September 2009

As I was saying ...

My blog took a rest over August while I was on holiday and catching up with members of my family from around the world.

So here it is again, and with a completely new look.

I hope you like the background picture. It cheers me up as soon as I land on the page. I took the photo in Jamaica - the colours are just wonderful, and it takes me right back there, enjoying the bright sun, the pale sand and the clear cool water.

My old blog is still over at BloginaBox/ReadMyDay and you're welcome to explore it.

For the techies, I've been using Drupal for site construction for some while now, and this was developed as a Zen sub-theme.

13 Golds, 12 Silver, 8 Bronze!

While I was away I got an excited email from Sue Frett, who organises the Surrey Special Olympics team. (For this purpose, Surrey includes Kingston).

13 Golds, 12 Silver, 8 Bronze!

That was the result obtained by the Surrey ten pin bowling team at the Special Olympics Great Britain National Summer Games 2009 in Leicester.

Wow! Congratulations to everyone.

I was particularly pleased because my charity, Young Kingston, had sponsored some of the younger, Kingston based competitors, and some of these won medals.

Last February, Kingston's Jonathan Frett came fifth in skiing in the Special Olympics Winter Games, and this summer he added a gold in bowling the National Games.

The Special Olympics cater for athletes with autistic and learning difficulties.

The full results for the Surrey team is here.

South of the Borough - The Harrow, a new hotel, Lidl ...

I got home at 11.30pm from the South of the Borough Neighbourhood meeting on Wednesday evening. It had been a very full agenda with 10 planning applications to consider.

I was wondering whether the large number of planning applications was an indicator of the end of the recession - but when I looked more carefully I realised that I had asked for at least five of them to be placed on the agenda myself!

Normally, 90% of planning applications are decided by planning officers. Most of these are simple home extensions and the Council tries to reduce the bureaucracy on these to a minimum. On the other hand, the Committee is always asked to decide on larger applications.

The application that caused us most concern was for 21 flats on the The Harrow pub site. This was the last of a series of applications, which had started with 30 flats, each one successively reducing that number. Two were withdrawn, following advice from planning officers, and our Committee refused one (for 26 flats) which then went to appeal. Unfortunately, at the appeal the Inspector undermined all our reasons for refusal, including the significant loss of a public house. In fact the inspector liked everything about it except the fact that it did not include enough social housing.

This latest application is for 100% social housing, so we were left without a leg to stand on.

I thought it was an unimaginative design. I was also very unhappy about housing large families in 4 bedroom flats without gardens. Fewer units on the site could have provided decent family homes with gardens.

None of us wanted to grant permission and we quizzed the planning officers about possible grounds for refusal, but couldn't find any that had not already been swept away by the Appeal Inspector. So, protesting very loudly, we had to approve.

It's yet another case of government interference in local decision-making. As I've said before, there does have to be an appeals process to protect applicants from perverse decisions, but these days the Appeal Inspectors are causing great damage to local communities by overriding genuine local concerns and aspirations.

We were also asked for our opinions on a new hotel for the petrol station site on Kingston Road just south of Tolworth Station. We liked the design, which has very large glazed panels on two sides, and passed our opinions on to the central Development Control Committee which deals with larger and strategic applications. That Committee met last night, and I'm pleased to hear that they approved it.

Development Control also - unanimously - agreed to the new Lidl store in Leatherhead Road. When we talked about it at Neighbourhood back in July we had mixed views about it, and realised that there were strong feelings both for and against (I was against, but other councillors supported it). At least the new design is a huge improvement on the first application from Lidl for this site.

Bus-gate

Not as in Watergate, or any other scandalous -gate, but a gate that buses go through.....

Far too many lorries drive along Elm Road, Gosbury Hill, Orchard Road and Orchard Gardens in Hook. Most are taking a short cut to or from the Cox Lane Industrial Estate.

There is, of course, a lorry ban in the residential roads. The Council has tried a number of strategies to stop the unwanted traffic - there are road signs at various places, and the businesses on the industrial estate have been telling drivers to use the approved route via Jubilee Way.

But nothing seems to stop them.

One of the genuine problems seems to lie with the sat navs, which send drivers from the Hook Road through the residential roads rather than the longer but correct route via the A3, Tolworth Roundabout and Jubilee Way. Or indeed, vice versa when leaving the estate.

So a while ago our local highways engineer wrote to all the people who live in those roads, asking them for their comments. He also invited anyone who wished to join a working party that would look at possible solutions in more detail.

Some 16 people responded and turned up to the first meeting before the holidays, with a good spread from all the affected roads. They worked in two groups, looking at how the traffic affected each of the roads. Buses also emerged as a problem, especially the rogue K4 buses that go along Elm Road at the end of their shift.

