Independence for Herefordshire?

Before I begin.

This is an unashamedly parochial post. Where I say “we” I mean the people of Herefordshire.

I don’t present it as a fully formed plan but rather as an initial idea to start a debate. I’d love to hear from people in the county, in Wales and, well, pretty much anywhere else.

The problem

There are a number of problems, as I see it:

What’s the solution?

I suggest that we need to be able to take more of our own decisions in Herefordshire. We need to run our own health services not receive services designed and delivered in other, distant cities. We need to have the power to make decisions over housing, planning, transport and social care that make sense in Herefordshire. We need to be able to speak to government and other devolved institutions and be sure they will listen.

And that’s basically what devolution is about.

But I don’t think any of us want to create a “National Assembly of Herefordshire” or suddenly have lots more elected officials or highly paid civil servants having lots of meetings in the city centre.

So how can we get real power to make decisions locally without creating unnecessary tiers of government?

My idea is fairly simple: we borrow someone else’s government.

Free Association with Wales.

In international relations there is a concept of “Free Association”. It typically applies when one very small country borders another, much larger country. Both countries remain independent but they agree to co-operate and act in each other’s interests. At international level this is often a lot to do with security and defence which isn’t really relevant here, but I think it’s a nice model to play about with.

So I propose that Herefordshire receives a devolution settlement and enters into “free association” with Wales.

The key parts of this that I see would be:

  • The Barnett Formula (the calculation that works out how much money the National Assembly for Wales gets to spend) would be adjusted to include Herefordshire but Herefordshire’s share would be controlled in Herefordshire.
    Legislation passed by the assembly in Wales would apply in Herefordshire by default but Herefordshire would be able to exempt itself from Welsh laws. (So we might accept Welsh law over housing but would exempt ourselves from the Welsh Language Measure).
  • Herefordshire would agree to cooperate with the Welsh Assembly.
  • The Welsh Assembly would agree to consult Herefordshire during the development of legislation.
  • Herefordshire would have the power to make decisions over the spending of its budget that would be similar to the power the Welsh Assembly has over its spending decisions.

Why I think this makes sense

  • This would give us the ability to make decisions over how to spend money in the right way for the county.
  • We could also develop innovative policies that work for Herefordshire without worrying about whether they work anywhere else.
  • We wouldn’t have the power to pass laws that applied just to Herefordshire but we should be able to work with the Welsh Assembly to develop laws that work for Herefordshire as well as Wales. Ultimately if we thought that Welsh law wouldn’t work for us we could choose not to apply it but I think it would be in everyone’s interests to develop laws that Herefordshire could accept. It would be better for many people in Wales, particularly mid Wales and Monmouthshire, if Herefordshire and Wales law and policy were more harmonised.
  • With only 180,000 people to worry about decisions could be really tailored to the county and it should be much easier for every single one of us to have a real say in decisions.
  • We’d still be in England but we’d be recognising that we have a lot of close ties with Wales.

What would we need to make it happen?

  • We’d need to convince plenty of people in Herefordshire it was a good idea. Then we’d need to convince plenty of people in Wales it was a good idea, and in particular, demonstrate to the National Assembly that it would be helpful and we wouldn’t simply be freeloading off their Senedd.
  • Then we’d need an Act of Parliament.
  • We’d need to change the way the council works because it would have extra stuff to do and lots more money to spend. Personally I’d like to see councillors for the new Herefordshire elected on a more proportional system. We should also build in some requirements to ensure that local people are engaged in decision making all the time, not just at budget setting time.
  • We’d need to decide how to get hold of the extra skills we need (over things like legislation) without recruiting loads of civil servants. Maybe we could second civil servants from the Welsh Assembly?

Reasons I can see why this might not be such a good idea.

People might be perfectly happy with most of the important decisions being made in London and Birmingham (or Worcester or Shrewsbury).

People might not trust the council, even a new and improved council, with these big decisions.

People on the edges of the county might think that all this will do is push “border effects” from the Wales/Herefordshire border to the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire (and Worcestershire and Shropshire borders).

The people of Wales might not want to cooperate with us.

180,000 might just be too small a population to allow with really big decisions.

 

What’s next?

Just in case you were wondering I did work for Herefordshire Council for a bit but I don’t any more.

This has been floating around my head for a while but some discussions I had while at Not Westminster over the past couple of days made me think I should write it down.

It’s an idea. There are probably (almost certainly) much better ideas but I think we should start a debate locally. Devolution is already affecting us and it will continue to do so. Cuts, legislation, Brexit will all have impacts in Herefordshire and, at the moment, we haven’t really agreed how we think Herefordshire should handle these impacts.

