Ming Teapot in the V&A

I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday for the first time. It was something I’ve been meaning to do for ages as it is the only one of the big four London museums I’ve never been in. I only scratched the surface of its collection and, while I was bowled over by the jewellery gallery, I spent most of my time in the museum’s Asian galleries.

Here is a Ming/Qing dynasty stoneware teapot, made around 1625 – 55, from the V&A’s Chinese gallery. I love the fact that they know the name of the person who made it; Hui Mengchen.

Collecting Luton’s World War One stories

This project, recognising the 100th anniversary of the First World War, run by Luton Culture, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the University of Bedfordshire is collecting stories of Luton’s experience of the Great War with the family memories of people who live in the town today. It is looking for people to contribute the stories, and photographs and other artefacts, which will then be used in an exhibition at Wardown Park Museum later in the year.

The Story of Music in Fifty Pieces

I really enjoyed Howard Goodall’s Story of Music documentary series when it was on last year. I discovered a few weeks ago that at the same time Radio 3 had run an accompanying series looking Goodall’s choice of 50 of the most influential pieces of music in musical history.

This series is still available as a podcast and I’ve just finished working through the episodes, but more importantly listening to each of the 50 pieces themselves. Listening to the pieces chosen in order is a fascinating journey and does give you a sense of how music has changed and developed. 

The podcast is available here: Radio 3 Story of Music in Fifty Pieces

A playlist with (most of) the 50 pieces is available here on Spotify.

The details of how Luton Airport will fund charities in Luton this year

Details of the amounts that the company that owns Luton Airport gives to organisations in Luton as charitable donations have been made available to the public.

London Luton Airport Ltd (LLAL) is the company that owns Luton Airport. It is in turn owned by Luton Borough Council which effectively means that the airport is in public ownership. This being the case the income generated by the airport is used to provide benefits to the people of Luton.

There are essentially two ways this income is distributed. The profits made by LLAL are paid to its shareholder, Luton Borough Council, and so form part of the overall resources available to the Council to spend on public services. But LLAL also makes a range of significant charitable donations to organisations in Luton. This amounted to £15.995 million in 2013.

Whilst the income gained directly by the Council has formed part of its annual budget which is discussed by Councillors and reported to the public, the openness and accountability around the increasing amount handed out to charities has been a bit lacking. But the good news seems to be that this is changing and LLAL is making an effort to be more open about its activities. Details about its charitable giving, including its community funding policy and the proposed donations for 2014/15, have made available on its website.

Note that LLAL is not the company that operates the airport. London Luton Airport Operations Limited (LLAOL) has a concession agreement with LLAL to manage the airport on its behalf until 2031.

According to the information made available LLAL makes its charitable donations through four programmes;

  • The Luton Community Fund which provides small grants to support community and voluntary activity in Luton.
  • The Near Neighbour Fund which provides small grants to support community and voluntary organisations in the communities outside the Borough of Luton that are affected by activities at the airport. Which I assume mostly means those affected by the noise.
  • The Enterprise Fund which provides small grants to support the start-up of small businesses in Luton.
  • The Partnership Fund, which is by far the biggest programme, which provides a significant level of funding to ‘partner’ organisations to support them in delivering the various outcomes identified in Luton’s community strategy.

The proposal for 2014/15 is for the Partnership Fund to distribute £16.404 million. How this will be divided between the different themes in the community strategy can be seen in the chart below.

The reason that the ‘Leisure & Culture’ theme gets the largest pot of money is that this includes the two organisations that receive the most funding. These are Active Luton, which runs Luton’s swimming pools and sports centres, and Luton Culture, which runs the town’s libraries, museums, and arts venues. (A little declaration of interest; I am a member of the Board of Trustees of Luton Culture.)

This second chart highlights the most significant individual grants proposed for 2014/15.

I think that it is important that this information is available and that people can find it easily. These sums are significant ones and so I think greater public understanding and scrutiny of how the money is being used can only be a good thing.

The full details of the charitable donations that London Luton Airport Limited are proposing for the coming financial year as part of its Partnership Fund can be found on this page on their website.

Jacob Rees-Mogg in South Shields

I’ve used the example of the South Shields constituency in the North East several times when writing about the issue of safe seats and how they make a powerful argument for electoral reform (The new MP for South Shields has been chosenI live in a Rotten Borough, and The South Shields by-election and Lazy Labour) so I thought I’d post this. I will remind you that it is the only seat in existence since the Great Reform Act of 1832 to have never elected a Conservative MP and that the Labour party have held the seat without interruption since 1935.

