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.