Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Consigned to a Bleak Future

Quentin Davies MP has defected from the Conservatives to Labour the day before the Clunking Fist takes power. The picture is a self portrait drawn for Carshalton and Wallington Conservatives as part of a fundraising exercise called Consign, which is ironic since he has just consigned himself to a footnote in parliamentary history.

My only memory of the Europhile MP is when he was Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and was speaking at the Conservative Party Conference on the last morning. This is somewhat of a graveyard slot as people are creeping into the hall to reserve their seat for the leader's speech, nursing the mother of all hangovers after four days of excessive "networking". Unfortunately a younger member of the party bent over and let out some 'Wallace and Gromit' in a row just behind the Shadow Cabinet as a wag added "If only more of our frontbenchers could elicit such raw emotion."

Since he has accused David Cameron of "superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions" it's maybe worthwhile looking at Quentin Davies' own reliable opinion:-

26 JUNE 2007
"a leader I have always greatly admired, who I believe is entirely straightforward, and who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country which I fully share."

16 MARCH 2005
"the Chancellor has been losing control... His projections... have been consistently wrong. He has been wrong about both revenues and expenditure... The Chancellor took risks... he is imprudent... a great worry... very worrying... he simply wanted to win the next election... if he can... it does not matter what happens afterwards... the Chancellor went in for an orgy of self-congratulation... deceiving other people... complacency... he is not prudent and responsible, and not a person to be entrusted with the management of anybody's finances, let alone the country's finances... unattractive and frankly problematic... an absolutely devastating misjudgement and mistake... the destruction of our pensions system... We have not had a word of apology from the Chancellor... He was just incredibly imprudent... extraordinarily incompetent... extraordinarily naïve... desperately complacent... As a result of that self-congratulation and complacency, the Chancellor is becoming so cut off that he is beginning to underestimate the intelligence of the electorate... I trust and believe that something nasty will happen to the Chancellor in electoral terms before too long. He will have no one but himself to blame.
Quentin Davies MP, HC Debs, 16 Mar 2005: Column 309-318

OK, it's a bitter article but really, an MP with more outside interests than you could shake a stick at, best known for being fined for cruelty to sheep, complaining at the end of his career from the luxury of a safe Conservative Parliamentary seat is somewhat disappointing not only for Conservatives like my group colleagues and I that are simply trying to make Sutton a better place but for the 22,109 constituents that voted for Conservative values and policies only to see their vote wasted as he spurns them for the 14,664 constituents that voted for his opponent.

The Democratic Deficiency

Yesterday, most of the 54 councillors schlepped over to the Civic Offices for a Council Meeting which lasted all of 15 minutes or so. Much of that was spent by me expressing my disappointment that the LibDems did not allow themselves to be questioned in the normal way at the meeting.

Four years ago, the Government insisted that the Council's accounts were ratified by the end of June. The Council at this time realised too late and so had to hold an Extraordinary Council Meeting to deal with this one item of business.

Now I have only been in office since 2006 and so this was only my second meeting to approve the accounts. Last year it was deemed a normal Full Council meeting and we asked questions as did members of the public as usual. This year I agreed (along with two colleagues) to a council meeting to consider only the one item of business. However this was interpreted as an Extraordinary Council Meeting which expressly excludes all other items including questions. I raised the point, which remains unanswered, as to how can the meeting be Extraordinary when it is held every year at a date that we agree some months in advance.

Our May Council Meeting was ceremonial as it is when we appoint the new Mayor and confirm committee positions. We are scheduled to have a meeting at the end of July and then do not meet until November. This ensures that the Executive are only questioned in this way once in seven months (and you thought the Prime Minister had it easy over the summer parliamentary recess). Of course, councillors can ask written questions as can members of the public. However, written and oral questioning serve different purposes, analysing the lead councillors' grasp of their brief in very different ways.

Even an old cynic like me doesn't believe that I have been gagged deliberately, but I do believe that the leadership could have been more flexible and there are surely better ways to spend the £700 or so of your money that it would have cost to stage the meeting.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Day of the Triffids Part 2

Inspired response regarding the totem poles:-

Conservative Group Leader missing on St helier Open Space

Friends fear he's been eaten by giant totem pole...!

The Triffids are Here (and you paid for them)

OK. It's worse than I thought. The totem pole nearest St Helier as shown in the picture (it's the one on the right!)appears to be a sculpture of a leaf on a stick looking rather incongruous next to a hospital desparately fighting for its existence through lack of funds. The other one is a couple of yards away from a large tree so is barely visible from the road.

