Friday, 18 September 2009

I want my government to be local, approachable and effective - not merely "efficient"

I recall Arnold Moore, the Managing Director of Knightsbridge Furniture Productions, explaining to me about BS5750 (for young folk that's ISO9000). It was roughly like this:

"You see Simon, I have to have BS5750 because I sell to hospitals. It means I can make good or bad furniture - but whichever it is is do it consistently."

I was reminded of this occasion by an item (I can't credit mutual back-slapping with the term "debate") on this morning's Today programme between Sir Michael Bichard and Prof Tony Travers from the LSE. The discussion was supposedly about "localism" (which presumably is why the BBC had a former Whitehall civil servant and a big government academic to comment) but focuses mostly on a strange beast called "Total Place". This wondrous innovation excites all the bureaucrats but is just another sad little attempt to join up the activities of different government "agencies" at the local level.

And the focus? you've guessed it - greater "efficiency". The same driver that created big national quangos, huge distant "unitary" authorities and the commoditisation of local services. The aim is to "deliver" those services very efficiently - a task that is achieved at the cost of any personality, variety or local interest. So-called "community consultation" replaces the ability of the ordinary resident to actually speak with someone who actually delivers the service that person wants to receive.

What we've lost in this drive for efficiency is a sense that services have to be effective - to aim to give to the resident what that resident actually wants from their government. We're told we should be pleased when a rubbish collection service gets an 80% satisfaction rating! That's one out of every five people who are not happy? If these services faced competition they would really struggle on those performance levels - regardless of their financial or operational efficiency (much of which as connoisseurs of the "Gershon Efficiencies" will know is fiction).

For all its hype "Total Place" is just an add on to LAAs, CAAs and all the recent paraphernalia of "joined-up" government. And the truth? Until we allow local control of decision-making across these areas - which means local control of police, health and environment - we will not get effective services. What we will get is an endless set of initiatives driven by cod efficiency and centre-focused bureaucratic culture.

A I've said before the real test of "localism" is when government gives local institutions back to the people. I'll believe the fat cats of central government's pontificating about "localism" when this happens and not before.

Friday Fungus: possibly the best breakfast dish in the world ever!!

Thought I'd share with you this awesome breakfast dish (which of course you are free to eat any time of the day or night) - mushroom & bacon toasts.

You'll need:

3oz butter
6 rashers of green bacon (chopped)
8oz mushrooms, sliced (shitake are good as they're quite sweet but ordinary button chestnut mushrooms are fine)
Handful of chopped parsley
Black pepper

8 thin slices of good bread
4oz full fat soft cheese

Melt half the butter in a shallow pan and fry the bacon for a couple of minutes. Add the mushrooms, parsley, salt & pepper. Cover the pan tightly & cook for about 5 minutes (not too long or the mushrooms go all slimy - they need to be just tender).

Lightly toast the bread and spread thickly with the soft cheese and sandwich together into pairs (you'll have toast, cheese, toast, cheese in a pile) and spoon the mushroom & bacon mix over the top. Melt the remaining butter and pour over the top (if you're a pig like me you might need to melt a bit more).

For Christmas morning serve with prosecco & good coffee!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Marketing Strategy - debating above my pay grade!

I guess that entering in to a debate on strategy with the Gingerbread Girl is a bit like someone entering into a debate with me about something I know loads and loads about (there must be something). And I should also remember that being self-deprecating sometimes requires a big neon arrow!

Anyway here we go with some thoughts following from the Gingerbread Girl's five strategy questions:

1. What are my goals? Is this really strategy? Surely objective setting precedes strategy? I would concede that a higher order strategy might set goals for a lower order strategy but I was talking about marketing strategy rather than corporate strategy.

2. Where should I play? I guess this is the very question I argued was central? Clearly the goals set suggest the options and choices around the place of exchange - the word market really answers this since it implies a place rather than an action.

