Saturday, May 31, 2008

Just another talking shop?

What a fascinating morning! I was at St Stephen's Club in Westminster on Thursday attending a 'Chatham House' roundtable on the future of specialist care for adults with learning disabilities.

The event, chaired by David Brindle from The Guardian, was attended by professionals from the Department for Health, Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Valuing People Support Team, IDeA, and the Institute for Public Policy Research, along with several other care organisations and charities.

It began with keynote presentations from Dame Jo Williams, Chief Executive of Mencap, and myself, along with a provider viewpoint from Bob Lewis of the Care Management Group, and then a two hour discussion on a way forward.

Overwhelmingly, the message was clear. We need to raise the awareness of Learning Disabilities; we need Government to be clear in their expectations - and harder still, to stick to them long enough for us to deliver. We need to accept that there's no 'silver bullet' quick answer, and although we can make efficiencies in our own organisations, this of itself isn't enough to balance our collective books.

As I said in my presentation, I hope this morning wasn't just another talking shop, and that we'll see some real actions and outcomes as a result of our morning together.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What would you do?

Just sat on a train next to a Mum and her young daughter. The little girl took out a puzzle, which asked her to insert various five letter words into a grid, so the fourth letter in each word spelt a new word in its column.

The first picture was of a boat - she asked her Mum what the word was, and her Mum told her "Yacht".

"How do you spell that" asked the youngster.

"Y - A - G - H - T" came the reply. I thought I'd misheard, but Mum repeated this twice as her daughter wrote in the letters.

What would you have done? Let it pass by or allow the Mum to teach her daughter the wrong spelling? Would this be seen as 'poking your nose in' or being helpful, and what does it say about our "look the other way" society?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Brown hits slippery patch on oil

Just saw this story from the KCC Press Office:

"Gordon Brown has urged oil industry leaders to come up with ideas for improving supplies as fuel prices soar. The government has announced new moves to increase oil production in the North Sea. Number 10 says it wants to make the most of the UK's reserves."

Isn't this just typical? The Government makes a higher profit off fuel tax than almost any other country, yet faced with impossibly high fuel costs at the pump, faced with the slow lingering death of our once-great haulage industry, faced with motorists rebelling against unaffordable fill-ups, what does our Prime Minister do?

Does he look at ways to reduce the price at the pump? Does he explore alternative energies? Does he look at tax breaks for hauliers? Does he use the obscene Government windfall from the rocketing barrel price of crude to ease the pressure?

No. He orders North Sea production to be raised, using up precious resources faster so he can provide more over-taxed fuel and make even more profit from his own citizens.

Enough is enough. End the madness. Change the Government.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Secondary School Admissions in Kent

Having seen the number of visitors who have reached this site by searching for phrases such as "Grammar Schools" or "School Admissions Process", I felt I could offer some more practical assistance as well as spouting off about the petty, small-minded, "I'm-alright-Jack" mentality of this Labour Government, who seem hell bent on destroying selective education at any cost.

Last year my daughter left primary school and we entered, like thousands before us, the maze that is school admissions. We were at various times confused, frightened and angry, feeling that if we put a foot wrong we would be wrecking our daughter's life for ever.

I have three pieces of advice:

I hope within these three points, you find something of help. Remember, when you get to put your case at an appeal, don't argue as to why your child won't like the school you've been given; argue as to why he or she will positively bloom at the school for which you're appealing.

Remember in your preparation to ask the school admissions staff for the PAN (Published Admissions Number) for the last five years or so, as well as the number the school actually admitted - if the latter is higher, this will allow you to demolish the argument that to take extra "will prejudice the efficient delivery of education" as they've already set a precedent.

Ask also whether there is any 'fall out' during the school year. Most schools lose the odd one or two pupils during the course of a year or two because the family moves, or the school doesn't always suit. If this is the case, you could argue that admitting your will only push numbers up for a few months.

Don't lose heart - and good luck!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Eurovision - or Euro stitch up?

It's official. The Eurovision Song Contest is no longer a showcase to vote for the best song writing talent in Europe. It's a trading floor of diplomatic etiquette, where votes are a currency to be used to kowtow to allies and show subservience to superior states.

