Saturday, 25 March 2017

Romsey County Council elections

As you may be aware, I’ll be a candidate in the County Council elections in May for Romsey division. As your candidate, I think it’s important that voters have information on who’s on the ballot paper so that you can make an informed decision at the ballot box.

Who am I?
I live on Hobart Road (the Coleridge Road section). I grew up in Newcastle, and came to Cambridge as a student at Homerton College in 2004, studying Computer Science. After graduating in 2007, I got a job with a software company on the Business Park just south of Milton, and I now work as a senior software engineer for a software company based in West Cambridge, next to the Cavendish Lab. I lived in the city centre after graduating, and moved to Hobart Road in 2010.

I first joined the Liberal Democrats in 2013 - I was getting fed up with how little information there was about the local council and local councillors, and so decided to do something about it. I stood for election in the City Council elections of 2015 in my local ward, Coleridge. I got over 1000 votes and a swing of 12%, although unfortunately that wasn’t enough to win. I’m now standing in my local division for the County elections, Romsey (after the boundary changes this year).

My wife and I are active in the local community - we’re both regular members of St Martin’s Church on Suez Road, and my wife helps run Girlguiding for the south-east area of Cambridge, as well as running a Guide group of her own. I’ve been involved in local politics - knocking on people’s doors, speaking to residents, trying to fix problems, for over 3 years now. I’ve also played the cello in several local orchestras, and my folk band performs all around East Anglia.

Why vote on the 4th May?
Local elections usually get turnouts of around 30-40%, general elections around 60-70%. Local elections are generally seen as less important than national elections, but they actually play a really important part in the day-to-day running of the city and county. It is the City and County Councils that handle regular maintenance and management of the city, as well as being responsible for social care, schools, parks & open areas, bin collections, and many other things that you only really notice if they go wrong.

Whilst there are certain tasks that the councils must do, there’s a lot of scope for councillors to prioritise funding to certain schemes and not others, to change policy in certain areas, to enforce laws and bylaws to different extents, and so on. This means the political makeup of the councils can have a huge effect on provided services that people depend on, and can drastically change the ‘feel’ of the city, with significant decisions or policies having long-lasting positive or negative effects on the city and county as a whole.

One example is the current wrangling over the City Deal and how to deal with congestion in Cambridge, with the various political parties having very different views on what to do. The outcome of any decisions made will affect Cambridge for many decades to come, and it’s the local councillors making those decisions

Why vote for me?
As I’ve said, I’ve lived in the area for many years. I know what a unique place Romsey is - the cafes & shops, churches, pubs, the terraced streets, the parks - and I also know what problems it’s got - lots of pressure from commuter parking, too few school places, and of course the many, many potholes!

There are some very significant changes coming to Cambridge in the next few years, which will affect the city and the surrounding area for many years to come. Romsey will be right in the middle of any city-wide changes, containing 2 of the main roads into the city, as well as being right next to the station. 

These changes have the potential to drastically affect Romsey as an area and as a community, and so Romsey needs a councillor who will listen to residents, who will communicate what is going on and what is being planned, and will work to ensure the changes don’t destroy Romsey’s unique character. That is what I will do, if elected as Romsey’s county councillor.

One of the reasons I decided to stand was that I didn’t feel like I knew what the council or my local councillors were doing. I didn’t really hear from them, and didn’t know what they did. If I’m elected, I will make sure that that is not the case for me - you will hear from me and know what I am doing, I will actually come and talk to you, and I will represent our area to the best of my ability, with regular updates posted on the Romsey Lib Dems website.

So, on the 4th May, please do vote. It’s important. Vote for who you think will be the best councillor for Romsey - as it will make a huge difference in the next few years.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Canvassing with a stammer

When I go canvassing round Cambridge, when I talk to someone on the doorstep, the first thing they usually notice is that I have a stammer (also called a stutter). Basically, I can have problems articulating words, which in my case usually manifest at the start of words or sentances.

