Sheffield Central Library to be replaced by hotel? It’s not the full story, and it shouldn’t just be rejected out of hand


Sheffield Central Library, Surrey Street. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The instant reaction to today’s story in Sheffield’s Star newspaper “Chinese plan to turn Sheffield Central Library into five star hotel” is inevitable. People will of course be appalled, in fact horrified is probably a better word. Many won’t read any further than the headline, as the reaction on Twitter is already showing. But here’s why I don’t think we should dismiss this idea out of hand.

First of all, it’s the headline. It doesn’t tell the full story. It could easily have instead been “Plan to invest millions in building new Sheffield Central Library.” The headline instead is typical clickbait and will make many people react in anger without even reading the story. The reality is that IF this goes ahead Sheffield will get a new modern Central Library, and the older building that currently houses the library will be turned in to a five-star hotel. That’s something that the city doesn’t have at the moment and it needs it if it is to compete with other similar sized cities, something which I desperately wish it would do on a more level playing field.

Secondly, it’s about the appalling state of the Central Library building. Whilst it has some brilliant sculptures and art deco features a lot of its structure was knocked up on the cheap in the late 1920s/early 1930s. As a result, the steel frame is severely corroded, the window frames are almost falling out and the roof leaks to such an extent that it causes panic for art gallery staff every time there is a heavy deluge of rain. It also has terrible disabled access and its IT facilities are poor. If it was a 1960s build that was in a similar condition it would probably have been demolished by now, but because it is a beautiful and much-loved building the council has tried to keep it patched up and preserve it as best they can at a time when there is very little money around to invest in it properly.

At the moment this is just a proposal. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen and if it does become a firm plan it needs to be heavily scrutinised, but what it could give us could be something brilliant. Investors (who happen to be from China) would buy the current Central Library building from the city council and turn it in to a hotel thereby preserving one of the city’s favourite buildings. The city as a result gets a modern state of the art library building in return which I hope could be of some architectural significance too. I’m not someone whose instinct is to defend the city council’s ideas. I also love the Central Library and I’m there on average twice a month often more, so this is something that means a lot to me personally. But I’ve also seen the facilities that the new library buildings have around the country and they’re much better than what Sheffield has to offer (For example, I love the interior of the new Library of Birmingham). It may also give us the opportunity to create more space and move many books that are currently in storage on to the shelves where they can be borrowed more easily. It would also be nice if it could at the same time create more space for the city’s art collection which is similarly often in storage as there simply isn’t room to show them properly (at present it’s proposed that the Graves Gallery would move to the ground floor of the existing library building but perhaps there might be a better alternative).

I don’t deny there’s lots to consider properly in this proposal, and I know as little about it as is in the article in The Star. But we shouldn’t just reject it out of hand just because the headline is sensationalist and it involves wealthy overseas investors getting something they want too.

Geoffrey Lee 1919-1941

Note: I wrote this post three years ago and for some reason never published it at the time. So having remembered it and re-read it this felt like a good day to put that right.

My family is fortunate.  In all of the family history research that I’ve done and in the vast extended family tree that I now have, I only know of one ancestor who was killed in action.  That’s not to say that my family wasn’t affected in other ways, but as we remember the people who died fighting to preserve peace, democracy and liberty, I thought I would write this post about the one member of my family who died in combat.  This post has been written by bringing together a number of useful online sources that were readily available and between them give a picture of what happened. With more research over a longer period of time and using offline resources too, I will undoubtedly find out more. If there’s anyone out there who does know more, including perhaps some long lost relatives, then do get in touch or comment below.

Geoffrey Lee doesn’t sound like a close relation – he’s my first cousin twice removed – but if I instead describe him as my grandma’s cousin he suddenly feels a lot closer, especially as it was my grandma who told me the most about the Jackson family, of which they were both a part.  But despite this distance, I have always had an interest in Geoffrey Lee simply because he was the only person in the family who died during the Second World War, and because I’d seen this lovely photograph of him, which appears to have found its way to other websites.

Geoffrey was a member of 82 Squadron which during the Second World War spent much of its time in operations over the North Sea.  It was largely based at RAF Watton in Norfolk, although it eventually operated out of other bases such as nearby RAF Bodney and RAF Lossiemouth, and then later in the war it moved entirely to the Far East.  Geoffrey was a part of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, which is to some extent an RAF equivalent of the Territorial Army.

