The Plastic Hippo

November 27, 2010

The 14 days of Christmas

Filed under: Transport,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 1:20 pm

Throw caution to the wind, splash out on a three litre bottle of White Lightening, chuck a few more sprouts in the pan and mix a sixpence into the pudding. Walsall Council has given us an early Christmas present.

From December 20, parking will be free in Walsall town centre until January 3. Joy to the world. According to the cabinet member for transport, Councillor Tom Ansell, described on the council press release and website as a “generous” transport boss, this will make the “town centre even more attractive as a place to shop”. Welcome as this initiative is, a quick stroll around the town centre suggests that it comes too late for the boarded up shops and those businesses forced to hold closing down sales. Short stay parking in Walsall is an expensive nightmare and for the closed and closing enterprises and their employees, it will be a bleak midwinter.

Cynics might suggest that this “generous” largess has been bestowed to deflect attention from the muted pronouncement from the council that pay and display parking meters are to be introduced in streets surrounding the town centre. This, in reality means an end to free parking in Walsall town centre. For the curious, even a detailed and time consuming search of the council website produces zero information regarding the proposal. The legal notice does not appear on this very poor attempt at social media but was published in a local free sheet newspaper, one that is very useful in lighting fires and absorbing the waste products of cats. For a council that tells us that transparency and accountability are at the very heart of its incompetence, this proposal has been well and truly buried.

It was left to the ever vigilant YamYam to turn up the document which appeared on a website devoted to news and council driven drivel in, of all places, Somerset. The good people of Bath and Wells now know that parking meters will be placed in Ablewell Street, Bott Lane, Bradford Street, Freer Street, Goodall Street, Hatherton Street, Lichfield Street, Little Newport Street, Lower Forster Street, Lower Hall Lane, Midland Road, Station Street, Tantarra Street, Walhouse Road, Ward Street, Warewell Street and Wedge Street. Helpfully, residents of Minehead, Yeovil and Glastonbury wishing to object are now furnished with the address of the relevant Walsall Council department. For the good people of the Walsall streets involved, information is harder to uncover.

Believe it or not, Walsall Council has a parking strategy. Approved by cabinet in April 2008, this document is said to conform to the previous government’s Ten Year Transport and Planning Policy Guidance Notes in that it will “use parking policies, alongside other planning and transport measures, to promote sustainable transport choices and reduce reliance on the car for work and other journeys”. Based on the Traffic Management Act 2004 which “places a strong emphasis on the local authority taking responsibility for parking enforcement through the development of Civil Parking Enforcement”, the strategy is to discourage car use. In Walsall, there is the added bonus of making money for an inept council.

Rather than accept this responsibility, our enlightened council did what it always does when faced with a tricky challenge and outsourced the job to a private run-for-profit company. APCOA stands for Airport Parking Company of America and the civil enforcement officers currently stalking the streets of Walsall work for APCOA. Originally founded in Cleveland, Ohio, the company became APCOA Autoparking GmbH based in Germany and the current owners seem to be Eurazeo, a French investment company. As with all deals between the council and private companies, the financial details are too sensitive to be disclosed to the actual people who pay for them because, it seems, it is not in our interest to know. Disgruntled motorists issued with tickets might become upset if they realised that after the council has taken a cut, their fines are flying off in the general direction of Stuttgart and Paris.

The 14 day Christmas present is certain to knock a big hole in the targets set by APCOA in order to be profitable and we are likely to see an increase in ticketing before and after the amnesty. Factor in the income from new parking meters to keep APCOA happy and the council strategy is successful; fewer cars, more fines, dying town centre.

The strategy document does, though, offer some comfort. It states: “In accordance with the Traffic Management Act, the council will be expected to exercise it’s new parking enforcement powers in a fair and reasonable manner.” So that’s okay then. It gives this further undertaking: “The council will adopt management and operational systems for its parking enforcement and management service that respond to the requirements of the local community.” As long as the local community agrees to pay through the nose to park that is. Another important part of the strategy is the recognition that parking charges should be equitable across the borough so as not to disadvantage district centres. The early Christmas present given in Walsall will not extend to shoppers who drive in Aldridge, Bloxwich, Brownhills, Darlaston and Willenhall.

