Wednesday, March 30, 2011

West Midlands Police forcibly retire a millennium of experience.

Sworn servants of the Crown cannot be made redundant, but under a little-used regulation A19, they can be forced to retire once they have completed 30 years' service. Over the course of this year, almost a thousand years of experience and policing knowledge will be removed from the West Midlands Police Service. Yesterday five of these officers, due to leave within a few days, spoke to the BBC.

DC Tony Fisher said,

"I use the analogy, West Midlands Police are being a bit like the Villa, going down and very quickly... You can even see now the front-line policing is affected, burglary detection rates, robbery detection rates are down, robberies and burglaries are going up and to be honest it's been quite soul destroying to see these changes."
Oh and Warwickshire have confirmed that 150 of their officers (about 8%) will be pulled from frontline roles to fill admin posts vacated by civilian staff made redundant to cut costs.

No wonder that decent coppers like Response Plod, an anonymous officer in the Met (who will doubtless be exposed and silenced by the national press in the public interest) feel moved to comment about his day policing Saturday's march
I met people who are in the same boat as us. Facing an uncertain future, facing massive cuts and exploitation by a government that not only are threatening our very existences, have lied to us all. I met a family with their young Son on the way there who had travelled a hundred or so miles to show their support for everyone of us facing cuts be them doctors, nurses, teachers, fire brigade even Union of boilermakers... I spoke with them for some time and they thanked us for helping them demonstrate safely and that they know we face an uncertain future but cannot demonstrate with us. To those I did manage to speak to I thanked. I thanked them for demonstrating a worthy and just cause and to prove that us decent hard working people will not just go gently into that good night. I thanked them because I could not join them. They were our voice today too and they did us proud
Kudos to the officers who have spoken out, still serving the public and the police service even as their careers come to a premature end. That's 20,000 years of policing gone. What was that about not hitting the frontline? A strong contender for the 2011 award for Keeping a Straight Face While Saying Unbelievable Things (won in 2010 by Nick Clegg for the Lib Dem manifesto launch) is the unnamed WMP press officer who wrote
the loss of 649 officers and their combined experience over the next four years does not mean service and protection to communities will suffer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shot at by both sides

 George Osborne has managed to inspire almost nobody with the budget, perhaps because pretty much everything was trailed so far in advance that there were no headline surprises. The morning after, the Sun ran with the 1 penny cut in the duty on fuel and the Daily Express was similarly upbeat, but other papers were far more negative. Even the Daily Mail headlined the duty cut with a 'Shocks Under the Bonnet' qualifier and the Telegraph promised potholes ahead - in tribute to the £100 million fund set aside to fill some of the post-winter holes in the road. 

There was a small bounce in the YouGov tracker poll carried out between budget day and the following evening, with the government closing the gap with Labour to just four points, their best figures in months (although Anthony Wells does point out that the budget bounce is a mythical beast in recent years, demonstrating that where it exists at all, it affects government polling for a very short period).

Even the editor of the Tory-friendly Spectator magazine, Fraser Nelson, runs through the reports and picks out some of the problems ahead - noticing that the much-vaunted OBR rejects Osborne's claims about growth, debt interest (some of which is RPI inflation-linked), wages falling in real terms, high earner tax receipts not matching expectations and additional costs for welfare reform and military expenditure. And this from a right-winger. If he carries on like this, I'll send him a membership pack.

The proof of any budget is how well it survives the analysis, not how the initial spin works (or doesn't) and this budget appears to be under attack from both sides. The right don't see sufficient radical post-Thatcherism and the left are still creating merry hell about the cuts, although Anthony Wells shows that sticking to the Conservative script on cuts is getting a consistent message across to the public. Part of the problem with the budget from the point of view of the ordinary voter focussed on the pound in their pocket is that a 1p per litre cut in fuel duty is largely irrelevant. For all the Chancellor's trumpeting that it would be in place from 6pm on Budget Day, the reality is that the duty is paid when the fuel is delivered into those huge storage tanks underneath the garage, not when you actually fill your car. This means that garages have already paid the higher price until that fuel is replaced and the margin on vehicle fuel is actually quite slim, so only the big supermarket operators could afford to show the price cut swiftly - and even there, there are reports that prices went up on or just before Budget Day and then dropped back again as the price change kicked in. To be fair, I should point out that the garage operators don't seem to make similar arguments when duty goes up - the price goes up immediately, even though no more duty is paid on fuel already delivered (which is why garages like to go into Budget Day with tanks topped off). Meanwhile, the oil companies are screaming that they don't want to have to pay the windfall tax imposed by the Chancellor and it will cost tens of thousands of British jobs. The Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce has apparently taken up cudgels on behalf of the employers, along with other Scottish MPs, fearful that jobs will not be created in their constituencies.

