For some time now I had been planning to write a long self explanatory post detailing some of the personal troubles I’ve been struggling with recently. I reached a very low point last year and the story of this year has mostly been about coming to terms with where I am and taking steps to recover. Yet if the truth is told I feel I haven’t really been my proper true self for several years before that. Feeling the need to share, I was going to write about the ins and outs of all that, the ups and downs, the reasons why I had withdrawn from friends and family, stopped previously regular activities, and so on. Part self analysis, part plea for understanding, and part apology.

However, having begun writing it yesterday, I didn’t get very far before realising that I was beginning to bore myself. So if I was finding it tedious goodness knows what you the reader — if this site still has such a thing — would have made of it.

So here is the shortened version. Significant money worries, a period of depression, and a general disillusion with politics, the state of the world, and my place within it has led to something of a personal crisis. The support of my family, some limited professional help, and some new elements of self awareness and understanding of my personality has meant I have gone a long way in recovering from that. I am not yet 100% myself but I am in a far better place than I was this time twelve months ago.

Part cause and part symptom of the above crisis was a lot of self imposed isolation. I suppose the natural reaction of someone who is at root an introvert. Something which, as a part of sorting myself out, I am now making a conscious effort to do something about.

First, this involves re engaging with the online world. So I am going to try and revive this site by writing and blogging more. To encourage myself to do this I am going to attempt a slightly different approach. I do want to start writing more considered long form blog posts again — my ‘Strange Thoughts‘ (RSS feed here). But I also want to do more less demanding ‘micro-blogging’ — sharing status updates, interesting links, inspirational or amusing quotes, cool videos and so on. I’ve been adapting this website to better accommodate this and this sort of content naturally enough will be found in ‘All Content‘ (RSS feed here).

However, I am aware that online stuff is not a substitute for actually talking to people. I need to actively revive neglected connections with friends, colleagues and other contacts. So if you have ever found yourself wondering “whatever happened to Andy?”, or have thoughts and comments on the topics that I am likely to be banging on about on this site, please do get in touch.

Finally, as if this post wasn’t self centred enough, I’d like to point out that hiring me to help you with your website and other digital media would also be very much appreciated.

Right, enough of this…

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.

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.

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.

The media were reporting (BBC News) on Monday that Chris Rennard was intending to take legal action against the Liberal Democrats over the suspension of his membership. Having previously written about the role of the different bodies of the English Party in the process of this suspension I was concerned to note that the proposed legal action is directed towards named individuals holding party positions. As The Guardian’s report puts it:

The letter keeps open the possibility of holding senior party figures personally liable, because the Liberal Democrat party is an unincorporated association, which means it does not possess “legal personality”. It is addressed to Mike Wheatley, chair of the regional parties committee, Margaret Joachim, vice-chair of the committee, and Peter Ellis, chair of the Liberal Democrats English party. If Rennard won a court action they might have to pay his legal costs and damages.

I think it is important to point out that all three of these individuals are volunteers. They are not employees of the Party. None of them receive any compensation for the work they do for the English Party (except possibly occasional travel expenses). Irrespective of whether these individuals have acted correctly in this matter, and/or acted legally, I don’t feel it is right that they should be under any threat of financial penalty for acting in a voluntary capacity.

The Liberal Democrats as an organisation is dependent on volunteers. Without them it couldn’t operate and often these volunteers take on a considerable amount of responsibility. However, those in such positions are almost always acting on behalf of the Party in a wider sense. So I am troubled that a situation could occur in which individuals can be threatened with legal action rather than the body (in this case the English Party) on whose behalf they are acting.

I think two things need to happen:

  • The Party needs to ensure that, if these individuals do end up in a situation where they have to pay costs and damages because of legal action, arrangements are made for these costs to be met by the Party as a whole.
  • Where possible the structures and legal status of the Party is changed so that where decisions are made that could become the subject of legal challenge volunteers working within it have greater protection.

I’m not a legal expert and so may be missing some of the subtelties of this situation. Nor do I want to suggest that those in positions of responsibility who act incompetently or maliciously should be protected from the consequences. However, instinctively I feel that it is wrong for those participating within a voluntary organisation to become personally liable in this way.

It has become my habit that at the end of each year I usually put together a “best of” playlist of the music that I have been listening to, or has meant something, that year.

I’m a bit late finishing the 2013 version at the end of January 2014. Although that’s not as bad as my ‘best of’ for 2011 which didn’t get finished until September of 2012!

