Critical Mass – a threat to London pedestrians

A Critical Mass demo

A Critical Mass demo

I was walking tonight from Great Queen Street in Holborn to a hotel in Southampton Row.  I took a familiar route by the back doubles to avoid the huge crush around Holborn tube station but was somewhat alarmed to hear a cacophony of noise from the junction at Holborn tube.  It sounded like a mob of drunken football supporters and I was pleased to be taking a back route.  That is until I reached Southampton Row, on the opposite side of the road from the hotel where I was dining.  I saw a mass of cyclists, grouped very closely together and many of them were carrying devices blasting out noise – some may have thought it was music.  It looked quite impossible for me to cross Southampton Row, such was the mass of cyclists and they clearly had no intention of obeying the traffic lights which I had assumed would make it easy for me to cross the road.  They also clearly wanted to block the road space and prevent pedestrians from crossing as well as making life impossible for cars, lorries and, for that matter, ambulances and fire engines, not to mention the police who were nowhere to be seen.

Welcome to Critical Mass, a cycling protest group or, to be more precise, an anti-car group who apparently deliberately gum up Central London streets with their mass cycle ride on the last Friday evening of every month.  I will know to avoid Central London on the last Friday in future and I hope shopkeepers, pubs, hotels and other businesses will make their views known.

Having stood on the side of Southampton Row for some minutes while these cyclists came to a grinding halt but so as to block the road completely, I decided to push my way across.  A small number were helpful and asked their colleagues to make way for this pensioner pedestrian but a lot more just sat on their saddles and were clearly determined to occupy the road at the expense and to the detriment of all other potential road users.

I think this was a complete disgrace.  It brings the whole cycling community into disrepute and I want to know why the Metropolitan Police are not out in force to cart then away, confiscate their bicycles and lock them up?  They are guilty of obstructing the highway by their behaviour.



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The last straw – a sad end to two careers

Dennis Healey

Dennis Healey

Dennis Healey brought the phrase “silly billy” to public notice with some help from Mike Yarwood.  I can think of no better way of describing the performance of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind when interviewed for a consultancy with a fictitious Chinese company as a media scam. It baffles me how serious and senior politicians like these two can fall for a scam like this and make such complete and sad fools of themselves.

Jack Straw

Jack Straw

There we saw Jack Straw in his parliamentary office with the green screen behind him showing Commons business openly touting for business as a consultant once he stood down from his Blackburn seat in the May General Election.  Quoting £5,000 as his basic fee for a day’s work or less, he clearly speculated on the value of his name and his ability to open doors to ambassadors and world leaders.  Did he have no idea the Chinese lady who was masquerading as the niece of a Chinese company chairman was pointing a concealed camera at him?  Did this very senior politician have no sense that he was being sent up?

Malcolm Rifkind

Malcolm Rifkind

However, I am afraid Malcolm Rifkind proved to be the bigger silly billy. The Member of Parliament for the prime seat of Kensington & Chelsea had every intention of standing in the May General Election and would undoubtedly have won it hands down. In touting for consultancy business with a fictitious Chinese company he offered access and influence that may or may not have offended the Commons rules but it clearly caused great offence to the wider public although probably not many of his Kensington & Chelsea constituents.  He proved his arrogant, sheer stupidity and detachment from the real world after the scam by claiming he was entitled to a higher income than a MP because of his professional background and skills.  He topped off the demolition of his political career and reputation by boasting how much free time he enjoyed.

This debacle is symptomatic of a bigger problem, however.  Straw and Rifkind got caught openly touting their marketability as senior politicians who have held some of the great offices of state.  I could not help speculating on the tariff for a senior politician.  How much does an ex-prime minister command?  How much an ex-foreign secretary?  How much an ex-chancellor of the exchequer?  How far round the cabinet table does this tariff marketability extend?  Presumably an ex-defence secretary would have considerable value in the arms market?  What about an ex-home secretary or an ex-education secretary or an ex-chief whip?

Clearly the answer is a very variable tariff.  Top of the list must be Blair who has ended up a multi millionaire after his ten years as PM. He has scoffed at the suggestion of £100m net worth but it is calculated he and Cherry have five homes worth £25m and he can clearly command huge speaking and writing fees let alone consultancies of the kind Straw and Rifkind have brought to light.  John Major has been most discreet but, for a PM who boasted of his humble beginnings, he appears to have travelled a long way.  Gordon Brown has registered mouth-watering earnings in the Commons register after a short and notably unsuccessful period as Prime Minister.

