Thursday, February 26, 2009

Channel 4 Exposes Sutton's Icelandic Failings

Sutton Guardian reports that Sutton Council were one of only three councils that continued to sink deposits into an Icelandic bank when 72 other local authorities had stopped risking taxpayers’ money.

A Channel 4 documentary has obtained information under the Freedom of Information Act that shows which Councils ignored a credit warning made as early as February last year. As we know, Sutton went right up to the wire on this matter, putting millions of pounds into Heritable Bank, the day before its parent company Landsbanki went into administration.

Cllr Tim Crowley, Conservative Finance Spokesman told the Guardian "We know that Sutton was lumping taxpayers' cash into the Icelandic Bank 'Heritable' right up until the eleventh hour when their whole house of cards banking system collapsed. As the Opposition Conservative Group we've consistently highlighted this as a cause for deep concern because it appears that the Lib Dem finance chief was asleep on the job, despite often reminding us he's a former Bank of England Economist.

"Finance bosses from councils up and down Britain saw the vulnerability of Icelandic investments, but Sutton didn't until it was too late. They Lib Dem council leadership has even been blasted by their own finance spokesmen in parliament, Vince Cable and Lord Oakeshott. As the Opposition we'll do whatever we can to get the money back, but we're dismayed that even with £5.5million in limbo the Lib Dems are still ploughing ahead with the £8.6million 'Sutton Life Centre' and have refused to implement our proposed 0% increase in council tax."

Meanwhile the man with the chequebook, LibDem Lead Councillor John Drage said “An independent review found that the way we invested money was in line with best practice in local government."

Says it all really!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ivan Cameron Has Died

Terrible news this morning to hear that Ivan, the eldest son of David and Samantha Cameron died overnight.

Their poignant relationship was thrust into the media spotlight when David Cameron became leader and has had a significant effect on how he has approached that job.

Ivan suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. According to a statement from the Conservatives, he was taken ill overnight and died in St Mary's hospital, Paddington.

There will be many who will join me in sending their condolences to the family at a tragically difficult time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Harriet Harperson's bid for PC PM

The Telegraph reported that Harriet Harman wants bus services to be prioritised to serve communities in poorer areas. She is consulting to see whether primary legislation is needed to force this issue and to focus after-school clubs and new housing in less affluent areas.

Some of her colleagues in the Labour Party are writing this off as proving her credentials to the Left in a leadership bid. Nonetheless, in the meantime, she seems to have given up trying to improve services for everyone, instead widening any remaining class divide.

Conservatives have realised that life has changed since the Eighties after the demise of the Militant Tendency and most of the more barmy left-wing councils. Instead of centralising power as they were forced to then, the Tories are following a more localist agenda, trusting local authorities to serve their communities. Miss Harman is back on Labour's Eighties Class War agenda which kept them in the wilderness back then and demonstrates that the heart of the Labour Party does not believe in trusting local people with making their own decisions. Instead social engineering and tribal warfare are back in town.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Hatchet Job on the Latest Focus

Leader of the Council Sean Brennan is pictured with Cllr Graham Tope in a LibDem newsletter which attempts to justify one of the highest Council Tax increases in London.

Firstly the obvious. Conservative proposals to freeze council tax come as the Council receives £2.3m of unexpected income from HM Revenue and Customs in the form of a VAT rebate dating back to the seventies and from other London Boroughs through changes to the way the Freedom Pass is funded. This money should be handed back to residents. The LibDems are dipping into the reserves themselves. Not to help residents in difficult times, but to build a pet project, the Sutton Life Centre, which no-one in the Borough has asked for. They have provided no detail in how they can afford to keep the place open when it is built next year, thus runnning the risk of creating a millstone around the neck of local people. They are spending £8m on this. Half is coming from a grant, the other half straight from council reserves.

Secondly a quick observation. The fact that Cllr Tope is taking an axe to paper says a lot. There will be a perfectly good pair of scissors in Cllr Brennan's office in the background, which will be more effective and cheaper. A quick glance at the Council accounts demonstrates that this is an approach that is not just limited to their paper cutting weapon of choice.

I've also been supplied with an alternative caption for the photo "Cllr Tope explains the consequences of refusing to pay one of the highest Council Tax increase in London." Any other captions, comment below.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Broad Church in Soho

The Metro newspaper has covered a story with a headline that makes you do a double-take.

A vicar in Soho is resisting attempts by the police to close a brothel because of drug dealing. He wants to avoid having the prostitutes being turfed out of their brothel as a recent closure did not result in much of a change in drugs activity.