3. How will I win? I contend that these are primarily tactical concerns determined by the goals set and the choice of playground - they are determined by the strategy but are not in and of themselves part of the strategy

4. What capabilities must be in place? Again this is action - the capabilities needed to deliver are determined by the choice of location for exchange. If I choose a sales route, for example, I need skilled sales people and professional support. But that is not marketing strategy.

5. What systems do I require to manage? Using the mail order example we would require systems to create, manage, maintain and exploit customer data - but these are again actions determined by the strategy.

Finally on the joke I plead self-deprecation having been - off and on - a marketing consultant, planner and researcher for best part of twenty years!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Thanks Keith for making cooking, eating & drinking such fun!

Other places will say much more, more eloquently than I can about Keith Floyd. Suffice it to say that he seemed to me to have it right. Loads of us got into cooking because people like Keith made it look fun, sexy and exciting. And there were no solemn lectures about food hygiene or health and safety. Just copious quantities of alcohol! To be sure 65 is no age these days - but isn't it better to live those years to the full? Keith Floyd appeared to do this and has left a legacy - thousands of people like me who are cooking and enjoying food, trying new ingredients and not worrying too much about measurement, precision or the rules of cordon bleu cheffery.

Thanks Keith! I'll be eating good and raising a glass or six in your memory!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Allotments - probably the first time I've agreed with Chris Leslie!

Whisper it quietly folks but, for probably the first time in his short life, the boy Leslie has said something sensible. Having been rejected by the good folk of Shipley, Chris secured a nice sinecure at the New Local Government Network (how New Labour do you want to get Chris!) where he set about promoting the cause of privatising most of local government through contracting services to large multinational organisations.

Given this track record, I was taken aback by young Leslie's mug in the local paper promoting the use of brownfield land for allotments. I read the piece a second time just to make sure I read it right but it seems Chris has succumbed to the green lobby and sees these unused urban spaces as potential haven of peace, tranquility and vegetable growing for our urban population (who are, as we know, clamouring for allotments).

Well done Chris - it's a really good idea. Can I also add a plea for the relaxation of green belt rules to allow the creation of allotment gardens in my neck of the wood too!

Friday, 11 September 2009

Friday Fungus II: Spaghetti con fungi i pancetta

People do terrible things to both mushrooms and pasta - adding cream, putting in too much garlic or chili and stewing the resulting dish to an unappealing mess. In the spirit of simplicity, here's a nice clean pasta sauce.

1lb mixed mushrooms
Clove garlic
Parsley - a handful
Pancetta - about 2oz (you can use unsmoked bacon - about four rashers - instead if you prefer)
Half a glass of red wine
Olive oil

Chop the mushrooms, garlic and parsley. Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy bottomed pan, add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the bacon and fry for a few minutes until the bacon begins to crisp (not too crisp just enough to get the fat to come out). Now add the mushrooms, salt & pepper, stir and fry for a couple of minutes then add the red wine, cover tightly and cook for about five minutes. Add the parsley, recover and leave to stand.

If you're me you will have forgotten to boil the salted water you need for the spaghetti! Do this and add about half a typical packet of dried spaghetti to the boiling water (use the biggest pan you've got - not very green I know but you get a better result). Cook for about 10 minutes - check the timing in the packet and subtract a couple of minutes is the best measure I find.

When the pasta is cooked mix in the mushroom and bacon sauce, add a good slug of good olive oil and heat through again quickly. Serve immediately and shoot all those people who want to add parmesan cheese!

CRB checks: some perspective please!

Yesterday evening was spent with my brother and his wife, Kaye in Weston-super-mare. Kaye is a police officer specialising in child protection issues and always reminds me that not everybody out there is a good guy! And she has done a great deal more work in trying to improve the way in which child protection issues are handled by the police - at least in Avon & Somerset.

So today's media huff about "ordinary parents" having to complete CRB checks to ferry kids to football matches proved an interesting discussion. And between the Children's Minister, Baroness Morgan saying everything is fine and the shadow minister, Chris Grayling suggesting we're going to far, there's some room for common sense.

Of course we should run checks on those people who work with children, young people and vulnerable adults. To do otherwise when we are able to check is a neglect of the duty we place on Government. And that must include volunteers.

