Sunday 24 January 2016

The politics of Alice in Wonderland ............ both here and in the US

The Guardian featured an article on Saturday commenting on the appeal of Donald Trump with women voters. I don't usually comment upon the politics of other countries ......... well it's just not good form is it. The USA should be allowed to enjoy their own hustings and primary jousting without interference from a Brit but Trump is topical here in the UK because over half a million UK citizens added their names to a poll requesting parliament to debate whether Trump should be banned from entering the country because his comments about Muslims and Mexicans would possibly constitute a breach of the law if he made them here. I am not proposing to enter into any debate about who the US or the UK should bar from entry but I am beginning to think that the well known children's classic, "Alice in Wonderland" has been adopted as a model of political philosophy. But first ........ I could not resist reproducing the photograph that accompanied the Guardian article:

“Have I gone mad? I'm afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.” 
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters (please don't ask me to pay for it)
The British press has a lot of fun with Trump and could not resist reporting his endorsement by Sarah Palin. Like a moth to a flame I just had to watch the video even though I knew that barely seconds in I would be watching it through the chinks between my fingers, hand to forehead in disbelief. It takes guts to stand up there and I cannot help admiring the sheer teflon quality of her public appearances. I have a sneaking belief that her arguments are perfectly logical and fluent (although not to my taste) but somewhere they get lost between the brain and lip .......... rather like a car turning up a blind alley and what we get get to see is the painful 3 point turn manoeuvre.

Trump is obviously a symptom of a disenchantment with the system that is not confined to the US but has gradually taken over the World in the past 40 years which has left many feeling disenfranchised, stigmatised and forgotten. There are always chancers who see an opportunity to profess half baked homespun remedies, goodness knows we have enough of those here in the UK. The real danger is when their ideas become accepted as mainstream wisdom. It is the willingness to choose prejudice over evidence, political dogma instead of fact that is so palpably evident.

This is not new

George Orwell, the archetypal cynic and outsider possibly said it best. Politics is so often the art of distortion that the beneficiaries of political thought (that's us) crave a genuine voice speaking honest simple truth. Unfortunately there are those who claim the mantle of "truthsayer" when in actual fact they are deliberately bending the truth. George Orwell's pithy remark about political language was a result of his experience witnessing the rise of fascist and totalitarian states. In his book, "1984" he showed how the truth can be manipulated and then used to consolidate power in "Animal Farm". I don't think he would find the 21st century to be any different to the last. Politicians use a language that makes a lie seem truthful and murder of innocents mere collateral damage. If anyone in politics dares to speak the truth then they are pilloried by the establishment ......... an establishment whose apex has shrunk to a size that could fit inside a Davos hotel meeting room. I hasten to add that I don't subscribe to theories of conspiracy. Power stems from money and the control of global resources. You don't have to conspire to achieve that; merely start off from a position of privilege and by incremental acts of self interest your power and wealth will increase. There is enough evidence out there to prove that point .......... you don't have to look far but you need to see beyond the words of our leaders because those we elect to look after our interests, our society, our nations, they too are dependent on wealth to become elected. Try to gain votes against that vested interest and you are pilloried and demonised by a media that is owned and controlled by those same vested interests. I'm not here claiming any new insight; look inside yourself and you know this to be true ......... the mud sticks, the lie is believed.

So how do we counter this?

If only a simple sentence written by a weary fool in Belper could in any way effect some change to a system that is so obviously out of step with what our planet and the people who live on it need. All that can be done is to continue to point out inaccuracies and untruths, shine a spotlight on the evidence so that decisions that govern our lives are made in a logical manner. The problem is that we are spoilt for choice here in the UK because we suffer a government that is so obviously short on logic and coherent leadership. There are countless examples at all levels of government. Many of these "inconsistencies" have been the subject of BelperStuff blogposts and there seems to be little to report that is in any way encouraging.

The haves have more ............. the havenots have less ............... those who protest are subject to changes in the law that diminish their ability to protest (legislation to curtail or inhibit the right to strike; to make the funding of democratic movements nigh on impossible); those who try to make wise judgements via democratically elected bodies about planning applications on housing and fracking having their power taken away by central government; the death of the welfare state by a thousand cuts; the blight that is the future of the young, the infirm and the impoverished ........ the consequence of the abandonment of the postwar social contract. All this follows as we (or rather they) shrink the role of government and move to a society where services depend on profit. It is happening in the UK, the US and many other lands.

