Thursday, September 11, 2008

My New Blog -

Since starting up my Blogger site in October of last year, I've tried to post regularly - every day when I could. The response has been great, and I've been really surprised. As the months have gone on, I've started up a Wordpress blog site in addition, and used the functionality of Blogger to email my postings in from my Blackberry. I then imported these new postings into Wordpress to ensure that both blogs were the same.

Then - shock horror - the Tech Support team from Wordpress informed me that by running twin identical blogs, I was running the risk of being blacklisted by search engines.

And so I've had to make a choice. Do I maintain my Blogger site, or my Wordpress site?

I'm keeping Wordpress, so if you want to read my thoughts, observations and opinions from now on, go to

Sorry Blogger - it's been great...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Whoever you were - thanks

Having been in back-to-back meetings since 8am this morning, I stepped outside County Hall today for some fresh air. Standing in the Members' car park checking emails on my Blackberry, a young man walked past me. He looked to be in his mid to late twenties, with a baseball cap and jeans, nose stud and earrings, and he carried a can of Special Brew. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked. "Of course" I replied.

"What's it like to have a job?" he said. I wondered if I'd heard him correctly, so I got him to repeat his question. "See, I've never worked" he went on. "D'you work in there? What d'you do?" he pointed towards County Hall.

I explained that I was a County Councillor, elected every four years. I asked him if he'd ever spoken to his local Councillor. Needless to say, he hadn't. When I asked why, he told me that nobody ever asks him how he feels and nobody ever listens to him.

"You know what you want to do?" he suggested. "You want to take that suit off, put some jeans on, and get out and talk to real people."

We chatted for a few minutes more, then parted company. But as I walked back to my office along the opulent wood-panelled Cabinet corridor; as I passed my colleagues' offices with their flickering computers and ringing phones, I reflected on why we're all there. I reflected on how one of Sandy Bruce-Lockhart's most powerful policy ideas, the Kent Supporting People Programme, had come about.

Sandy had taken time to work a night shift at a soup kitchen in East Kent. He'd spoken to those less fortunate, trapped in a spiral of dependency with no clear escape route from poverty.
I have no idea who that young man was today. But I've already discussed with my officers how I can put my jeans on and go and talk to real people. So whoever you were - thanks.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Cabinet in the Community

I note that Gordon Brown took his Cabinet to the people today, visiting the people of Birmingham.  At the International Conference Centre, Cabinet Members each sat at a table of 'real people' to discuss life, the universe and everything, and Mr Brown promised to send every person in the hall a written copy of what he and his team understood from the conversation.  That should be an interesting read.

A formal Cabinet meeting ensued, preceded by a suitable media call before the media were then expelled before the confidential discussion.

After this, Labour Ministers travelled hither and thither, spreading the word in a range of media friendly settings. Ed Balls, Education Secretary visited a local school where he congratulated a hall full of visibly nonplussed students on their exam results; whilst Foreign Secretary David Miliband talked culture and was presented with what appeared to be a silver camel in a presentation box.

And all around, Mr Brown's colleagues told everybody what a jolly good man he was - Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham, even Harriet Harman appeared to have conveniently forgotten the contrary interview she gave to Andrew Marr just a couple of weeks ago.

And all the while, Brendan Barber worked the crowd at the TUC Congress into a state of fervour over plans to strike over the 'derisory' public sector pay award.

You couldn't write this stuff. The sooner it's all over and we can stop pretending Labour's chaotic circus has some intended consequences, the better.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

£25,000 Deal for Pembury

I'm really grateful to Michael Romyn at the Kent and Sussex Courier (click here to go to the story) for featuring my idea for a mini-Local Area Agreement in Pembury. The idea, which will bring Kent County Council and Pembury village together in a true expression of localism, should be the first pilot of its kind in the country.

Kent County Council was the first Conservative authority to team up with the Labour Government in the first three-year Public Service Agreement, which set hard-to-reach targets such as reductions in teenage pregnancies and fires in the home. By hitting those targets we would save the Government money, so they in turn agreed to share the saving with us. After three years, we hit ten of our twelve targets completely, and came really close on the other two - earning Kent twenty two million pounds in performance reward grant.

So it occurred to me that KCC in turn could negotiate a smaller version of this directly with a community. And to me, the Pembury community is ideally placed to be the first pilot of this approach. An excellent Parish Council, a range of well attended community organisations -Scouts and Guides, Pembury Athletic Football Club, University of the Third Age and the well-attended and progressive Churches - if this idea can work anywhere, it will work in Pembury.

I've asked the community and its organisations what kind of targets they'd like to see, though I have some views about including health and well-being, and joining up younger and older residents to generate sustainability. And several people have already told me that they'd like the £25,000 reward grant I've negotiated with the County Council to be spent on something substantial, like a community minibus.

Now all we need to do is agree a small set of targets which will leave Pembury an even stronger community.

And hopefully £25,000 better off.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sonic versus Charlton

If you've seen the TV advert for Gillette razors, you'll know the agency has enlisted the assistance of Thierri Henri, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods to respectively kick and hit balls at some unsuspecting chap trying to have a quiet shave.

The sad thing is that, having assembled this trio of sporting superstars, they then have to explain by captions who they are.

I thought this was bad enough, until I saw the new Activia advert. A group of young boys are playing football, and call for an elderly chap walking his dog to "give us our ball back grandad.". He makes a stunning curved long shot into the back of the net, then the camera shows us all that the old chap is actually Jack Charlton.

The sad thing is that the final shot is a pot of Activia yoghourt next to a framed photo of Charlton in 1966 holding up the Jules Rimet trophy.

How sad that people are probably more likely to recognise Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario or some other Nintendo hero than a real person who has won their status by real human endeavour.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A shaggy dog story?

Just heard a great story from Johnny Vaughan, breakfast DJ on London's Capital Radio. It seems his dog was unwell with a dodgy tummy. Vaughan needed to take him to the vet, and covered the tan leather passenger seat of his car with a towel for protection against the effects of the tummy bug.

He put the dog in the car and went back to lock the house. The dog, preferring the smell and feel of the leather driver's seat, climbed across, knocking the gear stick into 'Drive'. The car lurched forward, pushing the car in front into a waste skip.

Trying to make a claim, his insurance company refused, on the basis that "the dog wasn't a named driver". Vaughan eventually claimed on his pet insurance, but commented that since his car premium was several hundred, but his pet insurance considerably less, he may as well cancel the car insurance and let his dog drive him everywhere...

A shaggy dog story?

Just heard a great story from Johnny Vaughan, breakfast DJ on London's Capital Radio. It seems his dog was unwell with a dodgy tummy. Vaughan needed to take him to the vet, and covered the tan leather passenger seat of his car with a towel for protection against the effects of the tummy bug.

He put the dog in the car and went back to lock the house. The dog, preferring the smell and feel of the leather driver's seat, climbed across, knocking the gear stick into 'Drive'. The car lurched forward, pushing the car in front into a waste skip.

Trying to make a claim, his insurance company refused, on the basis that "the dog wasn't a named driver". Vaughan eventually claimed on his pet insurance, but commented that since his car premium was several hundred, but his pet insurance considerably less, he may as well cancel the car insurance and let his dog drive him everywhere...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why can't our police force just be left to police?

I've always had a lot of time for Mike Fuller, Chief Constable of kent Police. Years ago we had real problems in Pembury with anti social behaviour, and I contacted Mike to ask for help. The response was astonishing, and within a few weeks Pembury's problems had largely been resolved.

So I take very seriously his comments in today's Guardian, "Labour Making Our Job Harder" (click here to open link). He claims that as a result of government ministers ordering police to "deliver" more criminals to justice, our prison system is now creaking under the strain - to the extent that hardened offenders are either being released early, or worse still, escaping the prison system altogether in order to keep numbers down.

He also commented on the performance inspection regime, a topic which often causes concern in local government. It appears that as a Chief Constable, much of Mike Fuller's time is spent reporting to no less than thirteen separate official bodies.

This isn't the first time I've heard these kind of problems in the emergency services; the Fire and Rescue Service are in the same ridiculous situation, being over-managed and over-regulated.

Indeed, a much-trumpeted new local government performance management culture promised to reduce the thirteen hundred-odd performance indicators to around two hundred. I heard yesterday that a new range of indicators will take us back up to around thirteen hundred for Kent County Council.