I was interested to see what would emerge, and it soon became clear to everyone that if something was done in one road it would have a knock-one effect on another road. A one-way scheme through Orchard Gardens and Elm Road was considered, but overall people thought that it would create more problems than it solved.

The one thing that eevryone agreed on was that we needed to have an actual barrier at the Cox Lane/Oakcroft Villa/Sanger Avenue junction (opposite the Maverick). There is a bus only lane in each direction here, alongside the width restricted lane for other traffic. But everyone knows that it is impossible to enforce this so many lorries (and cars, indeed) use the bus lane.

Now if there were two actual gates here, which could only be activated by buses, then it would solve a great many problems. There is one business, The Accessory People, which has its main delivery entrance on the 'wrong' side of the junction, but they could also be given the electronic devices that would open the gate.

So, the working party reported to South of the Borough Neighbourhood on Wednesday. The Committee agreed with the main proposal and agreed that preliminary designs should be drawn up and discussed by the working party, reporting back next month. By then a bid for funding for the complete project will have to be made to Transport for London, who pay for things like this.

Just one final, very irritating note.

The working party posed a number of questions to Transport for London, including why buses still use Elm Road to get back to the Tolworth depot, even though they know this is not the approved route.

And this was the reponse from TfL...

K3/K4 buses do not use this route to go to the garage. ... Regular checks are made by London United Inspectors to ensure that Elm Road is not used.

In other words, everyone who claims to have seen a bus taking this 'illegal' shortcut is either deluded or lying!!! We know that isn't true, so please send me details of any sightings of naughty buses, preferably with their vehicle registration.

My magical green cone

I got back from church this morning to find a bundle on my doorstep. It contained a year's supply of biodegradable liners for the brown food waste bin.

If you don't receive yours within the next week or so then phone the Council on 8547 5560.

Actually, I have to admit that I still have a large number of liners left over from the last delivery. But I certainly don't put any food waste or flowers in my wheelie bin, instead the food waste goes down the garden to my Green Cone and flowers go in the compost bin.

A Green Cone is a neat device and I'm surprised more people don't have them. I can put all my food waste in it, including bones, and over time it all rots down. There is a large rat-proof basket at the bottom which is sunk into the earth, and the broken down material eventually seeps into the surrounding soil. The secret is in the shape and double skin of the cone, which trap the warmth from the sun and speed up decomposition.

I do find that the Green Cone doesn't really work during the colder months, so I will be reverting to the brown food waste bin in a month or two.

Back to today's delivery - it also included a leaflet with some useful information about the dates when refuse and recycling will be collected over Christmas. That really is some way ahead, so I'm jotting the dates down in my diary now in case the leaflet itself finds its way into my recycling box before then.

Body image and other wimmin's issues

Virgin Media abandoned Chessington and Hook for nearly 24 hours. No TV, no cable broadband, although the phone was still working.

I’m actually writing this on Word, with the hope that I can copy it to my blog once it’s back. It feels as though I am writing in the dark.

It’s a shame because I wanted to share with you yesterday the Lib Dem policy paper called ‘Real Women’. Instead of a text-heavy report we have been sent a lively and colourful magazine. It has already been commented on by the press, although they have mainly been salivating over airbrushing.

Real Women actually makes some very pertinent points about body image. Anorexia and body-hating depression are far too common, but it has been pretty difficult to start an informed and sensible debate about this. Sadly, the press just see it as another excuse to bring out a glamour pic. And, of course, it is the media which have helped to create the unattainable ideal that girls and young women want.

Back in 1917 the ‘perfect’ woman was 5ft 4in and nearly 10stone. 100 years later, and girls aspire to be very tall and very, very thin.

All fashion features and cosmetic adverts use airbrushing – a technique that creates impossibly smooth and featureless skin. Actually you can achieve even more today with PhotoShop – bums can be reduced, boobs can be enlarged and necks can be lengthened to order, skin colour can be changed, backgrounds removed or faked.

This is not a trivial issue. Children, especially girls, are growing up with aspirations that could seriously damage their health, and models abuse their bodies to make it to the catwalk.

So Jo Swinson MP and her team that developed the policy are proposing that children should be protected by outlawing digitally altered images on adverts aimed at under 16s, and that all other ads should indicate if they have been retouched. Sounds sensible to me.

But those are only two of the 40 proposals. Here are some that jumped out of the page at me:

  • Help women find out if they are being paid less than other people doing a similar job. (In my career, this was never a problem – teaching has public payscales, and jobs are advertised at specific points on the scales. So why can’t other organisations be transparent about the pay scales they are using?)
  • Recruit and train thousands more health visitors and midwives. (Especially Kingston Hospital?)
  • Tackle the problem of teenage girls dropping out of exercising by encouraging schools to include a greater choice, eg dance, yoga and aerobics. (Ah, if only that had been available to me… I might have developed a very different body image myself)
  • Set up 15 new Rape Crisis Centres and 10 Sexual Assault Referral Centres. (Of course)
  • Provide all women with access to Violence against Women services, regardless of their immigration status. (Of course, of course)

Unlike Labour and Conservatives, Liberal Democrats decide on their policy at conference, in large public debates. The Party Conference begins on Saturday, so I will make sure I am in the Auditorium on Saturday afternoon to support all the proposals.

