The Plastic Hippo

September 18, 2010

Waste not want not

Filed under: Environment,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 8:24 pm

Regular readers of this humble blog might wish to take a seat, pour a stiff drink and, for those of a nervous disposition, have a cardiac arrest crash team standing by. Walsall council appear to have got something right.

Council leaflets are plopping through letter boxes across the borough informing residents of the revised bin collection service. Some neighbourhoods will suffer the inconvenience of a change in collection day but the council leaflet contains a calender which clearly sets out when the grey, green and brown bins will be emptied subject, of course, to winter weather conditions. Along with the leaflet are useful stickers for the three bins showing the collection day. Clearly some thought has gone into the collection timetable as the brown bin garden waste collection will be suspended during and after the Christmas period and the green recycling bins will be emptied weekly. Hopefully this will avoid some of the chaos endured last winter when bins in some areas were not emptied for eight weeks and the council are to be congratulated for employing some joined up thinking.

Furthermore, the council have announced an initiative to replace some of the ageing green bins free of charge. So far, so good and credit should be given where credit is due. However, it is an indication of the performance of Walsall council that this humble blog should be moved to congratulate it for managing to provide a basic level of service and, as with everything that Walsall council does, there is more to this than meets the eye.

Cabinet have approved a revised Waste Collection Policy which, according to the council website, will “help build on the council’s outstanding recycling performance”. The new policy will also address the problems of bins left out on footpaths for “long periods”, contamination, extra bags of rubbish on the street and overflowing bins. The council statement claims:

“The existing policy does allow enforcement action to be taken in exceptional circumstances but this has never been implemented. The council’s policy is to resolve issues directly with residents which has proved successful over the years and this approach will continue if the revised policy is approved by Cabinet.”

Indeed Councillor Anthony Harris, portfolio holder for Leisure, Culture and Environment, said: “Our approach has always been to try and resolve any problems through communication with residents and this will continue to be the way forward for us.”

However, the bulk of the now approved policy is taken up with the details of “enforcement” and those details make dull, but illuminating reading. Residents now have a list of instructions which have, so far, not been given prominence on the council website. The instructions are there, but as with most of the council website, which is about as navigable as an Algerian Souk, finding the document can prove difficult. So, in the interest of public information, this humble blog offers a quick overview.

Bins must be placed at the edge of a residential property before 7-30am on the day of collection and not before 6-00pm on the evening prior to collection. Householders must return their bins to their property no later than 10-00pm on the day of collection. The report reminds people that blocking the highway and, in legal terms, the pavement, is a criminal offence. Householders are “entitled” to 140 litres of rubbish per week. Extra bags left at the side of the bin will not be collected, the lid of the bin has to be fully closed and each bin should only contain the correct category of refuse.

All this sounds perfectly reasonable, but failure to comply with the instructions will result not in the successful approach of communication as advocated by Councillor Harris, but with locally set fines and possible court action. By employing section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) of 1990, Walsall council will issue letters of warning to transgressing householders which, if ignored, will result in a Fixed Penalty Notice and a fine of between £75 and £110. Should, for any reason, the fine not be paid, the council can then prosecute the offender which could result in a summary conviction and a fine not exceeding £1000. Strangely, this new tactic is not mentioned in the council leaflet.

The revised Waste Collection Policy raises a number of questions, not least the issue of policing and enforcement. Presumably, it will be left to individual bin collectors to judge whether a bin has been presented correctly, has not been contaminated with the wrong sort of waste and is on the street within the time-scale as dictated in the policy. Bin collection is not a metaphorical “dirty job”, it is, by definition, a real dirty job. Rising at some ungodly hour, the operatives face rats, all manner of creepy-crawlies, irate residents and angry motorists who, delayed on the way to a nice clean office, sound horns and hurl abuse at people who are providing a vital service for very little pay or, indeed, appreciation. Given the already break-neck collection schedule, which does not allow the time to return emptied bins to the position that the council demands of its residents, the new policy offers no indication of how much extra work will be expected from the folks who do our dirty work.

Councillor Harris was not present at the cabinet meeting that discussed the document that bore his signature. Perhaps his absence was the result of needing to retrieve his bins before the new 10-00pm curfew. It is, after all, best to lead by example.

September 16, 2010

Hate Mail

Filed under: Uncategorized — theplastichippo @ 10:58 pm

Image credit: http://www.b3ta.com

Notes for editors – this front page mock-up is not actually genuine; but satire/parody.

