Thursday, January 31, 2008

The working class can kiss my...

So now the government seems to be portraying itself as the guardian of the small school?

For local authorities to even contemplate closing small schools, they now say, is to tear the heart of out of our small communities. It's simply unthinkable, they now say.

What a shame that the Government's latest "damascean conversion moment" couldn't have come to light eighteen months ago, when the very same Government was forcing local authorities to close any small schools which weren't full to the gunnels.

More Government hypocrisy? Doesn't it sound reminiscent of when Labour politicians - selectively educated in our country's finest grammar schools - then decried selective education in all its forms, claiming it was 'elitist'.

How does the old song go? "The working class can kiss my..."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Deciding to admit or admitting to decide?

This afternoon was fascinating. Seven members of the KCC Cabinet, including myself, visited Kent and canterbury Hospital, where the Chief Executive of the East Kent Hospitals Trust showed us around various units. The hospital boasts a newly-built multi-million pounds renal dialysis unit with thirty beds, a new operating theatre suite in the old Pfizer wing, and a new children's wing - the "Pink Palace" - which caters for children with both physical and learning disabilities.

Innovation was clearly at the forefront of a major service reorganisation, intended to provide an efficient model of care. There is no longer a traditional "Accident and Emergency" at Kent and Canterbury. Instead paramedics are trained in precisely which East Kent hospital each case should be taken to, depending on their condition. Scarce resources are then concentrated, rather than spread too thinly.

Of most pride though, was the Clinical Decision Unit, or CDU. The idea here is that patients will be admitted, be assessed, and begin an appropriate course of treatment either in hospital or in their own home, all within twenty four hours.

The new ethos, we were told, was one of "deciding to admit" rather than the old "admitting to decide". From the results that the East Kent Trust seem to be achieving, their approach is working.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Who cares?

Nobody who saw today's "Politics Show" could fail to have been moved by the story of Roger and Anne Tuson. Roger suffered a brain haemorrhage, and his wife Anne looks after him around the clock - washing, dressing, bathing and so on.

She sends her husband to a care home for six hours, twice a week to give her some respite. But she pays for this from her Carer's Allowance - leaving her just three pounds a week in acknowledgement of the job she does.

The Audit Commission published a report last week - "Positively Charged" - which suggests that local authorities should balance their budgets by charging more for care to those who can afford it - something Kent did last year when it raised its charges for domiciliary care in order to keep its eligibility criteria at Moderate in the face of ever decreasing funding.

Isn't it time we stopped looking for sticking plasters? Why can't Government just admit once and for all that the balance of funding between health and social care system is fundamentally flawed, and needs a total and radical overhaul.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thank you and goodnight - NHS style

Rose Gibb, ex Chief Executive of the NHS trust at the centre of the C-Dif scandal, is to receive a £75,000 payoff. You may recall that at the height of the fatal outbreaks in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, Health Secretary Alan Johnson stood before Parliament to decry any payout, insisting that he would personally intervene to make sure Miss Gibb's original £400,000 would not be paid.

During a recent conference "up north" I was told by a local authority Chief Executive that it was not even possible to withhold payment from an employee who was arrested - and subsequently convicted - of a string of horrific serial killings. It seems treason is the only reason such an agreement can be broken.

Surely these contracts should revoke any entitlement to a payout in the case of incompetence or misconduct? For the sake of the dedicated staff, for all those who died, their friends and their families, isn't it time to look at the law again?

The truth will out

So Peter Hain has finally gone, in a flurry of half-truth and accusation.

Of course, there will be a full police investigation - assuming the officers aren't marching on Westminster again to protest at their shabby treatment over this year's pay award by Mr Hain's Cabinet colleagues...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Strike while the iron's hot?

According to the Office of National Statistics, since July 2007 - that's just seven months ago - around six hundred and ten thousand working days have been lost due to industrial action.

Police are travelling to Westminster to protest against their "derisory" pay claim tomorrow...

Public sector pay negotiations not going that well then?

Good Riddance

Heard a great quote today attributed to Tony Benn.

Reinforcing the point that local politicians must be judged at the ballot box, he stressed that the questions the public should be asking their local politicians were:

"What power have you got?
"Where did you get it?"
"How do you exercise it?"
"To whom are you accountable?"

and lastly...

"How do we get rid of you?"

Our money is their money

Heard Sir Simon Milton speaking at the NLGN Annaul Conference today. Sir Simon is Leader of Westminster City Council and Chairman of the Local Government Association, representative organisation for councils who between them, spend some £85,000,000,000 of tax payers' money each year. As such, Sir Simon knows a thing or two about local government funding.