The pay and display restrictions, apart from cutting off the town centre to drivers who resent forking out to go shopping or pay their council tax bill, will also have an impact on people fortunate enough to be within walking distance of the town. Residential streets in Birchhills, Butts, Caldmore and Chuckery are already plagued with the parked cars of commuters who travel to work in Walsall and from traffic understandably avoiding the madness of the ring road.

According to the car dealer stickers on rear windows, many of the vehicles left all day outside peoples houses originate from Birmingham, Cannock, Lichfield, Sutton, Tamworth and Wolverhampton. The locals can understand why migrant workers, many of whom work for the council, decide to park for free and walk the last half mile to work. But that doesn’t ease the frustration of not being able to park somewhere near their front doors and having to carry the weekly shop, small children and cases of Special Brew the half mile from the nearest parking space.

To be fair, the council have thought of this. The strategy document states: “In residential areas, local residents` ability to park close to their homes should be supported wherever possible.” The key words here are wherever and possible. Of course, there are residents only parking permits but the council intends to triple the price to £60 per household and reduce the number of cars covered. “Supported wherever possible.”

Never one to shy away from plain speaking, our heroic council leader, Mike Bird, defends the proposals. He said: “We’ve got to the situation where we need to raise income and ease congestion. These charges will prevent people from leaving their cars clogging up the streets all day.”

Should concerned residents of Taunton wish to object to the introduction of parking meters in Walsall, they have until December 10 to do so. Formal objections to the Order should be sent, with the grounds for making them, in writing (quoting ref. PBW/2265/2875) to:

The Constitutional Service Manager,
The Civic Centre,
Darwell Street,
Walsall,
WS1 1TP

On the fourteenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Thirteen councillors a-councilling,
Fourteen Civil Enforcement Officers a-ticketing
And a very silly bird in a pear tree.

November 25, 2010

The kettle is boiling

Filed under: Education,Politics,Rights — theplastichippo @ 2:07 am

Image credit: BBC

“The voice of protest, of warning, of appeal is never more needed than when the clamour of fife and drum, echoed by the press and too often by the pulpit, is bidding all men fall in step and obey in silence the tyrannous word of command. Then, more than ever, it is the duty of the good citizen not to be silent.”

Charles Eliot Norton (November 1827 – October 1908)

At about the time that David Cameron rose in the Commons to take Prime Ministers questions, thousands of real commoners gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest against an increase in student tuition fees and cuts to university funding. By the time PMQs had finished with very few questions answered, students, secondary school pupils, lecturers, teachers and parents were noisily but peacefully marching down Whitehall. By the time Michael Gove stood to deliver his white paper on education, the Metropolitan Police had blocked the planned route and began a process of “containment”.

“Containment”, sometimes referred to as kettling, is a tactic of beautiful medieval simplicity worthy of a 7th century siege. A riotous mob is “contained” in a progressively decreasing area by a heavy police presence. The boiling anger is contained in the kettle and the steam is not allowed to escape to cause damage elsewhere. The theory is that the anarchists within will become calmer, tired, cold, hungry or might just need to go to the loo or simply go home. This, though, was not a riotous mob and was not allowed to go home.

The school children, students and their elders had made their point and the vast majority wanted to disperse. However, they were not allowed to return along Whitehall to Trafalgar Square or along King Charles Street between the Treasury and the Foreign Office toward St James`s Park or down Richmond Terrace to Victoria Embankment. The lid was on the kettle and the heat turned up.

Some of the more excitable youth decided to let of steam by trashing an abandoned police van left carelessly inside the sterile zone. There is a Met officer somewhere in deep trouble but at least he or she didn’t leave the keys in the ignition; heaven knows what carnage could have ensued. What is unlikely to be reported in the aftermath, is the fact that a group of uniformed schoolgirls surrounded the van and linked arms to protect it. Only when children and young people trying to leave the area were hit on the head with truncheons, pushed off walls back into the crowd and violently arrested did the wild-eyed tiny minority return to finish off the van.