Now remember this is your money. (No, it's landfill tax credits paid by a private company, I'm told.) Yes, but the key is in the title. They are not called tax credits for nothing. This is a way of the private sector spending taxes as directed by the Treasury without HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) having to go through the ungentlemanly process of collecting it first. Still confused? Bear with me for a little longer:-

Fictitious company, Landfill plc dumps enough rubbish in a hole in the ground to generate a landfill tax bill of £400,000. It can pay this directly to HMRC or it can spend it as directed by regulations, reclaiming land, reducing pollution, providing or improving public amenities or parks within 10 miles of a landfill site, delivering biodiversity conservation, restoring or repairing places of worship or architectural interest nearby or funding costs or administration of environmental bodies.

Landfill plc then reduces its tax bill by 90%, in this case leaving it a bill of £40,000. It can then look for an "independent Contributing Third Party" (another company or a charity for example) to reimburse it with the £40,000 that it has just paid in tax. Landfill plc assuages its conscience, the Government points to good environmental work being done and residents get new parkland. All good stuff, but remember that this is money that would have gone to the Treasury so it is your money.

Now, back to totem poles. As I have said before, I applaud the new facilities in Poulter Park, and the skateboard ramps opposite the hospital, although I hope that there may be some landscaping around this in time. But, we are told that the totem poles were a local decision made by residents. I have the original consultation and there is not a single mention of any form of public art. We have asked arond 3,500 residents within a square mile of the totem poles if they were asked if they wanted £23,000 spending on these. Unsurprisingly, not a single person amongst the many that replied said that they had. Every respondent said that they were a waste of money.
At least now we can see them, we can be a little surer that wigwams won't start appearing next to the totem poles. Not so much 'How!' more for goodness sake Why!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bringing Democracy to the High Street

It's not often that a Private Member's Bill makes it to the statute books as it will more often than not run of of Parliamentary time. However Nick Hurd MP (pictured right) has successfully steered the Sustainable Communities Bill through the process after securing Government support along the way. But why am I covering it in this blog?

I proposed a Council Motion earlier this year, calling on the Chief Executive to write to Ruth Kelly to express the support of the Council for the Bill. It gives each Local Authority far more say in how all public money is spent in their area. I've added a copy of my opening speech below as it details the mechanics of the policy showing how residents of Sutton can direct the Government to spend our money on the areas that we want. The original Motion was a cross-party one. Although the LibDems amended it with some self-congratulatory backslapping remarks, the essence of the Motion remained and the Council did give support to this powerful bill.

"We are back here talking about an issue on which we both agree.

The Sustainable Communities Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, has been introduced by a backbench Conservative MP, Nick Hurd but has attracted the support of all LibDem and Conservative MPs and many Labour MPs, giving it a real chance of being on the statute books by July.

We’re not the most unlikely bedfellows in this strike for localism. Anything that can bring the Campaign for Real Ale together with the Women’s Institute inside a big tent really should have wide ranging political support as well.

Despite the fact that the Government crow about devolution, we have one of the most centralised states in the developed world with 3000 new targets introduced every day since 1997. We want to reduce the reach of Whitehall and unelected Quangos.

Phil Woolas, the Minister for local Government had to sign the order in Westminster to ban camper vans from parking in laybys in Carrick. Needless to say he had to ask one of his Civil Servants to tell him where Carrick was.

Centralisation has the same affect here in Sutton. The library that we are in is governed by no less than:-
10 Public Library Standardsand 16 Public Library Impact Measures.

Our policing is subject to a National Police Plan which sets out:-
5 key priorities to be delivered through
13 Statutory Performance Indicators
all within a Policing Performance Assessment Framework assessing each local force in
7 key areas on
32 perfomance indicators comprising of
56 components. Still with me?...

Is it any wonder that people feel that politics is so far removed from their everyday life? Can any politician make a difference? Why should people bother to vote?

Councils should be the collective instrument of local people rather than the local outposts of Central Government.

The Bill seeks to tackle Ghost-town Britain, those areas epitomised by parts of Wallington town centre where shops lay empty for several years, leading to a lack of civic pride and a downward spiral where people abandon it for surrounding towns.
It also help to reduce Identikit High Streets allowing local people to have more say in their surroundings.

But how would the Bill achieve this?

