Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally


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Lest We Forget

Chelmsford Cenotaph: 100 years on, remembering those who fell in the Great War

Chelmsford Cenotaph: 100 years on, remembering those who fell in the Great War

As regular readers will know, I moved to Chelmsford in March, so this year has been the first time in 13 years where I have not commemorated our fellow countrymen and women who fell serving their country in World War I and in all subsequent conflicts at the magnificent Christchurch Park cenotaph in Ipswich.

This year instead I attended the Remembrance service on Sunday at the Chelmsford cenotaph outside Chelmsford City Council’s Civic Centre in Duke Street. Although everyone who attended paid their respects in a dignified way, the location of our commemoration in what is now a City was not a patch on the civic display of remembrance organised by Ipswich Borough Council. If I swung the camera round you will have seen a row of tatty fast food outlets rather than acres of parkland and trees which greets the people of Ipswich who join the town’s dignitaries to pay their respects.

Ipswich is truly blessed with amazing civic buildings and locations and it is only when one moves away from Suffolk’s county town one truly appreciates it. Very few places in the country enjoy such civic splendour.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War

Today is Armistice Day and a cannon fired close to where I live (most likely at Chelmsford Cathedral) at 11am, letting me know to stop work and remember the close to 1 million British and Commonwealth soldiers who died serving King and Country in the Great War between 1914-1918 and all those who fell in World War II through to those who lost their lives protecting Britain’s interests in Afghanistan.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

‘For the Fallen’, by Laurence Binyon


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One year to go: Latest polling and analysis on General Election

Four main party leaders in UK General Election 2015

Four main party leaders in UK General Election 2015

As promised, here’s my analysis of last night’s Weber Shandwick organised debate on the 2015 General Election, which contained in-person analysis from Sky News political correspondent Sophy Ridge.

The event was well attended with people from across the economic sectors and pressure groups, such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The debate was chaired by one of the bigwigs from Weber Shandwick with a panel made up of the polling firm ComRes, Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, Priti Patel for the Tories, Natascha Engel representing Labour and Tim Aker, UKIP’s head of policy, and Sophy Ridge from Sky News.

ComRes kicked off the discussion with a presentation on the latest polling figures. This was very interesting stuff with a number of figures jumping out to form a startling yet still very unclear view of the election result come May next year.  I was reminded the Tories actually did quite well in 2010, gaining 94 seats but with 36.1% of the vote – but still unable to win a majority. ComRes repeated their claim that 38% of the electorate who will vote in the European Elections will place their cross in the UKIP box. This would mean UKIP come first in the UK European Parliamentary Elections, triggering the “political earthquake” UKIP leader Nigel Farage has talked often about.

But, when it comes to the General Election, UKIP loses a quarter of this vote. Labour and the Tories will only see 5% of their European election vote switch next year. This gives fuel to Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ argument that UKIP voters in the European elections will come back to the Tory fold in time for the General Election. Well, less than a quarter will (once you strip out those who switch back to voting Labour or Lib Dem), which is better than nothing but not enough to risk splitting the Conservative vote. Labour also only need a swing of 2% to them to win an outright majority. As Priti Patel admitted later, her “party has a challenge on its hands”.

For the Lib Dems – they are sunk this year and next year having lost three quarters of their vote since 2010. Bye then.

“It’s the economy, stupid”, as Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist once famously said, still resonates today. And ComRes polling on how people feel about the economy does not look good for David Cameron and George Osborne: 51% say they do not see any improvement in their economic fortunes since 2010. Labour’s campaign on the “cost of living” is a shrewd move and it will pay dividends in May 2015.

When the debate switched to the politicians on the panel, we heard some interesting views from all three MPs. Priti Patel kicked off and she immediately proved once again why she has been dubbed the darling of the Right. To the extent Tim Aker later on (whilst Priti Patel was briefly away voting in the House of Commons) quipped he couldn’t speak for Priti but she certainly could speak for him! Mrs Patel lovebombed UKIP saying her party should not be attacking Nigel Farage’s party. The Witham MP also said the Conservative Party’s activist base was at its lowest it has ever been and the party in Government had alienated its members. It’s as if she was rehearsing her leadership speech for Party Conference in October 2015. She certainly ticked the right boxes for me.

Labour’s Natascha Engel was a perfectly nice lady but she really is a bit of a wet blanket. She didn’t say a lot about her party or their policies but did find time to say she doesn’t like asking electors for their voting intention on the doorstep. How on earth did she get elected?

