Monday, June 30, 2008

A helicopter that runs on champagne?

It's official. Prince Charles has finally been able to prove his eco-credentials, with an 18% reduction in his green footprint, his CO2 emissions now down to just 3081 tons. He's bought a Toyota Prius. He started the Brighton to London eco-rally last year.

There are energy efficient boilers at Clarence House and woodchip stoves at Highgrove, all working towards his promised 25% reduction between 2007 and 2012.

And to cap it all, he has converted his old Aston Martin - a 21st birthday present from the Queen, to run on alternative fuel. Although unlike the Japanese "water car" featured on this blog a week or so ago, the Prince's choice of fuel is - English wine. One assumes if he put in a French or German vintage, he'd have to drive on the other side of the road?

It's a shame the Prince's offspring don't share his visionary zeal. During Prince Harry's Royal Air Force training, he took five helicopter flights costing the taxpayer around £50,000, with one in particular - to a stag party on the Isle of Wight - costing just under £9000.

Perhaps we could find a helicopter that runs on champagne?

Another vague "customer knows best" plan?

So it's finished. After a painstaking twelve months of work and after collating the views of around sixty thousand patients and staff, Lord Ara Darzi has finally pronounced on his review of the NHS. I well remember in early September last year going to the London Beach Golf and Country Club in Tenterden to join a luncheon hosted by Lord Darzi and David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS. The small but select audience were treated to a few opening comments about the review. It promised to be exhaustive; to be brave. It promised to be innovative and not to be sidetracked. So?

It's the patient, stupid. Their views will affect funding, their death rates will be published, their choice of drugs and treatments will be respected, and their GPs will be funded differently to make it easy for them to change practices.

But how many times have we heard this? The GPs I've spoken to since taking responsibility for Kent Adult Social Services have all told me how heartily fed up they are with bright idea after bright idea; with reorganisations on average every five years, and never enough time allowed to bed down changes before the next bright idea comes along.

Some ideas - like personal care plans or access to personal budgets for those with long-term conditions - are things which social services departments have been doing for some time now. Others - like the option to travel to Europe for treatment in UK waiting lists are too long - rely on the patient being able to travel, and the preferred country having the right medical team, the right pharmaceuticals, and hospital or clinic capacity.

Judge for yourself. But I'd rather have seen some real blue-sky thinking building on the dedication of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated staff in the system already, rather than another vague "customer knows best" plan.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Certainly beats reading endless policy papers!

I've always loved cooking, although anything I make takes hours and anyone I'm making dinner for is usually fast asleep by the time the meal's ready.

Recently, I've started experimenting with curries, using "50 Great Curries of India" by Camellia Panjabi. It takes a little work assembling the spices and preparing the ingredients (why hasn't someone invented a fool proof grater for fresh coconut?) but ultimately it's really worthwhile if you want an authentic Indian dish that doesn't taste like the "what do I have left in the fridge" curries your Mum used to make on a Friday night...

I also adore desserts, and so I was really pleased to see the Butter Sugar Flour blog site from Linda in Australia. I've not tried any of her recipes yet, but next weekend might be the turn of her Tiramisu Layer Cake.

Certainly beats reading endless policy papers!

The Village with a Heart

Yesterday saw the Pembury Primary School "Party in the Park" on the school field. The event, organised by the PTA, was massively well attended with literally hundreds of parents, children and friends enjoying a huge range of stalls, from tombola to china smashing, and from nail to face painting. Appearances by Premier Sport Football and Gymnastics, as well as the Pembury Youth Theatre Academy and Pembury Athletic Youth Football Club all added to the entertainment.

There was a well-organised barbecue offering hots dogs and burgers, and a bar with ice cold beers and soft drinks. Music was provided by RAM Discos, then between 4pm and 8pm by the appearance of excellent local band The Houdinis.

I was asked to judge and present prizes for a poster colouring competition, and later there was a raffle - all of which boosted PTA funds.

The weather added to a great afternoon and evening, and led one local friend to suggest that we should try and organise a twelve month video diary of Pembury - to show how everything contributes in their own way to the village with a heart.

The curious case of the small, but potentially dangerous flag

Hot on the heels of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council's "Thought Showering" episode this week, the latest Borough Council to fall prey to the media is Maidstone.

It seems from both local (Kent Messenger)and national press (Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph) that having taken delivery of a shiny new mayoral car, the Mayor of Maidstone Denise Joy has been told by her officers that it will not display either the borough insignia or flag - usually proudly affixed on the roof and the bonnet of any official vehicle.

And the reason? Health and safety. It seems that when the car is moving, a sudden rush of air might tear either flag or emblem off and fling them into the path of the vehicle behind. Has this ever happened? Well - er - no. But is certainly could do, says Neil Haris, Maidstone's Democratic Services Manager.

Maidstone councillors are already furious at the switch from a "British" Jaguar to the more environmentally-friendly hybrid Lexus GS450H costing some £40,000. Now, they say, the arrival of the Mayor of Maidstone without insignia could result in her car being diverted to a mere 'public car park' by mistake - imagine that.

