Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sign the Petition

Email smears, the unravelling of the budget and the mess made of MPs expenses. Just three things illustrating the fact that we face a year-long car crash in slow motion waiting for the end of this very tired government. Surely best to put the poor chap at the helm out of his misery, which is clear to everyone despite his best attempt to smile. Why not join me (and 7088 others at time of writing) in signing the petition asking him to resign.

Guido Fawkes makes the point that over two million people watched Dan Hannan MEP tear a strip off the forlorn PM in Brussels recently. If just half sign the petition, the message will be clear.

Thanks to Beau Bo Do'or for the picture.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy St George's Day

I didn't have my camera with me when admiring the flag of St George flying above the Civic Offices this afternoon, but the picture to the right reflects the same sunny background that is lighting up the national day in Sutton today.

St George's Day has been lost somewhere along the way. St Patrick's Day is celebrated more in many parts. It was disconcerting to see the flag hijacked by the British National Party whilst surfing for a picture to accompany this article. Even the many football fans who fly the flag see it as a tribal symbol of a game that in all reality has lost the club versus country debate some years ago anyway.

I'm off to a celebration dinner in Sutton this evening. Nothing to do with the Lib Dem Council who have restricted the marking of the day with a small event in Worcester Park Library. I'll leave you with a message from the Mayor of London, Boris:-

"Right now, without thinking, can you say what day it is today? For the (I suspect) sizeable majority who said Thursday, feeling rather smug at their mental sharpness, I am sad to say you are wrong. Well, not technically. Today is indeed Thursday. But the real point missed, is that it is St George's Day.

"Living in such a vibrant, cosmopolitan city you end up celebrating all manner of national and religious days. Some you celebrate as heartily as those to whom they apply. St Patrick's day is an obvious one, where every pub in the land is decked out in green.

"But St George's Day is still without fanfare, either forgotten or tucked away in a cupboard somewhere. This year, I want London to wholeheartedly celebrate. That is why the flag of St George will fly above City Hall today. I will be getting on a Routemaster bus and going across the river to the famous Leadenhall Market to join traders and Londoners in celebration.

"Last weekend, the Globe Theatre held a celebration event to mark Shakespeare's birthday. This weekend, there will be an English music festival in Trafalgar Square.

"St George's Day has been ignored in London for too long. We have much to be proud of in this great country. England has given so much to the world, politically, socially and artistically. There are many who feel that London is not just the capital of the United Kingdom, but also the capital of England.

"So I am calling on all Londoners to don silly hats, step out into the sunshine and celebrate England's great patron saint.

"Let me know what you think by commenting on the Blue Blog. It would be great to hear from you."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I'm The Only Voter In The Village

Entitled 'One Man, One Vote', the BBC has got a great story on their website. Not about electoral reform or Robert Mugabe's latest twisted bid to retain power, but about the forthcoming Indian elections.

This man is Guru Bharatdas Darshandas who looks after a temple in a forest in Western Gujarat. He has a polling station to himself for next week's General Election. On 30th April, five polling officials accompanied by two policeman will travel to the Gir Forest to pick up his ballot. I know that the Indians took to bureaucracy like ducks to water when the Civil Service system was introduced under British Colonial rule. However, it is amusing to see that they have kept up with current British practices of public sector job creation. I await a new rash of "How many ... does it take to change a lightbulb?" jokes. I wonder if Mr Darshandas refuses to tell intrepid canvassers, who brave the resident Asiatic lions, which party he supports?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Spin in No 10 Works - Part 1

I've left so-called Smear-gate to the Westminster Village experts until now but there are a couple of points that don't seem to have been picked up by the political mainstream.

Firstly, one point from the unlikely political analysts; a website more used to throwing muck around about celebrities.

"The News of the World landed the McBride-Draper Tory smear email story so it was weird to see on Sunday they didn't run with it on the front page. Instead the tabloid had a bizarre headline, "Obama's brother in sex quiz", which sounds like something Jacqui Smith's husband would watch on TV, but was in reality a random story about Obama's half-brother being refused a visa to enter Britain.

Even more weirdly, the story was not written by a NOTW journalist but bylined Gloria De Piero, GMTV's Political Editor. De Piero is a close friend of Derek Draper, a colleague of his wife Kate Garraway, and an ex-flatmate of Damien McBride's then-boss Tom Watson.

So, surely a coincidence that this was the front page story? Otherwise I guess we'd have to assume that the uncalled for and unnecessary smearing of the family and reputation of the world's most popular politician is acceptable to the Labour Party now?"

Secondly as a footnote, it is ironic that Gordon Brown has been caught out by the release of the content of personal emails just a few weeks after a law has come into effect allowing the Government access to the contents of every personal email sent in the UK for up to a year.

