Merger or takeover?

On the surface of it a merger of the backroom functions of Wandsworth and Richmond Councils looks a ‘no brainer’ as the current phrase has it.  Considerable savings by reducing the numbers of staff have been achieved elsewhere by this route, though sometimes services have suffered as well.

Yet there is something wrong when the first a Councillor hears of it is in the Wandsworth Guardian; when the Leader of the Council gives an interview in which he never mentions the word ‘Councillor’ once, let alone shows any interest in engaging the elected representatives of the Boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond in the decision.

It sounds very much like this is going to be another example of the majority group forcing through its will without even listening to alternative views.  The best recent example was when the Finance Scrutiny Committee took a decision to investigate whether Ward Budgets worked elsewhere and whether they might be an option here for engaging people more in their local communities.  The Conservative leadership’s top priority at the next Council meeting was not to discuss closing the Battersea Sports Centre, or threats to libraries or the Tooting running track – it was to prevent the Finance Committee from even talking to other Council about their experience. I still don’t really know why they were so scared of letting backbenchers find out what others were up to – maybe the fear of finding out that Wandsworth is not always the best in the business (something which is unarguable) was at its heart.

Shared management arrangements inevitably affect the work of a Councillor on behalf of local residents.  Senior staff only spend half the week in the building.  The degree to which one council can direct officers to devote time to a particular policy is severely limited by their obligations to the other council.  Scrutiny, which is supposed to be the opportunity for Councillors to monitor and challenge the performance of the Council, becomes more complicated.  Either officers have to face two separate scrutiny functions from the two Councils (what happens if they disagree?) or there have to be joint scrutiny panels made up of councillors from both authorities. At the moment from what I can tell Richmond values the contribution that backbenchers make through Scrutiny, allowing or even encouraging them to carry out investigations into matters of importance to local people, while Wandsworth prevents councillors from doing this.  Would Wandsworth Councillors on joint Scrutiny be allowed to join their Richmond colleagues in such work or would Wandsworth seek to prevent Richmond Councillors from doing it?

Evidence from the various councils which have gone through mergers like this suggest that if Councillors are involved from the start the outcome is a more positive one than when only the politburo has any say and other Councillors are whipped into agreeing or ignored.  In most of the cases I have looked at there has been a joint group of councillors set up at the start to go and discuss with other councils their experience of such arrangements.  Any attempt by a Wandsworth Committee to do that would be crushed by the Cabinet if past behaviour is anything got go by.

This is a bad enough start.  The timing makes it worse.  Wandsworth has lost a vast amount of experience recently as senior officers have retired, including the Director of Education and his Deputy, the Director of Technical Services, the Director of Housing, the Head of Corporate Affairs, the Director of Leisure and Amenity Services.  The new structure has not had time to bed in yet.  At the same time the Cabinet has chopped the amount of time the rest of us can spend looking at services and sharing our experience by slashing the times each Committee meets from six times a year to just four and cutting one Committee altogether.  This is obviously good for the Cabinet because it gets an easier time but it is not so good for local residents.  I wonder if the dreadful failure over the freedom pass would have happened if there had been more chance to scrutinise it?

Finally, the kind of management structure needed for the future depends on our shared vision as elected councillors of what that future should look like for our Borough.  But that is a question which is of absolutely no interest to the powers that be in Wandsworth. Richmond is rather more visionary.  If this continues it is inevitable that the new structure will be more tailored to the needs of Richmond than of Wandsworth – a takeover rather than a merger.  And those needs are dramatically different – the richest local authority in the country alongside one with enduring pockets of inner city depravation.

Stephen Knight, opposition leader in Richmond, is calling for a referendum on this issue.  I am generally not a fan of referenda – we elect governments (local or national) to take decisions on our behalf based on their judgment and if we don’t like their judgment we vote them out.  The one exception is if there is a change to the rules by which we are governed.  This clearly fits the bill.  If the Wandsworth leadership remains true to form and exclude all other views from consideration then this might be the right way forward.

Decline and fall

This evening’s Council meeting has clarified a lot of issues.

The most important was that at last I got a clear and unequivocal answer on the libraries. I asked the Cabinet Member, Jonathan Cook, if he could give a cast-iron guarantee that the out-of-town centre libraries would remain open until the end of the Council’s term in 2018.  His answer was no.  After all that stuff about ‘no plans’, ‘no threat’ and so on we now have the truth – the Council might close Southfields library and/or the others under some conditions.