Does it matter?  Our MPs are not paid generously.  At £67k, they rank with a middling school headmaster’s pay and receive a lot less than most GPs.  However, if you add in the generous allowances they receive for office costs, housing and an eye-wateringly generous pension scheme, life looks brighter.  Add in the ability of those with outside interests – barristers, entrepreneurs, authors – to earn substantial sums while serving as MPs and the picture is cloudier.   This brings the issue to the dichotomy that is the House of Commons.  Members of Parliament will come from a whole variety of backgrounds.  There will be barristers, merchant bankers, successful business people and many other wealthy individuals who have decided to enter politics.  There will be others from humbler backgrounds – teachers, nurses and some who have never had a proper job and have stumbled into politics after working in political and media consultancies after leaving education.  Such a mix of background and earning power is bound to create tensions.  Promotion to ministerial rank brings prohibition on holding outside employments so a ministerial salary may not compensate for lost income for a high flyer.  It is easy for the popular media to castigate a politician who expects to earn more than the national average wage but failing to reward talent in politics is likely to prove that paying peanuts attracts plenty of monkeys.

I don’t excuse Straw or Rifkind but I don’t think we have heard the last of this issue.  Perhaps we should expect national politicians to publish their tax returns after they have left public office?

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Green gobbledegook

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett

You have to watch this interview with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party  If you don’t, you probably won’t believe how awful it is.  In an LBC interview with Nick Ferrari, she tries to explain how the Greens would build half a million council houses.  She clearly does not know what it would cost to build this number of homes or what the land cost would be or how it would be funded.  When asked about funding, she explains that it would come from abolishing tax relief for loan interest on private landlords but cannot say how much this would save per annum let alone the impact on the private housing market of denying private landlords tax deductibility for a significant element of business cost!

Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas

I have observed the Green Party for most of my political life.  Caroline Lucas was a Green Councillor on Oxfordshire County Council between 1993 and 1997.  She was privately educated at Malvern Girls’ School which must irk her hugely but corrected the balance by going on to Exeter University where she read English Literature in between regular trips to Greenham Women’s Peace Camp and support for CND. From Essex she enjoyed a scholarship at the University of Kansas and then a diploma in Journalism before finishing her studies at the age of 29, gaining her PhD with a thesis entitled Writing for Women: a study of woman as reader in Elizabethan romance.

I can see no trace of her having held a proper job. From the County Council, she got herself elected to the European Parliament, thanks to the introduction of proportional voting in 1999.  She held the seat in 2004 and 2009. She won the Brighton Pavilion English Parliamentary seat in 2010, the first and still the only Green Party MP.  There is no doubt she is very bright and knocks spots of the new Green Party leader.  She also had all the essential characteristics of the Green Party.  She was well to the left of centre, advocating policies that the Blairite wing of New Labour would never have touched.  She was a rabid feminist and full of political correctness.  You also have to be slightly mad to be a Green Party member.  She has been reprimanded for being improperly dressed in the Commons and arrested for violent confrontation in an anti-fracking demonstration.  What induced her to stand aside for Natalie Bennett baffles me and, I suspect a lot of Green Party members. Lucas would not have been wrong footed in an interview.

Natalie Bennett is an Australian by birth.  After education at an independent girls’ school, she read Agricultural Science at Sydney University, followed by a BA in Asian Studies at the University of New England and then an MA in Mass Communication at Leicester University. Hardly a good advertisement for the latter course after her disastrous interview on LBC!  Her subsequent working life was as a reporter on Australian regional newspapers until leaving Australia in 1995.  She spent four years in Bangkok partly working as a journalist and partly for the Office of the National Commission of Women’s Affairs of Australian Volunteers International.  Settling in Britain in 1999, she worked for the Guardian,, Independent and Times.  She has lost a succession of council, London Assembly and Parliamentary elections.  She was elected leader of the Green Party to succeed Caroline Lucas on a turnout of 25%.

The Green Party is advocating a whole range of barking mad policies, reflecting their inherent socialist tendency. Essentially, Green policies are anti-capitalist, anti-austerity, anti-growth, rabidly green in all sorts of quirky ways, pro-public ownership, anti-private sector, high taxing, high spending.  They would legalise cannabis, presumably to help the citizens to live in a failing socialist state.

