Friday, December 21, 2007

A lot to celebrate

Dropped in on Oliver Mills, Managing Director of Kent Adult Social Services and the rest of his management team and staff for a Christmas drink on our last working day before the break.

There's a lot to celebrate as 2007 draws to a close. Kent's Adult Social Services ends the year with moderate eligibility criteria, with a more controlled budget position than almost all our neighbours, and with a star rating from the Commission for Social Care Inspection of three stars - the highest accolade and one which Kent has held since the start of the government's star rating system.

Nobody can predict what 2008 will bring, but at least Kent can be safe in the knowledge that it has the best team in the business to handle whatever lies around the corner.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Through the Barricades

Forget chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or even Jack Frost nipping at your nose. There's nothing like the KCC Labour Group Christmas Drinks to get the Christmas juices flowing.

Just like the Christmas football match between the trenches in the First World War, for a few short hours all political rivalry is set aside, and local elected County Councillors from all parties get together over a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine to celebrate the festive season.

Even the Leader of the Labour Group, Mike Eddy, adopted a warm benevolence that - in less festive circumstances - would have been positively terrifying. So - at least until January - politics is set aside and all is right with the world.

Was that a turkey or a pig that just flew by?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas success story...

I love my job, but some days just put the icing on the cake. Yesterday was one of those days, when I visited Pembury Primary School to join Head Teacher Cath Thewlis and three of her pupils on an interview panel.

It seems the work we'd done with poster competitions, job descriptions, coverage in the Courier and on BBC South East news, and finally a live broadcast by Radio Kent, had actually produced four applications for the post of lollipop person.

Final selection was between two applicants, and Cath decided the children should choose their lollipop person themselves.

The children's questions were superb - "are you kind?", "what would you do if we misbehaved?" and so on. Eventually, they selected the person they felt most appropriate, and subject to the usual checks and references, the children of Pembury should be able to cross the road safely in a couple of weeks.

Just shows what can be achieved when we all work together. Well done Pembury!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

An employer of excellence

Travelled early this morning up to Waitrose at Biggin Hill to present an award to David Patrickson, the Manager of the store.

He had given a job some months ago to a young man with a learning disability. Now sitting in the cafeteria with an early morning coffee, I found it hard to detect any disability in the bright, engaging, enthusiastic young chap sitting opposite me.

The most encouraging aspect was that it seemed the entire staff were supportive of this initiative - they all helped with training and support. In return they had an energetic, personable young man with a passion for his store, his products and his customers.

If only all retailers were like this...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ferry 'cross the Solent...

Nice crisp morning in Southampton as I caught the ferry over to the Isle of Wight - working with two colleagues, for South East Employers.

The three of us were spending a day on the island to assess the Isle of Wight Council, who over the preceding eighteen months has worked hard to achieve Charter status for the development of their elected Members.

The three of us spent the day talking to officers and councillors about the Council's plans to train their Members to face the growing expectations of voters, and better represent their constituents.

It was a long day, but the sheer pride on the faces of the Council team when we told them they had achieved Charter status made it all worthwhile.

Congratulations to the Isle of Wight Council - KCC has just begun the same journey, and I hope we can be as enthusiastic when our inspection comes.

It's a tough life

At this time of festive cheer, spare a thought for poor Tony Blair.

His premiership over, he has to eke out an income on the after-dinner circuit, since his role as Middle East envoy for the superpowers of the world is unsalaried.

Poor Mr Blair's autobiography deal with Random House will pay £5m, but not for two years yet. And with a £16,000 a month mortgage on the Connaught Square property, he's having to travel the world speaking at dinner after dinner At around £200,000 an engagement he's averaging a million a month, though his recent "boring" speech in China netted him £240,000.

Isn't socialism grand?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So over £36,000,000 of public money has been used to give four thousand pound handouts to failed asylum seekers to 'persuade them' to return to their country of origin and start up businesses.

Exactly what qualifies these people to start businesses? Is there any kind of vetting? Business plan? Cash flow? Any remote idea of how they will be spending our money - other than blowing it and coming back for more?

One suspects not. Because the Government has said it all - "It's cheaper to give them this money than for them to stay in the UK".

Why would they stay in the UK if their application has failed? Isn't that why we have our laws? Isn't that why we have our Government?

What happened to the art of conversation?

Drove down to Southampton tonight in preparation for an inspection of the Isle of Wight Council tomorrow.

I'd been booked into the Novotel Southampton, and having checked in, I went down for dinner. Seeing I was on my own, the waiter showed me to one of a number of 'booths, each with one seat and a single place setting. Curiously, each had a headset and a television screen, so that I could watch TV as I ate my meal in silence.

Whatever happened to engaging other lone diners in conversation?

It brought to mind a saying I heard some years ago - "Strangers are just friends you haven't yet met". Is it just me, or are we losing our sense of society?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

An inspector calls...

As Kent County Council begins to shift into fourth gear for its corporate assessment inspection by the Audit Commission in January, it was interesting to hear a different take on performance management.

I had an interview with Bill Leighty, ex-Chief of Staff for Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, voted the "Best Run State in the Union" for several years now.  We've asked Virginia to undertake their own inspection of how good they think we are.

Did Bill ask about all the usual 'tick box' questions about how many miles of road, how many complaints we dealt with, or how many school meals we served?

No. Instead, just one key question - "what would you say is the single most important measure of your success here at KCC?". I thought hard, then answered "Whether that elderly lady crossing the street outside thinks she's getting great services and good value for money".

We're all working hard for our Audit Commission inspection, but I often think this Government has moved too far away from what really matters - the people who elect us, and whose taxes pay for the services we provide.

Statistically speaking...

I heard two fascinating facts this week:

First, the monetary value of friends and family who care for loved ones at home.  At 87,000,000,000 - that's eighty seven billion pounds - it's worth more than the entire National Health Service budget.

Secondly, the amount of time that the Government's somewhat ill-fated Patient Records System will take to implement. I'm told it will occupy the equivalent of sixty thousand nurses for life...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tax upon tax upon tax...

I notice today that The Fabian Society is suggesting that parents sending their children to private school should pay VAT on their school fees.

The General Secretary Sunder Katwala feels that the. Money raised could assist others, saying "Putting VAT on private school fees could finance an opportunity fund to tackle educational disadvantage"

Haven't those very parents who can afford private education already done their bit by - in many cases - paying higher rate taxation, and by reducing the pressure on overcrowded state schools by taking their children out in the first place?

Sounds like the old 'private health care' argument to me. Those who pay for private health schemes, don't use the ever-worsening NHS, yet still pay for it through their National Insurance. Why not charge them another tax as well?

Maybe government should spend more time chasing the hundreds of thousands who slip through their large-mesh net and into this country's "black economy" - thus evading tax altogether - to account.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

No such thing as free TV...

