Friday, 9 June 2017

The Stoke-on-Trent results are all declared

A turnout of 57% in my own Stoke Central, for the predictable Labour hold.

Looking at the basic figures it seems that local former-UKIP voters steeled themselves to make an unexpected last-minute surge for the local Conservative candidate. Good for them, for making up their minds. But even the combined UKIP + Conservative vote just wasn't enough to defeat Labour in Stoke Central. My first guess, looking at the raw local results (above), is that this must have been because of the big surge in turnout. The Stoke Central vote as a whole was up by nearly 12,000 votes from the by-election (21,200 votes then, 33,145 votes yesterday), and it looks like a big chunk of that increased vote must have been for Labour. There seems to have been some sort of tightly organised 'youth surge' nationally, aided by the claim that Labour would scrap their university tuition fees. This was specially effective in university seats such as Stoke Central, and actually caused the semi-mythical youth vote to materialise for Labour for once. There was better weather here, too. I suspect that both factors have strongly helped Labour in Stoke Central.

Also as I expected, Labour have held Stoke North, where a very similar UKIP shift + Labour turnout combination occurred.

Most of the surrounding seats have announced and are Conservative as expected, including Stafford. Stoke is the red bit in the centre of the map...

But the Conservatives have taken Stoke South, so congratulations to our new MP for the city — Jack Brereton.

Nationally, about a third of UKIP-ers seem to have gone back to Labour. On current form at 5.30am it seems we may be headed for a Conservative government propped up by Unionists MPs in Northern Ireland, with a new PM in the next few weeks. The bookies favourite is currently said to be Boris Johnson for PM. I'd imagine that Gove will probably also make a return, though probably not as a PM candidate.

One bright spot is that in Scotland the SNP has been badly weakened, both in terms of leadership and Westminster MP numbers, and so it seems that demands for a second Scottish Independence referendum will now be far more muted if not impossible. That may help matters somewhat, re: Brexit.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Onward, Twitter-bots, to the Glorious Socialist Revolution!

All the signs are that Labour is getting increasingly desperate about its chances of hoisting Corbyn into the Prime Minister's chair. But parts of Labour are obviously still hoping that its Twitter bots will win it the election.

Unite Community Stoke and North Staffordshire Branch (the local Unite trades union, a major Labour funder), for instance, has today reposted a doctored Russian propaganda poster in support of Labour's cyber "Army" on Twitter. Even though a great many pro-Labour messages from the Twitter "Army" are now proven to be from automatic bots.

The poster's original socialist slogan was invented in Soviet Russia in 1953 and was "Raise higher the banner of proletarian internationalism". "Proletarian internationalism" was the phrase by which the Soviet socialists justified Russia's ruinous military intervention in Africa during the 1960s and 70s. Russia stoked and supplied weapons to a near-constant series of bitter wars across the continent — which killed and starved tens of millions. Are socialists "sorry" about that today? No, there's a total silence on that. They even feel free to blithely re-use the same propaganda posters which promoted the policy.

The Daily Mail today notes of the same Unite trades union that...

"In the 50 marginal seats Labour needs to win, 41 candidates have union links. Nineteen of them are connected to Unite, Jeremy Corbyn's main source of funding."

Saturday, 3 June 2017

On Labour's 'Garden Tax'

More gardens in the news, re: the general election. Labour is proposing a new 'Land Value Tax', dubbed the 'Garden Tax'. The manifesto isn't brave enough to explicitly commit Labour to this new Tax, but it states that the Party will:

"... consider new options such as a land value tax, to ensure local government has sustainable funding for the long term."

Looking at the name 'Land Value Tax', you might think this is only aimed at house builders with 'brownfield' sites or at footballers wanting to build a big new 'mansion' in the countryside. But according to the London think-tank which proposes it, it would be aimed at every ordinary home-owner, being levied on even the smallest garden or patch of grass in the land. Their website says it would require a Domesday Book -style army of inspectors, snooping around each and every plot and garden to mark it down for the Tax.

Note that there's no talk in the manifesto of the new Tax being a replacement for the Council Tax. It would probably be introduced softly as 'part of a mix', with the Garden Tax being the lesser of the two taxes. But as Labour (once again) inevitably runs out other people's money, the Land Value Tax would almost certainly become a larger and larger addition to the existing Council Tax. A 2015 report from a Labour Party group suggests the Tax would be 3% of a brownfield plot's theoretical future value, but that would only be an "initial" introductory rate intended to get people used to the idea. There would also be a lesser percentage, perhaps 0.85% to start with, on the land around and under homes.