Mr Bruce was also angered that the Chancellor appeared not to have consulted with oil experts before announcing his plans that will see oil companies being taxed between 62 per cent and 81 per cent of their profits. "I believe this completely undermines the objective of saying this is a budget for growth," he said. "We were expecting substantial new investment in the North Sea and much of this could now come under review"
Ah yes, growth. This is apparently a budget for growth. Growth matters more than anything else - as Ed Balls pointed out, the deficit was not caused by spending on schools, hospitals or the police, it was caused by a collapse in tax revenue from the financial services sector, which has been a huge part of the economy for decades. While cuts are required to close the gap from the top - through reducing expenditure - growth is the only way to make the huge gains required. Yet strangely, the Office of Budget Responsibility has downgraded its forecast of growth, having considered the effect of the new budget and a number of observers consider those forecasts as generous. Osborne offered us a resurrection of the 1980s Enterprise Zones, which were demonstrated to offer little net economic gain - they just saw businesses relocate from other areas outside the zone, and he also made much of the forthcoming changes to the planning regime, as if this is all that is holding back UK plc.
The following morning, much time was devoted on the news programmes to the news that WPP, the advertising and marketing company, was to relocate their executive headquarters from Dublin to London, once the various tax changes planned in and around the budget were in place. They decamped to the shores of the Liffey a couple of years ago to take advantage of the Republic's low corporate tax rates and have been tempted back by a new tax regime that won't tax profits earned outside the UK (90% of WPP's earnings) and will progressively cut the corporate tax bill in the UK. So, what will UK plc gain from the return of Martin Sorrell's WPP? Sadly, the company's main headquarters has remained in London all the time, with a handful of staff relocated to Dublin to support the board meetings that are held there so that the company can legitimately claim Irish tax residency. As WPP's Richard Oldworth said of the move in 2008,
"The presence here will be a very, very tiny part of the operation...The only physical change will be that some board meetings will be held in Dublin... A handful of people, probably from the financial area of the business will be based there."
WPP handles the media buying for government advertising, so the announcement provided some free campaign work in support of government policy.

Osborne has failed to satisfy the bloodlust for tax cuts from the right of his party, just as he has managed to rouse the ire of the left. You wonder how long he can sit on this fence, taking hits from either side. He may have made his name as the man who loves to be hated, but the recent spin in a number of press outlets indicate that somebody, somewhere is making the unlikely case of Osborne being the next Tory PM.

Ever had the feeling that we've been here before?

Time to get the popcorn, settle back and watch the arguments start to highlight fault lines.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

GP criticises Tory plans for NHS. She's also a Tory MP.

Writing in the Telegraph, Dr Sarah Wollaston makes some trenchant criticism of the NHS restructure - a policy that she did not campaign for as part of the Tory manifesto and one that did not form part of the coalition agreement. Indeed, Andrew Lansley promised in opposition an end to top down reforms of the NHS. In government, he's delivered nothing but that.
And if that wasn't enough, NHS quality monitors remind their management colleagues that

I wonder if Lansley or Cameron will quote those next time or if they will keep trotting out their misquoted claims of support from John Healey, the Labour health spokesman (who has now written to the PM at least twice asking for an apology for the persistent misquotation). Funny thing is, Cameron never bothers quoting from the rest of the speech, which certainly isn't supportive of the direction of travel.
these are the wrong reforms at the wrong time, “blunting the ability of the NHS to respond to the Nicholson challenge” to improve services to patients and make sound efficiencies on a scale the NHS has never achieved before

modernisation plans will leave few parts of the current system untouched and past experience and lessons from elsewhere shows that any period of structural change can put quality and safety at risk

It is one thing to rapidly dismantle the entire middle layer of NHS management but it is completely unrealistic to assume that this vast organisation can be managed by a commissioning board in London with nothing in between it and several hundred inexperienced commissioning consortia. In reality the reforms manage to be both 'top-down' and 'bottom up' but we could end up with the worst of both worlds. Stripping out primary care trusts (PCTs) and strategic health authorities is as top down as it comes....

...without some experienced guidance and continuity, the consortia are doomed to fail and will have to hand over their commissioning to the private sector. An organisation responsible for over £100billion needs people who seriously understand accountancy and, trust me, GPs do not.

