Category Archives: Uncategorized

Flood risk management – do we need changes?

FloodsEarlier today the (D)Efra Committee published its review of arrangements for flood risk management. I posted my initial response on Facebook and I stand by what I said there – essentially that the call for a new strategic authority and ‘floods czar’ is misguided. This piece explores more of the issues.

There is a real risk that the report is seen as either a knee-jerk response and/or politicking, yet there is some good (if not novel) stuff in there as well as at least one major flaw.

First the good. Well, that is the vast majority of the recommendations. It’s always good to have p(P)olitical backing, but let’s not get the idea that any of these recommendations are novel. Numbers 1-7, which are the obviously ‘operational’ ones are already developing here in Yorkshire and were long before this report was ever thought of.

The idea of a whole-catchment approach mirrors that of the Catchment Based Approach that Defra set up and funded for ‘environmental’ concerns and bringing those two approaches to catchment management closer together is one of my key aims.

Storing water and land management is a no-brainer, although I remain to be convinced that we should compensate farmers (especially) when the flood plain that they own gets flooded. After all every time it floods they get free fertiliser and soil and owning a flood plain surely means that you understand (Or should do) the issues. So many of our flood plains have been commandeered for other uses and I can get quite frustrated when people complain that their local flood plain floods.

Sustainable drainage systems – it’s taken at least 30 years since the water industry started funding research for SUDS to become mainstream. It’s about time that developers were compelled to install best practice SUDS whenever development of any size is undertaken. Every little bit helps. I believe that much greater emphasis now needs to be placed on retro-fitting SUDS. We have millions of hectares of hard standing in our cities and our roads and by adopting the ‘every little bit counts’ philosophy we can slowly but surely make inroads.

Maintenance and dredging – a sensible recommendation but I feel that insufficient emphasis was put on the very limited usefulness of dredging, especially after the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, effectively gave farmers and IDBs carte blanche to dredge in her knee-jerk reaction to the 2015 flooding.

Flood warnings and public understanding of risk – Whilst I have put these two recommendations together, the first is primarily technical and the second to do with communications. Nonetheless they are sides of a coin, without the former we cannot effectively deliver the latter. The key issue is one of active engagement at all times. The history of the EA, which I acknowledge is changing albeit very patchily, is one of ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ and this has left a legacy of mistrust. They have also tended, IMHO, to consult rather than engage and only to do so transactionally and late, rather than recognising that collaboration demands ‘upstream’ (sorry, but I could not resist!) effort to build trust and understanding in order to be able to reap that when needed.

The rest of the recommendations are clearly relevant at a national strategic level and all except the last make absolute sense and should be acted upon as soon as possible. However, I take exception to the suggestion that a new governance model be created.

There are certainly multiple agencies involved in FRCM and whilst these all need to be involved, I fail to see how creating a single national FCRM body helps co-ordinate them. We already have such a body – the Environment Agency – and my personal and local intelligence suggest that they are doing an increasingly good job in trying circumstances (for which read ‘shortage of funds’). I might argue that a desire to address a democratic deficit has led to a proliferation of agencies with responsibilities, to the detriment of strategic planning. Only a cynic (moi?) would suggest that this also pushed spending and spending decisions out of the hand of national agencies and so allowing government to have an arms-length relationship with these strategic challenges.

Finally, separating the ‘environment’ and ‘flooding’ arms of the EA risks fragmentation of addressing ‘watery’ issues. There is already a, fortunately closing, gap between the two arms of the EA and separating the functions can only make it even more difficult to identify and deliver the collaborative multiple benefits that are undoubtedly available when we work together.

A useful document that doesn’t add much in practice!

No longer an early adopter?

Early adoptersSome time ago I wrote a piece about how I used to be an early adopter of technology. Coming across that piece recently, it struck me that I have some new thoughts on the topic.

I see the challenges and rewards of early adoption these days as being different to those in the heady days when IT was first hitting desktops and the internet was a mysterious thing used by international scientists and nobody else.

let’s be honest about this, in the early days of IT corresponded with the stage of my career when I was needing, or was it wanting, to make an impression. Being the one with the mobile phone, the one using e-mail and the one who understood how to connect to the Internet most certainly put me into that position.

However, I don’t think even I have ever been quite so facile as to believe that the primary reason for adopting such technology was to make an impression on others. Instead, I like to think that I actually saw the potential of these technologies and wanted to get hold of them in order to try them out and see what was possible.

