Autumn conference: Equality and diversity

This post is rather belated due to work, holidays, Lib Dem meetings, council meetings and my new toy – but I’ve finally found time to sit down and write about Autumn conference in Liverpool, and type up my brief intervention (1 minute speech).

It was great to be back in the city where I lived for four years, although a lot had changed. I got lost in the big new shopping centre in the city centre, and generally things are looking smarter, but I went for a drink in the Lisbon with a few friends and it was good to see that some places are still the same.

Anyway, back to conference. Apart from the airport-style security and presence of lots of big name journalists – I spotted Huw Edwards being photographed with a couple of kids – the conference was much the same as in the past. Liverpool was my fourth autumn conference, and the atmosphere was just the same as it had been in Brighton and Bournemouth. Stalls from all the Lib Dem groups, fringe meetings with big queues for the sandwiches (no one does queuing quite like Liberal Democrats), speeches and debates.

So, the debates. For those who aren’t aware, Lib Dem policy is made at conference. Not decided by the leadership, but democratically debated and voted on. That means that real members get to debate with the MPs, Lords and anyone who wants to have their say generally gets their chance.

This seemed to take the media slightly by surprise. “Splits” they cried, “Activists arguing amongst themselves”. Yes – that’s what we always do. It’s all about having an open discussion, and in the end taking a vote on it. Relatively few policies go through unamended, and sometimes they are thrown out altogether.

I attended three major debates this year. The education debate, held bizarrely when all the teachers were back at school, was a shot across the bows about academies. I voted for the compromise amendment, but the original motion was passed in the end, with an amendment about faith schools proposed by my local colleague Nader Fekri.

The other two debates were related: Equality (Equal Marriage in the United Kingdom) and diversity. The equality motion, which was passed overwhelmingly, calls for the extension of Civil Partnerships to straight couples and Marriage to gay couples – we thus become the first UK political party to call for full gay equality, which is great news.

The diversity motion was more complicated. It aimed to increase the proportion of black and minority ethnic Lib Dem parliamentarians and councillors, which is an important issue. However, it didn’t consider other minorities. An amendment from Jo Swinson et al added in women, but it still didn’t seem complete to me. My intervention (one minute speech) was as follows.

Conference, let’s not forget that black and minority ethnic is not the only under-represented group in the various parliaments.

I welcome amendment one which will help address the lamentably small number of women Lib Dem MPs, but what about LGBT candidates, disabled candidates and other groups.

I would suggest that if we’re going to have reserved places, they should not be for a specific minority, but could be for any under-represented group. Anyone could apply for one of these places, but they would have to be from a minority group, which I think would be fairer and avoid excluding potentially excellent candidates from the “wrong” minority.

Getting this right is so important, so let’s make sure we have a really diverse set of candidates, particularly for the Lords elections when (not if) the coalition government introduces an elected House of Lords under a proportional system.

It clocked in at 55 seconds so I didn’t have the embarrassment of having the mike turned off! The speech says it all really – I agreed with the sentiments of the motion, but it seemed poorly drafted and rather one sided. In the end, a complicated series of votes saw the compromise amendment going through which watered down the original motion. However, everyone is now aware that the issue needs urgently addressing, and I was pleased to read Tim Farron including it as one of his six commitments if he wins the party presidency. I suspect he will win, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

How many grapes in a bottle of drink?

This amused me this evening. I stopped at Donington Park services on the M1 on my way back to Yorkshire, and picked up a red grape and raspberry juice in M&S.

It was reasonably priced and 100% fruit. On the way out of the shop I spotted, amongst the usual blurb, the following which made me chuckle:

We have pressed 248 grapes and 6 raspberries per bottle.

That’s surprisingly accurate. Do they count them all individually? I doubt it – probably that’s an approximation, but it’s nice to be able to visualise exactly what went in. It tasted strongly of raspberry, despite there only being six in it.

I was also impressed that the bottle was 30% recycled plastic. Oh, and it tasted nice too. Recommended.

Desmond buys Channel Five – time to expand Tabloid Watch?

