Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Margate Drop In Centre

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

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

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

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

Roger Gale - a dedicated and hardworking MP

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Back to the bad old days

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2008

Out of sight, out of mind?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2008

CORE Fun Day

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

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

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

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

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much?

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

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

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

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

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

Arriva 277 bus timetable and routing

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

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

Hope this helps.

Fox for Dinner

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

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

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

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

The animation of a tailor's dummy

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Margaret at the helm

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

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

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

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

Well done Tunbridge Wells Borough Council!

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

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

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

Working across party divides is so powerful

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

TeleCare, fire and the risk of injury

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2008

Water, water everywhere - but just not here

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the tabloid writer of the future!

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

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

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

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

Won't be making that mistake again!

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

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

Won't be making that mistake again!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Well done Gordon - another stroke of genius

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

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

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

Well done Gordon - another stroke of genius.

Ray Lewis and Boris Johnson - the implications continue

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

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

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

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

A long-overdue message

With the news of still more knife-related attacks and deaths over the last couple of days, an email I have received from a constituent seemed both chilling and relevant. Why, he asked, at a time of almost daily murders and assaults involving knives, when visiting a local boot fair was he presented with an alarming choice of hunting and sheath knives on sale to the public?

Of course, he had a point. I contacted Kent Trading Standards and spoke also to my Cabinet colleagues about this, suggesting that it would be setting a strong lead if KCC were to ban the sale of knives at boot fairs on any land or property owned by the County Council. My Cabinet colleagues agreed, but then we discussed the mater further.

Ban the sale of any knives? But where does this stop? Does this mean you couldn't buy a penknife? A set of steak knives? Would you contravene the law if you attempted to sell a canteen of cutlery?

Clearly the issue is a little more complex than could be solved by a simple dictat. But I won't let this drop. This week I'll speak again to our Trading Standards officers and come up with a way to prevent the casual sale of dangerous knives at boot fairs on KCC land. Who knows - maybe other councils - even other boot fair organisers - will follow suit and we can begin to send a long-overdue message.

Margate - a special place in my heart

Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Kent Cabinet trip down to Margate on Monday. As a result, I received a comment from Tony Flaig at Bignews Margate: "Maybe you should have stopped by at the offices of Bignews Margate, for a bit of enlightenment."

I was intrigued by this comment, so looked up Bignews Margate on Google. It's a blog site run by Tony Flaig, a track worker living in Thanet, and bills itself as "Thanet's Leading Politically Independent Blog". You can reach it on

Anyway, Mr Flaig ran a piece on KCC's Cabinet visit to Thanet last week, "Maidstone comes to Thanet" which very kindly cross-links to my Thanet story in the interests of balance. I felt it was the least I could do to reciprocate and give Mr Flaig's site an airing here.

For information, having grown up in Bermondsey, Margate (and Dreamland!) used to be the 'Big Day Out' with my brothers, parents and grandparents for years. In my teens, I often drove my little Mini from South East London down to Margate, and I still regularly visit. Indeed a couple of years ago I nearly moved to Margate - it holds a very special place in my heart.

As an ambassador, County Councillor Clive Hart is excellent - he regularly sends other KCC Members email updates on events and press comment on Thanet in general and Margate in particular, and sent Cabinet Members a message giving us details of where to visit if we had a spare half hour during our visit. If you've read my posting on Monday you'll know how little time we had to go walkabout. But I make this promise - I will bring my family down and follow Clive's suggestions. Who knows - perhaps Bignews Margate will mention that?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

TeleHealth and the County Show

I forgot to tell you - when I visited the County Show last weekend, I got chatting to the Social Services officers manning the TeleHealth stand. The TeleHealth programme, you may recall from earlier postings, allows Kent residents with limiting long-term conditions such as COPD, diabetes, high blood pressure etc, to receive equipment from Kent Adult Social Services which enables them to take readings such as blood sugar, blood pressure, blood oxygen, weight and so on. These readings are then sent by telephone to their GP and thus avoids the need for surgery visits or hospital appointments.

Our staff told me that two people had specifically visited the County Show this year for the purpose of finding the Kent TeleHealth stand. It seems that at last year's show, both people volunteered to have their readings taken on the stand.

Armed with these readings, one person apparently visited their doctor, who alerted by our TeleHealth data, identified a limiting long term condition which can now be treated in time. The other person shared the data with his GP, who as a result then reduced the medication which this patient has been taking.

