Where now for English devolution?

I’m writing this before we know the result of Scotland’s referendum although it’s already clear which direction it’s heading.  In England at least there is now lots of discussion as to what the future will be for government across the United Kingdom and that will continue no matter what the outcome, but it’s a debate that was well overdue.   As another caveat, I’m also writing this late at night as the first political post on my blog for a while and I’ve got out out of practice so it may be more of a ramble than I’d want…

I’ve found the argument over the last minute ‘bribe’ to Scottish voters of extra devolution a little mystifying.  After all, I’m a member of a political party that has long believed in ‘Devo-Max’ and so I take the view that devolving as much as you can to each country in the Union is the right thing to do.  But despite that, I am now more unsure than I’ve ever been on how that should manifest itself within England.

I joined the Liberal Democrats back in 1995 and at that time the party had a very clear policy – English regional parliaments.  As a proud Yorkshireman (yes, I know the purists out there will say that as I wasn’t born here then I’m not, but I grew up here and so I think that counts) I loved the idea of my bit of England taking power away from Westminster and it being held by people who genuinely understood this part of the country.  For all that Sheffield and Arkengarthdale are very different; there is a certain feeling of something in common as a result of being in the same county.  That however is not something I know exists for many other regions.  Let’s take East of England as an example – Cromer and Watford?

But despite this enthusiasm and I suppose patriotism, I’ve wavered.  Not about devolution, but the form it should take.

I’ve never been a fan of an English Parliament, but for me it’s the minimum.  You can’t carry on devolving to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, without making a decision on how England rules itself when parliamentary powers become so lopsided.  As a result, a blogpost I wrote seven years ago gave the impression that I was an English Parliament fan, but actually I was settling for it, rather than desiring it.  My criticism still stands, which is that having and English Parliament doesn’t feel any closer to me than a UK Parliament, and I think some people in England, especially the North of England feel perhaps more affinity in outlook to Scotland and Wales, than they do to people in the South East.  It’s also the case that people in England are becoming more resentful of the influence and income that Scotland gets from Westminster (whether that’s fair or not), and even more so since the agreement between the three UK-wide parties agreed on more powers for Scotland.

Since I wrote this post however, the current government has abolished Regional Development Agencies and brought in City Regions and Local Enterprise Partnerships.  These started to do what I’ve always wanted and genuinely give power to local areas to set their own priorities on economic development but on a very limited basis, with a pretty poor democratic mandate but at least involving local politicians but with powers that had to be given generously by a beneficent government in Westminster.  That’s the sort of thing that Labour would be proud of but was instead brought in by a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.  But as someone who is also proud of his home city of Sheffield I appreciate the benefits.  Sheffield’s economy is bound up with neighbouring local authorities such as Chesterfield and Bassetlaw, which are in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire respectively, and places such as High Peak where the East of the district looks towards Sheffield and the West looks towards Manchester, but neither half looks South towards the rest of the East Midlands.  Whilst the traditional regions pull at the heart, the newer regions make more economic sense in many cases and not just my own more extreme example, and if anything I feel they aren’t ambitious enough in what they want to achieve.

Of course devolution isn’t just about economics, it’s about far far more.  After all, to take one of the big issues, the NHS is entirely devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, but can you really run it on a ‘city region’ level in England?  Not really.  City Regions also ignore rural areas and treat them as appendages of urban areas.  Increasingly, in many urban/rural fringes that’s what they are, but only where they border on to a major city.  And, although well-established city regions such as Greater Manchester have fringe areas that generally accept their situation, places like Doncaster slightly resent being lumped in as part of a Sheffield City Region.

So where does that leave things?  I honestly can’t answer that.  My heart says regional assemblies.  My head says City Regions (and the rural equivalents).  There’s also the option of giving more powers to counties, but then they don’t make sense everywhere either.  My sense of realism suggests an English Parliament for now, but it feels no closer than Westminster and how does that work if its MPs are essentially serving in two parliaments (UK and English) with potentially different political control and certainly different political balance in the two.