I know it's meant to be fun and not taken too seriously, but it's beyond me how Andy Abrahams ( can be applauded on X Factor week after week by Osbourne, Walsh and Cowell (not to mention nine million of the British viewing public) yet last night scrape through in last place with fourteen votes - six from San Marino and eight from Ireland.

I was not altogether surprised to hear last week that the UK will always be guaranteed a place in the Eurovision final, solely because the competition receives far and away the highest amount of funding for TV rights - from the dear old BBC, which through our licence fees is ultimately through you and me.

Maybe it's time to agree that Eurovision was fun while it was fair, but with the EU costing the UK upwards of £16m a day, we're probably giving Europe enough of our hard earned cash.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

One of the daftest comments I've heard

Just thought I'd share with you one of the daftest comments I've heard in weeks.

I was in Woolworths in Sevenoaks this afternoon, and bought a newspaper, a couple of CDs and the DVD of Will Smith's "I Am Legend".

The young girl at the checkout put through the paper and the CDs, then picked up the DVD and asked "Have you seen this?"

She seemed quite surprised when I said I hadn't, but told me what a great movie it was.

If I had seen it, why would I be buying it?

"They'll shank you good"

Just watching BBC News, and a report about young people and the prevalence of knife crime, in the wake of the deaths of Paul Erhahon and Kodjo Yenga. Their reporter visited South East London, and met with youths in Lewisham.

When asked why he carried a knife, one thirteen year old answered "because everyone wants to kill me these days".

The saddest thing was the two young white teenage girls on the report, who in the "faux Caribbean" accents adopted by so many inner city young people these days, spoke unintelligibly about "all the boys carrying shanks and straps" and how if you bumped into a group who had a 'beef' with your group, "they'll shank you good".

I grew up in South East London, went to school in Lee Green and at one stage lived in Morley Road in Lewisham. And I don't recognise it at all. What on earth has Sir Steve Bullock, elected Labour Mayor of Lewisham and his multi-million pound Council machine, been doing?

Judging from the frightened young people on the BBC, he's given up.

Friday, May 23, 2008

2.45am in Crewe and Nantwich

Couldn't help staying up into the small hours to hear the results of the Crewe by election. Edward Timson won the seat with an astonishing 20,539 votes, compared to Labour Tamsin Dunwoody's 12,679 and the Liberal Democrat Elizabeth Shenton's 6,040.

The Conservative's share of the vote was a massive 49%. What was amazing was the swing from Labour to Conservative of 17.6%, and at 58.2%, voter turnout was unusually high too, making the result democratically sound.

The focus in the latter part of Tamsin Dunwoody's campaign on Conservative Edward Timson being a "toff" was unfortunate. It may well have started as a 'bit of fun' as Labour claim, but once the media had picked it up it assumed an altogether darker feel.

Nonetheless, campaign leaflets proclaiming Ms Dunwoody as "One Of Us Versus One Of Them" surely betrayed an insidious Old Labour tone.

So - 'mid term Labour blues' or the start of a Conservative landslide to rival Labour's 1997 success? Time will tell.

But tonight was a slap in the face for Gordon Brown, and his tenure at Number 10 is by no means assured.

Confidence, aspiration and ambition.

Panorama tonight featured the story of the Government's aspiration to take one million people off long term sickness benefits by the year 2015.

Number of workers "on the sick" has trebled over the last thirty years, leaving a benefits bill today of over £16,000,000,000 - the amount it will cost to stage the Olympics - each and every year.

Nearly half a million Incapacity Benefit claimants are under thirty five, and figures show that if a person is on benefits for longer than a year, they are most likely to stay on that benefit for eight years. Nationally, 60% of those on Incapacity Benefit have no skills whatsoever.

When the pits at Merthyr Tydfil closed, the programme explained that hundreds of men with bad backs and breathing trouble signed on for Incapacity Benefit. Not only did this pay more than normal dole - it had the added advantage that you didn't have to look for work to qualify for payment.

And so it goes on. The Government might want to take hundreds off benefits and put them back into work, but it will need to radically reform its taxation policies so as not to penalise workers rather than claimants.

I suspect this problem won't change until we can tap into people's behaviours - to instill confidence, aspiration and ambition.

A night with the angels

I was at the Marriott Tudor Park Hotel this evening, for the Kent Adult Social Services Quality Service Awards.

