Thursday, July 28, 2005

I'm not scared

Well, actually I was a little nervous.

I know that it is wholly irrational and that millions of Londoners use the Tube every day because they have to. That's the truth about 'defying the terrorists' - we aren't being brave, we just need to get on with our lives. We still need to get to work or go shopping or do any one of the hundreds of things that make up our ordinary lives and so it was that I had to head down to Westminster again this week. My wife and my mother were both nervous, so I had promise to ring them as soon as I was back on the train northbound again. Ironically, given that a man was arrested yards from where we do our grocery shopping, I was probably safer on the train than in the queue at Asda, but I digress.

Things were as busy as always, although London Underground were everywhere and very visible. On the streets, every other person that passed me seemed to be wearing a hi-visibility jacket and at least a third of them were carrying MP5 sub-machine guns. A different world to the one I walked through only a few weeks ago. People on the trains were that much more alert than usual and young Asian men carrying rucksacks did get some odd looks. As I came up the escalators back towards Euston, there were a couple of them with backpacks on the next escalator along. At the top was a police officer with his sniffer dog and he quite openly directed the dog to sniff around at their luggage - I just hope that they understand why.

I can't think of an alternative to this temporary police state that we're forced to live in at the moment, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It wasn't until I got home that my wife told me that my young sons had been worried all day about 'Daddy going where the bombs were.' That's not how two boys should have to live.

Reading between the lines

Last week, the Tory/Liberal Democrat announced the results of their deliberations over the issue of the new library for Birmingham and I vented my spleen on the issue, given that the press reports stated that the reference and lending sections would be in different locations. Given that Paul Dale, one of the journalists close to this administration, had written the article for the Post, I thought I was on safe ground. Here's the relevant paragraph from Paul's piece:

'The city council last night revealed plans for a split-site scheme - with the lending library in a purpose-built building next to Baskerville House, off Centenary Square, and the city archives and reference section in an extension to Millennium Point at Eastside.'
But apparently, this isn't correct. John Hemming added a comment

What split site Library? The "National Centre for Family History" has been a proposal on the web for over a year now. Reference and Lending will be on the same site, however.
So what's the truth? Here's the press release from the City Council which doesn't make mention of separating out the reference and lending sections. One question is who briefed the press so badly that they got the story wrong (although the as-yet-unpublished report does make the point that people don't use the archive material in isolation of other reference works).

The more important question is why the councillors, in their infinite wisdom, paid out £80K of my money on a consultants' report on how to proceed with the library redevelopment and then ignored the conclusions to pursue a wild scheme of their own. Terry Grimley returned to the fray in the Birmingham Post on Tuesday and revealed that the Labour team of Albert Bore and Ian Ward were provided with copies of this report (which us poor members of the public have yet to see) and sworn to secrecy. Perhaps they should have asked John H's view on leaking information to the press - he escaped punishment last year for leaking commercially sensitive land pricing information to the press (Paul Dale, coincidentally).

Terry Grimley quotes the report at length. On the original single-site Eastside option:

'The report concludes that this is "the most fundable option", that it " represents the best value for money ( irrespective of fundability considerations)", that it "provides the greatest number of outputs and outcomes for money invested" and that it "provides best fit with the objectives'
The report pours cold water on the split-site idea:
'The archival materials are often used in conjunction with other materials held in the library. Very seldom do people only use archival material without using material from elsewhere in the library. Splitting the library means that there would no longer be a central library.'
So the consultants rejected the option and it would mean reversing almost 150 years of Birmingham history by splitting up the collection. But why should those little problems stop Whitless? Bravely ploughing his own furrow, he can't possibly accept that Labour might have been right to go with the Eastside option and has to scrap it. Don't worry that it will probably reduce usage and will add extra costs estimated at £1 million a year - he promised to scrap the plan and he WILL scrap the plan.

It seems that the Cabinet decision has been called in for review by the scrutiny committee, although it would take a brave man to bet on the LD/Tory controlled committee failing to back their masters. We will get to read the report, eventually. Probably. If they can find a copy.

Naturally, this wasn't attached to the agenda for the Cabinet meeting on Monday - they don't want us to read it yet. Let's have a glance at what they don't mind us reading.

The original Eastside plan offers 'significant regeneration benefits in a contemporary building of 38,000 sq m bringing all library services and the archival material together in one place.' It is forecast to cost £179.5 million - so when Ken Hardeman plucks a figure from thin air and predicts costs of up to £250 million, he's talking cobblers - the new Tory/LD plans are as likely to increase in cost as this is. While the old proposal is supposed to attract external funding and 'the PFI bid is progressing,' there is risk involved. Intriguingly, one of the reasons for rejecting the proposal is that a decision is required urgently to prevent problems with other regeneration issues with Eastside. All this political dithering by our local leaders has endangered the rebirth of a run-down area of the city - and all for cheap political reasons.

Regeneration, development problems and issues around obtaining external funding put a stop to plans for Baskerville House or refurbishing the existing library above Paradise Circus, which only leaves the two site option (surprise, surprise). The only justification posed for this option is that the cost could be £147.4 million and could attract external funding - given that this is a major decision, the statements are remarkably vague and I'd question the Cabinet's ability to decide on this evidence. There's no design in place for this, there's no PFI proposal to fund it and we're no further forward than we were at the start of the week - they still need to appoint a team and conduct more feasibility studies into both sites.