My dilemma however gives a sense of the battle ahead.  Much has been said about how the impressive turnout in the Scottish Independence Referendum shows that people are suddenly engaged and that there’s a desire for change as a result, even amongst those who voted No.  But, of course if you ask a Lib Dem like me what the future structure of the UK should be, you’ll get a very different answer (and quite a complicated answer) from what a UKIP supporter would say.  UKIP are also the party that are showing political momentum at the moment and seen as the ‘radicals’ shaking up politics, however laughable that is for those of us in the centre or the left.  It’s a sign that we shouldn’t assume that a desire for change is the same as people wanting the same thing.  And that’s where the problem lies, and where the massive arguments are going to come over the months ahead.  And it’s why I’m also not convinced that this referendum will really take advantage of a desire for change, as no one agrees on what change should be.  Conservatives and UKIP may like an English Parliament, Labour and the Lib Dems will be all over the place.  The general voter, haven’t even thought about it and the public have rejected devolved English assemblies already.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week (after a bit of a gap, sorry!):

An article:  Iraq has understandably been in the news a lot lately, and the BBC Magazine did an interesting article about who the Yazidis are, a group that probably most of us hadn’t heard of until the rise of ISIS and their persecution of this minority group within Iraq.

A TED talk:  This is one of my favourite TED talks and one that I keep re-watching.  It’s by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and it talks about the dangers of only hearing one story about a country or a culture, and the benefits of hearing different voices.  It’s thought-provoking and challenging and yet also heart-warming.  It prompted me to read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, and also look out for other novels from writers whose perspective is different from my own:

A TV series (or four):  I’d normally mention one or perhaps two TV series that are on that I love, but over the last few weeks there’s been several that I’ve loved so here’s the lot and they’re all very different:  Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo is a fascinating series about the way the railways were so crucial to the First World War in a way that they hadn’t been to any previous wars.  The series is available on iPlayer for another four days (or 30 days if you download it).  Suspects on Channel 5 is now in to its second series but both the current and first series are still on the Channel 5 website and I’ve been hooked thanks to its fly on the wall style of filming with only a detailed plot to guide the cast but no script.  There’s been a lot of hype about The Honourable Woman on BBC Two and although I’d seen the adverts and liked the look of it I only started to watch it this last week, and it really is very good.  Dramatic, topical and a programme that really makes you wonder what’s coming next.  And fnally a series that was shown nearly a year ago but is being re-shown on Channel 5 is The Railway: First Great Western, which is another fly-on-the-wall series showing the day to day of working for a train company and the challenges faced. I suppose this had particular appeal to me as I once worked for a train company and so recognise a lot of it, but it gives a really good view of how interesting yet at times difficult the job is.

A photographer:  I can’t remember how I discovered Lauren Marsolier but it was through reading a website fairly recently, and straight away the photos drew me in.  It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but they’re very much reminiscent of the New Topographics and show the mundane in a dramatic fashion.  I just love the drama and the way the ordinary is made both artistic and the centre of attention.


A video:  Ernest Wright’s scissor factory used to be a couple of minutes walk from the front door of my flat but when they closed and moved elsewhere I feared for the worst.  However, this film from the BBC website shows how this traditional Sheffield manufacturer is suddenly thriving and how skilled the scissor puttertogetherers are.
A song:  This song West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys is one of the songs from the 80s that I’ve always loved but I’d sort of forgotten how much I liked it until the 2012 London Olympics when their performance was one of the great moments as part of the final party at the Olympics for me.  It’s a song that sounds slightly menacing and serious yet is also dramatic and still manages a dance feel to it, and is very London.  A great song.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A TED talk:  Chip Kidd is one of the world’s most significant book cover designers and this talk looks at his work and how he comes up with covers that suit the book.  I found this talk a bit difficult to get in to thanks to Kidd’s unusual style and slightly bizarre way of presenting. But the substance is interesting and it shows the skill that goes in to something that we largely take for granted.  A must for anyone interested in design and books.

A TV series:  I loved the first series of The Secret History of our Streets that looked at the social history of a selection of roads in London and I wrote about it enthusiastically at the time.  This second series moves to Scotland.  It shows the people who’ve lived on the chosen street, the way that the social make up has changed or in some cases stayed fairly similar, and in some cases a complete change in the architecture.

An article and some architecture:  The Stirling Prize can probably be described as the Baftas of the architecture world.  It’s the award for a building somewhere in the EU designed by a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). There was a time not many years ago when the Stirling Prize for Architecture warranted a whole programme on TV but these days there seems to be less enthusiasm, but I love it.  So I was fascinated by the shortlist when it was announced the other week which thankfully the BBC wrote a bit about.  As is often the way the article is headlined by the London building that is most famous, but the judges are usually less capital-centric.

