Thursday 20 December 2012

Games Makers Choir - Single

Games Makers were one of the surprise hits of this year's Olympics, showing off a face of Britain that helped change perceptions about our Nation and playing a vital role in the smooth running of both the Olympics and Paralympics. 

Some of the Gamesmakers have formed a choir and are releasing a christmas single. Personally I think it would be fabulous if one of the surprise hits of the Olympics created a surprise hit at Christmas.  Can I please urge everyone to think about buying it. 

Anyone that knows my musical taste will be fully aware that I would not normally touch this sort of music (not enough guitar!!) - but I will be making an exception for this.   The profits from the single will be used to help provide funding for aspiring athletes.

Friday 14 December 2012

Supermaket latest - and some personal claification

Some of you have probably read that Sainsbury have given Fenland District Council a list of tasks which it wants them to comply with, alongside a threat of legal action if they do not comply.  These tasks include:

“Acknowledge that the decision to grant Sainsbury’s (subsequently ratified on 19th
September) and refuse Harrier on 29th August remain valid.”

The suggestion that this is going to court and is going to cost Council Tax payers money is something that I take no pleasure in – although I have been predicting that this whole dispute would end up in court for a number of years.

Unfortunately, I have also felt that this outcome was inevitable as soon as the proposed solution to rehear both planning applications was decided upon – and I made that view clear to Fenland District Council, it is not helped by the fact that no-one seems to understand what is legally wrong with the Sainsbury decision; providing absolute clarity about why an additional meeting was needed would help everyone – especially the general public.

I also want to make sure there is clarity about where I stand on these applications.  Be in no doubt that I believe that the Sainsbury application with the Country Park is what the majority of Whittlesey residents want, but more than that, I believe it is clearly the best planning application.   However, I am also sensible enough to understand that there are those that have a different view to mine and that a decision to support a Tesco store is a possibility.  Whatever decision is made in the end, I want Whittlesey people to be absolutely confident in the motives for that decision, that whatever the outcome it is for all the right reasons.  At the moment I do not believe that confidence can exist, that gap in understanding is the big issue at the moment.  You only have to read the comments on various social networking sites to see the suspicions that are out there.  I have to say that, unfortunately, the decision to rehear the applications in Wisbech St Mary rather than Whittlesey only adds to those suspicions; it is a mistake and I make no apologies for the fact that I have argued hard at Fenland for the proposed January meeting to be held I Whittlesey; I make absolutely no apologies for standing up for Whittlesey in this mess, it’s what I am here to do.

Please do not mistake the fact that I am being strong on this matter as meaning that I will do anything for a Sainsbury approval. Yes, I support the Sainsbury applicaton, but I am big enough and ugly enough to know that Councillors sometimes don’t get their way.  What I am being robust about is the need for clarity, the need for a strong decision and ta decision that Whittlesey people can be confident in.

Immediately after this situation turned into a mess in September, I requested that Fenland District Council call in the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate the affair, to get underneath it and to make clear exactly what happened and why and then use that investigation as a basis for moving forwards.  I still cannot see how a planning meeting can be held to re-hear these applications when people genuinely don’t know exactly what happened to create the problem, don't know why both applications need to be reheard and whilst there is still an air of suspicion around the whole affair.

The first step in this process should always have been to provide absolute clarity. Regretfully, I do not feel we are anywhere close to a point where we can say we have it.

Friday 7 December 2012

B1040 - Wash Road latest

I know many people are speculating about when the B1040 might re-open and, more importantly, will be concerned by the state of the road.

So I thought I would cut and paste what our Highways Officers have said today about it:

At present the waters are receding, however it is anticipated that water levels will not drop sufficiently until middle of next week to enable the road to be inspected and repairs carried out prior to re-opening - providing we have no more rainfall.

