Sunday, 3 May 2009

Privacy Versus Community

In my village, in the quiet and subdued battle between privacy and community, privacy is gaining ground.

But surely, you may be saying, we all want privacy?

And, to be sure, people appear, in these times, to put a higher value on maintaining or increasing their level of privacy than they do on maintaining a sense of community.

There has been frequent talk about the possible introduction of a privacy law, although this seems to have faded a bit in the light of recent revelations about the activities of certain politicians and others active in the Westminster village. Our representatives were clearly divided over what I would have considered a ‘no-brainer’, whether or not to publish details of MPs’ expenses. Ahead of such publication we hear of at least one instance where second home allowance was used for the installation of a sauna at tax payers’ expense, so I am not at all surprised that some place a very high value on privacy. Equally, an extreme level of privacy, to which many feel they have a ‘right’, generally fosters suspicion and resentment.

Age and maturity often brings a sense of proportion to the debate. I am too old to worry about who sees the haemorrhoid cream in the supermarket trolley, or who hears me break wind whilst digging the garden; but I accept that younger and more sensitive souls may be subject to embarrassment over such trivia.

Younger members of society are also inclined to suffer from the illusion that others are intensely interested in their activities, while in fact the reverse is true; most people’s personal activities are a matter of complete indifference to their fellows.

One of the features of my house and its neighbours which attracted me when I was house-hunting was the footpath which separates the end of my front garden from the very small river bubbling cheerfully towards the village centre. I walked down the footpath when I first saw the house, and was delighted by the pleasant stroll past well- and not so well-kept front gardens, with low garden walls over which I could pass the time of day with neighbours.

Since then new people have moved into two of the neighbouring cottages, and have immediately erected high fences across the ends of their gardens. I am sure that the occupants see this as a logical move ‘to preserve their privacy’. It is interesting that the house owner in each case spends his working life away from home, and probably, therefore, doesn’t notice the degree to which his simple move has isolated him from his community. Although I know one of these two well enough to say hello, the family of the other are completely unknown to me.

The sense of community is on the way out. I am on our Parish Council, where we have been advertising a vacancy for a year. No one has put themselves forward for the vacancy. In a population of about 1500, we have 11 people who are willing to spend some time being Parish Councillors. Council meetings are well publicised and open to the public, but no one comes. We receive the occasional letter of complaint from someone who is too lazy to make the 5 minute walk to talk directly too us. There is an estate of some 60 houses which sell at around the £350,000 mark (when they sell!) and most of the occupants of these houses are almost never seen in the village, being content to make their daily commute to their place of work without impinging on the village at all, and studiously maintaining their privacy whilst in their homes.

On a national level, I believe that the politicians and the media between them have generated such a level of mistrust that the inevitable counter-weapon is privacy. Both establishments have lost sight of ‘community’, what it means and what its value is. The same is becoming true at a local level. When there is a community event, it seems that only a small number of people are actively involved, whilst the remainder of us continue to study our navels.

It is difficult to see how this trend can be reversed; and yet it is becoming very clear that as our climate changes to become more extreme, and as our energy prices soar as Peak Oil makes itself felt, and as supermarket food prices increase on the back of energy costs, a sense of community is going to be as important as at any time since the second world war.

I fear that we will only start to rediscover the community spirit when the village street lights start to dim, and when we can no longer afford the price of the fuel to take us to the supermarket!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

What Should We Do With Our Rubbish?

I went to Sainsbury today to pick up a few bits and bobs which are not stocked by our local ‘Happy Shopper’ (what a euphemism!), and because somebody mentioned it to me the other day, I took careful note of plastic bag use by my fellow shoppers.

Sainsbury has a policy, allegedly, wherein the store does not put plastic bags out on display, and only provides them if asked. The trouble is that my local store (Truro) makes an exception at the ‘hand-basket’ check-outs, so that if someone wants to nip through quickly with a couple of items, they are likely to use a plastic bag out of habit, because it’s there.