82 Squadron had had a tough time of it during the early part of the Second World War.  Twice it had to be rebuilt from scratch following raids where every plane was brought down by German bombers.  The most prominent of these incidents was during the raid on Aalborg in Denmark in August 1940 (there’s an interesting short film about it) when most of the squadron was destroyed and a number of airmen captured.  In July 1941, 82 Squadron was often being used for anti-shipping operations in conjunction with the RAF Coastal Command (a book is available about this often forgotten – including during the war itself – offensive).

On 30 July 1941 at 12.43, Blenheim IV R3803 took off from RAF Bodney in Norfolk.  On board the plane were three crew members – Pilot Sergeant Peter Stocks, Air Gunner Pilot Officer Eric Hale and Observer Sergeant Geoffrey Lee.  They were aiming for the area around the Kiel Canal, possibly to bomb German targets in the area or possibly to lay mines.  The Kiel Canal has long been a crucial link between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea since it was constructed in 1895, and although this made it a huge asset to Germany during the war, it also made it a point of weakness for them as they relied on it so much.  The flight on 30 July 1941 was therefore part of a long-standing and much wider operation around this part of the North Sea.

At around the same time as Peter Stocks, Eric Hale and Geoffrey Lee were taking off from Norfolk, a number of German Messerschmitt Bf110‘s took off to guard the Kiel Canal, probably from their base in Jever in Lower Saxony, northern Germany.  They were part of the Zerstörergeschwader 76 a wing of the Luftwaffe which was engaged in numerous varied operations around northern Europe, and at other times across Europe and the Middle East.

At around 14.30, the British RAF plane was found by the Germans in the skies above Denmark.  Opening fire, they brought the plane down over the North Sea not far from the Danish city of Esbjerg.  It was one of five Blenheim’s shot down by the Germans within a 20 minute period that day.

The war continued…

A month later, Eric Hale’s body was found on the beach at Nymindegab with Geoffrey Lee’s body found nearly 40 miles further south on the beach at Mandø.  Peter Stocks’ body was never found.  Geoffrey Lee’s body along with that of another British airman and three German airmen, were retrieved by the Wehrmacht and taken to Ribe and then on to Esbjerg’s Fourfelt Cemetery.

Geoffrey Lee and Eric Hale are buried are at Esbjerg’s Fourfelt Cemetery.  Peter Stocks is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

17 months after Geoffrey Lee’s tragic death, his brother Wilfred’s second child was born. He was named Geoffrey Lee presumably in memory.

Thank you to the following websites which have proved essential in helping me put together a lot more about this than I ever knew before:

Back to Normandy
Aircrew Remembered
Søren Flensted’s Air War over Denmark
Tony Wood’s Combat Claim List
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – Sat 29th Oct 2016

I’ve not managed to blog the last English Council Executive (ECE) meeting or follow up on the English Council (EC) meeting which I feel a bit frustrated by. This has been due to some personal circumstances and a slight reticence whilst I was in the process of job hunting given advice received from a couple of recruitment agencies that being seen to be currently politically active might jeopardise my employment chances. I’m not sure whether that’s true but you don’t want to take the risk. With me now having been recruited for a new role starting soon, and having a little more time on my hands, I am trying to catch up with some of the English Party’s activities in light of tomorrow’s ECE meeting which is back meeting at Lib Dem HQ for the first time in a while.

As always this post has ended up far too long, however there are at least two pretty chunky areas that are seeing a lot of work which you can read more about here… (more…)

Preview of English Lib Dem Council – Sat 2nd Jul 2016

Tomorrow’s English Lib Dems Council meeting held at University College London will probably be one of the more interesting ones in a while. I say this as someone who has always found English Lib Dem Executive interesting, but been less engaged by the English Council. The reason for this is that it sees motions to implement the rules on diversity that the party’s Federal Conference voted for in March, changes in the way that the English Party operates to bring in OMOV and a revised structure for the state party and, in a change to the originally advertised programme, an open discussion on the EU referendum result and a possible snap General Election. There will also be a presentation by the party’s Chief Executive Tim Gordon.

