I’ve twinned my toilet!

A few months ago, I stumbled across an interesting charity that helps communities without sanitation build better loos. It has an arresting premise that you can “twin your toilet” – and I liked the concept so much I filed it away for a day when I might be able to afford to take part.

That day has come, and today P hiked to the Royal Mail depot to pick up the parcel that contained our framed certificate with details of which toilet we are twinned with. The cert. includes latitude and longitude (11.03783, 105.65613) and with the magic of Google Maps we can see where in the world we are talking about.

Our toilet twin is in Cambodia, not far from the Vietnamese border. Not a part of the world I know much about, and I had to zoom out an awful lot before I finally saw a place name I had heard of before. (Bangkok!)

The toilet twinning website gives all sorts of fascinating and disturbing reasons why it’s important that toilets are improved wherever possible:

It’s out of order! 1 in 3 people across the world don’t have somewhere safe to go to the toilet. Bad sanitation is one of the world’s biggest killers: it hits women, children, old and sick people hardest. Every minute, three children under the age of five die because of dirty water and poor sanitation. And, right this minute, around half the people in the world have an illness caused by bad sanitation.

And why it’s also done in a community minded way – it’s apparently no good showing up and building a latrine without teaching the people it’s for what it does!

[The Village Education Resource Centre] realised that a band of khaki-clad aid workers pitching up in a community with a 4×4, a load of spades and materials for building loos – did not constitute a successful sanitation programme – because the community were left with a strange looking building that they didn’t know what to do with. In a straight contest between the “it-came-from-out-of-nowhere-latrine”, and the local river – the river won: on the premise of “better the devil you know”

Twin your toilet today!


The Audit Commission should not waste its money threatening bloggers

I read with some concern NCCLOL’s post that he has received a letter from solicitors acting for the District Auditor following posts he wrote about various issues concerning Nottingham City Council and the District Auditor. He states quite clearly what has happened, and you should go and read it.

The way the political system in this country works is that it is supposed to be accountable to the public. Painfully few people take enough of an interest in our many public bodies, and many of them work in completely opaque ways. When people are prepared to put the time in to discover what is going on and write about it, often in depth, it should be something that is rewarded, not something that frightens public officials.

When people holding roles in public bodies take decisions, they must expect to be held accountable for them. That includes criticism from informed commentators such as local bloggers, who can be expected to express themselves forcefully.

It cannot possibly be right that Audit Commission has paid several thousands of pounds to solicitors to send a frightener letter to a member of the public who is doing what members of the public are supposed to do: holding to account public officials.

US President trivia

Liberal England has the news that it’s been confirmed that US President John Taylor, who was in office from 1841-1845, still has living grandchildren.

It’s one of those strange and unlikely sounding facts, and it brings to mind two further pieces of trivia.

The first is that there is a photograph of Mozart’s wife, which I blogged about here. (It’s also a little bit strange and unlikely that I can have a) blogged something six years ago and b) still remember it!)

The second is a great trivia question that came up as part of my car-share to Mordor last year: which is the only US president to have worn Nazi uniform? The answer is Continue reading

Single story danger for Aspley

One of the seminars we had about school culture in the last days of last term featured this TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie called the danger of the single story.

In it she recounts her own experiences talking to people whose only impressions of Africa included starving orphans in mud huts, and the dissonance that caused with her own African life. She talks about how her own writing began in homage to her own reading, and that her childhood involved few stories written in Africa.

But as she she was talking of the danger of the single story, it was something a little closer to home that was going through my mind.

I had recently put “Aspley” into the Nottingham Post website to find a story there about a proposed and rejected 20MPH zone on a main road in what used to be my ward. If you do that you get a slew of horrible stories about bad things that have happened. Violence, theft, murder. Smoking, burglaries, tragic death of motorcyclist.

You have to do quite a lot of paging down to find even neutral stories, let alone any of the positive things that are happening in that part of the world.