If we decide as a county how we want devolution, cuts and all the rest to be handled locally parliament might still ignore us.

But if we don’t come up with a plan then we can guarantee that parliament will do what it likes. Which, at best, will be something that would work well in Surrey.

So let’s start talking about this stuff.

The unconference where we learn from unconferences

Holding an unconference on unconferences does sound like the most meta joke of the year. Or possibly a plotline on W1A  But what other way could academics who have investigated unconferences choose to discuss their findings?

If you’re reading this blog you probably know what an unconference is. For our purposes the key points are it’s a self organised conference with an emphasis on discussion and sharing rather than presenting and listening. In the UK (and other places) unconferences are often called ____camp so UKGovCamp is about government in the UK (and UK government), LibraryCamp is about libraries and MuseumCamp is about museums (in my time I’ve helped organise BlueLightCamp (about emergency services), GovCampCymru (about government in Wales) and ShropCamp (about, er, Shropshire).

Daniel King and Emma Bell undertook the research and along with Dan Slee and Lloyd Davis organised the event on Friday 21 Jan 2017 at The Bond Company in Birmingham. In a very traditional conference style Daniel kicked off with a summary of his research. If you care about unconferences check out the slides, they’re really clear and interesting.

I’m writing this the next day based on my personal reflections having heard about the research and having had a day to discuss with others. I do think that having this time to really consider what we are doing when we do unconferences was a real privilege and I don’t pretend that I have unique or groundbreaking insights. But this is what is in my head and now it’s on the Internet.

Kill the pitch line

Unconferences inevitably start with a blank grid marked up with timeslots for the day and break out rooms. The grid must be filled and the way we chose to do this is to ask people to queue up and take turns “pitching” ideas to the assembled multitude. This is a fun, high energy, enjoyable way to kick off an unconference.

It’s also rubbish.

We all know it’s rubbish but we still, often, do it. We know it’s rubbish because it favours extroverts, experienced camp attendees and socially confident people. We know, because we can see it, that women are typically underrepresented in pitch lines and many facilitators and organisers take steps to encourage women to pitch. But what about people of any gender who are introverts, to whom the idea of standing up in front of a group of people fills them with horror before we add on some social pressure to be entertaining and the threat of public embarrassment if they take too long?

An analogy that makes sense to me is

“We’ve been running this new online service for a while. People need to press the big green button marked “Go”. It turns out that loads of people just don’t press the button. What should we do?”

Should we add a big orange arrow saying “please press this button”?
Should we redesign the service so it works better for all users?

I think we know what to do.

Safe spaces

There is an assumption that unconferences are positive and inclusive spaces. They are. Up to a point Lord Copper. Even in our flatter, more inclusive unconference world we still have power dynamics and hidden hierarchies. Again, many organisers and facilitators and, indeed, attendees are conscious of this and try to make sure that open, helpful, supportive behaviours are encouraged.

And this is another area where it is often hard to see who we are excluding. Indeed we actively encourage people to leave discussions where they aren’t getting or adding value. Though that simple act can be hard for many people.

My key takeaway is that the unconference process takes us only so far. We are asking a bunch of people who have often never met and have certainly never worked together in this configuration to create a space that will work to enable all of them to collaborate and contribute. I actually think it’s impressive how much this actually does work.

Within these temporary spaces the degree of confidence and safety that the participants feel is a function of the people who turn up, the process they follow and the way they behave (all of which interact with each other of course. We can really help within the community to ensure that we practise behaviours that demonstrate that we are listening, that encourage people to contribute and that recognise the contribution of all those in the room. (Anyone who knows what I’m like in an unconference knows that these are areas within which I have considerable scope for personal growth).

I think we could also introduce and encourage the use of patterns of behaviour that would promote inclusion and safety. For example if it became common to open sessions with a question and 3 minutes of silence while people wrote their initial thoughts on post-its this would help people who thrive when they have time for quiet reflection (and shut people like me up for 3 minutes). I suggest this only because it is a technique from my own practice many, any other techniques and patterns exist. We should encourage experimentation and learning with these different approaches.

Configuration

One of the points that really struck me from Daniel and Emma’s research was the question of the function conferences (remember them?) perform. I’m paraphrasing badly here but I think what the research says is that conferences are for configuring and managing professional or technical fields. You go to a conference to be reminded how to be a person in your field or profession. Conferences reinforce power structures, uniforms and behaviours.

