Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Local government cuts - focus on the Library.

The Welsh Assembly government this week published its draft budget. The biggest losers are the local authorities. Yesterday, as an officer of a local society, I received an email from the Chief Librarian of the County Borough in which I live, inviting the Society's response to proposals which include the closure of my local library.

This is the text of my reply:

"Thank you for including YHS in this consultation.
Obviously, you and your political masters face appalling pressures and choices. But let it not be overlooked that the first mover in all this is a Westminster government which has absolutely no electoral mandate for what it has done and is doing. Many of us regard its economic 'justifications' for its policies as at best unsound, and at worst simply bogus. The damage that is being done - in this case, the forced closure of libraries in deprived communities with poor transport links - will not be quickly reversed, if it is reversed at all. So is there not a need for a bit of backbone, some boldness, some lateral thinking, to hold the line in the hope of the tide turning? "Do not go gentle into that dark night."
So you will not expect any civic society to applaud the closure of its local library. Change is needed, without doubt - but if one form of provision goes, an alternative needs to be found.
Have you considered the role of the secondary schools ? They have libraries. They are on the whole located around the county with some regard for the patterns of population. Might not a stronger partnership between the education service and the library service be a way forward ? "

The next blog down explores how we (collective we - are you one of us ?) might "not go gentle into that dark night".

Time to get up off our knees

Yesterday, as an officer of a local society, I received an email from the Chief Librarian of the local authority in which I live, inviting the Society's response to a paper of proposals for cuts to the Library Service in the Borough.

I drafted and sent a response. And what I found myself saying prompted me to further thought about the choices now being forced upon us all by the (let's be honest) Conservative  government's 'austerity' policies.

The crux of what I will now try to elaborate is this: is it not time to start developing a programme of actual resistance to the budget cuts being imposed from Westminster ? Are there not in fact ways in which 'we' could simply refuse to accept them , and, at least to a degree, circumvent them ?

Begin with a simple narrative picture. Suppose all the Local Authorities in Wales, collectively, said: "We will not accept these cuts, we will not implement these cuts, and we are collaborating to find practical ways of NOT implementing these cuts." Suppose, even, that just the Labour- or Plaid- controlled authorities, took that stance.

With a bloc like that in alliance, what, effectively, could any other power do about it ? Calling out the army would not have any direct impact. Conventional legal or accounting processes to 'bring them to heel' could take years.

Raise the bar. Suppose the Welsh Assembly government supported the stance, either actively or simply by doing nothing to hinder it. Suppose, better, that the Welsh Assembly government reached out to the Scottish Assembly government, and that they joined hands on this issue. By that stage, the Westminster government's 'bluff' would have been called in no uncertain terms.

OK. Let's come back to money and the nuts and bolts.

Expenditure and funding at the level and scale we are considering, even at the level of a single local authority, is NOT like a private budget or household income writ large. The 'credit card maxed out' image is simply illiterate, in economic terms. (Which would be worse - to have a Chancellor who really believed it, or one who knew it was nonsense but peddled it all the same ?) We are not talking about, say, a barn full of corn, or a store full of potatoes, and when the barn or the store is empty, it is empty, and starvation stares us in the face. We are talking about numbers - very large numbers - on paper, or on a computer. We are talking about confidence, and about credit.

Ah yes, some will say, but that's the problem. The Welsh Assembly Government, or the County and Borough Councils, do not legally have the powers for structural borrowing, or for running a deficit. My answer to that objection is : "Stuff that. In practical terms, could they do it ?"
(Remember that the background to all this is that the Westminster government had and has no electoral mandate for their policies. The Conservatives failed to win a majority, and the Lib Dems fought the election (ie won their seats) on a set of policies essentially opposed to what they have supported in coalition. So the legitimacy of what I am proposing we should resist is, to be polite, highly debatable. Surely the lengths we need to go to to resist may legitimately  reflect that.

And similarly, if we look at the actual implementation of the Westminster governments cuts, their programme makes no sense in conventional financial / economic terms.
A 'shrink-the-state' government could responsibly pursue its agenda over, say, a generation - rarely cutting anything, but simply not renewing programmes as time passed.
The sort of instant-effect cuts that have been pursued since 2010 are counter-productive, even in terms of their own intentions. It actually costs money, and wastes money already spent, to cut off programmes and projects in mid-flow.
And the ensuing disruption to the overall economy (made up of lots of individual lives and households) is profound, as we have seen these past years.
Money needs to go round and round, and keep going round. In a way, that is more important than how much there nominally is, or where it nominally comes from.

This is not just wild opinion - the bald fact is that the austerity programme has not even achieved its object - the 'deficit' is not being paid down in any significant way, and the date by which it might be paid down is in continuous retreat down the decades of the 21st century. It's the whole mind-set that is wrong, not the deficit itself.) 

