Editor : David Kernek (kernekdavid@gmail.com)

Monthly Archive: March 2021

Voting systems: Proportional misrepresentation

Bath’s Liberal Democrat MP has been busy this week putting the case for changing our voting system … from First Past The Post (FPTP) to Proportional Representation (PR), although which of the various PR systems the Lib Dems currently favour isn’t known.

It isn’t a new enthusiasm for Mrs Hobhouse’s party; they’ve been on about it for many decades … understandably so, since its members know they’re unlikely ever to win a working majority at Westminster while voting is based on our traditional FPTP system.

Neither of the systems are perfect; unhelpfully, very sound cases can be made for – and against – both. What is striking – and worrying – about the Liberal Democrats is their unwillingness to recognize the weaker joints in the PR method.

Asking Bath’s Make Votes Matter campaigners to work with Labour party members for a change in Labour’s approach to PR, Mrs Hobhouse said: ‘Electoral reform is the right thing to do for democracy in our country. Our voting system is broken and our politics suffer accordingly. Under our current FPTP system, the votes of so many people simply do not count. I believe in people power. Making each vote matter will truly empower all voters in this country.’

So, the proposition is that PR is right for democracy … or at least that is the opinion of the party whose response to the UK’s democratic vote to leave the European Union was those ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ t-shirts. That could be – and was – read as ‘Bollocks to Democracy’. This regard for democracy was displayed in Parliament as the EUphile parties – including Tory Remainers – spent three years attempting to have the 2016 referendum result binned.

The deadlock was broken in December 2019, with a conclusive 80-seat Commons majority for a Tory administration which – despite its palpable deficiencies – was committed to implementing the referendum decision without further delay.

If that election had been fought on a PR system, the outcome would have been quite different. The likely outcome would have been a four-party coalition comprising Labour, Scottish National, Lib Dems and Greens – probably a short-lived dog’s dinner but one there long enough to have, one way or the other, the 2016 referendum vote binned and then reversed in a second plebiscite with the expectation that voters would, this time, regain their sanity and put their mark in the right box. So much, then, for the ‘people power’ championed by those advocating a switch to proportional representation.

Cutting corners on consultation

A letter sent to parents by the bursar at King Edward’s School (KES) suggests that Bath Council’s public consultations on its various schemes to get us all walking and cycling are not always quite as painstaking as they ought to be.

The bursar, Mr J. Webster, has written to KES parents about a proposed ‘Active Travel’ cycle and walking route from the town centre to the Bath University campus, via North Road. He says the school supports sustainable travel initiatives and infrastructure projects, and sees that a cycle route between the centre and North Road – linking to the existing cycle route along the Kennet and Avon canal – has the potential to encourage pupils and staff to get to the school by bike or e-scooter more safely. 

But KES has ‘significant concerns’ about potential adverse impacts of the proposed traffic management aspects of the scheme, and regrets that it is ‘disappointed that key council officers and councillors in the Cabinet had not taken the opportunity to visit the school prior to the final scheme being published and the consultation going live’.

These are the proposals the school flags up: 

  • The installation of a camera-controlled bus gate on North Road just above the school’s top entrance, with a view to stopping private vehicles from driving any further up North Road. A second option would also prevent cars from driving down North Road from the university through the bus gate. 

  • A section of Cleveland Walk between Sham Castle Lane and North Road would become one-way, with cars allowed to drive only towards the school along this stretch of road. Vehicles would no longer be able to turn into Cleveland Walk from North Road. 

  • Additional on-road parking proposed on North Road below the school’s lower entrance, on the right-hand side as you look down North Road, with the resultant narrowing of the passable space which, as we are already aware, can cause tailbacks in both directions.  

‘We consider,’ Mr Butler writes, ‘the proposals, as they stand, to be dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, with more cars either turning right into Cleveland Walk, or having to undertake a U-turn at this junction.

‘The current proposal does not seem to be supported by data. The school believes the collection of data over an extended period of time, when the school and university are in term time and COVID restrictions are no longer operating, is essential to assess objectively the potential impact of this proposal. There are currently several aspects of the proposal, and the rationale behind it, that seem not to have been considered as carefully or in as much detail as we would wish.’

The council’s consultation period ends on March 21. This link will provide more detail, and comments can be submitted by clicking on ‘have your say’ …

 City centre to University of Bath: Beckford Road and North Road | Bath and North East Somerset Council (bathnes.gov.uk) 

Fake Democracy: Vote, vote, vote … but for what?

