Future Visions – St Albans 2030

I recently had the pleasure of contributing to a document, along with a number of other residents of the St Albans and District area – a report “Future Visions 2030” which was inspired by the LGIU 2043 Town Hall and was a part of the truly magnificent Sustainable St Albans Week.  Various people gave short accounts of life in 2030, and of steps that are being taken on the journey to a sustainable future, now.

My piece – in the style of my LGiU thing – was a conversation between two people and had to be cut down to fit the publication.  (I also did an extended version of my LGiU piece, here.)  

Here’s the full Future Vision thing anyway:

It’s a Big Lunch street party in July 2030 and two neighbours are chatting as they shelter from the inevitable rain … let’s listen in …

“I think you’re new aren’t you?”

“Yes, we moved in two months ago.”

“Welcome to the street! So why did you move here?”

“Well the usual I suppose – move out of London but quick in for work, get an extra bedroom for the same money, good schools for the kids, and the carbon thing, obviously.”

“Same with us.”

“Did you know about carboneutral when you moved here?”

“Well, we’ve been here since 2016, and it was just starting to come in then, it was just a thing with some of the local shops and the markets, when they all put a carbon price on things so that we could see what it was costing.  Then the hackers at Silicon Abbey created the Carboncounter app, and people could see where they were on the league table of carbon counted products.”

“A league table?”

“Yes, it started as a league table for people to see how much they could buy that was carbon counted – pretty soon we had people who made sure that they carbon counted everything, which is when Waitrose and Morrison’s got in on the act.”

“They were the first were they?”

“Yes, well, every supermarket does it now, but those two were the first, putting carbon prices on everything in the store – they did really well, and the others had to follow.”

“When did the Carboncap come in?”

“Well it started experimentally; a few people said that now they were counting everything they should try to stay under the sustainable fair share of Carbon for the year.  And it kind of took off from there, now almost everyone does it, especially since the Snorbens payment card keeps track of what you spend on petrol, and outside the District, and converts it into a carbon estimate.”

“The amount of carbon neutral stuff in the shops really helps”

“Well we’re the obviously place for companies to try out their new carbon neutral products.  Like this local beer ‘Greenhouse Guardian’ we’re drinking!”

“Cheers! And it’s great the way so many people and businesses have come to the area because of Carboneutral – it really seems to work for them too”

“You’d be amazed how many people have stopped doing the commute because there are great local jobs now – and that saves carbon too.”

“Not to mention blood pressure – last week I got stuck at St Pancras for two hours because of a signal failure at Radlett.”

“That’s nothing I once had to …”

(I think we’ll let the voices fade away now).

Jonathan Flowers

A Harpenden resident, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Greenhouse Guardian ale. 

The Question Every PCC Candidate Should Answer

On November 15th something incredibly important happens – as a country we elect Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the first time.  These will be people who will have considerable sway over the nature, shape and priorities of policing and crime prevention in our area.  To have such roles subject to election is new.  There is considerable speculation that the level of engagement and turnout will be low.

In a “normal” world the fact that we are doing this new thing might not matter too much, but the next few years are going to be far from normal for the police forces – there is likely to be a c25% cut in police budgets.  As such the elected PCCs will have to make some incredibly difficult decisions.  In choosing the PCC for your area you may well wish to understand how they will approach that task – I certainly want to.

I have emailed the two candidates for election in my area (Hertfordshire) the following question, and I will post responses received here.

 

Dear {Candidate}
I am considering how to vote in the forthcoming PCC election.  I am a resident of Hertfordshire.  As I see it a fundamental question to ask of any PCC candidate is:
During your tenure as a PCC, you will be required to make decisions relating to a large scale reduction in the budget (some figures suggest 25%).  What are the fundamental principles which will underlie your decisions, please?
 
I am also writing to {the other candidate} and propose to place both answers received on my blog.
Regards
Jonathan Flowers

 

I would urge interested readers to send something similar to your candidates (you could share the answers here too, if you like).