So it was all the more compelling when he spoke about the balance of funding between central and local government. It seems that for every pound of taxpayers' cash which is actually raised and controlled locally, a further six pounds is taken by Whitehall in income tax. On top of this come duty on fuel, VAT and a host of other "stealth taxes" from the Labour Government.

In total, Council Tax represents just one twentieth of the money taken from local people by central government.

Compare this with Sweden, where local taxes account for half of the money spent on services - it's the same in Germany, where the amounts taken are equal for national and local government. Even France allows local councils to keep twice the amount we keep in England.

Local councillors are just as accountable as our national Government, and arguably much more connected to local needs and aspirations.

So the next time Gordon Brown or his ministers boast about "giving control to local communities" - try to stifle that hollow laugh...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Vibrant, exciting and sexy

I went up to Westminster today to the Annual Conference of think tank New Local Government Network.

Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was going to launch her new "Community Contracts" initiative before an audience comprised of public, private and voluntary sector organisations.

Predictably, Hazel Blears was late as she was apparently at a meeting of Gordon Brown's Cabinet. When she did arrive - twenty minutes late - she told us she had been asked to present the concept of Local Area Agreements and Multi Area Agreements to the Prime Minister. On such a critical issue - the means of delivery of future local services - she steadfastly refused to say how long she had been allowed to discuss the issue.

Her challenge, she said, had been to make them "vibrant, exciting and sexy".

Why not just make them work for local people?

Monday, January 21, 2008

72p a week

Just 72 pence a week for a Band D property. That's the extent of KCC's below inflation council tax increase for the coming year. I joined Paul Carter and the rest of my Cabinet colleagues today in the Cabinet Room at County Hall to present this year's budget proposals to radio, TV and the press.

With the exception of schools, we needed around £33m just to stand still - the Government gave us £9.2m. Admittedly this was more than they had given us for years, but it still meant we had to find huge efficiency savings and raise the amount of income we get from providing goods and services to other councils up and down the country.

At the same time, we're increasing education, vocational and training opportunities, increasing the road and pavement repairs, engaging in our biggest programme for school, museum and library refurbishment and building, and keeping social care criteria at 'moderate' enabling us to complete a massive programme of preventative work for elderly and vulnerable residents.

We have suggested a 3.9% increase in council tax, and as long as the Labour Government settle up and pay their debt for unaccompanied asylum seeker children. If not, we'll have to think again.

We'll need at least an extra £61m next year to keep pace with the growing pressures across Kent, yet once again the Government has offered us £9m.

Time will tell whether we can find another £52m...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Draw your own conclusions...

I read today's Kent on Sunday with interest. In the corner of page 11 was a particularly mean-spirited little piece "KCC Newspaper Costs £50,000".

The paper revealed that KCC's quarterly bulletin 'AroundKent", distributed through HomeBase, McDonalds and posted through every Kent letterbox, cost £50,000 to print and publish. It added that AroundKent has moved to newspaper rather than magazine format, as this reduced the total cost from 16p to 8p a copy.

I have always thought that Kent on Sunday was an excellent newspaper. Balanced, informative, and not afraid to swim against the tide when it spoke out for the people of Kent. Indeed, it was awarded in 2007 "The UK's Free Newspaper of the Year" - no empty accolade.

Just what is Kent on Sunday's point? Surely they can't be worried about the competition. Nor can it be the loss of advertising revenue - AroundKent pulls a fraction of the revenue of KOS to help defray costs.

So why this negativity? Draw your own conclusions...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Money follows money

You may have heard this week about "Men Behaving Badly" actress Leslie Ash, who recently won £5,000,000 compensation in an out of court settlement from Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

She was given the award because she contracted MSSA, the sister bug of MRSA four years ago when admitted to the hospital.

The point is though that over 6,000 people have fallen victim to a hospital-acquired infection - that's one for every ten people staying in hospital. Many of these people died, leaving heartbroken and confused families and friends. None of these equally tragic - and arguably worse - cases apparently merited a multi-million pound payout. Ms Ash was able to afford the best legal team around, hence her huge windfall.

So who stands up for the other 5,999 families who don't have that kind of cash? Is their story less important?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Excellence comes at a price

Had a fascinating chat with a friend of mine from Buckinghamshire. It seems that the county has a centre of Excellence for Epilepsy, the NSE's Chalfont Centre at Chalfont St Peter.