It has been described as double devolution, devolving power down to the Local Authorities who in turn devolve it down to communities. You can liken it to the Dedicated Schools Grant but with power as well as cash.

The Bill would force central government to publish an annual statement of the amount of public money spent in each community
and to explain what proportion of that spending is already controlled by local people.
It would then give local representatives the power to work out their own plan for how to allocate all the public expenditure in their area – except that which relates to national priorities such as acute healthcare.

We would be required to get members of the public to participate in this. Not consulting by a few shabby notices stuck to a lamp post or a narrow letter drop in August, but by using every method available. Our website, newspapers, community Group meetings and even that esteemed organ, Sutton Scene.

Residents will then tell us what they believe to be the priorities and how they should be tackled. This might be about traffic congestion in a particular area, it could be about keeping an individual post office or pub open, (hence the interest from CAMRA), who knows, it could even result in requests for more totem poles.

The ideas from each Local Authority are pooled to form an action plan consisting of a raft of enablement powers so that the Councils can then take the steps necessary to see that these are carried out.

The Government expresses its concern about a postcode lottery for services but that’s simply missing the point. This isn’t a command-economy style NHS. This is true local democracy with decisions and actions taken at the very lowest level by people who are accountable to those who will be affected. If you give people power they will make different decisions. Isn’t that’s the point? Local people and local councils will have a greater say on how all government money is spent - not just the money that goes through local government.

It is by reclaiming the ability for local communities to develop their own priorities and their own innovations that we will produce a far higher general standard. We want central government to show more humility about what it can achieve, and local communities to be more ambitious.

By giving local representatives far greater power to determine local spending priorities through the Sustainable Communities Bill, we will radically improve local accountability of local services, and provide a spur to popular participation.

This is not a single Bill solution. It won’t succeed unless:-
- Power is devolved right down to neighbourhoods, community groups and voluntary groups.
- And we care passionately about keeping facilities open. It is incumbent on us to use these shops, pubs and organisations.

It’s a start. It’ll work for those people who want it to work. Peter Mandelson once said “It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is slowly coming to an end.”
Let’s prove him wrong - again.
Let’s show our support for direct democracy."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ming proposes Mugabe Land Grab

We are only a few weeks away from the first Prime Minister's Question Time when we will see Ming the Merciless battle against Flash Gordon. In the meantime, everyone's attentions are turned to Gordon Brown and the farewell tour of Tony Blair.

Ming Campbell has attempted to attract some attention by proposing a policy that is eye-catching for all the wrong reasons. He thinks that councils should refuse planning permission for farmers to develop their land, then buy the land at a discounted rate, give themselves planning permission and then sell it off at a profit.

The poster on the right says "Pathetic earthlings...Who can save you now?" What planet is Ming living on that he can think that this could ever be a serious proposition. Blackmailing farmers by saying that planning permission will only be given if they sell-up to the council and having that same permission granted by the very authority who are seeking to benefit is one step away from a Mugabe-style Land Grab. I'm sure that many LibDems will be hoping that he was having a senior moment and it will be forgotten as quickly as the actor who played Flash in the '80s remake.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Put the Blog into Room 101

I started blogging a couple of weeks after being elected to open up another way of communicating with residents. I spend a lot of time in front of the PC anyway as do a lot of people these days. I shop, bank, book flights and check maps and timetables online so finding out what my elected representative is doing via the web seems natural.

This is my 101st post since I started, hence my celebration with Paul Merton in the photo on the right. (Actually its Boris Johnson's body before I get comments on how well fed councillors are.) I have been getting about 200 readers each week which isn't too bad. It's hardly designed to compete with Newsnight. I know that many of my colleagues read this from both sides of the political divide (or should that be on all four sides, at least it is four at time of writing but changing fast.) Somewhere amongst the anoraks are a few residents reading this. This is for you. Keep leaving comments, keep the debates going. Let me know what you think.

Radio Ga-Ga Part 2

If listening wasn't enough to scare you off, here's the video. A little shaky and a belch from stage right but you get the idea.

One of the comments in the thread below bemoaned the fact that Robert Elms didn't ask us for requests and wondered what we would have picked. The fact that he played REM's "End of the World As We Know It" might have been prompted by the fact that it took him 2 hours to get to Sutton from Highgate in a taxi that morning. Suggestions please...

Taking Part, Taken to Another Level

I was looking forward to visiting Russell Smith's experimental house in Carshalton Grove which was open as part of "Take Part, Take Pride" week and was not disappointed.

