Saturday, 10 December 2011

Dial M for Machiavelli

Things are certainly heating up in the letters page of the Midlothian Advertiser as we head towards the local elections in May, and my old adversary, Councillor Milligan has clearly been hard at work behind the scenes.

Unfortunately for him, I do have my moles in the Midlothian Labour Party and I am well aware of what's going on. The letters, written by his close associates, all bear the hall marks of issues he's fond of complaining to his comrades about. Whether it's my involvement as a community councillor, the town's Twinning Association or the community council newsletter, all his favourite grouses appear in most of the letters. One of this week's letters even suggests the Council's Audit Committee might take an interest in the fact the twinning association merged with the community council. I suspect the the Audit Committee has enough to be going on with over the Bonnyrigg Rose car park saga than concern itself with this - after all, unlike with the car park, no public money has been lost.

It's a pity the Sherwood Management Committee has been dragged into all of this. Having met with the committee I was under the impression the matter of the Bonnyrigg Primary snagging problems had been resolved. Do these people realise they have to work with councillors of all colours, not just the ones they favour? The partisan views expressed (in a highly unprofessional manner) by a body which receives grant funding may attract the attention of, er, Midlothian Council's Audit Committee.

News has just reached me, however, of something altogether underhand, and which is further proof of the threat Councillor Milligan regards I pose to his chances of re-election in May. On Sunday, the candidate selection meeting was held for Labour candidates in the Bonnyrigg ward. There are currently two Labour councillors, Derek Milligan and Jackie Aitchison. Jackie's problem is his name begins with A and Milligan's with M, and it seems that most people who trundle into the polling booths in Bonnyrigg and want to vote Labour don't bother more than looking down the list and voting '1', '2' against Labour candidates. Bad news for Derek!

So 6 months ago (according to my Labour mole), he and another Labour activist, Louie Milliken, recruited friends and family ahead of the deadline to ensure they would be eligible to vote in the selection process. You can guess the rest - Aitchison out, Milliken in, and the problem is solved.

It's not for me to interfere in the internal workings of the Labour Party, but to date, sitting councillors are normally only deselected if they've been particularly bad boys or girls and in all my years in Bonnyrigg, I don't see that Jackie has done anything bad.

What happens next will be interesting. When your cupboard is crammed with skeletons you need to be careful about how you treat those who hold the keys.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Musings on neutrinos

As a Physics graduate I can't help but being a little excited over the discovery that something may have exceeded the speed of light.

Admittedly, my main interest at Uni was Atmospheric Physics, so if you want a discussion on saturated adiabatic lapse rates, thickness lines or how polar lows are formed, I'm your man, but on neutrinos and anti-matter I'm just about as clueless as the rest.

What sparked my disinterest in that side of physics was my introduction to the dual nature of light. It can be treated as a particle or a wave, I was told, depending on what you want to prove. Waves work best when studying diffraction and particles for other things (what, I'm not sure - you can see I was starting to lose interest already). What clinched it though, was when I was told that even a single particle would still obey the laws of diffraction, passing equally through two holes and interacting afterwards like a wave. Rather like a train splitting and each half going through a separate tunnel and joining up again at the other end. It's easy to see why physicists don't run the railways.

What confuses me though is why even eminent physicists are saying this could mean we can travel back in time. Call me a sceptic, but if this were at all possible at some time in the future, surely there would be even one account of someone in the past having met up with someone from the future carrying a mobile phone or something. On the other hand, maybe it's possible but we will have wiped ourselves out well before the H G Wells time machine even gets to prototype.

I can't even get to grips with the theory. Apparently, if I stood at the point in Italy where the neutrino arrived, I would have seen it arrive several nanoseconds before it left CERN. True, I would see it arriving, then see it leaving CERN, but that's only because the image of it leaving took a little longer - it still left before it arrived.

There's another thing I can't understand about all this. We're told that billions of these neutrino things pass through us every second. So how on earth do they know the ones they detected in Italy were the same ones they fired off at CERN. Do they each come with a bar code?

All very confusing. Think I'll stick to politics, where time travel to the past is possible. Cross into Midlothian and you travel back forty years.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Oil, debt and why the old politics will no longer work

I'm currently reading Richard Heinberg's new book "The End of Growth", which can only be described as the most topical book on sale. I've just finished James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency", which although written in 2004, predicted with frightening accuracy the financial crisis of the last four years. Both books point to burgeoning household and government debt as well as depleting oil supplies as major factors in determining a sea change in how we live our lives over the next few decades, and as I watch the daily news bulletins, it's clear that most politicians have either not read them or are failing to grasp the message.

