Thursday, April 15, 2021

It's such a luxury being free to say what you like

THERE’S a tremendous luxury about being retired.
It’s that sense of freedom. I love it.
I don’t mean the freedom to jaunt off on a world cruise (assuming you can afford it). Even if we were allowed, with things the way they are pandemic-wise.
I mean the freedom to say what you really think and to pursue what you believe in without being beholden to anybody and without having to keep one eye on your future prospects.
And that's what our former MP Robert Key is doing with great gusto, by issuing a series of well-informed and hard-hitting videos online that ought to be required viewing for every student old enough to understand.
Because this lifelong Conservative really nails what’s wrong with our current unitary and parish system, via subjects ranging from housing, roads, cycle lanes, traffic regulation, the vexed issue of the Salisbury bypass … all of which boil down in essence to this: a load of stuff that’s being done to us and decisions being made for us without our consent.
It’s insulting and absurd, as Robert says, that our city has been demoted to parish status, and it’s had a disastrous effect in terms of local democracy, with so many people now so disillusioned they can’t be bothered to vote. 
I’m talking about intelligent people I’ve met on my walks round Harnham. They’ve just given up. “It doesn’t make any difference what we think” is what they say. 
It's shown, too, by the fact that none of the Big Three parties has been able to muster a full slate of candidates for every ward in the May elections. Traditional party supporters have had their arms twisted (metaphorically) but have declined to stand for office. Yet the party leaders show no sign of recognising why this might be.
What people like, as Robert points out, is to feel that they have a say in their local community and are listened to. But it ain’t happening because Trowbridge is too remote.
Unitary government for Wiltshire is a failed experiment, and he sees no reason why it can't be changed.
 To find out more and follow the unfolding series of interviews, go to the SOS – Save Our Salisbury group on Facebook. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Why the sheer nastiness in this local election campaign?

SOME of you may have the idea that all journalists are cynical. That it goes with the territory.
But I can tell you from a lifetime’s experience that most journalists start out as idealists. They just see a lot of stuff that very quickly knocks the idealism out of them!
They probably experience more of the unpleasant side of life than the average citizen – other than emergency service workers, social services or the military, of course.
Now, I set out on the current election campaign to encourage a more independent, non-party political city council in Salisbury full of idealism, believe it or not.
While there are individual councillors from all parties doing their genuine best for our community and motivated only by a desire to serve the public, I thought we all deserved better than to be led by a divided Conservative group mired in bitterness, dictated to by their own Trowbridge elite.
I thought people like us deserved more of a say in what happens around here, well before it actually happens. They deserved to be asked their opinions and have someone listen and take notice. They deserved to feel involved, as if they wouldn’t be ignored once their votes were counted.
They deserved openness and transparency about the long-term plans being hatched for our city by those who control the purse-strings, most of whom have nothing to do with Salisbury. 
Some might think those were admirable aims, and I have pursued them honestly and openly.
But some people with their eyes on a bigger prize have chosen to take a more negative tack. 
I have been appalled by the mud-slinging and sheer nastiness aimed at some non-Conservatives. The desperation to hang on to every shred of power at all costs.
It doesn’t upset or surprise me – I’ve been around too long for that - but it does sadden me and make me fear for the future of our lovely Salisbury, when all that some people care about is controlling everything between here and Westminster.

Monday, March 15, 2021

What Salisbury means to me

THIS is an extract from something I wrote several years ago now, when life suddenly changed unexpectedly. We were unsure about whether we’d have to move, and we decided we needed some time out, somewhere sunny, before making any big decisions.
I started a blog about that trip, Home Sweet Motorhome, by trying to encapsulate how I felt about the city I might be leaving behind.
And I just thought I’d share it here now, as it still sums up what I feel is precious about Salisbury and why I’d like to do my bit as an independent councillor. Here goes:

“I find myself standing, staring out of the bedroom window in the dying afternoon over the water meadows to Salisbury Cathedral silhouetted beyond. A thin layer of mist has already risen from the river and sits suspended above the heads of the sheep, otherworldly against the darkening sky. I love this place. 
“How fortunate we have been to have this glorious backdrop to our daily lives, changing with every passing cloud.
“This is, after all, the town – it calls itself a city but it’s on a much more human scale   – where we chose to base our lives with our young children. A place I plumped for in preference to Bath because, as a colleague of my husband’s put it when I sought his advice, ‘Bath is all fur coat and no knickers, but Salisbury is real.’
“I wanted for our boys something I never felt for the London suburb where I grew up – I wanted them to have roots. 
“When people later in life asked them where they came from, I wanted them to know the answer in their hearts. Somewhere that gave them a standard against which they could compare everything they encountered as they set off to explore the world. 
“Not too big, not too small, a self-contained community with some of the finest architecture in the country, with a wonderful cultural heritage.”

