Community philosophy

How do you decide what to believe, what not to believe? How do you decide what is the morally right or correct thing to do in any situation? For example, when you are offered the Covid-19 vaccine, will you accept it and the Government’s assurance that it is safe? Or will you decline in the belief that it will change your DNA or, by implanting a piece of nano technology, will allow the Government to track your every movement? If you discovered that there are plans to build a 5G transmitter close to your home, would you immediately start a campaign to stop the transmission of this brain damaging radiation? Or would you look forward to the enhanced connectivity that it will offer? When you hear mention of Qanon, do you think that this is just the tip of an massive iceberg of corruption at the very heart of the US establishment? Or do you dismiss it as the completely unsubstantiated ravings of people with over-active imaginations? How do you know? Do you consider yourself to be open minded, willing to consider any proposal put to you on its merit? Or do you find that you have an instant opinion on such a proposal?

Why have I just written a whole paragraph of questions without offering any answers and without offering a proper introduction to what I want to say? Well, in short, it’s because I genuinely believe that most of us never stop to properly question the beliefs that we hold and the process by which we came to them. I do not think that we have been taught how to critically think, or if we have, that we need much more practice in doing so. That’s why I have become very enthusiastic about community philosophy. Often known as ‘Philosophy in Pubs’, this is a grass-roots movement that brings together ordinary members of the community to discuss ideas in an open and respectful way. The Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group that I organise only has two rules: That all participants must be open to be challenged, and having to rationally justify what they say; and that we challenge or criticise the idea, not the person who expresses it. I can’t help thinking that if these two rules, and the critical reasoning skills that you develop from them, were widely adopted, even taught in schools, that our society would be in a far healthier state.

As it happens, the January meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group (to be held ‘virtually’ on 27th January) will be discussing a book that tries to get to the very heart of how you answer the questions posed in the opening paragraph. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathon Haidt makes a three-fold claim. First, that we are nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe we are; that our responses to questions and events arise from our emotionally based intuitions and that we generally only use reason, post hoc, to justify them. Second, that these intuitions themselves arise from six basic psychological systems in much the same way that all the flavours we experience when we eat arise from five basic tastes. And third, that once we have become aligned to what he calls a ‘tribal moral community’ (our particular moral or political belief system) our adherence to this community both ‘binds and blinds’ us. Oh, and just to make his point clear, this isn’t something that ‘the other side’ do. This is something that we all do. Yes, you do it. I do it.

If Haidt is correct (and remember, we should not just accept that he is) this means that our initial response to his argument will be an emotional one rather than a rational one; it may feel intuitively correct; it may feel that he has insulted my intelligence. Either way, I think that it is beneficial to stop and consider how his arguments make us feel. Likewise, I think that it would be beneficial to use his approach to reflect on our answers to not just those questions I asked initially, but on our responses to all those news items that that provoke a strong reaction in us. And having done that, why not start on all our basic moral and political beliefs? Okay, maybe (just maybe) I’m getting a bit carried away. But whether Haidt is correct or not I do think that there is great value in constantly having our opinions and beliefs challenged. If you agree, and would like further details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group, please do get in touch.

This is a very serious public health crisis

I’m sure that most people are already aware of this, but just in case please allow me to really push this warning home: This Covid pandemic presents a very serious public health situation. On Friday afternoon I ‘attended’ two events that really underlined the this message, a briefing for Dorset councillors from Sam Crowe, the Director of Public Health Dorset, and the monthly meeting Dorset councillors in West Dorset have with our MP, Chris Loder. Two particular messages emerged from these meetings: The situation is more serious than many people realise; and many people are not even taking the same precautions as they did during the first lockdown back March. Certainly from my perspective it is nowhere near as quiet out there as is was first time round when, on going out for my daily walk, I remember being struck by just how quiet it was. The A35 was practically empty of traffic, even in the middle of the day, with the sound of bird song replacing the constant background rumble of traffic.

