Monthly Archives: November 2013

TED Talks – Why democracy matters

The public is losing faith in democracy, says British MP Rory Stewart. Iraq and Afghanistan’s new democracies are deeply corrupt; meanwhile, 84 percent of people in Britain say politics is broken. In this important talk, Stewart sounds a call to action to rebuild democracy, starting with recognizing why democracy is important — not as a tool, but as an ideal.


The government is very keen to encourage the use of bicycles.

But many potential bicyclists are deterred by the extreme frequency of bicycle theft. The latter is increasing. The frequent thefts are also most inconvenient and distressing. More than a 100,000 bicycle thefts are reported to the police each year, but it is reckoned that only about a fifth of bicycle thefts are reported to the police. Thus the total annual figure is probably something like half a million. This is totally unacceptable, and efforts to should be made to reduce it.

One possibility is a specific offense of bicycle theft, with severe penalties.

There are almost certainly technical solutions which could reduce the problem. One suggested solution is that all bike frame numbers should be registered with the owner, and that anyone selling bikes should list the number. In suspicious circumstances, the police could also check a bicycle.


There is considerable mistrust by the public about charities.  That far too much money goes on administration, or that much of the money disappears.  The press are keen on these stories, and had a field-day after the Tsunami.   Most charities of course do invaluable work; but there is a minority that are duds or dodgy.  And recently there have been many press revelations about charities that are essentially businesses  – businesses that wish to avoid tax.

The Charities commission have had insufficient resources  to sufficiently investigate enough dodgy charities.  But there is one easy step towards greater transparency.  To oblige all charities to publish the salaries of the key top executives.  It is reasonable to ask for this: partly because of their tax status, they get great financial benefits from the government.  Other institutions, such as the army, publish their salaries, as of course the salaries of, say, cabinet ministers are public. Also it would diminish some of the current abuses by the dodgier charities.

Of course, there would at first be some public howls of outrage by those who don’t realize that charities need to hire the very best executives, and thus pay them quite well;  but in the long term  it would be to the benefit of  the charities, because trust would eventually increase –  because of the transparency.


Each council has a different policy towards towing away. But a number of councils allow the towing away of cars for very minor infractions, including briefly going over the time-limit in a parking zone.

When such a car is towed away, the penalty is grotesquely disproportionate to any offence. The towing away charge can be as much as £200. And then on top of this, there is the parking penalty to be made. And , because the cars are towed to awkward destinations, there will likely be an expensive taxi fare. Thus the total may be as much as £275.

A car that is parked in a parking bay is not causing any type of obstruction, and thus its towing-away is purely an unethical revenue-raising device. Furthermore it could be argued that the towing vehicles themselves are increasing the clogging of the traffic.

Cars should only be towed away when they are causing an obstruction. This would be an exceedingly simple and popular and ethical reform.

A monument for Penrith

Why does Penrith not have a central memorial commemorating the First World War? Indeed why is there so little sculpture at all? The old First World War memorials are almost completely hidden and forgotten. The only really first-rate sculpture is the Giant’s Tomb in St. Andrew’s Square. It is wonderful – raw hogback stones, soaring crosses, hints of pagan serpents, tamed into Christian devils – but it was set up before 950 AD, on the frontier of a now vanished kingdom. A thousand years in the rain has left it illegible.

Now, one entrance to Penrith is marked by Kentucky Fried Chicken and B&Q, and the other by an avenue of sheds and commercial hangers. The castle, our oldest building, which once dominated the town, is now roofless and ruined, marooned by traffic and over-shadowed by the car-park and McDonalds. The Beacon is hidden. In Penrith, our only really recognisable landmark is the clock, which commemorates Philip Musgrave’s death in 1861. The critic, Nikolaus Pevsner, has been very generous to Cumbria: he calls the Bewcastle Cross “the greatest achievement of its date in the whole of Europe”. But he dismisses the Penrith clock-tower as “utterly insignificant”.

Why have we not produced a memorable monument in so long? Why is there so little good sculpture in Britain’s market towns? In part, because we make decisions by committee. We discover that beauty is subjective, and that then paralyses us. We would like to be contemporary without having a very clear idea of what that might mean. We assume figurative sculpture is ‘old-fashioned’. The dismal results are all around us. Sometimes, we do the minimum. Selkirk marked the three hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flodden with a statue. It is still, two centuries later, the symbol of the town. But Selkirk marked the five hundredth anniversary by only planting a peace-garden at the base of the statue at an astronomical cost. Sometimes we try to be bold – and produce immense ugliness: look at the profusion of giant metal mythical figures down Scottish motorways, which are trying to compete with the Angel of the North. Or we play safe and fall back, as councils have all over the country, in installing over-sized stainless steel balls.

But we have sculptors in Cumbria capable of producing great classical works. David Williams-Ellis from Lazonby, for example, has made beautiful large bronzes, ranging from dancers now in Shanghai, to a rugby player in full motion, down the wing, warding a tackle, now in Llanelli in Wales. We don’t have a sculpture by David in Penrith: he should make our centenary monument for the First World War.

But how should the First World War be represented in a sculpture? Thomas Hardy’s poem “In the time of the breaking of nations” is one tempting possibility. He does not focus on the battlefield: on guns so loud that they destroy ears with a single explosion; on the night turned into day by flares and flames; on fear, blood, loyalty, or young men dying. Instead he writes:

Only a man harrowing clods/In a slow silent walk/With an old horse that stumbles and nods/Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame/From the heaps of couch-grass;/Yet this will go onward the same/Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight/Come whispering by:/War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.