This centre can accommodate 200 patients. Under the Government's care legislation, when the patients first turn up in Bucks, they're paid for by their home authority.

When they leave the Chalfont Centre, most of them stay, living locally. This makes them "ordinarily resident" in Buckinghamshire, and as such they become the financial responsibility of Buckinghamshire County Council.

Experts have calculated that the cost to Bucks tax payers to provide lifelong care for these two hundred patients will be in the region of £100,000,000 - none of which can be reclaimed.

One hundred million pounds - that's a big burden on rate payers just because they have facilities to be proud of. Hardly an incentive for authorities to invest in excellence...

Money for old rope?

I see today that the National Audit Office has finally uncovered the extent of abuse of public finances. It seems that many contractors involved in large public sector PFI projects, are charging up to ten times the fees they would normally charge in the private sector.

As if this wasn't scandalous enough, it now seems that our Government - in a well-practised exercise of smoke and mirrors - doesn't include these lost millions in the figures for the National Debt. Thus it conceals the truly shocking degree of its long-term debt.

Just who is worse - those who over charge or those who accept and conceal it?

A safer place to live

Went along to a Kent Police Neighbourhood Management conference in Pembury today. The message - echoed over and over again by all partners - is that Tunbridge Wells really is a "great place to live". The main headlines were:

That the fear of crime is far higher than the actual incidence of crime.

That the levels of nuisance crime fell during the summer holidays in those areas where activities were organised for young people.

That in Cranbrook, there had been no reported incidence of "distraction burglaries" since the introduction of the "No Cold Calling" scheme a year ago.

That where there is greater control of the night time economy, incidence of anti social behaviour falls.

And that when everybody works together - as in the Crime Reduction Partnership - "things get done".

But if two hundred people in a hotel in Pembury can see this, why does this Government insist on imposing top down heavy handed bureaucracy and overbearing target setting and performance monitoring, through thousands of highly paid Government "policy officers"?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Modern day heroes

I spent the morning on visits in Gravesend with a senior Occupational Therapist. The OT's job revolves around the provision of aids and adaptations to a person's home. which enable them -despite their disabilities - to live as near a normal life as possible.

We dropped in on three different clients, each of whom had very different needs; one so complex and severe that KCC's Occupational Therapy Bureau had organised a house move to a specially adapted bungalow.

However, our last call was to a couple in their eighties, where the wife had progressive vascular dementia; the blood supply to her brain was slowly but surely shutting down. Her husband had to do literally everything for her - dressing, washing, feeding and, since she ceased to be able to stand a few weeks ago, moving her around from room to room using a manual hoist with a chest sling.

Nothing was too much trouble for this dignified gentleman. At 84 years of age he was sprightly, cheerful, and very much in love with his wife, was a lesson in love and dedication. He was looking forward to the weekend, when they would have a drink together to celebrate sixty two years of marriage.

I returned to County Hall in awe of everything I had seen, wondering what more we could do to assist the thousands of modern-day heroes who quietly, daily, compassionately care for their loved ones.

The choice isn't yours

So - the figures are out. The Government want to nationalise Northern Rock. On the whim of Government, it could cost every one of us as taxpayers £2000 to bail out this institution.

But at fifty billion pounds, the amount ploughed into this farce by Labour is considerably more than the thirty three billion they spend on our armed forces.

When will this Government just admit to the British public that it has no idea of what it's doing - that it's lurching from one crisis of judgement to another, and using our money to do it?

A Sobering Thought

On Sunday evening, I received an email from a young man who has cerebral palsy, is profoundly deaf and non-speaking, and lives life in a wheelchair. He lives alone, and manages on on income support and disability benefit. Although he would have liked to complete his education, he told me that it was considered too expensive for him to do this. He needs a lot of expensive electrical equipment to support him, much of which relies on recharging batteries regularly.

In order to make ends meet, he had decided to turn off the heating in his flat during the daytime. Using the government's Direct Payments scheme, he employs a Personal Assistant. His main concern was that in order to keep warm, his assistant needed to keep her coat on for warmth while she was in his flat. He was concerned that because of this, as her employer he was actually breaking Health and Safety rules.

As I said at Monday's Cabinet meeting, what kind of a society can we be that this chap is forced to exist like this? Can we truly call ourselves 'civilised society'.

Definitely, definitely, absolutely not...

Spare a thought for Kent Highways. With an electricity bill of around four and a half million pounds a year for lighting our streets, there's a rumour doing the rounds that they're turning the lights off to save money.  This has caused considerable consternation among those who, understandably, fear increased numbers of traffic accidents.