The most recent figures for the number of Covid cases in Dorset are really quite alarming. The number of cases per 100,000 people in the seven days up to 4th January was 347.7, up from 161.7 the previous week. That’s an increase of 115% in a week! And just to underline the severity of the situation further, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has today warned that hospitals face their “worst crisis in living memory”. What this means is that if you or a loved one contract the virus and are unfortunate enough to be one of the unlucky one that requires hospital treatment, or that you require other, non-Covid related urgent treatment, that treatment may not be immediately available. And please, let us not distract ourselves by starting an argument about underfunding or the creeping privatisation of the NHS. These arguments can, and have to wait until after the crisis is over. Our priority at the moment must be to prevent the spread of the virus and ease the pressure on our hospitals.

Changing topic completely, for me, one of the big political battles waiting to break out concerns planning permission for listed buildings. I sit on both Bridport Town Council’s Planning Committee and Dorset Council’s Area Planning Committee for west and south Dorset, and am getting increasingly frustrated by our inability to approve necessary energy efficiency and generation measures for listed buildings. In particular my concerns relate to the siting of solar panels on roofs and the replacement of old windows with double glazing. I fully accept that all applications must be taken on merit and assessed as individual cases, but in general the reason often given for refusal of permission is that the appearance is not in keeping with the historical nature of the building or the conservation area. There must come a point when we regard making buildings, all buildings, as energy efficient as possible, and taking every opportunity to locally generate electricity from renewable sources, more important than the historic appearance. If the latter was our main concern we should be restoring outside toilets and open fires / removing inside toilets and central heating from many building in Bridport. Put bluntly, what’s the point of admiring the aesthetics of old buildings if in doing so we risk allowing our climate to make the environment in which they are situated unliveable?

Unfortunately, some of the fears I expressed last week about Donald Trump and his ‘army’ of loyal (and armed) supporters came true this week when, at his incitement, they stormed the Capitol building in Washington during the Congressional process of confirming Joe Biden as President. My positive spin on this is that Trump’s behaviour has caused so many people to distance themselves from him that although five people were killed this was nowhere near as bad as things could have got if widespread open revolt had broken out – revolt that I now think increasingly unlikely. I am by no means a fan of the US politics, but I have been feeling genuinely sorry for them this week. Trump has been a global embarrassment. Just imagine how Peking or Moscow have viewed these events. Just imagine their reactions when, in 10 days time, their television screens are full of images of him being escorted from the White House in a straight-jacket!

Back to work…

Today is my first day ‘back at work’. Apart from checking emails for anything pressing, I’ve done next to nothing council / politics related for nearly two weeks. During that time I’ve also largely avoided social media (though could not resist the odd check on what mad comments have been emanating from Donald Trump’s Twitter account) and totally avoided this blog. So, what’s been happening? Well, I suppose the two ‘biggies’ are that the UK has got its sovereignty back and is now fully in control of its destiny. That comment, by the way, in case you think that something serious has befallen my mental state in these last two weeks, was said ironically. The other is that the Covid virus is showing no indication of getting bored with its assault on our health and way of life.

The Covid alert level in Dorset has now been raised to ‘very high’. As a result of a significant rise in reported cases and growing pressure on our hospitals, just before New Year we were placed in Tier 3 – and as I write this another total lockdown seems inevitable. This, though, did not stop a number of young people gathering on Eype beach around a bonfire to see in the New Year. I first heard about this when a reporter from the Dorset Echo called me for a comment. I generally do not like being asked to comment on something that I know nothing about and when my only information is what the questioner passes to me. Despite being reported in The Sun newspaper (a serious source of news that has never been known to sensationalise a story in order to sell itself) I have since been informed that the party was not large, was well behaved, and that the group both tried to ‘socially distance’ and cleared up after themselves. Nevertheless, they should not have gathered.

I told the reporter that whilst I understood why they did gather, out of respect for our fellow citizens it is important to keep to the rules and for each of us to do our bit to stop the spread of the virus until such times (hopefully about in about 3 months) when the vaccines have got it under control. Yes, I know that many people acutely feel that their freedoms are being taken from them. And yes, I really missed going to the pub on New Year’s eve before heading to the midnight gathering in Bridport’s Bucky Doo Square. But, as the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin has argued, there are two types of freedom – freedom to, and freedom from. Humans are social animals and should be free to meet and socialise with fellow humans without restriction. But, because we are social, we are also members of a community of fellow human beings, not just individual creatures only concerned with our own self-interest. This means that we need to respect other peoples’ right to freedom from unnecessary hurt and harm. We have the duty to respect the need to protect others from unnecessary exposure to the virus.

