Tuesday 28 September 2010

Excusing the unacceptable

There is loads of political commentary around today about Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour Party conference - and rightly so.  But a fair portion of it seems to be about the fact that Ed talked left in order to capture the Union vote to get him elected as leader, but now elected is talking right wing in order to make himself electable.  It has been said, almost as if that is what he has to do.

Surely, taking one position with your own party and another with the electorate at large is just downright hypocrisy?  I'm pretty sure that he's not the first to do it, but that doesn't make it right.

Roddons - Delivering for Fenland Tenants

According to the Cambs Times, Robert Pinnock is to launch a campaign against the closure of two residential homes in Fenland by Roddons. In the same article he, apparently, challenges the success of Roddons. 

I wonder if Mr Pinnock has been to see the two homes in question (which are The Dales in Elm and Napier Court/Elizabeth Terrace in Wisbech)?   I suspect not.

I am a member of the Roddons Board that took the decision to support closure.  A decision that I did not take lightly and nor did any other Board Member (which you should remember includes a mix of Councillors, independent members and, importantly tenants).  I went on to Roddons Board to act in the interests of Fenland residents and tenants and, I have to say that I did exactly that in contributing to the decision to close these two homes.

Firstly, let’s make it plain.  These buildings are no longer fit for purpose.  As a board we went to visit both locations on the night we made our decision and that was absolutely clear from the moment we walked into the first bedroom, this is reinforced by the fact that Roddons have struggled to find tenants to take up places in both locations.

Secondly, the homes are also not capable of refurbishment because of the nature of their design.   I actually don’t believe the Board would have supported the proposal to demolish (which was only put forward to us after a full and open 12 week consultation with residents and stakeholders) if that had not been the case.

But, there is an important point here, which is that the nature of care for older people has changed.  The focus now is on enabling people to stay at home for as long as they can - in fact designing homes for life is an important principle, making sure that wherever possible, adaptations that may be needed in future are built into homes at the design stage.  This inevitably means that the focus returns to the shortage of social housing rather than a demand for residential homes.  So I strongly suspect that these now out-dated and not fit for purpose buildings will indeed be replaced by much needed social housing.

Let’s get something else straight. One of the other issues that the board considered was where this sits alongside the promises that were made at transfer.   I was absolutely assured at that meeting that there was no breach of promises - not least because, whilst refurbishment of residential homes was a priority, these two homes were not capable of refurbishment at that time.

I am very proud to be a Board member of Roddons, they have achieved a great deal since the transfer.  As an example, they have already reached the Decent Homes standard and are now heading towards achieving Decent Homes plus, which is what was promised at transfer.  Under Fenland’s control this would not have been achievable - not because of any failing of Fenland’s but because of the financial circumstances that surrounded council housing.  Robert Pinnock has raised this, but talks about how things should have been.   The problem with that line of thinking is that they were absolutely not the circumstances then.  Tenants already have better homes than they would have had if they had listened to Robert Pinnock when he opposed transfer - and standards are destined to improve even further. 

Another question that Mr Pinnock raises is where Roddons stands with regards to its promise to distribute £1million worth of community grants.  Well, Roddons have already distributed £400,000 and will start with the process of distributing even more in April 2011.

Another aspect that Robert Pinnock raises is the relationship with Circle Anglia group.   The success that Roddons have had in delivering its promises is down to two things - the first is that Roddons as an organisation have been focussed and determined to be successful from day one.  The other is the advantage of belonging to a group structure, such as that provided by Circle Anglia, not least because of the extra financial leverage that creates.

I recognise that the number of times I mention Mr Pinnock in this post suggests that I am having a go.  That is not the intention, it is just that it is his contact with the Cambs Times that has forced me to respond.   I recognise that his campaign is very well intentioned and also that campaigning can be of real value when it is done sensibly and is based on good evidence.  I dealt with many, many examples of good campaigning as Chairman of Planning.  My disappointment with the sort of approach being adopted in this case is that the only thing that can come out of it is to wrongly undermine residents’ confidence in Roddons, an organisation that I believe is really delivering in Fenland.  The facts behind the challenges he makes could easily have been found out through a quick email to Roddons, it didn't take a press campaign.

