Elephant in the counting room

The major question – ‘the elephant in the room’ – at Fareham Council’s budget meeting last week was:  How can we remedy the Central Government’s damage?  And the most cohesive answer was provided by Cllr. Roger Price – Leader of Fareham’s Liberal Democrat Group.

He told councillors: “This Conservative government has made it impossible for this council to provide the services Fareham residents want.”

For Fareham, three issues rise above all other complaints of centralised incompetence:

  • Major Environmental Improvements – an all-party concern, with scope for wider public involvement in policy development – particularly by engaging with young people and climate-change activists.
  • Housing – working to overcome glaring contradictions in Whitehall’s policies so that we can retain vital green spaces between communities.  The health of residents, the economy and our environment, is also an all-party concern.
  • Reviewing the value of the Council’s office space – yet another all-Party concern that could save money and improve our effectiveness.

These three areas of concern provide scope for action with broad appeal beyond party politics.  The real test will come when firm proposals emerge, but the agenda for progressive policy development will depend on the results of the elections next May.

See Roger’s full speech.

Your future is in the post

If you watched BBC News South Today last week you may have noticed that the show ran a segment about the local elections scheduled for next May – and whether they might be cancelled.

South Today was not alone. Media outlets, Press, TV and Radio, across the UK all had this topic injected into their editorial priorities. A quick Google News search shows a remarkable uniformity of timing and content.

Most of these reports sought to reassure people that a further delay would not happen. But this sudden media attention (and a question in Parliament) served to test the strength of the democratic barricades.

The editorial line taken by the BBC was that the May elections might possibly be further delayed, and the government has already decided against an all-Postal vote – apparently out of an NHS-like concern for the Royal Mail.

Some outlets dutifully included concerns about voter fraud despite all-postal trials showing the scope for a reduction of the already miniscule problem. So now we’ve all been forewarned – put on notice of potential cancellation.

There is a crazy logic behind all this that would certainly appeal to this government. They’ll have the cover of a ready-made health excuse and a certain enthusiasm to avoid voter judgement on Brexit outcomes or their management of pandemic responses.

Next November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow is being primed to present the UK’s global climate credentials – despite the fact that they failed last week to block the creation of a new coal mine in Cumbria.

Make no mistake – these local elections are hugely important. Registration for Postal Voting is picking up and your Council’s Democratic Services department is already thinking through how the process can be made safe.

It may be just a Local election. It may be that no more than the usual 40% might bother to vote. It may be that central government can see no harm in delay. It may be that they think that the ‘branch offices’ are a giant waste of money and get in the way of cosy deals with developers.

But this is also the first opportunity that our communities will have to demand better local governance as an antidote to overcentralisation. If not already registered for a Postal Vote, get your application in now – before it’s too late.

Minors are future majors

They should not be discouraged

When the Daily Echo ran a story recently featuring the likely sea-rise impact on Southampton, it unleashed a torrent of outraged climate change denial. Climate Central’s data was viewed as preposterous, extremely unlikely and unwarranted fearmongering. Barely 20% of respondents agreed with the report.

That reaction – the refusal to countenance the full impact of the way we live now – is perfectly understandable. There are not many things these days as trusted as bricks and mortar . . . as safe as houses. Unfortunately, that trust flies in the face of science. While countries are firmly in the grip of an addiction to never-ending growth, it is difficult to face up to the consequences of damage to our planet.

This deep resistance to radical change is a central concern in Jason Hickel’s studies summarised in his book, Less Is More. You may recoil from his remedies and, like Echo readers, dismiss such analysis as preposterous propaganda. It does, however, form part of a fresh and enlightened approach to curricula development.

Readers who cannot tolerate Greta Thunberg’s criticisms of leadership or close their minds to any alternatives to capitalism, are unlikely to be planning to move to higher ground. 2050 may seem a very long was away. Surely the children will find a solution. Or maybe the scientists are just plain wrong? Maybe we should cross our fingers or pray harder for deliverance? Or maybe we should, at the very least, be working harder right now to resolve the funding prioritisation of sea defences.

But more than that, the sad thing is that we should by now know that we must change. Science has been clear about this for decades. Brilliant minds have espoused parts of solution. Communities and entire nations can adapt to more circular economies, understand doughnut economics, drastically reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and reset societal priorities to reduce inequality and increase wellbeing – and, in some countries, that is happening. But none of that is likely to happen with the current crew in charge of the UK.

Fortunately, young people really do know better. They may not yet be allowed to vote, they may not yet be skilled at leadership, but they will be challenged to live in the mess we are bequeathing. They will, one hopes, not be fooled as their parents have been fooled. Our greatest contribution will be to not discourage them.