It couldn't be that the council are actually building this up to an election issue - recommending a plan that they know won't survive government scrutiny and won't get PFI funding approval so that come the elections next year the Tories and Liberal Democrats can blame Labour for blocking Birmingham's new library?

They couldn't be so cynical as to believe that we'd fall for that one, could they?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The moral minority

Last week, Alan Duncan withdrew from the race for the wooden spoon that is the Tory leadership, citing the influence of the 'Tory Taleban' - the fundamentalist 'nasty' wing of the party. These are the loons who believe that things were much better in the 50s before all this nasty liberalism with rights for gay people and legalised divorce and abortion. And as for single parents...

So, this week, we find the new 'Cornerstone' group of Tory MPs coming out of the woodwork, proclaiming
'Faith, flag and family are at the heart of Tory thinking. Combined, tradition, the nation, the family and free enterprise represent the instincts and preoccupations of most Britons and so, unsurprisingly, they have the capacity to inspire. In the USA too, these core conservative issues excite voters. George Bush understands this and wins. Strangely, the Conservative Party has deserted conservative Britain, and so Britons have deserted us.'
Ah - anyone else recognise the return of that old favourite, Back to Basics? Poor old John Major tried that a decade ago with a speech in 1993:
'It's time to return to those old values. Time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling it off onto other people and the state.'

We all know how well that worked, don't we? The speech was heavily spun at the time as being about personal morality, despite later attempts to distance Major from that interpretation. The effect was to allow the press to declare open season on Tory sexual misadventures and run around outing MPs who were knocking off their secretaries. As a policy, it was a disaster and any attempt to revive it borders on the insane.

Not that lunacy has ever stopped the Tories in the past. Perhaps they genuinely believe that the last election showed that the Tories need to tack ever further to the right. If that's the case, then they weren't in the same campaign that I was.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Dodgy surveys

The Telegraph ran a survey last week and headlined the result that 32% of British Muslims believe that Western society is decadent and immoral. This was the result of a survey of just over 500 Muslims by YouGov. We are told that this was an online survey, but we don't know how this group was selected. To be honest, I don't know what that headline tells us. If you change it to 32% of Catholics or Anglicans or Jews, would any of us be particularly surprised? Religions tend to be fairly moralistic - they exist to create and justify an ethical structure for life, so it isn't a surprise when they object to some behaviours and attitudes that secular society accepts.

I'd also note that over half of Muslims reckoned that Western society wasn't perfect, but that they should live with it and not try to bring it to an end. Aside from the 'don't know' option, those who took the survey were only offered three degrees of negativity about our society. The Telegraph report tells us that
'Most Muslims are evidently moderate and law-abiding but by no means all are.'

Which is hardly a great revelation - the same can be said of any community in this country. There are issues raised within the survey that do require attention - half believe that British political leaders don't respect Islam or mean what they say about equality and there seems to have been an increase in hostility towards Muslims by others in society, with a serious concern that further attacks could make it worse.

On the positive side, 70% feel that they should report suspicions to the police, 90% would tell somebody if they came across someone trying to radicalise young British Muslims, two-thirds believe that the Muslim community has to share the responsibility for dealing with terrorism and over three-quarters feel loyal to this country.

Saying that we have a broadly loyal, law-abiding community who are worried about being attacked wouldn't have made quite such a good headline, would it?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Dixon would never have approved

And neither would Regan and Carter, obviously.

Dorset Police are to patrol the naturist beach of Studland (ironymeter peaks there) to combat the problem of ordinary naturists being annoyed by those seeking to use the beach for, ahem, sexual purposes.

To blend in, the coppers are being asked to strip off - which raises the question of where they will keep their warrant cards. And carrying handcuffs is just asking for trouble.

Evenin' all. Mind how you go.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Coincidence

The Guardian yesterday had an interesting article about the emergency services' response to the 7 July bombings in London (shame that the London Fire Brigade wouldn't allow their front-line staff to speak on the record), which ended with the spookily prescient statement from the NHS emergency controller on the day:
'I was very proud of the NHS in London. They stepped up to the challenge. But actually, the risk today is no different than it was that Thursday. We've got to keep rehearsing.'

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Borrowed time

I've had an email from a reader asking for my views on the new library plan (always nice to know that someone is out there reading these meanderings). Thanks for the reminder - I hadn't forgotten, I just had to stop banging my head on my desk in disbelief long enough to write.

Now look, I know that the current Tory/Liberal Democrat administration have suffered from a lack of vision since they took office - largely because they each wrote a manifesto in the certain knowledge that they wouldn't have to put them into practice. A perfect plan, if Labour hadn't fumbled the ball and allowed the dynamic duo of Whitless and Superstud to collect more councillors. John Hemming focussed his attentions on raising his profile [insert your own jokes here] to win Yardley and left Teflon Mike the job of running the city. Ideas were needed - and fast.

So, we get the lunacy of the Blunderground and the scrapping of the Richard Rogers' designed library at Eastside - scrapped for no other reason than it was a Labour plan and all things planned by Labour are bad. The next problem was how to house those book thingies taking up valuable redevelopment space in the City Centre. Landfill wasn't an option - although to judge from the Tory attitudes in recent years, I suspect it may have been considered.

