Are you sure you want to bomb Syria?

November 27th, 2015

“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” – 1984

It seems bizarre that it is only two years since the Government lost a vote to get permission to drop bombs on Syria and yet it looks like there will be another vote. This time, of course, we’ve decided to bomb the other side. I’m not sure there has ever been an occasion where we’ve quite so explicitly changed sides in a conflict.

My stance on bombing Syria is a bit ambivalent really. In the scheme of things the UK deciding to bomb Syria will have little impact. We have seven Tornado jets that were built in the 80s trying to cover an area of 20,000 square miles. At any time we can only have two of these flying and as you’d expect with old aircraft they’re prone to break down. We do have drones but as we found out recently we’ve already been bombing Syria with drones for the last year.

Coupled with there already being well over a hundred aircraft  in the area we wouldn’t be doing much. We know that after a year of bombing the US have effectively run out of things to blow up so the majority of their missions return without doing anything. Russia are actively bombing things but they seem to be largely destroying the moderate rebels that David Cameron thinks will surge into the centre of Syria to replace ISIS.

My objection to bombing is based on having no clear idea which side we are proposing to be on. Everyone involved in the war in Syria wants something different and I’m far from convinced that ISIS is much of a priority to most of them.


Why on earth would you throw yourself in to the middle of that without any clear idea of what success would look like?

We decided to launch air strikes on Libya and the place is immeasurably worse for it. It is entirely possible we can make a terrible situation much much worse. It isn’t worth the risk of doing that just to make us feel like we’re doing something. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.


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Birmingham Leadership Race

October 15th, 2015

As Birmingham faces an exciting new leadership campaign I thought I’d write down a list of things I’d like to see a potential new leader commit to. Paradise Circus have made a very good point that the Birmingham Labour Party Leadership race serves to disenfranchise a population of a million people. If you don’t even bother to read any more than this paragraph you should sign their petition.

If the Chamberlain Files are to be believed then it looks like we’re faced with a competition between John Clancy, the annual challenger and Ian Ward, basically Albert Bore’s mate. As was pointed out on the Restirred Forum,  before we get bogged down in picking names we should at least have an idea of what we want from someone that rules over a city of a million people.

So this is where I come in with my unasked for priorities. In no particular order and based on no evidence these are the things I’d like to see a Labour Councillor commit to in order to win my vote (not that I’ve got a vote which is part of the problem):-

Transparency – The Council needs to make a proper commitment to transparency. It needs to make contract details, pay scales and commissioning plans publicly available. It needs to provide us with the evidence base it uses to commission services, it needs to involve us in making that evidence base.

Engagement – The Council needs a fully costed engagement plan. More effort needs to be made to go and talk to, and more importantly listen to, the communities of Birmingham. This will cost money and it will involve paying people.

Partnership – In the future the Council will only be able to deliver services in partnership with other people in the city, be they organisations or communities. To make this work the Council needs to commit to devolve budgets to partnerships and let them spend them. Fine be an accountable body but sometimes you need to let go of the cash.

Finance – Yeah we know about the budget cuts, you’ve mentioned it many many times. The Council still has massively more money than anyone else. Instead of telling us what the Council will pay for, tell us what it wants to achieve with the money it already has. This may mean that we need to lose some services but the Council has always been bad at replacing old services with new ones.

Employment – A clear commitment to increasing employment outside of the City centre. This has been neglected for too long. We need to acknowledge that whilst life might be great for some of us in the Guardian featured areas of Birmingham, for others life is generally shit and we’ve just let that happen.

As an addition to that someone needs to make a commitment to keep staff in the Council. Paying everyone over 50 to go away is a stupid way of trying to maintain continuity.

Culture – If we invest in culture then we will have an exciting place to live and we will attract more people to the City. It isn’t wasted money, people don’t want to live in a soulless metal fronted wasteland with a metric ton of shops. Well it does seem that people do want that but retail won’t last forever.

Locality – Give local communities money for them to spend on things they need. Money spent locally has a much more profound affect than if it is spent City wide or regionally. And proper budgets, not £150k to bribe people with skips before an election.

Contracting – Birmingham needs to stop massive contracting processes. Yes, it might be easier from a contract management point of view but it is killing small enterprises and it is leaving the City really vulnerable when contract inevitably fail.

I’ve deliberately left out children’s and adult social care. This is a mess and requires so much more than a trite two sentence summary.