Changing the lightbulbs

Are Fareham’s communities thriving? And, if not, what can be done?

There are umpteen ways of gauging local communities. Do people want to live here? Is there work? Good schools? Full fibre? Are the natives friendly? Affordability? Clean air?

Positive answers to most of these questions are very much in the hands of the local council. How concerned are Councillors with Fareham’s 3000 households suffering fuel poverty or the families reliant on food banks to feed their children? What priority will they give to climate change actions?

It is far too easy to shift the blame for all our local woes onto central government – just as it was for them to shift the blame for their poor economic management onto ‘foreigners’. If you feel that your community is not thriving, it’s well worth asking why.

Within the patch managed by Fareham Borough Council we have many different communities and many different priorities – but how many of those standing for election next May really understand what’s going on?

Communities vary – some are tight-knit, cohesive and strictly law-abiding. Others might be looser, more individualistic and yearning for freedom. The balance between tight and loose will always be shifting. What matters more is how much support there is for stuff that really matters – our social foundations and the environment – and serious efforts to tackle our shortfalls.

But how much do we really know about our communities here in Fareham? Your Council has started to try and measure the air damage from its own operations but there is much more to discover – and no requirement (yet) for local businesses to do similar audits.

Similarly, we know a little about fuel poverty (affecting very nearly 3,000 local households) but we must surely focus on the details for all aspects of healthy living. It may be complex, but tools are available , and there is little excuse for ignoring deprivations.

Next May we will have no ordinary local election. Our Council seats come up for re-election every four years. But with the deferred elections from last May, half of all Council seats will need to be filled. Time to focus a spotlight on our communities’ priorities. How many Councillors do we need to change Fareham’s light bulb?

Fareham’s new realities

Gone are the days when the daily trek to Waterloo or wherever swallowed the early and late hours. Now employers question why their ventures spent so much on offices and why they ever needed physical meetings – and the scope for Fareham to be more than a sleepy dormitory town is so much greater.

Just a few months back the demise of local shopping was a real concern. With the collapse of some chain stores, and the ravages of Covid, it still is. But with the shift to online shopping for the boring essentials and much more working from home, the future scope for Fareham’s small ventures is tremendous – more potential daytime customers and less money drifting away every day on the train to town.

Are we caring enough for local small retailers? How do we ensure that the money stays longer within our local economy? Could the shopping centre’s landlords be persuaded to revive its half-empty malls by offering low-rent space to the niche small retailers of West Street?

As for the online revolution, what a pity, as a community, we never invested in a decent full fibre digital provider instead of those creaking copper merchants whose products daily demonstrate their stuttering distorted inadequacy on our screens.

When Covid kicked off everyone hoped that we’d soon get back to normal. Now, we are learning that many of us can live and work very differently. That old moribund economy has gone. Welcome to a very new normal – a Fareham of fresh opportunities.

Imagine if our local authority had authority

I remember the time, way back, when the school RI syllabus changed from (Christian) Bible Study to Comparative Religion – a far more interesting, more-inclusive, approach that opened our young minds to a world we would not have encountered.

Ever since, I’ve approached any challenging study by standing back and surveying the wider scene. The thorny topic of how we are, or perhaps could be, governed is a classic case. How often do we recall the theme tune of The Magic Roundabout, and Dougal, shaking his head sorrowfully and muttering, ‘ What a way to run a railway ’.

The governance question is particularly relevant at this Covid time. The downsides of a highly centralised regime are only too apparent. But alternatives are difficult to imagine. We have a complex mix of Metro, County and Local bodies, with competing tensions, widely different community needs, vested interests, and arcane budget formulae whose rationale seems lost in ancient history – as we call last year.

So I found myself listening to Bo Frank – not least because, back in 2010, I led a Scottish delegation to Sweden in search of Full Fibre futures. Bo was Mayor of a town we didn’t visit, but one that seems typical of the many places we explored.

Växjö’s overall population is comparable to Fareham, and similarly spread over several communities. Bo Frank was Mayor or deputy mayor from 1991-2016 and is now president of the council. The place also has a strong boating community – albeit an inland lake rather than the Solent or Portsmouth harbour. It was that lake, or rather its pollution, that in 1996 set the communities on a determined environmental mission to become fossil free by 2030 – and there the similarities end.

There is no substitute for listening to this 22-minute podcast via Spotify. Settle down and absorb the many differences between Fareham and Växjö. Then ask yourself what Fareham Borough Council would do if it had the same sense of responsibility and authority as Växjö. Suggestions welcome in the comments section below.

Ruling The Waves?

A cold shower of reality. This is 2020. Few of us will be here in 2100, but this is not just because we don’t all expect to live for another 80 years.

