Boundary Reviews R Us

Rugby has been covered by quite a few Boundary Reviews lately:

In 2004 there were changes to the County Council boundaries, which came into force in the 2005 elections. Another one is on the cards at the moment, and it is about due after 10 years.

In 2010 we had the first elections after the Parliamentary boundaries in Warwickshire were changed. Rugby & Kenilworth lost the Kenilworth bit (and MP Jeremy Wright) to a new constituency of Kenilworth & Southam, but the new Rugby seat gained the village of Bulkington – much to the chagrin of the Bulkingtonians.

After 2010 there was the national review provoked by the coalition’s wish to reduce the number of MPs, which would have seen a ‘Rugby’ that stretched all the way down to the M40 near Banbury. That review was killed off by the Lib Dems when they did not get their way on Lords Reform.t

In 2012 we had a set of all-out elections after changes to the Borough Council boundaries. This reduced the number of councillors, and dealt with the changes in population that had already happened and were likely with planned development.

So you’d think that we’d not have another one for a while. And that if anything, the least likely one to need a re-do was the one we’d just had. But of course you are not the genius Craig Humphrey, Rugby’s answer to Vladimir Putin (thankfully less often topless).

You see, because of some spat with the Warwickshire Tory heirarchy over whether there should be a county-wide Unitary Authority, and because autocrats love an opportunity to reduce the prospect for dissent, it makes perfect sense to change all our council boundaries. And to reduce the number of councillors from 42 to “30-35″.

And because in order to start one this year, a council needs to contact the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) by early April, a report was knocked up in a hurry and rushed through an ‘emergency’ Full Council meeting last night.

And what a report it is. Shoddy does not come close.

It claims that since the 2012 review, “a number of factors have emerged that mean we need to request a review of electoral arrangements and council size.” And they are, in full, deconstructed below.

The Government’s programme of reducing local government funding means that we
must review all aspects of our services, including electoral arrangements and
council size. We believe that we have substantial local reasons to make changes
that will provide synergy with this national priority and provide a sustainable basis
for adapting to future population growth:

The government was making cuts to local government funding well before 2012 – pretty much since the 2010 election is was clear. Interestingly, Rugby has been fairly lucky in that the building of hundreds of new houses provides it with a “New Homes Bonus” income that keeps council tax down. But this is not new. Oh, and anyone who uses the word ‘synergy’ should at least understand what it means. Ignore the colon at the end, it’s erroneous.

Rugby is currently undergoing considerable change as the fastest-growing borough
in the West Midlands and the latest expectations of further growth are different to
those envisaged in 2011/12 at the time of the last review. Several housing and
employment development schemes are underway, with more to follow within the
next 10 years. Our ability to provide effective and sustainable electoral
arrangements must therefore reflect the revised housing growth pattern within the
Borough.

The main new development in the Borough is the housing planned for the Mast Site between Hillmorton and the DIRFT. This was already allowed for in the boundary review of 2012, which is why Hillmorton and Clifton are both currently over-represented and over the next 5-ten years that will balance out. When they are done, it would make sense to have another review then.

During the past 3 years, Rugby Borough Council through a close partnership
between the Leader and Cabinet, Executive Directors and Heads of Service. We
now have conclusive evidence that this innovative arrangement has been of great
benefit. In addition, in September 2013 an LGA Peer Group Review report
confirmed the efficacy of our executive arrangements, approving them as a model
of best practice. We now wish to build on this model across applicable areas of the
Authority, enabling greater involvement by Councillors working closely with Council
Officers.

It’s been of great benefit to the Leader, who acts as if he is also the Chief Executive of the Council, and has taken it upon himself to push other councillors out of the usual pattern of representing RBC on outside bodies. Essentially, this is about the desire to change the council body from being a set of representatives of the public, into a group who are so closely working with senior officers that they are co-opted. Reducing their representative role

The authority has applied “systems thinking” techniques towards the delivery of
services during the past 5 years, resulting in streamlined practices and structures
that deliver better services at reduced costs. We now wish to deploy considerations
towards electoral arrangements, the size of our council and the way councillors and
officers work together.

I get enough of this corporate BS working for or with large financial companies in my time in IT. This is meaningless except for the key parts – ‘streamlined’. What do councillors do? They set policy, they represent the public, they challenge each other and they hold the council officers to account. Streamlining that means less of it.

