Local Democracy for Everyone: The Luddite Antithesis

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part the #notwestminster Team from the early stages, so to see the resulting Local Democracy for Everyone event come to fruition in such a successful way is a proud moment. Working with Carl Whistlecraft, David Bundy, Diane Sims, Aggie Wilstrop, Andrew Wilson, Andrea Robinson and Jane Wallace, has been a privilege.

To have held the event in Huddersfield, a stronghold of the Luddites, somehow seems appropriate. From the outset there was a feeling of how do we break and smash to smithereens the giant machine of democracy. But in antithesis to the Luddites smashing up new machines, progressive and modern advancements in technology for production which threatened peoples livelihoods and ergo their communities, we were aiming to smash up a system that has for too long disenfranchised individuals and communities and look at ways to re-build it into something meaningful and real – Local Democracy for Everyone.

It would be easy to ramble on and put in my own two-penneth, but there have been a number of blog posts offering a range of insights already, so in case you missed them, I’ve referenced them below. Read them all, they’re all worth it.

Carl Whistlecraft: It might only be a thank you post, but it will give you an insight into how things came about, who was involved and why he thinks the event was such a success. It’s people!!

Diane Sims: My #notwestminster Journey, is more than a post about the event itself, it is about an inspiring journey that certainly resonates with me, and I expect will do so with others as well.

Sara Turnbull: Writes of her reinvigorated view that a council’s democratic services function should and can be much more than providing support to council committees.

Dave McKenna: This is an interesting insight on the #notwestminster hashtag and the concept of what it represents to one person – I like it and I am adopting it and maybe I’ll consider further what it means to me.

James McLaughlin: “The key message I’ve taken away from the event is that local democracy is not about structures and rules…but it is something more dynamic and less rigid – An Antidote to Sir Humphrey

Carl Haggerty: A brilliant summing up of what the day meant – “a special event…took place that created the space, time, inspiration and curation to bring together an amazing group of people.”

John Popham: This Storify demonstrates in words, pictures and tweets just how much activity was going on that day – a really good curation that charts from start to finish.

I don’t know what an alternative term for an anti-Luddite might be in a local democracy context, but I’m sure I am one and think these people above are too. Answers on a postcard…or Tweet!


Philomena…Coogan’s ‘The Punch and Judy Man’

Philomena is a 2013 British drama film directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. The film based on a true story about Philomena Lee, who confides to her daughter that, 50 years earlier, she had given birth to a son in Ireland, but because she was not married she had been forced to give him up for adoption. Journalist Martin Sixsmith, had just lost his job as a Labour government adviser and wasn’t sure whether to take up running or write a book about Russian history. He ends up, somewhat reluctantly at first, being persuaded into pursuing the ‘human interest’ story of Philomena. What unfolds is an amazingly touching, horrific, forgiving and humorously scripted story, beautifully acted. Dench is nothing less than one expects from her, such a presence does she have on screen, lines delivered in a way that makes you forget you’re watching a film and actually observing somebody’s life.

I cannot recommend enough taking the time to go and see this film. I am not one to eulogise about such things often, unless its a nostalgia driven visit to De Niro’s or Brando’s back catalogue. Maybe I’ve grown up a bit, though it could be just a frame of mind I was in. That said, the realism of films such as this, how the story unfolds, the fact it is British maybe! Although, the Hollywood film Michael Clayton had a similar underplay and resignation to it.

Go see it, please!

I really wanted to touch on the subject of Steve Coogan here though. Naturally, best known for his portrayal of Alan Partridge since, like, forever, a lot of people don’t like or really get that character.

Therefore, it is easy for some to dismiss Coogan as a one trick pony. But for those who get Partridge and know something of Coogan’s own back catalogue, they know that the success of Partridge masks a back catalogue of particularly funny, crude, eccentric characters who reveal the depth of talent and observation Coogan has at his disposal.

Philomena is testament to this talent, both in Coogan’s performance on screen and the co-produced screenplay. As the title of this piece suggests, I cannot help but feel that this is Coogan’s ‘Punch and Judy Man’, the film in which Tony Hancock departed quite severely from his Hancock’s Half Hour on screen character.

Whilst I am not in a position to judge the two men in terms of their private life and the reactions to the films and them as people, in the same way that Hancock revealed himself (despite much criticism of his production) to have a darker story and deeper talent than simply a comedic character, this Coogan film achieves much the same in that it reveals a man deeper and more talented that he is perhaps given credit for. I hope, though, significantly less troubled!

For those of us who have grown up with Coogan and perhaps equally as much with Alan, this depth of talent, subtly and insight has never been in doubt. For those hoodwinked by their dislike of Partridge and taking this as a signal of Coogan being one dimensional, this film will make you think again. At least I’d like to think so.

Maths: “Bring 5,000 empty homes back into use using new capital funding…”

I am going to dispense with too many convoluted sentences or opinion and get straight to the point. This is really a question of maths.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have announced a major housing and planning package that will help deliver:

“Up to 15,000 affordable homes and bring 5,000 empty homes back into use using new capital funding of £300m and the infrastructure guarantee”

I am interested in the 5,000 empty homes element of this.