Will their leader survive her humiliation today? Will her terrible performance turn away potential Green voters? As LBC’s Joey Jones said: “It’s very difficult from her point of view but I would make one point: ultimately, people who are inclined to vote Green – and there are a lot more of them than we’ve seen in the past – are not doing so because they think their sums add up.  They’re voting on principle and some are voting as a protest and they may well do that no matter how many bad interviews Natalie Bennett has in her locker.”

I think that says it all.


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Axing a council Chief Executive

OCClogoGWhen I stood down as Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, I took a self-denying ordinance that I would not comment on or criticise the actions of my successors. I was determined not to be a back-seat driver and I retain that determination.

As I write this blog, Oxfordshire County Council is deciding whether to make its Chief Executive redundant.  I will make no comment on the proposal although those close to me may well have a good idea of my thoughts.  Instead, let me describe what a Chief Executive does in a large strategic authority like Oxfordshire and leave others to work out how to fill the gap their departure will create.

Oxfordshire County Council is responsible for a population of some 650,000 people and for a diverse range of services over an area of 1,000 square miles.  The council consists of  four directorates responsible for Social & Community Services; Children, Education & Families; Environment & Economy and Public Health.  These are like baronies. Each employs hundreds if not thousands of staff and each oversees a range of services based in buildings in Oxford and scattered round the county.

A Chief Executive of a strategic council like Oxfordshire has many roles, best categorised as internal to the council and external to it.

Internally, the Chief Executive is the Head of the Paid Service and ultimately responsible for the proper management of a staff of thousands.  A key role is to ensure the baronies pull in the same direction on strategic matters and do not pull against one another.  Do not under-estimate their ability to go astray.  A Chief Executive will also have to address competence issues in senior level posts and no organisation is exempt from the need to kick ass or manage removal from time to time.

In a political organisation like a county council, there is also an important role to bring together the political and the managerial lines.  In central government, senior civil servants need to understand the policy direction expected by politicians and to translate this into managerial actions.  It is the same in councils.  The separation of political and managerial lines has always been clear and strong in the UK and it is a strength that we weaken at our peril. Politicians do not necessarily have the managerial skills to deal with complex organisational structures.  Council managers need to distance themselves from party politics.  A good chief executive will know how to manage this process as will a good council leader but they need each other to manage the checks and balances.

When things go wrong in local government it is more often cock-up than conspiracy.  A good chief executive will smell the cock-up that is brewing and alert whoever is able to prevent it from boiling over.  The same is true of a good political leader.  Where the skills of chief executive and leader mesh well together, a council will thrive.

There is much more to a chief executive’s role than the internal management of their council.  They will have a key role in maintaining good working relationships with a wide range of external bodies.  Oxfordshire is no exception.  The Vice-Chancellors of the two Universities will meet frequently with the chief executive and there will be mutual respect and understanding between them.  The same is true of the hospital health trusts and the health commissioners, the police, the magistracy, the business community, the huge voluntary sector and the small district councils whose services overlap with the county.  A good chief executive, will have earned the respect and confidence of a whole range of important players in the public, private and voluntary sectors.  When the chips are down, many will look to a good chief executive for leadership and advice.

Joanna Simons

Joanna Simons

If Oxfordshire County Council decides to make their Chief Executive redundant there will be a serious need to identify who takes on the roles I have described.  Make no mistake, Joanna Simons is a first class Chief Executive.  She has done all of the things I have described above and much more and always with the best interests of the county in mind.  The political leadership will have to think very hard about creating a new structure that works and that joins up strategically for the services internally and all of the diverse interests externally.  It is a tall order.  I hope they get it right.  It will soon become clear if they do not.



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The gap between the poor and the rich

MilibandE3I don’t suppose you would expect me to feel any liking for Ed Miliband and you are right.  In fact, I feel complete horror that he might end up as this country’s next Prime Minister.  The reason is simple.  Miliband has characterised the country’s population as fitting into two categories: “the rich” and “the poor”.  I am neither.

Miliband’s perception of “the rich” clearly encompasses what we would think of as the “super rich” with a net wealth of many millions, if not billions and an annual income in seven figures or more.  Well I do not fit into that category.  If I had continued my career in the private sector, I might have got nearer to the bottom end of that category but spending a quarter century in public service ensured I would never be counted among the super rich and nor would I take a different route if I had my time again.