How do we counter this .......... we keep on fighting


Immediately upon posting I was sent a response from a friend living in Belper suggesting this link:

Thursday 14 January 2016

Explaining devolution .......... an evening with Anne Western

Councilor Anne Western, the leader of Derbyshire County Council, was in Belper last night ......... sharing with the Labour Party Belper & Duffield branch meeting her thoughts on the proposed devolution of national government powers to beefed up regional bodies. With the publication of the North Midlands Devolution Agreement last week we now know what the "deal" looks like if we go ahead with the merger of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Derby and Nottingham cities:

or you can read a condensed summary here: 

Anne Western
It is fair to say that there was a palpable air of scepticism in the meeting room last night before Anne spoke but as time went on the mood seemed to change. This was in part due to her very interesting analysis of the process that has resulted in the devolution agreement (this January 2016 version is number 22) but also it was the way that she spoke. Here was the senior Derbyshire councilor speaking with passion, conviction and honesty about the future of our county and region. The question and answer session that followed was the high spot because Anne responded to the intelligent debate by taking us into her confidence .......... no tub thumping politics .......... no patronising remarks ............ we were able to understand the reasons behind the thinking on devolution, the funding opportunities, the devolved responsibilities leading to safeguarding social care, transport, housing and employment (amongst many others). The main elements common to all the questions from the floor were, where does the money come from to pay for all this? ----- how can we trust a Tory government? ...... most notably Osborne ---- and, why do we need a Mayor?

It would pay you to read at least one of the documents that I have linked to above as I do not propose to rehash the main points here. What I will do is report Anne's comments on the process and why we are where we are. She said:

  • Back in 2010 there was a lack of cohesion between the various district councils that make up Derbyshire and there was in consequence a sometimes factious relationship with the county council (DCC).
  • With the DCC becoming a Labour administration in 2013 it was deemed to be crucial that these relationships must improve so an effort was made to heal rifts, some of which were very deep .......... to the point that some district councils were actively pursuing an alignment with other authorities outside Derbyshire.
  • 2013 also saw an initiative by Ed Miliband who set up a Local Government Innovation Task Force: link to the relevant Local Government Association website page here and participation in this showed that working towards a combined Derbyshire Authority would be most advantageous for the delivery of integrated services and development of funding opportunities.
  • It was then realised that Derbyshire folk could share similar benefits to those being offered to Nottingham City through their devolution consultation with central government if a unified authority that encompassed both Derby and Nottingham cities plus both counties and their constituent district councils (the North Midlands as defined in the devolution agreement proposal) was pursued.
  • Consultations, meetings, proposals and counter proposals then continued through to late 2015 at which point there seemed to be a lull in the enthusiasm of central government for devolution probably caused by the workload resulting from amendments tabled to the Localism Act just then going through parliament. These amendments now empower district councils to choose with which regional authority they will align (something this blogger is profoundly worried about as this could lead to the redefinition of political boundaries by the back door).
  • The North Midlands alliance (if that is what I can call them) believe that they have reached a point in the devolution negotiations where a commitment must be made by central government. They have therefore published their devolution agreement document to concentrate minds and to open up the debate for public scrutiny.
If anyone present at the meeting last night (including of course Anne herself) feels that this account is in any way inaccurate then please make a comment.

I have to say that there are still many elements of the proposed merger in this North Midlands devolved format that causes me some disquiet. Principally I am worried about social care because of the differences of approach between the two counties. I much prefer the Derbyshire approach, best typified by the efforts to retain care homes for the elderly as a council provision. The Tory plan was to close all but 4 homes and then to eventually sell these off. The Labour controlled DCC plans to retain 18 homes. Nottinghamshire has retained (I believe) only 3 homes as a council provision.

I was also concerned about the reliance on franchising of buses (as defined in the North Midlands document) but Anne's answer on this was very encouraging and went some way to alleviating this commentator's fears. That said I still feel unease about central government funding being devolved without a robust mechanism, free from Tory interference that will safeguard existing bus services and routes, not least for remote villages and the disadvantaged in our society. Anne's response to these concerns showed that a lot of thought has gone into this as she stressed that the intention of franchising was to bundle sparsely used with the more populous routes, in effect a return (of sorts) to the methodology prior to bus de-regulation in the 1980's under the Thatcher government. I will return to this theme in another post but as a retired transport professional I can see both benefits for passengers and opportunities for existing bus companies. Having had contact with the council officers in Matlock, charged with maintaining public transport I feel sure that they must have had preliminary talks with local bus companies about this very subject. You do not promote such an idea out of the blue.

In conclusion

Two quotes from Anne stood out for me:

"I have to do the best I can for Derbyshire"

and, speaking about Labour:

"The parliamentary party needs to listen ------- and that's what is happening".