The proposed Tax would include agricultural land as well, so presumably large urban allotments could be in for an annual tax-demand whammy. Because allotments would be assessed on what ground-rent could theoretically be had, if houses were built there in the future, not on the inspector weighing your current crop of potatoes and strawberries. It'd be a Tax "on the value of land if it were to be developed to its possible permitted planning use". So Labour thinks it has found a way to tax the future, basically. Not that there would be much of a future left to tax, under a Labour government.

It appears the only people who might see major benefits could be those in high-rise flats. But even people in flats may even be no better off, because there would be no way they could sell off the surrounding gardens and car-park and thus avoid the extra Tax. And you can also be fairly sure that the new Tax would be taken as an excuse to hike up the existing ground-rent and service-charges, and it would also likely also feed through to the monthly rent and deposits.

Anyway, Horticulture Week magazine has an even-handed report on the details of the proposed new Tax, if you're interested in reading more. (The first read of an article is free, then they want $s).


Lastly I'd also note that, down in nearby Birmingham, the Labour city council is already eagerly attacking those with large gardens. It's imposing a charge of £35 every time a bag of 'green waste' is collected from a house.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Taking a train to Newcastle-under-Lyme?

An interesting announcement today of a feasibility study on re-connecting Newcastle-under-Lyme to the rail system. That's dependent on the Conservative candidate winning, but that happy event seems fairly likely next Thursday.

Ideally there would be a sensibly connected Leek - Stoke - Keele - Crewe line. Connecting Leek to Stoke is reported to be fairly easy, since there's an existing disused line in a fairly good state. A series of feasibility studies have suggested some freight demand could make it viable in terms of the costs. It's all gone a bit quiet in the last few years, on that. But presumably it can be done if the will is there. It's currently ridiculous that a bus from Stoke station can take over an hour to get to Leek. The same goes for the time to get from Stoke station - Keele campus by bus.

Less certain is the Stoke to Newcastle-under-Lyme disused line (the Market Drayton line) which was allowed to become very badly fragmented in the Potteries, and there's an awkward gap which you can see below on my overlaid OS map. Still, a feasibility study for a Newcastle-under-Lyme station wouldn't have to consider the gap-to-Stoke all that closely. Judging by the map the route of the old line looks much less fragmented to the west of Newcastle-under-Lyme. Below is my basic tracing of the disused and partly-used lines concerned. You can see the awkward gap once the line is out of Stoke, into a section which is all built up now.

In terms of connecting Newcastle with Stoke, how would a restored line get from the siding-spur at Cliffe Vale (still used by clay trains from Cornwall) out across the A500 to connect with the line-end at Newcastle? That is going to be a real puzzle at some point in the future. A tram-line up the steep Shelton Old Road? A series of (expensive) tunnels? Or could the need for a rail connection be made redundant by a new robo-cars-only free-way lane on the roads?

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

General Election: is Stoke set to be the last red pimple on a big blue map?

It's no time for victory dances, with just ten days to go until a General Election. Diane Abbott sitting down to negotiate our Brexit with Jean-Claude Juncker, while Corbyn stitches up a power-sharing deal with the Scottish Nationalists? It doesn't bear thinking about.

But locally the best predictions from the political head-scratchers all point to a certain Conservative win in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a likely narrow Conservative win in Stoke-on-Trent South, and a possible win in Stoke-on-Trent North.

Stoke would be freshly painted blue, and sitting proud on wide blue map. Because, at the MP level, Conservatives already hold all the seats surrounding Stoke, except for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

At the County level, Staffordshire and Stafford are also already Conservative. So is Cheshire East, Shropshire, Derbyshire, the Moorlands, the High Peak, the Derbyshire Dales. Stoke is effectively surrounded by a sea of blue, until you get to the town council level and then only in a few places.

So the Stoke Central constituency could soon be a tiny red pimple in the centre of a big blue map. A pimple which is set to be firmly squeezed out by the coming electoral-boundary changes. As I understand it, these boundary changes will basically re-correct for all the unfair gerrymandering under Blair and Brown, while also usefully cutting the bloat on the benches in the House of Commons.