These awards are run every year to honour the staff who, nominated by their colleagues and clients, really "go the extra mile".

Radio Kent's Pat Marsh compered the evening, while Managing Director Oliver Mills and I had the easy job of presenting awards and posing for photographs.

Inevitably, the stories which led to each nomination were amazing, tear-jerking, inspiring and humbling.

Ordinary people performing extraordinary acts. Going the extra mile for the good of those they care for. Away from their job, these special people are also often going home to care for others - parents, brothers, sisters, and so on.

As it turned out, the event ran on and I was not asked to deliver the speech I'd prepared for. But I wasn't upset. It wasn't my evening. It belonged to those very special people without whom tomorrow would be a little less bearable for thousands of frail, elderly and vulnerable Kent residents.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Did anyone watch CherieBlair on The One Show on BBC1 this evening?

First I was struck by the sheer lack of any real point, other than her boasting about meeting the Pope and her Catholic grandmother being so proud as she sat in Heaven looking down.

Next came the cheesy bit. Apparently Stevie Wonder sang "My Cherie Amour" just for her at the White House. She told us how, at the age of 14, she told all her school friends how she wanted to be the first female Prime Minister. Although Margaret Thatcher got there first - which was "really important" - "at least she ended up living there, even if it was because of my husband".

Then I was dumbfounded when she told us the usual reaction she got from people whom she met, was that "she looked so much prettier in person". Really?

Finally I was disgusted as she commented on their film about Gypsies and Travellers and unauthorised encampments. She spoke about the need for 'balance' between nimbyism and upholding human rights. Then Adrian Chiles asked whether, having just bought Sir John Gielgud's house (they paid four million pounds for the seven bedroom South Pavilion in Wotton Underwood in Bucks), Cherie and Tony would mind having an unauthorised encampment on their manicured garden.

Never mind the Blair's burgeoning property portfolio. It was the look on Cherie Blair's face that was priceless...

When the ship starts to sink...

I was talking to the Leader of a Conservative-run County Council today.

It seems he recently took a call from one of the Government's regional civil servants, working for one of the numerous unelected kwangoes in his area.

It seems the previously quite officious official could not have been nicer. He told my colleague that "we all know the Conservatives are going to form the next government - we're all very pleased". He went on to ask whether there were "any policies or thinking that we can start working on right now?".

So this is what happens when the ship starts to sink...?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Verging on the ridiculous

Enough is enough. Throughout Pembury, indeed throughout Kent, the recent heatwave has seen grass on verges, roadsides and village greens growing faster than ever. And yet where were the council verge-cutters?

Nowhere. Because apparently, Kent County Council's main contractor, Jacobs hadn't actually awarded the sub contracts to an army of smaller local firms who would come out and keep the grass mowed.
It should have been done months ago. Now the grass in many places is over two feet high, and with the hot weather, we run the risk of long, dry grass being used for all sorts of dangerous purposes by local youths.

Having chased this up with Kent Highways, I'm told the contracts were signed Friday before last, but because this is a "cut, cut again, rake and take away" rather than just a "cut, get in van and drive off" job, it needs to be scheduled into the work plan. It was meant to be done last week, but doubtless I'll be told next that the two days of rain last week have prevented a proper cut.

Gilbert and Sullivan couldn't write this tale of bureacracy gone made. It's verging on the ridiculous.

Well done to the Mums and Dads!

I went along this morning (Sunday) to present trophies at the Pembury Athletic Youth Football Club mini-soccer tournament. Hundreds of youngsters and their parents converged on The Schools at Somerhill for the two part tournament - younger age groups this morning and older teams this afternoon.

Although I could only stay for this morning, the quality of the football was excellent, with teams from all over Kent and South East London playing. Pembury's own team got through to the final at lunchtime, but despite an excellent game, lost to TW Foresters. Still, as they were told at the presentation, they did really well to get through to the final, against so many other good teams.

But you know, the real prize has to go to the organisers - the dedicated and hard-working band of dads and mums who turn out week after week, in all weathers, to support their sons and daughters.