(She added to this by sharing with us that Labour leaders of local and regional governments had been invited to spend some time with John McDonnell so that he could better understand their concerns and ideas).

Some background reading

The underlying motivation for devolution is of course the Tory government cuts in council funding and a good summary of this is contained in a paper produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)
which can be found here: Central cuts, local decision-making: changes in local government spending and revenues in England, 2009-10 to 2014-15. If you have no time to follow this link the following paragraph lifter from the report sums it up well:

  • Local authorities have had to cut spending in the face of falls in their main sources of revenue. Grants from central government to local government (excluding housing benefit grant and those specifically for education, public health, police, and fire and rescue services and the housing benefit grant) have been cut by 36.3% overall (and by 38.7% per person) in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. Total council tax revenues have grown slightly in real terms over this period (3.2%), although this still represents a decline of 0.7% per person. Taking grants and council tax revenues together, local authorities’ total revenues have fallen by 19.9% overall (or 22.9% per person) in real terms. Council tax revenues funded just over half of local government spending in 2014–15, up from 41% in 2009–10.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Neighbourhood Plan for Belper ........... January 2016 update

I have received a newsletter from the NP4B team  - link to their website where it can be read:

The magic of  a Belper Jitty
The website also contains full contact details.

I don't want to just rehash what's in the newsletter but I think it worth making a few general points. The public meetings are a really important part of this venture as it gives a chance for those who live here to have their voices heard on a variety of topics. In fact the NP4B team have adopted this as their byline:

Your Town - Your Plan - Your Future

For those of you who are uncertain what this is all about then it might pay you to refer back to earlier posts about NP4B and here is the link:

NP4B posts on BelperStuff

No bus stops here in the evening or on a Sunday - Laund Hill

Public meeting 27th January - Community and Leisure

The first meeting is to discuss Community and Leisure and will be led by the facilitator for this theme, John Devine. This topic includes leisure, education, younger/older/disabled, health, social sustainability ........... so a lot to get your teeth into there. This meeting will be held on the 27th Jauary at No. 28 on the Market Square at .... I suppose ..... 19:30. (I will post a correction if I have that wrong)

Public meeting February 10th Travel and Transport

The second meeting is for Travel and Transport and will include anything associated with getting about in Belper (or trying to escape) ........ so that's on foot via footpaths and jittys, cycling, public transport, outer estates and of course roads and traffic ........... not forgetting car parks. This meeting will be held at the Milford Community Centre on the 10th February. A great venue as it has a bar. The evening will be hosted by the Infrastructure facilitator ...... John Porter.

The full list of meetings mentioned in the newsletter are:

27th January at No 28 Market Place –   topic Community and Leisure
10th February at Milford Social Club  – topic Transport and infrastructure
24th February  at No 28 Market Place –  topic Parks and Green open spaces
2nd March at Far Laund Scouts Centre – topic Built environment and housing
16th March No 28,Market Place – topic Culture and heritage.
30th March  No 28 Local economy and employment.

I for one am looking forward to the built environment and housing meeting on 2nd March. I wonder how many the scout centre can hold?

Friday 8 January 2016

Tory government disability benefit testing costs more than the money it "saves"

This is the perhaps not so surprising news to many of us that disability benefit testing costs far more than the money supposedly "saved" from the disability benefits budget.

Dawn Amos
From yesterday's Guardian we have this example of cost "saving":  DWP told Dawn Amos that she was not ill enough for benefit on the day she died

The National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that in 2016/17 the annual cost of this testing will be £579 million but the forecast "savings" will plummet from £1.1 billion to £400 million over the next 3 years. I am taking these figures from a BBC news report - (try this link) and the wording is somewhat ambiguous:

But the NAO said "recent performance shows the department [DWP] has not tackled - and may even have exacerbated" problems over waiting times and targets, and expected savings to the welfare budget had been reduced from £1.1bn over the next three years to £400m.

I am unsure if this means that the "savings" of £400 million will be made each and every year or that is the sum of 3 years savings, equating to under £134 million per year. One gives us spend £1.45 to save £1.00 and the other spend £4.34 to save £1.00. I will have to dig down to the source data to find the exact figure. Whatever it turns out to be the simple fact remains that if we completely abandoned disability benefit testing and went back to relying on reports from GP's and hospital specialists the savings to the national budget would be, annually, between £179 and £446 million. Put another way we would have to borrow that much less to balance the books.

I suspect that it costs more than the £579 million reported by the NAO because they do not take into account the transference to other budgets of the withdrawal of disability benefits. I know of instances where the loss of this benefit has meant that some disabled people have had to abandon paid work and thus become fully dependent on unemployment benefit and rent and council tax subsidies ............ and of course then not paying income tax.