To a political insider though there were other matters of equal interest. The Conservative whipping and the paranoia it represents is fraying seriously round the edges.  We had a debate on a paper I had brought to Committee proposing that we go and have a look at what other councils do with ‘Ward budgets’, small sums that can be used for local projects.  The Cabinet Member, Councillor Senior, had invested a lot of his political capital and credibility on trying to persuade the Committee to reject the proposal.  He failed and the Committee supported the proposal by 6 votes to 5.

It is really strange, to my mind, that the Cabinet even opposed it in the first place. But tonight they put forward an amendment that in effect prevented the Committee even talking to anyone else about whether giving a small budget for each councillor to use in the ward might in some circumstances be a good idea.

The arguments in favour were very powerful, admittedly. One was that Councillors are too greedy and would not use such a scheme properly.  (Where else would you get someone arguing ‘we shouldn’t do this because you can’t be trusted’ and get the response ‘oh yes, good point, I am selfish and unreliable so I had better oppose this’?)  Another was that people are too stupid to be allowed to make decisions for themselves even over tiny sums, so we have to make sure that we take all council spending decisions for them.  One of them had managed to find an example of such a scheme not working well in Great Yarmouth.  (Frankly I suspect one could find examples of any local authority activity you cared to name not going well in Great Yarmouth – is that an argument for abolishing local democracy?)  Councillors hold a ‘Let’s Talk’ meeting in their Ward every two years for between 30 and 100 of their residents so there is certainly no need for further public engagement.  The use of up to £200 and some officer time is far too much at a time when budgets were under pressure – the leadership had even taken legal advice to show the decision could be overturned.  (I have asked the Chief Executive how much was spent on getting this legal advice as in my experience legal advice can cost even more than paying for a few bus passes for councillors from Westminster or Kensington & Chelsea to come to the Town Hall and enlighten us as to their experience.)  It was claimed that, uniquely to Wandsworth, Council Wards don’t always follow community lines (in all the other London Boroughs which do have Ward budgets presumably everyone knows which Ward they are in, unlike here.)  And the most persuasive point of all – that in Wandsworth we don’t waste time discussing things or looking at best practice elsewhere, we just get on and do it.

A pretty powerful case, you’ll agree. In the event Martin Johnson, who had supported the paper at Committee, left the Chamber rather than vote against (I wonder if he had the same ultimatum that I did that he’d be thrown out of the group for such insubordination).  Only one Conservative Councillor voted to support the democratic decision of the Committee, though the Labour Group did.

There was a choice here. The leadership could have said fair enough, the defeat was a bit embarrassing but there’s obviously an appetite for this, let’s let them try it out before we come to a view.  Or they could decide that they couldn’t allow the slightest open thinking anywhere so would use their majority to behave as democratic dictators, crushing any minority (or in the Committee case majority) view with which it did not agree.  I stress this wasn’t a big budgetary issue, it was whether we should ask a few questions and get a bit of information.

Irving Janis identified eight characteristics of groupthink, itself a sign of an organisation usually in terminal decline;

Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.

Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.

Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”

Mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Roman generals used to pay slaves to whisper in their ear “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!” as they attended their triumph after a great victory. By the time of the decline the Emperors were declaring themselves Gods.  Scrutiny could be the body which whispers ‘look behind you – remember you are mortal’ to the politburo.  But tonight implies that Wandsworth will spend the next three years being led not by Pompey but by Caligula.

Crazy week

I’m just off to see my old mum who has had a minor and successful op in Leicester so it may be a moment for reflection on the week.

A week ago I was an (albeit disgruntled) Conservative Councillor in Wandsworth.  I had been given an ultimatum. Either I pull a paper I had put forward for discussion at one of the Committees or I ‘consider my position’ (or have it considered for me). The paper suggested we look at what several other councils are doing with ‘Ward budgets’ – small sums of money that individual councillors can spend in their own patch on public schemes that otherwise would not get any funds.  The idea is to engage people more in the democratic process and to add to the individual ‘quirkiness’ of particular neighbourhoods that make ‘home’ such a special place for all of us.  I wasn’t saying we should do it, just look around at what others were doing and see if it might work here.  But no, even that suggestion was unacceptable – “you cannot bring that paper as a Conservative Councillor”.  If after over 20 years serving the Party that is what it had come to then I had decided I wasn’t up for it any more.