Shows you need to read behind the headline!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Glass Attack in All Bar One

I've just returned from a Council meeting in Sutton. I had expected to post stories of how the LibDems passed their budget and pushed through the rebuilding of Elizabeth House in Cheam but a single feral action lasting no longer than a minute has seized my breath and takes my focus.

I was relaxing over a drink with a couple of colleagues, talking over the evening's events when a crash of glass behind me got my attention. All I could see was a crazed, feral attack with someone sitting over another man, crashing glass into his head. Others had seen them hit and kick the man who I believe, turned out to be one of the waiters going about his job. As quickly as it started, things stopped in a sea of silence as people took in what had happened.

The police and ambulance arrived fifteen minutes later. A CCTV camera in the corner of the bar would surely had captured the attackers and the camera pointing towards their escape route should seal their fate. The rest of the staff were shocked and stunned, but retained enough composure to look after their colleague, get the emergency services in and keep the place going. They didn't deserve this, but they deserve plenty of praise.

This isn't an essay on crime or the fear of crime in Sutton. It could have happened anywhere. A quiet Monday night in a bar that was no more than a third full is not the first place the police would camp outside in readiness. This is an immediate reflection on a horrific reminder that there are some that think nothing of smashing razor-sharp shards of glass into someone's face in full view of 9 or 10 people and a camera, without thought of the consequences. It is a reaction to a stark lesson that there are some in a comparatively prosperous area like Sutton who fall into the gaps of a society that is broken in parts, whether it be through alcohol, drugs, education, family breakdown or a combination of them all.

I hope the victim recovers well and that his scars heal quickly.

MP Oceans Apart From Residents

This week's Sutton Guardian showed an interesting contrast in the approach of Tom Brake MP and Ken Andrew, his Conservative challenger.

Ken Andrew has been collecting a petition against the proposed sale of the Carshalton War Memorial Hospital to a housing developer. He has gone around speaking to residents and surveying opinion. Ken told the Guardian "There was a massive response to the petition. The hospital was built with money raised by local residents after the first World War, as a memorial to those who bravely gave their lives for their country and local residents feel as passionate about keeping the Hospital as their predecessors did in financing it.”

This issue will have a significant impact on people living around Carshalton Park and in Salisbury Road as well as the wider implications for local residents with the loss of land in public ownership and a war memorial. I've helped a concerned resident build up a membership of over 100 supporters on a Facebook group on this matter.

Meanwhile Tom Brake has been photographed making a "Whale tail" sign as a show of support for the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign. Now, let me explain how these campaigns tend to work. A parliamentary lobbyist will book a committee room in Parliament, sponsored by an MP and put a few bottles of wine in it. An email round robin goes around and people turn up for a few minutes of networking and wine, whilst waiting for the early evening votes in the Chamber. A cameraman will snap away at MPs standing in front of a banner. The photo then gets emailed to the MP with a sample press release saying " is campaigning to ... "

MPs do retain some influence, even in these cynical times, so there is nothing inherently wrong with lending their support to raise the profile of a campaign. There is nothing wrong in seeking to protect the welfare of animals. However, I'll take the person getting their hands dirty, out and about responding to local residents every time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Excellent Schools Pushed Further Out Of Reach

BBC London came to Sutton to cover the proposed changes to the admissions policies of Wallington Girls and Nonsuch, both top-performing Grammar schools. This follows an article in the Sutton Guardian a few weeks ago. They interviewed me, the headteacher of Wallington Girls and some mothers outside Stanley Park Junior School who expressed their deep concerns. One mother explained (unprompted) that it may well be an advantage to live outside the Borough now because at least you wouldn't have to pay the higher council tax.

At the moment both schools take the top 50 girls from those who take the test. The remaining 130 places in each school are then filled by children who have reached the benchmark score according to how far they live from the school. Four of the five selective schools are within a couple of hundred yards from the Borough boundary. This makes it difficult enough for Sutton children to get a place as the admissions policy can only take a circle around the school by law and so cannot use the Borough boundary as an artificial dividing line. The court ruling that determined this is known as the Greenwich Judgement. A common myth is that this was imposed by Government.

The proposed change is to take the top 120 girls on test results alone. This only leaves 60 places for bright girls living locally that can benefit most from a Grammar school education but might not be the very top high fliers.

