Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Drawing up the boundaries for the new councils was always going to be fraught with difficulty. The balance between retaining local identity and the efficient delivery of services was always going to create tensions. For that reason a Boundaries Commissioner was appointed to take an independent view of these issues.
While local political parties and Councils could make representation, the decision was placed in the hands of an independent Commissioner. Imagine the situation if the decision was left to a Councillor from Belfast and a Councillor from Lisburn/Castlereagh to decide the boundary around Forestside or the Ice Bowl. Since whichever Council has Forestside has a significant income and whichever Council has the ice bowl has a significant liability in terms of upkeep, two opposing councillors in this situation will never agree.
Yet despite the independence of the Commissioner the process has one more hurdle. This hurdle is the Northern Ireland Executive where Belfast Councillor Sammy Wilson MP MLA Minister of Finance and Personnel, former Minister of the Environment, has one view and Lisburn Councillor Edwin Poots MLA, Minister of the Environment, apparently takes a different view.
The entire basis upon which the independent Boundaries Commissioner was appointed, to prevent this issue being stalled by two or more councillors taking opposing views, has been overridden. Logic and good governance would dictate that both Councillors would exclude themselves from this particular issue due to a conflict of interest, yet instead their narrow agendas combine to bring the process close to collapse.
While all of this has been going on, consultants PwC have been working on the economic appraisal of the various options to transform how councils work. This appraisal, recently released, has raised more questions about the outcome of the RPA than it has provided answers. Rather than starting the process by looking at what can be achieved by Northern Ireland’s councils working together, PwC have based their projections on previous experiences in carrying out similar work in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Since local government in the rest of the United Kingdom is very different PWC’s figures are based on guessing what the impact would be in Northern Ireland. In some areas costs which will fall to councils are ignored and in other areas savings which can be made are not counted. The result is an economic appraisal without any robust economic basis. The report has caused so much concern that Local Government Associations in England Scotland and Wales are writing to the Minister to warn him of their concerns.
The report suggests that local councils will be able to borrow the money to pay for the transformation they propose. However, projecting the savings to be made over 25 years seems more like wishful thinking than sound economics. Who 5 years ago would have predicted with any certainty where the economy would be today? Yet we are asked to accept at face value the figures given for a 25 year period. One Scottish council Chief Executive has informed us that they too were given such promises yet after 15 years they are still not seeing the benefits in financial terms.
Which brings us to the third issue, policing and justice. What might one ask has local government reform got to do with policing and justice? First we must recognise that Sinn Fein never wanted the 11 council model of local government, their preferred option was for 7 councils over which they would have more control. Unionism wanted a 15 council model until the DUP and SF agreed on 11. Now Sinn Fein see within the PwC report an opportunity to back out of the process citing the cost, abandon the reforms and come back at a later date asking for 7. This would leave the DUP holding the can for 7 years wasted effort within central and local government and many millions of pounds lost. Except, despite all their concerns about finance and desire for a 7 council model, Sinn Fein might, just might set aside their concerns if policing and justice was devolved to their timescale.
Should RPA go ahead? Of course it should. Over the past few years Councillors and staff have all identified the opportunities to deliver services to the community in a more effective and efficient manner. Working closely together the opportunities are there to deliver value for money at the same time as transforming our communities through community planning and improving the health of society by integrating sport and leisure with health and well-being. A spat between Councillors in the Executive, a poorly prepared appraisal and an opportunistic attempt at political bribery are signs of a dysfunctional Government unable to manage change not reasons to set aside a process that will improve the quality of life of our communities. The Ulster Unionist Party initiated this process because we had the foresight to prepare for a Government that will bring change for the better to people’s lives. We cannot allow those who have the mandate to govern but not the maturity to govern to take that change away.