I genuinely think that most people do not understand just how interconnected we are – interconnected to our fellow humans, interconnected with other animals, and interconnected with our wider environment. This means that what we do cannot be isolated from its effects upon others, upon the lives of animals, and upon planet Earth as a whole. Take climate change as an example – our climate affects all humans, all animals, and all habitats. This means that whatever happens elsewhere can, and often will, have an effect upon us. And the more humans become globally connected through travel, the media and trade, the more our lives will be affected by events happening elsewhere. This also means that, increasingly, we are not in control of everything that happens to us. We have never had control. We cannot take back control. We can never be totally sovereign as a nation. But of even greater significance is the fact that the things which pose the greatest threat to us (climate change, global pandemics, economic collapse, terrorism) are global in their nature, and can only be dealt with globally through cooperation. This cooperation was much easier to achieve as a member of the EU. I think that our leaving the EU was a retrograde step for the UK, the EU and the world.

I’m still finding Donald Trump a source of amusement in these dark days. Will he go with grace, with dignity? Or will he be carried screaming and sobbing from the White House? The next important event in this melodrama comes on Wednesday when the Senate are due to formally accept the result of the electoral college and acknowledge Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. If they vote as expected Trump has very few cards to play. But those he does hold could quickly turn my amusement into serious concern. My background fear is that his words incite some of his less than rational (and armed) supporters onto the streets in protest. If this happens things could turn very nasty. Let us hope that Covid and Brexit remain the dominant news items for the next few weeks.

Covid and a tale of two plans

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m losing my critical edge, but in many ways I’m starting to feel sorry for Boris Johnson. This is partly because he is so far out of his depth. His ambition to be a Churchillian statesman exceeds his ability by such an extent that it is embarrassing to watch. But mostly it’s because that responding to this Covid pandemic would have been challenging for any Prime Minister, no matter who they were or from which political party they were drawn (with the possible exception of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern of course). We have not been in such a situation before, so no politician has any experience to draw on. And for each decision there are multiple competing considerations – the hard science, our economic wellbeing, our mental health as well as our physical health, and our human rights. And as following the guidance of one will often clash with the guidance of another, you are bound to get criticism from different factions no matter what you do. Quite simply, there is no right answer to any problem or situation.

Having said that I’m surprised that the libertarian wing of the Conservatives have not been more vocal in the their opposition to the various restrictions imposed upon our freedoms – perhaps they are scared of ‘getting it wrong’. However, there have been protests against the wearing of masks (though these have not been getting much press of late) and I have heard people argue that the repeated lockdowns deprive them of their liberty and human rights. I’m a big supporter of Human Rights (I’ve been a member of a small group that has helped Bridport to declare itself a Rights Respecting Town) but we need to understand two things: Human Rights are human constructs not ‘God given’ and inalienable; and they have to be balanced by responsibility. So as well as having the basic right to do certain things like meet and socialise with who we like, we also have a responsibility to protect the fellow members of our community by doing everything we reasonably can to prevent the spread of the virus.

Dorset Council is currently in the process of consulting on two major, and highly related, projects: It’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan and it’s draft Local Plan (the plan for the future development of Dorset which guides decisions on whether or not planning applications will be granted for the next 15 years). A major factor in both is transport. Transport is the single largest sector for carbon emissions in Dorset. My original Climate Emergency motion to Dorset Council (which, despite going to Council 18 months ago, still has not been debated) called for “a Dorset wide transport strategy that discourages car use, encourages walking and cycling, and drastically improves rail and bus services.” Whilst transport comprises one of the 9 sections of the draft Strategy and Action Plan, there is nothing close to the comprehensive transport strategy that I think is needed, particularly when reducing the need for travel is a major consideration in the draft Local Plan. I would like to see much more vision and ambition in both plans. I would like to see us develop a network of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls eco-towns: small, self-reliant communities connected by an efficient and cheap public transport system. The aim would be to break our dependency on the motor car and to focus on the development of our local economies.