But before I go on to those, here’s a few excerpts from the various reports from the English party officers and its representatives on other party committees that have been presented to the English Council meeting:

  • As has been widely advertised, the party has seen another surge in its membership since the EU Referendum (about 12,000 new members at the time of writing) but last year’s post-General Election surge has largely held up. Two-thirds of those new members from last year renewed immediately and signs are that a good proportion of those left will renew before their membership expires.
  • A proposal will be going to Federal Conference to increase the proportion of membership subscriptions that go the federal party from 44% to 45%. This is intended to help improve the national party’s cashflow.
  • The membership incentive scheme has been a great encouragement to local parties to recruit new members, however it was always intended to reward local party efforts rather than just to hand extra cash to local parties as a result of a national membership surge. There is an expectation that the way the incentive scheme works will be reviewed in the light of the most recent membership surge.
  • A further 53 General Election candidates have been approved since May 2015 which will help plug some inevitable gaps should there be a snap General Election this Autumn. I’ve been impressed at how rapidly the state and regional candidate officers have sprung in to action to ensure that we already have pretty advanced plans should there be a General Election this Autumn.
  • The Party President has set up a diversity taskforce following the motion passed at Spring Conference. She is also looking in to complaints about allegations of sexual harassment at conference, however although this may achieve some important changing of the culture, action can only be taken by state parties on specific complaints if people are prepared to provide information so that the party can investigate. I appreciate this can be difficult for people but as I’ve said before I am very impressed by the party’s Pastoral Care Officer and so I’d urge people to contact her. You will be supported. Her details are going to be included in future conference directories but you can also make complaints here.
  • Although the EU Referendum didn’t see the result we wanted it was felt that the engagement by members was impressive, including one weekend when over half of all local parties had a street stall.
  • Proposals on the party’s Governance Review will be presented to the party’s Autumn Conference. Whilst I support many of the draft proposals there will inevitably be some that are controversial. There is also the possibility of course that it will all have to be delayed if there is a snap General Election.
  • The Federal Policy Committee is currently recruiting to four new policy working groups on industrial policy, foreign affairs, education and rural issues. The deadline for applications is the 4th July so you need to act quickly if you want to join them. More details can be found here.
  • The Federal Policy Committee are actively looking at ways to engage more people in the policy making process. Consultation sessions at conference have been improved, Skype is now routinely used for members of policy working groups and they are looking to develop packs that can be used by local parties for each topic under discussion.
  • The York Spring Conference saw the highest attendance at a Spring Conference that there’s been for a long time. It also made a small profit which is very positive given that traditionally it has made a loss, and this is largely due to efforts by the Federal Conference Committe and Conference Office to run the conference on a smaller budget.
  • The Federal Conference Committee is reviewing how ‘interventions’ are made in conference debates. These are short contributions made from the hall, but as such it is harder to balance opinions according to the debate or on diversity. Suggestions on how to improve this are welcome.
  • Liberal Youth are organising an Activate weekend for younger activists on 28th July. They are also planning their freshers’ campaigns including mental health, house building and the EU referendum response. They are also looking to create guides to help Liberal Youth regional parties to run better action days.

Motion: Changing the Westminster selection rules

This follows on from the motion at Spring Federal Conference and as such probably needs little extra information here (you can download the motion that was passed in the agenda from that conference available here).

There is however an amendment that would seek to change the threshold at which a region had to designate a seat to select from an all-woman shortlist from having at least two seats receiving 25% or more of the vote to having 20% or more of the vote. This would ensure that those regions who previously didn’t need to designate a seat would now have to do so. At the same time however an additional clause would also ensure that all-woman shortlists cannot be imposed on a seat without their agreement as long as they can prove their ‘gender balance credentials’. I’m not entirely sure what this means.

Whilst I was always opposed to the original diversity motion, (for a variety of reasons which there isn’t time to go in to here but was largely around the principle that we shouldn’t stop seats from selecting the right candidate for their seat regardless of characteristic and about the effect the motion would have on other forms of diversity), I do feel that the expression of feeling given by the Federal Conference was such that this motion does need to go through. I will however listen to the debate on the amendment as I need to fully understand what it means before I decide how to vote on that.

Motion: Restructuring the English Party

The English Council last November approved a strategy paper that included creating a new structure for the English Party. The party has also now adopted One Member One Vote (OMOV) at a federal level and so this will now be introduced at state and regional level. The amendments to achieve all of these things are too detailed (and dull) to explain here, however in addition to OMOV the key changes proposed at this meeting would in summary:

  • Replace English Council with an English Conference which all members in England can attend. For logistical reasons this is expected to become a part of Federal Conference.
  • Replace the current English Council Executive (ECE) that is comprised of all regional chairs, a number of specific office holders (such as chair, vice-chair, treasurer, candidates etc), and 11 additional members directly-elected by English Council. Instead it would become a committee comprised of just regional chairs and a slightly increased number of specific office holders elected by all English members – chair, campaigns, candidates, finance, members and standards.
  • Replace yearly elections with two-yearly elections.

