Danger for The Orangery

I read with alarm last week that Beam, the arts charity which has been running The Orangery for years, have decided to stop running events out of the site at Easter and will pull out entirely when their lease runs out next year. I’m very far from blaming Beam for this – they’ve done a brilliant job and can no longer maintain the costs of the building on their own. They’re currently in talks with the council to resolve the issue and I truly hope some sort of resolution can be found.

The Orangery is not only a beautiful building but Beam have made it into an arts hub and, really, more of a community hub. Though I didn’t attend their outdoor screenings of films last summer, it was a pleasure to walk past and see so many people in the grounds enjoying themselves. I’ve attended a few events there now and I found it a brilliant atmosphere to read work in during the Lit Fest last September.

Of course, Wakefield Council is under financial pressure. Every council across the country is struggling in one way or another. However, in the Wakefield Express this week representatives were proudly trumpeting the demolition of Rutland Mill to make way for a public square. This is on top of various regeneration projects at the other end of town, including the utterly ridiculous idea to turn the old police station on Wood Street into a luxury hotel. That’s a rant for another day, though I will say that people are far more likely to visit the luxury hotel that Bretton Hall will be transformed into shortly rather than one in the centre of Wakefield where they will no doubt get lost in the one-way system before managing to find it. The regeneration of the Civic Gateway is, in some respects, vital. The old court building, now bought back from the developers who allowed it to fall into disrepair, is incredibly important to fix what has become a blight on Wood Street in recent years. Even so, I don’t think all this regeneration should take precedence over The Orangery and the very good work Beam does there.

So, to return to this regeneration of Rutland Mill – fine for a future project, but how about we hasten those plans (are there still plans or have they fallen by the wayside?) to regenerate the old Wakefield Westgate station car park into a public space which would lead up to The Orangery and provide a gorgeous accompaniment to the Westgate Chapel. Both The Orangery and the chapel have been isolated to an extent by the construction of Mulberry Way and the new train station. Creating this green space rapidly could have a knock-on effect at The Orangery – it’s a lovely place for a wedding or an event in itself but incorporate an expansive public space into the equation and it could be outstanding. One way to help The Orangery is to redevelop the grubby area outside of it. That counts as regeneration – so what’s the problem?

Yorkshire First Wakefield Branch Meeting – This Thursday

It’s rude to eavesdrop, but it’s not such a crime for a conversation to catch your ear when it’s conducted rather loudly. I was in a cafe on Saturday and a group of men in their 60s/70s were discussing politics at the next table. Some of the things they were saying really resonated, reaffirming my belief that lots of people in this part of the country have the same attitudes towards the North/South mess we’re embroiled in.

They were talking about Boris Johnson and how he thinks the country stops at Watford. Well, yes. As they went on to say, London may be the capital, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all. The rest of us have got something to offer. The next recipient of their vitriol was HS2 – they seem completely unconvinced that it’ll ever make it up to Leeds and will actually do what it’s meant to do (that is, benefit the North of England if you’ve forgotten – I know I had). The overall opinion of these men seemed to be that decisions were being made by people in London who ‘don’t understand’ the North.

If I’d been a little braver I would’ve started up a conversation, but that’s an odd thing to do randomly in one of your favourite cafes. However, it has convinced me that the members of Yorkshire First are definitely not talking to an empty room. We’re on the same page as a lot of people and we’re talking sense.

So, with that in mind, if anybody fancies getting a little more involved with us, the next Wakefield Branch Meeting will be held at The Holmfield Arms on Thursday 5th March at 7pm. All welcome, even if you don’t know how deeply you want to be involved in the campaign. We’ve got a chance to make a difference in two months and show the mainstream parties that their benevolent view of devolution and what’s best for us really won’t do.

A Replacement for Pacer Trains?

The plan to refit former London Underground trains and sell them to the operators bidding for the northern franchise has caused a little consternation. They’re being offered as a replacement for the Pacer trains that are cramped, cold and were supposed to be a ‘temporary’ solution when they were introduced in the 1980s. These refitted tube trains are allegedly a third cheaper than building new ones, with the shells of the carriages kept and everything else refurbished. The idea is that no one will know these trains were once on the District Line, but it still feels like Yorkshire is inheriting aged rolling stock from London while they can get shiny new trains for their routes.

From watching last night’s Look North I understand that these trains may only be a short-term solution in themselves. The much-discussed electrification of the lines in this region would require fresh stock in a few years so, essentially, these trains would be another stopgap. Now, I know that the electrification issue is as hilarious as the promised replacement of the Pacer trains for the last twenty years but, for a moment, let’s take them at their word and accept that the intended electrification will happen.