Russell runs a consultancy called Parity Projects, advising clients how to reduce the environmental impact of their homes and buildings. In order to offer the very best advice he has put his money where his mouth is and bought an ordinary semi detached house in Carshalton, used different techniques to insulate each room and installed thermocouples to monitor temperatures and heat loss over a year.

His website seems to have lost the direct links to the regular newsletters that he produces, so I have added links here:-
July 2006, August 2006, September 2006, November 2006.

Many of the Take Part, Take Pride events were designed to cover a wide area affecting many people. This was superbly unique in being one person making a difference in one house. All of the techniques used were affordable, paid for themselves within four or five years and didn't take long to install. I used to refurbish flats and houses myself and so really admired the approach that Russell had taken and the commitment that he has made to investigate this important topic. I wish him well and would urge you all to visit the house if you get an opportunity.

What a Tower!

Sorry about the pun, but Eric and I had a joint family outing to some of the treats of Carshalton including the Water Tower on West Street. I've gone past it so many times over the eighteen years that I have lived around the corner but not ventured up.

For the bargain price of 75p, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the grounds in St Philomenas and the old Carshalton House which is now the school's main building. The fact that we were also afforded aerial views of the red splurge that is traffic calming in West Street shall be painted out of my memory in much the same way as the black asphalt has been, under the over-eager workmen painting the town red.

Radio Ga-Ga Part 1

If you have nothing better to do for 10 minutes or so. Have a listen to my radio interview with Robert Elms and Cllr Sean Brennan about Take Part, Take Pride and Sutton in general.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Beyond Carshalton to Sri Lanka

Another stall at the Carnival had the right mixture of fun and games, underpinned by a harrowing international message.

White Pigeon UK is a charity working to rehabilitate those disabled by landmines in Sri Lanka. The ongoing hostilities between the Sinhalese Government and the Tamils who seek an independant homeland in the north continues to take its toll on ordinary citizens including many children.

The game alongside the stall was to walk through shredded paper without bursting any of the balloons that lay underneath. This illustrated the dense undergrowth where landmines remain concealed, long after they were originally planted, waiting for an unsuspecting innocent.

Since there were only balloons, I was happy enough for my daughter to have a go! She won a prize and learned a valuable lesson.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Save the cost of a plane ticket to Florida and have your photo taken with Mickey Mouse here in Carshalton.

Pauline Bier was one of the people struggling with Dumbo on the float earlier in the day. Having hot-footed it across Carshalton and changed into costume, she gamely drew people to the stall raising funds for Carshalton Association for the Elderly (CAFE).

They are aiming to raise £37,000 for a new bus to transport people to and from Day Centres. Already they have reached £30,000. I'm sure that today's efforts will help but if any readers wish to rediscover their philanthropic urge, you can make a donation by contacting Pauline at the offices of Meals on Wheels at the Ecology Centre, Festival Walk, Carshalton, SM5 3NY. Go on, be generous. It'll only go on curry and beer otherwise.

Carnival Time

I can't say that there has ever been a crowd of people beating a path to my Council Surgery door and this morning was no exception. I was delighted to have the company of some wonderful people at the Ecology Centre, preparing their float for this year's Carshalton Carnival. I was told that Sutton's Meals on Wheels had won three of the last four years' competitions for 'Best Float'. This year's entry was a feat of engineering with Dumbo strapped onto the roof of a Meals on Wheels van.

I later found out that they had won second prize. I hope that they didn't lose because of the balloon that I had tied on a little too high. If I didn't know that they could always use more volunteers, I would have said that I should have left it to the professionals. Never mind, their thoughts would have already turned to next year.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Face for Radio

I'm due to be interviewed by Robert Elms tomorrow along with Council Leader, Sean Brennan in Sutton High Street.

BBC London (94.9FM) are broadcasting a few programmes in Sutton to help celebrate "Take Part, Take Pride" week during which several community based events are held. Examples include cleaning the River Wandle, litter picking or going to the Greyhound on Wednesday evening to discuss environmental issues over a pint. Definitely something for everyone then.

If you fancy coming along to the High Street and saying hello, then do, otherwise go to the Sutton Council website to see how you can get involved.

The Real New Olympic Logo

Yesterday's launch was just a psychadelic hoax. Courtesy of blogger, Beau Bo D'or, I can exclusively reveal the real revamp with some allowances made for typical government efficiency.