Sunday, April 25, 2010

Downtime with the Fortunate-Retired

I don't usually blog too much about family life but will make this one exception. We are now proud owners of a camper-van (or motor-home, as they are actually called). Or half-owners with my in-laws. Its a Fiat and it looks a like a giant beige billboard with wheels.

We tried it out this weekend with a gentle run up to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. Rather than park without permission we dutifully booked into the Church Farm Holiday Park, a vast city of static caravan with names such as `Solitaire', `The Viking' and `Excelsior'.

We had, unwittingly, stumbled across around a thousand of the Fortunate-Retired (or F-R's). These are not the stinking-rich, obviously, but people sufficiently well-off to own a very large caravan next to the sea, drive a nearly-new car (normally an Audi A6 or a Skoda Octavia) and bake in the sun as they flick through Dick Francis novels.

Unusually, there were no children at all on site. Our two were looked at like exotic birds, or, and I find this strangely common in the younger F-R's, totally ignored. "Been there, done that", I see written on their always-downturned faces.

Anyway, except for Church Farm Holiday Park, Aldeburgh is cool and you must go there if you can. It's stayed small, despite becoming a bit famous and the charm is everywhere. You can get good coffee, even very early on Sunday morning and you can buy fresh fish from numerous tin-shacks on the beach. OK, it's a bit Boden in parts and quite pricey but Aldeburgh is very much my kind of place.

After a long morning walk, we drove down to Orford and Orford Ness. Another of Suffolk's high-spots. Bobbing boats, a working quay and a sense of being away from your cares. Except for an MG Rally arriving during our lunch (those F-R's again), we had a splendid time.

This camper-van is sort of my present to myself for leaving Speaking Up and doing something else. I am trying to say to the family `Let's do more together - and I'll try not be be that distracted, miserable old twat I have been for the last couple of years'.

Whether it'll work, I don't know. Depends on what I get stuck into next I suppose. One side of of me wants to just get a nice job and chill a bit. While the other side is plotting the next big thing. One thing I do know. When I go to Orford-Ness, I stop caring about which side will prevail.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

From the Front-Line of the Big Society

A Tuesday evening in April.. Arrive at the local school on an estate I represent to find 50 people from the community have given up Eastenders to come and talk together about how to improve their area. I am late so skulk in and slide silently into my seat. The format is the one you’ve seen a thousand times with a desk at the front with councillors, the local copper and a minute-taker from the council then row after row of seats.

Fifteen minutes in, it doesn’t feel great. We are still on the constitution and elections to the new committee. Most people don’t understand what is going on. There’s a silence impatience and a few of the older folk are starting to drop-off. Then the questions. “Why isn’t the Council/police/authorities doing that or that?” “Why haven’t we got a community centre?” “Who is going to clear the leaves this year?”.

The format lends itself to this perfectly. The passive citizens in the audience, those “responsible” at the front. Like 95% of the audience, I am getting both bored and impatient. A question comes up about the county council. I am invited to speak in “response”. I then take a small risk. I tell the audience that whatever they believe about we at the front could do for them was, by and large, an illusion. We can’t do that much, and that the best thing they could do was to set up not a residents association to harangue the system but a residents action group that just decided what to do then do it. I then offer an initial £2.5k to the best ideas and ask them to split into groups for 20 minutes to share their ambitions for the estate and asked the assorted heads at the front to each join a group.

Things warm up very quickly and, for a while, I could hardly hear above the buzz from the groups. People were enjoying the task. Sure the moaning was still there, but given the invitation to do stuff rather than to complain, most wanted the former.

This was evidenced during feedback when a spokesman for each of the six groups came to the mic and spoke. These contributions were all of a really high quality. Eloquent, measured, considered and brief. The meeting had found its voice. People had all, on some level, had a chance to speak. The line between the responsible and the community had been blurred as person after person volunteered not only good ideas but also a public commitment to help make them happen.

Had we not chopped things around – and I thanked the Chairman afterwards for permitting the change-tp-plan – I am not sure how things would have ended. We would have heard less and what we did hear would have been a lot less positive. As things are, we are moving forward with optimism and a feeling that it is up to us what do do next.

Two observations here in relation to the Big Society. The first is that there is, within people, a desire to contribute to the well-being of their community if there is an easy and co-ordinated way of doing so. We simply struggle to get simple mechanisms formd properly in most communities. So it is right of Cameron to press on this. But whatever one does, it has to be them driving it, not people like me.

Second is about formats. Whoever came up with the row-of –chairs approach to meetings and slipped it into the national DNA did us no favours. It kills any potential stone dead. I was surprised, if I m honest, that Council `community development’ officers who do this sort of thing for a living don’t have the insight to know this and are happy to sit at the front having turds thrown at them. It clearly doesn’t work.