In the end, they have had the brilliant idea of TWO libraries, in some bizarre buy-one-get-one-free deal. So, the citizens of Birmingham who want to borrow a book and use the reference library will have to trek between Centenary Square and Eastside. Genius. That's the only expression that covers this decision - at a stroke, the physical fitness of Brummies can be improved. Never mind that this plan will end up costing almost as much as the original, single-site plan. There's also the question of running costs. At a stroke, Whitless has doubled many of the operational costs of the building and I'm prepared to place a small bet that there won't be any extra money in the already over-stretched library service budget to support it. We've already had libraries going to their local councillors begging for a share of the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund money to sustain operations. So, what's for the axe first? Acquisitions? Opening hours? Perhaps just closing a few more libraries would do it.

I'm not going to make a particular case for the Richard Rogers design - just to point out the stupidity in splitting up the collections. And I wouldn't bet my salary on these plans coming in on budget anyway - remember the £200 million underground system that now costs out at £2 billion? For all the Tories' whinging that Labour were big on promises and short on delivery, this is no better - this has been knocked up on the back of an envelope. We've actually gone backwards on where we were twelve months ago. There's no architect working on this, there's no funding in place and there's no real prospect of it happening - incidentally, how can you have such a precise figure without a detailed plan? If this is genuinely the best value option for the City, let's see the consultants' report on the library, which has been buried quietly. It is a fairly safe bet that if the report supported the decision of the administration, then Whitby would have made sure that the press got hold of it.

While he may be a 'small-town politician without ambition,' Whitless could make a contribution. If he places his nice black MG SV at the disposal of the library users, the 15 minute walk could be slashed to a few seconds. Oh, no - sorry, he's going to talk to the bus companies about arranging a shuttle service. I'm sure they'll be amenable, Mike, especially with your administrations well-known support of bus users - many of whom are delighted that your transportation poodle is scrapping bus lanes.

Whitless has mastered the art of talking cobblers, though. Without any supporting evidence beyond his own self-belief, he proclaims that:
'The Library of Birmingham will foster social inclusion by creating a new facility that breaks down intellectual barriers, helps to change perceptions of learning, and draws in new users from under-represented and minority groups.'

Last wishes

Rumours abound that Edward Heath's last wish was that the Blessed Margaret be allowed free reign to dance on his grave.

He is to be buried at sea.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Speaking ill of the dead

It isn't in my nature to celebrate someone's death, but the world is slightly better without the old Nazi-loving, Jew-hating John Tyndall, who has gone to a better (and hopefully rather hotter) place. As 'Dr' Phil Edwards (the BNP press spokesman, released from his padded cell for the occasion) said, he was a

'great fellow who knew exactly what our movement was about'
Indeed he did. Statements like

'The only thing the Africans have given us is voodoo, witchcraft and Aids.'
And his penchant for keeping offensive weapons about the house for 'protection against Jews' do sum up all that is loathsome about the fascists in the BNP.

The BNP's own website [find it yourself, I won't link to it] reports that

'While having no regard for Establishment newspapers, John Tyndall read the Daily Mail every day'
Surprised? I'm not. 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' indeed.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Rover-rated?

Glancing back at my posts over recent months, I found this one from the 19 June:
Of more importance is the revelation in today's Sunday Mercury that Julie Kirkbride and the 'flamboyant' (Copyright all papers) John Hemming were both offered free cars from the Rover company in 2003, apparently in return for their silence over the corporate mismanagement. One question springs to mind - why did it take both of them until now to bring this to the attention of the public?

Aside from the fact that the question remains unanswered - John was perhaps sorting out his complex personal life, another question comes to mind.

John and Julie both thought that the offer of a free car was to shut them up about the mismanagement within the MG Rover Group. They felt that it would compromise them to accept the offer, so both, quite rightly and ethically, refused it. (It hurts me to admit that a Tory MP and a Liberal Democrat councillor actually behaved properly, but I'll let it pass). This happened in 2003, when John was merely the leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Labour still controlled the council, so that probably explains why he wasn't offered a top of the range sports car. The fact remains, though, that neither of those elected officials thought it right and proper to accept the offer from Rover.

Two years on in the first few months of 2005, MG Rover's financial troubles are an open secret - at the end of 2004, Land Rover were busy stockpiling engines and a number of senior people took redundancy packages, quite apart from the Phoenix Four cheerfully flogging off the core treasure of the company, the intellectual property rights.

So Mike Whitless goes to Rover to negotiate a deal for Birmingham City Council employees to buy cars at a discount - trying to throw the company a lifeline. At the same time, he mentions that he's interested in buying a car, so Rover throw the keys to the SV at him, giving it to him on loan. Most of us are lucky if we get an extended test drive from our car suppliers, but he's had his for weeks, with no sign of it being returned.

Unlike his colleague (now deputy leader), John Hemming, Mike sees no conflict in accepting this free loan and then fails to register it in the public record. He clearly feels that this doesn't compromise his role as leader of the council and member of the Rover Task Force. Weirdly, he doesn't even see the political fallout from hanging onto this £65,000 car as Rover workers are forced to return their family cars to the administrators.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Austin Ambassador

Usually with product placement, it is a requirement of the deal that the 'star' is only seen to use the approved suppliers' products - hence the ruckus if Jamie Oliver is spotted shopping in Asda or Linda Barker is seen to use a product from one of the few suppliers that she hasn't endorsed.

So, how gutted do you think PricewaterhouseCoopers must be to see Mike Whitby - the keeper of their pride and joy MG SV - return from a trip to Spain 'experiencing the new Jaguar diesel engines' and then letting the press report that fact? Not that I'm convinced that having Mike seen to be driving one of these actually enhances the image of the marque.

