The Politics of ...

The Politics of ...

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Road to Nowhere

I have maintained for many years that many counties in the country use inferior tarmac for the roads. Just go over the border of Northants into Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, even Bedfordshire and you'll notice an almost instantaneous change in the noise your car makes. Quite simply it's like going from rough to smooth. Therefore, I have to ascertain that Northants uses a far inferior grade of road covering material than the counties around us.

I actually live on a road that has just one, small, pot hole; therefore I am one of the few lucky people in the town. This is, of course, fine, if I just want to travel from one end of Fullingdale Road to the other; but once you get out on the Headlands or Broadway East, then you start to realise the extent of the scarring on our roads.

The uplifting thing about the last week has been the number of workman I've seen out on the roads, filling in the holes. But I can't help thinking of that saying 'covering a bullet wound with a band aid', because what we're seeing is not resurfacing of roads, but haphazard filling of only the worst holes. This not only leaves the other holes to increase in size through constant use and weathering, but the quality of the repairs is laughably inadequate. I watched four council contractors literally just chucking a shovel's worth of loose tarmac into a pothole and then moving onto the next one, leaving the traffic's wheels to flatten it down. I'm pretty sure there is no scientific evidence to prove that the wheels of your car are better at laying tarmac than one of those little steam roller contraptions.

There is so little care and attention paid to the roads that these repairs will only last until the next hard winter hits us - that's if this hard winter has really finished, or is just lulling us into a false sense of security before it hits us with one last Siberian blast (it is only March, after all). Once the water gets under the cracks and the temperature drops, all of these repairs will just go the way of the original road.

The upshot is that Byron Street in Kingsley, possibly one of the most atrocious driving surfaces I've ever seen, has been completely resurfaced. The locals must be breathing sighs of relief and counting the pennies they're going to save from not having to visit the garage or even the osteopath to have their spines realigned!

Talking to a lady who works for Leicestershire County Council last week, it seems common knowledge that our council is both £8million in the red and in need of at least £8million to properly rebuild our road infrastructure. "I heard your roads are really awful?" She said and I seriously wondered if this was a new revelation or she was just repeating something I'd known since the day The Sun ran in a front cover story in the 1980s stating that Northants had the worst roads in the country.

I do on average about 500 work miles a month throughout the county and even in a car with good suspension some of the routes would make viable alternatives to a day at Alton Towers. As Patrick Barham's story at the top of this suggests, road improvement really is going to be low on the agendas of local councils for the foreseeable future. Personally, I'd like to see some middle and upper management removals to partly fund a ten year plans to relay all the seriously bad roads in the towns, with good quality materials and using workmen who have some pride in their job. They could start by doing Ivy and Holly Roads; if ever there was evidence of running repairs it's these two streets.

What would you prefer; better roads or unnecessary council employee's whose sole responsibility is to create more justifying exercises for lesser employees to do, to prove their worth, rather than doing the jobs they are paid for?

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Thorny Issue of Hate

This has been causing something of a stir this morning: and I have to say, despite my 101% opposition to the BNP, that this is a fair decision.

I agree with the argument that because the BNP is a loathsome, unethical and decidedly unpleasant object on the political trail, it should be prevented from spreading its lies and conjecture across the land, especially to young and impressionable young people. But, are we going to ban Muslim teachers because they might have terrorist sympathies? Are we going to ban Christian Fundamentalists from teaching our kids, because they're all a bit too weird? Are we going to then ban teachers from working if they are for or against, say, fox-hunting, depending on the next party in charge of the government? In fact, shouldn't teachers be faceless automatons, with no political, personal or gender beliefs? I mean, that's what the attempt to sack 15 teachers who support the BNP essentially is. I had a teacher at my school who was essentially a Marxist; he campaigned for Red Wedge and spent his weekends at CND marches. In the grand scheme of things didn't the Americans view communists as worse than fascists? There was never a question of whether he could teach me fairly.

I remember working for a voluntary organisation in recent years that enforced a zero-tolerance policy on stereotyping, being judgemental or discussing with young people subjects such as politics or religion (unless it was enforcing good Christian values). I found this an acceptable way of working, but also a little heavy-handed; a bit like saying you can be in my gang as long as you follow my rules. Which, I believe, is what the people who want these teachers' job are saying.