As it is, we are in a better place. In a month’s time we are meeting to talk about how some of the ideas generated this evening can be made happen. Sure I will continue to try to get holes in the road fixed but my main role here, I hope, will be to support what folks want to do, not do it for them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Don't Listen To Me

When it comes to politics I tend to get things wrong. Nick Clegg? Wrong leader, I said after being love-bombed about Vince on the doorsteps this last year. Twice I had seen the man, once at an ACEVO event, once in person to talk about the third sector. At the ACEVO event he was dull and verbose. One to one, he was likeable, intelligent and I wondered why he couldn't come across like that on telly.

Which is why I for one was surprised by what happened on Thursday. Although I am sure the Lib Dems are in a mini-bubble, it is stunning to see the polls respond to one event as they have. For a few days it has been possible to dream of a mould-breaking election. The reason Clegg succeeded was that he made even Cameron look like business-as-usual. After all his effort this last five years, Cameron will be deflated this weekend. Good politics, Nick.

Being a pessimist, I suspect the polls will level out as quickly as they surged forward for the Lib Dems. Weaknesses on Europe, crime and defence will be played up and the Tories in particular will paint the Lib Dems as flaky. Most won't stick but enough Middle-Englanders will take the bait. And those in Tory-Lab marginals will still, sensible, vote tactically anyway.

But it has been fun and interesting. Clearly there is appetite for something quite different, a clean break, something honest and straight. Clegg is representing that in the way Blair once did and watch how people respond. Cameron, for a while, did this too but it feels like he's been around forever and his lightness of touch appears to have deserted him. A lost Mojo at the last fence.

So, all to play for. This morning in my weigh-the-Tory vote constituency I banged in my garden sign in defiance as much as hope. Our hope is a good second against a popular local Green who defected from the Labour Party last year. Bury St Edmunds has been Tory since 1911 so we know history is not on our side. We have to take the long-view!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who We Think We Are

Had an enjoyable meeting yesterday with Allison Odgen Newton from Social Enterprise London. We got onto the election and the class system in this country. Upper-class, she was remarking, is really about your relationship to the Doomsday Book.

Although I didn't ask, I sensed Allison's own relationship to the Doomsday Book might be a bit closer than my own! But, like millions of people who, until very recently knew next-to-nothing about their ancestry, my family have done some interesting recent digging.

The main discovery is that my lot aren't quite as straightforwardly working class as I thought. Because my grandparents all worked in the Lancs cotton mills I kind of assumed that at some stage in the 18th century we came off the land. Not quite so.

On my materal grandfather's side, the journey to Lancashire was via Scarborough. My great, great Grandfather, we discoved, was an architect, a Liberal Councillor and once stood for Parliament for the Liberals. He had several sons, one of whom, my Great Grandfather, married `below' himself, was cut out and moved to the thriving mills of Lancashire to start-over. He then had 12 sons, including my Grandfather, all of whom played a part in the Second World War and all of whom survived. A photo of them all back home in 1945 survives in the the local library.

On my Dad's side, my Great Grandfather, Tom MacWilliam was, we knew in domestic service in the late 19th century. He was in fact coachman to the Grant brother, mill owners who were the inspiration for Charles Dickens' `The Cheeryble Brothers'. The coachman in that novel is known as "Tommy" and is, apparently based on Tom MacWilliam. A small literary footnote I know but I felt strangely proud to know this.

I actually don't enjoy `Who Do You Think You Are' very much. All that faux-emotion at events 100 years ago. We often forget that we are all what Morrisey termed `Pale Descendents' of these characters, diluted many times by the generations. But it is good, I think to know where you've come from, even if it isn't the Doomsday book!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Being Mr Benn

I have a varied life. Its a deliberate thing. I like the idea of being different people in a kind of Mr Benn way. I can be on the phone to Liam Black one minute and then in a pensioners' living room the next discussing a dropped kerb.

Which is where I was today at 6pm with the delightful Mrs Roberts, an 85 year old who contacted me to thank her for getting her own kerb dropped. Since my last visit in August she had lost her beloved chiwawaah Fangio. He hadn't been the same since an attack by an Alsation six months before and his poor heart gave out one night as he chased after a ball. She filled up. I knew this wouldn't be a short visit. Tears turned to laughter however when she told me she was considering a micro-pig which are now promoted as alternative house-pets. Good for people with allergies, apparently.

Following this I called on the 80 year old Mr Bradford to tell him I had persuaded the evasive Tree Surgeon from the council to cut some overhanging branches next month. The relief at having his light back caused him to pump my hand with thanks.