And there are plenty. The Aspley SuperWarmZone. Fundraising for Motor Neurone Syndrome. The fab solar panel programme that got a photo in The Sun.

Pull the focus out just a little bit and you get Nottingham’s reputation, undeserved, for higher than average gun crime. Things you think are going away a bit until some idiot who should know better brings them all up again.

Apology replacement service

A couple of links about railways have passed my desk in recent times.

The first is an Economist blogger who hates the special language the railways have developed. In the comments, it develops into more hatred for the automated announcements that blight our stations and trains. Lateness is so normal that robots apologize for it without reference to real people. Once a train is more than thirty minutes late, the robot automatically becomes “extremely” sorry.

My own pet hates, particularly when I am unfortunate enough to use Nottingham railway station in the morning, are the ticket barriers, and the constant reminders of things people shouldn’t do on the platform: smoke, leave their luggage unattended, and, apparently, be unaware that CCTV monitors the station 24 hours a day.

Once, on a tour of council housing estates with the then CX of Nottingham City Homes, he told me that he hated the little signs on lampposts about domestic violence and burglary and smartwater. He told me they were tantamount to putting up signs that say “We hit women!” and “Lots of crime happens here!” If domestic violence and burglary are so endemic you need to start putting up signs for the violent people and the burglars then you have lost the plot in a big way.

In my travels recently, I passed an abandoned lorry trailer in a layby, on which was emblazoned, in 20 or so EU languages, “WARNING! LORRY THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA!” – attempting to tell drivers that if they nap in their cab in a layby, they might wake up to find their trailer has been nicked. How depressing that this is common enough an occurrence to need an ad to tell people about it? Why not simply have one that says “TRUCKERS – the police here are useless!” since this is clearly the subtext many people will get from the other ad.

So it is with wretched ticket barriers. They are an admission of failure. Fare evasion is so much a normal part of the travelling experience in the UK that it is apparently worth spending millions of pounds on hateful robots that sit in our stations and assume all travellers are fare dodgers until they prove they’re not. I hate them so much. If, as I do, you celebrate your timely arrival at the station before a train by buying a coffee and a danish from Amt Espresso in Nottingham Station’s distribution hall, you then find you do not have enough hands to operate the machinery: coffee in one hand; cake in the other, how are you supposed to sort out your wallet, sort through the 20 coupons you were given, locate the one the barrier will understand as a ticket, feed it into the tiny slot and get through without scalding yourself, or worse, dropping the cake? They must be a pain for those with mobility problems, cycles or more small children than hands. And far from replacing the staff, the robots need a small army of human chaperones to fix the inevitable problems when half the travelling public are unable to use the barriers. Surely that small army would be just as effective if they were there on their own unsupported by the hated robots?

The barriers are certainly a part of Paris’s Métro system and I expect you can see them in other parts of France too. Yet in my experience most of Germany’s public transport relies on more honesty from its passengers. Yes, they have ticket inspectors – rarely – but the stations are much more open, and of course there are a lot more of them – and everyone just assumes that most people will pay their way. I wonder if anyone has ever prepared an infographic on ticket barriers? Is there line across the globe like the line with details of how you pronounce A in words like “bath”? Barriers vs inspectors? Fare-evaders vs fare-payers.

My second rail link is here, as usability experts take a look at rail tickets and see if their design can be improved. No question there is substantial scope for improvement and the blog post takes us through the problems and potential solutions. It’s been at least fifteen years since I looked at the ADULTS: ONE CHILD: NIL line on the tickets and wondered what the point was: they had obviously been designed so that it was possible to have a whole family travel with one ticket, and this functionality has never been used, at least as far as I am aware.

When I shared the link on G+ an irritable friend opined it was time to ditch tickets altogether in favour of phone apps and home printing. But even if they did introduce those, they’re still not going to be able to get rid of ticket offices entirely, and if they are going to print some tickets it would help to make them more understandable. I have certainly spent many uncomfortable moments on trains listening to train staff and conductors break the bad news to passengers within earshot that their ticket is not valid on the train they are travelling on and they either have to leave at the next station or pony up a penalty fare. Any attempt at clearing up the confusions that arise from the increasingly complicated fare structures should be welcomed, as of course should any attempt at simplifying fares.