So now all that's distinctive about the mayoral vehicle is the prestige number plate - 1 MKP - although perhaps this should be changed in case a member of the public is confused by the plate and begins 'thought showering'?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

St Barnabas Primary School - a hidden jewel

Tonight, I just watched one of the best school performances I've seen in years. The head teacher of St Barnabas Primary School in Quarry Road, Teresa Anderson invited me to attend the Year 6 production - Alan Ayckbourn's "Ellies Incredible Illucinations". I was shown to a front row "guest of honour" seat, and the lights went down.

This was a wonderful single act play, acted beautifully by almost thirty children. The backdrop - a living room, library and doctor's surgery - was superbly painted, the scene changes done quietly and efficiently by the children themselves.

The play started promptly at 6.30pm, and was finished by 7pm, leaving a packed audience cheering for more. St Barnabas CEP School really is a hidden jewel at the foot of Camden Road. More power to the Head and her truly passionate staff.

At the sharp end of the biggest issue in politics

Last evening, I attended a meeting at Portcullis House in Westminster with Stephen O'Brien, MP for Eddisbury in Cheshire and Shadow Health Minister. With me were my opposite number Social Services Cabinet Members from Surrey, Oxfordshire, East and West Sussex and Hampshire.

It was an interesting and productive meeting, and we gained a valuable insight into the direction of travel of Conservative social care policy. We asked for the meeting since our group, SECASC - South East Councils Adult Social Care - represents the adult social services of all the south east counties, and we wanted to see how we could work alongside our Parliamentarians to shape the future agenda.

Stephen was generous with his time and consummately professional. We discussed safeguarding, learning disability funding and transfer, VAT legislation, dementia and the personalisation agenda. Whilst the detail of our joint work is clearly politically sensitive, we all felt there was a clear forward direction, and understand the constructive role local government in general - and our group in particular - can play. Stephen observed that we were "at the sharp end of the biggest issue in politics". Let's hope our joint work can start to make a real difference.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Sort it out when you get off"

Interesting. I was on a train today going from Maidstone East up to London, when two youths got on and sat behind me - I couldn't see them, and could only hear their voices.

They spoke in faux Caribbean accents, and - stretched out across the seats - were playing rap music full blast from their mobile phone, making suggestive calls to girls, and swearing profusely when the line cut off.

A ticket inspector came down the carriage and when neither of them were able to show their tickets, they asked to buy two children's single tickets from Otford to Bromley South.

"£4.39" said the ticket inspector, and one of the boys produced a credit card - perhaps the inspector should have queried why a 'child' had a credit card?. Running it through the swipe, this was declined. "Alright, you'd better sort it out when you get off" said the inspector, walking away.

My point is, how can we expect young people to have any respect for rules when they're not enforced anyway? And how many times has that happened, pushing up the already over-inflated price of journeys for the rest of us?

Monday, June 23, 2008

A fantastic ambassadorial effort

Today I went up to the House of Commons with Deputy Leader Alex King and Chief Executive Peter Gilroy, where Kent County Council and policy group Westminster Advisers hosted a conference on TeleHealth; an innovation which uses new technologies to assist those with chronic long term conditions to monitor their vital signs, such as blood pressure, blood oxygen and blood sugar from the comfort of their own homes, sending the data to their GP by telephone.

Just under a hundred delegates attended from the NHS, local authorities and primary care trusts, as well as service users and their carers and families. I made the point in my welcome that it wasn't about the cost, or the process, nor about whether it was health or social care who got most benefit. It was about the outcomes, about how this programme was changing people's lives for the better.

Speakers from KCC, the NHS and the British Heart Foundation came next, together with a fascinating question and answer session chaired by Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor at The Times.

After the formal session, there was a formal lunch in the Cholmondeley Room at the House of Lords, where Earl Howe, the Shadow Minister for Health gave an excellent address in support of our project and giving a clear vision of health and social care under a Conservative government. Finally, Peter Gilroy gave a typically incisive view of how demand was moving forward rapidaly and what KCC was doing to shape future provision.

Alex King summed it up. "One of the best seminars I've been to in years..." he said "...and a fantastic ambassadorial effort by KCC."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Governments have fallen for less

In a week when the people of Ireland have expressed their opinion on the Lisbon Treaty in no uncertain terms, and when Gordon Brown and his Labour machine has tried - unsuccessfully - to steamroller the British Judiciary, I was interested to see Simon Jenkins' view of the electoral process in The Guardian last Wednesday. He writes:

"Have you noticed how the political establishment hates elections? It regards them as vulgar, foreign, exhibitionist and unpredictable. To those in power they are mere concessions to mob rule. If electors did not insist on them, elections would have been abolished long ago as Victorian gimmicks to appease proletarian sentiment."

Major players including France, Britain and Germany have all but ignored the obvious will of the populations of their partner states. Make no mistake; this is dangerous territory. For those of us who spend our lives in local government, we have seen the slow erosion of real democracy for some years now. At the very time Brown's government is trumpeting its "localism agenda" from every rooftop, the population and its elected local mechanisms have never been more emasculated. The 'earned autonomy' promised by Labour's performance management initiative, (where those authorities deemed Excellent by the Audit Commission inspections) came to nothing, as none of the freedoms and flexibilities were ever clearly defined enough to make a real difference.
Mr Jenkins argues that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, in making a manifesto commitment for a referendum, have broken their promises to the country. When Switzerland's conservative catholic governments in the 19th century overrode the will of the people, there was civil war - not to mention political assassinations and many changes of government. Finally, the old guard were driven into exile and a free constitution was developed.