I have always liked old people. There is a simple joy in being that I get from easy conversation with people who are glad to see you. It never feels like wasted time. Whatever their foibles, they, more than any other group, make being a Councillor feel worth it. I just hope they all make it to 2013 when I am up for re-election.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Kevin Gough died last week. He was 58. In 2005 he won £9 million on the Lottery. He died broke, alone and alcoholic. Before the big win, Kevin was happily married, worked in a bakery, couple of kids, plenty of friends. But the jackpot did for all that. He stayed on at work but colleagues grew hostile. He then blew millions on high-living and ill-advised ventures. He lost his marriage, his health and finally, last week, his life.

What does Kevin's story tell us? On one level it says something straightforward about how too much money can screw us up. But it also tells us that if you inject a large dose of inequality into our social relationships, you put them - and thereby yourself - at risk.

This simple idea - that the fact of inequality is the root of many social ills - is the main point of `The Spirit Level' , a major international study by academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Mental ill-health, obesity, imprisonment, violence and social isolation are all mitigated, they argue, by greater equality. In short, more equal countries like Japan and Finland have fewer social problems than the more socially stratified US and the UK. Inequality and broken societies are, the evidence says, incontrovertibly related.

What was personally challenging about `The Spirit Level' was that I had accepted growing UK inequality because I know that top 10% of earners contribute 50% of all income tax. Indeed it seemed to me almost `moral’ to allow top earners to go make hay - incentivized by globally low taxes - because we need them to pay for schools and hospitals.

However, two profound points have, I think, changed my mind. Firstly, the financial benefits of more tax coming from higher earners have probably been dwarfed by the costs of us allowing an unequal society to develop in the first place. The second is that in an unequal society even the better-off are far more anxious, fearful and unhealthy than if they lived in a more equal one. Equality, it seems, helps even high earners, even if like me we hate the extra taxation!

So what do we do? Collectively we in the third sector need to remind the parties at this important time that equality will benefit everyone. Politicians, particularly on the Right, need to know that the Big Society has, by definition, to be One Society, not several grossly unequal camps drifting further apart.

As civil society organisations, we need to continue to walk our talk. Thankfully, unlike the public sector, we never bought the bullshit that supersonic salaries buy success. This fallacy forgets that organisations are, in fact, human communities. And like poor Kevin Gough, our charities need a degree of equality if they are to survive and thrive.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Secret Habit

I like a flutter. Not a big one. I haven't got a problem (guv) - honest. But I have an account at Betfair and like all gamblers I like to think I am up.

My thing isn't the horses or football but politics. Today I found 16/1 on Ed Balls for the next Labour leader. I'll take that. I also got some pretty reasonable odds on the Conservatives winning most seats and on taking the Rossendale Valley, where I cast my first vote in 87.

Betfair is good too. You're effectively betting against other people and odds are set by the pattern of betting rather than some shyster bookie. Betting doesn't seem shady any more.

While I am just playing at it, a friend of mine gambles big-time and, due to his superb knowledge of the `turf' is able to sell his tip commerically. Last year he made a cool £70k clear profit. Not bad for something he does in the evenings. Interestingly, he's a financial director of a very sober company so its all a big secret.

My life has just been augmented by an Apple Iphone. I am yet to even switch the thing on and part of me is reluctant knowing I will need to spend hours downloading `Apps' etc. If the thing can help me sort my life now I don't have a PA it will be worth a couple of hours of fiddling. I am actually considering asking her to moonlight for me as the thought of flying solo is so terrifying. Invoicing, bookings, making sure I have read stuff. Plus I am involved in so much stuff I can definitely see me dropping a major bollock in the next few weeks as a conference platform stands empty or a community meeting waits for its elected rep to appear.

Speaking of all that, it's not going too badly in life after CEO. Stepping down felt a bit like being an MP who has just lost the election. People suddenly aren't as interested. However, the phone has been ringing and email pinging. In April I will even make a bit of money, which I didn't expect to do (hence the extra flutter today).

Today (Saturday)felt like the first promise of Summer. I walked the kids to the park and, rather than feel bored, cold and agitated, as I usually do, I went with the flow, free of preoccupying thoughts and absorbed the sun. Carrying a tired 2 and 4 yr old a full half-mile back was not such fun, however and I was as grouchy as ever by the time I slumped in front of Football Focus and let it wash over me.

Despite a slightly stressful gingercake-making experience with my daughter, my sort-of relaxed day continued pretty much till bedtime. Going with the flow. Not thinking. I believe that is the secret you know. When I don't think I am a lot damn happier.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

One White Line

It was December last year when, on my `Street Surgery', a very nice young mother asked me if I could do anything to discourage cars from blocking her drive. I said I would see what I could do and, with a very wide smile, left feeling pretty confident I could help.

It turned out I could. Without even dipping into my £10k Locality Budget, I was assured that this young lady could have a white line painted outside her property no-problemo. All we needed was a dry day and a lining team in the area.

Then the snow came and we had two months or so of rotten weather. She was fine with that and pleased that I had emailed to tell her. Two more months passed..still no line. Now she isn't so pleased. She's still being nice about it but, if I were her, I am not sure I would be.

