History speaks

For the first 7 days in July Exeter’s Northernhay Gardens hosted a unique and very moving memorial to the 19,240 allied soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 100 years before.

The project was conceived by Rob Heard, a Somerset artist, and East Devon-based folk singer Steve Knightley.  A website – http://www.thesomme19240.co.uk/ – includes videos and other material about the memorial which enhance understanding.

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The pictures here don’t do it justice.  Each of the tiny shrouds, one for each soldier, was hand-stitched by Rob Heard over a period of three years.  Some 50,000 people – equivalent to nearly half the city’s population – visited the memorial.

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World War One was a travesty of human endeavour.  Fought because governments and dynasties wanted territory, power and trade, and fuelled by nationalism, its principal legacy was the deaths of millions of “ordinary” people.  The flawed post-war settlement laid the ground for the rise of the Nazis and the second world war.  What became the European Union was created to prevent Europe ever going to war within itself again.

It’s a pity the EU referendum didn’t come after the Somme commemorations, rather than before them.  Had it done so, perhaps fewer people would have been prepared to throw away the structure, however imperfect, that has given us 60 years of peace and co-operation.

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.

The second part of this post is at http://www.agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.

Fifth of May, Polling Day

A guide to what goes on when the campaigning is over

7am.  Take up position at the entrance to a city centre polling station, as a teller for the Green Party.  Put on the party rosette which resembles the badges stuck on pigs for winning first prize at an agricultural show.  Lib Dem and Labour also arrive, but no sign of Tories – we collectively assume that they have no hope of winning a seat in the ward, so are putting their efforts into winnable areas.  Labour have misread the rules on what can be shown on a rosette and have deleted their party name.  Realise I’ve forgotten to bring a book to read.  Sporadic chat amongst the tellers.  40 voters in the first two hours after the polls open.  But then we’re not really a city of early risers.

What is telling?
It’s about getting the maximum number of people to vote.  When canvassing support on the doorstep, political parties make a note of people who say they will support them.  When a person comes to the polling station to vote, tellers will ask for their individual polling number, and send back lists of those who have voted to the party’s local HQ.  These lists are matched against the list of known party supporters, to identify who hasn’t voted.  Known supporters who haven’t voted are then visited and encouraged to vote; and known supporters who have voted are not bothered again on the day.  Tellers don’t know how people vote – only that they have voted.

9am.  Hand over the telling sheets to my relief.  Coffee, and home.

11am.  Back at the polling station for the second of my two-hour stints.  Still no Tory.  Several voters come to wrong polling station because they’ve always voted there, and now find that following the ward boundary changes they should be voting somewhere else.  We politely ask a youth for his polling number, and his girlfriend is about to proffer hers when he looks hard at us, says “nah”, and walks off.  We conclude he’s voting Tory.  Another voter looks at the Labour red rosette – without words – and asks the teller which party he’s from.

1pm.  Handover and home for lunch.  Hear that Barnet Council in London has turned voters away because the polling station was using an incomplete electoral register.

3pm.  Third shift begins.  Still no Tory.  Discussion among the three of us about when the result will be announced.  No one believes it will be by 2am, as suggested by the Returning Officer, and opinion varies as between 3am and 5am.  A voter asks me about the Green Party candidates.  I intone, in a voice that brooks no argument, that electoral law forbids a teller from discussing the merits of candidates when in the vicinity of a polling station.  And I feel a bit of a prat, even though it’s a sensible rule.

5pm.  Handover and home.

6pm.  We go out and vote.  Do my good deed for the Green Party in the local council election.  Write a complaint on my Police and Crime Commissioner ballot form rather than vote for a collection of people I’ve never heard of, or from.  Wonder why the government thought directly elected PCCs would be more “accountable” than the police authorities they replaced.

10pm.  Arrive at the count, where I am officially a “Counting Agent” and have a pass to prove it.  Because everyone has three votes and not everyone gives all three to a single party, the counting process is protracted.  First, separate out the PCC ballot papers to be dealt with elsewhere.  Second, check the number of ballot papers is correct – and keep recounting until it is.  Third, separate out the ballot papers where all the votes are for the same party, and count them.  Fourth, subject the papers where the voter has chosen one than one party to a technique known as the “grass skirt”[1].  Fifth, identify unclear or spoiled ballot papers, and check the total number of ballot papers is still correct.

Finally, candidates and agents agree with the returning officer – the person in charge – what papers can be disregarded as spoiled or unclear.

And then, ward by ward, the result is announced, though the overall position was clear long before then.  Thanks to our appalling first past the past system, Labour got three-quarters of the seats with less than 45% of the available votes, while the Greens and UKIP got no seats despite having over 12% of the available votes between them.

