August 2006 Archives

Road closed (small) (1.8.05) 001.jpg The debate about whether there should be a toll on the M62 between Liverpool and Manchester must not be hijacked by the pro-car lobby. There are plenty of reasons to treat the idea of motorway charging cautiously, but fundamental questions around sustainabilty of both the environment and the local economy are the real issues which must be addressed, and soon.

Sometimes car drivers just don't get it.

There's a new proposal from the Northern Way people that the M62 between Liverpool and Manchester become a toll road. This is to control traffic flow because already there's gridlock every morning and evening, and in a few years' time the situation will become untenable.

Instant response
Within two days the usual voices are being raised in opposition to this idea: It's a tax on motorists! Another government scam to make us all suffer!

Well, actually, it isn't. It wasn't the Government's idea, and in fact quite a few official responses have been along the lines that this should not happen, rather then welcoming the proposal to impose charges. There's a big debate going on, for instance, about whether traffic calming measures (c.f. the M25) might work, or whether an extra lane could be added at the critical points along the motorway.

And, of course, there's legitimate concern, articulated by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce amongst others, about how putting an extra cost onto the only serious road route between Manchester and Liverpool would be damaging for trade and economic development.

The wider picture
All fair enough, and important considerations in their own right. But have we grasped the wider picture?

The suggestions now being put forward are based on the belief that the feared ultimate gridlock will occur in about fifteen years' time; and the proposals are deliberately intended to reduce road traffic, despite the squeals of one or two car-driving letter writers in the Daily Post etc about how this is simply a tax on motorists which will do nothing to reduce traffic.

The reality is rather different: It seems we have about a decade maximum to get the balance right, and to work diligently on bringing together Liverpool's and Manchester's public transport systems, both the direct links and the 'tributaries'.

Sustainability is the key
The debate should not be based on the usual car-owner cries of 'unfair tax', but rather about the significant issues which the Liverpool Chamber and others have raised, and about how these fit into a long-term strategy for sustainability in our economies and our environment.

If the Northern Way manages to get this discussion going, it will have done us all a favour.

Solid block (small) 100x133.jpg Person specifications for 'Lay' Public Appointments often require Board candidates to demonstrate 'confidence'. Increasingly I wonder whether this quality by itself enhances board members' contribution to the common good. Any confident Lay person might have a clear line and stick to it; but does this benefit the public? Or is it an obstacle to diversity in selection, continuing business as usual?

Perhaps Lay board members, even after they have a competent grasp of 'the facts', serve the public interest better when they as people are 'considered', rather than just 'confident'. Involvement in decision-making by Lay board members is about being there in the public interest, not initially about being sure of one's opinions.

There are people in history who have demonstrated supreme but arrogantly misplaced confidence in themselves; and even now this applies to some of those with the most power. Perhaps that doesn't matter - it may even be an asset - in the private sector, where the sole aim is often the pursuance of profit. Profit is rarely however the single objective in matters of public interest.

Determination is better
Confidence in my book is an over-rated characteristic. Give me rather a person who can get to the bottom of things and then find a sensible way forward. Someone with determination and an open mind, until the time comes to make that mind up, see things through and deliver.

Certainty is rarely the order of the day in matters which require complex resolution. Underlying principles and leadership, of course; deep conviction that one is always right, no.

Listening is a seriously under-rated skill. Skills in seeking out the factors which drive a situation, and then resolving and moving forward, are also not dramatic front-page stuff; but in our complicated, always evolving world, these are the skills which matter.

Challenging, not confrontational
Perhaps the conviction that confidence is needed for a Lay person on a board is because that's easy for selectors to deal with.
You can ascertain quickly that someone appears confident.

Ensuring however that potential appointees will, politely but determinedly, seek always to understand where the Board is coming from is a different matter. Your Lay member doesn't need to be especially confident to do this; s/he just needs to be focused on the job in hand, and to believe it matters enough to persevere and do the task well.

Resolution and progress
That's a more complicated scenario for others to deal with. I'd suggest however that it's also the basis for a genuine eventual meeting of minds - which is one hopes what the whole 'public involvement in policy' thing is about.

The real requirement of Lay board members must be that they have core and determination, guided by a real intent to deliver
the best. Whether this is exactly the same as being 'confident' is another matter, as of course a good Chair - and there are many - understands.

An obstacle to diversity?
Whisper it to the HR people who routinely demand 'confidence' in job specs; the considered approach is quite often adopted by competent women. But could this also be said about the super-confident approach? How many women believe they'd fulfil a formal requirement to be 'confident'?

Given concerns about obstacles to diversity in recruitment, are we on to something here?

What do you think?

Visiting Valencia

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Valencia Plaza Reine & bus (small) (06.08.8-12) 030.jpg Valencia, Spain's third largest city, offers much more than simply the industrial centre which many imagine. This mediaeval seat of learning and trade has a charm reaching far beyond the attractions of its wide sandy beaches and windswept sea.

Valencia is a wonderful place to visit; history and modernity go hand in hand with a fascinating range of things to do and enjoy. But it remains a city in transition where there's still scope, as in many other cities 'on the edge', for better communication with those who come to enjoy and admire this evolving location. In some ways, however, that's part of the adventure....

