Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Communications Contract

We called in to debate at Full Council, the decision to increase spending on communications by another 50% hidden away in the small print of the new contract for Westminster Council to provide our service. Because this is now a shared service between two local authorities, normal rules for tendering do not apply.

Westminster are acknowledged as the best at what they do. We know that it is vital for any Council to inform residents and to hear back from them. However, this does not mean that contracts can be given out, unchecked by politicians. This was due to be agreed by a mechanism called a Delegated Decision Notice (DDN) which is usually reserved for smaller decisions that have to be made in a hurry. THe DDN is circulated to councillors and if no-one calls it in, an officer can give the go-ahead.

£600,000 per year is not an amount that we believe should be just waved through. Cllr Brett Young, the lead councillor for communication showed disdain and irritation for having to come before the Council to explain what he has been doing over the last year, explaining that he was puzzled why we would possibly want to discuss this.

Parents who are going to be affected by the restrictions on school transport for SEN children had left by this point, so they did not see how eager the lead councillor was to crow about where this extra money was going. He is also the lead councillor for Children, Young People and Learning Services who pushed through the cuts for children with learning difficulties earlier in the evening.

It never ceases to amaze me how this administration is visibly running out of steam. Once the public gallery empties, they resort to cheap points scoring without addressing the specific points that are up for discussion. I can handle a bit of political argy-bargy but find it extraordinary that they appear hurt and personally wounded when their policies are criticised, but think nothing of finding novel ways of blaming Maggie Thatcher, Boris Johnson for their woes and wondering why the opposition are not implementing any of their own policies, forgetting that we are not in power. Oh well, politically it suits me if they carry on in this vacuous way. As a resident who gets the bill once a year, I'm not so chuffed.

Update: Background music removed from video by popular request.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Voice for Business

As I catch up with some posting after the festivities, I've completed the first video reporting back from the last full Council meeting of the year. Cllr Tim Crowley proposed a motion that would make the formal changes necessary to allow business owners the right to ask questions at full council meetings and attend Local Committee meetings as special advisers. These are available to residents but not to people who may have a business in the area, maybe employ Sutton residents, certainly pay business rates, but don't necessarily live in the borough themselves. I had thought we had learned our lesson about taxation without representation some years ago when all of that tea went to waste.

The Lib Dems did not seem to understand the premise of the motion, instead taking it as a lead to have a debate about every aspect of business and the economy except the one matter that we raised. This was until close to the end of an interminable 56 minute session when the Lead Councillor for Resources accused us of being bureaucratic for wanting to amend the Constitution.

It was only last summer that the same councillor attempted to ride roughshod over the Council rules when defending his colleague over the Garden Waste fiasco. Now only six months later, he failed to understand that it was the Council's Constitution that was denying business owners a voice and that there was a convoluted process in place to avoid any individuals doing what they liked without any checks or balances. He also expressed concern that councillors should consider the risks and impact of any policies that they might introduce. Since he is the lead councillor responsible for the increases in Council Tax for the last three years, I can understand why he might be blissfully unaware of the need for such consideration, but I would have hoped that there would be one member of the majority party that might pull him back from the brink after a year where the Council has impacted quite spectacularly on residents.

The Council meeting overall was quite extraordinary. It was apparent to those in attendance that the administration has run out of steam. They opposed for opposition's sake. The fact that it is the Conservatives in Opposition seemed to pass them by; they still blamed Boris, Thatcher and David Cameron for things that weren't even up for discussion.

The end result of this motion was a watered-down amendment. We agreed with this because we genuinely wanted something to be done. I'm not convinced that we will see anything before the election as it was written off through the explanation that they needed to speak to businesses first. I've ranted on more than most about communication, but this is a consultation to tread water if ever I've seen one. There is no need to speak to anyone else. If businesses aren't interested in asking questions, they don't need to. They can just carry on as they are.

However, as it stands, if they do, they need to petition the Economic Development Taskforce to ask the Community Leadership Advisory Group (CLAG)to consider the matter and commission a report from the legal department which can then be considered by CLAG, recommended to the Executive and then ratified at a full Council meeting where constitutional changes tend to get pushed through once a year. The shortest time period this could happen is within the next three months. As someone who was self-employed for sixteen years, three months for a decision is no decision at all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Plenty of stories that I haven't got around to posting due to my last few days of work at Westminster, last minute Christmas shopping, tidying up before and during the family arriving and the inevitable bout of man-flu which will go down in dispatches as something akin to SARS whereas in reality it was tamed by overdosing on Lemsip.

I'll catch up in between the festivities, but in the meantime, have a fantastic Christmas

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ruskin Road Development Rejected

Councillors on Development Control Committee rejected the application to redevelop the site on the corner of Ruskin Road and Park Lane. Reasons cited were overdevelopment, impact on the highway and substandard amenity. More when I get it.

Murder at Charles Cryer Theatre

Tragic news comes to me of a fatal stabbing behind the Charles Cryer Theatre in Carshalton High Street. A car has also crashed near the Grange by Beddington Park. Police are investigating whether there was any link.

You can read a little more at the Sutton Guardian website, though the story will undoubtedly develop over time.

I'll tell you what I told them: it is always shocking to hear of crimes like this, but it is especially disturbing when it happens in your local area.

My thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim, and I wish the police speedy success in their investigation."

A 2-Ply Cheque

Since Sterling isn't valuable enough to warrant 2-ply paper anymore, a man in Suffolk paid his parking ticket in the form of a cheque written on toilet paper rather than the soft, strong and very, very long US currency in the picture. He claimed that he used stationery that reflected his feelings towards the system that he was unfortunately forced to support through his taxes.

He was issued with a summons and had to spend the day in court as a punishment because it would have cost an additional £15 for the bank to process the payment.

Radio 5 reported an older story with some parallells where a man was sent a photo of his illegally parked car with a penalty notice. The man sent a photo of a signed cheque in payment. The Police sent him a photo of some handcuffs.

Gordon Brown - Super Hero?

The last week has seen a lack of a basic knowledge of your basic range of superheroes when talking about Gordon Brown.

First, in a slip of the tongue, he returned to his movie roots of Flash Gordon when he stated that he had saved the world at last week's PMQs. This week, Harriet Harman stated that she would prefer Superman than the Joker to be Prime Minister. I could go into a thesis of a socially awkward Clark Kent, or a brooding reclusive Bruce Wayne but my favourite comparison was nothing to do with American comicbooks.

Michael Gove made a speech in the House last week where he said:

"The Prime Minister may believe, in his more modest moments, that he is Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the truth is that he is closer to a political Max Mosley: he thinks he is king of the world and he has clearly got money to burn, but all people remember is that he got a terrific spanking in German."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Carshalton CPZ Rejected By Most Residents

I promised to publish the results of the recent consultation about the options for controlled parking in the roads around Carshalton railway station.

Most residents came out against the two proposals of residents' permits or one-hour restricted parking. However, the roads immediately adjacent to the station came out in favour and so we need to work with officers to see if anything can be done to help residents there.

Colston Avenue came out with a split vote. I suspect much of the desire for change comes from the badly designed parking regime there which I am pleased is to be changed anyway. Yellow lines will stop cars from parking on the road, whilst pavement parking will remain. This will keep some parking whilst allowing traffic to flow along Colston Avenue. It will be kept under review to determine whether priority arrows need to be added or other modifications are required.