That constitution today still allows for the population - both by capita and by canton in a 'double majority' - to express its disdain. Consequently, the five major political parties are induced to work together to produce policies and state decisions which seek to meet with the population's approval, not to override it.

In a recent YouGov poll, the question "If Europe's leaders do agree a new constitution for the European Union, who should decide whether Britain should sign it?" brought a reponse from 83% of The decision should be made by the people in a Referendum".

Prime Minister Brown, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel should think carefully about their next move. There's a lot to lose - governments have fallen for less.

St Barnabas Primary School - a real treasure

Congratulations to St Barnabas CE Primary School in Quarry Road Tunbridge Wells, who have this week beaten off the competition to win the "Reading Rocks 08" story competition sponsored by the Kent and Sussex Courier and Westfield, owners of Royal Victoria Place shopping centre.

Alongside ten other schools from Kent and East Sussex, children attended creative writing classes at Royal Victoria Place. A total of five hundred stories were then submitted to a judging panel made up of staff from the Courier and RVP, and three finalists were then voted on over the course of a week by school parents and RVP shoppers.

The winning entry - "The Missing Treasure" - was penned by pupils in years four, five and six at St Barnabas, winning the school a thousand pounds worth of Harper Collins' books for the school library.

St Barnabas - headed by the passionate and talented Teresa Anderson - is an excellent school with some unique challenges. It is a testament to the head teacher and the rest of her staff that they won this prize, but no surprise to those who know the school.

I'm immensely proud to have St Barnabas, a real treasure in itself, in my constituency.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Waking up in another country

I see from today's Saturday Observer ("Attitudes to autism must be changed, page 15) that the National Autistic Society has spoken to 1400 people with autism to compile their latest report on the condition. In an effort to explain the condition, they describe autism as "like waking up in another country where no-one speaks your language and people live by a set of social rules which are completely alien to you."

The NAS report claims that 63% of sufferers of autism simply don't have adequate support to meet their needs.

The article describes Harry Roberts of Tenterden, whose 37 year old daughter Nadya has had autism since she was twenty. Although she now has adequate support, in 2005 Nadya spent a year in a 'mental hospital' because the residential home where she lived was unable to cope with her challenging behaviour.

We simply have to do more. I hear again and again from families and carers dealing with autism that the biggest problem is understanding - that autism isn't a "mental illness", and that not everyone with autism is like Dustin Hoffman's 'Rainman'. In fact, high intellectual capacity, or 'savantism' is only found in around 2% to 3% of those with autism.

I've asked for a Select Committee on Autism at Kent County Council, so that a group of Members and officers can spend properly resourced time interviewing experts and talking to those with autism and their carers and families, to give us a better idea of how to provide the best support and care services.

Because the notion of 'waking up in another country' isn't something I want anyone to have to go through.

Some things stay the same across the generations

Visited my youngest daughter's school today for their Annual Summer Fair. There's something reassuring about a school fete - as parents, we're all perfectly happy to donate all the old bits and pieces of 'stuff' that we accumulate in our kitchens and garages - only to fill the space we've created by lugging home everyone else's old tat that by now we've paid good money for!

This was a particularly well-organised event, with 'magic' as the theme, and it started with a procession down the road to the school dressed as wizards and warlocks. There were at least twenty five Harry Potters, each with a nasty looking zigzag scar on their forehead - mysteriously in the precise shade of their Mum's eyeliner...

Books, videos and DVDs were bought and sold, along with second hand school uniform, cakes and buns. The barbecue and beer tent were welcome additions this year, as were the "Ocean Blue Twirlers", a local majorette troupe. Performances from the school wind and brass ensemble led by the head teacher, and a very good magician kept the kids and parents thrilled.

But it was the maypole dancing that fascinated me. It seems to herald in the summer every year in schools across Kent. And you know, it certainly doesn't seem four decades ago that I stood in precisely the same costume, learning the same dances as these little ones did today.

When we all seem to be rushing too fast, burning our collective candles at both ends (and sometimes in the middle too!) it's strangely reassuring to see that some things stay the same across the generations.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Is Britain really worth so little?

It's certainly been an interesting week. Following the "No" vote in Ireland at the end of last week, Wednesday saw the ill-fated and largely unwanted EU (Amendment) Act - otherwise known as the Lisbon Treaty - pass through the House of Lords, gaining Royal Assent on Thursday.

An unsuccessful attempt by solicitor Bill Cash, Conservative MP for Stone in Staffordshire to gain a judicial review of the ratification process were rejected by the High Court. It took a further High Court action by Conservative backer Stuart Wheeler to force the legal wheels to turn.

However, in a staggering display of arrogance, Treasury solicitors sent a letter to the High Court following Thursday's Royal Assent which said "The government is now proceeding to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon."

In turn the High Court responded through Lord Justic Richards, effectively forbidding the Government to proceed until Mr Wheeler's judgement had been determined, which should be sometime next week. In a classic understatement, the Government were "invited to stay their hand voluntarily until judgement."

