Tuesday, 22 December 2009


There was a terrible irony in the fact that the recent cold snap came over the weekend that the Copenhagen climate conference ended in failure.

The anger that many people, including me, felt when the world’s leaders failed to reach a legally binding agreement was totally justified. At the level of the negotiations, the fault did not lie with the developed nations. The EU made a reasonable offer, Barack Obama took America further than it had ever gone before, and even Gordon Brown pushed for a deal harder than his more climatically telegenic predecessor ever did.

But we would be fooling ourselves if we swallowed our own propaganda that the fault lay entirely with the developing nations. And the cold snap showed us up.

Somehow we can’t accept that the weather sometimes slows us down. We have to do everything just as normal, so we get out our snow ploughs, we crank up the heating, we drive on icy roads causing accidents and dramatically increasing our fuel consumption.

Some of that can be justified, especially for emergency service workers, and for those making sure more vulnerable members of society can survive. But how many shops had their doors wide open in sub-zero temperatures? It would be easier to say how many hadn’t. And why was all the grit used first for roads and only afterwards - if at all - for pavements? Clearly motorists are more important than pedestrians.

I went to my daughter’s school play. It was about climate change awareness, and was exemplary in the message it promoted. Then, when it was all over, two doors – one on either side of the hall – were wedged open and the hall’s warmth was crushed by an invasion of freezing cold air. After that message!

It reminds me of that comical scene at the start of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The priest is locked in his church, the loo is out of bounds and he’s desperate for a leak, so he drinks a bottle of wine so he can pee into the empty bottle, only to find that the wine provides a new call of nature. Our modern lifestyle has created pressures on our climate that are leading to extreme weather conditions, yet our response is a course of action that uses more energy and emits more climate changing gases!

Set against this background, is it any wonder the developing nations are suspicious about our willingness to address our lifestyle in a way that will seriously reduce climate emissions? They don’t want to forego their material prosperity while we’re still unwilling to compromise on ours – and frankly, why should they? Yet we need countries like China, India and Brazil to cut down on their emissions, or there’s no chance of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius.

That’s why the 10:10 campaign has caught the spirit of the times. It’s far from perfect, but it says ‘We must do something now’ and calls on people to reduce their own personal greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 by 10%. I have signed up to it, and I hope you can too.

Because without some major gesture, there is no way we are going to get the developing nations to make the concessions needed for the world to have a truly meaningful, legally binding climate agreement.

Monday, 16 November 2009


Several years ago I was covering a tennis tournament in Germany for BBC Radio when I was asked to escort a German MEP to the commentary box. He was taking part in a discussion on Radio 4, and as he was having a day at the tennis, they wanted him to be on the quality broadcast line rather than a crackly phone line.

Chatting to this corpulent gentleman as I escorted him breathlessly up three flights of stairs, I was struck by how little we had in common. He represented the conservative CDU party, and while I’m a great believer that there’s much that unites people of different parties, his view of the world seemed very different to mine.

So I was somewhat taken aback when I saw his face on page 2 of The Independent last week, writing a comment column about David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty. What struck me as he laid into Cameron’s pledge was that I totally agreed with him.

To quote from the piece, the MEP (Elmar Brök) said, “The Conservative leader’s new warning that he will seek to ‘repatriate’ powers from Brussels to London is no more realistic than the referendum he has just given up on ... I do not see any chance of passing even the very first step of such a process.”

And he added, “The EU will, as a result [of the Lisbon treaty], be more democratic, more capable of acting and more transparent, because the treaty will strengthen the principle of subsidiarity as well as the role of national parliaments. This is the biggest paradox of Mr Cameron’s stance: the Lisbon treaty will actually massively strengthen the role of Westminster.”

Quite apart from showing how isolated David Cameron is across Europe, even from conservative opinion, this shows how the Conservatives in this country are using Europe to play a game, not to offer a vision of good governance. There are many things we don’t like, but those we cannot change we have to accept and work within the defined limits, not duck out of as if throwing our toys out of the pram is somehow OK.

The fact is that the Conservative leadership is as pro-Europe as we Liberal Democrats are, but it doesn’t dare say this in public for fear of alienating dyed-in-the-wood Tories who hanker after a bygone age of an isolated but powerful England. If the Conservatives want to represent business interests, they have to be largely pro-Europe, but if they come clean about this, they risk hacking off the traditionalists.

To be brutally honest, there is very little difference between the three mainstream parties on Europe. All three are in favour of the EU, but keeping a watchful eye over the development of the UK’s right of influence. They just sell this same policy to different ‘voter markets’. While we are enthusiastic but with reservations, the Tories are sceptical but with reluctant involvement, and express their scepticism by teaming up with neo-Nazis in the European Parliament.

If people really don’t want Britain to be in the EU, they should be voting Ukip. Ukip’s arguments are fatuously simplistic and have little basis in fact, but at least the party is clear that it would take Britain out of the EU. Therefore, any voter for whom Europe is a big issue should go either for the Lib Dems or Ukip – not the Conservatives, for whom Europe is one big and dangerous fudge.

Monday, 2 November 2009


This is a truly terrible time for sensible decisions to be made – and you only have to watch the current series of Strictly Come Dancing to see why.

Twice in the last couple of weeks we have had the government ignoring advice from experts and doing the opposite of what they recommend. First, the education secretary Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge Academic Review’s recommendation that formal learning in primary schools shouldn’t begin until children are at least six, and then the health secretary Alan Johnson’s sacked Professor David Nutt after rejecting his advice on criminalisation of cannabis and ecstasy.