Neither of these stories represents a sound clinical case study of course, but just imagine the difference in health outcomes if all Kent residents had access to TeleHealth equipment?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Some days you may as well stay in bed

Some days I just don't understand. Some days you do the very best you can, but still it seems you're out of step. A week ago, Greg Clark MP and I met with the Chief Executive and General Manager of Arriva to discuss bus services in Sherwood. One of the biggest problems for many elderly residents is that, a few years ago the bus route changed, no longer stopping outside the Medical Centre, the Community Centre or the Chemists.

And so it was that yesterday I rushed from a meeting in Tonbridge to be at St Philip's Church in Sherwood for a meeting with residents of St Philip's Court, a warden-assisted residential block in Sandhurst Road. Around twenty five elderly and frail people waited to hear what I had to say.

"I've spoken to the Kent Karrier service" I said "and they'll run a mini bus service which will pick you up from your front door, take you to the Medical Centre, TN2 Centre and Chemists, then wait around and bring you back again". I waited expectantly for the "well done". Nothing.

"That's no good to us" said one lady. "Useless!" said another. One by one, the grand plan I had so carefully put in place was torn to shreds by the very people it was meant to help. I explained it again, but slower - you pay just £5 a year subscription, then the minibus will pick you up from your front door, take you to the shops, coffee with friends, or - in this case - the Medical Centre, leave you for a while then pick you up again.

"That's weird" said a tiny lady next to me. "What a weird idea! It'll never happen". My mouth went dry, my palms began to sweat. "Can I take it then that you don't want me to set this up for you?"

"NO!" said two ladies quite forcefully, and standing up, put on their coats and left. It was the final straw. "Give him a chance" said one chap, but it was no good. My best laid plan lay in tatters. You know, some days it all seems to come together, some days you may as well stay in bed...

Dartford, Swanley and Gravesham - a brave new world

Yesterday morning, I met with officers from Kent Adult Social Services, and County Councillors Christine Angell (Lab - Dartford), Maureen Newell (Lab - Gravesham) and Mark Fittock (Lab - Swanley).

I wanted my colleagues to see for themselves the services we were putting in place to replace the Queen Elizabeth Resource Centre in Dartford. We're decommissioning the existing day centre service from October, and officers are busy making sure that services are replaced in the communities of Dartford, Swanley and Gravesham.

It was invaluable to walk round the various day centres, community buildings and leisure centre with Christine - being hearing impaired herself, she has an eagle eye for disability access. A tough critic, she pointed out narrow doorways, steep ramps, too-small disabled toilets, lack of hearing loops and a range of other issues - all of which we put on the list for attention.

Of course there's always a huge amount of apprehension when services move from one location to another, and a deep-seated suspicion from service users that somehow we're "only doing this to save money" - that their new facilities either won't exist or won't be as good.

But as we move into the brave new world of personalised and community-based services, I can honestly say the new services in Dartford, Gravesham and Swanley will provide more choice, better locations and closer to home for hundreds of people, young and old with disabilities.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Efficient, affordable local public services - a distant memory?

So the inevitable has finally happened, as council workers up and down the country come out on strike for higher pay. The offer on the table from Local Government Employers is 2.45%, with an element of 'bottom loading' - £100 extra a year - for those on lower pay scales.

Last year, I was asked to join the "Gang of Four" - the four local authority councillors who head up the national local government pay negotiation. On the union side were Peter Allenson from Transport and General, Heather Wakefield from Unison and Brian Strutton from GMB. Their initial seven-point claim was, of course, ludicrously high - our officer team told us that to meet their claim in full would have cost 12% on council tax.

I passionately wanted to establish new ground with the unions - to agree a realistic and affordable pay settlement as soon as possible, on the basis that we started to build trust and joint working towards making local government an employer of choice, rather than, in some councils, staff being paid less than they would working in the local supermarket. In the meantime, of course, the police were royally conned over their pay deal, and are rightly furious.

Unfortunately, I left the negotiations after just five months, but have often wondered whether, despite the industrial action, the employers' side made headway on those original discussions.

Because if Gordon Brown's position remains a testosterone-filled "2% and no more because I say so", then I fear town and county halls the length and breadth of this country will start to get what they pay for, and efficient, affordable local public services will become a distant memory.

