Monthly Archives: January 2014

Taking offence and the right to offend – two sides of the same coin?

I’ve been prompted to write this post by something that happened to me earlier in the week

It started innocuously enough with the casual sharing of what I saw as a humorous link (but with a serious message) onImage Facebook. The link had appeared on my timeline having been liked and shared by someone who I knew to be a passionate supporter of breastfeeding and an advocate of the rights of women to feel comfortable nursing their babies in public. I was further reassured by the unanimously positive comments of other women who had seen and responded to the original Facebook post. To be honest, I also thought that it was one of the funniest things that I’d seen for a while, and it had brought a smile to my face on an otherwise pretty serious day in work

Initially, responses to the shared link on my timeline were also positive and supportive, with a small number of my (female) friends liking the image and message, and/or referring the link to their friends in turn. I was surprised therefore to receive some feedback later that day suggesting that my decision to share the link on my Facebook page was damaging to my personal credibility and would be a cause of embarrassment to my children. I was taken aback by this. Whilst I had considered the possibility that the featured product might be pushing at the margins of good taste, I had been reassured that those who’d shared and commented on it had seen it as a subversive but positive reinforcement of the importance and social acceptability of breastfeeding, rather than something that was somehow shameful or capable of damaging reputations

The negative feedback had suggested that I should remove the link immediately. In the end, I decided to leave it where it was and to see what (if any) further responses there were. Typically (and in common with most of the stuff that I share on Facebook!), following the initial very small number of likes and comments, there was no more interaction. Of course, it’s hard to know whether this is because the 70 or so other people who I am friends with on Facebook were so appalled that they simply couldn’t lower themselves to comment/respond; whether they saw it, smiled and moved on; and whether they simply weren’t bothered by it one way or the other. For the record, my daughter thought it was a bit weird, but she certainly wasn’t embarrassed by the fact that I’d shared the link. It was a useful opportunity for us to discuss some of the issues around breastfeeding in public and why there’s still some work to do to tackle the negative responses that too many women have to overcome to give their babies the best possible start in life

I’ve drafted this blog post several times over in my head in recent days. Initially, it was a very indignant piece – railing against what I saw as the narrow-mindedness that could lead someone to conclude that sharing a picture of a crocheted hat could undermine my personal credibility or be a source of embarrassment to my family. Subsequently, it became a more ‘preachy’ piece – rallying the reader to challenge prejudice wherever it is encountered (and especially amongst friends and family) as part of a process leading to a better society for all of us (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/power-and-prejudice/201311/speak-or-stay-silent-5-reasons-confront-prejudice). But in the final analysis, I have arrived at a more considered position

Ultimately, each of us is the sum of those opinions, thoughts and perceptions that has been formed by our experiences, and by what we have seen and learned as we live from day to day. We each have the right to be offended by the ideas and actions of those around us, and we each have a duty to challenge ideas and actions that we believe to be wrong. And if we accept that we each have a right to take offence, then we must also accept that occasionally others will exercise their complementary right to offend

So – if my sharing of the boob beanie link was offensive to you, then I’m sorry for any distress caused and I accept your right to be offended by it; but I’m not sorry for sharing the link, and please be assured that I plan to continue to be moderately offensive whenever and wherever I feel that the end justifies the means!

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Has conservative Wales lost its radical edge?

These are turbulent times for the public sector in the UK. And whilst that turbulence is significant throughout the four home nations, it is particularly severe in those countries like Wales where the public sector accounts for a significantly greater proportion of total economic activity. The squeeze on public sector spending that was introduced by the UK’s Coalition government following the last General Election, and which translates to the Welsh Government’s budget through the complexities of the Barnett Formula (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnett_formula), is having an increasing impact on the ability of public services in Wales to meet their statutory obligations. Consequently, there has been a steady stream of news stories focusing on plans to re-organise health services, local authorities, and education provision, all with the aim of reducing costs.

Earlier this week, the Williams Commission presented its recommendations on the future for local government in Wales, recommending a reduction in the number of unitary authorities from the current total of 22 to something nearer eleven (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-25776603). The (at least superficially appealing) logic is that fewer, larger organisations will be more efficient to run, and that consequent savings can be used to sustain or even develop and improve essential services. This report comes hard on the heels of reports reaching similar conclusions (although for slightly different reasons) around the organisation of health services in Wales. In the case of the NHS, the proposals are to concentrate specialist services into fewer centres to ensure that there is a sufficient volume of cases in each location to support appropriate levels of staff training and expertise. The driver for the NHS changes is less around funding, and is more a response to the concerns being raised by the relevant Royal Colleges of medicine, surgery and other specialties, that spreading service provision very thinly across different hospitals is unsafe in and of itself, and fails to provide an acceptable level of experience for medical trainees developing specialist skills in preparation for Consultant level posts. Interestingly, the debate on health has moved on recently, with the Welsh Health Minister pointing out that there is robust evidence supporting the view that something in the order of 20% of NHS spending is currently committed to things that we know do not work (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-25753591).

That public service delivery in Wales needs to change in order to respond to the new reality of reduced public spending and increasing demand, is unarguable. The status quo is not an option. What is disappointing about the current way in which the debate is progressing though, is the lack of a radical, visionary alternative to the current arrangements. The Welsh Government has previously prided itself on its aim of developing policies and approaches to public service delivery in Wales that were demonstrably different to those in the rest of the UK. Rhodri Morgan’s reference to ‘clear red water’ in the early days of the Assembly is the most striking example, but is by no means the only one (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/2565859.stm). It is regrettable therefore, that the proposals for the NHS and local government now seem both timid and focused on structure, rather than offering bold and alternative approaches focused primarily on the needs of service users and communities.