First prize today for sheer meanness of spirit must go to Patient Line, the company responsible for providing "Pay As You View" bedside television for patients at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

Cyril Holes was recovering from his fourth stomach operation this year, watching a small battery-operated television which he brought in from home.

He was surprised when a woman from Patient Line told him to "turn it off or we'll prosecute you". Despite his protestations, Patient Line insisted that Mr Holes could only watch their TV set at a cost of £2.90 a day.

The company are wrong, of course, and overstepping their remit, but like the companies making a fortune from providing telephone facilities, I wonder how many other frail and vulnerable people have been harangued and bullied in this way?

Why can't we just let patients recuperate, rather than 'doorstepping' them in their beds?

Pembury crossing update

Met the head teacher at Pembury Primary School this morning first thing. Although the Courier ran a great story this week, she hasn't had a single call from any potential lollipop person. Spoke to the reporter again who told me he intended to run a 'follow up piece' so that should give us more much-needed publicity.

I was pleased to hear that Radio Kent have picked up the story, and will bring their radio car to the school tomorrow morning to broadcast a story.

By late morning I heard that BBC South East were sending a crew to the school this afternoon to film a piece for tonight's local news.

In getting lots of coverage like this, it should only be a matter of time before someone out there volunteers for the job.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

An inevitable consequence

Heard on Radio Kent today that the police are now exploring their right to take industrial action.

Apparently, they have calculated that the promised 2.4% pay award from Government has been reduced to a mere 1.9% in real terms, because the Home Office won't back date it to when agreement was originally reached.

Don't know which is worse - trying to pull a stunt like this or the belief that people would actually accept it without complaint...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Merry dairy Christmas!

So Sainsbury's and Asda have admitted price fixing on dairy products, and following an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading revealed that shoppers paid an additional £270m, the two retailers have agreed to pay fines totalling £116,000,000.

Who gets that then? Are the Government tracing everybody who paid 15p extra for half a pound of cheese, 15p extra for a quarter pound of butter, and three pence on a pint of milk? I suspect not.

It couldn't be that the Government will just take the money to use on their latest ridiculous hare-brained scheme? Because that would be unfair, wouldn't it?

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Last Post?

Well done Government! Unless you've been on holiday for the last couple of months, you'll be aware of the battle to save our Post Offices, in the light of Government cutbacks. Around 2500 small local Post Offices need to be closed to 'balance the books' of the Post Office, of which the Government is a majority shareholder.

A 'consultation' period was launched, during which many local residents across the county fought passionately to keep open the very hubs of their communities. The facts and figures presented by Post Office management were seen to be hopeful at best, deliberately misleading at worst.

Kent County Council mounted a strong campaign, pulling in Post Office management to Cabinet Scrutiny to answer some hard questions. Local Councillors and MPs spoke out in defence of their constituents, and during the six week consultation - half the length usually allowed doe such an exercise - over 5,500 letters of protest were despatched.

After putting the people of Kent through weeks of uncertainty and fear, the verdict has been announced. Of the fifty local Post Offices threatened with closure, just two have been saved. The rest will be shut down in due course, tearing the heart out of many small communities, and causing the elderly and infirm the inconvenience of travelling possibly miles to their nearest town centre.

It has been mentioned that the consultation period wasn't even long enough to read all the letters of protest.

Perhaps they got lost in the post...

That's the way to do it...

Having been part of the Local Government pay negotiation team earlier this year, I'm keenly aware of how hard the Government were trying to keep public pay low. I was struck by how unfair it was that while local government was being told not to go above a 2% settlement "at any cost", it was fine for other public professions to get 2% "plus a bit extra for their jolly hard work". This was both divisive and derisory.

The Police were awarded 2.5% in this year's pay round, and since September officers have waited patiently for their enhanced pay packet. Today we hear that their new pay will be awarded from December - a full quarter later than promised. Of course, in real terms this is a reduction in agreed pay, and a breach of the promised pay settlement.

The Home Secretary must be immensely proud of her success in reducing the pay bill without risking industrial action by police officers.

Of course, Christmas is a dangerous time to be playing politics with the wages of your police force ...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It's a Mad Mad World...

Just read in today's Times - "Sperm Donor Forced To Pay Child Support After Lesbian Couple Split".

Seems on the face of it like another cracking job from this Government's Child Support Agency.

And just when you think it can't get any worse, the headline on the next page reads "Corporate risk is too high over sky-diving, so executives bond over cookery". Careful you don't singe your ties...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Asylum Fiasco

Had a day trip to France today with my family, to stock up on goodies in the run up to Christmas. Really bumpy crossing to Calais, but more than made for by great lunch and cheap wine!

On driving back to the ferry at Calais though, we encountered a lorry jam which stretched for miles. We must have sat for over an hour before we got moving again.

Yet as we did, a strange thing happened. Four young men in hoodies and with scarves over their faces appeared from the darkness at the side of the road, and, running along behind the lorry ahead of us, opened its back doors. Two men clambered inside the back, the other two duly closed and locked the doors and ran back into the shadows.

We watched transfixed, as someone in the next lane called across and indicated to the driver that he had just been boarded, and that there were two people in the back of his truck.

And so it was that on a foul night, in high winds and driving rain., this innocent lorry driver had to pull over, climb out of his cab, open his back doors and begin shouting to his illegal passengers to get out. I assume that if this failed he'd have to climb in and remove them physically, not knowing whether they were armed or not.

And of course, if he drove into Dover with them on board - even if he wasn't aware they had climbed aboard as he drove along - our Government would have fined him £2,500 for each one. That's probably as much if not more than he would have made from the whole trip anyway.

Isn't it time our governments just got together and resolved the asylum fiasco?

...And a Merry ChrIstmas to you too!

What a sad letter in the local paper today. Previous correspondents have talked about a Mr Cosham of Wadhurst who for some years has festooned his house with Christmas lights. This year, it seems, he has received anonymous letters threatening him if he puts the lights up again.

Today's writer now suggests that whilst these letters are "cowardly", they go on to talk about "making every effort to cut carbon emissions and reduce global warming" and suggest that "this is one area where we could all save electricity". They suggest that "whilst they look pretty, they aren't really necessary".

Neither are lights on the tree, the power we use to cook the turkey, or the fuel we use to visit family and friends over the festive period.

These 'green extremists' seem very generous with their advice. Cut carbon emissions? Why not just cut Christmas...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Securing our future

We've all heard this week about the two CDs of personal data which the Government sent by unregistered courier, and which are now lost.

But of all the security systems, whose data is more secure than MI5, even than MI6? Why, our tax records of course.

Which is why it's all the more surprising that in the last twelve months alone, there have been more than two thousand (yes, two thousand) separate breaches of this security system.

Makes you wonder whether there's any such thing as private and personal data any more...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cynicism Beyond Belief...

Just seen yet another of the television adverts featuring Westlife, Bill Oddie, Wendy Richard and others, for the "People's Post Office".