We anticipate from experience some carriageway repairs will be required ( potholes etc ) and that we will require lorries / JCB etc and road sweeper to clear the debris. I anticipate this will take 1 day ( perhaps more depending on the works required the extent of which are currently not known ).
Whilst I would prefer it to be open immediately it is clear, I suspect that one day is better than how it might look, so I think it's important to put this out there.  However, it is also worth warning that things could be worse after the road has been re-examined and it might take longer.

Meeting With Officers at Fenland District Council

I had an extremely useful meeting with a couple of Officers at Fenland District Council today.  Given that I have been critical in the past and have been extremely challenging of them, I think it is only right that I say the positive stuff.

One of the things we did today was go through the timeline of what happened between the planning meeting of 29th August and the meeting of 19th September to discuss the actions officers took and, in particular, what they did after being notified of the error in the Tesco planning report (which they were notified of on 5th September).

It is a conversation I probably should have had some months ago and it is pretty clear to me, that even though I don't agree with everything that happened, it was for absolutely the best of intentions and, most importantly, was done with clear legal advice.

I still don't like what has happened, and I have said that I will continue to be challenging over the supermarkets issue.  But if I am critical in public and in private (which I have been) - then it is important I make sure that I put some of the positives out in the public domain - and I think it is important my view following my discussion of this morning is made public.

Monday 3 December 2012

A Conspiracy Theorist's Delight

On Thursday of last week I got a response from a couple of the challenges I have put in to Fenland District Council about the ongoing supermarkets saga. I was away in Wales over the weekend and spent some of the time mulling over what to say or do about the information I received because I suspect putting it out is going to cause a reaction - in the end I decided it needed to be published.

One of the issues I have been passionate about getting to the bottom of was when exactly Officers at Fenland District Council knew there was a mistake on their report for the Tesco application that was discussed and refused at the Whittlesey planning meeting on 29th August.   This is really important because it was the basis for turning over the refusal and the subsequent (constitutionally questionable) approval of the Tesco application on 19th September.  Members were never officially notified beforehand by officers - it was Tesco who sent the planning committee an email the evening before 19th September.  Of course, if officers knew beforehand it would raise all sorts of questions - not least why members were allowed to go into that meeting blind to the facts and without officer comment and couldn't a more sensible strategy have been devised.  Well, it seems that Officers at Fenland District Council were made aware of that mistake somewhere around 5th September, two weeks before the controversial planning committee - plenty of time to plan an alternative and sensible strategy. As some could guess, I am not happy.  Officers will argue that they acted on legal advice, but I cannot help thinking that the "do nothing" approach is a factor with the problems we face - and one that should have been made public before now.

Last week I also sent an email to Fenland challenging the way they had handled the 44 complaints that have been received about the supermarket situation.  Fenland have confirmed that "

"further information has been provided to a number of complainants where we are aware that they did not recieve full material, making clear what the process and next steps are in terms of the complaints procedure."
What this means is that some of the complainants were not advised at the time their complaint was dealt with as to how they would progress things further if they weren't happy with the response - something that should be done routinely.  I am going to follow this up with a few more questions, but given that the end stage of this complaints process is a potential referral to the Local Government Ombudsman, something many know I would welcome, you can see why I am annoyed.

The trouble with both of the issues I have raised here is that they are a conspiracy theorist's delight - there are those who are making all sorts of accusations about all sorts of people and these facts emerging help that speculation rather than end it, that is one of the reasons I thought twice about putting them into the public domain.  However, the flip side is that I also know that there are many, many Whittlesey people that want (and deserve) to know the truth, and it reinforces to me that we cannot rehear these applications (if that is what happens) until there is a clear understanding of what has gone wrong and why.  Whittlesey residents must have confidence in whatever decision happens at the end of this mess; they must not be left with a supermarket that people will point a mistrusting finger at every time they see it.  We need some sort of inquiry.

Of course, I can keep asking questions until the whole truth emerges - the problem with that approach is that it sends all the wrong messages and, of course, I can't say I know all of the right questions to ask (and I keep upsetting people by trying to find out the truth!!)