A classic car nut friend of mine stepped out of his garage long enough to pass comment on the events. Pushing his flat cap clear of his eyes and wiping the sweat from his brow with a grease-smeared hand, he reckoned that Whitless might be on to a good thing here. Now this might come as a surprise to many, but he reckons that the MG SV/SVR series have the makings of a genuine classic car. Amazing, but true. 'Look,' he said, 'There are only about 50 of these things in existence and no prospect of any more being made. Far worse cars have become classics - most classic cars are awful to drive and cost a fortune to run.'

As he slid back under the rusty, unrecognisable heap that he's been restoring for the past decade, I thought that my petrolhead friend might be right, you know. You see, PwC initially demanded all employees' cars back immediately, but they calmed down after a while and allowed them to be kept in return for a payment of a third of the book price. Oddly, this payment tended to be quite close to the redundancy payment already promised, so most employees chose to pay their mortgages rather than pay for a car with no dealer network and a plummetting resale value. Plus, PwC already had around 60,000 of the blasted things sitting around rusting quietly at sites around the UK.

But those cars were the ordinary, mass market vehicles that Rover used to make. The MG SV/SVR is a different kettle of fish entirely - Parkers describe it as a 'brute of a car' and note it comes with a harness rather than the standard seatbelt fitted to lesser models. No word on whether Mike has the full performance pack which offers a scary 400 bhp or the terrifying option of nitrous injection, which would give him a whopping 1000 bhp to play with. Clarkson liked it, but felt that it wasn't worth the price tag - although added that with a bit of work, it could be. It even appears that Rowan Atkinson has one on loan, judging by this review in Auto Express. Perhaps Whitless should apply to play Baldric in any further episodes of Blackadder, given his penchant for cunning plans. And turnips, looking at the cabinet, but I digress.

The upshot is that despite all the faults in the vehicle, its plus points and very scarcity gives it the potential to be an instant classic, so if Whitless were to be offered the chance to buy the car under the same terms offered to employees, £20,000 or so would be a bargain price for what is a rather fast and stylish muscle car, let alone the swansong of the last British volume car manufacturer. Give it a couple of years and he may well find that he could sell it on for a VERY tidy profit - so keeping it on the driveway and not taking it out much might prove a sensible investment decision.

He could always use it to drive into Sandwell to see Lightwood Park, apparently owned by Birmingham City Council and causing some discontent amongst residents. They were so desperate for help, they even invited Bob Piper to attend their meeting (I do hope he brought his passport).

Friday, July 15, 2005

Poop poop!

I forgot to mention a salient point about the problems Mike Whitby is having combining his career as a trend-setting salesman for MG sports cars and a part-time job running Birmingham.

You may recall that after Rover went bump, the administrators, PWC, demanded the return of all those vehicles supplied to employees under a company scheme, as the insurance expired at midnight on the 30 April.

Now these weren't cars loaned to millionaire businessmen, these were cars used daily by wives and sons, daughters and friends. Ordinary cars - the sort of car that Rover needed to sell in volume. No matter, they had to go back - they weren't left on a neighbour's drive or only driven a couple of times, these were used daily as family cars. Perhaps these would have been better ambassadors for the company than a man who can't even convince a majority of voters in the city to back him.

Even the handful of top managers who had the MG SV and SVRs as company cars (chief executive Kevin Howe actually had one of each - the SVR is even pricier) had to return their cars, so PWC's decision to let Mike (apparently uniquely) hang onto his seems even more peculiar - shouldn't they seek to secure all company assets? 44 of these cars were built and fewer than 10 have been sold in total.

The more you look at it, the odder it seems.

Wouldn't you have thought that Mike should have insisted on returning the car to PWC, rather than limply hanging on to it? Perhaps he's looking forward to the day his administration rips up the traffic calming, takes down those speed cameras and removes the last bus lane, so he can dash through the city like Mr Toad.

All summed up by the 63 year old university porter Pete Heeley, who had a car through his son's work for Rover:
'I am going to miss it. It's back to the bus, or get my bike out.'

There is a history of Tories telling us to get on our bikes.

By the way, a reminder to councillors that if they suspect a fellow member of breaching the code, they are under a legal duty to report it in writing to the Standards Board:

7. A member must, if he becomes aware of any conduct by another member which he reasonably believes involves a failure to comply with the authority's code of conduct, make a written allegation to that effect to the Standards Board for England as soon as it is practicable for him to do so.
I'm minded to complain myself.

What a relief!

Chatshow may be safe for a little while longer, no matter what the Young Liberal Democrats may say:

'The major problem with Charles Kennedy is that he doesn't inspire confidence in the electorate. Even a lot of our own supporters laugh at the idea of Charles Kennedy becoming Prime Minister. If we are to convince the general public that we are the real alternative we need to present them with an alternative Prime Minister, who commands their general respect in a way Charles Kennedy does not.'
Cheadle was a good win for the LDs, as they saw their vote share increase despite a lower turnout than in May, chiefly at the expense of the soft Labour vote (the Labour candidate lost his deposit - something I put down to turnout). Despite the Tories briefing that they were likely to win, the result wasn't that much different to May. Stephen Day has decided to give up, having lost the seat in 2001 and not managed to regain it in the two polls since.

And down in Barking, the BNP's anti-Muslim campaigning gets the response it deserves as the Labour candidate in Barking takes a council seat with an 800-vote majority. Now there's a cause for celebration.