Radio Kent pressed KCC Cabinet Member and Highways Supremo Keith Ferrin on the issue. Leaving no room for uncertainty, Keith answered:

"Definitely, definitely, absolutely not. We do have to reduce our existing bill but there are ways of doing that which don't involve turning off street lights."

And they accuse politicians of sitting on the fence...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pay day continues for Blair

Last month it was reported that Tony Blair had secured a £5,000,000 memoir deal from Random House publishing and was earning up to a quarter of a million for some speeches.

The story continues. Not content with his £63,000 a year pension at the expense of the British taxpayer, his highly paid Washington lawyer has now secured a job for him giving "strategic and political advice" to Wall Street bankers J P Morgan.  J P Morgan, you may recall, was the bank chosen by President Bush to run the Trade Bank of Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Comparisons are already being made between Mr Blair's salary for his new role, and the lamentable income of the average British soldier.

Maybe if our brave young men had similarly powerful friends, they could have faced the enemy with the equipment to do the job Mr Blair asked of them.

Watch this space for the next Big Blair Bonus...

Rise of the Wheeliebins - Part III

Just when we thought the wheelie bin issue had run its course, I see from several national papers that the flame of controversy burns bright.

The Labour government proposes a "Pay As You Throw" tax, which will seek to charge residents up and down the country for the amount of rubbish they put into their wheelie bin.  An average family could face charges of up to £1000.

Now, according to Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers' Alliance, MPs have voted to include this tax in their list of allowable expenses.

Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles blames the Labour Government for introducing the new tax in the first place.

But whatever way you look at it, it does seem like double standards, doesn't it?

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Strong Pulse

Went along to Seal Village Hall this afternoon, where I'd been asked by the West Kent Housing Association to speak at the launch of a new residents' group - the Pulse.

The Village Hall was packed - colleagues from voluntary and public sector turned up en masse to wish them all the very best.

The group has only been going for three months, but already they have regular meetings, where they discuss how their services are being delivered, and how they would like to see them improved.

As local government looks to provide more appropriate and timely services to a greater number and wider range of people, groups like the Pulse are becoming more and more critical to that task.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Everything has its price

As if the years of inspection and monitoring of local authorities by the Audit Commission wasn't enough, our government has now decided the regime needs strengthening. In future, more inspectors will inspect more services, with more performance indicators and more targets.

The strange thing is, the government has decided that the level of fees charged for these inspections should go down - preferably by around one third.

But because this centralist, over centralised control-freak Labour government has asked for much more inspection rather than less, in some parts of the country local councils will have to charge up to one percent extra on their council tax - just to cover the cost of government inspections.

Isn't it time the madness stopped? Doesn't it seem grossly unfair that despite the overwhelming burden of inspection on local councils, the one body the government won't inspect - is itself.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What's in a name?

I find some of the daftest things amusing. Talking to my eldest daughter this morning, she ran me through her lessons for the day - this morning she had physical education. "Who takes you for that?" I asked.

"Mrs Leggit" she replied. "What a great name for a PE teacher!" I said.

"Then this afternoon we've got Biology with Mr Overy."

Who said truth is stranger than fiction?

We all need somebody

I accompanied one of our Care Supervisors yesterday on a home visit to two elderly ladies. Each had recently been discharged from hospital after an operation, and each were being given up to six weeks recuperative care from Kent Social Services to prepare them for living independently once again.

One lady - in her mid seventies - had undergone a shoulder joint replacement. Her recovery was slow and painful, and I asked how she got on with simple tasks like shopping.

"I'm very lucky" she told me "I've got a lovely couple next door. They're older than me, but very active - always off on another cruise or going off somewhere. They take me out to the shops, or Church or the doctors.

"But you know, I feel really guilty, because I begrudge them each other - my husband died ten years ago. And although I'm in a lot of pain and can't really move around a lot, I'm sure I wouldn't feel any of that if he were still here with me."

Suddenly I was lost for words..

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Rise of the Wheelie Bin II

I see that Swale Borough Council intends to fine its residents up to £110 for leaving their wheelie bin out on the pavement for longer than they should.

It has, I read, identified "a number of bad bin hotspots" and this action is intended to clear the mean streets of Swale.

The fact that many residents have to commute to work, leaving early in the morning and not returning until early or mid evening, seems to have been left out of this equation.  Catching an early train probably means you'll leave your bin out the night before, and if you're not around to wheel it back in again, it hardly seems fair to come home to a £110 fine.