A song:  I discovered this song last Sunday thanks to Listening Club’s nautical theme.  It’s No Excuses from Air France a Swedish band from my home city of Göteborg and is a classic Ibiza style dance music – dancey but also quite ambient.  A relaxing song that you can imagine being played as the sun comes up over a beautiful beach.

Another TV series:  Well who’d have thought it, I’m a fan of Dragon’s Den.  Imaginative interesting ideas, some amusing banter, some practical down to earth positive criticism and a few slightly pompous people being brought down to earth.  It can be brutal at times, but I don’t ever think it’s been unfair.  I must admit I miss Theo Paphitis and to an extent Hilary Devey, and I’ve yet to warm to Piers Linney, but it’s still a very good series.  It also reminds me of a time I stayed in a hotel in Cardiff where a TV played episodes non-stop in the hotel bar for the benefit of just two people – me and the barmaid.

A blog post:  I’m a fan of The School of Life blog which posts interesting thoughts on improving everyday life.  A post from this week, which fits nicely with my last choice from this week is called How to be an Entrepreneur.  It talks about the current popularity of the idea of being an entrepreneur but the conflict with the feeling that consumerism has had its time.  The article goes on however to talk about the possible future benefits of entrepreneurialism in solving some of our current problems.  It is quite a good way of summing up the positives about capitalism when they are used to best effect.

Yet another TV series:  Next Thursday sees the start of the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? a series which as a family history obsessive is unsurprisingly one of my favourites.  However, it actually kicks off on Wednesday with a special show celebrating 10 years and 100 episodes.  I wrote more about my love for Who Do You Think You Are? on a blog post last year.  I can’t wait, which is why I’m including it in this week’s This Week even though it’s next week, if you follow the jist.

A photo a day

I wanted to take on a small personal project.  One that involved a commitment but not difficult and that involved something I already enjoy.  Photography felt like a good option given I always feel I should do it more, and so having spotted a retweet from someone doing a One Photo a Day challenge it seemed like a good idea.

I love photography but just don’t feel I have the technical skill to achieve what I see in my mind when I look at something. No doubt some time soon I will do a photography course to help me learn that part, but one simple thing I can do, and something all the professionals recommend, is to just keep taking photographs. One Photo a Day feels a good way to help make that happen. Many photographers say you should always carry a camera with you, well I do, but only in the form of my phone. I simply can’t carry my usual DSLR with me to work and everywhere else I go. So a less good quality and harder to achieve my aims phone camera it will have to be.

So what is the One Photo a Day going to be about? Well some days I already take lots of photos and it’s also not unusual for me to tweet ad hoc photos as I think it makes tweets more interesting, but the difference with this project is that I’ll try and take one photo of something that sums up my day or life in general or just something interesting or curious that I stumbled on. It’s one photo that means something rather than just an illustration to accompany a tweet or as a series of things in a photographing splurge. Sometimes I might be arty and other days it may just be something mundane. But most of all it has to be relevant to that day.

For some time now I’ve had the Instagram app on my phone but I’ve never used it. I remember one person being really surprised that I didn’t use it but I’d never seen the point given you can tweet photos or put them on Flickr, depending on what you are trying to achieve. But Instagram feels really appropriate for this project. It feels pure and simple. Just about the photo and nothing else.

So tonight I made a start and took this photo. It’s a view I see every day on my commute to and from work and so pretty much sums up every day. It’s from the Stockport Viaduct over the Mersey valley looking roughly East over the town centre towards the Pennines and on clear days you can see for miles.

If you’re interested in seeing how it goes then do follow me on Instagram although I will also tweet a link to it every day.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A TV programme (and a book and an app and a place):  I’ve been fascinated by Hatton Garden in London ever since I used to go to the area every couple of months for a meeting that was held in a church hall there, and so this week I was drawn to what turned out to be a really interesting documentary on ITV about jewellery dealers who work in the area – Diamond Geezers and Gold Dealers which is still available on ITV Player.  The bit that really amazed me was how one person hoovering and cleaning a tiny workshop found £1,300 worth of gold amongst all the dirt and dust that the owner didn’t know was there.  There’s bits of it that felt mercenary and extravagant but other parts that made you realise this was the ultimate in recycling.  This programme also gives me a good opportunity to promote the brilliant book I read last year called Diamond Street by Rachel Lichtenstein a social history about the people, the history and the characters of Hatton Garden.  Rachel Lichtenstein has also produced an app that you can listen to when walking round the area to find out more about it which is a great way of bringing her book and the general history of the area to life.