Why can't our police force just be left to police?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

There hasn't been another Northern Rock

Things must be getting very bad for Gordon Brown. Today's news carries the story that the IRA's army council no longer functions, and that its terrorist structure has now been disbanded. This evidence has arisen from a report by the Independent Monitoring Commission.

In response, the Prime Minister commented "I believe this will provide reassurance and hope for everybody". (to read the story on BBC news, click this link)

We've had claims of success, failures spun to give the impression of success - even success snatched from failure, and outright claims that failure never actually occured in the first place.

But this has to be the first time Gordon Brown has made headlines because nothing has actually happened.

Perhaps tomorrow's headlines will proclaim the Chancellor's skills because there hasn't been another Northern Rock?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Whatever happened to Democracy?

I had a call today from a constituent who wanted to discuss school transport. It seems her child had won a place at Oakley School for pupils with special educational needs, on the Pembury Road in Tunbridge Wells.

Although my constituent was pleased that her child was able to benefit from the wonderful facilities at Oakley, she was unable to get her to school. Her husband is seriously ill, and she herself is unable to drive, but has other younger children who attend a school some distance away in the other direction.

Her child, at eleven years old, has a mental age of just over six. She has no conception of "stranger danger" which puts her at risk both from other people, and indeed in such basic actions as crossing the road. Let alone crossing the busy Pembury Road, a main artery into the town centre, where the nearest pedestrian island is some distance away, and the 120 metre walk from there to the school is devoid of pavement. An obvious winning case for an appeal, you would think. After all, her child is clearly in no position to walk to her new school.

She asked if I would represent her at the appeal; something County Councillors have been doing for years. This is something that County Councillors have been doing for years. Every year we get calls from worried and upset parents asking us to represent them at both admissions and transport appeal. And yet, although we can still appear at transport appeals, over the past couple of years the Government have changed the rules to prevent "elected representatives" from representing their constituents at admission appeals.

This simply isn't fair. We're letting our constituents down, because the fundamental job of elected representatives, be they Parliamentary, County, Borough or Parish, is to assist their electorate. Which is precisely what the Labour Government has ensured we are all powerless to do.

Whatever happened to democracy?

New month, new responsibilities

At the end of my holiday last week, I received a call from the Leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter.  My pulse quickened slightly; was there a social care tragedy back in Kent?

The Leader explained that there was to be a Cabinet reshuffle, and he asked me to give up my role as Cabinet Member for Adult Social Services, instead taking responsibility for Regeneration and the Supporting Independence Programme.

I agreed, although my sadness at leaving Social Services is equal to the excitement with which I approach my new role.

All weekend I have received calls, emails and texts congratulating me on my new appointment. There are some very kind and gracious people around, both at KCC and elsewhere, who have all promised to support me along the steep learning curve ahead.

The Norfolk Broads were wonderful, but as someone once said, a week is a long time in politics.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

HPV vaccine - another lottery?

Well done to West Kent Primary Care Trust for taking a proactive stance on HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection which can over time develop into cancer.

In the new school year, pupils in years 8 and 13 (ages 12/13 and 17/18) at schools in East Sussex and West Kent will receive preventative vaccine shots.

The actions of the PCT are of course to be applauded; anything which can save lives, and prevent the misery and heartache of cancer has to be worth exploring.

But I understand the vaccine is to be given to girls only, despite the fact that boys can also carry the disease. I see from this week's Kent and Sussex Courier ( that West Kent PCT has put the decision down to "prioritising funds for girls."

Why? God forbid that any young male should contract HPV, but how will he or indeed his family feel, knowing that he could have received the preventative vaccine?

It's probably me, but I really don't understand this.  Perhaps someone will explain it to me.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is Chancellor Darling's luck about to run out?

So Chancellor Alistair Darling has given another interview - this time to The Guardian - which has proved damaging to the Labour Government. With the level of insight that only a Minister from an utterly disconnected and discredited Government can muster, Darling admits that the economy is at its lowest point for sixty years - as if we didn't know. He further points out with disarming vision and incisiveness that "people are pi**ed off with us."

My previous draft of this posting had implied that Darling was somehow daft. Yet apart from Jack Straw and Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling is the only other origjnal member of the front bench - promoted to front bench status after just twelve months in Parliament, and still on that bench twenty years later. So he can't be that daft.

Yet in his time at Number 11, it seems crisis upon crisis has 'happened around' Mr Darling. As the Guardian article states clearly (click here to view) he discovered that the European Bank was pouring money into the economy by reading a paper in Majorca; he says "no one had any idea" about the financial crisis. He was in Edinburgh when his staff rang him about the run on Northern Rock; apparently "no one knew how serious it (the credit crunch) was yet". When the Treasury lost the personal details of "just about every family in the country"; he says "we knew it was bad."

Mr Darling admits that, "as a minister, by and large I had a charmed life". With the current furore over Stamp Duty, a blistering lead for David Cameron's Conservatives in the polls, and Gordon Brown's "last chance saloon" of party conference season just around the corner, it will be interesting to see whether Chancellor Darling's luck is about to run out.

No change there then.

It's been great this week to catch up on recreational reading - much of it around my real interest - general aviation. And so I was interested to see in this month's "Pilot" magazine (click here) that this Government has also got its "we know best" talons into even this. It seems they have asked their "anti-terrorism expert", Lord Carlile QC to look at the 'potent cocktail' of terrorists and light aircraft (click here to read his report).

His findings, which have been reported to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, are that "light aircraft could be used by terrorists to launch attacks on buildings" after the style of 9/11.

Fortunately AOPA - the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - has entered the debate in the person of Martin Robinson. He refers to the 9/11 terrorists learning to fly light aircraft (remember one in particular told his instructor he wanted to learn take off and flying, but not to bother showing him landing) and makes the valid point that if the light training aircraft in which they learned their skills flying skills could have produced the required amount of mayhem and carnage, they wouldn't have bothered to hijack fully laden airliners.

He adds " cause major damage, they needed large, heavy aircraft travelling at high speed with significant quantities of fuel on board. An incident involving an aircraft weighing as much as a Mini bouncing off a building was not what the terrorists were after."

So well done Government. Once again you've blundered around in an area about which you know very little, producing nonsensical recommendations which could curtail the harmless enjoyment of thousands of people.

No change there then.

Friday, August 29, 2008

All human life is here

This week has been fascinating. Boating - like so many other leisure activities - is a microcosm of society in itself, with all its hierarchies and its snobberies. There seemed a clear divide between those with sailing boats and those with powered boats. Then again, there is a difference between the "Red Ensign" boats, whose crew own their craft, and those of us who simply rented a boat for a week's break.

And among the flotilla of rental craft, it seems, size is everything. I was amused last evening by a hire boat moored next door, populated by a large family of even larger people.

The mother exclaimed loudly into her mobile phone "It's really cool, all the boats are parked here and we're the longest". She then passed the phone to her enormous and visibly disinterested child, who had just spent ten minutes arguing over more chocolate. He mumbled into the mouthpiece "It's great. We've got three toilets - one of them we're using to keep the food in".

All human life is here...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Our "European Masters"?

Visited the tiny village of Ludham in Norfolk today - just a pub, a butchers, and a general store, which did everything - Post Office, delicatessen, off licence and corner shop all in one.

A home-made sign by the fruit and veg proudly headed "Rule Britannia" exclaimed: "Due to our European Masters, we now have to sell our fruit and veg by kilos, not pounds and ounces. For your information, a kilo is roughly 2.2 pounds."

Reminded me of something Daniel Hannan MEP used to say - "In our brave new Europhile world, you cannot now buy a few ounces of cannabis. Not because buying cannabis is of itself illegal, but because you can't now buy it pounds and ounces!"

In these days of increasing globalisation, I wonder if "our European Masters" truly understand the day to day implications of their legislation, let alone care about the reaction of the public to it?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Adventures in Royland

Got up really early this morning and left Salhouse Broad en route to Wroxham. A friend whose relations lived in the area sent me an email telling me to "count the number of 'Roys' in Wroxham" and I didn't fully appreciate what he was saying.

Until I got off the boat and walked out of the mooring. I was in the car park of "Roy's Shoppers" department store. This was just opposite the toy shop "Roy's Children's World" which was next door to "Roy's Food Land". As I waited to cross the road I overheard passers-by discussing the mythical 'Roy' in hushed tones.

Clothes were in abundance - both at "Miss Royz" the boutique for the discerning young lady, and in the clothing department of the department store. Looking around, I noticed that I was surrounded by people who had eaten their 'Roy' breakfast and dressed entirely in 'Roy' clothing.