Sweet shop for a day

I was invited today to the Oak Road Estate. To a celebration - with music and burgers and tombola and, despite heavy rain, with lots of people. The purpose of the celebration - which was organised by CORE, the Community of Oak Road Estate, was one very brave young man - Karl, who at just nine years old has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Karl has brought the whole community together, and today they presented him with his Mum and Dad, a few extras for the coming months. Like a cheque for £4156 raised by the neighbours; £1200-odd raised by his school friends at Sherwood Park Primary; £200 given by the SPA group; and around £200 more raised by local people at today's event.

And a football signed by the entire Charlton Athletic team. And a set of photos of Chelsea made up by a local print works. And a real WWF belt donated by the World Wrestling Federation.

And a sweetshop. You see, Karl always dreamed of his own sweetshop. So today, they set him up a tent with a special sign made by a local business, and with all the stock bought by the CORE group.

And Cheryl Baker, who was asked by locals to come along and make a fuss of Karl. She was great.

But even Cheryl wasn't as great as the residents of the Oak Road Estate. Or Karl's parents. Or, most importantly, Karl himself, running his sweet shop for a day.

How low can Brown's low-point go?

Fascinating to watch Andrew Marr's "AM" show on TV this morning. Fraser Nelson of the Spectator and Jane Moore from the Sun were discussing the veracity of opinion polls, and whether journalists actually believed the polls themselves, or in denying them, put the press behind public opinion.

They discussed the latest YouGov poll which has the Conservatives a full twenty percent ahead of Labour and predicts a comfortable win in the forthcoming Crewe bye-election.

The death of Gwyneth Dunwoody was sad - she was an outspoken old Labour warrior who certainly galvanised members on both sides of the Chamber when she was kind enough to come to Kent County Council to teach us scrutiny techniques.

What is appalling is how - before the funeral had taken place, her daughter, Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey had been parachuted in from Pembroke where she'd already been rejected - not exactly a local candidate, and not exactly a true selection process.

With Labour's fortunes seemingly getting worse by the week, Fraser Nelson asked the question - how low can Gordon Brown's low point go?

An interesting question. Doubtless the coming weeks and months will tell.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Only in America

I've just seen a trailer on TV for a new movie - "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" -

It appears to be a story about two men - played by John Cho and Kal Penn - who get mistaken for terrorists. In the tradition of seventies anti-heroes "Cheech and Chong", their previous "hit" was apparently about their road trip across America to satisfy their "weed-induced case of 'the munchies'".

The New York Times rates it as "The Perfect Movie" while TIME magazine calls it "The first feel-good torture film".

Laugh? There goes another rib...

Do we have no sense of propriety any more? This US-made film has to be one of the sickest examples of profiteering I've seen in a long time.

I assume the writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg spent real time in Guantanamo Bay, experienced the realities, and still found it a source of amusement?

As they say - only in America.

A New Settlement

In the light this week of Gordon Brown finally owning up to a funding crisis in Social Care, I was interviewed by Kent TV on the subject a day or two ago. Entitled "The Ageing Timebomb" - I discuss the demographics in Kent which will see an extra 60,000 pensioners in the county over the next eight years. I tlak about the complexity of people's needs and the cost of providing the levals of freedom and choice which the Labour Government espouses.

In the second part of the film, you'll see an explanation of TeleHealth and TeleCare initiatives which use new technology to provide freedom and independence to hundreds of people across the county.

Kent has been successful in bidding for funds to extend its TeleCare and TeleHealth programmes, and was recently selected by the Department of Health as one of three national pilot projects, alongside Cornwall and Newham, representing the 'Whole Systems Demonstrator' exemplar of joint working between Social Care and Health.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has this week announced the start of a six-month consultation on models of funding for health and social care. Care Services Minister Ivan Lewis admitted at a recent event where we spoke form the same platform that "you wouldn't start from here".

Let's just hope that this time the Government are serious. We need a new settlement with Government for health and social care.

The lives of thousands of frail, elderly and vulnerable people depend on it.

What's next? Boiling oil?

At the full meeting of Kent County Council on Thursday, a paper was debated on the proliferation of "mosquito devices" - In a move against groups of young people "hanging around" outside shops, a device has been developed which emits an electronic noise. This noise is of a frequency which can only be heard by the under twenty fives, and is intended to be so painful that the youths will move away outside its range, which is said to be around twenty five metres. The technology was developed by Howard Stapleton, an inventor based in Merthyr Tydfil.