Although global in context, both books, written by American authors, naturally concentrate on the impact on the US, with Kunstler highlighting how alarming dependent the US has allowed itself to become on oil, and on regimes which produce it now the country's own stocks are depleting.

Critics of peak oil say there is still a lot of oil around and alternatives will be found once the market drives up the price of oil, and there is some truth in this. The problem is not so much a shortage of oil in the short term, but more the fact that the era of cheap oil is now past, and this itself has profound consequences, not least in the debates over deep water drilling and the derivation of oil from tar sands and shale. The fact that these debates are taking place is a testament to the argument that the easiest, and therefore the cheapest, resources are no longer available. Future energy supply will also use more energy to extract, some of it not being worth the energy required, whatever the market value. After all, if there is a lot more oil to be extracted, why has nobody been building new refineries for decades?

It is, however, the combination of this and the spiralling debt problem which gives Heinberg's arguments such force. Debt is not a problem in itself. The UK for example, has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios in its history. The problem is the amount you have to pay to service it; this is influenced by the deficit (i.e. the annual increase in debt) and the interest rate charged (hence the fixation on credit ratings). A further problem is that although banks are allowed to create debt from nothing, ultimately that debt needs to be destroyed and often the traditional way of doing that is to default - not, as most would suspect, by paying it back. The interesting thing is that rather than allowing the natural law of default to take place, the US and European governments in particular, have instead taken on much of it themselves in the form of bank bailouts, loans to failing European nations, and stimulating the economy either through increased spending or quantitative easing.

The aim of retaining 'stability' is understandable if for a short term, but keeping interest rates low either directly, or by artificially maintaining credit ratings, is not sustainable, and as the saying goes, if something is unsustainable, then it will not be sustained. There comes a point when the strain becomes too much. This point will soon be reached, and I predict that Greece will soon default, followed by Italy. The resulting chaos will be phenomenal, with banks either failing or, for a while, being bailed out again, but this is the natural order of things and nature has a habit of asserting itself in the end. There's going to be a lot of pain before this problem is sorted out, and debt fuelled growth is a mistake we will not wish to repeat and will not be able to repeat, as lenders will be more wary and charge higher rates in future.

Then there's the oil. Anyone who has watched oil prices over the recent past will notice how price fluctuations follow the stock market quite closely - when the general view of the world economy becomes more optimistic, stock markets around the world rise, but so does the price of oil, based on an anticipation of increased demand. The reverse happens when the pessimists hold sway. In the case of oil, however, the ups have generally outstripped the downs, with the price of Brent crude rising from under $80 a barrel two years ago to around $115 today, despite the economic outlook being no brighter.

And here lies the key to why the days of economic growth may be at an end. Peak oil is the point at which the taps can no longer be turned up to produce more oil to drive down the price, quite simply because there taps are already on full. True, Saudia Arabia is understood to have spare capacity, but, no-one knows how much (and the recognised overstating of reserves and capacity is another issue entirely), but doing so would stress its wells to the point where it would reduce the country's ability to recover future supplies.

So if the oil price is now dictated purely by anticipated demand, then as soon as the world starts to come out of recession, that price will rise sharply. Supply can't increase, and our lifestyles dictate that demand won't reduce, and so either the price continues to rise or global economies will be hit hard. In other words, economic growth drops to zero or becomes negative until it chokes off demand for oil, its price drops a bit and the roller coaster starts moving upwards again as the cycle repeats.

In this scenario, it's clear that the Keynesian solution for stimulating an economy out of the doldrums will not work but will result in simply more debt. Allowing market forces free reign is no solution either, except in encouraging energy efficiency and gradually reducing demand, which will take far too long. So what do we do?

It's clear to me that we need to change our lifestyles to become far less dependent on fossil fuels, not least because of the other impending crisis, that of climate change. If we are going to stimulate the economy, let's do it with this long term objective in mind. A national house insulation programme, huge investment in renewables research and development, public transport infrastructure and developing smaller scale economies. Let's use tax changes to encourage, repair and recycle rather than replace. The way "growth" itself is calculated, using GDP, is itself flawed, as a measure of consumption which encourages waste and unnecessary spending.