You can get more information about PCCs here http://www.choosemypcc.org.uk/

 

Competing to be the most Business-Friendly Council

This post was originally published on www.localgovernmentmatters.co.uk.

 

I recently participated in a workshop arranged by a council to bring together its staff, local businesses and other relevant stakeholders in a session which focused on envisioning a future economic strategy.

It was an impressive piece of co-creation, and as is usual with these things the greatest insight came from listening to the customers – businesses in this case, about how their interaction with the local authority affects their own success.

For local authorities the whole issue of business growth is moving up the agenda, both because of the general need to drive economic growth – often through supporting local SMEs – and more prosaically because planned changes in business rates will mean that local councils have an more immediate financial stake in the success, growth and coverage of local businesses.

Local authorities have their hands on many levers of economic success – planning, transport, parking, housing, education (to an extent) and a broader influence over workforce supply, and can set a tone and context through formal and informal support to business networks and organisations.

A specific area that’s easy to overlook is regulation.  Recent research  has shown that for 54% of local businesses their only face to face contact with the authority is from trading standards, environmental health or similar.  The Local Better Regulation Office is currently promoting improved standards and competencies for regulation, with a clear line of sight to economic growth.  For firms with operations in more than one council area the primary authority concept is crucial to simplifying regulation and we are already seeing firms moving their choice of primary authority, and the associated spending based on the council’s capability to manage the national network of relevant regulatory agencies.  A strong regulatory team will be a factor in relocating headquarters in the future.

Some chief executives I talk to in business-oriented councils know the names of, and regularly meet with, the chief executives of their major local businesses.  We all know that some councils are better at promoting their locality for business rather than others (I suspect most people will remember the “Peterborough effect”).  Councils vary in their level of sophistication: one council with a pressing need for social housing nonetheless ensured that their plans included provision for a modest increase in executive housing because they were aware that a gap in this area made them less attractive to businesses.  This is undoubtedly an area amenable to strategic analysis, Michael Porter’s  ‘Competitive Advantage of Nations’, whilst obviously written on a larger scale, poses questions of relevance for local authorities in terms of the strategic industry clusters that they can create and support based on local factors, and recognises that supporting the competitiveness of your local businesses with customers outside your area is important to your own economic success.

And this is where it gets interesting.  There is obviously “competition” between councils and LEP areas for businesses and inward investment, but this is often implicit.  I have yet to see a Council’s economic development strategy (please point me at one) which explicitly addresses specific competition.  The technology exists to deploy a much more focused, almost predatory approach.  We could envisage an MD receiving an email like this

Dear John

 I’m the cabinet member for business at Bizton – you will know that we are a thriving centre for business, and we have been doing some research on your company.  Our industry analysis shows us that you are growing impressively, but are likely to be constrained for space in your current office, and if you are thinking of a move we would like to make you aware that:

  • 10 miles from your current base we have a unit that should be a similar rent to your current business but with 30% more space for your expansion
  • From analysis of our own businesses we know that four of your largest customers would be nearer to you here than they are currently
  • Moreover 23 businesses within Bizton have said they would welcome greater provision of the graphic design services you provide
  • We know that print and distribution are important to your business, the site we’re thinking of is adjacent to a thriving print business and there is a distribution hub within 5 minutes
  • The site has car parking, and there are three restaurants within a 5 minute drive, and two more within close walking distance
  • Average education attainment at GCSE level is 8% higher in Bizton than at your current location, our local FE college does Graphic Design to Foundation Degree level and 73% of the students have said that their first preference would be to find a local job
  • In terms of workforce, we don’t have detailed statistics for local businesses but we do know that staff sickness rates at our local council are 30% lower than the council where you are now.