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Decade of Austerity

For the last couple of days I have been away at the County Council Network' annual conference.  It was extremely useful.  In particular, I picked up quite a few ideas about Adult Social Care that I will look at in more detail and discuss with officers at Cambridgeshire.

There was, of course, lots and lots of debate about budgets and "austerity".  It is absolutely clear that the financial issues that Councils face are here until at least 2020. The phrase "the decade of austerity" was used a number of times.

It was also stressed that one of the ways that Councils needed to deal with this was through saving money by working closer with the rest of the public sector and especially that County Councils need to work hand-in-glove with Districts to cut costs. It' a message that I welcome, one of the benefits of being a "dual-hatted" Councillor is that you can use the role to develop mutual understanding of issues to make that joint working happen.

This joint working is already happening in Cambridgeshire; it needs to be better, but it is happening.  Arguably, the best example is the 2020 vision for Wisbech.

The "S" Word Again

Over the last few days a draft report for the proposed repeat supermarket planning meeting has been discussed and, indeed, circulated.  That draft report is just that, a draft, it has been prepared in the run up to January to allow both Sainsbury and Tesco to comment as a way of preventing the technical error that caused the problem after 29th August.  So it is likely that they will change before they are (potentially) discussed by the planning committee in January.

The recommendations in this draft report are exactly the same as they were on 29th August; to refuse the combined Sainsbury Supermarket and Country Park application, to refuse the proposed business park and to approve the Tesco application. I am really disappointed by this and will be putting in some challenge about the reports, in particular about the role of localism in decisions like this, given these comments by the previous Planning Minister.

However, I still have a number of concerns about the proposed January meeting.  Not least that I have my doubts it will happen, my suspicion is that there will be a legal challenge prior to it taking place (although I have no evidence to say this definitely will be the case).

From the very point that these applications descended into chaos I have made the case that Fenland District Council must consider Whittlesey people when they sort things out, to date I don't believe that has happened.  Prior to January's meeting a couple of issues need to be thought about:
  • How can anyone expect Whittlesey people to have confidence in any decision when they do not have a clue why what looked like a perfectly good and legal decision to approve a Sainsbury supermarket and country park is being revisited (and it needs to be stressed that on 29th August Planning Officers at Fenland District Council agreed that the reasons for appoval were good planning reasons)?
  • Don't Whittlesey people have the right to know exactly what the sequence of events was between 29th August when the Tesco supermarket was refused and 19th September when it was so controversially approved? Unless this happens they cannot know that the situation has been properly and appropriately dealt with - and therefore they cannot have confidence that this fresh decision is going to be the open and and honest one that they expect and deserve.  You only have to go and look a some of the comments on various internet forums and social media sites to realise that this is definitely not the case at the moment.
There is one other important issue.  It has been suggested to me that the proposed ratification of the Fenland Core Strategy in December will be used as an opportunity to shore up the planning policy around the supermarket sites in order to strengthen the officer recommendations.  I don't believe that will be the case, but if there are changes to the Core Strategy that relate to the proposed supermarket sites then for the sake of public interest and confidence Fenland District Council must publish the audit trail that demonstrates why any change to the Draft Core Strategy proposals was needed.

I suspect that this blog will again make uncomfortable reading for some, but I am only doing what I need to do, which is to make sure the interests of Whittlesey residents are considered in this process.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The BBC is starring in its own farce (again)

The current situation at the BBC would be laughable were it not for the fact that they have potentially ruined the rest of someone's life by falsely naming and shaming them as a paedophile.  Of course it also matters that our money is paying for this mess.

I had a conversation with a regional BBC journalist earlier this year about how the BBC's bloated centre was not dealt with sufficiently in the cuts and that instead they focused too much on cutting back local broadcasting.  In my view, that bloated centre is as more the cause of what has happened over the last few weeks as the failings of the now resigned Director General who has been in his job for just 54 days.  It is clear that the DG did not have his finger on the pulse - but that is because of the nature and culture of the modern BBC, something he would not have been able to change during his short tenure.