Why are the politicians not saying this? Well the Greens are, and have been for a long time now, but for the rest to admit that economic growth is not the desired target would demand a paradigm shift in political thinking. It would mean that the Keynesians on the left, the free marketeers on the right, and the corporate back-stage players who pull all their strings would be forced to admit that the game is finally up and they've been backing the wrong horse. Far better for them to borrow a few billion more, put it on the nose, and desperately hope their nag comes in.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Rioting and reflections from society's broken window

Much has been and, I'm sure will be, written about the causes and response to riots which have broken out in towns and cities across England. The killing of Mark Duggan may have been the trigger, but clearly there are underlying tensions which any trigger would have released.

Firstly let me address the police response. It has been claimed that the response to the Tottenham riot was too soft and a more 'robust' approach would have sent a clearer signal that violence will not be tolerated. Whilst perhaps true, the police were caught in a very difficult position. Anything seen as disproportionate on their behalf would have been cited as a catalyst further disturbances and individual officers must be acutely aware of the risk of charges being brought against them.

Monday night's problem was that rioting broke out in many different areas of London and the logistics of dealing with a fast moving problem across a very large city with limited trained officers are very demanding. It's easy in hindsight to say what should have been done, but I think a more robust approach to the afternoon disturbances in Hackney would have helped.

At this point, quite literally, the Riot Act should have been read. This was not a peaceful student demo which got out of hand due to a minority of infiltrators bent on violence. The streets should have been closed off and a clear warning issued through megaphones and the media that people had half an hour to leave. Anyone leaving after that point would be searched and, if found to have committed an offence, charged. Those acting unlawfully or violently could expect more 'robust' attention. Yes, many would leave and direct their attention to other areas, but similar attention elsewhere by the police would have sent out a very strong signal.

I also think that those arrested and subsequently found guilty should be given community service orders which focus on working to improve the communities they have devastated - their own communities. They need to spend many hours working with community leaders; clearing graffiti, painting, repairing and generally improving the local environment. This needn't be a soft option; 200 hours of backbreaking work for no money is something most, I imagine, would not wish to repeat.

However, that doesn't address the underlying cause. Deprivation? Perhaps, but deprived people can't afford Blackberrys. Lack of opportunities and hopelessness? To a certain extent, but some of those charged have been found to have jobs. Most are still at school.

Many people are blaming the current government's policies for cutting back opportunities, apprenticeships, and forcing local councils to close facilities, and I think there is some truth in this. However, if this were so, the focus of the mobs would have been the police. Apart from a few stones and the odd petrol bomb, the police were being avoided rather than attacked. No, the objective was looting, initially opportunistic, then it appears more organised.

My belief is that the seeds of this discontent go back to the last Conservative government - the culture of 'greed is good' and a move away from community involvement towards a 'what's in it for me' mentality. When people see the likes of Wayne Rooney 'earning' £100,000 a week and paying minimal tax, failed bankers awarding themselves millions of pound bonuses, calls for a removal of the 50% tax rate, executive salaries increasing sharply year on year whilst they are on a minimum wage, and Vodafone avoiding £6 Billion in tax, is it any wonder they feel somewhat discontent and that we're not all in it together?

The government talks of a 'Big Society'. Every voluntary organisation I've been involved in over the last few years has struggled badly to attract volunteers. I gave up being a cub scout leader several years ago as none of the parents wanted to help, or could find the time, and all the work fell on few shoulders. Our community council is now down to seven members, from a maximum of 15. When the market dictates that Tesco should open 24 hours a day, someone needs to staff the checkouts, and families and communities suffer badly from our craving for convenience and 'must have now' attitude.

We need to re-appraise what we want our society and our communities to be. The free market will not build a social structure and we need to sacrifice some of our materialism for what really matters in life.

And one final thought. Don't condemn out of hand the looters of Croydon, Enfield or Birmingham. What they have done to their local shops, we have been doing to the planet for years.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Where the only thing being parked is the truth

My earlier post on the Bonnyrigg Rose car park issue left off with the council's audit report being released in private to its Audit committee. I have since managed to see the report and it does not make pleasant reading for the council, or I imagine for Audit Scotland who I understand are taking a keen interest. It is now almost a year since the original investigation started and the public is still no nearer being told the truth, with the council continuing to decline to comment "while an investigation is under way".