It was then Tom Brake’s turn to say how wonderful the Lib Dems were in Government and that they were the ones who had done all the good things – £10,000 tax allowance was theirs of course –  and the Tories had insisted on all the nasty things. Oh and it was the Liberal Democrats who had secured 1.5 Million apprenticeships too. When questioned on why they were therefore doing so badly in the polls, Mr Brake said he found that concentrating on local issues in his constituency helped keep his base on side. Well that may be so in his seat but it won’t save his wider party from oblivion at the General Election.

And then UKIP’s head of policy – and fellow Essex resident (two on the same panel indeed along with Priti Patel) – Tim Aker launched his rhetoric. Straight off the bat he announced the “Lib Dems are history” (fair point) and that despite David Cameron’s promise to control immigration it was in fact back up to “Blair standards”. He even insisted that he HAD to wear his UKIP rosette whilst canvassing in his Thurrock prospective seat so he didn’t get verbally attacked! Strangely (or maybe not) Priti Patel was nodding along to Aker’s rhetorical beat. Mr Aker rounded off his commentary with “People are fed up of the three main Westminster parties. We are the alternative”.

Questions from the audience were then welcomed. Jonathan Isaby, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, asked a question which summed up how difficult it was to predict the General Election result when he said “What use is a national poll going to be in the General Election?”  ComRes’ head of political polling, Tom Mludzinski, said in reply it was too early to predict the result but they were currently drilling down even further by polling in the 40 most marginal seats. I wouldn’t be surprised if my former stomping ground,  Ipswich, was one of those marginal seats being polled.

Wrapping up the evening, Sophy Ridge provided her analysis and admitted she had been to a UKIP rally recently – for work purposes only of course, she cringed. Miss Ridge homed in on a point Priti Patel made earlier when she voiced deep concern about the direction the Scottish Referendum was taking and there was a serious risk of a Yes vote. As this was a polite gathering, no one pointed out that David Cameron may have made a stupid error in allowing Salmond his vote on independence. Sophy Ridge did point out there was a chance of some strange results whereby incumbent MPs go against their party’s swing and display “limpet-like” quality in hanging on to their seats. There’s hope for Ben Gummer yet! Finally, she identified three “curve balls”: the result of the Scottish Referendum could change everything; UKIP victory at the European Elections and how David Cameron reacts to this – does he take his party to the Right allowing Labour to occupy the centre ground?; the anti-establishment mood in the country: this is what Salmond and Farage have latched on to. Miss Ridge recounted her attendance at the UKIP rally where Mr Farage talked about Europe, immigration etc but it was when he urged the audience to give two fingers to the Westminster establishment he got the biggest cheer of the night.

Interesting indeed and even if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t waste my money – despite us only having one year to go.


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New Ipswich Cornhill design announced

New Cornhill: A revised Concept C 'won' the competition

New Cornhill: A revised Concept C ‘won’ the competition

Today, Ipswich Borough Council along with Ipswich Central have announced the ‘winner’ of the new design for the Cornhill – Ipswich’s equivalent of the town square.

Unfortunately, the choice was not actually in the competition announced to the public in September last year, which begs the question why did the Borough Council bother to ask Ipswich residents which scheme they preferred? Isn’t a local authority meant to practice the virtues of democracy or at least be seen to?

Anyway, a variant of Concept C (unfortunately no longer online) was chosen by the powers-that-be in Ipswich. The judging panel was made up of Labour council leader David Ellesmere, Conservative Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, the town centre management company Ipswich Central, Suffolk County Council leader Mark Bee, a representative from University College Suffolk and Jay Merrick, the architecture writer on The Independent newspaper.

Concept C was the one with the 2001: A Space Odyssey style tower in the centre of the Cornhill albeit without gorillas clawing at its base. However, we are told by the judging panel the tower will be ‘remodelled’ by ‘winning’ architects Hall Mcknight.

“You’ll see through it, so it doesn’t stand in the way of seeing the buildings behind it,” partner Mr Hall said.

The architects also propose to level the Cornhill from the bottom of Lloyds Avenue to the front of the Town Hall. There will still be unlevelled space going down past Mannings and the Golden Lion public houses so a ‘cafe-style’ environment with tables can be set-up outside these premises.  With no disrespect to the proprietors of these premises, they are hardly glass of chianti and cheese establishments – more Carling and vodka shots.

Although I am very much in favour of improving this public space as a magnet to attract more people to spend money in the town centre and help Ipswich grow, there is an elephant on the Cornhill which just won’t go away. What am I talking about? The market.

Former M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose – who gave Ipswich Borough Council the idea to re-design the Cornhill back in September 2012 – called for the market to be moved. Labour’s Cllr David Ellesmere at the time lept out of his seat at the Ipswich Beacon Conference Sir Stuart was speaking at to say he thought moving the market was a great idea. At the time, I questioned his sincerity and sadly my suspicions have been proven right. You see the traders are Labour’s chums and even though the market is a tatty, somewhat aggressive, dirty affair on four days a week, the Labour-run council aren’t going to bite the hand that feeds them and push the market down Princes Street where it belongs.