Very few of us will be here in 2100 simply because large parts of here will be going, going, gone — along with many of the houses, roads, businesses and fields we know so well.

Rising sea levels may not seem to be an urgent problem — and, anyway, we are supposed to have a coastal defence plan. But our grandchildren are also likely to have a lesson in nature’s exponential arithmetic.

Sea walls at Hill Head need constant repairs

It seems increasingly unlikely that climate warming will be constrained to +2℃. The current Paris Agreement (+1.5℃ target) is already seen as inadequate and unlikely to be achieved. The plan assumes, of course, that every country will stick to their international agreements to limit global warming. How likely is that?

The latest observations suggest that the rate of sea-level rise may double every 20 years.

This year’s rise in sea level may not seem very much at all. But, as it rises faster, year on year, the cumulative effect is huge. 5mm a year in 2020 becomes an extra 1cm/p.a. in 2040 and, by 2100 the rate will be accelerating by +8cm every year.

That adds up to a lot of extra water — between 1 to 2 metres. It adds up to a lot less habitable land, more local islands, probably a growth in ferry services, no skiing holidays, many more beaches and houses built on stilts. And that doesn’t count inland flooding from extreme weather events, also triggered by climate change.

‘The last time our world was a couple of degrees warmer — during the Eemian interglacial 125,000 years ago — sea level was between six and nine metres higher than it is today.’ — Prof. William J McGuire, UCL

London is currently protected by the Thames Barrier. It was designed and built as an urgent response to the UK’s East Coast flood of 1953 — a catastrophic combination of high tides and poor weather. When completed in 1982 the barrier was expected to be needed perhaps twice a year. Last year the barrier was raised 9 times. It will be useless once the sea level has risen more than 2 metres. Some pundits may suggest that the Eemian is a poor guide to the future, arguing that there is little symmetry between the heating of the poles, but recent Antarctic observations provide little comfort.

Meanwhile, here on the UK’s South coast, the local plan to hold back the waves is, apparently, stalled while people argue about which latter-day Cnut might pay for it. There’s no sign yet of any plan to retreat from low-lying places around here, but, if we were interested, there’s a wealth of experience to be found in Asia and southern parts of the USA. Alternatively, we might, perhaps, gain some time if our governments realise that their aspirations to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 will achieve far too little, far too late.

Like glaciers, time is melting away. Governments and large organisations are rarely good at sustaining long term plans. Sustainability is an individual choice. Each of us must now choose the life we leave to our grandchildren.

Covid: Knowing our place

We should all be thankful that here in Fareham we are one of the Local Authorities least affected by Covid-19.

Leicester’s latest local lockdown, however, raises key questions for all Local Authorities and their communities.

It is now abundantly clear that Leicester’s local management was not fully aware of its Covid-19 crisis. Central government had a rough idea that there was a problem but didn’t share the data or act on it quickly.

But would our Local Authority have managed any better? How well do we know our place? Fareham’s Borough Council is surely not a mere agency of the national Head Office – or at least we would hope not. For who can trust the current competence of Head Office?

Here in Fareham, we and all our residents and local employees need to know that our Local Authority is totally on top of the metrics. And the only way that we will know that is by openly publishing critical up-to-date information.

We should, at least, know the answers to seven basic questions:

  • Is our local population infection rate under control?
  • Is our local healthcare system capacity sufficient?
  • Do we have sufficient local testing and contact tracing, and is the system working effectively and efficiently?
  • How well are folk in Fareham complying with public health safety measures?
  • How well are we ensuring the protection and preparedness of essential workers?
  • Are we protecting and preparing places where people are gathered – like Care Homes?
  • What are we doing to ensure preparedness of businesses for reopening?

The answers for Fareham may be comforting, but this is not rocket science*. These are very basic questions that sit on top of a host of finer detail – essential metrics that must be monitored locally to ensure your community management is in safe hands.

Since the crisis in Leicester, more data on infection rates in every Local Authority has become available but few places, if any, have a complete overview of the current situation in sufficient detail to enable rapid hyper-local responses to any new outbreak. Any lack of local insight illustrates dependency on over-centralised systems – an abdication of local authority.

Here in Fareham, we are truly fortunate to be among the least-affected, but questions of trust remain: How well do we know our place? What can we do locally to reduce the future risk of dependence on outsourced management?

*A full list of the main and subsidiary metrics was compiled by Johns Hopkins University together with a clear specification of the granularity required to identify ‘at risk’ sections of society. The list shown above is a local adaptation of an American text issued by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Fareham’s foreign policy

Don’t be daft. Whoever heard of ‘Fareham’ at the G20? Or the World Trade Organisation?

Why not? You may not have traveled much, but have you never thought you might be part of a bigger picture?