It would be better if socialism were to be removed from North Staffordshire by the electorate. But it would also be fitting, in a way, if it were to be done with the shuffling of some papers in a distant office and a stroke of a pen on a map. Because that's the very same bureaucratic method of destruction which socialists used to such ruination throughout the 20th century.


Stoke North:

But we're not there yet. I suspect that Ruth Smeeth may just hold on in Stoke North. She's not unpopular among the public. Unlike Flello in Stoke South, she puts herself about a lot in the local media and does so even when an election isn't brewing. Smeeth has carried on the tradition of Joan Walley, who you had to respect for her pavement-pounding and crafty committee work, even if you didn't like her politics. Walley levered a lot of stuff into Burslem, in her time, and the goodwill from that has flowed to Smeeth. There's probably also a certain sympathy for Smeeth, even admiration, among many ordinary voters — due to the way she chose to stay on in a party whose noxious and proven anti-Semitism has been allowed to rise to the surface. On the other hand, she's been recently photographed out-and-about with odious characters like Tom Watson and Corbyn, and she supports a party whose policies — even in a diluted form — would once again bring this country to the brink of ruin.

But Stoke North voters are probably thinking more about Brexit, jobs, and uncontrolled mass immigration with all of its many impacts. Having unexpectedly taken Kidsgrove in the County elections, it seems the adjacent Goldenhill is now being seen by the Conservatives as the next stepping-stone in Stoke North, where a proper clean Brexit is reportedly seen as the prime concern on the doorsteps. But it remains to be seen if places like Kidsgrove and Goldenhill can outweigh the strong habitual Labour vote down in places like Tunstall, Burslem, Smallthorne and Cobridge.

The Conservatives have a strong can-do candidate in Stoke North, Ben Adams, and this time there's no UKIP candidate there to split the vote. He's a cabinet member on Staffordshire County Council and he's battled for Stoke North in a previous election. He'd be a good pro-Brexit local MP and be able to work well with the rest of 'the sea of blue' around him and nationally. So he's got to be in with a strong chance, but my hunch that it is a chance and not a certainty. As with all the local constituencies, a lot will depend on turnout and the mood of the pensioners.


Stoke Central:

The media circus seems to have lost interest in my own Stoke Central, following our recent farce of a by-election. The national BBC sent someone to Hanley for a few hours, but it felt like they were just doing a quick re-hash of their earlier by-election visit. No national statistics-shuffler sees anything other than a Labour victory here, something that'll be propped up by the usual wads of block votes. In that regard I doubt it'll make any difference that the large student block vote will have mostly gone home for the summer holidays, because it seems that many students opt for postal voting these days.

A more important factor is that UKIP is once again standing, and this time with a popular local man rather than their hapless leader. There seems to be enough residual UKIP support to once again split the anti-Labour vote, which will get Labour's lacklustre candidate back in. Many former UKIP voters are still emotionally unable to switch to voting Conservative, and from what I hear that's being bolstered by seeing photos of what they (wrongly) perceive as being a "posh Tory boy" Conservative candidate. They're aware that others think the same, and that means there's no chance of the tactical voting which would get Labour out. Under such circumstances their thinking might be summed up as:

  "Labour's certain to get in yet again, so I may as well cast another protest-vote for UKIP. Especially as they've got a good local bloke. And by doing so we'll at least remind the Tories and Labour that we're still here".

In this they'll intend to 'send a message' about mass immigration and British values, and they see the UKIP as the only vehicle by which they can do that. The UKIP candidate has been remarkably quiet in the media, though. But I can still see their man getting that 'last gasp' protest vote before the party implodes, and in quantities roughly equal to the UKIP vote in the by-election.

But much will depend on Labour's ability to get its vote out in the constituency one last time, before abolition.


Stoke South:

Stoke-on-Trent South is more certain for the Conservatives, with no UKIP to stand in their way this time. The 2015 election saw a strong and exemplary campaign by Joe Rich which took another 4% off Labour's steadily-weakening Robert Flello. That 2015 campaigning is now being built on by the excellent local man Jack Brereton. Jack fought hard in the recent Stoke Central by-election and chipped another 2% off the Labour vote, even in difficult circumstances. The city will probably regret loosing such a fresh and dynamic man to Westminster, as he's done sterling work as part of Stoke Council. It would have been good to see him continuing to build up and champion the city's industry and infrastructure for another five years. I'd say he has maybe a 70% chance of being Jack Brereton M.P. very soon.