That’s my list. I’ve no idea whether that means anything to anyone but I’d hope that anyone with a hankering to run the largest metropolitan area in Europe would have some response.

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Do You Know How Trident Works?

September 30th, 2015

tridentOver the next few months there will be a lot of hysteria about renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. One of the things that most annoys me about this hysteria is that people seem to be obsessed that Trident sums up all nuclear weapons and a vote to not renew Trident means unilateral disarmament.

Before this debate gets going it would be really useful if people could take a bit of time to think about what Trident is and what it does.  That’s what I’ve been doing, looking things up on the internet. I found these things out on the internet, off Wikipedia. Are these things you knew?

  1. Trident is designed as a system to simultaneously destroy ten cities at once. Using one missile that disperses a number of warheads. The idea being if a country launches an attack against the UK we can then take out most of their major cities in one go. It’s not designed to launch one single warhead but it is possible to equip it with less. It’s actually quite difficult to use it to destroy anything less than a country.
  2. The Trident system allows a full complement of 192 warheads to be fully operational. Because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties we restrict this to 40 warheads. In the future we will restrict this even further to 25 warheads. There is no point where we will ever be able to equip the system to the full extent of its capability.
  3. We lease the missiles from the US, we make the warheads but not the missiles. The entire programme to renew Trident isn’t about missiles, it’s about the submarines they live in. We will never own the Trident system.
  4. Trident came into operation in 1994. The first time we were fully defended by Trident was 1998, eight years after the cold war finished. We’re now talking about replacing it.
  5. The US also uses Trident but they’re not considering the same renewal programme. They’re considering spending less money to extend the life of their submarines rather than building new ones.
  6. Unlike the US, the UK Trident allows the captains of nuclear submarines to launch missiles if they believe the UK has been destroyed. Weirdly this can happen if Radio 4 stops broadcasting. The US system requires full authorisation from the US, they brought in added security to stop rogue commanders. The UK decided not to bother.

Trident is a very good system if you’re considering fighting a continental nuclear war but it doesn’t reflect the world we live in on any level. I don’t like to advocate for a nuclear weapons system that would be easier to use, I’d rather we did unilaterally disarm, but we should consider alternatives.

There are alternatives to the Trident system. We can attach warheads to cruise missiles, it would take us a while to get that working, but we could do it.

The debate about Trident is not a debate about having or not having nuclear weapons. It’s about building some very expensive submarines. That does have an impact on jobs, but that should be part of the debate and not a simplistic argument on whether the country will be defended or not.

We need to have a proper debate about what the strategic threats are likely to be in 20 years time. We should have a proper debate about how we think nuclear weapons could be used and if we as a country are comfortable about that. We need to have a debate about whether we are working with the rest of the world to disarm.

We shouldn’t blindly carry on fighting the cold war just because nobody can be bothered to find out what it is we’re paying for.


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Hopeless Obsession – Birmingham

August 12th, 2015

libraryBirmingham is obsessed with shiny things. It doesn’t just like them, it’s utterly obsessed with them. When it comes to civic planning it appears that cost and utilitarian value are absolutely the last consideration behind how shiny something looks. I mean that literally, all civic developments have their quality assessed by how much reflective metal they have.

I decided to write this after seeing Midlands Today’s story about the Birmingham Library service not buying books anymore. It seems that this might not be quite the stark dystopian policy that it appears; more a call out from a community library for donations rather than municipal book begging.

Since the library opened it has been dogged by being an obvious vanity project that we can’t afford. I think that much of the furore about opening hours is a political administration trying to score points about central Government funding but I think it also highlights that this thing should never have been built.

So here is my potted history of why it was a stupid idea.

At the turn of the millennium there was a plan. A plan to build a library to replace the brutalist central library. This library, designed by Richard Rogers, was intended to be the catalyst for redevelopment for the Eastside of central Birmingham, creating a learning and technology zone, or hub, or something. There is a fair question about whether this was ever affordable, Birmingham knew it was bankrupt due to systemic gender discrimination, but in those days we didn’t talk about that.

It seemed a good idea. Build something and try and prompt some sort follow on development in an area that needed it. Many people dispute the theory that these big investments do create further development, but it was better than what we ended up with.

In 2004 a new political administration swept to power on the back of promising to build an underground railway in Birmingham. Well it was dissatisfaction with the Labour Party dropping bombs on Muslims more than the underground but we should never forget this was a very real and very crazy plan.