Both schools control their own admissions criteria and this is how it should be. The headteachers should have more flexibility not less. I don't believe that Government or the Council should impose change on them but I hope that they will listen to the strong opinions of those who have children coming up to secondary school age and work with us to educate more of Sutton's children in Sutton's schools. The Grammar schools provide the backbone of Sutton's record as the top Education Authority in the UK. I am fiercely proud of them and have no truck with those who would scrap them. They provide massive opportunities to children who are academically gifted from any background.

Both people interviewed in the studio on the video missed the key points in Sutton. Increasing standards in the schools by changing the policy is a moot point when Nonsuch reached 100% in both the GCSE and A Level league tables in 2008. However the case made against Grammar schools using Kent as an example does not stand up when looking at Sutton. We are measured as the best performing education authority exactly because the average performance of schools in the borough is exceptionally high. This is predicated on the fact that we have five selective schools and one partially selective school.

A drawback of league tables is that they are divided into Boroughs but do not necessarily measure how the children in that Borough are educated. Only around a third of the places in our Grammar Schools are filled by children from in the Borough. In the past, children have come from the other side of London and even Brighton to attend our schools. With the cost of commuting, that's not social mobility. We have real pockets of deprivation in the Borough. There are plenty of local Primary schools who don't push pupils towards such an opportunity offered by these great schools on our doorstep. This may be from a paucity of ambition. On occasion it is political dogma. I hope that the headteachers of the Grammars will keep the door open for Sutton's children and work with us to encourage more local children to seize the chance for an education that ranks with the very best.

The proposed changes can be seen on the websites of Wallington High School for Girls and a petition organised by Philippa Stroud regarding Nonsuch can be signed here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

LibDems to Cut Snow Clearing

I was amazed at one entry in the budget report that was released recently. £20,000 is to be cut from Winter Highways Maintenance with the explanation, “Based on the experience of the last few years, reduce the provision for highways winter maintenance without having any adverse impact on the service provided.”

This decision was confirmed by leading LibDem councillors on Friday morning whilst sitting about 10 feet away from the entrance of the Civic Offices with people slipping and sliding into the building. As we recover from the worst snow in 18 years, it is incredulous that they can prove themselves so out of touch that they can draw up proposals to reduce the upkeep of our roads during winter.

Meanwhile a constituent has sent me this photo of litter picking in Blakehall Road whilst a lady tiptoes through the snow and a Mini crawls over the ice.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More Snow Predicted for London

We're being warned that there is a 60 per cent likelihood of snowfall in London overnight being as severe as it was on Sunday night/Monday morning. There is also the prospect of very bad weather sustaining into the weekend.

The areas that are most likely to be affected are north and north-west London so we may escape the worst but do keep an eye out on the Sutton website and school websites if the snow comes again.

There is a co-ordinated action to ensure that all London Boroughs have enough grit to cover the main roads. That is co-ordinated by everyone except Whitehall. According to the Daily Express, Councils have been forced to relinquish their supplies to the Highways Agency. Hounslow reports that they have been ordered to hand over 300 tonnes of grit. I notice that one wag left a comment after the article to point out that the country had run out of true grit many years ago.

Who needs Snow Ploughs?

A near-neigbour sent me a message earlier today having seen a beat sweeper armed with a brush, tackling a road in Carshalton. Not unreasonably he and I question why someone has been sent out on a normal sweeping round to clean a road buried under 6 inches of snow and ice.

The photo is of a barrow belonging to a council employee who was clearing snow from the main roads in the Village. I don't suppose the brush was our friend's weapon of choice which begs the question why he was sent out in the first place.

Update: Just to clarify, the barrow pictured above was elsewhere in Carshalton. I have had the technique used to clear snow from pavements explained to me. The shovel is used to break up the snow. Grit is also contained in the front compartment. The sweepers then use the back of their brush to push the slush and ice to the side.

Help Residents - Freeze the Tax

Conservative Finance Spokesman, Cllr Tim Crowley and I wrote an open letter to the LibDem leader of Sutton Council which was included in today's Sutton Guardian. We have asked him to use his power to do more for residents in this economic climate and freeze Council Tax this year.

You can see more and comment on the budget via the website The response given at yesterday's Executive meeting from the LibDem spokesman, is that the Council's £11m that is squirreled away is better used to prop up their ailing capital programme. This will be the same councillor who is overseeing the building of the Sutton Life Centre, a place to teach young people "how to tackle life issues". The Council is putting in £4m whilst not being able to provide details of exactly how the building is going to generate the income to keep it open.