Ensuring that Kent has its say

Went up to Local Government House in Smith Square, Westminster today, representing Kent County Council at the Executive meeting of the County Councils Network. I find these meetings really useful, as an opportunity for leaders of county councils up and down the country to meet and discuss issues of importance to upper tier authorities.

On today's agenda were briefings on local government finance settlements and legislative changes; updates on work we're undertaking on localism and Comprehensive Area Agreements; a debate on moving the date of the County elections next year to coincide with European elections; and news on the process towards creating Unitary authorities in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk.

We also enjoyed briefings and robust discussions with both Stuart Jackson, Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, and Charles Woodd from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the architect of the "Empowered Communities - Implementing the White Paper" document from DCLG.

It's a long day - I got home around 4.30 this afternoon - but return with more information from a day like this than I could glean in weeks. And managed to ensure that Kent had its say!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

KCC into the community

Yesterday was a really busy day - KCC's Cabinet visited Thanet. With all the excitement and chatter of a group of school children, we boarded an 8.30am minibus at County Hall clutching our coffees and bacon rolls, and headed off down the A2 towards Margate.

First stop Driot House Margate, and a briefing on the progress of KCC's Turner Centre development. Next stop Thanet Skills Studio to see the amazing new vocation training facilities for 14-16 year olds where young people learn, retail, motor mechanics, building and computing skills. Past the Eurokent Business Park to the superb new £22m Marlowe Academy, and a briefing by the head teacher, then on to Ellington School for Girls.

We travelled through Ramsgate Harbour en route to Kent International Airport at Manston, where Infratil Chief Executive Matt Clarke briefed us on expansion plans, then back to Margate for a visit and briefing on the Margate Gateway. By now it was 1.20pm and we'd had six briefings. We walked from the Gateway to the Margate Media Centre, where we had lunch with Thanet District Council's Cabinet and senior management ahead of our web cast KCC Cabinet Meeting at 2pm.

By the time we eventually arrived back at County Hall in the late afternoon, we were tired but felt nevertheless that this had been a really great way to take "KCC into the community"!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Olympic trivia

I heard a really interesting fact today about Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece.

Do you remember from school days the images of the stadium surrounded by statues of athletes? I had always assumed that these statues were the "track stars" from 776BC.

But no! I'm told the statues were carved to immortalise those who were found to have cheated in the games - to make their deceptions public forever to the eternal humiliation of them, their families and their friends.

I can think of several public figures who deserve this kind of treatment today.

The Best Staff in Local Government

I paid a visit to the Kent County Show at Detling both on Friday afternoon and this morning. There's something reassuring about the annual show, with prize-winning livestock sitting cheek-by-jowl with hot tub jacuzzis, traditional country crafts alongside the latest biofuel cars.

Kent County Council had its usual two long marquees, with every service represented, and a huge number of dedicated KCC staff on hand to advise and assist, always smiling, always enthusiastic. The difference for me this year was that almost every stand was interactive - from the Thanet Skills Studio demonstrating the workings of car engines and braking systems, through downhill slalom on a Nintendo Wii and the Kent Youth rock climbing wall, to the "interactive floor" which had children of all ages stamping on cars, leaves and clouds (you had to be there to get it!) and the chance to read the news by autocue with the Gravesham Youth Project's portable TV studio. Everything was hands on, everything was fun - and not at all how you'd expect a County Council to be!

I was very proud - and not at all surprised - that once again Kent County Council won First Prize as the best 'stand'. It wasn't just the graphics, the giveaways, or the equipment - none of it would have been possible without the best staff in local government.

Where does that leave their quality of life?

I was pleased to see that Local Government FIRST, a weekly magazine distributed to every elected councillor in the UK, has published an article I wrote for them a week or so ago. The 'opinion piece' - "Tomorrow's Service Users" - looks at the lack of organisation among three in four local authorities in planning for their workforce.

As a result, many of the 'baby boomer' staff in local councils will be eligible for retirement over the next few years, whilst the fall in birth rates over recent years leaves a lack of young applicants for jobs.

I won't repeat the piece in full, but to read it click on this link. Suffice it to say, unless we take positive action to compete with other sectors who all need to bolster their workforce, we simply won't have enough staff to deliver our public services in a generation.