Pretty horrifying: evolution of beauty queens

Ran into this somehow, somewhere – one of those things that really shows up the differences between the UK and the US.

Whilst it occasionally comes up as a debate, for most of the time, evolution is an entirely normal part of the national curriculum that is taught in every school.

Advice for new councillors

Richard Kemp has some very useful advice for any taking on the new councillor role, regardless of party.

Particularly this:

You have three priorities address them in this order:

  1. To be a good ward representative for your constituents
  2. To be a good member of your council
  3. To be a good member of your Party

And this:

The Council Chamber is the most pointless place for anyone to spend time in. Particularly under the Cabinet system there is little power in the council chamber. Up to 120 people get together every 5 or 6 weeks to ritually abuse each other. Few real decisions are made there with the big strategic documents usually going through unopposed and with little challenge.

And this:

Most councillors of all Parties have a lot in common with each other. They have a passion for their community and are prepared to do something about it. That sets us apart from those who whinge and moan but do nothing.

(Not of course that any new councillors in Nottingham are going to be exposed all that much to councillors of other parties!)

But this:

Lastly and ABOVE ALL treat MPs with the disrespect they deserve. They are part of a talking organisation – you are part of a doing organisation. Unless they are a Minister you have more power than they do.

… I’m not sure I’d got that far. I know a handful of MPs from Labour and Lib Dems, and I would say: if MPs earn your respect by the work they do, then go right ahead and respect them. It’s right though that individual MPs are often less powerful than individual councillors.

But perhaps the thing I’d say most of all is – don’t be a party hack. There’s nothing more depressing than someone who has nothing more to say than that morning’s party lines.

Take Nicola Heaton, who defeated one of our councillors in Bridge ward. I’ve never met her and I know nothing about her. Well, scratch that, I know three things about her. Firstly, she moved into the ward she now represents a few months before polling day, which unhelpfully removed a campaign line against her. Good on her. It’s a difficult ward to represent and it will be easier to do if she lives there.

Secondly, every time I hear the name, all I can think of is Nikki Heat, a character written by a character in the US cop show Castle.

And thirdly, she’s on twitter. And her twitter feed is just awful. Last time I looked there was nothing on there but ultraloyal retweets of national Labour party figures and facts that made Nottingham look like paradise on Earth. Oh dear.

If you’re going to be a politician on Twitter, do give some indication of being a real person, not an automaton party wonk.

That bit on party hackery has real resonance for me personally as in my last year as a councillor as I found myself questioning myself an awful lot. I joined the Lib Dems partly because of their position on student finance, and yet found myself in the hot seat when it came to defending the party position at one of those useless Council meetings. I gave an angry speech and said just what I thought: the deal on tuition fees stinks, but many people will actually end up repaying less per month than under the previous Labour plans.

But on so many issues over the last year, I’ve found myself thinking – that’s not what I’d want to happen on that issue. What do I think about that? Is my party right? Can I defend what they’ve come up with even if it’s not great? Or is it a crock of shit that stinketh?

I fear that too many of Labour’s new councillors in Nottingham are simply not bright enough ever to suffer from any level of self doubt or to criticise anything the national Labour party ever does. And that’s a real shame for the people they now represent.

So, what now for me?

This is a personal post – I might write a political one in the future some time.

So, I lost my seat on Nottingham Council on Thursday night, and along with it all my income. Perhaps foolishly, my only job was being a full-time councillor, with extra bits of income from responsibilities and from working with the Fire Authority as well. All of that goes, and I’ve had my last pay-slip.

For about the last six months, I have been thinking that defeat was a distinct possibility at these elections – my ward colleague was more optimistic, and in all the arguments we’ve had over the years, it’s a shame that it’s on this one I was proven right.

