Quote of the week

Life isn't about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself'

George Bernard Shaw
If you cannot mould yourself entirely as you would wish, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking?
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/wish.html

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A result!

I was very alarmed yesterday when I heard that workers in the Passport Office had gone on strike.

To deliberately take this action at a time when many are waiting for passports, perhaps in order to travel to see loved ones, or go on a well earned holiday seems cruel and unecessary.

I was particularly concerned however, because a week or so ago I was approached for help by a Suffolk resident who works in my Division about a passport application which had got caught up in the delays that are currently crippling the system.

Her mother and aunt happen to live in Waldingfield Ward.   Neither of them are in the first flush of youth and both have been recently widowed.  They had made an application for their first passports almost six weeks ago because they had booked to go on their first ever holiday abroad, a cruise leaving in early August.  Concerned that no passports had arrived, they tried themselves to contact the passport office in order to urge matters along but with no success.  These days applications for first passports are much more complex than they used to be, and an interview is necessary before one can be issued.  Prospects of getting everything organised in time were looking increasingly bleak.

I suggested that my correspondent ask her own District and County Councillor, Richard Kemp, to contact Tim Yeo's office, and I offered to write an urgent letter to Teresa May on behalf of my residents.   I suspect that my intervention is still waiting in the Home Office In Tray, but Sarah, Tim Yeo's fantastic assistant at the House of Commons, managed to get things moving.

I received an e mail today to say that an interview was arranged on Friday and that the Passports arrived yesterday in the nick of time.  It seems that my concerns about the strike action were unfounded.

All credit to Tim Yeo's office for their speedy work.  It is good sometimes to be able to hack through the thickets of bureaucracy and achieve a result.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

David Ruffley, lessons learnt?

I am experiencing no great feeling of satisfaction this morning following David Ruffley's announcement that he will be standing down at the next election. I feel that had he been open from the start he could have saved himself, and I also believe that some sections of the Conservative Party have, once again, shown themselves to be out of touch with the realities of contemporary life. The Suffolk Domestic Abuse Partnership needs to redouble its efforts to promote understanding about domestic violence in all its forms.

David Ruffley's letter to his constituency association shows a man who still seems to be in a state of denial, a man who does not see what he has done wrong, a man who continues to blame everyone but himself. The villains of the piece are it seems the media, those who are 'misinformed', those whose motivation is in doubt. It was all a private matter which he considered  'closed' and which should have remained closed once he had apologised.

The truth is however that once an incident involves the police it can no longer be a private matter, and as a lawyer and politician Mr Ruffley must know this.  He must also have known that whatever the actual facts of his particular case, any suggestion that domestic abuse was involved was unlikely to be ignored.  As he once wrote himself on his website 'one incident of domestic violence is one too many'.  Surely then. had he believed that the altercation in which he was involved did not constitute domestic violence, he should have told the world why. Alternatively, if abuse was suggested, openess at the start, a pledge not to reoffend and a public apology might have saved him.

Silence was interpreted as indifference by many of us who know the damage that domestic abuse causes to so many lives, and to whom such indifference is intolerable. Unfortunately silence and indifference also seemed to be the initial reaction of too many in the local and national Conservative Party. 

In a hard hitting document published in March this year,  the very same month that David Ruffley's caution was accepted, the Home Secretary Teresa May wrote 'I am determined that violence of all kinds against women and girls sould end'.  She called violence against women 'a despicable crime which has absolutely no place in our society'.*

I think some in the Party need to follow Mrs May's lead and take her words seriously.  They need to wake up to the issue and perhaps take time to learn more about the blight in society that is domestic violence. 

The Suffolk Domestic Abuse Partnership should also learn from this.  We make the assumption that domestic abuse is now much better understood.  However understanding clearly has further to go in some quarters.  We need to redouble our efforts to raise awareness, and, as the Chairman of the Partnership, I will be focussing on this in the months to come.

*A call to end violence against Women and Girls. Action Plan 2014. H,M, Government Publication

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Print Workshop Summer Impressions

The wheel press at the Print Workshop.
The Gainsborough's House Print Workshop will be holding its next exhibition Summer Impressions at St Peter's Church in Sudbury from 7th to 10th of August from 10 a.m.to 5 p.m.

