Tuesday, December 16, 2008

All going swimmingly

After the storm in a paddling pool over the weekend regarding how Birmingham wasn't going to pay for a new Olympic pool, Whitless has learnt the backstroke. He's jumped into the middle of the row and told the developers to go back to the drawing board and not to be so silly as to ask for £60 million.

The Post described this as a 'dramatic intervention' - while less kind souls would say that he's finally read the report on which he had been meaningfully consulted only a few days ago. He may have conned Patrick Burns into making a puff piece for Midlands Today, but reality has dawned in the shallow end of the council leadership. Whitby will renegotiate the deal and get a better one!

Saith Whitless
Any quote received three months ago needs to be torn up and thrown away. We are in a different environment where the power of purchasing gives the public sector an advantage
Right. Except that there is no quote, because there are no plans outside of Whitby's mind. And in any case, I would hope that this would go out to tender, not just to asking for three quotes from local builders Bodgett & Scarper, some bloke down the pub and a mate of a mate who does a bit of DIY. I still think that it is a lot to ask to get two new suburban pools and a 50m competition venue for the £30 million currently available.

Meanwhile, Ray Hassall - possibly a Lib Dem, possibly a Conservative, depending on whether you trust the BBC - added that
there were no plans to save money by closing pools
While a council spokesperson was a little less certain
The planning really hasn’t got to that stage yet,” said Shahid Naqvi. “We’re just looking at the feasibility of several options.”

The operative word here is yet.

The only real plan here is, as the Post pointed out last week, to keep a stream of stories flowing, regardless of whether any of them come to fruition.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Splashback

According to the Birmingham Post, 12 December 2008 (online on the 11 December).
Last night senior Conservative councillor John Alden, chairman of the leisure, sport and culture scrutiny committee, said he knew nothing of the plans, how much the pool would cost or how it would be funded. He told Birmingham Post he would have to attend the cabinet meeting on Monday.
According to the Cabinet documents published on the internet 11 December 2008

3. Compliance Issues:
3.2 Have relevant Ward and other Members / Officers been properly and meaningfully consulted on this report?
The Leader, Cabinet Members for Leisure, Sport and Culture, Regeneration and the Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Co-ordinating Committee, together with
the
Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Committee for Leisure Sport and Culture have been consulted.
Given that Cllr Alden is that chairman - how can both these statements be true? As the O&S committee met only on the 10th December, wouldn't that have been an ideal opportunity to mention it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seriously worried about Ray

Another day, another Whitby fantasy about the future of Birmingham.

This time, he's promising more jam tomorrow with a proper 50m Olympic swimming pool and leisure centre - costing some £60 million - on a playground in Ladywood.

Well - we might. Watching the BBC Midlands Today report, with Patrick Burns trumpeting it more effectively than Whitless ever could, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was all but ready to be opened.


But actually, that wasn't the biggest story and I'm amazed that Patrick missed the news. Apparently, Cllr Ray Hassall - formerly a stalwart of the Liberal Democrats - has defected to the Tories. Well - it must be true, the BBC tell us so on their captions...

It can't be that much of a surprise, as the Lib Dems have proven themselves loyal lap dogs to their Conservative masters. It would certainly make life easier if they just did the decent thing and took out the proper memberships.

Anyway, back to the water. As I noted, the report suggested that the diggers were about to move in and Whitless suggests that it could be ready for 2012. Some aren't quite so convinced. Firstly, this is part of a report that hasn't even got through Cabinet yet and the paperwork can be found here. If you read the reports, then you find that all that is being offered so far is funding for the initial development costs prior to planning permission being submitted. Phase 1 of the grand pool strategy sees a £2.6 million borrowing requirement to fund these development plans and that's the sum of it.

The report reveals that they don't even have a cost for it yet, let alone a full funding plan -
Further feasibility study work will quantify the size of additional resources required and consider how to fund them, but the total indicative capital cost for the three ‘first tranche’ facilities is in the order of £84.5m (of which £60.5m is for the 50m pool).
Three facilities, I hear you ask? But we only hear about one of them. Funny that, isn't it?

Curiously, the loyal Tory voters of Harborne get their reward of a new £10-12 million (estimated) pool for consistently returning Whitless to office - much as the loyal Tory voters of Sutton Coldfield have seen £3.5 million spent on their pool. Moseley Baths continues to go begging, as the Lib Dems conveniently sideline their 2004 promises. But the Lib Dems don't miss out - Stechford Cascades is due for a revamp (not before time), although all this proposal promises is some work to develop a business case for replacement - not even the limited detail on Harborne and the Olympic pool. Just to show the value of that Lib Dem support, buried within the paperwork is the revelation that the swimming space at Harborne will more than double from 207 sq m to 463 sq m, while the prediction for Stechford envisages a cut of 30% in 'swimming space' from 666 sq m down to 463 sq m. This is regarded as a good solution for the second-busiest pool in the City - slashing the size of one of the most popular sites and increasing the size of a pool in the bottom third for visitors.

