punitive taxation on homes not normally occupied for less than, say, 4 days a week could be devised.

Third, and continuing the theme of better use of existing buildings, the common practice of planners specifying separate zones for housing and for other non-intrusive uses should become the exception, not the norm.   Housing and retail can mix very easily. Walk along almost any shopping street outside the honeypots and look at the number of unused rooms on the floors above the shop facades. As current buildings reach their sell-by date, there is an opportunity to use high-class architectural designs to turn those streets into a vibrant mix of ground-floor retail with 3 or 4 floors of housing above them.

Fourth, stop the urban sprawl. In my home town of Exeter, the local plan provides for 12,000 new homes over the period 2006-26, mostly located on the existing city boundaries, and taking up greenfield land. More intensive housing densities within the city, a willingness to think of 5 floors rather than 3 as the norm, and a purge on persistently empty houses would not only enable the city to meet its own needs. It would also retain its compactness, which is one of Exeter’s great attractions. The same can be said of many towns around the country.  And sprawl doesn’t help our battle against climate change.

Finally, central government needs to take land use policy out of the “too difficult” tray. In particular, it needs to recognise that land is not just there to be built on.  Policy needs to understand the vital role of land in producing our food and put food production on a level playing-field with other industries when it comes to land allocation decisions. At present, agricultural land can be taken for housing developments because government inspectors enforce policy-led housing targets in local plans. In the same way, renewable energy structures on farmland have been gaining planning permission because there is a government policy to increase renewable energy generating capacity. But there is no food production target, because successive governments believe it’s best left to the global market, and so farmland has no defence against the developers.

These measures don’t provide all the solutions. But can we make a start here please?

Why can’t we talk about income tax?

We need to reframe our view of income tax as a source of community benefit, not as a raid on individual pockets.


Of all the elephants in the political arena, the idea of increasing income tax rates is one of the most immovable. The present government is driven by the idea that taxes are fundamentally bad, and that people and businesses should pay as little tax as possible. Labour is less dogmatic, but remains very nervous about any move that would increase the tax take from anyone other than the rich and institutional tax evaders.

The defenders of a low-tax regime say that people should be able to make their own decisions about how they spend their earnings. Or that high taxes will drive businesses, top-flight managers and entrepreneurs away from the UK. Or that the public sector squanders public funds on ineffective projects.

There is some truth in all of these points: if there wasn’t no one would believe them. As it is they’ve become mantras, unquestioned in too many influential circles. We have been conditioned into believing that taxation is inherently bad. So what is almost never discussed in public, let alone in Parliament, is the case for raising income tax rates.

The Government is making it clear that, if re-elected, its austerity policies will continue. In its commentary on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in December 2014 the statutorily independent Office of Budget Responsibility observed that the government was in the fifth year of 10-year programme of reducing public expenditure. It stated: Around 40 per cent of these cuts would have been delivered during this Parliament, with around 60 per cent to come during the next. The implied squeeze on local authority spending is similarly severe [1]. The Chancellor appears sanguine about this.

Cutting the state is a political choice. It sounds good to both social and economic liberals, but its consequences are frequently underestimated. The state, particularly at local level, is a collective enterprise in which we all have a stake. We pay in, and in return, a range of essential services is provided. From schools to street-cleaning, from parks to social care, from child protection to bus services [2], from waste disposal to highway maintenance, local government provides the glue that keeps society together. It provides these services at cost. In other words there are no shareholders wanting a dividend.

As a society we have become used to having public services provided for us. We really don’t want to pick up the litter ourselves, take all our waste to the central depot, fill in the potholes in our road. We can’t all afford to send the children to fee-paying schools, so the availability of a state-run service is essential.

What we’re less good is understanding that these services have to be paid for. The low-tax brigade would argue that all these services can and should be provided by the private sector, with the result that we’ll pay on an item of service basis. Of course then we’ll pay more, because these services are fragmented and need to be run at a profit for the shareholders (not to mention high executive salaries). The contention that handing over public services to private companies leads to competition which will drive down prices can no longer be taken seriously, as one glance at the energy and rail transport sectors will show.

