Monday, 31 March 2008

150 years ago last Sunday

On 30th March, 1858, the pencil with eraser was patented. Surprisingly, it wasn't until Dec. 21, 1913 that the first modern crossword puzzle was published.

Legacy of Chartism

Both Labour and Plaid Cymru have a poor sense of history if they are both claiming to be the successors of the Chartists. The Charter may have arisen from the London Workingmen's Association, but it was not a socialist document.

Rather it was a demand for democratic freedoms. One can well imagine the original Chartists railing against the curtailing of civil liberties which New Labour has overseen. Moreover, Labour has had the chance to enact the only remaining unfulfilled aim of the Charter, that of fixed-term Westminster parliaments, and failed. (The Charter called for annual parliaments, but that seems rather impractical nowadays. However, the principle of regularly calling MPs to account, as we do in Wales and Scotland, and in local government, still stands.)

Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, in "The Growth of the British Party System", wrote:
[in 1839] plans for a march on Newport from the mining valleys of Monmouthshire led to a bloody clash with the armed forces. The leaders were sentenced to death, later modified to transportation, and most of the Chartist leaders in other parts of the country were imprisoned. For the time being Chartism was suppressed, but Whigs and Tories had been given a sharp reminder that their gilded life was lived only on the surface of society.

Another reminder is overdue.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Ghost voters

It refers only to England (so far as we know), but Lord Greaves's blog in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph ("On election fraud, we're still no better than a banana republic") makes worrying reading.

Conway & Sons escape prosecution

The Times report is here. On the face of it, the CPS and the police are treating a MP more leniently than they would a small business or a professional. Obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception is fraud whatever the 'rules' are. Certainly this is the view of Duncan Borrowman, but he could be said to have an interest, as the prospective LibDem candidate for Old Bexley.

However "weak" or "loose" the rules, there is NO excuse for claiming any money for someone who is not working at all at the time. It is a crime. I suppose the CPS argument might be that the House of Commons effectively left piles of money on the window-sill and said: "you should only take this money if it is due to you" and had no systems for determining whether or not those were the rules by which 660 gents and ladies took the cash.

Other fellow-LibDems say that we should not forget that it is safe seats which are the corrupting influence.

What is limited is the total spend. MPs with marginal seats, including most Lib Dems, can't afford to pay their staff much because they need a lot of them to do all the jobs necessary to retain their seats. In a safe seat MPs can pay more and do less work because they don't need to do more.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Your life details in their hands

Things might be looking up on the electronic data protection front. It's four weeks since the last security lapse (a confidential Home Office disc was found on a laptop computer that was sold on ebay).

The Mod is taking action on the security of third-party records and last November, the Prime Minister announced that Government will give the Information Commissioner the power to conduct spot checks on Government Departments, to do everything in his and Government's power to secure the protection of data.

There is still some way to go before the public's confidence is restored. A survey of 1,000 members of the public, which was sponsored by Symantec and conducted by IPSOS Mori, found 62 per cent of respondents felt their personal data being held by government departments was at risk.

William Beer, Symantec's European security practice director, commented: "Public confidence has been shaken. Six out of 10 people is a sizeable majority but I won't say the results surprised us. This is impacting people and it's not to do with their behaviour online. With this breach, it wasn't possible to change their behaviour to improve security. If this had been a merchant or online store, people could consider not doing a transaction."

Beer also said: "The new databases are causing a fair amount of legitimate concern in the public's eyes. If the government can't manage the current data set, how will it manage more sensitive data like biometrics?"

The public does not have much confidence in corporations to guard data either, the survey found, with 61 per cent of respondents saying they did not trust businesses to safeguard personal details.

Beer called for a UK data-breach notification law, which would require organisations that suffer a data breach to notify affected parties. He said the law would incentivise companies to better look after their data and that technical means were not enough to secure data.

He said: "It's a myth that technology is a silver bullet. Encryption will definitely help but there are times when you can't use it - there may be issues with keys, or passing the data set. There is a lot of focus needed on awareness [among end users of potential security problems, which is] often a challenging part of a security project. Companies have policies in place and technology in place but the weak link is the individual."

