Sunday, 30 January 2011

A big decision in May

If all goes to plan the 5th May will not just be the day you get to vote on the make up of your district council, it will also be the day when you get to make a decision that will potentially shape our country for generations to come.

The reason for this is 5th May will also be the day when there is a referendum to seek your views on whether there should be a change to our whole electoral system, when you get to vote on whether we should keep our historic 'First past the post' system or replace it with a system called the 'Alternative Vote'.

For many years the Lib-Dems (and others) have campaigned for a fairer voting system than we already have. In fact, the opportunity to have a referendum on AV was a key tenet in the coalition agreement, however is AV fairer? and perhaps more importantly would AV be better for the country?

My own personal view is that it isn't, in fact in many ways it is less equitable than our current system and I shall try to explain why here.

The AV system, for a start, does not mean everyones vote has an equal weight. We shall still have constituencies the only difference is that to win a seat a candidate would need 50% of the total vote. 50% is gained by transferring the second, third and fourth votes of less popular candidates until someone gets a majority. So why isn't it fair?

Firstly, if you live in a heavily weighted Labour or Conservative constituency it is highly likely that the main party candidate would already have 50% of the vote. Even if the winner has only 50.1% the views of the other 49.9% of the electorate wouldn't have any further effect on the make up of our parliament. In this respect AV is just like our current system.

However in much more balanced areas, three way marginals for example, votes are disproportionately weighted towards supporters of minor parties. It is entirely possible that supporters of fringe parties can have their vote counted five or six times whilst supporters of the main parties only count once. In effect what this means is someone's fifth choice is treated as equally as important as someone else's first preference - but there is a big difference between positively wanting one candidate to win and being able to 'put up with' another, isn't there?

To see how equitable AV is let's take a look at the countries that already use this 'fairer' system. In the entire world only three countries currently use AV, Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It gets even worse when you consider that Fiji are actually getting rid of the system and in Australia, because of the complexities turnout at elections went so low that the government had to pass a law making voting compulsory.

First past the post, on the other hand is used widely around the world, not just by us. Countries that use the system also include Canada, India and the USA - arguably slightly more complex and more important economies than Papua New Guinea?

So why did the Lib Dems argue so much for AV? The answer is simple, because they would always be part of a coalition government!

Now we have already seen how trustworthy Mr Clegg and his friends are when it comes to them being in power but perhaps we can see their consistency on other matters when we look at some of their previous comments about Alternative Vote.

Before the election Mr Clegg said about AV 'It's a miserable little compromise', his Cabinet colleague, Chris Huhne however said 'The Alternative Vote does not give voters real power'. It's astonishing what a sniff of power can do to the Lib-Dems isn't it?

Perhaps more damning however was the view of the Electoral Reform Society when they said '...AV is not a proportional system, we do not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament'.

Is this something that we really want?

Just remember come the 5th May there will be a huge decision to make. Please don't take it lightly...

Saturday, 29 January 2011

A good day canvassing

Boy, it was cold today...

this morning, along with a couple of my Labour colleagues, I was out canvassing for the upcoming District Council elections and the results were very promising.

Let me explain.

All political parties have access to the electoral register and use it to contact voters, either on the telephone or in person. The records from previous election campaigns record the declared voting intentions of the people we speak to.

It's fair to say that the feedback from the general election campaign wasn't very good but out on the doorsteps on this very bracing morning Thringstone people were being positive about Labour.

The sad fact is that people are very, very disappointed by the coalition government. Particularly the Lib-Dems.

I spoke to a number of concerned voters who told me that they had voted for Mr Clegg because they wanted a change from Labour and thought him to be honest (and that they could never vote for the Tories).

Invariably what they all went on to say is that not only did they get the government they didn't want (who are leading the country in the wrong way) but the thing that really got in their throat was the level of lies that Mr Clegg has told, particularly on the subject of student fees.

A couple of times people said to me that they always expect politicians to lie it's just that Mr Clegg has taken it to a whole new level.

The simple fact is that for some there is a lack of trust in politicians but Mr Clegg and his colleagues have taken that distrust to whole new low.

As I was told more than once it makes you realise just how things were better with Labour.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A call to Coalville businesses

On 18 January the Cabinet of North West Leicestershire District Council considered a report about Business Improvement Districts (BIDS).

It is probably fair to say that very few people know what a BID is. Even many businesses have not got a clue what they are but the truth is in a very short time there could be one in Coalville and traders in the town could be faced with a new bill to pay.

In very simple terms a BID is a charge that is levied on traders in a defined area, which has been voted for by those businesses, for the express purpose of delivering projects which would not normally be paid for by local authorities.