Next to transport, I think that planning decisions constitute the most important set of considerations with regards to a net reduction in carbon. Not least in these considerations are the number of new homes we need to build. I read recently that the actual construction of a building contributes to over 50% of the carbon emitted over the life of that building. One of the big factors in any local plan has been the Government’s Housing Needs Assessment – an assessment, based on a standard formula, for assessing the number of new homes each local planning authority must build. So some potentially good news this week was the announcement that the Government is backtracking on its plans for changing this housing formula. These new, new changes will see more of a focus on the North and the Midlands, and the prioritising of building new homes on twenty urban brownfield sites across the country. Hopefully this will mean a large reduction in the number of new homes Dorset’s new local plan has to deliver.

But do we need to go further than this change of focus? Do we need to rethink how we live? Where we live? Should we consider a total ban on any development that requires the destruction of green fields? Despite my smugness at living in such a beautiful location, I have to admit that there are many eco-benefits of city living. Not least of these are transport. If I lived in London I would not even consider owning a car. But should we also start rethinking the size of the properties we aspire to? Should we give much greater consideration to the sharing of resources? To community living? I haven’t got answers to these questions, and I accept that any debate could quickly become very heated, but I do think it something that eventually we will be forced to consider – so it may be worth starting now and feeding the results into forthcoming local plans.

A piece of political mischief making?

Last Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council contained one of the least edifying experiences of my time as a councillor so far. The final substantive business was a motion proposed by the Conservative councillor Louie O’Leary that was both unnecessarily divisive and seemingly a complete waste of time. It was even questionable as to whether a debate on the motion should have been permitted at all. In the end, however, despite a proposed amendment (which failed), the motion was passed. But what was actually achieved by the farce?

The motion, as proposed, was:

On Remembrance Day when as a nation we pause to recognise the sacrifice made by those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life activists from Extinction Rebellion hung a climate change banner in front of the Cenotaph.

That Dorset Council condemns the behaviour and actions of Extinction Rebellion for their actions at the Cenotaph and their total disregard of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice; and for their continued disregard of the law.

In the first place I fail to understand why we spent time debating it. Surely there are more important issues to debate? Issues that directly affect the lives of Dorset residents! It was even questionable whether we should have debated it. The Council’s ‘Rules of Procedure’ state quite clearly that to be valid a motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district, or is about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district.” An event that occurred in central London is obviously none of these, and although this point was raised by several councillors, somehow the motion was deemed valid.

Secondly, I fail to see what the motion claims: It accuses Extinction Rebellion (XR) of displaying a “total disregard for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice”. How? Their banner read “Honour their sacrifice” and their wreath was laid in a respectful manner by a British army veteran. A letter sent to all Dorset Councillors by West Dorset MP, Chris Loder, attempted to paint a different picture, claiming that “He walked over wreaths that had been solemnly laid”. Now I know that these things are all down to interpretation, but I watched a video of the event (posted by the Daily Mail on YouTube) with close attention, and to my eyes the person laying the wreath trod very carefully to avoid disturbing wreaths already laid. Further, after laying the wreath the person stood in solemn silence for two minutes. How can such actions be deemed a “total disregard for those whose who gave the ultimate sacrifice”?

The motion also talks of XR’s “continued disregard for the law”. I am not aware of any law having been broken at the Cenotaph, and have read no claims that they were. This, though, brings us to the what I think was one of the reasons for the motion. In order to bring in charges of a disregard for the law you are required to go beyond this particular act and comment on their wider actions, a move which drew the Council into condemning Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing campaign as a whole. I think many Conservatives, particularly the Leader of the Council and the portfolio holder responsible for our Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, were aware of this, and were at pains to point out they were not condemning the campaign (which they have to work with) as a whole. This move, of course, played to the Conservative ‘law and order’ card, so was bound to get support. But let’s not forget how important breaking the law has been for so many campaigners over the centuries, as a colleague of mine pointed out in the debate.

I fully accept that not everyone approves of their campaign tactics, but XR’s attempt to awaken us to the realities of climate change will be viewed by future generations with both gratitude and respect. Awakening us to these realities may well require a few lines being crossed (including legal ones) and a few feathers being ruffled. The bottom line here is these inconveniences will be nothing compared to those we will suffer if we do not take many of the actions XR is calling for, including armed conflict in pursuit of scarce resources and habitable locations to live.

