The Plastic Hippo

November 16, 2010

Talking `bout re – g – g – g – generation

Filed under: Education,Environment,Health,Law,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:29 am

Given the level of utter drivel spoken by politicians of differing persuasions, competence and ability to tell the truth, how pleasant to enjoy a period of at least partial silence from usually shrill Walsall council leaders.

When a promised £100million for school building was suddenly pulled by the coalition government, our Conservative administration with stoical resignation muttered something about it being a bit bureaucratic anyway, never mind. Six months ago and prior to the election that was never won, the same administration bellowed outrage at the fact that the previous government had the temerity to ask to see the books. With a history of accounting that is hardly exemplary, central government had every right to know what Walsall was doing with central government money. Since then, silence until a Notice of Motion at a full meeting of the council last week. The notice called for a reversal of the “short-sighted” decision to cancel BSF. Cabinet and their tame councillors voted the motion down.

When Communities Secretary Eric Pickles scrapped the rules that required councils to meet targets when building affordable housing, our Trappist leaders kept to their vow of silence. Not wasting money on houses for the less well off and continuing to allow the building of “prestige” developments which no-one can afford will attract the best sort of property developer to rip off, sorry, regenerate Walsall. Perhaps the silence was wise rather than merely being subservient and sycophantic. Pie-man Pickles was judged to have exceeded his powers when the High Court ruled that his housing policy was illegal last week. Hush Walsall, don’t tell anyone.

When Advantage West Midlands bit the dust in the bonfire of the quangos, the Walsall Regeneration Company and along with it Business Link also went the way of all flesh. Vince Cable, hardly the very personification of integrity and principal, described the move as “Maoist and chaotic”. However, there was no wailing in Walsall or rending of garments, not even a raising of eyebrows from our civic representatives. Silent pragmatism seems to have replaced regeneration as the corner-stone policy for the future of the borough and has become the policy that dare not speak its name. Indeed, the big one, the main event, the saviour of Walsall regeneration, the Gigaport has already disappeared off the council key decision future plan document. Believe it or not, such a document exists. The Gigaport was in it a few months ago but now it has gone. So have the senior men at WRC who seeing the writing on wall jumped ship about a year ago after the previous government had to bail out the failing Waterfront project. Silence from cabinet is, it seems, golden.

It seems that funding for education is to be taken away from the control of local authorities and the coalition government is cutting funding to community and voluntary groups to replace them with a “Big Society”. Massive cuts are being made to social care and health, public transport, road safety and cycling initiatives and a new coalition government plan suggests selling off municipal facilities such as libraries and leisure centres. Huge reductions in funding for the police and fire services has led to fears of increased crime and the prospect of unnecessary deaths.

If these daft and dangerous diktats came from a government and a political party that our cabinet were not members of, they would be clambering onto the roof of the Council House to lob fire extinguishers at any passing Labour voter. Instead we have silence, not a peep, not even a whimper. Party ideology and not the welfare and well-being of its citizens is what motivates our ruling elite in Walsall. Either the threat or the comfort of a shared party membership with Cameron’s pet northern pie-man will preserve the peaceful quiet as Walsall falls apart.

The latest demonstration of selfless public service comes from Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke who has announced the removal of £350million in legal aid. This means that people who cannot afford exorbitant legal representation will be denied justice. Partners trying to escape an abusive marriage, the victims of medical negligence, wrongful dismissal, denial of asylum or the incorrect cessation of benefits will not be allowed access to the law. Walsall cabinet will be delighted given its shocking history of botched employment tribunals resulting in out of court settlements totalling millions. Sacking council staff will be so much easier without those annoying lawyers turning up.

As the butchery continues, lying low and saying nothing is the best way for the representatives of the people of Walsall to tow the party line and demonstrate exactly where their loyalty lies. However, our bunch cannot even obey this simple instruction. Not content with merely stuttering the blame Brown mantra coming out of the recently trashed Millbank, Walsall cabinet have been shouting for a pay rise. Some people just do not know when to keep their big gobs shut.

Regeneration, urban renewal and safe, healthy, prosperous communities will be impossible to achieve if there is nothing left to regenerate. As the Gigaport is f-f-f-faded away and without an adequate ambulance service, hospital or care home, we all might express the wish of Pete Townsend in hoping to die before we get old.