If the BID is approved it will be in place for 5 years and would mean approximately £125,000.00 will be collected every year to be spent on projects in the town such as marketing or improving security. Any new businesses in the area would also  have to pay the levy and of course this would include any major supermarket developments if they were built during the BID period.

Of course, the aim is that the levy will increase footfall, boost the local economy and ultimately make the town a more vibrant place to live, work and spend money in.

For a BID to come into force a vote has to be taken of all businesses which would be affected and there must be a simple majority of identified levypayers AND a majority by rateable value.

The key issue however, and this is VERY important, is that the majority is only of those traders who actually vote. If a business doesn't vote then its views are not taken into account but they would still be legally obliged to pay the bill if the BID was passed.

In some BIDS around the country there has been a turnout of less than 30% of ratepayers and less than 20% of those liable for a levy have actually voted for its introduction.

Now there is a simple reason why this is important.

A business receives a vote for every property for which it is liable to pay rates. As a result although a BID is not driven by the council (or the money spent by them) the local authority will receive a number of votes. In fact the district council will account for around 7% of the total rateable value (and for paying 7% of the final bill).

At the Cabinet meeting last week it was recommended to councillors that the authority should vote 'Yes' in any BID ballot. As such in a very low turnout the council would have a very large influence on whether a vote is passed or not (and whether all businesses will receive a new bill).

Now I am not a town centre trader.

I have a personal view that based upon improvement districts elsewhere the introduction of a BID would be good for delivering economic regeneration (although the economic situation is obviously very tough at the minute and another bill may be difficult to pay), but to focus on that view really isn't the purpose of this blog.

The purpose of this entry is very straight forward and is a call to local businesses.

When the vote takes place in February / March please please take the time to cast your ballot.

A high turnout will mean that as a business community it will be clear as to whether the BID is accepted or rejected taking into account the views of everyone eligible to vote.

If businesses don't vote they really will not be in a position to complain if the outcome goes against their views. It is vitally important to take part.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A great day of community action from WAG

I have just got back home from attending the 'Whitwick Action Group' (WAG) open day at the Methodist Church in Whitwick and I feel I must blog to say what an inspirational event it was.

WAG are dedicated to fighting against development on designated green wedge between Coalville and the villages of Whitwick, Thringstone and Swannington and they really are organised in taking their fight to the builders.

Todays event was about awareness building, all about letting the local community know that an outline planning application has been submitted for the so-called 'Stephensons Green' and just as importantly letting people know how they can object to the development.

To be frank I was astonished at the turnout. In the short time I was there there must have been around 100 people visiting and the level of anger and distress about the possible loss of the green space was unanimous.

Some might say that WAG is about NIMBYism, but on the basis of today I can write unequivocally that this isn't the case.

There wasn't one person I spoke to that didn't acknowledge that Coalville needs regeneration, which undoubtedly goes hand in hand with development. What WAG are saying is that that development shouldn't come at the expense of the loss of much loved countryside and just as importantly village heritage but rather complement it.

There are plots of land in and around Coalville which are ripe for development (such as the already outline approved Bardon development), it's just that the wedge isn't it.

Building on the green wedge will mean that historic villages will be absorbed into the Coalville urban area and much of their identity and culture will be lost forever.

I need to be clear this issue isn't about party politics. Councillors of all colours were in attendance and whilst, for example, I would never be in agreement with the wider views of BNP Councillor Mellor on this issue it would seem that we concur.

In fact, on the basis of today, it would seem folly for anyone standing for Council in Whitwick to campaign FOR development on the wedge, even if their wider political grouping were in favour of it.

A big thank you to WAG for organising such a fantastic event. You have really shown today what a community can do if you get organised.

If you want to know more about WAG just look up 'Whitwick Action Group' on Facebook.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

I think I am being watched...

I feel that no matter where I go my youngest son is watching me...let me explain.

As you probably know I work for a community based charity in Coalville commonly known as The Marlene Reid Centre.

The centre does amazing work with socially excluded people around North West Leicestershire and to be able to deliver projects such as carers support or money advice we have to have community based revenue generating projects as well, one of those is our Little Dragons Den party venue.

Little Dragons Den is a fantastic soft-play and bouncy castle venue and is ideally suited for children from around two to six or seven. I know because my youngest son, Gabriel, had his birthday party there in November.

The only problem is that I agreed that the photographs we took could be used for marketing material.

It seems I now cannot move without a certain photo of him looking up at me...

It's everywhere. It's in flyers, magazines and now even as a six foot banner hanging in Coalville shopping centre. I just can't get away from him!!!!  Aaaarrrrggghhhh!

Now the simple facts are:

1. I love my son. He's very handsome - not unlike his father in many respects.

2. The purpose of this blog is clearly just to point out the Little Dragons Den is great if your young child has a birthday coming up. (Very reasonable prices, just call the centre on 01530 510515 to book.)