There was though, perhaps, another reason for the motion being proposed. For a reason which I failed to understand at the time, there were vigorous calls for a recorded vote. This means that the minutes record not only the total number of votes cast in support, against, and those abstaining, but how each councillor actually voted. Why was this deemed necessary? It certainly was not because it was such a vital vote they wanted to be extra careful of mistakes. No, the only reasons I can think of is that certain councillors think it will be an advantage to be able to ‘accuse’ other councillors of supporting what they perceive as a law breaking political campaign. These councillors are probably ‘climate sceptics’, if not out and out anthropological climate change deniers, who see the changes that XR are demanding to be at best unnecessary, at worst part of some radical left-wing plot to bring down ‘the establishment’, and who want to be able paint certain other councillors with the same brush. If I’m correct, it looks as though politics may start to get a little livelier at Dorset Council!

Another strange week

Donald Trump invokes in me a heady cocktail of emotions. On the positive side he creates a strong sense of amusement; I find it hilarious that so many people in the US take this orange faced clown so seriously; I find it hilarious that he takes himself so seriously! Saying this also makes me sad. In all seriousness, this man has mental health issues for which he does not appear to be getting any support. A year or so ago I listened to a programme on Radio 4 in which a panel of psychologists analysed his behaviour. Their verdict? Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you look up the symptoms you will see that they fit him to a tee. Knowing this really helps to explain his behaviour, not least because he really does believe what he says: He must have won the election because he knows that most of the electorate admire him so much that they just would not have voted for Biden, so any result that appears to show the opposite must be fraudulent.

However, this sadness quickly gives way to anger when I realise just how much harm can occur when such a dangerous person is allowed to be in a position of so much power. I only hope than he leaves the White House quietly and that all his equally mad conspiracy believing, gun loving supporters do not try to interfere with the transition of power. If they do things could get really nasty. I have a growing fear that they will, and I really do not want to imagine what would happen if they did.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, things are not going too well for our ‘clown-in-charge’. We quickly seem to be entering that all too common state of British politics when the incumbent Prime Minister is just incapable of doing anything right; when everything they decide or announce falls apart as rapidly as changes in the weather. The decision to place 97% of England into either tier 2 or 3 has invoked the anger of some 70 Conservative MPs to such an extent that he may be forced to modify his proposals in order to get them approved by Parliament. And this was hot on the heels of him deciding to support the Home Secretary despite the widespread accusations of her bullying and the resignation of the top civil servant in charge of monitoring the ministers code of practice.

The problem that I have commenting on any of the government’s Covid decisions is that I am not an epidemiologist. In all honesty I am unable to say what I think the correct course of action should be, I simply do not know. But whatever the PM’s thinking is, he seems to be totally incapable of selling it, or even explaining it, to the vast majority of us. Put simply, he seems incapable of displaying leadership. This may seem to many like a bit of an old fashioned character trait, but I think the art of leadership is much undervalued. There will always be, there should always be, a multitude of opinions on any given situation, but in order for there to be effective action someone, the ‘person in charge’, needs to be able to evaluate them all, decide on a course of action, and then explain that course of action to everyone such that even if they disagree they are prepared to go along with it. However much the PM may aspire to be a second Churchill, he simply does not have these skills.

Having said all that, I warmly welcomed one element of the PM’s announcement on the new tier structure – that gyms and leisure centres would reopen, even in tier 3 areas. I would like to think that this was in part due to my lobbying of our MP the previous week, but I somehow doubt it. Nonetheless, I am pleased. I am pleased on behalf of Bridport Leisure Centre, a much needed community resource that we just can not afford to lose. I am pleased on behalf of all those people across the country that rely on gyms and leisure centres for their exercise. But, to be honest, I am most pleased for myself. I simply get so much out of my daily trips to the gym that daily life is just not the same without them.

Another highlight of the last week was the monthly (virtual) meeting the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group. This months topic, ‘Faith outside of religion’, attracted a good ‘turnout’ for a virtual meeting, but it’s really no substitute for the real thing. I am so looking forward to us being able to meet in person again, and in an actual pub! I know that I’ve said this many times before, but I really do value the ability of ordinary members of the community to meet up and discuss a serious subject in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and in a spirit of genuine enquiry. It’s an ability that I think many politicians could do with acquiring, and I think it a skill that should be taught in our schools.