What else is on the cards? The same report 'models' a strategy for Birmingham swimming, forecasting that the following pools will be retained and refurbished: Wyndley, Cocks Moors Woods, Fox Hollies, Kingstanding, Northfield, Small Heath, Handsworth, Erdington and Stechford - plus the rebuilt Harborne and the replacement for Ladywood. Slated for potential closure are Beeches in Perry Barr, Castle Vale, Linden Road, Newtown, Sparkhill and Tiverton Road (Birmingham's oldest pool). Also missing from the refurbishment list is Moseley, that centrepiece of Liberal Democratic promises for several years. To be fair, the model does propose new pools in and around Selly Oak, Longbridge, Hodge Hill and Sparkhill, but that still puts at least three pools in danger of closure.

So, back to the matter of funding for what has been proposed. They have already spotted some opportunities
Capital resources of £30.5m have been identified to date (including up to £24m prudential borrowing capacity...
So, they've only really found £6.5 million of resources and will have to go and borrow some more. That still leaves a gap of £30 million to fund just the 50m pool or a yawning chasm of £54 million if all three are to be fully funded. We're getting used to this serendipity school of economics - the Library of Birmingham project has kicked off with the plans allowing for a black hole of some £39 million for which funding has yet to be identified. The 'prudential borrowing capacity' will supply another £99 million in loans, while £55 million will come from sale of city centre land. Given that the property market is languishing in the doldrums, there seems little prospect of this being realised any time soon. Rather like this pool plan, the library plans are only funded to proceed to the pre-planning stage.

But surely they've planned for the operational costs of the pool?

There is no provision in the revenue budget or LTFS for additional running costs,

Oh. They haven't. So, what are they going to do?

a number of options are being considered, e.g. rationalising inadequate buildings to provide modern facilities and increase water space.

That's suitably opaque. One of the council officers has let the cat out of the bag

Assets including “unproductive” leisure land may be disposed of in order to fund the project, according to assistant director of sports and events Steve Hollingworth. More than 60 sites are being looked at, which include 19 pools, along with other council assets, Mr Hollingworth said

Right, so we'll get a nice new pool in the City Centre - in a Labour seat too - but the outer edge will predictably suffer to pay for it.

I've forecast that the Library of Birmingham won't be open anytime soon, but I think that it will open its doors well before the first swimmers leap into the 50m pool. However, I'll also bet that the Harborne pool will be open before before either.

Looking at that caption again, I wonder if the BBC haven't got it right after all. Who says that it has to be an abbreviation?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Greasy polls - again.

After last week's CommRes poll in the Indie - which I still regard as something of an outlier - slashing the Tory lead to a single point and then an ICM poll in the Guardian (usually my pollster of choice) showing a 15% Tory lead, I'm not sure what to make of the Times' Populous poll, which again slashes the Tory lead to 4 points and puts the Lib Dems on 17%. For the first time since the spring, Populous have the Tories under 40% - on 39%. Another notable point - which seems to be supported by other polls - is that the core Labour vote looks ready to turn out again, after an election or two of staying at home. Additionally, Labour voters are less ready than they have been to consider voting Tory and Gordon and Alistair are seen as the best people to lead us through the recession - hardly a suprise given the appalling performance of the Conservative economic team lately.

Running this through the inestimable Mr Baxter's Prediction Machine (obligatory caveat - this does assume a mythical universal swing across the country), leaves Labour as the largest party, but 22 short of an overall majority. In local terms, that sees the Tories retake Solihull, Birmingham Edgbaston, Stourbridge and Wolverhampton South West. I'd be stunned if they failed to evict the Lib Dem in Solihull, but I have heard good things about the ground campaign in Edgbaston and Gisela is a survivor down there, so I'd predict recounts at the least.

And all the mice on the mouse organ went to sleep...


The death of Oliver Postgate was announced today and a little piece of my childhood died with him.
For people of a certain - rapidly approaching middle - age, Postgate and Firmin's work is an instant time machine, transporting us back to an easier time before the worries of work and family. Whether it is the old saggy cloth cat that is Bagpuss, the small wool and meccano pinkness of the Clangers or the two-dimensional, small town reliability of Dai Jones the Steam and The Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company - which was a long name for a little engine, so his friends just called him Ivor - all have an amazing emotional pull. [EDIT: How could I get that name wrong? It was, of course, Dai Station.]

They are also touchstones for an earlier style of TV that the BBC did so well and that is itself now just a piece of history. Perhaps the only one still making programmes in that amateurish, gloriously British style is Nick Park over at Aardman. Everything else is too smooth, too targetted on a demographic, with too much of an agenda. There is no room - no opportunity for a new Smallfilms to make films in a barn. My children have loved the Postgate and Firmin work - Bagpuss is much loved in our house and the place is dotted with soft toy Clangers.

