YestGreekerday saw a historic victory for Syriza, the far-left anti-austerity party in the Greek general elections.  Though much expected, it is an exciting moment in European politics – there are claims it is the first significant electoral victory for the hard left in Europe in over 40 years.    With all the wide-eyed fantacism that is weaved into the DNA of socialists, some will inevitably see this is the beginning of the end for neo-liberal economic orthodoxy in the West.  As Syriza struck a deal with a nasty right-wing party this morning, others will fear this is the first wave of something a lot more troubling.

We should be cautious about making predictions.  Syriza have made some bold promises about how they are going to renegotiate a £280bn debt with some of the biggest economies in the world.   With a volatile cocktail of political and economic flavours in play, we can only guess at how this will shake out.  My own view is that Germany has room to compromise to keep the Euro project alive.  But if Tsipras gets greedy he could send his country into bankruptcy.

It’s fascinating that Greeks are willing to take that risk.  Admittedly Syriza won on a 35% share of a 60% turnout, but with this result, Greeks are saying that they want a party that has rejected the economics of austerity at the table to throw the dice for them.

Faced with technocrats and experts telling them that the house always wins, Greeks are betting against the bankers.  Faced with misery being forced upon them by unelected bean-counters, Greeks are saying they want to run the numbers themselves.

I find that belief inspiring.

We need to capture that spirit as we attempt to protect Oxfordshire from extraordinary levels of house-building, mandated by our own pesky unelected suits.  In our case the people within the suits are the consultants that produced the Strategic Housing Market Assessment for Oxfordshire, and the gravy train passengers of the Local Enterprise Partnership that appointed them.

Together they have contrived to come up with a plan for a 40% increase in housing in the Vale of White Horse in the next 15 years, with inadequate provision for infrastructure to support that population growth.   That’s an extra 20,000 houses without so much as a new train station, a dual carriageway or a serious attempt to fund schools or healthcare into the bargain.  For anyone living in the communities where these thousands of houses are to be built it is clear that, no matter how many strategies, assessments and reports you throw at us, the result will be a mess.

The SHMA is the Beeching Report of the 21st Century and these consultants promise to do a lot more damage to our communities than the fat controller.

Unfortunately, like the Greeks before yesterday, we have an MP and District Councillors who are willing to swallow the SHMA medicine.  The suits say that we need this many homes to support growth and the politicians nod dutifully and don the high-vis jackets to wave in the cement mixers.  20150124_111200

Well if the turn-out and anger at Saturday’s ROAR rally was anything to go by, this might be changing.  There was more indignation at the Faringdon Town Meeting this evening.  Everywhere I go knocking doors, the trumping of local views on housing by consultants’ reports is a live issue that people are deeply dissatisfied about.

So what’s the answer?  I believe that local communities should be empowered to have the final say on house-building projects of a certain scale in their area.  A national policy that supports a building frenzy, supported by technocrats from Whitehall and experts with spreadsheets in ivory towers should not have the right to dictate to local communities what is the 20150124_111301sustainable level of housing for them.  Neighbourhood plans should override national planning policy.

To get there, and to avoid the outrageous damage that will be done to the countryside of Oxfordshire by unchecked developers we must take a lesson from the Greeks.  We have to believe that by electing different politicians, promoting a different agenda, we can make a difference.

Just like in 2010, the Greek situation may well over-shadow our polling day in May.

Instead of the fear of 2010, let’s capture the Greek democratic spirit of 2015 and vote for politicians who will stand up to the faceless technocrats and put their local communities first.

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flagBritain is good at pomp.  Our conventions and traditions are important threads that bind our nation together and add cherished ‘colour’ to Britain’s public life.  Whether it’s a Royal Wedding, Remembrance Sunday or the Olympic Opening Ceremony, at a local and national level we know how to mark an occasion properly.

The fact that we often get it so right, makes it particularly striking when we get it wrong.  The ‘guidance’ from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to fly Union Flags at half-mast in line with ‘long-standing arrangements’ following the death of a foreign monarch has caught the public attention because, on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the government has got it badly wrong.

We, the public, may be able to swallow our government’s unethical foreign policy and our naked pragmatism on the Middle East.  If we don’t, we have a chance to do something about it in May.

But we do not accept a convention that attempts to express our collective sympathy and respect for a tyrant who has overseen one of the most repressive regimes in the world.   David Cameron or the Queen can send condolences as they see fit.  They knew King Abdullah and his family and can take a personal perspective on his passing.   But when it comes to attempts to express national grief, or marks of respect, we need to be clear to our leaders – Not In My Name!

The charges levelled at the House of Saud are deeply disturbing.  The laws on treatment of women, for example, should be enough to keep our flags precisely where they are when a Saudi royal passes.  Under the male guardianship system in Saudi, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or entering higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or son.  Women remain forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, and authorities have arrested women who dared challenge the ban.  King Abdullah has been praised for opening the first university to accept men and women.   The UK took that step in 1826.  Part of the justification for our involvement in the Afghan War has been to improve the educational prospects of women, yet when it comes to the Saudis we appear to happy to offer at least 200 years grace.