A song:  This song comes from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack but having not seen the film the first time I heard it was at a party I went to in Birmingham (a slightly random party that I went to with a mate and I so I can’t remember whose party it was or where exactly it was).  The song is If Love Were a Red Dress by Maria McKee and is so much better played live.  Emotional and dramatic.


A TED talk:  This talk by Steve Richards is from TEDxHousesofParliament which is one of the locally organised TED talks rather than those organised by the organisation itself.  I only became aware of Steve Richards’ talk and tour when I saw people tweet about him as the speaker at a dinner during Labour’s National Policy Forum last weekend.  It’s a good talk as it shows the dilemma that politicians find themselves in when trying to both appeal to the electorate and be themselves, and also the dilemma of authenticy.  It is so very true.  It’s funny how I’d already watched this in the last week when Ed Miliband pleaded for people to judge his substance.  Or perhaps it was as a result of the Labour National Policy Forum.

A speech: There’s been a lot of talk this week about Tim Farron’s Beveridge Lecture to the Social Liberal Forum Conference.  As I tweeted in the last week, I don’t really do party factions but the Social Liberal Forum Conference looks as though it was pretty good.  Tim’s speech was excellent and really summed up some of the main political challenges at the moment and gave some guidance as to what our priorities should be.  I was particularly pleased to see infrastructure as a key part of it.  Some have billed it as setting out his stall for a future leadership challenge, but I don’t really see it as radically different from current party policy (although it may well be different from government policy).  Well worth a read though.

An article:  This article appeals to both motor racing fans and statistics nuts.  I’m neither, but also a little bit of both.  The article from the BBC Magazine assesses who the greatest Formula 1 driver is.  It shows how complicated using statistics can be, but it’s interesting to look at the different ways of assessing it.

Another song:  … and another song from an artist who started to make it big in the 1980s.  In my local pub quiz there was the inevitable picture round and I never recognised this singer, but she’s someone whose Greatest Hits album I love and feel is massively underrated.  It’s Alison Moyet.  As a result All Cried Out has been going round in my head for several days and it is a great song.  Performed with her distinctive deep voice and sort of power ballady but also slightly dark.

A TV series:  It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who reads my This Week posts that I also enjoy Undercover Boss which is now in its second week on Channel 4.  Whilst I prefer the series where someone spends an intensive time properly interacting with the owners of a business to look at what they can improve, this one looks at more high profile companies and the day to day more mundane problems they face.  This series has been interesting so far as they’ve covered Moss Bros (a company I do occasionally interact with) and Oxfam (who I once volunteered for) and so it’s not been a completely unknown type of business.  I sometimes do wonder however how many other members of staff in a business resent the special help the boss gives to the person they just happened to work with.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A TV series:  There’s nothing I like better than a good bit of infrastructure!  Actually, a good bit of infrastructure and a ‘behind the scenes’ type TV programme.  This week BBC2 started The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway a short series about the construction of Crossrail.  This programme was generally fascinating showing you things you never realised they did as part of such a major project but what was genuinely awe inspiring was boring a tunnel just 80cm above an Underground line and 30cm below an escalator whilst both were still in use!

A TED talk:  This is one of my favourites that I re-watched this week.  It’s Rory Sutherland talking about the value of advertising and how it changes our perception of products.  Whilst many may feel it shows why advertising is a bad thing, it also shows why what advertising achieves is useful in other areas and why it’s a fascinating industry to work in.  Rory Sutherland himself is also massively entertaining.

A book: I’ve been reading quite a lot of books lately on dealing with anxiety and depression (something which I expect I’ll write more about some time) and also the general area of getting more done in life and managing work better.  One book I’ve found is definitely from the latter but had massive parallels with the former and was really interesting and so I’d recommend it to anyone.  It’s called How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott.  Don’t let the title put you off as it includes some really useful tips but is also an easy read.

A film:  I’m going to recommend a film even though I’ve not seen it (yet).  I’ve had a long standing love affair with the photographs of Vivian Maier and I want everyone to know about her.  This week the documentary Finding Vivian Maier about how her photographs were discovered and about the woman herself was released.  I imagine it’ll only be on at independent art cinemas, although I’ve not spotted it on at my own local one yet, but keep an eye out.  An amazing photographer and an amazing story.