Change has become inevitable, but I hope it is focused specifically on Newsnight as much as it is on the BBC in general.  We need to move beyond the current ethos that dominates National political interviewing.  Constant interruptions and rude and brusque questioning puts the ego of interviewers ahead of the views of politicians.  In my view the best interviewers allow politicians to have their say so people are able to judge and challenge both them and the organisations they represent.  Of course some depth of knowledge from interviewers is important, but the very fact that the BBC is funded by the licence fee means that it, above all, needs to make sure it is listening to and reflecting the opinions of its viewers.  The world of social media has made that easier now than ever before - it allows a step change, with political programming able to act as an intermediary between the public and politicians rather than simply controlling and setting the agenda. 

The current disaster provides huge opportunity for the BBC; they need to change and learn, but also to seize the opportunity and make its political programming much more viewer focused.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

What can Conservatives learn from the Republican defeat in the US?

Like most people with involvement in politics I was up for much of last night watching the American elections.  Unlike many in my party, I was not particularly enamoured with Mitt Romney and I am happy that he didn't win.  That said, I have concerns about Obama too; he has a bit of Tony Blair about him, promising much, strong in rhetoric, but not delivering enough.  I just think the little that he has done outweighed the shortcomings I saw in Romney.

Whilst the system that the US uses to elect its President is very different from ours, there are lessons that I believe the Conservatives need to learn.  In the UK much of the political focus at election time is on target seats (those with the smallest majorities that political parties need to win to secure a majority), huge effort and funding is put into these areas compared to others; in the US Presidential elections huge amounts of time and money has been put on the so-called swing states - those that are close calls where success makes the difference between winning and losing.   At the time of writing Romney has won just one of these states and seems likely to lose all the others, although Florida is still being counted. So in the areas where Romney and Obama put the most effort, Romney has failed to make an impact.

I believe there are two reasons for this, the first is that the Democrats seem to have a much better operation on the ground than the Republicans.  I don't think that is an issue for the Conservatives in the UK, I think our campaigning on the ground is as good as, if not better than, others.  It is the second reason that UK Conservatives have to learn from.  Romney won the Republican nomination by being forced to the right of centre by his opponents and and he never recovered from that in the Presidential campaign.  In particular, the American elections were always going to be won and lost on economic grounds.

If the Conservatives are to win an outright victory in the next General Election it is clear that we have to listen to the voice of the centre ground on the economy.  That means making sure that we balance the need to be economically prudent with a sense of fairness. We are perfectly capable of doing that, but there are those within the party that believe it is "only" about economics, Conservatives will not succeed if their voice wins in policy terms.  Conservatives are believers in responsibility and enterprise - but they are not separate issues - good economics is about getting the balance between enterprise and responsibility right; ignoring the opinions of the struggling working family in the way we work our way out of the economic doldrums is both irresponsible and a recipe for electoral failure (and I don't believe we are doing that now). In contrast to us, the Labour Party just do not understand the need to be economically responsible - which is why we are in a financial mess now (and also why Conservatives inherited a financial mess in 1979).

However, there are other areas where the Conservative Party's right wing position is both right and holds popular support - such as on immigration, the EU (provided the leadership listen and agree to hold an in/out referendum) and ending benefit dependency.

I must admit, I hate the terms left-wing and right-wing, they are too generalist.  As you examine issues across international boundaries it becomes clear that the perception of what is and is not left-wing or right wing varies considerably.  The difficulty is - how do you write a blog post such as this one without using those terms when they are so widely understood?

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Budget Cuts and the EU

One of the most difficult things I have to deal with at the moment as a Cabinet Member of Cambridgeshire County Council is the annual budget round.  We are dealing with an increase in demand for Adult Social Care, a need to deliver a growth agenda and an ever declining budget.  Whilst I absolutely understand the cause (which I'm afraid is because Labour spent all the money) and the need to do it, it does become increasingly difficult; next year's budget is looking really tough.

