Friday 26 November 2010

BSF Cuts

I am sure there are many, like me that are disappointed about the cuts to the Phase 2 of Fenland BSF - which means less money going into the rebuilding work at Meadowgate, Sir Harry Smith Community College, Cromwell and the Fenland PRU.   I thought it would be worth talking a little about the causes of these cuts.

As time moved on after last May's elections it became increasingly obvious to Central Government that they had inherited a huge problem with funding for new primary schools which was not dealt with by the previous Government.  This is a real problem, in Cambridge City population growth means we need additional classes for 180 children - if that growth continues that means a need for 6 schools the size of Alderman Jacobs (joint biggest in the County) this is genuine population growth that has not been caused by new housing.  The same problem exists across the Country and, coupled with the Treasury's needs to get to grips with the budget deficit and the debt inherited from New Labour, meant that funding to Partnership for Schools (the body that funds BSF) was cut significantly and this in turn means cuts to all of the BSF projects that are at the same stage as the phase two schools in Fenland.

Do I like what has happened?  No, of course I don't.  But in this instance I do not believe a huge protest will make a difference - this is not the same as the dreadful decision to cut funding to the new COWA facility which arose from the incompetence of both the LSC and the Labour Government and where the cuts were pretty random (but with largely Labour areas saved) - these are cuts across the spectrum.  In this instance I think the role of me and fellow County Councillors is to try and mitigate the impact on Fenland schools so that we can maximise the amount of money that goes into school buildings; I continue to do that.

This is not all doom and gloom.  Despite a really difficult financial situation at the moment, education outcomes (sorry for the buzz words) continue to improve across Fenland at a faster rate than they are Nationally; we are seeing new buildings going up at Neale Wade (which I was fortunate enough to see yesterday) and Thomas Clarkson; local plans to redevelop the COWA site in Wisbech are still moving forwards, despite the slap in the face delivered by New Labour; and the phase 2 BSF schools in Fenland are still forecast to receive millions of pounds of funding for rebuild and refurbishment.

Friday 19 November 2010

Lord Young needed to go

I often defended Labour politicians who were threatened with the axe following gaffes so you might expect me to defend Lord Young who was forced to stand down from an advisory role yesterday because of his remarks to the Telegraph that people in this country "had never had it so good."

In Cambridgeshire we have good staff who are facing redundancy as a result of the cuts we are having to make. I cannot justify what Lord Young said in those circumstances and I think the decision to leave was the right one.

It makes the Conservatives appear so out of touch, when I know that is not the case,(which I think is proven by David Cameron's response).

Whittlesey Market Square - What to do?

Recently the Town Council has been mulling over whether to try and do something different with the market square.

With a new bistro opening and The George thriving, there is the potential to do something really different; allowing tables and chairs to spill out onto the square to create something of a continental feel.  With a bit of imagination I am sure there are all sorts of things this could lead to.

The biggest barrier is, of course, that this is an important bus stop.  So if we were to make these changes, we would need to find an alternative place for buses, preferably one where we could provide shelter for passengers
while they are waiting.

No decisions have been made about this yet, we have had some initial chats and thrown around some ideas, but nothing more.  So now is the time to throw things out in the open so people can tell me what they think of the idea, give me ideas about what we could do with buses and to give me any other thoughts.

I can be contacted here.

The Lib Dems don't do dirty tricks..

No, No, No.

Whoops.  Yes they do.

Be wary if you get one of these through your door.

(And AV is a bad thing anyway!!!)

Wednesday 10 November 2010

School Meals

With the lovely dinner ladies at Alderman Jacobs Primary School
Today, as part of School Meals week, I went to Alderman Jacobs Primary School to sample a school dinner.

I really enjoyed my food - it reinforced the message about the quality of the meals Cambridgeshire Catering Services are providing, they certainly exceed anything I experienced as a child (and indeed much of what I experienced as a soldier eating in Army canteens!!).  There were a number of other things that impressed me, firstly the attitude of the dinner ladies and cooks who run an extremely slick and busy operation in the school, but also the efforts they have gone to overcome some of the age old problems.  So, as an example, year 5 and 6 children are able to preselect their food so that the kitchens don't run out by the time they are served.   I have to end this paragraph by saying thanks to the catering team for putting up with me.