Warwickshire County Council’s recent budget consultation demonstrated public
opinion that there are too many councillors for the work that needs doing, and that
the reduction in costs associated with electing and supporting fewer councillors
should contribute towards the spending reductions needed in the public sector. It is
worth noting that this was specifically aimed at the county council, which needs to
identify £92million of cuts and is struggling to meet this target. Nevertheless,
ignoring the financial considerations and taking into account the local context
where neighbouring district authorities have 36 (Daventry District Council),
37 (Harborough District Council), 35 (North Warwickshire Borough Council) and 34
councillors (Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council), there is clearly a view
among the general public that there should be fewer councillors.

This conflates several things – the WCC review was asking for people to identify £92m in cuts, and politicians being unpopular it was an easy target (but would have saved tuppence-ha’penny compared to the real cuts WCC is making). Elections cost money, but that is the price of democracy. It would be cheapest not to hold any elections and just live in a dictatorship, but as a nation we rejected (and fought wars against) that kind of thing. And looking at neighbouring councils to just compare the number of councillors is not enough. Population and make-up would be factors too…

Daventry (mainly rural area, one main town) – pop 78,100 – people per councillor 2169
Harborough (mainly rural area, one main town) – pop 85,700 – people per councillor 2316North Warks (mainly rural area, one main town) – pop 62,000 – people per councillor 1771
Nuneaton and Bedworth (mainly urban) – pop 125,400 – people per councillor 3688

Rugby (mainly rural area, one main town) – pop 100,500 – people per councillor 2393 – already more than the similar neighbouring councils cited.

If we went to 35 councillors, that would change to 2871 people per councillor. If we went to 30 councillors, it would be 3350, about double that of North Warks.

Interestingly, the nearby councils of Warwick (46 councillors) and Stratford-upon-Avon (53 councillors) were not used for comparison, despite both being immediate neighbours of Rugby. Warwick has 2993 people per councillor, and Stratford District has 2279

Basically, Rugby has a lower ‘density’ of councillors than most of these comparators, and a higher one only than two – both of which are more compact and more urban.

Also, public hostility to politicians is not new, and neither is the make-up of any of these other districts and boroughs, so it was known in 2012.

Rugby Borough Council are also keen to incorporate Central Government’s desire
to reduce the cost of Politics. We believe that by reducing the number of
Councillors to between 30 and 34 there will be a minimal annual saving of at least
£80,000. This amount added to the savings that will be created from changing from
election by thirds to all out elections will generate substantial savings.

Ignore the fact that the numbers change (sometimes it’s 30-35 councillors, others it’s 30-34). What is the basis for the ‘belief’ that there will be savings of at least £80k?

A councillor’s allowance is £5,214. Even if you removed 12 councillors (down to 30), that would only save £62,528. If you took the lower saving option of removing 7 (to 35) it’s down to £36498. So where does the other £45k come from?

Not to mention that councillors’ allowances are based on recommendations from an Independent Panel. Who look at, among other things, the number of people they represent. If you increase that from c.2400 to c.2800, they are likely to suggest a higher allowance, diluting any savings.

Nowhere in the report is the £80k figure broken down. It is asserted, but never substantiated by anything more than ‘belief’.

The changes to our electoral arrangements and council size are based upon :-
o All-out elections from 2016
o A reduction in the number of Councillors to between 30 and 35
o A baseline of 2700 electors per ward

All-out elections are not really the issue – the boundary commission has no real say in that and the Council could move to them if they wanted to. They had the chance to in 2012 and, largely through Tory opposition, did not. So what changed?

The reduction in the of number of councillors is vague, but the ‘baseline of 2700 electors’ is oddly specific. It also is leading toward single-member wards, which is fine for rural areas with lots of small parishes, but in urban areas it means lots of tiny wards with odd boundaries (not that Rugby is a stranger to that thanks to recent reviews).

We wish to reinforce our compliance with provisions within the Local Government
Act 2000 regarding effective and transparent decision-making.

Why just this Act and not the several others since (2002, 2003, 2007, 2010)? And why not the spirit of the legislation on Boundary Reviews that they should not take place within five years of the last one?

Last night the Tories forced through the report to approach the LGBCE, despite the faulty reasoning given. Because they are Humphrey’s little followers now.

 

On… getting fit again

So the other thing I’ve been doing recently is taking up exercise again.

I’ve not really been all that active over the years. Some mountain biking 10-15 years ago, a couple of attempts to get into using a gym, and that’s it. So with the office-work, relaxed lifestyle, beers and not hugely healthy diet, I started to put on a bit of weight, and now my belly has become a paunch.