We may even find ourselves incentivising our older workers to take advantage of recent age discrimination legislation and stay at work long after they could retire. But where does that leave their quality of life?

A Very Special Community.

On Saturday I visited the Pembury Fun Day organised by Pembury Baptist Church on the Recreation Ground. It was great to see such a well-organised event, with so many stalls representing local organisations. I was pleased to have been able to help out by giving funding to the event from my KCC Member Grant.

Hundreds of people turned up to hear and see local talent, to eat wonderful barbecue food, and just to be together. A range of inflatables included slides and bungee challenge, as well as inflatable sumo wrestling.

But most of all, it was great to catch up with Pembury friends and acquaintances old and new, and just to see the village coming together to enjoy a sunny Saturday afternoon. Pembury really is a very special community.

The Barna-Bus Pre school nursery - a runaway success

After two days in Westminster this week, on Friday I paid another visit to St Barnabas Church in St James, for the launch of the Barna-Bus Pre-School Nursery.

The event was really well attended, with representatives from Church, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and the Kent County Council Early Years Unit, Teresa Anderson, Head Teacher at St Barnabas Primary School along with parents and of course - stars of the show - the children themselves.

Father Ed Tomlinson, the real brains behind the vision talked about how the project had come to fruition. Having only just opened on May 6th some twenty six families were now atttending and by September this was expected to rise to around thirty two.

I was honoured to have been asked, along with Pippa Anderson, Head of the pre-school and of course the children themselves to plant a young apple tree to commemorate the launch. With such a runaway success already, I look forward to seeing the next phase of the project, the new Community Centre, become a reality before too long.

Over to you, Jacqui Smith...

The death toll from knife-related attacks rose again this week, with a thirty year old male fatally stabbed in Bolton; another in West Bromwich; a third at the "T in the Park" music festival in Scotland, and four more fatal stabbings in London on Thursday.

And the reaction from Government? Home Secretary Jacqui Smith intends to arrange for young people caught carrying knives to make visits to hospital emergency rooms to see victims of knife attacks, to talk to their families and to go into prison to talk to knife offenders.

So just how will that work then? If - God forbid - I'd fallen prey to a knife attack, it's hardly going to improve my chances of recovery to wake in hospital and find I was being asked to meet with a group of knife-carrying youngsters. And while I languished in intensive care, would my family want to discuss the experience with potential new attackers?

Of course not. It's yet another knee-jerk Government response which can't possibly work. Why not open up the dialogue with young people before they start carrying knives? Why not start resourcing our police force properly. Why not task them with making our inner city communities safer so that our young people feel valued and appreciated and don't need to carry knives in the first place?

And - stop press - I've just had an email from a constituent who's asking me how come at the car boot sale he went to today, there was such a large collection of sheath knives available, and why there wasn't a ban?

Over to you, Jacqui Smith...

Let nobody say I can't take criticism

Let nobody say I can't take criticism. I posted a blog story on Thursday night (Abbott Looks To Get Cheeky) about Diane Abbott MP trying to score intellectual points off the Cheeky Girls on BBC's "This Week", and received the following response:

"I follow your blog with interest and from it am aware you promote equalities at KCC. Whilst I appreciate the point you are making about Ms Abbott scoring intellectual points I'm really disappointed you found it necessary to comment on their physical appearance, and refer to them as 'girls'. It was not necessary and undermines your valid point about Ms Abbot's behaviour. It's this kind of language that perpetuates stereotypical attitudes about women."

On Friday, I spoke to several female colleagues, and most of them agreed with the comments above. The general feeling was that if referring to a female under say, sixteen, she's a girl, but above that she's a woman.

So I'm sorry, and I apologise. But although I may have used inappropriate terminology, I still feel that the way the Cheeky Girls looked, combined with their youth, was perhaps the main reason for Ms Abbott's attack. After all, she hadn't reacted in the same way to Julian Fellowes earlier in the programme, nor to Nigel Kennedy a week or two before.

But thanks to whoever posted the anonymous comment, and triggered my sharp learning curve.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Abbott looks to get cheeky

During last night's episode of "This Week" - with Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott, the Cheeky Girls were brought on as guests.

Andrew Neil asked Ms Abbott a question on the economy, at which point she deflected the question by asking "I'd rather know what the Cheeky Girls think about the economy?"