I'm sure Roy is a super chap, but it did make me think of Patrick McGoohan in "The Prisoner" - if you dared to shop anywhere else, would a huge white bubble chase you down the high street?

After an interesting 'Adventure in Royland', like the man from the News of the World, I made my excuses and left!

(click here to read the history of Roys of Wroxham)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Enterprise on the water

Up at 6.30 this morning, I pulled out of our Perci Island mooring at Horning around 7am, revelling in the "price of the morning" - it was gloriously warm and sunny first thing.

I slowly cruised at four miles an hour past the most wonderful houses; all of them with private moorings and boat houses, most of them thatched, all of them with manicured gardens leading down to the water.

Just an hour and Salhouse Broad came into view. A beautiful enclosed basin, defined in local guides as "Norfolk's closest thing to a swamp" - by which they meant the weather is somehow warmer, the water like glass (click here to view).

Having found a mooring - harder than it seemed, as I needed to tie up stern end on - I sat back to read in the sun.

And then I saw the Aldous Ice Cream launch - a man and boy in a small dinghy with a huge ice cream cornet on the front. Moving from craft to craft, they made a fortune selling wonderful home-made ice cream cones at £1.20 apiece, a fantastic example of enterprise on the water.

Monday, August 25, 2008

That stunning moment

The Norfolk Broads really are glorious. In the perfect silence last night, the sky was clear and dark, the water as calm as a mill pond.

And in a first for me (I obviously don't get out enough!) I saw a perfect mirror image of the stars on the water's surface. The Plough, the North Star - all were perfectly reflected on a glossy black surface.

I'm sure it will sound trite, but it made me realise how little notice we usually take of our surroundings.

This morning it's pouring with rain, but that stunning moment will stay with me for ages.

Great start to the weekend!

Started the weekend in fine style - driving my youngest and her hamster over to her friend to 'babysit' him. I didn't know where we were going, so my daughter provided directions.

As we waited to turn down her friend's road, a bus came hurtling around the bend, and not with a bang or a whimper but an expensive and drawn out grinding and scraping sound, drove right down the side of my car!

The driver got out, and - quite worryingly I felt - was fully prepared with digital camera, stickers and accident report form. We exchanged details, and I left the scene, with him bemoaning the fact that he now had to take details of every passenger in the event of delayed 'whiplash claims'.

Great start to the weekend! Wonder what's next?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Will there be a "cheap" conference?

For the first time in years, I will not be attending the Conservative Party Conference. Not only is it impossible to find reasonably priced accommodation anywhere near Birmingham, but everything's been booked for months in advance.

So I felt some small consolation from reading the ConservativeHome blog site, as it seems it's not only me that's found it impossible. According to the "Accommodation in Birmingham" posting several people have already complained to the site about the scarcity and price of accommodation in our second city. It's a shame - I can understand why the party would want to move the conference around, and of course Blackpool wasn't perfect, but as least there were plenty of hotels and boarding houses in all price ranges.

I was really lucky - I found a self-catering flatlet on the opposite corner to the back door of the Winter Gardens. Fernleigh Holiday Apartments cost the princely sum of £110 for four days, and although I had to take my own food and towels (it was fully self-catering) it was perfect as a place to sleep when returning in the early hours after parties and receptions.

So where's the equivalent of Fernleigh in Birmingham? With bed and breakfast around £100 a night, this choice of location seems set to be excluding and marginalising the very people who have worked unstintingly through the wilderness years to bring the party back on track. Like my mother-in-law, who at seventy five ran coffee mornings, baked cakes and manned jumble sale stalls to raise money for the party. Her one reward was the charabang pilgrimage each year to Blackpool or Bournemouth with scores of fellow helpers. She hasn't been for years. She simply can't afford it anymore.

Apparently the conference will alternate between Birmingham and Manchester for the next few years. Another comment on Conservativehome suggests that whilst Birmingham quoted him £150 a night with a four night minimum, Manchester for next year has quoted £270 a night.

So what about the party faithful? Will there be a 'cheap conference' for them?

Wish I had time to learn how to manage my time

I've taken off some time from work, and had a great time looking after my kids - not worrying about work, just worrying about where we're going to go and what we're going to do. Now I have just one week of leave left before it's back to work at KCC.

I set myself one target when I started my summer break. To finally read "Successful Time Management" by Patrick Forsyth. Why? Because I've never had time to read it before, which I guess is why I need to read it!

Needless to say, I've still not had time to even start it...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shaken not Stirred? Not me.

Does anyone else find school holidays 'challenging'? You rack your brains all night to come up with the killer idea that a) you haven't done before; that b) the youngest will be old enough for and the eldest won't think childish; and that c) you won't need a second mortgage to pay for.

But by the time my kids had stirred themselves from daytime TV and I'd managed to surgically remove the laptop from their clutches, it was lunchtime. "How about Brighton?" I suggested. "We haven't really got time now - it's the afternoon" they chorused. I wasn't about to point out that they were the reason it was so late, so I loaded them into the car and drove down the Hastings.

Ten quids' worth of tokens at "The Stade" and they seemed happy as the eldest stood the youngest against the red line 'height test' for "Shaken not Stirred", the James Bond ride. Quite what it has to do with James Bond eluded me, other than the fact that James Bond was probably the only person other than a child who could have kept his lunch in his stomach after this ride.

It's funny, but I can quite happily fly a light aircraft over Kent and practice "spinning and stalling" for hours (spinning you can probably guess at - stalling involves cutting the power and pulling the wings up until there's no more lift and the plane falls backwards out of the sky).

Yet the thought of emulating Ian Fleming's hero, whirling around for five minutes on this instrument of psychological torture has about as much appeal as eating a whippy ice cream dipped in hot chocolate. Okay - I lied. I had the ice cream, but left the ride to the kids.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The 'Virtual Travels' of Gary Glitter

Gary Glitter was today released from a Vietnamese jail, and immediately deported back to Britain. Convicted of abuse against two young Vietnamese children, paedophile Glitter (or Paul Gadd in old money) consistently refused to acknowledge his guilt, blaming his fate instead on a conspiracy involving the British press.

So what now? Our laws dictate that Glitter will be placed on the Sex Offenders Register, which will require him to report regularly to his local police station.

But even if UK laws seek to monitor him closely, will that prevent his "virtual" travels? After all, he was found to have countless obscene images of children on his computer in his UK home.

And in countries with less wealth, fewer if any legislative controls over child abuse, and with scores of shady 'fixers' always ready to facilitate the whims of the rich and famous, children will remain at risk from Glitter and others like him.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted

So Essex County Council has been given £150,000 by Government to combat teenage knife crime. In partnership with such footballing stars as David Beckham, the County Council intends to spend a large part of this cash on portable knife detectors.

Isn't this slightly missing the point? Wouldn't it make more sense to invest the money in prevention - particularly with such a high-profile partnership - involving young people in sport or other activities which will restore their pride in themselves?

As it is, doesn't this seem rather like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?

(Since writing this posting at lunchtime, I've checked into what Essex are doing on the issue of knife crime, and the council's proud boast that Essex will be the safest county in the UK within five years. Check out the excellent web site

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lord Bruce-Lockhart of the Weald

Two days ago, in the early hours of Thursday morning, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart finally lost his fight against cancer. As the tributes pour in, many will praise him as Leader of KCC, Knight of the Realm, Chairman of the Local Government Association and of English Heritage, and Peer.

But as a newly-elected County Councillor back in 2001, the Sandy I remember spent time to encourage, to mentor, to advise and finally to bring me into his Cabinet after the equally sad demise of Tom Veitch in his late fifties.

He was a friend who would always be there when I needed advice or consolation; he expected the highest levels of passion, dedication, and political maturity from those around him, because that's what he expected from himself.

His overwhelming sense of duty was his most important attribute. It was typical that just weeks before he died Sandy was still giving interviews and photo calls - still unstintingly singing the praises of the County he so loved.

I could go on for pages about one of the few people I have ever met for whom I would have done anything, simply because not once did I ever have cause to question his judgement.

But in the end, for the man who took on Governments and won, his illness was a battle that not even Sandy could win.

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia - click here)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Margate - everything it's always been

Spent a great day down in Margate again today - this time I took my two daughters for some time at the seaside. And whilst I'm one of those people who usually loves seaside towns in off season - you know, cold, rainy, overcast - it was just great to drove along the Margate seafront on a hot, sunny day like today and to see the beach and the amusements crowded.