Why not rush the electrification through as soon as possible then upgrade the stock from then on? At the risk of banging my old drum, let’s prioritise that above wasting money on HS2. If they’re really serious about investing in transport infrastructure in the north then why not?

Out Leafleting

Yesterday afternoon I was out for a few hours delivering Yorkshire First leaflets in the St. John’s area of my ward. It was my first time leafleting and it was actually a really enjoyable experience. I like delving into places and, though the rabbit warren got a little disorientating at times, we had a productive afternoon with over 600 leaflets delivered.

We’ll be doing it again in a different part of the Wakefield North ward in a few weeks. If you fancy joining in, let me know and I’ll email you the when and where. I can’t guarantee sunshine but I can guarantee gates that nearly chop your fingers off. Honestly, very enjoyable.

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The SNP’s Latest Command

I know I witter on a fair bit about democracy and accountability, call it a bug-bear. I don’t believe, for instance, that a coalition agreement should be implemented following the 2015 election without being put to the voters. You can sense, then, what my attitude on Nicola Sturgeon’s latest comments about the possibility of an SNP-Labour coalition might be.

Sturgeon has said that the SNP would be prepared to join forces with Labour, even if they didn’t have more MPs than the Tories following the election. It’s not a rule that the party with the highest number of MPs form the government, but it’s a standard that hasn’t been broken since the 1920s. Of course, this comes with a price – at the moment that’s a £180bn spending spree, though I expect that to increase the more desperate Labour look as the election nears. Whatever your view on austerity, it’s a pretty neat subversion of democracy on the part of the SNP.

The trouble with Labour at the moment is that they simply reek of desperation. That means the SNP can name their price (don’t be fooled, they’re aiming for independence either via another referendum or by the back door) and the Lib Dems too. The prospect of a Labour/SNP/Lib Dem coalition is terrifying, not least because it will have no legitimacy in the eyes of much of the country. We’ve had five years of back-room deals between the Tory-Lib Dem ‘quad’ and it’s left a sour taste. If anything, it’s served to distance the electorate further from their MPs – after all, does it matter who we all vote for if they decide what’s ‘best’ for us in the end? It stinks, and the stench is only going to get worse until May.

Politics Has a People Problem

The figure Harriet Harman draws attention to of 9.1 million women who didn’t vote in 2010 is alarming but not at all surprising. However, I don’t think political engagement has a ‘woman problem’ as much as a ‘people problem’. The public are disengaging – from the major parties at least – and, while I can understand the urge to drag them back kicking and screaming into the fold, I don’t think Labour’s ‘pink bus’ is going to do the trick on the women front.

The word being bandied about is ‘patronising’. I’d agree with that. I don’t think seeing a pink bus in my town centre would encourage me to vote Labour. In fact, I’d just be asking why they’re making so much effort to appear colourful when, really, the way to win votes is to create effective and economically literate policies. Those seem to be the things that women pay attention to. There was a lot written during the Scottish Referendum about how women were thinking with their heads while men were more focused on their emotional reaction to the prospect of independence. I don’t know how right that analysis is but, surely, the best way to achieve an election victory is to fight on both of those fronts?

For me, this pink bus is a gimmick, and one that’s been ridiculed pretty comprehensively already. This close to an election, is this really Labour’s strategy?

Still All About Cities

I’ve only read the snippets of news about the UK Devolution Summit, summed up by this article in The Independent. However, my initial thoughts reflected my usual ones about central government’s concept of devolution – they mention ‘regions’ but, really, it’s all about the cities. Of course, the report they’re basing discussions on was commissioned by ten cities (the Core City Group) which straight away skews the findings in favour of city regions and city mayors; all that stuff that Westminster seem to think will work brilliantly up here. I wish they’d spend some time talking to us about it instead of pressing on regardless.

The phrase the Independent article highlights is ‘city states’. That makes me cringe. I say repeatedly that I don’t want Wakefield to become any more of a satellite to Leeds than we already are. It feels like we’re finally starting to come out of their shadow in terms of culture etc and I can just see that being reversed by a resurgence of the Leeds-centric attitude that permeates this area. I wonder if people in Rotherham feel the same about Sheffield, as much as I love the latter.

A ‘proper’ devolution deal shouldn’t have to ‘generously’ give power to cities. They shouldn’t be aiming for ‘powerhouse’ cities, as I discussed in this post in November, but for powerful regions. Yorkshire is a cohesive community. We’ve got our differences, yes, and that’s what makes every town unique, but we all fit together rather well. The rest of us aren’t merely extensions of the major cities, destined to pick around for the scraps of funding and decision-making left over. Or, that is, we shouldn’t be.