What a cheap shot from a clearly embittered lady. Later on she asked the Cheeky Girls "what do you think are the differences between Gordon Brown and President Ceaucescu?"

What is wrong with her? Was this a feeble attempt to appear intellectually superior to a couple of slim, attractive young women?

Thank goodness the girls didn't respond by asking Ms Abbott to stand up and sing a pop song. After the realignment of Freeview frequencies this week blew up thousand of top boxes, Ms Abbott performing might just have blown up the TVs as well...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When is a Mum not a Mum?

When is a mum not a mum? Apparently, when she lives in Merthyr Tydfil and wants to accompany her chronically epileptic son in a taxi to school. Because there she's defined as merely a "travel companion".

Because Jayne Jones can no longer travel with her 14 year old son Alex until her local council has submitted her to a Criminal Records Bureau check.

Apparently such checks are a "standard requirement" for Merthyr Tydfil Council.

Just how stupid are these people? So Mrs Jones can give birth to Alex, feed Alex, give the 24 hour care which Alex needs, and even administer the thirty two anti-convulsant drugs which Alex needs every day, but cannot be trusted to travel to school in a taxi with Alex.

For goodness' sake when is our society going to wake up? This is bureaucracy gone mad, and the sooner these pen-pushing idiots get replaced by people with common sense, the better.

Delayed Transfers of Care in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells

Later this afternoon, I travelled to Portcullis House at Westminster, for a meeting with Greg Clark and Sir John Stanley, Members of Parliament for Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling respectively.

The meeting had been called to discuss the issue of Delayed Transfers of Care (bed blocking, or DToCs as they're often referred to) from hospitals in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.

Although punctuated by the division bell calling all Members to the Lobby to vote, it was a productive meeting, and I was able to explain some of the successes of our joint working with both the Primary Care and the Acute Trusts, and some of the outstanding issues which need to be addressed.

Above all, it was great to see our local MPs taking such a keen interest in this issue, which is one of the most critical aspects of the Government's "Our Health, Our Care, Our Say" White Paper last year. If we can't get the joint working right, none of the aspirations can possibly be delivered.

A long and productive working relationship

A really useful meeting this morning. I travelled up to London for a meeting at the Mencap head office in the Barbican with Dame Jo Williams, the Chief Executive, and Heather Honour the Campaign and Policy Manager, and Director of the Learning Disability Coalition.

Dame Jo and I had been keynote speakers a few weeks ago at an event at the St Stephen's Club on the future of learning disability services, and found that we had very similar views. We agreed to meet up to discuss points of common interest.

Our time together was really productive, and I agreed to share two Select Committee reports commissioned by Kent Adult Social Services - one on Transition and the other on Learning Disabilities. I also agreed that our policy officers would work together with Mencap to work up proposals to Government as to how Social Services, Health and partners such as Mencap could better work together to provide more appropriate services in line with the personalisation agenda which we all agree should be the way forward.

I sense that today was the start of a long and productive working relationship. For the sake of thousands of learning disabled service users, let's hope so.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The day from Hell ... and a curious case of double standards

I was invited to a Ministerial Launch of the Whole Systems Demonstrator Action Network by Care Services Minister Ivan Lewis today. Kent was recently selected by the Department of Health, along with Newham and Cornwall, as one of three national pilots for TeleHealth equipment. TeleHealth allows people with limiting long-term conditions such as COPD, high blood pressure or diabetes to remain independent in their own homes by monitoring their vital signs themselves and sending them to their GP by telephone.

The event started at 2.30pm at the King's Fund at Cavendish Square in central London. I had ordered a County car for 1pm, which at 1.20pm had still not arrived. By 1.35, my PA had ordered a taxi, which turned up at 1.40pm.

My friendly but inexperienced Eastern European driver followed his SatNav to the letter, on a scenic and circuitous route throught the Blackwall Tunnel, through the City - High Holborn was a particularly notable traffic jam - and eventually, in torrential rain and at twenty past three, into Cavendish Square.

The one saving grace was that, although I was nearly an hour late, I was not the last to arrive. That priviledge was reserved for the Minister, Ivan Lewis who arrived at half past three. He spoke for around fifteen minutes and then apologised for having to leave for a Commons vote.
My County driver had been told to pick me up at 2.30pm - the start time of the event rather than the end time! - and so he had to wait around for two hours until we finished at 4.30pm. The drive home was equally fraught, the driver claiming we had broken all records for the longest return from London, at around three hours.