Roll-call of shame

Here is a round-up of incidents which I have gleaned from the last twelve months of reports. There are almost certainly many more which I have missed:
- Learner driver details go missing;
- Nationwide fined nearly £1m for security lapses;
- Countrywide Insurance in Cardiff;
- Stolen laptop puts 16,000 council staff at risk;
- Banks putting customer details out with the refuse;
- Norwich Union has "issues with" Indian offshore security;
- Halifax mortgage data stolen;
- TK Maxx credit card details;
- Patient details on a flash memory device;
- MoD lose Navy data on laptops;
- Court data on CD-ROM is lost in the post;
- and the big one by the Revenue.
Note that commercial and financial services organisations are culprits alongside government.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Sir Arthur C Clarke

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This is the Clarke epigram most quoted in the announcements of his death which appeared in the various media. It surprised me that UK radio news gave so little time to appreciations of Clarke. Of course, it didn't help that the news came through as we were mourning the untimely end of Anthony Minghella and shortly before Paul Scofield died. However, "Leading Edge" (science news) and "Brief Lives" on Radio 4 made up for this. These programmes should still be available as podcasts or on BBC's Listen Again facility, developments which would have pleased Clarke.

My favourite passage is from "The View from Serendip", a collection of essays published in 1976. In "How to Dig Space", he writes:
"For a couple of hundred years, no one did much about Space except look at it. A few crazy writers - if that is not a tautology - wrote stories about going into Space. Nobody took them seriously, which was just as well because most of their Space stories were excuses to poke fun at the existing state of affairs. If the authors hadn't set their adventures in imaginary planets, they would have gone to very real jails. (However, it is always dangerous to send authors to jail. This removes their chief excuse for not writing.)" [My emphasis]

(In another essay, "The Second Century of the Telephone", he predicts - and welcomes - the development of the mobile phone and of WiFi, though using optical, rather than radio, waves.)

"The View from Serendip" was put together at the same time as he was writing "The Fountains of Paradise", in which Sri Lanka (once known as Serendip) also features. It must be significant that, on the island where he at last found personal fulfilment and emotional stability, he wrote the book in which a rounded, believable, human being steps off the page, as it were. For me, the characters in his previous work were merely devices to carry the ideas forward - though what ideas!

The dead tree media were rather more generous than their electronic brethren. For instance, The Independent gave a full page to two obituaries. The second, from Simon Welfare, who was involved in the making of Clarke's TV series "Mysterious World", concludes:
"Between takes on location, Arthur often amused himself, and us, by concocting new, and often outrageous, epitaphs. We gave a prize for the best. For once, I think, it was written by someone else, but it was fitting for a man whose vision had ranged so inspiringly across the seas of space. It read: 'I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.'"

Friday, 21 March 2008

Liberal Democrats love cats (slim ones, that is)

I haven't received my copy of Liberal Democrat News this week, but according to "Pandora" in the Independent, there is an intriguing item about cats and political preferences in the issue.

Apparently, a psephologist's research shows that Nick Clegg is "the clear favourite among UK cat owners", above the Prime Minister and David Cameron. Clegg came second among owners of dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs. Guinea pig carers exhibit a special and deep hatred of Gordon Brown. Dispelling another stereotype, the Liberal Democrat leader came last among hamster owners.

Peter Black and his good lady are well-known cat-lovers. Our former candidate in Aberavon, and Swansea City councillor, Claire Waller, is a cat person, too. Our local party secretary is more ecumenical, sharing her house with cats and dogs, who get on remarkably well together. I also like cats (provided they keep well away from my bird-table!), but in small doses because I am unfortunately allergic to both cats and dogs.

So, an unscientific survey tends to support the thesis. I now expect an energetic riposte from a dog-lover in Maesteg ...

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Post Office closures

Yesterday, in the House of Commons, our two local MPs voted against this motion:

"That this House regrets the proposal to close up to 2,500 post offices; recognises the vital role post offices play in local communities; notes the concern and unpopularity amongst the general public of closing such a large portion of the network; has concerns that the access criteria laid down for the closures consultation do not adequately take into account local geographical factors and public transport networks; is concerned that the consultation period is only for six weeks rather than three months, as recommended by Cabinet Office guidelines; believes that post offices must move with the times in the services they offer and that options for business expansion and developing business opportunities with local authorities should be explored further; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to instruct Post Office Limited to suspend the compulsory closure of sub-post offices while these issues are re-assessed."