I also knew that plans were emerging to consider closing the out-of-town centre libraries.  I knew that because we had specifically been told it in a paper to the Group on June 23, alongside a number of other measures.  Southfields library is a much-loved and well-used feature of the town centre that straddles Southfields and West Hill Wards, an area which in recent months has lost its boys’ club and its snooker hall (which could have been converted back into a cinema).  Of course people have to live somewhere but they also need it to be a place worth living in, not just a dormitory.

Rob Richman and his many friends and colleagues had fought a very effective, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to save the snooker hall (or ‘Southfields Plaza’ as it would have become).  He gained over 1000 votes as an Independent candidate in Southfields Ward the election this year, an extraordinary feat in a place so dominated by the political parties. We had a chat. We knew (or believed anyway) that no firm plans were in place to close the library and others, but equally thought that you don’t put things like that in a paper for fun or to mislead people and therefore that there was at least a possibility that these closures would happen.  We were faced with two options – to allow things to proceed and put together a fight if and when the closure decision had been taken; or campaign now to show how we as a community would respond if such a decision ever were to be taken.  The risk of the latter was that we would worry people unnecessarily when, if left alone, the proposal might simply have been rejected and put to bed; the risk of the former was that we would face a much more difficult fight if the proposals were to be passed and people started to defend a firm position.

What’s happened since then?  There have been two stories coming from ‘sources close to the Cabinet’. One has it that the promise to bring the item forward was a whimsy, a joke, maybe even a misprint, that there had never been the slightest possibility of closing the libraries.  The gist of it is that after over 20 years as a loyal Conservative councillor I had suddenly gone mad, invented a story and tried to make trouble where none existed. The attacks on my integrity, direct and implied, began.

The other story from a different ‘source close to the Cabinet’ had it that even before the Council election this year there were regular ‘savings’ (councilspeak for ‘cuts’) papers coming to senior councillors which proposed closing Northcote Library in Battersea – while these had not been accepted (after all the library is still there) neither had a message gone that the top councillor team never wanted to see hide nor hair of them again.  I of course was not there so I don’t know which if either of these stories is true but frankly it didn’t do much to make me think I was imagining the whole issue.

We have now reached the classic ‘non-denial denial’ stage, usually phrased (as in this case) as ‘we have no plans to close any of the libraries’.  Even when true this is of course meaningless – “no plans to do something” is different from “firm promises not to do it”.  Adding ‘absolutely’ to the ‘no plans’ just makes the statement ‘absolutely’ meaningless though it is (I think) an advance on where we were last Monday.  But worse, there is a claim that the libraries face ‘no threat’.  For me that crosses the line between ‘clever’ use of language that misleads without actually lying, and something else.  I can’t find a definition of ‘threat’ which wouldn’t include ‘frequent proposals to shut down’.

Rob and I never went into this to undermine anyone’s career or create pressure on them to resign. It is clear to me anyway that Ravi did not write all, maybe not even most, of the stuff coming out in his name because I believe him to be an honourable man (within the legitimate constraints of politics of course). He is getting some staggeringly awful advice – continue to deny things because that’s how you deal with this kind of story EVEN IF THERE IS DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE OUT THERE THAT SHOWS YOU ARE BEING MISLEADING. So I suggested to the Leader that we put out a press release together.  On the one hand Rob and I would acknowledge – as we certainly should – that Wandsworth has so far had a very impressive record of protecting its libraries when some other councils have not and this is a cause for congratulation.  Alongside a recognition that closure has been at least contemplated (since we were fed up with people being told we invented the whole thing for some mad reason), there would be a CAST-IRON GUARANTEE THAT THE LIBRARIES WOULD REMAIN OPEN UNTIL AT LEAST THE NEXT COUNCIL ELECTION (expressed in precisely those words). Not difficult, you would think, if they did indeed have no such intentions.

He declined, not least because on Friday this popped up on Wandsworth mumsnet: http://local.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure.