I contact the Council. Apparently there hasn't been a team in the area on any of the recent dry days. I tell them that it is now April and this is making both me and the Council look crap, in the ways that the public think we are crap: slow, incapable of doing the simplest things etc. I offer again to pay a contractor to do it privately. No need they insist, it will be done. When I ask? Within the next couple of week. Guaranteed? We can't guarantee anything but Craig, we are your side here.

I like the Council man a lot, possibly too much even. I email the young lady and tell her that if it isn't done by the end of April I will personally pay for it to happen. As nice as ever, she says she doesn't believe me but will hold with me.

And that she's been stuck in her house for two days because somebody has left their car in front of her there anything I can do to help?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Four Books: One Message

I try to `read around' a bit these days. Pick a range of stuff so I don't just hear the same thing over. So I walked out of Waterstone's in York on Saturday with the following: Phillip Blond's `Red Tory', David Willetts' `The Pinch', `The Spirit Level'by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Richard Layard's book on Happiness. Each of this lot sit somewhere between traditional right and firm left with Blond, obviously, astride the two.

And you know what? They are all saying very similar things. That materialism has hit definite upper limits in terms of what it can do for us. That happiness seems to be linked to levels of inequality in society. That striving for personal enrichment rather than the well-being of others is, quite literally, making us mentally ill.

The core message of all of these authors is that we have lost our way. That we have become so dissociative, so self-absorbed, so status-preoccupied that our quality of life is now actually in decline.

The solution, say all of our authors, is to eschew these values. That to be happy, paradoxically, involves thinking about ourselves less and others more. Forgetting ourselves seems somehow important for mental and physical well-being. There's lots of evidence here, its not just opinion.

Just how hostage we all are to the prevailing norms of our society, even those of us who consider ourselves on the less avaricious side, is clear to me when I look at myself. I am one of Thatcher's children. I compare myself with others all the time both in money and status terms. I obsess endlessly about my own life. Not so much how I am seen, but planning in quite calculated detail, how to be, in my own terms, successful. I like to think I inject this with balance and consideration for others, but I am, in the way my mind works, not all that different from the typical self-centred westerner these books roundly criticise.

How does one actually change? Not without difficulty I suggest. Despite the evidence that a more equal society will mean that Britain would probably be better for even those of us on higher incomes, I really struggle with the idea of 50% tax. To me, the idea of individuals reaping the rewards of their labour trumps the social equality argument, though obviously I accept the need to soften the impact of this principle through progressive taxation. Or is this my habituation to a low-tax society in which we tend just to put ourselves first regardless?

Whether I can change is, in a way, neither here or there. The die may or may not be cast. But my kids? The direction of travel, according to research, isn't good. Their upbringing in what has become a more self and body obsessed society than the one I grew up in during the 70s and 80s will, I sense, make a key difference to how they turn out. I want them not only to be decent people but also happy people. Trite to say perhaps, but it is every parents' first concern.

My hope, reading all these books, from left and right, is that we may, just may, be arriving at a consensus as a society that the addition of more material wealth into our lives has a nil or possibly negative effect on our well-being. And that, on a macro-level, by seeking a levelling of opportunity and outcomes, we may ourselves thrive more than we are doing today.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Over the Line

Yesteday I left Speaking Up. Well, not completely as I am still the Chair, but it felt like a departure. Fifteen years of carrying a heavy bronze ball now over. The relief is still palpable and unexpected. A bit like still being drunk a day after two pints of bitter. But I will enjoy this feeling for as long as it lasts.

We immediately decamped for York from where I am writing now. We do house-swops which work on trust and are a fine way to holiday. Rather than a soul-less, high rent flat you move into the comfort and homeliness of other people's space. People you will never probably speak to let alone meet.

This week will see me doing a lot with the kids after a long pre-mergrt absence. Like many Dads I am prone to going AWL mentally for long periods and this is one thing about being a CEO I will not miss. Before the kids that job and organisation was my whole life really. Now that can't really happen again.

The big choice for me I guess will be whether or not I ever a) work again as a CEO or b) develop an organisation to scale. There is much about both that I no longer feel attracted to doing. Maybe this will change after a bit of a break but I suspect it won't. A lot of what drove me to build up an organisation in the first place is no longer there or has been satisfied by doing it once. I also feel that I have changed these last few years. I just don't have the same willingness to put my own and others happiness second to the requirements of a 250 person organisation - however fantastic the cause.

But neither do I wish to just chill out. Challenge is vital to me. I need, almost pathologically, to know I am making a difference. The intensity and hunger won't dissolve. It just won't look the same. I am hoping that my new ventures will, though smaller, be just as influential as any larger thing I might go off and run. There is a new thing gestating which is still not clear to me. But I know it is coming. Now there is space I hope it won't take too long to sweep me off my feet!