If you are a parent who is hesitant about school meals for your children based on your own experiences - please don't be, things have really changed for the better.

Because I am sure you want to know - I had sausages, carrots, mashed potato and gravy followed by chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce.

I also have to say comment on the politeness of the children as they were being served.  A credit to themselves, the school and their parents/carers.  I have been a Governor at AJS for fourteen years (and have just taken up the role of Chairman of Governors again) and this is one aspect of the school that has always impressed me.

Acceptable Campaigning

I have been fascinated by the judgement against Labour's Phil Woolas, who has been stripped of his parliamentary seat after a judge found him guilty of telling lies during his election campaign.

There are all sorts of issues at stake here and it is interesting that it is this issue that has opened up the first of what I suspect will be many divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party.  Personally I think the judgement is important and right.  Politics is a tough game and the election process needs to challenge what both individuals and the party they represent stand for - but telling lies cannot be part of that.  That is why I am astonished by these comments from Labour MP Graham Stringer in a BBC Online article about the issue:
"If the courts get involved in elections when people go over the top on policy and sometimes tell lies then we are going to have a very strange electoral process in future," 
That quote is quite clear to me, this is a Labour MP saying that lies are acceptable in an election campaign.  It is no wonder that people have problems with politics.

Personally, I think it will be the Lib Dems who are most worried about this.  I have often thought their by-election campaigning is on the edge of acceptability.  As an example they have often used dubious graphs that misrepresent results in previous elections or twist history to make it a European campaign relevant to a local by-election. We should not forget that they are also guilty of one of the nastiest bits of political campaigning ever when Simon Hughes stood against gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell (who I don't believe had come out at the time).  Simon Hughes is, of course, now the Lib Dem Deputy Leader.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Efficiency Measures vs Cuts

Whilst I absolutely believe the coalition are headed in the right direction when it comes to getting Britain's economy back on track, I have one frustration - that is the obsession with talking about efficiency measures.  It is frustrating for people, like me, who are having to deal with the implications of cuts in funding to local Government which have by the way, been significantly front loaded so we cannot spread the pain over 4 years as much as some would have liked.

Cambridgeshire is an efficient Council.   We have our problems but, for the majority, we are well run, not overly bureaucratic and deliver good services to the people of the County.  What that means is we cannot take between 25% - 33% out of our budget just by "efficiency measures".   There are, of course, things we do that we don't have to, but all too often they are services that people like and appreciate; a great example of this is the cuts we are having to make to Youth Services.

As a Council in Cambridgeshire, we are having to go back to the things that are most important.  So, in children's services, that means prioritising support to vulnerable children and families, putting the children who most need help first, that means we have to look at every service that is not totally focussed on this. Of course we are also looking at management posts because of course we are, but we cannot take out the huge sums of money that are needed without cuts in services.  I just wish Government would recognise this and not play about with the language, it may be easier for them to use that sort of phrase, but in reality it is a bit confusing when people experience the inevitability of what is happening in local Government.

I recognise that the Coalition inherited a financial mess from New Labour; a combination of a budget out of control and levels of borrowing that were totally unsustainable, and I know both myself and my colleagues are all too aware that Cambridgeshire has to play its part and take some of the pain - but let's just call them cuts and not beat around the bush.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Fenland's State of the District Debate

We had Fenland's "State of the District Debate" this afternoon.  Basically, a Council meeting that is help once a year to discuss how things are going.   Part of it included a summary of the financial challenges facing Fenland District council, something I am also dealing with as a County Councillor.  More of that another time.

Another part was a presentation from Alan Melton, the Leader, about opportunities moving forwards.  I was quite heartened that once again he gave great credence to some of my ideas about a large business park in the centre of Fenland as a means of funding an A605 Whittlesey Bypass -given that a bypass would provide rapid access from Fenland to the A1.   He was also kind enough to mention it as my idea.

He also talked about plans that have been put to the new Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough LEP to upgrade Chesterton railway station and potentially improve railway lines from Cambridge to Peterborough.   I made the point during the debate about the increase in rail usage from Whittlesey over the last few years (since Peterborough decided to charge extortionate rates for Station Parking!!) basically making the point about hte need for more trains to stop.

It is good to see positive ideas still coming forward despite the financial tough times that Councils face.  We have to keep trying to look forwards and move forwards.