A mate of mine – my best man Darren – started running a couple of years ago, and he had found that it had helped him to feel a lot better. So in March I started going to parkrun. Going from virtually no exercise to a 5km run may seem a bit of a leap, but I did always enjoy middle-long distance and cross-country as a teenager, and reckoned I could give it a go. So it was on a snowy Saturday morning that I went over to Coventry to give it a go. Due to the weather only about 100 people took part (usually it’s about 300), and I came somewhere in the 90s after walking about a third of the course. But I finished it, and in just under 34 minutes.

Since then I’ve done it most weekends. Twice my time has been worse than that first one, once when I got bad cramp about halfway round the Bushy Park course and another time when I turned up twenty minutes late and ran it anyway. The great thing about parkrun is that it is quite simple for a rank amateur. It’s free (many running races have fees), you get a time for each run – as long as you have registered and bring your barcode – and most events are big enough with a range of abilities that isn’t too intimidating.

Having picked up the bug, I am taking it a bit more seriously than before – I got a proper pair of running shoes and a watch for my birthday. Yesterday my time was 31:07, but that was on a bad hangover. The four runs before that were all personal bests for the course I was on, and I’ve got my record down to 28:31.

And this month I have (along with my wife) joined a gym. The new Leisure Centre in Rugby was opened at the end of August (although it’s not completely smoothly running if the queues are anything to go by), and we’ve decided to help each other to get more fit and lose weight.

On… changing jobs

Shortly after I got married, I also changed jobs. Just to make things more stressful.

Well, not quite. My actual job is the same as before, and it wasn’t my idea

What happened was that the company I’d been working for over the past 17 years (Steria, formerly Xansa, who I joined when they were called the FI Group) was asked to transfer all the people working for Barclaycard over to Barclays. Most of my colleagues had been TUPE’d over from Barclays ten years before, so for them it was going back. It’s not a culture shock for me, as I’ve been working at Barclaycard for over four years anyway, but it’s strange to have a new set of bosses.

I never had intended to work for one company for so long – I think of the 60 people who joined the Graduate scheme at FI when I did, only 1 still works for them now. All through the nineties I kept hearing that the ‘job for life’ was history, and I had always wanted to get varied experience anyway. But as FI/Xansa/Steria supply other companies, I did get to work at a few places and do different things. There was programming at first, then all kinds of data analysis for Y2K (a very real problem in big and old systems such as in the bank we were at), then application support with overnight on call, followed by doing specifications and design and more recently Business Analysis.

I am not really sad to leave Steria. It is not the company I joined in 1995 (name changes and mergers notwithstanding). It was largely a private company back then (although they floated 1996), and dominated by female management. This was pretty unusual for an IT company – and still is – but was a legacy of the origins of FI Group, being set up by Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley in the 60s primarily to allow women with dependants to get work in the nascent IT industry. They were doing homeworking before it was even a buzzword. It was also regarded as very employee friendly, listed as one of the top companies to work for and much of the shares were owned by workers.

Despite not being a ‘dotcom’ or really working in the web industry back then, they were hit by the 2001 tech bubble crashing. Over time the company has become more like its competitors, more male, more invested in offshoring, more interested in the bottom line. They were never great fans of unions (so I joined one), but towards the end seemed to be even less ready to co-operate

Barclays/Barclaycard of course have their issues in the recent past, with the ‘casino capitalism’ under Bob Diamond and others, LIBOR rate manipulation and mis-selling of PPI.

On… being married

Ok, so I’ve been through another slack period as a blogger. Something about living life rather than writing about it, or more likely too lazy to put a few words through a keyboard.

One of the more significant things I did over the past six months was to get married. We’d been planning it for a while, getting the money together to go out to New Orleans to do it as an elopement. We asked a friend each to come with us, and stayed in a really cool house off Esplanade for a week. Hen/Stag was a night out around Bourbon Street, which would be totally crazy at peak times but in late May was just busy.

The wedding itself was cool – nice and relaxed at the French Quarter Wedding Chapel. It was only when having lunch afterwards that we let people know what we’d done – sending pics out. Luckily my folks were pretty cool about it (I think they’d have loved to do something similar when they got married). The next day, a Saturday, saw me and my mate Darren go off to drink and watch two footie games – the Champions League final in an Irish bar, and then to watch New Orleans Jesters play a fourth tier match against Knoxville Force – while Jas and Sonya went shopping. How quickly we became a stereotype!