Bearing in mind that the NHS Commissioning Board in London will be responsible for commissioning every GP practice, pharmacy and dental surgery, it is clear that they will need some regional presence. I cannot see that it makes sense to foot the bill for redundancies for the entire middle layer of NHS management only to be re-employing many of them within a couple of years. Commissioning consortia will be overwhelmed trying to adapt to their new roles. Someone needs to get a grip or we will continue to haemorrhage the best staff as a result of intolerable uncertainty and pointless morale-sapping denigration. It all risks going 'belly up' rather than 'bottom up'

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Libya

As I write this, the West is engaged in air and missile strikes against Libyan targets in support of the UN Resolution 1973 passed earlier this week. While I wish our aircrews safe returns and hope that civilian casualties are low, I'm concerned about the reasoning behind the operation and the intended destination.

Our record in the Middle East is hardly stellar of late (if it ever was) - aside from a record of backing dubious regimes, the invasion of Iraq was wrong-headed and hugely misguided and while our intentions in Afghanistan were in support of our NATO commitments and loyalty to our American cousins, we seem to be stuck in a morass with no apparent path visible to the exit. This is perhaps the precedent that worries me most.

Hillary Clinton has already laid down the aim of the operation - the removal of Gaddafi - but the question has to be asked, what happens if he isn't removed by his own people or decides that discretion is the better part of valour and takes a private jet out of the country? How long are we prepared to stay the course? Once we've flattened his air defences and obtained complete air supremacy - which will probably be completed in all practical purposes within a few hours - what happens then? We can assume that supply convoys or vessels heading for Benghazi or any other conurbations within the no-fly zone will be interdicted - French aircraft are reported to have carried this out already - but what else is on the table, given that we aren't allowed or are willing to deploy soldiers on the ground in what will be an asymetric conflict? Gaddafi has already shown a determination to hang on beyond the point where other dictators would have got the message, so it remains to be seen if the actuality of an air attack will have the required effect.

However humanitarian our intentions may be towards the Libyan people, who have demonstrated a desire to shape their own future and seen the first flowerings of that threatened, the law of unintended consequences will intervene. If successful, will the people's revolution be tarred by the involvement of the West? I note that Gaddafi's recent speech has referred to the 'crusaders' - perhaps a late conversion to Islamism, a path already trodden by Saddam in the decade after the Gulf War?

For the sake of our troops and the Libyan people, I hope that this is over rapidly and bloodlessly and that the Western countries will prove as swift and effective with their humanitarian relief as they have with their military intervention. I fear that we might be getting involved far more deeply and for longer than we currently realise or intend.

Free schools bite the dust

Remember the promise from Gove that parents would be encouraged to open schools? Looks like that's fallen by the wayside, as Toby Young reports in the Telegraph. From here on in, the old system where a group would simply have to prepare a short brief, pass an interview and then receive funding for support to develop a proper outline business case for the school (covering the key technical points about the operation) has been scrapped. Instead, all applications will now need an outline business case from the outset, which will need considerable expertise - expertise that it is unlikely that a parent/staff group will possess and which will have to be bought in from one of the specialist companies that are springing up to run these schools.

I've never backed the free schools concept - it has always struck me as an inefficient and ineffective solution to the problem of poor quality education as well as flawed in far more significant ways - but the populist aspect of it was perhaps the only remotely attractive element. Young also notes that at least one parent group has already handed over their proposals to ARK, who will be opening the academy in their own image. Making it more difficult will simply force parents to call in the specialist providers - much in the same way that GPs will call in specialist consultants to run their commissioning processes.

It isn't clear why this change has been brought about - whether the quality of applications has been poor, whether there are concerns about policy presentation or if there has actually been a problem in finding enough parent/teacher groups prepared to do the hard graft of setting up a new school and this move is simply Gove hoping that the private sector will leap in to save his flagship policy. I predict that within the year, Gove will remove the ban on free schools being run for profit, as he starts the race to the bottom in education provision. Incidentally, while the schools currently aren't run for profit, there's no reason why providers of services to those schools can't make profits and there will be plenty of those waiting to dig their knives into these fresh little barrels of pork.

Whatever the reasoning behind this DfE decision, it is another nail in the coffin of the 'localism' agenda from the government - an unsustainable claim in any case, as academies and free schools are stripped from the local education system (democratically accountable through your local authority and the elected councillors, as well as through governors from the local community and the parents) and placed under appointed governing bodies funded directly from central government. What this does do, beyond any doubt, is encourage still further the creeping privatisation of our public services, without any evidence that the changes will actually improve outcomes.