Interesting to see Shaw's Fair next to Droit House - coming from Tunbridge Wells, it was only a week or two ago that the Kent and Sussex Courier ran a front page story on Shaw's being banned by Targetfollow, the new owners of The Pantiles. Anyway, the kids had a go on some rides, then we went off to explore the trampolines (sadly Dad is substantially heavier than the nine stone weight limit).

But it's the shops and the back streets that I love about Margate. Unusual one-off shops that you don't find anywhere else. I love the fact that 'The Gallery', sets aside a whole session for service users from care homes, and that cheek by jowl with the kids and the parents were a small army of elderly people with the carers taking a stroll along the prom, stopping for tea at the excellent hut on the front opposite the station.

And you know what? On the way home, just near Thanet Earth, a squadron of what might have been Tornados performed a mini-airshow over the motorway - rehearsal or did we miss a show today? Maybe someone will tell me.

You know, Margate is everything it's always been - it's fun, it's honest, and it's accessible. And it doesn't deserve the elitist claptrap that some have levelled at it for some years now. To the detractors, I say get in the car and go. You might learn something.

The Dark Knight - not a movie for children

I took my eldest yesterday to see "The Dark Knight" - the new Batman movie. And you know what? They're right. It really shouldn't be rated 12A. It's certainly an action packed movie, but it's too dark, too brooding, too forbidding for the British Board of Film Censors to grant it a 12A rating right in the middle of the school holidays.

At 152 minutes, it's very long, and there are at least two occasions when you think it's over. Christian Bale in the lead role almost takes a back seat to the late Heath Ledger, who as the Joker, is the epitome of psychotic maniac - as Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred says "some men just want to watch the world burn".

My daughter enjoyed the movie, but the thing that stuck in her mind was the "social games" played by the Joker - deeply disturbing acts of violence initiated by the choices made by the innocent victims. Great cast - Bale, Ledger and Caine are joined by Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman - great story, great visuals.

But it's not a movie for children nor should it be rated as such.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black.

You may have seen in the news that right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange have produced a report - "Cities Unlimited" (click here to open a copy) which says that Northern coastal cities such as Liverpool and Sunderland had "lost their raison d'etre" and that some were "beyond revival".

David Cameron was quick to denounce the report as 'insane' whilst on a visit to Carlisle, making it clear that Policy Exchange did not speak for the Conservative Party.

But a report by the BBC (click here) claims that Vera Baird, MP for Redcar has slammed the report as "vindictive, anto-Northern thinking" - and then goes on to talk about Policy Exchange as David Cameron's 'friends'.

John Prescott, fresh from over exagerrating his impact on takeup of croquet (forty odd percent) whilst the professional body had already stated around fourteen - waded into the argument, saying:
"To state that northern cities like Bradford, Liverpool and my home town of Hull
have no hope of being regenerated in the 21st Century and that people should
move to London, Oxford and Cambridge is the most insulting and ignorant policy
I've ever heard."

The Policy Exchange report is, of course, unhelpful and just a little naieve in the current political climate, but we live in a free society where such organisations are at liberty to publish their ideas. However, for Mr Prescott to talk piously about regeneration "in his home town of Hull" after the massive windfall generated by the sale of Kingston Communications was totally squandered and gave little or no benefit to the people of Hull, is surely the pot calling the kettle black.

The London Dungeon - excellent fun

So whose bright idea was it to visit the London Dungeon today? Mine I guess. We took the train to London Bridge, then walked out onto Tooley Street. By eleven o'clock in the morning, the queue stretched several hundred yards back towards London Bridge. Two and a half hours, two Capri Suns, a Snickers Duo, a bag of Cheesy Wotsits and a small cheap radio to keep from getting bored later, at 1.30pm we got to enter the front door. But it wasn't over yet. Another half hour queuing inside for the ticket booth, then a further half an hour waiting for our tour to begin in the "Labyrinth of the Lost"...

The Torture Chamber, the Great Fire of London, Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, all were realistically propped and acted out. The sights, smells, even temperatures. And then there were the actors - realistic and always in character.

And the piece de resistance - the rides. Unbelievably in this cramped arch under London Bridge Station, there was a "Boat Ride to Traitors' Gate" along a pitch black waterway. And finally - well I won't spoil it for anyone, but the "Extremis: Drop Ride to Doom" was unbelievable. Although as you'll see from the picture above, I look quite chilled - bored almost, although those either side of me were clearly terrified. I guess I must have been tired by then!
My advice if you decide to visit is to go to the website (click here) and pre-book a time slot to avoid the wait. But all in all, despite the eternal queueing, despite the not inconsiderable entrance fee - over twenty pounds for adults, over fifteen pounds for kids - it was still excellent fun.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Scrapping our values - or valuing our scrap?

Following on from yesterday's blog posting about the Allington incinerator and the rising price of recycled materials, I see from today's Times that abandoned cars are becoming a thing of the past. Rather than having to pay £50 for a scrap yard to take your car, many will give you £200, or even up to £1000 for your vehicle as the value of copper, aluminium and steel continues to rocket.

My colleague Paul Bettison, Chairman of the Environment Board at the Local Government Association says that five years ago local authorities were having to tow away up to eight hundred abandoned vehicles a day. Now, because of rocketing value of metals and other recyclable components, people know the value of their old wreck and councils collect less than 225.

Keep your fingers crossed for a sudden rise in the value of bin bags full of old newspapers and garden waste, bald car tyres and divans. Maybe then people would stop dumping them in our hedgerows and country lanes?

A Gym so posh it's called James

I see from today's Times ("Steve Gerrard's new gym is bigger than the houses next door" - click here) that Steven Gerrard, captain of the mighty Liverpool FC has built a gym behind his stately pile in Freshfieds, Merseyside.

Nothing unusual about that? Well this gym is larger than some of the surrounding houses, being built on the site of a former bungalow. The two storey copper and glass structure came with a price tag of £350,000.

And apparently the building is on such a scale that it actually has a different postcode to Gerrard's house in whose garden it sits. "
It's like building an Asda in the middle of a beauty spot" said one disgruntled neighbour.

The neighbours will need to make sure they get the right address when they send their vitriolic letters of complaint...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Changing Face of Waste

A decade ago, a serious problem confronted Kent County Council. Regular recycling just didn't occur in many households, and the usual option for disposing of business and household waste was landfill. Kent's million and a half residents produce around eight hundred thousand tonnes of domestic waste each and every year, and with the cost of disposing of this huge volume sitting at over £50,000,000 it's a serious problem.

It was against this background that we made the decision to enter into a twenty five year contract with Kent Enviropower Limited to buy 320,000 tonnes a year of capacity at their new SWERF - Solid Waste to Energy Recycling Facility - at Allington Quarry in Maidstone.

The agreement looked set to provide a real solution to a large proportion of Kent's waste disposal problems. But alas, things are rarely that simple. You see, the Allington SWERF has been dogged by technical problems, and much of the waste we expected to be able to recycle through this facility has still ended up in landfill.

But the most unpredictable element is the price of recycled waste. In the decade since we agreed the Kent Enviropower (KEP) deal, the value of some elements of recycled waste has doubled - yet the KEP agreement doesn't allow us to share in the profits generated by selling on these products.

That's the changing face of waste - who could have predicted a decade ago that what seemed like a potential saving, would end up costing us money.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes - a soul legend

I just spent a great day - mainly shopping for shoes and tops - with my eldest daughter. Outside of the usual frantic "drive to school bus, drive to work, come home late, whisper goodnight" treadmill, school holidays are a really good chance to reconnect.

We got a chance to talk about all kinds of things. From relationships to boys (I bit my tongue several times!) to clothes to music. On this last topic, I heard on the radio news about the death yesterday of soul legend Isaac Hayes. Born in August 1942 he became one of the foremost artists in the 1960's of legendary soul label Stax - writing such classics as "Hold On I'm Coming" and "Soul Man".

Those of us of a certain age will remember with affection his Academy and Grammy award-winning soundtrack for the movie Shaft. But I wonder how many of us knew he was honoured in Ghana, being crowned king of the Ada district. Latterly, of course, his velvety tones voiced the Chef character on TV's South Park.

His wife found his body yesterday, his treadmill still running and his body beside it. And at eight minutes past two yesterday afternoon at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, one of our great soul legends was declared dead.

