Saturday, April 03, 2004

Saturday Morning's Petition 

Saturday morning saw Liberal Democrat members from the Stafford Constituency out in force in the Market Square collecting signatures for their “Axe The Tax” petition.

I always enjoy being out on the streets meeting people and Saturday was no exception. The reception we got was overwhelming with very few people unwilling to sign the petition. What is clear is that most people are dissatisfied with the Council Tax and nearly everyone I spoke to was in favour of a local income tax. This really is a winner for the Liberal Democrats. Labour are completely sunk if they continue with the Council Tax in its current form, although it does seem that rumblings from Government does sound as if they are thinking of making a change. On the other hand the Conservatives have nothing to offer as an alternative so it must be win, win, win for the Lib Dem’s!

A spin off from our presence in the Market Square was that we picked up a number of issues, which need to be followed up. I personally answered questions on the future of the Riverside Centre, the problems facing the elderly now the Conservative run council have scrapped the bus tokens, and what could be done to improve employment opportunities in the town especially if the RAF was to close. Over the next few days I’ll find more details and report back to these, and the other people, who stopped to chat.

While I was in the “Square” I was dragged across to a stand being run by the Rotary Club and the Stroke Association to have my blood pressure taken. While I was there the photographer from the Express and Star arrived and now it looks as if my picture will appear in the paper in the next few days. I know politicians will do anything for publicity but that was total unplanned!

All in all it was a good couple of hours, which helped to raise the profile of the Liberal Democrats with the residents of Stafford Borough and also added another few signatures to the rapidly growing petition against this unfair tax!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Hospital Tour 

Thursday was another full day of Council business. This time I was taking part in a County Council joint working party commissioned to look at access to hospitals. As part of the day we visited five hospitals throughout the County – North Staffs University Hospital in Newcastle, The Haywood Hospital in Burslem, The Queens Hospital in Burton-on-Trent, Cannock Hospital – in Cannock, and the District Hospital in Stafford.

What we did discover during this marathon session (which ran from 9.00am till 4.45pm) was that four hospitals had major parking problems – The Haywood being the exception although its small size, location, and limited facilities probably accounted for this fact. The four seemed to have inadequate car parks, which left patients and staff frustrated. Only Cannock and Stafford, which are part of the same Health Care Trust have any plans which are aimed to tackle these problems, while the other two seem intent on making matters worse by planning building projects that are likely to take away car parking spaces rather than by adding to them.

In the next few weeks I will be visiting Stafford Hospital again to look in more depth at the problem and to talk to talk to staff and patient representatives. The working party are also planning to receive presentations from senior members of staff from each of the hospital to how they perceive their problems and to discuss any plans they have as to how these can be improved. I believe it is imperative that the County Council, as the Highways Authority work with these hospitals to ensure patients and staff have easy access to the facilities. This does not necessary mean building more roads or covering more areas of green with tarmac car parks but rather at looking at alternative and perhaps more imaginative schemes such as park-and-ride, better public transport, and car-sharing schemes.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Gnosall Library 

Wednesday night saw me attending the 3rd meeting of the day. This time the local advisory group set-up to help the County Council develop a much-needed permanent library in Gnosall. The group, of which I am Chairman, is made up of local people and representatives of various community groups and organisations within the village.

At the meeting we discussed the four sites that were identified as possible locations for the library. Olwen Johnson, the member of staff from the County’s Library Service who is heading the project went through the pros and cons sites now feasibility studies had been carried out on all four. Two it appeared were none runners because of lack of space – namely the Church Rooms and the Parish Council run Grovenor Centre. Another – an empty shop on Wharf Road – had recently been let. So all in all it looked as if a room in St Lawrence Primary School was all that was let. However after some discussion the group suggested that another approach be made to the Parish Council to see if a room could be made available at the Grovenor Centre purely for Library use.

I am most concerned that we could be left with the school by default. While the room would be ideal the location on the edge of the Village is not so good. I’m also worried that the current security arrangement and the fact they might have to walk through a classroom full of children will put some people off. However these last two points can be overcome with some thought. The one advantage of this site is that it is well used and this will surely have a knock-on affect on the numbers using the library.

On the other hand the Grovenor Centre would provide a more central location that would not have the security or access problems. However I don’t think there is willingness on the part of the Parish Council, who own the Centre, to have the Library located there.