Media coverage of this demonstration was, and will undoubtedly be, disturbing. Before the unpleasantness and with little to report, the on line BBC news channel decided to remind us of the previous Millbank rumble when, by their own admission, the Met were unprepared. This time, both public service organisations were ready and both seemed to relish the thought of disorder. The BBC had a helicopter over Whitehall which gave us live, unedited images of the goings on. Safe in the studio, our news anchor spoke of a thin line of ordinary bobbies heroically holding back the protesters. As the live images showed riot police truncheons connecting with young skulls, she asked the reporter on the ground about police tactics. He said that the police were in control and he had not witnessed any use of force. Perhaps these journalists should watch the vision monitors.

Clearly, vandalism and criminal damage is disgraceful and will only harm the reputations of the vast majority of those wishing to legitimately protest against injustice and a lack of fairness. The mindless looting of a police van will overshadow the real message and inform police tactics in the coming months. The press will become frenzied and politicians will sit back and tell us that they are protecting us from a descent into barbarism. Given the horror ahead, this is just the beginning.

It is of interest that the Director of Communications for the Bishop and Diocese of Lichfield has stated on his blog that the protest was “just plain wrong” and suggests that the organisers should have called off the demonstration because “they knew full well” that it would end in violence. The Director admits that his opinion is formed by watching that bastion of impartiality and balanced news reporting Sky News. One wonders if he would admit to shouting at the television if, in a previous incarnation, Sky News had reported the overturning of the money lenders tables in the temple or, indeed, the persecution and torture of early Protestants. He suggests that disgruntled students and school children should engage business leaders and church groups, amongst others, in a public relations campaign. Sadly, anger is not that holy.

Of more concern, and as retrograde as the white paper from Michael Gove, is the possibility of an actual police state. Reports are emerging that Twitter, at the request of the police, suppressed the #demo2010 hash tag that, by most accounts, was top of the trending topics list on the day of the protest. Even more alarming, as midnight approached, school children finally allowed to leave the kettle were being photographed by the Met and their identities checked and recorded. Some children have reported that they were charged at by riot police on horseback as they waited for the night bus home. The lesson that they learnt in Whitehall will be far more memorable than the lessons they missed at school.

Six months into a coalition government and the police are kettling school children. What will happen when the police are made redundant?

November 23, 2010

Fings ain`t wot they used t`be

Filed under: Education,History — theplastichippo @ 3:48 pm

Image credit: Beau Bo D`Or

Under the cover of darkness, the anonymous small Honda sped past the protesters and television cameras through the school gates. In the back, screened by a suit hanging in the window reminiscent of a travelling salesman, Michael Gove was delivered to Coppice Primary School in Four Oaks.

It would seem that Coppice has a flexible approach to the school timetable as it held a whole school assembly at 6.00pm on a Friday. The assembly was scheduled for 2.00pm but their distinguished visitor, the Secretary of State for Education, got wind that some terrorists from the National Union of Teachers wanted to shout at him for the mess he is making of education. He was there to officially re-open the school after a £10million re-build funded by Birmingham City Council and approved by his predecessor. 6.00pm on a Friday is unusual even for a ministerial photo opportunity.

So the children, their parents and the members of staff not waving placards and baying for blood waited in the school hall for the great man to arrive. They waited for four hours and it seems the only grumbles came from little tummies wanting their tea and parents who left early to get home in time to watch the Simpsons. This week, Gove will present his white paper on the future of education and it is expected that he will demand to see an improvement in punctuation and spelling. Head teachers might first wish to see an improvement in punctuality.

The white paper will set out a return to “traditional” O and A levels and do away with modular “bite size” examinations and course work assessment. Instead, students will be able to enjoy the pleasure of being tested on two years of study on a single day in a single exam. History will be given a higher profile in the curriculum which is just as well because pupils will be operating in a system that was considered not fit for purpose 60 years ago. If they get stuck, they could always ask Grandma or Granddad for advice. Gove has, for the moment, stopped short of introducing compulsory Latin, the memorising of log tables and writing 100 times “I must not remove my cap when crossing the quadrangle”.