Death - particularly the death of a hero - is a sobering thought. Like a classic novel or a life-changing painting, I will ensure my kids get to hear Isaac Hayes.
photo above courtesy of the official Isaac Hayes web site -

No wonder there's so much fraud

I was talking to friend this evening over dinner at the new Azur Restaurant on Hastings seafront (incidentally a wonderful new eatery - click here to read the Hastings and St Leonards Observer article) and the conversation got around to credit card fraud. Her elderly mother went for lunch in a local pub where she'd been a regular for some forty years.

Despite the fact that she was ordering just two ploughmans lunches and a couple of glasses of wine, the bar staff asked for her credit card to start a tab. Unwilling to give out her details for such a paltry amount, she refused. Several times. And then offered to pre-pay for her lunch, which the staff accepted.

After lunch, the manager came over to apologise for any misunderstanding, and to give this lady her credit card back on a plate.

"You see" said my friend's mother "This is precisely why I didn't want to give you my card. Even though I wouldn't give you my card, you're quite prepared to hand me someone else's. I never actually handed you mine!"

How many times must that happen? No wonder there's so much fraud...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Camber Wind Farm - better than pylons?

I drove down to Rye today, and decided to take a detour via Ashford on the way back to Tunbridge Wells. And there, over on the right was the Npower Renewables wind farm at Little Cheyne Court at Camber.

Six tall, slender turbines each standing a hundred and fifteen metres high on a wide, flat open landscape. According to a report in the Rye and Battle Observer (click here for link) this is just the start - by September there will be a total of twenty identical structures.

Almost immediately next to the wind farm was an electricity pylon. And another. And yet another. And then I noticed it - a seemingly endless chain of huge pylons, bisecting our beautiful countryside, leading all the way to Dungeness power station.

Now I certainly wouldn't want to plant a wind farm right in the middle of every High Street. But which is worse? A cluster of wind turbines, their vanes turning gently, or a daisy-chain of girder pyramids spider-webbing across our fields?

We've all heard the arguments for and against. My opinion is my opinion. What's yours?

Should it matter that she's female?

I watched an item on the news last week on "Mumpreneurs" - a new buzz phrase for Mums running a business.

It seems there was a competition, and a final judging and presentation at Number 11 Downing Street.

The winning 'Mumpreneur' was announced. Apparently she's bringing up children, running a business, "and she's had to learn to drive a fork lift".

Is it just me? This whole thing seemed to be patronising in the extreme - why do these 'Mumpreneurs' have to be 'Mums running businesses'? Why can't they just be great business people bringing up a family as well?

And as for having to learn to drive a fork lift truck - what about all the women during the second World War who made sure our factories, our shops, our offices - indeed our whole country - continued to run.

Or the latest TV advert for Navy careers, which focuses on a flight mechanic who maintains multi-million pound fighter aircraft on board an aircraft carrier out at sea.

Should it matter that she's female?

Britain from the Air

What an fascinating programme BBC showed this evening! The first episode of "Britain from the air" - (click the link here) with Andrew Marr, gave a fascinating insight into transport movements across Britain.

From the Dover Coastguard spotter plane keeping an eye on the busiest shipping lanes in the world to the GPS traces of 380 black taxis overlaid like glow worm traces on the London street map; from air traffic control overseeing the seven and a half thousand aircraft travelling across our skies to our over stretched and creaking Victorian railway system, the road and building development squeezing it on all sides and preventing any further growth in capacity.

Marr also looked at the 18,000,000 bathtubs worth of water, pumped daily through pipes which would, if laid end to end circle the world ten times. As well as twelve million gallons of waste generated by the residents of North London and processed by the sewage treatment plant at Beckton, and 109 square miles of British land set aside for land fill, with tens of millions of tons of new waste adding to the problem each year.

Tonight was one of those rare moments of revelation in television. A truly interesting and informative documentary, which clearly took ages to piece together.

Well done BBC - I'm really looking forward to next Sunday's episode.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Equal Access to Services

I note from a recent issue of Local Government FIRST magazine ("Close Lap Dance Loophole - LGA", Issue 377) some concern at a change in licensing legislation around the regulation of lap dancing clubs.

It seems lap dancing clubs can now be licensed using the same guidelines as karaoke bars and cafes, rather than using the legislation covering the sex trade. Worryingly, the number of lap dancing clubs has doubled in the last four years alone.

It reminded me of a story I heard a while ago, about a massage parlour which began trading overnight from a private property in a residential road. Neighbours protested vigorously, and the business - which had not applied for planning permission - was asked to lodge a retrospective request for planning consent with their local Liberal Democrat controlled council.

At the subsequent planning hearing, the application was debated in depth and the Liberal Democrats won the day - allowing the massage parlour to remain, on one condition - that they put in a disabled ramp from the street.

Good to know that our Liberal Democrat colleagues are fighting for equal access to services...

Learning Aldi time

Bit confused by this one! Good news that Aldi are opening a new store in Maidstone, but they seem to be a bit hazy about when it's going to open - when exactly is "Winmer"?

Is it somewhere between Winter and Summer? Perhaps Autumn?

Maybe the new store will be so vast that we'll be shopping at one end while they finish building at the other...

Answers on a postcard please...

Beijing - couldn't they clean up their act?

Watched some of the run up to the opening of the Beijing Olympics.  Of course, it's an excellent opportunity for dedicated young athletes from around the globe to match their strength and skills.

Of course, the Bird's Nest Stadium is a hugely impressive piece of engineering, and running the Olympic  torch along the Great Wall of China would have produced some spectacular views, had we been able to see anything.

Today's shots show the stadium, and most other landmarks, barely visible through the thick, yellowy white smog which seems to engulf everything, despite the State closing down hundreds of factories. If this is what it's like when the factories are shut - what's it like normally?

Beijing's Olympic budget is apparently twice that of the UK in 2012, at twenty two billion pounds.

Couldn't they spend just a little cleaning up their pollution act?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

How do people think these things up?

Appropos of absolutely nothing, I received an email with this file attachment yesterday.

If you had told me that I could be impressed by a man on roller skates playing Mozart's 40th on half filled wine bottles with the aid of sticks tied to his skates, I'd have thought you mad.

But I was - so impressed that I had to share the clip through my blog! You'll need your sound turned on...

How do people think these things up?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Nobody can say I'm not trying!

Regular readers will recall my fateful meeting with elderly residents from St Philips Court in Sherwood (Won't Be Making That Mistake Again, July 21) where I thought I was helping their accessibility to the local doctor and chemists by arranging a Kent Karrier service - apparently much to their disgust!

What they really wanted, of course, was for the existing Arriva 277 bus service to vary its route to pick them up close to St Philips Church, then drop them off at the existing bus stops along Greggs Wood Road.

I sent yesterday a pile of Kent Karrier leaflets and application forms to the Manager of St Philips Court, and suggested that she made these available to those residents who couldn't be at the previous meeting, but who might find the Kent Karrier option useful. I also sent a wad of timetables and routing details for the Countyliner 279 Sunday service, which you may recall I arranged through Kent County Council when Arriva discontinued their Sunday service back in April of this year.

I also wrote to Arriva yesterday to ask if they would consider varying the 277 route - even if this change were only made to one of the four buses every hour. Time will tell whether I'm successful in my request, but nobody can say I'm not trying!

I wonder if the Marie Celeste felt like this?

August is traditionally taken to be "Member Recess" at County Hall in Maidstone. The time when any self-respecting County Councillor takes their holiday, spends time on the house, in the garden or swapping County Council papers for the latest Tom Clancy or John le Carre.

However, some of us use at least the first half of August to come in and work in peace and quiet, catching up on all the things that we don't quite have time to read, or writing those 'think piece' papers that we never seem to get around to when the Council is at full speed.

And so it is that I find myself coming in to a County Hall largely devoid of elected politicians, an office without piles of papers for 'urgent signature', and officers with more time to discuss issues.

I will be taking some time away, but to be able to work quietly and uninterrupted, clearing the desk for September is almost as good as a break in itself. I wonder if the Marie Celeste felt like this?

Ashford to Brussels Eurostar service returns

It was a sad day for many when, at a KCC Cabinet meeting earlier this year, Eurostar informed us that they would be discontinuing their direct Ashford-Brussels service. Many businesses as well as individuals had specifically relocated to Ashford and the surrounding area on the basis that the transport routes to Europe were so convenient.

Needless to say the service ended, but KCC has continued to lobby and push for the return of this popular service. This week, Eurostar has undertaken a "review of traveller demand", from which they have found that passenger numbers have increased by a third since the introduction of the High Speed 1 timetable. As a result, a daily direct service between Ashford and Brussels will be introduced from 14th December 2008, when the switch is made to the winter timetables.