And so do unconferences.

We’re not terribly explicit about this (but then neither are conferences) but I think many people would recognise this configuration role. Indeed many of us have experienced govcamps (for example) as an insight into an alternative (and superior) way of being a public servant. That was certainly the case for me.

I think that this is a useful way to frame how we think about unconferences. It may not be the only thing that they do but it is part of what they do. It also suggests why it might be hard to get “suits” to attend. Conferences reinforce the status of suits in their profession and technical sphere. Why would they engage with a process designed to reduce their relative status? (Because public services would work better that way – obv).

Act, don’t act but decide.

This is not intended to be a call for a radical overhaul of unconferences. I wouldn’t call for that even if I thought it was necessary. Unconferences are run by the people who run them and they work the way they work. The way the people in the space decide they should work.

I do think that we always, as organisers, as facilitators, as attendees, as members of the community run the risk of doing the things we did before, or the things we think everyone else wants us to do.

Overall what this research says to me is that unconferences are imperfect. They are unfinished. They are not yet done. Of course. The awesome thing about this community is that we embrace change, we embrace innovation and development and we are comfortable trying things, failing and learning.

So maybe the next unconference you organise runs exactly the same way. Maybe you behave in exactly the same way when you attend one. But do so explicitly, because you’ve considered the options and decided this is the right, best, least imperfect way to do it. Or change. But be explicit.

(I recognise that I attend every govcamp with an internal pledge to speak less and listen more. I usually break within a few minutes. So this recommendation is made in a spirit of considerable humility.)

 

Grrr – lazy DEXEU writing

The government recently published a set of FAQs on the process to leave the EU. I offered some alternative answers.

FAQs are an annoying conceit much of the time which is why the Government strongly discourages their use.

The introduction to this page grated on me in particular

we have compiled answers to the questions we get asked most about the UK’s departure from the European Union

“The questions we get asked most”

Really?

Because in my experience FAQs are based on the questions we wished you would ask us.

So I asked the Department to tell me how many times they had been asked each of these questions. And the said the information was exempt because it would cost more than £600 in staff time to calculate.

Which means of course they didn’t already know the answer.

They didn’t need to say this of course. They could have said “questions we often get asked”, or “commonly asked questions”.

In the scheme of things does it matter?

Probably not. But is it too much to ask for attention to detail in this, of all, Government departments?

Numbers in the news

I’ve left it a little late to blog today. Still blog I must if I am to avoid a terrible forfeit from Dan Slee. So here are some numbers that caught my eye in the news.

10

We face 10 years of stagnant wage growth and living standards according to The IFS analysis of the OBR forecasts.

30

The conviction and sentencing of a far right extremist for the politically motivated murder of an MP appeared on page 30 of the Daily Mail apparently. Which makes you wonder about their news values. And what they think of the values of their readers.

59bn

The chancellor can expect to have to borrow £122bn more than previously thought according to the independent OBR. £59bn of that predicted extra borrowing is directly related to Brexit. But it’ll probably be OK. Because the Italians really want us to buy their sparkling wine.

1 9 8

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution of the United States of America reads:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

A clause Donald Trump is about to become very familiar with.

Now we are all currency trading experts

"Facsimile de un billete de banco de cinco libras esterlinas" by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla https://flic.kr/p/7fhv5k
“Facsimile de un billete de banco de cinco libras esterlinas” by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla https://flic.kr/p/7fhv5k

I was minding my own business on Facebook the other day when one of my friends made a crack about her trip to Spain being more expensive because of Brexit. One of her friends, with the anger of the frustrated Brexiter, explained that the currency was only returning to its long term average.

That doesn’t seem right.

I thought. But maybe it is. So I resolved to see whether it really was.

The exchange rate

I kind of know what the exchange rate is. It’s the amount of another currency I can buy for a pound (for I am British). People tell me the pound has fallen which means, effectively, I can buy less of another currency for my pound.

There is a market in currency (the Foreign Exchange or FOREX market) and when people on the news (or on Facebook) talk about the pound weakening they are talking about the what a pound can buy in the FOREX market.

The value of the pound

There are, somewhat inconveniently, many currencies and the amount of each currency that the pound will buy varies. So often we talk about “the pound falling against the Euro” (£1 will buy fewer Euros) or “strengthening against the Dollar” (£1 will buy more dollars.

Thankfully for those of us who do not wish to become foreign exchange traders, the Bank of England provides a handy summary of the value of the pound against all currencies. (Currencies from countries we do more trading with count more in this index).