I have uploaded the spreadsheet of the road by road results which you can see here.

Cedar Close To Be Rebuilt.

The campus at Cedar Close, Carshalton is to be rebuilt, updating the accommodation there for the residents who have severe learning disabilities.

Cedar Road is off Salisbury Road - almost directly opposite my house - and the site backs onto the Carshalton War Memorial Hospital land. The plan is to build new one bedroom flats with communal areas on the north end of the hospital land before clearing the existing Cedar Close land. I assume that with the hospital site due to be sold off, this will make an attractive parcel of land for developers when the lagging economy is well and truly fiscally stimulated. Neighbours in Salisbury Road have kept a close eye on the site for many years, expecting something to happen. As someone who will be directly affected, I will not be afforded any extra influence as a councillor, so I will be appealing to my ward councillor Eric Howell to ensure that whatever is built on the vacant site, it respects the character of the area and does not add to pressure on the infrastructure of the village. Cedar Close is designated as a low density site on development plans and sits adjacent a Conservation Area.

On a separate note, the families of some of the eleven residents that live in Cedar Close have concerns about the future care of their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. At present, many of the residents share accommodation. Healthcare workers are assessing each individual to tailor the future development. However, many families are concerned that if the building is restricted to one-bedroom flats, the residents will lose the companionship of their fellow residents who have become firm friends. I cannot pretend to be an expert in this field but I will continue to speak to the families and the Council's commissioning team to ensure that the best and most appropriate facilities are available.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dominic Grieve on the Damian Green Arrest

Dominic Grieve, Shadow Home Secretary discusses Damian Green's arrest and the search of his offices. He states that the Conservative MPs will be doing nothing to disrupt the Queen's Speech tomorrow. I suspect he won't need to. Rumour is that the red carpet is already being prepared to roll out in front of Black Rod rather than the more traditional slamming of the door in his face. The Speaker has got some explaining to do in his statement tomorrow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Four Star Rubbish

Recently we had the usual back-slapping when the LibDem councillors congratulated themselves having been awarded four stars following a Government inspection. At the recent Scrutiny Overview meeting we considered the detailed report from the Audit Commission who spent a week in Sutton investigating and compiling the report.

I raised an eyebrow when I read that scrutiny in Sutton was generally effective, despite the fact that they sat in on the worst scrutiny meeting that I have witnessed in the two years that I have been on the Council. I wrote at the time that I could see one of the four stars tiptoeing to the door. However, I obviously didn't allow for the meeting boring the inspectors into submission.

But I nearly fell off my chair when I saw paragraph 59 which says:

"Decision making is clear and well understood by all those involved and underpinned by
a culture of openness. There are appropriate levels of delegation, with officers able to
refer delegated decisions back to members when appropriate. Decisions are reviewed,
and if necessary, changed to reflect the views of the community. For example, the
Council reverted to weekly waste collections following petitions from residents and opposition councillors following a fortnightly collection trial. This demonstrates that the Council listens to the local community to inform its decision making."
(my highlights)

The picture to the right is the front page of the Guardian when the fabled cock-up was reversed. The date is clearly September 13th 2001. Whereas some of the conclusions made in the report can be described as subjective, this example massively undermines the credibility of the inspection. We have had two elections since the wheelie bin fiasco, a resignation and two further Directors of Environment and Leisure. The book "Maggots: A binman's woeful tale" which may still be available in the Factual section of Sutton Library didn't document this as a period in the Council's history that merits a celebration.

The 2001 Guardian article makes mention of the claims of a 45% recycling record, later exposed to be 23.5% at a time when people were being made to separate their rubbish only for both bins to be emptied into the same truck. It left the Council with a £1.7m overspend and an ongoing bill of almost £1.9m pa following the U-turn. Petitions were treated as complaints at the time, meaning that bundles of paper with some 22,000 signatures were considered as one complaint.

Just remember, next time you complain about the Council; it has four stars so it must be you that is wrong! Maybe it's just me being unreasonable, but this is exactly why I would take evidence that residents are actually happy with the services of the Council rather than an expensive institutionalised inspection regime.

Damian Green - Terrorist? You Decide

This is Damian Green MP, Shadow spokesman for Immigration. Last night the police took the extraordinary step of arresting him for telling the public that the Government was terrible at tackling immigration.

Conservative Home and Iain Dale have some excellent coverage. He was held in custody for nine hours and his offices were searched by SO15 counter terrorism officers. Meanwhile real terrorists, two of whom it is said were born in Britain were causing outrage and havoc in Mumbai.

The police are not allowed to arrest anyone in the Palace of Westminster without the permission of the Serjeant at Arms. It is disgraceful that this permission was given by the Speaker and the Serjeant at Arms, who is in charge of security in and around the Palace. Nine officers searched his office. Being a senior politician, he would have a better office than I share, but there are few offices that can even hold nine people.

In 1642, Speaker Lenthall told Charles I, "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am.", as the King came into the Chamber seeking the arrest of five MPs. Next Wednesday at the State Opening of Parliament, Black Rod will knock on the door before the Queen's Speech, replaying that seminal moment in British history. It'll be a hollow act after the Government squash 350 years of history for their own shabby ends.

When the issue of 42 day detention and ID cards and suchlike come up in discussion, people often argue that only the guilty have anything to fear. We are not a police state. However, legislation is often misused followed by an embarrassed shrug from a Government Minister. See how many of these examples you remember:-

  1. The UK assets of Icelandic banks seized, leading to a diplomatic incident where the whole country felt that they had been branded as terrorists.
  2. Labour MP Sadiq Khan bugged as he spoke to a constituent in prison. (Wrong bloke to pick as an ex-chairman of Liberty.)
  3. Councils spying on people whilst investigating parking fines.
  4. Extradition of the NatWest Three to the USA to face trial for fraud committed by British citizens in Britain against a British company using a one-sided extradition act.
  5. The passing of legislation with the specific aim to stop Brian Haw's vigil outside Parliament over the Iraq war. It was left to a Judge to patiently explain that the one person in the whole of the United Kingdom that this badly written legislation did not apply to was Brian Haw.
  6. The removal of 82 year old Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Conference after he had the audacity to heckle Tony Blair Jack Straw.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

LibDems Recommend SEN Transport Changes

Controversial changes to the way children with Special Education Needs (SEN) are taken to and from school was pushed through to the next stage by LibDem councillors at Tuesday's Scrutiny Overview Committee.

The plan is to collect children from pick up points around the Borough by minibus instead of the door to door service that they receive now. I don't mind looking into these difficult areas. I don't mind seeing if we are spending our budget in the best way. However, the policy that was presented was not acceptable.

Following consultation, autistic children were removed from consideration, leaving 85 children whose service is at risk, down from 250 children. This means that the potential savings are £200k pa, down from £360k pa. The 85 children remaining, go to Carew Manor and Muschamp Primary. They have either Moderate Learning Disabilities (MLD) or Speech and Language Disabilities (SLD).

