Month: June 2007

Midland Mainline loses its franchise

mmi_preview.jpgWell, it isn’t strictly true. In reality, National Express who currently run Midland Mainline and Central Trains has not been awarded the new East Midlands franchise, but it feels the same.

It is a sad day for a company that has through most of its life been the most reliable and punctual long-distance operator and has seen massive expansion over the years. I know I am biased as I worked for the company for five years, but I can honestly say that the company genuinely wanted to improve the services along the route and encourage more people to travel by train. Yes, of course it was doing it for profit but I think the route has improved under Midland Mainline’s stewardship, in particular in the years when Brian Burdsall was the MD.

It is rather odd then to see Stagecoach given a franchise for promising to do things that National Express had already done on Midland Mainline. For example:

  • Increasing parking spaces. The number of parking spaces on the route have massively increased, and has now reached a point where the car parks remain full but there is little room to expand them further.
  • Introduce new services from East Midlands Parkway. Midland Mainline are the ones who have done all the hardwork to develop the design for East Midlands Parkway, but were frustrated along the way by many people external to the company.
  • Introduce more trains per hour from Kettering southwards. Midland Mainline doubled the number of trains operating on the route. The only place where that had happened for many years after privatisation.
  • Build a new station at Corby. Midland Mainline looked at this but it simply wasn’t financially viable.

I left Midland Mainline frustrated with some of the restrictions on what you could do, and at a time when the company was struggling with punctuality. But I thoroughly enjoyed working there and it is sad to see all the hardwork to build a company and a brand that had a pretty decent reputation (at least as train operators go) only to see it all disappear. I feel real sense of sadness for everyone that works there.

Unfortunately I suspect it will also be the end of the free tea and coffee, which always went down well.

DEPARTMENT FOR TRANSPORT: DfT announces winner of East Midlands franchise

BBC BUSINESS: Stagecoach wins railway franchise

Believing in PR does not mean that you want any coalition at any cost

Every time the Liberal Democrats refuse to join a coalition they are criticised. The typical responses are things like “I thought you Lib Dems believed in coalitions?” or “How can you support proportional representation (PR) when you don’t want to join a coalition” or “What was the point of me voting Lib Dem if you refuse to go in to government when another party asks you to”. Indeed if you read some of the comments to a posting on Brown’s proposal to Ming on Nick Robinson’s newslog, you would think that the only reason for the Lib Dems to exist is to prop up other parties. So let me explain why I do not believe that we have a duty to go in to a coalition or some other arrangement with another party.

As a Liberal Democrat I do of course believe in proportional representation. It is a core part of my beliefs and a key part of the party’s principles, and is referred to in the preamble to the party’s constitution:

“We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections.”

But what it doesn’t say is “thou shalt join any coalition going”. I do believe in proportional representation, but I do not belive in coalition government out of principle. I simply accept that a natural consequence of electing a parliament where MPs are proportionate to their vote, is that coalition government will become inevitable as no party is likely to achieve 50% of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats exist, and stand for election, to achieve certain things. The party has a set of policies, that are guided by a liberal philosophy that has been engrained in the party for generations. It is these policies and principles that should guide you on whether to join a coalition or not. Basically, you need to decide whether the Liberal Democrat cause, and the things that your supporters voted for, are advanced sufficiently by the coalition that is on offer. If they aren’t, then you shouldn’t join it. The party’s cause could in fact be far better served better by turning it down and waiting until you can achieve more of what you want as the bigger party yourself or by working with someone else.

Some of the comments about Gordon Brown’s proposal to include Lib Dems in his cabinet talk about him “breaking the mould”, or being “progressive” or “forward thinking”. But I don’t see how putting people in your cabinet from a party that people didn’t elect in to government is any of those things. People always complain that politicians are dishonest. Surely it is dishonest to include in your cabinet people who do not believe in the party’s manifesto.

This may sound like me arguing against proportional representation. But I would argue that you work with the system you have got, and the current system gave Labour an overall majority and that is therefore what people voted for. If people had voted the same as last time but under a PR system then no party would have been put in to government and an arrangement would have had to be made between parties. Mind you, had we had PR last time people’s voting intentions could well have been very different anyway so it’s difficult to assume anything.