The common factor in both decisions is that the government wanted to look tough, and was willing to ignore advice on what would work best. With a general election no more than seven months away, it figured there were more votes to be won in making it look like it was getting kids doing ‘proper work’ earlier rather than playing, and in making it look like it was tackling drug abuse.

The reason for this is that many voters – especially many floating voters in the constituencies that will decide the next election – judge the issues emotionally rather than on the basis of information. And if you doubt this, look no further than the current series of Strictly Come Dancing.

For the benefit of those with lives on Saturday nights, the ‘Strictly’ format is simple. A group of ‘celebrities’ (the quote marks are obligatory this series) are paired up with a professional dancer and have to prepare short dances which are judged by a panel of specialist adjudicators.

Then the public is allowed to vote by phone. That’s when all reason goes out of the window, because the public clearly votes on the basis of emotion which has nothing to do with the issue at hand: the ability – or lack of it – to dance.

How else can one explain the survival of Craig Kelly, the Coronation Street actor who is utterly wooden in his body movements and thinks he’s smiling when he clearly isn’t? He has been pilloried by the judges, but he has survived at the expense of other contestants who have done much better on the dance floor. Why? Because Craig has an immense following among Coronation Street viewers.

That’s why Ed Balls dismissed the Cambridge paper on primary school learning before he or his staff had even read it, and why Alan Johnson fired Professor Nutt. The emotions of the voters were more important than what might be best for society. No wonder politics has a bad name!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposing the principle that when you ask for advice you have the right to reject it. In all walks of life, we need to take responsibility for our own decisions, even if that means saying to a friend ‘Thanks for your advice, but I’ve weighed it up and on this occasion am doing the opposite.’

But if you’re a government minister who has spent thousands of pounds of public money on specialist advice, and you then reject it because it doesn’t fit with what your focus groups say voters will go for, then you must expect the kind of backlash Johnson is facing this week. It’s another version of bringing politics into disrepute, and I hope voters will see it as that, come the general election.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


You want to have a good time? Yes, so do I. Like most people in this country, when I go out, I like to enjoy myself. But unlike many people, there’s one ingredient I like but don’t need – alcohol.

What is it about people that they feel they have to drink to have a good time? Why is it that when people talk about going to a party, there is an implicit assumption that they will get smashed and have a hangover the following morning?

It may all seem pretty harmless, with any damage being largely done to the self-inflicter. But consider this.

Recently it emerged that the number of people landing in accident & emergency wards in East Sussex for alcohol-related reasons had increased by 131 per cent in the last six years. In 2007-08, there were 6,064 alcohol-related admissions in Brighton, East Sussex Downs and Weald PCTs.

It was only in 2002-03 that statistics on alcohol-related admissions in the county began to be collected. In the first year there were 2,624, a figure that has risen every year to make for a six-year total of 24,520. Of these, 729 have been people under 18 years old, and that age group is rising too.

These statistics are truly alarming. And at a time when there’s precious little money in public coffers for essentials, why is the NHS having to spend money dealing with a problem that is largely avoidable?

It certainly is avoidable. I know of a case in which a woman was convinced her gin & tonic at 6pm was the key to letting go and enjoying herself. So one day her daughter gave her tonic without the gin at 6pm – and she still got drunk! In other words, it doesn’t take alcohol, only the belief that it’s OK to have a good time.

It’s easy to blame retailers for selling alcohol to under-age buyers, but let’s face it, if young people want alcohol, they’ll get hold of it somehow.

It would also be wrong to overreact and try to make alcohol the demon, when millions of people drink in moderation and get great enjoyment out of it. I especially enjoy locally produced drinks, such as a half-pint of Harvey’s, or a glass of organic wine from a Sussex vineyard.

No, alcohol isn’t the demon – it’s our attitude as a society towards it. It’s enjoyable and can take the edge off us, but we don’t need it, and certainly shouldn’t have so much that we suffer and make others suffer for our indulgence.

We’ve largely got the message when it comes to drinking and driving. Now we need to get the message that it’s OK to say no even when we’re not driving – and that it’s possible to have a great time without a hangover, let alone a hospital visit.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Now here’s an idea. When you go into a takeaway food outlet, you should be charged a deposit on your cups, plates or burger boxes. You then take them back after you’ve finished your meal to get your money back.

The idea works with glass bottles, so why shouldn’t it work with disposal one-use receptacles? And why on earth am I asking this now?

Here in Wealden, rubbish is back in the news. In Hailsham in recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about whose responsibility it is to keep the town centre clean, particularly litter-free. And last month Wealden District Council launched ‘a crackdown on litter hot spots in Wealden’, with a news release saying the council’s Street Scene teams will be ‘getting tough on litter louts after an increase in the number of litter hot spots’ in Crowborough, Hailsham, Heathfield and Uckfield.

I suppose it’s just unfortunate that the post of Street Scene Team Leader has been vacant since mid-July. It did rather make me wonder whether someone in the controlling group on Wealden District Council has said, “Look fellas, we know tackling litter is popular among the public, so let’s say we’ll launch a crackdown, even if there’s not much we can do.”

That's probably being too cynical, but let’s be clear about one thing. Litter is a big problem, costing us far too much, locally and nationally. But efforts to collect litter in our towns and villages, while part of the solution, can only deal with the symptoms. If we’re seriously going to tackle the problem, we need to get inside people’s heads about why they drop litter.

Because the fact is that far too many people think it’s entirely acceptable to drop whatever they’ve finished with wherever they’re standing, sitting or walking.