With the news this weekend that Richard Desmond has bought Channel Five, perhaps the time has come to expand Tabloid Watch to include TV as well as some of the iffier stories in UK newspapers.

For those who haven’t already discovered it, Tabloid Watch is a fantastic blog exposing stories in “tabloid” newspapers which are inaccurate or just plain made up. I put tabloid in quotes as many of the entries are about the Daily Mail or (Desmond’s) Daily Express, and even the Daily Telegraph, as well as more traditional red tops.

Recent stories exposed as incorrect include reports that the Red Arrows have been banned over health and safety fears (they haven’t), that the EU will ban selling eggs by the dozen (they won’t) and endless stories about Muslims and immigrants.

It’s also worth pointing out, as Private Eye does regularly, that despite the high and mighty opinions taken by the Daily Express, Richard Desmond owns a string of pornographic television stations. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it might be seen as rather hypocritical.

And finally, on the subject of tabloids, if you haven’t already seen The Daily Mail Song by Dan and Dan, go and have a watch. It’s one of the best comedy songs I’ve heard in ages, and I’ve even taken the time to transcribe the lyrics, a copy of which now lives in my guitar case. “It’s absolutely true because I read it in the Daily Mail…”

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away

Instead of watching the football this evening, I was at the cinema in Hebden Bridge watching Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, Jez Lewis’s documentary film about people growing up in Hebden Bridge and being drawn into a vicious circle of drink, drugs, and the eventual spiral to overdose and death.

There has been much discussion locally about how much of a drink/drugs ‘problem’ the town has, but it’s clear that there is or has been a problem with kids growing up and ending up in this cycle. The film covered people who’d grown up in the 70s and 80s and were still abusing drugs and alcohol today, as well as those much younger.

What struck me was that the people in the film kept raising the same issues when trying to explain how they’d ended up in their situation. There seemed to be three main problems.

Lack of opportunities

People in the film commented on the lack of jobs in Hebden, and to a certain extent that’s true, but the real problem seemed to be the lack of ideas of what they could do and how to go about doing it. The lads admitted to truanting from a young age, and many of them probably left school with few qualifications at sixteen and little idea about what they were good at. I hope that careers advice is better at Calder High these days but one thing I think is critical is to get vocational subjects into our education system much earlier. Many boys are completely turned off by academic study when they reach their teens. So instead of forcing them to sit in lessons, why don’t we get them learning practical skills for part of the day. How to repair a car. How to build a wall. How to fit a kitchen. I don’t mean we should give up on English and Maths completely, but secondary school should be an opportunity to find out what you’re good at – and not just those who are good at studying for exams.

Unaffordable housing

It’s true that house prices in Hebden have rocketed over the last few years, fuelled by a combination of Gordon Brown’s property boom, and the popularity of Hebden for people like me who live here but commute elsewhere to work – in my case Keighley, 10 miles away. There is a desperate need for more affordable (for purchase) and social (for rent) housing. Derelict land like that opposite my house needs redeveloping and the percentage of affordable housing in each development needs to be much higher. The government really needs to develop the necessary criteria and regulations so that new housing can be developed which is affordable to buy in the first instance, and remains affordable when it is subsequently sold on.

Easy access to drink and drugs

The iconic image of the film was the can of Special Brew, present in somebody’s hand in almost every scene. Heavy drinking is a real problem. When I had visitors from Germany a couple of weeks ago, we came across a youth lying in the street too drunk to get up. I offered to help but their friend was calling an ambulance. So what’s to be done?

For a start I think we should have minimum pricing for alcohol. My libertarian friends tend to be against this but we make cigarettes expensive to dissuade people from buying them, and we make petrol expensive to stop unnecessary journeys. I think the same needs to be done with alcohol. Certainly we should ban selling below price and all of the heavily advertised special promotions that you see so often in supermarkets. I think this would help, but of course the best thing is for young people to have something to do other than just hang around and drink.

I hope that the “fair for youth” organised a few weeks ago by local youngsters together with Hebden Royd Town Council will be a real turning point for the town. It took place on Calder Holmes park, where much of the film was set, but instead of hanging around drinking, there were bands, dance, art, skateboarding, and all sorts. The kids weren’t just getting involved, they were running it. That’s the sort of thing that gives me real hope for the future.

