Sunday, March 30, 2008
Yesterday, driving along that same road I was struck by the difference; many of the original lamp columns have been "decapitated" - cut off to around eight feet high, some of them with bags stuffed in their tops to prevent rainwater getting onto the wiring.
The "lush green verges" have are gouged and rutted by heavy lorries whose callous drivers - not prepared to wait for traffic to turn in front of them - simply mount the kerb and drive around the waiting traffic, even crushing the few remaining daffodils which have managed to spring up in the midst of this carnage.
Developers of new housing in roads off the Pembury Road have dug out the ground again and again for gas, electricity and phone cabling, and the little paving that remains is broking and sunken.
How did we let the gateway to our fine town get into this state? It seems to me we just stopped caring about the little things. We stopped calling the companies whose lorries mounted the kerbs; we stopped writing to the local press about the bodger contractors; we stopped complaining about the mess made by our utility services.
As a result, Tunbridge Wells is just a little shabbier. And the world moves on.
In fact, some days that's just what we do have - which is why Operation Stack uses the M20 as a lorry park when Channel crossings are cancelled or unreliable. Kent County Council has something of a reputation for thinking out of the box, and it was no surprise when we developed the idea of buying up land to create emergency lorry parks; take the vehicles off the motorway and let traffic move more freely. What's the problem with that?
However, I see from the BBC site (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/kent/7320584.stm) that some Kent residents are less than happy about this prospect, particularly if it's anywhere near them.
It would be great to think that other counties and their police authorities might make some kind of provision to park up smaller numbers of lorries in a crisis - but all seem content to "funnel" the freight into Kent and leave us to get on with it. So in the meantime someone has to find a solution if we're to prevent the kind of gridlocked traffic of previous years.
And while we're on the subject, another amazing fact I was told recently is that one lorry causes the same wear and tear on a road surface as 100,000 cars. With foreign lorry drivers filling up their tanks in France because of the ridiculously high level of fuel tax imposed by this Government, it's about time that Government let Kent County Council get on with our solution there too - a BritDisc which charges foreign lorry drivers a levy for driving on our roads.
Listening to the radio in the shower today, I heard an advert by the finance and price comparison site www.moneysupermarket.com.
The message was that nowadays there were lots of comparison sites available, so the market research company Ipsos MORI had compared the comparators, and - surprise of surprises! - this site had come out on top.
It reminded me that, just last week, I saw a TV advert for Tesco, in which the urbane Terry Wogan had said much the same thing. Most supermarkets compared each others' prices, but Tesco had been acknowledged as the best comparison system.
What's next? Will the market research operators need to be compared themselves? Will Ipsos MORI have to undergo a stringent examination before declaring that they're the best qualified comparator to compare the comparators?
Every year, the Leader and Cabinet throw a black tie dinner for contacts from television, radio and the press. It's a great opportunity for us to build relationships and discuss ideas and campaigns for the coming year.
This year was no exception, and I enjoyed some really productive conversations. What did I learn? That just because we as politicians think a story is important to us, that doesn't make it even relevant to readers or listeners. That we sometimes spend a little too much time immersed in policy papers at County Hall, when we need to get out and see our own services at work.
And I learned something else. That some of the simplest anecdotes that we take for granted are actually really interesting for other people.
Maybe if politicians and the media could start to understand each other a little better, the public might better understand what we're trying to achieve.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
We had been called to explain our decision to decommission the Queen Elizabeth Resource Centre in Dartford, which provides a day service to adults with physical disabilities. Over the last few weeks, the issue has appeared on television, radio and in local press on numerous occasions, and I agree more than anyone that we need to make sure we get this right, for the sake of the service users themselves.
But there was an uneasy feeling of politics at last week's meeting. The Committee called as witnesses two disabled service users, and throughout over two hours of questioning, one leading question followed another. One opposition Councillor stood up to "read a prepared statement" which was little short of a political press release.