Only last week I was coming out of Uckfield Civic Centre and saw three youths walking across the grass. One of them was just finishing his McDonald’s drink, and after the last mouthful he tossed the cup into the air and let it drop on the ground behind him before walking off. I wish I’d been close enough to have told him he’d dropped something – I don’t know what response I’d have got, but it might have made him think.

And this week I was on the train, and found a used plaster left on one of the seats! By what moral compass is this acceptable behaviour?

Wealden’s news release quotes lead environment councillor Sylvia Tidy (there’s a name to match the task) as saying, “It is time we turned up the heat on people who idly toss litter from their cars, sweet papers on to the high street or throw cigarette ends on to the pavement.” And what heat is this? – £75 spot fines.

That might catch some people, but it won’t ultimately solve the problem. And it’s a stick, not a carrot. A much better approach would be my deposit idea. Anyone who dropped litter then would find some enterprising youngster picking it up to claim the deposit.

So much for incentives, but we must also try to tackle the ‘acceptability’ of dropping litter in many people’s minds. Two decades ago, a series of public information films turned drink-driving from a harmless peccadillo into an activity recognised as being a killer. The same could happen now with litter.

Of course that would have to be a government initiative. At local level we need to get into schools, not to tell children not to drop litter – they know that – but to explain what damage is done when you do. Show them films of a duck in agony after getting a piece of discarded plastic stuck round its beak.

We have to pick up litter, if only because a street with lots of litter will spawn even more litter. But if we’re serious about tackling the problem, we have to be more creative than just a couple of £75 spot fines.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Just when you thought some lessons might have been learned from the MPs' expenses scandal, we get a crass piece of politicking that will make people even more sick of politics than they are already.

This week, the Conservatives' spokesperson for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, sent a letter to Conservative 'colleagues' (leaders of Tory-controlled councils, basically), telling them what an in-coming Conservative government would do on planning issues and giving them some advice on what to do with regional planning over the next few months. And for good measure she made sure the letter reached a far wider audience, including (indirectly) the likes of me.

Now let's be fair here. I am not having a go at Caroline Spelman for her inability to tell the difference between a nanny and a secretary; you may recall at the height of the expenses scandal that she was found to have been paying a nanny out of public funds while calling it secretarial work. That left a bad taste in the mouth, but she's been moved from party chairman to this new role, and she's entitled to start with a clean slate.

Nor do I disagree with everything the Conservatives are proposing to review, as I believe the regional spatial strategies are flawed and should be reviewed in some shape or form.

What I am objecting to is the cavalier approach she takes to guidance from central government simply because it's not a government of her party. She is effectively asking Conservative councils - well, any councils really - to disregard what the government is asking them to do, and play for time so they can be rescued by a new Conservative administration sometime next spring.

Leaving aside the fact that I'm not entirely sure a Conservative government would abolish the house-building targets in the regional spatial strategies - after all, does the Tory party receive no contributions from developers, who would want their pound of flesh if the colour of the governing party changes? - this is tantamount to making Britain ungovernable!

We have an elected government, and however much we dislike that government, or find the system by which it is elected unfair and unrepresentative, it is the government. So when it orders councils like Wealden District Council to undertake a consultation on where future housebuilding should be concentrated, who is Caroline Spelman to say 'Oh, just play for time, we'll write it all off when we come to power'? She's effectively wasting the taxpayers' money that Wealden is spending on its consultation.

It's cynical - and hypocritical, as she would be spitting blood if non-Tory councils adopted the same approach if her party were in power.

However flawed the South East Plan is, we will have to have a certain amount of house-building to avoid serious social problems. Even the Conservatives signed up to 8000 houses for Wealden by 2026; the figure has since been raised to 11,000. Of course we must fight to protect the integrity of rural life, but that integrity will not be upheld by figures who want to be entrusted with power telling councils to ignore the will of our elected government.

Once again, I find myself wondering just how fit the Conservatives actually are to run the country.

Sunday, 30 August 2009


Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you feel like utterly railing against something or someone? They’ve let you down, they’ve treated you badly, and you’re determined to do what you can to draw the flaws of the whole system to as many people as you can?

I have, and there’s a fine line to tread between, on the one hand, acting on a natural – and often legitimate – sense of injustice, and on the other, being aware that mishaps happen in life and one’s own indignation isn’t always the best guide to social injustice.

There’s a debate raging in the USA about reforming the system of medical care. The only headlines it has made over here came when Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP and supposedly a rising star of the party, described the NHS in an American TV debate as ‘a terrible mistake’ which we have lived through for 60 years.

I don’t know what Dan Hannan’s experiences of the NHS are. I can only assume he’s had some bad ones, and in this he’s not alone. But can anyone really justify calling the NHS a 60-year mistake?

He also said the NHS ‘makes people iller’. What, everyone? A majority even?

I sometimes get frustrated with the NHS, and in my more cynical moments feel it should be called the National Sickness Service, because by and large it only wants to know you if you’re sick. I wish it concentrated more on ‘health’ and did more preventative work like its excellent babies/toddlers health visitor service, and its many screening programmes, but is that sufficient ground for calling it a 60-year mistake?

There are two indisputable facts about the British system compared with the American. Firstly, the average person is better off under the NHS than in America. The NHS is geared up for catching everyone, regardless of circumstances – you don’t find poor people here having to hold fund-raising events to pay for operations, as frequently happens in the USA.