As I explained in my earlier post, that mobile phone and laptop facilitated a total transformation in how we can work. Remote working suddenly became a possibility and who, given the choice, would not sit on the beach at Flamborough doing their work rather than locked up in an office in the middle of Bradford. That era, the late 1970s and early 1980s, was when the world seemed full of endless possibilities and when emerging technologies created the opportunities to grab the possibilities and even create new ones. Compare that to many of the products that are hitting the market these days – Windows 10 is fundamentally an incremental improvement on the last few versions, iPhone 6 is slightly bigger, slightly faster, slightly more memory etc Ello so far as I can see is just another version of Facebook, WhatsApp is a messaging platform and so on with seemingly very little radical technology actually emerging.

Oh yes, voice recognition has come on considerably and I can actually now talk to my phone and say “Send a text to Suzanne” and it will do so without seriously mangling the content. But to successfully dictate an e-mail, report or even blog item I have to remember a whole bunch of complex commands for inserting formatting. We are nearly there and I am about to try Cortana once I am brave enough to upload Windows 10.

So I guess I might be missing some hot new trends, but then again I am not a hot new trend myself either. I would be very happy if anyone out there to point me in the direction of a current genuinely potentially transformative technology.

Still waiting…

Earlier this week I was advised that I was being referred for an emergency appointment to the Pituitary Clinic. Well, to me, ’emergency’ brings to mind urgent action and yet here I am almost a week later having heard nothing. I don’t know where I stand. I feel perfectly well apart from perhaps being especially sensitive to my usual early morning dehydration slight headache – always goes away after the first cuppa – and is IS slight, frankly I don’t often notice it because the slightest distraction gets my brain elsewhere.

I’m hoping to go on holiday next Monday and am now left wondering whether this ’emergency’ referral can wait for 2 weeks until I get back.

As usual with change, it’s the uncertainty that is the problem – let’s figure out where/what next and then make decisions about when/how.

Are you going to vote? Why?

Will you vote?A few weeks ago I listened to a brief discussion on Question Time about how the ‘youth of today’ are becoming increasingly disengaged with the electoral process.  It seemed to me that the discussion, which centred on why people do not vote, totally missed the mark. Firstly because it is not, in my opinion, about disengagement with voting and secondly because it is not just youth who are becoming disengaged.

Yes, the voting process itself could be improved. For example, why in this electronic age do we have to turn up at a designated location to vote; and when we do turn up surely the identification process could be a touch more rigorous?

But my issue is less with the process of registering my vote than the broader political process, with which I find myself more and more disillusioned – to an extent that might just lead me to fail to vote for the first time in my life. I can, and will, tell you what upsets me about the process so much that more and more often I find myself turning off the radio or TV when politicians appear; but what I find a bigger challenge is how to change the situation for the better.

So, what hacks me off about the way politics currently works? Quite a lot, so get yourself ready!

  1. SHOUTINESS!!! This category has a couple of variants:
    1. “I am going to say what I want to say, even of the only way I can do it is to shout over you.”
    2. “I am going to say what I want to say regardless of the topic under discussion and the question asked.”
  2. Dishonesty – ranging from ‘promises’ or ‘commitments’ made during the hustings that are subsequently reneged upon to claiming expenses to which they are not entitled.
  3. “You voted for it” – claims, typically accurate, that a particular policy was in the manifesto and you voted us in so you agree with the policy. NO. It is a very long time since we had a majority government and even then I can’t imagine that everyone who voted for them agreed with every specific in the manifesto. This is lazy thinking and a version of dishonesty.p
  4. Party Politics – I am asked to vote for an individual, who as soon as they get into The House become subject to party whips telling them how to vote on most issues. How about MY MP votes in line with the wishes of their constituents, or even their own conscience or personal insight?
  5. Career politicians – The youngest current MP is Pamela Nash who was 25 years and 11 months old when she was elected to Parliament in the May 2010 general election and the youngerst in modern times was Bernadette Devlin who was a few days short of her 22nd birthday when elected. Now, I ask you, just how much experience do you need to be able to contribute effectively to deliberations about the country? More than you get through a career that starts with a PPE degree, then a few years as an intern for a senior politician, followed by election to a safe seat. I want my MPs to have some experience of the world, not to have been brought up in the ‘Westminster Bubble’. Which brings me to …
  6. Second jobs – I actually support the idea of second jobs as they stand a chance of connecting MPS to the ‘real world’. I can’t support Malcolm Rifkind’s claim that he is self-employed (maybe he is legally!) with a part-time job that leaves him plenty of spare time. However, if like Gordon Brown you earn just short of £1m a year for your external activity just where might your loyalties lie?
  7. The drift to the middle – despite party politics, it seem to me that both major parties are increasingly competing for the votes of those in the middle. Yes, the Conservatives come at the issue from the viewpoint of the land/property owning relatively wealthy and Labour approach from the oppressed working class, yet ultimately that distinction is narrowing.
  8. Yah Boo, You Suck! – Anything going right is attributed to the skill of the ruling party and anything wrong is somehow traceable to the behaviour of the opposition. The global economic crisis was not caused by the Labour administration but by the greed and immorality of a cadre of bankers who probably vote conservative! Whoever was in power it would have happened.