Finally Gordon Brown seems to be taking media lessons from John Prescott. He finally gave an apology of sorts today and said "I take full responsibility for what happened. That's why the person who was responsible went immediately." It surely doesn't take a Cambridge PPE graduate to find a hole in that reasoning and wonder why Gordon Brown is still Prime Minister. I'm afraid it is just symptomatic of another statement of empty words drafted without thought.

This is the second worst cock-up of Gordon Brown's Premiership, the first being the bottled election. Both have been caused by his biggest fundamental weakness, his hatred of political opponents. He can play the big stage, whether it be terrorism, floods, foot and mouth or economic crisis. However, when he has the Conservatives in his sights, he is like a child in a sweet shop and cannot help himself. I was only 11years old when James Callaghan lost the election but despite the Winter of Discontent, this seems even more like someone who needs to be put out of his misery. Please, someone spare us and find him a soft exit now.

Going Potty Over Potholes

The BBC reports that a Parish Council in Essex has asked that potholes be left unfilled for a while longer in an unusual bid to slow traffic. Representatives of the village of Navestock claim that they are the original traffic calming measure and so want to leave them unfilled for a year.

They seem to have read the first chapter from LibDem Sutton's book on traffic management where the winter maintenance budget has been cut and speed humps sprout like wrinkles in Nora Batty's stockings. However they haven't got to the bit where Conservative Councillor Cliff Carter led the calls for potholes to be tackled and secures £250,000 of funding to tackle the worst ravages of the recent snow and ice.

I seem to remember the pothole theory being tried before somewhere in the South West but have not heard any recent updates where it has been rolled out across the UK with a fanfare so I guess it wasn't so popular. Not all of the village are in agreement with a local retired police officer saying that 'it beggars belief'. Essex County Council agree with the copper and are bringing in the tarmac as I write. The potholes may calm the traffic but I doubt if they have the same effect on the drivers.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Mash The State - Following Sutton Council's News

The Guardian Technology website covered the launch of a new initiative to improve online communication by Local Authorities across the UK. Sutton resident Adrian Short is behind the project, Mash The State that seeks to get every Council to offer an 'RSS feed.' This may sound like a bit of technological jargon, mainly because it is! All it really is though is a simple instruction added to the website which allows other computers to pick up the latest stories from the site.

Something that will take no more than a minute to do, would allow Council news to be broadcast around the area and beyond automatically. Instead, the Council has to rely on people being keen enough to take the trouble to go to the website and scour it for news. Plenty of people these days have one or two sites, that they visit which do the looking for them, aggregating news and information from various sources. The Twitter feed on the top right hand of this blog is doing just that. Adrian runs a community site, Sutton Active which seeks to bring local news together from a number of sources including this blog. Adding a feed is a small thing that is easy to do, will become more important as Web 2.0 continues to develop, and best of all, is free. I've asked that Sutton Council should do this. The new-look council website cost £208k, it should be all-singing and all-dancing, never mind a simple tweak like this. Mash The State is looking at all Councils in the UK. Offering your support might encourage other Local Authorities to use the Web better.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reality Check on Monopoly Money

Last week the G20 calmly agreed to spend $1 trillion on trying to bail everyone out of the mess that we are in. Reports suggest that the UK's debt is set to surpass £2trillion. Somewhere along the way, people become detached from these impossibly large figures. This includes Ministers who bandy them around as tokens rather than people's hard-earned money. There are ways of illustrating these figures, such as the Conservative's "Dad's Nose, Mum's Eyes, Gordon Brown's debt" campaign which calculated that every child born in the UK has £17,000 debt. Even this is difficult to take in. I've found a general example to illustrate $1trillion.

$100 is the highest denomination bill issued in the States.

$10,000 is less than 1/2" thick consisting of one hundred $100 bills.

$1million is represented by this small pile of 100 packets of $10,000.

$100 million starts to look more impressive, fitting on a standard pallet.

$1 billion starts to pique the interest of government ministers.

Finally $1trillion or $1,000,000,000,000. The man can still just be seen at the bottom left of the picture.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Life Centre or Life Sentence?

A picture of an ostrich just didn't cut the mustard when writing about the latest on the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre.

As expected, Sutton's senior LibDem councillors queued up to sing the praises of the Sutton Life Centre.

It was wonderful to have a library that would be open for longer than the one that it would replace, like the one at the Phoenix Centre in Beddington, without mentioning that many users of that library bemoan the fact that it may be open for longer but it lacks one small thing; books.

It was great that we would have a state of the art centre to teach Junior Citizenship, the silver bullet that would stop our young people getting involved in antisocial behaviour and drugs without recognising that such a course already exists in Sutton at one-third of the proposed charge per pupil.