In 2007 Valencia plays host to a world-class event, the America's Cup; but it also has an exotic living civic history and a rural hinterland, known so far to only a few, which encompasses the Albufera ornithological paradise and the ancient traditions of towns like Sagunt and Xativa.

Valencia, we now know, is The Place for everyone to be seen in 2007. It's to host the America's Cup on behalf of Switzerland, and everyone who's anyone will be there.

Well, that's next year. In the meantime, we turned up this August (2006) for our holiday, barely aware that the America's Cup was on the agenda (though, come to think of it, we did have a brief encounter with the run-up to it on a trip to Marseilles last summer).

For us, arriving late on a hot August evening, the attraction was simply that Valencia is a city with history, sun and lots to see.

First impressions
Our rule-of-thumb is that the hotel we choose for our holiday should be near the historic centre of the selected sunny city destination; anywhere near a cathedral is usually a good way to ensure that, especially if the map shows the streets around the hotel as small and windy.

Valencia  cafe lights by hotel (06.08.8-12) 008.jpg And so we found ourselves, that first evening, sitting in a paved square with its own uplit fountain outside the Astoria Hotel, serenaded by some very business-like passing musicians and enjoying a late meal after our travels. (We subsequently realised that 'late' is a different idea in the mind of a Brit from that of Valencians, whose young families dine out at times which seemed exotic even to us as oldies.)

Then next morning we began our annual adventure, to discover as much as possible about our host city whilst taking in the ambiance and enjoying a few of life's little luxuries. Not hard to do in Valencia!

A city of contrasts
You can read all the guidebooks about a city, but nothing except direct experience takes you to the real thing. One lasting impression we have of Valencia is that it's amazingly flat and easy to get around. Don't, whatever you do, take a car - the local parking attendants are very diligent. But do get a street map and some walking shoes; this is easy terrain. Take your time and your ease and savour the freedom to roam which visitors to Valencia 3rd Millennium city(06.08.8-12) 139.jpg Valencia Plaza de la Virgen (06.08.8-12) 044.jpg Valencia can enjoy. The mediaeval centre of the city is compact and rewarding for those who linger and explore it.

And do be prepared for surprises. Until you've seen it, you truly won't be able to understand the impact of the Third Millennium City of Arts and Sciences, with the Palau de la Musica, its enormously impressive Science Museum, Congress Palace (still being built) and the wonderful Oceanografic, complete with shark tunnel, flamingos and leaping dolphins.

Nor can you really imagine the exquisite architectural balance of the Plaza de la Virgen which shares the centre of the old city with the Cathedral and other mediaeval buildings.

It's a meeting point, a perfect setting for a relaxing break or meal and, almost unnoticed, adjacent to the site of roman remains, visible through cleverly placed glass partitions and in one place actually excavated and viewed via a glass-based water feature. Here is evidence before our very eyes of Valencia's history from Roman times onwards, set with such sense of place that it feels almost unreal.

Valencia Turia (bike rider) (06.08.8-12) 674.jpg Valencia is green
Altogether a different experience is the greenness of Valencia. We had heard of the great Turia, the now-dry river bed which surrounds the old city and provides some ten kilometres of leisure space for locals and visitors alike. Walkers, cyclists, footballers (of all ages and both genders), relaxed locals and tourists mix with ease in this enormous space, enriched with much public artwork and trees of every sort, and spanned at many points by bridges ranging in design from the formidably modern to the elegantly ancient.

This is an open space, magnificently appointed, which must surely meet the needs of all who use and visit it - yet it came about only because city leaders feared another mighty flood, such as that in 1957, and so they decided to divert the river proper. Sometimes it is indeed possible to bring about good from catastrophe.

Valencia Botanics path (06.08.12-17) 372.jpgWhat was less familiar to us was Valencia's stoutly walled (and thereby almost un-findable) Botanic Garden, which is administered by the University. It's an oasis of clearly ordered information, calm and dappled light.

And further afield is the huge shallow lagoon of Albufera (we went on the Bus Turistica), just a metre deep for most of its five kilometre diameter, but home to many different birds and host to thousands of visitors who are transported in the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the local people.

Valencia heron (06.08.8-12) 574.jpgValencia Albufera boats (06.08.8-12) 585.jpg Strangely, to most of us from the more Northern parts of Europe, almost none of these amenities has developed commercially. Of course in some ways that's great, but in other ways not so. You can't even buy a bottle of water on your trip to Albufera, and locating the entrance to the Botanic Garden is a real challenge - though admirably it was open on a Bank Holiday when everywhere else was closed. (In fact, many things, including - despite the jellyfish sea bathing scare - the main public swimming baths, were closed for the whole of August...)

More architecture
Valencia La Lonja (06.08.12-17) 035.jpg Back exploring the built environment, we were fascinated by the range of styles and shapes of the city. The fifteenth century UNESCO World Heritage site of La Lonja de los Mercaderes is one of the oldest secular institutional buildings (it's a mediaeval silk trading hall), and just opposite it is the ornate early twentieth century Mercado Central, not to mention the extraordinary Estacion de Nord (sadly next door to the only real blot we saw on the valencian landscape, the Bullring, still put to its original use - though happily functioning as a market whilst we were in town) with its tiled salutation of Bon Voyage on the walls in many languages.

