Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Thursday, 24 February 2011

If you ask a silly question...

Why is it that if you're a politician, you're not meant to have a sense of humour? You can be dour, sarcastic, critical and can slag off your opponents - which is all right apparently. But you can't make flippant remarks that are intended to raise a smile.

Even at the local level you daren't make humorous remarks in case they're misconstrued or quoted out of context (although I did slip up last night while chairing the Crosby Area Committee, and made two humouress remarks. Thank goodness there wasn't any journalists present!)
Remarks made by Nick Clegg, who does have a sense of humour, have been seized upon by the media and Labour politicians who chose to take them seriously.

When asked by a journalist before an interview if he was in charge while Cameron was abroad, Nick replied: "Yeah, I suppose I am. I forgot about that."

In my book, if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

Even those commentators who accept that it was just a throw away line, have puffed out their chests in mock indignation and have said how dare the Deputy Prime Minister joke when there are British oil workers stranded in Libya.

Hang on a minute - those oil workers know the risks involved in working in the Middle East. They go there because of the huge tax-free sums they're paid. I hope the rich oil companies who employ them are going to refund the British tax payer for bringing them back safely.

For goodness sake, let's not let the PC brigade ban our British sense of humour altogether!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The world is run by the people who turn up

Good to see that our North West MEP Chris Davies has taken the initiative to set up a cross-party group to support reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. 'Fish for the Future' will seek to put more fish in the seas and provide more jobs for fishermen. Chris says:

'Eighty-per-cent of fisheries are being fished unsustainably, and there are too many boats chasing too few fish.  Stocks are low, and we are importing more than 60% of the fish we eat - too often taking nutrition from people in developing nations along the coast of Africa.  Yet every day thousands of tonnes of fish are thrown back into the sea because they are not commercially valuable or because landing quotas have been exceeded.'

He continues:

'We expect the new policy to involve setting long term management plans based on scientific evidence, decentralising decision-making from Brussels to regional fisheries councils, curbing the discard of unwanted fish by moving from a quota-based approach to one based on controlling the numbers of days a fishing boat can be at sea, cutting subsidies for building new vessels, and creating a financial interest for fishermen to protect stock levels through new tradable rights to fish.'

Chris has no illusions, and knows how vested interests to keep the status quo will seek to dominate the debate in the many meetings to come. As he says - 'The world is run by the people who turn up!'

Thursday, 17 February 2011

I don't want Big Nanny in my life

I'm from a working class background. When I was little, my father was a Nottinghamshire miner, and we lived in a terraced house. But I've never voted Labour in my life, nor ever will. There's a fundamental reason for this. There's something at the core of socialism that is anathema to what I am. At its worst, Labour promotes weakness and dependency, and produces a lethargy amongst communities. There's a reason for this - it wants to be in control.

Orwell got it wrong - under Labour it's the Big Nanny state.

Don't get me wrong. I vehemently believe that the inequalities in society should be addressed, and there should be a level playing field as much as it is possible, and I'm not too proud to admit when I need help. We all need a safety net, when through no fault of our own, life throws things at us that we struggle to cope with.

But I've never wanted Big Nanny in my life. I don't want things organised for me - if  I'm interested enough I'll organise them myself. I don't want to be told how much I should drink, big flashing signs telling me to 'belt up', I don't want to be told I need five a day - I'm not stupid, I know I need a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables to stay healthy.

When my children were little my wife would take turns with other parents organising coffee mornings. The kids would run riot upstairs while the mums would chat in the kitchen, or in summer have a glass of wine in the garden. There was a toddlers' group in the church hall, but this was low key, and didn't cost much to set up. Health visitors would sometimes attend to impart information.

There wasn't the hysteria then about paedophilia, so no expensive CRB checks which only have meaning if someone has been caught and convicted. One of the sensible things The Coalition is doing is to cut down on these checks. Remember when the last government said that even parents taking other children to school had to be CRB checked?

Sefton Council had a crazy policy where councillors had to have several separate checks to cover them for different situations where they might come into contact with children. I fought and won that battle - getting the policy changed to one check, and saving the council-tax payer money.

During the six years I've been a councillor, one of the things that's impressed me is how residents near Victoria Ward's three parks have banded together to form Friends groups. These people have given up their time to pressure officers, councillors and the police to bring about improvements. More than that, they've taken the initiative and got involved in organising park events for local families. They've also done some pruning and bulb planting, and other unpaid work in our parks.

This is more Big Society than Big Nanny, but I'm sorry Dave - you're only putting a gloss on what was already there.

Stay away Big Nanny - we don't need you.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Walking with ghosts...

It was a late decision on Saturday afternoon - it just popped into my head - I needed to get out into the countryside and walk.

I also yearned for the company of other walkers while getting my fix. There's little pleasure in sitting in a pub on your own after a walk, pint in hand, talking to yourself. Where would I find them at such short notice? A few minutes on the Internet and I had uncovered the website of the Southport Fell Walking Club. They have members from Crosby to Tarleton. There was a name and a contact number which I dialed. After a short discussion to ascertain that I was experienced, and up to the rigors of fell walking, I was invited to join them the following day for a coach trip up to the Northern Lakes. Perfect.