Text of the letter:-

Dear Councillor Brennan,

As the man in charge of Sutton Council, you know how much it costs to provide services
to residents. The economic downturn is hitting Sutton residents hard, particularly the
vulnerable. As Leader you have the power to make people’s lives better. Other London
Councils have done so. This is why the Conservatives feel you should use your power to
freeze council tax for 2009/10.

Regrettably, under your leadership, council tax in Sutton has never stopped going up. A
few years ago you even put it up by a staggering 15%! Conservative research has
uncovered £11million of taxpayers' money sitting in council coffers. We think it right to
keep cash aside for a 'rainy day', but we have to ask: have you looked out the window
lately? It's pouring!

Throughout 2008, you managed to find money to force through the unpopular green
garden waste policy before scrapping it and to find £4million to build the ‘Sutton Life
Centre’ without the funding to keep it running! Not to forget the £5.5m which is still
frozen in Iceland. As residents are forced to tighten their belts, why aren’t you doing the

A Conservative government will make it possible for councils to freeze council tax for
two years, to leave more money in people’s pockets during a time of economic hardship.
In The Evening Standard you immediately trashed this proposal calling a below-inflation
increase "a quick fix now with years of misery to follow" and that "this could only be
achieved by cutting vital services". Is this still your view? In contrast, we know that value
for money and excellent services can go hand-in-hand.

Tellingly, you have stayed silent as Boris Johnson delivers on his pledge not to take a
penny more from London taxpayers, in his first year as Mayor of London.

As local Conservatives, our challenge to you is to make a real difference this year. Freeze
the council tax. Local people’s jobs, savings and mortgages are at risk in this economic
crisis. Don’t push them over the edge.

As Council Leader, you have the power and the money to make a difference. So why
don't you?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

LibDems ordered to act shamelessly by HQ

Shailesh Vara MP has revealed to the House of Commons what many of us knew already, that the LibDem campaign manual explains in great detail how to treat their electorate as mugs.

Yesterday, the LibDems initiated a debate in the House about parliamentary standards. However, they were not so keen to have some of their own played back to them. The manual published by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors tells their elected representatives in Opposition to "Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly." It goes on to instruct "Don't be afraid to exaggerate" and "you can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory."

Political activists from the two main parties have seen this last instruction in action for many years. It is the one thing that unifies them. Politics is what it is. We seek re-election every few years and can't expect residents to know everything that we are doing on their behalf...or not... without telling them. However, it is this sort of approach, embedded in their party, that gives rise to people's antipathy to politicians. The Conservative council group will continue to oppose when appropriate, agree when we can but always ask the tough questions that make for a better-run Borough.

Juicy Court Case

Energy giant npower has a green energy offering which is to be welcomed. However in their quest to be seen to be green, they are taking Westminster Council to court to stop them from using the word "juice".

Westminster Council calls its refuelling points for electric cars "juice points." However, npower calls its green energy package "npower juice" and claims that it owns the trademark. Taxpayers would have to pick up the legal costs, estimated to be up to £200k, if the Council lost.

Firstly, a prize of a carton of Tropicana to the first person who has both actually heard of "npower juice" and would mistake a council plug socket for a fuel bill from npower. Secondly, never trust a company who dispenses with capital letters in their name; no good will ever come from it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Council Talks To Itself Over Budget

The Council Executive considered responses to their Budget Consultation this morning. It didn't take long as they only received 72 responses from a population of 180,000. They seemed reluctant to see the imbalance of speaking to 0.04% of Sutton's population to reach a decision that will affect 100% of Sutton's taxpaying public.

Granted the 72 responses was better than the 22 surveys last year. They could have improved this by a factor of 2 if councillors had asked people that they knew to complete the form. The Conservative Group distributed several thousand alternative questionnaires and were able to supply over 1000 additional voices to the process.

I'm afraid the LibDem leadership hasn't learnt the lessons of last year. This is another example of ticking a box, suggesting that they have completed an excercise required by Government, rather than showing a genuine interest in local views. It is true that discussions have been held with groups and organisations that represent several hundred people but this is not a substitute for wider communication.

In addition, the general open question of "What do you think of our budget?" having supplied a single page of information does not encourage a sensible discussion. It is the polar opposite of last year's survey when they used irrelevant but loaded questions. One such question, something along the lines of "Do you agree that the Council should act in good time to pre-empt problems", was shown to be worthless after £5.5m was frozen in an Icelandic Bank. At the time, the lead councillor for Finance's response was effectively - we can't think for ourselves in situations such as this because we are paying Capita to think on our behalf.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Boris' Cold Logic

Sutton has not been extraordinary in the effect that the snow has had. The centre of London was badly hit, with the entire bus network being withdrawn for the first time in living memory.