When I originally started doing this I’d pull together three or four CDs worth of MP3s in iTunes. I then progressed to mixing many of the tracks together DJ style using some music mixing software. Last year things changed again as I began using the music streaming service Spotify to pull together (a larger) playlist.

One of the great things about Spotify is it makes sharing the result much easier. So for those who might be interested here is the full playlist of over nine hours of my best tracks of 2013:

My listening continues to be biased towards various kinds of electronic music and is again heavily influenced by Gilles Peterson’s Sunday afternoon show on 6 Music, but there is the usual mix of genres and a good dollop of jazz. The musical year started with the impressive performance on Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve show by The Hives — which is why they start the playlist. Highlights over the following twelve months included an unexpected new David Bowie album, a new album from Wolf People (or Lucy’s brother’s band as they are known in my house), the début album from Laura Mvula, more goodness from Little Boots, and the fabulous madness of the Janelle Monáe album. Another highlight was Jamie Cullum’s stylish cover of a Björk’s ‘Unison’. By contrast my most listened to album in 2013 was ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ by Laura Marling (iTunes/Amazon/Spotify) which is a brilliant piece of song writing and worth listening to in full.

There are a few tracks that would be part of the playlist but aren’t on Spotify. So for completeness I’ve listed them below (all links open in SoundCloud):

You can also read my ‘best of’ music posts from previous years. This is what I wrote for 2012, for 2011 and again for 2010.

I am reluctant to comment publicly on the rapidly spiralling Chris Rennard affair. It is not that I don’t have a view — quite the contrary — but I don’t think that lots of people expressing their opinion is helping the situation. Particularly those who have been especially crass or hyperbolic.

However, slightly bizarrely, I have this afternoon been explaining to a journalist from The Times the existence of the Regional Parties Committee. I am always happy to bore people senseless about contribute to a greater understanding of the organisation of the Liberal Democrats. As it seems that recent developments have left many people, including some long-standing and senior party members, scratching their heads I thought I’d post this explanation (as I understand it) of the role of this body.

The Liberal Democrats have a federal structure which is made up of the state parties of England, Scotland and Wales. In England the governing body of the English Party is the, somewhat obscure, English Council. The English Party is also further sub-divided into several regions. In order to help coordinate the work of the regional parties and share best practice the English Council has set up a committee made up of some members of the English Council and officers from each region. This is the, deeply obscure, Regional Parties Committee.

It should also be noted that the Regional Parties Committee has also taken on the role of dealing with some of the trickier disputes and complaints that local and regional parties have struggled to deal with themselves.

Membership of the Liberal Democrats is a state matter. Whilst membership is administered by the Federal party, when you join you actually become a member of the relevant state party. This means that issues of suspension and explusion will be dealt with according to the rules and procedures of that state party. In the case of Chris Rennard this would be the English party. Whilst most membership issues are dealt with at a local party or regional level, I imagine that given the circumstances officers of the English party felt that this particular case needed to be dealt with at more senior level. Hence the sudden prominence of the previously unheard of Regional Parties Committee.

That at least is my understanding of the procedural background to some of today’s events. Do correct me in the comments if I’ve got anything wrong.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Mark Pack provides a set of automatically updated campaign buttons for use on Liberal Democrat websites. You can find out more about these buttons on Mark’s websiteSetting up the buttons on a self hosted WordPress website is really pretty simple but I have now made it even easier.

Over the Christmas break I finally sorted out something that I had been meaning to do for ages which was to put the code for these campaign buttons into a simple WordPress plugin that creates a widget for use in sidebars. Installing the plugin removes the need to manually paste the code into a text widget. Using this widget also makes it easier to switch between the different colour schemes.

This is a notification that my Strange Thoughts blog has moved.

I’ve moved all the posts across to my personal website andystrange.org.uk. My blogging, such as it is, will now take place there.

I’ve redirected everything so existing links should continue to work — as should the RSS feed. If you seeing this in your feed reader then everything is working OK! However, I suggest you update your bookmarks etc. to the new address.

The plan is, with the change in address, that there should be a change in approach. I intend to post stuff in a more personal way — more links, status updates, photos and so on — and so hopefully more frequently. I don’t intend to give up on the long form blog post altogether however — and will probably provide a separate feed for those as things develop.

This past weekend, in a mad burst of coding and fiddling with technical gubbins, I’ve created a new theme for this website and started to restructure it. There is a lot more to do and it is rough around the edges in places but I think it is ready enough to be “launched”.