I had a few concerns. Firstly, I did not believe that the policy as presented was detailed enough to show parents exactly who was eligible for what and how they would appeal. Secondly, each child and their route to their pick up point would have to be risk assessed. The Council were trying to get TfL to do this, which immediately set alarm bells ringing. Officers were not sure if private organisations would have to get involved. These uncertainties make me wonder how much saving the Council will acheive in reality. Is it really worth the pain that it will undoubtedly cause for the parents and children for what maybe no change?

It is likely that some of the 85 children will be deemed unable to walk to pick-up points and one parent raised the question of children with several disabilities returning to their doctor to attempt to get rediagnosed as including Autism. These points all add yet more uncertainty. Yet the estimated savings from this policy already forms the cornerstone for this year's Council budget.

This is a budget that we need to tackle. The Council overspends by £1m pa no matter what it does. However, making cuts on the back of the most vulnerable children in our Borough is not the starting point for such an exercise. Some of the LibDem members of the Scrutiny committee asked some good questions and made some pertinent points. They all then meekly voted the policy through to be considered for a final decision by the Executive next Monday (1st Dec). Fortunately, a review after the first year was added, though this is the usual pressure valve that the Council adds to let off some of the steam when pushing through such decisions.

The Lead Councillor in this area has talked about this policy being about independence and good for the environment. This may turn out to be true in the long term, but should never have been used as a justification for the policy. Scrutiny into this area was started as a cost-cutting exercise, pure and simple. Muddying the waters with these arguments lessens the scope for serious debate about what are difficult issues in themselves.

We will repeat our views to the Executive alongside parents that are presenting petitions and Cllr David Theobald who has worked hard in his own inimitable way to campaign against this proposal. I cannot see how the policy as it is currently framed, can be passed as it is incomplete with no costings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vote For Boris To Help A Sutton Park

Boris is putting up money to allow ten London Parks to benefit from a major makeover. Out of the forty-seven parks under consideration, one is situated in the Borough of Sutton.

The "Help A London Park" website has more, saying:
The open spaces along the River Wandle in St Helier form part of a grand vision to link up green spaces along this valley into the Wandle Valley Regional Park. A grant would help to get this moving by:
  • clearing litter;
  • more site wardens to improve maintenance;
  • new signage;
  • lighting at key access points;
  • hedgerow planting;
  • woodland management at Rosehill and Poulter Parks.

You can watch Boris launch the initiative on his website. Please then spare a few seconds to bring a little more happiness to residents in the north of the Borough, improve our parks and green spaces and elicit a little more from the precept that we all pay to City Hall by voting here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jargon Buster - Recession Special

Nokia (one of their new retro-phones pictured right) have found a new way of announcing redundancies.

Imagine going home to your family with a P45 and explaining that you have been a victim of "synergy-related headcount adjustment"

And there's me thinking that Local Government had the last word on euphemistic jargon.

Rethink: Refurbish or Rebuild

Cheam Conservative councillors have expressed their deep concern at yet another six months slipping by for the much needed improvements in accommodation standards for the elderly residents of Elizabeth House, and adjoining properties, in the heart of Cheam.

I visited Elizabeth House and met around forty members of the Action Group that consists of residents and neighbours to see the considerable upset caused by the presentation of the plans for myself. I am glad that the Council are now reopening the matter to investigate the best option for residents.

Local councillor Graham Whitham's letter to the Liberal Democrat Executive Member for Adult Social Services and Housing has raised concerns that decision makers, local people, and residents did not have access to costed proposals spelling out both the case for rebuilding the site and refurbishment.

Councillor Whitham has unearthed evidence that the Lib Dem-run Council carried out a costed assessment of the case for refurbishment only four years ago. The Council has thus far insisted in all recent reports that refurbishment is simply not an option.

In his letter Councillor Whitham has spelt out his concern and dismay that an earlier lack of available information has caused a further delay over the much-needed improvements. He also questioned an earmarked £18,000 for consultants on information the Council already substantially holds, from the exercise carried out in 2004 which addressed the cost of refurbishment.

Commenting Graham Whitham said: "I think everyone involved shares the view that the existing standard of accommodation at Elizabeth House is frankly unacceptable. 90-year-old residents should not be sharing bathrooms in the 21st Century.

"What we're looking for is a cost effective scheme which meets current and future needs of residents, and most importantly a scheme which causes as little disruption and distress to existing residents. I'd like to thank the Elizabeth House Action Group for raising the profile of their concerns which has made the Council revisit an option it had discarded, enabling me to unearth information that was not readily available."

Councillor Jonathan Pritchard, who also represents Cheam, concluded: "As it now seems - after six months - the Council has accepted refurbishment should be considered as an option. It is now vital that the Council gets a move on and delivers the standard of accommodation that residents deserve."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wittering On Twitter

Much of my work as a ward councillor and group leader doesn't merit a great long article. Some of it doesn't even merit comment at all. However the main reason that I started blogging in 2006 was to allow people to keep up to date with what I am doing. I would venture that most people don't know what their councillor does.

Twitter is a mini-blog based on text messaging. As an experiment, I'll try to keep my page (which is replicated in the top right hand corner of this blog) up to date with the various meetings and events. Let me know what you think. If you're that keen you can even "follow me" when you will get text message updates. Instructions for new users can be found here. Having said that, I can't imagine too many people that desperate to know what happened in Sutton's Pension Fund Working Party and suchlike.

Oh well, here's the leap into the unknown.

Danger!, Flat Object May Cause Trips

The Telegraph reports that Gosport District Council has banned doormats from some of their properties on the grounds that people might trip on them, especially in an emergency.

Residents have been threatened with legal action and eviction if they are not removed.

Residents have been quick to point out the obvious charge that surely the LibDem run council has more important things to do. The Council says that the risks are more acute because the corridors are too narrow. Is it helpful to threaten residents with eviction as an indirect consequence of the poor standard of housing in this area?

The LibDem parliamentary candidate for Gosport at the last General Election was Sutton Councillor, Roger Roberts. Maybe the two Local Authorities could exchange notes on superfluous bans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sutton News And Views

An excellent new website has come on line recently, encouraging people in Sutton to share their views. Adrian Short, a regular poster on this site has set up Sutton Chat, to publicise local events and allow residents to exchange opinions about everything from developing local businesses to politicians, ahem.

As I have found out in the years that I have been doing this blog, it is much more fun and meaningful if you are not just talking to yourself. This site doesn't have an agenda beyond getting Sutton residents to talk to each other about shared interests and that is to be welcomed and encouraged. Go along, register and make your voice heard. There is plenty of room for all of us.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

ITV Capture Residents' Feelings On Hospital Closure

Sutton Guardian, London Tonight and the Daily Telegraph have made the link between Remembrance Sunday and the sale of the Carshalton War Memorial land for housing. Another terrific turnout at the War Memorial by the ponds where locals, joined by the Civic party comprising of the Mayor, MPs, councillors an dcouncil officers, showed the lasting respect that Carshalton residents have for those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The Hospital is a lasting legacy left by those who paid for it to be built for the treatment of local people and especially those who had returned from the frontline.