The need for political leadership

The last week has again been dominated by the consultation on Dorset Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy and Action Plan. One of the recurring themes at the many online events that I’ve attended has been the need for as many residents as possible to be consulted, and, as a corollary, the need for there to be a bottom-up approach. This includes doing outreach, for example visiting residents in pubs and community centres, to canvas their views. Whilst such actions may achieve a great deal and be well worth doing in a very general sense, in regards to the CEE I’m not convinced – and for a number of reasons.

I fear that there may exist something similar to the 20/60/20 distribution phenomenon that I have heard used to describe, for many types of job, the ease at which people can convert to working from home. Basically 20% can do it easily, 60% can do it with some effort and adaptation, and 20% find it next to impossible. In terms of our CEE, I suspect that something like 20% of the population are fully onboard with the science together with the necessary social and economic changes, 60% accept the science (without fully understanding it) but feel very uncomfortable about the necessary changes, whilst 20% will find a reason for not accepting either the science or the necessary changes. It’s this 60% group that we need to engage with and get onboard. There are, though, a couple of phenomena described by the sociologist Anthony Giddens that make their engagement a challenge.

One is the following paradox: That if the “dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day to day life” most people will do nothing concrete to prevent those dangers becoming tangible, immediate, or visible. However, waiting until they are will be too late. This is related to an inherent human trait – future discounting. In evolutionary terms, we have only ever had need to deal with ‘in your face’ dangers, and the less immediate they are the less important they feel. The other, related phenomenon, is what Giddens terms ‘ontological security’; the “confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be, including the basic parameters of self and social identity.” What this means is that people quite naturally resist making changes to their social world, however necessary these changes may seem rationally, if they in anyway require changes their sense of self – of who they are and what they do. This just feels too uncomfortable. On the other hand, some people (many of those in the first 20%) actually acquire a positive sense of self identity through the adoption of the necessary life style changes.

Another reason why I am not convinced by a comprehensive public consultation on our CEE is that I really do not think that people are as rational as we would like to believe they are. For a really good explanation of this I recommend the reading of the first part of Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Just going out and talking to people will neither reveal a previously unexpressed support for the actions necessary to halt runaway climate and ecological disaster, nor will it be an opportunity to persuade people about these actions. The vast majority of us, if not all of us, are primarily moved by our emotions. These emotions drive us towards certain interests, areas of study, or campaigns that we want to be associated with. We then support our positions using reason and rational arguments. But these reasons are post hoc. To get others onboard we need to find ways of engaging them emotionally – as the advertising industry has been doing for years.

No, we just do not have the time for a bottom-up approach to our CEE. We need a top-down strategy. We need political leadership. In much the same way that national government introduced the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and a ban on smoking in public, we need the necessary legislation to radically cut our national carbon footprint and for the government to then ‘sell’ it to population…even if these actions make the government grossly unpopular in the short term. In the longer term people will be thankful and will wonder what all the fuss was about, they will wonder how we could ever have contemplated risking our future existence by not acting the way we did.

Not the best of weeks

It’s been a weird week. I was going to say it’s been a funny week, but apart from comments from some fanatic Trump supporters there’s not been much to laugh at. Our dog has become quite seriously ill, necessitating at one point an emergency appointment at a specialist vet neurology centre. I won’t go into details, but at the moment we still don’t know to what extent he will recover. But what has really struck me is the extent to which humans can become attached to dogs. He’s not my dog, he’s my partner’s, but I’ve grown really fond of him. And it’s heart breaking to see him ill – a shadow of his former playful self. I’m also fully aware that for some on the environmental wing of politics keeping dogs is not an approved practice. I understand all the arguments here, but…well, he’s a dog!

On the political field, preparing a response from the Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council to the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan public consultation has been my dominant occupation. And being as honest as I can, I found this far from easy. As I’ve said before, I find a constant tension between being an activist and campaigner, pushing for the outcomes I think necessary and being as critical as I can of anything that falls short, and being a pragmatic politician who recognises that in order to get anything done compromises will need to be made. So after re-reading all the paperwork and discussing the issues at an online meeting we have decided to be broadly supportive of the strategy and action plan. And in all honesty, we are full of praise for the work council officers have done to produce them. But we also feel that there needs to be greater emphasis in a number of key areas.