So with my pessimism in mind, I had half a plan for defeat – I have savings that will sustain me for a while, so in the immediate weeks I plan a holiday. I have a few things that need sorting out – election expense returns loom large for example – then I will take the tent and the car and have a few weeks away. I don’t suppose it will be the epic 6-week tour of France I did in 2005, but I’m thinking maybe… Scotland?

But after the break is the more serious task of working out what my life is for. I had pretty much decided that if I had been re-elected this time it would have been my last. I’ve spent a quarter of my life on Nottingham City Council and that is about enough. I’ve also spent a decade in politics – working for Nick Clegg when he was MEP, then jobs with two MPs and the regional party, followed by a spell in Chesterfield and all that time as a councillor. And I’ve had enough now. I’m stepping down from frontline politics – and when I say that, unlike David Miliband, I don’t mean I want to be an MP.

For the first time in years, not only am I not an elected official, I don’t think I hold any elected office in the party either, unless maybe you count conference rep. Not that I shall be able to afford to go to party conferences for a while.

I must be one of very few people ever to have drifted into politics and enjoyed the water once I got there. It’s much more usual for there to be battles and ambition and struggle, while for me I drifted into Nick Clegg’s office and drifted into elected office as a councillor in 2003, half on the back of Labour’s unpopularity around the Iraq war. When I left school, I thought I wanted to be in arts admin or a writer, or something vague like that. Spending 10 years as a politician was not the plan!

But having done that, and now wanting a change, the world is my oyster. I could do almost anything, and I find myself looking around at the jobs other people have and thinking is that something I could bear to do for the rest of my life? Barman? Waiter? Window cleaner? Shill for some architect and use my planning knowledge?

Part of me wants meaningful work; part of me just wants to find a simple 9-5 that won’t encroach much on my evenings and weekends.

In all my non-political jobs, I have struggled to find work that is interesting enough or varied enough – I’m not good with routine. Being a councillor is a great thing for variety – yes there are some predictable annual events – budget, campaigning, the like. But no two days are really alike.

Elections, me and the Pod Delusion

I’ve been talking on the Pod Delusion again this week, this time about some of the processes involved in standing for election to your local council. It’s more complicated than some people realise, and my process piece explains some of the intricacies.

The full podcast is available here.

Most of the time, I just scribble something down and send it in to PD and all is well.

This time, unfortunately, I got a bit carried away, and ended up writing seven pages of text before recording fifteen minutes of sound. Clearly that would not fit in a podcast where they try and keep the pace going and a variety of different reports, so I was asked to edit it down. This meant cutting two large digressions about elections by thirds and some of the candidates for election in Nottingham. Happily, the unexpurgated report is also available for download at the link above.

It’s not the first time I’ve spoken about election processes for the Pod Delusion. Last year, they ran a piece from me on what happens on polling day, taking in the count and the work of polling officers. You can find that on Episode 32.

I also did a bit of spiel on how political parties target leaflets mostly about Election Communications delivered during general elections to voters by the Royal Mail.

So, what’s going on at Broad Marsh?

I meant to write this months ago, when it wasn’t quite so widely known what was going on, but had been reported to councillors at the Development Control (aka planning) committee and a regeneration scrutiny committee I’m on. Now it’s been in the papers and everything, and there’s currently a model on display of the future plans actually within the shopping centre, so go and have a look and have your say! You can also find the information at www.broadmarshdevelopment.com/

The Broad Marsh shopping centre has clearly been on a bit of a downward spiral for the last ten years or so, and is these days in a very sorry state with many vacant shops and many shops at the lower end of the scale. Investment is sorely needed.

Worse, Westfield, who own it, have been slowly acquiring property around the site ready for their expansion plans. The result is they now own the entire city block between Canal Street and Collin Street – and they are keeping almost all of it empty and boarded up. The result is that the walk into town from the railway and bus stations looks derelict and neglected.