However, the current system is inefficient, expensive and duplicating of effort. To give just one example - it is ridiculous that I have to have a CRB check for each of the following:

1. Chairing education transport appeals
2. As a school governor
3. As a manager of a youth cricket team
4. As an employee of a charity providing youth services and delivering youth work

One portable CRB - renewed every two years - should be enough. And bear in mind that, a £50 or so a go, CRB checks are a real cost for many small youth organisations, sports clubs and local community groups. So let's get some sense into this debate, let's reduce the cost of the process and try to recognise that the overall risks remain very small.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Friday Fungus: some political mushrooms

Not much time so just some nice pictures:

Lib Dem Orange

Labour Red

Tory Blue

None of the above mushrooms are edible - bit like politics really!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

So long Yorkshire Forward & thanks for the cash!

Should we scrap Yorkshire Forward - our "region's" delightfully dubbed Regional Development Agency? (Quick aside - why isn't is Yorkshire & the Northern Bit of Lincolnshire Forward?).

The Leader of Bradford Council seems to think so and other politicians in the city seem to want it either scrapped or subject to "greater democratic accountability". Certainly, the Conservative Party seems set on abolishing RDAs.

Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Yorkshire Forward - and a shrewd, bright and capable guy - puts up a spirited defence of the system:

“There are three alternatives to Yorkshire Forward’s existence as far as I can see: leaving the market to its own devices, which history has taught us leads to economic growth being driven south; a national approach, where recent experience has been Bradford is not a priority; or local solutions that would be less able to deal with cross-boundary issues or attract global investment.”

In the spirit of debate, let's look at Tom's three alternatives:

1. Leaving the market to its own devices. Tom says this will result in economic growth going south. I'll not dwell on the great industrial and commercial heritage of Leeds & Bradford - the result of a market acting on its own devices. Instead I'll remind Tom that the GVA (Gross Value Added) gap between Yorkshire and the South has increased during the time of Yorkshire Forward's stewardship of the "closing-the-gap" objective! On your chosen measure, Tom, Yorkshire Forward hasn't delivered.

2. A national approach. Here Tom tells us Bradford won't be a priority for investment (on the basis of past performance which is we know no guide to future performance). Again Tom let's look at one key area of investment priority for the "region" - transport. Did Yorkshire Forward secure even a fair share of transport investment for Yorkshire? No - it all went to London as usual and we in the North were told that this investment (Channel Tunnel Rail Link, New Medway Bridge etc) would benefit Yorkshire. You and I were at that meeting Tom.

3. A local approach. Apparently this will not address "cross boundary issues" - which of course is why all the railways stop at city boundaries! An utterly nonsensical argument - Leeds and Bradford set up the Leeds-Bradford Corridor study without any help from Yorkshire Forward and there are myriad examples of local councils working together on shared problems. And it won't attract "global" investment of course because no-one's ever heard of Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield! And Tom - our biggest problem isn't inward investment its the lack of new local businesses and local enterprise. Places like Hull & Barnsley have rates of new business creation well below half that of the national average and only a fifth of the most dynamic places such as West London and the Thames Valley.

Yorkshire Forward and the other RDAs have not been a total failure - the money they have spent has supported some great regeneration initiatives, some super new buildings and has helped get people into work. Investments such as the cancer centre at Bradford University and the Advanced Digital Institute are successful and contribute to the profile of the area considerably. But their time has gone - as part of the rejuvenation of local democracy investment in economic development and regeneration has to come back to local councils just as spend on skills, post-16 education and economic assessment has already done.

And you know Tom, I think those local councils - singly and together will prove you wrong!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Too much strategy, not enough action – the problem with marketing!

My old colleague, John Hinchcliffe (now Marketing Director at top mail order business, N Brown) provided my favourite definition of strategy:

“Strategy is a word used by consultants so they can charge you more money.”

How right he was and how wrong so many of us are for giving such credence to these merchants of strategic insight. Such folk give us volumes of carefully prepared, anecdote-riddled, evidence-light guff intended...well, to get some money off us!

