Monday 28 September 2009

Making Cambridgeshire Count

I spent the day today at the launch seminar for Making Cambridgeshire Count.

The idea of this initiative is to make sure that we are fully aware of how all the taxpayers money that is spent in Cambridgeshire and to provide focus so that we can make sure that we eliminate waste and duplication and make sure we are as streamlined and efficient as we can be.  there was a great deal of high level representation there, oincluding from all of the Councils across the County, the police, the Fire Service and the NHS.

One of the things I like about MCC is that it is totally driven from within the County.  So, although we have got external funding to run the programme, we are helping to work towards our own destiny.

As we move towards an agenda where we are facing cuts which are estimated between 20% and 35% - this sort of initiative is going to be essential if we are to improve the services we offer.

Thursday 24 September 2009


We had a petition presented at Full Council today by a Fenland Lib Dem activist. Basically, it was in support of a supermarket in Chatteris, and he used the fact that the planning committee had turned down such an application in Chatteris as part of his case.

The truth is that, whilst the planning committee did indeed turned down applications for supermarkets in both Whittlesey and Chatteris, there was a very clear message sent at the same time that supermarkets were needed, but that the detail of the applications were not acceptable.

In the case of the Chatteris situation. I suspect that a petition suggesting that a supermarket with pedestrian access over the A141was needed would not have got anywhere near as many signatures!! That was the application that was in front of the planning committee.

A new application has come forward for Whittlesey recently, and I am fairly sure that one will come forward for Chatteris too. But, a yes decision should not be made simply because it is a supermarket, we should be looking at whatever comes forward and only saying yes if the planning issues are acceptable.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Tough Planning Decisions

It was my casting vote today that was responsible for the application for a homeless Hostel in Wisbech (on the site of the Queens Hotel) being approved. I suspect my name is mud amongst some, so I thought I would write an unusually long blog post to explain my motives.

Prior to committee I had decided that I would vote with the main committee rather than abstain and reserve my vote simply for a Chairman’s casting vote (which is what I normally do). I have said before that I would do this where I felt strongly about an application; it is something that, on occasion, I have done in the past. The nature of the previous debate and the huge press furore was what made up my mind to do this yesterday. I felt that, for such a sensitive, controversial and important application, the Chairman of the committee should stand up and be counted, in whatever direction - I cannot recall a decision of such controversy over recent years. That was my decision and one that I did not discuss with anyone prior to the committee meeting. As it happens I ended up voting in favour and then making a casting vote to support.

Whilst I understand some of the concerns that were expressed on the day, the debate today was not about revisiting a Cabinet policy decision to support the Ferry Project (who will run the hostel), it was about deciding whether this particular scheme was acceptable in planning terms. Part of my role as Chairman is to ensure that crucial aspects of that debate are brought out.

The first issue is conservation. The most important aspect of the building is the frontage and the interior. The major change was a conservatory/function room at the rear. I raised this issue about the important Conservation issues as part of the debate to allow challenge. But English Heritage had supported the application in writing and the Wisbech Society were broadly supportive when they spoke. In my view there was not sufficient argument to challenge the comment that the conservatory was not in a vital area in Conservation terms. There was some concern expressed by one speaker about the need for a lift in the interior but, to be fair, there are very few uses to which this building could be put that would not require a lift.

The next question is whether this building was suitable for the sort of mixed use proposed - especially given its location. There are a number of examples around the country where similar schemes operate in historic buildings in sensitive areas, Dartmouth, St Martin’s in the Field (Trafalgar Square) are a couple (but there are more). So, I felt someone would need to demonstrate why this location differed, why what was acceptable elsewhere was not acceptable on the Queens Hotel site - another point that I raised because I felt it was critical to the discussion. It is not enough just to say not here, the debate, in my view, needed to be about why this was unique compared to elsewhere. If there had been enough robust planning based challenge to that comment, it almost certainly would have made me vote differently because I felt this was the critical aspect of the debate. In my view that evidence was not offered at committee so, again, it was quite clear in my mind that the presumption was in favour.

Thirdly, there was an issue about the fear of anti-social behaviour. There was a great deal of evidence about problems with Mill Road, (the Ferry Project’s current location in Wisbech). But there was also evidence put forward that many reasons for this were because of the unsuitable nature of those premises, something that would be addressed by the use of this location. Furthermore, it was confirmed that the main entrance for residents of the hostel would be from the rear of the property - thus minimising problems at the front. Coupled with this, there will be a robust behaviour policy and Fenland and the police will have representation through the management board. Therefore I felt that the weight of evidence was in favour; especially given that the project is to be put forward for “Secured by Design” accreditation.

There were a number of other issues raised, one was the weight of opposition in an online newspaper survey, which had suggested that 87% were against the application. I am afraid I, personally, cannot offer that significant weight. Those surveys are great for creating news headlines, but it is easy to fix online surveys like this; by one individual voting on a number of computers, or by deleting cookies and re-voting. Secondly, letters to the authority have reasons for opposition on them - which allows weight to be given, not just to the number of letters, but also the nature of any opposition or support. Thirdly, whilst 87% was mentioned, there was no mention of exactly how many votes made up that 87%. For that reason I chose to give weight to representations to the authority, and again, in this instance, I felt there was a slight weight of evidence in favour.

I hope, this explains why I voted like I did, and indeed why I voted. It would have been easy for me to sit on my hands and watch a vital decision for Fenland go either way and then say “Not me guv - I didn’t vote”. I chose to do what I thought was right. I can say quite categorically that if I had considered that the weight of evidence had been against the application I would have voted against.