The new administration took a principled decision to rip up any plans that the previous administration had thought up. It didn’t matter what they were or how reasonable they were, they were ripped up. That meant no library in an area ripe for development.

Instead our political leaders decided we would have a new library but it would be squeezed into an area that was already over developed. We would also not use the library designed for us (which wouldn’t have fitted on the tiny bit of land anyway)  but we’d buy one off the shelf. The library we now have had been touted around the great cities of Europe for ages but nobody really wanted it.  Maybe they thought it was boxy.

Which means we ended up with a library that would have no regenerative effect, that was not designed for our purposes and had been aesthetically rejected by many before us. This cost us £189 million.

And we love it.

The lack of having a 21st Century use other than housing books is ignored. The lack of having enough money to run it is ignored. The puff pieces in The Times make it all worth it.

We also decided to knock down the previous library which had direct cultural relevance to Birmingham. Because we need some more offices.

We’re about to do it again.

In September the national media will descend on Birmingham and we’ll be filled with righteous pride as people see the shiny new New Street Station.

Here are some questions you will not see asked:-

1) Haven’t you just glued some bits of metal to a car park?
2) How much train capacity has this £153m development added to the station?
3) Is white the best colour for a station with diesel trains?
4) Isn’t that quite a lot of money for a really big sushi concession?

No, we’ll love it and everything will be fine again. We’ll forget about the perilous state of the Council because we’ll have more shops and they will be very shiny shops.

Every year there is a giant real estate conference in Cannes (The MIPM). Every year Birmingham goes on mass and every year Birmingham is a little bit surprised how pleased everyone is to see us. Many say this is because this is one of the most sought after cities to develop in, many won’t acknowledge that it’s because we will buy literally anything if it is made out of metal.

In Birmingham we use The Simpsons Monorail episode as a blueprint for urban planning.

I won’t even start on the plan for a skyscraper with a built in theme park.

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Labour Party Introspection

August 6th, 2015

LabourWatching the Labour Party tear itself apart is weird. Not because it’s unexpected, after the sort of election defeat that follows on from one of the most incompetent Governments we’ve had it was expected. It’s weird because the analysis of why they lost and the battle for a new leader has come out of nowhere as one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen. Those of us that have a bit of a soft spot for politics looked at the Scottish referendum with a bit of envy. People coming out on the streets and being passionate about politics is something that we’ve had drummed into us doesn’t happen any more.

It’s weird that the Labour leadership election, albeit on a smaller scale, seems to be having a similar effect. And the Labour Party look terrified.

Possibly it’s the first time in a while that people see politics as something they can influence rather than something that is done to them, who knows? I hold my hand up and admit that I’ve not been much of a Labour supporter for many years but have registered to take part in the leadership election. Not because I have an affinity for the candidates but because it looks like there might be a slim chance that a party develops that speaks on my behalf. I think it was a reckless decision to let anyone take part, but it could be one of the greatest things that has happened to this country in years.

Leaving aside whether the Labour Party stands more chance of being elected with one person or another it does need to take it’s responsibility as an opposition party seriously. It needs to present opposite arguments to the Government rather than try and appear as similar as possible.

Yesterday Jon Cruddas released his review of why Labour failed so badly in the last election. One of his principle conclusions being that the public endorses the economic policy of austerity and feared the Labour Party’s response to the deficit. I’ve seen much comment that the question in research relating to austerity was loaded. I agree it was loaded but don’t think that undermines the finding. The whole discussion about deficit management and austerity has been loaded and that points to the Labour Party’s biggest failing.

The failure of the opposition to make a case against austerity has failed to broaden the discussion and conditioned people into believing in a largely discredited policy. Nobody is making the case that the majority of economists reject austerity as a failed experiment, nobody is acknowledging that most countries reject it as a policy and nobody is pointing out that it was only when the last Government significantly reduced cuts that the economy grew. If this case isn’t being made by the opposition then it is no wonder that this is not becoming an issue accepted by the media nor where the middle ground of public opinion lies.

Most people don’t know anything about economics, most people don’t want to know anything about economics, most people are quite happy to accept simplistic household income analogies as fact. It’s fine that most people don’t want to know about economics but it is not fine to then base economic policy on their refusal to understand how an economy works.

Which comes back to the Labour Leadership election. The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate has allowed people to begin the debate that this country needs. Proposing that deficit management isn’t the be all and end all of politics is not controversial. At least it isn’t controversial outside of the UK. We need to be able to have a public debate so that the much sort after “middle ground” of the electorate begin to understand there are other views and that evidence and practical experience doesn’t support current policies.

