Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pledge No. 3 - Protect Our Family Homes & Back Gardens

Sutton is the 4th highest of all of the London Boroughs for the development of brownfield sites which includes back gardens. Brownfield sites are those which have been used for another purpose before rather than, say greenbelt. Back gardens are included in this definition. In 2005, 30% of all brownfield development was in fact, on back gardens. In Sutton, this figure soared to 41%.

The Liberal Democrats talk a good game on garden grabbing but have forced through permission against residents' wishes to build 21 houses on council-owned back garden land in Harcourt Road, Wallington.

There are several policies within the existing local planning framework known as the Unitary Development Policy and its successor, the no more snappily title Local Development Framework to protect our family homes which are being demolished to make way for flats and other high-density developments. We will use those powers to stop inappropriate back garden developments and to protect the suburban nature of our area.

We will also campaign for further powers through central government, asking them to stop including back gardens in their definition of brownfield sites. We have an ally to help campaign in City Hall, in the shape of Conservative Greater London Assembly Member Steve O'Connell who has said that he would "die in a ditch to protect our green spaces."

Our Commitment: We will use all policies to stop developers from relentless garden grabbing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

UKIP Seek LibDem Coalition

Total Politics carries an interview with UKIP leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch this month which I read with interest. He explains away some of his more unguarded moments like accusing "the Muslims of breeding ten times faster than us" in an interview that has been replayed by BNP activists to promote their own extreme racist views.

However one part of the interview of particular local interest was when he explained why his main aim is to stop the Conservative Party winning a working majority. He believes a hung parliament would be a first step in a realignment of British politics. When asked how this would benefit UKIP, he explains "We would then be free to join up with decent real people, Liberal Democrats in the south west."

We have seen in Sutton how local UKIP activists have already aligned themselves alongside the Liberal Democrat establishment. I wonder if the two LibDem MPs and local councillors are happy bedfellows in this new partnership?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pledge No. 2 - Residents To Be Given Power To Ditch Road Humps

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of road humps. It is likely that speed tables (brick raised areas on junctions) will be put on the junctions of Ruskin Road/Rotherfield Road, Ruskin Road/ Seymour Road and Talbot Road/ Rotherfield Road after residents voted in favour, both in the official council consultation and extra door-knocking by me and Eric. Nonetheless, as a whole Conservatives believe that they should not be the lazy default option to show that the local authority is doing something about a problem that is not necessarily there. In the first guest post of my blog, Cllr Graham Whitham, Conservative Spokesman on Environment & Transport shares the thoughts of our group and our pledge to residents for the forthcoming local elections:

"Tackling the impact of traffic and speeding vehicles is one of the most controversial jobs in Sutton Council.

Over the last 24 years, the ruling Liberal Democrats have placed many road humps in our roads. Many of the Borough’s road humps have little proven benefits and do no more than annoy motorists. Crude anti-car policies do not help anyone.

In some areas road cushions are necessary for traffic calming and road safety. A Conservative-run Council will only introduce traffic calming measures if residents want them and proven benefits outweigh negatives.

We will be straight with people, offering choice with the various options available. When a road is resurfaced we will confirm with local residents whether they want to keep road humps or not - existing traffic calming schemes can be removed.

We believe in really listening. It’s as simple as that."

Our Commitment: We will ballot residents about removing unpopular road humps as roads are resurfaced.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

LibDem Council Chief's Half-Dozen Grit Bin Stash

Sutton Council’s Leader, Liberal Democrat councillor Sean Brennan, has no chance of being given the slip coming in and out of his office this winter due to an excellent service of no less than six grit bins less than 50 metres of his council office.

Last week’s Sutton Local Committee, scheduled to meet on Thursday in the Civic Offices, was called off by its Liberal Democrat chairman due to ‘weather conditions’ despite rapidly thawing snow and an elite phalanx of grit bins forming a vanguard for ease of access. Only two days before, 80 doughty residents of Carshalton came to the Baptist Church in Banstead Road to air their views and concerns at the Carshalton and Clockhouse Local Committee.