Secondly, we pay only 8.4% of GDP on healthcare, compared to the 16% of GDP spent by Americans, and all like-for-like comparisons show the NHS as better than the sum total of American medical care. Because we pay for the NHS through our taxes, the cost is spread across the entire country and so isn’t nearly the burden that insurance is for Americans.

What Hannan has done is to compare the medical care the rich of America get with the medical care the rich of Britain get. On that comparison, I wouldn’t be surprised if the US system comes out better. But that’s not the basis on which I want to build a national medical insurance system, thank you.

And this lies at the heart of why the Conservatives still haven’t won people round to the idea that they would be a more benign government than they were in the 1990s. Personally I think David Cameron is a fundamentally decent guy, but he has some nasty people in his cabinet, and Dan Hannan’s outburst merely shows how difficult it is for a Conservative leopard genuinely to change its spots.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


A feature of battles between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives is that both try to claim they are better guardians of rural areas than the other. Both have large support out in the sticks, and thus speak from a position of strength, even if they represent different interests and policies.

So why on earth were Tory MPs last week voting against a plan to scrap the alcohol tax escalator? This was a measure that would have given a boost to the country pub, that staple of rural (and urban) life that was struggling even before the credit crunch knocked the glass out of its hand.

The pub has been hit by a double-whammy of people having less money to spend on non-essentials, and the ban on smoking in public places.

The smoking ban is an improvement that would have come sooner or later anyway, but one of its side-effects has been to endanger the life of the local pub – it has made pubs nicer places to drink in but has left many with fewer drinkers enjoying these nicer places. Nationwide, more than 2000 pubs have closed in the past year, while beer sales dropped by 8.2% in the first quarter of 2009.

And it’s likely to get worse, after the Chancellor introduced the alcohol tax escalator in his budget – a measure which sees alcohol duty go up 2% above inflation every year.

So a group of Lib Dem MPs tabled a motion calling for the escalator to be dropped. It was supported by 62 MPs, 49 of them Lib Dems. It was opposed by 311 MPs, almost all of them Labour and Conservative.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling for people to drink more alcohol. Much havoc has been wrought by people drinking too much and at inappropriate times, and the ‘everything in moderation’ philosophy applies to drinking. But pubs are part of the fabric of community life, often bringing people together in ways that might not otherwise happen, especially since the demise of village shops and community facilities.

Tax escalators are good if your idea is to wean people’s dependence off something. But if we want to wean people off pubs, then we will be left with a pub-less landscape. That’s not something I want to see.

Thursday, 25 June 2009


The most repugnant element of John Bercow’s election as Speaker of the House of Commons was the way in which many Conservative MPs were so unmagnanimous about it, and even talked about him being ousted if the Tories have a majority after the next election.

It’s blatantly wrong to judge someone before they’ve had even a day in office. In addition, the Speaker is a neutral figure who should command respect from all parties. But most importantly, such a grudging, even parsimonious response to a victory that was as hard-fought as any constituency election shows that the Conservatives have not learned a thing from the public’s indignation about the expenses scandal.

Of course, when a Parliament with a Labour majority (yes, there’s still a Labour majority in Parliament in case you’d forgotten) votes for a Conservative MP to be Speaker, you know it won’t be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory. But that’s precisely the point! John Bercow has been elected because he has shown he understands points of view that go beyond the boundaries of his own party.

What the British public has been screaming for is a politics that reflects the reality in their own lives. That reality is that you have to make do with increasingly tight budgets, and that you have to find areas of compromise.

By contrast, our politics has become a parliamentary bubble in which members think it’s OK to claim for everything that moves (or flows, in the cast of moats). By doing so, MPs have got themselves and this country’s democratic traditions into deep water. So the election of a new Speaker became a signal of whether the Westminster village was willing to think outside its own bubble – and in the election of John Bercow, it showed it was.

I have no idea how good a Speaker Bercow will be, but in the current circumstances the election of a man who has clearly modified his convictions on the basis of experience and listening to other people’s points of view is a good sign. And if he’s too far to the left for many Tories, that is precisely what makes him a Speaker in whom many of us can have some hope.

I understand he has a manner that can alienate as much as attract, but the man deserves a chance. And if the Conservatives can’t accept that a 46-year-old Speaker who has some ideas of his own might be good for British parliamentary democracy, it makes you wonder how fit they are to be the party of government.

Friday, 22 May 2009


There’s nothing like spending three hours putting leaflets through people’s doors to give you a perspective on what politics really is.

In the current angry – perhaps even hysterical? – climate, it would be easy to think that politics is rotten to the core. But it isn’t. Do you remember those ‘Love is ...’ cartoons that had as many answers as people wanted to think up? Well let me paraphrase.

Politics is:

· Bleeding knuckles from dropping leaflets through metal letterboxes

· High blood pressure from having dogs threatening to bite your fingers off

· Low self-esteem from being the recipient of people’s anger for all sorts of reasons nothing to do with you

· Finding the wallet is empty because the party has asked for yet another donation to funds campaigning work

· That look in one’s partner’s eye that says ‘You said you’d be home an hour and a half ago’ when you get back from yet another meeting.

And many more – all because you believe in something enough to be willing to go out and put your money (and the skin of your knuckles) where your mouth is.

Normally when I go from door-to-door asking people if the Liberal Democrats can count on their vote at the forthcoming election, I listen and don’t generally challenge what people tell me – it’s like a surgery on foot. But I have become, not aggressive but politely assertive when people say, as they do at lot at present, ‘Oh you politicians are all as bad as each other.’

