Wednesday, April 07, 2004

West Midlands LGA 

The Lichfield Garrick Theatre was the venue for Wednesday afternoons meeting the West Midlands Local Government Association. This is a gathering of representatives of all the Borough, District, County, and Unitary Council’s in the West Midlands area.

The event was billed as the Association Plenary and was designed to review it’s work over the last twelve months. Part of the afternoon was set aside for workshops to look at four key areas which local councils will have to face in the near future. I’d already opted to go to the one entitled “Citizens and Customers”. Apart from the title I’d no idea what is was going to be about but as I believe Council’s are all about serving their citizens I thought it sounded more interesting that “Procurement”, “Waste Management”, and “Leisure”.

It turned out to a session on using modern technology to provide a seamless service to all residents. The case study was about the experience of the Council’s in Warwickshire who are working together with the aim of providing a single point of contact for all services provided by the district and county councils and possible the police. This project has been made possible by a grant of £2Million from Central Government. Although in its early stages it does look exciting and if successful will mean a single telephone call to one person at a central call centre is all anyone will have to make to talk about, book, or pay for a Council service, regardless of which or how many council’s are involved with providing the service in question.

All we need to do now is get the same sort of system up and running in Staffordshire, although I have to say I think this is some way off.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Row Faster Slaves 

Tuesday night, and I'm back again in the Civic Offices, this time attending a meeting of the Council’s Planning and Regeneration Scrutiny Committee. These days scrutiny at the Borough Council is almost none existent. But surprise, surprise, this meeting was different.

The meeting started with three presentations about some proposed changes in planning guidance from Central Government. Paul Windmill – the Councils Forward Planning Manager - and Alex Yendole – the Senior Planning Officer in Paul’s Team gave a quick, but detailed presentation of the changes and what might mean in practice. The debates, which followed, were equally as quick as I think most Councillors are sick and fed-up with the raft of changes that they are constantly being asked to face. Indeed had it not have been a few speeches from a couple of Councillors who I’m sure likes the sound of their own voice these three items would have be over in seconds!

A more interesting, but again short debate took place on the performance of the Planning Department as whether or not it was capable of reaching it’s targets in relation to the speed it processes planning application. For the fifth quarter running they have failed to hit the target for the number of application processed within 8 weeks. Indeed they are worse now than they were twelve months ago. Chris Hindle – the Council’s Head of Planning and Engineering, gave a spirited explanation of why this had happened and what was being done to improve the situation. It appears the failure is rooted in the new planning IT system which is taking time to bed in coupled to the fact that more planning applications are now being received. To make things better he has set each planning officer targets and is monitoring the situation carefully! I asked if he really thought the Department had the capacity to improve and I think the answer was yes. He, and Doug Davies – the Cabinet member, didn’t like it to much when I compared the planning department to a slave galley. I pointed out it was easy to get the slaves to row, but it didn’t matter how hard you beat them they would never go faster than their top speed!

Delays in planning are a major problem for local people. I’m not sure we’ve heard the last of this because I’m sure the slaves are almost flat out now! My great concern is that in trying to reach the targets the quality of the decisions are going to fall as planning officers take short cuts!

Monday, April 05, 2004

Meeting With Arriva 

This afternoon I attended a meeting organised by the Borough Council, which was arranged to give Councillors the opportunity to meet with representatives of Arriva, the major bus company operating in Stafford. So as to keep the meeting to a manageable size only four Councillors were invited – one from each of the political groups on the Council and the Council Leader. Arriva was represented by two senior managers Kevin Belfield and Bob Emery both of whom knew the area and the bus services like the back of their hand.

Top of the agenda was the apparent lack of communication between the bus company and the travelling public, which my three councillor colleague’s thought could be improved if they knew more about what was going on. Indeed it soon became clear that this was the underlying complaint. I suppose as both a Borough and County Councillor I’m in a privileged position as I am kept informed of any changes to bus services that affect my area by the County Council.

As the discussion went on it became clear that Arriva was doing everything it could to keep the County Council informed of it’s service changes and indeed gave them more notice than was needed by law. As far as the County Council was concerned it was filtering out all the unnecessary information and passing the rest on to its Councillors as soon as it possible could. At least this does work. However Doug Davis the Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration suggested that all information, not just the filtered version, should be copied to Borough Councillors as well. I’m not sure how practical this is because as far as I’m aware this would means reams of paper most of which is of no relevance to anyone!

However it was agreed to see if communications channels could be improved so that everyone could feel involved!

Perhaps what was more interesting were these three facts. Firstly, the number of passengers travelling on buses in the Stafford area is on the rise. Secondly, Arriva provide 3.5Million passenger journeys per year in and out of Stafford, and thirdly the Borough Council could provide subsidised bus services if they wanted to! So in the coming months if the Leader of the Council or any of her Cabinet Colleagues moan about poor bus services in Stafford the answer lies in their own hands – they are quite entitled to provide them!

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