A little respect

Raiders tournament, June 2017

Berkhamsted Raiders tournament, June 2017

A couple of weekends ago I spent an entire Sunday sitting in a field watching my two young boys competing in the Berkhamsted Raiders football tournament which traditionally marks the end of our season. Raiders is a great club to be a part of — we have won FA and European recognition for the club, and particularly how it is run in the spirit of respect and fair play.

If you turn up at a match at our club you will always find someone has put up a ‘respect barrier’ rope along one of the lengths of the pitch, the idea being that the supporters from both teams stand behind this to watch the match. This gives the players, coaches and referee a bit of distance — a brilliant idea, particularly when the match is getting heated and temperatures are running high. It’s always the job of the home team to get the respect barrier up before the game. If the person putting it up has managed to untangle the rope and get the support poles into the frozen ground, an aerial view of it would look like this:

Typically when the supporters turn up they cluster at each end with people that they know. Here they are, eight supporters of each team closely watching the ball which is dangerously close to the goal on the left:

The problem with this setup, especially when the ball is close to the line near the respect barrier, is that not everyone can see. If the action is directly in front of you it’s fine but if you are at the other end of the pitch or even a few people deep, the angle to the ball means it becomes very hard to maintain a clear line of sight. Everyone is straining to see which only makes the situation worse:

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a solution to this problem! I’d love to take credit for it but it has to go to a fellow parent from another Raiders team who suggested it to me. Instead of having the respect barrier completely parallel to the length of the pitch, it can be configured in a ‘V’ shape as shown below:

Assuming that people don’t push so far forward that they strain or break the respect barrier (showing very little respect in the process), everyone at the front should then have a reasonable chance of seeing the action wherever it is on the pitch. Occasionally this can be difficult to do where one pitch sits alongside another one, however the ‘V’ doesn’t have to be very deep in order to have a massive impact on visibility:

Hopefully, armed with this knowledge we’ll be able to go into next season being able see even more on-pitch action than before. Well, at least at our home games.

Democracy theatre

I’m not sure where to begin. On Monday night I attended a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council as a member of the public. They were due to discuss the planning application for an eight-storey car park in the centre of our town and I wanted to be there, to see the process for myself and raise my concerns. The council had given people a week in December last year to formally review and comment on the proposal and this had passed me by in the pre-Christmas rush.

In case you aren’t aware of the proposed multi-storey car park (MSCP)—and I think a lot of people aren’t—here are a impressions by an urban designer of what it will look like:

There were about 25 members of the public at the meeting, seated around the outside of the room. The town councillors sat in the middle around a table. We were each given a programme of business and asked whether we wanted to speak at the appropriate time. When I turned up I had no intention of talking but while waiting for the meeting to begin and reflecting on what was happening I raised my hand and said that I too would like to speak. I had little idea of what I was going to say.

First up was a planning application for 19 flats on a site by an existing residential area near Bank Mill. It turned out that a large number of people had come to the meeting specifically to raise concerns about this. The proceedings were suspended to allow people to speak, two local residents read their written speeches and the council thanked them. The application was quickly dismissed with the council members citing the numerous policy violations that the development would make. “This is great!” I thought. “The council seem to know exactly what they are talking about and are clear on the policies.” From the extensive work that people had done looking into the numerous policies that the MSCP would conflict with—including Dacorum Borough Council’s own transport and parking policies—I knew that the objections stood up and hoped that the council would be just as diligent in dismissing the application on similar grounds.

Dacorum Borough Council have spent over £350k on putting the application together. Despite spending all of this money, the application is deeply flawed. By deeply, I don’t just mean that there is some controversy over the technical details of impact to traffic flow and air quality (although there is that too!), I mean that it has basic issues such as saying that no trees will be impacted where in fact there are many across the whole of the site and multiple conflicting messages about what the core purpose of the car park is. Many people have written to DBC, Berkhamsted Town Council or commented on the proposal with their objections based on these issues and many are more eloquent or detailed than me.

Everyone agrees that parking in Berkhamsted is a total pain. So much so that there is a local parking forum that meets to discuss the issues. Anecdotally, you only need to drive down Lower King’s Road on a Saturday to experience the cars queuing back from the entrance to Waitrose onto the road itself. However, the ‘solution’ of a MSCP is short-sighted—even the representative of the parking forum said so at the meeting! We are very fortunate to have an independent traffic consultant in the town as well as a number of volunteers who contributed to an independent traffic survey. From the data they collected and the professional model that they used it is clear that there would be additional traffic in the area as well as significant pollution.