And I’ve never regretted it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Why I'm standing as an independent candidate for our city council

FOR years, as a columnist and blogger, I’ve been banging on about how disastrous Wiltshire Council has been for Salisbury.
How the switch to a unitary authority, and our city’s demotion to a humble parish, has left us at the mercy of a political clique miles away in Trowbridge.
Whether it’s sky-high parking charges, ill-advised cycle lanes and bans on cars, massive green belt housing developments feeding into our ring road jams, a lost police station, a disastrous University Technical College, unease over what’s happening to our City Hall, our library, our art gallery …. the list goes on, and I’m sure you could all add to it.
The feuding among the ruling Conservative group at the Guildhall has done nothing to help and much to hinder this degradation. 
Recent city council meetings, conducted online, about the doomed Low Traffic Zone and the housing sites proposed in the Local Plan review, were verging on chaotic.
And all the main parties have had trouble putting up a full complement of candidates for the local elections in May - largely, I think, because people are disillusioned and ask: “What’s the point?”
Now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and try to do something to help our community by standing as an independent candidate for the city council in Harnham.
Along with a few other hardy (or perhaps foolhardy!) souls, I want to contribute a sense of common purpose, optimism and unity to a body that, while woefully inadequate in terms of its powers, is all we’ve got. And fight for what’s best for Salisbury. For people, not party politics.
Having been roped in several months ago as an administrator of the hugely popular SOS – Save Our Salisbury group on Facebook, I’ve seen that there is a real appetite for change. It’s just that so many  people don’t engage with the current system, and it’s hard to persuade them to do so when it patently doesn’t work for them.
However, out of this project has emerged a small band of campaigners who think it’s still worth having a go at making things better. We’re not a party. We don’t have a manifesto. We call ourselves Understanding Salisbury (or ‘us’ for short) Independents.
Please do consider supporting us at the May local elections.
You get three votes in each ward. So even if you usually vote for one of the big parties and don’t want to change, you can still use your other votes for us. It would be a shame to waste any of them.
Give us a chance to make things better and we’ll do our level best to listen to you, and not to let you down.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Tories say it's council officers who rule Wiltshire

I’M still as fed up as ever with party politics in local government and the damage it does to Salisbury.
But from two leading lights on the local political scene, here’s another explanation for a lot of what goes wrong. They sound so disillusioned that I almost feel sorry for them.
Incidentally, I’m loving the effect our Facebook group, SOS – Save Our Salisbury, is having in stimulating debate like this.
I posted on SOS about the Handforth Parish Council debacle and pointed out that whilst we all howled with laughter at that, Salisbury’s grandly-titled city council is actually just a parish council, too.
It drew the following responses from the chairman of Salisbury Conservative Association, Kevin Daley, and one of his predecessors, John Brady. I’ve slightly edited them for reasons of clarity.
Firstly, former Wiltshire cabinet member and ex-district councillor Mr Brady, reflecting on how greenfield housing development alongside Netherhampton Road came to be permitted despite hundreds of protests.
“The real power does not lie with parish/town councils or with the unitary councils,’ he wrote. 
“It is the officers who make the decisions (recommendations). They know that councillors are transient and as with Harnham, where councillors persuaded them to take a proposed development off the Strategic Plan, officers reinstated it as soon as they could when dealing with a different councillor (cabinet member). 
“All the ‘consultation’ that has to be done is a complete waste of time as I know that this is merely a way of allowing locals to let off steam.”
Sounds very much like ‘Yes Minister’, doesn’t it? 
“Even if a planning committee goes against an officer’s recommendation and refuses a new development, experience shows that nearly in every case, this is overturned on appeal with costs being awarded against the council,” added Mr Brady. “There are notable exceptions but they are few and far between.”
And here’s what current Wiltshire and city councillor Kevin Daley replied.
“Well said. Councillors are frequently undermined and circumvented by the officers. 
“People become councillors because they see what is wrong and what they can do to make a difference, but after four years of banging your head against a brick wall you just give in.”
Of course there could be a fair bit of blame-shifting going on here, what with local elections coming up and some pretty unpopular decisions in Trowbridge having affected Salisbury again lately.
But what a devastating critique of our system.
Now SOS is trying to persuade people to stand as independent candidates for our humble parish council. But a lot of people, reading this, will shake their heads and ask: “What’s the point?”
Like Messrs Brady and Daley, I believe the unitary authority has been a disaster for our city and the communities that depend on it.
The asset-stripping that’s gone on makes it hard to see how  Salisbury could ever return to its former status as the administrative centre of south Wiltshire. 
But it could certainly do with a strong, independent voice to represent all its residents and businesses.
For me, it boils down to this: “If you feel strongly about something, do something about it.”