If you've seen the film The King's Speech, that's a very good portrayal of what a stammer is. Stammering is generally considered to be a neurological condition, although the causes are unknown, and it affects people in different ways and to different severities. It usually starts in early childhood, during initial speech development, and can cause someone to repeat certain syllables, or to not be able to say anything at all. It has no effect on thought patterns or intelligence, only on the neurological functions needed to speak. In my cause, it's relatively minor - it doesn't affect my day-to-day speech too much, although it can be accentuated in certain situations, or when I'm stressed or nervous. There's no outright cure, although there are some ways to lessen the impact.

The best way I can describe what it feels like to me is that my brain moves faster than my mouth - I know exactly what I want to say, but my mouth and facial muscles don't move fast enough, and so they lock up - and I can't say anything. It's mostly just annoying, but it can get really frustrating, especially when there's someone who is standing there, wondering why I knocked on their door just to gawp at them like a fish! There are a few strategies I use to help - running words together, avoiding words starting with certain syllables - but how much it affects me on a particular day can vary hugely, depending on how I'm feeling, what's happened that day, how busy I am, and many other things.

I'm naturally quite an introverted chap (my stammer probably has something to do with that), so speaking to people on the doorstep doesn't come naturally to me - so I tend to stammer more when canvassing than in day-to-day life. But, after all, someone has to do it, and I want to make a difference to my area - to actually listen to people who aren't normally listened to. So I talk to people, and try to solve problems people are having, and try to make my community just that bit better.

And if you want to get involved in your local community, you want to go speak to people, but you're worried about canvassing - don't be. It's really not that bad. The vast majority of people are very friendly; the worst you'll get is someone saying 'Now's not a good time' and they shut the door again. In over 3 years of canvassing with a stammer, the number of times people have sweared at me or reacted angrily (which really doesn't help my stammer by the way) I can count on my fingers. If I can do it with a mild-to-moderate stammer, so can you!

So if I come to your doorstep, and it's a particularly bad day for my stammer - maybe someone told me to 'Get on with it!' a few doors down - thank you for your patience. I know exactly what I want to say, I will get there in the end, there's not much you or anyone can do to help at that moment, but I'll get there. And I'll listen to you, and hopefully I can help you instead.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Council cuts?


At the full County Council meeting in December, the Council voted to reverse both the cuts to the gritting routes, and the dimming & switching off of streetlights in towns and cities in Cambridgeshire (rural roads will still be affected). These are much-needed reversals - the dimmed streetlights in particular caused significant problems around Cambridge - but these reversals have been paid for out of the general reserves.

This is in no way sustainable, and highlights the bind the council is in - over the next 5 years, the Council is forced to make £123 million of savings due to cuts in funding from national government. This is around a quarter of the council's budget (for comparison, the total cost of services in 2015-16 was £412.2 million, and the council spent £147.3 million in capital investments). In 2016-17 alone, the council has to make £40 million in savings. The reduction in streetlights and gritting was meant to be around £1 million of this.

Most of these cuts are due to the government grant being removed - in 2014, the council received £84 million from the government; in 2019, it will be £0. The general reserves lets the council cushion service cuts like the streetlights & gritting in the short term, but at some point there will be no more reserves left - and then, irregardless of the impact or outcry, vital services that people depend on will have to reduce or stop altogether. And this will reduce the quality of life for thousands of the most vulnerable across the county, and potentially cost lives.

Last month we had the cross-county manifesto conference for the County & Mayoral elections in May. The completed manifesto is due to come out at the end of February, but in all our discussions the sheer scale of the budgetary challenge facing the council affected everything we talked about, from transport to social care to schools to the environment.

The maximum council tax raise the council can apply each year is 2%, plus an additional 2%-3% for social care (a 2% rise is an extra 45p a week for a Band C property); if the council applied this raise over the next few years, this will really help ameliorate the cuts and cushion the reduced funding to council services. But the Conservative and UKIP groups on the council refuse to raise council tax; the Conservatives are only willing to accept the 2% social care levy, and UKIP are against any raise whatsoever.

At some point, if no council tax raise is forthcoming, councillors will be forced to make decisions on which services must be cut - services that people depend on. I hope it doesn't reach that stage.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Future of Work

Last week I went to a Lib Dem policy discussion on 'The Future of Work' - discussing policy positions on the oncoming disruptive changes in employment caused by increased automation and more powerful software algorithms.