This is not an assault on private businesses. They are essential for providing occupation and innovation and will always, I hope, be with us. The criticism is of the privatisation of services that are best run in the public or social enterprise sector. What is lost through privatisation is the key idea that public services are in effect a community insurance scheme: we don’t need all the services all of the time but they are there when we do need them. And because they are universal services, there are economies of scale – and so reduced costs – in providing them.

It’s through this prism that we should view income tax rates. Not as a tax, but as a payment for communal services that we all need at some time or other. Those services cannot be provided at no cost.

All the main political parties in England (except the Greens) believe we must continue cutting public services to reduce the annual deficit.  In December the Chancellor insisted that the UK will have a surplus of £23bn by the end of the decade provided public spending is cut in line with government plans. The trouble is, as the OBR and others have pointed out, the squeeze implied by those plans will be so severe that many public services will cease to exist in any recognisable form before then.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has developed a tool to enable each of us to play at being Chancellor: its guideline is that 1p on all rates of income tax would generate about £5.5bn in a year [3]. Adding that 1p would more than compensate for the cut of £3bn in the government’s revenue support grant to local authorities in England in 2015/16 and subsequent years. It’s not going to wipe out the deficit – expected to be over £70bn in 2015/16 – but it would lessen the severity of the short-term expenditure cuts.

No one will like an increase in income tax. But it is a progressive tax in the sense that it is directly linked to ability to pay, and so unlike VAT which hits everyone irrespective of means. The question for us all is whether we want to see filthy streets, transport subsidies cut, care homes closed, youth services decimated and the rest of it, rather than stump up a 1p tax rise.

But the politicians won’t let us answer, or even ask, that question.

Notes

[1] OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook, December 2014, paragraph 1.7 http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/December_2014_EFO-web513.pdf

[2] Yes, publicly-owned bus companies still exist, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Municipal_bus_company

[3] http://election2015.ifs.org.uk/how-would-you-balance-the-books

The trouble with this election is that the voters might think for themselves

Well, that’s clearly the view of the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, Conservative MP for East Devon and a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Mr Swire recently treated readers of the Exeter Express and Echo to an article headed “Beware of voting for chaos politics”.

The first half of his article is the usual scaremongering along the lines of a vote for anyone except a Tory will lead to a Labour-led coalition with the SNP/Greens/LibDems.  The Greens are singled out for particular venom, though Swire tops his ineffective hatchet job by the accusing the Greens of holding to what he clearly regards as the grossly irresponsible belief that “money, in the end, is less important than quality of life”.  So, there you are: the Tories are after the fat cat vote.

However, it’s not only parties that fall to the withering Swire analysis.  His next paragraph is worth quoting:

Then there are the occasional independent candidates that pop up every now and then and think they can change the world. They can’t. If by some miracle they get to Parliament, and occasionally they do, they are up against a system that does not cater for them. They rarely win a second term because once there they are powerless and ineffective.

This is probably one of the most insightful statements, from an experienced insider, of how utterly unfitted for the 21st century our parliamentary democracy has become. What sort of representative democracy is it where “the system” freezes out an elected MP just because he or she doesn’t belong to a mainstream political party?

Of course Swire doesn’t see it that way. He’s trying to frighten his East Devon constituents into believing they’ll be wasting their vote if they support his real opponent, the community-focussed, committed district and county councillor Claire Wright who is standing as an independent.

My late father was fond of saying that one of the problems with the Tories was that they thought the voters were stupid. 50 years on, that at least hasn’t changed.

Local austerity – how the environment and the people lose out

Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?

One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total [1]. To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report [2]. These are:

  • reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
  • a consequent likely increase in traffic
  • increased vehicle emissions
  • increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
  • reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
  • reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
  • reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
  • a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses

It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.

Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m [3]. The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”[4]. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:

  1. Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
  2. Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
  3. Stop maintaining grit bins
  4. Closure of picnic sites
  5. Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
  6. Stopping weed treatment
  7. Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
  8. Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing

The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas [5]. However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.