So, to return to the notion of actually refusing to accept the cuts. If we dared to think about it inventively, there are ways in which the refusenik authorities could do it. The first and simplest is simply to run a deficit. Who is going to call 'foul!' if that is done, what can they do if they don't like it, and (very important, this) how long would it take for them to do it ?

But to cushion that extreme, there are ways in which the local authorities could be supported. For example, I am in the happy position (probably not typical, I know) in which I could pay a year or even two years Council Tax in advance. That would presumably be legal ? The trades unions have an enormous interest in resisting the cuts - and they have not inconsiderable financial reserves. Again, a nimble mind could find not-illegal ways for the unions to help mitigate the local authorities' technical default at the points of most risk or most pressure. And even 'business' has no reason to love the cuts, and their tolerance of or connivance with the local authorities could be significant.

I repeat the questions with which I began:
is it not time to start developing a programme of actual resistance to the budget cuts being imposed from Westminster ?
Are there not in fact ways in which 'we' could simply refuse to accept them , and, at least to a degree, circumvent them ?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Two swallows don't make a summer.....

but it's sure good to see them, nonetheless.

Labour's economic record given clean bill of health at home and abroad.

A leading British academic concludes that the last government has been tarnished by spin, while the US treasury secretary follows Gordon Brown's lead.

William Keegan, Observer, Aug. 4th

Home truths for clueless George Osbourne.

The downgraded Chancellor wrecked a recovery and is slashing living standards, as well as missing growth and debt targets.

Kevin Maguire, Daily Mirror, Aug 5th

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Time for a re-jig

As it was:

Friday, 9 December 2011

2011 retrospect

Mostly this year has been life just going on - slow on-going progress on buildings, local and family history, food and drink, convenience and feast, me still pecking away trying to get my ear and fingers round jazz piano. The building work has been mostly at the other end of the terrace, and that principally stonework, both demolition and rebuilding. So I have become, to misquote Flora Thompson, a ‘ca-arpenter calls himself a sto-an-mason’. I have actually come to love using stone and lime. It’s a very forgiving technology, and lime, treated with respect, is much less corrosive than its reputation. Our local stone doesn’t come in regular cuboids – it’s a matter of a presentable outside face, and some approximation to constant height, and the 3D tessellation of assembling such wildly non-standard pieces into a sound and more-or-less presentable wall is very satisfying.

One of the things that will mark this year out, however, is that we acquired a small and elderly campervan ( a Romahome Hylo - you'll find pictures in Google Images, if you're curious ), and hit the road late in September for an extended holiday. In the end, the time away was set by the 31 days of Royal Mail holding service. We had talked of going to Scotland, but Jenny's move (see below) prompted us to go southwest instead. We began and ended near Jenny and spent most of our time in Cornwall - the Roseland Pensinsula, the Lizard and West Penwith. In all we had eight stays at seven different sites, and slept 30 nights in the van 'off the reel' - with one camp exception, £16 a night for ourselves, Brindle, the van and a tent. We saw many interesting places and things, but I think the principal experience was the free-floating and living simply day-to-day like that. Until we got to the last week or so, it was sort of timeless. No radio or TV, occasionally a paper.

We spent a few days on the Roseland Peninsular, where one of Nina’s 2G grandmothers came from. Her family name remains in use to this day as a boy’s name in Nina's family and cousin-lines. We found a couple of the farms associated with the family, and the church where Mary Lawry was married. Very moving. (We had a few weeks before also been in the church at Lydiard Tregoze where the groom’s father - the great Thomas Usher - was baptised. It may sound trivial or nerdish, but believe me, there is a powerful emotional charge in visiting such locations.)

We saw all three great headlands, the Lizard, Land's End and Cape Cornwall. We had 4 nights at St Ives. We went to Barbara Hepworth's place, which we found very moving and evocative. I think the fact that she had picked this place, and colonised it, and the fact her workspaces were still much as she left them all spoke to our own experience here, and of course, the works themselves.......I found the garden perhaps a bit green and crowded - most of her best works you could put alone in a space of any sort, and they would command it, so having so many in sight of each other is perhaps a mixed benefit.

The Tate St Ives ? Well, the building itself is quite something, and its setting, and the way the two interact. The exhibition then on ("The Indiscipline of Painting - International abstraction from the 1960s to now") we found underwhelming - a couple of pieces we really admired, but the rest were that 'one idea on a large canvas' sort of abstraction that seems principally to be proclaiming the artist's own lack of confidence in what art can 'now' do. (And the gallery and its setting seemed to conspire to mock such timidity.)

While we were in St Ives, I read a novel set in St Ives and Zennor (Zennor in Darkness/Helen Dunmore) and much enjoyed the juxtaposition. Zennor itself, I loved. I walked along the old church path towards St Ives in search of the cottage where DH Lawrence lived. (You can't actually get to it, it turned out, although you can see it from a distance. The lane has been declared private.) Mostly the church path is not evident on the ground any more, but it is signed and at each field boundary it crosses, there is a way through consisting of an opening in the field-bank and long stones laid over a shallow pit, like a cattle grid. Very old, very atmospheric.