I like to think of the UK as being a pretty good place for multiculturalism, a wide array of views and opinions and, generally, a place where our bigots are confined to organisations like the BNP. I don't expect the head of the largest teaching union to be calling the report, highlighted in the above link, wrong and inappropriate. If this country took the stand of not allowing any BNP member be allowed to work in the public sector, surely that's as bad as the BNP themselves? I always believed that the Freedom of Speech also meant Freedom of Choice, regardless of whether we agree with it or not. Are we going to have a situation where, if the Tories get in power all Labour voters would be ejected from the civil service?

What would the people opposed to these findings have us do? Strip BNP members of their jobs? Intern them? Have them lose all their civil liberties? Hang placards around their necks proclaiming them to be supporters of fascism? Expecting someone to change their long-standing political views is tantamount to asking a homosexual to stop being gay! Besides, part of me finds this entire ideas slightly unsavoury. This is Britain, not McCarthy-era USA. The BNP thrive on scaremongering and untruths and the only people who get sucked into their propaganda are the disillusioned and ignorant - if party politics spent more time focusing their attentions on the areas of the population that they have rigidly ignored for decades, then perhaps there wouldn't be any attention paid to the BNP and they'd become as insignificant as we'd like them to be.

There are more important issues on the political agenda.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Mainline station?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Hidden costs and possible solutions

I'd like to say that I'm about to state the obvious, but I realised today that this isn't the case.

I'm sure it has occurred to many people that a percentage of their council tax goes on nothing other than making the council run. Yes, councils receive subsidies and grants from central government, but the majority of the funds that a council has to run itself comes from you and I.

There is a large Council Tax department, which, in turn, employs people purely and simply to process your money; chase you up for late or non-payments and even more puzzling has a budget built into its own system that pays someone to make sure that everyone is justified in doing their jobs. Of course, the people who work in this department need facilities, technology and machinery and admin staff of their own, whether as typists, telephonists, receptionists or the people who are either employed or contracted to come around and service the offices - removing waste paper, confidential files, replacing clocks and moving filing cabinets. So the council also employs or contracts these out.

Councils employ lots of people just to ensure councils exist and without councils other services can't survive, so employing council employees becomes an essential department and apart from token cuts, always avoids the headlines. Of course, these are invisible front line services; the service that allows the other services to produce.

Without this structure there would be anarchy, so when you consider the amount of money you pay, you have to allow for this. But, what if you wanted to take this idea a step further? While people may not be consciously aware that they pay a goodly percentage of their council tax on running the council; they are aware they pay a large amount to education, social services and many other services councils' traditionally offer. However, if you were a childless couple with pot holes in your street and your litter bins overflowing, wouldn't you rather see your money be spent on the services that directly affect you? Equally, the same childless couple could argue that they pay money not only for the education of their non-existent children, they also pay for social services to offer no services to same non-existent children. The same way anyone could argue they don't feel it is right to pay for libraries because you haven't needed to use one for umpteen years; or that any money spent on town centres of major towns in the county constitutes a waste of money to them, especially as they never go into the town centres, mainly because of their fear of the lack of social control.

The point is, we all have to pay for everything, whether we benefit from it or not. In black and white terms it is harsh on a lot of people, especially if they feel the councils have let them down in some way. A colleague of mine hit a pothole at about 40 mph and it successfully maligned his tracking, costing him the equivalent in pounds, as the speed he was going, to have it fixed. He casually said he should sue the council for the cost, but was quickly corrected by two other colleagues, who stated that he couldn't do that. The only way a citizen can take legal recourse on something like this is if they inform the council in writing on a potential hazard and it hasn't been rectified in a specified period of time. As a casual observer, I found this hard to believe, yet quite believable. In a world that is embracing the compensation culture that has gripped the USA, people are going to be looking for ways to sue and potential victims of lawsuits are going to cover their backsides any which way they can.
The upshot is - it might be your council, but your council will do anything in its power to make sure it doesn't have to help or compensate you unnecessarily.
If our earlier childless couple tried to legally challenge the amount they pay in council tax because they believe they don't qualify for paying certain things, they'll find they get short shrift from a lawyer, because it would never get to court.

