Month: July 2006

Shaping up

I’m saddened, but not surprised by Peter Black’s outburst over Ming Campbell’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats. The story, if you haven’t caught it, is Peter Black using his blog to criticise Ming Campbell’s leadership. His comments were then subsequently picked up by the BBC and other media.

A lot of these stories of MPs or AMs criticising their party’s leadership are usually exaggerated. In fact a lot of the initial criticism of Charles Kennedy was down to MPs being asked for their view on the criticism of the party leader. They lose all credibility if they deny there is any criticism and so they have to respond with something acknowledging that there are some problems and then continuing with something more positive. This is then turned in to a story along the lines “MP X criticises party leader”. Which was not their intention at all. For this reason, I thought I’d better check Peter Black’s blog myself and see what he had written.

Peter Black’s blog is one of the main Lib Dem blogs that I read. He is open and honest whilst also being far more informative about the workings of the Welsh Assembly than any other source online, including the mainstream media. Although I like Peter for his honesty and directness, I was however appalled at his attack on Ming. It isn’t as if he was responding to other comments, it was an unnecessary criticism that was not only unfair and misleading but at the same time it is obvious that comments like this were always going to be picked up by the press and used to make Ming’s leadership more difficult. If Peter wanted to make it harder to ‘shape up’ then this was the way to do it.

It is no secret that Ming’s original performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were not great. He acknowledged that himself. But as someone said, if performance at PMQs was a sign of your electoral appeal, then William Hague would be Prime Minister by now. But since then I believe that Ming has been doing exactly what Peter Black calls for, shaping up!

Back in February I made the following comment as a reason for why I was backing Ming Campbell:

A key area for me is about how the party should become more professional. The other parties are starting to understand why Liberal Democrat campaigns work so effectively, but due to their income they can do them in a much bigger and impressive way than the Lib Dems can. Along with this the party’s organisation is geared up for a smaller party with less scrutiny from the media. This has to change. Although the leader is not, and should not, get too closely involved with the day to day operation of the party, they can at least push for certain priorities from their position. That is something that I believe Ming will do.

I can honestly say that in the last couple of months, this is exactly what Ming Campbell has been doing. The professionalism of the party and its grasping of new campaigning techniques is not something that is ever going to be in the public eye and is not going to win us support. But by doing it the party ends up in a lot better shape to fight election campaigns. The only real test of this performance with Ming Campbell as leader is the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election where we did incredibly well and far better than people expected. So far, we have not failed a major political test with Ming as leader. As any Lib Dem will tell you, election campaigns, particularly council ones, are very autonomous of the party leader and it is the Lib Dems on the ground in that area that affect the outcome more than the national party leader. But Ming’s belief in updating what we do and improving the management of the party has started to make an impact.

Peter Black makes a very particular criticism about how the party leadership has taken a huge hold over the party and bypasses the party membership in its decision making. This is laughable. If you ask the average party member who is interested in policy and their criticism is not that the leadership is taking the wrong policy decisions, it is that federal conference is out of touch with the party membership. Yes that’s right. The supposedly democratic body that makes decisions on our policy is seen by the membership as less representative than its MPs or undemocratic policy unit. This fact is unfortunate for people like Peter, and me for that matter, who believe that policy decisions should be taken democratically by the party. Peter also criticises Ming for announcing policy changes in the media before a vote by the Federal Policy Committee or by conference. Well, that is nothing new. Charles Kennedy did that all the time, and doesn’t Peter remember the furore of Paddy Ashdown suddenly announcing the creation of the Joint Cabinet Committee with Labour? It is also the case that one of the strong criticisms of Charles, and one that I heard well before he resigned, was that he had a huge reliance on a handful of advisors in his office. In fact, many of these advisors are credited with hiding his alcoholism from others in the party and for shielding him from any internal criticism. In this sense, Ming has been far more open and inclusive by bringing more of his MPs in to his orbit and making it a more inclusive leadership than under Charles.

I happen to think the party is on the right track. Ming does not yet attract the popular appeal that Charles had, and the way that Charles went will take some healing. But I think we are on the way and whilst more needs to be done to sharpen Ming’s image, we are by no means worse off than we were under Charles.

Shaping up? The party already is.

PETER BLACK’S BLOG: Time for Ming to shape up

BBC NEWS: Sir Menzies is told to ‘shape up’

Currently reading…

Having finished Denise Mina’s “Garnethill” which was good and the main characters were people you could really picture and warm to. The downside was that I found many of the secondary characters confusing eventually as many just merged in to each other. But I think I’ve found another author whose books I will read again.

I’ve now started “Ratking” by Michael Dibdin. It’s another detective story, but this time it’s set in Italy. It’s the first of the series of books featuring Aurelio Zen. I hadn’t heard of either this author of the character until Monday when I found the book in Blackwell’s. But it sounded just what I wanted at the time and comes with praise from some pretty good sources.

AMAZON UK: Ratking by Michael Dibdin

Another new road layout…

Sheffield City Council excels in coming up with new complicated road layouts or ways of creating added congestion on Sheffield’s already clogged up roads.

To be fair to the council, Sheffield’s road network has always been a nightmare and there is only so much that can be done. Sheffield will never have an outer ring road as to build it you’d have to cut a huge swathe through the Peak District. Sheffield is also one of the UK’s hilliest cities which must make it difficult to engineer roads that don’t end up winding their way around hills or that descend steeply in to valleys and then back up the other side again. As a result of this, most main roads go from the outside in to the centre of the city and with the only convenient way of getting around the western side of the city (where I live) involving a number of roads that must be at least 1 in 4 gradients.