Parts of the report cover the handling of contractual, financial and tendering arrangements, the release of which may potentially prejudice the ongoing police inquiry, so I will avoid commenting on that. However, much of it does not, focusing on the council's failings and the withholding of this information is not in the public interest.

The report not only criticises the handling of this particular grant application, but slates the council for its overall management of the Gourlaw fund, stating "controls over the administration of the Community Fund and in particular the award of £37,500 to BRAJFC were inadequate". Not only did the council break an agreement whereby adequate publicity should be given to all successful grant applications but it basically hasn't got a clue how much is in the fund or how much is due in from Scottish Coal. Adequate reasons were not given as to why requests were approved or declined and technical advice was not sought in arriving at the decisions. The council should also have received funds relating to the extraction of fireclay, but no records exist for this.

On the car park itself, a good part of the car park area is owned by neighbours Bonnyrigg Rose Social Club, which the report says "were never consulted on any developments regarding the car park and on checking their title deeds it appears that they should have been consulted on any developments to any of their land".

The car park is deemed "not fit for purpose" by the council, not least because it fails to meet the requirements of the 1995 Disability Act regarding access and markings, and the total value of work completed amounts to little over £40,000. The appendix compiled by surveyors for the council on the technical appraisal of the car park is scathing, although it doesn't take a professional to conclude that what we've got falls far short of most people's idea of a public car park. It describes the surface material as of very poor quality and too contaminated even to be used as sub-surface material.

An interesting aside to all this is a flurry of letters in the Midlothian Advertiser (including one with 'Address withheld', from someone those connected with the club have never heard of) which have a common theme, accusing 'critics' (i.e. me) of continually attacking the club. Anyone who has followed this closely will know I have not attacked the club anywhere, but have so far focussed my attention on the council, in the light of the evidence I have. The letters all point to the work having been done (clearly not true, according to the report - with the main access point currently barred), or "other work carried out, within the grounds of the club" - an irrelevance according to the council's report, which says they were not detailed in the invoices they have obtained.

This is not  the first time my political opponents - or opponent to be precise, as I know exactly who he is - have played this game. A few years ago, a remarkably similar set of letters appeared in The Advertiser when I criticised the council for its very short public consultation period on the Bonnyrigg town centre improvements. The letters uncannily all accused me of wanting to stop the project in its tracks.

Why such pains are being taken to try to discredit my investigation is not clear, but someone is certainly trying hard and I want to know why. Politics is a dirty business in Midlothian, as I found last year at the receiving end of an abusive phone call from a councillor, and during the course of my investigations, associations and links have come to light which belie claims which have been made in public.

Perhaps one day the truth will out. Perhaps it won't, and maybe that's as it's aye been in these parts.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Scottish Government's one track mind

One transport project costs £700 million, three times the original budget, is 3 years late, generates pollution and experts now say will not cut congestion. Another transport project costs £750 million, 50% over the original budget, is 3 years late, cuts pollution and is known to cut congestion. Which one does the SNP Government support and which one does it say is a waste of money?

If I tell you the first one benefits motorists (M74 extension) and the second benefits public transport users (Edinburgh trams), anyone who knows the SNP will know the answer.

The SNP does not have a good history of encouraging people out of their cars. Whether it's promoting big road projects like the M74, Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road and A68 Dalkeith bypass, or it's removing Forth and Tay Bridge tolls. It wants to spend around £2 Billion on a replacement road bridge when the tests on drying out the existing bridge's cables are not complete.

The SNP has always been lukewarm on the Borders Railway ("The Scottish Government has always been clear that this project must deliver value for money", Stewart Stevenson in 2008) whilst supporting airport expansion.

But what of the trams? Alex Salmond has ruled out increasing the Scottish Government's £500 million contribution.

Dublin's Luas system was a year late and cost €728 million compared to the original budget of €250 million. Road works during construction led to the same level of unpopularity as in Edinburgh, yet once implemented became so popular that use and income exceeded expectations and extensions to the network were demanded by Dublin residents.

Cost overruns on large projects seem inevitable - bizarrely given there are so many precedents worldwide for each project to be judged against. Poor project management, as displayed by both the Edinburgh tram project and the building of the Scottish Parliament building, is also inexcusable for the same reason.