This video of a report from Channel 4 News of West Country Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg visiting South Shields is mostly a curiosity. I usually find Rees-Mogg intensely irritating — but in this to be fair he does come across as a bit more of an engaging personality. The video doesn’t tell us anything more profound than that the Conservative Party doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anyone elected there — but it is a useful illustration of why our political parties in effect abandon parts of the country.

Acts of Union and Disunion

In the run up to the referendum on Scottish independence this year BBC Radio 4 commissioned Linda Colley, Professor of History at the University of Princeton, to deliver this series of talks on the history of the United Kingdom. It examines the forces that have pulled the people and nations of the UK together and pushed them apart.

I cannot recommend this series highly enough to anyone who is interested in understanding the historical background to modern debates about devolution, independence, constitutional reform and how we govern ourselves. While you may not agree with some of Professor Colley’s conclusions —  although I think she makes tremendous sense — what I think it does do brilliantly is establish an authentic historical context for considering such questions in a way that exposes the huge amount of myth making and false assumptions that so often accompany these debates.

The series is split into several episodes, all of which should remain available for at least a year, but there are three omnibus editions which you can find here: Episode OneEpisode TwoEpisode Three

Re-banking the UK: How to create a diverse lending infrastructure

While some progress has been made, a significant missed opportunity under the coalition government has been the failure to carry out a more radical reform of the banking system. This remains a key area for action if we are to see the much needed rebalancing of Britain’s economy. This report from the New Weather Institute written by David Boyle (with help from Susan Kramer prior to her becoming a minister) sets out in clear terms some measures that can be taken to achieve that action.

What I find striking in this report is how it sees the creation of local banking structures across the UK as central to achieving greater diversity in the banking system:

it matters that just 3 per cent of banks are local in the UK, compared to 34 per cent in the USA, 33 per cent in Germany and 44 per cent in Japan.

As far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned there is still time to push for further reform from within Government, but I also hope that banking reform will be a prominent measure in the manifesto for the next election.

Really friendly service at Luton @Specsavers this…

Really friendly service at Luton @Specsavers this afternoon. Thanks!

So it seems I need to start wearing glasses while …

So it seems I need to start wearing glasses while working. Not getting old at all…

Coalition has ended historic decline in number of Post Offices

While writing my post about the refurbishment of a local Post Office yesterday I came across the following graph. It is taken from a briefing note prepared by the House of Commons Library and I think it clearly demonstrates that the coalition government has been responsible for a genuine change in policy towards the Post Office network.

Number of Post Offices in the UK

Throughout the 80′s and 90′s the trend in the number of Post Offices is downwards. During the later years of the Blair and Brown Labour governments this trend accelerates. But under the coalition government it flattens out. On this evidence it is clear that in this area of policy the coalition has been responsible for a significant change in direction.

The new Hockwell Ring Post Office is thanks to the Lib Dems

Post Office logoIt seems that the Labour MP for Luton North, Kelvin Hopkins, was asked to officially open the newly modernised post office in Hockwell Ring this week. See the report here.

This is a good news story and Kelvin is right to welcome this improved community facility. But I wonder if he also thanked the coalition government whose decisions made it possible? Perhaps not.

But he should. Up until the last general election the only thing that was happening to Post Offices in Luton was them being closed. I had one forced to shut in the ward I represented on the Council. This was all part of the then Labour government’s ‘Network Change Programme’ which included closing around 2,500 branches in an 18 month period beginning in October 2007. A deeply destructive attack on an important community service the impact of which was felt in Luton as it was elsewhere.

When the coalition government was formed it made a commitment that there would no longer be a post office closure programme. A commitment that has been kept. This was a genuine change in policy and in attitude. The role of Post Offices was to be valued in a way that wasn’t the case before.

Plus the government has gone further and, despite the difficult financial circumstances, has invested in the Post Office network. Before he moved to the Department of Health, the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb was the minister responsible for the Post Office. Back in March 2012 he launched a £1.34bn three-year investment and support programme — the largest in the history of the Post Office. This will involve converting and refurbishing around 6,000 Post Offices across the country.

Unlike Labour’s programmes of closures the coalition is carrying out a genuine modernisation of the Post Office network — and this is what has funded the improvements at Hockwell Ring.