Today is the opening day of the public inquiry for the King’s Lynn incinerator. We won’t be hearing any detailed evidence, but each side will be outlining its core arguments and we should get some more clarity on the procedure. Given that this is probably the best, and, last opportunity to stop the incinerator it could be a crucial meeting and I ‘ll be trying to tweet live from the Corn Exchange – you can follow me at @JonahOliver or using the #klinc hashtag.
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Like many, if not most, Lib Dems I strongly support the lowering of the voting age to 16. The arguments for doing so are many and powerful, and hardly need to be repeated here. Suffice to say, I cannot understand how it is justifiable to allow 16 and 17 year olds to marry, drive, join the army and pay taxes, yet deny them any say on how the country is governed.
So you might have expected me to be overjoyed by the news that the voting age for the Scottish independence referendum will indeed be 16. But I’m not. It’s not that I’ve had a sudden change of heart, or that I think Scottish 16 and 17 year olds shouldn’t be able to participate in such a historic vote. My problem lies with the means of achieving it. If we want to change the voting age we should do it properly; making a case for it in public and changing the law, not by some grubby backroom deal between the SNP and the UK government.
Besides, what is the point of having votes at 16 in a single poll (and one that will include such a small percentage of the UK’s population at that)? The only case I have seen put forward, that the independence referendum will have especially important consequences for future generations, is little short of laughable. What referendum, or indeed election, isn’t about the future? Wasn’t the AV referendum about just that? What about a future referendum on EU membership? It is frankly nonsensical to suggest that this pick and mix approach to the voting age is real progress, rather than mere political chicanery.
If we want change we should get it properly, not by succumbing to Alex Salmond’s intrigues.
Yesterday it was announced that Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, had caved into pressure from Norfolk County Council and the waste industry, granting £91 million of PFI credits for the construction of an incinerator near King’s Lynn. This was despite the necessity for a “broad consensus of support” to be shown before the money could be given and the opposition of two district councils in Norfolk, 65,516 people and most relevant agencies and authorities opposing the plan.
While depressing, it looked like yet another case of a senior minister ignoring the rhetoric of localism and democracy, and bowing to the wishes of her Conservative colleagues at County Hall. Today, however, the story has taken a rather more sinister turn.
Last week there was jubilation, after the Labour leader of Norwich City Council, Brenda Arthur, wrote to Spelman to re-emphasise the council’s position that it opposed all incineration, anywhere in Norfolk. No one, it was reasoned, could claim there was a “broad consensus of support” if the two largest second tier councils in Norfolk opposed incineration generally, and the Saddlebow plan in particular. For one short week Cllr Arthur was the hero of West Norfolk.
Now though a different picture has emerged. It appears that the letter to Caroline Spelman was only written after menacing letters from the Lib Dem and Green group leaders at County Hall which indicated that if she did not take action they may withhold support from Labour’s minority administration. While this incident is enough to raise questions about Cllr Arthur’s motives, the worst was yet to come.
It is rumoured that her intervention had influenced Defra to such a degree that it was preparing to refuse the application for PFI credits. However, before the final decision was taken Spelman decided to call Arthur and check that her position still stood. Obviously, no one knows exactly what was said, but Arthur was clearly less forceful in person than she was on paper. Whatever she did say apparently gave Defra reason enough to believe that there was enough support for the credits to be granted yesterday.
To be fair, the Labour party, especially at the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and Norfolk County Council have done a very good job of opposing the incinerator, in conjunction with Lib Dems and Greens. But to think a senior Labour councillor had such a great opportunity to end the whole saga once and for all is, to say the least, disheartening. To have done so while convincing Norfolk and the two parties she relies on for a majority that she was in fact doing the opposite is worse still. We can only hope that that one phone call doesn’t come back to haunt us.
Note: I have no hard evidence to support this post other than what I have been told by various different sources. It does, however, come from people I trust and has an undeniable ring of truth.
I don’t often write these kinds of self-congratulatory posts, but Norfolk Lib Dems have been going through a tough time recently. Not only did we lose a by-election in Lakenham, but two of our county councillors have defected to the Conservatives (not much of a loss in either case, but two less Lib Dems anyhow). So, I thought I would write a quick piece on what good Lib Dems are doing for people across the county.
The most obvious example of a Lib Dem policy carried into government, and now helping to make a real difference is the pupil premium. This year over 16,000 of the poorest Norfolk pupils will receive a total £7.6 million to help with their education. To give just one example, Great Yarmouth High School, which serves one of the most deprived districts in the county, will get £157,380 for this year alone.
Another key area where Lib Dems have been able to have a big impact is on the local economy, especially important with the low growth and demand that is dominating our economy. In October Nick Clegg announced a £10.4 million grant through the Regional Growth Fund for Lotus Engineering, a local company based in Hethel, near Norwich. They hope to build a second factory and car assembly line, which could create 1200 jobs over five years.
And, of course, local Lib Dems are still leading opposition to the King’s Lynn incinerator that nobody wants, nobody needs and nobody can afford. It might not all be plain sailing, but at least Lib Dems, in government and locally, are making a real difference for the people of Norfolk.
As all of us set our clocks back today a far bigger change to time in Britain is being planned in Westminster. The government, or at least some sections of it, seem keen to move British clocks forward by one hour, leaving us with Central European Time (CET) as opposed to the traditional GMT, and are planning a three year trial period to see how it works. While the SNP administration in Scotland has threatened to effectively veto any such move, it is still worrying that the British government is even contemplating such a crazy idea.