Without this debate we will be doomed to follow public opinion on whatever crazy ride we collectively decide to go on next.

So, as an outsider, I will support Jeremy Corbyn, not because it will make the Labour Party more or less electable (I dispute that it will have a material impact one way or the other), but because it is in the national interest to challenge policies that are ripping the economy to pieces. Obviously the counter argument to that is the primary purpose of the party is to get elected and then to attempt to redress the damage done by the  current Government. I reject that, if a so called “electable” Labour Party must stand on the failed policy of austerity to conform with public opinion then it would be duplicitous to then reject that when elected.

I hope the Labour  Party will see the groundswell of public support that they are getting at the moment and realise that there is small constituency of people who think differently to the received economic wisdom. It is their job to encourage that through their role as the opposition.

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#Harkive: My day in music 21st July 2015

July 22nd, 2015

Excellent, it’s Harkive day, or at least it was yesterday. For those that don’t know (how could you have missed last year’s thrilling update?), Harkive is a day where people are asked to make a record of the music they listen to and how they listen to it. Everyone’s listening habits are collated and create a picture of music across the world.

Now there are loads of different ways to submit your listening but I’ve stuck with an old school blog post. Mainly as it gives me something to write but also this is turning into the only place to find a comprehensive record of car stereos I have owned.

car_stereoYesterday started off with a meeting in town so I was listening to Six Music in the car at 9:30. I was pleased to find out Shaun Keaveny was on holiday. I’ve no idea what they were playing as I was utterly shocked to find out Craig Charles was not only out of bed but on the radio at that time on the morning. I think he played something by the Wedding Present.

After my meeting I was back in the car listening to Lauren Laverne, also on Six Music, playing Sympathy for the Devil. It seems that if schools aren’t open you can easily get from the centre of Birmingham to Moseley in just over a full version of Sympathy for the Devil. I used to be completely incapable of listening to Lauren Laverne but I’ve noticed recently I seem to have changed. I even buy albums she tells me to.

media_monkeyBack at home I needed to send some emails so listened to Wilco’s Star Wars album through Media Monkey. Media Monkey reads everything that we’ve got on our server and as Wilco were kind enough to give me this album last week I needed to make sure I’d put it in the right place. I hadn’t got round to listening to it before but it’s alright, not a classic but still worth a listen. Go and give it a go, it’s free.

Whilst I was doing that I decided to buy an Unknown Mortal Orchestra album (Multi Love) because Emma had told me that she’d heard them on the radio and they sounded like Prince.  Surprisingly that isn’t the most spurious reason I’ve ever had for buying an album. I bought it through the Amazon PC app. This is one of the worst bits of software ever written. Every button you click has a 30 second lag to it and if you buy an album you need to shut the whole thing down and restart before you can download it. I miss just downloading things from a website. I miss the days when we didn’t need apps.

pioneerOne of the benefits of self employment is being able to work in the conservatory, so after buying Multi Love I sat in our conservatory and listened to it through Spotify. Yep, I bought an album then went downstairs and listened to it on Spotify. There is no reason or sense in doing this.

Just about everything I listen to is through Spotify these days. This is entirely down to Spotify Connect. Connect allows you to open an album in the Spotify app and then send it to any device on the same network that is Connect enabled. We now have Connect enabled devices in just about every room so you can just move about the house listening to the same thing.

So I listened to:-

Unknown Moral Orchestra – Multi Love
Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self
Tame Impala – Currents
Tame Impala – Live Versions

That was July the 21st. Other than that I played quite a bit of Destiny on the PS4 but that’s probably more relevant to a completely different archiving project.

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Setting up a Fritz!Box 7390

June 6th, 2015

fbI’m writing this because I’ve got a Fritz!Box 7390, it’s a great modem but it’s a painful process to set it up. Every time I come to do it I end up spending ages searching forums and cobbling together a solution. It occurred to me that if I write it down here then I’ll know where it is and it might help some one else.

I’ve recently moved from Sky Broadband to Plusnet, although Sky had been charging me a fortune I was dubious about moving as it had never failed and getting my Fritz!Box to work had been a long and drawn out process. Eventually I was talked into reducing my bills and moving to a slightly less morally dodgy company.