And it gets worse.  Floggings and be-headings are common.  The treatment of Raif Badawi, the liberal blogger sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for criticising the regime has been a timely reminder of the reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

The fact that these punishments are often metered out for blasphemy or the practising of faiths other than Islam makes a bended-knee condolence from the head of the Church of England particularly inappropriate. Also the rank hypocrisy of our government expressing outrage about the medieval barbarity of an IS beheading while extending full diplomatic honours to a regime that recently be-headed a woman with a sword erodes our credibility.  How can anyone take the UK seriously when it expresses outrage about Islamist killings when it simultaneously shows itself to be a half-mast sympathiser towards state-sponsored murder on precisely the same ideological grounds.

Saudi Arabia does not observe official mournings and in the kingdom flags were not flying at half-mast.  Their embassy flag in London was unlowered.  Perhaps they would not have even noticed if Britain had not extended our  formal mark of respect.  So by adopting unthinking conventional wisdom that cuts across the feelings of the vast majority of Britons in 2015 we have belittled ourselves for no apparent reason.  If there is a reason that we can not or must not understand, it begs a deeper question about the behind-closed-doors relationship between the House of Saud, the UK government and the House of Windsor.

None of that justifies the foul-mouthed comments of Louise Mensch on the subject, but it does require our government to review the process of extending formal national marks of respect.  The government needs to look at these on a case-by-case basis and give some thought to the mood of the nation when it decides whether to lower our national flag in honour of a foreign leader.  This time they got it shamefully wrong.

 

It would be uncharitable to be too disparaging about South Oxfordshire DC and Vale of White Horse DC’s combined electoral services department when they have just suffered a major arson attack.   I will therefore start by saying that I’m sure that our local authority is no worse than anywhere else.

However I have heard a story recently about a local man’s attempts to register to vote which was very disappointing.

Firstly, some background.  There has been a major reform of the process for voter registration since the last general election.  If you can hold off the yawn long enough to read further, this issue could mean that you are no longer eligible to vote.   Due to a switch from household to individual voter registration, it is estimated that at least a million people have dropped off the electoral roll.

Great, I hear you say, maybe I won’t get anymore calls about PPI claims.

Unfortunately, every five years the electoral roll gets used for more than a way for the Council to sell your information to marketing companies.  There is an election just around the corner and if you have dropped off the roll there is a serious risk that you may also lose your right to have a say in who forms the next government.

If you have had a letter from SODC or VOWH DCs telling you that you are no longer on the register, please take action NOW!

The email I had this week was from a gentleman in Faringdon who has been battling with the Council to get him back on the roll for weeks.  It took four attempts before he was successful!  Four attempts for someone that was on the roll to be re-admitted.  In a first-world democracy, that seems to me to be a lot of banging your head against a brick wall just to ensure that you maintain your democratic right.

Since much of the SODC and VOWH electoral services department will have been at least disrupted by the fire, this slow administration of applications to re-join the roll may get worse.  There may also be a surge in demand for this issue to be addressed which will clog up the system.

Therefore, if you have had a letter about re-registering to vote, please don’t delay.  Take action now to ensure that you can have your say on May 7th.  And if you don’t succeed please persevere.  After all it is a District Council election as well so there’s a chance to vote on the running of electoral services, as well as the country!

A sign reads 'not afraid' as thousands gather for a vigil on Place de la Republique in Paris on Wedn

I was selected as the Lib Dem Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Wantage last week.  I’m very grateful to the discerning and supportive members of Wantage Lib Dems for their white-hot grilling, and for putting their faith in me.

Standing as a candidate is a big step and I’ll say more on why I’m doing it below.  But if you are in the mood for resolutions, whether you are interested in politics or not, please do give some thought to the priceless democratic process taking place in May 2015.

Firstly if you are not on the roll, you can register to vote here.  You can do it online, you only need your National Insurance number and it will take about 5 minutes.   However you feel about the election, that’s a very easy resolution to tick off before January has passed and you don’t even need to leave the sofa.

But if you are feeling even a slight bit interested in shaping the future of the UK, please do go further and resolve to engage in politics this year.

I admit, for many people it is not top of the list.

But if you are intending to be a tax-payer any time in the next five years this will (probably) be your only chance to have your say on how your money is spent.  If your child is in school, or you’re planning to use a doctor before 2020, this is the year you can have some influence on how that might go.  You can give Russell Brand as many facebook likes and retweets as you want (and I do) but right now voting in the poll on May 7th is the only formal way to change the way the country is run.

And if you wanted a further example of how important it is to stand up for our democratic-selves, recent events in Paris provide one of the most powerful.   As someone who has lived in France, celebrated French culture and admired French values I was deeply shocked and saddened by the barbaric attacks.  When the City of Light was plunged into darkness the flame that I and so many people hold in their hearts for Paris, and all that she stands for, flickered in distress.  But it did not go out.