Discovery of the Leader’s grit reserve will rub salt into the wounds of residents who were left stranded in their homes due to ungritted roads. Residents were shocked to discover that the Council provides a mere one grit bin per 1200 residents.

Following news that Sutton has been reliant on borrowed grit due to diminishing stocks, and with snow predicted for later today, I am sure that Councillor Brennan could surrender some of his private grit reserves to needy areas in the Borough, for example council wards like Wandle Valley and Wallington North which have been left to cope each with one grit bin for an average population of 10,000 residents.

Sutton Council’s Liberal Democrat leader is very fortunate to have a crack squad of no less than six grit bins within a few yards of his office. And that’s not counting the two bins across the way outside the Holiday Inn showing that even his reserves have reserves!

Weather reports do not rule out more snowy and icy conditions, if the Council’s political leadership have not learnt their lesson from short-term cuts to the gritting budget, under provision of grit bins and lorries, Councillor Brennan should dip into his own stock to help residents out.

Whilst we cannot guarantee a platinum service matching the Council Leader’s, an incoming Conservative-run Sutton Council will substantially increase the number of grit bins across the Borough to ensure that residents can at least help themselves in treacherous icy conditions.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sutton's Political Leaders Seek Headlines Rather Than Opinions

The budget consultation has become an annual occasion in Sutton Council where the ruling Liberal Democrat group seek to do the bare minimum to get their budget through. Two years ago, their budget affecting 180,000 Sutton residents was passed after they got the views from only 22 residents in a six-week period. The Conservative group found 29 people to comment in ten minutes on Sutton High Street.

Bruised but not beaten, the administration more than tripled their response rate last year, talking to a paltry 72 people. Let's face it, they could have acheived this by each speaking to a single person sitting next to them on the bus. We spent the six weeks seeking the views of more than 1000 people.

This year they have taken advice from their beefed-up communications department and lead councillors have hit the High Street in high visibility jackets to talk to people. I was ready to think that they have finally started to take communication a little more seriously until I saw the response level in the report going to the Cabinet tonight. 78 people had their answers recorded on questions such as would you speak highly of the council or which issue from a list should form the council's priorities. Six weeks for eight cabinet members to speak to 78 people is taking the Howard Hughes approach to communication. The results of the consultation were only released on Friday evening. However, we like to do our bit to help the ruling group understand the people that they were elected to serve so we listened to 79 people over the weekend.

The priorities in the two surveys were varied but the one difference in the results that stood out like a sore thumb was the question asking "Which one of the statements come closest to how you feel about Sutton Council as a whole?" The three options were

1. I would speak highly of the council
2. I would be critical of the council
3. I would neither speak highly nor criticise the council

The headline figures from the official survey were that 50% of residents were advocates of the council, 22% critical and 18% neutral, with 10% not offering a comment.

Our figures told a different story. The figures were nearly reversed with only 23% of residents being advocates for the council, 43% being critical and 34% being neutral. All 79 respondents offered an opinion.

Looking at how closely the council's priorities aligned with those of residents, their own survey showed the top three issues being helping to prevent crime, looking after adults who need extra help and providing things for young people to do. Our survey also had crime at the top with the next two being schools which provide the best possible start in life and keeping Sutton clean. The age profile of our survey was considerably younger than the council's own consultation and closer to the recent Residents' Survey which had a much larger sample.

It's clear that the Liberal Democrat Executive members were only interested in chasing headlines rather than genuine opinions of the residents that put them in charge.

Full comparison of the two consultation results:

Warren Park Gets New Playground

I'm pleased to see that the playground in Warren Park has just about been finished. Parents in Fairview, Hawthorn and other surrounding roads asked me for this four years ago after the last playground was burned down some years before that. We've been able to use funding from a pot of money known as 'Public Realm' money to pay for it. This budget is divided up into the six local committee areas that make up the borough, for councillors and other representatives of residents to decide on local priorities. There are other strings attached to the budget so we can't tear up speed bumps etc. but this is very welcome indeed.

