Sunday 30 January 2011

If Cambridgeshire's Future was Lib Dem....

Looking around a few Lib Dem blogs it looks like they are planning to take an alarmist line in order to scare Cambridgeshire electorate into thinking that what we really need is a Council Tax rise above 2.5%.  I can't say this for definite, but it certainly reads that way.

Actually, under the Conservative plans, Cambridgeshire County Council will not be raising Council Tax.  That is because the Coalition Government have lived up to the pledge made by Conservatives at the General Election to pay Councils the equivalent of a 2.5% rise if they hold Council Tax where it is.  So if, as I suspect, the Lib Dems go for a higher rise it will be a direct choice between residents facing no rise at all or facing a significant rise.

Their basis for this seems to be based on some alarmist story telling, which includes talking about vulnerable young people and adults suffering.   The trouble with having to make cuts is that it is easy to take specific headlines and spin them in a way that creates an alarmist story.  It would also be immoral to do that when you have full knowledge of a bigger picture that contradicts that view.  That hasn't stopped Cambridgeshire Lib Dems before so I suspect it won't stop them again.

So, as an example, they are already picking on certain headlines in my own portfolio and suggesting that these will have an impact on vulnerable children, when they know the context in which they are set.  In Children's Services we are going through a complete transformation.  We have protected front line social care, but are embarking on a restructuring based on a model used in Hackney which has resulted in less children going into care, which is both better for the children concerned, but also a lower cost to the taxpayer in the medium term.  Similarly, we have plans to provide a much more tailored respite service for disabled children, increasing our ability to respond to individual needs.  We have restructured our locality teams so that our Connexions service is focused more on young people who are likely to drop out of the system when they leave school and to drive up their preventative role in other areas- whilst this does mean less universal services - it totally contradicts any claim that our budget will impinge on young people who need our support most.  There are more areas like this, but I just want to give the broad picture.

As I said, it is easy to pick out individual budget headings and make alarmist comments.  But when you have had every opportunity to comment and influence, where you are fully aware of the whole picture, is that responsible?  Of course not - so when you read Cambridgeshire Lib Dems headlines, remember that.

There is, of course, the possibility that I am reading between the lines and getting it wrong, but I doubt it.

Friday 28 January 2011

Waterlees Play Area again

Some comments from our local constabulary have led to Waterlees play area being on the front page of the Daily Express today and have got a mention in the Daily Mail.

I am not going to comment on what the police have said, I think their communications team have a big enough problem to deal with as it is.  I just want (once again) to reinforce the point that these are not new incidents.  The vandalism to the barges and the stone throwing incidents happened months ago and (to the police's credit) I believe there has been an arrest related to the vandalism to the barges.

The Daily Mail have a nice photo up of the "building site", but fail to mention how long ago it was taken.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Our Transport Future - Brave but Wrong

I have a great deal of time for County Councillor Nichola Harrison.  She made a brave decision to leave the Lib Dem group at the Council and become an independent.  I have deliberately not speculated on the reasons for that move but I have little time for the Lib Dems in the County, largely because their leadership has a totally irresponsible approach to opposition, but I do know that Our Transport Future was a big part of Nichola's decision.

I have to say that the attempt at putting forward an alternative transport solution for the County is extremely brave, but a "charge and spend" solution where drivers in Cambridgeshire pay by the mile is just not the right one.  There are a number of reasons for this, the first is that current levels of taxation are already too high in this country.   That is entirely down to the flaws of the previous Labour Government and the huge deficit and borrowing problem that George Osborne inherited.  This proposal adds to that tax burden, and puts Cambridgeshire residents at a further disadvantage.

Secondly, we have areas of the county, particularly Fenland, where we need to drive up the economy.  Trying to attract new businesses into an area like Fenland when they would have to face up to additional costs like this would be extremely difficult.

Thirdly, it ignores some of the innovative ideas that have been presented by the current Government, in particular I am thinking about a programme called TIF (not the same TIF that looked at congestion charging in Cambridge); in very basic terms it allows some of the additional future tax income from business developments to be taken up front in order to fund infrastructure projects.  

Like I said, I think this is very brave, it's just not right.

Free School Transport for Criminals

I was a little taken aback by this story in the Cambridge News of the decision, as part of the review of Home to School Transport, to maintain support for some of our youngsters who have been involved in the criminal justice system.  The fact that it made the front page, despite the fact that it was only about 5 children, confuses me.