Even before the murderers had been trapped, citizens from all over the world were showing their solidarity.  They wanted to show that they had too much in common to be torn apart by these atrocities.  That mood grew into the extraordinary march through Paris on Sunday.   As many people have pointed out there were contradictions and hypocrisy on show, but even a cynic could not fail to be moved by such an incredible show of collective resolve.

But hashtags and vigils alone can not provide all the answers to the issues raised by these events. It will be left to politicians to set the tone and agenda on how we move forward.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m getting involved in the election.

I believe that only by encouraging everyone to engage in the political process we can ensure that our politicians are as representative as possible of mainstream Britain in 2015.  By doing so we stand a chance at getting policies and ideas that will unite and strengthen us further.  This is particularly important in times of challenge like those we saw in Paris and will see again.

If ‘normal’ people withdraw from politics, because they’re too busy, too bored, or too intimidated (or all three), the political ground is left open for extreme ideas and voices to flourish.  In those circumstances our political discourse risks being driven towards divisive rhetoric that blames the defenceless for our problems, marginalises minority communities and normalises hostile and intimidatory language.

I am standing for the Liberal Democrats because I believe there is a more positive route to solving the challenges we face.   I want our country to build our prosperity by moving forward on the tolerant, internationalist, sustainable path that has been the making of modern Britain.  In a fast-paced, globalised, inter-connected world the solutions are not simple and will take time to achieve, but success will only be ours if we rise to the challenge of working together and resist the calls to turn in on ourselves.

That means we must retain our rights and freedoms – our liberty.  I have already extolled the virtues of democracy.  But the third limb of France’s mission statement – fraternity – has had less of a look in.  Yet for me, this is the value that was most on show in the aftermath of Paris and the value that citizens and politicians must prioritise to set a course for a successful future.

The reality of a diverse and open society is the foundation on which we can build our future, rather than an obstacle on the way back to the past.  But to make that foundation strong, we have to work out better ways of understanding, tolerating and working with each other, between generations, faiths, classes, cultures, sexes and races.   If we are not equal to the task, or contemplate failure, we will leave our communities open to be chipped away by the extremist hammers of attacks like Paris, but worse still, weathered gradually by the storms of frustration and prejudice.

Strengthening and building on our communities’ foundations is, to me, the ultimate political challenge.  By standing in this year’s election for a party that believes in addressing that challenge positively and directly I want to do my bit to move us in the right direction.

But whatever your perspective we must not allow the political arena to be left to political anoraks and extremists.  On the day itself and in the run-up to May 7th, make sure you play a part in shaping the future, and at the same time doff your cap to those that have fallen in the name of our freedoms by voting.

 

 

 

s300_Eric_Pickles_960x640After a four-and-a-half-year comedy turn as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles is thought to be beyond parody.  But today, full of the rosy-cheeked seasonal mirth of his girth-alike Father Christmas he came bearing a sackful of rejections of another three applications for wind farms (two against the planning inspector’s recommendation).  To those that think our planning system is run by local politicians or planning experts, Pickles has once again delivered his standard response: Ho, Ho, Ho!

So to celebrate the dawn of another bright day for the abuse of executive power I thought it might be appropriate to update a classic Christmas tune in Pickles’ honour:

You better not apply;
You better not appeal;
They’ll all be thrown out;
With his nimby-phile zeal;
Eric Pickles is planning your town [and country].

His views are prejudged;
His reasons are weak;
For thousands of green jobs;
The future looks bleak;
Eric Pickles is planning your town [and country].

He loves the power of office;
He knows that UKIP’s rife;
He only gives a stuff about planning law;
When it helps extends his political life.

So,

If there’s a church on a hill;
A wren nesting near;
He’ll throw-out your plans;
Whilst Cameron cheers;
Eric Pickles is planning your town [and country].

DavePeople can get a bit fed up at this time of year – fed up with Winter, fed up with work, fed up with cutesie adverts trying to get you to part with your hard-earned cash.  Fear not, Dave is on your side.

Our benevolent leader, our friend in our time of need, our man-of-the-people Prime Minister, feels our pain.

Dave listens.  Dave gets it.  Dave knows we’re fed up.  So last week Dave gave voice to our frustrations and took our angst to one of the most important committees in Westminster – the Commons Liaison Committee.

Like every good citizen, I was delighted to hear that in-touch Dave had told MPs of our everyday struggles.

But after a closer look I was less pleased with Dave’s attempts to empathise with us little people.

Instead of taking the opportunity to proclaim the real injustices facing Britons today – low pay, inequality, Ben winning X Factor over Andrea – Dave had decided to vent the frustration of the nation on an issue that most people (including me) are not fed up with – onshore wind.