We did have a party a couple of months later for family and friends, so people did get to see Jas in her dress (and me in a suit). Our first dance was Jump Around by House of Pain and we ended up with Fairytale of New York.

Over three months on, it’s still a bit weird to be married. We’ve been together for about 12 years, and lived together for all of that apart from two year-long periods when we had to long-distance it. So it’s not like we don’t know each other. The weird thing is that it doesn’t feel that different to be married. Remembering to say ‘wife’ instead of ‘girlfriend’ is getting easier, though.

A million quid?

So the latest plans for pedestrianising the centre of Rugby are out – as reported by the Rugby Advertiser.

For a cost of £1million, we would get…

  • The bit of Church Street and North Street between Regent Street and Chestnut Field will become a bus & taxi only lane during the daytime
  • A slightly larger ‘civic space’ around the Clock Tower

And that’s it. The picture that has been released and shown in the Advertiser site only shows the change in a little part at the top, with the most prominent part being the already pedestrianised area to the south of the Clock Tower (shown empty but will presumably still be used for the Market).

It is not a pedestrianisation if buses and taxis still go along the road.

It is about 150 yards long, meaning the cost is over £6,500 per yard, which is more that the bypass cost even after the delays and overspend.

It will shift traffic into Park Road, Regent Place and Albert Street, and affect roads all around the town centre which are already congested at peak times.

It will make it harder to get to the car parking around the town.

There are ways that the town centre could be made more attractive, and to link the ‘Independent Quarter’ to the north of Church Street with the rest of the town centre for pedestrians. What about these?

  • Pedestrianise between Regent Street and Albert Street, creating a square in front of St. Andrews Church.
  • A proper set of bus stops or (radical!) a bus ‘station’ in the town would help.
  • Perhaps not easing through more out-of-town development with the Debenhams at Elliots Field which will suck custom away from the ‘Independent Quarter’ boutique-y shops

Saturday entertainment

Which is the most embarrassing celeb-heavy ‘game-show’ put on by the BBC on a Saturday night?

It’s a tough one. “That Puppet Game Show” is like the Muppets with all of the jokes and interesting characters removed (using extreme force) and replaced with the most pointless games imaginable – Punching out lights on a jumpsuit? Grabbing hot-dogs in musical order? Then there was the excruciating banter.

But “I Love My Country” is serious competition. A house band led by Jamelia, who are more painful than Glen Ponder and ‘Chalet’ ever were. Equally pointless games – Hangman with additional pork-pie-on-a-map, for criminy’s sake! And that wheel thing at the end. It’s enough to provoke treason if this is how you are supposed to ‘love’ your country.

I know that ITV have put out some absolute shockers (Red or Black being the most expensive waste of everyone’s time to date), and generally the trend nowadays is to make Saturday nights on TV so atrocious and so celeb-laden, but what are the people commissioning this dross thinking?

I can’t believe I’m actually reminiscing with fondness about Total Wipeout.

To those who may have noticed this post after a huge long gap, well, sorry, I’ve been a bit busy. Since I last posted I got married and changed employer while supervising the selection process for Labour’s Parliamentary candidate in Rugby for 2015, and also started getting a little more serious about my hobbies of running and gaming. Sorry to break my silence with a moan, but it’s the most annoying thing today – more than the breaking of two garden forks or the discovery of a leak from the bath overflow.

Turning the lights out

In my last post about Fraser Pithie’s bid to be elected as Police and Crime Commissioner, I mentioned street lighting plans.

What is happening is that the County Council has announced that they intend to switch off 80% of their street lights in the hours between midnight and 5:30am from April next year.

While there is an ‘engagement’ exercise requesting feedback, that decision has already been made – the question is which ones are affected (or rather, which ones are left on). There are criteria set out, but the real problem is that these are based on a need to move the vast majority of lights to part time.

So, for example under the current plans the Southfields estate in Rugby, where I used to live, will have no street lights on at all after midnight.

The County Council pages going into the detail are here, and there’s a google map showing all of the County Council lights that are covered that will show you how your street is affected.

Still not blogging much

It’s all go here still, as we try to get the new house ready for us to move some stuff into it. Back to work this week as well, which slows things down a bit.

Anyway, in the meantime, I’ve been given links to two blogs today by people who think I may be interested.