The weather was wet and blustery as we left Sefton in the dark, and it only seemed to get worse the further north we went. After a coffee stop at a service station on the M6 we arrived at Murgrisdale and began the steep 522 metre climb up to Souther Fell. As often happens, the rain had all but disappeared, although it was blustery on the hill top. Stunning views aside, Souther Fell has quite a spooky reputation.

It began on Misummer Eve in 1735 when a farm worker saw a huge army crossing the hill top, before disappearing in a cleft. Two years later his boss, a farmer called Lancaster, witnessed cavalry and foot soldiers. He and his family watched the tableau until it went dark. Every year after that on Midsummer Eve people turned out to view the spectral sight, but to no avail. It was not until ten years later that the Lancasters, and 26 other people witnessed a vast army of marching soldiers, cavalry and horse drawn carriages stretching half a mile across the summit. The following day they climbed the hill to look for physical proof of the army's passage - but there were no hoof marks or wheel tracks apparent.

There doesn't seem to have been any sightings since then - so perhaps it was just a transient anomaly. Certainly there were no ghosts visible on the damp windswept hill top while we were there - but then perhaps it was the wrong time of the year?

We did find a pub at the end of the walk; the Horse & Farrier Inn at Threlkeld - and very nice the beer was too! I'm sure I'll see more of my new chums - and when my wife comes home, she will probably join us.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The wild card that may scupper building on green belt

Yesterday I voted with other councillors on the Planning Committee for the public to be consulted on the options for future housing and commercial development in the borough.

If you believed the headlines in some of our local papers, you'd be convinced that decisions had already been made to allow thousands of houses to be built on green belt. This is far from the truth, yet officers are advising us that we might have to allow some green belt development to meet Sefton's 'housing needs'.

The last Government imposed a house building target on the Council of 500 units a year. The Coalition have decided to scrap the Regional Spatial Strategy, and instead have said that councils should assess their own needs. Sefton commissioned an independent study - and it resulted in a figure of 480.

So, as there are no government targets - we can choose to ignore it, then? Not according to planning officers. To avoid challenges by developers, we need to assess how many new houses we need, and where they can go. Without encroaching on green belt, we have a supply of land that will cover us for just under nine years. So what happens after that?

The officers view is that it is better to earmark specific green belt sites for possible future development than let developers have a free for all. Officers argue that if we don't pick 'preffered sites' then developers will pick what suits them - and if we say no - they will challenge us in the courts.

Ironically, the population of Sefton - and indeed Liverpool - is shrinking year on year. So why do we need any new housing at all? The reason, apparently, is that more people are living on their own, and the average family unit is now down to two.

I see the logic in what they're suggesting, but once you move the goal posts to include green belt, it's like a nod and a wink to landowners and property developers. I've certainly not made my mind up yet - and residents will have a chance to have their say before there is a final decision in the Autumn.

There is one factor that the planning officers have not addressed - a wild card that may scupper building on green belt.

Food shortages.

Due to adverse weather conditions there has been a global reduction of cereal crops in the past year. The price of grain has almost doubled, and we've all noticed it in the supermarkets. Russia has put a ban on exporting its grain, and China is suffering a devastating drought. Despite the recent floods, Australia has had a bumper crop - but China needs to import vast quantities to feed its burgeoning population - creating a world shortage and driving up the price of grain even more.

Much of the green belt in Sefton is grade one agricultural land. At the moment we import 60% of what we eat. This will be unsustainable and unaffordable in the near future. There is going to be a driving force over the next few years to grow more of our own. 

Its not fields full of houses we will need, but fields full of wheat, barley, carrots and potatoes.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Are we heading for a cat flap?

Following on from my blog of 29 January (see below) regarding a former police officer's close encounter with a puma-like creature in Pembrokeshire, comes another report - this time in Wigan.

According to the story, at least half a dozen staff at a call centre overlooking the Three Sisters Country Park, observed the large black beast. Eye-witness Julie Fairclough told reporters:

'I saw this fabulous beast about 150 yards away. I called my workmates over because I could hardly believe my eyes. At first I saw it in a tree and initially thought it was a big group of birds roosting together. Then it started moving and I realised what I was looking at - a sleek black, big cat.

'It jumped a gap to sit on the top of a building. Later when I went out to check the gap it was about 12 feet. It was walking backwards and forwards and looked like it was patrolling.'

Countryside manager, Graham Workman, was sceptical as he had found no paw prints when snow covered the park earlier in the year, and there had been no reports of mutilated sheep. He thought that perspectives had played havoc with the witnesses perceptions, so they could have misidentified a domestic cat. Six months earlier he had received another big cat report, of a lynx type animal.