One might think that shuffling off this mortal coil would be a blessing but you are only allowed to die with dignity if you leave some money for our inept representatives. Enjoying a 100 per cent monopoly in a growing market, Walsall council are about to increase the cost of burials and cremations again. In hushed, respectful tones, Councillor Anthony Harris says that “it is important that we continue to offer a high quality service to our bereaved residents”. The increase will bring in 90 grand next year and will more than offset the cabinet pay rise that is up for another vote in 12 months time.

Pretty soon, Walsall will be as silent as the grave and any regeneration will only be possible if you are Dr Who.

November 13, 2010

I`m Spartacus

Filed under: History,Law,Media — theplastichippo @ 12:07 am

Doncaster is a long way from Thrace, Erdington is even further from Tehran and Twitter is a million miles away from a real conversation. However, the seemingly unstoppable influence of the 140 character bon mot now unites the Thracian leader of a slaves revolt, Robin Hood, an Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning and a very, very, very stupid Birmingham councillor.

Back in January, accountant Paul Chambers was trying to book a flight from Robin Hood airport near Doncaster to visit his girlfriend in Belfast. Frustrated and suffering from airport rage, he tweeted the following to his 600 followers:

Crap! Robin Hood airport closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!!”

In May, Chambers was prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and found guilty of sending a “menacing electronic communication” and given a fine of £385. The airport and the police did not consider his rather weak joke as a serious threat. However, his appeal was rejected on Thursday and Judge Jacqueline Davies increased his legal fees to £2,600. He has lost his job and gained a terrorist related criminal record as a result of the prosecution. National treasure Stephen Fry has offered to pay his fine and Twitter itself came close to exploding when tens of thousands of re-tweets of the original message appeared carrying the hash tag “I Am Spartacus”. M`learned friends might be in for a profitable year.

Conservative councillor Gareth Compton of Erdington is just as unfunny a comedian as Paul Chambers but at least has the gift of timing. On the day that Chambers was legally found to be not very amusing, Compton was listening to Radio 5 Live and could not resist posting this comment on Twitter:

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

If the airport “joke” was ill considered in an atmosphere of bomb threats to airports, this attempt at humour is about as funny as cancer. In Iran, mother of two Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is facing death by stoning on unproven charges of adultery. In the face of an international outcry against such barbarity, the Iranian judiciary invented a charge of conspiracy to murder against her which will allow them to hang her rather than half bury her in sand and then throw stones at her until she is dead. Such is the compassion of a legal system that listens to media pressure. There are rumours that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, after suffering torture, may be already dead, executed by a corrupt, intolerant and bigoted autocracy.

Interestingly, there has been no Twitter “I Am Spartacus” hash tag defending the Compton “joke”. He was arrested and bailed under – yup, you guessed it – Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and suspended from the Conservative party. Her honour Judge Jacqueline, now clearly an expert on menace and humour, is perfectly placed to preside over any court hearings that the comic Compton may face. Sadly, the sentences available to her do not include stoning to death.

There are many losers here; not least humour, freedom of speech, individuality, scrutiny and, God bless it, democracy. There is only one winner. Terrorism seeks to disrupt lives and instil fear and is becoming remarkably successful. Looking up at a low flying Boeing or handling a printer cartridge, trying to book an airline ticket or seeing a man with a beard wearing a rucksack and even boarding a bus is now stressful. Instead of prosecuting bad comedians, should we be forcing the masses to hand over Spartacus?

It would be a blessing, really.

Under current law, the statements quoted above are illegal.

See you in court.

November 11, 2010

Remembrance

Filed under: History,Literature,World — theplastichippo @ 1:21 am

The war to end war officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 92 years ago. An estimated 10 million combatants died with a further 20 million wounded. Even now, 8 million are still classed as “missing” and the number of civilian deaths will never be known. Today we are asked to remember them.

The sacrifice and horror endured during the carnage remains unimaginable and the futility of a slaughtered generation is something we should never forget. We should also remember the courage and loss brought about by subsequent conflicts, not least the second war to end war. There is something rather sad in the fact that in 1939, Armistice Day was moved to the nearest Sunday to November 11 so as not to interrupt midweek war production with a two minute silence. There is more to remembrance than wearing a poppy with pride.