One of these areas is the need to not only engage the community, but to actively promote their participation in the delivery of the action plan. And, perhaps of even greater importance, to explain the benefits of the strategy – how it will improve their lives, health and wellbeing. This will involve councillors engaging with the communities they represent, the communities in which they are known and have some influence. But here’s the rub. I’m not convinced that all the councillors in Dorset are onboard. I already knew that there are one or two out and out ‘climate change deniers’ within the Tory ranks, but my fear is that there are also a significant number who, whilst accepting that man-made climate change is an issue, also think it’s by no means the most important issue. This was really brought home to me on Thursday afternoon at a councillors’ webinar on the consultation. The number of councillors attending these (roughly) weekly events varies, and I understand that a number have work commitments, but the number at this event was noticeably lower than usual. If a significant number of councillors are not ‘on board’, how are we going to fully engage the community?

I don’t usually comment on casework, mostly out of respect for the resident who has brought an issue to my attention, but this week will be an exception. A sign has appeared on at least one footpath entering the West Cliff estate, West Bay informing walkers that it’s a private estate and only residents have access. This sign appear at the point a signed public right of way enters the estate. Not surprisingly, this has angered a number of local walkers who regularly use the path, some who have done so for 20 years. Checking on a Council ‘rights of way’ map, however, has not made the situation clear. Whilst a bridleway enters and leaves the estate there appears to be a gap between the two sections, and indeed the path is shown to end in a cul-de-sac, and not connect to the bridleway. Further enquiries suggest that this situation results from a situation that occurred when the estate was built but which has never been resolved. My point in saying all this is that even if the management committee of this private estate has some degree of justification for their actions, why? Why stop walkers who have used the path for years? Why stop people enjoying healthy outdoor exercise? What is so precious about this estate that only residents can enter? It’s bad enough that land is owned privately in the first place, and whilst I’m not advocating people walking through other people’s gardens, why do some people want to not only own the roads but prevent other people from walking on them?

Reflections on the week past

On Monday evening, at the Town Council’s planning committee, we discussed the announcement from Dorset Council that they intend to standardise all car parking charges across the county. For Bridport this will mean that charges will be extended from 6pm to 8pm each evening, and will apply all day Sunday. This announcement was met with the very predictable outcry from residents and shop-keepers. It also posed a problem for me in as much that my personal response was sure to be at odds with the popular mood. In all honesty I really do not believe that people will stop shopping because of these changes. It will take much more than that to stop people shopping on a Sunday or driving into Town for an early evening meal.

At a briefing for Dorset councillors later in the week, in defending himself against the mood of the majority of councillors, the portfolio holder responsible implied that these changes are part of a wider strategy to reduce car use and increase the use of public transport, walking and cycling. If only this were true. The Climate Emergency motion that I submitted to Dorset Council last July called for just this. Unfortunately this motion was referred to a newly formed Executive Advisory Panel for consideration, and whilst the Strategy and Action Plan that has been produced as a result of the work of this Panel does contain actions linked to transport, none of these actions come close to forming a comprehensive strategy to reduce car use. Had such a strategy been produced I would have hoped that car parking charges would have been part of it, and if that was the case any changes would have been much easier to sell to residents and traders.

Wednesday evening saw the monthly meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group. Unfortunately, like so many other groups, we only met virtually. Whilst a Zoom discussion misses the atmosphere created by an actual pub meeting by quite some measure, it’s better than nothing and keeps the group ticking over until some degree of social normality returns. The more I think about it the more I become convinced of the value and need for community philosophy; the coming together of disparate members of the community to discuss difficult issues in sense of friendly inquiry. Hopefully such meetings help members develop their skills of critical thinking, their ability to ask good questions rather than simply stating what they consider to be the right answer. These are much needed skills that would benefit most of our public debates. If only the authors of reactionary comments on Bridport Banter could realise that in most cased there is no simple explanation of any issue, and no straightforward solution.