I felt saddened by the lack of quality and rigour in a process for which, over the years, I have come to have great respect. The final act was to ask another opposition Councillor, who did not even sit on the Committee, to stand and deliver a tirade of accusations and half truths. When my officer colleague tried to respond, he was denied.
After the meeting was terminated by a power cut, I spent an hour discussing the issues over a coffee with the two disabled service users who appeared as witnesses. And guess what? In many ways, they felt as let down by the process as I did, and we achieved more from a coffee and a chat than through two hours of "open democracy".
There's a legal maxim which goes something like "He who comes to enmity shall have clean hands". In other words, if we're going to challenge and question, do it without a separate agenda.
The Kenward Trust (http://www.kenwardtrust.org.uk/) is a Christian charity which operates from Yalding in Kent, helping hundreds to break the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse. Their report on the culture of dependence in Tunbridge Wells makes shocking reading. Godfrey Featherstone, a director of the Trust, is quoted as saying that "people shut themselves in their houses and drink themselves to death".
I've known Godfrey - and the Kenward Trust - for some years, indeed I asked them to come along to Pembury in 2002 with their excellent "Grey Zebra" project for young people. The results were truly remarkable.
Godfrey and I both come from Bermondsey, which gave us something of a common bond. I've always respected his no-nonsense approach and the truly passionate manner in which he dealt with the problems of those around him.
Sadly, on Friday of next week, Godfrey celebrates his retirement from the Kenward Trust. Although noone deserves the rest more than him the Kenward Trust - and those it serves - will be the poorer for his leaving. Godfrey is truly one of a kind.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Spent today down in Bexhill on Sea, working for South East Employers on an assessment of Rother District Council.
"Did you stay over last night?" asked the Chief Executive.
"Yes - we stayed at the Cooden Beech Hotel" we answered.
"Did you see the Weetabix Big Ben outside? They wanted to put it in the High Street, but we said it would suffer when the pubs turned out..." he replied.
Somehow, I just didn't want to ask....
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Last week Kent County Council had its assessment for equality and diversity - in its workforce, and in the services it delivers.
The Equality Standard for Local Government (or ESLG for short) grades councils from levels one to five. KCC was a Level Two, and we really wanted to raise ourselves up to a Level Three. In a small authority, it's a lot easier to move the culture. In an authority the size of Kent, it's a lot harder.
Our officers have worked really hard to raise the profile of equality and diversity. We have well attended staff groups for black and minority ethnic workers; disabled staff; LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) staff; and even the Greenhouse group, for young staff members. Every group is vocal. Every group is passionate.
For me it's a simple call. Why wouldn't you want the pick of the best talent pool for your workforce? Why wouldn't you want Councillors who truly represented the varied people of Kent? Why wouldn't you want your services to be accessible to all your customers - not just the able, white heterosexual ones?
I'm proud to be a Member Champion for Equality and Diversity, and along with my Labour and Lib Dem colleagues, I hope that last week we were able to convince the assessors that Kent County Council deserves to be a Level 3 authority.
I'll let you know how we get on!
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Just caught my two daughters talking.
The twelve year old was explaining "...but do you know what a Leprechaun is? It's a little green man from Ireland."
My eight year old asked "So? What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing." replied her elder sister "but I think you mean your star sign is Capricorn..."
Whatever happened to the sunny Easter morning where the kids run around the garden finding the chocolate eggs we hid first thing? This year they'll have to make do with a somewhat reduced egg hunt around the house - not quite the same really.
Just had a call from a relative in Norfolk where there's three inches of snow, and the locals are snowballing and making snow men.
If it gets any worse in Kent, perhaps I could persuade my kids into an "Easter Snow Bunny" competition...
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The problem? Increasingly prohibitive Government legislation made it difficult for small pre-schools like this one to continue in business, and it really didn't take a lot for the owner of this one to simply pull the plug. And that's just what she did - telling parents on Wednesday evening that their children would have nowhere to go in around a week. And, lest they should try and at least run it themselves in the short term, she was also selling all the play equipment elsewhere.