But hang on, surely isn’t that why we’ve got all those clever clogs at the Foreign Office?

Precisely. Clever clogs. Thousands of them, mostly caught up in the complex cogwheels of trade agreements and international affairs – all desperately leaning on giant levers in some superior signal box (Grade II listed) hoping to divert the next train crash.

So, your point is?

My point, Sir, is that them up there do far less than half the job, and the rest is down to us – not that they’d admit it. They do what they think is the hard stuff. But none of that works out if we don’t deliver the soft power.

Foreign Policy has two elements – hard and soft. They – that lot up in London – are the hard power merchants, all carrots and sticks, negotiating bribes and sanctions. But we, all of us, have the soft power – the WD40 willpower that eases the rust, bolsters the trust, and keeps the show on the road.

But what’s all that to do with Fareham? And how can anyone talk about refining something that isn’t very obvious? And, anyway, who gave us permission to do any of this?

Stop scratching your head. Go ask your children. Ask them what languages they’re learning at school. Ask them if they’ve seen any foreign films recently or played any games made in Japan or China or India. Ask if they have any mates in Sweden, or Scotland, or wherever. Ask them where on this planet they will choose to study. Ask if they’ve read any international best sellers written by authors from Portchester, or streamed music on their smartphones.

And ask yourself how many friends you know around the world, or where you went on holiday, or what sort of cookbooks are on your kitchen shelf, or where your car was made. Where are the boundaries of your worlds? The other side of Southampton or Portsmouth? Are there dragons over there? Does your Far North start at Winchester or Reading?

Soft Power is all the stuff that the central government doesn’t get. The value of trusted reputations and informal connections. The need to work with neighbours. The value of a critical (and trusted) BBC. Taking a tough line on tax evasion and offshore fiddling. The vital necessity of giving Covid-19 vaccines to impoverished countries not blessed with an NHS. The mind-stretching value of public libraries. The entire point of Overseas Aid. The need to be seen leading responses to the climate crisis – and not just by stopping pollution of the Solent. The value of cutting corruption and sharing our good fortune to help those less fortunate – not least asylum seekers.

So how do we invest in this extraordinary Soft Power of our communities?

It is not that unusual for UK Local Governments to have Foreign Policies. Anyone who has ever thought for a nanosecond about our local economy will know the massive importance of pan-European and wider global connections for inward investment. Some communities (for example, Bristol) have a dedicated senior director of international relations.

Here in Fareham we don’t fare too badly – we have biennial cultural exchanges with a distant part of Brittany, and a not-so-small small town in Germany, and very strong links through the maritime, aerospace and education sectors – but there is so much more that we could be doing, and (this is important) not just for ourselves.

And so much more we could be doing to help the central government with Foreign Policy priorities. Have they not thought about getting the G20 to sort out a global rescue plan to offset Covid-19 damage like the UK did for the 2008 banking bother? Do they not understand that the climate cannot be bribed or sanctioned?

In retrospect, those 1980s privatisations were not, perhaps, such a very good idea – and that’s something we can track and trace through the Covid-19 experience. But that market fad for demutualisation was even worse – particularly now the value of sticking together is blown and we urgently need to rebuild well-regulated cooperative relationships.

Suggestions for refining Fareham’s Foreign Policy are always welcome. Especially as most of our communities may not even realise we’ve ever had such a thing.

OK, I’ll think about it. Arrivederci.

Do it now

Few communities have not lost souls to Covid-19. Here in Fareham, with only 100 deaths, it seems that we are escaping lightly – leastways, so far. But each of those 100 deaths is a tragedy for families and friends, neighbours, work colleagues, carers, the nurses, doctors and emergency crews racing to rescue.

And for every one of the 100 for whom we grieve, hundreds of our local people are now caught up in their struggles to recover – some, perhaps, only mildly affected but others feeling as if they’ve endured six rounds in the ring with a champion boxer. Their families and our entire community have taken a massive knock. Even for those not directly touched by the virus, the pandemic’s ripples are impacting on jobs, on how we live and how our children will learn.

The wider world has no better news – anguish and despair on all sides. We may despair but cannot ignore. Through the gloom we wonder what we can do, how can we plan, how can we lift our sights to any brighter future? We are not for giving up. We have work to do. We must think again. It is not too late.

So, Do It Now

When You Are Dying It Is Too Late

To plant that tree,

To eat less meat, more fruit & veg,

To help your neighbour,

To cycle more than motor,

To vote for reform,

To teach your children’s children

To learn

When you are dying it is too late

To grow more flowers,

To burn less wood,

To make great art,

To give, to hope, to share, invest,

To never be remembered for saving the planet.

When you are dead it is far too late

To say, sorry.

So, do it now, please.