It is easy to take a hard line on issues like this, but that hard line is often borne out of short-term thinking and a lack of understanding of the reality and the facts.  The reason a youngster gets onto the wrong side of the law are complex, but revolve around choices, peer pressure and often, but not always, poor parenting.  There are loads of examples of people that look back on their lives and are grateful for having made the right decision at the right time.   Well there is a flip side to that, which is that some young people sometimes make poor choices.  Of course they should be punished where those choices break the law, but we should also understand the causes and, where they then start to do the right things we should support them and recognise the efforts to turn their lives around.   That is not just compassionate it is sound economics.

If we refuse to pay transport costs to those individuals and it leads to just one of them returning to bad ways, the costs further down the line would pale into total insignificance compared to the short-term costs.

Anyway, the knock-on from this making front page news in Cambridge is that I expect it to be picked up in the National media.  The Cambridge News mentioned the fact that it affected just five children on page five (towards the end of the story).  I wonder if the National media will even mention it?

Monday 17 January 2011

Nick Clegg and our Edwardian Maternity Laws

I actually like the proposed change to maternity rights that were announced today.

But who on earth was it that advised Nick Clegg to call our current system Edwardian?  I believe the first paid maternity rights were not introduced until 1975 - an Edwardian system would be one with absolutely no rights at all!

Sunday 16 January 2011

Waterlees Play Area - Latest Media Coverage

I was a bit surprised by media coverage about the Waterlees play area in Wisbech over the last few days.  It seemed to suggest that previous problems had recurred - something I wasn't aware of.  However, having watched yesterday's Look East coverage again I did some checking.  It seems that the issues commented on yesterday largely date back to October, indeed were some of the events that led up to the County Council putting extra measures in place and which had led to improvements (which was admitted by a number of people at the last open meeting).

There has, I believe, been an incident close by, but I am not aware that this has been specifically  linked to the play area itself and I believe police records show that they have had no recent calls.  I am waiting for a more formal update and will keep on asking questions, but I have concerns about why old news is being recycled.  One suggestion made to me is that the old stories are being continuously repeated in order to provide a foundation for an election campaign in May.  I hope not because that would be putting electoral ambitions ahead of improving the community.

The only way that we can make sure that we have the right information about the play area is for every single incident to be reported.  I would urge all residents to please make sure they call the police if there are things going on that shouldn't be that way we are up to date with what is happening and the police are able to make sure that area is appropriately resourced.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

No to the Alternative Vote

Today sees the launch of the website for the No to AV campaign.

If introduced, the alternative vote would see a fundamental change to how we elect our MPs.  Alongside the local elections in May there will be a referendum where you will be asked if you prefer this system.

As this is not strictly a party political issue I have done a great deal of navel gazing to confirm my gut instinct that our voting system does not need AV, and I remain convinced.

The main reason is that of simplicity.  It is easy to go into a voting booth and put a cross against a single name.  AV would change this completely, requiring you to rank candidates in your order of preference - it adds a complication that is just not needed. Our ludicrous voting system for European elections is a perfect example of this - and I had a number complaints about it during the last European elections.

One other important issue here is that AV is more likely to result in coalition Governments.  The Lib Dems have encouraged changes to our voting system for years as a quest for power.  I am afraid my personal view of how certain Lib Dems at a local and National level have behaved since they have become part of the Government has proven that politics in this country is not ready for a system where coalition Government becomes a more common occurence.

I suspect there will be loads of people out there using the argument that politics is broken and therefore we need change.  That argument assumes that all change is good; it is not.  There are changes I would love to see at a National level that would make our MPs more accountable, such as to reduce the power of Party whips to give MPs more of a conscience and for leaders of all parties to have a greater reliance on their own elected representatives as advisers (David Cameron seems to be headed in that direction with this initiative).  AV will do nothing to enable either of these; it would be change for changes sake rather than change for the better.

My advice to anyone is to make sure they understand the issues read up carefully, change to our democracy and a system that has served us so well over the years should not be taken lightly.

North Bank Road to Reopen Friday

Last week, because of frustration over the extension to the closure of North Bank Road, I asked for a representative to Peterborough City Council to be invited to attend our neighbourhood forum on Thursday.  I don't know if that invite focussed minds or whether this is just a coincidence but, although the offer was refused, they have sent this statement:

"Northey Gravel Bridge Replacement on Northey Rd / North Bank is now at a stage where the road can be re-opened, as programmed, by the end of the day this Friday 14th Jan.  The traffic will still be controlled across the bridge in a narrow lane as works will still be ongoing for a few weeks completing the finishing touches.  The road will have to be closed again for a few hours on a weekend to enable a crane to lift out the temporary footbridge.
The scheme has been a success, on programme and within budget despite challenging conditions, maintaining a valuable access into the City which can really be appreciated when not available during the works.
I am not sure how people view the comment that the scheme has been a success.  From my perspective it has been badly planned and organised and the views of Whittlesey residents have largely been ignored.  Having been to see the new bridge on Friday I also have concerns about the impact the widening will have on the speed of traffic approaching the river from the Peterborough end, which I will follow up.  But, nonetheless it is great news that the access is to be reopened.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Safe Recruitment

It would be wrong of me not to mention the issue of safer recruitment given the coverage the issues in Cambridgeshire have received today.

