February 15, 2013
Yesterday saw the annual budget debate at Cumbria County Council – a piece of political theatre for those who enjoy that sort of thing. Emerging for a welcome lunch time break, my eye was caught by a small display in one of the corridors. I was informed it was a “Promise Tree”.
Back in November, councillors watched a video about Cumbria’s Promise to its looked after children. In a series of workshops, the children had been asked to write on a “leaf” what the Promise meant to them. These hand-written leaves were then displayed on the tree.
As I started to read the leaves, I was not expecting the emotional impact they would have. I found it difficult to hold back tears at some of the statements – they asked so little, but yet they asked so much. Here are some of the leaves:
To have a nice kind person to look after me!
Somewhere for everyone to be who they want
To be looked after properly
To have a family life
To have a nice person to look after me and who loves me for who I am and who loves me like their own child
To be looked after proper
I want to see my brothers more often
I wish all children have a loving family
To keep promises and never break them
I defy anyone to read these on the computer screen and not be deeply moved. Imagine how much more powerful it is, reading them written out in the child’s own handwriting.
In an otherwise wasted day, this was a powerful reminder that there is a reason why people go into politics.
February 11, 2013
I sit on the Economy and Environment Scrutiny Advisory Board for the County Council. One of our responsibilities is to reply to ‘call-ins’ by members. Basically, if any three non-Cabinet members disagree with a Cabinet decision, they can ask the appropriate Board to ‘call in’ the decision for scrutiny. The Scrutiny Board can then “test the merits of the decision”, “consider the process by which the decision has been formulated”, and if it is not satisfied, refer the decision back to the Cabinet for reconsideration (see the Council’s Constitution).
Given the controversy around the decision not to proceed to Stage 4 of MRWS, which has already claimed the scalp of the responsible Cabinet member Tim Knowles, it was inevitable that a call-in request would be submitted by members of the nuclear tendency in the Council. The request has duly arrived in the names of David Southward, Frank Morgan, and Wendy Skillicorn,three Labour members with neighbouring divisions on the west coast.
As it says in the Constitution (14.11):
It is not sufficient for the call-in notice simply to state that the members concerned wish to test the merit of the decision. The notice shall specify more precisely which aspect or aspects of the decision the members wish to question or challenge.
The call-in notice gives the following six reasons:
- Cabinet gave no coherent reason for the decision
- The decision forgoes the opportunity to identify suitable sites indefinitely
- The premature abandonment of the MRWS process flies in the face of established UK government and Cumbria County Council policies
- The decision discounts the clear majority view of Copeland residents who want the MRWS process to proceed to Stage 4
- The decision jeopardises relations between the UK government and CCC, particularly with regard to nuclear new build
- The decision stultifies economic development in Copeland for a generation
It will be interesting to see whether my fellow-members of the E&E Scrutiny Advisory Board accept this position when we meet on 19th February to consider it.
February 2, 2013
I hope that at least some of the demonstrators who descended on Carlisle last Wednesday managed to stay in the area long enough to enjoy a beautiful spring day today in the Lakes. It really has been a day to see the natural beauty of the landscape at its sparkling best. Demonstrators will feel proud of having averted what they saw as a future threat to the area from the continuing search for a site in Cumbria for a nuclear waste repository. No doubt many pints of Cumbrian real ale were downed in celebration at the County Councils’ decision not to take further part in the search for a site.
However, the second part of the Council’s resolution has not received the attention it deserves, either from protesters, or the general media. The resolution had been amended during the debate to call on the Government to investment in improving the existing surface storage facilities at Sellafield, in line with the recent National Audit Office report. To many of my Council colleagues who have been round Sellafield, the NAO report provided official confirmation of what their own eyes had seen – Sellafield today is not fit for purpose:
Successive site operators developed Sellafield without sufficient thought to decommissioning or retrieving and disposing of radioactive waste. Some of the older facilities at Sellafield containing highly hazardous radioactive waste have deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment.
(NAO Report 1.10).
The Council saw petitions with thousands of signatures, worried about the threat that an MRWS might pose 20 – 30 – 40 – 50 years in the future. That’s all very well, but this official Government report, dated last November, states there is a real threat, today, and expresses serious reservations about the current management of the clean up on the site. I haven’t seen anything like the same public outcry over this issue. Where are the protesters demanding more investment in Sellafield today? because that’s what this is about.
I know many in the green movement would look horrified at the suggestion they lobby George Osborne to put more money into Sellafield. But, if you really care about the safety of the people of Cumbria, about preserving the wonderful environment of the Lake District, and about supporting the economy of one of the poorer parts of the UK – then that’s where you should be campaigning.
January 30, 2013
Well, that’s it decided at last – Cumbria County Council is no longer putting itself forward as a possible site for a nuclear waste repository. When this was debated at full Council in September, I urged the Council to withdraw from the process. The Council’s Cabinet (who alone can make the decision) had one go at reaching a decision, and failed. It really could not be put off any longer.