Gordon Brown - currently attending an EU summit himself - seems untroubled by this unsuccessful attempt by his Government to sidestep the legal process, and is quoted as saying that this "fits in with our timetable".

When will this country stand up for itself? Headed up by a collection of Euro fanatics and Brussells groupies, we seem to be sleepwalking into a nightmare of catastrophic proportions from which it will take years to recover.

Is Britain really worth so little to this Government that it can so casually be handed over? Does Gordon Brown have so little regard for the very people he is elected to represent that he would sign away our future without even asking us?

For Mr Brown at least, fear of asking the people of Britain their view seems to be something of a habit...

'Thought Showering' the Tunbridge Wells way

Hot on the heels of its new and hugely impressive logo, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has now coined a new buzzphrase - "Thought Showering".

Apparently afraid of offending people with mental illness or epilepsy, the Borough Council has thought up their new phrase to avoid using the word "brainstorming" - despite the fact that the National Society for Epilepsy actually use the term "brainstorm" themselves.

The borough council "thought shower" was derived from one of the council's "regular equality and diversity training sessions with all staff", and whilst they "welcome the clarification" from the National Society for Epilepsy, they urge that "if the term does offend even a small minority of people, they should get in touch."

So, a Thought Shower? Or a a collection of slow drips...

"You wouldn't be doing this if I was white..."

Supermodel Naomi Campbell, on board a Los Angeles-bound flight from Heathrow, fell victom to the Terminal Five baggage handling nightmare shared by thousand of others when a piece of her luggage failed to arrive on board her aircraft.

Unlike others on board whose luggage hadn't been loaded, La Campbell remonstrated with cabin crew, asking them to make personal enquiries about her missing case.

Unlike the others, Ms Campbell received personal attention from the captain of the aircraft who offered her a personal apology. Hurling abuse, she ordered him to get off the plane and find her case himself. She accused him of being a racist, and added "You wouldn't be doing this if I was white." What - offering a personal apology?

Unlike the others, Ms Campbell was apparently so disruptive and abusive that staff asked her to leave the plane. When she refused the police were called, and unlike the other passengers, she wedged herself into her seat, spat at them and kicked one officer in the shin and another in the thigh.

Uxbridge magistrates ordered her to pay £2300 in fines and sentenced her to 200 hours of community service.

Her defence lawyer Simon Nicholls said "all my client wanted was to be dealt with as though she was anybody else."

So why didn't she behave like anybody else?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Modern Services in a Modern World

At the meeting of today's full County Council, Members approved KCC's Annual Plan. In an organisation like KCC, it takes a special breed of officers even to put a document together which sets out everything the organisation delivers. At 140 pages, it's a weighty tome.

To make sure the County Council actually delivers these services, every hour of every day, to the million and a half Kent residents is amazing, and to do this to the kind of standard which leads the Audit Commission to once again award the maximum four star rating and define Kent as "excellent" is nothing short of stunning.

"A tour de force" was how Labour Councillor Derek Smyth described it, and he's not wrong. Alex King, Deputy Leader described our task as delivering "modern services in a modern world". Whatever you call it, it's an impressive achievement.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why can't all car manufacturers be like this?

For the last week or so, you couldn't open a newspaper or turn on a radio or TV news bulletin without growing increasingly concerned about fuel shortages. Thankfully in the South East generally, and Kent in particular we seem to have escaped the kind of fervour affecting other parts of the country.

But almost as certain as death and taxes is the fact that fuel prices are unlikely to fall; surely all the more reason why we should be exploring alternative technologies. Yet the hybrids, like the Toyota Prius or the LPG Ford Ka, whilst novel and perhaps a little more economical, still don't really make the kind of fundamental shift that's needed.

Until now. I see from the Dow Jones "Market Watch" blog site that the Japanese have developed a car which delivers 188 miles per gallon - of water.

Don't believe it? Watch the video here.

And then wonder why all car manufacturers can't be like this?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Camden Road - a little brighter, a little safer

Went out this morning to check on the Kent Highways crew who were replacing the street lighting down Camden Road in St James'. The work was scheduled for a Sunday to minimise disruption to local traffic.

I've been pushing hard for this scheme over the last two years. It started when local residents showed me how dark the bottom end of Camden Road towards Albion Road had become, with no less than three lights out in succession. Age, wear and tear and a car crash had all taken their toll, and working with Kent Highways I managed to get not only the faulty lamps replaced, but a brand new scheme at the top end of Albion.

Now, in the new budget year we're turning our attention to a range of repair and replacement schemes, and today was Camden Road's turn. New lighting columns have been installed - not as many as were intended to be installed as unforeseen power cables will now have to be dealt with. But Kent Highways is on the case, and over the coming weeks locals will see a big improvement in street lighting generally around St James' area.

I'll be contacting residents to ask for their help in reporting lighting faults, but in the meantime, if you'd like to report a lights that's on all day, or not on at night, or even an old or broken column, please either post a comment here on my blog, or go to and leave a message for me.

But for the moment, Camden Road at least will be a little brighter, and a little safer.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Psst! Wanna play an addictive game?