What is important, whereever the library final ends up, is that other organisations in the Village must not suffer. I’m sure everyone is in agreement that this facility must not displace another one. Its also important that this project moves ahead as soon as possible as funding is limited. I do hope the Parish Council do not drag their feet over deciding if the Library can be located in the Grovenor Centre because I would hate to see all the hard work that has been put in by so many people, both from within the Village and from without, go to waste.

Rural Policing Issues Conference 

Wednesday afternoon’s Rural Policing Issues Conference was a real disappointment. The event, which was organised by Staffordshire Police and the Staffordshire Parish Council Association, was held in the ballroom at the Civic Offices in Cannock. The attendance list shows that over 35 Parish Council’s sent representatives along with a three or four other organisations and large number of policemen and women of all ranks. So I would calculate over 100 people were there eating lunch when I arrived with about five minutes to spare!

Having grabbed a cup of tea and a ham sandwich I found a seat on the back row – which was the first mistake of the afternoon, as it became obvious when the first speaker took the rostrum in almost total darkness. From the gloom the John Giffard welcomed everyone to what he hoped would be an interesting and useful afternoon. It soon became obvious that the curtains were drawn and the lights were switched off so the audience could see the PowerPoint presentation, although the more sceptical members of the audience could not be moved from their theory that the darkness made it more difficult to throw missiles at the Chief Constable and the other members of the top-table!

John spent a few minutes talking about the exciting development in Staffordshire - namely the use of Police Community Support Officers (PCSO’s) – and what would happen to these once Government funding run out, and also about the 375 special constables that were currently part of the force. He also told us that at a recent recruitment weekend 530 information packs had been given out to would-be specials and that hopefully some of these would soon join-up. He also suggested that there was ample opportunities for local communities to become involved in policing issues including the voluntary manning of speed-guns – a fact I am sure will be welcomed by the A518 Action Group which has been set-up in Haughton and Gnosall to campaign amongst other things to reduce speeding on that road!

And with that the Chief Constable was gone to another meeting. He left behind a number of frustrated people who had hoped to bend his ear on particular police matters in their Villages.

However his place in the gloom was taken by Mike Poulter the Chairman of the Police Authority who gave his usual presentation on how well the force was performing. He presented some useful figures that showed that while burglaries, vehicle crime and public disorder crimes were all down the total numbers of crimes, violent crimes, and robberies were all up! He also told us that while the total levels of detected crimes now stood at 33% this increased to 66% for those crimes classified as violent. He then went on to talk about the future and it was at this point the audience heard for the first time the phrase “extended police family”.

Most people did not even notice this, but by 4.45pm – when the conference closed – these three words would be burned into the minds of everyone in the room and will no doubt haunt them for many weeks to come.

The next speaker to take the microphone was Chief Superintendent Nick Howe the Commander of Chase Division. Nick gave a spirited account of the work of his Division and what had been identified as the needs of the community. However then it happened! The magic words were uttered - “the police family” which in Nick’s terms not only included regular and special officers, but also PCSO’s, Street Wardens, and Volunteers. But worse was to come as Nick went on to talk about “exploiting and opportunity” and the need to look at ways of finds funds to appoint more PCSO’s, given the limited Government funding available.

The next speaker was David Pearsall a member of the Police Authority, who 15 minutes spot concentrated entirely on the work of the PCSO’s and their role of working in the local communities to provide reassurance and support to local residents. Half way through his allocated time he was joined at the microphone by the two PCSO’s current employed by Staffordshire Police – one in Penkridge and one in Wombourne. At this point the organisers realised that unless some lights were turned on the audience would be left looking at two silhouettes back lit by the PowerPoint screen. The audience blinked their way back to normality and a rather staged question and answer session between David Persall and the two PCSO’s, which was followed by the hard sell aimed at showing just how effective PCSO’s could be. It was during this part of the proceedings that the first mention of the fact that Parish and Town Councils could contribute to their funding was made!

It was this fact that then completely took over the workshops that followed the rest of the formal presentation. The audience were split into groups so that representatives from adjacent Parish Councils were kept together. From the off the police officers, who were leading the groups, concentrated on trying to get everyone present to agree that their Parish Council would, either individually or in partnership with others, fund one of the PCSO’s. In my group the discussion got quite heated as time and time again we tried to talk about other rural crime issues, only to be brought back to the need to fund PCSO’s. Indeed at one point the officers in charged were asked if they were being paid by results and that their bonuses relied on getting our agreement to fund what should be seen as a core police function. And yes, time and time again, the group leaders used the phase “police family” and the need to ensure this was “extended” by the use of more PCSO’s!