The Lib Dem refusal to work with Brown as a part of the cabinet should not however, mean that the Lib Dems should never co-operate on any formation of policy. Just as the constitutional convention in Scotland saw Labour, SNP, Lib Dems and those of no party at all working together to produce a plan for a Scottish Parliament, the same sort of thing could happen routinely within the Westminster arena on a host of policy areas. Indeed it would probably be a useful reform of parliament to make these things a formally recognised part of how parliament works. We do have select committees, but it might make sense for there to be a mechanism for two or more parties (or individual members of parties) to choose to come together to look at certain topics where there is already some unanimity between them and to then be formally recognised in a way that would allow them to access parliamentary resources, debating time and voting. I accept that it would be hard for these groups to change policy under First Past The Post, but they could carry real clout under PR and without the need to form proper coalition governments to achieve what they want. If these “conventions” did become a formal procedure in the House of Commons, they would also have the advantage of ensuring that any formed between Labour and the Lib Dems was not seen as a prelude to a coalition.

The Lib Dems are getting a hammering in some papers and online about its decision to not work with Labour. But the party is pretty united in being against it. Far from splitting the party as most papers seem to believe, it should unite it. The membership probably believe Ming’s decision is right, the MPs do, so where is the split? If it will split any party, it should be Labour who will be angry with Brown’s plan to include a member of a smaller party in their cabinet when he doesn’t have to.

NICK ROBINSON’S NEWSLOG: High Stakes

BBC POLITICS: Lib Dem anger over Brown ‘tricks’

555 views in one day!

stats.jpgAfter my last post I had a quick look at the blog stats that you get with a WordPress site. I was stunned – 555 people looked at this website yesterday – at least four times more than I’ve ever had on one day before. It even made me one of the top 50 blogs on WordPress worldwide – although that is probably more of a reflection on how many people normally read blogs.

So what were they reading about? Was it the incisive political comment? Was it the witty repartee? Was it dusty genealogists wanting to know more about the Wakefield family? No, it was to find out about a nightclub burning down.

ANDERS HANSON: Gatecrasher destroyed in fire

Do we really worry the other parties that much?

First it was Cameron proposing a joint Lib Dem/Tory mayoral candidate in London.

Now it is Brown proposing that Lib Dems join his first Labour cabinet.

I can’t decide whether it is because they believe that the Lib Dems have such excellent potential mayors and ministers, or whether it is because they see as such a threat that they feel the need to stifle us by absorbing us in to some unholy alliance.

Either way, if the other parties feel the need to give us so much attention it doesn’t really give much credence to those anti-Liberal Democrat commentators who are so ready to believe that the Lib Dems are doomed under Ming Campbell’s leadership.

GUARDIAN: Revealed: Secret talks over Lib Dems in Brown cabinet

GUARDIAN: Campbell rules out Lib Dems serving in Brown cabinet

Three months without a car

When I had to sell my car earlier this year I said it would be an interesting experiment to see how I manage without a car. The first two months were difficult, but time and moving house has made things a lot easier. But I have now found a way of having all the benefits of owning a car without actually owning one.

Life has gone pretty much the same as usual. I use a bus to get to work – which is fine – but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The main drawbacks have largely been down to the shortcomings of public transport. The biggest, and the one that affected me the most for the first two months is that bus routes go in and out of the city centre and not around the city connecting the suburbs. My job is based in the suburbs and so I have to travel between them – something that is impossible to do on public transport without going in to the city centre and back out again which takes far too long out of a working day. When I was still living with my parents I was only a 20 minute walk from home to work, but if it snowing, wet or late at night and you have to climb a steep hill to get home you miss your car a lot. The other problem with buses is that they become a lot less frequent at the weekend or after 7pm, which means you spend a lot of time hanging around at bus stops – not good if it is bad weather or you just want to get home. Another drawback is that I sometimes need to drop things off at people’s house such as leaflets and that is difficult to do without a car, indeed during the local elections I noticed that even the Green Party use a car for those sorts of jobs.