I would have preferred the playground to have been sited further forward so as not to take such a chunk out of the park for ball games and dog walking. Nonetheless I hope that children and parents enjoy the new facility.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fixing The Weakest Link In Britain's Borders

Conservative Home posted a useful General Election Brief last weekend which I missed at the time. Immigration is an issue which concerns a lot of people that I meet. It is also a topic that needs to be treated sensitively to ensure that extremists do not prosper on one hand and that debate is not swept under the carpet on the other hand, for fear of causing offence.

David Cameron told Andrew Marr that he favoured a cut in immigration to levels last seen in the nineties, in the tens of thousands rather than the 200,000 peak that we have seen in the last few years. Any cap would be fixed according to economic needs.

Last Saturday, Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling announced a number of measures to crack down on abuse of the student visa system. International students studying in the UK have tripled in number since 1997. The overseas student market is worth £8.5bn to our economy but there are a significant number of students who disappear when in Britain. Measures include:

  1. Only the top universities will be able to fast track students through the immigration system.
  2. Most foreign students will be expected to deposit a £1,000 to £6,000 bond that will only be repaid after the student has finished their studies and left the country. Forfeited bond payments will be used to help pay for deportations.
  3. Student migrants will have to return to their home countries and make a new visa application if they want to switch courses or move to a work permit visa.
  4. There will be a clampdown on foreign students using the existence of UK bank accounts to borrow large amounts of money. There will be clearer requirements for applicants for a student visa to demonstrate ability to fund their studies.
  5. UK citizens associated with bogus colleges will be registered and tracked. 1,925 organisations have been approved by the UK Border Agency to sponsor migrant students but there are only 165 universities and Higher Education colleges in the United Kingdom.
  6. Greater enforcement of existing rules by the Border Police Force including more unannounced raids on colleges suspected to be bogus. There will also be closer inspection of applications from very sensitive countries. An extraordinary 13,000 visa applications from Afgahinistan and Pakistan have not been fraud-checked since October 2008, according to Tory research.

Chris Grayling told the press, "The student visa system is a huge loophole in our border controls, and despite years of promises the Government has completely failed to deal with the problem. This loophole has not only allowed large numbers of people to enter the country who would not have been able to do so otherwise, but is now a genuine security risk for us. In the current climate we cannot possibly go on like this. Our proposals will transform the system, making it much more difficult for those who want to abuse it, whilst encouraging genuine students to come to our colleges and universities."

Pledge No. 1 - More Grit Bins

There will be plenty of information over the next four months about our manifesto, detailing the pledges that we are making to Sutton residents to make the Borough a better place to live and work. The snow has brought forward our first:

We will substantially increase the number of grit bins to ensure that residents have reasonable access to help themselves.

Stonecot resident Adrian Short has done a great service in mapping the bins across the borough. Thanks to Adrian, as well as making it easier for us to get the grit we need for our own roads, we are able to see the gaps in provision. Hackbridge, the planned sustainable jewel in Sutton's crown, has absolutely no grit bins. Worcester Park and North Cheam have been largely forgotten. This is nothing new with some of the roads in Nonsuch ward being the worst maintained in Sutton.

Grit bins cost £90 each and the grit to fill each bin costs £9. Sutton has been in the same difficult position as all councils in London, stretched to capacity to cope with the conditions. The gritting teams, the customer service department and other areas of service who have needed to help the most vulnerable, have worked hard and managed well. However, more direction from the political leadership and a little more investment not less, would help residents help themselves.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

End The Gritting Postcode Lottery

View Larger Map

We seem to be in for another heavy snow storm with 10 inches or so reported to be falling in London suburbs tonight and tomorrow. There is a list of grit bins on the Sutton website. Local resident Adrian Short has done a great job in mapping them on Google Maps. The Council website also has the latest news on school opening.