Twitter made its breakthrough into the national consciousness when it was revealed that Stephen Fry was being “followed” by almost all of the inhabitants of heaven and earth. Having become all but synonymous with the 140 character bon mot, the name of our national treasure is inveriably evoked when the printed media cover a story that they have gleaned from Twitter. But, that pillar of respectable journalism and voice of the the people, the Daily Mail, has taken umbridge at some of Mr Fry`s activities.

Stephen and 54 of his prominent chums signed a letter to the Guardian questioning the propriety of “honouring” the Holy Father, Bishop of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State and God`s true representative on Earth with a state visit given the somewhat chequered reputation of the Catholic Church. The signatories pointed out that they had no objections to a visit from the Pope and offered his holiness a welcome. But they also wished to highlight the Catholic Church`s stance on the prohibition of contraception as protection against the scourge of Aids, the denial of basic human rights and the abomination and subsequent cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of children committed by Catholic priests. The Vatican City, they point out, was only ratified as a “state” in 1929 with a treaty signed by Benito Mussolini and they further question the estimated £12million cost to the British tax-payer in these times of savage cuts.

The Daily Mail, not noted for its rationality or welcoming attitude to foreigners, described the letter as an “atheist hate campaign led by Stephen Fry” and an insult to the Pope and to Catholics. A man with the wit, erudition, intellegence and humanity of Stephen Fry was more than capable of dismissing this outrage with a devasting post on his excellent blog. As Fry pointed out, if heaven does actually exist, he is more likely to be allowed in, whereas reporters on the Daily Mail and some Catholic clergy will definitely not be issued with halos, harps and wings.

Even before the Papal Airbus touched down in Edinburgh, things were not going well. Described in the Daily Mail as a “liberal”, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a former senior aide to the pontiff, was reported as describing an arrival at Heathrow as being like arriving in a “third-world” country. A later clarification stated that this was not an observation of the British economy, but a comment on ethnic diversity. Phew, not a insult to Gideon Osborne then, just a teeny-tiny bit racist. He also spoke of an “aggressive atheism” in Britain and the Daily Mail seized on this comment and issued dire warnings of Godless, Bolshevik, atheist celebrities “whipping-up” hatred towards frail, old theologians. Cardinal Kasper was forced to withdraw from the state visit after being struck down with gout. God clearly moves in mysterious ways.

By the time Benedict XVI got to Holyrood, “aggressive atheism” had morphed into “aggressive secularism” somewhere along the Corstophine Road. In front of the Queen and the world’s press he said:

“Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”

At 14, the future Pope was forced to join the Hitler Youth against his will and so has some real experience of the evils of tyranny. At his advanced age, though, one might expect the occasional lapse of memory even if we take into account his God-given infalliblity. Hitler claimed to be fighting for Christianity against the atheism of Marxist doctrine and the Catholic Church in Germany, in those dark days, were happy to support the Nazi Party. The logical implication of his address in Edinburgh, and a probable theme for the rest of his visit, is that if you do not believe in God, then you are fascist.

There will be many devout and pious Catholics who will feel that this unique and significant visit has been spoilt by the controversies and may feel that their genuine faith has endured an unwarranted attack. Even the most aggressive atheist will acknowledge that the faith of individuals is real and important to that individual regardless of sub-faith, creed or orthodoxy. There will also be people of faith, be they religious or secular, that realise that compassion, virtue and humanity are not the exclusive privilege of the doctrine that they subscribe to. The right of worship is a basic human right – so is the right not to worship.

It is clear that the Pope is most welcome in our country and is an honourable and wise shepherd to his flock. But one might question his earlier pronouncements that homosexuality is an “objective disorder” that is “an intrinsic moral evil” and that the “distribution of prophylactics” will actually increase the threat of HIV/Aids rather than reduced it. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope persuaded his predecessor John Paul II to allow him as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate allegations of the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. Sadly, God is not available to comment on the success of the investigations.

The Daily Mail described Stephen Fry as a “quizmaster”, but anyone who has read his work or heard him speak will know that he is much more than that. Those that have seen the BBC footage of the Intelligence Squared debate at the Westminster Methodist Central Hall in 2009, where Fry took apart and hung out to dry the motion that the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world, will realise that we are not dealing with Bruce Forsyth. One of his opponents on that day was Anne Widdecombe, currently cutting a dash on Strictly Come Dancing. One shudders to imagine her pas de deux to Tom Lehrer`s Masochism Tango.

People living on the papal motorcade route in Birmingham have been told to stay indoors from six hours before and for two hour after the Pope mobile passes amongst them. Unless they have the 25 quid to see the Pope, Anne Widdecombe showing the cameras what she will not show to God is the only option. Given the choice, faith might be better left to the intellect of St Stephen rather than that of St Anne.