On the face of it everything makes sense; there would be longer evenings with more boosts to public health, road safety and the economy. Sadly, all of these arguments fall down under close examination. The most obvious problem (and the one that has so irked the Scottish government) is the later sunrises that any such change would bring. In some parts of northern Scotland in winter it wouldn’t be light until nearly 10 o’clock, while even Manchester would have to wait until just before 9 to see the sun. Not too much of a problem in well-light urban areas, perhaps, but nothing short of absurd in rural, isolated towns and villages.
Furthermore, it would seem to destroy the credibility of the claim by those who support the move, such as the Conservative MP Rebecca Harris who’s tabled a private member’s bill on the issue, that it would save up to 80 lives a year from road accidents. Of course, there are less accidents in the light, but any benefits from lighter evenings will surely be demolished by darker mornings, when just as many vehicles are on the roads. Indeed, in some parts of Britain when year-round BST was trialled in 1968-71.
The idea that moving the clocks forward would save on energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to any great extent is similarly ridiculous. It is quite obvious that almost all energy saved (a few weeks in summer may be exceptions) in the evenings will be used in the mornings when more light will be needed! Exactly the same can be said of suggestions that lighter evenings will boost public health by encouraging exercise; while true that more people could, for instance, go for a run after work, less will be able to do anything in the morning or commute on foot or by bike. If anything changing Britain’s timezone would only have a minor effect.
Most derisible of all, though, is the claim that longer, lighter evenings would help the economy. I fail to see how this can be true. The case seems to be based on a rather strange idea that marginally longer evenings would provide a huge boost to British tourism, which while at least coherent compared to the other claims made by supporters, hardly seems great enough to justify the change, especially when at least one other sector, farming, would be badly hit by the dark mornings. Whatever economic benefit there would be is small and dubious, and may well be outweighed by the adjustments that would have to be made by the timezone change.
The real point about changing Britain’s time, though, is that is just irrelevant. I doubt one person in this country (with the possible exception of Rebecca Harris herself) wakes up thinking “If we could just move the light now to later in the evening…”. No one cares, and until they do, there seems little point in making a change with minimal benefits, and the possibility of negative effects.
Regular readers of this blog will know that Norfolk County Council has hardly achieved a good reputation for upholding the principles of localism and democracy. In March the Cabinet of the County Council decided to grant a £600 million contract for an incinerator near King’s Lynn to Cory Wheelabrator, despite a West Norfolk-wide referendum that found 93% of residents were against the plan. Even when the formal planning process showed that 97% of responses were objections to the plan the County Council refused to reject the plan.
So, it was something of a surprise when, dredging through old NCC press releases I found this, from 23rd September;
“Councillor Tom Garrod has been appointed to the new role of Deputy Cabinet Member for the Voluntary Sector and Localism on Norfolk County Council.”
Not too controversial, you may think, but it gets worse;
“Complementing the role with the voluntary sector, the new deputy cabinet portfolio also provides a higher profile for the localism agenda. Localism is the term being used to describe a shift away from the state to communities and aims to help people become more informed and involved in decisions affecting their area and about greater transparency for how public money is used.”
There’s even a quote from Derrick Murphy, Leader of the Council and key proponent of the incinerator;
“Derrick Murphy, Leader of Norfolk County Council and Cabinet Member for Transformation, said: “Tom has boundless energy and a real desire to serve the community, listen to people’s views and respond and make improvements, and I feel very fortunate that he wants to take on these responsibilities for the good of our county. This new role will give the council an even stronger link to voluntary and community organisations, and this will be of real benefit to many people in Norfolk.
“As part of our new core role as a council, we want to enable others to build and maintain strong, sustainable and caring communities. This is not something that the council can impose on communities – it needs to happen from the bottom up, and I have no doubt that in this role Tom will be able to promote this idea and help us better understand what we can do to help bring this about.””
So, not only have Norfolk County Council blatantly ignored the wishes of 65,516 West Norfolk residents, but they’re brazen enough to state how much they support localism and getting more people “involved in decisions affecting their area”. The only question left is when will Cllr. Garrod take up the case of the incinerator and “serve the community, listen to people’s views and respond and make improvements”? Sadly it seems Norfolk County Council only wants localism when it suits them.
Since it was announced that there will be a debate in the House of Commons on whether to have an in/out referendum on the EU on 27th October many commentators have been suggesting that such a poll was a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. As our MPs are likely to vote against a referendum, they say, this will mean once again we’ve lied to the electorate, broken our pledges and so on. There is only one slight problem with this; it’s completely untrue.
The Lib Dem manifesto states clearly that;
“The European Union has evolved signifi cantly since the last public vote
on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain
committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs
up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”
In other words, the commitment is only to hold a referendum if, and when, a new treaty is signed by Britain in relation to the European Union that makes a significant change to the powers and responsibilities that it has. And far from breaking this pledge, we’ve enshrined it in law. The European Union Bill, currently progressing through parliament, will ensure that any shift of power from the British government to the EU will first have to be be mandated by a popular referendum.
But not only does this episode show how badly the Lib Dem’s position on Europe have been portrayed by the media, but it also points a wider problem that we face as a party. People, even those actively involved in politics or the media do not understand our manifesto or what we stand for, not just on the EU, but on a whole spread of issues. Understandably, this makes accusations of breaking manifesto pledges and forgetting the electorate all the easier for our political opponents to make, and for the public to believe. To change it we need to build up once again the sense of what Lib Dems stand for and believe in. We’ve made a good start by putting more distance between us and the Tories ideologically, but we must continue, or we’ll simply run into these kind of obstacles again and again.