However, the list and map does highlight a significant gap in emergency planning. The Council lists 150 grit bins available for a population of over 180,000 residents. This means that there is, on average, only one grit bin for every 1200 residents. To add insult to injury, some areas have only one grit bin available to local residents whereas others have over thirty. The list on the council website demonstrates that the grit bin situation has not been reviewed for at least 7 years with one described as being outside Tesco on Sutton High Street, which was closed in 2003 to make way for Asda.

The recent cold spell has exposed Sutton Council’s weaknesses in winter road maintenance, causing outrage with local taxpayers after poor gritting efforts left many residents stranded in their own homes because roads and pavements turned into untackled ice rinks. Many residents who were willing to grit their own roads – out of necessity - were dismayed to find grit bins either empty or unavailable in their area.

Google Maps shows that access to gritting bins varies significantly from Ward to Ward. For example, the Carshalton South and Clockhouse Ward is well serviced with 33 gritting bins whereas the Wallington North, Wandle Valley and Nonsuch Wards languish with only one gritting bin each. Conservatives are now calling for an end to Sutton’s ‘post code lottery’ access to grit bins and for better preparation for icy road conditions in the future.

This is not the first time that the Liberal Democrat-run Council has provoked controversy over its winter highways policies. Last year the ruling Liberal Democrats slashed the winter highways maintenance budget by £20,000 in March only to later spend £16,000 on a state-of-the-art air conditioning system for the Council Leader’s Office in July.

The past month has shown how woefully ill-prepared Sutton Council is for icy and snowy conditions. I don’t blame our hardworking gritting teams, I blame the political leadership of the Liberal Democrats for short-sighted cuts to the highways budget.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Reporting Back About Carshalton Village

Recently, I promised that I would report back from my recent walk around Carshalton Village with Council officers. To their credit, most issues were tackled straight away: to my shame, it's taken me a while to report back. I'm still waiting to hear about Scawen Wall and fees in the local car parks but here's the rest:

  1. Loading Bays in Carshalton High Street - The Council have asked TfL to look into making this mixed use, both loading and short stay parking.
  2. Planting in the High Street - The Council have asked TfL if they would support a community-led replanting and tidy up of the planters in front of the shops on Beacon Grove.
  3. Promoting Business in the Village - The new ‘Core Planning Strategy’ adopted by the Council on 7th December identifies Carshalton High Street as a ‘district’ centre. This gives us the ability to promote the development of Carshalton Village and support proposals which consolidate its role as a shopping centre. Now we just need the political leadership to go out and do the promoting.
  4. Blocked Drains - The drains in Talbot Road and Seymour Road were passed on to be cleaned and an additional gully put in opposite 36 Carshalton Place to avoid a pool forming at the crossing point.
  5. Railing Replacement at the corner of the High Street and The Square - TfL have been notified of the incorrect replacement outside the Coach & Horses.
  6. Lime Trees in The Square - These trees are to be pruned to reduce their width and overhang to gardens. They will also be thinned out to let more light through. The Council doesn’t plan to reduce them in height as Officers are concerned this will cause them to bush out in all directions, with loads of soft sappy growth that will produce even more sticky deposits.
  7. Mill Lane - The cobbled area is adopted highway rather than part of the new development so allowing for some tree planting pits to help 'green up' the area. This would be considered as part of the public realm money that is allocated to each area in the Borough for distribution by councillors, the earliest being 2011.
  8. Junctions with Carshalton Road - Officers agree that junction such as Cambridge Road are hazardous and would benefit from the short stretch of single red line that goes up these side roads to be upgraded to double red lines, thus removing parked cars from the end of the roads. TfL have been informed as roads with red lines are their responsibility.
  9. Yellow Lines around Ringstead Road, Croft Road, Meadow Road - This is not considered to be a high enough priority. We'll keep on pushing for better sight lines in this area.
  10. Colston Avenue - This is being dealt with as part of a much larger batch of projects. Objections to the schemes in this wider area are being examined with any changes to the original plans to be made by February. Any work will start in February/March.
  11. Yellow Lines at junction of Blakehall/Salisbury Road - Again, this is being looked at as part of a batch, with consultation ending anytime now and implementation early January.