Found this link on a blog today - Warrington ICT seems to be a site dedicated to sharing best practice between school ICT practitioners. It's a treasure trove of great little finds, and I guarantee you'll go back more than once.

It's also got a game called "Magic Pen" whic has to be one of the most addictive games I've seen in ages. You can find Magic Pen at

I remember being in Seattle a few years ago for a week with Microsoft, where one of the things their programmers showed us was an intelligent shape drawing game - you draw a triangle, then draw a ball, and the ball rolls down the triangle.

Magic Pen seems to take this concept way further. Enjoy!

Café society comes to Tenterden

Went to Tenterden today to look for a present for a friend. It's been a while since I went there, and what a surprise I got.

It seems to have become the same as every other small shopping centre - all the usual large-chain coffee shops and clothes shops; the little gents barbershop closed down, the 'antique' shops increasingly selling not-really-antiques.

It seems to me a pity that the individuality of Kent's village shopping centres is being sold out - whether due to high rents or council business rates I don't know, but all the same, it's a real shame. What do you think?

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

53.4% to 46.6% - the jury, in Ireland at least, has returned on the Lisbon Treaty. Time will tell whether other EU leaders subscribe to Jose Manuel Barroso's view that "...the treaty is not dead". It may not be dead, but surely it's time to show some respect for the people and at least ask them if the actions of their leaders, allegedly on behalf of the people, is actually what the people want?

Both France and Germany have described the result as "a serious blow" - yet they still resolutely want the EU to forge ahead. It speaks volumes about the quality of our democratic systems that, devoid of a true current mandate, our leaders wish the EU to lumber on regardless. At best, this is surely an expensive "members' club" whose exclusivity, not to mention effectiveness, dwindles with every new tranche of applicants.

At the last count, the cost of EU membership to the UK was in the region of £16,000,000 each and every day. Cast aside for a moment the "what else could we do with the money" argument, (an endless wish list of schools, hospitals, elderly care homes, roads, pavements, police...) can the Commission really tell us they've done and are doing everything they can to root out corruption and ensure that costs are pared to the bone? I think we all know the answer to that one; not a week goes by without another story in the press about MEPs or bureaucrats enjoying first class gravy train tickets at our expense.

I recall some years ago an an "Innovation Forum" formed out of the 22 top performing local councils in the UK. Within just a couple of years this had expanded to around 150 authorities, from tiny district and borough councils to the largest county and unitary authorities. It did strike me at the time that the issues faced by this range of bodies - some strategic, some local, some with a budget in tens of millions, some with billions - might be difficult to manage or indeed reach a concensus.

There is a stark similarity in the EU. The purpose behind its formation, the reasons for its continuance, even the objectives of those states seeking to join its ranks, are a world away from the initial mandate. The people are increasingly tiring of an arrogant "we know best what's good for our citizens" view adopted by most of the other leaders.

Czech President Vaclav Claus - whose forthright views on technology I had the pleasure to hear at during a dinner in the Royal Palace on the hill in Prague a few years ago - at least has the courage to admit that "the Treaty is dead". Our own David Miliband however states "...the UK will continue to press on with its ratification".

France and Holland, when allowed to voice their opinion came out massively against, and rebranding the old Constitution into the new Lisbon treaty will make little difference.

What's the old saying? "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...". But what do you think?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The new three R's

I watched the excellent documentary 'Crime Invasion: Britain's New Underworld' on the Virgin1 channel tonight.

Investigative reporter Rageh Omaar travelled around Birmingham, pointing out the 'postcode gang' violence between the Burger Bar Boys from the B2 area of the city, and the Johnson Crew from the B6 area. Knives, and firearms have for years caused tit for tat killings, and led to the New Year's Day machine gun slayings of Charlene Ellis and Latisha Shakespeare back in 2003. Ironically, one of those convicted - Marcus Ellis - was a half brother of one of the murdered girls.

But perhaps most fascinating was a ten second interview with an elderly Asian man who was asked whether there was an effective police presence in the area.

"They are not afraid of God" he said. "How they can they be afraid of Police?"

Birmingham's young people - many armed with powerful and terrying deadly weapons - claim the reason for their behaviour is the new three R's - Revenge, Revenue and Respect.

David Davis - noble man or stuntman?

In a move apparently without precedent in British politics, today saw the resignation of Shadow Home Secretary David Davis. The 59 year old MP for Humberside constituency Haltemprice and Howden claimed this was "a noble endeavour" over the issue of the new 42 day terror detention limit. David Cameron claimed Mr Davis' decision was "a personal decision, a decision he has made" but praised it as "courageous". See David Davis' resignation speech on BBC News website here.

Whilst former Europe Minister Denis McShane MP claims "..this will be seen as a stunt" and that "the Conservatives are totally unfit for Government", LibDem leader Nick Clegg has already agreed that, following discussion with Mr Davis his party will not be fielding a LibDem candidate in the ensuing by election.

The issue, of course, is Gordon Brown's over zealous push to increase the maximum period for which terrorist suspects can be held from the previous 28 days to a new 42 days.

Whilst Mr Davis now stands down from the Shadow Cabinet, his position is now taken by Dominic Grieve MP, who becomes Shadow Home Secretary with immediate effect.