Members were offered a two minute slot for speeches. I was surprised at how few turned up for the event – possibly one of the most significant decisions the County will ever make. I again spoke in favour of withdrawal:
Chair, you opened this session with comments about the quantity and quality of lobbying that Cabinet members had experienced over the past few months. My own inbox has been groaning under the weight of emails – my personal low when I got an long and detailed email about radioactive underpants.
There are two key issues here. Firstly, we are talking about looking for somewhere to dig a hole in the ground. This is geology. Fortunately, there is no dispute over the geology here. The Lake District is an area of complex geology. No argument. The International Atomic Energy Agency tell us, you shouldn’t start your search for a repository site in areas of complex geology. No argument. Why? It makes the search longer, more expensive, more likely to end in failure, or to result in a marginally suitable site.
This is fundamental – this complexity cannot be bought out by community benefit; neither can it be “voluntarised” away.
Voluntarism – this Orwellian word for what we used to call simply “democracy”. I think the Chair expressed everyone’s frustration in Council that the MRWS decision could not be taken by full Council. That would be simple democracy.
You will all remember our voteless debate in September in full Council. We suspended standing orders to ensure any member who wanted a say, could have it. As the debate progressed, I made a note. Every time a member spoke in favour of MRWS proceeding, I recorded a tick. When a member spoke against, I made a cross. At the end of the long day, I had over three times as many crosses – don’t proceed – as ticks – proceed. We may have been prevented from taking a vote of all members of the Council, but we all know what the result would have been. That is simple democracy.
Well, the hurly burly’s nearly done, and soon you will have to choose one of the four options in the paper. Forget all the noise issues – put radioactive underpants out of your heads – and focus on the two key considerations – complex geology, and simple democracy. On both counts, select option 4, and decide not to participate.
Let’s hope we can now move on, have a proper national debate about UK energy strategy, and most important of all, get some investment to prevent the current nuclear waste storage facilities deteriorating even further.
December 5, 2012
We spent an enjoyable couple of days last weekend with our friends Wilma and David, who run an organic farm business at Rainton Farm in Galloway. I chose the phrase “organic farm business” with care. They have developed the farm dramatically since our last visit some years ago, and what was striking was both their commitment to ethical values (the “organic” bit), but also their entrepreneurial, risk-taking approach in making a major investment (the “business” bit). Organic values and business values are not the most obvious bedfellows.
The most visible changes were the new buildings – what looks like a bog-standard industrial slurry tank, and a rather more attractive timber clad cattle shed. These are the sort of buildings you’d see on any farm, but what’s going on inside is quite different. What looks like a slurry tank will become an anaerobic digester to produce power for the farm. David is backing a revolutionary floating roof design to create a low-overhead operation – not tried on this scale before.
Equally interesting was what was going on inside the cattle shed, where David is turning conventional farming wisdom on its head by abandoning many of the practices which have grown up in the pursuit of ever higher outputs. The dairy industry is coming under constant attack from pressure groups, concerned at cows being treated a units of production rather than sentient animals. David’s approach addresses many of these issues: for example, abandoning the practice of separating calves from their mothers shortly after birth, to the obvious distress of both.
It’s tempting to see this as just woolly-minded greenery. David argues passionately that it’s also good economic sense too. I haven’t the space – or the farming knowledge! – to argue his case here. However, when it’s becoming ever more expensive to buy in energy, feedstocks, artificial fertilisers, veterinary prescriptions … then creating a more self-sufficient farm must make economic sense.
These business investments also fit perfectly with the ethos of the farm, which also hosts the Cream O’Galloway ice-cream business and a not-your-typical-theme-park visitor centre. On the other hand, promoting the farm as an “organic plus” category isn’t going to win many friends, among either conventional farmers, or with the organic community. Hence “holier than cow” (sorry).
If you’re interested, do visit the farm and go on one of the farm visits. Even if you don’t buy the animal husbandry enlargements, the ice cream is delicious
November 15, 2012
Another meeting of the full Cumbria County Council this morning. The Children’s Social Care team presented a new corporate video highlighting Cumbria’s Promise to the young people in its care – there was also a press release about this today. The video was well received by councillors, who with one exception managed to give it a warm welcome without trying to score cheap party political points. My experience so far of those councillors who do get involved in this area is that they take their role as “corporate parents” very seriously, and commit a lot of time, energy, and care to it.
However, glossy videos alone do not make for a good care system. It’s now nearly six months since Ofsted’s critical report into Cumbria’s care system. They had highlighted 29 areas which needed addressing with varying degrees of urgency, but all within six months. I was keen to discover whether all the actions had been closed down, so I asked the question of the appropriate Cabinet Member.
To my surprise, she clearly didn’t know, but in the course of a rambling answer I think I detected a commitment to reporting back to the next Council (in January). When the minutes come out we will see – the commitment might even have amounted to a promise, because as the video told us repeatedly, if someone breaks a promise, then you don’t trust them any more.
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”.