Expenses finally completed – my life can resume

This evening I completely finished the whole pile of washing up for what seems like the first time in months. That’s because the election only finished for me today with the delivery of our expenses return to Calderdale Electoral Services.

As agent for our general election candidate Hilary Myers this year, my main role was to support Hilary and ensure that she didn’t break any of the rules during the campaign. I also ended up writing and artworking a load of her literature, and liaising with local branches – but the biggest job was always going to be the declaration of expenses.

The situation was extremely complicated this year because local and general elections were held on the same day. Therefore any piece of literature which mentioned candidates for both elections had to be split between the appropriate expenses returns.

I had to declare every leaflet, advertisement, poster, etc. since 1 January. I have therefore spent the weeks since the election trying to gather together all relevant invoices, ensuring that they had been paid, and generally tearing my hair out communicating with the agents and candidates for the nine local election wards which make up Calder Valley constituency.

Both general election returns (for the ‘long’ and ‘short’ campaigns) added up to a shade over £8000, and twenty-nine invoices were submitted, the most complicated of which had to be split between six different election expense returns (five local wards, plus the general election). For those interested in the minutiae, the whole shebang will be available for inspection in Halifax from 18 June.

The expenses were covered by donations from various people, some of whom were extremely generous. My thanks to them. Oh yes, and I did it all for free. We start thinking about next year’s elections… at a meeting on Sunday. No rest for the wicked, as my grandfather used to say.

I did manage to have a bit of time off, spending two days in the Lake District over the bank holiday, spookily driving almost exactly the same route (except Whitehaven) as the bloke who shot all those people two days later. I remember driving through his village, although of course I didn’t know it at the time. It feels similar to being back home in Liverpool hearing about 9/11 as I’d been in New York the week before.

Also, I entertained a couple of young German visitors last weekend from Warstein, our twin town in Germany. We had a great time with organised activities such as a concert in Heptonstall, and unorganised activities such as an ad-hoc tour of Manchester which I took them on. That ranged from the Arndale Centre (including the Apple Store to play with an iPad) to Piccadilly Gardens, Affleck’s Palace (that was an eye opener for them!), China Town and the Town Hall. I enjoyed having them to stay and I think they enjoyed it too. Their English was excellent but it has inspired me to try and pick up my German again, last learned at school 1993-1995, now mostly forgotten. It would be nice to have a conversation of some sort in their native language next time we meet.

A brave decision by Clegg

Today’s announcement that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are to form a coalition government represents a very brave decision by Nick Clegg.

The Labour party have taken the easy way out. They have made it clear that they weren’t interested in working with us in a progressive coalition, and they have opted for opposition at a time when the country needs a stable government to deal with the financial crisis. Labour already seem to be descending into infighting and disagreements and look to be stuck in the wilderness for years.

Once Labour were out of the picture, the only remaining options were a minority Conservative government, or a Lib-Con coalition. Clearly the latter is preferable in the interests of the country. It will lose us many votes at future elections, but the prospects of getting Lib Dem policies into law is exciting.

Initial indications are that we will get the basic level of income tax raised to £10,000 so that no one earning less than this pays any income tax at all. That is a fantastic achievement. We should also get a nation-wide referendum on AV (transferable vote), and ID cards should be scrapped. So far so good.

But of course there will be compromises. I’m not keen on George Osborne as chancellor. It will be interesting to see what cabinet posts Nick and Vince get. Beyond the initial policy agreements, we could be in for a rocky ride over the next few years – if indeed the coalition lasts that long.

Let’s be clear. As a liberal social democrat, I have an intense dislike of the Conservative party, but I have no time for New Labour either. Nick Clegg made it abundantly clear during the election campaign that he would work to deliver Lib Dem policies with whoever was willing to talk to him. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.

I wish him the very best of luck.

Gems from the manifesto

My mornings have started with leafleting sessions at 6.15am twice more this week, to get our local election address out in my ward. But last thing at night my reading material has been our manifesto for the general election.

