Archive for February, 2010

On Wednesday night, immediately following a Cabinet meeting that witnessed the collapse of the Tories regeneration plans in Wickford, we had the farce of Council meeting to decide if Basildon should apply to the Queen to become a Borough

The result was a foregone conclusion.

All but one Tory councillor was present, all three Liberal Democrats were there, but Labour decided not to turn up –  despite saying they opposed it in the paper.

Quite how Labour councillors opposed this by taking a decision not to be there to vote against is completely beyond me. It wasn’t something that happened by accident – work over-running or a train arriving late, for instance. This was a decision not to be present.

It was a complete and utter abdication of political responsibility in two regards.

Firstly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as official opposition, failing to represent the many thousands of residents who have an opposite view to the Conservative administration. Secondly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as elected representatives. Their constituents expect them to represent their views. On Basildon and borough status, any comment they made in the paper is worthless as they singularly failed to follow up that stated opposition with votes.

Did Labour really oppose it? Or were they simply too divided that they thought it better not to turn up at all? We will never know as they abdicated their elected responsibilities: there are no votes to record their views.

The Conservatives argued that borough status would enhance the status of the district and with enhanced status would come investment. They explained that there is currently confusion when the “chain gang” get together [the other mayors] as Basildon is one of only two councils local to us  with a Chairman. To be honest, I think that most people these days think of a very different “chain gang” when it comes to politicians…

Most importantly, the Tories believe Borough status would allow them to recognise people of importance and grant them “Freedom of the Borough”. They made an emotive and compelling case, based on the Royal Anglian Regiment and the fact that, in the Leader of the Tory group’s words, they had missed a trick by not having borough status so they could grant “Freedom of the Borough”. They also said that they would spend no money on signage as all the signs say Basildon Council and they wouldn’t buy regalia or cars etc.

I was against the application. So were my colleagues. And we were there to make our points and vote against it.

For my part, I don’t have a principled objection to being Basildon Borough. However, politicians have never been regarded with so much contempt in modern times as they are now. There is a justified and deep-seated cynicism out there about the motivation of politicians and anything that appears to be self-serving, even when it is not, should be very carefully scrutinised.

I believe that the sight of politicians talking about whether they are called a “Mayor” or a “Chairman”, and whether or not they need to have regalia etc, is one that sits uncomfortably when so many businesses are going to the wall, as families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and when there is so much uncertainty out there about jobs and recovery.

And whilst deciding not to spend on new signs and stationery etc is the right decision, it does prompt the question, what’s the point? As far as the world out there is concerned, there is going to be very little visible difference. Basildon Council will be Basildon Council – Borough or District.

Part of me also thinks that this need to be like other Councils shows a spectacular lack of confidence. Basildon has a lot to be proud of, both in terms of its community and in terms of its national leadership in local government terms. We shouldn’t feel an obsessive need to be like other places, when one of Basildon’s strengths is that it is not. Conservatives don’t seem to be able to cope with being different and develop an entirely unnecessary inferiority complex. To my mind, the people we represent want us to simply get on and do the job.

Finally, on the business of offering distinguished individuals and organisations “Freedom of the Borough”, the Tories did indeed miss a trick.

It is perfectly in order for a District Council to offer “Freedom of the District”. They might have erroneously believed that that is a privilege that only a district with the status of city, borough or royal borough can confer.

However, they would be quite wrong.

Last year, Uttlesford saw the 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) parade through the town. Uttlesford decided it wanted to honour its soldiers for their service.

Uttlesford is a District Council and so doesn’t qualify under Section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 to offer “Freedom of the Borough” or “Freedom of the District”. However, they did identify that the general power of well-being contained in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 was broad enough to entitle them to grant the regiment freedom of entry. Accordingly, Uttlesford District Council resolved the following:

So it was that, on Sunday 14 June 2009, soldiers from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) marched through Uttlesford and were awarded the “Freedom of the District”.

Why didn’t this happen for the Royal Anglian Regiment when they marched through Basildon Town Centre on St George’s Day, 23 April 2009?

Not because Basildon is a District.

But because the Conservatives missed a trick.

In his summing up, Cllr Ball said that the reason they are applying for Borough status now is because it shows community leadership. If it is the right thing to do, you lead.

For me, though, and knowing what we do about Uttlesford, it’s hard to see Wednesday night as anything other than an exercise in politicians wanting fancier titles.

I agree that if it is the right thing to do you should lead.

What a shame that leadership didn’t mirror Uttlesford’s, with the Royal Anglian Regiment being granted the “Freedom of the District”.

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Readers may be interested to know that Eva Sajovic, the Slovenian photographer I’ve been writing about, has her own blog. Please check it out. Please stop by and take a look.

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Alkarama have reported that Ma’an Aqil and Abdul Rahman Koki have been freed by the Syrian government within days of each other.

Aqil, a journalist in Damascus, was arrested on 22 November 2009 and was detained arbitrarily for three months (I blogged about his detention in December). Alkarama report that he was released Tuesday 23 February 2010.

Yesterday, Alkarama reported that Abdul Rahman Koki was released on Tuesday 16 February 2010, following a presidential pardon.

In both cases Alkarama had referred the cases to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Reporters Sans Frontières also report that two other journalists, Ali Taha and Ali Ahmed, have also been released after weeks of arbitrary detention.

Whilst being cautious not to overstate the significance of these releases, they offer a faint glimmer of hope in so far as the Syrian regime appears willing to free individuals who have clearly been prepared to challenge the government domestically and, in Koki’s case, be directly critical of  it. As Alkarama notes, we must take this opportunity to remind the Syrian authorities of their responsibility towards international human rights law and urge them to release all prisoners of conscience, including Kamal al-Labwani, Hytham al-Maleh and Anwar al-Bunni.