I’ve been mulling over what to do with my online presence — the collection of websites, social media profiles, and places where I’ve published content — for a while now. It has all got a bit confused and I am finding it difficult to manage, especially in those moments when I’ve not been particularly motivated. I also don’t think overall it reflects me and the way my life is developing, or at least I don’t think I am making the most of the possibilities. So I thought a bit of consolidation and integration was in order.

I intend andystrange.org.uk to become my home on the web. A hub for personal information about me and my interests and with a feed of all my online activity. To that end I’ve also imported all the old posts from my two previous blogs; Process Guy and Strange Thoughts. My blogging, such as it is, will now take place here.

Random Thoughts for 21st October 2013: An insomnia fuelled catch up

Random Thoughts logoNot much blogging going on here at the moment. There are reasons for that, although we won’t go into that now, and I am wondering if I ought to change my approach. There doesn’t seem to be much focus or direction to this blog when I do post. However, (and as if to handily illustrate that randomness) I will make use of a night of serious insomnia to catch up with posting some links. So here is the latest in my series of Random Thoughts posts with links, things found on the web and other stuff that has occurred to me between 3rd August 2013 and 21st October 2013:

UpRising Leadership Programme in Bedfordshire

Last month I had a meeting with some lovely people from the UpRising Leadership Programme, an organisation that is “dedicated to nurturing and developing young people between the age of 19 and 25 to become the next generation of effective leaders across the public, private and voluntary sector.” They’ve been operating in Bedford since 2011 and have recently expanded into Luton and the rest of Bedfordshire. This is the kind of project that ticks a lot of boxes for me and done right, which I think these guys will, could help address a real need locally.

Electoral Reform Society 2013 Council Election Results

Having blogged about the ERS’s elections in August I thought I ought to follow up with a link to the results.

Historian spent his life battling to save important old buildings – Luton Today

Description of the life and work of local Author, lecturer, historian and archaeologist James Dyer who made a huge contribution to providing knowledge and understanding of Luton’s history.

The Real Blog: Strange to be blog of the year

Really pleased that David Boyle won this year’s Lib Dem Blog of the Year. A very worthy winner.

TV Bedfordshire

I stumble upon this community initiative the other day. I don’t think they are quite there yet — it is a worthwhile and ambitious project and deserves to succeed.

BBC Four – Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

As part of my ongoing programme of self eduction, I’ve been learning some interesting stuff about the ancient Greeks over the last few months. This has been mostly courtesy of Yale University via iTunesU, but has included enjoying the latest documentary from Dr Michael Scott about theatre in the ancient world: ‘Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth‘. The main lesson I took away from this being that situation comedy flourishes under authoritarian regimes.

The Women’s Institute – no longer about ‘jam and Jerusalem’

I’ve long thought that one important lesson for any politician to learn is “Don’t **** with the WI”. More members than the political parties, more progressive than you might think, and apparently now growing in the cities.

BBC News – Little Wars: How HG Wells created hobby war gaming

“You only have to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be,”

Barnfield by-election announced

Portrait of Martin Pantling
Martin Pantling

This week my good friend Martin Pantling has resigned as a councillor on Luton Borough Council which means that there will be a by-election in the Barnfield ward.

Martin is resigning so he can take up a new career opportunity which is incompatible with his role on the Council. As he himself says (in a statement on the local party website);

“It has been a great privilege to represent Barnfield residents for the past ten years during which time I have met many people and made some good friends. I am taking up a new role which makes it impossible for me to continue as a Councillor, and so have reluctantly had to step down.”

During those ten years Martin has been a very conscientious representative of the interests of Barnfield residents and a powerful, if sometimes strident, advocate of the Liberal Democrat cause. His intelligent and determined scrutiny of council decisions have often been uncomfortable for council officers and opponent politicians alike. This has not always made him popular and he’s been seen as a particular thorn in the side of the Luton Labour Party. So much so that two years ago they tried to throw him out of his position on the old Police Authority. Incidentally, in his role on that body he has done important work in ensuring that Bedfordshire Police have been operating efficiently and that their finances have been properly scrutinised.

Personally Martin and I have often clashed – we have had a tendency to be quite argumentative with each other – but there has always been a spirit of friendship. I have enormous respect for Martin’s integrity and commitment.

While it is likely to be welcomed within the Labour Group — his resignation will leave a large hole in the effectiveness of the Council and will leave Luton’s politics much poorer.

The by-election will take place on the 17 October 2013.

At the last local elections I stood with Martin as the second Liberal Democrat candidate in Barnfield and I missed out, to Labour, on getting elected by just 14 votes. So if that is any guide the by-election is likely to be a very closely fought contest.