I bought a paper copy to read in bed, and reading through it has reminded me exactly why I’m a Liberal Democrat. What a fantastic set of policies, many of which have been well publicised.

But I spotted half a dozen gems which aren’t so well known. Some of them I wasn’t even aware of and I’ve been to every national conference for several years now.

So, ignoring the big promises, here are my favourites:

  1. Encourage community-owned renewable energy schemes (p.28) – It goes without saying that these would be brilliant in Calder Valley, harnessing the water power that was used by industry here 200 years ago.
  2. Cut red tape for putting on live music (p.46) – Why have Labour made it harder to put on a small gig in a pub or church hall. Seriously. Why?
  3. Strengthen the Youth Service by making it a statutory service (p.51) – Youth services have been cut severely by Tory-run Calderdale council this year, there is now no council-run youth provision in central Hebden Bridge. As a non-statutory service, it is an easy target for cuts.
  4. Change the tariffs used by energy supply companies so that the first energy you use is the cheapest (p.53) – I have changed to a gas supplier that charges the same price per unit for every unit used by every customer. I’ve spent hundreds of pounds insulating my house. Why should someone who hasn’t bothered get cheaper and cheaper energy the more they use. This is the case with all the major suppliers.
  5. Fight to stop MEPs having to travel to the Strasbourg Parliament every month (p.66) – What a waste of time, energy, and money. Surely this is a no-brainer.
  6. Protect free speech […] through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws (p.93) – The case against Simon Singh may have been dropped, but it should never have been allowed to be brought in the first place. Our libel laws need urgent reform.

How good would it be to get all these through parliament?

Speaking of manifestos, Lewisham Liberal Democrats have published their local government manifesto which is an extremely impressive document for a local party to produce, with lots of excellent but serious policies. I wish them all the best in their campaign to elect a Lib Dem mayor and take control of the council, and I hope we can produce something similar, if maybe not quite as slick, for the local elections here next year.

A break from campaigning

Campaigning for the general and local elections has pretty much taken over my life at the moment. Yesterday I was out at 6.15am delivering target letters, so I thought I deserved a break. Working on the assumption that a change is as good as a rest, today I turned my mobile phone off and spent most of the day planting raspberry bushes in Nutclough woods. A group of us go up there on a fairly regular basis to help out with various jobs, and today’s main task was to install the revetment in the photo, and plant the raspberry bushes around them. I will be going back on a regular basis to check for vandalism and, hopefully, one day, get a small punnet of fruit, although I think it’s unlikely to be this year.

Nutclough woods have a variety of owners, including Calderdale Council, British Waterways, and several private landowners. They are managed by the Friends of Nutclough Woods, ably led by the ever-enthusiastic Kate Berridge and assisted by her partner, family, and other local residents. They are easily the best managed woods in the Hebden Bridge area and are well worth a visit at any time of the year.

I expect normal blogging service to resume after the election, with planned posts on recycling, allotments, and housing.

PS. Don’t forget to vote for Liberal Democrats Hilary Myers (for Westminster) and Nader Fekri (for Calderdale MBC), your earthly representatives of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.

Car parking in Hebden Bridge

Chris in Garden Street Car Park

There is an ongoing debate in Hebden Bridge about car parking. Is there enough of it, do we have the right balance between short and long-term spaces, and are the charges correct?

Late last year, a group of Human Geography and Urban Planning students from Leeds Met University undertook a project to survey car parking in different areas of Hebden Bridge. This fell under the auspices of the Hebden Bridge Parking Working Party. Lesley McKay and myself introduced the students to Hebden Bridge, and went to Leeds to see the students’ presentations in December. A few students also came with their tutor, Lindsay Smales, to present the results to Hebden Royd Town Council.

The students came up with some interesting results, particularly the responses to questions which they had asked of residents, tourists and shop keepers. Most markedly, those who run the shops want cheap parking, but people visiting town would actually be prepared to pay a bit more. Currently most of the car parks are 30p an hour, which is very good value.

Following the report, the parking working party made a number of recommendations to the Town Council. At last week’s council meeting, the council voted to send those recommendations (with a few minor modifications) to Calderdale Council for their consideration. The main recommendations are as follows.