It was an interesting evening - we didn't come to any firm conclusions, but one thing was clear - the current economic and political systems are incapable of dealing with the forthcoming revolution in work, production, employment and economics. Without policies to help mitigate or smooth the changes, we risk an unprecedented consolidation of power that will be very hard to reverse.

Briefly, a bit of background. Over the past couple of decades, computers have become more and more adept at tasks that previously humans would do, and they are often better at it than us. Slowly our society and economy has become more computer-centric. Now, in the next few years, these changes will start moving into the physical world - driverless cars and 3D printers being the obvious examples. What will happen when these new tools become as ubiqutous as smartphones and algorithms are now? What will happen when whole sectors of the economy are replaced by computers and machines?

These changes are covered in much more detail in books such as Homo Deus and The Economic Singularity, but the conclusions are clear - we are on the verge of a fundamental change in how our world works, and we need to work out how to deal with it before it happens.

Now, obviously, we're dealing with the future here. This could all be rendered incorrect by some changes that we're not aware of at the moment. But the signs are increasingly pointing towards an economic shift that we haven't prepared for, and that have some troubling consequences.

The most obvious change is that, maybe, 10-20% of existing jobs could be replaced by computers (although some say it's much higher). That immediately raises the question of what happens to all those people who are suddenly out of a job, or, if part-time work becomes the norm, what everyone will do with their free time.

There is an argument that, just like in the industrial revolution, new jobs will be created that will fill the void. However, I would argue this is a quite different situation - we're on the verge of changes that will render the entire supply chain - design (algorithic iteration), raw material extraction, manufacture/assembly (3D printing, automated production), transport (driverless cars, drones), and waste disposal - requiring very few or no people involved on a day-to-day basis. The only role of humans would be consuming the manufactured goods in the middle. The economy would change from being human-centric to computer-centric - humans would just be a small part of the great machine we've built up around us. There wouldn't be many people required to keep the whole thing ticking along. This is in contrast to the industrial revolution, which supercharged the existing economic system, allowing human actions to be amplified far beyond what people could do by themselves.

This would mean that we could have a significant proportion of the population not needed to do anything, and the economy would happily carry on regardless. You could 3D-print most items, food would be grown, new products designed, with a minimal amount of human input.

However, the current economic and political systems are based on the premise that it is better to have a job than not, and a full-time job is better than a part-time job. Will we just end up with busywork; jobs existing for their own sake? What will happen to the wellbeing of such people doing 'useless' jobs? Or, if more and more people start to go part-time, what will they do with all their free time? Will you still be defined, and derive your self-image, largely from your job? What about income - how will the economy still run when the amount of cumulative income across the country drops? The need of the 'Protestant Work Ethic' becomes superfluous, as the economy can still happily carry on with most people working 50% of the time.

But the Protestant Work Ethic is what our government, society, self-image, and indeed what capitalism itself is based on! When the government is aways seeking to lower unemployment numbers and to get people into work, what will happen to those ideals when the jobs simply become unneeded and superfluous? Is it even possible for the mind-set of the Conservative and Labour parties to adapt to these changes? What will that mean for government policy?

One idea which was brought up very early on was the 'Citizens Income' - giving everyone a basic income irregardless of situation, need, or other income sources (it's already getting a few small-scale trials in a few countries). However, any large-scale implemetation of such an idea has some significant issues - where does all the money come from? Will we need to massively tax the well-off to pay for the Citizens Income to the rest of the population? What does that do to concepts of 'fairness' and capitalist fundamentals of 'you keep what you earn'? And how do we get there from where we are now?

Moving the focus to the owners of the computers - moving more and more of the economy to computers and machines gives a huge amount of power to the people and the companies that control and own said computers - but that is where our economy is going, based on the current ideas of ownership and control that have been the basis of our society and legal system for the past 200 years. The network effects that have given Google, Facebook, and Twitter so much power will be amplified by the move into the real world. Left unchecked, we'll be in a dystopic situation of the 'Gods and the useless' - a few people control the machines, with most people just consuming the products of those machines. And there would be nothing that they could do to wrest power away from those at the top, as they control everything (see China's Social Credit System). And if they attempt to disrupt, they risk destroying the basis of the entire economy.

