Recent Updates Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts
Weather forecast, February 1st, 2016…
The Met Office has issued an Amber National Severe Weather Warning for Storm Henry. Valid from 3pm on Monday afternoon until 9am on Tuesday morning….
1: Storm Henry To Bring Severe Gales
It has been a winter to forget in Cumbria but one we will not be able to.
Since the middle of November, we have been under constant bombardment from the sky and even by Cumbrian standards the weather has been horrible.
The fault is that we are situated directly below the jet stream- that globe-hugging, atmospheric scarf rippling six miles up.
As I write, it has been over us constantly for three months.
Last month, at a county council meeting I attended in a creaky, wood-panelled public hall in Kendal, Lyth Valley farmer Jim Bland rose to his wellied feet.
“The land is rotten,” he said, speaking for farmers everywhere.
“I don’t know what we’re going to get out of it this year.”
And as he returned to his seat, somewhere in the political undergrowth an agricultural voice said: “Aye. An’ winter’s not ovver yet.”
The floods of 2015-16 have left homes likes lakes and fields like reservoirs.
The argument about who is to blame for it all is still one I haven’t really understood on any meaningful level.
But for now, the floods have gone and they have left behind a dirty high water mark and a £500 million bill.
That’s equivalent to six Cristiano Ronaldo’s and 20 Van Gogh masterpieces.
The other big difference this winter has been the naming of our storms.
This has given each a personal identity. We have a target to aim for and a ‘villain’ to write about.
But so far the storm names have been disappointing.
Like characters from an Enid Blyton novel: Abigail, Barney, Desmond, Eva, Frank & Gertrude.
And at the end of January 2016, the growing word out of the Met Office was that Henry was up next.
The 8th storm of the winter and the first of February 2016 was due in on the afternoon of Monday, February 1st, they said.
Which just so happened to be my day off.
2: Storm Henry Arrives In Cumbria
I had formed only a vague sketch outline of what I planned to do on my day off and part of that involved getting out.
Going for a walk in the Lake District hopefully.
But as the threat of Henry moved up the news-cycle on Sunday afternoon, it became obvious that Monday was going to be a write off for a walk.
All the weather graphics showed Cumbria invaded by thick wind arrows; zipping through on their great northern arc towards Scotland.
The more I stewed on the disappointment of what this meant for my day off, the more an idea began to form.
What if I used the walk to meet Henry face-to-face?
Go out walking anyway and describe what it is like walking when a storm is going through?
Do a proper TV reporter ‘flak jacket’ job?
Run towards the gun fire.
Get on a cliff edge and look Henry in the eye?
The idea started to crystallise.
What if I went somewhere high up and recorded Henry coming through Cumbria?
And immediately, as I thought this, the image of the Kirkstone Pass Inn jumped to mind.
It is one of the highest places I could get to quickly.
The Kirkstone Pass Inn, the “Inn with Altitude.”
3: The Kirkstone Pass Inn
The Kirkstone Pass Inn is officially 1,5481ft above sea level. One of the hardest pubs in the country to run.
It is the ‘highest inhabited building in Cumbria’ and the ‘3rd highest Inn in England,’ according to its website.
“The highest pass in the Lake District open to traffic,” says another.
To me it has always represented a shrine to man’s bloodymindedness not to be brow beaten by the Lake District weather.
Only true believers can survive and run a business in a place like this.
I don’t know what was happening in the year 1496 when the torch was first lit at the Kirkstone Pass Inn, but the local men of the day had sufficient wisdom to know one fundamental truth.
What you need at the top of three whacking great hills is a great place to drink.
I looked up The Inn on Google but to my horror, the entire experience had been woefully undersold. “Relaxed out of town Lake District Accommodation,” it read.
I laughed at that.
“Out of town accommodation.” A classic bit of ‘Marketingese’.
The other inescapable beauty of the Kirkstone Pass Inn, is that it’s also right next to a fell which is even higher, called Red Screes.
My plan was to go to the Kirkstone Pass Inn and then start the short walk to the top of Red Screes which is right opposite the pub.
The climb would also put me directly in the flight path of Storm Henry when he came in.
Red Screes is no biggie.
But it’s 2,545ft feet up. Two-and-half times the height of The Shard – London’s tallest building.
It’s also the height of five Blackpool towers and over twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.
My plan was to do the work and then if the storm was too bad, I wouldn’t drive back home.
Instead, I would book out the four-poster suite at the Inn for only £55.
Failing that, I could stay in the bunkhouse for £9.50.
It is described, on the website, as “probably the cheapest bed in Cumbria”.
Another website said that the Inn was “formerly known as the Traveller’s Inn and is purported to be haunted”.
The story goes that “one troublesome spirit is reputed to be that of a woman who attempted to travel the road in a fierce snowstorm and perished en-route. Her spirit is said to lurk about the building.”
My plan for the walk was to take along my new dictaphone that I got for Christmas.
The Olympus Digital Voice Recorder – VN-741PC.
I could use it to capture an auditory account of Storm Henry.
If I spent the night at the haunted Inn, may be I might record the ghost on tape at the same time?
4: White Horses on the surface, raising to a neigh
The reason I wanted to go on a fell walk right next door to a Lake District pub was because February 1st represented the official end of Dryanuary for me.
I had been thinking for some time that I would like to mark the first pint of 2016 somewhere special.
Celebrate the milestone in a dark varnished bar with low ceilings, a roaring fire and red muffin-topped stools.
And what could be more symbolic than marking the end of Dryanuary with a pint in the pub at the top of a road called The Struggle!
It was perfect. There was a neat symmetry to it all.
I also liked the idea of staying overnight at Lake District pub during a storm.
There is a delicious romance about being locked in by the weather that makes you feel alive.
So after three slices of buttered toast and two cups of sweet tea, it was time to dump my overnight bag in the car and get started on the drive to Kirkstone.
Outside, the sky was blackish and wild. I saw it as the first murmurings of Henry coming in.
Wipers on in my steamed-up car and Bruce Springsteen booming out of the morning radio. Dancing in the dark.
A perfect song for a wet, dark Monday morning in Cumbria.
But it was only when I had got on to the Kendal bypass that I felt the car shudder and move.
Invisible hands were pushing it into the other lane.
Every time a grey truck comes roaring past the other way there are big washes of dirty spray.
In the fields, sodden sheep ringing with droplets, snuffle through the damp grass.
In the Lake District itself, orange lights shine from dark farmhouse windows.
I became aware of the whip of rain against the car.
As I drove past a small wood, Henry was roaring by – making it shudder as if a ghost train was going through.
I saw fallen branches by the roadside, lamp-posts shuddering in the wind and circles of leaves spiralling by the roadside gutters.
Large, creaking trees in the fields; flexing like body-builders.
By mid morning on Monday, the A591 was dark and quiet but this is not unusual.
I noticed on the big double decker bus coming from Grasmere’s direction, there was only one person on it.
He was Chinese and middle-aged. Asleep with his face pressed against the wet steamed-up window of the Stagecoach going south. Starting the first drag of what would be a very long journey home.
There are still tourists on the streets here.
A young dark-haired couple in short anoraks run hand-in-hand, laughing in the morning rain.
By the time I get to the sodden, wind-lashed outskirts of Bowness the gutters are running.
The waters of Windermere have white horses on the surface, raising to a neigh.
Despite the long grey canopy of clouds, by the time I get past the White Cross Bay holiday park, the sky has some blue in it.
I am surprised to see a lemony sunlight burning through the roadside trees.
Long yawning rays of fresh sun and the earth’s hinges starting to creak.
Just along the road, Brockhole is framed by a powder blue sky but in seconds it changes colour and is gone.
Rubbed out by Henry and an advancing armada of huge, coal black clouds.
But it is important to recognise that the sky in the Lake District is always constantly changing.
It makes it both a headache and a paradise for professional photographers.
The photographers will spend their days waiting for the money shot, the picture that sells a hundred calendars.
Especially one of those shots where the sunlight bursts through and shines down on the dorsal-fin peaks of the mountains.
5: Struggles on The Struggle
The Struggle is so-called because for many it is. From Ambleside, it’s a first and second gear grind up the snaking, curving fell road until you reach the broad plateau and security of Kirkstone Pass.
The Struggle in winter, or summer for that matter, is no place for shaky learner drivers or those who can’t handle the stress of an uphill start. You have to be quick on the pedals.
Today, the sky is constantly changing with sun beams filtering down. And that is the great difficulty with the Lake District; its changing moods.