Unfortunately, within that same range may be toddlers, babies in pushchairs and other young people simply going about their business. The reaction of babies and toddlers to the pain inflicted by this device may simply be to cry hysterically, without being able to identify the source of their discomfort.

The National Youth Council and human rights group Liberty, supported by the Children's Commissioner have jointly spearheaded a campaign called "Buzz Off" ( against the use of this technology.

Kent County Councillors were asked to vote on a motion to ban the mosquito device from all our buildings. One County Councillor, Michael Northey said he had found a website which allowed him to play the same noise, but at a slightly adjusted frequency so as to be heard by older age groups. He had played a two-second burst just five times, but was left with dizziness and nausea, the same reaction as young people are intended to feel.

What are we coming to? Are young people such an enemy that we need to use torture to drive them away?

The most concerning thing is that, despite the reaction of most sane, right thinking people - that devices such as this should surely be banned from sale - our Government has taken its usual position on the fence. It won't ban the devices, but simply allows Police forces and businesses to purchase them if they wish to.

For God's sake get off the fence Government. What's next? Boiling oil?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A new country

I heard a fascinating fact today. Listening to KCC's Tanya Oliver presenting on Kent TV at today's meeting of full council, she quoted a statistic which I found amazing on the growth of technology.

It seems that the growth of MySpace, the social networking site, has led to a total of one hundred and six million online members.

What amazed me was that if MySpace was a country, it would be the eleventh largest in the world.

Such is the growth of technology.

Put the people of Kent first

In April of this year, the Government brought in its Concessionary Bus Travel Act. This scheme made provision for free bus travel from 9.30am until 11pm on weekdays, and all day at weekends. Unfortunately, although this scheme allowed national travel it replaced a provision which allowed travel within the local area from 9am. The Act also allowed for local District Councils to "top up" from their own money to allow travel from 9am.

Sadly, in Kent, nobody actually did this, so the elderly and disabled lost thirty minutes of free bus travel.

For many residents, particularly those in rural areas, if they could no longer get the early bus to their GP or hospital appointment, their next bus was in some cases hours later.

But at our Cabinet meeting on Monday of this week, KCC's Cabinet agreed to fund this "golden half hour" at a cost of £150,000 a year, so that the elderly and disabled could once more catch their bus from 9am.

This has put us somewhat out of favour with one or two of the Districts. In my view, we should put internal politics aside and put the people first. Why shouldn't we use the scale of the County Council to put the people of Kent first?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fascinating, but very different

Our Cabinet Members' meeting on Monday morning saw a visit from Metropolitan King County Council in Seattle, Washington State.

Councilmember (that's his title as an elected member) Larry Gossett and Auditor Cheryle Broom are spending the week with us in Kent, to learn about the differences in our governance and to share the way they do things in King County.

There are similarities - a population of 1.9m compared to our 1.5m and a similar budget. The interesting thing was that in terms of democratic representation, the whole county, with its urban and rural communities and thirty nine cities, has just nine elected members. It's very different.

We heard about their impressive focus on the green agenda - around 100 of the 1800 council-controlled buses are hybrid, and over the next few years two thirds of the council's 2000 cars will be low emission vehicles.

But on the minus side, only fifteen percent of the population who need social housing actually get it - leaving, as we were told, 85% of the rest "left to hustle".

We talked about the criminal justice system, and I was amazed to hear that 25% of the wordl's jail population are imprisoned in the United States. Of the 2,000,000 in jail in the US, 1,100,000 are African American.

It's a very different place. Fascinating, but very different.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It was this big...

Do you remember when Brussels dictated that because of the run on cod stocks, in future fishermen would only be allowed to land cod of a prescribed size?

I heard last week of the British Government's response to this prescriptive and protectionist legislation. Did they argue for a change to the legislation? No. Did they push for a change to our quotas? No. Did they seek to expand the protected zone to our fishing waters? No.

No - they immediately employed three hundred-odd "fish measurers". Civil servants at every port, employed to measure the size of fish landed, bringing down revenge and retribution on any British fisherman who happened to bring back an undersized cod.

Spain? They employed fish measurers too. How many?


Saturday, May 10, 2008

All aboard the Barna-Bus!

