Sunday, 20 January 2013

We don’t need “snow wardens.” We need community spirit and personal responsibility.

There’s only one thing more predictable than the sight of Britain coming to a standstill at the first heavy snowfall, and that’s someone moaning about the fact that Britain always comes to a standstill at the first heavy snowfall. Far be it from me to worry about such grumbling.

On Friday, it snowed in Bristol. A lot. For days, we were told to expect Snowmaggedon. Be prepared. Stay warm. Only make essential journeys. (Problem is, society hasn’t quite worked out what an essential journey is). The trains excelled themselves, with South West cancelling some its services before a flake had even fallen. That’s the Blitz spirit we all know and love. With some admirable exceptions, schools closed, forcing parents to take a day off work.
The thing about snow is that it starts off looking beautiful and magical, but soon the white fluffy stuff turns to the treacherous icy stuff. This is where you hope the council does its job and grits as many streets and roads as it possibly can. Where I live, the picture is mixed, with main roads clear, but pavements ungritted – and hazardous.  Traipsing down the Well Roads has become something of a trial. And getting down my own (non-main) road is hard enough at the moment.

But, it needn’t be.
I have just learned about “snow wardens.” The council appoints them for the hilliest parts of the city. Apparently, there are 58 of them. Their job? To help clear the snow and ice away. The council provides them with a shovel, some grit and high-visibility jackets (which might make them hard to distinguish from offenders on community service, assuming such schemes still exist).

Now, I don’t have a problem with the “snow wardens” idea per se. But, let’s be honest. The only reason such a scheme exists in the first place is because few of us can be bothered to scrape away the snow and ice from outside our homes. It’s great that there are volunteers out there happy to help, but is it too much to ask that each and every one of us who can, does their bit? Why should the council need to appoint “snow wardens?”
If we can’t be relied on to do something which should take no more than a few minutes, it’s no wonder older (and even younger) generations lament the passing of community spirit in this country. In times gone by, people wouldn’t need to be asked to bring out a shovel. They’d already be there, bright and early, and doing their neighbours’ path too.

This is only a small gripe. It’s not the end of the world. It just feels like nowadays we rely on authority, or the goodwill of others, to do everything for us. The council should get on with gritting and salting main roads. The rest of us can take care of our own streets and paths.
And for those worried about the health and safety police advising against removing snow without the appropriate training, or those concerned about being sued should a stranger slip over outside their home as a result of a homeowner’s inept clearing job, help is at hand. Government advice, issued in October 2010, sought to demolish the usual myths that get banded about. We now have a “Snow Code.” Yes, really. Commonsense is the order of the day and people have been reassured that they are “extremely unlikely” to be sued if someone slips. I mean “snow code!” What on earth have we become??

This comment piece was first published on thisisbristol on Sunday 20th January 2013

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Mayor deserves £65k a year. Now time to pay councillors a full-time salary.

Politicians and their salaries. I’m sure if some members of the public had their way, they’d be lucky to be paid minimum wage. For obvious reasons, councillors and MPs become rather queasy when talking about their salaries. There never seems to be a good time to raise the prospect of a pay rise. Sympathetic ears are in short supply. The British don’t take too kindly to people moaning about money, let alone an elected official. Instead, coming off the back of past furores when MPs have demanded a pay increase, they’ve taken the only (sensible) step they know how. If you’re a politician, and someone mentions the dreaded words “pay rise,” you remain silent, seem uncomfortable, and pull an awkward looking face.

Is it false modesty? Possibly. More likely avoiding the prospect of getting lynched in the street. But they can rest easy. I’m happy to do the talking for them. When it comes to councillors, it’s about time we paid them a full-time salary.
At present, every councillor in Bristol receives a basic remuneration of £11,416 a year. Those with additional responsibilities are granted an SRA (Special Responsibility Allowance). Before the election of Mayor George Ferguson, the council leader took home a tidy £52,000 a year. Executive members, committee chairs and political group leaders were also paid up to £20,000 on top of their basic salary.

All this has now changed. This week councillors from all parties agreed, rightly, that the mayor’s wages should match that of an MP: £65,738. Members of Ferguson’s cabinet get £21,000, as well as their basic pay. Most councillors will still get their basic sum, plus extras, as and when needed.
This needs to change. Last week, a panel of MPs concluded that councillors had a right to expect “an appropriate level of compensation,” although, unhelpfully, failed to say what this level should be. They argued that the setting of councillors' pay should be taken out of their hands and given to an independent body. What’s more, they stressed that low pay was deterring many young people from entering local politics. The average age of a councillor nationwide stands at a youthful 60.