If you don’t take the chance to get out, then you miss out. Even on a ‘storm day’ like this.
The other issue with The Struggle, and the A592 for that matter, is that its dry-stone bends are frequented by a flammable mix of different road users in varying emotional states.
Slow-driving tourists stupefied by the views…….foot-down fearless van drivers bombing it home for lunch……endurance cyclists fantasising of Le Tour and born-again bikers who have been itching to flick the ‘bitch-switch’ since Bolton bypass…
Greedy tourists in high-powered family cars zoom up The Struggle to take in the view, shove something down their mouths, and then zoom back down to the next view and grub spot. Some of them gleefully chucking McDonald’s wrappers as they go by.
Failing to recgonise that the reason they came up here in the first place was because it’s so nice.
Yet it won’t continue to be if visitors keep slinging McDonald’s wrappers everywhere because they’re too asthmatic to find the nearest bin.
All it takes to lose your head on the roads around here is for a dozy-brained Herdwick to wander idly into the middle of the open road just at the moment you decide this is your corner to overtake.
You will smash hard through that dry-stone wall and lurch over the side for the start of a terrifying 500ft ‘death roll’ down the fellside.
When the hearse-men show up, your car will resemble a crushed tin can. And you’ll be the beans.
If you’re lucky, the last you’ll see of Kirkstone Pass is rotar blades and the steady whump-whump-whump of a rescue helicopter.
6: Bad signs on the summit
Captain’s log: First observations on landing at Kirkstone Pass: This planet is strangely deserted Spock.
A whiteout sky.
Darts of rain speckling the camera and tufts of cloud around the shoulders of Red Screes.
Every dirty grey puddle across the car park is full of stones and has ripples running through it.
A dingy half-light pervades but the sky is rippling and changing contrast all the time.
The heater is blasting in the car but outside, there’s still the low hum of the wind.
As I pull into the car park it occurs to me that I have grown fat and accustomed to pitching up here at Kirkstone Pass in perfect walking conditions.
Sun on the bonnet, bees on the flowers and light in the sky.
Shorts and shades.
Days like below, which was taken last spring.
I have never walked here in early February. Not on a dark, gloomy afternoon like this.
My waterproofs are rappling and dappling in the wind.
Sleety curtains of rain are lashing through, soaking the old slate roof Inn and its dark, curtained windows.
Cumbria in February.
In my car, I can hear a low eerie moan coming up through the bodywork: Storm Henry creeping in.
The desolate, stony car park is unnervingly empty.
The only sign of human life is a discarded blue trainer, sodden in the rain.
As soon as I switch off the engine, Henry begins to assault the ribs of the car.
Kidney punches around the bodywork, door and windscreen.
The car wobbles in the wind.
The outside noise blasting at the windows.
Not your classic whistling wind but a low, vibrating baritone.
Outside the Kirkstone Pass Inn, a long brewery lorry is parked up and its driver is stalking about. The curtain-sides of his wagon rippling and rattling.
When I open my car door, it’s nearly ripped off its hinges by the force of the wind. And when I try and dig in the boot for my bag and walking boots, Henry tries to close it on my head.
Once I’m kitted up, it is impossible to stand up straight. I am being physically pushed by the wind.
I set off with my camera, wading through invisible currents of wind.
My hood tightly pulled up and my chin-strap velcroed.
When I’m facing the pub. I reel off a couple of photos.
A broken blue sledge by the lonely bus stop and a lion’s face roaring from the wall by a wishing well.
There is a small family of wind turbines at the rear of the Inn and I notice a sign discouraging the vandalism of them…
As I take a couple of photographs of the outside of the Kirkstone Pass Inn, my eyes are suddenly drawn to a square notice in one of its windows.
I can see a little notice on a piece of paper in the front window of the Inn.
Up there in the corner of the windowframe.
The note reads…
So after all that, the Inn was closed for the week!
From today as well!
It was a horrible set-back in my plans but I had come too far now to turn back.
I was here now. Turning round was not an option.
I had no excuse but to climb Red Screes whether the Inn was open or not.
7: Meeting Henry on Red Screes
The pathways of Red Screes look like they are bleeding. It is an illusion caused by the effect of water running over red stones. It seems to turn the water red.
Hence the name, Red Screes.
The stone path gurgles and ripples with dirty, orange brown mud and I squelch across a bog. Covering my boots in thick, chocolate mud.
Every step involves crunching on millions of shattered stones. Some of the rocks are big, round and greasy like a car bonnet.
The grass here shivers in the wind like a frightened hare. No birds or other visible wildlife save for the odd wind-blasted Herdwick sheep.
Clumps of reed are porcupine tipped – like the quills of arrows.
The ridgeline of Kilnshaw Chimney is dark and moody with the odd cranny holding a pocket of old snow.
On the other bank of hills to the east, there are dark mountains with whale-backed humps.
The weather is brutal and whipping but it’s February. I am in Cumbria, England. This is what life here is like.
On my first steps up the wet hillside and gaining a little height, I noticed the wind-speed pick up and an oncoming bridge of brighter weather colliding with a wall of storm cloud.
On the drive here today, one question kept occurring to me and I dismissed it out of hand.
“Am I putting my life at risk?”
Walking up this mountain just to commit to print what it’s like wallking through a storm in Cumbria.
To hear the wind howl in a high place, photograph it and then write it all down, as true and faithful to the experience as it can be?
Walking through storms is the stuff of football anthems isn’t it. You’re not actually supposed to do it.
After all, the wind is forecast to be 70mph. On the weather maps, torrential rain is guaranteed.
Yet farmers and mountain rescuers and the police and fire go out in far worse, more often than this.
I am a resourceful man but I have covered enough inquests in my time to know better.
I have heard widows cry for lives lost on these hills.
I have taken notes describing how misadventure befell someone in this environment. The soothing words of a sorry coroner.
Life is blown out like a candle up here.
All it takes is a sudden trip or a launch into the unstoppable fall. And not always from high cliff-faces.
It’s more likely that someone slips coming down the fell and they bang something important or have a heart-attack. Tiredness always makes people clumsy too.
Striding Edge is the real killer.
When walking, I have always made a conscious effort to take slow and methodical footsteps, never losing sight of where my feet are being placed. I’ve also left a note saying where I’m going and what time I’ll be back.
Suddenly as I am walking along, I skid backwards from head to toe and land flat on my sore back.
I am left staring up at the swirling clouds with the rain on my face and the wind howling around my wet hood.
Entirely flat on my back and now struggling to my feet with the grace of a cow.
I thank the gods there wasn’t a sharp bladed stone where I landed. It would have punctured my back.
That is an example of all it takes.
A minor misjudgement or distraction. All you need is a slip like that then a sudden worsening of the weather.
You only need an unlucky run of dice up here.
And people out walking on the fells should never pass up that golden opportunity to turn back, because invariably they always get one.
Better alive at the bottom than dead at the top.
It was always noticeable at the inquests I attended that there were at least a couple of chances for people to turn back on their walks before it ended in tragedy.
Sometimes it is a bullheadedness to go on which can kill people.
Fell walking tends to attract determined, goal-orientated people and sometimes the desire to reach the top can be their undoing.
But let’s get things into perspective. Despite all the forecasts and alerts, I am going for a walk on a wet and windy day in northern England in winter up a reasonably small hill.
And the weather is mixed throughout. Raining one second, stopping the next, the wind rising and falling.
And we must continue to get out walking in the wind and rain before someone comes along and bans it.
8: Observations from the summit
On the summit of Red Screes, elated and lifted, I made several recordings to describe what I could see and how I felt.
But to my great disappointment none of them have survived. All of them are indecipherable.
Everything I recorded on the top has been ruined by Henry. I cannot hear any of my notes because of the wind.
All you can hear is violent feedback from the mic. Incessant white noise. But may be that is the one true story of the summit that day.
It was so windy you couldn’t hear anything but Henry.
From memory, I recall feeling the usual rise of endorphins at reaching the top and the elation of spotting the final trig point. The wave of achievement.
There is nowhere to shelter on Red Screes, it has collapsed.
So instead I sit with my back to the trig point, looking towards Brotherswater.
A lump of Middle Dodd down the valley catches a spotlight of sun but it is hard to operate my camera now because the wind is blowing so hard.
I’m shaking every time I go to line up the shot. My fingers are so numb and unresponsive to touch that I struggle to locate the correct button to press .
The views are uplifting.
The drug with fell walking is that it leaves you feeling truly alive.