Channel 4 news reader Jon Snow has found himself in a spot of bother over comments he made on his blog regarding what he described as “poppy fascism”. At best, his choice of words was insensitive, at worst, offensive, but he has a valid point in terms of compulsory compassion. He argues that wearing a poppy is a matter of choice and not obligation and refuses to wear one on screen. This is in marked contrast with just about everyone else who appears on television who from early October onwards are fitted with a poppy along with the lapel mic prior to going on air. The moral imperative seems to be that not to do so would cause offence.

There has been a noticeable trend in recent years of people wishing to demonstrate their charitable giving. Plastic red noses on car radiator grills remain displayed long after the appeal has closed and huge comic cheques are presented to Children in Need with a rather indecently large emphasis on the name and logo of the corporate interest doing the giving. The amount donated is usually a tiny fraction of the advertising budget of the major players and allowing a few employees to spend a morning in a bath of baked beans is not going to harm profit margins.

This ostentatious manifestation of good will was partly pioneered by Margaret Thatcher during her years as Prime Minister. Older readers will remember that by late September she would appear in public sporting a poppy the size of a dinner plate, encrusted with diamonds and edged with gold leaf. The message was clear; I have spent more money on this and therefore I care more than you do. The logical result of all this is that it seems that the judges on some God-awful talent show were sporting designer poppies at 100 quid a throw and the half-wits on Strictly Come Dancing had poppies sewn into their costumes as some sort of after thought. It should be pointed out at this point that the hippo only tunes in to that programme to see Anne Widdecombe make a bigger fool of herself than she ever did in the House of Commons. Oh…and watching Felicity Kendal…it’s like being crushed to death with rose petals.

The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal provides outstanding and invaluable help and care for our armed forces past, present and future. It is a charity that we have a duty to support. However, if a nation state orders its men and women to go and fight, the nation state has a responsibility to repair the broken bodies and the broken minds of those who happily march off to hell on our behalf and are fortunate enough to return. After serving their country, they should not have to suffer the further indignity of reliance on charity.

Those of us, like Jon Snow, who donate but choose not carry the badge are accused of being uncaring or, in some cases, unpatriotic. Others choose to wear a white poppy in remembrance of all those that died in conflict and have as a consequence become targets of ridicule and hatred. After 92 years, H G Wells was wrong when he said that the First World War was the war to end wars. British armed forces are fighting and dying in Afghan poppy fields.

Many years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, a sixth form prefect in a school in a grim, northern city was told to read the lesson in the Armistice Day assembly. He was given a reading from Homer to recite:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:

mors et fugacem persequitur virum

nec parcit inbellis iuventae

poplitibus timidove tergo.”

Translation:

How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:

Death pursues the man who flees,

spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs

Of battle-shy youths.”

Instead, he decided to read the following and as a result, came within a whisker of being expelled. It is worth noting the date of the death of the author.

Dulce et decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest
began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen – born March 1893 – died in action, November 4 1918.

November 7, 2010

All hits radio

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 10:01 pm

What better way to enjoy Saturday morning brunch than to gather around the radio-gramme to benefit from the wise words of our avuncular council leader Mike Bird. In difficult times it is reassuring to hear comforting oratory and determined leadership in the tradition of a Churchill speech or a Roosevelt fireside chat. Following the unfortunate destruction of the kitchen radio a couple of Sundays ago when listening to Little Michael Gove, hammers, shoes, cricket bats and other heavy objects were removed as a precaution.

After some difficulty in tuning the cats whisker to BBC Radio WM – there is little interest in these parts in lost dogs in Harborne or prize-winning giant marrows in Tipton – we were finally able to enjoy the familiar dulcet tones and voice of reason emanating from the great man. Imagine our surprise when, instead of defending a proposal to award himself an increase in “allowances”, he now says that he will continue to bear the suffering of his current measly pittance all in the name of prudence. What a nice man.

Last Monday, Mike was telling us how he and his fellow cabinet members work around the clock, all day every day to make Walsall this other Eden, this demi-paradise and so deserves a back-hander from the grateful tax-payer. By Saturday morning, the chosen one was talking about deferring the decision. So what exactly has brought about this uncharacteristic change of heart.