I did feel that the formula was a little skewed - around sixty people travelled for what would have totalled hundreds of hours to Central London, to meet a single Minister who travelled five minutes down the road. Whilst I appreciate it would have been impractical for Ivan Lewis to drive miles out of town, for the sake of his fifteen minute address could we not have used an M25 venue and a video conferencing link?

From a Government who espouse green values and seem to want to heavily penalise road travel, it seems a curious case of double standards.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Vocation? For some, but clearly not for all.

On a visit to a respite care unit this afternoon, I was introduced to a chap who was clearly much younger than the others. He'd been there for seven weeks, he thought, and began to tell me his story. He'd been a scaffolder, until two years ago when his career had been ended by a stroke which left him paralysed on his left side. He was duly admitted to the Stroke Rehabilitation Unit at Sevenoaks Hospital.

One night, he'd wanted to use the toilet and pressed the emergency call button. The nurse took a while to come, by which time he's messed the bed. This happened twice, at which point one of his nurses "turned against him", and among other hateful taunts, had told him "of course, you'll never walk again."

Well, two years later, and he's been coming to our KCC unit regularly to give his wife and son a break. Whilst there, he's been working with the physiotherapist, and - at last - he can now walk along parallel bars, and last night, walked from the dining room round to his room aided by a four footed walking stick.

I was struck by the courage, spirit and sheer pluck. He admitted he could be "a bit grumpy", and that it took a while to get over the humiliation of being changed and bathed by staff, but full of praise and admiration for the care staff.

And - clearly a far better man than I - bore no malice against the nurse who got into his head and gave him so little hope.

Vocation? For some, but clearly not for all.

Even young carers deserve childhood memories

This morning, along with around a hundred other attendees, I went to the Ramada Maidstone, where Oliver Mills and Graham Badman, Directors respectively for Adult Social Services and Education - celebrated the launch of KCC's Young Carers' Strategy, "Invisible People". In the photo above (from the left), Chris Wells Education Cabinet Member stands with Oliver Mills, Managing Director of Kent Adult Social Services, raham Badman, Managing Director of Children, Families and Education, and myself.

Graham Badman spoke about the close work with voluntary sector partners, and thanked the young people themselves for making sure that "Invisible People" captured the poignancy of being a young carer, and the challenges faced by the public sector in developing their potential. He stressed the importance of them having lives of their own, and being able to achieve what they want for themselves.

He talked of the survey KCC has undertaken in its schools; of the importance of them identifying who their young carers were and what their support needs were. He especially suggested that schools could do more to behave in a 'non-conformist' manner to support the issues young carers regularly face.

But the biggest impact of the event was from a group of young carers, wearing "Face Behind The Label" t shirts. Holding up an 'invisible people' banner, they introduced themselves, then asked society to develop more creative solutions. They stressed the need to build up trust to find the hidden carers; since many families were afraid to admit their children care for Mum or Dad, in case the child is taken into care. Of most impact to me was the number of young carers who - to escape the reality that is their lives - are substance abusing.

Explaining that the credit crunch was affecting vulnerable families, Graham Badman spoke about the need for quality food. Most memorable of all, he suggested that children to deserve their childhood memories. It is incumbent on us all to do what we can to make sure they get the childhood they deserve.

TN2 Community Trust - one year on and getting better every day

I went along to the Annual General Meeting of the TN2 Trust this evening. TN2, you may remember, is the community trust we set up to run the new community centre on Greggs Wood Road. It doesn't seem like a year since we opened the doors of the new building and let local residents take over.

Sadly, the outgoing Chairman, Zoe Jangaard couldn't be there as she's off with a bug at the moment, but Vice Chairman John Beadle read a report in her place. It talked about the extra numbers of people using the centre, the additional groups with which TN2 are working - the FRED Club and Four Walls, both working with disability groups. The new Toddler and Co group for mums, dads and child minders. The football teams who play in the sports hall on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Tea Time Club and the Leisure Group.

Above all, this was a story of local people. People who worked hard and learned new skills. And above all, people who persevere, day after day, to give their community better than it used to have. I congratulate the incoming Chairman, Lynne Weatherley - she's immensely talented and has a tough job ahead as the TN2 Centre takes the next leap towards self-sufficiency.