Westfield do plan to put some serious money into the site. The question for ages has been when? Now the answer is becoming clear.

They did have planning permission for a major rehaul, but didn’t begin within the standard three years, and so that permission expired. Rather than just allow them to renew it, the Council’s planning people have insisted they up their game and come up with some rather fancy new plans. And that is what is currently on display in the centre and will be coming to Councillors for a decision within the next few months.

In the mean time, since last Autumn, there have been a series of smaller planning applications to make changes around the centre, and work has begun on putting those changes into practice. Although these smaller items fall far short of the hundreds of millions of pounds the major scheme will spend, they are still at a cost of several million, and should make a significant difference. Better still, the developers hope to have them finished by Easter 2012, so we have a clear timeline for these changes.

They are in four steps.

Three of those steps are essentially cosmetic overhauls of the three main entrances. The entrance from the station will be opened up with windows in the currently plain brick walls, a wider entrance and changes to the street. The tunnel from the bus station will be closed off for public use (although it can’t be removed entirely as it is a fire escape from some parts of the centre). The bottle neck that currently happens as people queue at the pedestrian crossing on Collin Street should be sorted out by making the pedestrian gap and the doors much wider.

At the Drury Walk entrance opposite Bridlesmithgate, the current entrance will be taken back almost to the escalators with the space currently occupied by Threshers opened up. Here they will be putting in some double-height stores that are apparently the thing that retailers are demanding the most. They will also be putting windows into the wall currently facing the tram tracks and Nottingham Contemporary.

Similar works are planned at the main entrance near Boots, from Listergate. They will remove the dated canopy and put in plain glass, with a dark black frame around it that apparently looks more modern.

So those are the works to three entrances. All three have planning permission now and are on track to be started soon.

The next thing is the plan for a food court. This will be near the existing Wimpy and got planning permission at committee last week. The shops around it will be opened up and moved back to make the corridor much wider. The wider corridor will have up to 800 seats and tables installed. All of the shops around there will be converted into kitchen use, with counters facing the tables, and in the middle of the tables will be further display kitchens. The idea is to have some sort of “food theatre” – where highly visible cooking goes on and is an attraction in its own right.

At committee I put down a bit of a marker – although it wasn’t really planning issues and so couldn’t be made a condition. But I hope the food court will have at least some outlets dedicated to selling proper healthy food, not just burgers and chips, and I hope that the whole shebang will be using proper china plates and metal knives and forks, as I have seen similar food courts in many places that just generate an enormous amount of waste by using single use paper plates and plastic cutlery.

The three changes around the entrances and the food court should all now be there and open by next Easter. I’m sure we’ll all be watching to see that they keep to time.

The next big change is the planning application that has just gone into the Council that Westfield are currently consulting on, and that is heyuuge. It involves major change to how pretty much the whole of the south side of Nottingham works, relocates some major roads and infrastructure, and radically changes the whole of the Broad Marsh Centre. This, we haven’t decided on yet.

The plan will flatten everything between the current Broad Marsh and Canal Street, and that will all be part of the new centre. Collin Street will close to traffic, and the current car park and bus station will be demolished. Those two bits of infrastructure will be relocated to the far side of the tram bridge and in their space will be thousands of square feet of new shopping centre. In the corner where Ocean currently is will be an enormous anchor department store. Securing a tenant for that will be one of the key things that makes the whole scheme viable. Slightly disappointingly, some of the names being bandied about are stores that are already in Nottingham, like M&S and Debenhams, so attracting them into the new site will just open up other stores elsewhere in the city.

The new centre is planned to be much more open plan. The current centre is entirely enclosed. The new one will be open to the elements, with better views into the site and out of it, and with more nighttime activity including even more restaurant space for the city. The centre is planned to have its own tram stop with good links to the bus station and the best part of 3,000 parking spaces. By the time the new centre is ready, we should have lines 2 and 3 of the tram nearing completion, so there will be a lot of construction going on in the city for the next few years!

Exciting times ahead.