3. Please, just for 10 minutes can I feel like I'm not being watched....

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The conflict between religious belief and civil rights

I love to sit arguing with my mother over moral rights and wrongs.

My mother, you see, has very traditional christian views.

I, on the other hand, whilst being a not particularly devout catholic maintain that personal beliefs should never infringe on the rights of others or mean that someone who doesn't subscribe to my views should be in any way bound by them.

You will probably appreciate therefore that I have been captivated by the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the proprietors of the Chymorvah Hotel in Cornwall.

In case you missed it Mr and Mrs Bull are practicing Christians. They run their hotel under what they believe to be christian principles which include not allowing unmarried couples to share a double room.

In September 2008 Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, a gay couple who are civil partners, had booked a room at the Bull's hotel. Upon arriving they were told that they could not stay as they were not married.

Messrs Hall and Preddy alleged that this was direct discrimination as a civil partnership was effectively a marriage in the eyes of the law and to be refused a room under the policy enforced by the Bulls was therefore illegal.

This week Bristol County Court upheld their complaint and ordered Mr and Mrs Bull to pay £3,600 in damages.

Now, personally I do not subscribe to the views of Mr and Mrs Bull. I believe that a loving and committed couple can be either hetero or homosexual, however, I also believe that they have every right to hold those views.

The key issue here though, to my mind, is what happens when those views begin to infringe on the rights of others.

Mr and Mrs Bull are running their business as a commercial entity. That entity must therefore be subject to the same laws and obligations as other commercial businesses. A number of those obligations are to ensure that you do not discriminate against potential customers based upon race, disability or sexual orientation, irrespective of your personal belief. That is exactly what Mr and Mrs Bull did.

It's not that long ago since hotels used to show signs saying 'No Irish'.  Does any reasonable person still think that that policy was acceptable even if the proprietor believed that Irishmen were somehow not up to their rigorous standards? Of course not. Times and acceptable standards of behaviour have moved on.

Exactly the same goes for the attitudes of Mr and Mrs Bull.

The rights of civilly bound gay couples are the same as traditionally married ones. Those rights have been enshrined in legislation in our parliamentary democracy and when they conflict with the personal belief of traditionalist Christians it is those rights that must be upheld.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A great morning for fresh air and community work

Yesterday we had a great morning.

With all of the bad weather over Christmas there has been inevitably a buildup of litter around Thringstone.

The Council groundsworkers do a great job but they have finite resources and so I, along with my Labour colleagues Ray Woodward and Dave Everitt joined up with other members of The Friends of Thringstone to do a community litter pick.

After two hours of hard work (and friendly banter) between us we had collected 15 large sacks of rubbish, along with old tyres and car batteries.

It's gone some way to make the village look shiny as spring approaches and gave all of us a decent workout too.

Some photos below...

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Are Pandora ripping us off?

For any man reading this, unless of course you are married (in which case you are not excused), it is unlikely you will have heard about the phenomena that is Pandora.

For those that do not know what Pandora is think back to the 1970's and try to remember those charm bracelets that were all the rage. Pandora is the latest incarnation of them.

All you need to do is purchase a standard bracelet (or necklace) and then start buying beads or charms to add to it. Beads come in a whole variety of materials and shapes and as you might have guessed are somewhat costly.

Before Christmas I bought my wife a bracelet and as an example the cheapest charms were £23.00 but the more luxurious beads ran up to several hundreds. (Imagine a bracelet could take somewhere between twenty and thirty beads and you will start to get a picture of the money involved).

Although there are other bead manufacturers around Pandora has this covered. You see, their beads are not interchangeable as they have a thread inside which prevents other makes being added to their host jewellery.

Now despite the cost and lack of interchangeability (or perhaps because of it) Pandora are huge.

To see how big they are you should have seen the queues in the post-Chistmas sales. We visited Derby Westfield to see the line stretching out of the shop and around the outside. Customers were waiting over two hours to buy a charm.

I did mention to Clare at the time that this sort of collectable was likely to go as quick as it came and I hope I have been proved right...and here is the reason.

Clare went today to choose a new bead for her bracelet. She didn't want to pay too much and had decided to just have one of the cheapest silver beads (remember I said they were £23.00 before Christmas).

Guess what? As a universal policy Pandora have increased the price of those self same beads to £30.00!

Now I appreciate that VAT has increased by 2.5% and in general things have gotten more expensive however this is a more than 30% increase! The only possible reason (as far as I see it) for this rise is because the company are currently riding on a high and have a product with a limited shelf life in terms of popularity - so they are cashing in while they can.

