Friday, 9 September 2011

A Degree in Soundbite-ism?

The weather is grey, and there is the sound of thunder in the distance; my outside activities are temporarily on hold. I have been watching television and caught a speech by David Cameron, given at the start of the school year at a new Free School.

I remember that great star of the programme Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green. We all used to sit down as a family to watch him presenting his unknown talent. But the phrase I remember him for the most was this; “…and I mean that most sincerely, folks!” We all knew, of course, that with his adopted transatlantic accent and smooth flow of talk, the one thing he was not was sincere! So when I listen to a political speech in which the most frequently occurring word is ‘frankly’ – I am inclined to be less than completely trusting.

I am not against the concept of free schools – the jury is still out. I do think that teachers should have more autonomy, and I believe that a free education is a right that should be available to all, in the national interest. But when I see the size of the school that my grandchildren go to, and when I see that the less bright pupils are left largely to ‘catch up if they can’, I am convinced that the real solution to our education problems is to double the number of teachers and halve the size of classes. Smaller rural schools should be kept open so that numbers of schools should increase rather than decreasing through mergers and closures. Of course it costs money – it’s what is called ‘an investment for the future’!

But I despair when I hear David Cameron describing as ‘powerful’ Michael Gove’s sound-bite; “You have to learn to read before you can read to learn!”

The over-use of sound-bites is, I believe, directly associated with the present state of the party political system, which appears to me to have outlived its usefulness. I remember a time when a Party would state its beliefs and principles, and voters would decide which set of principles they wanted to support. Now, though, politicians take a straw poll (by one means or another) to discover which policies are the ones which voters like, and then say, ‘That’s what we will promise to do!’ The trouble is that the main parties are therefore all heading in broadly the same direction! So we have ended up with a marginally bluer version of that gifted self-publicist Tony Blair – David Cameron, who used to have a career in PR! I am completely confident that my own MP will slavishly follow the party line while paying brief lip-service to what her constituents say; probably in the hope of a place in Government.

So I am afraid that while I listened to David Cameron being very frank at the Norwich Free School, my eyes were inexorably drawn to the sign in the screen behind him which displayed what must be the ultimate in meaningless sound-bites, ‘The Future Is Here!’

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Satisfactory Day

It was my time to give blood again yesterday. I am never quite sure why I am so keen to do this, or why I get such satisfaction from it; but I am almost on a high when I have done the deed. Strange.

Before I kept my blood-doning appointment I went to the centre of Truro for a pasty and a relaxing stroll. It was the first opportunity I had had to view Truro’s newest landmark, the sculpture of the Drummer. I am not particularly keen on it and don’t think that most people will have the slightest idea what it is supposed to represent, or what its significance is. The drummer is a naked figure balanced precariously on a globe, beating on a drum strapped in front of him with very extravagant arm movements. I guess that his position, off centre, on the globe, is supposed to indicate forward movement, but it looks to me as if he is about to fall off! His dignity has been somewhat punctured by the placing of a condom on the appropriate organ. Perhaps it is part of a ‘safe sex’ campaign!

I arrived early to give blood, but they slotted me in straight away. I found myself sitting next to a charming 20 year old woman, whose mode of dress and presentation were full of character and interest. I asked her about the beautifully drawn fake tattoo on her face – it was a kind of celtic design, which her mother told me that she painted on herself. I found her dress style attractive, especially the pronounced fish-net pattern of tights and the shoes which were yellow on one foot and green on the other! It was her first time at a blood-doning session and she was a little nervous, explaining that she couldn’t stand the sight of blood! (It later transpired that she was not permitted to donate until certain checks had been made with her doctor; the Service being their usual cautious self.)

During conversation with her and her mother I discovered that Zoe and her boyfriend were to emigrate to Brisbane in a year’s time. They are going for a year in the hope that they will be allowed to stay permanently. She is studying Psychology, and he Journalism. I explained my own Antipodean connections, and gave them my email address, just in case they fancy some time volunteering as interns at a certain site in Tasmania!