Richard Brown, Chief Executive of Eurostar is quoted as saying that he is "delighted" at the big increase in travellers on the London-Brussels route.

But I suspect, nowhere near as delighted as the hundred of business travellers who moved to Ashford because they had a direct rail link to Europe without having to drive into London.

Monday, August 4, 2008

That's got to be worth working for

Kent County Council has long recognised the importance of sustainable jobs as a means of bringing independence and opportunity to those who for whatever reason, have been excluded from traditional pathways to employment.

So it was with interest that I heard about Local Employment Partnerships (LEPs), an initiative from the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government is looking to use LEPs to bring real jobs to around a quarter of a million people by 2010.

As the report in KM's Kent Business above explains, I was delighted to sign a Local Employment Partnership agreement on behalf of Kent County Council. According to the Department of Work and Pensions, we're the first local authority in the county to have signed up to this, and I hope it will send a signal to all that we're serious about bringing real life chances to everybody.

And the benefit to the County Council? Through work placements, on the job skills training and workplace mentoring, KCC gains access to a whole new pool of talent.

That's got to be worth working for.

The Case for Change

The latest Government consultation relates to a 'who pays for care' argument known as "The Case for Change - Why England Needs a New Care and Support System". The fact that the system needs overhaul is not in dispute; Care Services Minister Ivan Lewis says himself that if he were devising a health and social care system now, he certainly "wouldn't start from here".

But with hundreds of thousands of patients, service users and family carers feeling the pinch of the credit crunch; rising fuel prices affecting care staff and meals on wheels; and social care departments nationally at breaking point, how is this question - arguably the most critical issue affecting public services in years - being asked? A website has been created - and you can find it by clicking on this link.

Local authorities are being asked to "create forums, networks and task groups which involve staff across all sectors, people who use services and carers as active participants in the change process". A very big ask, you might think. A very large price tag to convene all these groups and ensure fair consultation. But help is at hand - the Government is giving local authorities funding to assist.

How much does Kent County Council, with its forty thousand plus staff, its one and a half million residents and its twelve district councils get?

Five hundred pounds.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Abusing the Brave New World

Someone commented recently that my blog site "seemed to accept very few comments". The truth is, I can see no reason to accept comments which have nothing to say, or that don't really further the debate.

But tonight, I received a comment on a story about Pepenbury, the independent living facility for adults with learning disabilities in Pembury. The comment simply said "It's amazing" - which didn't make a whole lot of sense.

I followed the link attached to this innocuous comment, and found a web site with the sickest content I've seen in a long time - largely focussed on the writer's sister.

The web in general, and blogging in particular gives us all a chance to talk freely and share ideas and opinions. In this Brave New World, it's a shame that some people are allowed to share that same licence.

The poorer for his passing

A week and a half ago, I attended a briefing for Canterbury Councillors at Cow Lane Day Centre. The briefing went well, and afterwards I went for a quick beer with three colleagues - Alan Marsh, Mike Harrison and John Law. It was a lovely summer's evening and we all chatted happily in the evening sun.

But just three days later, John Law had a massive stroke, and despite the best possible care and attention, John passed away in the early hours of this morning.

John and I were both elected to KCC in 2001, and struck up an immediate rapport. He was tenacious and forthright, and could be one of the most stubborn men I had ever met. But he was passionate, and hated to think of tax payers' money being wasted.

The sudden loss of a friend and colleague is a sobering experience, and your mind turns to your own life. Is it fulfilling? Is it all you intended it to be? Are you loved or just liked? Respected or just tolerated?

John was surrounded by his family when he passed away, and when the Council Chamber stands at its September meeting as a mark of respect to John, many will be thinking how KCC will be the poorer for his passing.

In desperate need of a HIP replacement

You may recall the latest Government wheeze for house sellers was the Home Improvement Pack. Introduced back in 2007, new legislation dictated that every house marketed for sale after 14th December 2007 must have a HIP.

Details of energy consumption and other environmental benchmarks are included in the report, which at a cost of between £300 and £700 is typically undertaken by the estate agent or a specialist company.

Many people said at the time that this was another "Government poking its nose in" waste of time and money, and at a time when the property market is all but collapsing - due in no small part to Government's mishandling of the economy in recent months - this seemed a burden too far.

And now the news it out. Of 130,000 homes on the market, just 89,000 actually have a Home Improvement Pack. Nick Salmon of the National Association of Estate Agents claims that the packs do nothing to make the process more transparent, and calls for the idea to be scrapped.

For vendors up and down the country, this is an unneccesary nonsense which, like many of the Government's "bright ideas", has been ill-thought out. But my sympathies go to the seven thousand people, many of whom gave up lucrative jobs to train as assessors. How betrayed must they feel right now?

I hope she isn't watching

You know how when someone close to you dies, it seems like every time you turn on the radio or TV or open a paper, there's something about death? I had been invited this weekend - yesterday, to be precise - to the wedding of a constituent of mine. She first mentioned her wedding to me over a year ago, and there's been a lot of preparation for the special day.

So how surprised, and disappointed, I was to receive a text message on Friday afternoon, to say that after a lot of thought, the wedding had been called off.

And how coincidental it is that over the weekend, almost every sad wedding-based movie ever made seems to be showing on TV. I hope she isn't watching.

The Great Skype Swindle

A year or so ago I downloaded Skype and began using it as a means of communicating with colleagues at work and my family, particularly on the many occasions when I was staying at hotels, where often the Wi-Fi is free but the phone can be forty-odd pence a minute.

I also put some credit onto my Skype account, just in case I ever needed to call a landline or mobile number from my laptop. What I didn't realise was Skype's terms and conditions, whereby apparently if you haven't used this facility for 180 days, Skype take your money anyway. Oh - they send you three automated reminder emails. That's good of them isn't it?

I know, I know - all I had to do was make a call from my Skype number to another phone and I could have kept my credit for another 180 days. But this can't be right, can it? If Skype want to know if I still want to keep my account, can't they just ask me? Apparently, "if you don't use your remaining credit the balance will be expire to comply with normal business accounting rules." But where else does this happen? Does the credit you built on your electricity, gas, water or phone account get taken by the utility company if you don't use it? I think not.

In my case, I only lost ten pounds' worth of credit, but how about all those others who had more money than me 'taken' in this way? It's a real shame, because I've taken the Skype software off my machine and wild horses wouldn't make me use them again, because it's not a fair way to do business.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Margate Drop In Centre

Went down to Margate again today, to visit the Margate Drop In Centre. This church hall facility is open from 10am until 3pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I'd promised to come to the centre once or twice before, but sadly the diary hadn't worked out until now. Even then, traffic on Detling Hill was solid and I was half an hour late!

Many of the learning disabled service users of the centre were out and about, which of itself is good news, but there were plenty of users to chat to and find out what a very special place this is. My host was Vanessa, herself learning disabled, who works for KCC as a volunteer. At the Drop In, she's also the treasurer and the cook!

But what struck me was the confidence shown by those who use the centre. As well as the support from professionals, there's a huge amount of self help. I spoke to one chap who hadn't travelled on a bus since an accident a decade ago took his confidence away. With help from another user, last week he took his first bus ride. Other users go out to local schools to talk to pupils about hate crime.

The centre has an excellent website designed and built by service users themselves - click this link to see it - so I won't waste time repeating everything. But as well as a packed programme of activities (the users recently went on holiday to Butlins!) the centre provides professional expertise, advice and support on communication, benefits, housing, supported employment, placements, and even gives advice on personal safety, equality and diversity from the local Community Police Officer. It really is a wonderful service, and a credit ot the staff and those who use the service. I'll be back there before too long.

Roger Gale - a dedicated and hardworking MP

Dashed back from Margate to County Hall to meet with Roger Gale, Member of Parliament for North Thanet. I've met with Roger several times over the last few months - usually over social care issues. I don't always agree with him, but no one can doubt his passion, and I'm often told what a dedicated and hardworking constituency MP he is.

We spent an hour and a half discussing social care issues, both locally and nationally. Roger was particularly concerned about the modernisation of learning disability day services in Canterbury and Thanet, and I was able to detail our plans for the future.

I explained my visit to the Margate Drop In, and that I was concerned about some of the Labour Government's regulation and legislation as it related to those with disabilities. I'm concerned that when 'housing' is offered to disabled people, it's sometimes in quite unsuitable neighbourhoods. When disabled people manage to find employment, their benefits are often reduced or stopped completely if they work any more than a token number of hours.