And on a Saturday, when the store is full and everyone is in a tearing hurry to get done, get home, get the TV on etc., the check-out staff seems to adopt the idea that time will be saved if they prepare several plastic bags in readiness for filling even though they are no longer displayed. Most of the shoppers I saw were using plastic bags.

I shall of course contact Sainsbury head office about this, and will expect the usual bland and reassuring comment in reply – I guess they see me coming!

The disposal of what is termed Municipal Waste is a subject which has occupied my mind for several years. On the basis that it has to go somewhere, I have involved myself with the local District Council (which ceases to exist on April 1st) in trying to promote recycling, and sensible waste collection policies. The bizarre situation has been that the Districts have been responsible for collection, and the County has been responsible for disposal. And the County Council, which also ceases to exist on April 1st, has taken a number of decisions in this and other regards with no consideration of public opinion whatsoever, in a way which has suggested the antithesis of ‘joined-up’ government.

One such decision, taken initially about 10 years ago, was to award the contract for disposal of Cornwall’s municipal waste to that well known champion of the environment, the French firm Sita. The contract is for 30 years, and Sita have made the assumption that they have the whole deal buttoned up, including the collection side of things, for the foreseeable future.

They may turn out to be wrong.

During the last decade, the County Council and Sita have been championing the idea of an incinerator, placed more or less centrally in Cornwall, to burn everything which cannot be recycled. I admit that when I first attended a presentation of the scheme given by an enthusiastic Council Officer, I thought it sounded pretty good. But over time I took the trouble to do a bit of research (which apparently the Council had failed to do) and it has become increasingly clear that the scheme was very deeply flawed on a number of different fronts – not least because technology has moved considerably since the initial contract was awarded. Something else which became clear was that the costings were based on very out of date fuel costs.

Imagine a long thin county with water on three sides (three and three quarters if you count the river Tamar). Then ask yourself the question, should all the waste be transported to a single point, or should it be disposed of more locally? I think that this is a no-brainer. On top of that, there are the health issues which are significant, the environmental issues, and the look of the thing (a 15 meter diameter 120meter tall chimney in the middle of the Cornish countryside, taller than the Statue of Liberty, on land already about 150 meters above sea level,) as well as the shear inefficiency of that type of plant when compared to other more environmentally friendly solutions.

Considering all the facts, I am amazed that Sita even bothered top put in a planning application. I am not amazed, but I am delighted, that the application was refused (you guessed it – by the relevant committee of that self-same County Council)!

And Sita does not have a plan B!

One could write a book on the implications of this decision, and of course Sita may appeal. Because the County Council and Sita have wasted so much time on this crazy proposal, we are a long way behind where we should be, and are running out of landfill space. The County is likely to be fined for not meeting targets, and someone will have to move very quickly to come up with an alternative scheme.

For years, some of us have felt a bit like those small puny kids at the back of the class who know the answers but can’t attract the teacher’s attention – “Please, miss, ask me! Ask me!”

Now at last, maybe they will ask us.

There are many good ideas out there – possibly too many. As my daughter said to me in a different context, ‘A watched clock never boils, and then three turn up at once!’

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Strike and Snow

I listen most mornings to the Today programme on Radio 4. I’m not that keen on some of the presenters, but it is a good way to keep up with national and international affairs, once you peel away the soap-box elements.

The last few days have provided a constant stream of complaints from workers around that notorious Total facility that foreign workers have taken their jobs, and another constant stream of complaints from people who think that despite plenty of warning our various highways authorities, local and national, have failed abysmally to keep our transport systems running.

I guess that these are the same people who, when the weather is fine and work is plentiful, complain about the ‘nanny state’. Only now they are saying, ‘Where is the nanny state when we need it?’!

Regarding the Total fiasco, it seems reasonably clear, from what I have been listening to, that the contract was initially awarded to a British company, who fell down on the job, so that the contract was then awarded, as second choice, to another company whose labour force is foreign.

I am as patriotic a Brit as most, and as suspicious as many others of the European ideal, but I don’t think that these unofficial strikers have much of a leg to stand on. And when you consider how many Britons there are working elsewhere in Europe, apart from all the others who simply whine about their country and move to Spain, the picture is even less flattering of the ‘whingeing pom’.