Then there is the incalculable cost of human misery which has resulted in medical conditions worsening and many suicides (actual numbers that the DWP tries to suppress), the direct result of facing a miserable existence trying to live a life hampered by disability whilst being denied the basic right of help as enshrined in our Welfare State legislation. An inefficient and heartless system declares you to be fit and healthy when you are not. This is the reason why I have been writing the word saving as "saving". The DWP might well have undertaken an investigation to determine what if any "savings" accrue from disability benefit testing but it is obvious that if they have it is being suppressed or completely ignored by the fool on the hill, ODS (alias IDS or Ian Duncan Smith).

It may surprise many to learn that a main ingredient of left wing economics is to determine the true cost of any action. That's why socialists are very often successful in running businesses .............. we rely on rigorous cost benefit analysis to guide our decision making. In my working life I have never encountered such a blatant disregard of the evidence as is so blindingly obvious in disability benefit testing. It was already a failing strategy before Atos gave up the contract in 2014 but now the NAO reports that:

............. rising salaries had contributed to a 65% rise in the average cost of each assessment - from £115 to £190 ......... 

(Again the wording is somewhat vague in the BBC report but the inference is that this rise - which I calculate to be 60.53% -  has happened between 2014 and 2016).

We have to find a way to stop this foolishness but it seems impossible when faced with a government hell bent on increasing inequality and depriving the less fortunate of the help that they so desperately need. If they are content to let ODS continue to scapegoat the poor and disadvantaged even when such policies increase government expenditure then they have to answer the charge that they are driven by an ideology that directly harms the disabled ........... and that this is their intention. The NAO has identified that disability benefit testing is not a necessary austerity measure so there is no way that Cameron, Osborne or ODS can claim otherwise. So, I want to hear the Labour Party shouting the following ......... loud and clear:

It is time to scrap Disability Benefit Testing 


Saturday 2 January 2016

Then the tide rushes in .....................

It becomes ever more tiresome to write blog posts that are little more than tirades agin Tories, railing against the insufferable arrogance of an elitist group in Westminster as they dance to the strings of their paymasters ........... or the local conservative foot soldiers and their distorted understanding of the nature and needs of our society. In the past week, whilst writing more in this vein the tedium of such negativity took its toll and my mood plummeted. If it depresses me to write such stuff then what must it be like for you the reader? If this compulsion to share my thoughts via BelperStuff continues and there remains just one person desperate enough to feel the need to read the blog then surely it would do us all a great favour if I try to make the experience more uplifting. There has to be a better way.

The Moody Blues ........ Then the tide rushes in

(Here is the link for those receiving this post by email)

Then the tide rushes in and washes my castles away .............. my castles of criticism. So last week's blogposts have not been uploaded but languish as drafts as my thoughts turn to something more upbeat to write about. I have a feeling that they might yet surface but until then how about this:

Lithium-Oxygen – the Next-Generation Battery

Research at Cambridge University heralds a great leap forward for our use of alternative energy; more specifically the ability to store solar or hydro energy for peak use. Have a look at this link: article in the Wall Street Daily. In true capitalist fashion this journal merely looks at the opportunity for investors but we fully appreciate what this signifies for our planet ......... don't we? The day when we can store the energy of the sun in the daytime and use it when we most need it, in the early mornings and later in the evenings. The power of tides, rivers and wind will finally become prime providers of electricity and we will be able to break the shackles that bind us to oil, coal and gas ............ no more a carbon economy.  Oh and we can forget about the nuclear option.

With the research being undertaken in energy storage (Tesla and Dyson to name but two of the other players) you get the sense that we are on the threshold of a major breakthrough. 2015 was the year of announcements in research and intent ............... 2016 will be the year of ............ dare we hope for achievement.

The catalyst is of course global warming but for anyone who sees events through the prism of historical materialism stuff happens despite the best efforts of those who are only motivated by self interest. The inexorable advance from fossil to renewable energy cannot be thwarted by governments or distortions of the marketplace but is an inevitable consequence of the needs of our planet and its peoples. It may look bleak at times as the misguided Cnuts of governments and finance houses try to hold back the waves ............... but then the tide rushes in.

A later edit

There has been comment about the word "Cnuts". I hasten to clarify that this is a reference to King Cnut (sometimes spelt Canute) and not a misspelt adjective. I was in fact referring to the popular myth that Cnut thought he could hold back the incoming tide. The truth is however different: Link to Wikipedia article - King Canute and the waves