I spent yesterday in my constituency, and dropped in for a coffee with Father Edward Tomlinson of Saint Barnabas' Church in Quarry Road.

It's wonderful to see that his vision for a pre-school nursery has come to fruition. Saint Barnabas Parish has long needed decent pre-school provision, and although the catchment of Sherwood's Little Forest Children's Centre includes St James', Sherwood and Pembury, it's ridiculous to imagine that young Mums from Camden Road and its surroundings would actually push their youngsters all the way to Friars Way.

The Barna-Bus Pre-School opened on 6th May for two to five year olds, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays each week. Offereing two sessions a day from 9am to midday, and from midday to 3pm, it's just £7.50 a session and free for children over three years.

But the Pre-School is just the start of the ambitious vision for this site - watch this blog for details.

If you want further details on the Barna-Bus Pre-School, contact Pippa Anderson on 0776 577048.

The tip of the iceberg

I notice from Today's Saturday Observer that Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells has met with Chris Burchell, Managing Director of Southern Trains, over plans to scrap the service from both Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick.

In an age where rail fares to some destinations are almost as expensive as taking a taxi; where the cleaniness of carriages is little better at the beginning of the day than on the last train; and where decent fare-paying passengers are herded like cattle into overcrowded outdated rolling stock, to begin pulling airport services from commuter areas like this is beyond the pale.

It's bad enough that facilities at many of our rural stations are non existent - visit many smaller branch stations and you'll find the ticket office shut, the public conveniences locked and the only appearance of human contact is a system of computer-operated voice loops which from time to time tell you that if you leave your bag unattended, it may be removed for security purposes.

Who would do that then? A virtual Station Manager?

This Government has presided over a slow, painful and embarrassing decomposition of our once-great national rail system. I applaud Greg Clark for fighting to save the important routes, but this issue is only the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Will the real white liners please stand up?

It seems a simple enough request. A resident in Sherwood, fed up with having to knock every door along her road every time a car blocks her drive, wants a simple white line painted across the road to deter people from parking over her access.

Yet for the better part of a year, she has been passed from pillar to post between Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and County Hall.

It seems that despite her simple request for a single, eight feet long white line along the tarmac, my constituent was told by County Hall that it was the Town Hall's responsibility, and the Town Hall pointed the finger at County Hall.

Despite her best efforts, and the odd Freedom of Information request, the last few months have achieved nothing but a runaround.  In fact, in her most recent call to the Town Hall, she was informed that "we've stopped doing the white line thing".

So before at least one hard-working resident is driven mad, will the real white liners please stand up?

That's a real community

Whilst travelling around Sherwood yesterday, I heard a great story about community values. It's only a simple thing, but it really struck a chord with me.

Around a year ago, some of the residents of Greggs Wood Road in Sherwood began to lobby me for a new bus stop outside the shops. The old one was just a stop - no seating, no cover - and for many of the older people who rely on the service to get them into town, it was not pleasant on cold, windy, rainy days.

It took a while, but I fianlly managed to get a new shelter installed - with roof, side panels and a seat.

Just a normal request and a normal response, you might think - but what amazed me was that the same residents wanted extra seats, and so pushed their Borough Council for a bench next to the shelter, which they now have.

And the icing on the cake? A group of locals now come out each and every day with a bowl of hot soapy water, and wash down their shelter to keep it looking brand new. That's a real community.

A Fascinating Insight

Having promised my new PA for some months that I would take her into my constituency and show her around, yesterday I finally managed to get around to keeping that promise.

We met in Tunbridge Wells at 9am, and I showed her around Pembury, stopping to admire the new Football Pavilion and new classroom block at the Primary School. It confirmed to me that Pembury is really very well served by amenities. The new children's playground at the recreation ground, pavilion and football pitches, new classrooms, an excellent village hall, plenty of elderly care facilities, a large supermarket at the end of the village, great pubs and restaurants.

Before leaving Pembury we stopped to admire the new and imposing Cornford House residential home, before stopping at Pepenbury for a coffee in the sunshine, being impressively served by one or two of the learning disabled residents.