Whilst I don't have an issue with Mr Davis' move, I do feel that the perhaps the expenses incurred by holding the by election should be found from party funds rather than the public purse. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Effort Seemed Worthwhile

On April 5th I wrote a post which lamented the demise of the 277 Sunday bus service around the Sherwood Estate in Tunbridge Wells ("I Love It When A Plan Comes Together"). It seems the bus company had provided this much-needed service just as long as they were being compensated for its cost by developer contributions from the Great Lodge Retail Park in Tunbridge Wells.

Sadly, as soon as those contributions ran out - around five years - the service was pulled, leaving many elderly and disabled residents, not to mention young people and others without access to a car, stranded.

I met with transport planners at Kent County Council, and we hatched a plan whereby an existing Sunday service from another operator could be diverted from its existing route to allow it to cover the old Sherwood Sunday service. A licence would have to be applied for to allow route variation, and that should take around five weeks.

Last evening, a local resident handed me a paper which had been pushed through her door. It was a bus timetable for the new Sunday service, which is now up and running.

When another local resident made a point of shaking my hand and thanking me for bringing back the service, suddenly the effort seemed worthwhile.

Most days are like this!

Yesterday was one of those days - I dropped my youngest off at school at 8.30am, then drove over the the TN2 Community Centre in Sherwood to join in another "Ward Walk" ("A Priceless Insight", June 4th).

This lasted until 1.40pm, when I had to leave to get to King's Hill in West Malling. Here I had a two o'clock meeting with the Chairman and Chief Executive of the Kent and Medway Mental Health Partnership Trust. I'd allowed ninety minutes for this, but it overran slightly and I found myself rushing to get to my next meeting, 4.30pm at St Barnabas Church in Tunbridge Wells to discuss the new Community Centre. I was two minutes late for this, but they were just making coffee so it was fine.

This ran until 5.40pm and I dashed back to Sherwood for the meeting of the TN2 Community Trust. I had allowed fifty minutes for this, in order that I could get to Pembury for a meeting with colleagues about campaigns in Sherwood and St James.

By the time I got home it was just after eleven - fifteen hours since I'd left that morning. And this isn't unusual - most days are like this!

Monday, June 9, 2008

The final round might come sooner than we think

I've just watched tonight's excellent "Portillo on Thatcher - The Lady's Not For Spurning" on BBC Four. It was part of the 'Thatcher Years' season which seems to have been on since the weekend.

The story, which was narrated and presented by Portillo, picked up at the point of Margaret Thatcher's decline and eventual resignation, through the Hague, Duncan-Smith, Howard and eventually Cameron leaderships, interviewing a number (there must be a better collective noun than this - answers on a postcard please!) of current and previous Parliamentarians, some of whom served in office, whilst others spectated from the sidelines.

The most overwhelming facet of this programme for me was the progress of the Conservative Party nationally during its "wilderness years" as it lumbered from policy vacuum to regurgitated message (remember "Save The Pound"?) in a seemingly unstoppable journey towards oblivion.

It sprang from my TV screen; it shouted loud and clear that we should celebrate David Cameron and his persona; even when Portillo nudged him towards bear traps ("So you're saying you want to be as amazing as Margaret Thatcher?) he elegantly and deftly sidestepped them. For the first time in years we have a charismatic face of modern Conservatism, and as Conservatives - at all levels, at all times - we must keep our nerve and our counsel whilst all about Labour are losing theirs.

Mind you, as I write this BBC News 24 is telling me that the Conservatives have a twenty point lead over Labour, and Brown's credibility is lower even than Iain Duncan-Smith's. The final round might come sooner than we think.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Slow News Week?

I see from this week's Kent Messenger ( that Paul Francis, the KM's award-winning Political Editor has devoted a whole third of his "Off The Record" column this week to a story on my blog. Mr Francis picked up on a posting about Andy Abraham coming last in the Eurovision Song Contest, and what a nonsense the whole event had become, with countries voting for near neighbours and allies.

Sadly, this was no scoop - Mr Francis was the second journalist to comment on the same story. David Brindle from The Guardian had mentioned it in introducing me just the week before at a Social Care event at St Stephen's Club.

Flattering though the attention was, it must have been a very slow news week Paul!

The acid test, of course, was how such high profile gilt-edged coverage would upwardly affect the readership of my blogsite. With a growing sense of anticipation, I opened up my "Stats" file earlier today...

Absolutely no additional readership at all! Maybe I should take Paul's advice and comment on George Sampson and "Britain's Got Talent" next time?

A Fun Day for TN2!

Yesterday saw the small square outside the TN2 Centre on Greggswood Road decked out in bunting and flags, with stalls selling anything from bric a brac to Indian food. The TN2 Fun Day called for a huge amount of organisation from a small but dedicated band of volunteers, who started early yesterday morning setting up for the day ahead.

A barbecue served burgers, and sevreal of the TN2 Trustees were in fancy dress. A live band performed in the main TN2 Centre, while outside on the square a DJ kept the music going.

This was an event to be proud of - showing once again that there's a real community spirit in Sherwood, and that it was worth all the work over the years in making the TN2 Centre become a reality.