What I don’t say – though often want to – is that there are very few people who have a totally clean record on their expenses, and that those who do should be the ones to cast the first stone. Many people – waiters, hairdressers, even my own profession of journalists – have been caught up unwillingly in a system that underpays but has a tacit acceptance that income can be topped up by ‘expenses’ claims, so it would be wrong to assume that MPs are all bad apples because they too have got caught up in it (a system largely instigated incidentally by Margaret Thatcher).

The anger people feel about MPs’ expenses is totally understandable. But it is a travesty of justice to take it out on their lay councillors and council candidates (unless they have done something illegal or unethical). So I say to people on the doorsteps: ‘I understand your anger, but surely you’re not going to let the goings-on at Westminster stop you saying who should represent you in filling in the potholes in your road and making sure your council tax is well spent, are you?’

Whether I get through to them will only become clear after 4 June. But I urge every voter in the forthcoming county council elections to vote – and to vote on local issues. If we get a turnout that’s higher than Westminster, that will send the signal that people do believe in democracy – it just has to be a fair, representative and clean one.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


I had to laugh. “Vote for change!” said David Cameron, launching the Conservative Party’s county council election campaign this week. Er, has no-one told him that his party holds 19 of the 27 shire counties of England and Wales up for election?

Like East Sussex, for example. I’d be happy for people to follow Cameron’s example and vote for change. Get the Conservatives out of County Hall in Lewes where they’ve inflicted enough damage for the past eight years.

But this column isn’t actually an attack on the Conservatives. David Cameron is just the latest national figure to have put party tactics before the realities of local government, and thereby to have kicked in the teeth the thousands of lay councillors up and down the country – councillors of all parties – who put in loads of time for little thanks.

Think about it. If our democracy is to function, if we’re to have real people making decisions on behalf of their communities rather than faceless Whitehall mandarins, people need to volunteer to be councillors. Most councillors are members of a party, though many of them aren’t ideologically attached to their party – it can be a convenience thing, or even a reflection of who most of their friends are. When the friends of a community-spirited individual ask “Why don’t you stand for the council?”, the party label is often just that – a label.

And so, thousands of councillors spend lots of time doing good work, often in amicable cooperation with councillors of other parties, and at the end of their term of office ask the voters to approve the work they’ve done by giving them another term. Except that then national figures jump in and hijack the whole process, asking people not to recognise the hard work done by councillors but to use the election as a stick with which to beat a rival at national level.

I have seen countless good councillors put in four solid years, and then lose their seats, not because the voters are ungrateful (though they frequently are), but because a party is going through an unpopular phase. It can be heartbreaking, and a real turn-off to those considering whether to stand.

So when I hear David Cameron asking people to “vote for change”, knowing full well that he means change in Downing Street, it makes me very angry. How dare he make the hard work of county councillors – for it’s mostly county councillors who are up for election next month – a pawn in his battle with Gordon Brown! These elections have nothing to do with Brown, nor with Cameron, but with local issues.

I would like to see the Conservatives lose control of East Sussex, because I believe they are leading us in the wrong direction on vital issues such as waste disposal and transport, and frequently have their priorities wrong. For those reasons I hope voters vote Liberal Democrat, but I would never dream of degrading the work put in by our four dozen county councillors over the past four years by saying people should vote on national issues. That is an insult to them, and to our democracy.

I hope it backfires on David Cameron – either by people voting for the change he doesn’t want, or by Labour being so crushed that they get rid of Gordon Brown in favour of a more electable leader and the Tories find they’re not such a shoo-in for election next year as they thought.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Credit where it's due. The government's attempt to set price signals - through taxes and charges - to encourage environmentally beneficial behaviour is correct, if long overdue.

If we're to retain many of our freedoms but still take the environment seriously, we have to make sure the prices of things reflect the true price, which includes the cost to the environment. If a product or an activity has an environmental cost, that has to be paid for by the user - simple economics really. And we have to move towards a situation in which doing the right thing is also the cheapest and/or easiest thing.

But the idea that offering motorists £2000 to scrap an old vehicle and buy a new one is not, repeat not an environmental measure. Nor is the idea that it has been successful in Germany a comment that should go unchallenged.

It's not an environmental measure for two reasons. Firstly, around 20 per cent of the energy used by a car in its lifetime comes in its manufacture, a factor seldom taken into account when emissions from old vehicles are compared with emissions from new. There's also the waste problem of disposing of even larger numbers of used vehicles.

Secondly, much less progress has been made on emissions reduction than the car makers would have us believe. A study in 2008 showed a Volkswagen Beetle now is no more fuel-efficient than a Beetle made 60 years ago. The car makers held out scandalously against EU efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the average new car to 120g per kilometre, saying it was technically not feasible when several makers were already doing it! What they meant was that they make greater profits on the bigger gas guzzlers. Regrettably the Commission and member state governments fell for it.

The 'scrappage' payments in Germany (they offer €2500, very close to Alistair Darling's £2000) have been a success in terms of a massive take-up, so successful that the government has exhausted the money it put aside and has been forced to make more available. It's like a drug German car buyers have become addicted to in a very short space of time.

A central argument made in all this is that the car industry is central to our economic well-being. But it isn't! We have learned - for cost and environmental reasons - to treat electricity, gas, oil and other sources of energy as something we need to use as little as possible of. We should view transport the same way - some is needed, some is even desirable, but the sign of a well managed and efficient economy is that we use no more than is necessary.

Imagine offering state subsidies to encourage people to use more fuel than necessary to heat their homes - it would be laughed out of the political arena! So why is offering state subsidies to boost an industry whose dependence we should be weaning ourselves off any different?