All of this however doesn’t excuse the fact that Sheffield will finally complete its inner ring road next year when most cities have had one for at least a decade, that Sheffield’s city centre is almost entirely made up of one-way streets or banned turns at junctions, trying to find a parking space in the city centre has always been incredibly difficult, that all the major road roundabouts in the city involve you having to pull out in to the smallest of gaps in the traffic or you’d never move or that Sheffield has one of the slowest average speeds at rush-hour of any city in the UK. Plus there is of course my long-standing gripe about the ludicrious idea that someone had back in the 1990s that it was sensible to put a tram line along a dual-carriageway that forms one of the few bits of outer-ring road that we have.

Despite all of this, Sheffield City Council seems to be in the process of embarking on another programme that will make the city’s traffic problems worse. The latest is to build out the pavement at every bus stop so that instead of going in to the side of the road when it stops, the bus now has to sit in the road holding up all the traffic. They are now banning parking on parts of main roads where there is enough room for both parking and for two lanes of traffic to get past. They are also seemingly adding in extra traffic lights wherever possible.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not anti public transport. I use the bus every day to get to and from work. But I simply do not believe that by making car use harder will drive everyone on to the bus or tram. All it will succeed in doing is making people more angry about the city’s road layout and cause more road rage.

A website I have begun to visit quite a bit in the last six months is Sheffield Forum. This website is a place where Sheffielders can argue, discuss or ask questions on all sorts of things. At the moment a debate is raging on more changes to roads in my part of the city. You can visit the debate by following the link below, but by reproducing my comment here it might give a flavour of where I stand on it:

I’m convinced that many of the ridiculous road layouts we’re getting now are as a result of fashions amongst highways engineers. I can see it now. The “experts” at universities or trade bodies come up with a wonderful new solution that will make buses flow more easily. They persuade civil servants and council officers that these solutions will be the answer to everything and they then become the official guidance. The council officers then persuade the councillors to back these plans in council meetings because it’s the only option on the table. Councillors accept the plans as they are sold to them as good for the environment and public transport and because the council officers are the professional experts after all.

These things go in phases. In the 60s and 70s people wanted major dual carriageways cutting through the city centre so everyone could use their car and because it looked modern. Now they want to block up roads with build-outs and bus stops so everyone will be forced to use a bus and because it looks environmentally friendly. What they always forget is human nature. They failed in the 60s because people actually want city centres that are walkable and more human in scale. The latest idea will fail because people won’t switch to public transport for all their journeys and people get angry about needless congestion.

SHEFFIELD FORUM: Another council highways cock-up

The state of the railways 1: vertical integration

Railway bridgeAs someone who worked in the rail industry for a few years, I’ve always been quite opinionated on the state of the railways. I get frustrated by its failings, just like any other rail user, but I also get frustrated by some of the misconceptions and misleading statements that I read regularly on blogs or in newspapers and magazines.

I have been asked in the past if I would write an article on the state of the railways and where I feel they are going right or wrong. I really should have done it, but at the time I never had enough hours in the day and now I feel a little bit as though I don’t have the up to date knowledge needed. It is four years now since I worked for a train company and things change. Despite that, there are things I want to say, but I struggle to know where to start.

So the aim of this posting is to be the first of an intermittent series of postings that I will make on the state of the railways. Some will be opinions, some will be explanations and some will just be a collection of facts, statements and links that I hope will be a way of collecting ideas and at some point I might put them all together in one article.

The main prompt for me to do this is the Tory party’s new ideas on the railways, and reading a few comments from other bloggers on this. I’ve put links to some of these posts at the bottom. Today’s posting will have to be fairly brief, but it’s a start none the less.

To make amends for the unpopularity of their policies on the railways, the Tories have now put forward a number of proposals. One of these is the integration of the tracks with the trains in to large regional companies. The Tories are certainly not alone in proposing this, but I have a number of concerns with the idea:

  • Many lines are used by more than one operator and so handing the tracks to one operator will lead to conflict on track access. Although the idea of very large regional companies has been mooted, this problem would remain in many cases. Perhaps the best example is Cross Country. Cross Country does not fit neatly in to any of the regions because of its very nature as a truly national operator. It is also arguably the operator with the biggest problems and is probably the most unpopular of all passenger franchises. Linking wheel and rail will not help operators like this and will arguable make things worse – negotiating with four or five track operators rather than one in the form of Network Rail.
  • A much neglected aspect of the rail network is freight operators. These would end up being completely sidelined by uniting passenger operators with management of the track. There are also numerous freight only lines throughout the country and so who would operate these? If the suggestion is a freight operator, then we are already returning to having several operators in one geographical area again.
  • Although you could unite the track and trains, it would not necessarily mean that the train operator would retain the job of maintaining the track within the company. For example, many train operators already give the job of maintaining their trains to another company and so why should they not do the same with the maintenance of the tracks. This would then put us back exactly to where we were before when we had companies like Balfour Beatty and Jarvis maintaining, and in some cases not maintaining, the infrastructure. You could stipulate a requirement for them to be retained in-house, but with private operators you will always get specialisms and there will always be conflict between the need to make money and the need to have the safest possible network. Keeping track and trains separate where one of them is privately owned is probably the best option in this case.
  • Does it really make a big enough difference to the railways for it to be worth changing the structure yet again. The railways have had enough upheaval as it is and I can think of many other changes that would make a bigger difference than this to the state of our railways.

GUARDIAN – The Tories are starting to clear their clutter of inheritance

JONATHAN CALDER – How the Tories ruined our railways