Thursday, 21 July 2011

Seahouses community is a big society without needing the name

I was invited by the excellent County Councillor for Bamburgh, Pat Scott, to talk with the Parish Council and the development trust about moving the library into the youth and sports centre in Seahouses. I am was keen to do this, partly because I was asked but also because the Seahouses library is in a bad condition and is beyond economic repair.

I turned up to only be able to find a space in the overflow car park and to find it was a public meeting with about 50 people present. It was a great event. There was so much passion for a great library service but also a lot of questions about how putting a library in would affect other services. The level of involvement is great. The development trust needs to raise £100,000 to fit out the new building. Some residents even suggested that everyone put £50 in. Buildings used to be built by public subscription, which is interesting. A great event and people really got the Lib Dem executives determination not just to preserve libraries but to provide a joined up service from these buildings so residents can access a large range of council services in their community. Pats tray bakes were particularly yummy and very welcome before I went back to Prudhoe!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

PFI a lesson in Public Sector naivety

I am pleased to read on the BBC website that the government has run a pilot looking at saving money on PFI contracts and found that, surprise surprise, substantial savings can be made on existing PFI contracts. Pilots in the MoD (which is ironic considering the waste I refer to in my previous post) and at Hatfield Hospital could result in 5% savings on existing contracts. Considering the cost pressures in the NHS, that could play a major factor in helping it meet its efficiency targets.

No one can fail to be impressed by the new PFI constructed facilities, whether that be the new "tip" (sorry refuse centre) in Prudhoe to Hexham hospital or the school buildings in places like Birtley in Gateshead. I am not opposed to using private finance but PFI has been a disaster. Simply, the public sector has not employed contract specialists of the calibre of the people on the other size of the table. I remember, in my previous life as a civil servant, being involved in attempts to hire a PFI contracts negotiator for a major schools project. Adverts were placed for the post at high wages with no success. Simply, the lawyers we wanted were being paid more than the public sector chief executives pay. A wise move, as the private sector is making billions of pounds from PFI.

The current government seemed to have learnt little from the Labour governments failure on PFI. It has pressed on with countless PFI projects. If a public sector funded project is better value but that increases the public sector borrowing requirement, then so be it.

I hope this initiative of the government will signal much better value on PFI and a taming of existing contracts. We could save billions of pounds if we take this seriously.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Don't Panic! TA increase will not create Dads Army

During the general election, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the HQs of our local TA ( to speak with the Tyneside Scottish Association. It was clear that despite the obvious benefits of having a strong TA in keeping our defence costs down and in bringing valuable experience into the Army, they felt demoralised and that the TA was  suffering from chronic under-investment.

The decisions of the last government to reduce TA payments as a desperate way to reduce the army bill seemed like a very counter intuitive piece of public policy. All the time this was being done, the MoD was racking up mega bills signing massive aircraft carrier contracts for kit we didn't need, conveniently built in Gordon Browns back yard.

So I really welcomed the announcement by Liam Fox that the government is going to spend an extra £1.5bn on the TA and fund this by reducing our regular troop commitment. The TA represents tremendous value but, somewhat like retained fire fighters, is undervalued. A journalist on a 24 hour TV news broadcast I watched talked about the TA as a "dad's army" which just shows how out of touch the media are.

The governments move to legislate the military covenant into law, to strengthen the TA and to get the military the right kit (which a select committee has agreed that the last government did not do whilst sending our troops into Helmand) are implementing Lib Dem manifesto commitments and are to be welcomed.

Personally, I think our armed forces should be moved to a smaller core of well paid (current military pay is too low at private level) professional soldiers, able to help out with humanitarian problems, allied to a strong TA to help with larger commitments. We spend 2.4% of our GDP (Source: CIA factbook) on military spending, including £3.6bn on overseas military aid. I would like to see that go down and for us to stop our penchant for overseas adventures, which have seen us be involved in foreign conflicts continuously since 1997. A well equipped, well supported TA is a crucial step to achieving this.