When the bloke turned up to install my Plusnet fibre he ended up screwing a modem to our wall and giving us the flimsiest Plusnet router. I was told that my Fritz!Box 7390 wouldn’t work with Plusnet so I’d have to put up with their router. Their router is terrible. It couldn’t handle the number of devices in our house  (there are usually about 15 devices connected to the network).

Today I decided to get my old 7390 back as my router and did eventually get it working.

The first thing I hadn’t realised is that the 7390 will work very happily as the modem connected to Plusnet Fibre.  Just connect the cable coming from the wall into the 7390 DSL socket.

The IP address to open the control panel is,

In the control panel make sure you are in the advanced view and select Internet and then Account Information.

Under Connection select – Connecting to a DSL line

Under Account Information select – Yes, enter (with the xxx’s replaced by the email address Plusnet allocated you) as your username and your broadband password.

Select change connection settings and select the following:-

Maintain permanently should be set to yes.

VLAN ID should be 101

DSL ATM settings should be selected manually with VPI = 1 and VCI = 32

Finally encapsulation should be selected as PPPoE.

Select apply settings and that should work. Hopefully this will still be here next time I have to do it.


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Waste Management

March 30th, 2015

wasteThis is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a rant with a little bit of a lesson on how not to design public services. Really a significant part of this just highlights my inability to follow basic instructions but, you know, there might be some wider relevance in here somewhere.

In Birmingham we’ve just had wheelie bins handed out. As a pre-election give away they’re not great, mainly because they seem to really annoy a significant section of the population. I was quite pleased when the Council announced their delivery as I thought it would make my life just a little bit easier. I had underestimated the Council’s ability to implement a mess.

One part of a new recycling system is a mixed use bin. This is handy as it means we don’t have to keep two recycling boxes around. It’s also handy as when we put our recycling out it doesn’t get caught in the wind vortex outside our house and redistribute it across everyone’s garden. I suppose it must be quite common but our bins work by having the larger bin and a smaller pod that hangs just inside the lid. According to the instructions the pod is for paper and cardboard and the rest of the bin for bottles….. and other stuff.

In our house just about everything we buy comes via the Internet which means in a fortnight we can generate a lot of cardboard. Looking at our new bin it was really obvious that the pod thing was never going to hold the cardboard we need to get rid of. Equally we only recycle enough bottles to cover the bottom of the bin. So I decided to adapt the system. Nothing controversial, I just reversed the process to put my bottles in the pod and cardboard in the bin. As a result of this it seems I’m breaking the law.

I got this letter last week pointing out that because I’m not presenting my waste “correctly” I could get an £80 fine.

I don’t really have a problem with there being a “correct” way to present waste but there is surely a better way of encouraging compliance. Possibly explaining why their way is “correct”.

I’ve been told that it is permissible for me to load up my bin in the way the Council advise and then just dump excess cardboard in the street next to it. Which seems a ludicrous suggestion as it just makes the problem these bins were designed to solve much worse than the previous system.

There is an important lesson that when you design a service you need to sit down and look at how people use it; then you build in flexibility because it is a public service. That means you engage with people and encourage compliance rather than demand it. If people are doing it wrong you don’t just threaten to fine them.

I’m not going to make some sort of symbolic stand on this as I don’t really care that much (yes, just hit 500 words on this thing I don’t care about) but I do think it’s a good example of how public services completely misunderstand what their relationship with the public is.

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Top 12 Albums of 2014 (yes 12)

December 11th, 2014

Sun-Kil-Moon-Benji-608x540The one thing that is certain with this blog is that I will knock out a list of albums at the end of the year. This year I decided to mix up the format a bit and go for 12 albums. You might think that would mean one album for each month, you’d be wrong. I just couldn’t get my list down to ten, and let’s face it ten is entirely arbitrary.

It’s traditional that I start this off saying what a great year  for albums it’s been. I think I’m beginning to notice that every year is a great year for albums so let’s take that as a given. I’ve actually been able to put a bit more time into new music this year so you be reassured this is all quality stuff. After completing listening to 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die I really appreciated the opportunity to finally get back to things I wanted to listen to.

A few things to say about this list. There are very few new bands on there, possibly four. I’m not sure if this is because I’m just missing new bands, I’m sure that isn’t the case as I’ve got a lot more albums this year. As always, tell me about the albums I’ve missed.

In a bit of a reverse order (I haven’t really thought that through properly) including Spotify links where available or you can listen to them all in one go here.