The Print Workshop at Gainsborough's House is, as many readers of this site know, one of the leading facilities for printmakers in the UK and many of its artist members produce exceptionally high quality work.  A wide variety of different printmaking styles and subjects are likely to be on show, and there is sure to be something for everyone.

This is a great opportunity to buy a work of art by a recognised local artist at a reasonable price.  I hope as many of you as possible will be able to get along to see the show, and perhaps make a small investment.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A reflection on recent press comment

Unfair funding

Yesterday the County Council Cabinet members met three of our Suffolk Members of Parliament, Ben Gummer, Therese Coffey and Peter Aldous.

It is no secret that balancing the books over the next three years is going to prove challenging for the County Council.  It was therefore useful to be able to bend the MPs’ ears about the issue of fairer funding, which has exercised me a great deal since I became responsible for the Council’s resources some two and a half months ago.

I am not alone in making a fuss.    The Local Government Association has criticised the Government for the indiscriminate way that it has imposed its funding settlement on local authorities.  The level of cuts has been applied fairly evenly across the board, and Government appears to have taken little notice of how efficient an individual authority was to start with, or how much scope it has to grow its fee income, business rates and other taxes.

On Wednesday the point was driven home when I went to a meeting for Finance Portfolio holders at Cambridgeshire County Council.  I was shocked to discover that the cuts being required by Government of that large, flexible, and fast growing local authority are only a little higher in absolute terms as those we are being required to find.

The county is also hampered by the fact that our funding settlement in no way compensates for the higher cost of delivering services in rural areas.   The inadequacy of funding to support rural service delivery been well aired on websites concerned about the preservation and sustainability of rural life, and has also been confirmed by the Treasury Select Committee.

I am pleased to say that the assembled grandees were sympathetic to our cause, agreeing that our settlement is indeed inadequate, and also that the funding formulae used by Central Government are woefully outdated.  However, they warned that nothing can be done this side of the General Election next year.  It seems that this has something to do with ‘being in coalition’, that universal excuse for being unable to do anything about obvious nonsenses at present.  I am not sure how seriously I can take their assurances; only time will tell.  We are not planning on any immediate relief appearing over the horizon any time soon.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tobacco...the right debate in the wrong context.

I am not a great enthusiast for tobacco; although having never smoked I am conscious that I have little idea of how difficult it is to give up the habit.  With our relatively new responsibility for Public Health at the County Council, it is our duty to persuade our residents not to smoke and, although there is an element of the ‘nanny state’ about it all, there is no doubt, firstly, that smoking is a proved killer that ruins lives; and secondly that smoking related disease costs the taxpayer a good deal of money.

I think that a debate about how we persuade people to stop smoking is one worth having. I was disappointed however when the Labour Group at the County, aided and abetted by a good number of our own persuasion, decided to move a motion at last week’s Council Meeting aiming to prevent the Suffolk Pension Fund from investing in Tobacco shares.   I felt that this was the right debate in the wrong context.

The Suffolk Pension Fund is managed by the Pension Fund Committee. The Committee operates independently of the council and in fact cannot be legally bound to take instructions from it. Moreover, to my mind its only aim should be to get the best possible return for our pensioners.  I know from my City experience that picking the best balance of investments is a complex and difficult business without taking into account political, or indeed moral, encouragement from the sidelines.  If what a company does is legal, and selling cigarettes is not a crime as yet, then it should be regarded as a valid investment.

There are many arguments for maintaining this position. 

The most obvious one is the ‘where do you draw the line?’ question.  If you prohibit investment in tobacco, what about alcohol: (Green King and Adnams!), sugar (British Sugar!), and the list goes on.  During the council debate it was quite fun to see proponents of the motion struggling to justify local company Adnams as an investment in the light of their sale of alcopops to the detriment of the night time economy in our market towns.  