I can understand how increasingly punitive Government legislation can dishearten small business owners. I can even understand why it would seem pointless to carry on if your profit line was shrinking week by week.
What I can't understand though, is how a Government who pretend that pre-school education is such a high priority for their administration, would make it so hard for these providers to stay in business.
Sort yourself out Mr Brown - the critical development of thousands of young people is at stake.
I had a worrying letter from a concerned Sherwood resident today
It seems that the 277 Sunday bus service, which for some years has provided a vital transport lifeline from Sherwood Estate into Tunbridge Wells town centre, is to be discontinued by Arriva from Sunday 6th April.
Of course, if the Sunday service goes, so will the Bank Holiday services. If this service ends, with it ends shopping and leisure trips for scores of parents, children and young people who don't own cars and rely on this bus service for leisure and shopping.
I'm told that the bus service was previously funded by contributions from property developments on the Sherwood Estate. It seems as soon as these ran out, the service was doomed to discontinuation. My hope is that we can raise the profile of this service, and somehow find alternative means of providing the funding.
In this day and age, access to shops and leisure shouldn't be a postcode lottery...
Friday, March 21, 2008
I watched a news item tonight which explained how Government intended to induce supermarkets to phase out plastic carrier bags within a couple of years.
They were now concerned because consumers now appeared to be using more carrier bags, and they didn't know why.
Surely it's obvious? Since most Councils have switched to fortnightly rubbish collections, aren't most of us creating small mountains of knotted carrier bags between collections?
Can I now become a highly paid Government consultant?
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
After what seems like an age - after months, even years of Government vacillation, yesterday saw the Health Minister Ben Bradshaw give Government's blessing to Pembury's new hospital. A parliamentary question from Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark ended years of uncertainty for Pembury.
The brand new super-hospital will be the first in the NHS to offer en suite facilities in every one of its five hundred and twelve, and will feature the latest in technology to assist nursing staff.
With demolition work already in progress, construction is to start later this month, with its first admissions early in 2011, and project completion in 2012.
Of course, this is fantastic news. But what a chequered journey - remember the "alternative site" at Knight's Park? Remember the "experts" who tried to convince us that building on the existing site was the wrong decision? And whilst the arguments raged, remember the threat that - if the new hospital didn't go ahead - we'd see seven hundred and fifty new homes on the disused site?
It's been a long and, at times tortuous journey. But thanks to a long line of very committed and passionate people over a number of years, Pembury finally got what it deserves.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
This week's theme is around food and farming, and today saw a simulated outbreak of Avian flu. The whole of Year 7 split up into groups - farmers, politicians, emergency services and so on - planning their actions and messages with all the seriousness of a real emergency. I played "political adviser" to around thirty pupils, discussing the messages to the public and the media and how you'd enforce a restriction zone.
The afternoon, I was told, would see half the group in the IT suite working on laws of probability using real infection simulation software from Glaxo, while the other half worked in the lab with flasks of clear liquid, decanting their fluid into each other's flasks, adding indicator agent to show which flasks were now "infected", then using regression techniques to track the one flask which carried "the source of infection".
With collapsing "bird flu victims" and real ambulance men, I only wish my school days were this interesting. Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls http://www.tgs.kent.sch.uk/home_1.aspx?id=1:31461 truly understands the spirit of enquiry.
The legal wrangles are over - at least for now - and the four year marriage is finally laid to rest in the courts. Curiously, since Heather Mills was clearly so intent on at least initially making this battle as public as possible for maximum embarrassment factor, Sir Paul's reputation comes out relatively unscathed, whereas the media on his ex-wife is near-fatal.
So back to that figure then - £24.3m. And Heather's reaction? On the steps of the court she told waiting media it was just not enough. For their daughter Beatrice, it represented "just £35,000 a year".
Beatrice, she lamented, would have to travel "B Class" while Sir Paul "would still be travelling A Class".