Still, it's another source of revenue for cash-strapped local authorities, still reeling from the Government's paltry funding settlement and threat of council-tax capping.

The customer is King

Good to see this week that the Hop Farm Country Park are seeking to recruit young people to a "mini board of directors". The job of these young people will be to meet regularly to decide what the newly-refurbished venue should offer to its young customers.

In these days of over-marketing, over-sophistication and over-complication, where marketing and PR gurus always assume they know what we want better than we do, it's good to see that someone is prepared to put the customer - even the young customer - first and actually ask them.

Well done the Hop Farm.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Let there be light - as long as it's low energy

After our wheelie bins, the latest target of government's green focus is our light bulbs. By 2011 shops will have to stop selling traditional bulbs in favour of the new low energy type.

Forget the fact that they're usually bulkier, heavier, and significantly more expensive.

In addition, it's come to light (excuse the pun!) in the last week that these new low energy bulbs can cause migraines and serious headaches for some people.

Add to this the fact that the new bulbs contain mercury. This could cause problems if they get broken in our homes, and when they expire and need to be thrown away, will constitute hazardous waste and doubtless need special (and expensive) processing.

All in all another informed, fully researched and well thought out Government initiative.


Friday, January 4, 2008

Bloggers of the world unite!

Spent some time this afternoon with a colleague of mine, Graham Gibbens. Graham is our Cabinet Member responsible for Public Health, which as you can imagine at the moment is a very busy area to be in.

All the more surprising then, that Graham has found time to start up his own blog site -

If you're reading my blog, try and find a few moments to access Graham's site. He's a really hard working County Councillor for a ward in Canterbury, and I'm sure his blog postings will be interesting.

Good luck Graham!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The rise of the wheelie bin

In Tunbridge Wells, as in many other Council areas up and down the country, our dustbin was replaced by two ugly wheelie bins which were emptied half as often - once a fortnight. With me so far?

The reason for this was that Councils up and down the land could comply with yet another set of Government performance indicators around recycling. So residents who for years had composted their green waste now put it in a wheelie bin so that the Council could take it away and compost it for them - albeit adding hundreds of green miles in the process.

These wheelie bins mutliplied overnight - first a green one, then a brown one. The logic behind the colours was obvious - we put our our non-green waste in the green bin and our green waste in the non-green bin. Of course - simple. Could be worse. If you lived in Liverpool, your wheelie bin would be purple - then where would you be?

However, in Tunbridge Wells we should consider ourselves fortunate indeed. I see from the national press that some Councils are insisting on collecting refuse only from "standard" wheelie bins. Householders who do not have a "standard" wheelie bin are being charged up to £60 for one to be delivered.

The interesting thing is that householders who drive to their local Council's depot to collect the aforementioned "standard" wheelie bin themselves and thereby avoid the £60 charge are being turned away.

Mere taxpayers cannot be trusted to collect their own wheelie bin, under the Government's comprehensive Health and Safety legislation. Qualified Council staff must deliver these complex items of waste control technology - charging £60 for this highly technical mission.

This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that our Government have capped Council Tax rises at 5% leaving local authorities with less money and higher costs? Or would it?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Consistency is everything

With around one in ten of the world's population possessing some kind of disability, and this figure set to grow substantially with the advance of clinical technologies and the ageing process, the way our society treats the disabled has never been more important.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the very first global human rights legislation of the twenty first century, proposing fair and equitable treatment among those countries who agree to be bound by its contents.

However, the Government of one country has so far refused to sign up to the legislation.

Best guesses could include Kenya? China? Some Eastern European state?. You'd be wrong.

It's us - the UK, whose Labour government was so fanatically over-eager to embrace every last aspect of human rights legislation, leaving our businesses and public services to suffer daily organised abuse from those who "play the system".

Consistency in New Labour? We're still looking...

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

This year, we thought it would be great for my daughters to experience New Year's Eve in London, so we drove up to town around 10pm, and walked across London Bridge and towards Westminster.

I was struck by so many different nationalities all heading for one celebration. I heard from someone next to me that 350,000 had joined us in the capital, so we were in good company!

We were just past Blackfriars Bridge at ten to midnight and thought it best to stay where we were rather than push any further. At the stroke of midnight, the barges of fireworks were lit, and for the first thirty seconds the display was incredible - then the breeze blew the smoke from the fireworks down river and we couldn't even see the lights on the other side of the Thames!

So 2008 began, and we couldn't have wished for a happier start to the year. My kids, exhausted but cheerful, walked back to Tower Bridge then slept all the way home in the back seat of the car!