The wind is so strong that were genuine moments where it felt necessary for me to hang onto the ground for a few seconds, just to steady myself.
On the summit, it was hard to breathe because the wind would snatch the breath from your throat.
Annoyingly, the wind was also rolling and flapping my heavy canvas bag up the length of my back, leaving it rippling like a flag.
The gusts are so hard they push you downwards to the floor. The disorientation makes it feel like you are on the deck of a ship starting to list.
The wind seemed to upset my centre of gravity – the see-sawing horizon confusing my brain.
At times it seemed like Henry was playing a game.
I would be walking along, watching my feet, scanning the horizon, when suddenly this giant, unseen force would smack into my back.
Like a demon wind you can’t see.
At one stage, I was pushed four whole steps back uphill.
On the way down, Henry gave me a shove from behind and I fell forward three paces.
Henry felt malicious.
It is a very uneasy feeling to realise you are completely alone, hundreds of feet up in the wildest weather and being battered by something you cannot see.
The risk that you could be knocked to the ground by something that isn’t there.
Are storms merely vengeful souls blasting the surface of earth?
OK, may be not.
Another experience of the Lake District which no will ever properly record is the variety of changing light.
It makes a million different paintings of the landscape every day.
Fellwalking is like walking inside a painting. A painting which keeps changing.
All of a sudden, a bank of sun would punch through Storm Henry to try and break the gloom.
An amazing cloud break would appear with shafts of light filtering down to the ground.
It is like watching the fingers of god touch the earth.
Especially when you are the only person there to see it happen.
9: The Mortal Man
By the time I got down off Red Screes the sky had changed again. Darker now.
It was rolling with black and white clouds – a huge colour battle was taking place in the palette of the sky as the light started to fade.
Bullet-like hailstones nipped at my cold, red face as I walked back to the lonely car which was being encroached by lengthening shadows.
The weather was closing in and I was thirsty for my celebratory drink.
With the Kirkstone Pass Inn closed, my first pint of 2016 would have to be somewhere else.
Would it be The Golden Rule at the bottom of The Struggle?
The Low Wood Hotel with a view across to the Langdales?
Or may be I should just drive straight home.
Sitting there, alone in the car as another dark Cumbrian day ended, it felt like the weather was going to get the upper hand tonight.
But today, for a couple of hours, I had beaten the weather, whatever that means.
You can’t live in Cumbria and be beaten by the weather. It just doesn’t work.
The winter here is an annual contest, for me at least.
I looked at the dashboard clock. It would be dark in half and hour.
I decided to forego my pint for another time and set off home.
On the narrow downhill corners of the A592 towards Troutbeck, it was horrible, grey, murky and wet.
Every car had its red fog lights on and every oncoming car seemed to have an extra LED sparkle.
The misty hillsides were obliterated with low hugging cloud.
Rain lashing in, steaming up the windows.
All of a sudden, I see the bright lights of a nutter driver coming directly for me in the middle of the road.
A dirty white van which finally veers back into his lane with seconds to spare before impact.
How short is life.
The light is fading but at the roadside I see an upcoming sign.
I recognise it as the sign and turn off for The Mortal Man at Troutbeck.
There’s no car behind me so I pull a right, go along the short road, park up and nip in. A drink at the Mortal Man would be a perfect conclusion to the day.
After all, a day with Storm Henry had made me feel very, very mortal.
When I open the door on the darkened, quiet bar there were four lots of people inside. A tall barman drying glasses and a regular on his stool.
In the wider room, at three round tables, sat three lots of three tourists silently sipping their drinks.
Eleven people in all and not one of them speaking.
I could hear the buzz of the fridge and the sound of Henry shuddering the windows.
Stepping up to the bar I ordered a pint, making some remark about the weather. I felt elated having done the walk and the burn of Red Screes was now warming my aching knees.
My eyes watched the pint being slowly poured into a long sparkling glass. As the barman poured, I heard the pumps bubbling in the heart of the wooden bar, and watched the fizzing spurt of golden beer going into the glass.
The barman placed it on the drip tray before me as I went into my wallet for my bank card. And that’s when there was a problem.
It transpired that to buy a drink with a card in the Mortal Man you have to spend over £10.
“That would be one hell of a drink,” I said as the barman waited to decide what I was going to do.
This has become a feature of spending money in the Lake District and I should have known better.
The drink was only £4.65 but I only wanted one. I’d have probably have been prepared to pay three times the price considering I had not had a pint for 31 days.
Was the day going to end like this?
Sensing I was stuck, the bar man stepped in and agreed that I could pay with my debit card after all.
He would let me off this time. It was a gesture of generosity that I truly appreciated.
Anything else would have forever tainted my memory of The Mortal Man.
Holding my pint, I made my way through the pub’s rooms and sat down beside a table next to a window with a view of the garden.
I tried to recall the Wordsworth quote about Kirkstone Pass.
There was a truth about it even today, all these years later.
“Who comes not hither ne’er shall know, how beautiful the world below.”
Translation: Get up there or you’ll never see it.
And as I sat and drank, I spotted this other sign on the wall of the pub.
And the more I looked at it, the more sense it seemed to make.
Postscript: 7th February, press release: “Met Office name the UK’s next storm Imogen”
NOT every bridge in the Lake District National Park is going to be fixed this year after the December floods.
That’s the real, secret, unspoken message that was buried deep in the 11th hour flying visit by the Prime Minister to Grasmere on Thursday.
He was in and out within an hour and half, they reckon. Smiling at school kids and then wowing the grown-ups with his karate-like handchops and active verbs.
“Fixing, spending, building, fully committed to working in partnerblah”
You know the drill. It all sounded fairly good but there was something vaguely dutiful about it all.
Almost like Cumbria was the ailing, elderly relative being briefly visited by the successful son who lives away.
But he didn’t really stay long because he had to get back to the office, but he wanted to be able to say that he’d been. And he left behind a bouquet of flowers.
Bought hurriedly from a petrol station on the way up.
DC will not be in Cumbria to see storm Gertrude. And it’s a pity, that.
If he’d hung around he could have seen for himself the rain hosing the window and the wind blowing water uphill.
It might have helped with his perspective.
Did he leave because the helicopter pilot’s weather window was closing fast?
Would he not be able to get back to London because of the weather that came in?
Was there a genuine fear the entourage may have ended up stranded in rural Cumbria?
Or did he just need to get to Lancashire.
Because he visited both counties in a kind of “kill two birds with one Northern stone”.
Or as North West Tonight’s reporter darkly intoned:
“David Cameron left just as the storm clouds again closed in.”
(Fades to black with a long shot on the PM’s disappearing helicopter..)
What we do know is that the Government’s figures don’t add up so clearly the Lake District isn’t going to get all its bridges fixed this year.
It’s the only conclusion we can draw. There are 1400 footbridges in the park.
Eden MP and floods minister Rory Stewart was quoted as saying 240 need repairing.
So let’s do the maths: £2 million divided into 240 = £8,333 per bridge.
It is not possible to fix ancient, sometimes listed bridges for £8,333 each.
Not even with Bob the Builder and the Polish work experience lads.
So what we’re actually going to see is strategic bridges fixed/temporarily fixed.
This, on the face of it, is a sensible approach, but they should be open about it and say so, and they don’t here.
The difficulty is – the palatability of that message.
We’re not going to fix them all.
No-one connected with his visit wants to come out and say that because they know it takes away some of the stardust of his visit.
Realistically, it is impossible to fix every bridge before the holidays anyway.
Because in spring, instead of wandering lonely as a cloud with the daffodils, the Lakeland fells would be full of white vans, cement mixers and plasterers with loud portable radios.
No-one comes to the Lake District to see that.
Specially not Ron and Marj from Middlesex on a happy hiking holiday.
Predictably and politically, in response to the funding announcement, Westmorland MP Tim Farron has gone with the attack message that this is “not enough cash”.
And who can blame him.
Tim has also introduced the comparison with Dawlish, Devon.
“When the Dawlish railway line in the South West was badly damaged due to extreme weather in 2014, £35 million was set aside to get the transport link reopened within 50 days. If they can do it that quickly in the South, why can’t they do it up here with the A591?”
Cameron said Farron shouldn’t be so “churlish”.
Labour’s Stewart Young for the county council has also said it’s not enough money and he’s right.
The county council’s estimate is the park needs £20 million to be fixed.
Mr Young told Radio Cumbria that the PM might as well not have bothered coming.