However, we are where we are. Surely it's time for the Scottish Government to take control of the tram project from Edinburgh City Council and deliver at least a basic system which can be extended over time. Perhaps if the cost ends up at 'only' £730 million as opposed to the reported £750 million, the Scottish Government can claim it came in under budget. After all, that's how they are presenting the M74 extension.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Harmed Forces Day

Saturday 25th June is designated Armed Forces Day, with events principally being held in Edinburgh. Forgive me, but I will not be attending.

I am not a pacifist, and indeed I have tremendous respect for the servicemen and women who are prepared to lay down their lives for their country's freedom - whatever country. I also believe that we need armed forces for the day we may need to defend our shores - but I don't  think that's what it's all about.

On the web site promoting the events, it states "The UK Armed Forces defend the UK and its interests". So what exactly are the UK's interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, we were assured, but against whom? The major UK interest seemed to be that British bases in the Mediterranean could be attacked 'within 45 minutes' (unless you count Iraqi oil as a UK interest). Afghanistan hosted some Al-Qaeda training camps, arguably part of a wider terrorist threat (unless you count the country's importance as a conduit for oil pipelines as a UK interest). Libya is about protecting civilians from attack by its government forces (unless of course you count Libyan oil as a UK interest).

What starts as a simple operation so often gets bogged down (Iraq - Mission Accomplished) and the remit is widened, then things start to go horribly wrong. So why do we keep on doing it?

In all the above cases, UN resolutions were gained or sought and were part of an aim for international agreement for action. International agreement does not imply protecting UK interests unless those interests are shared by others in the international community, so the 'UK interests' bit is starting to get a bit murky in my view.

If it's about acting with others as the world's policemen, let's be honest about it, and dare I say, more even handed. Why not Zimbabwe, North Korea and China, home to some of the worst human rights abuses in the world?

Liberating the people? Whether it's Afghanistan, Libya, or anywhere else, you cannot impose democracy upon a people, it has to come from within. If we are so intent on opposing oppressive regimes, instead of bombing them, let's start by not giving them the means to oppress, like selling them arms.

Unfortunately, our armed forces are caught up in all of this. They signed up to 'defend the UK and its interests', not to act on the whims of politicians keen to strut the world stage, yet Armed Forces Day reinforces the link between legitimate defence and politically motivated military adventures.

My heart goes out to relatives and friends of soldiers every time another coffin arrives from Afghanistan; lives wasted on a lost cause. I will also continue to attend our local Remembrance Day commemoration each November as I have done for as many years as I can remember, but I will not be celebrating Armed Forces Day.

Perhaps it will be used as an opportunity for those in power to reflect on their cavalier abuse of the bravest sons and daughters in the land. But somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Edinburgh gets what it voted for

It comes as no surprise to me that Edinburgh has made it into the top ten list of congested cities.  That was, after all, what Edinburgh's Labour councillors, supported only by the Greens, said would happen when the referendum on congestion charging in the capital was so soundly defeated in 2005.

People's attitudes to congestion charging bear many similarities to those with the council tax freeze, which I posted on recently. If you ask people if they want to pay £2 to drive into the capital, they will invariably say no. Ask them to consider the alternatives and perhaps a different answer would have been forthcoming.

Yet that detail was what was so clearly missing from the debate at the time. Would people mind deaths resulting from emergency services being gridlocked? Did businesses appreciate the financial benefit of cutting half an hour off a cross city journey? No, it was all about a £2 charge - with opponents omitting to remind us that it would only operate during weekday peak travel periods. One stark example of the level of debate I recall was the alleged disincentive to visit restaurants in the city; yet during weekends and evenings when people would wish to do so, the charge would not have operated. And even if it did, would £2 added to the cost of a meal really have put people off?

It was also clouded by political parties which saw the way the popular vote was swinging. Congestion charging was Liberal Democrat policy, but true to form, they opposed it in this instance. Even the Scottish Socialists sided with the Tories on this one.

Midlothian's Labour councillors, in their usual nineteen sixties mindset, opposed their Edinburgh colleagues, but were at least consistent in their desire to encourage as many of its residents to drive into Edinburgh as possible, helped along by the A68 Dalkeith bypass.

There is no doubt that the Edinburgh trams project has been badly mishandled. It could have and should have been built in its entirety and within budget, as other cities throughout Europe have ably demonstrated. However, leaving the mismanagement aside, congestion charging would have provided a financial boost to extend the network out to Midlothian, or even with the current scenario, allowed it to be completed without risking the independence of Lothian Buses.