I’m with John on another thing, strategy is simple. To misuse my recollection of John’s pithy approach – Damart’s strategy is that they are a mail order company, everything else is tactics. Simple, eh? Once we have defined the place where we intend to conduct exchange – of money, goods, ideas, service, whatever – everything else follows. And there are only three possible places of exchange:

1. Open a shop
2. Publish a catalogue
3. Send a salesman

It’s best to start with just one of these places and get that right. In time – having succeeded with your catalogue – you might open a shop (eg, Lakeland Plastics). Or having created a great retail environment develop a sales-led wholesale import/export business (as Bombay Stores have done). But you start with picking one of the three options and trying out all the tactical variations that follow from the place of exchange you’ve chosen.

As John (I think – but it might have been me) said:

“Marketing is 1% strategy and 99% boring routine!”

Monday, 7 September 2009

Of course Bradford Council talks to local residents - and that costs money!

Now this is a sensitive subject for a marketing professional to embark on - defending the budget for communications of England's fourth biggest local council. And, it's rather more sensitive when you're also a councillor on that authority!

According to my dear friends at the Taxpayers Alliance (whoever said they were a Tory front?) Bradford Council spends £6 million on communications. Phew, I hear you say! All that cash on spin doctors, propaganda and glossy brochures - whatever happened to spending priorities then guys! Surely you can make some savings here?

Well yes - there are always the options for savings. But can we please remember that councils do have to try and communicate with those they serve! And Bradford, with nearly 500,000 of those local residents, probably needs a little more than the average local council to achieve that communication. So what's involved and how might we make it better?

The main areas of spending include:

1. The Council's press office - dealing with hundreds of enquiries every week from a multitude of different media. We could cut down a little here maybe but at the expense of giving a less good service to the media - I leave it to you to decide whether this is a good thing or not?

2. Community Pride magazine (and its various offspring) - this is an award-winning publication that, were I in opposition, I would hate. Not because it promotes the ruling party - it is very careful not to do that - but because it is attractive, well-written and tells local people about their local services

3. Advertising including statutory notices - there's a huge scope to save money here but wouldn't that jeopardise the viability of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus wherein most of the advertising is placed? I'm no special pal of the T&A but I would think Bradford a poorer place for not having such a rag for us all to get cross about!

4. Notices, leaflets and publications required by statute - we're required to publish in hard copy a whole raft of documents, reports and strategies. It would be possible I guess to simply get a good quality PDF and print off when needed but I'm not sure that would comply with regulation. And the leaflets giving vital information to at risk groups such as the unemployed, elderly, vulnerable young people, single mums and refugees - I guess we can't skimp too much on those either, can we?

And just to add a little extra cost, Bradford - quite rightly - has to meet its access and language obligations which means producing documents in a range of different languages (eighteen and counting) as well as in formats suitable for the blind, the deaf and other disabled groups. Not sure there's huge scope for savings there either?

Now I do believe there's some option to change how we operate - money could be directed from issuing endless turgid press releases replete with quotes from important councillors into direct public communications - we need a good direct marketing strategy. The Council could also make much better use of its much improved IT infrastructure. Perhaps the application of Web 2.0 (ooh, very brave to put that in Simon) stuff might free up some more cash - it would certainly bring a new dimension to the Council's communications activity!

Bradford's communications budget needs a good look - there's a need to sharpen up the strategy and to move away from the very old-fashioned media relations approach that sadly dominates our thinking. But - and try this on any private organisation - spending less than 1/2% of the budget on marketing - that seems a pretty good deal to me!

Saving Election Night in Bradford

Have sent this proposed Council motion to my Conservative Group colleagues - hopefully they will accept it and we will protect the evening count.

General Election Count

Council notes with regret the move away from the election count taking place on the evening following close of polling and believes it would be a retrograde step for the General Election counts for the Bradford District to take place at any other time.