In a similar vein, we visited three ancient settlements - Grimspound on the moor above Widdecombe, and Chysauster and Carn Euny down in Penwith. The former Bronze Age, the latter two Iron Age, at least as now seen - they seem to have been occupied for around 700 years, which I suppose at that time means 30 generations or more. Quite substantial remains, and a very powerful sense of something.

We also spent some days walking and looking at the mining remains in West Penwith. In some ways so reminiscent of our valley landscapes and history, and yet in crucial ways so different.

We ate quite a lot of good food, and drank some excellent beers, but actually both of us lost weight, I think.

We've had Leo and Angharad here a couple of times this year, some of the time just them and us, and we had a weekend en famille at October half term. Jenny and Alex have moved to Bere Ferrers, upriver from Plymouth, a short train ride (but a much longer drive) from the University, and they have a beautiful (rented) house. It's a 1920's house, probably built as a 'Mapp and Lucia' retirement home, I would think. On the ground floor, it's a classic villa layout - four reception rooms plus a large back kitchen and spacious central hall with cloakroom, now a bathroom; upstairs there are just two large bedrooms and a bathroom. And large gardens. So we all met up there - Ben and Emily and the children 'stayed', and we were at a campsite not far away. Emily went back to work in September, part time as cover for maternity leave, teaching in a VIth College that was once the grammar school Ben's real father went to . (He went into the RAF and was killed when Ben was very little.) For the moment, she's mainly teaching C20th India, which has led her to look at some of the archives we've got from Nina's maternal grandfather - he was in Bangalore c. 1910 - 1926, and Nina's mother was born there; and that has quite awakened E's interest in the family history, which is nice. A slightly weird story here. Timothy, Nina's youngest brother, has a carriage clock which was his grandfather's. It was in fact a wedding gift from his wife, and engraved to that effect. For years, Timothy and Heather had it on their mantelpiece, and then it stopped, and was put in a cupboard. Timothy had been on at H to get it mended, and eventually on Nov. 10th, (sic) lost patience and went to get it himself. And looked at the engraving. Which recorded his grandparents were married on Nov. 10th, 1911.

Well, 2011 has seen Nina reach 65 and me well on the way to it. The Welsh have a saying, "Henaint ni ddaw ei hunan" which might be translated as "You'd don't just get the pension........" and we're beginning to see what they mean. I've actually had only two or three days' sickness in the year, but one way and another, I've seen more of doctors and hospital clinics than I have in any year since childhood, or almost all the years since childhood.

The most benign element has been that I reached the top of the list for NHS hearing help. I've now had one of 'their' aids for about six months, and was fitted with its brother (for the other ear) in mid-November. It/(they) are far superior to anything else I've used - they really do make up the deficit in most situations. I have tended not to wear the first all all the time, but there is a curve here; the more you do use it, the more the brain actually adjusts to it being there, and it seems to me that in effect the ears then 'work' less hard when you haven't got them in - you feel deafer than you remembered ! They assure me it is just an effect, and not actual deterioration. Now, having got the second, it feels as if the adjustment has been made only for the ear that's had one - I'm going to have to go through same process again with the other ear. Every time I go to audiology, I have to go first to the GP's nurse to have my ears checked for wax, and the last time that happened, she suddenly decided to take my blood pressure, and that started a new fuss. I did home monitoring for several weeks, but 'they' now seem satisfied.

And I had an episode of AUR in April - casualty, catheters etc - but fairly quickly got back on to an even keel, with daily medication, and am now very comfortable with how things are - better than before, in fact. I was finally summoned to a follow-up with a consultant in mid-November - very low key. But he then arranged another test – which sets up precisely the circumstances that brought on the AUR episode……... So it goes on.

Nina's back is much better - she's back to some kind of normality, but has to be careful. While we were away she found museums and galleries quite difficult - the standing and leaning over affected her much more than walking, of which she managed quite a lot, and from which she seemed to get some benefit. Early in the summer, she lost her footing on the lawn and sprained an ankle - not a bad sprain in itself, I would have said, as sprains go, but it has shaken her confidence - she tends to peer suspiciously at her footing, step by step, which I think can sometimes be counter-productive.

As for the rest of my family; Mum is, remarkably, in as good a place psychologically as she's been for many years. Her care has been cut right back - she goes two days to a day centre, where she can get a haircut and a bath, she has an agency woman in 4 hours on one other day - cleaning and taking her shopping - and a girl takes her to church. Other than that, she's back to to independence, and seemingly content. Lesley and David's year has been dominated by David's health. He had a heart operation early in the year, and a hip replacement in mid-November. They have chosen to take the treatment in Staffordshire, so they have spent most of the year back in their 'old' house in Linton, which has not therefore yet been sold. They do still seem to be planning to renovate and extend the cottage near here and at some stage to make it their only home.