The day before the Pembrokeshire sighting, came another in Dursley, Glucestershire. A woman contacted the local BBC radio station claiming that she and her sisters had seen the animal on three occasions over several weeks. She said:

'It was probably about the size of a big German Shepherd dog and very long, and completely black with a huge tail about the same size as its body, and it had a huge head with yellowy eyes. It's not afraid of humans - it was circling my sister's car. When she tried to get out it came back and circled again.'

A concentrated number of sightings over a defined period is known as a 'flap'. Are there more sightings to come - are we heading for a cat flap?

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Monday, 7 February 2011

Should this chap be banned?

There's a chap who phones me every so often, usually just after we've delivered our Focus newsletter. The purpose of his call is to have a ten minute rant at me. I just listen for the most part, and occasionally interject. At the end of his rant, he's very polite and thanks me for listening.

While he's ranting I get this picture in my mind. He's in his kitchen. At one end is his phone on 'speaker', and he's at the other end, standing on a soap box. He's a slight figure well into his seventies, stooped and gripping an enormous megaphone through which he rants at me. I can't see his face but I'm sure it's bright red and craggy.

So what does he rant about? Well apart from passing jibes at 'foreigners' and 'immigrants', it's usually the same topics: Clegg is Cameron's puppet, Blair's a mass murderer and American Jewish financiers masterminded the banking crisis. Well we know two of those are wrong for a start.

Should this chap be banned? Certainly some of his comments are racist, and others defamatory (especially those aimed at Cleggy). If he stood in Crosby Village with his megaphone and started ranting at shoppers, he would probably be arrested by The Thought Police.

Personally I wouldn't have a problem with him doing it, but then I'm not Jewish, I'm not black and I'm not Tony Blair. Freedom of speech walks a fine line, but people like this chap make me question how the state in recent years has curtailed it. 

The logic seems to be that you can eradicate racism by passing a law against it, stopping people openly expressing their racist views. It seems to me that you don't change behaviour by passing a law, you only suppress it. You have to change people from the inside - although some people with such firmly held beliefs are beyond that.

Should we consider a Speakers' Corner in every community? It could be well away from the mainstream, so you would only go there if you wanted to be exposed to ideas and views that you might find unsettling and offensive.

Perhaps this would be a better platform for the chap who rants at me - and it might even remove some of his frustration.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Can a politician be bullied? Is it possible - or not?

The subject of bullying hit the headlines a few days ago with claims that Vanessa Feltz had 'bullied' a student who was doing work experience on her radio show.

When Beverley Nesbit said she had never heard of the W. B. Yeats, Feltz ordered her to write a 2,000 word essay on the poet. The girl didn't produce the essay, so Felz insisted she should go to the library and get it done. Instead the media student locked herself in a toilet cubicle for two hours, crying, and texting her mother.

Feltz's actions might seem a little bizarre, but were they bullying? I've thought for some time it's a term that's been over-stretched, and used to describe any sort of assertive behaviour of one person towards another. My Collins English Dictionary defines a bully as; 'a person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people'.

Bullying was once perceived as sustained physical and psychological abuse. What often passes for bullying these days was then described as 'being picked on'. It was a learning experience, giving the victim the opportunity to acquire coping skills.

All that Feltz was doing was what any English teacher would have done discovering that a pupil didn't know who Yeats was. Go away, do some research, and write an essay. This wasn't bullying, it was the teacher doing her job. In that sense, was Feltz being maternal rather than bullying? Was she punishing the girl, or trying to educate her?

WARNING: Here come a generalisation.

The problem is that modern kids are brought up by parents and the state to believe that they are beyond criticism. A generation ago, if a teacher was critical of a child, the parent would support that professional assessment, and not take it as a personal attack. More often now, the parent will blame the teacher, saying 'she doesn't like my child'. Over recent years teachers have had to follow a policy of ignoring pupils failings and only highlighting their achievements - even if they're meagre. These kids then go out into the real world unprepared for criticism and rejection. They haven't been taught how to deal with it, and overcome it. They're not street wise.

Can a politician be bullied by another politician? At the same time as the Vanessa Feltz story hit the headlines, I was made aware of a charge of bullying by one member against another on Sefton Council.

The complainant claimed that an opposition councillor had publicly bullied them 'over many years'. With the backing of their group leader, they put in a complaint to Sefton's Standards Board, where the allegations were heard behind closed doors - the accused totally unaware, and given no opportunity to refute the allegations.

The first he heard of it was a letter from the Acting Head of Corporate Legal Services. Bizarrely, after admitting that the committee found no evidence for an investigation, he then went on to remind him of the Code of Conduct, as if there was a case to answer. Had he been bullied into writing this letter?

So, was the councillor bullied, or were they just hurt and embarrassed because their political short comings had been publicly exposed? This person is something of a serial complainer, having accused another councillor of bullying some time ago.

Is the truth that this member was less articulate and knowledgeable compared to their tormentor? Did the person decide that the only way they could get back at him was to brand him a bully, and then, hopefully, this would stop him challenging them in public?

In effect, the accused had been bullied into silence.