Privately, some politicians locally are spitting feathers that there was no invite for them.
They didn’t even get in the room. Many didn’t even know where the room was.
Another big question out of the announcement: The £1 million campaign to promote the North.
It was trailed and headlined as “a tourism boost” in a national park press release.
That’s not £1 million to promote Cumbria, you understand.
A sum that would probably buy you 9 seconds airtime for a Pearl & Dean style advert in a string of poky cinemas in outer London.
It’s £1 million for a pre-Easter tourism push for the whole of the North.
Is that Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire, North East & Cumbria?
Because if so, it’s equivalent, to say £200,000 per sub-region.
But this would also be backed by an unexplained campaign of £15-£16M of public-private money (about which I know nothing.) Is this Local Enterprise Partnership spend?
Who would turn up their nose at £200,000 and start making waves with the most powerful politician in the country? (Apart from opposition politicians and the media?)
Or should our thinking be that anything is better than nothing? Is that what we’re reduced too. Peanuts are good enough?
Will £200k deliver the scorched earth PR campaign Cumbria needs to get its message out.
Because to my mind, for the Government to give £1 million to promote the North after all the floods is about as helpful as turning up at them with a mop and bucket.
But should the taxpayer be footing the bill to advertise and promote private businesses in the Lake District anyway?
Where around 54,000 people are said to be employed in the sector.
The logic goes like this.
Is it better the Government stumps up public cash so that these people are in work, paying taxes, than out of work, wanting JSA as firms go bust?
February half term is in a fortnight.
While it isn’t the big tourism curtain raiser in the same way Easter is, it does represent 2016’s first ‘real holiday’ and the start of the tourism tap being turned on again.
And people should come back here because Cumbria is open.
It’s just parts of it are a little broken.
But you can still mostly get around and do most of the usual stuff. No-one’s closed the pubs, the shops, the guest-houses or the hills.
Just do your research and you’ll be fine.
But if tourism here tanks this Easter and then we have a poor May, there will be a clamour for heads on spikes.
The question will come back to this: Was £1 million enough for the North?
Because you cannot hope to sustain a tourism business in Cumbria by losing Christmas/New Year/ February Half Term, Easter or May from your income.
Business cannot survive on “Jam tomorrow” and fresh air.
If they start going bang, tourism workers are going to be laid off.
In some places, they already are.
Which is frustrating because so many places are open and untouched – they just need visitors.
What would help is if every Cumbrian took a holiday this year somewhere in Cumbria.
By way of support.
“A have a week at home week”
And every Lake District fan who loves the fells needs to make a special vow to book a break.
As soon as possible.
SO, it’s 3.47am at Kendal Calling 2014 and I’m in my tent. All I can smell is wet grass and all I can feel is the earth being slowly fracked from the tremors of pounding bass. Far-off strobe lights streak across the Cumbrian night sky.
Outside my tent, someone is stamping the sodden ground just inches from my face and a drunk girl is trying to contain her sniggers. “Go on, do it,” she encourages her partner in crime.
In my daze, it becomes clear that I’m seconds away from being the intended butt of some joke. I realise they are stamping on a plastic bottle full of liquid mud. This is in order to splatter my tent.
Converting abandoned plastic bottles full of mud into messy weapons has become something of a local sport when night falls here, across this vast deer park on the Lowther Estate near Penrith.
A cowardly after-hours cheap laugh. But tonight readers, they picked on the wrong tent.
I roar in my sleeping bag and thrash out of it. But by the time I get the tent zip down in the pitch dark, both of them are gone. A pair of shadows, high-tailing it through the muddy slop.
Just as well…
But this is what can happen when you have to slum it in “The Party Field”. One of the cheapest, muddiest, noisiest and most densely-occupied corners on this whole 300-acre site.
Our bad positioning was entirely the Buddhist Big Sister’s fault. We arrived too late and the car park was very full. So in hard, driving rain we realised we would have to leave our cars about a mile-and-half from the main gates.
She wanted our base camp to be pitched near the gates. This, she explained, would make it quicker and easier to get back to her car to sleep there later on if she failed to get any shut eye where we were camping on the “Party Field.”
The basic thinking was good but the only trouble was four thousand other people had had exactly the same idea.
The Buddhist Big Sister enjoys her home comforts more than I and had already expressed serious concerns about the quality and location of our accommodation.
So when we finally got through the gates and clapped eyes on the tiny sliver of grass that was left – surrounded by thousands of tents – all her visions of the classic Lake District camping fantasy, vanished before her eyes.
“There’s no room for my wicker hamper from Booths,” she cried.
We are rammed so cheek-by-jowel on the Party Field that there isn’t the slightest corner of space for chairs, stoves or tables. It’s basically a refugee camp.
“It appears we are refugees to music,” I said, puffing thoughtfully on my e-cig and rolling out my groundsheet.
But she was not smiling.
In the photo above, my tent is the small dark green one in the middle of the picture. My sister’s is the huge, lime-coloured pale green one on the far left at the front. Chandeliers, electricity, the works.
So huge is it, she is able to sleep on a long, fold-out, orthopaedic camping bed in a large double-skinner made by Berghaus.
I’m in a tiny, wafer thin ‘pop-up’ that I bought off eBay for £13 a few days before the event. It was a hot night when, under the influence, I deluded myself that summer 2014 was finally here for good, and that it would Never Rain In Cumbria Again.
A day later it chucked down and it has devotedly rained every day since.
Our sliver of grass is also right on the perimeter of one of the muddy pathways which trails around the site, like below…
If you need the loo at night here, the toxic toilets are an ankle-breaking slop through six-inch liquid mud in the dark and possibly rain and wind.
Loo roll itself, is now a precious commodity in the toilets. When it runs out on the unsuspecting, a small minority evidently resort to using the walls as a substitute. When all the tanks are brimming, someone drives around to suck them dry in a “Stool Bus” or the “Poo Hoover” as it was nicknamed.
The simple plumbing operation for the toilets in many corners of the site, involves 10 toilet stalls positioned over 10 wheelie bins. On the way to the loo, you grab a cup of sawdust to cover any waste. But with this many people, the sawdust soon runs out.
There are fancy toilet alternatives of course, but these cost money, and I wanted to embed myself in the real festival experience.
It soon became apparent that all the nice, quiet parts of this showground had been reserved, bought and paid for months ago by the well-prepared. Places like The Quiet Site, Family and The Shire etc.
These are the areas where you’ll find a nice, spacious grassy hillock to park your camper van or fat mobile home, where it’s peaceful and sheltered from life’s everyday ugly realities.
The Buddhist Big Sister had wanted a place in the mobile home section. But she was too late and it was my view that a stay in the rough end of a festival – for someone who owns four properties – might jolt her out of her cosy, middle class cocoon?
And I think it worked. Because as she slopped through the mud one day on the way to get an organic bacon roll, she said: “Here’s me moaning about mud and rain when soldiers died in far worse in World War One, didn’t they?”
In all the places to be staying at Kendal Calling, The Party Field was second only to Wolf Woods in terms of notoriety.
Late at night, huddled around slow-burning campfires on tamer edges of the site, “Wolf Woods” was always spoken of, by festival elders, in cautionary, worried tones. From the feedback we had, Wolf Woods was witnessing a break down in social order.
This is where all the teenage festival virgins stay for the first time and completely lose their minds once the moon comes out. And who can blame them!?
Acres of unleashed youth full of alcohol – laughing, arguing, shouting, screaming, play-fighting, real fighting, crying, making up, making out. More whoops and mating calls than a night in the Serengeti. More high-pitched screeches than from the top carriage of the ferris wheel.
We were stuck in The Party Field and not even the exclusivity of a humble, regional journalist’s press pass could open any doors to better accommodation. Nowhere did I feel this more acutely, than on the Press Bus.
The Press Bus was a huge black double decker bus with red slashes down its side, free wifi, cold drinks and exclusive interviews (most of which had to be arranged months in advance so there was no way I was going to make that kinda deadline after being seconded to cover this event at the last minute.)
The Press Bus, if I’m being totally honest, was full of ice-cold PRs and busy IT geeks. Judging by how clean and unsullied they all were, I suspected they had access to all the best places to stay and the luxury shower and toilet facilities.
Unlike me who rocks up in a dripping poncho with mud-plastered waterproofs, like some crazed farmer who’s just been Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling with a bull.
The muted, lukewarm reception was all my fault. After all, I’d had the temerity to arrive unannounced, asking for the wifi password, and trailing my dripping canvas bag all the way up to the top deck of the bus whilst balancing a warm can of lager in my fist.