Since these proposals were originally put forward one key change is that the Federal Executive has expressed a desire to move to three-year cycles for all federal, state and regional committees, with each level electing in a different year. I appreciate the neatness of this, but I know there is some concern that at at a regional level committing to three years as a regional chair might put off some people who are prepared to do it for a year and see how it goes. I have a lot of sympathy for that argument as someone who was regional chair for a year and decided that it wasn’t the right time for me to continue but wouldn’t want to let the region down by resigning early.

There is also an additional amendment which would see the retention of a smaller number of directly-elected members of English Council Executive members rather than abolishing them completely. Rather than the 11 at present it would see five which is consistent with the sub-committees of ECE. Again, I have some sympathy for this, and not just because I am a current directly-elected member, as it allows you to include some additional people with useful skills and experience who don’t have the time to be a regional chair or are perhaps former experienced regional chairs whose knowledge you would value, but I will again listen to the debate before deciding how to vote.

There is a valid argument to be made about whether this is the right time to be making these changes to the English Party structure when we don’t know how the party’s federal Governance Review will impact on state parties. Some recognition of this is seen in that the full change to OMOV won’t be made until the Governance Review has concluded and the proposals do show a willingness by the English Party to examine whether it does work in the best way. However, despite the mandate given to explore these changes given by the last English Council I worry that some of this will end up having to be unpicked again once the Governance Review has been approved (or not) by Federal Conference. Having said that I do largely support what is proposed and so plan to support the motion as a whole.

I had anticipated this post being shorter than usual due to the more straightforward agenda. Seems it wasn’t to be so, but as always feel free to contact me by either writing a comment or filling in the comment form available in the header of this website which then comes to me directly via email.

Some TV, book & talk recommendations

In February I wrote a post highlighting some of the interesting TV programmes I’d seen over the last few months. I’m going to do the same again but expand it to some of the books I’ve read and talks I’ve watched online (largely on TED talks) as a wider set of recommendations:

TV – Drama

Line of Duty (BBC) – There’s been a lot of praise heaped on to Line of Duty – a series centred on investigating police corruption – and without doubt for me its last series was one of the best police dramas I’ve seen on TV in a long time. So, could the new series live up to the hype? In my view, yes absolutely, and it continues to surprise and shock as it goes on.

Follow the Money (BBC) – This is the latest foreign language drama in the BBC4 Saturday night 9pm slot. It’s a Danish crime series around business and corruption. At times you aren’t entirely sure who is a goodie and who’s a baddie, but that’s what makes it so compelling.

Blue Eyes (Channel 4) – Part of the Walter Presents… strand of foreign language dramas that’s available from Channel 4, this focuses on the rise of the far right in Swedish politics and takes as its start the murder of a supporter of the fascist party. This is something that hasn’t been covered at any length in any other political series so it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

Trapped (BBC) – It’s a few weeks since this was on, but I missed it from my last post and so I’m including it here as it was a great series and the first Icelandic crime series shown on BBC4. Set in a remote town in Iceland when a body is found, the town is then snowed in and the local police set to investigate the murder and other associated criminality in the town. Not many dramas show it snowing for most of the series, and it was a great programme.

TV – Documentaries / Factual

Inside Obama’s White House (BBC) – this has been a fascinating behind-the-scenes four part series covering four of the major elements of his time as president including interviews with key players and Obama himself. It gives a good sense of what drives him and certainly gives you the impression of a bright, capable man whose time as president has been hindered by resentful opponents and events outside of his control. Whilst putting a positive spin on much of what he has done it’s an interesting counterbalance to some of the criticism that he’s achieved little.

Amy (Channel 4) – I was pleased to see this Amy Winehouse biopic being shown on TV as I missed it when it was available at the cinema. Whilst I’m a fan of Winehouse’s music this documentary will be of interest to many other people who aren’t. Whilst many will acknowledge that she was a flawed talent, this programme shows her to be a much more complicated individual.

Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb (Channel 4) – An interesting programme about the mystery of Shakespeare’s tomb (it doesn’t bear his name nor does it appear to be the right size) which includes the first archaeological investigation of his grave.