For people in the area now, the depth of feeling lasts longer than a single weekend. Selling off the family silver means that this site will never be able to be used for healthcare again. So many plots of land have gone the same way. How can we cope with ever-changing theories and fashions in healthcare? It operated on the same basis as a cottage hospital. These were largely closed over many years but are starting to make a comeback. Unfortunately for Sutton residents, they are mainly coming back in Merton thanks to a lot of postage stamps bought by the local MP using taxpayers' money. The Telegraph reports that the NHS changed their mind on Intermediate Care because they would treat people in their homes. This skips over the fact that they have a 53 page report on their website explaining how they are going to site the Intermediate care that was considered for Carshalton, in Wilsons Hospital. This is a building that I have been blissfully unaware of the existence of for the near quarter of a century that I have lived in Carshalton.

Looking back, I first posted about the hospital two years ago. At that time it was out of frustration after waiting eight months to get an answer as to what was happening on the site. It took a further twenty four months to get that answer. If a single piece of correspondence takes that long, I wonder how long the proposed changes in local healthcare take to implement.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Classical Political Correctness

Bournemouth Council is leading the way in removing certain words from the Local Authority lexicon. They have a lot of choice with council jargon ranging from 'Living Documents' to 'Performance Management Frameworks' and acronyms like KLOEs, ROEs and ALMOs. However they have ignored these to concentrate on other more pressing issues.

The Daily Mail report that the council whose motto is 'Pulchritudo et Salubritas' has listed 19 Latin terms that it deems unacceptable. These aren't even terms that schoolboys would scan for first in their Latin dictionary, instead they are words and phrases in common usage like 'ad hoc', 'bona fide' and 'status quo'.

They reason that there are a lot of residents who don't have English as a first language who may be confused. The Plain English Campaign supported the move explaining that people might confuse eg. with egg!

There's me thinking that Councils had quite a lot to do without such pointless diversions but what do I know? Latin has only been around for a few thousand years, providing the base for the vast majority of European languages, thus giving the majority of people throughout the known world some vague idea of what someone is talking about when saying et cetera. As we know Latin is not the only influence on the English language. I assume that the Council will call an emergency session to debate the turmoil that will be caused by residents washing their hair with shampoo (Indian) in their bungalow (Indian) before leaving their cul-de-sac (French) to go to the cafe (French) for a cup of tea (Chinese). What a fiasco (Italian)! If they only retain the Anglo-Saxon, maybe Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand might find a quick return to the public sector on the south coast.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Lost In Translation

I found one for the scrapbooks in today's Daily Telegraph. This sign appeared in Swansea. The English is correct. Unfortunately the Welsh actually says "I'm not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated."

It illustrates the situation in Wales where an inordinate amount of money is spent on keeping Welsh alive in the south by people who can't speak it. It also shows how easy it is to blow public money by not checking.

Anyway, the story made me laugh.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reporting Back From The Bimonthly Bunfight

Last Monday saw another knockabout Council meeting. We discussed serious issues; the Icelandic bank deposits, SEN transport, how the Council communicates with local residents amongst others. However, there is no decision making and it was apparent that the LibDems are too busy looking forward to elections in 18 months time to address the issues head on. Instead we were treated to some political grandstanding that bore little relation to the matters at hand. I guess this is what happens when a small number of LibDem councillors keep the decision making in their own hands, barely bothering to throw any scraps to their backbench colleagues. Their view is that by spending a few thousand on no smoking signs in Beddington playgrounds, residents will forgive them for the half a million wasted on the green garden waste fiasco and the inflation busting increases in council tax that they rely on us not noticing buried deep in our bank statements each month.

The video covers the salient points. One of the questions asked that I didn't cover was about the Heritage lamp posts in Cheam with a LibDem councillor blaming Boris Johnson personally for the threat to their future. This did not take into account Boris' personal attention to the matter after Steve O'Connell, local Conservative GLA member asked him a question in Mayor's Question Time on my request. A conversation with people in Boris' office opened up a new dialogue with the Council which looks like resulting in a satisfactory outcome for Carshalton and Cheam who are both affected by the same problem. Meanwhile, the Sutton LibDem MP has had his photo taken waving a petition that is yet to surface beneath a Cheam lamp. As a resident who wants to see Sutton change for the better, I'll take action over showboating and empty promises any day.

The Iceman Cometh

I was talking to a member of my family after the demise of Icesave, the UK trading arm of Icelandic bank Landsbanki. He is self employed and asked a pertinent question that hasn't been raised until now.

We know that individual depositors have been guaranteed their money back which is good. European legislation states that bank compensation schemes should pay out within 3 months which is also good.

However what about self-employed people that have set money aside to pay their tax bill? What happens if they haven't been refunded their money by then? Will HM Revenue and Customs come running after them?

The answer seems to be yes. Shailesh Vara MP, Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, asked this very question to the Chancellor. A junior minister replied that you may be able to arrange an extension but will be charged a 'competitive' interest rate.

It is important to note that Shailesh Vara has exposed another bit of disjointed thinking by the Government. Landsbanki is only in administration not liquidation. There is a subtle but vast difference between the two, not least because the compensation scheme doesn't even start until the latter occurs. The latest statement on the Icesave website explains that the process will start on or around November 3rd. If the Government pull their finger out, we might not need to get to the position when we see the effects of this problem. However, I'm a sceptical old Hector by nature when it comes to Government wheels turning. The three months won't be up until 3rd of February if the process even starts on time. We'll see.

NHS Snub Carshalton Residents

Sutton & Merton NHS Primary Care Trust have delivered a blow to residents living around Carshalton Park by scrapping plans to build a new Intermediary Care Hospital on the War Memorial site, instead seeking to flog the land off for £2.1m.

For years, residents and ward councillors were promised faithfully that the land would be used for healthcare and their fears that it would be redeveloped were unfounded. Unfortunately those promises were hollow.

I have promised to keep residents up to date. Unfortunately, I found out about the sale, not from the PCT but from a Beddington councillor who had been informed at another meeting. I had smelt a rat when I saw the site strangely absent from the latest proposals for changes to healthcare in Sutton and Merton, Better Healthcare Closer To Home.

The proposals as a whole will largely benefit residents in the ward with the new Shotfield clinic in Wallington and rebuilding of part of St Helier hospital but Sutton will largely lose out to residents in Merton after their local MP spent well over £70,000 of taxpayers' money on postage campaigning for her constituency. The Labour Government have rewarded her with the majority of the new facilities being in the north of the area covered by the Trust in places that I have only just recently heard of through my role as councillor, despite living here for all of my adult life.

The NHS will have to gen up on local strategic planning before trying to push through a major development. The parcel of land sits between a Conservation area and an area marked as low-density housing on strategic planning maps.

As we come close to the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it is disappointing to think that a healthcare site built through public subscription might be replaced by a memorial to the fallen by identikit modern housing. I'll keep you posted as I hear more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Justifying our existence

Politicians have always tried to influence the behaviour of the electorate, whether by carrot or stick. I rarely like the stick approach and I can appreciate some efforts to attempt to nudge people in a certain direction, for example walking rather than driving, health prevention rather than cure etc. However, the 'ban' on smoking near playgrounds seems a typically worthy but pointless exercise that is endemic in local government.