Making a difference on the Oak Road Estate

Last week saw the inaugural "Val Joy Community Awards" event at David Salomon's Centre in Tunbridge Wells ( Hosted by the Town and Country Foundation, the awards are named after local Sherwood resident Val Joy, who sadly died last year.

Categories were Community Group of the Year, Community Champion of the Year, Volunteer of the Year and Young Volunteer of the Year. On the night, the CORE group (Community of Oak Road Estate) scooped the major prize - Community Group of the Year. The photo above shows Zena and Dave from CORE with their award at yesterday's TN2 Fun Day.

As I said when I wrote to congratulate them, it was no surprise to me. Working out of the changing room block on the Colebrook Recreation Ground that I managed to get refurbished back in 2002, the tiny group of volunteers headed up by Dave and Zena have organised events, parties, activities for local kids and fundraisers - only last month they organised an event to raise money for little Karl Richardson

I've been happy to fund lighting and sound equipment, and more recently a bouncy castle from my KCC Member Grant for CORE, because they take their role very seriously - they're well organised, well attended and passionate about making a difference on the Oak Road Estate.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

St James' roads and pavements

During the recent Borough Council elections I received a spiteful little email from the LibDems to berate me for not attending the Highways Advisory Board. I take the view that we don't need a talking shop to get things done - councillors should get out in their patch and make things happen.

In both Pembury and Sherwood, I work really well with the Borough Councillors and we seem to get things done as a team, but since I've never been contacted by the St James' Lib Dems it's no surprise that roads and footpaths have become so bad. Two weeks ago I set up a meeting with Kent Highways and St James' parents.

I've been concerned about the state of the roads and footpaths in St James' for a while, and never understood why the area always seemed to lose out when it came to the normal repair and maintenance programme that seem to be a matter of course in other areas.

I agreed a plan of action with locals to address the various school routes, then took Kent Highways on an hour's 'walkabout'. They agreed with me that things have reached crisis point, and went away to work up a programme.

Yesterday I met with Keith Ferrin, KCC Cabinet Member for Highways, and showed him the photos I'd taken of potholes, broken footpaths, eroded yellow lines and zebra crossings and bad patching by the utility companies.

I only hope we can make a start in St James' before we see a major accident. Watch this space.

Monkee Business

Three fascinating, and totally disconnected, facts I heard today relating to the sixties pop group The Monkees:

Firstly, guitarist Mike Nesmith's mother was the inventor of Tipp-Ex (or SnoPake if you're American);

Secondly, that in the auditions run by the record label to find the four members of the group for the world's first "manufactured boy band", one of the final twelve successful auditions was no other than "Helter Skelter" psychotic multiple murderer Charles Manson;

And thirdly, that although Manson never made it into The Monkees, he did go on to compose with singer Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, one of the group's 'b' side songs.

Fascinating, huh?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A well deserved pat on the back

This morning saw the Kent Conservative Group from KCC coming together for a "Group Awayday" just outside Maidstone.

These days are immensely useful as, outside of normal County Council business, it's difficult to find time to meet as local elected Members and discuss political business. Today we talked about local issues, joint working with our District colleagues, and the 2009 County Council elections - only 52 weeks away today!

Other items were election strategies, target seats, and new technology-based methods of campaigning.

And we discussed our recent CPA result - the Audit Commission inspection for which, despite their much-vaunted "harder test" nature, Kent was this week awarded the highest rating: a 'four star excellent authority'. Only ourselves and Hampshire remain as the only County Councils nationally to have retained the four star excellent rating since the inspections began.

It was a lot of hard work for both staff and Members alike, and since the inspectors specifically mentioned our strong political leadership, we felt we should celebrate the fact.

Thanks to the generosity of our Leader, we enjoyed a glass of champagne and a well-deserved pat on the back.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Government that listens and learns

On the day that Kent was awarded the top four star rating as an 'Excellent' council by the Audit Commission, we were joined by David Cameron's Conservative Cabinet. The twenty four members arrived just before ten o'clock, and started their Cabinet meeting behind closed doors in the Darent Room at County Hall.

At 10.30am, I and nine of my colleagues - the KCC Cabinet - joined the Conservative front bench to discuss some of our innovation and excellence. Leader Paul Carter gave a short presentation on the demographics and challenges facing our county, then David Cameron and his colleagues quizzed us on the detail.

During coffee break, various Kent Cabinet members chatted to our Parliamentary counterparts about potential issues and solutions. I chatted with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action about the similarities between the community projects she was involved in around Edgbaston, and the community trust I had been involved in forming on the Sherwood Estate in Tunbridge Wells.
In all, an excellent exchange of information and views, and hopefully a real sign that when the Conservatives come to power, we might actually have a Government that listens and learns.

Voluntary Action in the 21st Century

When the Conservatives came to Kent yesterday, KCC Leader Paul Carter and I drove over to Gillingham to the Sunlight Centre to see the launch by Greg Clark MP and Conservative Leader David Cameron of a new Green Paper, "Voluntary Action in the 21st Century".
The consultation paper, which was produced in consultation with a range of social enterprises, voluntary groups and charities, seks to expand the role of charities; make it easier for people to volunteer, and to allow the voluntary sector to expand its capacity. By reducing bureaucracy and cutting down on the mountain of paperwork through which such organisations have to wade, freeing up the sector to grow will create the extra resources necessary to cope with the rising demand for care and support in the years to come.