The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” [6].   UPDATE 14 February:  Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.

Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement.  By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017.  As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” [7].  Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.

Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?

It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls.  But that doesn’t mean they are good ones.  The real villain, of course, is Austerity.

Notes:

[1] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_sc152.html

[2] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_document.htm?cmadoc=minutes_exc_20150114.html, minute 280

[3] https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/maintaining-roads/

[4] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/background/background-information

[5] https://new.devon.gov.uk/highwaysbudget/files/2014/10/Highways-budget-impact-assessment-2015-to-16.pdf

[6] http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_pte152.html

[7] http://www.devon.gov.uk/index/councildemocracy/decision_making/cma/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_hcw141.html

Policy-making in the dark


The government’s threat to cut funding to the rural community action network has graver consequences than the damage to the organisations involved.


First, some brief background for those unfamiliar with the rural policy world. Cognoscenti can skip this bit.

In 2010 the new coalition government announced it would abolish the Commission for Rural Communities, though the quango’s death throes were drawn out until 2013. Much of what the CRC did was of minimal value, but it did generate a significant evidence base which could inform ministers’ rural policy decisions. The government decided instead to rely on a new and small Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The lack of resources in the RCPU led to it receiving a critical review from the Commons Efra select committee in July 2013.

The RCPU presumably realised that evidence-gathering was not its strong point, which made life a bit difficult for a government and a civil service ostensibly committed to evidence-based policy making (though my own experience, and that of others, suggests that “evidence-backed” would be a better description). The RCPU entered into a funding contract with ACRE, the umbrella body for England’s rural community councils, aimed at filling the void.  Under the contract ACRE provides hard information, collected from the 38 county-based rural community councils, about the effects of government policies – or the lack of them – on rural communities. So the RCPU has been fed tailored intelligence collated and interpreted by ACRE to inform policy responses across government.

I ought at this point to declare an indirect interest. From 2011-14 I was a trustee of ACRE, elected by the RCCs in the south-west.  I was also a Defra civil servant, but that was in another life.

The Defra funding has not only supported intelligence gathering, although that is the focus of this blog. The most recent impact report shows what else is achieved by the ACRE Network with the funding: the executive summary explains all you need to know, including the fact that £2.25m of Defra investment has enabled a further £12.5m to be levered in from local and national sources, with consequent additional benefits to rural communities.

Now the bad news. As part of the endless cuts in government expenditure, Defra has threatened not to continue to provide funding to ACRE in 2015/16, the final year of the contract. This is entirely consistent with the government’s view that communities should take more responsibility for themselves, though it’s not clear how cutting funding to community development organisations will help communities do this.

ACRE has launched an e-petition with a view to getting the issue debated in Parliament or – perhaps more realistically – drawing public attention to the issue. The e-petition is carefully worded: it does not say there will be a catastrophe if the funding ceases but rather that the work of the RCCs and the network would be seriously weakened, with a knock-on effect on communities. What it doesn’t address – understandably – is the impact on government policy-making.

As part of its civil service reform programme the government is establishing a set of “What Works” evidence centres, outside the civil service, designed to review evidence of policy implementation and initiatives across six key policy themes. Unsurprisingly, rural policy does not figure directly, though one would expect a rural dimension to all of the themes, particularly Local Economic Growth. It follows that good rural intelligence will be needed to ensure that the evidence centres take account of the particular circumstances of rural communities and the changes they are undergoing. The ACRE intelligence collection programme is an obvious and proven source of such intelligence. Abolishing it can only lead to a much less informed civil service.

But perhaps evidence isn’t so important to the government after all. The foreword to the latest review of the progress in achieving civil service reform is distinctly confrontational in tone. Two statements stand out:

  • Discomfort over value for money and implementability should be handled by way of an open discussion and, if necessary, a Ministerial Direction.
  • In the event that the permanent head of a civil service organisation thinks that his/her organisation’s professional capability is being seriously eroded by current Ministerial priorities or decisions, then that Accounting Officer should seek a Ministerial Direction.