At the end of the day, this is an opinion piece and the data to support my assertions may or may not be out there – I have not tried to find it. But my perception is my reality.

What to do about this is the next question.I will muse on this in a subsequent blog.

“Work will set you free”

The entry gate to Auschwitz

The entry gate to Auschwitz

“Work will set you free” – perhaps the biggest lie ever told by man to human.

For the very select few it became true; Stanisław Ryniak, prisoner #31, was brought at the beginning and was liberated at least alive. He did it by learning fast – which were the good jobs, who were the least obnoxious bosses, how to ingratiate himself to others (as many others as he could). For him and for the lucky(?) 75,000 others who were fortunate (?) enough to be fit (?) enough for working and so remained alive as the Russians entered the camp it was also true.

But for the 1.2 to 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents etc their journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau was their last. If you were unfortunate enough to be a woman, a child, infirm or disabled you would highly likely be poisoned by cyanide within 24 hours of arrival, your body incinerated and your ashes scattered randomly into the river, the on-site ponds or used as fertiliser on adjacent fields. Nearly all the men followed eventually.

Yes, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and I find myself holding back tears of anger, sympathy, despair and other emotions that I cannot name. Man’s inhumanity in those circumstances is hard to believe, let alone capture. Not man’s inhumanity to man, but man’s in inhumanity to around one and a half million individual men women and children who were unfortunate enough to be born to the wrong race, religion or to hold what were considered inappropriate political views. How to understand one and a half million people slaughtered for an ideology? If I were to read out all the names I suspect it will take me a lifetime. If I were to type a ‘full stop’ for every individual it would take me 750 pages.

I wanted, and want to write about my feelings on the visit. Paradoxically I cannot recall any – I think it was either bury them to enable me to experience the sights or let them all flow out only for them to get in the way of really learning about the greatest horror of our, or anybody’s, times. I chose the former and even yesterday I found myself questioning the value, 75 years on, of emotion in the circumstances. I cannot bring them, or their torturers and murderers, back. I cannot enter empathise – can anyone truly empathise with those who were lied to, humiliated, treated like cattle, separated from their families, tattooed, starved, beaten, tortured and eventually murdered in the name of the philosophy that is not yet dead and continues to rear its head throughout Europe (the recent suggestion in parts of the Ukraine that Jews should register filled me with absolute horror – fortunately it was a hoax, but the fact that someone could even think of such a hoax is worrying). I am no psychopath, but what good can come from floods of tears? At whom can or should I direct my anger – especially knowing that similar atrocities continue in Rwanda, Serbia, Nigeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Burundi, Bangladesh and so on. Separatism leads to war, war leads to atrocities; what happened in Nazi Germany was ‘just’ a matter of scale; extreme behaviour under duress seems to be an inescapable nature of the human state. I would like to think that I would not have dropped those canisters of Zyklon-B into the gas chambers at Birkenau. But if the option for me was certain death? I do not know how I would behave and nor, despite your protestations to the contrary do you. Why the final solution? Because translocation to Siberia was impractical, because shooting them was affecting the morale of the Nazi troops and so concentrating the deaths into one location made it possible to find those few true psychopaths to actually do the killing (or, in the case Mengele, the experimenting on unwilling victims)?

Whilst I argue that I cannot empathise with 1.5 million murdered, I found the most touching moments, those when my mask tottered, was when we heard the stories of survivors who came back and record their experiences. The sheer bravery, not physical but emotional, to revisit a place where you were always a whim away from death, where your family and friends had been brutally abused and killed. Now that I can almost imagine, and it hurts. It hurts so much that I choose to bury it, not in the hope that it will go away (I know it will not) but in the hope that I can and will find some way to continue to operate in my world.

I stood outside those iconic gates at Birkenau trying, with utter impossibility, to imagine what it must have been like for the new arrivals; understandably upset at what had happened to them yet totally unknowing of what was to happen. I failed.

I can only hope that the remaining few who lived through it, those who directly remember it and those of us who visit third hand can keep the memory alive in the hope that somehow it will never happen again.

In memory of the unknown and unnamed and in hope for a better future.