We are close enough to see that the horse is half-asleep, and to hear the whisper. But the man, the old horse, the girl, and the boy in the poem have neither features nor names. There are hidden hints of seasons: ‘harrowing’ happens after the ploughing, and before the ground is sown with a new crop, so that scene may be in late autumn. ‘Couch grass’ is best torn up by its roots, and burned, in the spring. But he does not reveal the century or the country.

It is a beautiful poem and a tempting model. But I do not think Penrith in 2013 should evoke Hardy’s rural eternity. An image which for Hardy was difficult, would be for us too easy. Hardy was struggling in 1916 to step out of time, and place, and produce this image of peace, when politicians, and writers-turned-propagandists were roaring about patriotism, and honour, to justify and cover the failures of war. In 2013, by contrast, our whole culture is comfortable with the idea that the First World War was senseless, the soldiers were victims, and that there was a deep contribution from civilians and women on the home front. We find it easy to remember the horse and the lovers at home. We find it more difficult to imagine those whose lived or died in the trenches. Our challenge is to rediscover them as soldiers, as actors in movement, not passive puppets. Penrith needs a monument which is intensely local and personal – which represents real men born in Penrith with individual faces– and which has the courage to present them not as victims, but as they might have wanted to be seen. The Musgrave monument was paid for by a single wealthy family. I wonder if we could show a new energy in a new age, by contributing towards a monument for Penrith together?


Rory this week welcomed the Chief Executive of Penrith Building Society (PBS), Amyn Fazal, to Parliament, to promote the trailblazing work being done in Eden to help more people afford to buy their own homes. The Eden model was explained in parliament to a cross-party group of MP, peers, and Building Society chief executives. PBS, working alongside Eden District Council, have created the ‘Eden Mortgage Boost Scheme’, which will reduce many of the initial costs that a borrower faces when borrowing more than 75% of the purchase price, making it more affordable to buy a house in the Eden area. The scheme, which will shortly see its first applicants move into their new homes, was presented by the Penrith MP and Mr Fazal as a community-focused model to be replicated nationwide.

Eden has already shown itself to be leading the way when it comes to affordable housing, with the Stoneworks Garth site in Crosby Ravensworth standing as a model example of a community building and owning their own affordable homes. The ‘Eden Boost Scheme’ is the latest example of Eden businesses and communities coming up with practical solutions that aim to make it easier and more affordable to buy locally. Alongside its promotion in Westminster by Mr Stewart and Mr Fazal, the scheme also featured prominently in the latest Building Societies Association report, where mutuals like PBS were praised for their strong focus on the local community.

Chief Executive Amyn Fazal said:

“Being a small mutual means that our commitment to the principles of mutuality, puts us in an excellent position to put them into practice. The Eden Boost scheme should be seen in conjunction with our wider community involvement.”

Rory said:

“Amyn and Penrith Building Society are doing some really fantastic work here in Cumbria. We already have some amazing affordable housing projects in this constituency, but there is still much more we can do to help young people in particular get on the local property ladder, and ensure our rural communities remain affordable to local people who want to raise their families here. Initiatives like the Eden Boost Scheme are huge step in the right direction and it would be great to see it adopted by many more communities across Britain.”

Director General of the national Building Societies Association (BSA) Adrian Coles said:

“The Penrith Building Society stands for everything that modern banking seems to have – mistakenly in my view – thrown away: local knowledge and understanding, community involvement, a personal service determined by each borrower’s and saver’s individual requirements, and an overall determination to do what is right for the customer.  The people of Penrith should be proud to have such a well-regarded financial services institution, with such a long and distinguished  history, right in the centre of their town.”


Much faster progress needs to be made for water-metering.

Price is by far the biggest determinant for peoples behaviour. Witness the 90% drop in the use of plastic bags when one chain started charging 5p for plastic bags. It is absurd today that people have permanent watering systems in their garden, using expensively filtered and treated water. There is considerable water shortage in the South, which may get worse with global warming. Much unnecessary car-washing, and garden watering, and such-like would reduce with metering. This is all going very slowly, like most things in this country.


People are still being bombarded, sometimes to a horrendous extent, with nuisance marketing calls.

The current system is not working. The government should give more teeth to the regulators, increase prosecutions, and cut down on this illicit use of databases. Apart from the fact that calls are a damn nuisance, a vast amount are from industries such as PPI and Solar power, ie businesses that are already dodgy, and thus are likely to mislead people.


Computers are every bit as useful, sometimes more so, for elderly people than the young. Yet many are not yet online, because of lack of help, or nervousness, or lack of funds.

Elderly people who are not on-line are starting to be quite disadvantaged. There are so many areas where the digital world is important, or even crucial – booking cheap air tickets would be a good example. Furthermore the internet can be a great pleasure for them: keeping in touch with grandchildren; or playing cards with an online friend in Brazil, not to mention shopping.

Also it is very good for the brains of those getting really quite old, as it keeps them mentally alert, just as exercise would for the body. If they are not able to get out much, they can have quite an active social life on the computer. If their eyesight is failing, they can read quite a
lot by expanding the size of print on the screen.

There are several million people over 65, who are not yet online. Not all are suitable of course, but huge numbers would be, and their quality of life would be immeasurably increased. Therefore the government should be more active in helping the elderly in going online if they wish to do so.

There are a variety of ways in which this could be done. But one obvious one is as follows. Most libraries now have computers. At non-peak times, lessons could be arranged on those computers for those pensioners who would wish to take advantage. There might even be an element of savings for government, in that many aspects of administration are cheaper if the customers are on-line. My suggestion could be cheap, as it would almost certainly be possible to get volunteers to do the training.