These £2000 payments are like a financial methadone programme for addicted car makers.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


They say in areas of the world like America and the Middle East that foreign policy is an integral part of home affairs policy, as it affects basic national security. I sense that’s becoming the case here too.

While it’s right that we should never cave in to terrorism, we always have to ask whether there is a legitimate claim behind terrorist activity. And if that legitimate claim is being thwarted, then that will feed terrorism.

The Middle East is an area of the world which has an increasing impact on how safe and secure we feel in Britain. Britain played in a part in the current grim state of affairs. OK, our biggest blunder was 92 years ago when the Sykes-Picot agreement totally betrayed the indigenous Arabs, and today’s politicians shouldn’t be blamed for that. But we can play a part in building a peace that would strengthen our own security.

One of the major lessons to learn from relatively successful peace settlements such as Northern Ireland and South Africa is the role of forgiveness. People who were bitter to the core about having lost friends and relatives had to put aside their understandable wish for vengeance in the interests of long-term peace. And that has to happen now in the Middle East.

I was recently listening to Paddy Ashdown, who, as well as being the former LibDem leader, is one of this country’s leading foreign affairs analysts. He said the problem Israel has is that it has yet to learn that it must deal with and make peace with its neighbours, however abhorrent it finds them. If it doesn’t, it will never know peace for itself and will endanger the safety of others.

I have a natural affinity with Israel. While not Jewish myself, some of my ancestors were, in fact I lost great aunts and great uncles in the concentration camps and have relatives today in Israel. I therefore like to feel I understand some of the pain and anger that still lingers in Israeli citizens.

But that’s no reason to turn a blind eye to some of Israel’s atrocities – and yes I mean ‘atrocities’ – in the occupied territories. And I fear those atrocities could continue with the new Israeli government.

We need to use our powers of persuasion – such as they are – to encourage the state of Israel that it must deal with its neighbours, including the hated Hamas. Hamas is a dangerous body, but it has been fuelled by the failure of past statesmen to address legitimate concerns. With the White House now in the hands of someone who seems to understand world affairs, we have the chance to put pressure on Israel, in a way that the Blair-Bush alliance miserably failed to.

Criticising the actions of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic. I am British and pro-British, but still criticise the British government. So I can be pro-Israeli but still criticise Israeli action. If our foreign policy can be directed at persuading Israel to be more forgiving, we might reduce the extremism that fuelled the July 2005 London bombings and make our own country a little safer.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


I’m not a fan of swimming against the tide, because it’s an energy-intensive pastime and in politics you have to take people with you if you’re going to be effective. But I can’t help thinking we’ve all got rather too hysterical about MPs’ pay and expenses in recent days.

I don’t wish to exonerate Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty or any other MPs who have submitted dubious expenses claims. There are bad apples in every barrel, and I don’t know whether they count as bad apples or not – we have a parliamentary standards commissioner to judge that. What I do know is that being an MP is a fiendishly difficult job, and that people need to understand that before they condemn MPs for what they earn and claim.

When you’re an MP, your life is barely your own. You’re expected to be on call pretty much the whole time, you’re every move is monitored, you can’t even get irritated with an overzealous parking attendant without someone seeing it and citing it as a bad example of how to behave. The hours are long, job security uncertain, and the privacy virtually non-existent, to the point where it can drag in innocent victims like an MP’s partner and children.

It’s better for those in the south-east, because they spend less time travelling than those from further afield, but it’s hardly surprising many spouses end up working for their other halves – it may be the only time they see each other! I’ve never met an MP of any party who hasn’t had moments of wondering whether it’s all worthwhile, nor a parliamentary candidate who hasn’t questioned whether he/she is a mug for standing (this mug included).

You may say it’s a voluntary profession that one doesn’t have to apply for. But many people go into politics to do some good and are then sucked into an artificial world where the original aim gets lost in the mire of political mechanisms. So if they’re paid £63,000 a year and are allowed to claim some expenses, is the system really at fault, just because a few people abuse it and one prominent MP’s husband watches a couple ‘adult’ films?

Of course we could pay MPs the average salary of around £30,000. But then a lot of good people will decide it just isn’t worth the hassle, we’ll end up with a worse House of Commons intake, and we’ll be moaning about the quality of our politicians even more than we do at present. Do we really want that?

I’m not saying nothing should be reformed. MPs must stick to the letter and spirit of the rules, and the idea that MPs with London constituencies should have second-home allowances is ridiculous and open to abuse.

But let’s get our priorities right. Most MPs are clean, and paid less than their counterparts in other countries (and MEPs). And if we’re going to have a go at Jacqui Smith, it’s much more important to condemn her actions over holding suspects without charge, ID cards and other threats to our civil liberties than whether she’s signed an expenses claim that includes a couple of films her husband watched that we wouldn’t want our children seeing.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


When a decision is made that seems so utterly mind-numbingly wrong, it’s always good to ask – as dispassionately as possible – why it was made. After all, if it was that wrong, why couldn’t everyone have seen it?

I find myself in this position over the fact that the incinerator in Newhaven that will soon burn much of the county’s rubbish has finally got the go-ahead. This is a quite appalling decision, which is no better for the fact that we have had several months to steel ourselves for it.

Although Newhaven is not in Wealden, Wealden is most assuredly affected by the incinerator. This is both in environmental terms (lorries thundering through carrying hazardous waste, airborne pollutants being blown north, etc) and through the cost that will affect every council tax payer in East Sussex (the latest estimate for the incinerator is £145 million – more than double the original figure).

