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...