Instead, we have no trams, impending gridlock, and a consequent threat to the economic well-being of the city and its environs.

Even so, is congestion charging the answer to congestion? Especially as London, with its well established scheme, is still ahead of us in the congestion league. Using financial incentives to change behaviour only changes the behaviour of the less well off, and perhaps they have a better reason to drive into Edinburgh that the rich. Allowing, say, only vehicles with odd/even number plates into the city on alternate days doesn't hit those who can afford two cars.

In the light of this, and a clear dislike for the public to delve more deeply into debate, perhaps the answer is to restrict everyone's access by banning all cars from certain areas and pedestrianising more widely.  Forcing people out of their cars in this way would encourage greater use of an already excellent public transport system in the city, whilst ensuring all car owners are treated equally, whether rich or not.

The alternative it seems, is that we steadily move up from seventh in the league, and people are eventually coaxed out of their cars, quite simply because it's faster to walk.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Council Tax freeze and local democracy

Much was made in the Scottish election of the various promises to freeze Council Tax and specifically the SNP's five year pledge, seen as a major vote winner.

It's not difficult to understand why this was popular.  Ask anyone if they want taxes to rise and the answer is usually no, but give them a range of options on how else to raise the required revenue and I suspect a Council Tax freeze would not seem so attractive. The problem is the options were not spelled out by the SNP (or Labour) and I think that was deliberate, for reasons I'll go on to in a minute.

Firstly look at the figures. It's estimated that the current saving for a Band D householder is around £1.20 per week. Those with bigger houses save more and those with smaller houses or on housing benefits a lot less. That's not the way I like to see tax changes to apply.

Compare this to other changes to household budgets. A teacher or other public service employee on around £30,000 a year and with inflation running at around 5% will lose over £40 a week following a 2-year pay freeze. Yet I wonder how many voted SNP for £1.20 a week saving?

The total cost of the freeze over the 8 year period from 2008/9 to 2016/17 is expected to be £3 Billion - hundreds of millions of pounds each year which have to be found from somewhere, and by all accounts not from those with big houses.

The real problem I have with the Council Tax freeze though is the erosion of local democracy. Currently about 80% of councils' income comes from Government funding, with the remainder from Council Tax. So if our councillors wanted to increase the council budget by 1% they would need to raise Council Tax by 5%. Is it worth it?

And this is where I think the MSPs in parties which aspire to Government want us to be. Not just to make it a no-brainer that councillors will not bump up the tax, causing embarrassment to their own party hierarchy, but also to keep a firm Holyrood hand on council budgets.

Whilst the last SNP administration in Holyrood reduced ring-fencing to around 4% of the central government grant, which was a step away from centralisation, the tendancy has been continually to foist more and more statutory responsibilities, like care of the elderly, on to councils, leaving them little lee-way in how they manage their budgets.

Local councillors are becoming more and more administrators of budgets handed down from Holyrood, and thereby becoming less and less accountable to their electorate for how that money is spent.

So should we change the system? My own party's preference is for Land Value Tax, which has a major advantage of discouraging land banking and speculation, but what of the Local Income Tax? I suspect the SNP has looked down that hole and stepped back, so is keen to retain Council Tax whilst keeping local councillors on a short leash, and the Council Tax freeze helps them do just that.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Why the winner under Alternative Vote is a cool cat

A comment often made by those opposed to electoral reform is that voting systems isn't something they hear about 'on the doorsteps', and no it isn't. However, the voting system used to elect our MEPs, MPs, MSPs or councillors affects every one of those issues that do exercise the minds of voters.

That's because in many cases the voting system used can encourage us to vote for people who are most likely to keep out those we don't want, rather than vote in those we do. Take for example, the current debate ahead of this week's referendum, on whether to change the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system used to elect MPs to Westminster to Alternative Vote (AV).

Now I don't think changing the system will greatly alter the number of MPs of each party elected. What it will do though, is to remove the tactical vote so often encouraged by candidates who came second in a particular constituency last time ("It's a two horse race", "a vote for x is a wasted vote", "Winning here").

There is a humorous, but excellent video of how AV works, using the example of how cats, which would never consider voting for a dog, would find their votes split under FPTP - letting in the dreaded dog - but not under AV. Any voting system which encourages voting for a candidate other than the one you really want is flawed and deciding who others are likely to vote for shouldn't be part of the decision making process, but under FPTP it is - otherwise you may find your vote is wasted.