Sometimes, even I am startled at the detachment of the LibDem administration. The Executive meeting on Monday when this was discussed was one such time. The Life Centre might just work. The 40,000 children that need to come to provide most of the income may arrive by the coachload. People may be chasing each other up the climbing wall to get their turn. Starbucks may start sending their trainee Baristas to the Sutton Life Centre to get experience as cappucino follows moccachino out of the cafe door. Kevin Costner built a baseball field in his farm when told by ghostly voices in 'Field of Dreams', "build it and they will come". He built it, they came, but it was just a film. You cannot play fast and loose with public money. It is not appropriate to say that because we have got £4million from a national grant, we need to bend over backwards to match it at a time of financial turmoil, moving money away from education, adult social services and reserves to fill the gap.

If the project falls short of its income target by 20%, the Council will have to find £95,000 each year to keep the place open. The conditions of the grant mean that if the Council sell the building or change its use in the next twenty years, we may need to pay the £4million back. Councillors always have to balance risk. We are still £5.5million light after taking a Treasury management risk in lending the money to an Icelandic bank. This is a risk too far at the wrong time. The business plan is fanciful at best. In order to find 40,000 children to turn up to pay for the building, a massive proportion of children from South East England will have to come.

According to figures contained in the business plan, there are an average of 33,900 children in each year group in schools within the target area of a 1 hour drive of Sutton. The centre is aimed at Years 6 and 8 meaning a total target market of 67,800. The centre needs 40,000 children to come which is 59% market penetration. In order to do this, the plan only allows for a paltry marketing budget of £5000 and £1300 stationery. This does not stack up well amongst organisations with a touch more experience and know-how as this list showing their percentage of their respective markets shows.
  • Starbucks 16%
  • Tesco 30%
  • Barack Obama 53%
  • BBC Radio 54%
  • Apple iPod 70%
  • Microsoft Windows 88%

Since, the Sutton Life Centre is pitching comfortably above the most popular man on the planet, the assumptions surely need at least a cursory second glance from someone independant and with something approaching a business brain. The G20 won't be swooping down to the Holiday Inn working how to bail us out if things go awry. Let's get it right now.

At least the Executive have had the good sense to bring the decision to a meeting of the Full Council before we did. We had our form ready to call-in the decision but it was not needed as the LibDem councillors realised that pushing this through would be one step too far.

The Full Council meeting is on Monday 27th April starting at 7pm. It is held in the Civic Offices, St Nicholas Way, Sutton, SM1 1EA. You are most welcome to come along and see where your money is going. If you use Facebook, you can add your voice by joining the group Unaffordable: Shelve the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre! and just as importantly, please invite all of your friends to do so. If 3003 people can want Wizard man to switch the Christmas lights on in Sutton, I really hope that a few people are moved enough to try to save a few million quid of taxpayers' money. The message needs to be sent loud and clear: the public purse, filled with taxpayers' cash, should not be the plaything of politicians.

Conservatives to Protect Back Gardens

Back in 2006, I posted about a speech that I made in Council when we sought to protect our back gardens from in-fill development. Figures show that around that time some 41% of brownfield development in Sutton was in fact on gardens. I don't have the up to date figures.

Yesterday in Westminster, Shadow Housing Spokesman Grant Shapps MP unveiled the Conservative Green Paper "Strong Foundations: Building Homes and Communities." A Green Paper is basically a statement of intent by a political party detailing the outlines of policies that it will introduce. There were some interesting proposals for social housing which I will endeavour to cover later but I was glad to see that the party have reaffirmed that they will tackle the issue of garden-grabbing head on.

"We will also reverse the classification of gardens as brownfield land and allow councils to prevent over-development of neighbourhoods and stop ‘garden

Brownfield land was meant to be land that had been built on previously that was surplus to requirements, no longer fit for purpose or not as efficiently used as it might be. Including gardens in this definition dramatically changed the makeup of towns and cities. It certainly has in parts of Sutton where streets of reasonably sized family homes have given way to flats.We know that demand for housing in the area is great. As usual, it is getting to that balance which is important. It should be for local people to decide where that point is rather than a crude one size fits all policy from the centre.

Mr Smooth

There's little point Gordon Brown trying to keep up in the slick stakes with President Obama. Luckily he is too busy saving the world from ourselves to worry about what people think.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Spurred Into Action

At last night's Executive meeting, in amongst more weighty issues, we were treated to a lecture from Cllr Dombey on how to get things done in local committees. This followed a recommendation from the Carshalton & Clockhouse committee to the Executive that urgent action was taken to repair the wall on the A232 by All Saints Church. Cllr Dombey's contention was that it was better to speak to officers rather than trouble the Executive with such matters as illustrated by the fact that officers had started to gather quotes.