Not even Thatcher tried selling off the schools, but - just as Lansley is in healthcare - Gove is intent on destroying the system and replacing it with an untried model that will be very difficult for a future government to reverse.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why are Midlands Liberal Democrats obsessed with cats?

Well-known Liberal Democrat Mike Dixon is to start a 16 week sentence for battering his family cat to death with a stick, just a few days after Dixon was defeated by Richard Burden in the Northfield parliamentary election. While this is a pretty horrific attack on an animal, it has provided an exemplary quotation from the local party, who have summarily sacked Dixon and commented on his political future thus

He could stand again but no-one wants to be represented by a man who beats his cat to death with a stick.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Compare and contrast

Watch as the Daily Mail warms over a BBC story from 2003 as news.

Compare this with this.

Same quotes, same source.

Daily Mail March 2011
Dr Fox said one doctor ended up in court and was asked by the judge to explain the abbreviation TTFO meant - an expletive expression roughly translated as "Told To F*** off”. He said: ‘This guy was asked by the judge what the acronym meant, and luckily for him he had the presence of mind to say: 'To take fluids orally'
BBC News August 2003
Dr Fox recounts the tale of one doctor who had scribbled TTFO - an expletive expression roughly translated as "Told To Go Away" - on a patient's notes. He told BBC News Online: "This guy was asked by the judge what the acronym meant, and luckily for him he had the presence of mind to say: 'To take fluids orally'

Countdown for Hague?

Poor old William Hague. A few years back, he was the golden boy of the Conservative Party, destined to lead them back to power. Then he fell from grace, one of the Tory leaders ground down by the Blair machine and he returned to the backbenches and made some money before reappearing in government as Foreign Secretary - a senior office of state, to be sure, but one that is usually relatively sidelined unless crisis strikes and then tends to become head of blame. Even so, there were some - myself included - who wondered whether last May might have had a different result with Hague as Tory leader or if Foreign Secretary would indeed be his final hurrah as a senior politician. Increasingly, it looks as though the end may be nigh.

After last year's peculiar matter of his advisor and snide comments about their relationship, the past couple of weeks have been pretty painful for him - there was the claim (swiftly reversed) that Gadaffi was en route to Venezuela, the embarrassment of the botched airlift from Libya and then we had the debacle of the weekend operation that went badly wrong, leaving a small group of special forces held prisoner by farmhands. It is interesting that this operation was authorised by the Foreign Secretary, indicating that it was primarily an SIS job, although the PM has belatedly given cover to his rather beleagured Foreign Secretary today during PMQs. You would think that landing a group of heavily armed special forces troops in the middle of a civil war would be a matter for the PM, but apparently not.

And now we have the spectacle of people briefing against him. In the Guardian
since last September Tories believe that Hague, who lacked the killer instinct of his predecessor David Miliband from the day he took the job, appeared to have lost his mojo'
Quentin Letts in the Mail
...this William Hague is at present finding it hard to land a punch. He looks pale, peaky, even (some say) past it.

Now, in the latest twist of his curiously oscillating political journey, there is speculation about whether he will be in his post for much longer. Politics is turned on its head. Hague, a master of ridicule, is ridiculed. Seemingly calm and solid, he has become part of a damaging narrative for the Government as a whole that poses potentially lethal questions about its competence... Even some of those inside No 10 who are admirers of Hague are beginning to wonder what is happening. They are not angry, nor do they go out of their way to target him. But one or two are a little bewildered as to why he has stumbled.
The Mail reports that an understudy waits in the wings,
Yet senior officials were openly speculating about Mr Hague’s future yesterday. Sources said that Mr Cameron was poised to promote Mr Mitchell when Mr Hague appeared about to renounce frontline politics last year after revelations he shared a room with a male aide. A well-placed source said: ‘Andrew Mitchell is very well thought of and familiar with all the issues. He sits on the National Security Council. He would have been sent over last year if William had gone and he’s still the man.... William has lost his mojo. He seems tired and often unengaged. He just doesn’t seem that interested.’
When the Foreign Secretary is questioned by the press about his own energy for the job while meeting with the Palestinian President, you start to wonder whether his time is up. Somebody senior within his own party clearly thinks it is, which is why there is a sudden splash of negative stories, all bearing the fingerprints of his own colleagues.