How ironic, considering that in shutting down 2500 Post Offices up and down the country - starting in Kent with 50 closures - the very last view the Post Office is listening to is that of "The People".

Or perhaps we're not meant to notice?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Fit for a King

Had a great time today when I visited Swalecliffe and Cow Lane Day Centres in Swalecliffe and Canterbury respectively. Accompanying me were George Koowaree, Liberal Democract County Councillor for Ashford, and Maureen Newell, Labour County Councillor for Gravesham East. At Swalecliffe, we heard how the learning disabled service users tended their garden, grew fresh produce then sold it locally. They even made jams and chutneys. Needless to say, we all ended up buying several jars of goodies, then headed over to Cow Lane Day Centre, where we enjoyed lunch with a large group of service users - again learning disabled - who took part in a wide range of activities. As well as producing a large range of delicious cakes and pastries for the centre's own catering, they also run a stall in a Farmers' Market in Canterbury, giving them experience of dealing with both people, produce and money.

We saw a huge range of craft, from amazing wall clocks made from collection of clay leaves, to pottery house numbers. We were shown a wide range of furniture which users were refurbishing, from chairs to cupboards to tables - all sold to raise money for the centre. And we were treated to a rehearsal of the Christmas production - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat".

A marvellous group of people with a hugely dedicated staff, and a testament to just what people can achieve if they aren't given boundaries.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Education, education, education...

What was it that Mr Blair said about his Government's priorities? There was nothing more important than ensuring that our young people had the best possible start in life.

So I'm a little confused at what I heard today, when discussing the Government's "Building Schools for The Future" programme - or BSF. Kent is fortunate to be a major recipient of this funding, which will enable us to renew much of our secondary school estate over the next ten to fifteen years.

The Government have allocated £1.8bn - yes, one point eight billion pounds - for renewing the nation's secondary schools.

And yet, whilst up and down the country many of our primary school children are sitting in draughty, leaky classrooms or worse still, mobile classrooms - this Government has set aside less than one percent of this - just £150m - for the same programme in our primary schools.

So it's "education for all" but for some more than others?

A Place for Learning

I was priviledged to be asked by the Head Teacher to cut the ribbon on the new classroom block at Pembury Primary School today. Myself and the Cabinet Member for Education, Mark Dance both made speeches, as did Norman Dodd, Chair of Governors.

The building was a long time coming. Back in 2001, one of my first tasks as newly elected KCC Member was to push our education department to allow the school to sell its disused caretaker's house, then to be able to keep the proceeds towards its new classroom block. A long period of negotiation and planning followed, then tenders and appointment of contractors.

Throughout this whole project, head teacher Cath Thewlis and her Business Manager Sue Duckworth were passionate, energetic, and thorough. They managed the whole project as part of their day job. When catastrophe struck and the sewers exploded, we watched with frustration as a torrent of raw effluent down from Lower Green Road slowly flowed down through the playground and onto the site, contaminating materials, brickwork and timbers.

But tonight, all that was forgotten as almost one hundred local Pembury folk celebrated the brand new four-classroom facility, with music room, library, disabled facilities and covered walkway to the existing school buildings.

As I said tonight, it's been a long time coming, but the Head, the Governors, the staff, and most importantly the children deserve every brick.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bureaucracy Gone Mad

I read an interesting story recently about a mini cab driver in Bradford who fell foul of the new no-smoking laws.

It seems he was between fares, sitting in his taxi on the rank awaiting his next customer, and lit up a cigarette.  He was immediately pounced upon and charged with "smoking at his place of work" - the front seat of his car.

The poor cab driver duly paid his fine, commenting that it was a "fair cop".

But doesn't it sound like a return to medieval times, where you could be hung for stealing a sheep?

A grand ambition...

Met yesterday with Reverend Jim Stewart of St James'.  Rev Stewart runs a pre-school nursery in his church hall. It's very popular and has no spare places. But it may well have to close sometime next year.

The Government has pledged that every child will be entitled to pre-school education. It's good for the child and good for single parents too, as it gives the freedom to work and, for some, escape the benefits cycle.

Pre- schools were originally paid by Government to provide twelve and a half hours a week. This was passed on to parents without charge, and most parents took this quota as five days of two and a half hours.  Great idea, but often the basic fee paid by Government often isn't enough to cover the costs.

Government - quite rightly - wouldn't allow providers to charge parents for this 'free' provision. However since parents often wanted more than just two and a half hours a day, many providers simply charged a higher fee for the extra hours to 'balance' the unrealistic fees they got from the state. And everyone was happy.

But because "rules is rules", providers were told they shouldn't do this.  What's more, local government have to enforce this legislation.  Providers either have to go totally private and charge their normal fees, or else cut their costs to make this "free provision" affordable - which most pre-schools, including Reverend Stewart's, can't do.

So St James' Pre-school will, for the time being, keep its costs artificially low by ploughing in savings. If the rules haven't changed by the time the savings run out, it will close its doors.

Government, meanwhile - although aware of the anomaly - remain unwilling to change the law. What's more, they're increasing the number of 'free' hours to fifteen in the new year, even suggesting that pre-schools might want to employ qualified teachers rather than qualified nannies.

Perhaps someone should start a school specialising in common sense for Government ministers...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

CRB checks - one rule for some...

You'll be aware of the CRB regime? Criminal Records Bureau checks are a necessity nowadays for almost anyone coming into contact with vulnerable people young or old.

Everybody has to have a CRB check - from a children's nanny to a care worker, even I, as a County Councillor has had an enhanced CRB check because of the contact I might have with vulnerable people in the course of my duties.

Yet I discovered out today during a meeting involving our Adult Protection officers that there's one profession who are not CRB checked.  Have a guess...

Why, Police officers of course. It's obvious.

Or is it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Justice - alive and well?

I spent the afternoon today with staff of the Kent and Medway Mental Health Partnership Trust, finding out about the service and its problems.  Despite funding shortages, despite an ever growing client bank, these staff improve the outcomes for hundreds of people with various mental health issues.

One thing stood out for me - Section 117.  What's Section 117?

Kent has long had a problem with other counties placing people from their area into ours for social care.  Although they create pressure on our capacity, we usually manage to get the costs covered. But not with Section 117...

If, during their stay in Kent, an individual's mental health deteriorates to the point where they need to be "detained" under the Mental Health Act, then KCC automatically becomes responsible and liable for the entire cost of their care.  This responsibility then continues until either they no longer need treatment, or until they die.  And as someone told me this afternoon, "that's often one and the same".  There's no payback, no appeal, no reimbursement from Government.

I was told of one case where a patient crossed into Kent from a London Borough with the express intention of harming their ex-spouse; was apprehended and "detained", at which point KCC then became liable for the care of this individual, who for the last five years has been detained in an institution which costs Kent over four hundred pounds each and every day.

And where is the institution for which Kent council tax payers are footing the bill?