This is available in a handy file going back to January 1980. In this dataset the exchange rate in January 2005 was set as 100 so if the exchange rate is higher it will be bigger than 100, if lower it will be lower.

It looks like this

Which certainly does make it look like the pound is at a very low level. In fact it seems to be at a similar level to 1993 which was when I graduated and I rather remember being a pretty tough time economically (not for me the impact of the demographic time bomb). More recently the pound was at a similar level in 2008. That was definitely a bad year.

So if the pound is returning to a historic norm, it is a norm that coincided with struggling economies.

Does a weak pound matter?

Broadly speaking a weak pound is good for people (or businesses) selling things from the UK to people (or businesses abroad). So it makes the UK a cheaper tourist destination, helps exports and encourages foreigners to invest in the country. It increases the cost of importing things, makes a UK holiday abroad more expensive and discourages UK companies investing abroad. There’s a nice guide on economicshelp.org.

Overall (that guide suggests) prices will increase with a lower pound.

That’s one consequence of the Brexit vote: we are all experts on currency trading now.

 

 

Alternative answers to the Government’s FAQs

The government has published FAQs on the UK’s departure from the European Union. Despite the fact that the Government’s guidance for its own website is not to publish FAQs.

I felt that the copy could be punched up a bit so I’ve suggested some pithier answers. Which the government is welcome to use….

The Referendum

Will there be a second referendum or an alternative to leaving the EU?

You want to go through all that again?

Really?

How will you take into account the views of those who did not vote to leave the EU?

We won’t.

You lost suckers. Get over it. Stop “re-moaning” and get with the programme.

Exiting the European Union

What is Article 50 and why do we need to trigger it?

Is there really anyone in the UK who doesn’t know the answer to this question?

When will Article 50 be triggered?

Literally no-one knows.

But since it depends on the result of litigation on a wide range of fronts don’t hold your breath.

What is the Government doing ahead of triggering article 50?

Sshhh. It’s a secret.

 

Does Parliament need to vote on triggering Article 50?

That depends on who you ask.

If you ask representatives of the government they say “No. We should be allowed to do whatever we want without asking parliament”.

If you ask High Court judges they say that “Yes. Parliament does need to vote”.

If you ask representatives of the Daily Mail they start to froth at the mouth and become incoherent with rage.

What model will be pursued in the negotiation?

Sshhh. It’s a secret.

What will happen after we leave the EU?

The sun will shine perpetually on the bucolic idyll that is the United Kingdom (which will remain united). Peace will reign. The less fortunate citizens of the world will gaze upon us in envy and admiration. Freed of the sclerotic pull of Brussels our industries transform themselves and once again we will one again supply the world.

Putin who?

Migration

What will you be doing about immigration / freedom of movement?

Sssh. It’s a secret.

I am a EU national living in the UK – what does exiting the EU mean for me?

Sorry chum. Its great that you’ve chosen to live here, raise your family and be part of our community but we really need you to be a bargaining chip in our (top secret) negotiation with the rest of the EU.

I am a UK national living in the EU, what does exiting the EU mean for my rights (e.g. status, healthcare, pension)?

Sorry chum. Again.

What will our future immigration system look like?

Shhh. It’s a secret.

Trade and the Single Market

Now we have a Department for International Trade and for Exiting the EU, who is responsible for what?

It’s really very simple.

One department is responsible for using our desire for Prosecco and nicely built cars as a bargaining chip in a game of poker where all of the other players can see each others cards and none of them cares about winning as long as we lose.

And the other is responsible for securing an alternative supply of sparkling wine.

Just in case.

How will exiting the EU affect trade?

It will make it brilliant.

Simply brilliant.

Especially our trade with the EU which will be much much better.

Will we remain a member of the Single Market or Customs Union?

Shhh. It’s a secret

EU Funding Projects

What will happen to the future of EU funding for UK projects?

Didn’t I see something about this on the side of a bus?

Legislation

What is the Great Repeal Bill?

It is a Bill that proposes not to repeal anything.

Hope that clears things up.

How will we assess what EU laws we need?

We will keep them all (that’s what the Great Repeal Bill is for, weren’t you paying attention?).

Devolution

How will the Government ensure the views of the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive are heard?

 

They’ll probably send some emails. But really, have you seen how many emails we get every day?

Will the Government respect calls for a second Scottish independence referendum?

You want to go through all that again?

Really?

Adventures in (less serious) data land

I’ve been wrangling data for a project.