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Regardless of the truth of the bullying allegations surrounding Brown and Number 10, they appear to be creating an even less savoury picture of goings on with our friends in the international community.

Apple Daily runs an online news channel called Next Media that, instead of using actors, animates its newscasts in order to make them more exciting. Launching simultaneously on 26 November 2009 in Taiwan and Hong Kong, it quickly courted controversy with parents complaining about explicit, erotic and violent content. If you are interested, Media, the marketing and communications newspaper for Asia-Pacific carries an interesting article on the rows surrounding Apple Daily on its website.

In any event, the sales-boosting bullying furore around Rawnsley’s new book, The End of the Party, has clearly attracted attention in the Asia-Pacific region and has made its way into the most extraordinary news bulletin I’ve yet seen on the matter:

It is difficult to know quite what to make of the provocative way in which Next Media presents current affairs. Suffice to say that their coverage of the bizarre legal dispute in Colarado over who owns the head of Mary Robbins (the Robbins family or Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation) suggests they like to sensationalise sensational stories.

However entertaining it is, it makes me grateful for the BBC and public service broadcasting.

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At dinner last night, we talked about the way that the experience of war imprints itself on the experiences of individuals and societies differently, according to the war and the immediacy of its domestic impact.

Reflecting on that conversation, it struck me that growing up with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction hanging over us left its own imprints. Less immediately dramatic, perhaps, than the years of evacuation, rationing and lights out of World War Two, but no less terrifying in its own insidious way, the Cold War offered plenty of sleepless nights to this over-active imagination.

I remember panicking when we were told that total annihilation was just four minutes away. Whenever the sirens were tested I found myself wondering if the radar I now know was based at Jodrel Bank had picked up inbound enemy missiles that would destroy my school and my family and the small world of Langdon Hills that I inhabited. I imagined Soviet tanks trundling through my childhood stamping ground of the Fränkische Schweiz and rolling across Western Europe, destroying everything in their path.

Television films like Threads and the Day After depicted the horrors of a nuclear Armageddon in chilling detail. I remember lying awake for nights, terrified of what would happen.

I also remember taking the bus to Romford to see Rocky IV in 1985 and being reassured that we would always beat the bad guys. How could we not be? Our plucky little hero was avenging his friend’s death and completed his training montage in the frozen Russian countryside with just a few logs at his disposal.

Drago on the other hand, his giant of an opponent, was wired up to the most sophisticated computers and pumped full of steroids – yet our man still triumphed and, in doing so, won the admiration of the Russian President.

Gloriously awful nonsense, but now, looking back, the parameters seem so much safer. In much the way that my father’s grandparents reflected on the unique camaraderie of the Second World War, the sense of social obligation and national community, I catch myself thinking back fondly to the geo-strategic certainty of a time when two superpowers leaned in on each other. The USA and the USSR were the hammer-beam roof of our geo-politics, creaking and immobile under the weight of their respective nuclear edifices.

In this changed world of terrorist cells, underground bombers, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare, such certainty seems oddly nostalgic. For me, that surreal stalemate of infinite nuclear escalation has woven itself into the fabric of memory, mischievously tangling itself with normative childhood archetypes of safety, and I find myself prompted to rueful reflection by the architecture of redundant physical structures or the clumsily amateurish animation of public information broadcasts.

They each harbour the childhood ghosts of lingering summers spent wondering on the end of the world.

The Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is a local example of such a building. I find a certain poignancy in the way that this extraordinary structure, disguised beneath a simple cottage and chillingly significant in its original purpose, has been reduced to such a level that it can now be hired out for parties. If you click the picture below you might see what I mean in the gallery that I have pulled together on Flickr.

Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker

In a similar way, the series of Protect and Survive public information films retain their ability to shock, despite their amateurishness. I still wonder if hiding under some doors and suitcases would ensure my survival in the event of a nuclear strike.

But perhaps the greatest reminder that this period in our history is dead and gone is the strange news that Latvia recently sold Skrunda, an entire Soviet-era town, now completely deserted. Click on the photo below and you will be transported to an eerie gallery on Flickr that paints a haunting picture of decaying urban sprawl  – its architecture, posters and purpose abandoned to the past.


Here the ghosts of my childhood nightmares can still play amongst the radar stations and the tower blocks and the crumbling, brick-strewn classrooms.

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Last October, Eric Pickles, Chairman of the Conservative Party, made a very bold pledge:

However, the stricture from Eric Pickles doesn’t appear to have been picked up in Solihull. Sophie Shrubsole, Conservative Future Area Chair for Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, excitedly marshalled her student troops after a request from Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) to encourage students across the country to gather in Warwick and disrupt last  speech by the Prime Minister:

Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard, who broke the story, wonders on his blog if Eric Pickles will be true to his earlier comments.

More specifically, I would imagine that Pickles has at least two courses of action he should consider:

  1. An inquiry to establish which party official at CCHQ was encouraging such dirty tricks and sack them;
  2. Disciplinary action against Shrubsole as a party officer for continuing to organise this planned disruption in clear contravention of his instructions.

The sad fact is though that, despite his pledge, Pickles will do nothing and the Conservative Party will seek to ignore this first clear example of dirty tricks – or explain it away as student hijinx.

There really is nothing quite so grubby and hypocritical as a Conservative Party desperate for power at any cost.

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Just a little reminder that for Basildon-based readers of “Fragments and Reflections” there is a survey running on basildonFOCUS regarding borough status. It is the first item with a nice big blue banner headline!

Please do go and have your say so that as local councillors we can make an informed decision about whether or not to support the proposal when it is put to Council next Wednesday.

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