How super is super-fast?

August 25, 2014

After much delay, we had a message from TalkTalk to say that “superfast broadband” was now available at our house, and that we could sign up to their “Fibre Medium (up to 38Mb)” service for an initial fiver a month.

The words “up to” are not designed to fill people with confidence, so I thought I’d monitor some before and after speeds. I know there is some scepticism about on-line speed checkers, so I decided just to use TalkTalk’s tool. It is quite fiddly doing things ‘properly’ – plugging the laptop straight into the router, and disconnecting everything else (laptops, tablets, TV box, oh, and of course the WiFi printer…). Plus the fact that you get a different result every time you run the test…

In the end I decided to take three measurements one after the other, and plot them as one bar on a graph, to show the range of speeds measured at the time – the ‘before’ readings. Our upgrade was delivered on 4th August, with a new wall socket and a new router. TalkTalk state that it takes time for their routers to optimise themselves for a new line, and to leave it a week or two to settle down (?). Fair enough, I did this, and took some ‘after’ readings. The results are shown below.

The measurements show a clear improvement. On average, the speed is about three times faster, and the “up to 38Mbps” is a pretty fair description.

However, there is still a big variation between the best and worst in each set of three measurements. This may explain why it doesn’t really feel much different for average web browsing – the line speed may not be the limiting factor. I don’t do mega downloads, so I don’t notice any difference there.

However, one thing that is now usable is BBC iPlayer via our YouView box (also from TalkTalk). We sat and watched the first episode of Dr.Who from the previous day yesterday evening, and it played from start to finish faultlessly. This is something that was impossible pre-upgrade – the service was simply unusable at any but the quietest time of the day (and I don’t want to watch old episodes of Dr.Who on a weekday afternoon).


Our country. Give it back.

June 4, 2014

Yes saltireOn a visit to Scotland, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of the referendum on Scottish Independence, due to take place in September. The media explore endlessly every possible ramification of a ‘Yes’ vote. It all feels very odd – is this really what the birth pangs of a new nation should feel like?

When my grandparents’ generation set up the Irish Free State, they didn’t debate endlessly whether cross-border issues might work for or against their advantage. For them, it was simply a matter of “It’s our country. Give it back”.

I’m sure the same is true when the people of India gained their independence – they didn’t agonise over the pros and cons to their economy of membership of the British Empire. No, they simply said “It’s our country. Give it back”.

If the people of Scotland truly wish to join the independent nations of the world, then on September 18th, all it needs is for enough people to put their hands on their hearts and say: “It’s our country. Give it back”. Everything else can be worked out afterwards. In fact, for Scotland to earn its place as an independent nation, nothing else should matter.


Move your money

May 12, 2014

For over a year now, most UK banks and building societies have offered to take the hassle out of moving current accounts from one provider to another. On an agreed date, they agree to swap everything over. One day you’re with your old provider; on the next, you’re with the new one. According to the glossy publicity, painless.

I look after finances for some elderly relatives, continuing to use whatever current accounts they used themselves. However, one of these banks has recently changed its terms and conditions so that its current account is no longer attractive, so I thought it was time to switch. I’ve had excellent service from my local building society, so I thought I’d give them the business.

switchSetting up the new account was easy. Although I do virtually all banking over the internet, opening an account online for another person under a power of attorney is a real pain. Using a local branch was brilliant. It took half an hour or so one lunchtime, and the account was up and operational.

The big switch is now set for next week (at a time when there’s not much happening in the account). Now, I can believe that the banks can easily swap over the balance and all the outgoing payments (standing orders, direct debits). They have all the necessary information under their control.

But the headline statements about the switch say the banks will also swap over all the incoming payments too. This is much more challenging – getting pension payments, interest payments, etc all swapped over by the people making the payments.

Reading the small print very carefully, what the banks actually say they will do is: every time they they receive a payment into the old account, they will immediately forward it to the new account – for thirteen months. They will also tell the organisation responsible, and ask them to make the change. So it isn’t quite as seamless – or as guaranteed – as it appears at first sight.

And there perhaps is the flaw in this whole process. Will notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient organisations like the Department for Work and Pensions play ball? Time will tell.

In the mean time, let’s see how the switch goes next week. And if you are tired of banking with a company whose values are at odds with your own, have a look at Move Your Money to motivate you to switch!