September 14, 2010

Nothing special

Filed under: Education,Politics — theplastichippo @ 8:48 pm

Any remaining shred of credibility regarding Ofsted as an impartial, independent and necessary regulatory body has finally been blown away by the chill winds of autumn. The latest words of wisdom to emerge from the inspectorate, laughingly described as “a wide ranging study”, suggests that a quarter of children with Special Educational Needs are not special at all, just the sufferers of poor teaching. You can guess what is coming next. Yup, massive cuts in school SEN budgets.

Ofsted, described by one teaching union as a bunch of “failed teachers and bureaucratic middle-managers”, have something of a track record of getting things hopelessly wrong. It described child protection at Haringey council as “good” even as the nations collective heart broke on hearing the full horror of the Baby Peter case. Ofsted were later caught trying to change the paperwork. Headteachers, governing bodies, teaching unions, MPs and parents have all criticised the dogmatic, bullying approach employed by the largest regulatory body in the country and its latest report finally exposes Ofsted for what it is. Rather than protecting the interests of children, it is a tool of black, government controlled, propaganda.

When Labour were in power, Ofsted cynically undermined individual schools, usually in the poorest and most deprived areas, to deflect attention from chronic underfunding and a crazy education policy that was driven by meaningless targets, data and testing. Every child, regardless of background, circumstance, advantage or disadvantage, or even the ability to speak English was, and is, expected to make identical progress across the key stages. Every parent and every teacher and probably every child knows that this notion is plainly idiotic. If an individual child did not meet the arbitrary standard set by the mandarins who only ever enter a school building to cast their votes, then the teacher and the school are judged to be “inadequate”.

Not content with being merely a hindrance to education, Ofsted, now in the hands of the dreadful coalition, has turned its sights on children with special needs. The Labour government insisted on “inclusion” for children with what it described as “barriers to learning” into mainstream schools and then closed the so-called “special schools”. Inclusion, both socially and educationally is a very noble enterprise, but it soon emerged that saving money was the real motivation. Schools were not provided with the resources required to teach SEN children, some of whom endure profound physical disabilities or, through no fault of their own, present extreme emotional and behavioural challenges.

Having failed these children, Ofsted, with a perverted logic worthy of a Ceausescu orphanage, now seek to deny the existence and the needs of 25 per cent of these young people and seem happy to carry on doing the dirty work of government. The ridiculous and hypocritical Children’s Minister, Libdem Sarah Teather, has already seized on the report and is calling for submissions on the overhaul of SEN provision – that means a cut. Sarah is deputy to the (pipsqueak) Gove and was successful in persuading her boss to reverse his decision to cancel two BSF schools in her Brent constituency. Over sherry and cakes, Sarah`s schools were saved but Sandwell council didn`t even get their train fare back. Walsall council didn`t bother to put up a hand and ask a question.

Teather agrees with Ofsted that teachers mistakenly “label” children as having special needs and the mad woman who runs Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, describes the rush to SEN as “over-diagnosing the problems”. Perhaps these experts should ask parents and teachers about the tortuous, stressful and uphill struggle to have a disadvantaged child firstly assessed and then acknowledged as requiring a “statement” of special educational needs.

In Walsall, there is a possibly apocryphal story of a primary Headteacher, her SEN Co-ordinator and the Local Authority Educational Psychologist conducting a meeting regarding the needs of an individual child after almost a year of violent and disruptive behaviour. The Ed Psych refused to accept that the child required a statement and that the school was not providing adequate intervention strategies. The meeting was cut short as the Head and the Senco were called away to deal with the child who was in the process of kicking, head-butting and biting other children as well as staff. Finally managing to bring the boy to the corridor outside her office, the Head was kicked and punched and suffered a foul-mouthed torrent of abuse that would be considered usual coming from a nine-year old.

The Ed Psych, a highly trained expert in his field, remained safely inside the office, stuck his fingers in his ears and went “la la la la”. Statements cost money and this was in the days before coalition cuts.

Ofsted and successive governments are very quick to point the finger of blame at anyone but themselves in order to divert any criticism of their failed stewardship. Usually it`s teachers, but now, to add insult to injury, Ofsted are suggesting, without offering any evidence, that schools inflate the number of SEN children in the hope of attracting further funding and parents are demanding SEN statements so that the family qualify for disability benefits. Strange then that existing Academies, operating a twisted entry selection process, have considerably less SEN children than schools struggling with lower levels of investment. Goodness knows what the entry criteria for Gove`s preposterous “free schools” will be. Blond Aryan good-looks or dark, smouldering eyes with a school bag full of fertilizer perhaps?