Dithering idiots

Meanwhile, the Post gives a critical review to Mike Whitby's first year as Leader (less than 12 months to go, Mike) and follows it up with a pretty devastating attack on the Tory/Liberal Democrat administration's dithering over a number of major projects. Terry Grimley is very critical of Whitby and spots that they found it easy to criticise Labour over the plans for the Eastside library and promise to scrap it, but had no idea of what to do in its place.

Update the existing concrete monstrosity? That was the first idea, but the costs seem to be prohibitive, so that's been dropped.

Use Baskerville House instead? As Grimley points out, the City would have to spend a small fortune buying it back and reconverting it from office space - something that could swiftly end up costing more than the Eastside plans. Plus, they would need another building anyway to house the rest of the collection, but some variant of this scheme seems likely, leading to increased ongoing staff costs and inconvenience for users who might want to visit the lending and reference libraries at the same time.

So, after accusing Labour of dragging its feet over the progress of the library project, the Tories have actually put the whole thing further back. This is not dissimilar to their own foot-dragging over the Birmingham Metro/Underground farce, where the Tories reckoned that they could provide the city with an underground mass transit system for the bargain price of £200 million. The expensive feasibility study seems to show that they were a little out in their estimates by a factor of ten, so the feasibility study has yet to be published.

Ironically, one of Whitby's chief advisors on redevelopment is the man behind the Arena Central scheme - one of the three projects criticised by the Tories when they came to power. Oddly, this was the project that was entirely in the hands of the private sector and fell victim, to a backlash against tall buildings since 9/11, according to Terry Grimley.

A rather disturbing line from the Whitby article (written by one of John H's tame journalists) is
'other senior officers appointed by the previous Labour regime are considering their positions. If they do not go voluntarily, they will be pushed.'
Which is an interesting comment from the point of view of employment law and says an awful lot about the petty politics that infects the Tory administration and their simplistic view that anything Labour proposed must, ipso facto, be a bad idea. No amount of 'reviews' will change that view, because it is the the truth. I just hope that Labour can redress the balance next May and kick this bunch of fools out of office. Birmingham deserves better.

It would be petty of me to ask why Mike needed to go to Spain to 'experience the new range of Jaguar diesel engines' (doubtless the bill was picked up by Ford and the jolly fact-finding trip will be reported to the council in the appropriate manner).

The article does spot that the council is run by a bunch of politicians that can't believe their luck - throughout, the Tories and Liberal Democrats have floundered and suffered from a lack of practical policies, as neither group seriously expected to be in power after May 2004. As Mike himself put it
'We want ideas and proposals that come from outside the charmed circle'
Was that a genuine appeal for ideas or just a desperate cry for help? The lacklustre performance of the council leadership would indicate that the second answer is closer to the truth.

Resuming normal service

Not for the first time, I ask myself what the Liberal Democrats in Birmingham get out of being in bed with the Tories. The answer appears to be that they get screwed on a regular basis. Perhaps they enjoy it.

Let's take a look at recent issues:

Mobile Phone Masts - One of the touchstone issues for Liberal Democrats across the country. Wherever these are planned, there shall you find a Lib-Dem campaigner rousing the locals to revolt - it's almost a legal requirement (except for Hodge Hill, obviously). So what possessed them to back the Tory decision to allow new masts to go onto council property?

Traffic Calming - Another one of those great local issues. Everyone likes to see traffic slowed down in residential areas - it helps keep our kids alive for one thing. But what have we here - the Tories think that we aren't able to drive fast enough, so they'll review speed cameras and traffic calming across the city (review appears to be code for 'scrap'). This latest stupidity is supposedly to improve blue-light response times, although the evidence doesn't suggest that there is actually a problem. In fact, given that it has taken 9 months to produce a map any sensible person could knock out in under 5 minutes by highlighting the major roads in the city, you wonder what the hell they spent the rest of the time doing. Indeed, removing traffic calming will cause more deaths and injuries that it solves, but no matter - our Tory councillors will be able to travel that little bit faster through the poorer areas of town. Naturally, the Liberal Democrat members of the Transportation Scrutiny committee didn't see any reason to review this decision and loyally backed their Tory masters. (Thanks to Zoe Hopkins).

Public Transport - The Liberal Democrats are big on the environment, we all know that. So, why didn't they step in to stop the Tories scrapping bus lanes and dithering over the insanity of the Blunderground?

Recycling - One of John H's first acts on becoming deputy leader was to scrap the proposal to trial wheelie bins in the city as part of a plan to improve kerbside collections for recycling (something that works well elsewhere in the country). Oddly, although the Liberal Democrats had promised to scrap the council newspaper as part of an earlier manifesto, that didn't stop John from signing a new contract for it - although the name has now changed.

Open government - Another manifesto issue and so important that after a few months, Liberal Democrat Cllr Mick Wilkes despaired, telling councillors that they will be more engaged politically if they read the Birmingham Post.

So again, I ask - what's the point of the Liberal Democrat alliance with the Tories? I know that there are a number of councillors deeply unhappy and disturbed by their leadership's love-in with Whitby & Co. What do they actually get out of it? Have any Liberal Democrat policies been enacted or was the whole thing a put-up job to stuff Labour (the largest party on the council) and give John Hemming a boost in profile ahead of the 2005 election? If that's the case, then this bunch of opportunists just show themselves up for what they are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Has Teflon Whitby come unstuck?