This was a pretty basic error.  He only has to look at the government’s polling evidence that shows 67% of the public support onshore wind to see how un-fed-up two thirds of the electorate are about onshore wind.  If he spoke to us himself before putting his bleeding heart before the select committee, he would have realised that not only do most people support wind power, they also have other priorities that they’d like the government to be saying ‘enough is enough’ to – child poverty or the stigmatisation of mental illness for example.   In fact, given that Dave’s big idea of halting onshore development and focusing purely on offshore will push up energy bills, I would expect that on hearing about Dave’s crusade against onshore wind, most people would be pretty fed up with Dave.

I know I am.

Here is a Conservative leader who offered the electorate the chance to ‘vote blue, get green’.  In that offer there was a hope that the Conservatives in government would support the development of a world-leading renewables industry to bring green jobs and growth to the UK.

Instead we have seen Cameron’s green credentials brushed away by the erratic strokes of his nervous backbenchers and their UKIP masters as they try to paint modern Britain into a scene from the 1950s.

After years of painstaking technological advances, and thanks to the Lib Dems taking charge of DECC under the coalition, the wind industry is supporting over 15,000 jobs in the UK.  Political posturing like the display from Cameron last week jeopardises those jobs by sending a negative message about the potential for future onshore wind development in the UK.  There is a valid discussion to be had about the level of subsidy for new onshore wind sites post 2020, but that discussion should not be prejudiced by a misrepresentation of the public’s views by the Prime Minister in a deceitful attempt to sure up support within his own party.

Dave needs to get the message that most people support onshore wind.  You can sign this petition to make that clear:  https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/David_Cameron_The_UK_needs_onshore_wind_and_onshore_wind_needs_your_support/

Dave also needs to understand that if the Conservatives want to take a political position on renewables – or any other matter – they should be honest about it, rather than proclaiming it falsely in our name.

Meanwhile Dave (in case you are reading) let me make it clear what I am fed up with – I’m fed up with you playing politics with renewable jobs.

IMG_39652698417838

Photo Courtesy of Zoe Patrick

The siege is over!  Challow Bridge reopened today, reconnecting Faringdon and Wantage.    In a week when £15bn was announced to modernise A roads nationwide, the west side of Vale of White Horse finally has all of ours open.  After a series of maintenance clots that have clogged up our traffic circulation for months, all our major arteries have at last been cleared.

Well done to Network Rail and the contractor Murphy for delivering the new bridge on time.

The trouble is that for those who travel east to Didcot from this side of the county the traffic chaos continues.   Major projects are kicking off as central government brass is hastily being melted into asphalt before the end of the parliament. The latest round of works will be on the A34 at the Milton Interchange and along to Chilton.

At the same time, Steventon High Street is set to be closed for ten months.  This is the next adventure into Network Rail’s parallel universe where everything and everyone must stop to accommodate improvements to the railway.

Of all of Oxfordshire’s bridge closures, Steventon could cause the most difficulties due to its long duration (10 months) and the road’s secondary function as relief to the A34.  By undertaking the Steventon works at the same time as the works on the A34 there is a recipe for major stress and disruption.

For this reason, and to ensure we get a solution that allows for additional rail capacity I have got together with Robert Green of Steventon Parish Council, Richard Williams of Drayton Parish Council and Julie Mabberley of Wantage and Grove Campaign Group to write to ask Ed Vaizey to request a delay to the Steventon works.

The text of the letter is set out below.  By uniting different voices from across Oxfordshire to make these points to our MP, we hope we can help ensure we get a sensible solution to ease the cumulative impact of these wretched road-works.

 

2nd December 2014

Dear Ed Vaizey MP,

Network Rail’s Great Western Electrification Programme has already caused huge cost and disruption to families and businesses in Oxfordshire.

The next phase – a 10 month bridge replacement at Steventon – has the potential to do even more long-term damage.

You have said that you cannot prevent these works.

However we ask that you intervene to delay them, at least until the case for demolition is proven beyond doubt.   If the bridge must be demolished, we also ask that the proposed bridge is redesigned to allow for four tracks to be installed without further disruption to Steventon High Street.

A delay is required to the Steventon works to allow for works to the adjacent A34 to be completed.  We are told that important road works to Milton Interchange and to improve drainage on the A34 cannot be delayed because they are dependent on government funding that will be withdrawn if the works are not undertaken by the end of this parliament.

However we have grave concerns about cumulative impact of the works on the A34 and closing Steventon High Street at the same time.  These concerns were raised vociferously and repeatedly at a public meeting at Steventon Village Hall on 11th November.  Yet the community did not receive satisfactory answers and your recent statement fails to adequately address this issue.  With the A34 sporadically down to one lane until May many people will be looking to use Steventon and will get stuck, and what happens if there is an breakdown or accident that closes the remaining carriageway?

A delay to the bridge works is the only way to ensure that this part of Oxfordshire does not grind to a complete standstill.   Traffic meltdown will cost our local economy and cause stress and disruption.