Bath’s council reminds residents that on May 6 they can ‘have their say on who represents them at the West of England Mayoral Election and the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner election. In order to vote in these important elections, residents must be on the electoral register.’

How can these elections possibly be described as ‘important’?

The Con-Lib Dem coalition government (2010-2015) took an axe to genuine democracy in local government with the creation of state-funded post-holders and entities: directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs), and eight elected mayors, like what that London has, to run city-region combined authorities, the coalition’s bureaucratic answer to the case for an English devolution settlement. No compelling arguments were made for these costly changes, no public demand for them was perceptible, and the lively interest of voters in these elections has been strikingly conspicuous by its absence.

They’re ventures in Fake Democracy that are barely more than job creation programmes for party placepersons, suits looking for greasy poles up which to climb, and assorted waffle merchants. It’s not at all surprising that few if any protest petitions were raised or tears shed when, thanks to the Covid-19 emergency, last year’s spring elections for Police & Crime Commissioners – there are 41 – and the combined authority mayors had to be postponed and re-scheduled for May 2021. Very few voters know these posts exist and, even if many more of them did, there’s insufficient information on which judgements about an incumbent’s track record or a contender’s promises can be made by those bothered enough to exercise their precious right to vote.

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is not so much transparent as at best opaque and at worst invisible. By no stretch of the imagination is it the West of England, which when I last checked included Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset. The area covered by this quango is Bristol, South Gloucestershire (the posh name for Bristol’s dull northern suburbs), and Bath & NE Somerset. So it’s really Greater Bristol, the principal constituent parts of which – Bristol and Bath – have nothing resembling a shared sense of history and community. It’s a line drawn on a map by a manager – or a handsomely-reimbursed management consultant – who’s noticed that they’re quite close miles-wise and connected by roads and a railway line. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the map of the WECA area resembles that the of the appalling Avon County Council, created in 1974 and put out of its misery in 1996.

Its board comprises the leaders of the three pre-existing local councils, which have relinquished to the authority responsibility for transport, housing, adult education and skills, for which WECA has a £1 billion, 30-year budget. The board is led by its elected mayor – currently a Conservative previously unknown outside South Gloucestershire – whose annual “allowance” or salary as a professional politician is currently an agreeable £65,000. He was elected on a deeply-uninspiring turn-out of 29.7%. WECA’s chief executive is on £150,000 a year, which compares with the £143,462 salary of the prime minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

Next in line at the magic money tree are the directly-elected Police & Crime Commissioners, sinecures signed off by Theresa May during her Home Office years. Championed by the Tories and the Lib Dems, directly-elected PCCs replaced police authorities that comprised elected local councillors – they normally came with political party labels – and nominated independents, including three magistrates, representing local communities. These authorities, it was argued weakly, had problems in the perceived lack of accountability department.

The 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 requires PCCs to appoint Chief Constables and when necessary fire them. They must also … Waffle Warning …:

  • Secure an efficient and effective police force
  • Set police and crime objectives for their area through a police and crime plan
  • Set the force budget
  • Contribute to national and international policing capabilities set out by the Home Secretary
  • Bring together community safety and criminal justice partners, to make sure local priorities are joined up

Avon and Somerset’s current PCC is Sue Mountstevens, an independent who at her first run in 2012 was elected on a derisory turn-out of 19.58%, and re-elected in 2016, when voter interest had skyrocketed to, er, 26%. Never mind; however meagre the mandates, the uplifting salary is fixed: £85,000. Ms Mountstevens is not running for a third term, but we can be sure that the self-evident lack of voter interest in this post will not deter the cream of the crops – retired police and army officers, magistrates, ex-MPs and local councillors – answering the call to serve.

Ms Mountstevens’ watch cannot be said to have gone as she might have wanted. Bath no longer has a police station, and in Bristol a mob is given by the police a free pass to pull down a statue because to have prevented an act of criminal damage would, says the Chief Constable, have “risked a violent confrontation”. Yes, arresting people about to commit a crime can sometimes pose a risk of violence, or perhaps that’s not in the training these days.

