Saturday, 29 June 2013

Shale Gas World Conference

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to the Shale Gas World conference in Manchester earlier this week.  The conference brought together business and industry with representatives from environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace.  There were also two or three politicians.

I was given the opportunity to ask questions.  I also led a discussion about community engagement and expectations.

My presentation to the conference pointed out that communities such as Frodsham were ideally placed to be supportive of industry generally.  After all in and around the Mersey Estuary we have some of the most important and strategic plant in the petro-chemical industry.  We are used to living with it.  But the non-negotiable starting point has to be - that any gas extraction could be done safely and without harm to the local community, people or the environment.  This has to be the non-negotiable starting point.

However I went on to point out that over many years the links between local industry and local communities has lessened.  Whilst perhaps this was inevitable with the decline of mass-employment industries and an increase in specialisation and commuting it has led to a disconnect between industry and local residents.  Ironically now, in a very much more connected world local industry and local communities really need each other to be mutually supportive.

I made the case for industry to become much more connected with the local populace.  Real corporate social responsibility in my view goes beyond providing the occasional Christmas Tree or providing modest sums to local schools.  Whilst those things are welcome what I think we need is industry that wants to become part of the community - that makes real contributions to the wellbeing of an area. I want to see our local industry adopt us as a local community - cherish us in terms of our environment, our education, our work prospects, in fact all aspects of our society.

I made the case for industry getting much more involved in education for some very sensible practicable reasons.  First all of us want the best education we can have for our children.   Why not make use of all the talent in industry on our doorstep to really make education at our local schools very special.  Turning our children on to science and technology is good for them, for our country and our communities - it also provides the highly educated workforce our businesses and industries will need for the future.

I also pointed out, not only to industry but also to regulators like the Environment Agency that there is much more to community engagement than talking to '5 councillors in a room' - they are not the community!  Our regulators need, in my view to do much, much more about making the case that their regulatory work is honest, transparent and fit for purpose. Frankly there isn't much point to any regulator if they don't communicate their own work effectively to the people they are charged most to protect.

I expressly invited the EA to come to FTC and explain what they do to us - we've never seen them in the guise of explaining their role as 'regulator in chief' around here.

And finally I contrasted the behaviour of some of local industry.  Whilst I have not been nor am I Peel's greatest fan I did praise and thank them for providing funds and support to establish an independent local Air Quality Forum .  The forum commissioned and has received advice from an independent academic.  Incidentally we expect Professor Laxon's final report in July.  Other local industries, notably Ineos were invited to contribute to the costs of this independent panel.  They refused.  So I told the conference that too!  Interestingly it would appear that most of the industry gets the idea that locals are suspicious of them and that the best way to earn trust is to have genuinely independent experts advising the community directly.

Meeting the Lord Chancellor

The Lord Chancellor - otherwise known as the Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling MP came to Castle Park on Friday to discuss with local solicitors his proposed reforms primarily directed to saving around 12% of the costs of the Justice system.

As you may know I am a solicitor.  Neither my personal practice, not that of my business any legal aid work - as such I am not directly affected by the proposed reforms although I do have views about the proposed changes.

I listened to the debate intently.  Several things impressed me.  First, whatever your views on the legal aid reforms Chris Grayling is very much on-top of his brief.  He struck me as someone who, with his department had seriously considered what was necessary to save significant sums of money and, where appropriate raise revenue streams.  He is conducting a root and branch review of all aspects of his department's expenditures, from the criminal and civil courts, from prisons to probation and to legal aid.

Second he seemed genuinely interested in having a proper debate.  He said he was in 'listening mode' and he spent most of the time with us listening to the views of solicitors, a barrister and a district judge.

He did listen, he debated and encouraged each lawyer present to make representations to him directly.

My legal colleagues raised serious concerns about reforms to civil and criminal legal aid and the knock on effects both on justice and the administration of justice.  Reforms to family law and family law representation were also raised.

I had a private chat with him later that day - I raised a number of issues with him - and I have been invited to correspond directly with him.  My concern is to ensure that solicitor's rights of audience which we have had since the 1970s to appear in the Crown Court on disposal (ie sentencing) hearings should be preserved.  The removal of this right increases costs and bureaucracy for a private paying defendant without necessarily improving the quality of representation.  Why hire a second lawyer - a barrister - when it isn't needed?

The representations made at such hearings are solely in front of a judge - and can, in my view, often be done very effectively by a specialist solicitor.  I have done it for years!

I have to say it was really impressive to have the Lord Chancellor come to Castle Park and spend time with us in a real debate.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Who watches the watchers?

So the continuing scandal of Furness General Maternity Services and the ineptitude and cover-up at regulator CQC rolls on.

Today has been a tumultuous day.