There can be no reason for price rises of this magnitude by Pandora other than it's because they think they can get away it.

Clare and I have discussed this and certainly won't be buying and more Pandora. I only hope that others follow suit and refuse to be treated like idiots by taking away their custom.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Lessons for our future in history

When I married my wonderful wife back in 1998 we went on honeymoon for the holiday of a lifetime to Sorrento.

On one day of that holiday we took the local train to visit Pompeii, the ancient Roman city at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

For anyone that doesn't know, in 79AD an eruption of the volcano whose shadow it stands in resulted in the city being covered in 6 meters of ash and pumice preserving the buildings (and many of their occupants) for many hundreds of years.

Over the past hundred or so years the site has been excavated to reveal in effect a living, breathing city giving a perfect picture of how life must have been like two thousand years ago.

In short there is nothing in the world like Pompeii and for it's uniqueness it can only be compared with other one off places such as, for example, the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty or the dome of St Peters.

In one of those awful bucket lists of things to do before you die visiting Pompeii is something which indisputably should always appear.

Of course, this leads to a major problem. Each year two and a half million people visit the city and this along with erosion brought about through weather means that the city is in serious jeopardy.

In this past couple of months four buildings in the city have simply collapsed and many others have significantly deteriorated. A city which has stood hidden and unchanged for two millenium is literally beginning to crumble to dust after just one hundred years of our guardianship.

There is an answer however, preservation can be carried out but it does not come cheap.

Pompeii currently has a huge annual budget of $103 million, unfortunately to be able to preserve the city for future generations it is going to take double that. Without $200 million a year Pompeii is in real danger of falling down and a real treasure will be lost forever.

There are many questions we need to consider and I must confess I don't know the answers.
  • Should it be the responsibility of a nation or the whole world to preserve the site?
  • Should preservation be paid for through taxes?
  • In a finite budget can preservation of an historic site ever take preference over, for example, waste collection - or even healthcare?
  • Should we allow the site to simply crumble?
What I do know however is this:

The decisions made today may well be irreversible in the future. If Pompeii is allowed to fall down we will never get it back.

I don't know what will happen to Pompeii and of course it is an extreme case to illustrate a point which our own leaders are faced with at the moment.

The decisions that our Government are taking now will have far reaching effects that even if they are not irreversible could destroy the prospects of a generation.

My fear is that this Conservative lead administration are making glib money saving ideological choices which could see many of our young peoples chances crumble like the stones of Pompeii.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The hypocrisy of charging for parking

When I looked at my copy of the Coalville Times today I was very interested to read the front page article entitled 'Politicians call for review of car parking charges'.

Times really do change don't they?

In case you missed it Mr Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government scrapped some parking restrictions introduced by the Labour Government in 2001 principally concerning the limiting of parking spaces to new residential developments to promote other environmentally sustainable travel options.

Somehow, however, Councillor Michael Wyatt (Lib Dem Councillor for Greenhill) has managed to turn the story around in calling for a revision of Council Car Parking Charges.

In a comment to the Coalville Times, Councillor Wyatt says 'Coalville needs a real boost. Some businesses are hanging on by their finger nails, and it's time the district council gave them a helping hand by bringing in more shoppers, and by having a one hour free parking fee, I believe it will encourage new businesses into our town.'

Now lets go back in time to 2004, when the then Labour controlled council introduced parking charges.

At the time the reason given for introducing charges was to deliver a balanced budget and prevent excessive rises in Council Tax (nothing to do with government parking restrictions).

In short the Labour group appreciated that as the car parks cost money to operate it would be best served to charge users directly for parking as opposed to putting up council tax more than was absolutely necessary.

(It should be noted that charging had been resisted by Labour for a number of years but due to particularly difficult contstraints that year it was felt unavoidable.)

The proposals put forward was to charge for parking only at car parks in Coalville and Ashby.

Interestingly the then Tory and Lib-Dem opposition, including Councillor Wyatt, felt that the plans didn't go far enough and put forward an amendment to charge at every car park in the district.

The record, I'm afraid, shows that Councillor Wyatt and his colleagues felt the planned charges were not enough. The truth is that he didn't argue against introducing parking fees but rather sought to extend them!

Now, there is no doubt that parking charges have had an effect on Coalville. However, the fact remains that they were introduced for bona fide financial reasons with levels of support from all parties.

I am sure all of the political groups would ideally like to get rid of parking charges but the question, given the wider economic climate, is 'is it realistic'?

All I would say is let us not try to rewrite history Councillor Wyatt. I appreciate the economic situation might be difficult for you as a local trader but remember you felt the charges didn't go far enough!

(Source: NWLDC Council Minutes Council Minutes 26/02/2004)