 

“We have received an e-mail from another Conservative councillor (whose identity we have agreed to keep anonymous) confirming that there was a plan to close not just Southfields library but other non-town centre libraries including Northcote library. Here is the e-mail: “Obviously I don’t want to be named because I hope to have a council career, but feel the treatment of Malcolm Grimston has been very harsh. The council are lying to say there were no plans for library closures. Shortly after we were all elected we were herded into a room in the town hall and it was made clear that we would be expected to vote through the vast majority if not all the cuts proposed. Malcolm Grimston has done everyone a favour. I would have hated voting to close Northcote library, especially as you sometimes get the sense those in charge are not in control, but it was made clear we had no choice. I would have stayed quiet, but Ravi Govindia emailed us all saying it was “pure mischief making to create an issue where none exists” and that is a lie. The intention to close libraries was there.

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blowingthewhistle Fri 26-Sep-14 14:40:00

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL CONSERVATIVE GROUP MEETING – 23rd June 2014 Major decisions affecting savings in the autumn and winter cycles of OSC ………. November / December / January …….. Closure of Tooting Bec Track and Battersea Leisure Centre …….. Consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries …….. N.b. ….. are deleted items which were mostly admin/managerial/staffing issues.”

 

Before you ask, no it wasn’t me who published it (though I did of course have the note), no I don’t know who it was, yes I was gobsmacked, in the vernacular, as even I did not realise the depth of discontent in the Group about the culture.

In effect, the charge that we were making this up has now been put to rest. But I have lost all trust that anything but an absolutely black and white unwriggle-out-of-able commitment, in the above words, to the libraries would be ‘bankable’. If we get that simple unequivocal assurance we’ll be more than delighted to drop the whole campaign and cheer Wandsworth Council on its good sense and community values.   Our instinct is that we might be quite close to that point.  But we have been pelted with a lot of eggs this week and so far not one of them has produced a chicken so we’re not counting on it as yet, so the campaign goes on.

A final reflection. Leaving the Party after so long was certainly prompted by a feeling, justified I think by subsequent events, that a public campaign might achieve what the usual behind-the scenes attempts to reach secret deals might not have done. But it was more than that. Political parties – and I include Labour in this just as much as I do the Conservatives – have become so unwilling to allow dissenting views to be heard, either in secret or in public, that ‘groupthink’ is taking over, fine when the instincts of those driving policy are perfect but fatal where, as in this case, those taking the decisions on communication are so clearly out of their depth. (OK, you may say it was every thus so maybe I have just noticed it more in the last two or three years.) The most difficult moment for me so far has been when Battersea UKIP sent out a tweet supporting me. One of the things I love most about the lovely West Hill Ward is our diversity – cultural, ethnic, religious, you name it. I entered into my civil partnership with my Cuban boyfriend (is that the right word for someone in their 50s?) in the Council Chamber just over two years ago, surrounded by friends of all shapes and (in my case anyway) sizes, and we intend to ‘upgrade’ to marriage when the legislation allows us to do so. I made these points to the tweeter and got back a very gracious response, actually probably more gracious than my less positive initial contact deserved. It struck me that this is something that should lie at the heart of what I personally would like to see the Wandsworth Independent Alliance growing into. I have major differences of view on life from those which are UKIP policy and philosophy. But it would surely be hypocritical of me to brand some people as ‘intolerant’ and so to fail to ‘tolerate’ and indeed value them, as long as to do so would not compromise my own principles. Political parties often don’t really do that because of the inherent tribalism involved.

The most helpful response came from one of my constituents who advised that we should be magnanimous as we move towards getting what we and I believe the community want.  It was very timely – Rob and I have tried not to overreact to some of the taunts aimed at us and we have had moments of frustration and even anger but our aim always was to save the library, not to upset anyone unnecessarily.  We do recognise that whatever mistakes are being made Wandsworth Conservatives, like all other basically volunteer organisations, is people with very many fine public servants and it was good to be reminded of that.

I had no real idea where this would lead – the Conservatives could have shut this down on day one by accepting that plans had been considered because you have to think the unthinkable; saying that closure of libraries was always the last option; giving the guarantee that they wouldn’t close; and making me look a right Charlie for going off on one for nothing. We’d have got our library, they’d get credit, we could all move on.  Instead they sought to mislead and created a much bigger problem. Time after time in politics the message is given – it’s never the event that destroys, it is the cover-up – and time after time it gets ignored.

Protecting from protection

What turned Fukushima from a medium-ranking industrial accident, of the kind the happens perhaps eight or ten times a year, into a disaster, with a reported death toll among the evacuees of over 1,000?  Not radiation.  Like at Three Mile Island there don’t seem to be any deaths from that source; even at Chernobyl the demonstrable death toll from radiation exposure was small compared to events like Bhopal or Banqiao.