Of course this rarely used provision has always been in the small print of minister-civil service relations. Yet to give it such a degree of prominence in a public document might lead a sceptic to conclude that ministers are wedded to battles with a civil service that retains a commitment to evidence-based decisions rather than solely to political dogma or political short-term fixes.

Against that background a decision to axe the ACRE contract would be a small illustration of how, despite the fine words, ministers aren’t really interested in good government.

75,000 voters are locked out of the UK’s democratic process

Can you imagine a country in which people are not allowed to vote for the party of their choice because the ruling elites think it’s a bad idea to let them? There are indeed many examples. Oddly, the UK is one of them.

At the May 2005 general election the Buckingham constituency re-elected the sitting Conservative MP, John Bercow. In June 2009, Mr Bercow became Speaker of the House of Commons, ceased to be a Conservative, but promised his constituents that this would not impact on his ability to represent their interests to government. To be fair to him, he has continued to speak out on key local issues, including his opposition to HS2. However, unlike Carswell and Reckless, he did not consult his constituents before changing his party status.

Come the May 2010 general election, the Buckingham electors – of whom I was then one – were offered a choice of candidates: the non-party John Bercow, the UKIP leader Nigel Farage (much less well-known than now), a former Conservative MEP standing as an independent against Bercow (who came second), and a range of unknowns. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties did not put up candidates, pleading the long-standing convention that the Speaker should be re-elected unopposed.

Feeling less than thrilled at being denied the right to vote for a party that stood a chance of forming the next government, I wrote to the three party leaders in advance of the election asking them if they considered this situation satisfactory and whether they had plans for change. The Conservatives stood by the status quo. The LibDems said that the system should change, but not now. Labour didn’t reply.

John Bercow was duly re-elected. After the election, I wrote to him setting out my concerns about the exclusion of 75,000 electors from the democratic process. I was not alone, and Bercow was clearly sensitive to the strength of feeling on the issue. He asked the Commons Procedures Committee – made up of MPs – to review the question of whether there should be a “Speaker’s Seat” in a general election – meaning that once a MP is elected as Speaker there should be a by-election to enable a new party-aligned MP to be elected by the constituency.

The Procedures Committee looked at the issue as part of a wider enquiry. Their self-serving conclusion is worth stating in full:

“In the context of this report, we have not conducted a full inquiry into the proposal for a special Speaker’s seat, which would in any case require primary legislation. From our review of the arguments and the history of the idea, we are firmly persuaded that the advantages of the change are outweighed by the disadvantages. There are great benefits to the House and to the Speaker in the Speaker’s retaining responsibility for a normal constituency and being thereby fully aware of the issues currently causing concern to constituents. The access that the Speaker, like Ministers who are also unable to speak out in debates, gains to the Government in order to raise matters relating to his or her constituents compensates in no small measure for the lack of a constituency voice on the floor of the House. We are also concerned that the proposal would remove the important democratic check on the re-appointment of a Speaker by either the public or the House and would create a new separate, distinctive and privileged category of Member to the detriment of the House. Finally, we recognise that the existence of a Speaker’s seat could lead to worse consequences for a returning Speaker, if not re-elected by the House, than at present since there could be no possibility of a return to the backbenches in such circumstances and the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords could cease to be available in the foreseeable future.” [1]

All the Committee’s arguments centre on the benefits to Parliament of the present arrangement and on the adverse consequences to the Speaker of changing it. There is not a flicker of recognition of the effective disenfranchisement of the Speaker’s constituents and the affront that this is to the democratic process. So much for the House of Commons as the voice of the people.

In May 2015, the electors of Buckingham will yet again be denied a vote for a government of their choice. The good news is that the Green Party intends to field a candidate in Buckingham, which offers a positive alternative for voters fed up with the shenanigans of the mainstream parties.

If you think current practice is wrong, write to your own MP now. Seek a commitment that s/he will if re-elected campaign in Parliament for reform. And do the same to the other prospective candidates. The blight will one day move on from Buckingham, and it could be your constituency’s turn next

Notes:

1  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmproced/1573/157305.htm#a12