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.