And I’m old enough to have had previous experience of the general attitude of the big city PR. They tend to flirt like hell with all the hip and trendy places they want to be read in, but reserve a cold, tolerating unhelpfulness for all the little print titles that they’ve never heard of.
That was the general, unspoken “vibe”.
But it’s been a couple of years since I went to a festival and age, it seems, has not been kind to my tolerance levels. And like most working journalists, I carry around a big old chip on my shoulder, a sense of entitlement, which I have loyally fed and watered down the years.
There was plenty of police at Kendal Calling but no real aggro, although I had to at least keep an eye out for it.
Because if it kicked off and I was there, I had already made an executive decision that I would have to report extensively on that element of the festival too.
After all, unemployed is the news reporter who goes away on a bit of a jolly and then tries to slope back into work on a Monday morning having not written a word about the riot that broke out and is now all over the front pages of the competition…
But there was no edge to Kendal Calling and nothing happened, which was a relief to me because it meant I could concentrate on the music and the happy atmosphere – which was brilliant. The vibe was positively Glasto and refreshingly Bohemian. People having fun, people in fancy dress, people in funny hats, people in costumes.
The edgiest it got was when I saw a loud group of young lads. A bunch of lean, hard-staring, Bolton Wanderers fans marching through the site in a wide, lairy mob. They were singing a confrontational football chant and had clearly done time on the terraces, because their accompanying claps were well synchronised. Collectively, they resembled an explosion at Sports Direct.
But I am in danger of forgetting my middle-age. Old enough to be the grumpy, judgemental parent at an event like this.
And I’m not grumpy. I am thrilled to be here. Because right now, The Happy Mondays are coming on…
Just after half seven, in a mud-smeared Cumbrian glade lashed with rain, booze, litter and saturated ponchos, Bez limbered up to the front of the packed Main Stage.
Rubber-limbed and skeletal in a Guy Fawkes-style hat, he roamed the edge of the mosh pit with maracas and a mic – forecasting his forthcoming ‘revolution’. People cheered.
As the guitar feedback swirled through giant towering speakers in the hot evening sun, the band’s immense engine-room, Rowetta, tottered towards the mic in a sparkling cowgirl outfit.
Lurking near the stage curtain was Ryder, short, stocky and dressed in a tight, zipped-up khaki jacket. Oozing “up to no good” and looking for all the world like a second-hand cigarette seller on a street corner in Salford.
Shaun looked healthy and sounded coherent but was comically unsure of which number was next in the set.
“It was hard enuff livin’ it, never mind singin it,” he puffed after the bouncy 24 Hour Party People.
When he sings, Shaun Ryder has always sounded like an ordinary, angry bloke shouting in the shower of a small bathroom.
But some bands have an uncanny ability to nail the mood of a festival and so it was with The Mondays.
Because as the haunting, opening chords of Loose Fit began to jangle out, it triggered every button in the valley.
“Gonna buy an airforce base, gonna wipe out your race, get stoned in a different place, don’t you know I’ve got better taste,” Ryder drawled.
Bez’s contribution was also immense. He climbed imaginary ladders and constantly bounded across the stage like some manic wooden puppet manipulated by invisible strings.
Across the fields, I saw 10 Star Wars storm troopers dancing, a Roman Soldier complete with broadsword, people dressed as ET, Spock from Star Trek, Buzz Lightyear, Spongebob Square Pants.
Girls and young lads so caked from head-to-toe in mud they resembled bronze statues brought to life through the unifying power of live music.
The loudest roar of the night for The Mondays came for Step On and the crowd ‘twisted’ like Madchester never really went away
Ryder may not have the vocal range any more, Bez may cut a strangely wasted figure, Rowetta may yet turn up on a TV talent show, but what a show, what a band, what a defining festival moment this was.
As the guitars whined out to end the set, Bez shouted: “People start the revolution tonight! Think about the future!”
So immense was the Mondays gig and so committed am I to bringing you the absolute unvarnished truth, that I decided, right there and then, to trek a full soggy mile back to the Defender.
There, I dragged out my trusty Acer Chromebook, lugged it back to my leaking hovel and wrote as many notes as I could about this experience until the battery died sometime around first light.
What struck me most that morning, is that festivals are what life will be like when society overthrows the state.
A total free for all.
Everybody doing what everybody wants…until the money and booze runs out.
Great parties, but who’s going to clean the toilets and empty the bins?
IN public relations terms, Cumbria County Council must surely have a “damaged reputation” this weekend after nine months of bad headlines.
And there’s a delicious irony in that because it’s due to the fact that they’ve finally had to admit spending £71,000 on a spin doctor and the head-hunting agency which delivered him to them.
So in this blog, and at great lengths, I’m going to explore in full how the council shot itself in the foot and then carried on blasting – all the way up both legs.
Because after all the power games and bull-headed stubbornness that the media has come to expect, C.C.C has waited until the very last minute to spit out the rotten tooth about how much tax payers’ money went to Mark Fletcher-Brown (pictured below).
He was the hired Midlands PR man, “smuggled” into county council headquarters last October as the council was caught up in the failure to sort out the introduction of parking machines.
The “Fletchmeister” worked three days a week for C.C.C over a six month period which ended in March.
City-based middlemen Gatenby Sanderson, who wrapped the bow to bring him here, shared a total of £71,000 with him. If he was paid £700 a day, it’s £2,100 a week or £8,400 a month.
The average member of staff at C.C.C gets about £22,000-a-year.
But Mr. Fletcher-Brown is undoubtedly one of the best sugar-coaters in the business and £700-a-day rates are small fry in the world of big city PR.
His management pamphlets speak some sense but are also peppered with mystic guruisms like “opinion dip” and “occupying a mind space”. But they seem to have a cat nip effect on impressionable town hall bosses and out-of-touch councillors from Merseyside to South Yorkshire.
Through no fault of his own, and who can blame him for taking the money, Mark Fletcher-Brown was parachuted in last autumn.
It was a hire that was rubber-stamped by people at the council who, you would have hoped, individually or collectively, might have the wisdom and sensitivity to recognise that an appointment like this, at a time like this, might go down like Dixon’s Chimney in a Force 10 tornado?
Not a bit of it, which makes the whole affair even more terrifying.
GATENBY SANDERSON – THE HEADHUNTERS
The arrangement that C.C.C would pay Gatenby Sanderson, rather than Mark Fletcher-Brown directly, and Gatenby would then pay him, was a master-stroke when it came to the precise figure remaining a secret all this time.
The arrangement meant the council could truthfully tell the media it hadn’t paid Mark Fletcher-Brown anything but then, in what appeared to be an open contradiction, say that it published all spend over £500 online.
The puzzled media would trawl through long excel documents on the C.C.C website looking for Mark’s name, or his company name, Reputation Counsel Ltd, but not find it.
Because it was actually being paid to Gatenby – a name the media wouldn’t have been looking for because it wasn’t associated with this story.
And no-one in the council thought to introduce it to any of the media asking questions.
None of this was illegal or wrong but the council, unhelpfully, never explained it.
WHY WAS AN OUTSIDE PR MAN NECESSARY?
C.C.C, it has to be said, is an organisation that last autumn was already well-stocked with PR wizards and managers. It is also ultimately overseen by one of its assistant directors Dawn Roberts (£90k-a-year).
She acted as Mark Fletcher-Brown’s direct line manager during the six months. She also seems content to take the money for the responsibility that goes with this area of the council’s work.
So why didn’t she carry out the review of Comms? It’s not difficult to arrive at what Mark ultimately suggested: reduce the comms department down from 27 staff to just 12?
Because everyone knows that the first rule of business is that less staff = less spend.
C.C.C, in its statement on Friday, suggested that someone external was required to review the department. Essentially, it wasn’t just a maths job but a deeper look at the comms function.
It needed an outsider because everyone’s job in comms was at risk.
And with their PR manager having already gone, the thinking clearly was that if Mark Fletcher-Brown replaced him for only half the year and for three days a week, it represented a saving on the former PR’s salary; as well as extra experience in the dept to undertake the review.
Which isn’t unreasonable and makes sense!
But perversely it was never communicated this explicitly. And had it been, it would have saved C.C.C a bucketload of trouble.
And if they had been bold enough to reveal his daily rate last autumn, the story would have been dead by Christmas. The only way to really “kill” this story was to be open about it, let the storm pass over, and get on with it.