Miliband would have us focus on bankers and  PLC chairmen as he vents his ire on “the rich”.  Of course, also included in this category are pop stars, film stars and footballers but I suspect he would not wish his audiences to reflect on this too much!  Very few people seem to worry about the absurd wages paid to people who can apparently kick a football with skill but are incapable or uttering a coherent sentence.

At the other end of the scale are “the poor”.  I am certainly not poor. I have never drawn a penny in state benefits and never will.  I own my own home and have my pensionable income in place.  I managed all of this through my own hard work and am proud of it.

The result is that I sit between Miliband’s “rich” and “poor” and that frightens me because I would be invisible to him if he – God forbid – were Prime Minister.

Miliband plans to hit “the rich” with more taxes on income and property and they will mainly emigrate and we will lose their wealth-creating skills.

Miliband will support “the poor” and, for me, that means more benefits for the workless and those seeking to come to the UK as well as some possibly deserving causes.

Miliband leaves people like me in a desert in which we simply do not feature, except I am afraid we do.  We, the people in the middle, will continue to be the squeezed middle.  The hard working middle class who will have to fill the gap between the exiting super-rich and the newly-found poor citizens who will enjoy Miliband’s patrimony.

What is most worrying is that I suspect I and my like are most likely in the majority.  We are a burgeoning middle class who will be taxed beyond endurance and see those taxes allocated to people who could and should work but who choose not to.   If we do not use our votes in the 2015 elections we will pay the price.

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Black Boy under new management

The Black Boy, Milton

The Black Boy, Milton

Rumour has it that the Black Boy Inn, Milton will soon be under new management.  Contracts are expected to be exchanged on Monday 16 February 2015 with completion scheduled for later in the month.

Marco Pierre-White’s regime will come to an end and locals are looking forward to getting their village pub back.  Marco tried to turn it into a celebrity restaurant and he failed.  He scrapped most of the bar and bar area and reduced the choice of drinks, clearly expecting punters to come for the name of Marco Pierre-White and/or Wheelers and the eating experience those names envisaged.  Well it failed and it is sad that this lovely old pub has had to pay the price.

I understand the new owners will live on the premises and that is really good news.  They will need to take stock of the building and what needs to be done to return it to profitability.  I hope that means a combination of local watering hole and restaurant.  There is enough space for the Black Boy to be a local pub and a restaurant and there could well be space for bed and breakfast trade if the local planners allow and, surely, they must be  helpful to this pub that has survived such a long list of different landlords?

I have three thoughts in conclusion:

  • Very grateful thanks to Hannah and her team who have worked so hard to meet customers’ needs while seeing the business wind down as Marco clearly decided he was exiting but never seems to have taken the local staff into his confidence.  If his staff management style is based on silence and secrecy, I do wonder how he keeps his businesses going?
  • A very warm welcome to the new landlord and landlady.  They are taking on a pub with a chequered history and a huge list of past landlords but it has great potential and, in the right hands, I am sure it can come back to viability with full bars and full tables.
  • Marco changed this lovely old pub and not for the better.  He seems to have thought he could impose urban styles and tastes into this very rural location.  I hope he has learned a lesson and may take a pause to reflect on the advice he has been given and the style in which he seems to manage his businesses.
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Council cabinets

DTAn editorial in the Daily Telegraph of Thursday 5 February called for the scrapping of local council cabinets following news that the entire cabinet of Rotherham Council has resigned after publication of Louise Casey’s report into child abuse in Rotherham.

I am afraid I have come to expect hostility in the Conservative party to local government despite the fact that local councillors are often the only shock troops available to MPs at election time.  I have also come to accept wholesale ignorance on the part of the media about the workings of local government but the degree of misunderstanding and ignorance exhibited by the author of this Daily Telegraph editorial is quite breath-taking.

The editorial blasts off “For too long, town hall leaders have been shielded from proper public scrutiny by the structures of governance created under Labour, in which council chiefs grandly preside over “cabinets” that are heavily reliant on powerful and highly paid full-time officers“.