That is why I find it frustrating that one of the most bureaucratic and bloated public sector organisations in the world refuses to even acknowledge its own role and responsibility in our difficult financial position, where even David Cameron's bid for a no-growth budget is being met with some resistance.  I talk, of course, about the EU.

Now, I am not one to rebel(!!), but I actually agree with those Conservatives who are arguing that the EU should have a strong cuts agenda - that it should play its own part in the solving the problem that it helped to cause and set an example.  I hope David Cameron listens to their message,  in my view he should be saying to the EU that if they will not cut their budget, Britain will cut its contributions unilaterally (and of course hold an in/out referendum). Of course the EU could start by ending the Strasbourg Circus.

This is not something that is independent of Cambridgeshire; Councils' budgets  are reducing because of reductions in Government funding, if Government have to contribute more to the EU, it means less to fund services in the UK (or indeed to fund tax cuts).

Monday 29 October 2012

E-Cops Halloween Message

Some might see the recent E-Cops message about Halloween as a bit "yah-boo sucks", but I support every word of it.  Having seen exactly how scared Halloween and the whole trick or treating thing made an elderly relative of mine, I realised that what is fun for some can be a source of real worry for others, so I hope people will read this and comply:

"Just a reminder to parents who will be taking their children out for Halloween trick or treating. Please could you bear in mind that not everyone welcomes a visit on Halloween, especially the elderly who are living alone. They may get quite anxious having a knock on the door when it is dark outside, due to the clocks going back at the weekend,(it will be soon be getting dark around five o clock).
Most people who are taking part in Halloween have their houses decorated with pumpkins etc so it would be advisable to visit these for your trick or treating.

For older children please do not allow them to take eggs and flour out with them as this can cause a lot of upset to residents to find their windows and doors covered and having to clear up the mess.

I hope you all have a great Halloween!"

Sunday 28 October 2012

The Great Police and Crime Commissioner Debate

A huge debate has developed over the last few days following a statement from the former Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) candidate, John Pye, who is encouraging electors to support the independent candidate in the forthcoming elections.  I would encourage you to read my County Council cabinet colleague Steve Tierney's excellent blog about the issue.

There is one area where I disagree with Steve.  I always felt that appointing someone as a Conservative candidate when they had no intention of joining the party was a mistake. Expecting others who pay good money to the party to campaign and fund raise for someone that was refusing to do the same was always a recipe for disaster, and so it proved. I also think his latest observations reinforce the view that his selection was a mistake.

But, I have always felt that the argument that a PCC should be independent was a weak one anyway (especially when the Cambridgeshire independent candidate has a clear socialist background).  To me, first and foremost, the police and crime commissioner has to be a talented and experienced politician .  The role is a political one, with a strong strategic role. 

The biggest part of the role for me is engagement.   With policing there is a delicate triangle of relationships between the police, politicians and the public. For people to have confidence in policing the links between all three have to be strong - but the reality is that currently they are not. If a PCC is to be effective he must strengthen those relationships by engaging strongly with all three in a way that is an exchange of facts and views rather than just a token listening exercise - and then to use that engagement to strongly inform the strategic thinking that is needed to develop policing.

The only way that engagement can work is if it is delivered by an experienced politician who can show a strong set of principles that will govern the way they work - principles which are often best demonstrated by political history and beliefs.  I would argue that strong Conservative values are those that are closest to people's thinking on policing, but also that Sir Graham Bright is the only candidate who can demonstrate the sort of political background that is needed to be an effective PCC.

The point Steve Tierney makes about whips is also spot on.  The PCC role is not one that is aligned to a political group, therefore there is no whipping.  I would argue that whips are applied too often in politics in any case - but that certainly is not the case for the PCC, who will be able to use his experience without the constraints of a group and will be free to operate within his own personal political ethos.