Gove wishes to improve discipline and reduce bureaucracy. The wasteful practice of recording incidents of bullying, racism, sexism and violent behaviour will go as will the requirement for adults working with children to undergo a CRB check. The clearing away of red tape will extend to the disturbing “free” schools where an actual teaching qualification will be unnecessary. Clearly a victory for common sense.

As Gove delivers his vision to the House of Commons, students in colleges, universities and schools across the country will stage a walk-out in protest at what the coalition government is doing to education and therefore the future of the nation. They must ensure that the spelling and punctuation on their banners is of a standard that satisfies the Secretary of State.

As for the children of Coppice Primary, they probably viewed the long wait for Michael Gove as an unusually lengthy after school club. Let us hope they made the most of it as Gove has cut £162million, that is 100 per cent, of the schools sports budget that funds after school sports clubs. Clearly a victory in the battle against childhood obesity and encouraging news for our prospects of gold medals in the newly introduced 2012 Olympic sports of pizza eating and Game boy.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but with an education system that Harold Macmillan would recognise, perhaps 50`s retro is now all the rage. All we need is an heir to the throne getting married, North Korea fighting South Korea and Alma Cogan at the top of the hit parade.

Michael Gove was born in 1967.

November 20, 2010

The waiting game

Filed under: Education,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 2:00 pm

All things come to he who waits and a little patience has finally paid off for the chair of governors at the Grace Academy Darlaston. With tenacity anything is possible, especially if you have deep pockets.

Five years ago, the name Robert Edmiston appeared on a list of proposed Conservative working peers. The House of Lords Appointments Commission rejected the proposal after it emerged that Mr Edmiston had donated considerable amounts of money to the Conservative party. At the height of the “cash for peerages” scandal in July 2006, he was questioned by the boys in blue but when the £2million donation was re-designated as a “loan”, he avoided arrest or a caution. In these times of break-neck deficit reduction, it is not clear if the Conservative party have repaid the “loan” let alone any interest upon it.

Undeterred, he continued to pursue his goal and realised that under Tony Blair’s desperate rush to make the divisive Academies programme work, very wealthy individual “sponsors” of schools were being handed peerages. Anyone can “sponsor” an Academy regardless of suitability. Mr Edmiston is an Evangelical Christian who refutes evolutionary theory. At that time, all you needed was a million pounds and the government of the day would stump up the other 30 to 40 million needed to rebuild a school. So, he took out his wallet and opened the Grace Academy Solihull. No response. So he opened the Grace Academy Coventry in 2008. “Hello, can you hear me Gordon?” Nothing. Then he came hence to Darlaston and found a council more than willing to help him into the coronet and red robe trimmed with ermine.

The closure of Darlaston Community Science College in 2009 to make way for the third Grace Academy was rapid and complete. The views of teachers, parents and students were ignored and Uncle Bob did not have to wait long to acquire his latest trophy school. Indeed, it only took a month for Walsall council planning committee to reverse a decision that initially blocked the taking of half of George Rose Park to further the ambitions of Mr Edmiston. But still no peerage from the Labour government.

Pragmatic as ever, he continued to donate or “lend” money to the Conservative party as an individual, as owner of International Motors Ltd and as a senior figure of the secretive Midlands Industrial Council. Latterly he has made donations from IM Properties PLC. Between 2003 and June of this year, nearly £5million has been directed to Conservative Central Office, the West Midlands Conservatives and individual Conservative constituency groups, the most recent being £500,000 from IM Properties last January. It should be made clear that not a single penny has been given directly to the Walsall Conservative group and any suggestion that Walsall councillors have been swayed by party political donation is clearly untrue and quite preposterous.