Council asks the Chief Executive, as Acting Returning Officer, to prepare a report for Executive setting out the details of arrangements for the tradition of counting immediately following the close of polling in Bradford to continue.

Cllr Simon Cooke

The stupidity of "No Platform" & the fight against the BNP

There are two ways to deal with unpleasant political organisations – one works, the other doesn’t. Which is why the decision of the BBC to invite the leader of the BNP onto Question Time is a welcome breakthough. It will expose the BNP’s policies to proper scrutiny from the public, from other politicians and from the media. Those policies will not survive such scrutiny. But while celebrating this decision by the BBC, let’s remind ourselves of the idiocy that is the alternative - the “No Platform” policy.

1. Back in the 1980s the Conservative Government – in one of its populist (aka silly) moments – decided that the way to deal with the unpleasant apologists for murderers in Northern Ireland was to ban them from the telly. The result was that Sinn Fein – and the odd goon from the loonier wings of loyalism – got onto the telly but with a (rather better spoken) actor dubbing the voice. “No Platform” didn’t work.

2. A few years earlier – while I was supposedly studying for a degree in Hull – the Students Union adopted a “No Platform” policy of such broadness that we had to smuggle in the (admittedly rather right-wing) local MP Patrick Wall. And that drawing of the definition of “fascist” meant that we could not support “No Platform” – seeking instead to undermine it at every opportunity (mostly by trying to get motions banned or by creating daft right-wing groups like the “Men’s Reaction Group”). “No Platform” didn’t work.

3. More recently, when the BNP were first elected onto Bradford Council in 2004, the Labour Party (and the few stray Greens in the chamber) created a delightful – faintly pythonesque – series of moments as they tried to exit the chamber so as not to be caught in the same room as a fascist asking a procedural question! Fortunately for the dignity of Council, the BNP are so monumentally useless that they failed to realise the chaos and confusion they could cause just by standing up to exercise their right to speak. “No Platform” didn’t work.

4. “No Platform” is just pointless posturing that gives easy publicity to the BNP without actually reducing that party’s ability to campaign. It is adopted by the mainstream Labour left as some kind of mark of righteousness and is a position even the wittier and wiser among them struggle to justify. I recall when Iain Dale interviewed the BNP deputy leader, Hopi Sen (who was sharing the polling day broadcast with Iain back in June) left the studio. Hopi just sounded silly. “No Platform” didn’t work.

The contention from the left is that “No Platform” removes legitimacy from the BNP and takes away their opportunity to spread their “poisonous message”. But it doesn't, it just gives that Party a glorious opportunity to play the martyr card

LibLabCon are excluding us” is the cry. “They’re frightened of our message – the interests of working Britons are being betrayed by a corrupt political elite.”

The BNP get sympathy and coverage without having to do anything to explain or justify their policies.

For some on the left, typified by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), the solution doesn’t lie in debate – in the power of honest argument – but in “mobilising” and “organising”. In the main this involves various of the left’s badly dressed groupuscules clustering in corners of pubs and, when the endless internecine disputes of these groups are briefly set aside, getting sort of organised to gather outside another dingy pub where the “fascists” might be meeting. This usually means that a couple of skinheads are having a beer or six somewhere and waiting for the UAF to turn up so they can have a scrap. Rather foolishly those silly lefties oblige – creating a disturbance and taking up inordinate amounts of police time keeping order. And the UAF then gather back at their favoured haunt to share tales of the latest mobilisation – if they could agree on it they’d be giving out campaign medals (which the fascists probably do)!

The BNP love these campaigns – it motivates their activists, provides a ready source of recruits from those mistakenly targeted by the UAF (or who just like to beat up a few hippies) and allows that party to go on pretending to the skilled working class that it is a right-wing party with their interests at heart. Immigration policy aside (and that’s moot), the BNP – like all its predecessors – is a party of the authoritarian left. It shares with the tankies a penchant for autarky and with the trots a preference for confrontation, strikes and even violence as a means of prosecuting a political objective. The BNP should have had the same electoral impact as the multitudes of left-wing parties, from the WRF to Respect – almost none. But “No Platform”, “organising”, “mobilising” and confronting the fascists has changed that – it is the single biggest factor in the BNP’s limited success.