Everyone assumes that when you live in a city centre then you no longer need a car as everything is on your doorstep and you are close to public transport. It is true that I now find it a lot easier to access public transport as I am just five minutes from Sheffield Station and I can catch a bus or tram to any part of the city within a ten minute walk of my flat. But driving isn’t just about commuting which is all people think about when they wonder why city centre dwellers need a car. Driving is also about having fun and enjoying yourself.

I was very much a reluctant driver when I first learnt at 18, but the thing that made me love driving was just being able to go off where you want, when you want. I get a lot of enjoyment from just exploring the country, going from place to place seeing what they are like and stopping when you find somewhere interesting. You can’t do that so easily when you are relying on public transport. Fortunately I have at least found one solution to that issue – the car club.

I moved in to the Sheffield city centre at the same time that WhizzGo started their car club in the city. Once you have joined and paid your deposit, you can book a car online or on the phone for a just an hour or two or for a whole day or weekend. You pay so much per hour, and then so much per mile after the first 30 miles. If you fill up with fuel you use a fuel card and so the price of petrol is included in the price. I used it for the first time last week and I realised how much I had missed the freedom that you get with a car. If I had done the same trip last week on public transport I wouldn’t have done half the things that I did do, and I also wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go somewhere else when I found that where I had first gone was packed. It is easy to book, it is unusual for there not to be a car available somewhere nearby even at short notice (according to a friend of mine who uses WhizzGo in Leeds), the slight inconvenience means that you do look for a public transport option first and it means that you are aware of how much driving you are doing and the cost, whilst still not having to pay for car repairs, car tax, insurance and everything else that comes with it.

So what would I say to someone thinking about getting a rid of their car? Well, if you live in the suburbs then you will probably regret it unless you have good public transport such as in London, (yes, I know that you Londoners always complain about your public transport, but it is a lot better than the rest of the country), but if you live in a city centre and you have a car club in your area then do it. It is difficult to completely do without a car, particularly if you enjoy going out and visiting places. Maybe I could do without some of that travel, but actually I tend to think that quality of life and fun is important. They say a change is as good as a rest, and a change of scenery is very important for me from time to time and the places I like to visit are very difficult to reach without a car.

WHIZZGO

Gatecrasher destroyed in fire

Gatecrasher burns downWell they do say that living in the city centre is never dull, but I didn’t expect to see Gatecrasher burn down. It’s just a bit further down the street from where I live and I am in the last block of buildings not to be evacuated. It’s all very dramatic and when I left home to go to a pub to use wi-fi it was still being put out.

Although I was never a fan of Gatecrasher, it is sad to see the demise of one of Sheffield’s most famous clubs, which at one time was very much among the top clubs for dance music in the country. It also isn’t often that you witness big fires and there is something very compelling about watching it.

BBC NEWS: Nightclub collapses in city fire

FLIKR: Gatecrasher fire

Currently reading…

everytown-3.jpgI’ve just started reading a book that describes itself as “a journey into the English mind”. The book – “Welcome to Everytown” by Julian Baggini is about six months he spent living in S66 – apparently the most typical postcode in the country statistically. The book starts off by pointing out how most of the media portrays “middle England” as somewhere in the Home Counties, but in reality the real middle England is places like Brampton and Wickersley in Rotherham. It’s that continual difference between median and mean that is great for proving whatever you want.

Although the subject of the book is interesting in itself, the thing that drew me to it in the bookshop is that I know where the area is and to some extent what it looks like. S66 is supposed to be typical in that it has the right proportions of each social group within it. But it is soon made clear that a key point is that despite the great social changes over the last twenty years, most of England is still working class.

The interesting thing with reading the book will be to see how much I feel I can relate to the people he writes about. When you have grown up in Sheffield, you feel you understand what working class areas like this are like, and indeed anyone who doesn’t know the city assumes that the city is purely working class.  But in reality I grew up in Sheffield Hallam – supposedly the most middle-class constituency in the country and with the highest number of millionaires outside the South East. It is probably fair to say that growing up in Sheffield does at least mean that you aren’t completely clueless about “how the other half lives” as you still see a certain amount of it day to day and you work with people from different backgrounds, but it not the same as living in a working class area.

AMAZON UK: Welcome to Everytown by Julian Baggini

JULIAN BAGGINI