First up is one from my alma mater Manchester University – Whitehall Watch. A post from last week about the implications of localism and the government programme of cuts left me nodding along and wondering how many Tory and Lib Dem councillors are going to get thrown out on the back of them.

Secondly is one from my home town of Crawley – Pete Lamb. He’s a councillor for Northgate Ward, which only a couple of years ago was a Lib Dem stronghold and now has seen Labour winning both seats. He must be a decent bloke as his middle name is Keir (as is mine).

Finally!

I started this version of my blog because I had moved up to Rugby from Crawley. The process of moving across from the old one took about a day to finish. If only moving home were so simple.

At the end of 2008 I found myself needing to find a new role at work, after the customer I was working at decided to outsource the bulk of their IT function to Tata. Even though the banking crisis meant a lot of the likely customers were not looking to expand (I have been generally working for financial services companies for 15 years, and it’s not easy to move to other sectors), my company found me a role based at Northampton starting in Jan 2009. Jas and I decided fairly early on that we liked Rugby as a place to live for loads of reasons, so I came up here and rented a place.

Then followed a period of about a year when we had to wait until Jas could get work locally – that was where the recession really hit us. Luckily we were able to rent out our house down south which helped with the costs, and in doing so we helped out a friend with a cheap place to live and a decent landlord.

Jas could move up here in Feb 2010 as she did get a transfer with her company, and into a position with more responsibility at a place a few miles away. So all we had to do then was to sell up in Crawley and buy a place of our own in Rugby.

Putting the house on the market in March was fine, but within weeks it was clear that it was going to be a long slog. We had few viewers and the price had to be brought down in stages. The new government invalidated the HIP I paid about £400 for as well, which didn’t make me any more kindly disposed towards the Tories or their yellow lapdogs. We finally got a buyer in August and as things moved on, were able to start looking around. We put an offer in, and then a little chain built up around us.

Everything was going along fine until it just before the expected exchange of contracts. It transpired that my buyer didn’t actually have a deposit, and when his bank found out, they refused the mortgage. My house went back on the market, but in the meantime there was some frantic activity as some of us in the chain tried to see if we could help by buyer out. We couldn’t, but luckily everyone was able to wait, and most of them were patient.

In October I got new buyers, who were keen first timer buyers and had a definite deposit. It seemed that we could still get everything sorted by Christmas. Unfortunately, they had a problem getting a solicitor, and in the end the one they were forced to use turned out to be useless. My buyers had given notice on the place they were renting (which was risky) and so we had to kick their lawyers into gear to get everything done by Fri 14 Jan. Any later and they’d have been homeless. Somehow everything got done in the days leading up to it, and I temporarily was mortgage free and with a big lump sum in my name. Of course, that was mostly used to get the place we were buying.

That all completed last Friday (21st). It has been a long and at times frustrating process, but we are now looking up the home straight.

The new place needs a lot of work, but the last few days have seen us make a great start. The previous owners had not done much to the place and the decor in most rooms was a bit dated. I say ‘was’ because it isn’t there any more after 3 days.

We’ve stripped most of the wallpaper, and all of the polystyrene coving & ceiling tiles. That revealed a lot of crumbly and cracked plaster, so a plasterer will be coming in to start on the walls next week. The carpets are all pretty dilapidated, so we’ve taken most of them up and luckily the floors are pretty good. The kitchen units are at the end of their days, so we’ve started on getting quotes for having a new kitchen installed.  There was some odd shelf unit built into the lounge and a fitted wardrobe in one bedroom, so we’ve ripped them out.

The best job was done today: A gas fitter came round to disconnect an old gas fire in the living room. Half an hour later, thanks to a sledgehammer, the huge ugly tiled fireplace was out. There is not much that is quite as satisfying as when you have shoved couple of large lumps of concrete out of the way.

S Frica

At the weekend I watched District 9, the South African science-fiction film. In one way, it’s a rollicking action film, with a feel not too far away from Children of Men – automatic weapons battles being followed by hand-held cameras. In another way, it deals with massive issues like xenophobia and inhumane treatment (err, a bit like Children of Men). Being South African, and being about a situation where a large number of aliens are living in a shanty town with few rights and to the disgust of the humans around them, it has clear parallels to apartheid. It also touches on the more recent problems with violence towards and between refugees and immigrants from other African countries. There’s one glaring issue with the plot (spoiler alert)  Read the rest of this entry »

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