The list of reasons against it runs to much more than I can write here. There is a better and more environmental option proposed and costed by the Liberal Democrats for dealing with the county’s waste, the county council’s contract with its waste management company seems likely to limit the incentives for recycling just when we need them most, the incinerator will be run on mains water despite being by the Ouse estuary, the waste will be brought in – and hazardous ‘bottom ash’ shipped out – by lorry, despite a railway line being right there ... the list is endless.

So why is it happening? The answer appears to be an old-fashioned belief among the county council officials who devised the incinerator scheme in the mid-1990s that a single waste contract with a high level of incineration offered a better way of getting rid of waste than a series of smaller-scale solutions. Add to that a handful of lead county councillors who never grew up with the environmental threat and thus saw waste disposal purely as ‘the right mechanics for the right price’ and it’s easy to see why incineration seemed attractive. If you then put several years’ work into a project and fear it coming to nothing just as we’re threatened with punitive fines for missing landfill reduction targets, it is understandable you should want to salvage it.

That’s why I don’t condemn the Conservatives who run County Hall for incompetence. But they can be legitimately attacked on two fronts:

Firstly, they were anti-democratic over the whole planning and consultation process by riding roughshod over 16,000 legitimate objections (yes, 16,000!). Secondly, they have been gutless in the face of changing realities that should have told them to seek other options for waste disposal – even the Tory-controlled West Sussex County Council has now abandoned incineration, so it’s hardly an issue of political ideology.

We need a shake-up at County Hall! And that shake-up can happen on 4 June when elections to the county council take place. Even those in the Conservative heartlands of north Wealden and much of Rother should be as alarmed about the incinerator as the poor souls of Newhaven, albeit for different reasons. We all need to send a warning shot across the bows of the county Tories that we need to face down the environmental threat, not add to it.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


I don’t know if it counts as self-fulfilling prophecy or built-in flaw, but my blog last week appears to have made worse the very thing I was trying to avoid!

I was trying to warn against the dangers of the political classes getting so consumed with their own personal battles that they overlook the problems they’re supposed to be tackling. By saying this in relation to the provision of youth facilities in Hailsham, I’ve rather reinforced the point, though take no satisfaction from it.

As the prospective LibDem candidate for the next general election, should I be aware of every detail of an internal row that took place over six years ago? Perhaps I should, though I felt that would mean looking back rather than forward, if not be a form of navel gazing.

But clearly feelings still run deep from ructions dating back to 2002. So deep that when I put out a press release asking the county council’s senior official in charge of youth affairs what he’s planning to do to address the fact that the county has closed two youth facilities in Hailsham, it reignites passions to such an extent that, instead of supporting the call, certain people felt the need to accuse me of ‘misinformation and scaremongering’ when I was clearly doing no such thing. That is very sad, and I can’t help feeling it fails the youth of Hailsham.

A point I made in last week’s blog is that I think the work of Hailsham Town Council, including that of Ian Haffenden and Nick Ellwood, on youth facilities is good. I’ve spoken to Laura Murphy about this, and she agrees. She has also acknowledged that her original fears from 10 years ago about the town council taking over 1 Market Square have proved groundless, though she says it was something of an act of faith given that the council had no previous experience in purchasing and running such a facility. In view of the duties on councillors to exercise due diligence, I find her original doubts understandable – even if I can’t judge whether I would have shared them or not – and it’s good she’s willing to acknowledge that it’s worked out well.

I realise that disputes can cause a lot of resentment, and who am I to say that people should let bygones be bygones when they may feel very hurt by things that happened? But is this a reason to sabotage a call for the county council to explain what it intends to do with regard to replacing the youth club at Hailsham School and the young persons’ area at Hailsham East Community College? Surely not.

I hope everyone who has the interests of the youth of Hailsham at heart is as concerned as I am that these facilities have been lost, and that all the head of children’s services at ESCC can say is that he’s ‘listening’ (he may have said more, but unfortunately he hasn’t had the courtesy to reply to my letter). I hope also that we’re not going to be seduced by the £800,000 promised by the county council until we know how much, if any, will go to Hailsham.

These are the problems we should be tackling. Not everyone may wish to work with everyone else – irrespective of what party (or none) they belong to – but we shouldn’t work against the best interests of positive action.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Something has happened in Hailsham this past week that highlights exactly what is wrong with politics nationwide.

One of the growing problems in Hailsham is the amount of ‘low-level’ crime involving young people that’s making life a misery for many residents. The fact that in the past two years we have lost the youth facility at the Hailsham East Community Centre and the Hailsham Youth Club at the community college is no coincidence.

So I wrote to Matt Dunkley, the head of children’s services at the county council, asking what plans he had to tackle the issue of youth facilities. To put a little pressure on him to come up with something meaningful, I put out a press release saying I’d written to him and making the point that doing nothing was not an option.

I wasn’t born yesterday so didn’t expect this to achieve great results on its own – it was aimed at creating some momentum. What I also didn’t expect was a vehemently angry reaction by two leading members of Hailsham Town Council, Ian Haffenden and Nick Ellwood. They put out a counter-release accusing me and one of our Hailsham county council candidates of ‘misinformation’. Well I wish it was misinformation, because then we’d still have the two youth facilities that have most assuredly disappeared!

I have a problem here. One of the central planks of my involvement in politics is that I want to work towards better politics. The idea that ‘our side’ has everything right and ‘the other side’ has got everything wrong is a nonsense. When we discuss problems in groups, we work towards solutions, not towards being able to say with righteous indignation ‘they’ve got it wrong’. It should be the same in politics.