The story is basically that an audit of safe recruitment practices in schools in Cambridgeshire found that practices in our schools have not improved over recent years and that as many as one in eight (based on a sample of sixteen schools) may not be doing even basic checks.  These include a check against List 99 - which takes about half an hour and confirms that a potential appointee has not been banned from working with children.

Today I did interviews with Anglia TV and Look East and the story has appeared in the local media and, over the last couple of days, in the National Press too, including some quotes from me.  Those quotes are taken from the interview I have done with the Cambs Times and I should thank them, their report of this issue, which is online here, gives exactly the message I wanted - a robust one that makes it clear that complacency in the area of safe recruitment is not an option.

Of course, as a County Council we are looking at what we can do to improve the situation - but actually it is up to schools to do these checks and we cannot hold their hands every time they recruit and appoint new staff.   I hope that the National coverage this report has received will help to hit the point home to schools that unsafe recruitment practices are not acceptable.

However, and this is not to divert attention away from Cambridgeshire, it must be said that the reason the issue has been identified here is because our Audit and Accounts Committee chose to do the work they have and, recognising a problem, chose to bring it to the attention of the Cabinet at the County Council.  I think I know our schools pretty well, and my instinct is that this situation is not unique to Cambridgeshire and is potentially worse elsewhere.  I have sent an email tonight to the Department for Education making exactly this point.

Interesting Days

Today was a really interesting one.

In between radio interviews this morning about the confirmation of our BSF funding for Meadowgate, Sir Harry Smith and Cromwell, which has seen possible cuts of 40% reduced down to 20% and then media interviews about the safer recruitment story which has appeared Nationally in a few papers I spoke at the beginning of the Opening Doors to Learning training event which is a National 3 day event being held in Girton College, Cambridge, supported by the County County Council's Environmental Education Service.  To summarise briefly (and therefore not entirely accurately) the aim is to promote the importance of the outdoors in education - something I am a big fan of.

One of the things I try not to do, is turn up for conferences, speak and then walk away.  Today, because I had media interviews to do after I had spoken, I went a bit early to have a chat to a few people, then left and went back for a while.   I am often impressed by the enthusiasm of teachers, but those present today were a step above (and not all of them were teachers) - with a genuine desire to get young people learning outside - including understanding the potential for elements of the pupil premium to be used to get children from deprived areas out of the classroom more.

I also sat  for a while learning about Cambridgeshire's recycling bus, which is a service schools can pay for which highlights issues about recycling - but in a way that links to every aspect of the curriculum.  I then sat with a group of enthusiasts of all ages making swords out of newspaper, wool and a bit of sellotape (and don't I look excited about it!!!).

Why is this important?  Well, education outside the classroom is very important - but I hope this summary of today also gives a bit of a taste of the life I lead and the things I get up to, I hope it also shows that in order to make the important, top down decisions that I have to as a Cabinet Member, I try to make sure I have an understanding of what we do from a bottom-up perspective.  I hope some find that of interest.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Lib Dems - Half Truths and Spin over the pupil premium

Over the last few months the Lib Dems have resorted to a great deal of spin and over promotion in order to promote their own position.  It is interesting that our local Lib Dems in North East Cambridgeshire have made no comment about tuition fees - the issue where many people feel let down because of their failure to stand up to an important pre-election commitment yet they are perfectly happy to over-promote their role in the pupil premium.  Here is the link to the website and their comments on the pupil premium.  I urge you to read it before moving on with this blog post.

Now, based on this, it would be quite legitimate to think that the pupil premium was solely a Lib Dem idea at the last election.  So here is a quote from page 53 of the Conservative Manifesto from last year's General Election:
"Education's real power lies in its ability to transform life chances, but we can't go on giving the poorest children the worst education.  That is why we will introduce a pupil premium - extra funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds"
Now, I don't mind the Lib Dems taking a bit of credit for the pupil premium, but let's be honest and admit it was a key commitment of both parties in the coalition.  Not to make the plain is, in my opinion, a little deceitful.  But then that's the Lib Dems.