Though it's not certain, because you have to wonder how many votes he'll get from people in places like south Longton, Fenton, the back end of Normacot, or out on the Meir. On the other hand, after decade on decade of Labour, and with a real Brexit looming, those same people may be looking around them and finally thinking: "What did Labour really ever do for us?" Anyone who's ever walked from Longton train station up into south Longton will be familiar with that question. Yes, they finally have a nice new-painted railway bridge now. And there's a sort-of a new bus-station, though a small and rather depressing one that only came with the supermarket. But how many decades did it take Labour to get around to even those gestures?

But as with all the local campaigns, it's difficult to get a sense of how hard each party is really pounding the pavements, still less about their analysis of doorstep opinions, as they all seem to be shying away from the media. As well they might, given the shoddy media treatment of the city during the by-election. But perhaps that'll change as we head into the final days.


Newcastle-under-Lyme:

Despite some hopeful sniffing around by the far-left media, Newcastle-under-Lyme now seems almost certain to go Conservative. The candidate is a strong one and I must stay he looks great in photos. It's important to factor in that a chunk of the voters only look at headlines and candidate photos, up until a few days before voting, and let their sympathies and prejudices do the rest.

Surprisingly the local left haven't yet mounted their usual screeching "Two weeks to save the NHS!" media campaign, in a town where the NHS looms so large — both in terms of the nearby mega-hospital and also all the niche private healthcare provision which clusters around the town. But perhaps they've shifted that aspect of campaigning over to social media? If they have then I haven't seen evidence for it.


Staffordshire Moorlands:

I admit I haven't been to Leek for a while, but in the Moorlands our Culture Minister Karen Bradley seems fairly safe by all accounts. Even amid a somewhat trumped-up argy-bargy about the local NHS provision 'closing'. This seems to be the same tactic the extreme left tried down in Walsall, colluding there with the local Labour council in order to yell about 'closure' of the town's big new Art Gallery — when no such 'closure' was ever likely. Bradley has stated firmly that talk of 'closure' in the Moorlands is plain wrong. Yet Labour are still standing a pro-NHS candidate, and there's also a strong Independent pro-NHS candidate who'll split that vote. I don't know the details of that split, but I'd suspect those two candidates may reflect two rival elements of the political left inside the Labour Party?

Nearby Congleton is also reported to be quite safe for the Conservatives.

Stone and Cheadle:

The Conservative veteran Bill Cash is certain to get back in again. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Feeling tree-ish

Today I stumbled onto a worrying example from Sheffield, which shows how easily a heavy-handed city council can effectively unleash an army of 'jobsworth' workers to cut down thousands of the city's healthy trees. Worrying partly because it's a city very similar to the Potteries, in terms of mature tree cover, terrain and size. Apparently the lopping and chopping has been ongoing there ever since Sheffield's LibDems/Labour council introduced it in 2007. They handed the task off to an army of Amey plc contractors, heavy-handedly supported by police, in the hope of slashing their ongoing costs in maintaining the trees. Also in the hope of preventing the council from being sued, by people claiming to have tripped over pavement tree-roots.

Some 3,000 trees, almost all healthy, have been cut down in the city, and as of spring 2016 it was reported that...

"Campaigners fear[ed] some 75% of the city's 36,000 roadside trees are at risk"

It's hard not to see this as yet another tragic aspect of how 'health and safety' is used as a cloak for other agendas. The ongoing attack on Sheffield's trees are apparently now a major election issue, in what today is a Labour-controlled city. Currently they want to cut town an avenue of commemorative trees planted to honour those who fought in the First World War.

In the face of such an aggressive and sustained attack on the trees of a whole city (and another very worrying example from Labour-controlled Birmingham) you have to wonder if the Conservative election manifesto pledge on street trees should have been a bit more beefy...

"... we will ensure that 1 million more [trees] are planted in our towns and cities, and place new duties on councils to consult when they wish to cut down street trees."

That's certainly welcome, but a bit vague. It should also extend to mature trees in parks, and on paths or on other open land. Not just to trees along streets. It might also specify the types of trees to be planted in cities, and announce there will be new research on how their early years can best be protected. Possibly there could also be something to deter people from suing a council over tree roots, although I vaguely seem to remember that something may already have been done about that under the excellent Mr. Pickles.