(I am grateful to Peter Black to this link to the vote list.)

It will be noted that the motion makes no party points, even though it was moved by a Conservative. It is particularly surprising that Dr Francis, MP for Aberavon, otherwise such a champion of local sustainability, should vote against a motion which strikes a blow for communities.

Later: Peter Black has pointed out that Paul Flynn, another advocate of localism, also voted against the motion. His rationale is here.

Skateboards and dentistry

The last meeting of Coedffranc community council before the local election campaign took place last night.

There were bread-and-butter issues, like confirming tenders for various works and pursuing the matter of commuter car-parking.

We continue to fight for Cefn Parc Clinic. There were further revelations of inconsistencies and prevarications in the opposition's case.

As to skateboarding, my experience is that the most successful parks are the unofficial ones. When I worked in Penarth, it was amazing to see how quickly the station car park was taken over by enthusiastic young boarders after the commuters had departed. They caused no trouble or damage (that I could see) to any of the shops in the station parade.

However, we would like to see a facility for this still-popular activity in Skewen. Failing an unofficial skateboarding venue here, the council should provide one. We older people need to sort out the boring problems like insurance and possible sponsorship, but we also need input from the likely participants. At the meeting last night, I don't think there was a member under the age of 50. Hopefully, the elections will produce candidates to spread the age range on the incoming council.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

We must get better at keeping the trains running

Commenting on the NAO report into Network Rail’s handling of rail accidents and incidents, Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary, Norman Baker said:

“If we are to have a railway fit for the 21st century passengers must have confidence that Network Rail is able to keep the trains running.

“Some delays are inevitable but there is much more that can be done to move towards a genuine seven day rail service.

“Single line working should be reintroduced where possible so that one track can remain open while engineering works continue.

“If the railways are to continue to grow passengers must be offered a good and reliable service, rather than constantly being faced with delays and cancellations.”

At the same time, the virtual auction for scarce modern rolling stock has seen First Great Western (serving South Wales) succeed in obtaining new train sets to improve its poor reliability, while Arriva has to delay its promised improvement in the quality of its services to North Wales.

The love of roads by the deputy first minister does not help, either.

See also Eleanor Burnham and Peter Black.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Prisons have become "shooting galleries"

It was reported last week that up to one in six inmates tested positive for opiates such as heroin. Liberal Democrat Shadow Solicitor General, David Howarth said:

“The fact that only one in four prisons were clear of positive opiate tests demonstrates just how much of a problem drug abuse is. Prisons are failing in their duty to prisoners and society when they fail to prevent drug misuse among inmates.

“It illustrates the dangers of sending large numbers of people to prison where their drug habits will not only fail to be cured, but may actually begin in the first place.

“The Government must learn that the best way to reduce prison overcrowding is not to release dangerous criminals early, but to move drug addicts and those with mental illness into more appropriate secure accommodation.”

The message was reinforced by today’s report from the UK Drugs Policy Commission which finds that prison risks doing more harm than good for the rehabilitation of drug users.

David Howarth continues:

“This report rightly highlights the load imposed by drug users on our over-burdened penal system. Instead of sending ever-increasing numbers of people to prison, the Government should focus on ordering drug treatment for non-serious offenders.

“For these offenders, effective drug treatment outside prison will have a far greater impact on reducing future crime than short-term prison sentences."

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Keyboard disaster - missing letters untraced. BT cleared...

This posting is the property of Guy Kewney and was taken without the owner's consent

Recently, my friend Roo lost the letter "y" off his laptop. Ever time he tped a word with that letter, he had to reach for his "Alt" key (which involved Numlock first) and tr to work out what the code was.

It reminds me of the time I lost the letter "r" - which was a complete disaste, and I went to the bothe of buying a new keycap - which, I thought, I had stuck down - but no! As soon as I tuned the keyboad ove, it fell onto the floo and unde the same cupboad that the fist one went unde...

Fortunately, I have it now. But at the time I was in a panic: I couldn't see a thing under that dresser! So I felt around on the floor, hoping to pick at least one of them up. Instead I found three CDs from MSDN and an awful lot of fluff from the dog; more rubber hair-bands than I owned when I had a pony-tail - and no keycaps AT ALL.

In short, I couldn't find my "r"s with both hands...