First, CQC refused to name the 9 officials citing Data Protection Act as the reason why.  Then the government leant on them.  The Data Commissioner weighed in confirming that, in his view there it would be ok to name the officials if there was an overwhelming public interest.  We've also had a former Director of Public Prosecutions indicating that, in his view, those implicated in the cover-up could be investigated for misconduct in public office.

In media calls this morning those speaking for CQC were at pains to point out that many from the former management team had left - and, crucially had not been paid off.  That interesting line did hint that it was the former management team that was responsible.

Given all this pressure, and we are told, revised legal advice CQC's new management team then decided to publish the names.

Surprise, surprise they key people named on all came from the former senior management at CQC.  They have included Cynthia Bower, the former Chief Executive, her deputy Jill Finney and media manager Anna Jefferson.

At 10:30 tonight via BBC regional news we learnt that Jill Finney who had moved on from CQC has now lost her job at her present employer directly as a consequence of the scandal breaking today.

Whilst it must be right that those in positions of power and responsibility should be held accountable just pause and reflect and ponder whether in fact this is a day to celebrate or not.

I am no great fan of regulators - even though my day job puts me in contact with many of them.  This is because all too often they go about their business with arrogance and ineptitude and lack the humility to accept their mistakes.  There are some notable exceptions - but they are all too rare.

If the 'naming and shaming' leads to a change of culture at CQC and other regulators then today has been a good day.  I very much welcomed David Beehan's (CQC's present Chief Executive) comments today to the effect that he didn't want to be part of any organisation that did not uphold the highest standards of public conduct.  I wish him well in turning things around.

But will the naming and shaming lead to regulators being less flexible.  I fear it will make those running our regulators more likely to adopt less courageous positions - perhaps lots more 'bottom covering?'  This is potentially as serious as regulators that can't be trusted to the right thing - which I see as imperilling the rule of law.

And finally - we must always remember that the real scandal was the needless death of babies and mothers at a hospital - and the management and the care provided there.  That scandal is in the hands of the police.  We mustn't lose sight of these needless deaths with our fascination at a regulator on the wrack.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The madness of regulators, the delusion of politicians and some downright disgusting behaviour

I've just come back from a cycle ride on the Marshes.  The magnificent vista, Elgar on the iPod and the sheer effort of cycling got me thinking.

Our regulators are mad, many of our politicians are deluded (I leave it up to you to consider whether I'm amongst the deluded) and some people behave abominably.

This week, as a solicitor, I've been dealing with the 'madness of regulators.'  One example will almost certainly spawn a book in the fulness of time - but as one HSE inspector said to me it will end up on the fiction shelves as no-one will believe what happened!  However another example shows the stupidity of over-regulation.

I've a client who has been asked to apply for a bespoke environmental permit (at some significant cost) for activities, which if done singly would be exempt from licensing.  They recycle waste.  They recycle the 'restaurant sized' buckets that contained mayonnaise or other gloopy foods and produced shredded plastic chips which are then reprocessed into other plastic items.  If they washed out the buckets by themselves, if they shredded the clean buckets separately they would not need a permit.  Seemingly doing the two operations together needs a permit.  Madness, maddening and ridiculously costly.

I was reminded of this as a cycled along the marshes - marvelling at the estuary, the birds, the wetlands etc and fuming at the fly tipping.  Surely the Environment Agency and local authorities should be devoting more resources to this environmental crime rather than to a business which is acting in an environmentally responsible way?  But then who sets the priorities for the EA, who approves the laws and the regulations for them - why the politicians of course.

But then if only people behaved responsibly we wouldn't inspire our politicians into trying to regulate problems away.  I'm usually not overtly political in my blogs but I really do single out one T Blair for the delusional approach that we are still trying to undo.  Most problems simply can't be regulated away. You need to ensure, in my humble opinion, that you work with the grain of human goodness and behaviour.  But is that always possible?

One of my neighbours came to me this morning holding a full doggy 'poo-bag' that had been thoughtfully discarded in her hedge.  She told me that this was about the fifth offending bag she had had to deal with.  She took me for a walk and showed me other poo-bags thoughtfully discarded in other hedges.  She told me that she had reported the matter to the police - who told her it was a matter for the local authority.  Actually it is a matter for both the police, the local authority and society as a whole.

So what is it that makes someone pick up the dog mess, place it in a suitable bag, tie a knot at the top and then decide it is appropriate to deposit the bag in someone's hedge?  How do you educate someone like this to take their dog-waste home, or deposit it in a suitable litter bin.  How much effort should we put in to catching and 're-educating' this person or person's unknown?

Personally I'm not into wasting resources on DNA fingerprinting the entire local population (including the dogs) to find out who is responsible - but I would happily see photographs of the culprit being circulated locally.  You don't need regulation or regulators for this just a webcam or two...