Another TV series:  This week saw the return of Coast to BBC2 starting with a look at both sides of the English Channel.  It’s great that this series has continued when the original premise was just to go round the coast of the UK in one series, and it always finds things that are fascinating.  This week included amongst other things Mont St Michel (which I love from my one visit anyway), some impressive beach art at Arromanches, the dramatic Vauban forts off the coast of St Malo (a town which looks like somewhere I should visit some time anyway) and the interesting and surprisingly unknown story of the SS Mendi that sank of the Isle of Wight during the First World War.

An open letter:  Finally, and not something unique to this week but I think is worth reading and re-reading is this amusing Open Letter to Metrolink.  It’s nearly a year old now, but it is the result of someone finally getting so frustrated about problems with Manchester’s tram system that they penned this amusing open letter to its director.  Anyone who commutes regularly will share the pain.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

Actually it’s not just things I’ve been in to this week as I’ve not done this post for two weeks thanks t0 busy weekends and work, so here’s a bit of a summary:

A TV series:  I don’t watch loads of TV these days and yet I have a real soft spot for those series where they send in an expert to improve a business, and so Channel 5’s The Hotel Inspector Returns has become a highlight of the week.  This series shows Alex Polizzi returning to hotels that she improved before to see what’s happened since.  I also admit to a lot of childish humour at this week’s hotelier being called Muff, but then Channel 5 also shouldn’t keep using so much innuendo in its voiceover.

A song:  Last weekend I went to the wedding of two of my closest friends (more on this later), and it was there that I discovered that we share one of the same songs as a favourite from a musical which is Anthem from Chess.  It was brilliantly and emotionally performed at the evening reception by Nigel Richards, but as that’s not available online here’s the original version of it sung by Tommy Körberg:

A quotation:  One of my ambitions has always been to write my a novel, so this quotation from J K Rowling really appealed:

The best place to write, in my opinion, is a cafe; you don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t feel that you are in solitary confinement while you work and when inspiration fails, you can walk to the next cafe while your batteries re-charge.

I found the quotation in the excellent How to be a Writer by Stewart Ferris, and it sums up my thoughts.  I may not be a writer (yet, I’ll say optimistically) but I am always more productive and thoughtful in somewhere like a cafe, a bar or on a train.

An article:  In Berlin they’re planning to build a joint church/mosque/synagogue called The House of One.  The BBC Magazine has the story and it’s quite interesting to see how it’s come about and how the design will work.

Another TV series:  It feels a bit pointless to write about this given that’s it’s finished and no longer on iPlayer, but I downloaded Happy Valley a few weeks ago and I’ve finally watched it and it’s brilliant.  As I work with people who live in the Calder Valley, I know its depiction of people there as constantly on drugs and as crooks didn’t exactly endear it to the local residents, but having finally been convinced I should watch it I am very impressed.  Dramatic and hard hitting and emotional, yet at the same time quite heart warming and showing (most) of the police in a good light.  I’ve also always rated Sarah Lancashire as an actor and so I also like it from that point of view.  But as it also includes lots of places I know from working in Hebden Bridge it’s quite interesting and it’s definitely worth watching.  I expect it’ll be back as a repeat at some point, but also I gather there’ll be a second series, so look out for it.

A wedding:  As I mentioned before, two of my closest friends Ed Fordham and Russell Eagling married at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead last weekend.  They’ve been together for 16 years and I’ve known both of them since I was at university, and it’s great that they could finally could get married following the passing of the equal marriage legislation last year.  It was a brilliant occasion, and I just couldn’t let this post go by without a mention.  There’s been a lot on mine and other’s Twitter (it’s pretty much the Lib Dem Wedding of the Year), and this article from the Camden New Journal tells you some of the essentials.

A series of books:  I blogged about this the other week, but it’s worth repetition.  I’ve finally discovered Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct crime books and I’m really chuffed that I have.  I’ve always liked police procedurals as form of crime novel, and I always knew that Ed McBain was one of the most well regarded in that genre, and so I went in to Ed McBain’s books hoping for the best.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Another article:  I’ve noticed lately how many Jehovah’s Witnesses have suddenly appeared hanging around railway stations.  This article from the BBC Magazine explains how it’s part of a new strategy.  Whilst I don’t really want to be approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the street, I do wonder however, how this subtle approach of just holding out copies of their magazine near stations gets them anywhere.

Another song:  One of my favourite songs of this year (although it was actually released last year) is Help Me Lose My Mind from Disclosure featuring London Grammar.  It’s catchy, dancey but with a slight melancholy ambient feel, and makes me think of late nights relaxing to music with friends.  This video from YouTube is very well put together and fits perfectly, and is unusually good for a ‘fan video’.