Monday, 26 October 2009
The news that the DUP have reneged on their promise to end double-jobbing comes as no surprise given their record of misleading people in previous elections. The rationale for the u-turn has raised a few eyebrows. Peter Robinson has put his decision down to considering “the extent to which the party organisation is able to provide us with the additional personalities to stand.” Peter, your party has never had a problem finding personalities, finding politicians, now that is another matter. To put the decision in context lets consider the case of Councillor Rev William McCrea MP MLA. No doubt with the news that he can continue to hold multiple jobs William is scouring the auction houses for walnut bookcases to match his walnut desk. Cllr Rev William McCrea MP MLA tells us that he spends 250 hours per month on Assembly business, given that an MP serving in a national Parliament should spend at least as much time as those in a devolved assembly on Parliamentary business, lets say he should be spending another 250 hours per month as MP. That’s 500 hours over 25 days giving him Sundays and two other days a month off (in Williams case he has another job for Sundays so he is not actually off). So that’s 20 hours a day William should be working (leaving out the fact that he also has to cover his role as Councillor). The truth is that it can’t be done and for unionism the sad fact is that it is the representation of the people of
Sunday, 25 October 2009
Like all major conferences the Ulster Unionist Party conference has become a carefully choreographed media event. Journalists attend because they have too but know that if they come away with a scoop it will be by accident more than design. By convention other constitutional parties are invited to send along observers, not every member is aware of this which can give rise to some interesting moments. The members of the DUP were easily spotted, obviously concerned at the large turnout and confident mood. Pauline Armitage was also there though members were not quite sure if she was back in the fold or at the conference representing someone else. The local Conservatives were much in evidence with their prospective candidates engaging widely with Ulster Unionists from across the country.
Amongst the positives, beyond the attendance and positive atmosphere, was the large number of young talented unionists actively engaged in the background. It is they who will carry the party forward for the next twenty or thirty years and many of them should be seeking opportunities to represent unionism in the next Assembly and Council elections. In terms of public relations and policy we have pulled together the best teams in Northern Ireland politics though no doubt their collective blood pressure was elevated over the weekend.
While the conference delivered all that we could have expected there are a few areas where we can try and make things better.
Ø The Ramada is a better venue in that it keeps the delegates closer to those organisations attending in order to inform or lobby them.
Ø Given the rise in social media the introduction of a video booth to record delegate’s views of speeches and issues would create another outlet for grassroots views.
Ø The need to keep to schedule foreshortened some of the debates and perhaps future conference organisers will consider whether conferences should be themed to provide the opportunity for more in depth debate.
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Thursday, 13 August 2009
There has been a lot of talk and discussion about the current financial situation the UK finds itself in and for the average man in the street the discussions about millions and billions are meaningless unless they can relate the issues to their daily lives. This blog therefore is my attempt to portray the current situation as if the same issue affected an average family. At least it's my attempt to explain it as far as I understand it; please keep in mind I'm no Vince Cable.
Take the example of someone in a relatively stable job working 9 to 5. During times when business is good the management suggest that they start work at 8.30 and finish at 5.30 earning themselves some overtime and additional income. Over time they become used to having the extra money and it has worked its way into their normal budget. At the end of the week when the bills for electricity, heat, petrol, mortgage and car loan have been paid they have £100 left to spend on groceries which they happily do. They become used to a standard of living based on a certain income.
Then things change, the business isn't as profitable and management don't need that extra hour from the staff so overtime is cut. When the end of the week comes and the bills are paid there is only £75 left for groceries. Being used to a certain standard of living the individual still collects the same shopping as usual. They pay their £75 in cash and put the remaining £25 on their credit card in the sure and certain expectation that things will improve. This continues for a few weeks and becomes routine, since the same standard of living is maintained there is no need to look at alternatives, no need to change the way they shop, no need to look at the other bills to try and reduce them, no need to look for further income.
Then one day when the cash is paid and the credit card is handed over the cashier looks up expectantly and utters those dreaded words "I'm sorry but your card has been declined". The immediate consequence is to identify those elements of the weekly shop that you can do without in the short term but the longer term consequence is going to be more difficult. In future you won't have £75 to spend on groceries because you must add £10 to the existing bills to pay off the credit card loan. Thats fine if you can easily get by on £65 of groceries but what if the absolute minimum you need is £70 or £75. As Mr Macawber would point out: result misery. There were a number of choices which could have been made when the problem first arose, did the individual really need Sky Sports?, did they really need the car?, could they have taken a part-time job to make up their income?. At first deciding on any one of these may have addressed the short fall or alternatively a review of the weekly shop to look for better value may have meant a balanced budget. Now however as things have deteriorated the ability to choose a course of action is limited and the possibility exists that all options will have to be implemented.