Big bang theory

November 18, 2013

AEG D77000GF-M with shattered glass doorWe were sitting enjoying dinner last night when we were startled by a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen. To our amazement, the glass in the oven had shattered for no apparent reason – the oven was switched off, and the top oven had only been used for warming plates. A little research later showed that this is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. However, it was also a good demonstration of the first law of guarantees – you guessed it, the extended warranty lasted for three years, and we bought the oven in January 2010.

A quick hunt for spare parts for this oven (an AEG D77000GF-M) didn’t show any obvious candidates – you can buy every conceivable part except for the one you need. More research required…


Well, what a surprising way to spend an evening

October 25, 2013

Life is full of surprises. I had settled down at home for the evening yesterday, reading the local newspaper, when right on the very last page I spotted a note:

The celebrated power and melody of rock foursome Wishbone Ash can be heard in Kendal tonight (Thursday).

I couldn’t believe it. Not the Wishbone Ash? This was one of my all time favourite bands in my student days. I never managed to see them live, but I have this tradition that any time I upgrade my hi-fi system, the first thing I do is to give their album Argus a blast to see if the money has been well spent (I originally bought it as an audio cassette – remember those?)

Wishbone AshOf course, I had to go. Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to hear this one time mega-band play here in Kendal. I haven’t been to a rock concert in decades, and I had to look up Bootlegger’s website to check out where they were.

So, here I am, 18 hours later, with just a residual buzzing in my ears when it’s quiet to remind me of the experience. Yes, there’s only one member of the original band left, but it’s Andy Powell, guitar and vocals – arguably the hardest part of a band’s sound to replace. The only anachronistic member was the drummer, who looks as though he wasn’t born when Wishbone Ash were in their heyday.

And I suppose that sums up the experience. Andy made a comment along the lines that it’s hard to select material for a concert when you’ve four decades to choose from, but there’s no doubt what the predominantly middle aged audience was there to hear. Andy introduced one of the classic tracks with the words: “Here’s one we recorded in 1972″ … you could see the fans doing the arithmetic – yes, that was 41 years ago.

Don’t believe them – nostalgia is what it used to be – and some. Guys, thanks for a great evening. I look forward to hearing you next time you’re in Kendal – even if you’re using your bus passes to get here.


More questions for councillors

June 27, 2013

The decision to let Cumbria County Council’s Chief Executive take early retirement proved highly contentious. We now have the official minutes of the meeting where the decision was made. Sensitive material was redacted (“placed in Part 2″ in council-speak), but it still made interesting reading, as I pointed out today in my speech to full Council:

Thank you Chair.

I would like to present to members the Minutes of the Chief Officers’ Panel which took place on Tuesday 23rd April. This was the meeting which approved the Early Retirement of the Chief Executive. You may remember this decision caused some excitement in the media at the time. Now that we have the official minutes on the Council website, I thought it would be useful to take members through what we now know about the decision.

The minutes tell us that the Panel was supported by an impressive array of officers. The intellectual heavyweights, the confidential and trusted advisors you would want in the room when making a sensitive and controversial decision.

The minutes tell us the officers presented their reports: Part 2 material, not in the public domain. After they had said their piece, the confidential and trusted advisors were then asked to leave the room. Twenty minutes later, they were invited back into the room, to record the Panel’s decision.

So what do we know about the decision. There was talk in the press at the time that the Council had to let the Chief Exec go. The minutes make it clear that this was not so. The Chief Executive had requested early retirement in the interest of efficiency of the service (ERIES). Under the Council’s policy for ERIES, it is entirely at the discretion of management. The Panel had every right to say no.

However, once they said yes, then there was an immediate and inevitable cost to the Council, to cover the ‘actuarial strain’ on the pension scheme. There’s a mathematical formula for it – it’s non-negotiable. Talk in the press about ‘golden goodbyes’ was therefore incorrect.

ERIES. The Panel is trying to save the Council money. What the minutes then show is that the Panel also agreed a further payment in lieu of notice. This again is discretionary – the Chief Exec could simply have worked her notice, taken her holidays, and it wouldn’t have cost a penny extra. The Panel told us they were trying to save the Council money – but they incurred extra costs, just to get the Chief Exec go early.