Then there is snow.

The Aussies, with their impossibly hot weather, have been headlining, not their own weather, but ours! Or at least, drawing attention to the difference – and taking the mickey somewhat!

Those people who are complaining that the authorities have responded inadequately compare our situation with that of Finland, which has a similar sized road network to ours, and trumpet that ubiquitous call, ‘lessons must be learned’! But if in the UK we spent Finland’s budget (three times our own) on road clearing equipment, to have it in mothballs for nine years in ten, I’m sure questions would be asked about the wisdom of the purchase.

On the other hand, I am very sure that many people used the weather as an excuse to stay away from their work. I was out and about, (OK, in Cornwall we don’t have the same problems as the south east) and found the majority of roads completely clear. I also found many shops shut, and many people at home who clearly had not poked their noses out of their front doors to see for themselves what the situation was.

I spoke to my daughter in Lincolnshire, one of the worst-hit areas, and found that she had worked from home because she could, but if she had had to go in to her office, she would have made the attempt.

I spoke to my brother in Hampshire, who is disabled, and had been out on his buggy to walk his extremely boisterous dog, who admitted that if he had got stuck it could have been a problem.

But a large part of our population seems to have lost its nerve; reluctant to venture out in case something goes wrong, or even just giving away to a general lethargy. Are we really, in general, lazy and risk averse? Maybe British society has just got too old and stale...

But not everyone, of course – watching the children in the snow (most of them had never before seen anything like it here in Cornwall) was quite uplifting, and I must have spotted twenty or more snowmen of various shapes and sizes. Perhaps the new generation are rediscovering an enthusiasm for life.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Beauty and the Beast

Helford is a beautiful fishing village in Cornwall.

Its problem is its beauty.

70% of the properties in the village are owned by people whose main home is elsewhere. Otherwise, Helford is a small village with fishing as an important industry, landing about £1,000,000 worth of fish a year. Furthermore it is the only fishing port in the UK which has no proper facilities for landing the fish – fishing boats offload their catch into dinghies, and four-wheel drives come down to the beach to receive the fish from the dinghies. Back breaking work, in a flourishing local industry which helps what is left of the local community to survive.

And do we think that the second-home-owners enjoy the fresh fish when they find the time in their busy lives to visit? Most certainly they do. It’s sold locally helping local shops to survive.

In the winter, the village is like a small ghost town.

It would be logical for the fishing community to want to improve their lot, to build some kind of facility to ease their burden and possibly to allow for a bit of expansion in the local industry. This is actually what the local community want to do. They have shown their plans to the local councillors, who are all in favour of the scheme. Kerrier District Council supports it. The plans are pretty modest really. It’s only a small village! They want to build a road along the side of the river – all but invisible from most angles. And they want to build a jetty to allow their small fishing boats to unload straight onto vehicles instead of from boat to dinghy and from dinghy to vehicle. And to load diesel, nets, water and stores straight onto the boat, rather than via the dinghy.

Strange, therefore, that there have been nearly 200 letters of protest against the planning application for the project. It seems that roughly half the letters were sent from addresses outside Cornwall. What is even more interesting is that a number of the letters were from identical pairs of names at two different addresses!

One holiday-home owner had the courage to be interviewed on TV, and I give him full marks for that. He was Mr Nick Jacobs who spoke from his Mayfair address, and he felt that as a second home owner of some thirty years standing, he was entitled to his view, which was (paraphrasing) that he didn’t want a new road, which would lead to car-parks and basically the ‘industrialisation’ of the village.

What he and his fellow protesters don’t appear to grasp is that the village owes its existence and its character to the fishing industry. The way to preserve that character, and to stop the community from dying and fossilising, is to promote, encourage and improve the local fishing industry. If that doesn’t happen, then in not too long a time, the visitors will arrive to find there are no locals, no shops, no-one to look after their precious holiday homes. So they will have to arrange all to arrive at the same time, to give some semblance of community...what a joke that would be!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Sin of Optimism

We have all had a great deal of gloom lately. There are people losing jobs by the thousand, sound businesses going out of business through lack of credit, interest rates on new loans sky high – if they are available at all...