Wider afield
Valencia Ayuntamiento night fountain (06.08.12-17) 002.jpg Valencia Sagunt operahouse&castle (06.08.12-17) 600.jpg Conveniently, our hotel being just across the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall) from the Estacion de Nord, it was easy to get out of town on the train for the green hills which surround Valencia. Thus we found ourselves taking days out variously in Sagunt to the north and Xativa to the south - both famed for their fortress castles, but both also surprising us with other sights as well.

Valencia Xativa market (06.08.12-17) 257.jpg In Xativa we suddenly encountered an enormous street market - at least a kilometre long, with everything from wonderful dried herbs, to candles, carved wooden animals and (thousands of!) walking sticks - which had encamped for a week, marking the traditional Southern European Feast of the Assumption on 15 August. Here, where we had anticipated just a quiet stroll, were merchants from all over the world, South America, Africa and closer to home, many of them in traditional costume, plying their wares, selling food, playing music and generally in celebratory mode.

Valencia Sagunt operahouse(06.08.12-17) 535.jpg And in Sagunt, a place like Xativa which from the railway station seemed unappealing - and was certainly seriously unsignposted - we saw a magnificent open-air opera house, reconstructed in somewhat controversial style on the site of a Roman amphitheatre, overlooking Sagunt's fabled old town but still far below the castle with its breath-taking vistas across the mountains and plains encompassing Valencia city, and onwards to the sea.

A place to revisit
Valencia is vibrant and varied, a place to return to when one can. Not every aspect of the transition to a modern city has been resolved, as the continuing use of the Bullring in its original role demonstrates, but it is evident that much progress has been made. There were of course things missing on our visit.

Nowhere in the city itself was any music, even small-scale performances (other than enterprising street musicians), to be found during August. Many places provided no clues for non-Spanish / Valenciano-Catalan speakers about how to conduct one's business - always crucial if serious tourism is to be encouraged. Most tourist information points (even at the train station) were thinly stocked and closed in the afternoons and during festivals, even though thousands of visitors were in town. Signposting is almost non-existent, at least as far as we could see. Public transport remains largely a mystery to us even now, and after about ten at night seems effectively to disappear, which might be thought strange given the late hours kept by the locals.

But on the whole these are not aspects of great cities only now emerging into prominence which don't also occur elsewhere. They are things which will need to be addressed as Valencia becomes more used to welcoming visitors from far and wide.

Valencia is a city with great promise for future, as well as a fascinating past. If you haven't been there yet, it should be firmly on your list of places to look forward to.

Mayoral 'shield' (small) 06.9.5 001.jpg The campaign for a debate about elected Mayors promotes ideas of democratic involvement and public accountability. It is for these reasons, not as a short-hand way to achieve city-regions, that this campaign should be encouraged. Even if elected Mayors become the norm, towns and cities will still need major regional input if they are to be effective players within Britain.

It's not reallly news that some major cities have problems pulling things together to achieve progress; and nor, to be frank, is it news that Liverpool often seems to be amongst that number.

This is why I believe people should support the campaign for a referendum on a Mayor for Liverpool. For the referendum to happen would require 5% of those elegible to vote in the city to support it... not many one may think, but actually quite a proportion to raise in Liverpool, the city with the lowest election turn-out in the country. In my view, almost anything which encourages people in places like Liverpool to think positively about voting is a good thing.

Elected Mayors as housekeepers
It doesn't however follow that, because moves to consider elected mayors are supported, that wide-ranging powers for such persons should necessarily be the order of the day. Cities like Liverpool need a named 'responsible person', who can bang heads together to get things done, and who must be prepared to take the flack if things don't work. This person could be seen as taking the role of housekeeper, ensuring that things happen as they should, and that, for instance, streets and parks are clean and safe, events occur to schedule and budget, bids and proposals are submitted on time and well prepared etc.

It would be important for an elected Mayor to have defined, and achieved a consensus on, for instance, what is his / her role, and what is that of the City Chief Executive / Directorates, and of elected Councillors.

Not city-regions
Bioscience Liverpool 06.7.30 001.jpg Nor should it be assumed that an elected Mayor would take the lead role in the mooted city-regions. There may well be a role for city-regions as sub-regions, but that debate is still emerging and it is not for me convincing. In the end an excessive emphasis on city-regions not only loses the 'hinterland' of any metropoils, but also ignores the reality of regional infrastructure.

No toen or city in the UK outside London is on its own large enough to plan major transport, business development, or scientific investment. The things can only properly be addressed at regional level; as indeed they are in most parts of Europe.

City regions and their merits or otherwise are a different debate from the current discussion about elected Mayors. If there's now a decent debate about elected Mayors, that will be a good start. Maybe it will strengthen interest in the democratic process. And if it also encourages the idea that those who claim to give the lead require support, but must also be prepared to account very openly for their performance, that will be an excellent bonus.