There may be a small number of parents who turn educational disadvantage into financial gain and the government should start confiscating wheelchairs with immediate effect. Any reduction in the dreaded deficit will be most welcome as would the denial of tax relief to the privileged, including current cabinet ministers, who can afford a private education for their children.

For Ofsted to insult hard working teachers and caring parents in this manner is puerile at best; at worst, it sends a message that unless you are rich, clever and able-bodied, forget about the right to a half-way decent education. Instead of protecting the interests of children, Ofsted is paving the way for idiots like Gove and Teather to cut and cut again.

Teachers, generally, are rather good at teaching given half a chance. However, bringing sight to the blind, making the lame walk and bringing back a damaged and traumatised child back from the brink of madness is not yet in the teacher training manual. According to Ofsted, this inability is judged to be “inadequate” regardless of the countless miracles performed in schools every day. As they witness water being turned into wine, Gove, Teather and Gilbert complain that they would rather have a nice Armagnac. Given adequate resources, schools, the teaching profession and support staff might even just about manage to instil some learning and sense of citizenship into the morons at Ofsted and the brain-dead in the coalition. But then again, even the most committed teacher can recognise a lost cause.

September 12, 2010

Shameless

Filed under: Politics,Rights,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 8:49 pm

If the coalition government is to be believed, a further £4billion cut in welfare provision in addition to the cuts announced in George Osborn’s budget, is justified by asserting that those claiming benefits are indolent, work-shy scroungers who have made a “lifestyle choice” to sponge off the state offering nothing but shameless derision and contempt in return. If the government has is “facts” right, it should name and shame these drink-sodden, drug-fuelled violent parasites who milk the system for anything and everything they can get.

When questioned on the Radio 4 Money Box programme, HM Revenue and Customs Permanent Secretary David Hartnett said he “saw no need” to apologise to the 1.4 million people about to be clobbered due errors made by his department. It seems that demanding two grand to be paid within three months is a routine tax conciliation procedure, the computer is working perfectly and he has no intention of offering his resignation. His comments were broadcast during Saturday lunchtime and by tea-time, presumably after being dragged into the urinals by Gideon Osborn for “a quiet word”, he apologised for his remarks sounding “insensitive” but not for what appears to be an annual cock-up.

Any caring society must feel some sympathy for this particular dead-beat as he tried to explain his inadequacies to a baying press. He is just trying to hold down a job, taking it day by day, trying to recover. He did not leak the story to the press to keep phone hacking and Andy Coulson off the front pages. Whatever next? Lurid reports of soldiers smuggling heroin out of Afghanistan to supplement the cost of post conflict care perhaps.

If our ill-equipped, under-paid and under-valued squaddies are looking for a quiet airstrip that will turn a blind eye, Birmingham International Airport will make any aircraft most welcome. After suffering a decline in passenger traffic and flight rotations, Birmingham Airport Holdings Limited, the company that runs the place, has imposed redundancies, a pay freeze and scrapped the staff pension scheme. Emergency medical services and security workers have been withdrawn to save money and some unusual aircraft, including a CIA rendition Boeing 757 met by two SAS helicopters last October, have been allowed to land with no questions asked. Given the desperate state of affairs, Chief Executive Paul Kehoe received an increased bonus to bring his earnings for last year to £386,000. The board of directors who approved this benefit are not the usual brand of corporate predators, but humble locally elected councillors representing the seven local authorities that own the airport. Our own Mike Bird is a director of Birmingham Airport Holdings Limited so Mr Kehoe has considerable experience of double-talk, double-standards and the double-cross, doubly so as his former employer was Serco Aviation.

The level of benefits received by another old friend of Walsall, former Chief Executive Annie Shepperd, have been revealed. It is, of course, a complete coincidence that Annie suddenly and mysteriously left our run-down council estate just as the police started banging on doors trying to turn up missing millions in European funding. But, clutching a handbag filled with an undisclosed pay-off, she headed off for the equally run-down London Borough of Southwark who pay her an annual salary of £224,736. Stingy Walsall could only cough up £140,000. Annie recently sent a nasty threatening letter to the less well off in her community informing them of dire consequences for not paying council tax on time, or, indeed, at all. Ah well, Walsall’s loss is Southwark`s loss.

Then there is Digby Jones or Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham as he calls himself. The former, unelected Minister of State for Trade in the Brown government did not last long in cabinet after he realised that political power involves certain responsibilities of compassion, understanding and humanity. Now free of the shackles of responsibility, he claims that the West Midlands is too reliant on public sector jobs and is happy to see a cull of dedicated, low-paid and hard working people who care for others. As an “advisor” to the likes of Deloitte, Ford and Barclays Capital amongst others, he will of course deny any involvement in the venture capitalism that has brought the world to the financial brink. His benefits remain undisclosed.