Leader of Birmingham City Council, Mike Whitby, has a top of the range MG SV sports car - prices start at over £60,000 - on loan from Rover. This loan came about because Mike was altruistically

'negotiating a heavy discount for employees of the city of Birmingham so they could buy cars from MG Rover to stave off receivership'
which is an intriguing story, as Virgin pulled out of a deal with Rover some months ago because Rover wouldn't offer a 30% volume discount - quite a reasonable figure in the car market.

Mike then volunteered to act as an ambassador for the marque, having expressed an interest in these exclusive sports cars, and ended up driving one away on loan. He's been such a successful ambassador that MG only sold ten of these cars in total and the entire project ended up costing the company millions for no real return. Perhaps his marketing failure is down to only driving it twice and leaving it parked on a neighbour's drive because his own drive has a skip parked on it at the moment. PWC say that

'We have decided to continue the arrangement because it is promoting the profile of the company.'
PWC clearly have no idea about marketing or 'promoting the profile' - unless they want to be associated with second-rate politicians.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the Birmingham City Council code of conduct for members and what it has to say on gifts - article 17:

A member must within 28 days of receiving any gift or hospitality over the value of £25, provide written notification to the authority's Monitoring Officer [currently the Chief Legal Officer] of the existence and nature of that gift or hospitality
I think that the loan of a £60,000 car counts, don't you? He certainly had a duty to report it, as the Standards Board for England makes clear that they should be reported if they are received in connection with your official duties as a member. As Mike admits, the loan came about because he was negotiating a deal for council employees - and it would take a leap of faith to suppose that MG would loan him a vehicle if he weren't the Leader of the City Council. Mike was also on the Rover Task Force as a representative of the council - although the car loan is obviously irrelevant to that as Rover would have been an issue regardless.

So, what would a reasonable person think of this deal?

Chatshow under pressure

It could be wishful thinking, but the by-election specialists at the Liberal Democrats may just be looking defeat in the face in Cheadle. With the polls opening on Thursday, the possibility of losing is on the cards and the Tories are throwing their full weight into the campaign. It would be the Tories' first by-election gain in over two decades, but would only add to the increasing clamour for Chuckie Kennedy to step aside for a stronger candidate, not helped by the announcement by a former member of the party's national executive who has announced that he is quitting the party over Charlie's 'lamentable performance.' Donnachadh McCarthy said
'There is a wide, wide-open door for a progressive centre-left party that is liberal and exciting and committed to the environment. Kennedy just sits there looking at the door swinging in the wind.'
Sticking his head above the parapet is MP Alistair Carmichael,
Does he have a wonderful grasp of what is the detail of policy? Probably not.
..before swiftly adding that Charlie is, of course, the best leader at the moment.

Still the whispering campaign goes on, with someone briefing the Observer that a defeat could be trouble for the quiz-show panellist/party leader. 'Shark' Hughes and 'The Merciless' Campbell are both lying in wait for the troubled Charlie.

Are they related?

These part-time Liberal Democrat MP/councillors are just trouble, aren't they?

Problems have kicked off in Rochdale, where Paul Rowen MP hangs grimly on to his council seat and the chair of the strategic partnership committee, despite having problems doing both jobs at once, as he has yet to grasp the basics of omnipotence. Here's Paul's comments about the Labour leader of the council, Allen Brett:
This is a real cheek coming from Paypacket Brett. He is deputy leader of Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority, as well as leader of the council, so I would ask whether he was able to do both.
Now, 'Paypacket' picks up around £28,000 for the privilege of leading Rochdale council, plus a sum for his work with the PTA. I rather doubt that this competes with the £58,000 that Paul collects as an MP in addition to his £7,000 council allowance, so perhaps the epithet is attached to the wrong councillor. It is also fair to say that representing your council on the local passenger transport authority is a rather different ball game to being an MP.

Curiously, The Public Whip reports that Paul and our own John H have identical voting records, both making just 60% of votes in the Commons. Sadly, Paul can only muster a measly 1 written question, as against John's magnificent 89 - almost £12,000 worth in just over two months.

Not if, but when

So the young men who brought death to last Thursday's rush hour weren't asylum seekers or foreign crazies - that would allow us to mentally distance ourselves, regarding this as an alien evil. But these were four of our own - four young men who grew up under the same sun, went to schools, played cricket and football and lived ordinary lives until their hatred and anger boiled over to the point where they felt that they were justified in shredding their own bodies with explosives to slaughter innocent commuters.

The police seem certain that these lads weren't duped into carrying timed devices - no trace of timing circuits have been found at the bomb sites - these young men knew what they were doing and went to their deaths willingly. They aren't the first - two young Britons travelled to Israel to carry out a suicide attack on an Israeli restaurant, another was reported to have attacked US troops in Iraq and we've had two caught planning to blow up airliners. While the Muslim community needs to be strong in dealing with the extremism undoubtedly present in its numbers, this is an issue for all of us. This crime is as repellent to Islam as it would be to Christianity.

Predictably, as there is a local election pending in East London, the BNP have printed leaflets linking the bus bombing to Islam, a sickening political use of tragedy that knocks Gorgeous George's efforts into a cocked hat. Nick Griffin said:
'It is obviously a very graphic, horrific image which really sums up the cost of voting Labour.' Labour had taken the country into an illegal war in Iraq and had 'lost control' of Britain's borders so that there was a 'huge sea of potential terrorists out there,' he said. 'The Labour Party for years has allowed Islamic extremists to preach in mosques in Britain and use them to recruit people to their cause. It is the Labour Party to blame.'
There's a special circle of hell reserved for you and your loathsome, reptilian kind, Griffin.