Moving on to Sherwood, we visited the Primary School, saw the new Little Forest Children's Centre, the changing room block used so effectively as a base by the Community of Oak Road Estate, then drove round to the new TN2 Community Centre. It was great to see the centre so well used - pre-school toddlers playing so happily alongside a busy library with story time in progress, a well-attended community cafe and downstairs the "Fred Club" - activities and outings for young adults with learning disabilities. It was also good to see the resurfacing work to Greggs Wood Road had begun!

In St James, there's much to do; litter, graffiti, general parking and traffic issues. Pavements and road surfaces leave much to be desired, but meetings have been set and the pressure will be on Kent Highways to deliver. St Barnabas Church, cheek by jowl with the school, have moved mountains to be able to offer good pre-school nursery facilities, and the take-up by local children has been astonishing. The newly re-elected Borough Councillor will need to impress with action after the promises made at local elections.

But throughout the day, I was struck by the sense of community. Local people improving their surroundings and facilities by pushing and cajoling local decision makers. To see all three wards - each with their own character - in one visit was as useful to me as I hope it was to my colleague. It was a fascinating insight into a large part of Tunbridge Wells.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Can we all just pinch ourselves?

Once in a while, you hear something on the news that stops you dead in your tracks. Today, as I drove in to County Hall, I thought I was hearing things.

I must have been mistaken. I thought for one mad second that Simon Cowell of "Pop Idol" fame had demanded that local councils up and down the country scrap their parking restrictions so that he could put his shiny black Rolls Royce right outside the door of whatever auditorium he travels to to 'judge' would be popstars.

In an interesting variation on the disabled Blue Badge scheme, Mr Cowell suffers from two serious conditions. Firstly, he needs to be right outside the front door "in case he gets mobbed" by adoring crowds. Secondly, and far more simply, he "hates walking anywhere".

Indeed, one council has apparently ripped out a series of bollards so he can park on the pavement outside one stage door.

Enough, already. In a world of assumed self-importance, this has to be right up there in the First Division. And local government appears to be pandering to Mr Cowell's ego.

Can we all just pinch ourselves?

Another day, another Brown vacillation

Gone was the urbane, confident Gordon Brown who clearly felt he, and his party could do no wrong. Andrew Marr's interview on yesterday's Politics Show revealed a very different Prime Minister - unsure, repetitive, often disconnected in the answers he gave.

Clearly shaken by Labour fortunes in the last week, Mr Brown has resorted to the "knee jerk" policies which have defined his party for a decade. The stealth taxes, the heavy hand of centralism, the 'middle ground' politics, devoid of real passion or courage, equate to a Government without vision, without principle, without future.

At least Mr Blair looked as though he occasionally believed what he said...

And now another u-turn. Mr Brown's "pay as you throw" bin tax would at least have encouraged many people to think about how they dispose of their waste - maybe even to finally press for less packaging from retailers as consumers began to feel the pinch in their pockets.

But no. Mr Brown has turned tail on what could actually have been a useful policy for once, afraid of more negative public opinion. And the real shame? Local authorities may well have to find the difference, passing on this expense in council tax bills. The Government continues to turn the screws on councils to provide more with less.

Today, Bracknell Forest leader Paul Bettison spoke on behalf of the LGA, warning that "Mr Brown is going to have to be prepared for old people seeing day centres closed, for swimming pools shut down, and for roads full of holes". Another day, another Brown vacillation.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Working hard, achieving results, and listening to residents

So the Tunbridge Wells Borough elections are over. A short - it was only three weeks this year - campaign, then suddenly it was Election Day.

There's no doubt national politics played a significant part; Nick Clegg's "superstud" confessions (or was it more literary than literal?) in GQ Magazine; Gordon Brown's knee-jerk handling of the ten percent tax rate; even Boris Johnson's mayoral campaign, these were all issues on the doorsteps.

Locally, the Borough Council's plan to close public conveniences and impose Sunday charges in our car parks, added to the usual concerns about roads, pavements, litter and graffiti.

But on the night, the residents of Tunbridge Wells made their point.

Labour and UKIP, despite fielding strong candidates in many wards, failed to make any gains. Even in those wards where absence of a Labour candidate created a 'two horse race', the Liberal Democrats lost three seats in their strongest areas - Capel, St John's and Rusthall as I recall, though nothing's out on the web yet - and their majority was torn in half in St James'.