But no, because of all the half answers and cleverly-worded FOIs, it periodically flared up every couple of months.
This allowed the opposition Tories on C.C.C the perfect opportunity to exploit it (particularly with a General Election coming up).
And the accepted wisdom in Government is that when the PR man becomes the story, it’s time for him to go.
So said one Alastair Campbell. Whether this gem was understood, or ever reached the ears of those who needed to know, looks unlikely.
“CYNICAL AND CONTROLLING OBFUSCATION”
The council waited until Friday (26th June) to release the figures to the media. This was when the council was publishing its annual report and legally had to reveal its spend. The timing is emblematic of the cynical and controlling tactics that have soured the whole sorry business.
On Fridays, many of the papers are already out and the media is switching off and heading towards the graveyard of the weekend news cycle, although I managed to get it in Saturday’s edition of the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald.
Not only does this type of “tactical timing” erode faith in C.C.C as a transparent and open organisation, but it insults the legitimate “right-to-know” of voters who duly cough up their council tax and turn out at the ballot box.
C.C.C takes about £550 million from council tax every year, with the rest shared with district councils, the police and crime commissioner, parish councils etc.
And for the record, most members of the public don’t pay council tax to feather the nests of PR magpies like Mark Fletcher-Brown, who reportedly earned £650-a-day at Liverpool.
And they don’t expect to line the pockets of head-hunting recruitment agencies based 104 miles away in Birmingham and with offices in Leeds and London.
Gatenby, along with firms called Solace Enterprises and Veredus, were sent the tender to get PR help to C.C.C.
£200 MILLION TO SAVE, 2,000+ JOBS TO GO
The facts are that upwards of 2,000 people could lose their jobs at C.C.C between now and 2018 in a county not famed for alternative employment choices.
In the period between 2011-2018, it will have had to have saved upwards of £200 million because of the national austerity agenda.
It will be lucky to survive any more financial icebergs.
But this hasn’t stopped the Labour and Lib Dem-run council from voting through a series of insensitive and poorly-timed decisions which have exposed it to criticisms that it is not practising what it has been preaching.
- Spending £12 million on a new HQ for itself (naturally centred in Carlisle) and now said to be mulling over a £6M ivory tower in West Cumbria
- Paying £44,000 for a single 40-odd page report asking whether we should get rid of all the councils in Cumbria and replace them with one
- Alienating and angering many residents with a long and ultimately botched attempt to bring in parking machines
- Cutting off bus subsidies used by pensioners and kids in one of the most remote areas of the country
As a former PR man myself, the people I feel most sorry for work in the council comms team. Having this dog’s breakfast of a mess dumped on their desks every couple of months to try and justify!
It’s no wonder one of its most experienced comms performers, Gareth Cosslett, has accepted the Sellafield shilling.
A TRACK RECORD OF BIG FINANCIAL PACKAGES
Let’s not forget that this is the same council which allowed Jill Stannard, a member of staff since 2005 and it’s chief executive between (2009-13), to leave with a package worth £411,000.
She left her £170,000-a-year post in May 2013 and with echoes of the current row, it took the council 14 months to face the music and tell the public how much she was paid.
That happened exactly a year ago this week..during last year’s publication of its annual report.
For the record, her handshake included an £87,000 lump sum, her salary for the part of the year she worked and a one-off £297,000 top-up to her pension pot.
Surprise, surprise…She joined the NHS recently.
But to be fair, she also bailed out the authority through the floods crisis which saw most of Carlisle under 12ft of water.
THE FORMER DIRECTOR NOW RUNNING A LEADERSHIP BUSINESS
Let’s also not forget Julia Morrison who is another important example in terms of context.
She was another member of the council’s top team of recent years.
Ms Morrison was a director at C.C.C responsible for its Childrens Services. It failed Ofsteds and she eventually went off on sick leave for around four months and then left in March 2014 to “pursue other interests”.
The council’s children services was recently again ranked “inadequate” earlier this year for the third time.
Ms. Morrison was replaced, briefly, by Helen Smith, who was offered the job at C.C.C despite having been suspended and resigning from a council further down the country that was failing kids. (Suspension is often a neutral act.)
The battered department in Cumbria is now overseen by a new director who has been praised by Ofsted for his work, although the section now remains at risk of being ripped from the council’s grasp by the Government.
It cost £228,509 for Ms. Morrison to go and she is now looking considerably healthier and happier. As well she might. Children’s services in Cumbria is clearly the Department of Nightmares.
Ms Morrison is co-running a business, as an “executive coach”. Which, its website says, does stuff like this…
“Through curious questioning, careful listening, insightful challenge and compassionate, mindful focus your coach will help you to explore your thinking, find what drives or holds you back, and support you to resolution.”
A colleague tells me she recently published an advisory post on LinkedIN called “It’s ok to say no”.
But not to money perhaps?
THE EMPIRE FIGHTS BACK…
Despite the continued embarrassment over directors leaving the sinking ship with big financial packages – C.C.C has a brass neck. Ms Morrison’s departure was printed in big headlines across the local paper and C.C.C wasted little time in complaining to the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC). C.C.C played semantics by arguing the toss about the wording of the headline, and went on to make an entirely legitimate point about errors in a readers’ letter.
And won its case.
C.C.C duly knocked out a triumphant press release hailing the decision as some kind of moral victory in the crusade for better journalism.
But local newspapers never write about other local newspapers. So what was the point of the press release apart from self congratulation?
Stewart Young, leader of the council
The supreme leader of the council is Stewart Farries Young, or “Kim” as some like to joke. He represents Upperby in Carlisle with a 600 or so majority.
My own experience of Stewart is that he’s rarely near a phone when there’s bad news (like most politicians). And like most politicians, when he’s on the ropes, he is inclined to defend the indefensible until he’s blue in the face, especially if it protects his party.
Along with his cutting, funny one-liners, one of Stewart’s strongest skills is being able to rationalise his way out of an argument. Often in understated, earnest tones.
But a failure of many councils is that its long-standing members can’t avoid developing strong friendships with the officers they’re supposed to be in charge of.
Stewart recently stood up in county hall and criticised the media’s fascination with the Mark Fletcher-Brown story – saying it’s not a story. That’s why I thought I’d write one at this level of detail…to see if anyone would read it.
Prone to occasional piety, Stewart swore a solemn oath to never reveal officers’ pay (despite it being public money).
He sat down in his seat on the front bench with the cheers and foot-stamps of his loyal, councillors ringing in his ears.
Most of these hail from Cumbria’s tough and poor towns (Carlisle, Barrow, Whitehaven etc). They occupy the majority of the 84 seats on C.C.C.
In recent meetings, Stewart has, at least in my narrow “spectator’s” impression of these things, radiated a disillusionment with local politics. Cutting budgets is not what Stewart, and others, signed up for and his 60th birthday is not far off.
He has also not shaken off, I suspect, the long but ultimately failed attempt to install photogenic “woman of the people” Lee Sheriff as Labour MP for Carlisle.
This was all going well until Lee started being asked questions during a live radio debate and began to babble. I was on my way to Carlisle and heard one of the debates.
I was so gripped by how horribly squeamish it was, that I moved to turn the sound up and accidentally drifted from the fast lane into the centre lane..and nearly into the path of an oncoming Eddie Stobart lorry.
But by the time the sun had set on May 7 and the results were in, the car crash was all Lee’s.
OSBORNE’S BARBECUE BUDGET?
The council’s chief exec, Diane Wood, is dreading July 8. That’s the date of George Osborne’s new summer budget where he is expected to skewer local government finances again and grill them on a barbecue.
Undiluted Tories in national Government will further axe council budgets, although one of Stewart’s qualities is his acerbic sense of humour…
But he’s one of the few in the council chamber able to roll with the punches coming from combative Tory leader James Airey, who loves to blast opposition members as much as he likes to go shooting.
As these tussles unfold, most of the Lib Dems tend to watch on silently – hoping no-one will notice that they’re mea culpa in all of this too as the power-sharing party controlling C.C.C.
I’m sure Stewart puts in a lot of hours as leader and on the basis of the Tweet below, he’d probably like to see councillors paid more for it…
But he’s been leader three times now and over the years that will add up to a few hundred thousand.
For example, in 2013-14, he received total payments of just over £31,000 for his role, which included £1,300 in travel and expenses.
But when you consider the multi-million pound responsibilities the job carries and the flak they have to take, would you do it?
And the suggestion seems to be that, in spite of all the calamities, councillors may even get a possible pay rise. If this recent press release is anything to read into..