I believe those who have lost faith in politics as a means of good governance have become disillusioned with the bickering, point-scoring, playground mentality that characterises Prime Minister’s Questions. They want people of different persuasions to work together to find solutions.

So how should I react to Messrs Haffenden and Ellwood? I’m aware they’re former LibDems who don’t hold much of a candle for their erstwhile colleagues, but I wasn’t around when they left, so I start from scratch with them. I’m also aware they have been doing their own work on the youth issue through Hailsham Town Council, which is good.

But they have put out what by any standards is a spoiling press release, which has led to the story being reported in the local press NOT as a call for improved youth facilities in Hailsham but as a spat between two warring political factions? It has made me very angry, but if I say that, am I engaging in exactly the kind of slanging match that drives people away from politics and keeps voting rates dangerously low? That’s my dilemma on this.

Mr Dunkley’s response to my letter – delivered incidentally to the media rather than to me – was that the county council is ‘listening’. This is OK-ish, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need more youth facilities in Hailsham – not an excessive amount so we spoon-feed teenagers, but more than we have now. All of us have a role to play, but we must fight the problem, not each other.

Thursday, 19 February 2009


Do you ever wonder what people in the future will make of our life today? We find it amazing now that our ancestors could have taken so long to abolish slavery, or to give women the vote. So imagine a history lesson in about 100 years’ time – what will gobsmack them about our life?

One of the things local historians will scratch their heads about is why the Uckfield to Lewes railway line was ever closed, and why it took so long to re-open it. I’m willing to be forgiving about the way it was closed – true, you could describe it as a form of authorised vandalism, but you have to take into account the climate of the time (1969). People thought railways were old hat and being superseded by the car, so if a money-losing railway line got in the way of a new road (in this case the Phoenix Causeway in Lewes), well you closed the railway, didn’t you!

But for the past 20 years, if not many more, we have known that railways hold the key to allowing us to get from A to B without further damaging the planet or congesting our roads. They represent a good option environmentally and practically, and those two arguments increase in validity with every new house that’s built in the Wealden area.

And not just Wealden. Can we really be serious that the whole of the south coast from Hastings to Littlehampton should be served by a single twin-track rail route from London? It sounds ludicrous, but that’s what we’ve got. And that’s what the re-opened Uckfield-Lewes line would eradicate.

This is not the place to look at why the line hasn’t been re-opened, but I find it a disgrace that a Labour government has not backed rail in this case, and some prominent people will have to eat humble pie when the line re-opens. For re-open it will, because re-open it must. And when it does, people will look back in astonishment at how long it took to re-open it and how some of the most valid arguments were tossed aside with fatuous counter-arguments.

On Monday a plaque commemorating the 150th anniversary of the line’s opening will be unveiled at Uckfield station. Let’s hope it will be start of the final push to end 40 years of mealy-mouthed ‘oh, I’m not sure it can really be done’ arguments and get the most obvious rail re-opening in Britain off the ground.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


They just don't understand, do they!

I've never been keen on a 'them & us' view of urban and rural people, because everyone likes their own mix of the urban and the rural in life, but you have to wonder sometimes just how much people in the office blocks of government really understand what life is like out in the sticks.

It took several decades for Whitehall's mandarins to realise that the policy of 'predict and provide' didn't work with roads. They thought that if you predicted the amount of traffic that would want to use the roads, you then just built the right amount of road capacity, and there you are. What they didn't realise is that the more roads you build, the more journeys you create, so you're always chasing your tail.

It's not exactly the same with house building, but pretty nearly. The government and its so-called economists (I say 'so-called' because some of them seem to be giving economics a very bad name with their fatuous assumptions) have realised that house prices are going up, and that there's greater demand for homes because of marriage breakdowns and twentysomethings wanting their own place earlier. So it says we must build the right amount of houses, and that will solve the problem.

So it comes up with all sorts of numbers, and says - among other things - that Wealden has to have 11,000 new homes by 2026! Eleven thousand! And it's not even guaranteeing the schools, shops, hospitals etc will also be around to make all these new homes part of viable communities. So they are building homes to house people who will have to drive everywhere in their cars to get their basic services. Great for the environment, eh!

In short it's madness, but then it was the urban majority who thought it was crazy that the government should spend so much money bailing out the farming industry when it suffered from foot-and-mouth a few years ago. Why should a sector responsible for just 3% of GDP receive so much money, the argument went.

I saw it differently. To me the scandal was that growing our own food makes up just 3% of GDP, not that the government should support it in its hour of need. And that summarises how much the conurbation mindset doesn't understand the countryside.

I'm pleased to see there is widespread support for an on-line petition calling for the government to review its house building target for Wealden, including from our MP Charles Hendry. But wait a moment.

It's easy for Charles Hendry to support this petition now, but if his party gets into government - which is a distinct possibility after the next general election - will he continue to back the call for revised targets? And if he does, will he get heard? The Conservative party won't get into office without some funding from private companies, and you can bet those companies will include developers who are dead set on getting their houses built.

I too am encouraging people to sign the petition (click on http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/ProtectWealden), and if elected to Parliament I will also push for the house building targets to be revised sharply downwards. We don't want a complete absence of development or the area will stagnate, but it has to be at a level that the established community can reasonably absorb.

Just ask yourself before the general election - do you trust an MP whose party relies heavily on big business to stick to his promise on house building targets, or would you trust more an MP whose party has a root-and-branch understanding of the countryside and is not beholden to large developers?