Can I do some B Class travelling please?
Monday, March 17, 2008
Today was quite hard work, as my two new friends from South West Provincial Employers and I probed the commitment of Torbay Council into training and developing their elected Members. Time and again we heard from Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Independents the secret of their success. It was June Godsalve.
A manager within the Democratic Service section, June had been tasked with working on Member Development. Despite initial hiccups, funding issues, and the inclination of elected members anywhere in the country to never admit to needing any kind of training, June persevered.
And because she was dedicated, passionate, professional and enthusiastic about her job, she made it happen.
It just made me think how lucky Councils up and down the country are to have their own June.
It's what makes local government work. Well done June.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
I didn't feel like driving, as the AA website told me it was five and half hours drive each way, and since I have meetings in Tunbridge Wells on Monday evening, I thought I'd check out flights. I previously flew with South West Airlines to Newquay on a Sunday and was very impressed, so I got online to book my flight. I put in my departure and destination locations, the dates on which I wanted to leave and return, then Standard, Business or First Class options. Finally, I was asked to whether I wanted to buy a ticket, to which I responded "yes".
"Sorry" responded the system, "the return flight is full." How annoying is that? How hard is it for the online system to tell me the flight is full when I first ask for details?
So the train is is, then. I've just logged in to The Train Line website, where I've put in all the same details, including the half a dozen different ticket options; whether I want to sit facing the front or back of the train, how I need the Bakerloo Line from London Bridge to get to Paddington, and the fact that a buffet is available on one leg of the route. I even elected to have journey details texted to my phone, at 25p per journey.
My anticipation rose steadily as moved through the seven screens. I was told that my seat was available, then asked which email address I wanted my booking confirmation number sent to, and asked at which station I would be using the automated ticket collection machine to print my ticket at.
Finally, I was told that Tunbridge Wells didn't have an automated ticket machine, and I'd just wasted fifteen minutes and seven screens of input.
But the good news? If I ever get to Torquay - their station has an automated ticket machine...
With my daughter's birthday looming, I woke up this morning to seven twelve year old girls all waiting to use the bathroom.
Last night had been her "birthday sleepover", and my clear duties were to make endless glasses of 'bubble gum squash', inflate a king size lilo, light a roaring log fire and set up the chocolate fountain for them.
I then decided that discretion was the better part of valour and my wife, our youngest and myself barricaded ourselves in our bedroom and left them to it!
It's the morning after and, to be fair, the house still seems to be standing and I don't smell burning, so we're probably okay! Now for breakfast then the shopping trip...
Just keep repeating - "It's only once a year, it's only once a year..."
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I spoke with a colleague from another authority today who told me about their latest online initiative.
It seems if you live in this local authority area, you can now apply online for your concessionary bus pass - paper application forms would be phased out.
"But" I asked, "isn't it mostly elderly people who would apply for concessionary bus passes? What happens if they don't have a computer?"
My colleague told me that the Council had public access computers in most of their libraries.
But how will these elderly "silver surfers" get to the library to apply for their bus pass, when they don't have a bus pass to get to the library?
Back to the drawing board?
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Their task? To create two "pop up shops" with central London locations, the teams had to persuade other outlets to donate their stock, then to persuade their rich and famous friends to pay for admission tickets and buy their stock for as much money as possible.
The teams stocked their shops, sold their tickets and began to sell the merchandise. The girls far outsold the boys, but at a certain point Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone turned up, invited by his daughter Tamara.
The offer he made to the boys was to double whatever sum they raised from selling stock. The next clip was of Lembit Opik MP saying to Mr Ecclestone "If you ever need anything - as long as it's within the law - I'm your man".
With the boys making a total of £316,000 and the girls pipping them to the post at £412,000 the real winner was Sport Aid.
Why did you need to say that though, Mr Opik?
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Today was special. Princess Anne had agreed to visit Kent for a conference of service users, carers and staff of KCC's Occupational Therapy service.