However, former CEO of Barclays Capital and one of the biggest dealers on the estate, Bob Diamond, is said to hold a personal fortune of £95million made through investment banking. He has now been appointed chief executive of the entire Barclays group with a £250,000 increase in salary bringing his annual bung to £1.35million plus a £3.4million bonus plus £6.75million in share options. Another beneficiary of the sub-prime market, Stephen Green, group chairman of HSBC Holdings plc has become Minister of State for Trade and Investment. So much for Cameron pledging to sort out the banks. Perhaps, as Andy Coulson would no doubt point out, these are all isolated rogue bad apples.

Quite how these scroungers and wasters will react when the government withdraws their benefit payments is uncertain. But deprived of White Lightening, decent herb and whiz and knowing only an idle lifestyle paid for by the rest of us, now is not the time to be reducing the numbers of police officers on the streets.

September 10, 2010

Walsall moves to Brownhills…

Filed under: Law,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 10:10 am

…and Brownhills moves to Walsall.

Not many politicians have exerted enough influence to have a word in common usage based on their name. The words Machiavellian, Churchillian, Thatcherite and Marxist have entered the language as every day terms and will remain in lexicon forever. So will a word derived from Governor Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts (1744 – 1814). His bright idea was to re-draw district boundaries to ensure electoral success. His gift to the world is called gerrymandering.

The ever resourceful blogger from beyond Barr Beacon, pheaseyviews, has unearthed a report commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society which offers a solution to the pledge by the coalition government to reduce and equalise parliamentary constituencies in the UK. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is currently before parliament and proposes an alternative vote system where we are asked to list the candidates in order of preference. Tagged onto the bill are proposals to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and to re-draw boundaries to give each constituency a roughly equal amount of eligible voters, around 76,000.

Pure mathematics, in itself, is a thing of beauty and the ERS report in the name of fairness and objectivity is a massive achievement in balancing the predicted number of voters in each individual constituency. Geography and community need mathematics as a tool but mathematics has no need of geography and community. The proposal suggests scrapping existing constituencies and “building” new ones based solely on getting as close to the arbitrary 76,000 figure as possible. Presumably 76,000 is the result of the total electorate divided by 600.

Locally, three new constituencies have been suggested, Walsall and Pelsall, Brownhills and Aldridge and Wednesfield and Willenhall. The need to equalise the number of voters in each constituency has resulted in some rather bizarre geographical anomalies. But, hey, maths is above that kind of thing.

In the new world order, the charming town of Brownhills will be in the Walsall and Pelsall constituency and the equally picturesque ward of St Matthews around Walsall town centre, as well as Palfrey and Pleck, will become part of Brownhills and Pelsall. Willenhall North and South part company and Pheasey Park Farm sails off to join Erdington, newly twinned with Stockland Green. Bilston will be absorbed into the newly created Wednesfield conurbation.

This social mobility is replicated across the country and to the casual observer, the absurdity of the boundary changes may seem laughable. But the proposal, and the Voting System and Constituency Bill, gives an insight into how the coalition government operates.

The Liberal Democrats, and before them, the Liberals and probably before them, the Whig Party in decline, have whimpered over the unfairness of the electoral system and have vainly sought the holy grail of proportional representation, a little like an England football team after suffering a 5 – 0 drubbing demanding that they be awarded a goal because they bothered to turn up and play. The price of the collective Liberal Democrat soul in forming a coalition is a compromise on PR and they have settled on an AV referendum as pay-back for supporting a minority government and being the closest they have been to power since Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George.

But, when closing the deal on a coalition, the Liberal Democrats were outmanoeuvred. They got their referendum, but the Conservatives insisted on adding boundary changes to the bill which, according to Labour, give the Tories an advantage. The referendum is likely to take place at the same time as local elections on May 5 2011 and polling station venues including schools have already been informed of this intention.

Voters in communities with a strong sense of local identity may not take kindly to geographical extraordinary rendition and together with historically low turn-outs for local elections the result could be that the electorate rejects boundary changes and, therefore, the introduction of alternative voting. Clever, huh?

If this were to happen, a new word could enter the English language:

“Clegg”
Definition:

1. To be unsuccessful at a single chance of fame, wealth, power or glory.
2. To destroy a political party that has existed since the time of Charles II.
3. Putting style above policy.
4. Supine compromise of principles.
5. Wearing a yellow tie as the last vestige of political commitment.

On the plus side, perhaps in the future we can take our annual holiday in the lovely Bloxwich-on-sea or in Darlaston, jewel of Snowdonia.

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