Anyway, rather tongue in cheek, and to mark the fact that we were only six days away the US presidential elections, Wednesday’s meeting discussed the question: If you, and you alone, could secretly press a button causing Donald Trump to drop dead from a heart attack, would you press the button, and should you? This question, posed by one of the group members, was well considered. The heart attack would avoid the potential consequences of an assignation (particularly from gun owning passionate Trump supporters) whilst the secrecy focuses on the tension between being a good person and being seen to be a good person. How would you respond if given this opportunity?

Anyway, how are you feeling at the moment? Yesterday I was introduced to an emotion that was first described by the ancient Greeks, was referred to throughout monastic and other literature of the middle ages, and despite being hardly mentioned today seems to perfectly capture what most of us are feeling at the moment – acedia. Jonathon L Zecher (The Conversation, 27.08.20) describes this emotion as “a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate.” Sound familiar? Apparently this emotion was closely linked to the spatial and social restrictions associated with a solitary monastic life. Not with being a member of a monastic community, note, but with a solitary lifestyle. Depending on what level of restriction your part of the country is under and how closely you follow ‘the rules’, life under Covid is imposing both spatial and social restrictions on us – restrictions which I fear will have a negative impact on our mental health.

Contemplating local democracy

My attendance at a particular Dorset Council meeting last week set me thinking about local democracy. The meeting was considering the forthcoming public consultation on our Climate and Ecological Emergency draft Strategy and Action Plan; it was a meeting that I sat through in relative silence and, to be honest, with too little interest. By the end of the meeting my lack of interest (in the consultation, not the strategy and action plan) was disturbing me. It was not that I was against a consultation, just that for some reason I was indifferent to the fine details of it. Why? This is something that I’m still pondering.

One factor is that there’s a generally held scepticism, one held by many of the people I have discussed these consultations with in the past, that basically says: “What’s the point? The questions are designed to give the answers they want, and they will go ahead with what they want to do anyway.” This is certainly a view that I’ve held in the past. But is it fair? Well apparently there is such a thing as the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation, a piece of Common Law, that suggests it is. This essentially says that “where people have come to expect a process of consultation, for example for local authority budget cuts or healthcare changes, there are grounds for a judicial review should a public consultation not take place because there is a legitimate expectation for it.” In other words, it could be seen simply as a device to prevent a judicial review. However, this piece of common law also requires that the consultation be conducted properly and the process be a fair one. And in defence of this particular consultation there was, at the above meeting, a great deal of discussion about ensuring fairness.

But leaving the legal aspect to one side there are still problems. One is the very limited number of people who respond. Off the top of my head I cannot remember the number of responses needed to make it ‘a good response’, but I think it was in the high single thousands. Out of a total population of something over 400,000 this is a small sample, and can hardly be taken as a representative view of Dorset residents. Another is that the vast majority of residents will have a very limited understanding of the issues involved. This is not meant as a criticism. The proposals being consulted upon have usually been put together by professional council officers with a degree of expertise in the subject area, under the guidance and scrutiny of councillors with an interest in the subject area. All the consultees have available is the summary explanation that accompanies the consultation. Is this sufficient?

One way to resolve this lack of understanding would be through the use of citizens’ assemblies. The idea here is that a number of citizens / residents are chosen (in a similar way, perhaps, to jury service) to make key decisions. Their important feature, however, is that prior to any decision the ‘jurors’ have all the issues properly explained to them by experts – they have the opportunity to ask questions of the experts and to debate key points. This, it is claimed, will make the whole process of public decision making much more democratic. I’m in two minds about this, but I would certainly like to try it out.

Such a move towards citizens’ assemblies would be a move towards a different type of democracy, towards a participative democracy rather than the current representative democracy. Which would best serve the residents of Dorset? This is far from an easy question to answer, and to a large measure requires us to agree what these ‘best interests are’. It is also one that is in part determined by our background politics, with views ranging from promoting individual freedom and wealth creation to the provision of public services and community wellbeing. Personally I think I prefer representative democracies, democracies where people are elected not to represent the views of their ward members (this would be impossible) but, having made their general views clear, to make decisions on their behalf and then to be judged on how well they did at the next election. But would, or should this include consulting residents along the way? Bearing in mind just how difficult it can be to make any consultation meaningful, would it not be better to allow our elected councillors to demonstrate some political leadership and then answer for those decisions at the ballot box? The more I think about this, the more I think that political leadership is in short supply at the moment.