I had to give a three minute speech to welcome our special guest. Since I have been a little busy recently, one of our officers kindly wrote one for me. When I read it through, it not only ran nearly six minutes long, but it just didn't sound like me. So I sat down and rewrote it - about how OT makes such a difference to people's lives, about how proud I was of the staff.
There I was, waiting at the Weald of Kent golf club with some thirty staff and a hundred and fifty service users for the Princess's helicopter to land at Headcorn. I was introduced to a very senior executive from the College of Occupational Therapy, of which the Princess is patron. "You have your speech?" she asked "I insisted it was sent to us for approval, and I've crafted the Princess's speech to respond to the various points you will have made..."
I heard myself lamely agreeing "...absolutely" and then she moved off to speak to staff! I wished the ground could open up - should I go to my car and get the original speech? No. I'd have to own up! I did. I told her the speech wasn't 'me'. It was too long. And I showed her what I'd written. "It's very passionate.." she commented. "Yes, you must give your speech".
The Princess Royal arrived, warm and gracious and working the room like the consummate professional she is. Not a single person was left out. I gave my speech, and I'll never know whether the Princess's response was the prewritten one or whether she adlibbed in parts, but it seemed to match mine perfectly. She signed the Visitors' Book and left with her entourage, leaving a hundred and fifty service users delighted and enthralled.
And leaving me recovering quietly in the corner!
Monday, March 10, 2008
After a hectic peer review in Dorset last week, it was back to normal today.
An 8am meeting with the Managing Director of Kent Adult Social Services, then post, calls and emails until 10am.
A busy Cabinet Members meeting from 10am until midday, followed by a meeting until 2pm with the Cabinet Member for Public Health on Local Involvement Networks and the new KCC HealthWatch programme.
This afternoon, a series of calls to colleagues in other authorities to discuss this week's meeting of South East Counties Adult Social Care.
I raced out of County Hall just after 5pm to get to a 6pm Governors' meeting at Sherwood Primary School, then Pembury Parish Council at 8pm, from where I'm writing this posting!
Hopefully I'll be home just after 10pm. Having left home at 7am, the fifteen hour day seems like a return to normality!
Saturday, March 8, 2008
...just six months later, she claims the event "attracts too narrow a section of society" and says it is "one of several major cultural events many people did not feel comfortable attending".
I find it incredible that on 6th June 2007, the same Margaret Hodge said that "British residents should get priority in council house allocation" - see the story yourself at http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2007/06/06/barking_dagenham_kenhodge_video_feature.shtml
A year before this in April 2006 she stated that white voters, angry at an influx of black communities, were turning to the British National Party because of Labour's lack of leadership: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/hodge-white-voters-flock-to-bnp-because-of-neglect-by-labour-474397.html
Despite a clear "about face" Ms Hodge says that culture could "enhance a sense of shared identity". But clearly only the right kind of culture - something more British than the Proms season, something greater than Jerusalem or Land of Hope and Glory.
Ms Hodge has the answer - it's Coronation Street...
Isn't it time the Government of Britain started standing up for Britain, not selling us out?
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
A crack team of peers have worked long and hard to examine the reasons why so many people are managing to cross the UK's borders and slip quietly into the Black Economy.
Lord Joplin and his EU Committee on Home Affairs have burned the midnight oil and put their considerable collective intelligence to work. Was it the carbon dioxide sensors which sense exhaled breath? Was it the 'magic eye' millimetre wave scanners which can effectively 'see through' lorries? Was it perhaps the heartbeat sensor technology? How about the new biometric IDs for Non-European Economic Area foreign nationals proposed from later this year?
No. It's the fences. If we repaired the fences at Calais, we could prevent at least fifteen hundred additional immigrants gaining access to the UK.
That's it then - despatch a white Transit immediately with nail gun and roll of weld mesh. One wonders what great mysteries of the world they might turn their attentions to next?
What would we do without them?