Ironically, one of those campaigning in the by-election is a tube train driver who escaped death last Thursday by seconds. Despite that, he's been out campaigning for peace and calm, only to face physical threats on the streets from assorted racist thugs. Perhaps a better quotation to end on comes from Marie Fatayi-Williams, a Nigerian mother who has travelled to London to try and find her missing 26 year old son Anthony.

'Now New York, now Madrid, now London. There has been widespread slaughter of innocent people. There have been streams of tears, innocent tears. There have been rivers of blood, innocent blood. Death in the morning, people going to find their livelihood, death in the noontime on the highways and streets.

They are not warriors. Which cause has been served? Certainly not the cause of God, not the cause of Allah because God Almighty only gives life and is full of mercy. Anyone who has been misled, or is being misled to believe that by killing innocent people he or she is serving God should think again because it's not true.Terrorism is not the way, terrorism is not the way. It doesn't beget peace. We can't deliver peace by terrorism, never can we deliver peace by killing people. Throughout history, those people who have changed the world have done so without violence, they have [won] people to their cause through peaceful protest. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, their discipline, their self-sacrifice, their conviction made people turn towards them, to follow them. What inspiration can senseless slaughter provide?

Death and destruction of young people in their prime as well as old and helpless can never be the foundations for building society. Innocent blood will always cry to God Almighty for reparation. How much blood must be spilled? How many tears shall we cry? How many mothers' hearts must be maimed? My heart is maimed. I pray I will see my son, Anthony. Why? I need to know, Anthony needs to know, Anthony needs to know, so do many others unaccounted for innocent victims, they need to know.

It's time to stop and think. We cannot live in fear because we are surrounded by hatred. Look around us today. Anthony is a Nigerian, born in London, worked in London, he is a world citizen. Here today we have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, all of us united in love for Anthony. Hatred begets only hatred. It is time to stop this vicious cycle of killing. We must all stand together, for our common humanity. I need to know what happened to my Anthony. He's the love of my life. My first son, my first son, 26. He tells me one day, "Mummy, I don't want to die, I don't want to die. I want to live, I want to take care of you, I will do great things for you, I will look after you, you will see what I will achieve for you. I will make you happy.' And he was making me happy. I am proud of him, I am still very proud of him but I need to know where he is, I need to know what happened to him. I grieve, I am sad, I am distraught, I am destroyed.

He didn't do anything to anybody, he loved everybody so much. If what I hear is true, even when he came out of the underground he was directing people to take buses, to be sure that they were OK. Then he called his office at the same time to tell them he was running late. He was a multi-purpose person, trying to save people, trying to call his office, trying to meet his appointments. What did he then do to deserve this. Where is he, someone tell me, where is he?'

Saturday, July 09, 2005

No surrender

George Galloway was swift to lay the blame for the bombings at the door of the Iraq adventure this week.

He's wrong.

Iraq is an issue, but it serves chiefly as a recruiting sergeant and justification for violence. If it had never happened, we would still be a target - we were a target long before Iraq or even Afghanistan, merely because of our status as a leading western country.

These terrorists will probably be a handful of the thousands of young men who travelled to Afghanistan in the 1990s to experience the jihadi training in weapons and explosives. As the west was reaping the peace dividend after the end of the Cold War, intelligence services were cheerfully retiring field officers and these excursions often passed un-noticed. For most, this was their only contact with these groups and they have returned to normal society. A number chose to continue the path of the jihadist, even while maintaining a facade of normality.

The terrorists probably aren't asylum seekers, apparently politically radical or even obviously religious - they have no wish to appear on the radar of the government or the security services. These people may be students, tourists or British-born. They will probably look westernised and will shave their beards and cut their hair - the better to blend in, for their ultimate task is worth the religious transgressions. If they attend a mosque, it will be one run by a moderate imam, not a high-profile, radical cleric. More likely, they will keep their prayers private, all the better to blend in with our secular society. At this level, these are professionals, who know that their tradecraft keeps them alive.

Clearly, the investigation is ongoing and the government have yet to assign responsibility to any particular group, but the style, timing and targetting of the operation bears the familiar stamp of a group linked to al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda isn't a traditional terrorist grouping. With the IRA, ETA and the rest, we are used to a quasi-military command structure, which allows opportunities to penetrate the links of the chain to obtain intelligence. This is largely absent from the al-Qaeda format, which is perhaps best likened to a franchise operation and run by independent cells with little or no command structure beyond that, the better to avoid the attentions of the intelligence services. Those who think of Osama bin Laden as sitting at the centre of a web of international terrorism are largely mistaken. I doubt that he was aware of this operation until it hid the newswires.

Unlike the aims of other terrorist groups, the al-Qaeda operation is not open to negotiation. The aim is to create an Islamic state in the Middle East - starting with Saudi Arabia. This would not be in the historical tradition of culture, architectural and scientific advance that is the great legacy of past Islamic civilisations (Kilroy Silk take note). Their dream is an uncivilised, medieval state, aggressively religious (in their own image of Islam), viciously sectarian - hence the harking back to 'crusader states' - and anathema to the vast majority of Muslims. To this end, not only do they want to maintain popular support for their cause in the Middle East, they also want to sow dissent between Muslims and others living in the West - nothing would cheer them more than the sight of mosques burning in Bradford or riots in Birmingham, as it would prove their self-fulfilling theories about the western hatred for Islam. From that will only come more idealistic and misguided young men willing to sacrifice themselves for this evil fantasy.