And - although not mentioned this evening - thanks should go also to Nazeya Hussein and Estelle Grant from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council who have worked really hard to support the residents in this brave new venture.

TN2 Community Trust - one year on and getting better every day.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Don't you just love a happy ending?

We've done it! At tonight's meeting of the Tunbridge Wells Joint Transportation Board, borough and county councillors agreed that Sandhurst Road in Sherwood should have a pedestrian crossing as soon as possible.

Residents present at the meeting - including campaigner Lynne Martindale, herself partially sighted and finding crossing Sandhurst Road particularly difficult - heard officers present a paper suggesting that several road improvements should be made to prevent speeding traffic and to improve road safety for local residents.

As the local County Councillor, I spoke about the residents of St Philip's Court who were marooned between Sandhurst Road and Liptraps Lane; of the pupils at Sherwood Park Primary School, one of whom had already been knocked down while trying to cross the road; and of so many local residents, including Lynne, who took their lives in their hands simply trying to get from one side of the road to the other.

Local development, in the form of the Barnardos development along Sandhurst Road, has provided much-needed funding by way of Section 106 funding. The sum, £25,000, will pay for a much-needed first pedestrian crossing, whilst studies are already being made into further improvements along this 'rat run' between Pembury Road and the industrial estate.

After the vote, local Borough Councillor Frank Williams and I met with several local residents outside the meeting, and the happines on their faces said it all. Very soon, residents young and old will be able to cross this busy road without worry.

Residents working alongside elected councillors and eventually winning. Don't you just love a happy ending?

A partnership win for Sherwood

This morning, I joined Greg Clark MP, local Borough Councillor Ted Jolley and several Sherwood residents at the TN2 Community Centre, to meet with Chief Executive of Arriva South East Heath Williams and General Manager Brian O'Kane.

The purpose of the meeting was to air and resolve some of the long-standing issues over bus services in and around the Sherwood area. Sunday buses, routing patterns, timetabling, accessibility - all were discussed this morning.

Residents' concerns were that bus services no longer ran to Knights Park; that available bus stops for some elderly residents were simply too far from where they lived; and that since local services were re-routed some years ago, there was no bus access to the Medical Centre, the chemist, the TN2 Centre or the local shops - all on Greggs Wood Road. Some residents are having to pay £8 for a taxi to drive them the short distance to their doctor's appointment - clearly a nonsense when buses run just yards away.

The meeting was positive and productive, and Arriva were certainly in listening mode. For KCC's part, I undertook to look into several issues which made Arriva's job a little more difficult. In the spirit of the recently-signed Quality Bus Partnership between Arriva, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and Kent County Council, I agreed to try to resolve these issues for the benefit of all.

The good news was the announcement by Arriva that they have ordered three brand new buses for the 277 route, each with dropped access suitable for elderly and disabled passengers. Each bus costs £90,000, and this investment of £270,000 is made that much easier by the fact that Greggs Wood Road will soon be resurfaced and therefore safer for the new buses to travel down.

It was a really useful meeting, and I'm grateful to Greg Clark for organising it. If we all play our part, once again we can deliver a partnership win for Sherwood.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

It's a great day for tennis

What an unbelievable men's final at Wimbledon! The suspense was awful, with the British weather giving stop/start all afternoon.

Nearly five hours - the longest men's singles final in history - seventeen minutes past nine by the time Federer's return ball clipped the net.

And at 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, (3-7), 6-7, (8-10), and 9-7 this was way past tie break, even if they were allowed. As one of the BBC comentators put it - "this is just different tennis to anything we've ever seen before."

And what a great guy Nadal is. Of his opponent he said to Sue Barker "He's still the best - he's still number one - he's still five times champion."

As someone commented - it's a great day for tennis.

Surrounded on all sides by beautiful gems

I got up yesterday at 6am - unusual for a Saturday - and jumped in the car with my eldest daughter - even more unusual that she was up at 6am too! We had to be in Milton Keynes for 9.00 to pick up some printing equipment that I'd bought last week on eBay.

We arrived at 9.30, having stopped for breakfast en route, and loaded the car. On our return, the traffic on the A21 was stacked, so we diverted via Five Oak Green.