Taking a step back, the charity Empty Homes, through much supportive campaigning of Mr George Clark, now has an amount of £3million from government to administer a National Empty Homes Loans fund.

Purely on that £3million, with an average loan of £10,000 per empty property, we’d be looking at 300 empties brought back into use.

Plus, there is the advantage of the repayments of those loans being invested in running the loan scheme, and being recycled to provide loans on an ongoing basis.

Using the same (very simplistic) maths model, to bring back 5,000 empty homes into use, £50million pounds of the £300million would be required.

Now, the initial target of bringing back into use 5,000 empty homes appears not particularly ambitious, when considering the national figure of over 700,000 empties.

However, if the £50million funding is administered through a recyclable method, ie the National Empty Homes Loan fund way, this reinvestment surely has the potential for increasing year-on-year the money available to invest.

While it remains far too little an amount to significantly reduce the 700,000, it surely would have the potential to achieve far greater numbers of empty homes being brought back into use than the 5,000 target released.

I might be wrong, or being far too simplistic!

I Love You More Than Chocolate

Sorry to get all soft on you, but, have you ever received a letter that is just bloody lovely?

I got one in the form of an email from my youngest Daughter, Jemima (I refer to her as Lil’Roo on Twitter, and that’s her in my header image), which arrived in my inbox this morning. She must have written it on her way to school this morning.

She is 9 (will be 10 in November) and just went back to school yesterday, to commence Year 5. This is what she wrote about her first day back:

Hi Daddy,

Yesterday when I came into Year five it felt like we were going back into year four in the afternoon, like it was a tryout day. It wasn’t very exiting because all we did was write our names on class books, and a cover for our religious folder and assembly and then a quiz at the end of the day. So not an exiting day for my first day back, but today I think will be more exiting because I think were doing a little more today, so I think after lunch we will do real work.

Have a nice day at work. Love you more than chocolate.

What a wonderful thing to read at the start of the day!

Tornado in the Calder Valley…no, really!

If it wasn’t enough that Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd had suffered from more than a little bit of flooding this “summer”, on Saturday, 25 August, I spotted a mini-tornado in the Calder Valley. Now, I don’t want to mislead or raise expectations of some massive Dorothy-esque, wicked witch, red shoe, tornado about to whisk us all off to the land of Oz; it’s just not often you see the like down’t valley.

It was a strange experience. I could see a particularly active section of dark cloud swirling and dropping down lower than the rest, as it shifted over Brearley Woods (in between Mytholmroyd and Luddendenfoot). It had been sunny and hot, quite humid all morning, so when the rain came there was plenty of steam generated off the leaves of the trees. That’s when I started to see it form. The cloud from above kept reaching down and grabbing the vapour from the trees…and started twisting!

Admittedly, I was a bit slow off the mark, as I didn’t have my mobile to hand. However, I did catch the last few seconds of it’s existence. I hope this imagery is doesn’t disapoint, but then you also get the voices of the kids for a soundtrack too. “Shall we hid under the stairs?”, was the call!

Anyway, here you go. You get to see Calder Valley’s very own tornado dissapearing! First 5 seconds are best and, if you’re viewing on a lap top use the full screen option.


Re-thinking the Empty Homes Case Study

There is no denying that when I read a good case study about a project that brought one or a number of properties back into use, through positive partnership work and quite often sheer bloody-mindedness, it warms the heart that a community has contributed to and benefited from this.

The stories are often charted through the traditional ‘before and after’ images of the property, interspersed with those of the involved partners in various poses and states of dustiness as they strip way the old and fit the new. The group shot at the end signifies a job well done and the tired but smiling people stand there, faces full of pride. Much deserved.

These stories are important and long may they continue. Yet, I can’t help but think that the range of case studies on offer should be wider. Not only this, but that there is a gaping hole that would take tons of cavity wall insulation to fill!

Long-Term Empty Property: focus on the owners and the funding

I think empty homes case studies need to take a different approach, or at least incorporate the most important dimension; the actual owners of an empty property. It is through developing case studies around the owners that will resonate most with other owners when it comes to making locally funded projects successful.

For any local government officer or local social enterprise working to bring back empty homes into use, convincing the owner of said property that it is a good idea and ‘X’ type of funding is available to assist, can be an absolute nightmare; and I don’t necessarily blame the owner for not engaging, as being the owner of a long-term empty property is not always a straightforward position to be in.

From what I have seen or, more to the point what I have not seen, is a focus away from the journey of the building. What I would really like to see, what I think would be really beneficial, is the story of how and why the owner of a long-term empty property, decided to engage with a particular project.

If it was a low interest loan or lease management product they signed up to, who was it with, how much did it cost, why did they choose that particular option? Did they work with a social enterprise or the local authority? How much work did they do themselves: was it shared, or all done via a local apprenticeship project? What was their motivation for engaging in the first place? Was the commitment required from them long or short term? What reward did they ultimately get from it: Financial? Social? Community? Did they have doubts? On reflection, was it worth the effort? (Or were they able to just hand over the whole project, from which they have now reaped the benefits??) And the key question: Would they recommend other owners of empty homes do the same???