Back in the London borough where they came from...

Choice and opportunity?

Met this morning with a member of KCC staff whose own son, at 14 has autism.  I wanted to hear from her about her experiences, and those of her son.

Her point is a good one. At 14, he may well consider leaving school and looking for a job. And yet, what would he do? He has not been offered any careers advice, nor is any work placement opportunity available to him. Why? Because he's autistic? Doesn't he have just as much right - indeed, arguably more than most - to be able to make informed choices about his future.

And yet I suspect that those who should advise him have already decided on his future. Stacking shelves, cutting grass verges, maybe a kitchen porter.

Because the choice, the freedom, the opportunity which seems so readily available to the rest of us, is conspicuously absent from the lives of those with a disability.

He is lucky to have an intelligent, passionate, vocal mother who will, I am sure keep going until she gets the best for her son.  But spare a thought for the many others who are not so fortunate, and whose lives will follow an altogether more mundane path.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sunday? It must be Cheshire!

Travelled up on Sunday with Nick Chard, KCC Cabinet Member for Finance, to Cheshire where we were representing Kent at the annual conference of the County Councils Network. Leaders, Chief Executives and other officers and members from County Councils the length and breadth of the country meet once a year to discuss the future of County governance.

It's an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, to make new contacts, and to find out what each other's authorities are doing, and to hear at first hand from Government speakers just what's expected of us in the future.

Interesting conversations and an opportunity to question the IDeA, the Audit Commission, and a host of other people.

Flew back from Manchester Airport this afternoon, with a head full of ideas and a renewed enthusiasm for local government and what it can do for its communities.

PAYFC? No, just a great bunch of people

Saturday evening, Louise and I were invited by David Gow and Kevin Edser, Chairman and Secretary respectively, to the Annual Foot "Ball" Dinner of PAYFC - Pembury Athletic Youth Football Club.

The function, a black tie dinner at the Ramada Hotel in Pembury, was massively well attended. It was great to see such a huge range of Pembury residents, all with a strong common bond - a simple love of football.

The food was great, the company was superb, and during the evening a table raffle and an auction of promises raised over a thousand pounds. Local band "The Dragonflies" provided excellent live music, and the dance floor was full.

With a membership like we saw on Saturday evening, no wonder that PAYFC achieved the largest single bid to the Football Association, with almost £400,000 given to the club's new pavilion project. Long may PAYFC continue to bring passion and belief to their young footballers and to the Pembury community.

MTW Hospital Trust Update

Friday saw an all-day meeting of Kent County Council's NHS Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The entire meeting was dedicated to an examination of Infection Control processes and measures. Following the recent C-Dif news coverage involving Maidstone, Kent & Sussex and Pembury Hospitals, it was the very least we should be doing.

Steve Phoenix, Chief Executive of West Kent PCT was there, as was the new Chief Executive of the MTW Hospital Trust, Glenn Douglas. Glenn was supported by Amy Page, the Acting Director of Nursing.

Members' questions were, in the main, challenging and rigorous - one of the more interesting lines came from Dr Tony Robinson, one of our Tonbridge County Councillors. His line of questioning involved one of the more upsetting facts in the Healthcare Commission report - that patients needing to use the toilet were told to "go in their beds". Tony demanded to know the staff responsible for this, and what had happened to them. After considerable pressure the answer was revealed - four staff were involved. One nurse, and three healthcare assistants.

And their fate? Whilst two of three assistants had been dismissed, the nurse and one healthcare assistant remained.

The story goes on...

To read the Kent Messenger coverage of this meeting, click the following link:

To see the meeting webcast on the KCC website, click on

Bound for Bucks!

Travelled up to Buckinghamshire on Monday night, where I'm working for the rest of the week for the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) undertaking a Peer Review of Buckinghamshire County County. We've been called in to do a "quick and dirty" report on the Public Health unit, under the title "Healthy Communities".

It'll be interesting to see how they're doing, particularly since Buckinghamshire County Council has been assessed as 'Excellent' and given the maximum four stars by the Audit Commission.

With me is the Chief Executive of North East Derbyshire District Council, a Strategic Director from Staffordshire County Council, and two consultants from the IDeA. We have three days - three days to arrange and conduct interviews, write up our initial conclusions, and put together a presentation for the Leader, Chief Executive, senior members and staff.

If nothing else, it'll be great experience...

Hazard at Hawkwell...

Only a couple of weekends ago, there was yet another accident on the bend at the top of Colts Hill, at Hawkwell Cottages. The residents of these half a dozen cottages really have to put up with so much - hardly a week goes by without them being woken in the early hours by lorries and cars apparently 'bouncing' off the high kerbs opposite their homes. Indeed, it's seems like only yesterday that a young mum died at the scene as a result of a head on collision on the same bend - a year on, and the accidents are still happening. To give them their due, Kent Highways moved quickly to arrange a traffic count - which at around 20,000 vehicles a day was a staggering number - and to trim overgrown foliage from speed signs. All of this helped, but didn't resolve the fundamental problem.

I arranged to visit the residents Monday before last at 8.30am, to see for myself the latest problem. The pile of bricks and rubble outside the middle property, where the latest crash occurred - still has the front of the latest vehicle sitting on top of it.

With me were Alex King, fellow Tunbridge Wells County Councillor and Deputy Leader of KCC; Geoff Harrison-Mee, Director of Kent Highway Services and David Bond, Transportation Manager.

The residents, despite their recent troubles, were remarkably patient and discussed with us the various options available to ensure that such accidents, as far as possible, didn't happen again.

It was resolved that Kent Highways Services will extend the current 40mph coverage from Colts Hill to the end of the Pembury bypass. To improve visibility the residents asked for a "gateway" to be installed (the large white 'picket fence' with a speed roundel mounted on it - see Five Oak Green or Pembury) and a flashing warning sign to slow traffic down.

Let's just hope that this combined package of measures will resolve the lunatic actions of speeding motorists and end the misery of the Hawkwell residents.


Sorry everyone - it's 13th November, and I haven't posted a blog since 7th November, some six days ago. No excuse, other than I was in Buckinghamshire last week, then was in Cheshire from Sunday and only flew back from Manchester this evening. Anyway, I'll try and tell you what I've been doing in the next few postings...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Closing Kent's Post Offices - a Modern Day Fairy tale?

You'll be aware of the impending closure of 2500 small local post offices nationally - 54 of these in Kent.

The main argument from Post Office Ltd has been a financial one - that these small post offices were making unsustainable losses at £4,000,000 each week.  In the face of this huge figure, the case for closure seemed difficult to resist.

However, the accounts for the last year are now published, and the truth is slightly different.  Far from over £200m loss for the year, the total deficit for the year is £90m - it seems we were given a figure that was over-exaggerated by more than 100%.

Worse still, of that £90m loss, around £70m is down to the Crown Post Offices division, which has nothing to do with the local post office network. The real level of losses from the local network appears to be just £385k a week nationally - just 1% of the £4m a week we were quoted!