Unfortunately the Deputy Leader of the Council couldn't have been expected to have all of the background to hand. The matter was recommended for referral to the Executive by Cllr Hamish Pollock, the single LibDem on the committee with the unanimous support of the remaining five Conservative members. He has been trying to get some repairs done for eight years without success. I am sure that he will be pleased as we all are that the recommendation to the Executive has had the desired effect of breathing life into a situation that has been mothballed for so long.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Freeze The Tax - Freeze The Life Centre

You will have received your Council Tax bill by now, showing another inflation-busting increase. Well, we tried. The only part of our bill set by a Conservative, that of the GLA precept, was frozen by Boris. George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor has pledged to give council's enough money to freeze council tax if they can peg their increases to less than 2.5%. This is a fair partnership between national and local government; you do your bit and we'll help. Meanwhile, we sought your views and shared them with the ruling administration.

We believe that Sutton could have joined the thirteen other London Boroughs that are freezing or cutting their tax, helping their residents when they need it most. You can see more on why we believe this is possible and how we could have acheived it without any frontline cuts at the website

Instead, the biggest drain on this coming year's budget, the £8million Sutton Life Centre is coming up for the go-ahead at tomorrow's meeting of the Council's Executive. £4million is coming from a grant from national taxpayers, the other £4million is coming from us directly, here in Sutton. The Council have raided the reserves, taken money originally given to Adult Social Services, delayed repairs to schools and kept unexpected windfalls that you were owed, just to shore up this pet project. I've already written about the way that planning was obtained in a hurry. The Executive have had only six days to see the business plan. However, since it only contains six pages of financial information for an operation that is aiming to turnover £3/4million a year, they could come to a conclusion quite quickly.

The clincher is the target market. It is aimed at schoolchildren in years 6 and 8 that are within a 60 minute drive of the site. According to the figures contained within the user profiles in the report, it is safe to say that the Sutton Life Centre needs to attract 60% of the entire population of children in years 6 and 8 living in South London and North Surrey. Not even Bill Gates would attempt market penetration of that kind within a 12 month period. They are helped by the fact that they will stop the existing Junior Citizenship programme thus forcing local schoolchildren to go to the new building or miss out. The fact that the existing scheme costs schools £3 per pupil and the new one £9 per pupil suggests that schools are going to be out of pocket again because of the Local Authority.

The charge of £9 is another optimistic assumption. According to the report, there is one place in the country vaguely comparable situated in Milton Keynes. Sutton's business plan requires twice the number of visitors paying a higher price simply to break even. I suspect that tomorrow night, the LibDems will be leaving their legacy to the people of Sutton. The likely £95k per year needed to keep the place open with just a 20% shortfall in income will provide 95,000 reasons why not to vote LibDem at the next local elections.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Residents show support for War Memorial Hospital

Last night, around 50 residents came to a public meeting in All Saints School, called by Conservative Parliamentary candidate Ken Andrew to talk about the future - or lack of it - of the Carshalton War Memorial Hospital.

Ken spoke of the history of the hospital, built by public subscription following the Great War, what it meant to residents today and the effect that its loss would have.

Andrew Grimes from the NHS gave a presentation about the overall programme of changes for healthcare in the area. The War Memorial was one part of a far wider-ranging project. You can see a copy of his handout here. He explained how although Carshalton was getting a good deal from the changes, it was decided that the Intermediary Care beds that had once been planned for Carshalton were being put into the Wilson Hospital in Mitcham. Andrew explained that no decisions had been taken, although the business case for the changes has been given to the powers that be for approval.

I added some points that I have made several times before, including the fact that it was like selling the family silver with the land lost to public service forever. The NHS change their mind on healthcare provision as often as a Jimmy Choo devotee changes her heels. If we continue to shed sites like this we will end up with the predicament that residents in the west of the borough find themselves in. Worcester Park has seen a lot of house and flat building in the last few years. There is a massive shortage of GP places and school places but no land to fix this infrastructure problem. Since I live in Salisbury Road, I also joined the residents in their additional concern about what will go in its place and the effect on the area. As I have reported before, Cedar Close is involved as part of a land swap to maximise the revenue available to the NHS as well as getting more modern facilities for the present residents with learning difficulties.

Residents then had plenty of opportunity to raise their concerns. Some of the more elderly neighbours questioned the legal right of the NHS to sell off the land. I have been promised the legal opinion obtained by the NHS. Others believed that the lack of intermediary care in Carshalton would push patients back into their homes prematurely. We have been promised a further public meeting about such care matters in the near future. The feedback from the meeting was positive with residents able to get their views across. I've had a pop at the poor communication from the NHS in the past, but Andrew Grimes did a difficult job very well for the NHS. I hope that the decision makers continue to listen and take heed.