But she has been far from alone in disappointing the hopes that so few had for this innovative leap forward in policing. There have been squabbles across England and Wales between PCCs and chief constables, and raised eyebrows about their staff appointments and expenses, the cost of the elections and embarrassingly low voter turn-outs; some have slid below 15%. Mrs May rated the policy a mixed success; which bit actually worked?

And, as in Bristol and Bath, there is as yet no evidence that policing across England and Wales has in any way improved, and that the calibre and efficacy of local government in so-called city-regions with combined authorities and directly-elected mayors – additional, unnecessary and costly tiers of bureaucracyis a fraction of a smidgeon higher than they were before these pointless innovations.

Hard times …

The Duke of Woke: ‘My family literally cut me off financially, and I had to afford security for us. I was cut off in the first quarter of 2020.’

Just as well, then, there was that £6.5 million inheritance from Lady Di.

Time’s up for Bath’s gulls?

For many in Bath they’re pests and to others they are our feathered friends deserving the protection the law currently affords them. Anti-gull action is permitted by Natural England only if it is satisfied that interference with nests and eggs is necessary to protect public health and safety. The law applies to gulls across the land, those by the sea and those now known inland as urban gulls.

In normal, pre-Plague times, the gulls are seriously noisy facts of life in Bath’s town centre – from Kingsmead Square to the abbey – with its plethora of litter-generating fast-food outlets.

Help for residents adversely affected by gulls – from health risks and the noise they make – might be on the way. Bath & North East Somerset Council wants evidence about the impact urban gulls can have on residents. Its findings will be included in an application to Natural England for a licence to control gull populations in urban areas.

It wants residents who have experienced ill-effects from gulls in the past year to record their problems and opinions on an online form that can found here: https://beta.bathnes.gov.uk/form/report-gulls

Councillor Paul Crossley, cabinet member for Community Services, says: ‘Gulls in our cities and towns can cause pose a risk to public health and safety, creating a health risk through fouling. Their nest debris can block pipes and guttering, which attracts parasites and increases building maintenance costs. We are looking for information from residents about whether they have suffered ill-effects from gull activity. Perhaps you have been attacked by a gull or your health has been affected from living near areas where gulls are particularly active. This is going to be useful information that will help us tackle gull issues effectively in the near future, so please share your experiences with us.’

The most effective measures for controlling gull problems, says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, involve reducing the availability of food and reducing the attractiveness of nest-sites. In Bath, that must mean tackling the fast-food outlet problem and enforcing anti-litter laws.  

Census 2021 – how to get a paper form

Sunday, March 21 is Census Day in England and Wales. The Office for National Statistics wants all of us to complete the Census form online – what could possibly go wrong? – but seems to grudgingly accept that there’ll be some who will not have a) a computer b) a decent internet connection and c) a clue how to use a computer. Others might have a suspicion that the ONS website will crash, and yet more others who out of sheer bloody-mindedness will insist on 20th century technology – a paper form.

Census 2021,’ says the ONS, ‘is online-first and so paper forms are considered a secondary mode of completion.’

For a ‘secondary mode of completion’ call 0800 328 2021 and ask for a paper form, or go to https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/censustransformationprogramme/questiondevelopment/census2021paperquestionnaires from which the 32-page form – in English or Welsh – can be downloaded.

How not to tax trash

Want to see an increase in fly-tipping? Just slap a tax on trips to the tip, says Bath businessman Martin Grixoni  

The recent budget by the Liberal Democrat Council of Bath & North East Somerset has many facets designed to balance the books, and some sensible suggestions for doing so in the challenging times we all face. It also has, however, a number of items of concern. I fear that all too often the pet projects of this administration overtake the reality of successfully running the ‘business’ of a city the size and complexity of Bath. Among many concerns, I pick on one today for the sheer brilliance of its short-sightedness. 

I read that there’s an intention to introduce a local ‘Tip Tax’, charging for household DIY items such as plasterboard and smaller items of building material. The rather simplistic summary is that this will not save the advertised £71,000, but will surely just disadvantage the less well-off, reduce re-cycling, and increase fly-tipping. There will be commensurate costs not only to the council with extras such as enforcement action, but also to landowners around the city who would be the innocent recipients of this waste. I have always applauded Bath for encouraging better methods of waste disposal and re-cycling; it now seems we are blindly heading in the wrong direction.