How does this compare with the bureaucratic waste in most civil service departments?

So the Government - themselves a "major shareholder" in Post Office Ltd - are happy to tear the heart out of 54 of Kent's small communities, and to use any excuse to do so.

If any other organisation did that....

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ken Livingstone's flawed system...

Fascinating to hear of the sharp rise in mini cab operating licences at Transport for London - particularly from two-seater sports cars.

It seems that for £109 a year, you can register your car as a mini cab..

So when you next call a cab to drop you to the station or take you home after an evening out, don't be surprised when a Ferrari or an Aston Martin pulls up. Or maybe there's some other reason.

One of the fringe benefits of this registration is apparently an exemption from the Congestion Charge...

Friday, November 2, 2007

New information resource for St James' day centre

I was really pleased to be able to drop in to the Age Concern Day Centre in Wood Street, Tunbridge Wells this afternoon to see for myself the use that's being made of some new equipment I funded through KCC.

Hi Kent - the 'HI' stands for 'Hearing Impaired' - is an organisation which provides services and adaptations for those with hearing impairment across the County. From a simple hearing aid, to flashing lights linked to the doorbell, and vibrating pagers with distinctive alerts for baby alarm, doorbell, cooker timer and telephone, this equipment provides a lifeline for those unable to hear.

However, many people, particularly those who are unable to travel easily to Hi Kent's Maidstone offices, aren't even aware that this equipment, or these services, exist. I was pleased then to be able to fund a new noticeboard for the reception of Age Concern, as well as a new plasma screen television with integral DVD player. Now visitors to the Wood Street day centre can see for themselves what's available, and how they can apply.

So it was great to drop in today, with Hi Kent's Chief Executive John Clayton, to chat to friends old and new, and to discuss how we can now find funding for more of these information noticeboards and TV/DVD units in day centres across Kent.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

No Lollipop for Pembury Children?

Earlier this week, I called a meeting of parents at Pembury Primary School. After years of sterling effort Margaret, their lollipop lady retired. Although the school has advertised again and again, they simply can't find a replacement.

So the meeting was called to discuss the options. Could I arrange for Pembury's Community Warden to be trained up to cross the children? Could I arrange for a zebra crossing to be installed? Could we involve the Parish Council? Could we install a Speed Indicator Device?

Our meeting lasted over an hour, and provided a really useful exchange of views and information. The parents were clearly keen to resolve the issue, but were really proactive and helpful - even suggesting that they could fund raise towards the cost of a crossing.

We've agreed to meet again in four weeks' time when I've made some contacts with other organisations, the media and my colleagues in Kent Highways.

I hope we can resolve the issue - with the backing and support of such a positive group of parents, proud of their school and their children, it looks increasingly likely.

A True Community Champion

I'm often asked to stand up and speak to groups of people. Yet today - although a very real honour - was the hardest yet.

A few weeks ago, Sherwood Estate lost one of its greatest assets. Val Joy, a resident for over thirty years, died following a spell in hospital. As the new TN2 Centre took shape, Val said she'd really like to see a water feature on the deck overlooking the lake. And so it was that today, local residents asked me to unveil the water feature Val had wanted to see, and to say a few words in her honour.

Val was one of our real characters - a true community champion, she was a Tenant Rep for Town and Country Housing, and a founder member of the TN2 Community Trust. She was given a civic award for her work in Sherwood, as well as a Kent Volunteering Award. She could sometimes be awkward - can't we all - but only because she wanted the best outcomes - for her friends and for her neighbourhood.

Val worked as a cleaner at Pembury Hospital, and when the management told her they were cutting her hours, she protested. Not for herself, but because the shorter hours would mean she was unable to lay up the lunch tables for the patients. Nonetheless, the hours were cut - and Val still laid up the lunch tables. But on her own time, and without pay.

On summer days, overlooking the lake out on the deck of the TN2 Centre, the gentle trickle and splash of water will give a rare moment of calm against the noise of the busy and successful new Community Centre. Val Joy would have been really pleased on both counts.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Big brother is alive and well...

I understand that we can all look forward to a knock on our doors from Government-appointed "Travel Inspectors" who will quiz us on our home to work travel methods, and try to persuade us to travel by bus, train or even bicycle. To assist them they will arrive bearing timetables and travel planners, with offers of free pedometers and discounts at your local cycle shop.

And don't think you can just pretend to be out either. These evangelists will come back up to ten times until they get a response, though it will be interesting to see what mode of transport they choose to arrive in.

Somehow reassuring to know that Big Brother is still alive and well some twenty three years on from George Orwell's vision of the future...

Speaking up

I recently asked the members of a learning disabled group what their biggest problem was.  Their reply was simple and direct. Public transport - particularly buses.

With this in mind, I organised a meeting between them, myself and Arriva in Tunbridge Wells. Yesterday afternoon, the General Manager and Operations Manager met with three learning disabled colleagues, two carers and myself. I merely had to introduce everyone and start the meeting off.

Two hours later, and a vast range of topics had been covered - from the state of buses to the cost of new rolling stock; from the lack of a reliable service to Bluewater to bullying on the buses themselves.  Several things became clear.  Not all issues were down to Arriva - there were several other bus operators, notably New Enterprise Coaches, Autocar and Gryphon, all running buses in the area.  Secondly, simple communication often resulted in an "oh - I never knew that!" response.

Both bus company and users found great value in the meeting, and both sides showed a strong interest in doing this again.

It was only a quick, relatively simple thing to organise, but why can't our public services be more joined up in engaging with harder to reach groups?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Good, but can do better...

A few weeks ago, I tripped over while running with my daughters, and pulled a ligament in my shoulder. It's no big thing, but I decided as I was in Tunbridge Wells this afternoon that I'd drop in to the Kent and Sussex and have it x-rayed.

I thought Sunday afternoon was a good bet, because surely there wouldn't be any delays in my being seen - would there? How wrong I was! I walked in to reception to be confronted by an overrun reception staff, an overworked Casualty team, and so many people waiting that they'd actually run out of chairs for them to wait in.

I left without registering, feeling that I'd only add to the workload, and that I'd find another time to get my x-ray. I was pleased when, on Monday of this week I 'walked the wards' and found so much improvement to the dreadful pictures in the recent Healthcare Commission report. It's clear that this Government needs to invest in areas other than just the "headline" ones if a dedicated NHS staff are not to be run off their feet.

"Community Cohesion" or just Responsible Society?

This afternoon, I was invited with my family to the celebration of EID in Tunbridge Wells with the Bangladeshi Welfare Association.

The Association looks after members of the Bangladeshi community across Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks. This afternoon's celebration marked Eid-Ur-Fitr, the traditional end of Ramadan, when those more financially able members of the community assist those less well off. I was told about the classes in Maths and English organised by the Association to help those young people whose parents were less able to assist because of a language barrier.