Temples – Sun Structures – At the end of 2013 everyone was going on about Temples but  I didn’t really know who they were. I missed a chance to see them at the Hare and Hounds mainly because I didn’t really understand what I was being asked. I did get to see them earlier this year at the Institute. That was an odd gig. A 50/50 split of painfully young kids and uncomfortable middle aged men with beards (I was in the latter). There’s a lot of Marc Bolan in this with a bit of the Byrds thrown in and you might be forgiven if you thought someone had resurrected Kula Shaker. That isn’t to say it’s derivative, it is original. The world might not have asked for psychedelic pop to come back, but it has, so we  better make the best of it.

Royal Blood – Royal Blood – This is an album I’d been waiting for ever since seeing Royal Blood on the Glastonbury coverage. The drums and bass combo thing is more than adequately covered by Lightning Bolt but Royal Blood seem to carry it off equally well. I’m never sure whether being limited to just drums and bass is a statement of some sort or just because that’s all they’ve got. Either way it works. I have to say that this does get a bit samey, which at 32 minutes long is a bit worrying.

Moodoid – Le Monde Moo – Do you remember when we all got excited about Air because they were French and Moon Safari wasn’t shit? Moodoid are very French as well and this album has got some fantastically weird bits to it which also aren’t shit. I’ve no idea where I came across this but over the year I’ve gone back to it loads of times. I don’t speak French but I’d love to think this is a cow based concept album.

Motorpsycho – Behind the Sun – It seems absolutely ridiculous that Motorpsycho have been knocking out albums for over 25 years now. I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for  that as I’d never heard of them until a couple of years ago. But in the last couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to both them and the amazing collaborations they’ve done. This is all about Scandinavian progressive rock and I don’t think that is anything to be embarrassed about. Yeah, there are some weak songs in there but they’re more than compensated for glorious epicness.

tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack – Just an awesome album. Whokills was one of my albums of 2011 and this is as good. There aren’t many bands that just ooze originality and there aren’t many (any) that sound like tUnE-yArDs. There also aren’t many bands that make it such a pain in the arse to type their name.

Metronomy  – Love Letters – I had a real problem with Metronomy’s first album, The English Riviera. It came out at about the same time as Menomena’s Mines. I developed this weird mental block where I couldn’t tell the difference between the two, even though they sound nothing like each other. Love Letters has solved this problem for me because I can now remember that Metronomy sound a bit like Steely Dan. Sounding like Steely  Dan is a good thing. If I was going to have a guitar solo of the year it would be the one from The Upsetter.

St Vincent – St Vincent – An excellent follow up to Strange Mercy (I choose to ignore the album she did with David Byrne). Also one of those albums that on first listen I had no interest in whatsoever (just like Strange Mercy) but over the year it easily made it onto this list as one of the best albums of the year.

Ariel Pink – Pom Pom – I’ll never be able to comprehend how Ariel Pink goes about writing songs. If you were in his band and he explained the basic concept you’d obviously think it was ridiculous and leave the room. If you did leave the room you’d miss out on songs that just work. There is a lot of Zappa in here, but more tuneful.

Ty Segall – Manipulator (No Spotify link) – I’ve bought a few Ty Segall ablums over the years and none of them quite worked for me until Manipulator came out.  I’ve seen it described as Glam Rock but can’t really see it myself. It has a lot of Hawkwind about it.

Arc Iris – Arc Iris – I came across this on the radio whilst driving home from a bluegrass rehearsal. There was something a little bit weird about it, so I bought it and I’d say this is probably my most listened to album of the year. I liked the Low Anthem (Jocie Adam’s other/former band) but they were always a little bit too conventional for me to make much effort to listen to. I got to see Arc Iris at this year’s Moseley Folk Festival and they were an easy highlight of a weekend with a lot of highlights.

GoGo Penguin –  v2.0 – At last some jazz. I quite liked Fanfares but there wasn’t a great deal to differentiate it from a number of piano based trios (that’s actually quite harsh). v2.0 is just a massive step up in originality. Parts of it are up there with the best of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio but with elements of electronica in there as well. They fully deserved to win the Mercury Prize this year and in some way demonstrate that jazz will never win it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji – So this is my album of the year. The first time you listen to this album you will wonder if it has been released by mistake. Every song on it is deeply deeply personal and reveals things about Mark Kozelek’s life that you wonder whether or not you’re supposed to know. To the point of the prospect of seeing any of this live would just be awkward. Starting with the horrible story of his second cousin who burned to death in a rubbish fire and then going through revelations that make you realise that rubbish fire deaths seem to be a bit of a thing in the Kozelek family. It sounds grim, and some of it is, but it’s a great album.