I don't smoke but I would have voted against the ban on smoking in enclosed areas as I am instinctively against banning things, believing people should be able to exercise choice. I get fed up with politicians treating people like idiots in one breath and then, should they be wanting something from them like a vote, feting them as having the collective wisdom of Solomon. Similarly, local Liberals cannot decide whether they want to do what their party name says on the tin or give in to an authoritarian craving - the second half of their moniker, 'Democrat' went by the wayside a long time ago.

The Liberal-dominated Beddington & Wallington Local Committee has agreed to spend £3200 putting up signs politely requesting people not to smoke in playgrounds within their area. There was considerable debate as to what the wording should be as it was felt that the familiar No Smoking sign was inappropriate because the ban had no legal backing. I humbly put forward my own suggested wording in the picture above.

Of course I'm not in favour of people blowing smoke in children's faces whilst they play on the swings. However, the signs would have to be far bigger and much more wordy if they were to list all inappropriate behaviour by adults in a children's playground. This smacks of politicians scratching around for something to do. Last year, a pot of 'Public Realm' money was introduced in Sutton where local committees could direct some spending in their areas. The total budget was £2m divided between the six areas. I fear that this is an attempt to be seen to be doing something rather than considering whether that £3200 could be better spent elsewhere. Councillors were surprised to hear that each sign would cost £300. They were told that there were four playgrounds and it would be best to put two signs in each. No-one challenged the chairman, who is an accountant by day, when she announced just before voting on the issue that the total spending was £3200. Remember that when you get next year's council tax bill.

Iceland claims another scalp

Whilst the investigation into Sutton's Icelandic exposure gathers pace, another amazing story hit the press. The Audit Commission, which is the watchdog that looks into council spending, had put £10m of its own money with an Icelandic bank.

The Conservative chairman of Sutton's Audit committee has convened an emergency meeting for next week to look into our own problems. The committee will consider a review into the matter conducted by someone with considerable financial experience within both local government and the private sector. However, Audit Committee only has a remit to look at the nuts and bolts of whether correct procedures were followed. Political accountability lies within a committee called the Scrutiny Overview Committee which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat. We have insisted that this is looked at as an urgent matter at the next meeting which is on Tuesday 28th October.

As an aside, the photo used to illustrate this post looks remarkably unblocked, thus clearly demonstrating that I sourced it from the Internet rather than taking my hard-earned cash outside with a camera:)

UPDATE: Sutton's external auditors have changed this the Audit Commission.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Call For Icelandic Losses Investigation

Sutton's £5.5m exposure to the Icelandic meltdown was the big topic of discussion at last night's Executive (Cabinet) meeting. You can see the statement that the Council have issued following UK based Heritable Bank's slide into administration here.

Tim Crowley, Conservative Finance spokesman has several years of Treasury experience in the City. He addressed the cabinet at the meeting covering the following bullet points:-
  • We, as Conservatives, will do all we can to support any Government initiative to retrieve frozen monies – this is the important thing at this time.
  • Transparency in Sutton Council on this issue is of paramount importance because we are dealing with taxpayers’ public funds and we need to engender confidence and trust. This must be our next priority.
  • This is a reputational issue which could attract attention from other Council services, and potentially overshadow its work elsewhere.
  • As the Opposition we are concerned and disappointed with the public pronouncements in the national media of the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman Dr Vince Cable who has described councils who deposited funds into Icelandic Banks and their subsidiaries as “unbelievably silly”.
  • We also note the comments of The Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay on the Today programme who attacked Tory-lead Winchester Council which had deposited one million pounds into an Icelandic bank’s subsidiary, Heritable, two weeks before the crash as “blind and deaf.”
  • We are disappointed that the national Liberal Democrat leadership has decided to revert to crude political point scoring in a time of crisis, and that by doing so they are undermining laudable efforts by all concerned to get this taxpayers’ money returned.
  • We would prefer to concentrate on investigating under what circumstances we lent this money to Heritable Bank, and to ensure that proper procedures were followed.
  • To enable this to happen it is imperative that all paperwork relating to these transactions be secured and that an independent investigator be seconded to provide the answers to these questions.
  • As the Opposition, we would like hardcopies of all money market transactions that the Council has taken in the last calendar year and the weekly counterparty risk limits to enable informed decisions to be made.
  • Only by us having this paperwork will we be able to ensure that scrutiny process is carried out in comprehensive and competent way.

On the party political point, it is interesting to see Vince Cable quoted in the Telegraph as saying "In a crisis like this I don't think people would warm terribly to my running around saying 'I told you so'" The LibDem parliamentary finance team certainly did not warm themselves to Sutton's Lead Finance Councillor who told Lord Oakeshott yesterday afternoon that his comments were less than helpful.

Although the Cable & Oakeshott double act is an interesting diversion, the matter is too pressing to concentrate on partisan politics. Tim is leading our investigation into the matter with considerable vigour. I am pleased that officers recognise the need for a robust and transparent enquiry. In the meantime, we will continue to support moves to get our money back in order to minimise Sutton taxpayers' exposure to this. It is important to stress that this loss will not have an immediate impact. I know that some council employees have been spooked by reports of losses in other local authorities affecting payroll. This is not the case here in Sutton.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Communication Is Catching On

For the last few years, Conservative conferences have gradually been introducing new innovations using new media. Two years ago, I joined other bloggers in offering advice to volunteers, councillors and other politicians who wanted to use the Internet more effectively. Last year, well-known bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes were given equal footing with journalists from the traditional media. This year, YouTube joined in the fun with an exhibition stand where attendees could film their thoughts and views. You have seen my rambling offering above and you can see the other Spielbergian shorts here.

This week, I was asked to write an article for Conservative Home, a leading right of centre blog, about why councillors should consider communicating with residents via a blog. You can read the resulting piece, 'Blogging Along', here. Feel free to leave a comment either there or back here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Icelandic Meltdown Hits Sutton

People have been worrying about meltdown at the North Pole for years. They didn't suspect it would start with the Icelandic banking system.

Sutton is one of the many local authorities in the UK to suffer in the economic turmoil with £5.5m of loans in Heritable Bank plc, the UK subsidiary of Landsbanki. Heritable was placed in administration following the nationalisation of its parent company leaving Sutton and many other institutions in limbo.

I want to see that every penny-piece of taxpayers' money is secure. Safeguarding the taxpayer's well-being, coupled with sound financial management, is the Conservative way. I have given the Chief Executive my support for the call for the Government to step in to help Local Authorities in these exceptional conditions.

In this time of economic hardship it is absolutely essential that the Lib Dem-run Council does whatever it can to protect the council tax payer's interests - as Conservative councillors my colleagues and I will do whatever we can to ensure this. We have been asking questions of the ruling party and officers to investigate the Council's investment strategy and risk management whilst recognising the particular backdrop to this unexpected loss.

It was disappointing to see Vince Cable unhelpfully trying to lever some political capital out of the situation whilst others were seeing their monetary capital disappearing. He criticised councils for investing in Icelandic banks explaining that he and his colleague, Lord Oakeshott had concerns as far back as July. It is a shame that he didn't tell his colleagues at Local Authority level about his fears as it might have saved Sutton £5.5m. Never mind, he got his headline.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bad News? Where's The Spade?

On the day I joined 350,000 anxious Icesave investors in worrying about our savings, there was also a few stories that you might have missed.