Yet, there is a wider issue of competence, one that we have seen raised by Ed Miliband and others in recent days and it is a potentially dangerous one for the government. There has been a series of cock-ups - Gove and his ever-changing list of cancelled school projects, Hague, Spelman and the forests, Gove and books, Cable and Murdoch, Gove and school sports, Clegg on virtually any subject of consequence.... All this in less than twelve months, remember. This is not just the vagaries of events, this is symptomatic of a wider problem in this government - they simply aren't up to the job.
Over at the Indie, Steve Richards gets in the game

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Curse of Cameron

Cameron visited the Coventry-based electric van builder Modec in 2009. Osborne promises a growth agenda.

Last week, Modec went into administration and let half the workforce go with 15 minutes' notice.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The meaning of Barnsley

I have always held that be-elections are peculiar beasts - each is unique with a particular rhythm and set of issues applicable only to that moment. Accordingly, drawing any massive conclusions from one election is no more relevant than relying on a single opinion poll to predict the next government. This has always been true and I believe always will remain true.

While Barnsley was a good result for Labour - we won, we need to remember that it is a safe seat for us, despite the criminal prosecution that saw Eric Illsley end up in jail. Prior to 2010, we would probably have seen a harder campaign from the Liberal Democrats, but reports from the ground suggest that their candidate, Dominic Carman, was largely on his own out on the streets, certainly towards the end of the short campaign. It was also the case that Illsley was a popular MP - a local man himself - and that people felt that he had been somewhat unlucky, that all politicians were 'at it' and that Illsley was just caught out. Labour also ran a candidate with a hugely strong personal narrative as a major in the Parachute Regiment who has seen active service - this trumps his poor local credentials and allowed him to become the first MP to represent Barnsley Central not born in Yorkshire and without strong links to the coal industry. In fact, since 1938, there's only been one other Barnsley Central MP not born in the town.

The results were interesting, though. Despite a low turnout - 20 points lower than May 2010 on just 37%, the drop in individual votes is interesting. While UKIP saw 171% of their voters appear to give them a poor second place and independent Tony Devoy more than doubled his vote, 85% of Labour's vote turned out to secure an easy win. Things are less bright when we look at the other parties, especially when you consider that 65% of the 2010 electorate turned out to vote last Thursday - the remaining parties underperformed significantly. The BNP vote held up the best, with 44% finding their way to the polling station to cast their vote in line with prejudice, but the Tories only saw 31% of their voters do their civic duty. The Liberal Democrat voters were pretty much the mirror image of Labour's - only 15% of them thought it worthwhile supporting their candidate, delivering the resounding smack in the face for Nick Clegg. Social media Lib Dems quickly took the line that Labour were celebrating a win which saw the BNP beat the Lib Dems, as if that was somehow the fault of the Labour Party rather than the result of a very poor Liberal Democrat campaign.

While this result does not bode well for the future of Liberal Democrat councillors and MPs, remembering the intense local complexities of these contests, the real test of the coalition does not lie in a random by-election - although I think that they will find it difficult to pull off their tried and tested oppositionalist schtick for the duration of their time in government. The first test will be in May this year, when councillors across the country have to face their electorates. I suspect that while this year will be rough for the Liberal Democrats, it will be 2012 when the real bloodbath will take place.

While it is not conclusive, this may prove an omen.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Life of Pie

Eric's at it again. This time, he's blaming Labour councils for cutting front-line services for political reasons, rather than cutting back office operations. Just as Pickles and his sidekicks can't really define a 'non-job' (they leave that up to their mates over at the Telegraph and the Taxpayers' Alliance and their dodgy research), they seem to ignore the concept that back office work may actually be vital to keeping the front line working (or that the outcome may be that front line staff end up doing the back office work as well, which will also impact on the quality of service offered). Headline-grabbing soundbites accusing councils of a 'bleeding stump' strategy don't help his already badly fractured relationship with local authorities of all stripes, with even Tory councillors having a barely-concealed contempt for him, but he shows no sign of changing the direction of his strategy of gunboat diplomacy towards councils.

Eric clearly isn't aware of the front-line service cuts coming to Birmingham as a result of decisions taken by a Tory council, aided and abetted by their Liberal Democrat lapdogs. I doubt very much that Adult Services has £118 million worth of cuts that can come from back office functions, especially as 11,000 people will have their provision reviewed and 3500 will certainly lose all support. I find it hard to believe that the already stretched and failing Children's Services team can lose £69 million in support roles, nor that libraries and leisure centres can absorb £9 million without affecting their front-line service provision. And anyone who genuinely believes that is seriously deluded to a point beyond psychiatric provision.