This really isn't the way to achieve the kind of change we all know is needed, and I intend to work up some detailed proposals for change in due course. I hope Roger and other Parliamentary colleagues will lend their support to lobby the Government for change.

It's so obviously overdue.
Photo taken from Roger Gale's page on

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Back to the bad old days

An article by Steve Doughty in today's Daily Mail ("Town halls and health service told to help out unions as Labour's cash crisis deepens") tells how the Government are now telling NHS and local government organisations that they show preference in their procurements processes to tenders from companies who promote union membership.

The article suggests that the financial gain from this Cabinet Office diktat could be anything up to £70,000,000,000 - yes, that's seventy billion pounds - a year, boosting union coffers and indirectly Labour Party funds through the unions' political levy.

You'd think the Labour Party would have learned its lesson - the Dome, Ecclestone, Cherie's flat, the Hinduja Brothers - the list goes on and on. Only last month Cabinet Office Minister Ed Miliband stated that firms awarded Government contracts "must build good relations with Trade Unions".

So just two questions. Firstly, if the Labour Government are so keen to cosy up to the unions, why have they demonised the public services for trying to meet the unions halfway on public sector pay awards?

Secondly, if this was the Conservative Party, how do you think the Labour Party would react?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Out of sight, out of mind?

BBC's Newsnight tonight featured a story on female typhoid carriers who were incarcerated in the isolation wards of mental asylums. Shocking evidence was given by Professor Peter Taylor of the London School of Pharmacy, analysed foetal samples for potential typhoid carriers for Long Grove Sanatorium at Epsom in Surrey, which formed part of the "Epsom Cluster" of Horton, Long Grove, The Manor, St Ebba's and West Park.

Women were still held at Long Grove until it closed back in 1992. However the patient records were not removed, and when vandals inevitably broke in they flung these records everywhere, to be discovered later by archivists researching this story.

Most terrifying was the fact that, although most of these unfortunate women had no mental illness when they were taken in, but developed mental illness as a result of being locked up. There is however no record of any one of these women ever being released. They simply lived and died behind the locked doors of Long Grove, many being buried in pauper's graves in the asylum grounds.

May Heffernan was a ward sister at Long Grove in the 1960's, and says these women were treated like lepers - boiling water flushed through the toilets, and lice soap was used by any nurses who came into contact. Other staff remember 'nice' women, with intelligence, imagination, and lives of their own - who were locked up simply because they were typhoid carriers.

That this national scandal ever occurred is shocking beyond belief - in one case, a lucid and intelligent lady isolated in one small room for five to six years. But altogether darker and more upsetting is the Department of Health's comment that, although the powers for incarceration and isolation of disease carriers exist, they deny that such powers have ever been used.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

CORE Fun Day

Saturday saw the 2008 Fun Day arranged by the Community for Oak Road Estate (CORE) group. Incredibly, it was even better than last year - more fun, more stalls, more people. The Halstead Brass Band were there, lending an old fashioned village fete atmosphere, and the Tri Star Twirlers gave a polished and - unusual given other majorette troupes I've seen recently - unsupervised performance, without an adult standing at the front prompting the steps.

Barbecue, tea tent, Karl's Sweet Shop, raffles, lucky dips, everything you'd expect to see. Gary the Community Warden and Liz Wadey were there, patiently watching their pristine police car being "washed" by young lads with water pistols.

It was good to see both the sound system and the bouncy castle, which I funded from KCC Member Grant getting good use too!

In all, a glowing testament to the organisational skills of Zena, Dave, Jackie and the rest of the CORE team. Well done - we're all looking forward to next year!

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much?

Did you happen to see this morning's (Sunday) "AM" show on BBC1? Since Andrew Marr is on holiday the programme was guest presented by Huw Edwards. He interviewed Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman live from Warwick, where Labour glitterati have this weekend assembled for their National Policy Forum at Warwick University. You can read the BBC's transcript of the interview here.

Huw Edwards was trying to get Ms Harman to admit that the party itself was tired of losing elections - Crewe and Nantwich, London Mayoral, and this week Glasgow East - and that there was a general feeling that Prime Minister Brown had become something of a liability; a Jonah without whose removal the party's fortunes would be unlikely to change.

And for ten minutes, viewers were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Ms Harman claiming that the Labour party's growing slump in the polls was due to the credit crunch; the price of oil; the rising cost of food. But not the Labour government. She asked for action by the banks, by the utility companies, by the supermarkets. She blamed the international community. But not the Labour government.

The most transparently cynical theme running through the entire interview was her unwillingness to admit that the Labour Party generally, and Gordon Brown specifically, had lost the confidence of a nation.

And that in the queue of would-be replacements beginning to sharpen their steely knives, Ms Harriet Harman was widely tipped as being front of the queue.

Arriva 277 bus timetable and routing

Just a quick one. I noticed from my blog statistics today that several people have been searching for the timetable of the 277 bus that runs Tunbridge Wells - Sherwood - North Farm - Knights Park.

For information then, you can click on this link to access the timetable, and this link to see the route.

Hope this helps.

Fox for Dinner

I left County Hall on Thursday afternoon to drive down to Cow Lane in Canterbury for an informal briefing of the local County Councillors on the modernisation programme in Adult Social Services. As I left, the Chief Executive Peter Gilroy was coming in, and bemoaned the fact that "Maidstone is gridlocked and the M20 is closed". Sadly, he was right, and I waited on both the M2 and A2 for almost an hour and a half in all the traffic which had been diverted off the closed motorway.

When I arrived at the meeting - some forty five minutes late - I was pleasantly surprised. It had all the potential to be stormy and confrontational. Yet the Councillors seemed quite content with our vision, and the small number of attendees from the parent carers' Action Group also seemed much more collegiate about our plans and their timescales.

After the meeting, local Councillor Alan Marsh invited me back for a coffee, which I eagerly accepted. He has a beautiful house with a large garden just off Wraiks Hill, and as I stood chatting, a fox wandered down his path. Alan told me this was their 'pet' and that they regularly put out chicken for the fox and his family. I couldn't believe my eyes when the fox jumped up onto the bird table and began to eat his 'dinner' in front of us all.

So I really wanted to show you the picture I took of this on my Blackberry, but even after the magic of Photoshop enlarged, contrasted and brightened the image, it's still not very good! Maybe there's another excuse to return to Chez Marsh and have another cuppa?

The animation of a tailor's dummy

The village of Lamberhurst in Tunbridge Wells has many claims to fame; Margaret Thatcher lived here, as did the fathers of both Kenneth Clarke and Jeremy Beadle (I wonder if they ever shared a lunchtime pint?) and there was for many years a safe house for Soviets intent on "crossing over to the West".

Until now I wouldn't have given Lamberhurst accolades for its graffiti. And yet last weekend, walking a large cardboard carton round to the dustcart kindly provided by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council every fortnight to take away large household waste, I passed a bus shelter. Inside, neatly graffitied in the apex of the roof, was the legend "Kraftwerk" - the cult seventies trio from Dusseldorf whose electronic "industrial pop" gave hearing difficulties to many a follower.

I was reminded of an article I read at the time. Kraftwerk weren't exactly over-endowed with stage presence, and their shows were basically three completely static keyboard players, whose only moving part was their hands - even that only occasionally since most of the arrangements were pre-programmed into synthesisers. Apparently, Kraftwerk commissioned lifelike dummies of themselves in order that they might play several concerts on the same evening, with only one featuring the real band.

I can think of several public figures at the moment who would be grateful even for the animation of a tailor's dummy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Margaret at the helm

On July 20th I wrote a posting which speculated on the potential leadership contenders vying for Chairmanship of the Local Government Association now that Sir Simon Milton, former Chairman and Leader of Westminster City Council, had stood down to become Boris Johnson's number two.

When I was at the LGA last week, speculation and rumours were rife, and the number of potential candidates was as varied as the opinions on their suitability.

I hoped that Margaret Eaton, (former leader of Bradford Metropolitan District Council and last year's LGA Conservative Group leader) would stand, and so I'm really pleased to see from Local Government Chronicle that not only has she decided to put her hat in the ring, but that several other possible contenders have stepped away to make her nomination and eventual election as smooth as possible. I have a huge affection for Margaret. She's tough, she's fair, she calls a spade a shovel and for all that, she's good fun and great to work with.