Conveniently for Labour, Sir Stuart Rose was not at or wasn’t invited to today’s press conference to announce the ‘winning’ design. There’s no doubt Sir Stuart gave the Borough Council a good kick up the backside when he rattled off several ways to improve Ipswich’s offering (only one of which was the Cornhill improvement) but he put a figure of £200,000 on the re-design. Once the Grafton House mandarins got their fingers on it, the cost has rocketed to £3.5 Million, which is another half a million on top of the £3 Million announced at the start of the public ‘consultation’ in September last year.  At this rate, the budget could be heading north of £4 million by the time it is finished.  No wonder Sir Stuart stayed away: he’s got a business reputation to protect.

The decision by the judges to opt for the revised Concept C was unanimous. It is understood the amended design was chosen as it would allow the Cornhill space to remain flexible. The total funds for the project have still to be found: a fundraising campaign will now begin with town centre businesses being asked to contribute. Ipswich Borough Council has already allocated £800,000 of taxpayer’s money to the project.

The next question is one of timescales. When can we expect to see the implementation complete subject to the cash being stumped up?


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Socialist Ipswich bans blogger from recording public meeting

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson being arrested for trying to film Carmarthenshire County council public meeting - soon local authorities will be forced by law to drop the Stasi-like tactics to keep decisions secret

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson being arrested for trying to film Carmarthenshire County council public meeting – soon local authorities will be forced by law to drop the Stasi-like tactics to keep decisions secret

Despite the Government of the day and the Labour Party in Westminster consistently telling local government to stop blocking bloggers and citizen journalists from reporting on public meetings, local councils are continuing to act like Soviets in the former USSR. And last night Ipswich Borough Council refused permission for local blogger Ipswich Spy to film the Executive Committee’s public meeting where the ruling Labour Party make key decisions affecting the town’s residents and businesses.

Ipswich now joins the ranks of councils in Carmarthenshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in continuing to ignore the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, call for local authorities to allow the recording and reporting on all public meetings. 

The Conservative-led Government has had enough of councils acting like tinpot dictators when it comes to promoting transparent democracy and have decided to legislate to force local authorities like Ipswich Borough Council to open their public meetings to reporting by all electronic communication means: blogs, Twitter, sound recording and filming.

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which has now completed all its stages in the House of Commons and House of Lords, will include a law to enshrine a blogger’s – or any member of the public for that matter – right to tweet, sound record and film the proceedings in town halls in England. The Bill will receive Royal Assent early next year.

As Ipswich Spy pointed out in their post yesterday, the Executive Committee of Ipswich Borough Council is the power committee: all key decisions are made here. Please do not be fooled that the council meetings at the Town Hall have any real significance – they are mainly a show council meeting to go through the motions of democracy. The Labour leadership ensure anything of real importance, such as spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money on a new ICT platform and council housing contracts, are taken at the Executive Committee within a secure office meeting room – as was the case last night.

Grafton House mandarins spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to stop Ipswich Spy from filming key decision making at the Executive Committee. Soon they will have to grant permission swiftly.

Ipswich Spy contacted Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP to inform him of Ipswich Borough Council’s decision last night to refuse permission to film a public meeting. Mr Lewis responded by saying: “We finished the third reading of the new Bill today so it will soon be law. Councils should be encouraging openness. Good ones do.”


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Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Chancellor George Osborne announced £0.5bn improvement to Great Eastern Mainline today (Picture credit: Ipswich Spy)

Chancellor George Osborne announced £0.5bn improvements to the Great Eastern Mainline today

Conservative Chancellor George Osborne was in Norwich today to announce a £550 million package to improve the Great Eastern Mainline shortening journey times between Norwich and London with a promise for services to and from Ipswich taking just 60 minutes.

Mr Osborne praised Ipswich MP Ben Gummer and fellow Tories in the region, Chloe Smith (Norwich North) and Priti Patel (Witham) for the work they have done to date lobbying transport ministers and their Railway Manifesto published in conjunction with local councils. In keeping with Coalition protocol, the Chancellor also gave a nod to Liberal Democrat Simon Wright (Norwich South). Today’s announcement looks like it is putting the flesh on the bones of the announcement made by the Government in January, which stated Network Rail (owned by the taxpayer) would be spending £1.4bn on the Great Eastern mainline infrastructure improvements between 2014 – 2019. Back in January, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was yet to green-light the scheme. It would seem today’s announcement in Norwich tells us half the budget has been approved.

The Chancellor, speaking today at Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “East Anglia is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and is establishing itself as a world leader in science, technology and manufacturing. To support this growth we need to have modern, efficient rail services and improved connections.