Friday 24 September 2010

Helping Hampton's Profits

Some views about Car Parking charges (which I expressed in private) were (kindly!!) leaked to the Cambs Times today.  So I thought it was important that I provided an update and some clarity.

Firstly the fact that this issue was being debated at Fenland’s Cabinet meeting yesterday slipped my mind last night - and it meant I misled a few people on Twitter.  For that I apologise and thank John Elworthy for setting me straight.  I also had the expectation that only Wisbech and March were on the radar - but a last minute amendment at Cabinet (that I had absolutely no advance warning of) meant that is no longer the case and Whittlesey is now part of the proposal.

Civil Parking Enforcement is a way of providing enforcement of parking offences through charging for on-street parking -( i.e. such as along Market Street), however, it cannot  and will not work without the use of off street charging (i.e. it has to include Car Parks) and, if the charging regime is right, Fenland could make a profit out of it - something that is an important part of the debate given that we face serious financial challenges in the near future.   But, to me, the important point is the word Enforcement.  In my opinion Whittlesey does not have serious enforcement issues.  Moreover, there is the possibility for CPE to provide some minimal support to areas like ours without a charging regime.  Police Officers will also retain the right to issue tickets in certain circumstances.

So, from where I sit, no serious enforcement issues, no need for CPE or the Car Parking charges that go along with it.    When CPE was discussed at the County Council I pushed this point of view that there should be flexibility in the scheme so that those Towns/Districts that didn’t want or need CPE had the ability not to introduce it.

The reason I am fundamentally opposed to general car parking charges is because of Whittlesey’s unique position in Fenland.  It’s proximity to Peterborough (and especially to Hampton) mean that it has to find ways of standing out and selling the things that are unique about it in order to preserve our Town centre.  We need to build on our USPs not get rid of them, otherwise, we might as well just put “Please shop at Hampton” signs on our roundabouts.

There are other things that are worthy of discussion - but they are NOT related to CPE.   We do sometimes suffer from lack of parking space because of the number of people that park in Town all day and take the bus into Peterborough.  That lack of space deters some people from coming into Town.  One answer to that could be (could be) to introduce car parking charges after 2 or 3 hours.   But at the moment there are too many unanswered questions to even consider moving towards this, such as: 

  • How would this impact on the side streets close to the Town - such as London Street, High Causeway, Gracious Street.  I know some of the residents in those areas are interested in a residents parking scheme - but we don’t know how universal that wish is (this issue wrt parking in side streets is true of all parking charges).  
  • How would the New Queen Street Surgery car park fit into the equation? 

I am also pretty sure that CPE will not be affordable with a charging scheme that only makes money from people who park for longer than two hours and therefore that CPE is not the appropriate way of bringing this issue forwards.  I am willing to be proven wrong on this - but I don’t think I will be.

But, above all we need to have a better idea about the impact of any charging regime on the Town Centre. 

I know there are loads of people in Whittlesey who have strong views about this - please, please let me know what they are - whether they support Car Parking charges or not.   This decision has now been called in by our scrutiny committee and the better informed I am about the views of Whittlesey people the better I will be able to represent them at that meeting.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Time to examine your navel Mr Downes

On Monday, Peter Downes, the Liberal Democrat Lead on Children's Services at the County Council led a debate at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference which opposed the Coalition Government's Free Schools and Academies proposals.  The motion was opposed by the Lib Dem Schools Minister, Sarah Teather, but was unfortunately supported by the Liberal Democrat Conference.