  • A review of car parking charges throughout Hebden Bridge, and a proportionate reduction in car parking charges for residents of Hebden Royd and surrounding villages
  • Residents protected parking times be reduced so that non-residents can park in residents spaces between the hours of 8am and 4pm [when many residents are at work]
  • The need for Calderdale MBC to work with Network Rail to extend car parking at the railway station, in line with the recommendations of the Department for Transport’s (2009) Better Rail Stations
  • The improvement of long and short-stay parking signage in the town centre
  • An investigation of ways in which local residents can be encouraged to walk or cycle, e.g. pavement displays of journey walking/cycling times to town centre/railway station, and greater promotion of Hebden Bridge as being easily accessible by public transport

It will be interesting to see what comes back from Calderdale. Unfortunately they don’t have a great record at replying to our requests on traffic issues!

A big development which will be happening in Hebden Bridge over the next few years is the redevelopment of the Town Hall, which today passed into the hands of Hebden Bridge Community Association. They have all sorts of exciting plans for extending the building, but strangely no provision for more parking. They say:

Our plans – if we can find the funding to implement them – will mean building on land which is currently used for car parking. […] We don’t yet know whether some or all of the current car parking places are likely to be lost. We anticipate that the seven places at the side will go, and some of those at the rear (facing the old health centre). We may be able to retain some limited parking.

I disagree with this approach and have responded to their consultation as follows.

I think the redevelopment of the Town Hall is an ideal opportunity to get some underground car parking in the new part of the development. If you’re trying to attract small businesses, people working in them will in many cases need somewhere to park, especially if they’re coming from rural areas not easily accessible by public transport. Your approach misses a golden opportunity to get a few more car parking spaces in a central part of town. Improving parking elsewhere would be welcome, but if you’re removing existing spaces, I really think you should look at providing an equivalent number elsewhere on site. Underground car parks work well in other places and can be built as part of a new development but not retro-fitted afterwards!

I’m all for encouraging use of public transport, but the fact remains that many people in rural areas rely on their cars to get to places. It will be interesting to see how things develop.

I can’t write a post about parking without mentioning Hebden Bridge’s most controversial proposed development in 30 years – the Garden Street development. It would put a multi-storey car park on the site of the existing Garden Street Car Park, but pay for it with a massive development on top. Whilst I wouldn’t object to seeing some development on the site, the proposals were simply too big – the Calderdale planners thought so, and their decision was upheld on appeal. Will the developers come back with a revised proposal? Only time will tell.

Sky News presents live budget coverage from… Hebden Bridge!

Lib Dem Hilary Myers

Today’s live coverage of the budget on Sky News came from… Hebden Bridge! It was well worth watching, and not just to hear the Labour candidate Steph Booth describe herself as Cherie’s “wicked stepmother”. The coverage centred on the fact that Calder Valley is a swing constituency. The reporter interviewed local business owners, residents, financial experts, and made a lot of poor jokes about the only floating voters around being ducks.

Of course they also interviewed the three main PPCs. Lib Dem Hilary Myers came across very well, pointing out that the budget would do little to help close the gap between rich and poor, which has widened under the Labour government. She was also disappointed that there were no plans to help the environment, such as those proposed by the Lib Dems to promote green jobs.

Steph Booth
Labour's Steph Booth

How about the others? Craig Whittaker rambled on about helping businesses while completely ignoring the general public. Steph Booth was constantly ribbed for being Cherie’s stepmother, at one point joking that she was the “wicked stepmother”. Perhaps she reads Lib Dem John Beacroft-Mitchell’s blog? Another local character putting in an appearance was David Fletcher, owner of Innovation, and the man behind the controversial Garden Street development, which is currently on ice having been refused planning permission. He didn’t seem very impressed either.

In the end, though, I think it was the presenter that missed the point, constantly asking whether the Tories will take this seat off Labour. Well, of course they will. It’s what else happens that will be interesting. From figures available on Wikipedia, the number of votes for both Labour and the Conservatives has steadily decreased since 1997. Labour now have no borough councillors anywhere in the constituency. Is it time for them to drop into third place?