Secondly there are good technical reasons that make it risky to limit the choice of investments available to the Trustees.  Furthermore it is unlikely that Suffolk’s refusal to purchase the shares of tobacco companies will in any way alter their financial strength, or indeed the progress of their share prices, which are far more likely to be affected by a class action taken by bereaved relatives of deceased smokers.  These are increasingly likely and will, I am sure, eventually bring about the industry’s demise.

I was one of the ‘brave’ few who voted against the motion.  I suppose that for most people appearing to side with the tobacco companies and their evil empire was a step too far.  To me however the attempt to link the pension fund’s activities with what is essentially a moral issue was unnecessary and misplaced. 
It should be remembered that, because the scheme is a defined benefit scheme, our pensioners are legally entitled to their pension in any event.   The person who picks up the tab for fund underperformance is the employer and indirectly this means all the residents of Suffolk. 

Suffolk County Council already pays some £12m per annum out of its revenue budget to make up for a shortfall in the pension fund.  This is around 45% of the entire annual Public Health Budget, and would pay for quite a few stop smoking campaigns!

Elmsett and Aldham Village Hall Coffee Morning

The Village Hall in Elmsett is in the middle of a major makeover.  Internal decoration has been completed by a small team of volunteers, new curtains have been hung, insulation installed, and now the project is moving on to replace the heating system and carry out other repairs.

Yesterday morning a coffee morning was held in the hall to showcase the new developments and to display some of the aspects of village life.  There were also some stalls, including one from the excellent Shrubland Park Nursery in the village where I was able to buy some lovely fuschias.

There seems to be a good deal going on in Elmsett, with an active WI, a community woodland project, and a busy carpet bowls club. Football activities are also being expanded and there are plans to renovate the pavilion and other sports facilities in the village. There is also a thriving village school.   I was able to arrange to receive the Elmsett and Aldham Newsletter which will keep me closer in touch with events in the future.

I was interested to learn in the course of the morning that Thomas Gainsborough painted a landscape that includes Elmsett Church.  The picture hangs in The Bowes Museum, County Durham and dates from the early 1750's, the period that Gainsborough spent in Sudbury and latterly in Ipswich prior to moving on to greater things in Bath.
Thomas Gainsborough, Elmsett Church, c 1750 - 1755, oil on canvas

Farewell to Inspector Crick

Police Inspector Paul Crick was in a relaxed mood at his leaving drinks at Sudbury Police Station on Friday evening. 

Paul is off to work in Ipswich and will be concerned with anti social behaviour and drugs related matters.  He will be based in Landmark House.   This is also the home of SCC Trading Standards and also Domestic Abuse officers, and so it is very probable that we will bump into one another in the future.

Paul has had a good run of something over 7 years heading up Community Policing in Sudbury.  He has been fantastic to work with and will be much missed.   He oversaw the creation of the local Safer Neighbourhood Team meetings, which at the time were an innovative step forward in community policing.   Until recently I chaired the Babergh West meeting which meets in different villages throughout the area and which gives residents the chance to air their views about community safety issues.  On the whole these have been a success, but it has to be said they have been most successful when the issues raised have been urgent or controversial.

One of the remarkable facts about Paul's team of police officers and PCSO's is that they all seem to really enjoy their jobs and remain cheeful in the face of the difficult problems and difficult people that inevitably cross their paths.  I am sure that this has something to do with Paul's style of leadership and I know that we will all miss him.

I am sure that we all wish Paul the very best of luck in the future.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Grand opening of new shop at Gainsborough's House

Museum Director Mark Bills with some of the new merchandise on display.
This morning we went down to Gainsborough's House in Sudbury for the opening of the revamped and enlarged gift shop.

The transformation is astonishing.  The cafe has now gone and the reception desk moved.  The whole space has been redecorated and filled with attractive items that will be tempting for both visitors to the Museum and also residents of Suffolk wanting to find a Gainsborough related book or souvenir,  a special gift or card.

The Mayor of Sudbury was on hand to cut the ribbon, and all present seemed very impressed by the transformation.

There is an excellent exhibition of Rembrandt etchings on at the House at the moment, and I would urge you to take time out both to see the show, and to browse in the new shop.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our candidate for 2015.