Further, we accept the need to invest in our infrastructure, but we should invest for the long-term.  We believe that given the economic and population growth expected, the future for transport in Oxfordshire must include opening up the railway to services from Challow, Grove, Steventon and Milton.   To do this effectively and efficiently the bridge at Steventon should be big enough to accommodate a quadrupling of the railway.  By not doing so, the current design of the bridge may find itself in need of replacement when investment to increase rail capacity finally comes to Oxfordshire.   If the road is to be closed for 10 months, let’s ensure it doesn’t have to happen again.

At a local level we have worked extremely hard to prevent and limit the damage of these painful road closures, closures that bring no benefit whatsoever to the communities they disrupt.  If the Steventon works were delayed, and a forward-looking solution was proposed it would be a step towards a sensible compromise.

We read your statement on your inability to prevent the works with disappointment.  We ask that you redouble your efforts to persuade Network Rail, Highways Agency and Oxfordshire County Council to agree a sensible delay and a sustainable design to minimise the cumulative and long-term impacts on our communities.

Yours faithfully,

 

Alex MeredithFaringdon Town Councillor Robert GreenSteventon Parish Council

 

Julie MabberleyWantage and Grove Campaign Group

 

Richard WilliamsDrayton Parish Council

 

 

ThornberryEmily Thornberry’s kamikaze tweet on Thursday was a thing of rare beauty.   When was the last time a picture and three words said so much?

In one poorly judged moment, it captured all you need to know about the metropolitan Labour leadership and it points to a very difficult future for the party outside London.

Put simply, the struggle Labour faces is between the reality – a parliamentary party of metropolitan mercenaries who were stolen from their mothers in infancy, breastfed policy papers by think-tanks and have never set foot outside SW1 since; and the fantasy they portray for the benefit of their union paymasters – the party of ‘working people’ so enriched with the salt of the earth that you could cure a full side of Prescott Prize Pork with every manifesto.

This is not a new contradiction.  Lovie Labour in London has worn the disguise of the ordinary man more successfully in the past.  Limited alternatives and Blair’s charisma kept the safe-seat circus on the road.  Witness home-counties hero Peter ‘comfortable-about-people-getting-filthy-rich’ Mandelson, parachuted into Hartlepool with a 22,000 majority as one of the finest examples of taking voters for granted imaginable.

The Tories have been equally guilty of dropping favoured wonks into unfamilar territory.  The difference is that with their selections the Conservatives are very rarely trying to integrate a completely alien species.  Tory carpet-baggers usually share the same background, class or values as the electorate they seek to represent.  Labour have rarely seen such a convenient combination as relevant.  But they managed to get away with it.

Now with the super-geek, arch-insider (and MP for Doncaster, naturally) Ed Milipede at the helm and with UKIP, SNP, Greens and (yes) Lib Dems presenting alternatives, what the papers call ‘traditional Labour voters’ (for which read people struggling to make ends meet who were not well served by Thatcher) have had enough of the act.

Enter stage left Emily Thornberry, carrying modern day Labour’s hammer and sickle – the smartphone and take-away coffee – arriving at the provincial by-election campaign (wearing ebola style infection prevention suit) ready to launch her tweets of social justice.

What she found in this foreign land, far from the pavement cafes and independent book-sellers of Islington was so shocking that she did not have time for lucid prose.  Here, before her very eyes, was the home of one of those oiks that tear along Upper Street with no regard for the consumers of al fresco lentil and goji berry macchiattos.  “Forget the cost-of-living crisis, this discovery must be reported back to the capital”, she must have thought as she delivered her pricelessly concise reportage.

And with that the mask slipped, perhaps for good.  Milipede’s reaction only worsened the situation. His words of ‘respect’ for the victim of Thornberry’s condescension were pathetic.  I found myself thinking: Come on, Ed you don’t respect these people at all do you?  Thornberry has given you the chance to confess – cut the crap, why not get it out, get it all out? Burst into a frenzy and just say it loud and proud – “Me and my mates just don’t like nationalistic provincial poor people”.   It will make you feel so much better and maybe people will start taking you seriously.

Labour has ridden its dual horses for far too long.  After bigot-gate in Rochdale I was surprised that so many ‘traditional voters’ turned out for Gordon Brown.  But now UKIP and the SNP have slapped Labour’s core vote pony right on the arse and it has bolted for the stable door.  What a surprise to find Emily Thornberry holding it open (while slurping a kale smoothie and tweeting poetically on her smartphone).  The question is, will it come back by next May?

Alice in WonderlandAnother major road is about to be closed in Oxfordshire.  This time the plan is to close Steventon High Street for 10 months while the charming Victorian brickwork is  replaced with a generic modernist eyesore.   The closure will bring enormous hardship to local people and businesses, harm that could be mitigated by sensible planning and coordination.

Yet, instead of reopening a disused slip-road of the A34 to relieve the pressure; Oxfordshire County Council and the Highways Agency will be undertaking major works on the Milton Interchange resulting in greater traffic disruption in the area.

Instead of installing a wider bridge to allow the installation of another set of tracks to help increase capacity on the Great Western line; Network Rail will put in a structure that will house one up and one down line.