Here’s the thing for me—I don’t see how the MSCP will be good for the town whether it is full or not. If it is a ‘success’ and gets filled up with cars as is intended then we will have the added pollution and traffic—the main junction at the high street and Lower King’s Road will both become more of a nightmare than they are today. If it is unsuccessful and people don’t use it then we have spent £3.5m of public money on something that will have changed the character of our town centre for a very long time, with no payback.

Five members of the public spoke against the car park, including me, one after the other. Numerous policy violations were cited as well as yet another recent survey where local residents object to it. The representative of the town’s parking forum expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement from the Council. One final person then spoke in support of it. I learned later that this was Julie Laws, an ex-town councillor and former Mayor of Berkhamsted, who had been significantly involved in putting the original proposal together and was at the DBC Cabinet meeting where this was approved and the money allocated. She asked the room not to listen to the negative voices as they “always speak the loudest.”

Proceedings reconvened and I assumed it was an open and shut case. To my dismay, the councillors then started to give their own speeches in support of the work. First up was Tom Richie, our current Mayor. Incidentally, Mayor Ritchie is also an elected official of Dacorum Borough Council and sits on their Development Control Committee. DBC are the applicants in the planning process and are also have the final say in terms of whether it should be approved. So, Mayor Richie played a part in submitting it, was speaking (and had a vote) in supporting it at the Town Council level and will then assess it when it goes through DBC. Not only was this not declared at the start of the meeting when conflicts of interest were requested, it seems perfectly normal to everyone that this is the way of things! In my role as Chair of Governors at a local primary school I am often thinking about the seven principles of public life that came out of the Nolan report and making sure I ask myself how my actions look; at the very least, this participation as submitter and adjudicator seems to be at odds with the spirit of the principles, if not the letter of them. It feels like democracy theatre. Mayor Ritchie acknowledged that the application was flawed but effectively said that we should not turn down this opportunity to have £3.5m invested in Berkhamsted as the opportunity would not come around again—and we wouldn’t get the money for anything else if we turned it down.

Ian Reay, another former mayor, then spoke. His words reflected that of the Mayor in that we should be taking this forward. He said that we should approve it ‘with concerns’ and try to engage Dacorum Borough Council on the issues. I am not sure what this means in practice.

Councillor Garrick Stevens sat through this, shaking his head at what he was hearing—as did a large number of the public attendees, including people who had come along for the Bank Mill application. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Councillor Stevens made an impassioned plea to his fellow councillors not to approve this due to all of the factors that have been highlighted, however two more councillors spoke in support of the application.

The chair, Julian Ashbourn, then proposed that the Committee vote on the proposal. He offered a choice of rejecting it outright or approving it ‘with strong concerns’. Only one person, Councillor Stevens, voted against it. Everyone around the room was confused as to what this meant and Councillor Stevens himself had to ask for clarification as to what they had all just agreed on. Is ‘approved with strong concerns’ appropriate for a planning application of this magnitude? Councillor Stevens finished by saying “Right. You’ve sold yourselves down the river,” and this is exactly how we felt.

Where can we go from here? I get the impression that the majority of the councillors are keen to do something rather than the thing that is best for Berkhamsted. I do not see why there is such a rush to get this through. For example, could we test the impact of a temporary two-storey structure such as the one that was erected at the train station? These can be hired (for a lot less than £3.5m I assume) and would surely give a good insight into what would happen with an additional six storeys?

The Conservative councillors had the car park in their manifesto and I assume that they feel they are delivering on what they have promised, leaving a legacy for all of us. Many of us believe that we should be pressing pause and thinking again, but no matter how loudly we speak or clear our arguments, it doesn’t seem that we are being heard.

Barriers, forms and looking after your customers

I pay London Midland nearly £4,500 for my annual season ticket. On Monday morning after arriving in London, bleary-eyed and limping along from my weekend's cycling, I discovered that I had left my ticket in the wrong wallet. Due to Berkhamsted station not having any ticket barriers and my train rolling up to a platform at Euston that was also devoid of ticket readers I only realised my predicament when I descended to the tube for leg two of my commute. Tube journeys aren't that expensive if you use a contactless card so I just sighed at my dozyness, resigned myself to having to pay for a couple of tube trips, waved my credit card at the yellow reader and figured I'd deal with it when I got back to Euston.

