Friday, February 27, 2009

Adventures In Experimental Meeting Technique

I hadn't been expecting to write about tonight's budget meeting; after all, the proceedings do look rather different when your party is leading the ruling coalition. But after what happened tonight and in view of the level of coverage it's likely to receive, there should be a record of what actually went on.

At the start of the budget debate, the Lord Mayor went through, in some detail, the protocol for the debate that had been agreed by the Business Committee. The explanation wasn't helped by the complaints of the Labour group, who managed to forget that the Business Committee is a public committee and not some secretive coven.

In any case, once all the motions and amendments has been formally moved, the debate started with the Executive Member for Finance introducing the coalition's budget proposal. The various Executive Members then spoke in turn, followed by the proposer and seconder of each group's amendments. In all those cases, the members in question were allowed to forego those speeches in order to contribute later if they so wished, and several did so.

The floor was then opened up, and in accordance with the agreed protocol each party was limited to a particular number of speakers, including all the proposers and seconders according to proportionality. The first Lib Dem got up and spoke and as she sat down, your correspondent, in a moment of historic poor timing, got up to answer the call of nature.

But as I sidled out of my seat, there was a marked pause. On the screens that display the list of speakers, nary a name was to be seen. Remarkably, at the height of the budget debate, the three opposition groups were playing exclamatory chicken. With no one willing to speak, what was our chief whip to do but call to go straight to the vote?

Of course, immediately the call was made, everyone pressed their buttons, but it's difficult to have sympathy for people who are less eager to convey their points than to achieve the perfect grandstanding position. In any case, by then it was too late; the Lord Mayor had to consider the motion once it had been tabled, and soon both it and the coalition's budget were passed.

During the break after the budget debate, it became clear that the opposition unhappiness over proceedings was going to escalate, thanks strangely to a question about a Focus leaflet. To explain; Cardiff's Labour group leader, Cllr Ralph Cook, now represents a split ward, after we took one seat from Labour in May. Ralph was especially unhappy about this development, and in his "Thank You" leaflet, complained bitterly of Lib Dem "stormtroopers" engaged in a "blitzkrieg" of leafleting.

Tonight, Ralph asked a question about a Focus leaflet which included a photograph of our councillor with two Communities First officers. At the end of a lengthy answer to his question, he was reminded of his earlier transgression and that he had never apologised for it. Ralph's response was that the terms "stormtrooper" and "blitzkrieg" were coined in WWI and do not specifically refers to the Nazis and to ask why, after what had happened, it was unfair to associate our behaviour with that of the early Nazi regime (as if Dachau hadn't opened in 1933 and there was some mythical period when they were just a bit nasty to the Social Democrats on their weekends off...)

Answering the question, the leader of the council understandably demanded that statement be withdrawn, but Ralph only made a vague, mumbled gesture. A few minutes later, I asked a question about Ramesh Patel's "ethnic cleansing" comments and mentioned Ralph's behaviour in my supplementary. During the answer to my supplementary, it became clear from Ralph's heckling that he hadn't withdrawn his earlier comments and when asked formally to withdraw them by the Lord Mayor, he repeated his excuses and walked out.

Only time will tell what consequences will befall Ralph for his remarks tonight. I for one hope they will adequately reflect the heinous nature of their content.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

£7bn (Or, What You P****d Away Before Lunch)

It's fairly rare, even in the "We could have fought an election on the issue of competence" era, for a minister to get their political willy out and wave it in the air shouting "Look at me, I'm a complete and utter moron". We should therefore hold today's example of that art in the highest regard.

It comes from Geoff Hoon, whose Department That Thinks Transport Is A Jolly Good Idea And Somebody Should Definitely Look At Doing Some today announced the preferred bidder for the £7.5bn Intercity Express Programme. The announcement was accompanied by a lovely computer simulation of what the new trains might look like (half of which focuses on what they'll look like on the inside in the vain hope that the shinyness will obscure the stupidity).

To explain, the HST fleet is rapidly reaching the end of its working life; having been introduced in 1976, the recent engine replacement programme should keep them going until around 2015. Replacing HST is the biggest single rolling stock upgrade the modern railway can undertake, with twice as many units as the Pendolinos and multiple operating companies involved. Given the amount of hassle it takes to get even one train operating company to admit to anything as sordid as capital investment, the government was forced to step in and procure the replacement itself.

There is, however, one further complication to the HST replacement that the Pendolinos did not face. For while Virgin's search for a high speed electric train could span the world (leading eventually to an off-the-shelf product from Italy based on technology originally acquired from BR), the list of countries with high speed diesel trains starts in the UK and ends here too. The press coverage of the announcement trumpets that the trains will be built at a new factory in Britain, but that was inevitable; no-one else has a diesel high speed train factory because no-one else has diesel high speed trains.

And neither should we. For all the swooshiness around the new trains being hybrids and dual-mode, they will still be fundamentally more polluting than electric trains. The government could have been really bold and electrified the Great Western Main Line, advantaging local services as well as expresses; instead, they're going to blow it all on something unimaginative but temporarily shiny.