Saturday, 15 March 2008

New Tory hope for off-shore prisons

When the Conservatives first announced their policy of solving prison overcrowding by sending inmates to friendly low-wage economies to take care of them, Labour challenged their shadow Home Secretary to name one such.

It now appears that with the new Australian government's decison to close the immigrant detention centre set up by the previous administration on Nauru, a ready-made facility has become available. ;-)

e-Crime Crackdown reports that "Britain is in the grip of the growing cyber crime menace, with e-crime now estimated to be worth $105bn worldwide - more than the illegal drugs trade."

"Police, businesses and politicians say Britain is ill equipped to deal with the growing threat and have been demanding a dedicated e-crime police unit since the National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) was absorbed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in 2006."

(There is no mention of e-crime on the Agency's home web page.)

"The Home Office is expected to announce this month whether it will provide £1.3m in start-up funding for the Policing Central E-Crime Unit (PCEU), which would co-ordinate and collate reports of cyber crime nationwide.

Previous comprehensive spending reviews by this government have made no mention of e-crime or of the PCEU unit proposed by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Metropolitan Police Service.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Extraordinary by-election result

Generally, there is no point in publishing our council by-election wins, unless they occur in Wales. Truth be told, we have had losses too. The same is true of the other parties. In spite of what the media-commissioned opinion research says, actual votes in actual ballot-boxes show that the parties nationally are treading water.

However, when the party defending a seat increases its majority from 43 to nearly 400, and this occurs in Greater London where the forthcoming mayoral contest is supposed to be between Labour Kooky Ken and Conservative Batty Boris, it's worth recording:

London Borough of Brent, Queen's Park ward

Sharar Ali (Green) 239
Lesley Daisley (Labour) 851
Durmaj Dhillon (Con) 292
Simon Green (Lib Dem) 1242

It's also good news for Sarah Teather, LibDem MP for Brent East.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Cadoxton attack

There is still no news of an arrest in the case of the young woman attacked by St Catwg's church last Saturday night. As residents have commented in the press, the attack is out of character for this quiet, picturesque part of Neath.

People who don't know the area have made assumptions about the nature of the path the young woman took, and criticised her for walking through a graveyard late at night. In fact, the route is a natural connection between footways along a main road, cutting off a bend in the road, and is no more than 30 metres (at a guess) at its furthest point from that road.

Ironically, there is a famous tombstone in the churchyard commemorating a young woman of earlier times who was not so fortunate in escaping from an attacker.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Two sad losses for the arts in Wales

Alun Hoddinott today and John Chilvers on Monday both passed away.

Hoddinott was the last of the great Welsh triumvirate of composers with Daniel Jones and William Matthias, and probably wrote the most approachable music of the three. He was certainly assiduous in writing to commission and his contribution to Welsh music in general was marked this time last year, when it was announced that the recording space and performance hall of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, at Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre, was to be named BBC Hoddinott Hall.

There are many theatre-goers in Swansea (as I was in younger days) and theatre groups in the area who owe a great debt of gratitude to John Chilvers.

Of course Cardiff should compete in the UEFA cup

It's as English as Birmingham or Liverpool; witness its vote in the devolution ballot.

Greenwash Budget

My prediction of the headline description in tomorrow's press.

The Chancellor spent the first 30 minutes of his speech covering up the cracks in the economy. I don't have the benefit of the Red Book in front of me, but I had the distinct impression that Darling was careful in his use of start and end dates in presenting his rosy view of UK performance under Labour, and in the careful selection of actual and inflation-adjusted cash figures.

Even the "green" announcements, which Darling no doubt hopes will attract most attention, consisted mainly of more targets (with no action to back them up). There will be no tax on plastic bags (which the Republic of Ireland has had for years), merely the threat of one if the supermarkets don't put a satisfactory spin on their voluntary schemes.

Some good strikes by David Cameron, but he was shooting into an open goal. (There, a trite metaphor to match the ones he delivered today, no doubt prepared in advance.)

Nick Clegg's response was more low-key, but concentrated on the real impact of the budget on actual people, especially those on low incomes. (I have a particular gripe about the overdue, and inadequate, increase in the winter fuel allowance.)

The two budget responses were complementary, almost as if the two opposition leaders' research teams had conspired beforehand. ;-)

There were some notable omissions from Darling's overview; what will be the impact on future spending of the national identity database? of military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan?