A move to AV would encourage more candidates to stand, particularly those with similar views. Take for example the far left - SSP, Solidarity, Socialist Labour, Respect, SWP to name but a few. In some places, a candidate from the far left may be preferred by the electorate, but if all these parties stand against each other, under FPTP the Tory may even be elected, despite being generally disliked (a single dog up against many cats). With AV, that simply won't happen.

In the cats and dog analogy, supporters of FPTP maintain that the cat which wins under AV is less popular than the dog. I doubt if many would agree. They also argue, erroneously, that under AV, voters whose votes are transferred get more than one vote. What actually happens under AV is that there are several rounds of voting - and those who voted for the dog also get to vote in each round - it's just their vote isn't transferred.

Another argument the No to AV camp uses is the cost of switching to AV (which is also flawed as it includes the cost of the referendum itself - money already spent - and the use of counting machines, which aren't needed). However, if we had a voting system (as in Scotland) which reduces the likelihood of a single party gaining an overall majority on a minority of votes, we could dispense with the House of Lords, an unelected body set up to act as a moderating influence on the House of Commons. We get by without such a chamber in the Scottish Parliament, so why not at Westminster?

Ideally, we should have a fully proportional electoral system for Westminster, and the Single Transferable Vote is my choice for that. Although AV is an improvement on FPTP, AV is not proportional. However, moving from AV to STV is simple - just merge constituencies together and hey presto! As far as the voter's concerned, there's little change - just mark your preferences 1,2,3, etc in the same way. Even Casual Cat could approve of that.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

1st Vote Who?

It's a subject which has stirred up a mini-debate amongst Greens, but as we're not standing in the constituencies, to whom should I give my first vote?

Some psephologists in the party suggest we should vote tactically, to help maximise the chance of gaining list seats - for example if the other four main parties gain at least one constituency in a region then they will need twice as many list votes as us to gain an additional MSP. Difficult, as you have to pre-judge how the other parties will fare, and it gets complicated when one party may win so many constituencies that they cannot gain any from the list - as Labour did in Lothians in both 1999 and 2003.

For me that seems too much like hard work. So I've had a look at the contenders and these are my personal feelings regarding the contenders for Midlothian North and Musselburgh.

Scott Douglas (Conservative) - Scott is clearly a political animal; enthusiastic, and a politician for life. He reminds me of Charles Hendry, an acquaintance of mine at Edinburgh University and now honourable member for Wealdon and Energy Minister in the Coalition Government. Scott gave a competent performance at the Eskbank hustings and, though not destined for Holyrood this time, will no doubt add this 'lion's den' constituency to his CV, working his way up to more favourable territory - perhaps ending up somewhere like Wealdon one day. Unfortunately, Scott, hell will freeze over before I vote Tory, but good luck on the way to the green benches and when you get there, say hello to Charles for me.

Ian Younger (Lib Dem) - What is it about the Lib Dems that you don't recall much about them after you meet them? I remember Ian talking at Eskbank, but not what he was saying. Given his party's guilt by association with the Coalition, Ian won't be getting my vote either, and with the Lib Dems' current poll ratings and their 13.77% notional vote here last time, I doubt if it would have made any difference. All credit to him though; it can't be easy being a Lib Dem candidate in these times.

Alan Hay (Independent) - Alan comes across as a genuine guy, and has a lot of knowledge and expertise in social issues. But what else? The problem I have with Independents is you largely don't know what you're getting. True, those with party labels will usually differ from party policy on one or two issues, but if you read a party's manifesto then that's basically what you're voting for. Some people think that not being tainted with a party label is a virtue. An independent can also be a maverick. However, I'm keeping the book open on Alan until I see what else he's offering.

Bernard Harkins (Labour) - I saw Bernard speaking at three hustings and must say I was impressed. He knows his stuff, is articulate and is not afraid to stray from the script. I did wonder why Labour chose a community councillor when experienced councillors were on the short leet, but I now see why. Whether I can bring myself to vote Labour in the one-party state is another matter though, and I'll have to think carefully.

Colin Beattie (SNP) - Colin is a good speaker and spoke clearly and forcefully in the hustings I attended. He's got bags of experience in electioneering as well as in the cauldron of Midlothian Council, so knows how to play the political game. That's the only problem I have with Colin though - I find him a bit too partisan. Holyrood is - has to be - more about consensus and building bridges with other parties if you want to get things done, but then maybe he would adapt.