Gordon Brown seems to be preparing for a climbdown on the 42-day detention that was deemed as absolutely vital for the security of the country a few short months ago. The Times reports that ministers are admitting that there is 'not a cat in Hell's chance' of getting it onto the statute books after realising that the Lords would once again be the voice of reason. First David Davis had no serious opponent in his by-election, now it appears he will have no opponent in the House to debate the subject.

The Evening Standard has an article on the botched reform of NHS dentistry. Apparently Ministers had admitted that they had an 'insufficient focus on quality' in their revised contract for dentists which has been criticised in a Commons Health Select Committee report.

I hope that politicians, journalists and bloggers are keeping an eye out for any reports or other stories leaving No. 10 by the back door. We face an impossibly difficult time over the coming days, weeks and months. Nonetheless, Government business does not stop. Neither should good scrutiny.

One clear example of burying bad news was illustrated by the article in the Telegraph. Postman Pat has got a promotion to a sorting office. The programme will now be called Postman Pat Special Delivery Service and Pat has been given a PDA, a helicopter and a stunt bike! I assume that Mrs Goggins has been pensioned off to close her rural sub post office as well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Sporting Chance

Former British No 1, Jeremy Bates didn't give Eric much of a chance with his precise hitting, but the aim of this coaching session was to highlight the work of the Sutton Tennis Academy.

The Academy is a jewel in the crown of Sutton, but one that is little known outside the tennis world. As well as providing private membership facilities for residents, it offers so much more to young would-be Andrew Murrays and Laura Robsons through the very best coaching, great surfaces to play on and even in-house education to enable the elite to get the most court time. In fact, home-grown Junior Wimbledon Champion, Laura Robson trained at the Academy herself.

Fellow ward councillor, Eric Howell is fanatical about sport. However, tennis is his passion. Despite literally dying on a tennis court seven years ago after having a heart attack whilst (fortunately) playing a paramedic, he plays hours and hours of tennis every week to a very high standard regularly beating people half his age.

A few councillors went along to watch Eric have a knock-up with Jeremy Bates, the Director of Tennis having been taken on a tour of the place. British No. 3, Josh Goodall was playing former Wimbledon Champion, Pat Cash. On an adjacent court, children from 11 to 18, all among the best in their respective age groups in the country, were hitting ridiculously powerful, low topspin forehands. Playing along this company must give any inspiring child a massive boost in personal development.

It is not all about the elite. Sutton Council helps to fund some of the programmes, increasing participation at all levels of the sport. Cheam High School admits a small number of children each year on a tennis scholarship, adjusting the daily timetable to allow more time playing tennis at the Academy. Not everyone can win Wimbledon, but others will develop into good club coaches and inspire others to pick up a racquet. Sutton has one of the lowest percentages of its residents participating in sport throughout London. This is a good example of recognising that Local Government is often not the best organisation to deliver a particular service. If interests coincide between public and private sectors, we should not be dogmatic. Instead we should move forward together and take such opportunities.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Conference Report 3 - Putting The Brake On Council Tax

Localism is a word that has been bandied about in political circles for a number of years. The Labour Government are not in a rush to hand the responsibility for decision-making anywhere near the 'great unwashed' whilst they are in administration, instead hoarding power and control. Councils often get just the scraps, feeling the full force of the public's dissatisfaction whilst being reduced to a local branch of Whitehall.

Yes, centralisation started under the Conservatives in the Eighties in an attempt to curb the wild excesses of the Militant Tendency, but it has gone way too far and I'm glad to see policies to reverse this.

The headline announcement was that Council Tax would be frozen for two years. This will be acheived by giving those councils who limit their budgets to a 2.5% increase, the difference to bring that down to zero. LibDem and Labour councillors in London, led by our very own Leader of the Council threw their hands in the air and gnashed their teeth, horrified at the prospect. They explained that with inflation at 4.7%, it would be irresponsible to limit increases to less than this as services would need to be cut.

As Boris might say, what piffle. Boris himself is freezing the GLA precept, Hammersmith and Fulham have cut their council tax two years in a row whilst improving services, reducing debt and increasing resident satisfaction. No-one said it was easy, but it can be done. Sutton's administration have pledged to limit their increases to 3.4% for the next two years, so it will be interesting what they will be cutting if they follow their argument to its logical conclusion.

Now, here's the localism. Council's do not have to go along with this. If an administration believe that their residents would prefer them to spend more than the 2.5% figure, they can. No-one will stop them. Naturally, they won't get the extra funding but that is the difference between carrot and stick. Residents can judge which they prefer on election day.

I attended policy briefings from our Shadow Local Government Spokesmen and the Shadow Housing Spokesman, Grant Shapps. I liked what I heard. Housing targets and planning decisions look set to return closer to the people that will have to live with the consequences. Labour and the Liberal Democrats fell into a big hole this week. The LibDems talk a good game about localism but enjoy hiding behind the Mayor and the Government. With increased power for local representatives comes extra responsibility and challenges. I relish that opportunity to face voters without the excuse that a faceless bureaucrat in Westminster has taken a decision out of my hands. If it leaves me exposed well, I'll just have to get better at my job or take the rap.

Conference Report 2 - Business & Pleasure

Boris was the highlight of the first day of conference. Sit back with a cup of tea to watch the 16 minute video on the BBC here. As ever, he has a knack of getting some very serious, worthwhile points across in a knockabout, often self-deprecating style. He didn't disappoint as he bemoaned that his speaking style had been criticised by Arnold Schwarznegger last year. "It was a low moment, my friends, to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg," Boris said. He added "But I can say now to Arnie that in spite of all his doubts and though there was a great deal of suspense until the final reel, Ken Livingstone was terminated."

He tackled the financial meltdown and crime in the capital with great aplomb before delivering the line that will remain when the jokes are forgotten:-

"There will be no increase in our share of the council tax next year. When times are tough, the last thing people need is for us politicians to be adding to their burden. That is Conservative government in action."

So, in Sutton whilst the Leader of the Council appears in print to explain why it is right that London Councils should be putting up taxes by 4.7% or more each year, the one part of the budget looked after by a Conservative is to be frozen. As ever, politicians can wring their hands as much as they want. It is only decisive action that will allow efficient running of the administration of the capital to translate into real value for money.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Conference Report 1 - Plan for Change

(If the video doesn't work first time, press pause and then play again. It seems to work eventually.)

Yesterday, I came back with a number of Sutton councillors and supporters from Birmingham. I think I can speak for all when I say that we are more optimistic, excited about change and further enthused to make that change happen.

The global financial situation is at the forefront of people's minds at the moment and quite rightly. I'm worrying about whether my savings will still be there in a few weeks, the price of food and fuel over the next few months and the level of taxes that I'll have to pay over the next few years to pay for the biggest Government deficit in the developed world except Pakistan, Egypt and Hungary.

Since the news has been concentrating on the Bradford & Bingley and the American bailout, you may have missed some of the main announcements from the Conservatives that will affect you. Have a look at the video above for a brief starter whilst I fish out further details of the main course and desert.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Parliament Chops Down Another Rainforest

Some politicians scratch around for things to do during the Parliamentary recess. Paddy Tipping is one such politician. The Labour MP is chairman of that august institution, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Junk Mail.