Admittedly, this isn’t going to happen in the age of austerity, but it’s something that should be considered in the future. Most people are unaware of who their councillor is, and even less clear about what exactly they do. Some argue that the honour and pride of working for their community should be enough. Hence, it’s a role that is often taken up by those who are either retired or approaching retirement. But, we pay MPs, so why not councillors? Nobody is more in tune with the needs of the people around them than the local councillor. MPs are far too busy, and far too absent, to do anywhere near enough for their constituents.
It might seem a strange time to suggest this soon after Bristol has voted in its first mayor. After all, the power of the city’s councillors has been significantly diluted. But even more reason to give them a greater purpose in their own wards. Whilst the mayor has the ultimate say over almost everything, he cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of everything.

Bristol decided that it needed a mayor to grapple with the city’s problems. According to the Cities minister, he is now “one of the most powerful political figures in the country.” Properly paying councillors would also recognise the vital role they play. Yes, they don’t always deal with the glamorous stuff (grumbling about car-parking spaces and broken street lights just two examples of complaints they commonly come across), but this is the mundane stuff that we take for granted. We assume the roads will be gritted when it snows (all eyes on Friday), that our bins will be collected, that our electricity always works, that our parks are looked after. These things don’t happen by accident. Councillors, together with thousands of council staff, are working tirelessly behind the scenes.
Cutting the number of councillors in Bristol, from 70 to 35, would free up money to pay the remaining half, something in the region of £25,000 a year. It would also ensure that it attracts people from a wider cross-section of society. Rather than something that is done alongside the day job, resulting in late nights and busy weekends, becoming a councillor would become a profession in its own right. It’s the very least they deserve.

This comment piece was first published by thisisbristol on Wednesday 16th January 2013

Sunday, 13 January 2013

A Lib-Lab Coalition would require some sturdy nose pegs

This week, David Clark, editor of the fine centre-left blog, Shifting Grounds, and other signatories from the world of leftism, called on Labour to begin Lib/Lab negotiations. Or at the very least start to draw up a timetable, paving the way for a “progressive coalition” in 2015. I use the word progressive hesitantly.
There have been a number of opinion pieces written on this subject in recent months. The political realists appreciate the current mood. Another coalition, whilst not desirable, could well be on its way, so forging a plan, even reluctantly, is a necessary step. Others recoil from the very thought of one, and will hear nothing of compromise and deals being made with the Liberals.

I find myself being pulled in both directions. The sensible, tribal-averse part of me knows that Labour should be prepared for every eventuality. They may not have a choice. After the last election, it felt like the political landscape had somehow permanently altered. Hung parliaments may well be a constant fixture in the future. Between 1945-1970, Labour and the Tories won approximately 90% of the vote. In 2010, this had plummeted to 65%. The support of UKIP and “Others” continues to eat away at the big three. Proponents of pragmatism say, in short, better to be faced with Lib-Lab than Con-Dem Part II.
Nonetheless, the vengeful part of me wants nothing to do with the 57 men and women who have sat back and allowed the Tories to rule with impunity. Who have forgotten what being in coalition actually means. Clue: this isn’t it. Yes, there are some good things that have been enacted, partly down to Liberal pressure, but not everything falls under the banner of deficit reduction. See: NHS and welfare reform.

A consensus seems to be emerging, amongst us sceptical types anyway, that Labour’s double-digit lead in the polls is a soft one. The public still isn’t convinced Labour can be trusted to handle our finances. After a year of fluctuating polls, when it comes to being trusted to run the economy, Labour’s support has barely budged. Ed Miliband still trails his party in terms of popularity, whereas David Cameron remains his party’s greatest asset. An upturn in the economy, and he can almost certainly expect to benefit.
The political mainstream must shoulder the bulk of the blame for hung parliaments or threats thereof. Under Ed Miliband, Labour has started, at last, to sound and feel different from the Tories. The trouble is, many of his party’s differences are too nuanced for the public to understand. And Labour’s stance on welfare isn’t backed by public opinion. Instead, fringe groups (the nuttier the better) fill the ideological vacuum.

It does seem strange to talk about future coalitions when current projections forecast a handsome Labour majority. But, politics has never felt more unpredictable. Second-guessing the electorate is fraught with problems. Labour continues to profit from disaffected and angry Lib Dems, and yet their support can’t be taken for granted. Will all those who claim to have been betrayed by Nick Clegg et al. really turn out and put a cross next to a Labour candidate at election day, or will they chose not to bother voting at all? Instinct tells me the latter is more likely, especially as many of these Lib Dem voters were disillusioned Labour ones in the first place.
Relying on UKIP to aid Labour by unseating Tory candidates is also a massive gamble. Again, this assumes ex-Tories will abandon their party when they need them most. It’s one thing someone saying they’ll vote UKIP, whilst still safely two and a half years from a general election. It’s quite another actually doing so. It would surely be an electoral miracle if UKIP polled anything close to their current showing, which sees them at an all-time high of 16%. Too many what ifs and maybes.

So I may not like it, and many like me may not like it, but not even entertaining the idea of a Lib-Lab partnership would be reckless in the extreme.
This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Sunday 13th January 2013