The people who pay council tax are the people who employ the council. The council was one of the first service industries and yet very few council residents feel they get a service. Every day now we hear or read about imminent swingeing cuts to public spending - this will result in one or all of three things - massive cuts in the quality of services; big increases in council tax and/or huge numbers of redundancies to key personal. Now, to the childless couple, if this means less teachers or cuts to social services it isn't going to bother them one bit - they don't even like paying for things they don't get any benefit from. But if the potholes get worse, or the bins get emptied once a month instead of fortnightly, or the street lights go out and never come back on, or the footpaths disintegrate, then they might start to notice and wonder where all their money is going if they're seeing nothing in return.

And that's the problem in 2010 - most council tax payers are seeing less and less for their money. Yes, we might have the lowest council tax in the land, but we also have some of the most invisible services. We have voluntary sector workers fighting over scraps to try and keep worthwhile community projects on the go and yet both councils - Borough and County - have employed consultants and agency workers at phenomenal hourly or daily rates to do jobs that other, less paid, but equally as competent, people could have done. The borough employ a contractor to cut lawns and keep the municipal areas tidy and presentable, yet there's more evidence of guerrilla gardening projects sprouting up, meaning the contractor continues to get paid yet doesn't actually have to perform a service.

The £1.3m being used on the North Northamptonshire Development Corporation is doing a very good job of pouring more scorn and ridicule on the county Yes, we want to encourage people to move to all the new and decidedly non-social private residences that are sprouting up all over the north and east of the county; but with an estimated £20m needed to repair our already laughably bad road network, surely that, like so much other money, would be better spent being seen to be doing something other than covering a bullet wound with a band aid, or in this case, doing some more corporate branding. When will our 'ambitious' councillors realise that the majority of the people who live in this really quite fine shire just want to see value for money.

So, it's easy to say what's wrong. People and politicians do it all the time, most rarely come up with plans to improve things. If I had the power to change the council, I would do all of the things I mentioned earlier; I'd rid the council of agency workers and consultants; I'd cut or get rid of completely the number of middle management people who's only reason for existing is to find justification in others keeping their jobs - I'd wish for employees to not be submerged in accountability exercises, but to be out there doing the job they are paid to do and their line managers to determine whether they are adequate enough. I'd be looking at offering local communities and voluntary groups first rights on unclaimed or municipal land, either through allotment schemes or guerrilla gardening projects - except, I'd save some of the money from getting rid of the contractors and make it available for community groups to fund equipment and protective clothing - if they work together they should be rewarded.
I would take a long hard look at finance and accounts departments and slash the bureaucracy that exists within them - are you aware that if one department of the council wishes to use a room maintained by another department, it has to be paid for?! There is so much internal transfer of money inside the council that it would stagger a small bank; surely some communication, professional etiquette and common sense would negate the need for any number of administrators doing nothing but internal finances?
I would look into how much the council pays independent contractors to do repairs and essential duties and then work out if it would be more cost effective to reinstate defunct departments such as maintenance and repairs; employ a designated team of council workers to do the job more efficiently and cost effective than having a contractor who is paid regardless of whether a job is done or not.
I would stop trying to turn Northampton and the county into something it isn't. It is handy for both London and Birmingham; it does have the busiest motorway running through it and we are about the largest town in the country - although if you were placed in the town centre unknowingly, you'd struggle to think it belonged to anything but a modest place. People might come here if it was serviced well, but if they are persuaded to move here by false promises and glamorous shams, they are going to be mightily annoyed when they discover they get nothing obvious from their council tax.
The best kind of constituents are happy ones; or, at best, ones who believe they are getting value from their council.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Council Cuts

It appears the BBC thinks that Northamptonshire is going to be one of the least affected by the monstrous council cutbacks planned for the next few years.

There are three sub-menus to choose from just under the headline, the 'cuts map' shows the county fairing better than others; but that might be down to the fact we're already cut to the bones.