Give the BNP a platform, challenge what they say, show how their policies divide and destroy our culture. Doing this will change how people see them and will show them up for the embarrassment they are. Keep on with “No Platform” and watch their strength grow and grow. It’s a simple choice.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Let's not give God - or his supposed agents - a special position in our policy-making

Since its Sunday I thought I’d write about God – or more precisely the idea of “faith groups” in politics and administration. After all, despite the falling numbers of people who practice a recognisable religious faith, more and more attention is now given to the involvement of “faith-based organisations” in our polity – up to and including the delivery of public services to vulnerable people and communities.

The Department for Communities and Local Government published “Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power” in 2008 in which the UK’s 23,000 “faith-based” charities are singled out for particular praise and attention:

“There are over 23,000 religious charities in the UK and many more faith-based organisations, involving tens of thousands of people motivated by their faith, working at a local and national level to provide support and services to communities. At times there has been reluctance on the part of local authorities and agencies to commission services from faith-based groups, in part because of some confusion about the propriety of doing so.”

The Conservative Party is no different seeing faith-based organisations as an important resource for supporting the delivery of wider social policies. And, for all the humanist grumpiness about the religious underpinning of these charities (and we should remember that most of our leading social charities have origins in religion including huge charitable institutions like Barnardos), it is surely right to make use of the commitment and enthusiasm of people with a religious commitment.

For me the problem comes when faith groups – as opposed to “faith-based organisations” – are given a privileged position in the development of policy and where (as is the case in Bradford) that position of influence is paid for with public money. For all the good work done by individuals and groups inspired by religious faith, I fail to see why there can be any justification for giving religions – collectively or individually – a special role in our polity.

If religions want to get together to argue their case (e.g. in promoting the value of denominational schools) that is fine. But they have to join all the rest of the special interests out there trying to influence the public agenda. The time has come to stop local authorities automatically added “faith groups” to the like of stakeholders to involve in the development of policy & strategy. Faith groups should not assume a right to be represented on local strategic partnerships, area forums and regeneration partnerships – they should take their place with the rest of the voluntary sector, with business and with the rest of the “community”.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Saturday's post: good Bradford stuff!

The morning's snail post was - with the exception of First Magazine and a pile more guff about swine flu - a joy and delight.

1. An invitation from Yorkshire Water to an "Exclusive Tour of Esholt Waste Water Treatment Works and Environmental Visitor Centre". I've always like factory tours and this tour showcases the £75 million invested by Yorkshire Water at the site. I also lived in Esholt when I first moved to Bradford - the place is more famous for being the location for Emmerdale Farm (useless quiz question used to be: "what is the real name of The Woolpack?" Answer - Commercial Inn. However, it's now really called The Woolpack).

2. An invitation to the preview for Sheila Gaffney's "Others" exhibition at Cliffe Castle Museum in Keighley - the result of a residency at the museum exploring how memories might be made tangible. The exhibition in free and runs from 19th Sepember 2009 to 10th January 2010 - so you've no excuse for not going!

3. Notice of a private viewing for "Chiz Turnross - 1000 Bird Paintings" at the Bradford One Gallery in Centenary Square, Bradford. This exhibition is free and runs from 12th September to 22nd November. (This Gallery wouldn't be there without my banging on about it for what seems like years - it is one of the very few new council-run public art galleries in the last 50 years).

4. An invitation to "David Moore, The Last Things" at Impressions Gallery (featuring awesome photography) in Centenary Square, Bradford. Impressions relocated to Bradford from York and were important to getting the funding to open Bradford One as they took half the space in the "Banana Building! and shared the costs. This exhibition features pictures of the MoD's secret crisis management centre and should be really interesting. It runs from 19th September 2009.

And people say nothing good happens in Bradford?

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Friday Fungus: "What's the best way to cook mushrooms?"

