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.