There you go. 2014.

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Devolution Number 9

September 29th, 2014

Since the conclusion of the Scottish referendum I’ve noticed a strange enthusiasm for using the result to provide tenuous validation of every conceivable world view. I didn’t want to be left out, this is my interpretation of what a sudden explosion of interest in democracy means for wider devolution.

The most surreal reaction to a significant proportion of Scotland’s population wanting to leave the UK and an even greater proportion wishing to remain in the Union, is the Conservative view that this legitimises a rush to further marginalise Scottish decision making through the creation of an English parliament. The abject lesson of the Scottish referendum is that you do not rush constitutional change. The rush to force the referendum through meant a stark yes or no choice that very nearly split the Union and only served to emphasise the contempt that all political parties are held in.

One of the enduring recent political narratives has been how we re-engage with people to encourage them to vote with a particular emphasis on how we engage young people. This referendum has hopefully demonstrated that a failure to engage with political process is not, as was assumed, apathy on the part of the electorate. When the right question, with probably more importantly, the right range of possible answers, was asked people came out and made their views clear.
There is an appetite to engage with decision making but clearly not if the only available answers are based on an increasingly homogenous political elite. People are less enthusiastic in engaging with a process that cedes decision making to remote individuals who are presented merely because they were willing to compromise their beliefs to extraordinarily similar political parties.

I think this means that we have to relegate existing political parties to participants in a discussion on constitutional change and devolution instead of letting them define it. Without a clear mandate they will instinctively tinker with constitutional change in order to reinforce their own dominance. This is clearly demonstrated in the half baked notion of an English parliament and the constant moving of electoral boundaries.

The instinct for self interest is not peculiar to Westminster. The recent claim from the English core cities (basically the large cities in the UK that aren’t London) that the rush to constitutional change should confer to them greater decision making, and theoretically more money, is equally flawed. I live in one of the core cities and recent years have seen that characterised by a complete failure in governance. An inability to provide basic child protection, rubbish collection and endemic gender discrimination in its pay structure has left Birmingham floundering. Many of these issues have been compounded by a significant drop in funding but fundamentally this has been caused by political failure by all parties.

So I would suggest that if we are to explore greater devolved decision making then we need to start that with building up units of decision making from the very bottom upwards. This begins with communities and communities of interest. The most basic unit of decision making should come from communities that share an identity. In the main this is likely to be geographical but need not be exclusively.

People with a shared understanding of an area who are provided with real opportunities to influence that area will take part with decision making. In Birmingham we’ve tried to follow a process of devolving local decision making by creating “constituency” structures. The principle reason this has failed has been the bizarre decision that whilst decision making should be devolved it should be devolved to Councillors in a central building overseen by Council officers. This is devolution in the model used by the Soviet Union with its satellite states.

Also through using parliamentary constituency boundaries decision making didn’t automatically relate to the way that communities identify themselves. This is a principle problem in creating devolved decision making structures; they must not be created merely to enable easy management.

This has been a consistent problem with the plethora of changes we’ve seen in recent years to public services. Be it health organisations (Clinical Commissioning Groups) that are shaped by who plays golf with who, or police structures that are based on lines hastily drawn on maps that “sort of look equal”. This is devolution that is intended to confuse and alienate people.

This can also be seen in our regional structures. The drivers behind Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) were Local Authorities that liked each other. Not communities that shared culture, history and aspiration. To use Birmingham as an example, the Greater Birmingham LEP exists because many of the bordering Authorities didn’t like our previous Council Leader. This is ludicrous.

We need to build units of local decision making that are consistent across organisations, which the people who live in them understand and that recognise culture and history.

This is a long process that requires people to talk to communities and not simply make central decisions (looking at a map) or rely on the “local” knowledge of politicians. This is true be it small community units or even regional units. These all need to be reshaped to include the voices of the people that live in them and to give people a sense that they can influence change beyond the irrelevant political pageantry.

Across every community there are groups and individuals that are shaping and influencing their local environment and they’re doing it whilst bypassing political structures and simply not understanding the range of quasi legal public services that pay lip service to engaging with them.
We should harness these people and groups and work with them to formulate devolution. It’s unlikely we’ll get this done by May.

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