Perhaps because I obsess a little about them, folk do ask me, from time to time, what I think is the best way to cook mushrooms. And the answer – if they’re fresh – is to be really simple, not to smother the subtle mushroom flavour with other strong flavours and not to overcook them. There is no doubt that the cheap bistro “garlic mushrooms” – cheap button mushrooms smothered in a thick creamy garlic sauce – is among the greater offences to fungi ever achieved by man.

Here’s what I’d do:

1lb Good quality mixed mushrooms
A shallot
A clove of garlic
Posh salt
Black pepper
3 tablespoons Olive oil
Soda bread
Truffle oil (or other mushroom oil)

Rinse and roughly chop the mushrooms. Finely chop the shallot and the garlic.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan (with a lid) or a heavy based pan until very hot. Soften the shallots and garlic then bung in the mushrooms – add salt and pepper. Turn heat right down and cover tightly. Cook like this for about 4 or 5 minutes – the mushrooms should absorb all the oil and their juices should be coming out. Turn off the heat and leave covered.

Toast a couple of thick slices of soda bread and turn out the juicy mushrooms onto the toast, drizzle some truffle oil onto the top and top with a few scrapings of parmesan. Serve immediately. You will need a good strong ale to go with this – Taylors Landlord or Shepherd Neame Spitfire would do the job nicely!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

How often are our assumptions about Muslim women challenged?

I went to Cullingworth Surgery this morning to see the doctor. Don't do this too often as it usually leads to a massive rant about the uselessness of the appointments system and the idiocy of NHS bureaucracy. Today was different.

Leaving aside making us poorly folk wait outside in the pouring rain for ten minutes, everything went smoothly - went in asked for appointment and got one for 8.30am with Dr Khan. And here starts the real story of the visit.

Dr Khan is new - to me at least - and I was quite taken aback on entering the consulting room to find that the Doctor was not only Muslim but quite obviously a Muslim woman. I guess I should register for consciousness-raising sessions or something but I think it fair to say that for me (and I'm sure most of you reacted this way) the words "Doctor Khan" provide the image of a charming, well-spoken, probably bearded man.

The lesson I take from this is to take a fresh perspective on obviously Muslim women and not to assume that they are necessarily seen as either inferior or oppressed just because they wear a head covering and modest dress. This is not really any different from those women I remember at mass who wore a mantissa or the nice Jewish ladies in North Leeds with their tidy wigs - covering one's head is a cultural norm not an expression of female submission.

This goes to show that a woman can go through university, medical school and further training and still retain her Muslim identity & belonging. I suspect there is a lesson in this for all those peddling anti-Muslim myths and for a fair few Muslim men too!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Ten reasons why the "Great Election Debate" is a bad idea

All the buzz in the world of political commentary is about the prospect of a grand leaders’ debate during the (overdue) General Election. People are getting carried away at the prospect. And Gordon hasn’t said yes yet – ooooh, it’s so exciting.

I think it’s a bad idea. Not because it will make Gordon look like a boring old grump, because Dave might come across as a lightweight or even because Nick Clegg will struggle to get a squeaky word in edgewise. No there are loads of reasons why it’s wrong and here are ten of them:

1. We live in a parliamentary democracy and it’s a parliament we’re electing not a prime minister

2. Selecting only these three leaders excludes other leaders – Caroline Lucas, Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage and (yes) Nick Griffin. How does that help democracy?

3. The debate (or debates – I can’t see the BBC letting Sky get away with being the only one) will come to dominate the campaign pushing out the wider debate

4. The media’s scoring of the debates will be superficial – based on instant vox pop and focus group

5. Having the focus on leaders drags us further away from a collegiate form of government and closer to an elected presidency

6.The debates will focus back on the Westminster bubble and away from the whole country – the opposite usually happens in General Elections as politicians have to reacquaint themselves with the grassroots

7. We’ll spend more time talking about Gordon’s tie, Dave’s quiff or Nick’s crumpled shirt than we will about schools, hospital or the wars we’re fighting

8. The centralisation of “debate” will act to suppress nascent local debates – real questions about jobs, schools and the local economy

9. The Party spin doctors will use debate point-scoring as the basis for campaigning – we’ll see more of the risible “we love the NHS” type approach from all the parties and less considered campaigning

10. The debates will push aside regular programming – pissing off Corrie, Eastenders and football fans everywhere!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Why I won't be going to Bradford Hospitals "AGM and Open Event 2009"

Not so long ago I wrote how Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust spent over £2 million of your and my money on "corporate services" - some of it justifiable, some rather questionable - and over £800,000 on a couple of boards (a real and very expensive one and a playtime board called the "Foundation").