But a report out today tells us our Government have now doubled this to three thousand pounds. Many will think this is money well spent, as it is intended to help those law breakers with rent, moving expenses and so on, as they resettle in their country of origin.
Wouldn't you have thought it better to spend that cash tightening up our border controls so that we accepted those who wanted to make a positive contribution to this country?
And just so we don't think the magical fifteen hundred pound figure is gone - papers today annouce that this is exactly the amount by which Scottish tax payers are subsidised by English tax payers.
You couldn't write this stuff...
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Kent County Council sent out almost 16,400 First Class letters yesterday, offering places in a hundred and one secondary schools across the county, and over 3,500 parents chose to receive their offers online as well. Under the admissions scheme, which was imposed in 2004 by the then Secretary of State for Education, KCC must offer every child a place by "National Offer Day" - 1st March or the nearest working day.
And whilst ninety five percent of children will be offered one of the three choices of school they put on their form, for a mercifully small five percent of families, the suspense continues through the Appeal Panel process.
My eldest daughter - who passed her eleven plus with a good mark - was offered a Grammar school, but apalling public transport from our village outside Tunbridge Wells would have meant, in the worst case, getting the first of four buses fifteen minutes before lessons ended the previous day! After a series of nerve-wracking appeals, she was fortunately offered a place at a more local Grammar. But why can't we just build in more capacity where it's needed?
One of the few things which made our experience last year a little less daunting was the assistance we got from the KCC Choice Advisers - expert education staff acting as advocates for parents, guiding them through the maze of admissions. If you're in the same boat as we were, call them on 01622 694073 or 01622 694065.
The irony is that in so many other areas, such as health, social care and so on, our Government seem fixated on personal choice. So why can't local councils be allowed to expand their selective school capacity to meet demand, at the same time as celebrating and building on the many achievements of their non-selective schools?
I well remember a previous Labour Education Minister - the product of a Grammar school education - pointlessly attempting to explain on the BBC's "Question Time" why the educational choice which has clearly been of such benefit to him, should now be denied to so many.
In Kent at least, our local politicians are clear - an appropriate, stimulating and challenging education is a right, not a priviledge.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
So what was the story? Was it about record sales of Nessun Dorma? Was it about the fame he brought to his home village of Modena?
No. It was that he died with twelve pence in his bank account, and was apparently twelve million pounds in debt.
Is this the best that our media can do? Why can't we just remember one of the greatest opera tenors who ever lived, who brought operatic music to a wider audience of millions, and just leave it there?
Saturday, March 1, 2008
"What's that gravestone with the flame Dad?" she asked. "That's the tomb of the unknown soldier. The flame can never go out." I replied.
"But what's the unknown soldier's name?" she asked.
Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and start over again...
The Government last year published its much-trumpeted White Paper "Our Health, Our Care, Our Say" which said that Health and Social Care providers should be giving much more freedom, independence and choice to its users. That five percent of funding for acute health care should be redirected to 'community settings' to create more local, and preventative delivery. This White Paper followed hot on the heels of the public consultation creatively entitled "Your Health, Your Care, Your Say".
This paper also invented LINKs - Local Involvement Networks where patients and social care service users could dictate how and what they wanted from their services. The Government have no more idea than anyone else what this will look like - indeed, they appointed half a dozen "early adopter" authorities, most of whom spent the last eighteen months in complete confusion and inactivity.
The previous NHS mechanism - the Public and Patient Involvement Forums, or PPIFs, worked well, although they will be disbanded from 31st March, and there is more than a sense that this whole thing is just a "new idea for a new headline" much like Mr Blair's 'Big Conversation' with the nation a few years ago.
So it came as no surprise when I heard how this LINKs legislation had come into being.
Apparently, the civil servant who was proof reading the White Paper on the train home from London, felt the paper was missing something. Ah yes, some element of "public engagement" - Labour's latest wheeze.
And so it was that PPIFs were killed off, and incomprehensible LINKs were born. On the 6.15 to Brighton...