It seems that the Walsall Conservative group met on Friday evening to discuss the imminent full council meeting that is, or rather was, scheduled to vote on the cabinet increases. As the meeting was quite rightly held in private, we have no idea what was said and it is unlikely that any dissenting voices will break ranks and tell us what went on for fear of incurring further wrath from God’s representative in Walsall. Perhaps some of the less febrile Tory councillors realise apart from being a public relations disaster, awarding a pay rise to the people doing the cutting does not chime in with the mother ship’s script which requires them to bellow “fairness” and “we’re all in this together” every time somebody says good morning. More cynical observers may conclude that moderate Tory councillors are only moderate because they do not enjoy the safety of Pheasey Park Farm were the Great Leader, Deputy Andrew and Master of the Abacus Towe hold sway. In wards already marginal and after a winter of cutting, hacking carnage, those up for re-election in May will not relish knocking on the doors of “service users” and asking for their vote. A by election takes place on Thursday and with the Liberal Democrats deciding not to trouble the returning officer with their presence and with a strong Labour candidate, St Mike’s epiphany could have taken place on the road to Rushall-Shelfield.

By strange coincidence, the manifestation of local democracy either side of Lichfield Road takes place on Remembrance Day – November 11. Has a year gone by so quickly? Just 12 months ago the private firm employed by Walsall council issued parking tickets to war veterans attending the Remembrance Sunday ceremony. With Churchillian authority, Councillor Bird defended the action but in the face of public outrage soon backed down. A month ago the council insisted that parking charges would be in place for this years ceremony but in the face of a by election soon backed down. Our messiah said this:

We feel that this is absolutely the right thing to do on a day that is, quite honestly, like no other in its significance and meaning.”

What a nice man. Given that his judgement is based expedience or possibly even survival, this statement does not refer to Remembrance Day 2009 but may be more relevant to election day 2011.

Much to the chagrin of his less hysterical underlings, Mike likes to air his pragmatic, no nonsense political philosophy and mathematically challenged economic understanding to anyone that cares to listen. But when questioned, rationality disappears and he cannot resist the playground bully trait of name-calling. His credibility is blown away rather like so many pieces of paper fluttering on the breeze back in the direction of Brussels. Not content with merely being an embarrassment to the borough, he is in danger of being in breach of the council code of conduct by bringing Walsall into disrepute every time he opens his mouth.

Having avoided an almighty bun fight with the opposition and a possible back-bench rebellion over his “allowance”, He Who Must Be Obeyed still faces a tricky meeting of the full council. The emboldened opposition smell blood and although the meeting might not quite match the Ali v Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, few metaphorical punches will be pulled.

There will be a difficult question regarding the Amey street lighting contract débâcle and a possible bruising encounter for the cabinet member responsible for Social Care and Health. This innovation, in the name of accountability, will see the portfolio holder give a five minute briefing on the state of care in the borough and then take unscripted questions from the floor of the chamber subject to a ten minute rule. The contenders will have to be quick on their feet though as in the name of fairness we can expect planted, right-hook questions along the lines of “will she agree with me that we have excellent care services and can afford to removed most of them” followed by nine and a half minutes of rehearsed filibuster shadow boxing. Seconds out – round one.

There are also no less than three Notices of Motion being proposed. Round two concerns the Building Schools for the Future shambles and the belly-up compliance displayed by the leadership in diverting desperately needed funding away from the schools that needed it. Instead, the shiny, privately run Academies in…err…Shelfield and the Disgrace in Darlaston will receive the prize-fight money. The contender, after suffering a sucker punch, will be given a standing count because the Academies programme was a Labour initiative. Ding-ding.

Round three will see the challenger rally and fight back over the dreadful state of education in general across Walsall. The pugilists will briefly join forces in an attempt to rain blows on the invisible Serco who, with a benign smile, will remain out of the ring counting the gate receipts.

By round four, the Notice of Motion opposing changes to Parliamentary constituency boundaries, the exhausted fighters will be holding each other up in a tight clinch of unity not daring to even nibble an earlobe. The slicing up of the borough to make up the numbers in other Westminster constituencies will outrage every councillor that wishes to remain a “public servant” in Walsall. None more so than the proposers of the motion, Councillors Bird and Andrew who represent Pheasey Park Farm which, according to Tory Party policy, is about to become a suburb of Birmingham. The Barr Beacon Bombers would find it difficult to punch above their weight with the super heavies of Victoria Square B1.