The better-off in the city might be able to afford this ‘Tip Tax’, or would employ firms to dispose of such waste commercially.  But the less well-off are more likely to be tempted to do their own disposal, and a proportion will, sadly, resort to fly-tipping … straight into the river, the canal or fields, as they have done previously but now surely would do so more. There would be excessive bonfires, where a proportion will always get out of hand – never mind the smoke pollution produced.  This happened when the tip in Bath was one of the very last in the country to open last summer, for as yet unexplained reasons.  Making it harder to re-cycle produces, in my estimation, a very simple response – less re-cycling and more fly-tipping. 

It was said at the council’s budget meeting that there was no evidence of extra fly-tipping when charges are introduced, with Somerset being used as an example. This was lauded as evidence-based policy. But a request for the figures from Somerset, which has been charging for such things since 2011, showed an overall increase of, er, between 32%-73% in different areas of the county – evidence indeed!  Interestingly, the place with the highest increase – Bridgwater – has a river and a canal; draw your own conclusions! 

But it shouldn’t just be me reading what comes across as a bad detective novel:

·       The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a study due out on this very topic, but its stance is that Household Waste Recycling Centres should not charge for household waste, including waste from DIY projects. 

  • The Countryside Alliance reported studies from the Universities of Southampton and Portsmouth showing a 300% increase in fly-tipping around the country when access to tips was restricted.
  • Other research indicates that such waste is in the top five of items fly-tipped, with a million incidents in England last year, 60% of which were household items and a cost of £57 million to clear up. 
  • The resources charity WRAP and the National Fly Tipping Prevention Group showed that when charges were introduced, there was a reduction of DIY ‘materials’ by up to 70%. 

My simple question on that last point would be: Where does it go? See above for suggestions!  

Bath had risen to 18th in the whole country for re-cycling when the Lib Dem administration took over. We should be encouraging re-cycling, not discouraging it. By not opening tips when you could do, by still having an inefficient booking system when you don’t need it, and now proposing to impose a tax when you shouldn’t, the council is yet again creating more problems than it intended to resolve. The ineptest positive offered by Coun. Wood, who oversees these things, is that there would be fewer car journeys to the tip, and this would be good as we are in a climate emergency … You really couldn’t make it up!

A petition has been started after universal derision on the Nextdoor platform, and I urge you to read and sign it …   https://www.change.org/Stop-the-Tip-Tax

Other comments from concerned residents are as follows:

  • ‘I already pay for the tip in my council tax. Will I get a refund if we turn to pay-as-you-use? (Charlotte Hook – Locksbrook)
  • ‘Ridiculous ideas from B&NES Council .,. building social cohesion in Bath?!’ (Punit Shah – Dolemeads)
  • ‘The council should welcome all rubbish from householders. After all, we already pay for it and in the end people will just dump or burn rubbish as an alternative to paying the tax. It isn’t the money, it’s the principle.’… (Mark Stricklin – Weston Park)
  • ‘I can’t believe how irresponsible and bonkers this idea is, given that the council surely has a responsibility, now more than ever, to encourage safe and responsible disposal of waste and re-cycling.’ (Carlo Bacchiocchi – Oldfield Park)
  • ‘Charging just makes it tempting to fly tip. They won’t make money in the totality. Small minded thinking.’ (Clive Perriman – Kingsmead)
  • ‘Now it all makes sense. Rather than have an existing person lean against a wall at the re-cycling centre watching and directing people to dispose of rubbish responsibly, they can now redeploy people onto fly tipping collection duties and employ a controller to direct them in real time. Oh, and better have a department head, after all they will need admin staff (there is money to collect, accounts to reconcile,  queries to be answered, banking to be done etc) Maybe extra vans to be purchased, more fly tipping means more collections, and of course van servicing (that’s the mechanics job secured). And when everything is moved to Keynsham, it will be a one-hour return trip to get to that mattress that’s been dumped in Victoria Park. Phew, crisis over, jobs secured. And what about the budget, I hear you ask? Don’t fret. Dealing with fly tipping and rubbish collection is a core council activity, paid for from our council tax. They can cancel other things to pay for it!’ (Glyn Duffield – Bloomfield)

https://nextdoor.co.uk/p/gm4PrQkbXDgZ?view=detail

Prince Harry has blamed the UK media for his decision to step back from Royal duties: ‘We all know what the British press can be like. And it was destroying my mental health. I was like, this is toxic.’

Yeh, we all, like, know that …