This group expresses concern about the environmental cost of junk mail. They have just shared this view by, er, sending an unsolicited letter with a 14-page glossy document to all 646 Members of Parliament.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

LibDems written off as Pressure Group by supporters

Another excellent bit of work by the author of one of my favourite blogs, Beau Bo D'or provides the pictures for a post about this week's poll in the Times which may have escaped you.

As the LibDems were talking to themselves in Bournemouth this week, the Populus poll for the Times found that nearly two thirds (65%) of the public believe Lib Dem policies make little difference since there is "no realistic chance" of ever putting them in practice as a government.

What struck me most about this was that 37% of LibDem supporters believed this as well. I know that some people join political parties for the warm white wine, but surely people will only go pounding the streets, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets if there is hope at the end rather than traipsing up a never-ending staircase like an Escher monk. There again, maybe they're not which would explain why they have sunk to 12% in the polls.

Some are still manfully carrying on. Tom Brake MP will be in our ward of Carshalton Central a week on Monday. I hope that you will all ask him when he first called for the green garden waste to be scrapped. You may want to compare his attack on the Government for their lax approach to data with his breach of House of Commons advice on data protection.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beginning Of The End For Garden Tax

On Friday I attended a Council meeting in order to make recommendations to the ruling Executive about the changes to waste collection. I'm glad to say that as predicted, belated commonsense prevailed.

The headline points of the proposed changes are:-
  • To retain all changes to waste collection except the £35 charge.
  • To end the £35 charging scheme at the end of October.
  • To refund £21 per bag (a pro rata figure) to those who had bought bags.
  • To collect garden waste fortnightly but with a limit of two 120-litre plastic sacks or three 75-litre jute sacks in November and December.
  • To introduce a free fortnightly collection from April to December each year with the above restrictions, although more can be collected at a charge of £1 per bag.
  • Continue to stress the value of home composting.

The changes are welcome but at considerable cost both financially and to the reputation of the council. Around £176,000 has been spent introducing and now scrapping the charge. It was confirmed that the raw data from the consultation and the draft report from officers was available to the LibDems and the two MPs for their meeting last Friday. We first saw the report and data on Wednesday lunchtime leaving little time to digest a 50 report document and a further 50 pages of background information. When this was queried on Wednesday, we were told that the actual report was only 10 pages long with supporting data making up the remainder and surely 48 hours was enough. I'm afraid that it is this scant regard to examining an issue in its entirety that has led us to this costly position in the first place. Anything more than a cursory glance behind the headline position would have pointed out that this unpopular charge would be ineffective and infuriate residents.

The final decision will be taken at a meeting of the Council Executive on September 23rd at 10am.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Shadow Environment Secretary Visits Carshalton

Peter Ainsworth MP came to Carshalton & Wallington yesterday to see the effects of the unpopular green garden waste charge. The 4000-strong petition compiled by Conservative Parliamentary candidate Ken Andrew certainly demonstrated the depth of feeling amongst residents.

Peter is the Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - not many ministries have snappy titles- and so has a strangely diverse portfolio from Climate Change to nuclear waste, Foot and Mouth to fishing.

In a Question and Answer session, Peter told us that that the Lisbon Treaty was a dead treaty having failed to be ratified by Ireland. He explained that aviation emissions need to be looked at in the context of Heathrow expansion as it is one of the fastest growing sources. He also supported carbon capture in the North Sea as a mitigation for emissions caused by energy generation. Peter was in a buoyant mood despite arriving on a crutch due to a sporting injury, optimistic about the future of the party and looking forward to serving the country in Government.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

LibDems Can't Even U-Turn With Grace

The unpopular £35 green garden waste policy is coming to a welcome but slow and very shabby end. On Friday a cross-party committee will meet to consider the results of the consultation with residents about the changes to waste collection. This involved several meetings of varying worth and polling 1000 residents as I have written about previously. The results are overdue as I write, having been earmarked for publication yesterday.

As usual, the LibDem Executive have not bothered to wait or have an advanced copy. Last Friday, they held a group meeting with the two MPs in attendance and agreed to the expected u-turn. Having agreed to scrap the charge, the two MPs issued a press release demanding that the Council, er, scrap the charge.

The whole episode has been a shambles from beginning to end. I am amazed that they have not learnt any lessons and still seek to treat consultation with such disdain. They have come up with the right answer in this instance but this is not because of the expensive communication exercise that they have just undertaken. This was merely a way of justifying the climbdown. Either they have sat on an advanced copy of the results and are refusing to let others seat it or they have decided without considering residents' views.

LibDem backbenchers are seeing their future on the council melting away in the light of this incompetence. I hope that you as residents share my anger that you are just a pawn in the LibDem hierarchy's game of political survival. I'm afraid that you have another 18 months of being treated as someone whose chequebook should be seen, but definitely not heard.

Things Can Only Get Better...

...or there again the planet might just get eaten up by a black hole. Which side of the argument are you on?

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is being switched on today. The machine which lies under the border of France and Switzerland will send photons around the 17 mile long circular tunnel at 11,000 laps per second in order to try to see theoretical subparticles such as the Higgs Bosun particle.

All good useful stuff. The point is to try to recreate the moment just after the Big Bang. However, reading the small print, some scientists have a slight niggle in the back of their mind that the process might create a black hole that will destroy the Solar System and have been trying to stop the launch through the courts.

I didn't have any truck with this argument, favouring the reasoning that similar collisions happened in the atmosphere all of the time without such cataclysmic results. That was before I discovered that one of the scientists behind the project was Brian Cox, the former keyboard player with D:Ream. Politicos or 90s music specialists will recognise this group's greatest hit as "Things Can Only Get Better" used as Tony Blair's campaign anthem in 1997. Things didn't, I'm still waiting for my money back and has he done his research a little more carefully 11 years on. Maybe it's not quite time for walking around with an "End of The World" sandwich board yet?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tooth Fairy Feels Bite

According to a story tucked away in some of yesterday's newspapers, a study has identified another victim of the economic downturn- the tooth fairy.

Apparently, the amount left under a child's pillow for a milk tooth has crashed from an average of £1.22 to just 87p in six months.

In order to prove that it is not just Colgate that can inspire confidence, expect the announcement that Alistair Darling is to release funds to provide a safety net for children across the UK by guaranteeing levels of contribution to the premolar puck.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Looking Down The Barrel of London Crime

Sutton Guardian are reporting a fight in the Love2Love nightclub where a shotgun was produced and fired. The nightclub on Cheam Road, Sutton attracts DJs from across South London and their friends and entourages. It is too early to say whether this was such an incident or if it was someone more local. Sutton has a low incidence of such crimes unlike some other Boroughs. We need to take the very strongest action to ensure that it stays this way.

It is striking that this incident took place next to the Council Offices and just yards away from the police station which is also home to the Safer Sutton Partnership.

I came back from London on the train recently where I overheard a couple of black ex-Brixton residents talking. One explained to the other how a girl that he knew was "kicked to death", whilst the other knew someone that had been shot in his car. I got into conversation with them. It was illuminating that despite being relatively young and people that had "been up to tricks" in their youth, they escaped Brixton to Thornton Heath because it was too dangerous.