Under a Conservative government, employees will be allowed - indeed encouraged - to engage in voluntary work. It will also look to maintain and grow voluntary sector funding through grants, rather than the restrictive and bureacratic service level agreements so favoured by Labour which tie organisations up in red tape and box ticking.

Judging by the reaction of a crowded hall at the excellent Sunlight Centre, the Conservatives are hitting the right notes. Let's hope they get into power sooner rather than later, because the clock is ticking and Labour funding is drying up week by week.

Time for the regulators to regulate

Interesting to see Geoff Loader from Southern Water on BBC South East Today news saying how it was wrong for his company to refuse to pay back large credit balances run up by his customers.

What is dreadful is that his organisation had massively overestimated the regular monthly payments which consumers were asked to make, and then refused to pay these back when asked for a refund.

It's not just the water companies - many other large businesses ask for regular payments against phone, broadband, gas and electricity, not to mention council tax in some areas and it's only when they get exposed in the media that contrition kicks in.

I see also that Monsignor Michael Smith from Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Tonbridge, now owed around fifteen hundred pounds in overpaid credit, is being subjected to legal action by Southern Water to recover unpaid regular payments.

Isn't it time the regulators started earning their corn?

A Priceless Insight

Although yesterday had been a long day, nevertheless I kept my appointment in Sherwood - and how pleased I was that I did. I met at the TN2 Community Centre with officers and Councillors from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, to undertake a "Ward Walk".

This great initiative, dreamed up by the Borough Council, involves officer/member pairing calling door to door, inviting residents to complete with us a detailed questionnaire on local services and amenities.
I was paired with Nazeya Hussein, Head of Community and Corporate Planning. She and I got on extremely well anyway, and I think we both really enjoyed meeting with and finding out about the residents whom we met. I learned far more from the Ward Walk interview than I ever could from the doorstep canvassing that politicians usually do.

Ward Walks are a fantastic idea, and although I'm sure the questionnaires will evolve over time to become more streamlined, they gave a priceless insight into what local people really think about their local services.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Nothing short of a national scandal

With around four hundred thousand elderly and frail people being looked after in residential care - a figure which by 2031 will almost double to three quarters of a million - the quality and standard of the care provided in our residential homes has never been more critical.

And so it's all the more worrying that a report by the Chief Constables of Cheshire and North Yorkshire to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith today highlights the crisis in UK which sees many of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers being allowed to work in care settings without even the most fundamental criminal records checks.

The problem arises because there is simply no system in place whereby UK authorities can cross-check criminal records in the worker's country of origin. Of almost a quarter of a million migrant workers employed in the British care sector, nearly half of these provide care in the home or residential facilities. The European Union has been trying to set up a reliable system of checks since 2005, when a Directive was agreed where every member state would nominate an oficer to coordinate the sharing of criminal records. Yet to date the Labour Government has only set up pilot schemes, and then only in five UK counties. The new Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will come into being next year will still only flag up whether an individual has offended since coming to this country.

At a time when many of our frail elderly find their eyesight or hearing decreasing by the day, it's difficult enough to understand or be understood by a foreign care worker. That they also can have little or no confidence whether that person has a criminal record is nothing short of a national scandal.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Heaven has gained another angel

I suppose it had to happen one day, but it's a shame when it does. Christmas 2006 saw my daughters' first pet arriving from Father Christmas, an eight week old Syrian hamster who they christened "Tucker". They put him in a three-storey "Pink Fun Palace" in their bedroom which they cleaned out - if he was lucky - every weekend.

An energetic little chap, he was loved and played with constantly - even when he was clearly getting old and tired. Over the last few weeks Tucker became slower and started to drag his back legs. Then last night he just lay there, his breathing shallow, and within a few moments he was gone.

The funeral was this morning, the casket a dark blue shoebox, and I left the girls alone to say a few words before I filled in the grave. They picked roses and blossoms from the garden and placed them on the casket. All in all, a dignified affair and a peaceful end for a much-loved pet.

As my eldest inscribed on the wooden headstone she made this morning - "Heaven Has Gained Another Angel".

Pepenbury - such great neighbours

Yesterday I went to Pembury for the Open Day at Pepenbury, an independent charity providing residential and day care for around seventy adults with learning disabilities.

Their site, just off the High Street consists of acre after acre of beautiful and scenic countryside, with a coffee shop, workshops for crafts and horticulture, and a series of bungalows providing assisted living for Peperbury residents.

The annual Open Day attracts huge numbers of visitors, and is an excellent opportunity for the local community to see for themselves the wonderful work which Pepenbury does. Yesterday, walking past the china smashing stall and coconut shy, I stood and listened to the steel band, before visiting the coffee shop for a cappucino, and walking around the pottery room, where among the items for sale I fell in love with a beautiful pottery fruit bowl which I just had to buy!

Pepenbury are becoming more and more a part of Pembury life as every month and year goes by, and the village is fortunate to have such great neighbours.