Thursday 31 May 2012

CPSN Launch at Sir Harry Smith CC and other things

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the Cambridge Public Service Network today.  This is a real success story of the County, driving down cost by working with Virgin Media and others on broadband infrastructure for schools and other public sector organisations around the County (and indeed beyond).  A video about the project is here:

I was pleased they chose Sir Harry Smtih CC to do the launch - it is always good to see Senior Officers and members from Fenland and Cambridgeshire visiting Whittlesey.  The county's Leader, Cllr Nick Clarke and I used the opportunity to go on a short drive to show him some of the reasons why the Town would benefit from a bypass, in particular we went down Inhams Road, Station Road and over the railway crossing. He saw the crossing gates closing on Station Road and I would mischievously like to say that I hope he was also caught by Kings Dyke crossing on his way back to Shire Hall!!

On another note, this was sent out today as a press release from Shire Hall.  At a time when much of the public sector debate is around austerity and cuts,we need to remember to celebrate excellence in our services and our staff. (The website that the press release is on is a new creation from Cambridgeshire Conservatives aiming to improve our web presence and our communication with the public).

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Hot in the Shade

Approaching the finish
Some of you will be aware that I ran my fifth marathon last Sunday in sunny Edinburgh.  It's actually a lovely marathon course, which is surprisingly flat with a long downhill stretch at the start.  My daughter is also at University in the beautiful City of Edinburgh - so it was a chance to see her too.

As you can probably guess, the marathon was extremely hot - measured at 26 degrees at one point. That made life very difficult, especially considering most of our training has been done in this year's not so magnificent Fenland spring.  But that weather also brought out the best in people, with numerous people running hose pipes and spraying the runners down from out of their gardens.  One house had a twin set of sprinklers out the front.  That sort of contribution from spectators really adds to an event - and I have to say the crowd on the day were great.

That didn't make finishing the run any easier and I had a really hard time over the last few miles,but managed to finish in 4h52m.  This year myself, Angela and my son have been using our training as part of the 2012 Challenge, the aim of which was to run.walk and cycle over 2012Km up until the start of the Olympics.  We have finished that challenge, with most of the miles coming from running.  But it is not too late to sponsor us - we have been raising money for Get Kids Going, a great charity that helps provide specialist wheelchairs so disabled children can participate in sport.

Support for Carers

Today there has been an interesting debate around how the County Council supports family carers.  It started with a series of interviews with Jeremy Sallis on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire based on a report to one of our scrutiny committees that showed that we had not hit our target for 2010/2011 for the number of carers assessments we have completed.  That debate included Cllr Paul Sales and me appearing together. Paul is Labour Councillor for Arbury in Cambridge.  Paul provided some challenge about making sure carers were given the right sort of advice when a family member is discharged from hospital - he also made the point that we are doing the right sort of things in terms of facilitating and dealing with discharges from hospital (this sort of productive approach from Labour Councillors is a massive contrast to the opportunism we get from Lib Dems at Shire Hall).

Firstly, I probably need to define what a carer is.  This is the definition from the Carers Trust:

A carer is someone of any age who provides unpaid support to family or friends who could not manage without this help due to illness, disability, mental ill-health or a substance misuse problem.

Carers are entitled to support to help them - one of the ways we do this is by carrying out an assessment of their needs. In the year ending March 2011 we completed 2800 assessments for carers, in the year ending March 2012 we did 3000, so the number of people we are assessing is increasing - but we didn't assess as many as we would have liked.  Additionally, despite tough financial circumstances, in the current financial year we have put an additional £100k into funding for support to carers.  Overall, I don't think we have a bad story to tell - it's just that we didn't meet a target.  I would argue that giving an organisation grief because they didn't reach a target is something that needs to be thought about.  I want Adult Social Care targets to be ambitious - achievable but stretching.  Making a public issue about failing to meet one will potentially make people fearful of ambition and lead them to setting  simple, less rigorous goals.  If we are not progressing well enough overall, or if we are going backwards - fair enough.  But I am not sure it is right to criticise one target in isolation.

Identifying carers is really difficult.  Many people don't accept they are carers and indeed thee is a suggestion that most people don't accept themselves that they are a carer for at least two years.  At the scrutiny meeting his afternoon I repeated the message that I tried to get out this morning on the radio (but perhaps didn't put very well) which is that we need to get underneath our data, look at the various ways that people become carers and then look at where, within this, there is contact with people or agencies who can spot the approaching problem and give advice. If we can do this work, we can perhaps get more carers to come forward for assessment

Carers are very, very important.  They are big-hearted people provide support to vulnerable, needy individuals solely out of love.  In doing this they save "the state" money and prevent needs becoming worse.  It is right that we do everything we can to identify them and give them the sort of support they need.

If you know someone who is a carer, please encourage them to come forward and undertake an assessment so we can give them the support they deserve.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Africa Peer Review

I found out late last week that I have been selected to do a Peer Review Project in Namibia for five days in the middle of next month.  The aim is to do some work developing local government in the area.  There are five similar projects taking place in Africa over the next few months, and I was one of only five Councillors Nationwide to be selected.

I consider it to be a privilege to be asked to do this.  I hope I have enough experience to offer something to the area I am travelling to, but also because I thoroughly enjoy learning and I am sure I will pick up some ideas that can help me in my own role as a Councillor. I am becoming increasingly experienced in Peer Review having spent some time in similar such projects over recent years in local Councils in England.  This is an extension of this, but one that adds an international dimension.

In short, it is a great opportunity for me - but one that I hope offers a real win-win.  Helping Namibian local Government (in particular in Otjiwarongo the area I am going to) but developing my own knowledge at the same time.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Supermarket Planning Decision (or rather the lack of one)

I said I would blog the reasons for my vote yesterday, so here goes.