Most of the other parties have nothing to say in their manifestos about urban and street trees, I checked. LibDems, nothing on trees. Labour, a million new trees planted on farms. Laughably, a search for the word "trees" or "tree" shows no results in the Green Party manifesto, which these days seems more concerned with far-left posturing. UKIP has a sensible idea, though...

"UKIP will amend planning legislation to promote inclusion of trees and open space into new developments."

Friday, 26 May 2017

Newcastle's new noise app

An excellent idea from Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council. App Helps to Turn Down the Level of Noisy Neighbours, and it will presumably also help prevent the common problem of constantly-barking dogs while the neighbours are out.

"The app enables a user’s iPhone or Android device to make a recording of the noise, which can then be sent direct to the Council, along with a brief description of the problem."

The phone app is here.

The party manifestos: litter and dumping

A quick survey of the party manifestos, re: litter and dumping.

Conservative Party: "We will do more to reduce litter, including by supporting comprehensive rubbish collection and recycling, supporting better packaging, taking new powers to force councils to remove roadside litter and prosecuting offenders."

UKIP: One passing mention of litter, in a section on how plastic bottles can turn into ocean microplastics. To reduce ocean pollution "we will investigate the practicality of introducing a deposit scheme on plastic drinks bottles to encourage recycling".

Greens: No mention. But they would generally aim to "reduce plastic and other waste, including the introduction of Deposit Return Schemes [on bottles]".

Labour Party: No direct mention of either litter or dumping. But they would "set guiding targets for plastic bottle deposit schemes, working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce waste."

LibDems: No mention of either litter or dumping. But they would "introduce a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups".

There are lots of "you can't mention that" gaps in the manifestos, on unsayable topics. But I find it curious that most of the parties can't even bring themselves to directly address one of the simplest and hottest of doorstep issues, an issue which affects urban and rural places alike.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

In the vanguard

A nice idea from the Forest of Dean. Bring the van a carrier-bag of litter you've picked up or cleaned out of your car, and get a present in exchange.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Lord Heseltine's manifesto for city gardens

It's seems we're still waiting for the Green election manifesto, but in the meantime Lord Heseltine issues a manifesto for gardening (£). The bulk of his speech is at Horticulture Week magazine for free.

"If I had been elected earlier this month to one of the new mayoral authorities – a job in my view more exciting and powerful than half the Cabinet – I would have established an effective coordinating body to tackle the challenges of the deprived communities. That is where you will find the truly forgotten people of our time. The challenges of such concentrated deprivation – unemployment, lack of skills, low education attainment, obesity, loneliness and mental health issues - all focus on the question how do you help people feel a sense of purpose, an interest in what their life holds.

"There are no simple answers to complex questions but gardening can play a part. Derelict land is all too present. Provide them with the tools to plant it. If they plant it they may feel a pride in what they did. They may wish to defend it, even extend it. The work requires little skill but it offers ladders. If a person starts by tidying the garden of an elderly pensioner, there is a short journey to a full time job with elderly folk willing to pay someone to do the same in nearby more prosperous suburbs."

Heseltine may have been wrong on many things, including Brexit, but over the decades he's been right about new gardens and parks in cities. For instance he was responsible for getting the Garden Festival programme under-way and into Stoke-on-Trent in the mid 1980s, along with a local Conservative councillor (yes, Stoke had such people even in the heyday of Mrs Thatcher). Stoke's National Garden Festival is generally credited with kick-starting Stoke's slow multi-decade regeneration of our industrial landscape, following the global collapse of the heavy industries in the mid 1980s. These days it can be difficult to imagine what the now mostly-greened landscape of the Etruria Valley looked like before its intensive restoration.

I also like his wider idea that horticulture in general could be built up much further, becoming a major post-Brexit industry for the UK. It's what we know and what we're good at. As a nation we like planting things, watching them grow, seeing how they turn out, then planning further ahead and unselfishly planting things which will only benefit future generations.

Add to that spirit our advanced bio-science, landscape design, ecology research services, green architecture, and all the thousand other green niches we're excellent at. Then factor in the thousands of new gardens and parks which communities will want to build, once they have direct control of the wealth of local payments that will flow from fracking. Plus there's the millions of new market gardens that will be built in Africa, by the coming billions of population there — offering all sorts of opportunities for overseas advice and supplies.

More locally, I see that the leftist Green Party has already 'lost' their election deposits. They only raised £230 of the £750 target they needed to pay their deposits. The £750 campaign closed today, still at £230. Their page now claims that £230 was all they were seeking.