What created the human misery at Fukushima was the response – not the immediate precautionary evacuation but what followed and ironically what preceded.  The only other area currently excluded because of human activity is Chernobyl.  It follows, to the rational non-expert, that the levels of radiation throughout these exclusion zones must represent a higher risk than any other man-made threat on the planet.

The public relationship with radiation is a complex one.  There is a no generalised fear of ionising radiation – it doesn’t show up for example in high radon areas.  The many examples of fatalities following leakages of radioactive materials from medical facilities do not seem to have been accompanied by much radiophobia, nor was the murder of Mr Litvinenko in London in 2008.  Clearly there is something in the way radiation from civil nuclear activities is being communicated which has created a set of fears which are not there in other contexts.

At a JAIF meeting earlier this year one speaker bemoaned how the Japanese public did not realise that man-made radiation was the same as the natural radiation all around us.  A huge effort was needed to correct this misimpression, so making nuclear power more acceptable.

Well, what does the well-informed Japanese member of the public know (or at least what unarguable facts are in the public domain)?

First and foremost, around 100,000 people were evacuated from a 20 km radius zone around Fukushima Dai-ini and have not (except for a few hundred very recently) been allowed back into their homes for over three years, causing untold misery.  In much of the zone doses from radiation (from all sources) are below 5 mSv per year, with fallout dose below 1 mSv per year.

Secondly, there are areas like Ramsar in Iran (average 130 mSv per year) and Guarapari in Brazil (peak levels on the beach equivalent to 350 mSv per year) which are not evacuated.  Indeed, there are almost certainly places in Japan (e.g. Kyushu island) where natural doses are above the total dose in some part of the exclusion zone.

What could the well-informed Japanese member of the public make of this?  There seem to be three potential explanations.

The authorities have gone stark staring mad (or are deeply uncaring) by blighting so many lives and incurring such vast costs for no defensible reason.

  1. The authorities are simply lying about the levels of contamination in the exclusion zone.
  2. Man-made radiation is significantly more dangerous than the ‘same amount’ of natural radiation, so comparisons are meaningless.

Assume that the Japanese nuclear family is successful in persuading people that their (sensible) rationalisation of the undisputed facts in front of them (option 3) is incorrect.  The facts won’t change, so a new rationalisation will be needed.  It is not immediately obvious that a switch to believing 1 (the true one) or 2 would improve people’s faith in the industry or in the concept of nuclear power.

Ironically, one suspects that the irrational exclusion was adopted in an attempt to reassure people.  In reality, there is a demonstrable, dangerous but almost invisible myth that one can ‘err on the side of caution’ in radiological protection.  Any action that is not justified on health grounds – let’s say any exclusion from an area which is safer than living in London or Tokyo with all their air pollution – will do more harm than good.

It can be argued, then, that an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimising human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem.  Maybe the key question is – how do we protect people not from radiation but from the effects of radiological protection?

War and Peace

I went to the service at St Paul’s in my Ward yesterday afternoon commemorating the UK’s entry into the First World War, alongside a goodly crowd including the Mayor, Justine Greening and Councillor Sue McKinney.  It was a wonderful event, a moving mixture of readings, hymns, addresses and as the tailpiece a gathering by the war memorial, where a rose was left for each of the 35 men from the parish who died during the conflict.  Four members of the Chandler family perished, which brought home for me the enormity of the suffering.  The Bishop of Southwark told us about his grandfather, who committed suicide during the Second World War having never recovered from his experiences during the First.

The rose I lay was for Second Lieutenant Leopold Marlow of the King’s Royal Rifle Regiment, who died in 1917 aged 21.  All I can find about him was that he was promoted in 1916 to acting Lieutenant.  So I have no idea what he was like, what his dreams and hopes were, what he found funny or touching, or whether anyone still mourns him.  Yet for a brief moment I felt a contact with this stranger who gave his life for something he believed in (or did he believe in it?).

I suspect that it is very rare in war for one side to be the ‘goodies’ and one the ‘baddies’.  Maybe World War II was the closest to an exception that we have seen, though fighting alongside Stalin must have been difficult.  But the rights and wrongs of a particular conflict do not detract from the bravery shown by those who fight for a belief.