More importantly for us in Wales, and for the Scots, there was no acknowledgement that the devolved budget settlement, the Barnett formula, is bust and needs to be replaced.

[Later] The increases in alcohol duty were clearly signalled when the PR attack on binge drinking was launched earlier this year. The fact that Darling hasn't targeted the most offending drinks, or shown any sign of curbing the supermarkets, through whom he derives the bulk of excise duty on booze, shows that this was purely a tax-raising measure.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

New Labour Party general secretary a City investment manager

David Pitt-Watson is the chairman of a City finance group which happens to be a Northern Rock shareholder.

For more, see Guido Fawkes.

One wonders what Tamsin Dunwoody, the socialist former AM for Preseli Pembrokeshire, whose grandfather was the redoubtable Labour general secretary, Morgan Phillips, makes of it.

DEFRA - a case for outsourcing?

The euphuese of the National Audit Office's press release barely conceals the NAO's criticism of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in its report of last Thursday. Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Webb, was rather more robust:

“Defra is a financial basket case. There are glaring deficiencies in its financial management, whilst the people who rely on Defra, such as farmers dependent on subsidies, have received atrocious service.

“The situation is now so bad that key programmes are being slashed simply to try to balance the books."

This is why we in Wales should be concerned. The overspend on the failed farmers' payments system in England hits DEFRA's other, UK-wide, work.

“Defra is the lead department in tacking climate change, which is the biggest challenge facing the planet. It is appalling that it has been allowed to get into this mess,” says Steve Webb.

I have a suggestion. Since the Welsh Assembly Government got its farm payments scheme pretty well right, and the Labour government in Westminster is so keen on agencies and outsourcing, couldn't DEFRA solve one of its problems by commissioning WAG to service the English farmers?

Monday, 10 March 2008

Women in IT

The European commissioner for information society and media, Viviane Reding, has set her sights on debunking geeky IT stereotypes which she believes are putting women off working in technology.

By this time next year, Reding plans to establish a European code of best practice for women in IT - to address the so-called 'leaky pipeline' phenomenon, whereby girls steadily lose interest in working in technology as they progress through education and settle on a career.

Given that the first person to grasp the potential of automatic logic was a British woman, Ada, Countess Lovelace, and that the pioneers of high-level language programming were the US "sewing circle" which included Jean Sammet, and Grace Murray Hopper, it is a sad reflection on our times that this initiative is necessary.

Our industrial history - more than just winning coal

Not many people know how deep was the involvement of Neath, Aberavon and their hinterland in industrial developments, nor how far back the involvement goes.

A new heritage trail announced by the European Route of Industrial Heritage organisation includes Neath Abbey Ironworks as well as Aberdulais Falls and the mining museums at Afan Argoed and Cefn Coed.

Herian (Heritage in Action) has produced a superb illustrated pocket booklet, which should be available in your nearest museum, National Trust visitor shop and a few other places from today. Ordnance Survey grid references of all sites are given.

Only the old woollen mill in Neath Abbey is neglected. However, it is represented anonymously, in that one of the machines in the National Woollen Museum at Newcastle Emlyn was originally sited by the Clydach.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The People's Republic of Mortimer

Not connected with John, Caroline or Penelope as far as I know, this blog was brought indirectly to our attention by Peter Black.

A sample (in the course of a discussion of "Batty Great Aunt Margaret Hodgepodge's" troll about Englishness)

Henry I - 1100 - hm, everyone knows medieval history is pointless and rubbish, but let’s see what Wiki says…

"Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged the Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.

"The rest of Henry’s reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people"

Ha, strike him out! Last thing we need is a medieval monarch who is more liberal and competent than the Labour party.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Compulsory ID cards may be for the chop, but the national database remains

The government has ditched plans to force people to get a biometric ID card when they renew or apply for a passport. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith also announced last week that any Parliamentary vote to make ID cards compulsory for British citizens will now be delayed until 2015.

But the government still intends to force foreign nationals living in Britain to register their biometric details on the National Identity Register and carry an ID card by the end of this year. ID cards will also be required by people working air-side at Heathrow and other high security risk areas from next year.

After that the target is students and young people, who will voluntarily have the option of registering for an ID card from 2010.