FLETCHER GETS A BETTER OFFER…
As for Mark Fletcher-Brown, he’s gone now. Down the M6 in a Merc or Jag or whatever he drives. Sadly, despite his media prowess, we never spoke. But I fear he would have laid a Jedi Mind Trick on me anyway.
“I’m not the droid you’re looking for.”
Looking online, I notice his current website is being re-designed and if you live in Cumbria, your probably paying the bill for it by the way😉
He’s also gone shy on Twitter too – locking his account so that his management mantras (and photos of exotic destinations that he’s visited) can only be seen by faithful followers.
But after six well-paid months of spinning straw into gold up at the C.C.C, the big legacy is that the communications team that welcomed him last October and hung on his every word, is now being decapitated.
And it has not gone unnoticed that despite being defended as being required to help communicate its budget position to the public, actual public involvement in the council’s budget consultation of 2014-15 was less than half it was on the year before when he wasn’t there.
It fell from 1,500 responses in 2013-14 to just 624 in 2014-15. (Basically, around 0.1 per cent of the total population of Cumbria took part (although not all of the population pay council tax).
Who knows how much, or little of his hand was over it? Not me.
Curiously, it seems that every time Mark moves on, the story creeps out somehow and ends up plastered all over the media. This must give him acres of free exposure from which to catch the eyes of panicked town hall bosses?
They say he’s at Rotherham now. Where a report found that 1,400 children were systematically groomed and abused by Asian gangs in the town between 1997 and 2013. A place that’s had, what Mark might call, an “opinion dip”.
C.C.C’S DEADPAN WEBSITE…
THE BIG SHOWDOWN IN KENDAL’S COUNTY HALL…
The excerpt below is a pivotal moment in the story from back in April. After tearing her hair out in frustration, journalist Caroline Barber revealed via an FOI that the council had tried to “kill” news of Mark Fletcher-Brown’s appointment.
And below is the full exchange between Stewart Young and James Airey from a council meeting in April this year.
“WILL YOU APOLOGISE TO THE PEOPLE OF CUMBRIA?”
JAMES AIREY: “Following an FOI request by the local media, it is now clear that your administration deliberately tried to hide the appointment of a £700-a-day media guru from the public of Cumbria. Will you now apologise to the residents of Cumbria for this shameful behaviour?”
STEWART YOUNG: “It’s entirely up to the newspapers what stories they wish to print. They are after all, private businesses, they’re responsible to their shareholders. They have to try to make a profit, they’re not part of the democratic system.
“I have to say I have always been intrigued as to why they think this is a major story. They continue to bombard us with FOIs, I understand, although obviously as elected members we don’t see those requests.
“Rather strangely, you’re not allowed to reveal who submitted the FOIs, even if you submit an FOI to find out that information! We do know that the Press cost the council tax payer a huge amount of money in submitting – what on many occasions I have to say – are frivolous FOIs.
“I have been thinking for some time we ought to work out the cost to the county council, it is substantial. You wouldn’t believe some of the requests that we get and we are obliged to answer.
“Our full time communications officer moved on to pastures new, we did employ a consultant. We’ve never commented on how much that consultant was paid, and I don’t intend to comment on that today, as I wouldn’t comment on the salaries of any of our staff.
“The press print figures that they make up – again as they’re entitled to do. And I have to say James, you repeat those figures, in fact I suspect the figures they make up they actually get from you. Unfortunately I can’t submit an FOI to the Press to find out where they get their figures from…
“The reality is that the employment of that consultant has contributed to saving the county council half-a-million pounds a year. Going forward, we will have reduced the number of staff in our communications team from 27 to 12.
“It’s a significant contribution to the huge amount of savings we have to contribute. As you know Mark Fletcher-Brown left our employment at the end of March having done the job that we asked him to do.
“I know the Press put in requests to see emails, they ran a story that somehow or other we were trying to kill the story. The reason that people use that language is because there wasn’t actually a story.
“There was no story but the Press continued to run it. So, I think the answer I would give to you James is that you need to move on. I can’t be responsible for the stories the Press choose to run.
“Obviously they’re wanting to run negative stories in the run-up to the election in two weeks time, but that’s a matter for them.”
“TO TURN THE TABLES ON THE MEDIA IS SHAMEFUL”
JAMES AIREY: “Stewart, to be honest I don’t know why you employed the guy – you’re a pretty good spin doctor yourself. But to turn the tables on the media and accuse them of wrongdoing and costing council tax payers, is actually shameful Stewart, and you do need to apologise to the public of Cumbria.
“The reason I keep raising the question is because it keeps getting raised to me by my constituents and people right across Cumbria on the doorsteps. It is shocking, it is shameful. The facts were there…they were in emails…this was not made up by the media.”
“These facts were in emails that had to be requested by the media, if they had just been given by our staff to the media in the first instance it wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers of this county a penny.
“I’m afraid the fault lies entirely with you and your administration for trying to hide a very damaging story that cost the people of Cumbria an absolute fortune.
“We do not need outside people to come in to slim down our workforce. We have an excellent communications team, we still have an excellent communications team and this chap, Fletcher-Brown, added nothing to it.”
“PAPERS ARE IN DECLINE, WE’RE GOING TO SOCIAL MEDIA”
STEWART YOUNG:“There is nothing to apologise for. Our officers employ the staff that they need to employ to deliver what the council has asked them to deliver. I have had it said to me: “Why do we need to have communications?”
“The fact is as a council we need to communicate, not just with the press, sometimes through the press, but essentially to communicate with the public and also with our staff.
“Of course we need to communicate, and communication is difficult. And can I say it’s made more difficult by the fact that the traditional print media in particular, its business model is in difficulty.
“We understand that, its got declining numbers, few and fewer people are reading their newspapers, the challenge for us is, how do we then communicate with the public? We’re looking at the new media, social media, we’re looking at different ways of doing it.
“There will be 1,800 staff leaving the organisation over the next three years, it’s vitally important that whilst that is happening we keep the wheels on the wagon and we keep services being delivered to people and that means we have to communicate with our staff.
“It was all of those things that Mark Fletcher-Brown was advising us about as well as the reorganisation of the department and he’s done his job, I don’t know where he is now, he’s gone on to somewhere else, and we’ve saved half-a-million pounds which I’m very content with and for which I don’t apologise.
THE F.O.I “GAMES” C.C.C SEEM TO PLAY
The press office at C.C.C was refusing to confirm or deny Mark’s salary was £700-a-day and in the interests of both accuracy and intrigue, I was keen to know.
In January, I sent a Freedom of Information request but got nowhere with the responses and they only blurred the issue for me. The council likes to half answer questions, it seems.
So I tried a different approach.
Q1: Is the council going to be, or expect to be, charged for the work of its part-time temporary communications consultant?
Q2: Does the council know how much it is going to be charged?
Q3-4: What is the total amount of money the council expects to be charged and for what time period? How much has the council budgeted to spend on the part-time temporary communications consultant, and over what time period?
CCC: This information is exempt from disclosure under Section 22 of the FOIA as it intended for future publication. A full explanation will be published to coincide with the publication of the Annual Accounts as the expenditure relates to 2014/15. The Council’s Draft Accounts will be published before 30th June to meet statutory financial reporting requirements.
((Clearly, Section 22 of FOIA needs to be radically overhauled as it’s an easy cop out for power-crazed councils not to reveal sums until they’re good and ready with all their ducks in a row)).
HOW MANY COUNCIL MANAGERS DOES IT TAKE TO ANSWER AN F.O.I?
Q5: With whom were my questions shared, discussed? Name and job title please?
- Dawn Roberts, Assistant Director, Corporate Governance
- Duncan McQueen – Senior Manager, Performance and Risk
- Gareth Cosslett, Strategic Communications Adviser
- Claire Park, Team Leader, Corporate Complaints and Information Compliance
Q6: Are these answers solely and entirely yours? (I was addressing Claire Park)
CCC: See Q6 (earlier answer)
Q7: Did anyone else take part in formulating the answers? If so please provide their names and job titles?
CCC: See Q6 (earlier answer)
Q8: In respect of your saying it would cost over £450 to answer my questions regarding CCC disclosing emails, please provide your actual cost estimate. I am happy to pay this but before spending money I’d prefer to know the actual cost and would like you to demonstrate why you think it would cost over £450)
CCC: Under the Freedom of Information Act the council can refuse requests that will take longer than 18 hours to complete. Based on the wording of your request and the information that was potentially within scope the council estimated that it would exceed the cost limit. For this reason a more detailed breakdown of cost and time has not been completed.