On the way home I was in a rush to catch my train in order to get to a school governors' meeting. There is always an attendant at the barriers at Euston and I thought that just perhaps there would be a chance that I would be able to let him or her know what had happened and he would wave me through. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I have discovered that the process you have to go through is as follows:

  1. Get directed to the customer service window, usually staffed by only one person with a queue of people in front of it. On this occasion it meant that I missed my train.
  2. Explain your predicament to the customer service agent.
  3. Buy a ticket home (£14.40 off-peak from Euston to Berkhamsted!)
  4. Start your journey but remember not to put your ticket in any barrier at your destination as you need to hold onto it.
  5. At a later point, when you have your season ticket with you—probably in peak hours if this is when you usually travel—speak to another customer service agent and get a pink 1970s-style (actually revised in 1996!) carbon-copy form to fill out with your details. These details include your full credit card number and expiry date for all to see.
  6. Hand the form over along with the ticket to be refunded, your season ticket, your photocard and wait about ten minutes for the form to be added to and stamped.
  7. Be given the carbon copy of the form (see below) and be told that “they will call you if there are any questions, otherwise the money will be refunded in about ten days or so.”

At first it seemed bizarre to me that a company would treat its season-ticket buying customers like this, making them jump through hoops when there is a simple error. Then it dawned on me that there is probably no incentive to change—the process is such a pain that there is automatically a barrier to people pursuing refunds, resulting in more money for the company. They also have a monopoly—there is no other way of going from Berkhamsted to Euston on the train—and so it isn't that I can go to another train operator that makes a point of having better customer service than their peers.

To give the firm a little credit, they have made some things easier over recent times such as giving us the ability to log a 'Delay Repay' claim using their iPhone app. Perhaps this could be the next area to look at. I know that the company couldn't replace the outdated paper ticket system on their own, but having something on my phone that proves I am a gold-card holder would make life much easier.

 

What do you do when you spot another blogger?

On the train home from work today I looked up from my iPod and did a double-take – right in front of me was a fellow Berkhamsted blogger (if I can still call myself that, given my lack of recent posts) whom I recognised from his numerous Flickr photos. My first thought was to say hello and introduce myself, but I quickly realised how wierd this would be! I really had nothing to talk about other than the fact that we had both uploaded various photos to the Berkhamsted Flickr group and he had made me an admin many months back. It’s a strange feeling, thinking that it isn’t the first time that you have met someone and wanting to say “hi” but actually having nothing more of any real interest to say.

This happened to me before when I spotted the Station Master (of the now defunct Station Master’s Weblog fame) at one of the tube stations that I use on my commute – again, I thought of saying “hi” but had nothing to really talk about other than the fact that I read his blog. Not many avenues of conversation there.

Nobody wants to come across as a stalker!

Morgan Freeman in The Seven Samurai (well, almost…)

We went to see the Sunday matinee of The Seven Samurai at The Rex last weekend. I’ve wanted to see the film for ages and it was great that a chance came up at our lovely cinema. I wasn’t disappointed – for a Japanese film made in the 1950s it was surprisingly accessible and I could see exactly why it was remade as a western.

I couldn’t help feeling that I had seen the actor playing the main samurai somewhere before. Towards the end of the film it hit me – he was the spitting image of Morgan Freeman. A little digging turfed up this picture of Takashi Shimura – take a look for yourself to see what I mean. I think it was that he was doing so much of the ‘staring in disbelief and not daring to speak’ type-poses that really did it for me. I thought it was really cool that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection – see this review at the Internet Movie Database.

Great film, great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Badgers!

Badger footprints!Ever since we had our lawn relaid somebody or something has been busy beavering away in the dead of night digging holes. The damage wasn’t too bad at first, but recently a massive chunk of lawn was uprooted and we’ve had to completely reseed it. Still we didn’t know exactly what was causing the problem.

I found out on Tuesday. Arriving home very late from work, I felt that something was snuffling and rustling around on a neighbour’s drive. I had a look but I couldn’t see anything. The same sound seemed to be even louder in our back garden. I unlocked the door, popped my bag inside and grabbed the torch. Wandering up a big dark garden in the night isn’t a bag of laughs and I could feel every hair standing on end as I tried to locate what was making the noise. Suddenly I saw the unmistakable stripy head of a badger looking at me as it scrabbled through the gap between our fence and the shed. I legged it – I’ve read that badgers can be nasty creatures when they feel like it and I didn’t want to get into a fight. The badger made it through the gap, saw me and then sped off up the garden at a billion miles an hour. It was awesome.

Although they’re a pain for the lawn, they really are very very cool. Don’t ask me why, but they are. Now that it’s suddenly got a little frosty they’ve been leaving tracks all over our garden and I managed to grab a shot of some guilty-looking paw prints from our garden step. Can’t wait to see our little visitors again.

The Moon

The moonI just looked out of the window and saw that tonight we have a big fat moon over Berkhamsted! I managed to capture it using my wife’s camera just before it started to come up too high in the sky and shrink.