They want us to impose knee-jerk legislation imprisoning their Islamic brothers without trial and for us to surrender our own freedoms, for fear of what might happen next. So don't give them that satisfaction and remember what we stand for as a civilised, democratic society. Don't compromise on justice or the rule of law to satisfy our baser demands for vengeance and don't fall into the trap of blaming an entire community for the sins of a few renegades. Islam condemns murder as surely as any other religion.

Hard as it is to accept, events like those of Thursday are the price we pay for a free and open society. As we celebrate and remember VE day this weekend, remember the sacrifice that thousands of young men and women made during the Second World War. We disgrace their memories if we give in to the terrorists.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Evil comes to town

Terrorism and death have visited London before and will probably do so again. We must avoid over-reaction, either by knee-jerk legislation or by vigilante attacks on Muslim targets. Those of us in Birmingham know too well what happens when a particular group has the sins of a tiny minority visited upon them - we can remember how the Irish community was treated following the pub bombings in the 70s. Very good to hear DAC Paddick at the press conference putting distance between this attack and Islam.

We've always been a target and we always will be - Iraq probably hasn't heightened our risk all that much, so George Galloway can shut up (quoted on the Guardian newsblog):
'We argued, as did the security services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain. Tragically Londoners have now paid the price of the Government ignoring such warnings.'

Now isn't the time, George. Don't make yourself look like more of self-aggrandising, self-righteous pillock than you already do. Some of your constituents may have died today at the hands of dark-hearted individuals who traduce the true nature of Islam for their own purposes.

You can keep up to date with the news through the BBC or the Guardian or on Europhobia, which is providing an interesting live blog. Although I'm (at best) an agnostic, my Catholic upbringing made me offer up a quick prayer to whoever may be listening for the dead, injured and their families. I know we'll focus on the numbers of dead in this incident, but take a moment to think of the injured - blast injuries mean shredded limbs, horrific burns and cuts from flying glass and metal.

As usual, the emergency services seem to have performed their horrific task with courage and professionalism. Remember them - they're the people who run towards the blast and the screams while we run for safety.

Useful Numbers:

British Transport Police (020) 8358 0101

Met Police Casualty Bureau 0870 156 6364

Transport for London

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stunned doesn't cover it

I never thought we'd do it.

Honestly - no matter how good the London 2012 campaign was, I thought Paris had it sewn up. Even up to the second that Jacque Rogge announced that the host city would be.... I was waiting for the word 'Paris.'

But I'm delighted - even if it isn't coming to Birmingham. This will have a massive effect on all sports in the UK, quite apart from the business that it will generate. I know that a number of observers say that the Olympics actually have a neutral effect on the economy, given the massive costs of staging it against the benefits to the host's economy, but I do know that thousands of people will be employed to build the venues and stadia and to run the events. It will help to regenerate a run-down area of London and there will be knock-on effects throughout the country. All those teams will need training camps and events are planned to be held outside the city itself.

Top marks to the team and to Seb Coe, who has won the biggest race of his life. Now on to July 2012 - there'll be problems and negative stories galore, but I reckon we can do it, just so long as we stay focussed on the needs of sport and don't get too hung up on image - which is what doomed the Dome.

One of the highlights was the stunned reaction of the Parisian crowd, all certain that their city was a shoe-in for the Games. What would you give to have been a fly on the wall at Gleneagles to watch Chirac choke when he congratulated Blair on winning the Olympics?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Leadership issues

Just as the Tony/Gordon tussle for the top seems to have slid onto the back burner for the time being and the Tory leadership contest is hotting up dfjgkdfj gfgjk fdjfd [sorry - fell asleep on my keyboard there]. Hotting up? Who am I kidding. Only in the sense that there now seem to be more candidates than voters as the MPs decide that they want to pick their next loser leader. You can see their point. They are well aware that if it was left to the wider party, they'd end up with another Ian Duncan Smith or anyone that reminds the membership of Anthony Eden. However, the MPs don't exactly have a glowing record - Major was theirs, as was Hague and they effectively picked Howard.

I heard an interesting fact the other day - in the last century, only two Tory leaders failed to become PM. There have been three so far this century. I'm still of the view that their party is in a Liberal-style decline into a wilderness phase, leaving the throbbing Liberal Democrats to fight it out with the Labour party over the coming years. It seems I'm not alone - one of the Tories' biggest backers is of the same view. Not so much 'smell the coffee' as 'drink the embalming fluid.' Lord Saatchi apparently blames himself for failing to come up with an iconic, election-winning policy and blamed the party for thinking that the electorate was stupid and only energised by Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Well, who would want policies from by an ill-informed, self-centred, preening media figure when you could have Brad or Tom instead?

So, what of the LDs? Well, Chatshow Charlie can see the figures slipping around him in the shadows, their flickknives glinting occasionally. He knows that the assassins are watching his every step, ready to brief against him at every opportunity. And they will. His reported broadside against his critics in the parliamentary party may keep them quiet ahead of the Cheadle by-election (which I'd expect the Liberal Democrats to hold, given their traditionally strong by-election performance), but won't silence them indefinitely.