So apart from ruling out the ConDems, I am as yet undecided. I'll definitely vote for someone on 5th May as we should all, and I wish whoever wins the best of luck as our next constituency MSP.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Alternative Car Park

The story starts with the Gourlaw/Newbigging/Shewington Opencast Community Fund (commonly known as the Gourlaw Fund), administered by Midlothian Council. Into this fund goes 25p for every tonne of coal extracted from the open cast coal mine just outside Rosewell, to be used for local environmental improvements.

In March 2008, Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic Junior Football Club (BRAJFC) applied to the fund for £37,500, as matched funding towards £75,000 to be spent on provision of a car park, for use by the club on match days and the community the rest of the week. A covering letter and roughly drawn sketch are all the council received in support of the application. A brief item appeared on the agenda of the Gourlaw sub-committee of Midlothian Council.

However, two years later, the car park looks like this.

This state of affairs came to light when Poltonhall & District Community Council started asking questions - as they had unsuccessfully bid for funding from the Gourlaw Fund, and the matter reached the local paper

A fellow community councillor submitted a Freedom of Information Request (FoI) to find out what happened to the money and my involvement began when I read the response from Midlothian Council to the FoI request, and which implied that information may never be released.

I then submitted three FoIs, requesting details of payments made by the council to BRAJFC and a copy of all the documents held by the council as part of its "Following the public pound" procedure, under which, for funding over £30,000, Midlothian Council should have rigorously applied a risk mitigation process. This includes retaining detailed funding conditions (accepted by Bonnyrigg Rose in writing), financial controls, monitoring of expected spending against actual, audited financial statements, retention of all invoices and receipts with an adequate audit trail, along with a written agreement from Bonnyrigg Rose that it indemnifies the council against unlawful acts. There should also be evidence of competitive tendering as public funding is involved. It transpired that none of this was held, apart from a copy of the club's 2008 accounts which the council refused to release.

There then came forward claims that the work had actually been competed, reported here and here in the Advertiser. I have formally asked Bonnyrigg Rose if I can examine their accounts, as all those involved in the club say they have nothing to hide and the bad publicity is damaging the club, and it would be in the club's interest to clear its name. However, my requests have been turned down.

The council has been conducting an internal investigation, lasting six months, and the findings have just been released in private to the Council's audit committee. The council has also issued a statement saying "An internal investigation into this matter has been completed, with information passed to Lothian and Borders Police.  A number of areas of concern within the council's processes have been identified and work is underway to strengthen procedures".

Clearly something has gone wrong if Inspector Knacker is now involved. But the last part of the council's statement is ironic as the "Following the Public Pound" procedure was introduced in 2006 following a poor report from Audit Scotland, so the council could, er, strengthen procedures.

Friday, 22 April 2011


Who am I and why did I decide to enter the Blogsphere?

My name is Ian Baxter, a Green Party activist. I’m also chairman of Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Community Council, and I’ve lived in Midlothian for over 30 years.

Midlothian has changed a lot in that time. In 1980 we had coal mines and nearly all the councillors were Labour. Now the pits have gone, and many Midlothian residents work in offices or shops in Edinburgh.

Politics has changed here too, though not as much as I would like. Many Labour councillors are still ex-miners or hark back to the ‘good old days’ of the one-party state, but largely thanks to the introduction of the STV voting system they are now held more to account, with a sizeable SNP group on Midlothian Council.

But how are they held to account? A number of issues have arisen over the last few years which made me realise how hard it is to tell people how it really is. Yes, we have a fine local paper in The Midlothian Advertiser - but for some reason or other, it’s often not keen to criticise our council, and there's a rumour it's closing its Dalkeith office. The Edinburgh Evening News? - well, the clue’s in the title.

Come election time, election leaflets from Labour councillors are not exactly forthcoming about the council’s failures. And then there's 'Midlothian News' the council's own Pravda-esque bulletin, delivered to all homes. No bad news there.

I wondered what would happen if The Advertiser disappeared.

So I thought I’d write a blog. Partly to publish an uncensored, albeit partisan, Green perspective on Midlothian, but also as a way of getting feedback from my readers. Politics, after all, should be a two way communication process, and although I do knock on a lot of doors, people are often out. So here goes ...