All in all the afternoon was a wasted opportunity. We could have had a real discussion on rural crime. We could have swapped experiences and ideas, and we could have perhaps scrutinised the way the police were performing in our own communities. Instead, all that was achieved was an even bigger question mark left hanging over policing in rural areas. Many people I spoke to after the meeting were asking why after the police portion of the Council Tax has risen by over 9% they were still asking local rural communities to put their hands in their own pockets to improve policing in their areas. In Haughton, Church Eaton and Gnosall local residents already face double taxation to pay for many of their services and this suggestion by the police is I believe a step too far!

Special Needs Funding 

This morning I meet with Jenny Hawkins the County Council’s Directory of Education and Lifelong Learning. I wanted to talk to her about the County Council providing funding for a local child to attend to private residential school. The child in question is currently educated in a County run special needs school and lives at home with his parents. However it does appear the education the school is providing is not adequate for his needs.

His parents asked the County Council to fund the residential school place sometime ago but had the request turned down. Having meet the child and his parents I’m sure that he would benefit from such a placement and so have taken up his case.

Jenny Hawkins, who unfortunately is retiring in a few months time, certainly has my full respect. She has certainly made great strides in improving the education service in the County and is in complete control of her Department. Having listen to the facts of the case and having made copious notes she explained how she was developing the current in-county provision to provide just the sort of service I was attempting to get for this child. However these plans were still in their early stages of development.

What she did agree to do was to look at the educational aspects of this case in detail to see if the child did warrant a move to school outside the state system. As such a school would do more than just cater for the child’s educational needs it will to put in place tripartite funding package which would include contributions from Social Services and the local Health Care Trust and we both agreed this could well be the major stumbling block we would have to get over. I’m sure that this will not be easy as any public body would prefer to provide the services themselves as this is normally cheaper and of course keeps the money in their own coffers. As soon as Jenny has got more information of this particular case she has assured me she will make contact with Social Services. However I think the arm-twisting at the Health Trust may well be down to me!

It is a pity in these cases that money is the governing factor. This child like many others with special needs will only get one chance and as different departments squabble over funding this chance slips away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should not provide the education and care “in-house” if we can, but we should not loose sight of the fact in some cases this is not possible. If this is the case Council’s should be big enough to admit this fact and do everything possible to make the funds available. Never the less the 1 ½ hours spent with Jenny Hawkins was worthwhile as we both now have a better understanding of each others positions.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Gnosall Focus Leaflets 

Finally today I delivered the last few Focus leaflets around Gnosall. This is a job I really enjoy. Not only does it ensure I keep the residents of my patch up-to-date with what is going on but it also reminds them of my contact details. It certainly works as I’ve already had two telephone calls since I got back home. No doubt over the next few days I’ll also get a couple of free post reply slips sent back as well.

Another doing some of the delivering myself is that it gives me the chance to meet people and chat about their problems etc. I do miss this in the areas where I have people to deliver for me. This last leaflet has already brought another couple of volunteers for which I’m very grateful. Having such a large County Division does mean that more and more I rely on these people to help me get "Focus" out. If you are one of the volunteers can I say a big thank you. If your not – it only takes a few minutes once every few months and your help would by much appreciated.

Library Opening 

One of the nice things about being a Councillor is that you get invited to do things and go places that many other people do not have the chance to do. This afternoon I was invited by St Lawrence Primary School in Gnosall to open their newly refurbished library. The invite came a couple of weeks ago in a telephone call from the school secretary, and was followed up a few days later by a letter from a group of four children from the Year 6 Literacy Group. I must say that this was first library I’d been asked to open, but the experience was one I would not have missed.

Bob Cadman the Headteacher has only been in post a few months but his enthusiasm for the school and his pupils is noticeable as soon as you meet him. The library, which has been refurbished since he came to the school, is bright and welcoming especially as some of the walls have been painted with murals by the children themselves. I was especially to pleased to find that they had used Harry Potter as the theme for these paintings as I had decided that as part of my opening remarks I would read a short passage from one of the HP books to the children. The extract described the library at Hogwarts School which was dark and frightening, and I was going to compare this to the new library the St Lawrence’s.