Anyone renewing or applying for a new passport from 2011 onwards will be required to add their biometric details to the National Identity Register.

So the part of the scheme which is most objectionable, the national database, is still to go ahead, while, experts assess, the skids are under the ID card. (Some of us would have found a simple, cheap, identity card, such as is carried in some continental countries quite useful.) The Register has already cost millions, will cost many more, is intrusive, prone to errors (judging by government performance in the last twenty years) and unsafe.

On the latter point, a government minister said that the system was secure because the register could not be accessed online. If this is so, then what is the point of having it? Perhaps the intention is to batch enquiries like the good old days of the original tape-based DVL system. Even this is only as secure as the people handling the enquiries.

Friday, 7 March 2008

You wouldn't treat animals like this

Jenny Willott, who shadows what I still think of as the Home Office, has asked a series of parliamentary questions which reveal a 561% increase in prisoner-on-prisoner violence since 1996.

She writes: “It is completely unacceptable that over 200 inmates are attacking each other in our prisons every week.

“The Government’s addiction to criminal justice legislation has left our jails packed to the rafters. Prisoners are kept in ever-closer proximity, and prison officers are stretched even further with the inevitable result of increased violence.

“How can we expect offenders to be rehabilitated within the penal system if they are exposed to such high levels of violence? These figures suggest that there is a real risk they may become more dangerous criminals than when they went in.

“Ministers must realise that we cannot build our way out of the current prison crisis. The Government must take a more long-term view and move drug addicts and prisoners with mental health problems into more appropriate accommodation, as well as examining alternatives to short custodial sentences.”

I would go further: staffing of prisons needs to be increased. Apart from increasing the chance of defusing violence before it gets out of hand, it would allow supervision of activities which would get prisoners out of their cells.

If animals are crammed together artificially, they attack one another and/or self-mutilate. There are Europe-wide rules on animal husbandry as a result; why should we treat people any worse?

Prison should punish and restrain, not degrade.

Tory plans have come in for criticism from David Heath, LibDem MP for Somerton and Frome. He said:

“The Tories spend months working on a prisons policy and come up with three ideas that have already been thought of by someone else.

“The Liberal Democrats have long argued for fixed term sentences, with a maximum and minimum tariff announced by a judge in an open court, and for the creation of a Victims’ Compensation Fund paid for by prisoners doing productive work within our prison system.

“The Tories share their final idea, that we can somehow build our way out of the prison overcrowding crisis, with the Government, who have already started the process.

“This represents a fundamental misunderstanding based on the na├»ve assumption that 100,000 places will be enough. It will not if we continue to send ever increasing amounts of people to prison.

“There is no evidence that our extremely high incarceration rates are doing any good. Crime rates in Britain are similar to those in Denmark and yet our rate of incarceration is twice as high.”

Monday, 3 March 2008

"Drest in a little brief authority"

Today I became a co-opted member of Coedffranc Community Council, which covers Skewen. Community councils form the lowest tier of elected local government, and not all areas of Wales are served by community councils. For instance, the Port Talbot part of this county borough has no community councils, while Neath (including parts included in the Aberavon parliamentary constituency) is completely covered by community councils.

The English equivalent is a town (a term also used in Wales, as in Neath or Cowbridge Town Councils) or parish council. CCs concern themselves typically with community safety, street lighting, allotments, cemeteries, playing fields, community centres, litter, war memorials, seats and shelters, and rights of way. CCs in Neath Port Talbot are also asked for their opinions on some planning applications, though the final decision remains with the county borough council.

Co-option is undemocratic, and should only be used as a last resort. The situation here is that several councillors have left the area and the vacancies need to be filled. The law does not allow for elections to community councils (or unitary authorities, for that matter) within six months of the date when regular elections would normally be held.

So I am to be a community councillor for just two months, attending two meetings: one this Wednesday, and another in April.

I'll throw my hat into the ring for the elections on 1st May, hoping to obtain a democratic mandate. However, I hope that more than the "usual suspects" come forward. It is a good way for public-spirited citizens to serve their community, without being submerged in all the paper-work which is increasingly swamping councillors on the CBC.

Sadly, the lower age limit of 21 prevents the people who could make a vital contribution directly to the council, but one hopes that will change in the not-too-distant future.