Congratulations to Babergh DC's own James Cartlidge who this evening won the nomination of parliamentary candidate for the South Suffolk Constituency.

He fought off a challenge from two strong candidates from 'elsewhere' at a meeting of over 200 members of the South Suffolk Conservative Association, held at Suffolk One in Ipswich.

I went along to the meeting with as open a mind as possible, and really thought that James presented his case in the most convincing manner, addressing both local and national issues with wit and insight.  He will, if elected in May next year, make a great Member of Parliament for our area.

I was surprised and pleased to see James's wife Emily at the selection meeting.  Emily gave birth to twin boys less than two weeks ago!

A brush with the Beeb.

Yesterday’s strike of public sector workers did not seem to affect the County Council yesterday.  All activities, including the Junior Road Safety Officer awards ceremony went on without interruption as far as I could tell.  According to the Local Government Association some 95% of local government staff reported for work across the UK, and that seems to have been our experience,

Schools were a somewhat different matter, although in the event only a small number closed completely, with rather more partially closed.  The vast majority stayed open for business however.  Visits to local schools have shown me the dedication of all of our local heads, and many of their staff, and I am sure that this is replicated across much of the County.

In the morning I was asked to speak on Radio Suffolk about how prepared we were for the industrial action.  At that stage, although I had every confidence in our staff, I knew that only a relatively small proportion are members of the relevant unions. Therefore I did not actually know how many would turn up for work.  I was reasonably confident however in saying that management would rise to any challenge and that services should be unaffected.

I do not mind getting up at the crack of dawn to talk to Radio Suffolk, provided I know what I am talking about.  However, I was irritated on this occasion when the presenter stated during the interview that the council had not given them a list of schools that were likely to close.   We have an agreed protocol with BBC Radio Suffolk with regard to how we communicate this sort of information and in fact the list had been sent to them in the normal way the day before.  

 It seems that all presenters cannot resist an opportunity to imitate the great interviewers such as Paxman and Humphreys and try to catch politicians out, even when they themselves are on shaky ground.

An apology was forthcoming after the event…..but only by e mail!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Babergh avoids worst effects of National Planning Guidelines

A recent report from the Local Government Information Unit reveals that only 14.7% of planning authorities have, for one reason or another, been able to adopt their local plan since the publication of the National Planning Guidelines.

Babergh is not in this position, having managed to get its plan past the Inspector last year.  This is a good thing because those authorities that do not have an adopted plan in place are particularly vulnerable to being forced to approve planning applications that are inappropriate to their local situation.  This is because the NP guidelines, which are very vague, take precedence over local considerations.

Where local authorities without adopted plans have refused planning permission, and the developer has gone on to appeal, the number of successful appeals has massively increased in percentage terms.  This means that inspectors from Bristol, who have no knowledge of local circumstances, have been able to ride roughshod over the wishes of local people.  I fear that a good deal of English countryside will be blighted by inappropriate schemes as a result, and this is a fear that is shared by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE).

The most recent decision at Babergh that went to appeal was the decision to refuse permission for houses on the Fleetwood Caravan site in Long Melford.  I am happy to say that the decision of the planning committee was upheld on appeal.   I wonder if the result would have been the same if we had not managed to get the Local Plan adopted?

A trip to middle England.

We have spent the weekend in the Midlands, visiting a number of old friends and taking in some cultural experiences.

Angela's magic flower garden
We were in Worcestershire for the first two nights where we spent time with friends who live close to Tenbury Wells looking over the Teme Valley.  They have an astonishing herbaceous border, pictured above.

Then on to Stratford, the town where I spent much of my childhood. Stratford is a key point on the canal system since the Stratford Canal, which runs down from Birmingham. enters the River Avon at this point.  From here it is possible to sail down to the River Severn and ultimately to the sea.

There are always a few narrow boats moored in the Stratford Basin.  However, this year our arrival coincided with the annual Water Festival, when hundreds of craft congregate for a weekend of friendship and music.  The many colourful boats moored along the bank of the Recreation Ground were a fine sight.