Boris' response whilst announcing the suspension of the Congestion Charge gives me a chance to show another photo of a snow-clad Carshalton landmark.

"This is the right kind of snow, it's just the wrong kind of quantities."

Who could possibly argue against that?

School's Out

I heard a yelp of joy earlier which was the signal that my daughter's school, Stanley Park Junior, was to be closed for the second day in a row.

I have been given a spreadsheet with various updates from the schools in the Borough. It will almost certainly be out of date as the situation changes, but up to date information is going up on most schools website. Have a look here for the website address for your school.

Snow Chance of Stopping Meals

The extreme weather conditions hitting Sutton may be the worst for 18 years but we have to do what we can to minimise incovenience and in particular, suffering. I joined Councillor Tony Shields and Philippa Stroud in a dash around town to get hot meals to the elderly and vulnerable. The heavy snowfall meant that ‘Meals on Wheels’ could not be delivered to the distribution centre at Sutton Lodge in Brighton Road from Wallington.

Parliamentary candidate Philippa Stroud, Tony and I helped to deliver about twenty ‘Meals on Wheels’ to volunteers for distribution to vulnerable residents and then helped to get the delivery van moving after it got caught in the snow and ice.

Sutton Meals on Wheels operates daily with approximately 30 staff, mostly volunteers, to deliver meals to elderly and vulnerable residents. They also keep an eye on residents to call in medical help and other services if needed. Without the help of volunteers the service could not function.

Philippa Stroud said, “I’m just glad we could be of help. We were worried that the van couldn’t get off the ice at Sutton Lodge to deliver meals to residents’ homes. It looked as though the road had not been gritted properly. But after a lot of pushing and shoving we finally got in moving. It was relief to know that it would be delivering hot dinners on a bitterly cold day like today.

“It was great to see such community spirit with the volunteers. Meals on Wheels is an initiative which Sutton’s community can be really proud of.”

Our effort in collecting the hot meals from Wallington Church Hall for delivery to Sutton Lodge is small in comparison with the people who give their time freely every day to ensure that those that are housebound can retain a degree of independence in their own home. Despite the freezing temperatures and snow drifts over a foot deep volunteers were still out, braving the elements, to keep an eye on vulnerable residents. This service can be a lifeline for many local people, particularly in these harsh weather conditions. We are keen to support it in whatever way we can.

Snowy Standstill in Sutton

First the news. I've had an update from the Council about various services.

51 schools are definitely closed. The remaining 9 are being contacted.

Staff in Adult Social Services are prioritising the most vulnerable and are ringing around and visiting where possible.

Waste and Recycling Services have been cancelled today. Staff who would have been collecting rubbish have been reassigned to clear the worst of the snow.

Gritters are on the main roads and were out last night. There seems to be different levels of success around the area. Carshalton High Street is passable whereas nearby Brookside is knee deep. The Brighton Road in Sutton was ungritted as of 8.30am and reports have come in about 14in of snow on the roads near Cuddington.

Parking enforcement has been lifted. The reason that we were told was worry for the safety of traffic wardens. I would have thought helping residents in a difficult time would have been up there in priorities and the small matter of yellow lines being buried under a foot of snow. Anyway, the advice is not to travel unless you really have to...but you'll be able to park when you get there.

I walked around Carshalton this morning. People were walking along the side roads with very few cars on the roads. I was amazed how many people were out and about enjoying the snow and delighting in the peaceful beauty around Carshalton Ponds. The atmosphere was of another age gone by. One of the ponds was frozen over which meant that the birds, swans and ducks all crowded into the other pond. Children have been using lengths of guttering for skis, plastic bags for toboggans and snowballs for ...well, weapons.

Latest weather forecast
Frequent snow showers this morning with a longer period of snow this afternoon and at first this
evening. Further falls of 5 to 10 cm are possible with a risk of isolated falls of up to 15 cm. The snow may turn more sleety later this evening before dying out. Frosty overnight with widespread ice.

For tomorrow -
Icy at first. Risk of sleet or snow showers later in the morning and through the afternoon. These should die out overnight. Frosty again with a risk of icy patches.

Keep an eye on the Sutton Council website for further updates on Council Services