The Prosecutors: Real Crime and Punishment (BBC) – This behind the scenes documentary series shows the work of the Crown Prosecution Series and was interesting to see a crucial part of the criminal process that most of us don’t really think about or are aware of how it works. Having done jury service in the last year, it helped fill in some gaps in my understanding of how it all came together in court.

Being the Brontes (BBC) – This one-off programme takes three writers to Haworth where they explore more about the lives of the three sisters and tries to get to grips with who they really were and how their lives there impacted on their writing.

Art of Scandinavia (BBC) – Barring a few notable exceptions, the art of Scandinavia is often overlooked when considering art across Europe. This series takes each country in turn looking at key figures in that country’s art and how the landscape and culture of the country has impacted on it. Despite my Swedish heritage, it’s certainly filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge and moved me on from the slightly twee yet comforting paintings of Carl Larsson.


I’m an avid user of the GoodReads website and keep track of the books I’ve read and write regular reviews on there, so you can see more of my reading there. Here are a few of the eclectic selection of books I’ve read recently however that are of particular note with an excerpt from my full review.

Walk the Lines: the London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason – Every so often you read a book that feels as though it was written especially for you. That’s just how I feel about Walk the Lines. Over the last few days I have been exploring London by vicariously walking the route of every London Underground line through the efforts and writing of Mark Mason, and it’s been fascinating.

Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells by Desmond Seward – Unusually for a history of such a prominent family this book takes their home as its title and focus. It’s fitting however for a house that, whilst far less well known that the literary siblings who made the Sitwell name famous, has a big impact on every generation of the family.

Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis – This fascinating book brings to life Georgian London. Based on Lucy Inglis’ blog each chapter covers a different part of London its history, way of life and the characters who were crucial to that part of the city at that time. Although a credible and authoritative history what makes this book stand out is the way its author loves an interesting story that gives you a real sense of life at the time, rather than just a dry stating of the facts.

Genealogy: Essential Research Methods by Helen Osborn – This book has become one of the core texts if you are undertaking your family history. Whilst a potentially dry subject, this book explains in an interesting and clear way the crucial techniques you need to understand if you are to undertake genealogy in a methodical and thorough way. Using real examples from the author’s own research, this book will help you think afresh on how you do your own research and make you cover all of the bases in ensuring you have a clear and traceable family history.

TED Talks

Just the two to kick this off, as I’ve not watched as many of these of late but I remain a huge fan of the inspiring and fascinating things you explore through the TED talks website.

Hans & Ola Rosling: How Not to be Ignorant About the World (view here) – Father and son team Hans & Ola Rosling present real statistics and information about the world that shows that whilst there are undoubtedly problems around the world, things are actually a lot better than we think. It’s a call to question what you’re told by the media and at school, but also gives a few tips on how to use your instinct to better understand the world.

Rory Sutherland: Life Lessons from an Ad Man (view here) – A leading figure in the world of advertising, this seven year old talk is still one of the funniest. It also though helps you understand why intangible benefits may be good and how advertising could change the world for the better despite what people may think.

Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire

Cheshire is one of those counties that I’ve not spent enough time exploring. I’ve got friends who live in Cheshire and other places nearby and I’ve often visited them, but I’ve never really got out and about visiting the different parts of it. It also seems to have a lot of historic houses worth visiting, and so that’s how I ended up at Gawsworth Hall when a friend who lives a few miles away suggested we met up.

On Easter Sunday (or at least this Easter Sunday) Gawsworth Hall near Macclesfield opened to the public for just £2.50 entry. If you add in the beautiful weather when I set off from Sheffield it seemed like the perfect day out. It continued to be a lovely day out, but the weather was one thing that didn’t last as after we’d been inside the house (fortunately) for about five minutes the heavens opened and the rain was bouncing off the ground.

Gawsworth Hall (West Front)

Gawsworth Hall is a traditional black and white half-timbered house typical of Cheshire. Its ownership has passed through various families, although many of them connected, such as the Fittons, the Earls of Macclesfield, Earls of Harrington and then various individual owners up to the present day where it is now the home of Timothy and Elizabeth Richards. What makes this house so different from others you visit is that the house is opened up the owners and they are there to show the house where they live day to day. These aren’t rooms for show, they’re rooms for daily life. But despite that it’s worth a look around. Gawsworth Hall isn’t the most important house historically or architecturally, as lovely a building as it is, but it’s that feeling of being in a real but well preserved old house that’s retained large parts of its history that makes it interesting to visit. It was often brushed by history – Charles II was said to have stayed and it saw a notorious duel – but it wasn’t right at the centre of it, as many older houses probably weren’t.