Power to the people!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Latest update on the Swing Bridge


The £4.5 million restoration of Sutton Weaver Swing Bridge in Frodsham begins on 24 June.

That is when engineers will start building the temporary bridge which will take traffic from early September, allowing the refurbishment of the 1924 structure to go ahead.

Cheshire West and Chester Council is contributing £3.5 million and the Canal and River Trust £1 million for the work which includes maintaining the bridge’s current carrying capacity of 40 tonnes.

A full replacement of the bridge deck and pedestrian walkways will be carried out, as well as a repaint to restore its appearance and to protect the bridge fabric.

The work will be completed by autumn 2014 and this will increase the life expectancy by a minimum of 50 years. The bridge is crucial to the 20,000 vehicles that use the bridge each day.

Later this month foundations for the temporary bridge will be laid and road alignment work undertaken.

Executive Member for Community and Environment, and also Frodsham Councillor Lynn Riley said: “There are now only weeks to go before work begins on this long-awaited scheme which will be a tremendous relief for local people.

““For the first two months preparatory work will be undertaken for the temporary bridge which will be built in pieces across the river. It is hoped it will be in use early September.”

Fellow Frodsham Councillor Andrew Dawson said: “Once the temporary bridge is in place there will be a diversion route. Careful planning has been carried out to try to keep disruption for bridge users as minimal as possible.

“It is most likely that the refurbished bridge will be repainted black and white.” 

Added Kingsley Councillor Ralph Oultram, whose ward includes Sutton Weaver: “This project is very important for local people and businesses, and the aim of the diversion route, once in place, is to minimise the impact as much as possible.
“During the building of the temporary bridge there may be temporary lights at times for safety reasons. If required, the traffic restrictions will take place at off-peak times.”

Andy Johnson, Project Manager for the Canal & River Trust said: “We’re delighted to be starting this work. The project will mean that the 90-year old bridge is restored to its former glory and remains safe for the thousands of vehicles who use this vital bridge everyday.”

When the temporary bridge is in place, traffic from Frodsham will not be able to make a right turn on Clifton Road. Traffic will follow a short diversion around Clifton Roundabout before coming back along Clifton Road to join Chester Road.

Whilst the navigation will remain open throughout the works, from mid July until late summer 2014, it will not be possible to swing either the temporary or the existing bridge. Consequently waterborne craft with an air draft exceeding 2.2m will not be able to pass beneath either of the bridges.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Significant shale gas resources - near here!

It is not every day a journalist from the FT contacts me and asks for my opinion.  Well its happened today on the back of the announcement from IGas that it has found significant quantities of shale gas 'in our back yard.'

If you are interested in learning more about the announcement I suggest you search both the BBC website - and have a look at IGas's site too.  You may find this presentation interesting as well 

IGas is one of the companies granted a licence by the government to explore those parts of the country believed to contain large resources of shale gas.  One of the company's licences cover an area of 300 sq miles across northern Cheshire.  One of their centres of activity is at Ince marshes.
IGas had previously announced that it had about nine trillion cubic feet of shale gas. It now estimates that the volume of "gas initially in place" could range from 15.1 trillion cubic feet to 172.3 trillion cubic feet, the higher figure being nearly 20 times higher than the previous estimate.
According to the BBC the UK's annual gas consumption is currently about 3 trillion cubic feet.
Andrew Austin IGas's Chief Executive is reported as saying "Our estimates for our area alone could mean that the UK would not have to import gas for a period of 10 to 15 years.  The licences have a very significant shale gas resource with the potential to transform the company and materially benefit the communities in which we operate."
So what is my view on all this:
Well ...
If the extraction can be done safely and without polluting the environment, or harming ground waters, if it can be done without causing earthquakes then it makes sense that the resources are extracted and used.   I can't think of a better place to come and invest than this part of Cheshire.  We are a well connected, highly educated and skilled community that actively encourages business and innovation that chimes with us and respects us.
I would expect IGas and any of their partner organisations to become fully engaged with the local community at an early stage to explain their proposals and how they will protect our precious environment whilst carrying out their work.  I would hope that IGas would approach us from the standpoint of setting out to be good neighbours and a good local employer.  I will be looking for them to communicate with us pro-actively and transparently and learn from the mistakes made by others who weren't so accommodating - at least to begin with in one case!
We can be very proud in this part of Cheshire of the leading role that we have played and are playing in manufacturing and especially in the Petro-Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries.  We are used to mining in this part of the world too and know how to manage its effects so all in all this could be a good fit.  I hope this is simply the next stage in north Cheshire's development.  However before we all get carried away - I will want to be assured that the shale gas extraction can be undertaken safely and with respect for us and our precious environment. I will also want to be assured that IGas will be a good neighbour to us.