The officer recommendation for today’s meeting was to approve the Tesco scheme and refuse the Sainsbury’s one.  This was because of a retail assessment (which Councils are required to do for out-of-town supermarket applications to ensure the impact on Town Centres into account).  That assessment basically said that because Whittlesey Town Centre would be severely affected by two out of town supermarkets and Tesco already have an approval for a store in Station Road, the committee was obliged to approve the Tesco site on Eastrea Road. Both Sainsbury and Co-op argued against the legality of this idea.

I have strong doubts about whether a Tesco Superstore is viable on Station Road in the event of any of the two sites along Eastrea Road being developed – and this was at the crux of the case I put forward tor today.  I hope those that were there will confirm I was quite robust about this issue (and others); asking questions, challenging developers and officers and trying to ensure the right decision was made both in planning terms and in the interests of Whittlesey residents.

There were a couple of issues where, once a debate happened, I made my position clear.  I said I found it difficult to give weight to some Draft plans that Fenland have produced but which are not yet approved – I believe that they are still in a position where they can be amended to react to any decisions such as  the approval of a supermarket and/or country park, and also that I would not support an application that did not include an element of funding to mitigate the impact of supermarkets on Whittlesey Town Centre.

However, the crux of my argument was always that I questioned the premise of the officer recommendation that Tescos was the only option.  As a result of this, where it came to a point that we were approaching a decision, a suggestion was made that we might want to examine this argument more deeply.

As I have said elsewhere, Planning is an evidence based process – and that means any committee decision has to be defendable at either planning appeal or in court, whilst I believe my argument to be right, based on strong knowledge of the situation on the ground, there was no evidence to support it.  I therefore proposed that we defer a decision in order that this study be conducted, that proposal was approved by a majority.
Whilst I accept that some residents would have preferred a decision today, this is something that effects Whittlesey forever –any impact on Whittlesey Town Centre is there forever; it has to be right for Whittlesey, but defendable.  There is an argument that the need for this could have been predicted and the work done before yesterday – but we were not in that position.  It comes about because members, including myself, were not happy with what was being recommended to us, but recognised that in order for our case to be robust and defendable an evidence base is needed.

I want to follow this a bit deeper.  If the planning committee’s decision is not robust and based on evidence then that increases the likelihood of either an appeal to the planning inspector or a court case (or both).  Potentially the timescale for this to be all take place will be longer than the time it will take to get this survey don and make a more robust decision.  It could also lead to Council Tax payers money being spent unnecessarily on expensive legal fees. Actually, my suspicion is that  any final decision is likely to be made in the courts, but if that happens we can be more certain that the decision made by the committee is robust and defendable – it increases the likelihood of a strong, well informed local decision winning the day.

I think there are issues for everyone involved in this to reflect on today – and things may well change more substantially before the next committee.  In particular, I would suggest that Tesco’s stance did nothing to endear them to Whittlesey people.  They said they had a long term commitment to Whittlesey, but offered nothing to Whittlesey in return, in short they tried to force the issue that there was only one choice, irrespective of the fact that Whittlesey loses out on a vital piece of infrastructure as a result.  Both Tesco and Sainsbury have all to play for and I will keep an open mind – as I am required to do.  Unfortunately, it also means we will be sat around a table again in a few months’ time.  Whilst I would have preferred that not to be the case, given the debate on the day, I believe a deferral was absolutely the right decision.

Friday 4 May 2012

Supermarkets in Whittlesey

I am not going to voice an opinion on the two proposed supermarket applications for Whittlesey prior to the meeting which are set to be decided by Fenland District Council's planning committee next week, not least because I am still undecided and am still asking questions and providing some challenge. But it is really, really important that Whittlesey people have their say.  Please read this Cambs Times article and then send your views to the Planning Department at Fenland District Council - you can of course still send me your views - I just won't be able to comment in return.

However, I will publish the reasons for any decision I make. I recognise the importance of this to Whittlesey, and I think it is only right that I explain my thinking.

Local Elections 2012 - What do they say?

The local elections are always a good time for reflection.  The television media's obsession with predicting General Election results from local elections is fatuous - but it is also clear that the Conservatives have to learn lessons from last night.

Particular highlights for me are the Conservatives gaining a seat in Trumpington, which coincides with the Lib Dems losing overall control in Cambridge.  I hope it serves as a wake up call to the County Liberal Democrats that the deceitful form of politics they are practicing is not good for the residents of our County and also harms them at the ballot box. Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge City has the most to lose - so he needs to have the loudest voice in making that change; until now he seems to have just been an eager participant.

I was also particularly please to see John Peach re-elected in Park Ward in Peterborough.  John is a great Councillor and a solid, committed Conservative.  I was pleased to be able to do a small bit to help him, but it says something about John that he was able to develop a large team for yesterday and over the campaign itself.

I was interested to hear a couple of people on the media this morning.  The first is William Hague, he makes the point that Labour are gaining less seats in this round of local elections than the Conservatives were gaining under his leadership shortly after Tony Blair came to power.  That suggests that whilst there has been a protest vote against the Government, there is little appetite for Labour.  It will be interesting to see what the turnout is like - I suspect very low..

The other person that was interesting was Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home.  He made the legitimate comment that the National Party needs to engage better with its grass roots. My own view is much wider than that, national politics in general needs to listen more - all of the major parties are failing utterly miserably in this respect. The impression is increasingly that politics is done to people rather than with them, a continuing failure to deal with this will eventually lead to crisis.  It needs to change.