It's not the first time I've met with the Bangladeshi community in Tunbridge Wells - until fairly recently there was a weekly Bangladeshi School run on a Sunday to ensure that young people didn't forget how to read and write their national language.

Our Government is very adept at "buzzword politics" - one of their latest phrases is 'Community Cohesion'. For me, today was just a great example of how society can pull together to support itself - to provide its young people with values, with role models, with pride in its own history, and above all - with a sense of responsibility. Truly integrated society should allow sharing of each other's culture, and there's a huge amount that we all could learn from this community.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A definition of bravery

I was fortunate to be at a dinner this week with John Nichol, the British RAF pilot shot down during the Gulf War conflict. We all remember the television pictures of him and his navigator during their 47 day ordeal of torture at the hands of their Iraqi captors.

The details of their treatment - seven weeks of sheer hell, sensory deprivation, torture and constant bombing by the allied forces - John has an interesting viewpoint.

"I'm not brave. Bravery is about choices. The Iraqis took away all my choices - between life or death, freedom or captivity - and all I could do was to survive. What kept me going was the thought of my two-year old son (now 19 - where has seventeen years gone?) Being brought up by another man.

Brave? No. But all the other pilots and air crew back at base, who knew what was happening to us, who saw the pictures daily on television. Knowing what could happen to them, and yet still getting in their aircraft and flying into Iraqi territory - now that's bravery."

It was a fascinating viewpoint, and a privilege to spend an evening in his company.

The plot thickens...

On Monday, myself and KCC Deputy Leader Alex King visited Pembury and Kent & Sussex Hospitals. We wanted to see at first hand whether the improvements claimed by Steve Phoenix, West Kent PCT Chief Executive and Glenn Douglas, new Chief Executive of the Hospital Trust has actually been made.

It was important for us to speak directly to staff, and to have an "access all areas" walkabout, having read the Healthcare Commission report and seen overcrowded wards, beds too close, dirty showers and lack of washing facilities.

And what a difference! The six beds crowded into a bay window are now three, with at least three or four feet between each. Brand new wall-mounted wash basins abound, and every time we walked in or out of a ward we were made to clean our hands with alcohol gel. I asked to see the much pictured Ward 14a, which is now in mid-redecoration and refurbishment.

More interesting was the shower which, in the Healthcare Commission report was pictured covered in dirt and mould. We were told by nurses that, since there was a fear that older patients might trip over the lip of the shower tray, it had been decommissioned and at the time of the report, there was a sign "Shower Decommissioned - Storage Room Only" on the door. According to the staff, the inspection team ignored this and took photos anyway.

Of most concern was that staff told us about the update report from the Commission, which the hospital were sent a draft of a few months ago. On our return to County Hall, we phoned the Commission to ask for either a draft or final copy of this new report. Their answer?

"There is no such report, either in draft or final version. It doesn't exist."

The plot thickens...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Local Democracy Week

On Wednesday, I visited Pembury Primary School to celebrate Local Democracy Week, and met with the newly elected School Council. Pupils from every year group - from ages six to eleven - had written their own manifesto, canvassed their classmates and eventually won their respective elections, to win a twelve month term of office.

Within just three weeks of their election, every member of the School Council was able to tell me clearly what their priorities were for the coming year. I was also struck by how, when I asked what their reasons were for seeking election, the reasons they gave were exactly the same as I and my colleagues at Borough and County Council gave - they wanted to "make a difference"; to "help others out"; to address a specific problem they felt strongly about.

Their first priority? Seling Christmas cards to other pupils and parents to raise money for a "Buddy Bench" - a playground bench for pupils to sit on if they don't have a friend at playtime. If anyone sees someone sitting on the Buddy bench, they'll come over and be your friend.

I've always been proud of Pembury School. Their kindness, sense of responsibility and simple humanity are a lesson to us all.

Action or Words?

I'm looking forward to Monday afternoon, when along with Alex King, Deputy Leader of KCC, I will be visiting both Pembury and Kent & Sussex Hospitals.

After the events of recent weeks - the publication of the Healthcare Commission report, Rose Gibb's exit, the resignation of James Lee, and on Monday, our cabinet offer of £5,000,000 from county reserves to assist with infection control - Alex and I felt that as the two most local County Councillors, we had a duty to see for ourselves the truth behind claims that wards are clean, beds are not so cramped, exits are not blocked and cleaning staff are now in evidence.

I hope we will be allowed to walk the wards unhindered, and to see any area we choose. If things really are improving, I will be the first to shout long and loud about it.

A Lesson in Hypocrisy?

Just sat down to watch the Rugby final, and noticed our Prime Minister Gordon Brown smiling benevolently on the England team, which seems strange given that Mr Brown couldn't bring himself to support England until Scotland were out of the championship.

This Labour government have done more in the last ten years to induce schools to divest themselves of their playing fields; to discourage 'winners' for fear of upsetting 'losers'; and to end competitive sport.

Given this, I find Mr Brown's very presence at the Stade de France morally repugnant.

Kent - a shining example

Just back from three days in Bournemouth, and the annual Social Services Conference. It was a great chance to catch up with colleagues from Social Service departments in local government around the country, we all seem to share a common set of problems - escalating demand, rising expectations, and reducing government funding.

I was lucky to be invited to a breakfast meeting with Ivan Lewis, the Government Minister responsible for Social Care. Along with some fifteen others from around the country, we had a robust discussion for an hour or so. I made the point that if government shared some of their "big ideas" with councils, we could make provision in our budgets, rather than having things such as Direct Payments and individual Budgets 'sprung' on us.

After the meeting, I caught Mr Lewis on his own, and asked if I could bring him down to Kent to see how we're coping for himself. He readily agreed, telling me how he had "heard very good things about Kent".

Time will tell whether his "aides" will let him over our borders.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Democracy on Government's Terms

Busy day today - travelled 147 miles each way to Wiltshire to present a training course to County and District Councillors on "Working in Partnership". On the face of it, a simple and straightforward session, exploring how we can all achieve more if we establish strong partnerships.

The course was part of a training programme funded by another Government "initiative" and delivered by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), an arm's length branch of the Local Government Association.

But, it seems, since the funding for this programme was agreed the Government set about encouraging unitary bids from County and Districts. In other words, whilst funding training to encourage greater partnership working, they were also directly promoting a divisive and antagonistic "winner takes all" scrap between democratically elected local government bodies. A scrap where the only real losers are our local communities.

Against all expectations, Government has accepted Wiltshire County Council's bid for unitary status, and two of the four District Councils - Salisbury, Kennett, North and West Wiltshire - are mounting a Judicial Review of the process.

So an afternoon of walking on eggshells - poorly attended, because "the war" as locals refer to it has left many elected members feel disillusioned and emasculated. The 212 councillors across the County and its four Districts - once the new "Wiltshire Council" Unitary authority comes into being - will be "economised" to just 89. Leaving 123 passionate and energetic local people unable to represent their communities, put out to grass by the latest 'bright idea' from the Number 10 Policy Unit.