Democracy is an interesting thing - over the years all the parties have tried technology-based campaigning; have bussed in resources from out of area; even, in the Liberal Democrats case employed out and out slurs and lies about their opposition, sticking to their old campaign manual "stirring endlessly" and "lying shamelessly".

But when all's said and done, there's no substitute for working hard, achieving results, and listening to residents.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

St James'

In the early hours of Friday morning at the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall, the Liberal Democrats retained their seat in St James' ward.

Despite an excellent and dedicated candidate in Alan McDermott, whose campaign was textbook perfect, he lost by just three hundred odd votes to Mary Lewis.

There were some real positives to take away from this however. First, the Liberal Democrats were clearly rattled. Their candidate elsewhere in the Borough told me that morning "the Tories are smashing us to bits in St James". Second, their Leader, David Neve, saw what we could do when we fix our sights - although they won, it was with a fraction of their previous majority - and spent most of Polling Day red-faced and angry, even telling one of his colleagues "I think we've lost this".

Finally, and most importantly, the Conservatives are back in St James' after two decades - with many more supporters and a significant band of volunteers who now want to help as we begin an ongoing campaign running up to the next elections.

The Liberal Democrats, with all the usual dubious and cheap campaign tactics, have scored a hollow victory. Like it or not, the Conservatives are back in St James - on the doorsteps, on the phone and through the letterboxes.

To paraphrase the 1966 World Cup commentary, "they think it's all over". Our job is to make sure it very much isn't now.

Blue Boris beats Red Ken

So Boris Johnson is our new Mayor of London Red Ken is no more, with around 140,000 Londoners marking his demise with a first preference for Boris.

Huge power and umpteen billions in budget is at Boris Johnson's disposal. However, there is far more at stake. With a clear national surge to the Conservatives and no General Election on the horizon for a while, Mayor Johnson represents the Conservative vanguard - any foot he puts wrong will be widely trumpeted as a Conservative mistake, not just Boris'.

Behind all the hype, behind the buffoonery, Mr Johnson is clearly an extremely capable and intelligent man. I just hope Mr Cameron is able to build the kind of working relationship from the start that eluded Blair and Livingstone.

Licensed to speak English

I received an envelope on Friday from the Civil Aviation Authority. Opening it with trepidation, I mused on what it might contain.

Was it a request for a medical examination? A 'telling off' for flying in controlled airspace? Maybe a stern warning that I must fly more hours to keep my pilot's licence?

No. It informed me that the CAA now had an international obligation to meet 'new requirements for Language Proficiency', and that all pilots and navigators now needed to be assessed in their command of the language used for radio communication.

My Pilot's Licence now has to include an additional slip which proved I was proficient in speaking English.

CAA Language Proficiency Check? That's the first time I've passed a test without actually taking it...

Marooned at Dunorlan!

My youngest, Elise, was asking all day if she could go to the boating lake at Dunorlan Park and "have a go on one of those pedalo things". I was still really tired after the events of the last week, but she'd been so good this morning that I agreed.

We hired a pedalo for half an hour, and set off across the lake. Elise wanted to steer, so I provided the horsepower!

For the first fifteen minutes it was all very pleasant - sunny day, slight breeze, sedate circuits of the lake. But during a rather over-confident 'figure of eight' we suddenly slowed abruptly and stopped.

Trying to pretend we were deliberately standing still, we began to attract a small crowd of onlookers onshore; after ten minutes of unobtrusive pedalling and getting nowhere, the sound of a motorboat got louder, then the voice of our rescuer - "hello sir; I see you've found our resident sunken tree stump..."

And so we were rescued from being marooned at Dunorlan...

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sometimes it's all worthwhile

I was at the opening of the Pembury Pavilion today, when a lady approached me. "Mr Lynes" she said "I know you're very busy, but I wanted to say thank you..."

It seemed I had helped her win her daughter's admission appeal for Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School.

She introduced me to her daughter, a confident, pretty young woman. I asked how she was getting on at school. "I've finished my GCSEs" she replied. "I really want to be a lawyer, so I asked the Crown Prosecution Service if they would take me for my work placement this year, and they've agreed. I'm really looking forward to it."

Amidst the nonsense - the long days, the political games and election party nonsense - sometimes it's all worthwhile.