The bout will end with the Champ winning on a technical knock-out because he has more votes than the challenger. But fight fans will not have to wait long for a re-match because Walsall is approaching the thriller in a manilla envelope council tax budget setting process. Quite how much purse is acceptable to make cabinet scrap again is up to them and they may be considering a future career standing outside a nightclub on Bridge Street refusing entry to ruffians and telling passers-by how they were once “someone”.

Iron Mike lacks the eloquence of Ali or the charm of Frank Bruno but is a very, very, very nice man and we eagerly await his future pronouncements and fight predictions. He should leave it for a few days though. It is taking an extraordinary amount of time to remove the squashed bits of croissant, Danish pastry and the rest of the brunch from the loudspeaker of the radio-gramme. Know what I mean?

November 2, 2010

Qu`ils mangent de la brioche

Filed under: History,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 1:39 am

There is absolutely no evidence that Marie Antoinette, at the height of the bread riots during the French Revolution, ever suggested that baguette-less citizens should eat brioche let alone cake. Reports of her mocking cruelty were pure invention unlike in Walsall where there are sticky fingers kneading the dough.

Needing to save £65million even before the coalition government cut local authority funding, the ruling elite at the council house would like to award themselves more money to compensate for the stress involved in cutting just about everything else. After increasing council tax and reducing services, imposing a wage freeze for council staff and issuing dark threats of redundancy, the cabinet will be allowed to vote for a sizeable increase in their own allowances.

Leader of the council Mike Bird claims that he and his eight fellow flour graders in cabinet do a 365-days-a-year, 24/7 job and so deserve more bread. He justifies this amusing stance by claiming that the increase is to bring Walsall council “simply in line” with other neighbouring councils regarding the benefits paid to elected public servants with a seat at the top table or, in this case, a snout in the trough. This would seem a reasonable argument if it came from a leadership that actually displayed any competence or had not dragged its feet and finally kicked into the long grass the issue of single status for underpaid women working for Walsall council.

His other argument is that the recommendation comes from an “independent” panel appointed by the council monitoring officer. It is interesting to know who the members of that panel were. The Independent Remuneration Panel was chaired by Ben Reid OBE, chief executive officer of Mid counties Co-op. In a former life, Ben was chairman of the Walsall Regeneration Company – you remember – they were the folks who delivered the ring road under budget and ahead of schedule and promised us a Gigaport. He resigned from WRC in October 2009 due to “work pressures” and the WRC itself is now history. Mr Reid has a teaching block at the new Walsall College named after him.

Another member of the panel was a Mr Richard Hood (oh if only he were called Robin), head of member services at Stratford-upon-Avon District Council. He previously acted as monitoring officer for that council which has a large Conservative majority and not a single Labour councillor. His role was to “guide and advise” rather than “police” the activities of elected members. The third person seems to be a Mr Paul Jay of Absolute Deliveries, a small, local vehicle delivery company. He might be the chap you see holding red registration plates as you join a motorway.

In their report to full council, the three wise men recommend the increase to Special Responsibility Allowance to cabinet members and to cabinet members only. Intriguingly, the report kicks off by stating that all councillors have a “personal” interest under the council code of conduct but that there is no “prejudicial” interest in any decision they may come to in a vote. So, as long as cabinet members declare a “personal” interest in terms of “well-being or financial position”, they can vote in favour for more money for themselves. The bases are covered – democracy in action.

Cabinet are also allowed to claim for main meals not taken in their usual place, mileage, telephone bills and a carers allowance. It is good to know that the very people cutting care have protected their own needs. They are also entitled to a generous local government pension. It seems likely that cabinet will enthusiastically join the torch burning procession to cap benefits to the poor and the vulnerable. Perhaps the council tax payers of Walsall should consider a cap on the benefits paid to the incompetent and greedy who claim to represent them.

Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake”. The “brioche” quote comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1769 autobiography Confessions in which he attributes the words to “a great princess” and not Marie. She was 13 at the time and just a year into her marriage with the 14-year-old Dauphin. She realised, though, the consequences of cuts when she made her rendezvous with Madame Guillotine in 1793. Bon chance, Conseil General Monsieur Oiseau.

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