So the race is on; nominations close on 8th August, with the election for Chairman on 8th September. I wish her all the very best, and look forward to local government with Margaret at the helm.
Picture taken from City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council website -

Well done Tunbridge Wells Borough Council!

You may remember a few weeks ago I joined with officers and members from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in a series of "Ward Walks" (A Priceless Insight, June 4th). This involved a selected range of houses and roads being dropped a week in advance with a postcard informing the date and time of the Ward Walk, then officers and Councillors in teams of two calling round and talking residents through a series of questions about local amenities and services.

It's a brilliant idea, piloted originally in Medway, Oregon. At times on the doorstep, you did rather feel that you'd opened up a can of worms, but at no time did I get the door shut in my face. Last night, then, was the public feedback session at the TN2 Community Centre. Representatives from the County and Borough Councils, as well as Kent Fire and Rescue, KCC's Little Forest Children's Centre, CORE, Health, Town and Country Housing and many others all turned up to present the results of the consultation to a crowd of residents.

From the second I walked in, I was surrounded by locals, asking for updates on everything from Sunday bus times to road resurfacing; from gulley cleaning to whether I could find a good architect. I've now got a list as long as my arm of actions and issues, but there was a real and palpable sense that the community felt it was being listened to. Well done Tunbridge Wells Borough Council!

Working across party divides is so powerful

I drove down to Ashford Borough Council's offices this afternoon to attend one of the regular Member Briefings organised by Kent Adult Social Services (KASS). Since I became Cabinet member for KASS, I've been really keen to ensure that County Councillors were both kept up to date with social care developments in their area, but also briefed on the issues and pressures facing the Directorate in general. More important than either of these, is that our Councillors need to know that they're being listened to - after all, who better to keep us up to speed with the latest local feeling and the politics behind the scenes?

And crucially as I said this afternoon to County Councillors Elizabeth Tweed, Mike Angell, Derek Smyth and George Koowaree - when KASS does something to affect the delivery of social care in their area, they'll be the first to get calls from local residents, so it's vital that we keep our Members up to speed.

It was a really productive meeting - senior officers from social services were joined by colleagues from the NHS and mental health to update on a range of issues, and we also had a chance to discuss some of the major strategic issues affecting the delivery of health and social care - such as the cost of choice; the effects of the credit crunch; Ashford's future development plans and the excellent work being done by the Ashford District Partnership Group for those with learning disabilities.

What a shame our outcomes so often become embroiled in party politics - working across party divides is so powerful.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

TeleCare, fire and the risk of injury

I see from the BBC Kent website that a 70 year old woman has been rescued from her sheltered accommodation in Dartford following an accidental fire there last night. Fortunately, she had suffered smoke inhalation and must have been badly shaken, but was otherwise uninjured.

Kent County Council have been pushing to install assistive technologies - TeleCare - across the county. TeleCare is essentially a suite of devices which monitor presence, movement and distress, such as bed sensors, fall detectors, door contacts and so on, linked to a 24 hour monitoring service. I suspect such equipment was not installed in this case, but could have provided valuable early detection.

It reminded me of a case only a year or two ago of an elderly lady with dementia, whose property caught fire. Fortunately the monitoring service actually heard the crackle of the fire through the intercom system in the lady's hall, and were able to get her out of the building without harm.

I dread to think what the outcome might have been without this equipment in place. Isn't it time we revisited our legislation to make sprinkler systems mandatory in new build homes, care settings and public buildings? Surely the cost of installation could be outweighed by insurance savings?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Water, water everywhere - but just not here

One of the big concerns in local government is around future housing growth in the South East, and the chronic lack of resources to satisfy future demand.

For example, take the supply of water. Did you know that the South East actually has less water available per person than the Sudan or Syria? And yet we pay fortunes on our water rates, and the charges are set to escalate year on year.

And I hear that Government may allow a move by water companies to install water meters for every consumer. Once that happens, consumers may be asked to pay differential rates depending on where they live. For instance, those living in a housing growth area such as Ashford or Kent Thameside may end up paying a premium to cover the additional cost of putting in supply infrastructure for the new homes.

This isn't on. The water companies make more than enough money out of us, and it's a real insult that they could even think of charging higher prices when they can't even control their leakage rates. Why can't OFWAT force them to get their leakage under control - maybe then the prices could start to fall to a sensible level.

Kent County Council commissioned an excellent Select Committee report on Water and Wastewater back in September 2005. Maybe it's time to update that report, and start to lobby Government for a sensible and sustainable approach.

Spot the tabloid writer of the future!

I got a call this afternoon from my eldest daughter, who told me a week or so ago she had entered a 'sports journalism' competition at her school. Last week was school sports day, and the 150 pupils in her year were charged with writing an article on the event.

Frustratingly, she gets really self-conscious about her writing, which in my view (it would be wouldn't it) is way beyond her tender years. Consequently I can't get her to send her work anywhere, even though I'm sure she'd get published in a heartbeat.

Anyway, the entries for her competition were judged by Alex Spink, Sports Writer for the Daily Mirror. My daughter's entry was marked equal second out of a hundred and fifty, with the judge commenting:
"Spot the tabloid writer of the future! You have taken a theme - namely the
humiliation of the teachers at Sports Day - and really had some fun with
it. Less detail than the other pieces but it certainly made for an
entertaining read. Good stuff."

I'm incredibly proud - can't you tell? - and would love to find a way to encourage her to write more. I'm also genuinely grateful to her school for constantly finding compelling ways to make schooldays memorable and fun. But for now, it's enough to know that I'm not the only one that thinks her work is great!

Won't be making that mistake again!

I arrived at County Hall first thing to find a whole batch of emails telling me I had used a photo from Eastcliff Richard's blog site. How this happened is neither here nor there, but the fact is I had put a picture of Droit House in Margate on my posting about KCC's Cabinet visit to Thanet last week.

I removed the picture of course, and sent profuse apologies to Eastcliff Richard. As a gesture of goodwill, I also put a link to his website on my Wordpress blogroll. But it made me realise how easy it is to transgress the blogger's code.

Won't be making that mistake again!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Well done Gordon - another stroke of genius

I see Gordon Brown has given the Palestinians £30,000,000 of British taxpayers' money to the Palestinian Authority to assist in 'rebuilding' their neighbourhoods. He has also offered that Britain will train the Palestinian police force, and that he will host an 'investment conference' for them in London.

One or two questions arise. Why thirty million pounds? Why Palestine? And why now? At a time when oil prices have never been so high, what is our Prime Minister doing offering British financial aid and assistance to Palestine? What does he think the reaction of the Arab states will be to this?

If that wasn't enough, Mr Brown has also aggravated the Israelis by criticising their policy of building settlements on disputed land. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at a press conference. "You criticised our settlement policy, and I tried to explain to you the restraints that we put on ourselves on the one hand, and the need to keep the pace of life going on the other. While you disagree with us I hope you understand the position of Israel." It remains to be seen what pearls of Wisdom Mr Brown will have for the Israeli Parliament - the Knesset - when he addresses them on Monday.

Well done Gordon - another stroke of genius.

Ray Lewis and Boris Johnson - the implications continue

As you'll have seen in the news, Boris Johnson's City Hall administrsation has been shaken by the resignation of Ray Lewis, Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Youth just two months after his appointment. Mr Lewis resigned amidst claims relating to his previous roles as a vicar in London's East End, and as head of a youth adacemy in 2003.

However, the resignation will have wide implications for local government. Sir Simon Milton, Councillor for Lancaster Gate ward and former Leader of Westminster Council took over from Sir Sandy (now Lord) Bruce-Lockhart as Chairman of the prestigious Local Government Association just a year ago, and has been acting as an informal adviser to Boris on planning matters. With the resignation of Ray Lewis though, Sir Simon has now accepted the role of Deputy Mayor, thereby causing his resignation as LGA Chairman.

Of course, we all wish Sir Simon the very best of luck - though a year was hardly enough time for him to make his mark on the LGA. But the question now is: who will succeed him? Various well known local government faces have mooted their intention to stand; indeed just last week at the Executive meeting of the Counties Councils Network, I was made aware of two more intended candidates. And depending on who succeeds as Chairman, more vacancies may be created in other posts.

The effects of Ray Lewis' resignation and Mayor Boris' reshuffle will, I suspect, be felt for some time in local government circles. At a time when local government seems to be held in low esteem by many in the Westminster village, the need for consistency in local government's representative body has never been more acute. Let's hope we can get the new office holders in place and get on with business.