Plebs and toffs

Many years ago I was on the Cambridge Union Committee when Andrew Mitchell was President.  Speaking as a bit of a pleb myself I never got the impression that this was a word he’d use or even a concept he’d recognise.  I wish him well in the ongoing ‘plebgate’ investigations.

But the whole affair has set me thinking.  Why is the word ‘pleb’ so outrageous that the mere suggestion that one has used it might be enough to end, or at least interrupt, an otherwise impressive career?  Yet at the same time left-leaning politicians and lazy ‘comedians’ can always rely on the word ‘toff’ to get them a cheap laugh or round of applause.  Remember for example the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 when Labour poured out the invective on Conservative candidate Edward Timpson – ‘The Timperley toff’, ‘Lord Snooty’ and so on.  (Outcome – 17% swing to Conservatives, first by-election gain for over 15 years.)  And how, ironically, some of the attacks on Ed Miliband himself (always happy to use the class card in his ‘one nation’ Labourism – recall how he laid into Mitchell at the height of the issue) from the nastier element of the Left in his own party dismiss him as ‘just another Labour toff’, causing to have to make huge play of his comprehensive education (at Haverstock in Chalk Farm, sometimes referred to as ‘Labour’s Eton’, before he went on to Oxford and Harvard).

On the face of it these terms ‘pleb’ and ‘toff’ are joined at the hip.  Both, like a whole string of other words that rightly we don’t use in the field of race, sexuality, gender and so on, seek to denigrate someone on the basis of something beyond their control, in this case the circumstances of their family of origin.  Both imply that one can assume large amounts about a person’s character based on a single feature and that all people with that feature are basically the same.  And of course both seek to imply that the object of the insult is unfitted to play certain roles in society.  Yet pleb is outrageous, toff is funny and to be applauded.

Why should this be?  I think the answer is pretty simple.  The Liberal Establishment, that group of control freaks (whose own background, like Miliband’s, is generally speaking far more ‘toff’ than ‘pleb’) who have taken it on themselves to dictate what is acceptable and what is not – indeed who is acceptable and who is not – have decided the issue for us.  “Burn the witch” shouted at a photograph of Lady Thatcher gets gales of laughter, “one-eyed Scottish idiot” aimed at Gordon Brown in the same week gets calls for sacking and a forced apology.  (Indeed a prior similar comment about Mr Brown from one of the left’s darling comedians went unnoticed and has been scrubbed from the internet as far as I can find.)  I’m not defending either comment but they don’t seem all that much different to me, and of course it is much easier to find much worse personal attacks on politicians of the Right than it is on those of the Left.

The attack on freedom has taken a slightly different course recently.  There is an increasing shift from those who are uncomfortable with variety and dissent away from restricting action.  Even Labour is not thinking of returning taxes back to the levels they presided over in the 1970s, and we are still by law allowed to say some things that are a bit risqué as defined by the Liberal Establishment.  In its place is coming a more subtle attack on what happens next.  You’re allowed to earn money but not to spend it on giving your children a good start in life (there’s been a noticeable recent upping of the attacks on private education, in part through the ‘toff’ agenda which is of course very simplistic anyway).  You’re technically allowed to make jokes or comments that the LE disapproves of but the consequences for your career and general social standing can be severe.  Whatever factors are inflating the UKIP bubble, a reaction among normal folk against the strait-jacket of modern Liberalism is surely worth a good few puffs.

There’s a story of a young American journalist who was given an audience with Stalin after the War.  The journalist said to Stalin, “The difference between my country and yours is that I can go into Time Square and shout ‘I hate the American President’ and nothing will happen to me”.  Stalin said, “You are wrong, it is just the same here.  I can promise you that you can go into Red Square and shout ‘I hate the American president’ and nothing will happen to you here either”.  The LE’s view of freedom – a freedom to do anything that the LE approves of, especially if it might offend a few more traditionally-minded folk who probably vote Conservative anyway – is not all that different from the attitude taken by some pretty unpleasant regimes in the past.  It’s a shame, because the Liberal tradition of protecting minorities and defending freedom to offend those in authority (formal or soft) used to be a strong and honourable one.

Glory be to God for dappled things …

I love the ‘dappled days’ where the various strands of life weave in and around each other.