 In short we think there are very specific reasons why you might want to move to Bizton now, to create room and opportunity to grow.  I’d welcome the chance to show you around personally, together with the Council’s chief executive and one of our business relocation specialists who would work with you free of charge to help make your office move a success with minimal disruption.  We’ve done some homework on you but what we’d really like to do is understand in your own words how you see your business growing to think together about how we could help with that.  And in case you think this is a mass mailshot I can assure you that we approach only three businesses a month in this way: just the ones where we think there’s a really good fit for them and us.

 I hope you can spare the time, if you’d prefer to do it at the weekend that’s no problem.  We’ll be happy to send a car for you and any colleagues you’d like, to meet with us.  I’ll be in touch later today to see how we can support your business growth.

It’s like a move from simply advertising job vacancies to headhunting.  Will we move from competition for new business to becoming aggressively competitive, cherry-picking the best businesses from near neighbours and if we do, how will that affect collaboration in other spheres?

Cowper

I live in a street called “Cowper Road”.  That’s an unusual name, you say – and indeed it is.  Why Cowper?  There’s a clue in that many of the neighbouring streets are named after poets, eg Tennyson, Milton, Shakespeare and even a new development off the main drag called Betjeman Close.  And indeed a bit of judicious google-ing reveals the existence of William Cowper (1731-1800) , a poet and hymn-writer (hymondist, apparently), who lived not all that far aware at Olney, Buckinghamshire which has a museum for him.  You will know some of his greatest hits – “Variety is the spice of life” is one of his (actually “Variety’s the very spice of life”) and “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform”, which I must confess entered my consciousness through PG Wodehouse rather than via the actual hymn.

The reason for writing this is to do with pronunciation.  To people who live in the street (and, ever-so crucially, to people who deliver pizzas into it) the street name is pronounced Cow-Per (as in mooing animal – noise made by cat), and indeed to Harpendonians at large Cow-Per it is.  And that’s probably the way you thought to pronounce it.

However, William Cowper pronounced his surname “Cooper”.

So what is a street name for?  Its first level function is clearly to identify locations, and for that Cow-Per works a charm.  Yet if there is also a secondary function of commemorating an individual then it’s rather sad and unfortunate that William’s surname is so systematically mispronounced.

So will I be leading a ‘Campaign for “Cooper”‘, to reverse the slight on this individual?  Writing letters to the local press, persuading my neighbours to pronounce the surname correctly? Enjoining all local food delivery establishments to say “oh you mean ‘Coo-per’ road”.  Well, no, because I don’t actually care that much; I care exactly enough to write this blog.  Thank you for your brief attention, and spare a passing thought for William, about whom more can be found here.

War in our time

I have been affected by two related things recently, which have brought the current wars much closer to home and to me.

At a Governor’s Meeting at the City Lit recently the meeting began with one of the students from our “Autobiographical Writing” course reading from his short story “A Stranger in a Strange Land” which draws on his recent time fighting the Taliban.  I can’t find it on the web to link to it, but it’s published in the collection “Between the Lines” which is an annual anthology of works from across the creative writing courses.  He speaks of surreal, but I suspect only too real, encounters with people in Helmand Province, including with the young son of a warlord killed by British troops.  The story (which is well worth reading if you can find it) finishes with an episode from his re-entry to the banality of day to day London life (hence the title – it’s not Helmand that’s the strange land, it’s coming home afterwards).  Hearing the story – its author in front of us – made it much less theoretical, more immediate.

The other item was a piece on the Today programme on Thursday with quite a long and very powerful interview by Justin Webb of former Sergeant Major John Dale who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder to an extent which seriously messed up his life.  It was a painfully sincere and moving interview – a long piece, over eight minutes, which let the story unfold in an extremely credible way (and was excellent radio).  I had arrived at my destination before the piece finished and I just sat in the car waiting and listening until the end.  Enormous credit to the charities Talking2Minds and the Royal British Legion for their work in helping him.  If you have a few minutes, listen to it here.