Despite promising localism, the Pieman can't stop interfering in council decisions, in an increasingly desperate attempt to divert blame for the cuts away from his government. This week, he promised that if councils cut too deep into charitable grants, he would legislate within weeks to force councils to reverse agreed budgets. Rather than accept that he had been excessively meek in surrendering to Osborne and Alexander over the cuts that his department could deliver, cuts that he then forced upon local authorities in an unfair way to discriminate against areas with the greatest deprivation, Pickles blames the local authorities for making decisions within the budget that he provided. Either he is talking so much more hot air and this is simply yet more spin or local authorities - virtually all of whom have agreed budgets to start on the 1 April - will be forced to revisit their budgets and redirect their cuts to please the Secretary of State.

As I've noted before, Pickles talks a good game on localism, but when it comes down to accepting the consequences - that locally accountable councillors may make decisions of which Eland House may not approve - he fails. Given that this is likely to be the highwater mark for Conservative and Liberal Democrat local authority control, it is also likely to be the highwater mark of what passes for localism. From here on in, centralism will be the reality, whatever the spin.

Acocks Up

London Midland are reducing the staffing hours (and doubtless the staff) at many of their stations - and closing the ticket offices at a few - and one of them is my local station at Acocks Green. Handily placed, with a six or seven minute journey time into the city centre, it has a decent-sized car park. The only problem with that car park is that while it has some disabled spaces, the station building and platforms (they are both on the same island) are currently only accessible by long flights of steps, rendering wheelchair access impossible. It has been pointed out that currently, the car park stairs are only accessible when the ticket office is open, so under the plans as proposed, commuters who park their cars on a weekday will face a long walk round the streets to get back to a car. As the staff make the station more welcoming and, indeed, safer, this is hardly a step that will encourage greater use of public transport.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Child abuse claim in meeting

I used to have a little bit of respect for Cllr Lawrence, the Tory Cabinet member for Education. That vanished yesterday afternoon when he was speaking about Labour claims that cuts to the Youth Service will mean the closure of 40 youth centres. Cllr Lawrence described this as scaremongering and said that the Labour councillors should be reported for 'child abuse.'

I've no problem with the rough and tumble of politics, but that sort of comment is beyond the pale. Child abuse isn't to be used as a cheap dig at your opponents and Cllr Lawrence should know better.

With that kind of leadership, you understand why child social services were removed from his control and why it is in the mess it is.

Budget setting

Thanks to so many people for their kind words about the tweetathon on the #bcc hashtag yesterday afternoon. The enthusiastic amateurs outnumbered and outlasted most of the professional media. If the chance arises, I'll write it up in a bit more detail.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

New media creeps into Birmingham

Last week, the Department of Communities and Local Government issued a letter to all local authorities encouraging them to open their council meetings to the mainstream broadcast media and to the new stream of hyperlocal bloggers and tweeters.
Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public. There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience. The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate.

With this in mind, I thought I'd ask Birmingham City Council what their views would be on improving coverage of their meetings. Oddly, the chamber has had an impressive automated camera system which would take little adaptation to provide a live internet broadcast feed, a connection that has been a couple of years in not coming, but I understand that it may finally be coming to fruition.

I've had responses from Dr Mirza Ahmad, the Corporate Director of Governance (might as well start at the top) and he stood up for local democracy, arguing that despite ministerial advice (which has been flowing from DCLG like a river in recent months), decisions on filming, recording and photography are put to the Council Business Management Committee (chaired by Mike Whitby) and without approval from that committee, the Lord Mayor is likely to resist any attempts of that nature.

He was more forgiving when it came to using mobile devices, which essentially came down to advice that users would probably be OK if they didn't get caught or disrupt the council meeting. A further communication from the media team - top marks to them for getting involved - who confirm that there is no problem with text blogging from a mobile device or laptop.

I'm not really in a position to rebroadcast sound or video, so that's an area for other social media specialists, but transparency is a key element of democracy. Modern broadcast media have shifted and they now need sound and/or pictures to flesh out packages for broadcast, so we can't complain too much if their coverage of council matters is relatively poor if they aren't given the materials to work with. Sometimes, restricting scrutiny suits elected members, but if the Tories are going to walk the walk on transparency, times have got to change.

Assuming I can get in - this afternoon's budget-setting meeting promises to be the hottest ticket all year - I'll be liveblogging and tweeting from the event.