I ought to declare my interest before commenting on the absurdity of this editorial.  I was first elected as an Oxfordshire County Councillor in May 1989.  I joined a council that operated under the committee system that this journalist lauds and I found the council to be horribly hung with three parties with 33, 23 and 13 seats plus an independent.  There was no leader of the council; there was no leadership and there was no coherence.  In fact the three party groups were all effectively in opposition.  Policy proposals were shunted up a committee structure from sub-committee to main committee to a strategic committee and on to council.  It was like snakes and ladders.  At any time, an alliance could send a proposal back down a snake to start again in the next quarterly cycle.  Officers worked to weave together alliances as best they could to move matters forward but there was a lack of leadership and a lack of coherence in what was happening.

In the 2001 council elections, the council remained hung but the Labour government’s imposition of a cabinet & leader system forced us to think again about our governance arrangements and, after many months of tricky negotiations, I put together a coalition of my Conservative Group with the Liberal Group.  I became Leader of the Council after 12 years without one and the Liberals provided a Deputy Leader of the Council.  There were seven other members in our Cabinet, making 5 Conservatives and 4 Liberals.  It lasted the full four-year term and we made huge progress in reforming the council within the constraints of our coalition agreement.  In 2005, we secured a Conservative majority of 10 and, in 2009 enlarged it to 30.  I stood down in 2013, feeling it was time for others to carry what is a heavy and full-time role.  Thus I have seen the committee and the cabinet systems in play in a hung council and a controlled one.  I would have quit immediately if we had been forced back to the committee system.

To return to the Daily Telegraph editorial, I don’t know what experience the author has had of local government but it sounds like very little.  Firstly, all councillors are dependent on the advice of full-time officers.  Whether they are “powerful” or “highly paid”, I will leave to others to decide.  However, just as in central government, elected politicians are,  in many respects, amateurs who must reply on the advice of their paid officers (the equivalent of Westminster’s civil servants).  The axiom is “officers advise but members decide” and how strongly this is applied will depend on the degree of political leadership exhibited by a council.  Many have strong political leadership and, while officers will give advice and set out the policy alternatives within the parameters of the law and their financial and service outcomes, members will base their decisions on their political judgment.  Of course, in a controlled council, those decisions will be taken by the ruling group and delivered through the cabinet of full council as the constitution requires.  It has always been like this and it was no different under a committee system where there would have been a leadership group of senior politicians from the controlling group needing to take with them all of the members of their particular group to deliver policy through the council.  In a hung council, there was the need to secure support from a coalition partner.

This is no different to the way in which Westminster operates except that council cabinets meet in public and their deliberations are seen and heard by all who choose to attend.  the same is not true of the government’s cabinet!

There is a second and more important fallacy in the Daily Telegraph editorial.  As a result of the Louise Tracey report, the whole Rotherham cabinet resigned.  They were the political leadership of the council and they finally accepted responsibility for their collective failings.  If a committee system had been in  operation, who would have resigned?  Every committee would have been politically balanced according to the proportionality of the council, including members of the controlling group and opposition members.  There might well have been numerous committees and sub-committees with some responsibility for child welfare.  Accountability was never a strong point of the old committee system.  I think it would have been much harder to point the finger under the old committee system.

The editorial attacks “decisions taken behind closed doors by a small group of favoured burghers”.  They always have been and they always will be just the same as in Westminster.  Council political groups meet regularly to agree policy.  They do so in private; nothing else would work.  Within those groups will be a small number of senior politicians who have the knowledge, experience, skills and, above all, time to manage a brief.  There will always be a division between this small leadership group who effectively  work a full-time job with the remaining councillors for whom it is very much a part-time role alongside work, families and other interests.  This division into full-time and part-time politicians does not always make for easy relationships and the leadership will always have to work hard to maintain a coherent group but there is no other logical way it can work.

Returning to a committee system will not change the political nature of councils nor the division between a leadership group with the time and talent to work full-time and the majority who will have to rely on this leadership.

There is another type of council.  Often, it is the smaller ones where elected members come in for evening meetings and the officers run the council during the day.  In some, political input may be relatively minor and the astute chief executive and senior officers will be able to ensure “sensible” policies are delivered through the political process by “helping” elected politicians through their deliberations.  Again, whether such councils operated a cabinet or committee system would make little difference to where the power really lies and it will not be immediately obvious until someone with more experience than the author of the Daily Telegraph editorial scratches the surface to discover what lies beneath.


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