Along with the bags of money, our hero brings with him the baggage of strange religious belief and little experience of education. He is chair of governors at the three schools he now controls which are in areas that contain a proportion of students and their families who are clearly not Christian. Academies are allowed to be secretive and are not compelled to publish information that other schools must provide so it is difficult to know what is going on inside the Grace Academies. However, parents in Coventry have dared to suggest that the gleaming multi-million pound school has been “trashed” and that Solihull has one of the worst absence rates in the country. Darlaston has its own dedicated police officer based in the school.

Six months on from the election, Julian Fellowes and Joan Bakewell may be making the headlines as our latest peers but there, waiting to join the ranks of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, is our own Robert Edmiston, entrepreneur, philanthropist, visionary and now a Lord. The House of Lords Appointments Commission seem to have suffered a loss of memory as they have also allowed the appointment of another millionaire party “lender”, Sir Gulam Noon as a Labour peer. He too was rejected in 2006 and also attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police. Interestingly, the coalition has increased the number of unelected working peers in the Lords and intends to reduce the number of elected representative in the Commons. Patience is clearly a virtue.

The only issue now is what will be his title? My Lord Edmiston of Darlaston or Coventry or Solihull would not really be suitable because as a working peer, chairing a meeting of governors will be dropped like a stone compared to the delights of “the other place”. Baron Bob of Darlo?…perhaps not.

Given the basis of his massive fortune, perhaps he should style himself Lord Fuel Injection of Subaru and Isuzu.

The students at Darlaston, Solihull and Coventry can hardly wait.

November 18, 2010

Rejoice

Filed under: Media,Sport — theplastichippo @ 4:13 pm

Major Smith-Smythe-Smith of the Household Cavalry finds relief after the pre-match drinks reception

In the bleak, depressing desolation that is coalition Britain, at last there is something to celebrate. The happy couple scored by Reuben Reid for Walsall against the mighty Fleetwood Town in an FA Cup first round replay has resulted in a spontaneous outpouring of joy in otherwise dark and dangerous times.

Crowds of ecstatic Walsall fans took to the streets in scenes of jubilation not witnessed since Primark announced its intention to open a store in the town. Banners were unfurled, flags were waved and the crowds of delighted citizens burst into song with impromptu renditions of the national anthem. The news of the famous victory over the aristocratic Blue Square side quickly spread across the globe. Millions gathered in Red Square Moscow and Melbourne came to a standstill. The New York stock exchange briefly suspended trading to allow brokers to come to terms with the enormous significance of the two goals scored by Walsall. Broadcast media across the world cancelled published schedules to devote air time to an analysis of the match and the government of Papua New Guinea declared a national holiday. Kayapo tribesmen in the Amazon basin held up a sign to a passing helicopter that read: “ God bless you Jimmy Walker”.

The printed media cleared their front pages of trivia to feature the match which, quite rightly, is the news story of the century. The scandal of child carers conveniently disappeared and the report into the secret harvesting of organs and other body parts of workers in the nuclear industry was buried along with radioactive hearts. The millions spent on rendering innocent men to Guantanamo Bay to make them talk and the millions paid in compensation to stop them talking was justifiably kicked off page one as the persistent knee injury suffered by Darren Byfield still concerns the planet. The proposed censorship of the internet and the abject failure of the Academies programme were, understandably, relegated to the back pages as all thoughts turned to the difficult fixture away to Torquay in the second round.

With the attention of the universe now firmly focused on the Saddlers, everything else is ephemeral and the world will wait with baited breath to see if Walsall can make it to Wembley in May and, if successful against Chelsea in the final, a thanksgiving ceremony at Westminster Abbey in July. With national depression replaced by euphoria, we will see rebellion evaporate as yet another heir to throne is produced and waved at the barricades set up during the food riots of 2012. By then, the Walsall squad will be England players and will be perfectly placed to welcome Brazil to Bescot Stadium which will be the main venue for the 2018 World Cup.

It might be best to ignore the fact that Walsall lost 2-1 to the awesome footballing machine that is Tipton Town in the Birmingham Senior Cup.

After all, Chris Hutchings walks on water and everybody loves a good wedding.

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