If Gordon Brown or his ministers come up with a plan, the other parties rubbish it. If David Cameron offers an option, Labour spokespersons tear it to pieces. All the politicians are very guarded when assessing the present situation, stating that they are doing all that can be done (or that the other lot are NOT doing all they can), and that there may be further measures needed later. Out in the country, the people whose interviews make it into the media are the ones who are suffering from redundancy, mortgage problems or lack of retail trade.

How sad I was to hear in the media today the response by Alan Duncan, Shadow Business Secretary, to a tiny and uncertain flame of optimism from a Government Minister.

Baroness Vadera, Business Minister, said, "I am seeing a few green shoots but it's a little bit too early to say exactly how they'd grow."

This was hardly earth shattering, particularly as she added, "Is this a positive straw in the wind, or should we say one swallow does not make a summer? It's too early to say."

Her comments reflected the fact that she had heard on Tuesday about a company which had successfully raised hundreds of millions of pounds.

Mr Duncan is the epitome of the smooth talker who has an answer to everything but a solution to nothing. So when he accused Baroness Vadera of being out of touch and insensitive, I felt that he may not understand that those of us who are on hard times may actually find comfort in a small spark of optimism. We all know that we aren’t out of the woods, that there is still plenty of misery to come, but when I heard the Minister’s comments my reaction was a cheerful one. When it was reported that a Tory was demanding an apology from Baroness Vadera, I thought that maybe the doom-merchants need to get a sense of proportion. I for one like to hear a bit of cheerful news from time to time, even if it doesn’t affect me.

We’re all grown up, Mr Duncan. We can listen to the news and understand what we hear. But if optimism is a sin, Mr Duncan, then let’s have a few more sinners amongst the politicians.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Technology Rules OK

Remember the Millennium Bug?

During 1999 there were dire warnings that banks would crash, that planes would fall out of the sky, that there would be social collapse, all because the first digit of the year was about to change.

Of course, none of these fears were fulfilled, and none of us really knows whether disaster was avoided by hard work and planning by the back-room boys, or that nothing would have happened anyway.

In any case, during the nine years since then, our faith in the power of technology to solve all impending problems has increased. Most people are completely confident that any disaster will be averted by the clever guys in the back room. Terrorism doesn’t stand a chance against our sophisticated police forces. Meteorological disasters will be foreseen in good time for the authorities to take adequate precautions. Such is our confidence that if the system fails even in a relatively small way – a bank collapses leaving shareholders bereft; a train comes off the rails; we immediately expect an enquiry to find someone to blame and possibly prosecute – and we expect to be compensated.

We have, to a greater or lesser degree, absolved ourselves from responsibility for our own lives.

What a profound shock it was, then, when it was discovered that the Microsoft Zune music player had its own version of the millennium bug, a Leap Year bug! This gadget wouldn’t work on the 366th day of the year!

Now I have never even seen one of these things, but the fact that this problem made international headlines indicates to me that we are relying on others to look after us on an increasingly trivial level.

I was talking to my brother yesterday, and as is often the case when I talk to anyone at all, the subject of climate change and peak oil came up in the conversation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my brother now accepts that peak oil is imminent – I had previously thought that he agreed with the Prime Minister, that our oil supply would remain ample for our needs until at least 2030.

What I found disconcerting was his certainty that before our diminishing oil supply becomes a crisis, our scientists would find a new source of energy so that our lives will be able to continue as before with no discernable hiatus.

Oh how I wish this was true, but the premise doesn’t stand up even to the most superficial application of logic!

I am afraid that the time is coming for us to start looking after ourselves again. It’s going to be difficult, because the ‘system’ is not geared for it – but over time, I expect we shall manage! I don’t share this sublime faith in our technological age, but I do still have faith in the individuals that make up our race.