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.


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.


Something doesn’t add up

April 24, 2013

I’ve been reading reports in the press about Jill Stannard’s early retirement, and something doesn’t add up (until a few days ago, Jill was the pretty well thought of chief exec of Cumbria County Council).

Voluntary Early Retirement schemes (VER) are well established in the UK, and generally fall into one of two kinds:

  • VER at the employee’s request – once you reach a certain age, you can apply for VER and the company may at its discretion allow you to go with whatever pension you’ve earned
  • VER at the employer’s request – if a company is actively looking to shed employees, you can apply for VER and the company will agree a date at which you can leave, and will ‘top up’ your pension pot so you get the same pension as if you had stayed on to normal retirement age

So which did Jill get? As Chief Exec, it would be highly questionable for her to claim to be leaving at her employer’s request (“I have decided the Council no longer has need of my services”?), so one must assume she is leaving at her own request, i.e. without any top up of her pension pot.

The second odd feature is timing. At a salary of £170k, she’s likely to be on a minimum of six months’ notice. When applying for VER, it is normal for this to be extended until the employer is happy that a smooth transition has been completed. The employer is doing the employee a favour, so the employer dictates the terms. Jill’s departure is proceeding at a hell of a rush. She’ll be out the door at the worst possible time for the Council, right in the middle of elections and the creation of a new administration. “The decision to appoint an interim chief executive will have to be made by full council at a meeting on May 16. It must also put in place ‘acting up’ arrangements for other corporate directors.” Excuse me? this Council hasn’t been elected yet? who is making these decisions for it? Who agreed she could go without at least working her notice?

Finally, the justification that her departure will save money, and that an interim CEO can be appointed at a lower salary, is simply nonsense. No-one is suggesting that Jill was anything but a success in the role. To employ someone of equal calibre on an interim basis will cost more – significantly more, both in salary and expenses given Cumbria’s geography.

So why is this going ahead, right in the middle of an election campaign?

Is there nothing good to come out of this? well, the case for combined authorities (merging county and district into one or more unitary authorities) is overwhelming – see the Scrutiny report produced at the end of the last Council. The new Council could agree to appoint an interim CEO, with the specific remit of negotiating and implementing combined authorities within three years. That would be an appointment well worth making, and could be the best legacy the new council could leave to Cumbria.


The unintended consequences of Margaret Thatcher

April 11, 2013

What strikes me most about the life and work of Margaret Thatcher is how well it illustrates the law of unintended consequences. Her life’s work was to turn the British people into a nation of hard working, self reliant, market serving capitalists. What she actually achieved was to develop a “something for nothing” culture that inevitably imploded into financial disaster in her dying days.

Who remembers “windfalls” – people frantically opening accounts with local building societies in the hope of forcing them to go public / be gobbled up, destroying these institutions in the name of getting something for nothing?

Who remembers the “tell Sids” – selling off public assets at a loss, so that speculators could immediately cash in their shares and get something for nothing?

Who remembers the sale of council houses – selling off assets at a loss to give the lucky something for nothing, fuelling an overheated housing market and permanently depriving the nation of affordable homes?

Who remembers PFI – giving the appearance of providing new schools, hospitals, etc for nothing (on the government’s balance sheet), but ultimately costing the taxpayer £300 billion and rising?

Who remembers the explosion in dodgy financial “services” which appeared to create vast profits without any tangible underpinnings, something for nothing which inevitably collapsed?

I don’t believe that Mrs Thatcher set out intentionally to create any of this, but this is her real legacy. Her something for nothing culture was so seductive that Tony Blair enthusiastically continued expanding it on long after her fall from power. The country is only now facing up to the real, unintended consequences, of her vision.

My she rest in peace, and may her “-ism” accompany her to the grave.


UN-deniably impressive

October 10, 2012

As a member of two councils, I spend too much time listening to people making speeches of varying quality. So I took a bit of persuading to volunteer to sit through nearly three hours of speeches today. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the speakers well-informed, enthusiastic, and capable (comparisons with council chambers are invidious).

The event was organised by the South Lakeland and Lancaster City United Nations Association, who invited local schools to send teams of sixth formers to discuss “The Millennium Development Goals 2015 – are they now achievable?”. The format was simple – the two dozen or so participants were each given a country to represent. They then had to stand up in front of a mock UN General Assembly in the role of their Country’s UN Ambassador and speak to the topic for three minutes, and then in a second session respond to the debate in another one minute speech.

It’s quite an achievement that the speakers kept my attention for the full duration – they had done their research, not only into the detailed facts and figures (“in Afghanistan, a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than a man is in combat”), but also the positions that their countries would be likely to take in the real world.

My four personal winners covered the full range of countries, from the poorest to the richest: Bangladesh, Israel, New Zealand, and the US. All of their ‘ambassadors’ were totally convincing, whether I supported their positions (Bangladesh, New Zealand) or opposed them (Israel, the US). What is even more impressive is that all four came from the same school, which duly won the school’s trophy.

At a time when the UN’s own reputation is arguably at an all time low, it’s good to see this kind of grass roots activity still flourishing, and young people engaging with passion and enthusiasm in topics that most of us are happy to relegate to the tray marked “too difficult”.