This second point has got me particularly riled.  While a traffic nightmare is being played out across the county to accommodate improvements to the railway, the Vale of White Horse District Council is consulting on its Local Plan to 2031.  You’ll have to bear with me while I explain the background to the Local Plan before I tell you why this railway bridge is so important.

As has been extensively reported, the plan commits the Vale to build enormous numbers of houses in the next 15 years, primarily around existing towns such as Faringdon, Wantage, Grove and Didcot.  I am extremely grateful to Wantage and Grove Campaign Group for their briefing which walked us through the disaster that led to this building strategy.

The housing figures arise as a result of the Local Enterprise Partnership projection that there will be 23,000 new jobs created in the Vale by 2031.  This is a hugely optimistic figure which appears to contain a good amount of double counting as well as assuming consistent economic growth through that period.  Essentially this figure was produced to attract government funding to the area, so understandably those producing the paper were inclined to present the rosiest possible figures.   Wantage and Grove Campaign Group’s analysis shows that even the baselines are more optimistic than government figures, and are we really sure that everyone that takes a job in the Vale is going to live in the Vale?

From this extraordinary prediction of jobs, comes the Strategic Housing Market Association prediction of the need for 20,560 new homes in the Vale.  So firstly we don’t think all these jobs will be there.  Secondly it is unlikely that the demand for housing will be a straight-line conversion from the number of jobs.  Thirdly the prediction requires building at a rate of 1500 a year, when the number of homes completed at the height of the boom was 570.   The homes are therefore unlikely to be built in any case

Nevertheless, based on these figures, VOWHDC have produced their plan to deliver 20,560 homes.  It involves a lot of land being designated for housing.  That in itself will create huge tension and dissatisfaction within communities asked to accept this additional housing.  Given that the housing is unlikely to be actually needed, some of these sites will remain designated and with planning permission, but without houses on them.   Adjacent homes will be blighted by the threat of living next to a building site for years.  Or perhaps the government will continue to subsidise people to buy the houses, artificially supporting prices?

More important than the land designated for housing is the lack of land designated for employment.  Because of this extraordinary demand for housing land, there is little space left for jobs and so many towns are expected to become dormitories for the science parks or cities that workers will travel to.

And this brings me back to the railway bridge.  Traffic between Wantage, Grove and Didcot is already gridlocked most mornings and evenings.  Even without OCC’s never-ending road works, getting to work by car in Oxfordshire is a trial by endurance on most days.  The additional housing being planned by VOWHDC comes without adequate provision for improvements to roads (particularly the A417) and more scandalously does not have specific plans to deliver a rail service between Grove, Milton and Didcot.

Of course, the railway already runs along this route, but it is a designated 125mph line and Network Rail have refused to allow stopping trains to use it.  On that basis, while the electrification works progress, the canny folks at Network Rail have conspired to install a new bridge at Steventon that (while not entirely preventing it) does not allow for the capacity to accommodate a second set of tracks that could run a decent stopping service.  Network Rail get to preserve the status quo, and motorists are left suffering the short-term closure and the lack of a long-term alternative.

Without trains, the extra 5,500 homes that will be built around Wantage and Grove will house people working in the science parks at Milton and Harwell who must primarily drive to work.

THIS IS MADNESS!!

Even if the homes don’t get built on the scale we expect, the A417 is already full to capacity.  We have a railway that runs the same route and with some investment could provide the transport solutions we need in this part of the County.  It is not good enough to say that it would disrupt Network Rail’s timetabling.

If the Vale and OCC honestly believe their own jobs and housing projections, they should be investing, and forcing Network Rail to invest, in providing the capacity to accommodate those extra people.

By failing to do so at Steventon we can only assume that they either (a) don’t believe their own numbers or (b) lack the political will to stand up for the people living in these communities and help deliver a future that does not involve sitting in traffic for 3 hours a day.

Either way we need better planning from our District representatives.

This Local Plan is a jaunt into a world of make-believe where the only sobering reality is gridlock.

HuntingOn a glorious Autumn Saturday I ventured out into the  countryside on my push-bike.

After an hour of peaceful pedaling in the low-lit, leafy lanes, I started gaining on a well turned-out gentleman trotting merrily on a skimming-stone grey mount.  He tipped his cap as we went past.  That, I thought, is a rare treat.  Cyclists get used to beeped horns, revved engines and if we are really lucky a cowardly flick of the Vs and a dopplerised tirade about road tax.  Here was a gent so pleased to see us he wanted to celebrate.  Tally ho!, I thought, and quickly realised that he was thinking the same.  Up ahead was a gathering of men and women on horseback that was so enormous it could have been a cavalry regiment; but so distinctly smelling of fortified wine that it could only be the hunt.

We rode past to much exchanging of bemused looks about our respective choices of leisure pursuit –  lycra and legwork versus hounds and horsepower.  Fortunately no-one was undignified enough to break the curious harmony of the scene by pointing out that only one of us was going to commit a crime that day.

