Monday, September 07, 2009

Lawyers win when common sense loses

Writing the comment column of a newspaper can be difficult, but sometimes it's easy! Below is the first draft of the comment I put together for tomorrow's paper where I rail against the lunacy that has settled on the rural village of Breedon on the Hill. I do think that the situation we find ourselves in literally beggars belief.

It's difficult to see how anybody spending their own money could possibly take the stance being taken by either side in the argument, but, as we see so often, when you're spending somebody else's cash, it is easy to let bravado take the lead. Each side blames the other and both claim to be acting in a reasonable manner - they're both to blame and neither is acting reasonably.

However, I do wonder how quickly it would be sorted out if the two sides sat down in a room with no lawyers or mediators present!
"Sometimes decisions involving public money beggar belief. The Mercury's recent revelation that the Curve theatre in Leicester cost many millions more than had been expected was bad enough. At least at the end of the overspend the city has a theatre, an asset which undoubtedly adds to the cultural ethos of the city.

But the ludicrous argument over the use of a school hall in Breedon on the Hill could end up costing taxpayers more than £6-million just to get to where we started! The two sides in the argument have become so entrenched in their positions that all common sense seems to have disappeared out of the window. It seems a fairly straightforward issue: the villagers paid towards the cost of building a school hall 50 years ago on condition that they would be able to use it, now the council wants to change the way it is used.

The council claims the use of the hall by villagers is 'impairing' the running of the school and raises child safety issues. It offered the villagers £92,000 towards the cost of a new hall if they agreed to leave, but the villagers said no.

And then things got out of hand. The villagers took the council to court and the case was due to have been heard this month. The council's legal bill was expected to be in the region of £567,000, the campaigners' £3.2-million. That's right: almost £4-million to argue in court over a village hall that could be rebuilt for a fraction of that amount.

Now the court case has been delayed by six months and, according to the county council's legal department, the costs could now go up another £2.4-million to almost £6.2-million. Of course, the costs would only be paid by taxpayers if the council lost. The villagers have some form of no-win no-fee arrangement with their legal team.

But that's not the point. The whole exercise is a ludicrous waste of time and money. The two sides need to have their heads knocked together and then they need to step away from each other and reach agreement. The council should not be gambling with taxpayers money in this way. It should make a reasonable offer to build a new community hall and the villagers should accept it and that should be the end of the matter.

Millions have already been frittered away on this ridiculous stand-off, but it would still cost less to build new hall than to continue with the case. The politicians need to step in and sort it out - clearly the only winners at the moment are the lawyers."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Learning an Italian lesson

Travelling in Italy last month I was struck by the state of their roads which contrast markedly with the condition of those in Britain as a whole and LeicesterShire in particular.

The Italians seem quite happy to let even the most major highways fall into serious disrepair with most carriageways pitted and potholed far worse than anything we ever experience here. In lots of ways it's not a great driving experience - it's noisy and uncomfortable - and, I guess like most foreign drivers arriving in Italy, my first reaction was to curse the authorities. Actually that wasn't my first reaction: my first reaction was to slow down. You don't have much choice. Add the state of the roads to the fact that Italian motorways have much sharper bends than their British counterparts, and you cannot feel safe driving quickly. I'm sure there are lots of benefits to driving more slowly, the most obvious being the opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery through Tuscany and Umbria.

However, once I'd got over the initial shock and was more used to slower speeds, it made me wonder why we are so obsessed with potholes in this country. Every year, the Mercury runs stories about residents complaining about the state of the road where they live, councils run hotlines to allow potholes to be reported and, if memory serves me right, Leicestershire County Council proudly attempts to fix all potholes within 24 hours of them appearing. The city council, which is much slower to react to the complaints, finds itself under pressure and at least once in the past 12 months has had to find extra cash to resurface affected roads.

But why? What is the real problem with potholes? Wouldn't the cash be better spent elsewhere? There's no doubt that we spend many millions of pounds in Britain keeping our roads looking like Grand Prix tracks - why doesn't the council simply say: No. I know we'd all be up in arms at first, but isn't there an argument to be made? Wouldn't we get used to it? The Italians appear to have accepted it.

I don't suppose it will be long before the health and safety experts point out that potholes cause accidents (do they?), but wouldn't this be offset by the reduction in speed? Isn't this similar to the argument about allowing parking on narrow streets - there are those who say it makes the road dangerous, but it also slows down traffic, presumably making the streets safer. What ever happened to that experiment where a city (in Germany?) took away all street markings as they felt it would make drivers and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings and, therefore, contrary to popular belief, make the roads safer? Wasn't it the Scandinavians who started to make children's playgrounds a little less safe on the grounds that it taught children to be more alert and careful ... and, therefore, more safe?

I'm sure this argument has now deteriorated into a ramble - probably full of potholes and proving the point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - but is there a discussion to be had on deliberately allowing our roads to fall into disrepair?

And one of the things that I noticed that the Italians did seem to spend a lot of money on was preserving the character of their towns and cities. It was clear that lots of money had been spent on restoring and converting for modern use the ancient buildings of Todi, Assisi, Perugia, Rome, Siena, Venice et al.

I guess when it comes down to it, it's simply a matter of priorities. And we choose to spend our money on potholes.