Of course with hindsight there are lessons to be learnt. Don't expect that the maximum level of income available will be the norm. What would have been the outcome had the budget for groceries been set at £75 with any additional income set aside as savings? The focus on value for money may very well have been more pronounced and that £25 would have established a useful fund to be used for major items or a rainy day. Enough savings would have paid for the car rather than taking a further loan and paying the interest on the loan. The money left when the bills were paid would have been increased by the level of the car loan repayment.
And for Governments who wield the credit cards in the face of reduced income there are similar lessons, acting quickly gives you choices, delay and you will have others make choices for you. Credit is a useful business tool but there must be limits. Some things will have to wait until resources are available and some things we are paying for we do not need.
Friday, 31 July 2009
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
There have been many articles written and opinions given by politicians and commentators on the current situation ranging from calling for an immediate withdrawal to calling for many more troops and resources on the ground. It is clear that many mistakes have been made by politicians on this occassion, it is not possible to fight wars on the cheap and surely the first question that should be asked before commiting troops is "Can we afford to do this?". If we can't then we either don't become involved or the town of Wootten Bassett comes to a standstill more and more frequently.
What is particularly galling about the situation in Afghanistan is that on so many occasions troops are fighting across the same territory they fought over last week or last month. A lack of boots on the ground inevitably means that territory won at such a high cost is surrendered so cheaply.
This is a military campaign being waged by a Government which, having decimated the covenant between the community at large and the armed forces that protect them, believes that bankers in the City of London deserve bailing out while soldiers in conflict zones can be left devoid of the resources needed to do the job. Of course we can only surmise that the army are clear on what the job was they were sent to do, given that the then defence secretary John Reid thought they would come home from the deployment without firing a shot.
The message is clear to any Government, give the military the resources to do the job or bring them home. The services are up to the mission, this Government isn't.
Monday, 15 June 2009
Thursday, 11 June 2009
- They allowed themselves to be frightened by Jim Allister, and it showed. The lack of interest in the post by anyone higher than a Councillor showed that they feared engagement with him, had someone of note risen to the challenge and actually took him on they would have at least shown some backbone. After all how can you take on Sinn Fein if you are frightened of a fellow unionist?
- Diane Dodds was a bad candidate, despite all the words of support from the party leadership Diane is not known for her personal skills, debating skills or policy knowledge. In council she can put her hand up to vote when required, which in reality is all that most DUP Councillors are required to do.
- Family politics gives some comfort that the people around you are trustworthy and supportive, but there comes a time when it just looks like greed, that time has come for the DUP.
- The DUP campaign was poor and lacklustre, even the printed material screamed at people rather than talked to them. Rumours of catastophic mistakes abound. It became clear that the Director of Elections was out of his depth.
- The strenuous efforts to keep Diane off the hustings stage with Jim Allister were pointless if there was no commitment to carry the policy through for 100% of the time. It would have been easier to hit all the hustings early in the campaign and draw the stings before the expectations grew towards the final week.
- Voting for someone to be number one to keep someone else out is not going to be a good enough reason in the future. People have cottoned on to the cynical changes negotiated at St Andrews to establish the DUP election chant for the future, they don't like it.
- Like it or not the DUP lied to a sizeable section of their support in 2007, they told some a vote for the DUP was a vote to enter Government, they told others a vote for the DUP was a vote to stay out of Government. Those chickens were always coming home to roost.
So what next !
Changing a few Ministers won't make much of a difference bar a few new faces, Nelson at DCAL will mean lots of Ulster -Scots funding and lots of money for Linfield but the arts in Northern Ireland are in for a financial drought. Peter Weir for DETI, hmmm I have seen the tears in DETI civil servants eyes, the less said the better. Plug Poots for Environment makes Sammy look like Stephen Agnews best friend.