So yesterday started with my usual swim and a tutorial from my good friend and fellow councillor James Cousins on how to set up a blog.  (So any merit of these pages is mine but any faults are down to him!)  Off to West Hill Ward to look in on an open door session for residents of Florys Court and Augustus Road about their forthcoming repairs and decorations programme, then to the Town Hall for a leaving do for Russell King, a former Wandsworth councillor who is upping sticks and heading down under – a shame, as he was a rare example of clear new thinking and I think he’ll be missed.

After a Group meeting – usual mix of good contributions from good people and petulant shouting down of dissenting ideas – I ended up at New Broadcasting House.  I’ve become a great fan of the media, including the BBC.  The final product looks effortless but the amount of work that goes into it is extraordinary.  I got the call late afternoon from one of my usual contacts there, spent 40 minutes driving in, 30 minutes sitting and waiting, then got 3 minutes on The World Tonight with Caroline Quinn talking about Russia energy sanctions, and 40 minutes to get home.  Odd business when you think about it but it gave the day an interesting end.  Carlos looked hot and bothered when I got in – how a Cuban can struggle with English summers mystifies me – but we relaxed in front of “Graceland” (an American televisual play, your Honour) and all was well.

My main aim for the day – to plough on with this book on energy that I have to get done by February and which I suspect will be something of a theme of these posts in coming months – got pretty much ignored, perhaps because I had so much opportunity for displacement activity.  As I am doubtless doing now.  So cheerio, I have a mercifully empty diary for August so no excuses.

Russia, gas and German scaredy-cats

After more than a decade of misty-eyed yearning after renewables at the expense (literally) of pretty much everything else, the Europe Union finds itself in a right state.  (OK, I know the EU is not a State much as some would like it to be.)  The EU’s dependence on imported energy grew from 47.8% in 2000 to 54.1% in 2010.  And in 2013 the single biggest source of EU’s imports of hard coal (27.1% of total EU-27 imports), crude oil (34.5%) and natural gas (31.8%) was the Russian Federation.

Why should we bother in the UK, since we still have some reserves of our own and get most of our imports from Norway?  Well, the situation in the UK with regard to energy import dependency has changed more rapidly than in any other member of the European Union. While the EU-27’s energy production fell by 12% between 2000 and 2010 (from 941 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent) to 831 mtoe), that of the UK fell by 45% (from 270 mtoe to 148 mtoe). Although energy imports per head of the population are still below the EU average the UK has moved from being a net energy exporter in 2002 to a net energy importer in 2010, a trend which will persist as North Sea gas reserves continue to run down.  And if Russia’s gas gets cut off, say, the increased competition for other sources would inevitably push the price we had to pay through the roof.

How has Europe addressed this gathering cloud?  Germany shut down half of its nuclear stations, with the rest to go over the next eight years or so.  Although it is building quite a lot of new coal plant (and has increased its carbon dioxide emissions by some 5% over the last three years for those who care about such things – which I do) and makes quite a bit of wind and solar energy when the wind blows and the sun comes out, inevitably its needs for imported gas have grown considerably.  In 2011 Germany was actually a net gas exporter (producing 10 bcm – billion cubic metres – and consuming 7.2 bcm); in 2013 it was practically neutral (producing 8.2 bcm and consuming 8.1 bcm).  Germany is in the fortunate position of being able to outbid its neighbours for power supplies when the wind is still and the sun in, and to dump dangerous surplus electricity from wind and solar at times when supply outstrips demand on its neighbours.  (Dangerous?  A system with too much electricity is as bad as one with too little, being susceptible to power surges which can blow electronic equipment and ultimately melt the wires, at staggering cost economically and socially.)

We can’t just blame the Germans.  When a country does try to improve security and environmental performance by striking a deal to build new nuclear plant (which does not release significant amounts of carbon, nor does it depend on Mr Putin being in a good mood or the wind blowing at convenient speeds) along comes the Competition Commission to delay matters by many months in a ‘State Aid’ investigation.

So we’re pretty much stuck.  We must I think hope that fracking is going to give us another breathing space but it is hard, at this point, to imagine that fracking in our relatively crowded island will repace the vast reserves of North Sea gas which we once had but which are now running short so quickly.

Eyeball to eyeball with Putin – we threaten severe sanctions, he smirks and reminds us what happens when he turns off the gas taps to Ukraine, as he does every couple of years or so.  Who would blink first?  I have my fears.  But we Europeans have only ourselves to blame for the weak hand we hold.