But that situation follows on directly from our existing capitalist ideals of ownership and control. To avoid the 'Gods and the useless' requires work now to change our societal ideals and goals. And no one's sure that is possible, or how we go about doing it. But it does and it will affect everything, and any future policy, produced by the Lib Dems or anyone else, has to bear this in mind, else it will simply be irrelevant.

Friday, 7 October 2016

It's always about politics

Yesterday, I took part in the march against the congestion control points. I won't be discussing the proposals directly in this post (I've already done that elsewhere), but talk about something that was said at the rally on Parkers Piece:

"This is not about politics"

On the contrary, this is precisely about politics. This is what politics is all about. Politics is not a dirty word, it's not the purvue of the politicians, it's the process of making decisions that affect the community as a whole. Most decisions are pretty uncontroversial, and just happen behind the scenes. But when controversial decisions are taken, politics surfaces and you get marches on the streets.

This is why its so important for politicians to listen - politicians are only a small part of the community, and (more often then not) don't have the same range of backgrounds as their community as a whole. Whilst they represent their community, they don't have the same range of experiences and opinions as everyone in the community they represent. So they need to listen. They need to go and talk to people, talk to those whom they represent, and ensure that they have taken the whole range of views and opinions into account when they make their decisions.

This is why it is so dangerous when politicians assume they know what their community wants and needs on controversial decisions. The City Deal is a prime example - the only solution to congestion they're considering is the control points. Congestion in Cambridge is a difficult problem - there is no easy, obvious fix; there are downsides to all the possible solutions, and doing nothing is not an option. But the politicians involved in the City Deal have assumed that they know what their community wants, and so have assumed that PCCPs are the correct way to improve the congestion problem, and are basing everything on that solution, not even offering alternatives in the consultations.

As a result, people feel they haven't been listened to, that their opinions have been ignored or not considered. And these proposals will cause huge problems for a lot of people. So they do what they can to get their views across - marching through Cambridge.

Controversial decisions will invariably benefit some people and disadvantage others, but that's why it's important to talk to and listen to everyone's concerns beforehand, so that when the final decision is taken everyone can see and understand the tradeoffs made.

This is why politics matters.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Congestion Control Points

The City Deal hasn't been having an easy time of it recently. While most of the proposals (so far) have been concentrated in the north of the city (and I'll leave you to look up how those are progressing), there is one proposal that will have a big effect in the south - Congestion Control Points.

The basic idea is to stop cars getting into the city centre during the morning rush hour using ANPR cameras; there will be no physical barrier, but if you go through the cameras you'll be hit with a large fine. This will reduce the total amount of traffic in the city centre, as cars that don't go in the morning won't have to come out again in the evening.

The control points themselves would be on the three southern entrance roads - Hills Road, Mill Road, and Coldhams Lane, one on East Road, and two roads in the west of the city - Queen's Road and Grange Road.

While these will undoubtedly reduce traffic in the city centre itself, by simply banning all private cars, the scheme will cause problems elsewhere that make the whole idea seriously questionable.

Firstly, the City Deal's own analysis has said that the traffic will actually substantially increase on the roads just outside the control points - Coleridge Road, Cherry Hinton Road, sections of Mill Road, Brooks Road, Newmarket Road - which are right in the middle of big residential areas, with a consummate increase in pollution and and decrease in road safety (Mill Road is already questionable to cycle down at the best of times). And I suspect this will cancel out any improvements to bus times by reduced traffic in the city centre, as buses will have to use those roads as well.