As it turned out this was a good choice as the group of twenty or so children who were present sat in silence while I did my bit. At this point I must thank Diane my literary consultant for this suggestion as without it I would have probably made the mistake of presenting the children with a long and boring adult speech!

Two representatives of the school’s PTA were also there as this group had provided £3000 to buy books. However it is surprising just how few books even this sum can buy, and it will take many years of fund raising and large amounts of the schools own money if the shelves are to be filled to bursting. Proper funding of school libraries is essential if our children are to benefit but with the constant pressure on school budgets this is becoming a thing of the past. Luckily Gnosall is quite an affluent area when compared with some other parts of Stafford. Had this school been else where it might not have had such a generous donation from the parents to get a project like this off the ground.

Value for Money 

Tuesday 10.00am - Meeting with the County Council’s Division Engineer on site to look at the new footpaths along the A518 in Gnosall. Despite walking the whole length between Glendower Close and the Navigation I can not get him to agree that the paths should be taken up and relayed! At least he has confirmed that the cost of putting them down was £14000. It also appears that the job had been sub contracted out three times. The main contractor had sub’ed to one firm who had in turn sub’ed the work to a firm who had finally carried out the work. Unfortunately the Division Engineer had difficulty in remembering their name, but did tell me that they were not on the list of Council approved contractors or were know to the first firm that had won the main contract.

I cannot understand why the County Council allow this practice to go one, and when it does seems unwilling to do anything about it. If the job had been done on my driveway to the same standard I would certainly not have paid the bill. However I do fear that the money has already be paid over so the accounts are clear for the end of the financial year. It appears that this, and the need to open the road on time, were the driving factors rather that the quality of the job.

I was not amused that the Engineer kept saying that this situation could arise under the new contract, which starts on 1st April, as that focused on quality rather than price!

He did however admit that in parts the work was poor but kept saying he could not see the contractors agreeing to dig it up and relaying it. Just who is the customer and who is paying the bills for this work. In my book it’s not a case of the contractor not agreeing to redo the work but rather the Council giving him no option. Quite simply it is the local tax-payers that are paying for this job and I certainly don’t think they are getting value for money.

While I was there I did pop my head through the door of two of the local businesses. They have certainly suffered for the three weeks the road was closed, but because the work was carried out by the Highways Authority (the County Council) they cannot claim any compensation for loss of income. It is hard enough being a small business in this Country without the added threat of enforced loss of income. Only time will tell if their trade will recover, but I have told them I will continue to press their case for some recompense from Council, but I do think they are probable in a no win situation.

Monday, March 29, 2004

If It's Sunday It Must Be Training 

I spent most of Sunday at a Liberal Democrat training day at Stoke-on-Trent. The day, which was to help local Parties focus on this years elections, was organised by the West Midlands Region and was ably led by Tracey O’Brian and Colin Ross – the Regional Chairman and Training Officer. It was a good day which certainly help to focus minds on the task ahead and I’m sure everyone left full of ideas and good intent!

What did come across loud and clear was the Lib Dem’s commitment to community involvement. This set me thinking that I still had not arranged for the delivery of the remaining few Focus leaflets in Gnosall. However the feedback from the one’s that have already been delivered has been excellent. It looks as if dog fouling is a major concern in Gnosall so a telephone call to the Borough Council’s Environmental Health Department is on the cards for Monday morning. One has to say that this problem is not just limited to Gnosall but is raised at nearly every Parish Council meeting I attend. I do feel that trying to prosecute the owners of the offending dogs is not the answer as giving evidence against your neighbour in court will never be popular but is required if the court case is to be successful. It looks like only education will work in the long term!

As soon as I got back to Haughton I visited the new bus stop that has just been installed opposite Prince Avenue. It took the County Council about three days to dig out the site, lay concrete kerbs, put down block pavers, and install the bus stop pole and cycle rack. However with 24 hours it had been dug up again by the MEB to allow them to repair an underground electricity cable that had been damaged by the first set of workmen. I’m not sure how much this exercise has cost, but it is a question I intend to ask of the County Council’s Director of Development Services. To make matters worse the MEB have repaired the cable but have left the hole surrounded by plastic barriers, piles of earth, and of course the pile of removed new concrete pavers. It will be interesting to see how long it is left like that!

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