Thankfully, on a practical approach, the motion doesn't affect Government policy, but it is still disappointing for at least two reasons.  Firstly, opposing a bill which allows greater freedom for schools totally ignores the huge lessons of the last 13 years (and indeed from before), that the ever centralising, controlling agenda doesn't work.  Whilst exam results have improved in Britain, our international standing in terms of literacy and numeracy has gone backwards and Head Teachers, Governors etc. have become increasingly frustrated by the mass of bureaucracy and paperwork from central Government.  The coalition has offered an alternative which rewards success and encourages fresh independent thinking through the creation of free schools, whilst offering commitment to the most vulnerable through the pupil premium and other emerging ideas.

I have to say - I do not expect a flood of Free Schools in Cambridgeshire, but, whilst we have to treat them on a case by case basis, we do have to be open minded and examine them on their merits rather than based on a rigid opposition to all things different.

However, it is the second reason for my disappointment that is the most important - and that is that by driving a wedge between himself and Lib Dem Ministers Peter Downes has harmed Cambridgeshire's ability to influence the National agenda and improve the lot for the children of our County.  When Nick Clegg accepted a role in Government, it gave Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats a unique opportunity to influence the National agenda according to their own vision.  What they have actually done is oppose, oppose, oppose.  Never more so than with this motion to the Lib Dem Party Conference which has created huge distance between Peter Downes and the very people he could and should have worked with in order to help improve the lot for the County.

I am afraid Peter Downes must recognise that his stance, however principled, has harmed his ability to serve the people who elected him.  It is time for him to realise that having someone else fulfil his opposition role will better enable the rebuilding of bridges between Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats and Education Ministers at a National level.

Monday 13 September 2010

My teaching experience

Today, I had a new experience, which was teaching a lesson at St Albans Catholic Primary School in Cambridge.   It's the sort of thing I like to do - it helps to get a bottom up perspective and, as a result, improves decision-making.

In the end I really enjoyed it, albeit I was a bit nervous at the start.  I was helped by a great group of children, some of whom actually seemed to enjoy themselves.  For those that want to know, it was a lesson based on the poem "The Sound Collector" by Roger McGough where I got the children to write their own middle section. Some of the results were amazing.

What did I learn:

  1. If every teacher spent as much time on a single lesson plan as I did, no teaching would get done.
  2. Writing a lesson plan is one thing.  Converting it into a coherent lesson is a different and far more important talent.
  3.   Don't cram too much into one lesson.

Later on this evening I then did an interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire - basically talking about my experience and linking it to better decision-making over cuts - a very valid point - the better informed, the better the decisions.

They also asked about the cuts agenda and I was able to make the point that opposing is one thing, but coming up with sensible alternatives that cut Europe's biggest deficit in the sort of timescales we need to is entirely another.

Overall, one of the good days.

I would just like to thank everyone at St Albans school and, in particular, their very patient, attentive and clever Year 6 students for putting up with me.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Andy Coulson will have to resign

Andy Coulson left his job at the News of the World because phone tapping happened on his watch.  He has already paid the price.  The only significant development since then is that one of the people that was sacked - someone who absolutely has an axe to grind - has made allegations that the person who sacked him was culpable.  I really struggle to see the story.

I am sure you would say that I am bound to say that.  Well, maybe - but there were times under the Labour Government where I supported Ministers when everyone else was screaming for resignations.

The shame is that I suspect Andy Coulson is going to have to resign whatever happens in future.  The job of a Head of Communications is to manage the news and communications, and when you become the news that makes the job impossible - so unfounded allegations are almost certainly going to cost him his livelihood.  Shame.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Treatment of William Hague

I agree 100% with Iain Dale's analysis of the treatment of William Hague by Guido Fawkes.

This sort of hits home my feelings about the way the National media is going.  National newspapers are employing less and less people and, as a result, true investigative reporting has largely gone out of the window (NOTW excepted).   Instead what we have is the internet and a few bloggers using innuendo and hints to hound people into exposing their issues (if they are genuine) or indeed hounding them out of office because they cannot take the pressure created by false accusations - as happened in this case.  

An even bigger concern about the National news media is their increasing reliance on agency stories that exaggerate the truth in order to make them saleable.