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Make democracy work for every citizen

A REALLY constructive online event on the subject of Citizen Democracy has left me feeling both inspired and daunted by the scale of the task.
Organised by our local LibDems (I am not a member), it consisted of a talk by the very impressive Dr Ian Kearns, co-author of Citizens’ Britain, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Basically it was about how to transfer as much power as possible from elected elites to communities.
It involved educating people about how councils and the machinery of government work, and how they can participate and make their voices heard.
We live in a state that doesn’t know what to do with people when they want to be more than just ‘subjects’ or ‘consumers’, he said.  We’re not set up to cope with hundreds of thousands of people wanting to get involved.
Perhaps we need a Citizens’ Assembly, like the one that finally managed to achieve abortion law reform in Ireland.
Or something along the lines of Taiwan, which recruited computer hackers to help spread information about where people could get Covid masks, by creating a ‘mask map’, and enlisted ordinary people to help challenge misinformation about the pandemic online.
Or Better Reykjavik, an open online forum used by the Icelandic capital’s authorities to discuss ideas about projects and policy.
We SOS admins have been saying among ourselves that maybe what an independent non party political city council could become, or could set up as an extra, is a kind of citizens’ assembly, where everybody’s voice could be heard.
It’s happening elsewhere in the county. Check out Open Westbury’s website. We are not alone in feeling disenchanted. We need to reconfigure local government so that it represents us all, and not just one majority party.

Where the People Friendly money went

TRAFFIC schemes may stop and start but the consultancy gravy train rolls on.
An investigation by Auto Express has found that £412,000 of our money was invested (or wasted, depending on your point of view) in closing the city centre to through traffic.
Of that, £250,622 – yes, a quarter of a million of our hard-earned pounds – went on ‘consultancy and monitoring’ fees. When anyone living or working in Salisbury could have told them for free that the project was poorly designed and ill-timed.
We’re following a predictable and costly outsourcing pattern in public spending here.
Unitary councils such as Wiltshire are put in charge of huge, diverse areas but are kept on such a tight rein that they can’t handle big projects in-house, and have to hand over Boris’s handouts to private companies to help them sort things out.
The results, as we see from our recent experience, can be less than impressive. 
I gather that the Swindon & Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership are covering the council's losses. But it's still public money wafting around.
Now I come to think of it, doesn’t that just about sum up the handling of the coronavirus pandemic? 
A massive redistribution of public money, yours and mine, to private sector cronies of the current administration. Look how successful that’s been!
And apart from that 60-odd per cent, what happened to the rest of the LTZ money? 
According to Auto Express, £64,800 was spent on construction (must have been those barriers), £4,328 on road signs (presumably including the ones that told potential visitors to stay on the A36 and head straight on past Salisbury) and £92,250 on enforcement cameras which will at least come in handy when the scheme – hopefully in a much more people-friendly form – is inevitably resurrected.
Because there’s nothing wrong with trying to make Salisbury greener and more people-friendly. You just have to ask local people what that might mean, before you fritter away their taxes.
Oh, and by the way, suspending the project cost another £10-15,000.