Knives have become a fashion accessory in parts. Guns must not be allowed to become the norm in gang culture here in South London. Knife arches in Sutton have produced some results, increased stop and search also. Boris is right to have concentrated on transport police. Everything that we can do to stop importing this problem will help before we get to the stage that we are producing too much of our own serious crime.

No-one was injured by the gun but one man is in hospital and a further ten arrested. The surrounding roads remain closed whilst the police investigate.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

More About Communications

Just to reinforce what was said yesterday in my post and subsequent comments, I've reproduced below a letter that I sent a little while back to the Guardian for publication:-

As I pointed out in last week's Sutton Guardian good communication between residents and their local council is pivotal, after all as residents we're the ones paying for it. However, Lib Dem-run Sutton must remember that good communication is a two-way street, and that means listening to residents. Not the sham consultations we're used to – I mean really listening.

The Lib Dems are skilled at telling residents how good they think they’re doing and are adept at pumping out material to that end - often flying in the face of reality. A recent Ipsos MORI study shows that only 4% of residents feel they can definitely influence Council decisions, compared to roughly 50% who feel they can't. Even this is rose-tinted, I suspect. Let's not forget the response of 22 residents was the 'justification' for the above-inflation council tax increase affecting tens of thousands of households.

Blasting messages at the public doesn't work; as residents we need to feel we can respond, and more importantly that we will be listened to by the Lib Dem Council. The garden waste controversy shows us this. This will be the challenge for any Council PR team and a chance to mitigate cynicism over its cost.

As Conservatives real and meaningful consultation with residents is enshrined in our values, along with real value for taxpayers, complimenting the hard work of Sutton staff. An incoming Conservative administration will implement policies to breakdown the barriers that separate the Council and the community it serves, so that the organisation we all pay for really starts to listen.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

But How Much Does It Cost To Listen?

Sutton Council made it to the venerable pages of Private Eye, in the Rotten Boroughs section as a result of changes in their communications department. The service was outsourced to Westminster Communications after they had been brought in to write a report on the in-house provision. LibDem Lead Councillor Tony Brett Young said at the time that the new arrangement would not cost 'more than we spend at the moment.' In fact, according to the magazine, costs have increased by around 51% from £379k to a massive £573,600.

I am not an advocate for slashing communication budgets. It is important that residents do know the good things that the Council does. The Council also needs to act as a central repository of information and to share bad news. Many people are unsure how to access council services, or indeed do not know much about what their council do, despite paying through the nose for the privilege.

The biggest failure of this Council with regard to communications is understanding that it is a two-way process. Whereas there will always be messages that the Council wishes to get across, it is even more important to be able to receive, digest and act upon messages that members of the public want to pass on. After all, the Council is only an extension of the residents in Sutton, acting as the provider of collective services paid for by them, when it is most convenient to have a community-based service rather than everyone fending for themselves. Imagine the number of dustcarts that would be driving around if it was a free-for-all.

The unpopular green garden waste charge is but one illustration of this failure. Logic dictates that the Council should consult before introducing a policy, not six months into the service. The LibDem Executive knew that it would be an unpopular policy, therefore they knew that they wouldn't like the answer that was likely to come back. This was failure no. 1. Secondly, they did not clearly articulate the changes. Many people were not aware of the changes until their old clear bags were left uncollected. Others were not aware that the £35 was per bag and not the total charge. Few people knew that the £35 got them a bag that was half the size of the original.

Finally, the consultation that has just ended was strictly controlled to exclude debate. Colin Hall made the mistake of walking into the Carshalton Local Committee where an open Q&A session raised some interesting points, with some shall we say animated residents. None of the other Local Committees allowed this, instead having Colin Hall and or officers standing to the side whilst residents quietly filled in a form. The communications team contacted 1000 residents to gain the views of a statistically relevant sample, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, the LibDems held a meeting on Friday night, before the cross-party group charged to suggest changes had seen the results. Therefore, either the decision has been made behind closed doors without worrying about what residents actually said, or the results are back and are being 'analysed' before general release. Either way, it's not the transparent U-turn that we might have been expecting after the grief that the LibDems got for making the original decision in such an intransigent fashion. The cross-party meeting is next Friday, so we won't have long to wait.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Carshalton Blog wins Gold

Many thanks to all of you that voted for me as one of your top political blogs. This year, I've reached the giddy heights of 57th 56th top political blog in some highly esteemed company, up from 155th in 2007. As a local blog, I don't expect to compete with the best-known blogs but I'm very appreciative of the support and I hope that it helps to raise the profile of what is happening in the Borough.

The last year has seen more debate on the blog as people get a little bolder, leaving comments. Readership has picked up overall though dipped in the summer as I posted less frequently. Absolute Unique Visitors as measured by Google Analytics reports a monthly readership of between 350-500. Not bad when you consider that Sutton Council could only muster 22 responses to its annual budget consultation.

My resolution for the coming year is to post more regularly. This is akin to the giving-up-smoking New Year resolution as other commitments start to call upon my time, but I'll persevere whilst trying not to dilute the site with posts that are covered far better by others. Let's see how long it lasts anyway. Keep the comments coming and the debate flowing.

Update: 2nd resolution is to proof-read a little more carefully. Thanks to a very public sociologist for pointing out that he was 57th whilst I was 56th.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ping-Pong Is Coming Home

Much has been said about the amazing success of Team GB at the Beijing Olympics. I rediscovered a quadrennial passion for Yngling sailing and the Keirin (greyhound racing on bikes where instead of chasing a hare, the cyclists chase what looks like a pizza delivery bike), as well as the more commonly known sports.

I was caught up in the moment cheering on every one of our medallists and look forward to the sport in four years time. There is a long way to go and I suspect that I won't look forward to the bill for the games but that is for another post. In the meantime, have a look at the video and watch Boris at the handover party looking forward to London 2012 as only he can. Now where is my ox?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sutton hosts European Carrom Championship

Now my computer is just about back to normal, I ought to catch up with the events of the last week or so.

I was invited to the attend the final and closing ceremony of the Carroms European Championships held at Sutton High School. If you haven't heard of the game before, have a look at the Wikipedia entry and this simple summary of the rules. Essentially it is similar to pool but played on a board with counters which are potted by flicking a 'striker' instead of hitting a cue ball.

The great thing about the game is that it is easy to get into, costs very little to start and can be played by young and old, male or female, fit and unfit. My grandfather made my father a board over half a century ago, which my family still pull out and play on every now and again. Being accessible is only one test of a great game. Longevity is the other. The final was three hours of enthralling play. The skill and concentration shown by the two finalists, both from the UK was remarkable and the time flew by.

Vijay Sharma of the UK Carrom Federation was a terrific host with contestants from Italy, Holland, France, Germany and Poland amongst others. It occurs to me that with a bit of a helping hand from the Council, Vijay and his colleagues could organise some demonstrations of this compelling game in Sutton schools and encourage a few young people to take up the game. Young people often talk about not having anything to do. We respond with youth provision without truly understanding whether youths are interested in what is provided or not. Offering a choice can only be a good thing and carrom is easy, cheap and different. Well worth a crack in my book.