The rules around planning are such that it is permissible to enter a planning meeting with a predisposed view (“I think I will vote this way, but we’ll see), it is not permissible to enter with a predetermined view (I will definitely vote this way, whatever is said). I was definitely in the former camp not the latter, but in my view the crucial issues at the debate fell in favour.

I should add, it is up to planning committee members to come to their own independent decisions and I respect the views of all of the committee. This just explains my own thinking and is, in no way, a criticism of others.

I now look forward to this hostel opening, and being an asset to Wisbech and Fenland as well as helping some very vulnerable people to develop and improve their lives. We should be in no doubt that this is the intention of both Fenland and of the Ferry Project.

Aside from that decision, it was a tough meeting today, with a number of challenging issues. From a local perspective, an application in Market Street in Whittlesey was refused because the flats above the shop were considered to be over intensive. A tough decision this, but a good debate was had and, on balance, I think the right decision was made. Of course, the applicant now has the right to either appeal to the Planning Inspectorate or resubmit a revised application.

Monday 21 September 2009

Ride for Ryder

My photograph is in the Evening Telegraph tonight as a result of taking part in the Ride for Ryder event in Peterborough yesterday. I can't link to it because I can't find the information on line.

But basically it was a cycle ride to raise funds for Thorpe Hall. Myself and Angela, also included in the photograph) chose to do the 55 mile route which ran to the north of Stamford, across toRutland Water and then south and East back to Thorpe Hall. The course was fantastic, we really enjoyed it (despite going the wrong way twice). I was a bit tired last night, but it was worth it.

Monday 14 September 2009

Building Design Awards

One of my tasks last week was to attend the launch of Fenland's Building Design Awards which are sponsored by the Cambs Times and the Wisbech Standard. The event was held at the home of last year's winners who live near Welney and have an extension to their home with a spectacular platform at the top offering an amazing view of the Fens. What interested me was that everything about the building suggests it would be imposing. It says something for the design that it really can't be seen until you are right on top of it (which is my excuse for being late!!)

I'm a big fan of the Building Design Awards. Planning is a difficult process, one that inevitably creates bad publicity because the decisions are often controversial and inevitably upset either opponents of schemes or supporters. So to hold an event that shows positive outcomes of the planning process has to be a good thing.

Election Count in North East Cambridgeshire

The Cambs Times is reporting today that North East Cambridgeshire's election count will still be carried out on election night and not the day after - a change that other authorities have made.

I wrote Geoffrey Harper about this a few weeks back and I am delighted the response has been the right one. There is something very special about General Election night and we ruin that at our peril.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Stroking my own ego

This is very helpful the week before an OFSTED inspection of Children's Services. It is an extract from an article in "Children and young People Now" magazine:

"Out of 10 lead members for children's services contacted by CYP Now, five were unaware of what ContactPoint is or where they stand on the debate.

Shelagh Hutson, Conservative lead at Norfolk County Council, conceded she knew nothing about the database. Sheila Scott, Conservative lead in Peterborough, said she was unfamiliar with the term ContactPoint.

Tower Hamlets' Labour lead for children's services, Abdul Asad, said he would have to get information on the issue as he had "been away" and Labour lead in Bolton, Ebrahim Adia, said he would have to "go away and think about it".

Glynis Vince, an independent in Enfield, said she was unable to keep track of everything in her portfolio.

Five other lead members, covering Barnsley, Hartlepool, Portsmouth, Cambridgeshire and Darlington were able to outline their position on the debate."

It is nice to get confirmation that I know the issues in Children's Services in Cambridgeshire. To be fair, I spend as much time as I can visiting and asking questions to make sure I am informed, and I only had a very quick conversation with CYP Now about the civil liberties issues involved with contact point.

And to be fair to other Lead Members. There are many, many issues involved with the portfolio and Contact Point is not one they can necessarily influence because it is a National initiative.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Cambridgeshire Regiment Memorial

We had our Town Council meeting last night. At the start of the meeting we had a short presentation from the Cambridgeshire Regiment about their plans for a memorial showing the history of the regiment at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

They are trying to raise funds and I understand are talking to Town and Parish Councillors across the County. We will be considering a bid for funding round about April next year.

Personally, I hope we can support it, it is important we do everything we can to keep the memory of the Regiment alive.

Friday 4 September 2009

Planning Summer School

I am off to Exeter this weekend to the Planning Summer School. It is a chance to get an external view of planning, see where National policy is heading and to discuss areas where we can improve planning in Fenland.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Celebrating achievements

Today is a day where I absolutely love what I do. This evening I went to an event to congratulate two of our Looked After Children who were successful in the interviews for Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant.

I spent some time chatting to Marc and he is really something. He really was extremely focused and determined - as well as enjoying himself. Part of my job as Lead Member for Children is to be a champion to our young people, to make sure people are aware of how good they really are. With guys like Marc around it is really easy.

I wish him every success when he starts in London next week, I am sure he will do himself proud.

I should also say that our sixteen plus team in Cambridgeshire deserve recognition for the work they have done in supporting our people through the application process for Fifteen.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

I did my interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning about Social Worker recruitment. It was the first time I have done a live interview in the studio. I actually preferred it to doing telephone interviews. I hope I got the message across that we need to value the Social Work profession.

The Cambridge Breakfast Show for today is available here (you probably need to sign up to the iPlayer to listen). The interview is about 40 minutes in.