Because ERIES is expensive, the Council has strict rules to make sure that the cost is justified. Section 4: Before any application for early retirement or voluntary redundancy is approved, the full additional estimated cost of the termination must be shown to be recoverable within three years of the employee’s termination date.

The minutes do not record whether this cost was considered, so I asked for a Section 151 conversation (as any member is entitled to). Were the full costs written down for the Panel? They were. Was there an itemised plan for recovering the cost in 3 years? There was not. Various possibilities were discussed, but there was no costed plan for achieving the savings.

And indeed, it would have been strange to have had a plan. We were nine days away from an election. The Chair of the Panel had already announced he would be standing down, and none of the other Panel members could guarantee they would be in post for the next three years. So realistically, there was no-one there who could sign up to delivering a savings plan – assuming there had been one to sign up to. But ERIES policy says you must not approve the early retirement, unless you can guarantee the savings.

The Panel also considered guidance from the Secretary of State: “Authorities should … offer full council … the opportunity to vote before large severance packages … are approved for staff leaving the organisation. … In presenting information to full council, authorities should set out clearly the components of relevant severance packages … salary paid in lieu, redundancy compensation, pension entitlements, holiday pay and any bonuses, fees or allowances paid”.

The Panel agreed this advice was “not mandatory” and “that details of the proposed severance payment, should not be reported to full Council on this occasion”.

The minutes also record that “both parties [agreed to] enter into a legally binding compromise agreement setting out the agreement reached” – this was the so-called “gagging order” referred to in the press.

So, why does this matter? It matters, because in about one year’s time, all the financial details which been buried in Part 2 must be published in the Council’s accounts. You can be sure they will be pored over in detail by the press and public. I can hear it now: “You’re on the Council – how did you let this happen? What have you been doing about it this last twelve months?”

Fellow councillors, it’s a ticking time bomb under this Council. And the beauty of it is this. Because of the timing, we’re all implicated – either as part of the previous administration, who made the decision, or as part of the new one, which has to implement it.

Because we will have to answer the questions: “Why does the Council employ highly paid experts, and then shut them out of the room?” “Why did the Panel not do the obvious thing – leave the request to the new Council, which could guarantee the savings, which could bring the matter to full Council as per the Secretary of State’s guidance?” There might even have been time for the Chief Exec to take her holidays and work her notice, saving the Council a bob or two.

Good questions. Fellow Councillors – return to your divisions, and prepare your answers. You have about twelve months.

Thank you Chair.

Unfortunately, there are few powers available to councillors to investigate further, or hold a previous administration to account. The jury is out on whether recent changes to the UK’s legislation around whistle blowing will encourage disclosures in the public interest or not.


A question of priorities

June 25, 2013

Ofsted logoIt’s now just over a year since I was first elected to Cumbria County Council. One of the immediate issues the Council had to deal with was an Ofsted report into Cumbria’s safeguarding and looked after childrens’ services. As I noted at the time, the report didn’t make for comfortable reading, with five ‘inadequate’, 16 ‘adequate’, and only one ‘good’ inspection judgements.

In my past life, I have been involved in similar situations on the odd occasion, and there is no great secret about how to run recovery plans. If you’ve been given a list of actions to complete by certain dates, you make sure you know exactly where you are against each item until you’ve got them cleared.

I was surprised that the Council didn’t seem to work like that – even when I asked a specific question, I couldn’t get a reply about whether we were on track. It really should not have been a difficult question.

So, although I was disappointed when I read Ofsted’s latest Inspection of local authority arrangements for the protection of children – Cumbria County Council, it didn’t come as a total surprise. The County was rated ‘inadequate’ (the worst rating) on all four categories assessed. More worryingly: “This inspection found that a significant number of children required immediate action to secure their protection”. This is about as bad as it gets.

Like all councils, the new County Council is under tremendous pressure to reduce costs, and there are going to be many priority calls to be made. As an elected member I’m constantly under pressure from residents to do something about all sorts of issues (highways problems usually top the list). I haven’t had a single phone call, email, or questionnaire response asking about the Council’s children’s services.

Maybe it’s a good thing we have Ofsted to help us get our priorities right. One child’s safety is worth more than any number of mended potholes. Let’s keep our promise to Cumbria’s kids.