Today I was kindly sent an invitation - in full colour with a freepost response (money to burn these guys) - to the Trust's Annual General Meeting and Open Event. This show involves the AGM itself (no agenda so I don't know what's involved - bet we don't get to vote in the real board as would be the case with a private business) followed by an open event full of demonstrations, tours, presentations and showcases. In fact, everything but the bouncy castle!

Now I think these events are a really good idea - they may cost a few pounds to put on (why don't they get their very rich suppliers to sponsor or is that frowned upon these days?) but it provides a chance to let the public see behind the scenes a little.

Or does it? Look a little closer - the event runs from 1.00pm to 6.00pm on a Wednesday. Hardly accessible to the public! Shouldn't it run when people who have a full time job (like me) can attend? Such as an evening or better still a Saturday! As a result the event will not see any ordinary folk attending - just the usual collection of the great and good (plus hangers on and aspirant masters of the Bradford universe).

So Mr Richardson, with your £50 grand salary for a couple of days a week, I'm afraid I can't come to your shindig because you're holding it at a time when half of the people who might like to come can't make it. Try to get it right next year, please!

Time for us to have our institutions back! Thoughts on community-led regeneration.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the rhetoric is right and that the problems the face our towns and cities must be right at the top of any regeneration agenda. Today’s comments from Grant Shapps, Conservative Housing Spokesman hit all the right buttons:

“We will send a signal to every struggling neighbourhood that instead of sitting tight and waiting for bureaucrats to come to the rescue, we will actively back local groups who demonstrate a vision to improve the place and community they call home. So a Conservative Government will give local people unprecedented new power over the future shape of their own communities.”

But this rhetoric doesn’t sound all that new. Back in 2001 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was speaking approvingly of New Labour’s regeneration policies observing that:

“Particular importance is attached to a community-led approach in which local citizens and stakeholders engage in capacity building, community plans and devolved forms of local government.”

Each new order of central government takes the view that regeneration starts and finishes with the people who live, work and play in these troubled places. And ends up with a hodge-podge of policies directing relatively small amounts of money from one central pot to another. Local communities are not afforded any real control over decision-making (we mustn’t upset the local council big-wigs must we) and are fobbed off with consultation on proposals decided upon elsewhere and for other reasons.

What we don’t need is another round of “area-based initiatives” bunging money to selected communities – whether through New Labour’s make-believe “evidence-based policy making” or Tory-style (and now pretty Brownite) competitive bidding. These approaches – as we saw in the past – merely result in ‘begging bowl’ politics.

I recall the 1990s in Bradford with each new Labour council leader speaking of how poor, sad and deprived the city was and how it needed extra special attention (and the nasty, bad Tories weren’t giving enough) – it was truly sickening and did untold damage to the image and confidence of the city. After ten years of telling us the place was a dump, Labour had succeeded in persuading much of the local population that this was the case. And we’re paying the price for this every day.

The remedy – if that’s the right word – doesn’t lie in new funds, competitive bidding or even in supporting “community leadership”. It lies in handing control of key institutions back to local people and their representatives. In taking away the assumption of bureaucratic superiority built into key local institutions such as the police, the hospitals, primary care, social services and planning.

The “professional” leadership of these organisations – Chief Constables, Directors of Social Services, NHS Chief Executives and the like - has failed our cities and all they can now do is either blame each other or blame the people who live in these cities. Perhaps it’s time give ordinary people back their institutions?