If there’s one thing I love when visiting historic houses it’s a good library, and Gawsworth Hall achieved on that score from the off. The first principal room that you see is the library lined with beautiful old books that you just look at and think “I could so live here,” although you’d hate to dust it. Mind you if you can afford to live in a house like that you can probably afford to have a cleaner and avoid the dusting yourself. We soon realised however that we would needed to keep any opinions we had about the place to ourselves given that our comment on dusting (one very thorough dust once a year apparently) and another comment about St Barbara (there was a carved figure of her, which was an odd coincidence as I’d only said the day before I’d never heard of her when someone was marrying at a St. Barbara’s church) were replied to by the owner stood some distance away in the Entrance Hall. She might be a bat.

Despite me saying that Gawsworth Hall isn’t historically important, it has two characters that it’s especially proud of. One is Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, one of the last jesters in the country who used to live at Gawsworth where he’d entertain the Harrington family and whose fiddle is mounted on the wall of the house. The other is Mary Fitton, who is thought to be the dark lady that Shakespeare wrote about in his sonnets (someone I admittedly was unaware of) and who lived in the house and is buried in the church next door. These add some colour and further interest to the house but in reality it’s the cosiness and ancient feel of Gawsworth Hall that makes it worth visiting.

Their gardens are fairly low key and distinctly damp on the day of my visit, but after a look round and a lovely cream tea in their small cafe, we then called in on Gawsworth Church where many of the former owners of Gawsworth Hall are buried. It amazed me how many churches continue to be unlocked so people can just wander in these days, which is a nice sign of still trusting people. Although parts of the nave were marked as being alarmed and so you weren’t able to get too close to the most interesting bits of the church.

Gawsworth Church

There is a small album of photographs from Gawsworth Hall on my Flickr site.

English Lib Dem Executive Report – Sat 19th March 2016

Here’s my regular report from the English Lib Dem Executive (ECE), this time from the one held last Saturday. I wrote a post before the meeting and so this is adding to that report.

First, a short clarification from that report. The membership figure I gave was just for England rather than the total party membership. However the English Party treasurer reported back at the meeting that the figure had since been revised upwards and so he needed to clarify the exact figure. So I suppose it’s fair to say the figure is at least the 52,654 I gave before.

So here are the main points from the meeting, which is a mixture of discussion arising from the reports presented to the meeting, and a lengthier discussion that looked specifically at some of the points that had come out of the General Election Review and the Party Governance Review:

  • The party has considered the option of moving Lib Dem HQ out of London but the cost is the largest barrier because there would still need to be some sort of base in London which would mean the party would have to sustain two HQ buildings not one.
  • The costs of running Spring Conference this year were substantially less than they have been, and if you exclude staff costs made roughly a £5,000 loss which perhaps isn’t as significant as was originally thought. I should say that this figure is approximate and based on information supplied to the Federal Conference Committee and so I don’t know how it is calculated. The conference hall overflow area in the exhibition area turned out to not be needed (although a couple of debates came close to being full), however the cost of having ‘hard-shell’ stands may mean that the exhibition at Spring probably won’t return to exactly how it used to be. There was a clear desire at the meeting that Spring Conference should continue, whether this is as a Federal event or just an English one.
  • The party is currently recruiting a new Director of Campaigns and Elections and it was proposed that ECE should request that the English Chair be on the interview panel. I was happy to support that as it provides a link between the appointment and regional parties, however the decision was clearly not in our hands and we didn’t know who was already proposed to be on the panel.
  • The next English Council is moving to early July (since the meeting it was agreed to be on the 2nd July) as it was originally scheduled to be the weekend before the EU Referendum. There was a suggestion it was instead moved earlier to mid May to allow the changes to candidate selection rules to take place sooner rather than later, but the time taken to come up with the rule changes and to properly consult on them makes that difficult. I made a request that we engage much more extensively with the wider party on this than we usually do as the decision will be of interest to a lot of people who aren’t on English Council.
  • Whilst on the subject of candidates, there are many parts of the candidate selection process that constituencies can get on with before the rules are agreed and will allow them to advertise as soon as the rules are sorted (as I’ve said previously, if you’re in a seat that wants to be an early selection you need to contact your Regional Candidates’ Chair ASAP). A briefing note will be sent to all local party chairs to make sure they’re aware of the schedule and what they need to do to select. Unlike in the last parliament, where both state and federal parties agreed that we should wait until boundary changes were known before candidates were selected there is no suggestion that this should happen this time. In most cases a selection will stand regardless of boundary changes, although a handful may have to reselect if the changes are particularly extensive. In cases where the majority of the new seat was in a seat that was previously selected under an All-Women Shortlist then the new one will be. It’s important to be aware that the next boundary changes will not just be a dusting off of the previous proposals with just a few tweaks, as the electorate has changed quite dramatically in some areas and this will have a knock-on effect even if there are areas that look as though they closely match what happened last time. This is something that the party needs to be taking more seriously.
  • Whilst on rule changes, the next English Council meeting will also consider changes to bring in One Member One Vote to the English Party and changing the current make-up of ECE. The original plans for this were outlined in the English Strategy document agreed last November, but these have now been turned in to some draft amendments that will be tweaked by a small group of ECE members before being circulated more widely. With all members in England being able to vote it would see English Council instead replaced with an English Conference which due to its potential size could be a part of Federal Conference, or run as a standalone event. Whatever happens however it would need a very different sort of agenda as the current format of English Council is pretty dry and wouldn’t engage the members that well (or at least wouldn’t encourage them to come back). The membership of ECE is also proposed to change to instead be made up of the English Party officers, English regional chairs and Liberal Youth England Chair as now, but without the 11 additional elected members (of which I am one). The officers, who would all be directly elected by all members in England, are currently proposed to be made up of the chair and five vice-chairs covering campaigns, candidates, compliance, finance and membership. The last four of these are all specific responsibilities of the English Party, but the addition of a campaigns role is designed to ensure better links between Lib Dem HQ’s campaigns function and the campaigning role performed by English regional parties. Each of the vice-chairs would have a committee to help in their work whose members would be elected by ECE with any member within England eligible to stand for election. Whilst I think the English Party does need to get on with introducing one-member-one-vote I have some doubts about immediately changing the structure of the English Party’s governance even though the general thrust of these changes were agreed by English Council last November. Given that the party’s Federal Governance Review has yet to reach a conclusion and there is likely to be a knock-on effect we perhaps should be waiting for that to conclude first even though it is entirely within the gift of any state party to structure itself as it wishes.
  • Liberal Youth England is keen to promote its Branch Development Fund which helps Liberal Youth branches get up and running. They had a very good turnout at their latest conference and there’s quite a bit of optimism.
  • There was some concern expressed at the meeting about the idea of combining candidates with campaigns in any new party structure. Those who have been involved in the candidates process were pretty passionate about the need to revisit this suggestion contained within the Governance Review. It was accepted that the work of the candidates function is currently poorly understood and there is a lack of communication (in both directions) between candidates and campaigns which needs to be resolved. However, there is also a potential conflict of interest between campaigns and candidates that could end up leading to interfering in specific selections with the result that they are less impartial and fair to all involved and lead to further conflict and formal complaints. The job of a candidates’ chair at national or regional level is already a nearly full time role where the regions do most the work on the ground but wouldn’t be helped by then being separated from those people on the national committee that co-ordinates it. This is a debate that will no doubt continue.
  • There was some discussion about how people are elected to party committees. The Governance Review asks if directly-elected members should be in the majority, and ECE agreed that they should so what the committees do is generally owned by the membership, which is a current issue that affects the credibility of how the English Party operates. This should however include state representatives as being seen as directly elected. However there could be various ways in which direct election is done, such as people being elected within regional constituencies to ensure a broader geographic spread. It was mentioned that the chair of the English Party is currently around the third most northerly English member of the Federal Executive and he lives in Hertfordshire.
  • Regional chairs were concerned that they hadn’t seen the full General Election Review which they thought they had been promised. The summary version that is publicly available contains many recommendations and assertions, but without the full version it is difficult to know how those conclusions were reached and what issues were identified that led to them. It was agreed that it should be kept confidential, but if regions are to play a full role in rebuilding the party then the chairs felt they needed to be better informed.
  • The English Party has awarded an annual Penhaligon Award for membership each year. This has traditionally been about not only membership increase but also engagement. There was a suggestion that rather than awarding it in the Autumn, it should be postponed until next Spring and given to the local party that does the most over the Summer and early Autumn to retain membership from the post-General Election surge.

The next meeting is on Saturday 21st May.