Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Panic On The Streets Of W12 7RJ

On the 10 O'Clock News, Vince Cable just appeared with the caption "Liberal Democrats Leader". I mean, honestly, don't they know the correct form is "Liberal Democrat Leader"? What kind of grammar are they teaching these caption writers, bloody media types, honestly. Hang the caption writer, I say...

Consultation (The Non-Dogbert Version)

After last night's events, I guess it's about time to talk about Insole Court.

For fear of stealing the line from just about everyone, Insole Court is one of Cardiff''s hidden architectural gems. Built as a coal baron's mansion, the house and its estate were compulsorily purchased in 1932 to make way for Western Avenue. Over the years the house and its gardens became an important community facility, albeit one not much loved by the various councils that ran it; at one stage Cardiff City Council sold it to South Glamorgan County Council for £1, the citizen's hall was lost to arson and the house itself fell into some disrepair. Matters came to a head in 2006, when an asbestos find led to the house being closed.

Vigorous campaigning by the Friends Of Insole Court, the Insole Estate Residents Association and the Llandaff Society, together with unanimous support from all the ward candidates in last year's local elections, soon saw the council investing £600k in reopening the ground floor of the house in September of last year. Much work remains, however, with the upper floors of the house still needing over £2m of renovation.

Last night saw the first steps being taken towards that renovation as the council held a consultation event on the original plans for funding of the remaining work. Consultation has come in for plenty of stick in recent years (not least from me) but much of that criticism is a result of flagrant misuse of the term by a spineless government that can't get out of bed unless it can demonstrate public support for the idea.

What last night's event showed was what you can achieve when you get it right. The hundred-plus attendees (eat your heart out, Emyr Jones Parry) were presented with the facts, heard the case on both sides in a non-confrontational manner and discussed the issues in an informed and thoughtful manner. The result was a wealth of ideas for the site, which we as councillors are committed to ensuring are an integral part of the ongoing discussions as to the best future path for Insole Court.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Unbearable Etiquette Of Security Passes

I am, as Sid and Doris well know, a great procrastinator as a blogger, apt to store something up for ages only to release it at a moment whose logic is apparent only to myself. Such an experience came on Thursday evening, as I prepared to speak on a motion I was seconding on abuse of retrospective planning applications. With the eyes of the webcasting world about to be set upon me, I found myself pondering one of the great questions of modern councillor etiquette.

To wear, or not to wear?

I was never going to be particularly impressed with the security arrangements of democratic facilities; after all, the first security pass I ever possessed was for a nuclear power station, and they tend to take such matters to another level. Heck, I remember watching Peter Hain taking a tour of the control room at Wylfa and reflecting on the fact that I, an employee of the company, would not have been allowed through the front gate at Wylfa, let alone inside the building.

For the democrats it is, of course, a little different; as an old acquaintance from the Cabinet Office reminded me after my first trip to FPC, we have a right to lobby our MP's and that limits the obstacles that can be put in the way. But those inside can help out by their application of the system, which is where the etiquette comes in.

In Parliament I've always found the divide between the chambers interesting; Lords wear their passes, MP's do not. Cynics will of course consider this a symptom of the "don't you know who I am?" syndrome (or, from the opposite direction, of the "I'm a member of the House Of Lords, as if I'd do anything so grubby as turn up and vote" syndrome) and there may be something to that, but there it was.

Now, of course, I'm the one toting plastic, as it were, and the physical arrangements for using it are similar in County Hall and the Palace Of Westminster, obviating the practical need to wear the pass permanently. The split in use exists too, with some wearing theirs religiously, others shunning it except as a practical item.

As for me? It may not be especially obvious on the webcast, but I wear it and will continue to, if only to show solidarity for my former colleagues and the others around the country for whom that slip of plastic is vital to their safety and security.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

If You Must Be Wrong, Do It Right

As an early Facebook adopter for whom adventures in student politics were an important early activity in the world of social networking, my news feed is regularly stocked with advertisements for whatever cause my contacts from those days are promoting today. Usually there are a great source of entertainment in the "awww, bless, they still think Venezuela is the Garden of Eden" sense, but occasionally one comes along that demands a response.

Tonight's example came courtesy of the event, "Prayer for the Sanctity of Life - against passage of FOCA Bill". For a moment I thought I'd missed an acronym somewhere between FOCA and SOCA, but the legislation involved is not British but American. It's also quite odd. The Freedom Of Choice Act argues that, since pregnant women can and do cross state lines to obtain abortions and since private healthcare providers in the United States engage in inter-state procurement of staff and supplies, provision of abortion is covered by the Commerce Clause and is thus subject only to Federal law. It then prohibits government interference in the exercise of a woman's reproductive rights and applies this prohibition to every law at every level ever passed.

You might imagine that such a broad reform (amounting as it does to the codification in Federal law of Roe v. Wade and the abolition of all state prohibitions on abortion) would have no chance, even in a Democrat-controlled congress. Indeed, FOCA was introduced in 2004 and 2007 and bottled up in committee both times. But there is one little wrinkle, and it is to be found in the list of co-sponsors of the bill;

Obama, Barack (IL)

What's more, when asked in 2007 how he would preserve reproductive rights, President-elect Obama could not have been more forthright;

"The first thing I'd do, as president, is sign the Freedom Of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do."