Government spends a great deal of time telling us all how local councils should 'join up' to be more efficient, more effective, more local- the phrase "practise what you preach" has never seemed more relevant...

Monday, October 15, 2007

It's a Start...

Latest update on the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust fiasco is that this afternoon, Trust Chairman James Lee has tendered his resignation to Health Secretary Alan Johnson.

This was the second time in a week Mr Lee has offered to resign - it was tabled last week to the Trust Board but refused. Apparently growing public concern led to today's action.

With rumours rife about a civil "class action" in the offing from the families of those who died from C-Difficile on Miss Gibb and Mr Lee's watch, let alone a possible criminal prosecution being considered by Kent Police, let's hope it won't be long before the other key people responsible for this nightmare display some honour and fall on their swords too.

I'd hate to think that our new hospital could possibly proceed with the involvement of any of those responsible for this fiasco...

Holding Our Public Sector To Account

A huge thank you to all those people who contacted me and left messages over the weekend about their experiences in Tunbridge Wells hospitals.

At this morning's meeting of the County Council Cabinet, we discussed as an urgent item the Healthcare Commission's report into Clostridium Difficile at the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Hospital Trust. At the table with us were Greg Clark MP, Steve Phoenix chief Executive of West Kent PCT, and Glenn Douglas, Rose Gibb's replacement as Chief Executive of the MTW Hospital Trust. Also present was a large contingent of television cameras and press.

This was not a time for finger pointing - as I said "this transcends politics. My daughters were both born at Pembury Hospital. Either of them - or my wife - could be on the list of 90 deaths."

The Cabinet's response was decisive - we offered to assist immediately with a short-term loan of five million pounds to fund a large part of the remedial action plan. We also indicated that we would set up a "HealthWatch" website and phone line for the public to report their concerns with healthcare to us directly; and offered to lend KCC senior management to the Trust in order to provide more practical day to day expertise.

However, we made it clear that in return the County Council expected its officers as well as its elected Members to play a strong role in monitoring and visiting the hospitals, on an 'access all areas' basis to establish whether the recommendations proposed by the Healthcare Commission were actually being delivered.

In the meantime, I asked two questions of Steve Phoenix and Glenn Douglas. The first was whether the cleaners' jobs, many of which had been held vacant as a cost-saving exercise, were now all filled by full-time staff.

My second question was that - in order to rebuild confidence in the health service in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells - could I seek confirmation that nobody who served on the now largely discredited Hospital Trust board would play any part in the new PFI hospital project, particularly as a member of the new PFI board?

The answer to the first question was that they had "seen a lot more cleaners around", and to the second question, one of the neatest sidesteps I've ever seen....

We can't let go of this issue. The public has a right to expect that those who lead bad services will be removed from their posts.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Enough is Enough

So the story is finally made public. The infection control failings of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Hospital Trust have resulted in 90 headline deaths.

Rose Gibb, former Chief Executive has gone, although at the time of writing, the Secretary of State has intervened to suspend up to £400,000 of taxpayers' money for Ms Gibb's "settlement". Her role has now been taken over by Glenn Douglas.

There are several issues here. This first must be that Ms Gibb is not the only one to be responsible for this issue, and we as the public must be confident that no other senior staff implicated in this fiasco should have any connection with the new Pembury Hospital. Though I understand that at least one person has moved to the new PFI Board. This cannot be right, and must be addressed without delay.

And if Glenn Douglas is to be given a fair chance of resolving these horrendous issues, surely his position in Surrey must be taken over by someone else, rather than simply "adding" the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells job to his existing role? What does this move say to the families of those who have died about the importance of resolving this issue?

There has to be an issue also with regulation. If this issue had occurred within a residential care home, it would have been picked up by CSCI (the Commission for Social Care Inspection). An action plan would have been prescribed, and if that action was not taken in full, the operating licence could have been revoked without delay. Yet these issues can run on unchecked for years in our hospitals without any such action. When will government wake up to the implications of their actions - or lack of them?

I see from yesterday's press release that the Trust claims its actions on infection control has reduced risks by 36%, and that they're "sorry".

Does this means we can expect more fatalities, but just 36% fewer?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Different View

What an interesting day! I've just spent today being "shadowed" around County Hall by Phillip. A bright, personable and enthusiastic young man, he also has a degree in German. Phillip is also blind.

His placement was one of twelve similar "job shadowing" opportunities organised this week throughout Kent County Council, with the aim of encouraging people with a disability to consider a career in local government in general, and Kent County Council in particular.

Our day started at 8.30am, and a half hour chat to establish what each of us wanted to get from our day together. Then, at 9am my meetings started - an hour long interview with an external inspection team looking at KCC's Public Health work. Then an agenda briefing for the Adult Social Services Policy Overview Committee, lunch with a our Finance Cabinet Member, a quick meeting with our Corporate Communications team, a Social Care briefing to a cross-party member group, and so on.

Through it all, Phillip was good-humoured even in the boring bits; he was patient when we spoke in acronyms and jargon; he listened to our debate and took in the facts, and when asked for comment, had clearly thought carefully about everything that was going on. Personally, I found him to be excellent company and was sad when at 4pm we had to say goodbye.

I asked to host a placement because - as KCC's Champion for Equality and Diversity - I feel it's important to understand the point of view of others. But through Phillip's sight impairment, I understood just how atrocious our buildings are for getting around if you have a disability. I saw how we all need to think about how we debate and discuss our affairs, because we don't try hard enough to make our debates understandable. And I realised that if County Councillors don't make an effort to "demystify" the issues, we can't complain when our constituents tell us they don't understand what we're doing.

Thanks Phillip - I hope we can keep in touch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Simple Crossing

I spent two hours this evening with a remarkable lady called Lynn. Both sight and hearing impaired, she goes about her life with a passion that few can equal. Her problem - and the reason she wanted to see me - is simple. She just can't cross the Sandhurst Road in Sherwood.

Without a crossing, if one car stops, there's no guarantee when she's halfway across, that the next one will. And on this long, straight road between the Pembury Road and the Industrial Estate, the cars rarely slow down, and until the Government provide the funding for the dualing of the A21 at Castle Hill, the lorries will continue to divert and rat run down Sandhurst to the industrial estate rather than risk the Castle Hill gridlock.

And all that's needed is a controlled crossing on Sandhurst Road. A safe place to cross a busy road - for the lady I saw tonight, for her other visually impaired friends; for the children from Sherwood Park Primary School; for the ladies living in St Philip's Court; for the parishioners at St Philip's Church. The list goes on.