Secondly, the control points are not an absolute barrier - there are ways round them, mostly using the already congested outer ring road. For commuters who are used to driving into Cambridge from further afield, a number of them will simply go round the control points - increasing the travel time, increasing the distance they drive, and moving more cars round the city. Or, alternatively, park just outside the control points and walk or take the bus (although, to be fair, the City Deal is also proposing a city-wide residents parking scheme. Given how controversial such local schemes are in my local area of Romsey and Coleridge, that proposal has its own issues to work though)

Thirdly, this will cause huge problems for local residents who need to go through the control points, while having absolutely no effect on those who don't. People who currently have no other choice but to drive across Mill Road bridge due to mobility issues, for example, will be well and truly stuffed (there is currently no exemption for blue badge holders), whereas people who have slightly different routes that dont go through the points will be completely unaffected. There are no exemptions, no allowances - you simply will not be able to drive across the bridge at peak times. At least, not without paying a hefty fine. But if your route doesn't go across the bridge, you will be completely unaffected (except for the increased traffic, of course).

There was another solution - congestion charging. Rather than singling out a few specific routes, this would simply apply across the whole city - reducing traffic wherever you were driving to, whilst still giving people the flexibility to drive just as they do now if they needed to. But that wasn't even put forward for consultation, leaving us with this ridiculous solution.

The proposals will definately decrease congestion in the city centre - which is the primary goal of the whole exercise, after all. But, just like the plans for Milton and Histon Roads, the proposals will have large negative effects for residents living in the area. The City Deal, yet again, suffers from a failure of imagination, and has simply gone for the simplest brute-force approach, without considering the effect on the local area and the rest of the city. This is simply not good enough.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Devolution

Among the many public consultations happening at the moment around Cambridgeshire is one on Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Devolution. This would bring together Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough and Cambridge City Councils, and Fenland, South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire District Councils, together with the Local Enterprise Partnership, under a Combined Authority chaired by a directly elected Mayor.

This Combined Authority would be responsible for transport infrastructure, extra housing funding, extra education and adult skills funding, and programs to improve skills and employment in the region.

The consultation can be accessed here, and an overview of the devolution deal is here.

Along with this deal comes an extra pot of money for new council houses in Cambridge - something that is really, really needed. There is a chronic shortage of housing in Cambridgeshire, and the money (for around 500 new houses) will really help. But it won't solve the problem - only a regular, consistent program from central government to build thousands and thousands of new houses will. The housing money will help alleviate the pressure in the short term, but the devolution deal is forever more.

There are some significant problems with the proposal itself:
  • Peterborough City Council is a unitary authority, not covered by Cambridgeshire County Council. This means that, on the Combined Authority, the residents of Peterborough will only get represented by 1 vote, where everyone else will get 2 (from the County Council, and from their District or City Council)
  • Once the Mayor is elected, he or she has got a lot of power with little oversight. The Mayor has a casting vote, and in some situations a 2/3 majority is needed to out-vote the Mayor. The Authority will appoint a Cabinet, but that only has an advisory role. There is a Overview & Scrutiny Committee, also appointed by the Authority, but that has no actual power to overturn or stop decisions made by the Authority. And an Audit Committee will oversee financial spending, but again, can only make recommendations. With regards to public consultations, the Government only 'expects the Combined Authority to monitor and evaluate their Deal', and there is no requirement to consult on any proposals or changes.
  • This is billed as 'Devolution', but in fact it is taking several powers from the County Council and Peterborough City Council, including education and skills, and transport provision.
  • The new Authority will be paid for by the constituent councils. The County Council in particular is critically short of money, and this is an extra expense it, and the taxpayers, could do without.
  • The Mayor and Combined Authority is in addition to the existing Councils. There's already confusion in Cambridge about which council deals with which function, imagine the confusion with the new Mayor and Authority added on top, as well as the City Deal!
But my main issue with devolution is the principle of the Mayor. A single person covering the entire area - trying to unite areas as different as Cambridge City (74% Remain) and Fenland (71% Leave).

Now, while Council meetings can sometimes be tedious and a bit dull, debate amongst councillors who each represent a small area, and who each have their own priorities and opinions, is the setup most likely to achieve a result that everyone is happy with, or at least can tolerate. Especially on a council with no overall control, like Cambridgeshire, compromise is essential to getting anything done.

But if there's just a single person taking responsibility, there is no debate and no compromise. You do not have a named, contactable person who represents you and your area, who you can lobby to get something changed, and will act in the best interests of your community. You get a single person who will just do what they see best, and an Authority, with little oversight, who have to work very hard to vote the Mayor down. That is not democracy.