My lovely friends, complete with Great Dane, have successfully moved lock, stock and barrel to their forest-covered hillside in Tasmania, from Holland. They had to wait in Melbourne until the dog escaped from quarantine, and finally made it to their new home last week. They have many challenges ahead, including building their house, sorting out a satellite phone connection, setting up rain water collection, sanitary arrangements, a garden, an aquaponics unit, all from scratch. Exciting and scary! But they are young, energetic and talented, and have become experts in permaculture and natural building methods like cob, super-adobe, earthship techniques, manufacturing solar panels, and much more. I am looking forward to visiting in a few months.

Perhaps on a future visit I will once more meet Zoe with her different coloured feet!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Who Really Runs the Country

This is the text of a letter I have recently written to my local paper. The City of Truro seems to be scheduled for major development over the next 15 or 20 years, and the local residents and local councillors seem powerless to stop it!

I am the first to admit that when it comes to the workings of government, both local and national, I am pretty na├»ve. But I am beginning to understand what the present Government means by ‘localism’. They are like the grown-up at the Christmas party who says, “I will decide where to put the Christmas tree, and how big it will be; and you, my children, may put the fairy on the top!”

The letter from Caroline Jones about the proposed Duchy/Waitrose development resonated very strongly with me, and strengthened my conviction that we are being governed not by elected politicians but by the mass retail industry.

Permissions will soon be sought for developments along the A390. These are the sites chosen by developers as being suitable for housing and supermarkets (i.e. showing the greatest potential for profit). Other sites are available, but the developers are not interested in these.

The only ‘defense’ which the Local Authority has is to provide a brief for developers to follow, thus retaining a little control – the fairy on the Christmas tree.

If the Council had the temerity to refuse permission for these sites to be developed, there would be a public inquiry, and the Secretary of State would find in favour of the developers, in the interests of that myth, economic growth.

Why these sites? Because there needs to be enough housing to accommodate the residents needed to service the supermarkets – to work in them, but more importantly to shop in them. And there lies the irony! I am old enough to remember when big business was there to service the population, but now it’s the other way round!

Never mind that we might prefer to move away from the superstore model, and encourage locally owned retail units processing and selling local goods – although this would provide more local employment. The unfortunate fact is that we do not have the clout or the cash that the Tescos and Asdas of this world have, who continue to suck the money out of the local economy and channel it out of the County, or even the Country.

These large transnational chains are able to buy the developers, who in turn are able to buy the land for eye-watering sums even before a planning application is made, secure in the knowledge that with the Westminster Government’s agenda behind them, the Local Authority doesn’t stand a chance. Thus local residents are reduced to a shopping statistic.

Meanwhile, what of the Core Strategy Document? Although the initial consultation period has only just finished, it seems to have become irrelevant! It appears to have already been superseded by these proposals.

So localism does not mean local decision-making. It does not mean either National Government or developers accepting the views of local communities, how ever much they pretend.

And while ‘consultation’ may mean Cornwall Council listening to the views of residents and parish and town councils, it does not mean that National Government will put the views and interests of local communities above its own. And, let’s be honest, we know who carries more weight with the Government – you only have to note that occasionally a Councillor may get an MBE, while supermarket bosses get knighthoods!

Every supermarket that gets built reduces the viability of small customer-friendly shops, not just in the City, but also in surrounding communities where local shops are not just a convenience but a point of social contact. As these shops lose custom to supermarkets, and as village residents are more inclined to shop away from their village because the small shop can no longer afford to stock a wide range of goods, the village itself slowly withers. An increasing proportion of residents work and shop away from the village, then start to send their children to the bright new school in the new development, as promised by the developer; the village becomes a dormitory and loses any chance it might have had to become a sustainable community with some measure of self sufficiency.

I don’t know what measures our elected Councillors could take to protect us from the destructive power of these retail giants, but I wish I could feel that they are all on our side (as I know that some are). Of course there is a need for more housing. But it should be up to us where it goes and how many there should be – just as Councillor Kaczmarek’s Core Strategy Document suggested. Was that document just another PR exercise? Do we have to continue to give in to blackmail – no Park and Ride without Waitrose?

So while I am deeply sympathetic to demonstrations and campaigns against cuts, or student fees, what would really get me marching is a campaign, led by our Councillors, in favour of genuine localism, as against the sham policies of this Coalition and its Big Society.