As an example, the Williams Commission appears to have been limited in its review of local authorities by a desire to establish and/or maintain shared boundaries with police force, health board and EU financial aid areas. This seems like a classic case of two wrongs not making a right. To take policing as an example, it is very unclear that there is any real case for suggesting that Wales needs four police forces (with four Commissioners and commensurate duplication of support functions and overheads), when Scotland appears to be managing quite satisfactorily with one (http://www.scotland.police.uk/about-us/). And EU financial aid boundaries were drawn up specifically to match the existing local authority boundaries – the very boundaries that are now deemed to be no longer appropriate (http://wefo.wales.gov.uk/programmes/20002006/objective1/?lang=en).

What might a radically different approach to public service delivery in Wales look like? It could take as its starting point the services themselves and the best way of delivering them to meet the needs of the users. It would challenge the existing assumptions about the value of local accountability and the importance of local political control. It would question whether it is any longer morally or ethically appropriate to justify different charging arrangements for social care services in different parts of Wales; whether the availability of drugs for treating the same conditions should be different in Cardiff than in Merthyr Tydfil or Denbigh; whether refuse collection services required by the people of Torfaen are really so different from those in Conwy or Pembrokeshire; whether the educational needs of seven year olds in the Vale of Glamorgan vary significantly from their playmates in Anglesey or Wrexham. If the answers to all or any of these questions is ‘no’, then the whole rationale for delivering these services through organisations based on geography begins to disintegrate. There may be very good reasons for having different governance arrangements for the police service as compared to social services and refuse collection, but these reasons are service related, not to do with where they are delivered.

A radical approach might see national delivery agencies for health, social care, education, highways and infrastructure etc.., with full executive responsibility for the implementation of national (Welsh Goverment) policy, informed and held to account by local boards representing service users and other stakeholders. ‘Local’ government would exist to facilitate local (and probably non-statutory) service delivery in areas such as leisure services, community facilities, libraries, parks and the like. These authorities could be much smaller than the existing Unitaries, and would be much less expensive to run. There would need to be an increase in the number of Assembly Members to allow that body to properly oversee the delivery of national service agencies, alongside its legislative role, but the additional costs would be minimal compared to the savings against the current overall cost of government at all levels in Wales.

The challenge facing public service delivery in Wales in the next decade is unprecedented in its scale and likely impact. Just doing the same things slightly differently will not cut it in this new reality. New challenges demand a new radicalism.

Multi Use Games Area? We should be so lucky!

Multi Use Games Areas (MUGAs) have started springing up all over our local parks in recent years. You’ve probably seen versions of them near you too. They’re the enclosed playgrounds with high (normally steel mesh) surrounding walls, with goals and basketball nets at each end. This is a typical example :

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They’re great facilities and provide a safe, all-weather area for playing football, basketball, hockey and a variety of other ball sports. It got me to thinking though of the equivalent ‘facilities’ that we had as kids growing up. My nearest equivalent to a MUGA was the underpass that provided a safe route for getting across the main road around the estate where I lived on the east of Cardiff. I went back there this afternoon to see if it was how I remembered. Initially, arriving on the road above the old underpass I was surprised to see a zebra crossing in place, and I was afraid that the old underpass may have been filled in (a number of other underpasses in east Cardiff have been decommissioned over the years because of complaints from local residents about noise and anti-social behaviour from youths attracted to the well-lit and dry spaces). Fortunately, my worries were unfounded and the underpass was still there :

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This was an iconic space for me as a youngster growing up in Llanedeyrn, Cardiff in the 1970s and 80s. It was the scene of epic 1v1 and 2v2 football games, with the goals marked by the kerb stones alongside the path at either end; the side walls were brilliant for games of Spot On and Killer (two outfield players and a goalie, and goals only to be scored through volleys – headers counted double – if you shot and missed, or the goalie made three consecutive saves, then players switched around); and in the summer months, it became a cricket net, with wickets at the end nearest the camera in the picture above and bowlers generating significant speed by running down the hill from the far end!

The beauty of the underpass as a sports arena was that it was ‘all-weather’ – there was no ‘rain stop play’ under the cover; and it was floodlit (originally – although sadly now removed – there was lighting in the corner between the walls and roof along the full length of both sides of the underpass). The other recent innovation is the introduction of the pointy cobbles on each side of the underpass (as shown in the picture below). In my day, these areas were flat and allowed the full space beneath the road to be used for games.

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Playing small-sided games in confined spaces was a great way of developing our ball skills, co-ordination and reflexes, way before the concept of ‘conditioned games’ and mini football became the well-known and widespread methods of football coaching that they are today. Even better, though, our play was not dependent on adult coaches or formal supervision. We would spend hours playing in the underpass or on the school field adjacent, before graduating at a later stage to the redgra five-a-side pitches, tennis courts and grass football pitches WITH NETS that were accessible by climbing over the fence from Springwood into the Cyncoed campus of what was then Cardiff College of Education (and is now part of Cardiff Metropolitan University).

The underpass was also an international boundary, marking the cut-off point for representative games between Hillrise, Springwood & Glenwood (the estates on the far side of the road), and Pennsylvania & Bryn Fedw (on the near side). These were major sporting events and the kudos of winning (whether it was football, cricket or baseball*) was huge. Matches would last for hours and would often finish only when the light eventually failed, or when so many players had been hauled away by parents for tea that the contest became untenable.

They were great days; and they engendered a love of sport and competition in many of us that continues to this day. We may not have had the cleverly designed goals and steel mesh boundary walls, but our MUGAs were at least as good as the ones that kids get to use today