At the end of a week in which a ground-breaking report had proven that harsh drug laws did not reduce levels of illegal drug use, here in the Oxfordshire lanes was another example of legislation failing.  Another instance of Westminster’s authoritarian arrows missing their target.

As we pedaled on, (and I was left in the wake of the speedsters) I had a chance to ponder whether we are too keen to make too many of our citizens into criminals to achieve a wide range of objectives.

Let’s acknowledge first that drug use is a more nuanced subject than hunting in terms of its treatment by the criminal law.

However the subjects do share one philosophical question – are inflicting harm on yourself through drugs and allowing dogs to inflict a harm on foxes through hunting ‘harms’ that the state should criminalise?

On drugs, my view is that users are not necessarily criminals.  Any legislation governing users should be targeted at addressing their problem with a clear emphasis on breaking addiction and improving outcomes in terms of health, social problems and criminal activity.  The focus should be on treatment and rehabilitation.

The international evidence published last week is that legislation that tries to crimnalise users, or create a deterrent does not produce the desired result – it does not reduce the harm.

When faced with that evidence, MPs should look again at the issue.  If treatment through substitution, drug consumption rooms, dissuasion commissions reduces usage faster and saves lives, let’s go for it.   Better laws could reduce drug use more quickly, stop money falling into the hands of gangs and could take an unnecessary burden off our criminal justice system.

To refuse to  liberalise drugs laws on the basis of a belief that tough sentences send the ‘right message’, is authoritarian nonsense that belongs in the same historical dustbin as the workhouse and the gallows.

Unfortunately the huntsmen of Oxfordshire don’t have the excuse of addiction (apart, possibly to port and cake) for their crimes.  Yet in contrast to drug users, hunters know there will be no enforcement – probably because the inhumane disposal of a fox is not considered by police or the landowners affected to be something that it is worth expending their budget and efforts to prevent.  Interestingly our local force just invested in a Land Rover specifically to target hare coursing, but not to pursue hunts.

That sort of inconsistency makes the issue even more fraught.  However, while I think we should be moving towards a position where hunting with dogs is a not a quintessential part of our rural fabric, I don’t think that trying to enforce the ban and attempting to impose criminal sanctions is the right approach.

For all the heat generated around the legislation (now a decade old), everyone engaged in the issue must surely accept that the ban doesn’t work.  How ironic that the law that indirectly attempts to govern the activity of thoroughbred equine specimens has turned out to be an ass.  There is even some evidence of an increase in participation since the ban came into effect.

If MPs want to end hunting with dogs, like reducing the levels of drugs in our communities, they will have the majority of the UK behind them.

However, a sensible approach is to look at solutions that can encourage individuals that do or might in the future engage in hunting and drug-taking to move away from the practice, rather than trying to enforce a ban.   Why not spend more time educating children in rural areas on animal welfare rather than chasing people in land rovers or ignoring the ban altogether?

Drugs policy and hunting are very different subjects that require different responses.  But in my view neither drug takers nor huntsmen should necessarily be correctly characterised as criminals.  In both policy areas, authoritarian solutions have failed to achieve the desired outcome.  A better approach would be to move away from the blunt tools of criminal law and look at more constructive ways to address our problems.  Both examples show that making something illegal doesn’t stop it happening.

 

 

 

Soccer FaceplantLike a moth drawn to the flames of a candle when the clear bright moon beckons, some things can not help themselves.  So it is with the European Commission.

On a day when the European Union should have been celebrating a strong package for emissions reductions and renewable energy to 2030, the headlines were stolen by a botched, bean-counter’s Brit bash.   A day to prove the value and ambition of the EU working together to combat global problems turned into a day to suggest that the European Commission is so detached from reality we would be better (and richer) off without it.

First the good news.  Thanks to some hard bargaining from our Energy Secretary Ed Davey, the EU has committed to a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, an EU-wide binding target for renewable energy of at least 27% and an indicative energy efficiency target of at least 27%. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a deal that has taken two years to negotiate and it will help us continue to take action on climate change without becoming uncompetitive.  It’s a also deal that will put down the marker for other big economies when a global deal is thrashed out next year.   Perhaps most importantly, it’s a deal that shows Europe at its best: cooperative, progressive, green and with a long term agenda.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  At the same time as the UK led the EU council of ministers to a bold climate deal, the unelected technocrats at the European Commission were undermining the very participation of the UK in Europe.

Denuded of even the slightest political camoflague, the bare stupidity of the £1.7bn bill from the Commission to the UK was paraded across TV, radio and internet all day.  The Commission refused to put forward spokesmen because to them, it’s all so simple.   Forget the fact that disengagement from the Brussels machine is endemic across Europe, ignore the increasing clamour within Britain for withdrawal, forget the austerity gripping the continent:

Computer says £1.7bn.