The Big Lunch

You’ve probably heard about The Big Lunch – the latest idea by Tim Smits – the creative force behind the Eden Project.  The idea is to encourage people who live near each other to hold a street party so that they get to know each other.  All over the country on 19th July, some 7000 parties are going to be held.

We had ours a day early, on 18th, (today) due to the fact that one of the prime movers was keen to do it but travelling on the 19th.

And it was terrific, a tremendous enthusiasm from people to meet, get involved, provide something.  We did some fund raising for a local charity and have raised around £1,000, most of it from a pledges auction with people freely offering some of their time or skills which were then auctioned, proceeds going to the charity.  We bought four hours babysitting, and I donated an hour’s career counselling. The symbol of the charity we’re supporting is a butterfly and loads of people decorated their windows and houses with butterfly pictures.

We got the road closed for the day and all the cars were driven away – and the street was WIDE and full of children playing without their parents watching every move.  And people ate too much and drank sensibly.  And the sun, by and large, shone, and the rain stayed away.  And the local builder who has an antique fire engine in his yard brought it along for kids to ring the bell.  And a big bubble machine frothed in irridescent profligacy.

And I met lots of my neighbours.  Many of whom I don’t think I’ve actually even seen before.  I didn’t hear many deep conversations, but I saw smiles and smalltalk, greetings and grins.

And we all helped each other to clear away at the end of the day, the first cars started to seep back into the street, … and the last bubble eventually burst.

Then. Later this evening, I was walking up the quiet street, and I saw a former stranger, someone from earlier, on the other side.  And we waved and smiled.

Thanks Tim.

The Sixteen, 32, 64, 922, 282 … and 1081

Spent this evening in a nine hundred year old building listening to some two hundred and fifty year old music.  Helped me put in perspective the fact that within a few months when I fill in a customer survey like the one in the concert programme tonight I’ll be ticking an age range that ends with 64!

St Albans Abbey (1077) was the nine hundred year old (in fact 932) building and the music was a suite of coronation anthems by the man of the anniversary moment GF Handel.  So the music was from 1727, (in fact 282 years old – flukily same 32 years error in both approximations).

The performers were The Sixteen, the choir and orchestra founded and conducted by Harry Christophers, and who featured in a beautiful BBC4 series last year called “Sacred Music” which I bumped into, and found engaging, and which reawakened a fairly fallow following of classical music.  Delighted therefore to find them performing at my local neighbourhood 900-year old cathedral, and with religious coronation anthems being right up my ideological street I could hardly decline.

The setting was spectacular.  The sun went down during the performance so the quality of light changed smoothly during the evening, with the grey sunlit stones turning sandy yellow under the electric lights from the wrought-iron chandeliers in alternate arches, which created a dark-light pattern to mirror the segmented shadings of the many romanesque arches in the Abbey.

Shame the music was indifferent really.

Of course the music itself was great, and I strongly suspect the performers were very good too, but the acoustics were pretty awful especially for the major choral pieces.  It takes sitting in a long narrow stone box with a high ceiling to make you appreciate a modern concert hall, which I therefore now do, all the more.  Musing on this I noted that the acoustics for the organ solo were very much better, leading me to hypothesise that one of the reasons organs work well in a church-like environment is that they are loud, with each note un-nuanced and emitted from one point, all of which probably help with the fact that the sound waves then get bounced every which way.

So: learnings – St Albans Abbey, beautifully atmospheric venue, but book early to get a seat in the block at the front and arrive early to get a seat near the front in order to get the sound waves while they’re fresh and before they’ve been handed down from an inconveniently spaced number of surfaces.  And I’d like to hear The Sixteen in a purpose-built concert venue.

The epilogue to this was that as I was driving home, by a further fluke, there was a programme about Handel and I tuned in at the point where they were playing a superb recording of Zadok the Priest, so I got that full blast as I was thrumming along the A1081, and with recent memory of the words was able to join in to the fullest.  Amen.