4.15am.  Go home.  Go to bed.

 

NOTES

[1]  This is too complex to explain here, but those interested can watch a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwPlhwiI418

The Salty Puffin

Wexford, Ireland

No, it’s not the name of a new eaterie, but a rather weak pun.  At the age of sixty-something, I have finally seen puffins in the wild.  The location was Great Saltee, the larger of the two Saltee Islands off Ireland’s south Wexford coast.  The other island, unsurprisingly, is Little Saltee.

Anyone who immediately thinks of Compton Mackenzie’s fictional Great Todday and Little Todday [1] should put them out of mind.  The Saltees are very different indeed.

According to the island’s website [2], the privately owned Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland.  It is designated a Special Protection Area under the EU’s Birds Directive [3].  Weather permitting, a small fast ferry from Kilmore Quay takes visitors almost to the shore, but the shallow approach requires a transfer into a stout rubber dinghy for the final few yards.  Wear trousers and boots that you don’t mind dunking in sea water!

There is only one occupied building on the island, a house used at times by the owning family and surrounded by several derelict barns or cottages.  There are no other residents, no loos, no camping sites, no cafés, no shelters, no “visitor centre”, and no “interpretation boards”.  Just a few day-trippers, including twitchers, and an awesome number of birds.

Most of the birds congregate on and in the cliffs on the north side of the island.  Not being a bird-watcher, my recognition skills are limited.  But from pictures I know a puffin when I see one.  And a couple of dozen were on easy view, occasionally disappearing in pairs into holes burrowed into the cliff sides.  After all, it is the breeding season.

Puffins are stunning to watch in flight.  Their bright orange webbed feet, matching the colour of their bill, flap furiously and appear to help them change direction before landing, rather like aircraft ailerons.  They are also beautiful to look at when standing still.

A striking feature of the north coast of Great Saltee is the noise.  Birds are not quiet, and when gathered in large groups sound raucous.  What the island’s website describes the “muttered growls” of the guillemot resemble a revving diesel engine when they are growling collectively.

I think I spotted choughs (though they might have been oystercatchers) and various varieties of gull, none as unpleasant – visually or temperamentally – as the scavengers of England’s westcountry coasts.

For getting to know a bit about birds in an “away-from-it-all” setting, a visit to Great Saltee is hard to beat.  I’m really glad I went.  And seeing puffins at long last will be one of those lasting pleasures.

NOTES:

[1]  In his comic novel Whisky Galore, first published in 1947.

[2]  http://www.salteeislands.info/Index2.htm

[3]  A legal protection that would presumably disappear in the UK if we leave the EU.

Is it really #GreenerIn ?

The EU is seen as a defender of the environment, but is this still true today?

Caroline Lucas MP and others have argued that the UK’s membership of the EU has led to significant environmental protection measures that UK governments would have been unlikely to take themselves [1].  Lucas cites pollution control and wildlife protection as important EU measures.  As she says, “Pollution and environmental degradation don’t respect national borders.”

Few people would argue with this.  But it’s a big step from there to say that our environment will always be safe in the EU of the future.  The current European Commission, which took office at the end of 2014, has a less sympathetic view of environmental protection than its predecessors.  For the clearest available evidence of this, it is worth reading in full Chairman Juncker’s letter of appointment to the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella [2].  It’s worth remembering that of all the EU institutions, only the Commission can propose legislation.

In the past, Environment Commissioners have been able, by and large, to plough their own furrow.  Not any more.  The Juncker Commission has several Vice-Presidents, whose job is to coordinate the work of the single portfolio Commissioners.

Juncker’s letter to Vella’s clearly limits his room for manoeuvre:

“You will, in particular, contribute to projects steered and coordinated by the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and the Vice-President for Energy Union. For other initiatives requiring a decision from the Commission, you will, as a rule, liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.”

And then, just to rub it in:

“The EU has a well-developed environment policy with a rather complete and mature legal framework.”   

In other words, no more legislation, please.  Unless, of course, it is to simplify and render more business-friendly existing legislation.  Vella is told that his first specific task is:

“Continuing to overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose. In the first part of the mandate, I would ask you to carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.”

No prizes for guessing what “modern” means.

None of this is to argue for or against Brexit.  It’s simply to remind ourselves that in public policy, as with investments, past performance is no guide to the future.

NOTES:

[1]  See for example https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/caroline-lucas/its-time-to-make-progressive-case-for-staying-in-eu .

[2]  http://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/cwt/files/vella_en.pdf

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.