And so FOCA is very much in play and the pro-life lobby is very afraid that, come January 21st, the bill will make its way down from Capitol Hill, through the post-Inauguration detritus, and under the nib of Barack's presidential pen, hence the Facebook event that led me to all this. It takes the form of an open letter to pro-life activists which claims that FOCA would remove all limitations on abortion in the United States and that this would lead to;
  • Catholic hospitals closing rather than be forced to perform abortion (FALSE - FOCA only requires that the government not prevent individuals from having any way to terminate, not that any government-funded healthcare provider must provide terminations)
  • Unlimited legal partial-birth abortions (FALSE - FOCA only protects the right to terminate unviable foetuses, except when the mother's health is at risk)
  • Banning of parental notification (FALSE - Well, okay, this one is a bit of a gray area, but I don't have any reason to believe this was a primary intent of the authors)
  • A minimum of 100,000 more abortions a year (FALSE - Hopefully I don't have to explain the utter stupidity of using the word minimum in this statement, as if the bill says 100,000 more abortions must be carried out)
Most incredibly, the letter claims that, because the bill puts the Federal government in charge of abortion, women may in future be forced to abort foetuses with Down's Syndrome or forced to abort if they have too many children (FALSE - What kind of "all government is inherently evil" Kool-Aid do you have to be drinking to be that paranoid?)

Well actually, I know exactly what kind of Kool-Aid you have to be drinking to be that paranoid, because the letter is signed by the person who's serving it.

David Alton

The moral question is one thing; David has every right to believe what he does now, just as he had every right to do so when he sat on our benches, and I would defend that right even though I fundamentally disagree with what he believes. But it is unconscionable for any parliamentarian, of whatever affiliation, to use their position to propagate such palpable untruths. As for the suggestion that democratically-elected parliaments are likely to order women to have abortions against their will, that flat out brings Parliament into disrepute, something for which Baron Alton should be subject to sanction by the house.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Gravy Train Terminates Here

Of all the various voices that provide announcements on Britain's railway stations, my favourite is Phil Sayer's, as heard at Birmingham New Street. And right now, I have one of his announcements swirling round my head;

"The next train to arrive at platform 4b is the gravy train from Privatisation. This train will terminate here. All change please, all change."

I have no doubt that today's news of 300 job losses at Southeastern heralds the start of yet another bout of poverty pleas from the members of the Association of Train Operating Companies. That such pleas will be, what's the technical term... oh yes, bollocks, goes without saying. Unfortunately however, there may be an unlearnt lesson from the credit crunch waiting to bite us all on the behind.

Much as I dislike Comrade Bob Crow, I can but agree with his analysis of Southeastern's position; I should think most businesses in Britain right now lie awake at night dreaming of 13% revenue growth (heck, the way things are going some of them probably really do lie awake at night dreaming of being spat at in the face, but here endeth the pop culture reference.)

Southeastern's answer to all this is very revealing, because what they blame is "reduced passenger journey growth". So the problem isn't that passenger numbers are falling, or that fares are going down; it's that, at a time when fares are going up, passenger numbers aren't going up fast enough.

Or in other words, it's not that they're making losses, it's that they're not making big enough profits.

I'm sure the economists will tell me that such behaviour is entirely normal and proper, and they may not be wrong. But this is something more than that. The original case for privatisation depended on massive passenger growth and as a result, the operating companies have been able to promise bigger and better profits for years. Now, with the economy in general failing to deliver passenger growth as it has previously and with the railway infrastructure unable to cope with the number of passengers already in the system, delivering on those promises is rapidly becoming impossible.

So, a company with a culture of sky-is-the-limit growth faced with a broader infrastructure that can't deliver its fundamental product fast enough to meet its promises? Doesn't that sound an awful lot like Northern Rock?

The biggest difference is that, with the train operating companies, HMG already has its hand in its pocket and a history of jacking up subsidies at the first hint of collapse. Still, if the culture in the train operating companies really is so rotten that they can't cope with running run-of-the-mill solvent businesses rather than glorified Ponzi schemes on wheels, yon Scunner Broon may find the dreaded N-word (i.e. nationalisation) coming over the hill, and with great big pointy teeth to boot.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Set Course, Smug Factor Five

I don't get to gloat with this blog very often, so I'm not going to pass up the opportunity when it's handed to me on a plate. Regular readers (by which I mean Sid and Doris) may remember this piece from September, highlighting a study that assessed the performance of a future large-scale wind farm programme using Met Office wind speed data.

The primary finding of said study was that the peak winter electricity demand normally coincides with a cold snap caused by a stalled high-pressure system which, being a high-pressure system, produces very little wind.

A bit like the one we're having now, in fact.

I believe that great philosopher of our times, Ace Ventura, put it best when he said, "Can you feel that buddy, huh? Huh? Huh?"