I believe it is the human case study that sells the opportunity, not the one about the bricks and mortar; the bricks and mortar are only a reflection of the people, partners and a community, who chose to do something about a particular issue.

Develop the case study around those owners of empty homes who have engaged with projects and I believe you will see more come forward and be prepared to take up the opportunity to develop their property.

I would love know peoples thoughts on this, more so, if there were case studies in existence that could be shared!

It didn’t taste like Chicken…

Zebra (Photo credit: James F Clay)

I ate Zebra yesterday. A Zebra burger to be exact. It didn’t taste like Chicken, or stripy, or anywhere near as exotic as I wanted it to. So the excitement and anticipation I ventured forward with was quickly tempered by the fact it just tasted like meat. I couldn’t even tell you it tasted like chicken.

Other than the fact I can now declare to my youngest daughter that I have eaten Zebra, to which she will surely be horrified – due clearly to the idea that a stripy-horse-come-donkey is the cutest of animals – it has prompted me to assess the other meats I have eaten over the years.

The range is not as extensive as I expect other peoples might be, but…

Beef – the staple red meat of the masses. I’m not going to pursue the act of saying how many different dishes can be concocted and enjoyed using beef, as so many involve sauces etc. But for that straight meat taste, you can’t beat a good steak or a roasting joint. Cooked properly – ie, with plenty of pink in the middle – a quality piece of beef, succulent and tender, can be simply brilliant. My recent favourite is rib-eye steak.

Rib in the beef cut chart.
Rib in the beef cut chart. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lamb – another one for the masses. Again, there are so many dishes that we can make with Lamb. A joint of lamb or lamb cutlets are just beautiful. A stronger taste and jucier meat than beef, lamb is perhaps my favourite meat at the moment. Additionally, unlike beef, I find that the taste of lamb even when cooked in a curry, actually adds something real and flavoursome to overall dish. As a big fan of curry, this is perhaps why lamb is my favourite. Lamb is also the main ingredient of my favourite indian starter – shami kebabs!

Pork – I think pork is the most different tasting of the mass market meats. I might occasionally have gammon for an evening meal, but ultimately that is just thick bacon – and essentially, I do class pork as a breakfast meat. For the best bacon and sausages, I always go to our local butcher (every Saturday morning, after I’ve dropped eldest daughter off at work), where I purchase 6 rashers of dry-cured bacon and 6 traditional pork sausages. I love Saturday mornings!

Springbok – I think this was a bit more chewy than some meats. It wasn’t as strong-tasting as I’d expected. However, it was in a stir-fry type dish, which makes it a bit more difficult to identify. It was nice though.

Rabbit – I cooked it wrong. The taste was nice, but I cooked it nowhere near long enough so it was remarkably chewy. If you’re going to have rabbit, make sure you find out how to cook it properly first.

Venison – I’ve had soup and steak on a couple of occasions. Enjoyed both very much. It has that stronger ‘game’ taste that I find so much richer than beef.

Wild Boar – I first has this in the Wild Boar restaurant in Portugal. It is quite possibly the best steak I have ever had! If you’re reading this post using a laptop, imagine your keyboard is your portion of chips and your screen is the wild boar steak – the portions were that big. It had a really nice flavour, sort of a cross between pork and beef. I’ve had wild boar since, and it wasn’t quite the same as when I experienced it in Portugal.

Pidgeon – As soon as I think Pidgeon, it conjures up images of scratty little birds you see in town centres. However, I has this at the Coniston Hotel, in Coniston (very nice place to stay and magnificent food) and it was delicious. The woodland pigeons look a bit plumper, cleaner and, erm…appetising! The two small breasts I had for my starter were delicious; again having a ‘game’ like taste, but really subtle. NOT like chicken. I highly recommend. As an aside, I see that recently there has been some furor in Argentina, where a politician suggested using pigeon for school meals; the idea being that it would serve as cheap meat (government savings) whilst also reducing a 600,000,000 pidgeon pest problem. He has been suspended! Now, if the pidgeon was going to taste the same as I’ve had, I can’t see the problem, but then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I envisaged it was one of those town centre ones.

Frogs legs
Frogs legs (Photo credit: dan taylor)

Frogs Legs – Yay, “it tastes like chicken”. Well, not quite, but nearly. This was one of the weirdest things I’ve tried. The meat really was very similar to chicken, just maybe a bit chewier. The weird thing was that I wasn’t expecting it to be served the way it was. I basically got the whole legs, as if they had just been cut off at the bottom of the spine (do frogs have spines?); anyway, I could pick up the legs in one piece by holding them by the ‘spine bit’ that connected them. Very nice!

Zebra – Now, I’ve only had a Zebra Burger. A Zebra steak might well taste very different, have more flavour; I would always get more enjoyment and a real taste of meat from a steak rather than a burger. I was disappointed. I wanted it to taste stripy. It didn’t.