And creating interactive data visualisations using tableau. The results are OK but, you know, a bit serious.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

(These are all interactive but this page is a bit thin for the true majesty to work, so I’m afraid you’ll have to click through to play with the data. Do come back though.)

1. Magic

Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.
Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.

2. Lyrics

Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs
Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs

3. Culture

David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.
David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.

 

4. Music

Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at  history of music #1s in the United Kingdom
Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at history of music #1s in the United Kingdom

5. Movies

 Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?
Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?

6. Chess

Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome
Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome

7. More music

Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK
Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK

Handle with care

handle with care by Hash Milhan https://flic.kr/p/DdPcU
handle with care by Hash Milhan https://flic.kr/p/DdPcU

It seems like everybody is trying to work out who voted Trump. In the same way that loads of people where trying to work out who voted in favour of Brexit. There is a sense in which maybe if we can work out who voted that way we can work out why they voted that way.

The Economist has done a nice piece of analysis looking at how (poor) health is a good predictor of a swing to Trump in areas that were already republican. Interestingly (to me) this is based on not a single measure but a whole basket of public health measures and is a (slightly). This is actually a slightly better predictor of the swing to Trump in republican areas than looking at the numbers of non-college educated white people (though those two factors are often related).

This still doesn’t really answer the question of why they voted this way. A Trump administration is not likely to improve public health one iota. The Economist suggests that unhappy, unhealthy people were voting for change. Maybe that is true, I have no reason to suppose it isn’t.

But democracy, certainly the US presidential election and democracy in the UK is a practice of choosing from a short list. We do not know, on the basis of the vote, why people made those selections. We have to infer and theorise. And most of those theories are politically loaded. Did people really vote to leave the EU because they wanted to end immigration or was it to free themselves from the EU legal system. Did they, in fact, not vote to be poorer?

No-one knows.

And those who say they do have an angle.

Facts are hard, to get and to confront. So much easier to guess, or speculate or state with confidence.

Density

For much of my working life I have been based in extremely sparsely parts of the UK. No, not the Highlands, but as close as you can get in England and Wales. Shropshire, Powys and now Herefordshire. Very sparse areas require very different policy approaches to, well, most other parts of the country. It’s hard to get across quite how different these areas are and, I feel, when it has been my task to I have largely failed.

So I’ve tried playing about with some dataviz. Let’s see how it works. The average population density across England and Wales is a rather low 383 people per km2. To demonstrate this here are 383 people in a square.

density

That’s nice but no-one really lives in an average location.

In Birmingham people live at an average density of 4,100 people per km2. At the same scale as above that looks something like.

birmingham

And finally to Herefordshire. In Herefordshire we have an average population density of 86 people per km2. Which, in our virtual square kilometre, looks like this.

herefordshire

Which I think makes it look quite different.

But that’s just me.

How much data do you need?

I’ve been playing about with data pertaining to Herefordshire as part of a project for The Bulmer Foundation.

There is a lot of data out there. At a rough guess hundreds of datasets of public data that pertain to Herefordshire. And I’m just imagining data that you could put into a nice simple table. When you factor in mapping data and unstructured data the levels become very large indeed. And Herefordshire isn’t even a place you would typically describe as being well served in terms of data.

But this dataset brought me up short.

It’s a simple time series (well simple-ish) showing one number per year. That number is a measure of the affordability of housing in the county.

It’s a figure widely used which looks at the ratio of wages to house prices.

To measure wages. Now lots of people in Herefordshire each money and they earn wildly different wages. You need to simplify that spread of wages. You might normally pick the average wage, which is a widely understood way to summarise data. In this case they pick the lower quartile wage which is less widely understood but actually pretty straightforward. Average is the wage where 1/2 the wages earned are above that level and 1/2 are below. Lower quartile is the wage where 1/4 of the wages in the county are below that level and 3/4 are above that level. It’s a good measure of the sort of wages people on lower incomes earn.

To measure house prices. The approach to house prices is similar. There are lots of houses bought and sold and houses come in all sorts of different sizes. We look at the lower quartile price. The price where 1/4 of houses sold cost below that price and 3/4 cost more than that price.

So this is a measure of the ratio between house prices at the lower end to wages at the lower end. If house prices go up, the ratio goes up. If house prices go down, the ratio goes down. If wages go up the ratio goes down. If wages go down, the ratio goes up.

Or to put it another way smaller is better (assuming you think people should be able to afford houses).

And the affordability ration is not getting smaller.

There is a lot more data available about housing.

But really, how much data do you need?

The source data and many other interesting facts can be found on the LGA Inform website.