For the avoidance of doubt, because several people have already asked me, I will not be a candidate. The local party is going through the process of choosing their candidate and I believe there will be an announcement shortly.

Dad’s 70th Birthday MixTape

Dancing at Dad's 70thLast Monday was my Dad’s 70th birthday and on the Saturday before we organised a big party for family and friends. It was a really successful event and a big part of that success was the music. We had a live band in the shape of The Window Trees — the band my sister sings in — but I’d also organised the music for people to dance to at the end of the night.

I’d spent a lot of time creating a suitable playlist but in the end I didn’t use very much of it. Apparently the secret to filling the dance floor at a seventieth birthday is just to play lots of rock ‘n’ roll classics.  So instead I used what I’d prepared as the basis for a special ‘mixtape’ which would act as my present to my Dad.

The Spotify version of this is below. It begins with some of the hits of 1943 and then winds its way across decade and genre hopefully touching on most of the areas of my Dad’s musical tastes. I’m quite pleased with it and post it here for your enjoyment.

Dad’s 70th Birthday MixTape

Voting in the 2013 Electoral Reform Society’s Council Elections

The ballot for the elections to the governing Council of the Electoral Reform Society is currently underway and I have been deciding who to vote for.

These elections take place every two years, using STV obviously, to elect a council of 15 members with responsibility for the governance and administration of the Society. The ballot closes on the 30 August.

Last time these elections took place, in 2011, there was an unusual level of controversy and interest in them. There was an amount of active campaigning from some candidates and the elections generated a number of blog posts of which my contribution was this: Voting in the Election of the Electoral Reform Society Council

Given that the angst generated by the fall out from the AV referendum has dissipated, the leadership by the current council has, as far as I can tell, been pretty good, and that the electoral reform movement as a whole has more or less agreed a strategy of prioritising campaigning for a move to STV for local government elections (in England and Wales) this year's ERS Council elections have generated far less debate. I see this as a good thing. While there are times when it is necessary to step back and look at where you are going, achieving meaningful constitutional change is self evidently a difficult process and if it is to have any chance of even modest success it requires a unity of purpose in working towards clear objectives. It seems that currently we have this and for that I am glad.

In the light of that, in choosing how to prioritise this years candidates I have chosen to opt for continuity. Of the 23 candidates standing 8 are current members of the Council and I have decided to support them in their re-election. For the record my top 5 preferences were:

  1. Keith Sharp
  2. Chris Carrigan
  3. Andy May
  4. Amy Dodd
  5. Clare Coatman

 

Who are the Lib Dem spads?

ollie_the_thick_of_itBack in July I came across this blog post from UCL’s Constitution Unit that was critical of the level of transparency around the numbers of government special advisers: ‘Return to the dark: the continuing lack of transparency over spads

It seems that the last official publication of the names of special advisers and their salaries was on the 19 October 2012. This despite the fact that at least ten new spads have started working for ministers since that date.

Special advisers have a unique and highly privileged role. They operate at the heart of government and are able to influence the policies that effect our lives — but do so without the constraint of impartiality that civil servants have. It ought to be fairly straightforward for citizens to find out who they are. Not least because you need to know who they are before you can ask pertinent questions about their background. For instance; how many of the special advisers are privately educated? Who did they work for before joining the government?

This inspired me to ask the question: who are the Liberal Democrat special advisers? That is to say who are the people employed to give political advice to Liberal Democrat ministers in the Coalition Government?

An online search yielded few results. There were several critical press stories, the aforementioned official data from October 2012, a story on ‘Civil Service World’ from April 2011, and a post by Mark Pack on Lib Dem Voice from 2010. One of the most recent sources of information I found came from a predictably negative piece on Labour List.

There doesn’t appear to be an accurate and easily accessible list of special advisers for the government — or indeed the Liberal Democrat bit of the government which I am largely interested in. I think there should be. If the Government (or indeed the Liberal Democrats themselves) are not going to keep an up to date list somebody should.

So I am considering trying to compile such a list myself and then publishing it here, or somewhere else more appropriate. But I may need some help. Would this be a worthwhile project? What information should be included? What sources of information have I missed?

For the record, I don’t approach this issue with any sense of outrage. I don’t regard spads as an evil that needs to be exposed. In fact I am fully in favour of the role of special advisers within government. I believe ministers should have a close by and trusted source of political advice. I also believe that this leads to better government. However, I do not believe that people in this role should in any sense “live in the dark”.