So, like many other people today, we felt a little sadness - even if we didn't quite understand why.

And one day, I really must write my thesis on the socio-political agenda behind Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green....

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Greenwash

The Tories are hurriedly puffing up the Damian Green farrago as big as possible - highlighting the use of 'anti-terrorist police' (they weren't) to arrest an MP for receiving leaked material (they haven't - they are working on 'misconduct in a public office') and then searching his office without a warrant (they didn't need one under PACE). The indignation of many Tories over someone who leaked a small pile of documents for political gain compares with how the Tory government treated Sarah Tisdall back in 1983.

Back then, the Guardian received - anonymously - a copied document which disclosed the political tactics to be used by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, in the Commons to announce the arrival of the cruise missiles at Greenham Common airbase. It didn't contain any information of a national security nature, nor anything truly classified, but the full force of the law swung into action - far harsher than anything we've seen so far. After a court case, the Guardian editor was forced to hand over the document and the authorities tracked it back to one Sarah Tisdall, a junior official in the MoD. She was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, pleaded guilty and got six months, of which she served three - quite possibly a deal to minimise further government embarassment. All of that happened because the view was taken that she might at some unspecified point in the future leak some unspecified, genuinely secret documents of national security importance.

But back to today. Firstly, the Tories are outraged that Green is under suspicion of being less than straight in his dealings. After all - he is one of us, they cry. Ah yes - the claim that he couldn't possibly do anything wrong because he is one of the elite. That sort of thinking led to the fervent in house denial that there could ever be Soviet penetration of the intelligence services, because our chaps didn't do that kind of thing. The unswerving certainty that Green has done nothing wrong contrasts nicely with the absolute assurance of every Tory blog last year that it was only a matter of time before the shackles were strapped round Lord Levy's wrists, if not Tony Blair himself. Back then, the bloggers and the briefers were crowing about the presumed guilt of those two - and others - and revelling in the leaks flowing from somewhere in the police service. Things don't look quite so clear now, do they?

Secondly, they are nervous that this might not be the end of the matter. Some suggest that David Davis might be in for a long chat with the Met after he was seen making off with some policies previously the property of the Government. All of this is an attempt to scare off the police.

That may prove to be the least of their worries, as I think that there is still a far bigger fish to be caught - the Tory mole in the Treasury.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How on earth did I miss this story?

Aside from the fact that it is about the Lib Dems...

'Calamity' Clegg has been overheard slagging off his colleagues again. By a Mirror journalist. Again. Only a couple of years ago, Cleggy was heard bitching about the disorganised Ming Campbell while on the phone to another journalist, but this time, he was discussing reshuffles with his sidekick Danny Alexander while a Mirror hack listened from the seat in front. Curious, really - perhaps he wanted to be heard...

On Steve 'WhoHe' Webb - allegedly their spokesman on climate change and marked down as the next unlucky man to be Lib Dem leader when Clegg is inevitably ousted:
Webb must go. He’s a problem. I can’t stand the man. We need a new spokesman. We have to move him. We need someone with good ideas. At the moment, they just don’t add up. Give David [Laws] a day and he’ll come up with more good ideas than Webb has come up with in a year... But we need to keep him in the cabinet. As a backbencher, he’d be a pain in the arse, a voice for the left. And we can’t move him before the spring.

What about sending him to 'shadow' the Foreign Office brief, asks Danny.
He’d be useless. And he wouldn’t do it.

On Julia Goldsworthy:
We have to move her too. She gets patronised. And we can’t give her Foreign. She’s just not equipped to do it.

On David 'Smug Git' Laws
Laws is not enjoying Education. The Tories have left him no space. But he’s got a forensic intelligence – he’s probably the best brain we have.

This isn't saying a massive amount, to be frank.

And poor old Chris Huhne, already facing a fight with the Tories for his parliamentary seat, is damned for lacking 'emotional intelligence.'

I'm sure his meetings with his colleagues will be particularly frosty this week.

An early Christmas present for Gordon!

Did I tell you how much I love ComRes polls?

No? Well I do.

1 point behind? Conservative 37%, Labour 36% and LD 17%.

The only slight fly in the ointment is where the vote comes from. (Full details available from ComRes here). We're particularly strong in the DE segment - leading the Tories by 26 percentage points and it is good to see the traditional working class vote coming home. The problem is that they are less likely to vote - only 46% of DEs would be sure to vote in a putative election today, compared to the 58-60% certainty to vote for the ABC1s. This group - along with the C2s - is showing strongly for the Tories, with a seven point lead.

Don't put too much on this one poll - it could be a rogue outlier, but if it isn't, then don't book a holiday for May....