The biggest change the DUP could deliver is to make devolution work. We used to complain that direct rule ministers flew in to Belfast, took decisions and flew out again. More and more the general public point out that while we may have not always liked the decisions at least we had some form of Government. Being in Government means being capable of governing and that Peter is the problem, to date the DUP have shown themselves incapable of governing. Putting that right is about changing attitudes not personalities.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
Saturday, 9 May 2009
Others thought to accompany her include these individuals
This man is a well known political hypnotist. He is used by the DUP to give messages to the public which are unpalatable but due to the hypnotic delivery can be communicated without a loss of face to the DUP leadership. Due to his previous association with the UUP there is a greater understanding of the effect he can have. Only now after several years are people actually realising that he is not opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein despite having hypnotised UUP members into believing he was. Having studied him for some years we believe that he has been given his biggest task to date for the DUP. Post EU election he will be asked to convince the unionist community that they now have enough confidence for the devolution of policing and justice powers. He will do this by simply repeating, through many media sources, that the unionist community now has the confidence for policing and justice to be devolved. Eventually people will be hypnotised into believing that such confidence exists, those who do not believe it will believe they are in a minority and remain silent to avoid being ostracised. After the 8th June if you listen to Radio Ulster in the morning and hear Wendy Austin introduce him please turn off your radio to avoid entering a hypnotic state.
Some DUP photos
Dodds family car gets a makeover for the election.
DUP meeting the public. (note absence of public or journalists)
Diane is placed in escape pod upon rumours Jim Allister is in town.
Hypnotist tries to get reduction in price of strawberries.
Note man on right in hypnotic state.
Saturday, 2 May 2009
The Planning Service processing of planning applications is supposed to be a self financing arm of Government. The cost of delivering the service is meant to be met by those who make applications. Given the current downturn in the demand for new homes there is a resultant decrease in workload and income. Now in business terms the consequences are clear, an increase in costs or a reduction in staff. Yet is this to be the option in Government, especially where the First Minister and his Finance Minister are so commited to reducing the size of Government. What is to become of those staff who no longer have a sufficient workload, will they be redeployed to address the scandalous delay in the delivery of Area Development Plans? Will they be used to meet demands on planning service resources normally paid for under the normal budget process. Is this simply another stealth tax? If the priority is only to save staff then how does this fit with the priority to reduce the size of Government, if staff are not to be released where then are all the financial savings to come from?
Of course this issue does not stand alone in the scheme of things. The recent decision of the DRD Minister to approve a 10% hike in Translink fares only a few weeks after concerns were raised about the ability of the Executive to continue to fund free transport for Senior Citizens raises the same question. Are we simply watching an administration, frightened to tell the truth, introducing a series of stealth taxes on the people of Northern Ireland. Effectively the creation of a system where the public have no say in the priorities for government and where those leading the process have no experience of life outside the sheltered framework of politics, protected by political largess from the economic realities of life and decision making.
Fagan and the Artful Dodger were experts at distraction and pick pocketing, Peter and Nigel may soon be good enough for Stormont to replace the West End stage for our own production of Oliver.
Friday, 24 April 2009
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Senator Everett Dirksen (1896 - 1969)
Thursday, 16 April 2009
The current series of Sir Alan Sugar's The Apprentice has been aired now for a few weeks and features a candidate from Northern Ireland called Ben Clarke, who seems to lack either a good razor or a decent beard but has arrogance to burn. In a recent episode the contestants were asked to invent a new piece of exercise equipment for the home, Ben suggested a new sex toy. Which is why it has come as some surprise to hear that Ben has become a pin up and role model for the DUP. Trevor Clarke MLA, who is no relation to Ben, has stated in a press release "Ben offers an example to us all". If we accept that a considerable number of DUP followers do not equate fitness with sex toys there must be another reason why he is held in such high esteem.
One has only to look at the comments of Paula Jones, the contestant fired on the latest episode, to see what Ben has to offer as a DUP role model.
"Ben became completely unnecessarily aggressive towards me. I think he took it personally that I took him into the boardroom. He accepted no responsibility whatsoever and just behaved like a child, like a bully. He's very, very opinionated about everybody he comes into contact with and if you're going to behave in that way you've got to be pretty slick yourself and he just isn't. The lad's a no-mark. And it won't surprise me if he gets fired fairly soon, because nobody likes a bully."
Ben's personal attributes make him a perfect role model for the DUP. Indeed were his name Robinson, Dodds or McCrea then his career would already be mapped out for him. So perhaps a piece of advice for young Ben, if you want to earn £250,000 a year with a penthouse in London, a home in Belfast and a villa in Florida don't change your job, change your name. You already have everything else you need.