((So essentially they “estimated” it would cost £450 but never got round to sitting down and, erm, doing the actual maths.
Some might say that this says a lot about their approach to public finances.))
Q9: Please provide the full tender document relating to the appointment of the interim part-time communications consultant.
CCC: Information relating to this question is being retrieved and will follow shortly.
NB: It never arrived.
F.O.I REQUEST, MARCH 2015:
Q1: Beyond citing confidentiality, can you tell me the specific actual law/act/or guidance/CCC is drawing on/using to justify withholding information about Mr Fletcher-Brown’s daily rate/cost to the council?
CCC: “The council is relying on guidance issued by the Local Government Association (Local Transparency Guidance – Publishing Spending and Procurement Information) in relation to the Local Government Transparency Code 2014. Any salary payment to an employee (including bonuses) except when published under the senior salary scheme is exempt from disclosure under Section 40 of the FOIA as it is the personal data of the employee. The guidance states that: “Any personal information that identifies an individual, or data that could lead to harm to an individual, is excluded from publication.”
Note: ((This too needs to be overhauled as, in my opinion, it’s public money).
Q2: Has Cumbria County Council ever published Mr Fletcher-Brown’s claims in its monthly spend over £500 and does intend to? (If it has published in this way, can you point me to it online with links to each of the months where the spend is claimed/published.)
CCC: In line with the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code the council publishes details of all expenditure over £500 via the Open Data pages: http://www.cumbria.gov.uk/council-democracy/accesstoinformation/opendata/default.asp.
((I never found any evidence it had published the figures in its spend over £500 and the accurate answer to Q2 should have been “no” – because of course it wasn’t paying Mark Fletcher-Brown but Gatenby Sanderson. But C.C.C knew that answering “no” would have let the cat out of the bag to the media that someone else was involved in the payment.))
Q3: If the council is not publishing this information, does it accept it is not conforming with the Local Government Transparency Code (updated on 3 October 2014)?
CCC: See response to Q2.
THE DEPT OF COMMS AND LOCAL GOVT
After being royally messed around and starting to losing patience, I rang DCLG. They said councils should publish spend over £500, and include contract and tender information and senior salaries.Councils are also cautioned against citing the Data Protection Act 1998 as a way of concealing payments. The Act “does not automatically prohibit information being published,” says the DCLG.But there was no word on the FOI clauses which C.C.C had referenced, which ultimately help councils stall the release of information and obscure the embarrassing stuff.DCLG encourages local authorities to “name the suppliers” with whom it has contracts, including sole traders, because of “the public interest in accountability and transparency in the spending of public money.”A spokesman for DCLG’s transparency program said the council should reveal “the total amount of spend” on Mr. Fletcher-Brown as he is an external contractor.“The payment would be regarded as paying a sole trader or supplier for a service,” she added.((But of course, it was Gatenby Sanderson who were being paid by the council.))
F.O.I EXCHANGE: FEBRUARY 2015
Q1-3: What is the total amount of money paid to the council’s part-time temporary communications consultant and over what time period? Please include expenses and breakdowns of these expense items. What is the equivalent daily and hourly rate in pounds that the council has been charged for its part-time temporary communications consultant? What is the maximum single amount claimed by the consultant from the council and for how many days/hours of work? When was this and what was it for?
CCC: The council has not made any payments to or processed any expense claims from Mark Fletcher-Brown.
Q4: Who does the consultant report to at an officer and member level and who is his line manager?
CCC: Dawn Roberts, Assistant Director Corporate Governance
Q5: Please provide all email communications between the PR consultant and the communications manager since his work began, and between the PR consultant the leader, chief exec and deputy leader
CCC: “We can confirm that the council holds information falling within the description specified in your request. We estimate, however, that the cost of complying with your request would exceed the appropriate limit, specified in regulations for Local Government, of £450. Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act the council is not obliged to comply with your request due to the excessive cost of providing you with a response. The council will reconsider a revised request should you chose to submit one but please be aware that this will be handles as a new request for information.”
Q6: Please explain how the consultant was appointed. Please detail any costs relating to this appointment and whether an external firm was paid/used to appoint this person?
CCC: Put out to tender; other bidders were Solace Enterprises, Veredus and Gatenby Sanderson.
FINAL THOUGHTS AFTER NINE MONTHS OF FRUSTRATION…
Cumbria County Council does a lot of good work, on a daily basis, that you’ll never hear about. But it also allows fiascos like this to blow up and, as I have hopefully demonstrated here, then uses them to play silly games with the media, who ask these questions on behalf of the voting/tax-paying public who keep them in well-paid jobs.
This has been a sorry and regretful saga that I, for one, want to forget as quickly as possible. It has only served to increase my distrust in the highest tiers of public organisations, and erode my dwindling faith in democracy.
My natural instinct is to fight apathy and encourage people to take part in the process, but when councils behave like this and are defended for doing so by the politicians supposed to represent us…
Whether this whole, ridiculous affair will be one of C.C.C’s epitaphs – a final, avoidable blunder before it’s struck by a financial meteorite and becomes a unitary, I’m not sure.
But in the meantime – don’t forget to vote.
What do you do when death’s cold hand comes out of the sky and rips someone from your life; taking them away forever?
Few of us are qualified or prepared, which is why cliches and platitudes abound at funerals. No-one really prepares for death but how can we?
Nanas and Grandads are allowed to have a “good innings” but we never imagine someone young will be taken from us. And when it happens, out of the blue, under a sunny sky, it’s usually when things are ticking along nicely…
Rosalind Gibb explores this void in our collective coping mechanisms in her first, and hopefully not last, book: Show Me Colour: Notes On Love, Loss, Grief and Renewal.
Rosalind, a freelance writer and editor, in her thirties, had fallen in love with a long-time friend called Andrew. She’d had other relationships before but he made her laugh like no other. With his hand in hers, she felt the luckiest girl in the world.
Andrew lived in Edinburgh and Rosalind in Carlisle so they crammed in their weekends together going on long walks, watching films, talking and laughing. As the summer of 2010 turned to autumn Rosalind knew this six month relationship was serious.
Having planned their first ever romantic weekend away, Rosalind sent Andrew a jokey text asking if he’d packed yet?
All day at work she heard nothing back, so she left a message on his answer machine.
Her suitcase, packed for the weekend, was in the hall.
She found out on Facebook that Andrew was dead, but didn’t quite believe it.
She telephoned one of his friends who burst into tears.
Her vivid and raw recollection of the sudden whirlpool of grief that sucked her into its vortex is one of the strongest parts of the book.
Her sister tying her shoelaces. Rosalind going to see his body one last time. Being asked in the shoe shop, where she was buying a new pair for his funeral: “Going anywhere nice?”
The tormented frustration and the desperation of grief. Having to go back to work as if “it” has all run its course. But better there than at home and the ticking clocks, the endless rumination and the “what ifs”.
Rosalind recalls shouting at the sky one night, asking: “If you can hear me, please make things more bearable.”
It would be easy for her to have written a morbid, self-pitying book.
But her story, told in a rapid cut-to-the-chase style that belies her background in newspapers, is a clever one and worth reading. I sense she’s written it as a nod to the scarcity of literature not available on the book shelves when she most needed it.
At a zippy 131 pages in short passages, it’s a story that doesn’t over stay its welcome.
Rosalind learns to move on and does so in a dramatic, unexpected and life-affirming way that made me smile. It’s a clever gear change which transforms the pace, tone, and attitude of the book.
Rosalind doesn’t magically “solve” her loss – we don’t tend to – but she does learn to build a bridge over the hole. The lesson that stands out for me is the understated significance of changing your scenery.
Going in search of a new life and new sunrises once the storm of grief passes over. Because if death gives us anything, it gives us a latent strength we never knew we possessed.
* 50p from the sale of the book will be donated to Cruse Bereveament Care, which has a branch in Cumbria, and helps people to come to terms with the loss of someone important in their lives and to understand their grief.
Edinburgh: Blackwell’s, South Bridge
Word Power Books, 43-45 West Nicolson Street
Living Memory Association shop unit in Ocean Terminal (ground floor).
Glasgow: Good Press (based in Mono, 12 King’s Court).
Carlisle: Bookends, 56 Castle Street, 01228 529067 http://goo.gl/H8ZFUA
Hatchards, 187 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LE
It is also available from the shop http://www.rosalindgibb.com.