Unfortunately the demand is an outrageously crass, unnecessary mistake.  Who has not been at a restaurant and fallen out (politely of course) over contributions to a split bill?   If someone’s short you come to a deal.  The EU budget back is hardly like a rogue bottle of wine and a couple of undesignated tiramisu.   Financial requests for multiple hundreds of millions at an EU level should be handled through careful negotiation before anyone actually starts demanding money.

Unfortunately, this is the second time in a week that the Commission has been cast as the enforcer of rules that the UK must obey. On the first rule – immigration – I have sympathy for the view that free movement of labour is in our long term interest, but the Commission’s tone is starting to grate.  On the idea that the UK should pay in a 20% levy to account for our stronger economy, the Commission must go back to the drawing board.

But while some will ponder the rights and wrongs of these dictats, those with less time will be coming to the logical conclusion that the EU is a money-sink that cares less for the UK than we do for them.

Such a cliche is mildly amusing when pedaled by a demagogic mouthpiece in tweed.  When it is backed up by the actions of the Commission itself, it becomes a serious danger to Britain’s national interest.

I believe that our future lies as a strong voice within the EU, fighting for strong trans-national deals on free trade, combating international crime and (as we have seen today) leading the way on the fight against climate change.

But when Brussels face plants so spectacularly as it has this week, you have to wonder whether the Commission is an institution that really wants to save itself.

Paterson’s Great Guff

Cabinet Meeting at Downing St, London, Britain - 24 June 2014Owen Paterson’s speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation last night was depressingly poor.   If it hadn’t been trailed so heavily in the press, I would have thought he had made it up on the spot.  In fact, Twitter revealed it was written by his brother-in-law Matt Ridley, the climate sceptic journalist (who also happens to be Lord Lawson (Chairman of GWPF)’s nephew).  So I guess it was always going to be guff.

The idea that this sort of waffle passes as a useful intervention in the energy and climate debate is extremely depressing.  That it comes from someone who used to be Environment Secretary is frankly terrifying.

Paterson’s ‘big ideas’ were to remove the Climate Change Act and adopt four ‘pillars of energy policy’.  Those are: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management.

Why is this complete crap?  Firstly, the Climate Change Act does not dictate how the UK reduces emissions, it simply sets the legally binding target.  Therefore all of Paterson’s ideas could theoretically be explored with the Climate Change Act in place.  The championing of its removal is a completely pointless addition to the speech, except as another morsel of red meat to the Tory right chewing merrily on their policy to abolish the Human Rights Act.

More fundamentally, with even the most basic understanding of the energy system Paterson would have grasped that the UK would be completely screwed if we tried to stand on Paterson’s four pillars.   The UK system is built on a mixture of established technologies that will continue to provide the bulk of our energy, with an increasing shift towards greater reliance on low-carbon generation.

Paterson makes no reference to this mix.  Instead he rubbishes renewables and suggests we put all our efforts into four ideas. But there are problems:

Domestic shale gas is not an established source of fuel in the UK yet.  The government has committed to further exploration, but we simply don’t know how much is there and how much we can get out.  It may take a decade to make shale an important part of our energy mix.

Similarly, small scale nuclear is not a viable option.  There is some money going in to research, but the technology is not proven so should not be considered part of the solution to our energy needs at this stage.  It may be fifty years or more before it could become a ‘pillar’ of energy policy.

Thirdly CHP, is an attractive option but is extremely expensive and disruptive to build close to the facilities that can benefit from the heat before it evaporates.  Certainly something to explore and promote in specific places where it can work (and the example of hospitals is a reasonable one), but a ‘pillar’ of the whole system? I think not.

Finally, demand management is already a central part of the government’s agenda and a no-brainer from anyone’s perspective.  To present it as a big idea is laughable.  Even more curious is this libertarian’s suggestion that the grid can step in and turn your fridge off for twenty minutes.  I can see the Daily Mail headlines already – ‘Nanny State Cuts Power in Attack on Great British Groceries’.

Before, beneath and between these ‘ideas’ Paterson’s speech was a rant about wind farms, the EU and the coalition.  There is no specific mention of immigration, but if I had another read, I suspect I could find covert references to shutting the borders to the invading hordes.   In short this is a long way from a serious contribution to the energy policy debate.  Instead it is dog-whistle messaging to seduce the Tory right-wingers who would otherwise be heading back down the mines with Nigel Farage and UKIP.

We have consistently seen the Global Warming Policy Foundation produce dodgy science from questionable sources to try and dogmatically promote their climate sceptic cause.  They are well funded by the fossil fuel lobby and their agenda chimes with those looking nostagically for simple answers to our country’s energy challenges.  They are almost always in contradiction to mainstream scientific thought and are regularly forced to correct or apologise for their consistent stream of misinformation.

So if there is a positive to take away from having wasted thirty minutes of your life listening to Owen Paterson parroting a few tired lines about wind turbines it is this: when the GWPF have to resort to hosting half-baked speeches written by members of Lord Lawson’s family there must be some hope that they might just be running out of material.

Here’s hoping.