So the story needs to be told - of how a simple crossing would give so many people a sense of safety, a sense of freedom.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Compassion in the Real World

Went to East Malling today to a celebration event for the "Kent and Medway Care Ambassadors" - twenty five professional care workers who give of their time in addition to the 'day job' to travel around Kent and Medway, speaking to students and mature job seekers, evangelising Social Care as a profession of choice. Interesting that in a recent talk to 150 female students, only three raised their hands when asked if they were considering care as a career. Of the reasons why the other 147 were disinterested, their top three reasons against working in social care were 'rates of pay', the 'negative image of care as a profession', and 'perceived levels of stress'.

The Government, who voice concern at the lack of young people joining the care profession, seem hell-bent on making it as hard as possible for those young people even to gain experience. Whilst in any other profession, a young person can start an apprenticeship at sixteen years of age, the Government won't let them start an apprenticeship in care until they are two years older - 18.

There lies the problem. Whilst at sixteen, many young people are interested in the vocational opportunities that care work provides, by eighteen many have lost that interest, preferring money in their pockets and the lifestyle that many other jobs can buy.

And yet when a fifteen year old girl on a short term work placement in a care home, experienced an elderly man collapsing in his room, she did precisely the right thing - kneeling on the floor beside him, comforting him while she called for help. And the result? The authorities offered to 'make an exception' - she could begin her apprenticeship at sixteen...

Oh for a Government that applies common sense and - god forbid - consistency to its ever-growing book of rules.

Monday, October 8, 2007

An accident waiting to happen...

Met with the head teacher of Pembury Primary School today. It seems that since their long-serving lollipop lady retired some weeks ago, nobody has come forward to step into the breach. No parents, no grandparents, no local residents.

It doesn't seem a lot to ask - an hour or so in the morning, same again in the afternoon. And the knowledge that hundreds of children get to school safely day in, day out.  In the overall scheme of things, it's very small. But if it were my child under the wheels of a car...

I've agreed to send a letter to every parent to ask them to a Public Meeting. I'll try to get the local press involved too, and let's see if we can find a community-minded soul to take the job. Without them, I fear the inevitable accident won't wait long to happen.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Community of Oak Road

Spent Saturday evening with the family at a fish 'n' chip supper held on the Colebrook Recreation Ground in Sherwood by the CORE (Community of Oak Road Estate) group. Wooly hats and coats didn't stop karaoke, friendship and a good old fashioned sense of community.

Goes to show that if you recommission an old, grafitti-covered changing room block and hand the keys to the residents to use as a base, you can achieve more than ploughing thousands in Government money into the latest trendy, headline-grabbing "regeneration initiative"..

Saturday, October 6, 2007

New Community Centre for Sherwood

It's officially open! After years of effort, lots of pushing and persuasion, Sherwood's new TN2 Community Centre opened this afternoon. I recall persuading KCC's Director of Social Services that we should match fund the Borough Council to a total of £600,ooo to build an extra floor on top of the largely disused YMCA Sports Centre in Greggs Wood Road, to replace the old Sherwood Community Centre, which has now been demolished by Town and Country Housing Association to make way for thirty brand new affordable flats.

I fought passionately to ensure that the state of the art facility was run by local people rather than "the usual suspects" - we set up a Community Trust and have supported the locals in putting together a business plan, bidding for funding and being trained in book keeping, chairing meetings, taking minutes and learning how to work together to make their voice heard. If the Government is looking for real 'localism in action', then they should come to Sherwood and see how it can work in practice.

And now it's a reality - the TN2 Centre is at last officially open for business. Leader of the Borough Council Roy Bullock, MP Greg Clark and I along with around three hundred local Sherwood residents watched two local children cut the ribbon and declare the new TN2 Centre open. And as I said to the crowd when they asked me to speak "...this isn't about the Borough Council; it's not about the County Council. It's about you - the people of Sherwood. It's been the forgotten area of Tunbridge Wells for too long. Now you've found your voice and are being listened to, we have to keep pushing to make sure Sherwood gets its fair share in the future."

Friday, October 5, 2007

Young People - the voters of tomorrow

I was pleased to get a response - albeit "Anonymous" - from an 11-year old who asked if I did 'anything that would be interesting to young people'. Although it's not enough, I try to make regular visits to the schools in my area - Pembury Primary School, St Barnabas in St James and Sherwood Park Primary School, where I've recently become a Governor.

It's always great to talk to the pupils and the teachers, usually during assembly, and during Local Democracy Week each year I try to organise events that will explain democracy and its importance - whether it's through a "Question Time" type event with other colleagues from others political parties, presenting certificates and badges to newly-elected school councillors, or by inviting pupils to visit County Hall in Maidstone, debating and voting for things they want for their school in the Chamber, then funding the winning bid from my KCC Local Member Grant.

It's not enough, and I hope that creating this blog will open a communication channel that might provide me - and other councillors like me - with a better sense of how to engage with people of all ages.

If only all Councils were like this one?

Fascinating to hear Daniel Hannan (, one of our illustrious South East MEPs, talking at County Hall in Maidstone earlier today.

He pointed to the policies of our Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne MP and how he intended to change Stamp Duty, Inheritance and Capital Gains taxes with savings and revenue income of around £3.5billion.

Daniel's point was that - if the percentage of budget savings and efficiencies made by Kent County Council were extended across the country, the savings figure would be in the order of £6.2 billion - and that rather than reducing, this figure would provide enough to scrap entirely Capital Gains Tax, to scrap entirely Inheritance Tax, to scrap entirely Stamp Duty and "still have enough loose change left to take a penny off Income Tax".

It's an interesting hypothesis, but - against contrary opinion - KCC currently has no plans for global, or even national domination...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Back from Blackpool

Having spent the last few days in Blackpool, I must admit to not having waited until 2.30 this afternoon to hear David Cameron live. Instead I watched his performance on BBC Parliament this evening. And what a performance! A whole hour assisted only by a few notes - no autocue, no lectern. I was really impressed, which is not easy as I had found parts of the Conference to be massively stage-managed and providing the usual shop window for bright-eyed, earnest prospective parliamentary candidates.

I was also fascinated to read BBC political pundit Nick Robinson's blog - on the conference in general, and Cameron's speech in particular. Of equal fascination was the reaction of other bloggers to Robinson's comments, both before and after the speech - read these at

Finally - the most surprising reaction I have found comes from the Lib Dems Aggregated website - where you'll find a posting "Without an Autocue" from "Whiskey Priest" at 8.51pm today. I quote:

"David Cameron's speech to his party's conference today would appear, watching it back on the BBC, to have been made without the aid of an autocue and bloody hell, doesn't it look better and sound better?
Just by taking away the lectern it makes him appear friendlier, less authoritarian and more inclusive. The whole thing doesn't feel like a lecture, it doesn't feel like he is talking down to his party and (to those watching at home) the country. Could Ming spend that long on his feet without a lectern to support him?"

After the various ups and downs of our party's fortunes in the last few years, perhaps we just might be on the way back after all...