I am absolutely behind the region and that’s why I’ve set up a taskforce to see how we can build on the excellent work by Chloe Smith, Ben Gummer, Priti Patel and Simon Wright.”

Ben Gummer along with his regional parliamentary colleagues mentioned by Mr Osborne will sit on the taskforce. I am sure Mr Gummer’s focus will be on introducing “Ipswich in Sixty” (hat-tip on the phrase: Ipswich Spy), ensuring Ipswich commuters’ journey times into and out of London are reduced to 60 minutes, which will make a big difference. It is not clear from today’s announcement by Mr Osborne how that will be achieved.

The Department for Transport has also asked Abellio, parent company of the Greater Anglia franchise, to start refurbishing their rolling stock, including making them more business-friendly by introducing power sockets into carriages to charge laptops and mobile phones.

£550 million is a lot of money so some improvements are going to happen – the key is for local MPs to explain how those changes will reduce journey times.


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Travel chaos in and out of Ipswich

Major arterial route through Ipswich still closed 24 hours after windy conditions

Major arterial route through Ipswich still closed 24 hours after windy conditions

You really have to question the competence of the public sector on a day like today.

I took my wife to the railway station at 07.00 this morning and found one of the main East-West arterial routes through the town closed. The same stretch of road, Key Street/College Street on the Waterfront gyratory, was closed yesterday due to the wind blowing some fencing down and a lamp post during Monday morning. Almost 24 hours later, the same stretch of road was still closed.

Traffic is being taken down half the Waterfront-side gyratory heading west and then is swiftly diverted north up on to Star lane and through Waterworks Street and Bond Street, taking all East-West bound traffic through the north side of the town centre along Crown Street. As would be expected, this has caused gridlock for traffic coming from the East of Ipswich.

Ok, I understand if a lamp post comes down, it needs to be removed. But how long does it take to do this? I have also received reports the police believe – they don’t know – there is structural damage to one of the buildings adjacent to the road. At the time of writing Ipswich Borough Council’s Building Control team are yet to assess if the building is safe and Ipswich can be re-opened for business.

This question needs a serious answer from Borough Council chief Russell Williams: why weren’t your Building Control team on-site 24 hours ago? Why haven’t they made their assessment yet? Can they not work overnight on some measurements?

It is not acceptable for a bit of wind to bring Suffolk’s county town to a halt. It is regrettable four people died in the storm yesterday across a population of 66 million but we cannot use the weather as an excuse for the public sector to ramp down their work even further than they do when we have calm conditions. Britain’s climate is warm, wet and WINDY! We should be better prepared to respond to our own climate, experienced in these islands for millennia.

In London over the summer, a skyscraper was melting cars and anything else that stood under it’s gaze because the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building in central London was magnifying sunlight on to the road and pavement below. What did the City of London authorities do? Did they close the road? Err, no! They ordered the building owner to put up some material on the windows causing the reflection pronto, which was duly done with no disruption to Londoners, no road closures, nothing. We just pitied the poor man who came back to find his BMW melted.

Why in the provinces do we have to put up with a ‘third-world’ standard of public service? Perhaps, because the majority of people don’t moan like ambitious, confident Londoners would. Either way, it’s not acceptable for Health and Safety to be used as an excuse for the public sector to be even more inefficient than they usually are, which takes some doing!

Oh you pay us £6,000 a year for a train service? Sorry, get the bus!

Oh you pay us £6,000 a year for a train service? Sorry, get the bus!

Things then got worse once I was finally able to drop my wife off at the railway station. Greater Anglia and Network Rail – the paragons of railway incompetents – found 24 hours was also not enough time to lift a few branches off the line and fix some signalling and so Suffolk’s county town still does not have a railway service to London, with all trains suspended to Liverpool Street. Instead, my wife, who pays Greater Anglia £6,000 a year to travel in worse conditions than cattle, had to queue for a bus to Manningtree then a ‘bus on rails’ to Colchester before finally being able to take an inter-city service to the capital. It took her three hours to get to work! This is frankly completely unacceptable and again would seem to be incompetence and inefficiency on behalf of the publicly owned Network Rail, heavily in hoc to the Unions who can’t wait to find an excuse to down tools (look at Grangemouth!) and Greater Anglia who, like the big six energy firms, can do what they like because where else has the hard-pressed commuter got to go?

What is wrong then? Is it all down to ill-judged health and safety concerns? Is it because we have lost our stoicism as a nation which saw us win two world wars? Is it because we have such an imbalanced economy that our infrastructure can’t cope with London being the only place to actually make a decent wage, bar a few exceptions? Or is it just public sector incompetence? I’d love to hear your views in the comments.