Driving through Tudeley we passed the entrance to All Saints' Church and I mentioned to my daughter the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall for which the church is famous. She asked to see them, so we turned around and stopped off.

How lucky are we in Kent? We're surrounded on all sides by beautiful gems such as this - and how often do we just pass by and take them for granted?

Will Cameron still return when he's Prime Minister?

The audience of around 1200 predominantly local authority councillors at the LGA Conference is a tough enough one for local government speakers. For those from our national political parties, it's a minefield; over the years we've heard parliamentarians who clearly don't have the slightest idea about what local government actually does - we've heard the "we know best", the "just collect the bins and leave the rest to us" approach that often leaves more animosity than if they hadn't turned up in the first place.

This year, we heard an eclectic mix - from John Healey and Hazel Blears, to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. One of my Labour colleagues expressed surprise that neither Healey nor Blears used the opportunity to good effect - another "we know best" performance left the audience confused. Equally, Nick "Super Stud" Clegg was eminently forgettable, studiously reading his speech, an old-fashioned "we're the only real alternative" party political broadcast. Yet Cameron gave an inspiring performance, eschewing the rostrum for another lapel-miked, off-the-cuff analysis of the disconnect between a Labour government who are out of ideas and out of money. He talked about his social regeneration policy which needed all to work together - with devolution from a Conservative government to local authorities, and secondary devolution from local councils to the communities they serve.

He answered questions too - and not just the usual "specially selected, friendly fire" questions either. Tough questions from Conservative and Labour councillors about local government finance, about localsim and about whether Cameron's 'double devolution' promise was real. A rather sad and pointlessly barbed LibDem press statement, read out for no reason other than for a few cheap quotes in the local press was met with charm and humour, bringing laughter and applause from the audience.

Finally, David Cameron made an appeal to councillors of all parties to work with the new Conservative government to close the gap in our societies, and to finally mend our broken society. And the acid test? Will Cameron still return when he's Prime Minister...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A priviledge to be in local government

Following my two days of crisis innoculation training this week, I hot-footed it down to Bournemouth, where the LGA (Local Government Association) Annual Conference. This is a great opportunity to meet with colleagues old and new; to discover best practuce in other parts of the country that can be used back at home; and to share our own initiatives for the benefit of councils up and down the country.

It was in this last respect that I dashed down, checked into my hotel and rushed off to the Royal Exeter Hotel to give a presentation on the Kent TeleHealth Programme. KCC Leader Paul Carter gave a presentation on our Supporting Independence Programme, whilst other officer and member colleagues presented on Kent TV and the revolution in parent choice for those with learning disabled children.

The audience included Sir Simon Milton, Chairman of the LGA, senior policy staff from the IDeA and several other county councils as well as many district councillors from Kent.

As the presentations unfolded, I realised how lucky I am to work at Kent County Council - where innovation is a stock in trade, and where process and regulation takes second place against outcomes for the people we serve. Of course, as a large authority we have a little extra scope to try out new things, but all the same, it's a priviledge to be in local government at an authority such as ours.

Prepared for the unthinkable

I spent a fascinating couple of days this week. I enrolled last year on the new Kent Leadership Programme, which brings together senior managers and members from Kent County Council, Health, Police and the voluntary sector to teach us the skills required for tomorrow's leadership challenges.

Module three was this week, and set out to teach us resilience in crisis management, across both local and international boundaries. To do this, we attended the Kent Police Training College to spend time in the 'Hydra Suite'. This is a facility where, split into small groups, we were shut into small 'syndicate rooms' - where all information and intelligence is filtered through a central control room.

Various "crisis simulations" were sprung on us, where available information was limited, where both public and the media needed our instant reponses, and where urgent briefings were needed from us within impossibly short timescales. The whole exercise was designed to heap pressure on us, changing goalposts and bombarding us with intelligence, some valuable and some worthless. Our rooms are wired for sound and vision, and our reactions, discussions and team dynamics were all monitored and reviewed after the exercise.

The whole two days were pressured, fraught and scary. Such crises can occur at any time - remember foot and mouth across the county? Or the flooding which threatened our coastal sea defences? Or even the hopelessly improbable Folkestone earthquake?

For those of us who work to deliver services day in, day out to hundreds of thousands of people across Kent, this training is invaluable and critical. After this course I feel a lot more confident and prepared for the unthinkable.