We still oppose the Greenwich Judgement, whatever the Comet might say

Oh dear! - the Comet has got it completely wrong. It states that the Council has 'passed a motion in support of the controversial Greenwich Judgement'.

No!!! Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Greenwich Judgement is the legal ruling made in 1989 which said that school admissions policies were not allowed to favour children who lived in the borough. This has resulted in today's situation where three quarters of the pupils in the two Tiffin Schools come from outside the Royal Borough.

In Kingston, all the political parties have opposed this. When Ian was Chair of Education in the 90s he attended meetings with ministers to explain the impact of the Judgement and to plea for a change in legislation.

At Council on Wednesday we discussed a very badly worded motion from the Conservatives, which asked a question rather than proposed action. Liberal Democrats put forward an amendment and after some negotiation we found ourselves in the happy position of agreeing the final version with the Conservatives. (Happy, because it shortened the meeting considerably)

Earlier in the year Kingston put forward our proposals for changes under the Sustainable Communities Act, and top of the list was a call to reverse the Greenwich Judgement. So the Council still clearly opposes the ruling.

All that the motion on Wednesday did was to affirm the fact that we should not rely on possible changes to the Greenwich Judgement to sort out the current pressure on school places. The Borough will push ahead with building new school places 'before any modification of the Greenwich Judgement is implemented'. This is sensible since it is impossible to gauge the exact impact of a reversal of the ruling - it would affect Kingston children who attend out-borough schools as well as those who come in to Kingston from other boroughs. And in any case, legislation, were it to happen, would take ages.

What annoys me most about this story in the Comet is that it undermines all the work done under the Sustainable Communities Act. Residents and local organisations gave priority to changing the Judgement and the Council supported them. They wanted to do this because local children cannot get into the two grammar schools, and this is seen as unfair. 'Local schools for local people' has been a rallying cry ever since 1989.

Now this badly written report implies that the Council has overridden the local view. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Oppose the Greenwich Judgement!

Kingston at Conference

I've just been up on the platform at the Liberal Party Conference.

With Derek Osbourne and Liz Green, Leader and Deputy of the Council and Roger Hayes, a former Leader, we gave a 20 minute presentation about what Kingston Liberal Democrats have achieved.

We had spent ages putting together a presentation of dozens of photos which were flashed up behind us as we spoke.

You should be able to see it on BBC i-Player. Search for BBC Parliament at 10.15am today.

Vince and a Liberal economy

Liberal Democrats put Freedom and Equality in the same sentence.

That is how we differ dramatically from both libertarians and liberal Conservatives (Cllr Robert-John Tasker please note).

We don't believe in a completely free market, we don't believe that the self-interests of citizens will necessarily protect the vulnerable. So our commitment to individual liberties is always balanced by a concern for social justice.

Vince Cable set his proposals for dealing with the economic problems well within this Liberal framework:

  • No-one on the minimum wage should pay income tax. That would bring 4 million people out of the tax system.
  • On the other hand, people in homes that are worth more than £1 Million should pay an additional levy.
  • The Civil Service bonus and expenses culture should be regulated.
  • Unaccountable Quangos, like the London Development Agency, who spend billions of public money, should be abolished and their powers returned to local government.
  • We should cut the huge ID and other databases which are an affront to civil liberties, and ridiculously expensive.
  • We should manage tax credits better so that the well-off don't get them but the needy do.
  • The High Street Banks should be separated from investment banks so they can provide a genuinely risk free home for our money. But we do need a British Investment Bank that will invest in the green economy, to everyone's evetual benefit.

... All good liberal stuff, but not at all to the liking of the Tories.

A Fresh Start

The Liberal Democrat manifesto for the next General Election is likely to go through some tweaks between now and next May. It will need to be able to respond to the changing economic situation right up to that magic moment when Parliament is dissolved.

Which leaves the Party with a dilemma. The Liberal Democrats are the only major party in which all policy is decided by Conference. Voting delegates are sent from local parties in proportion to their local membership, so it is the members who decide policy - not the Leader, not the MPs, and not the Federal Policy Committee. This can make for some pretty edgy debates.

Much has been made in the media of the 'challenge' to our Leader, Nick Clegg. He is a Liberal, of course, and knows that whatever he proposes has to subjected to the scrutiny of the members - and all in the very public glare of the press and with full TV coverage.

But that's how we do things. It's called democracy.

So, today the party's Policy Committee put forward a set of proposals that would form the framework for the manifesto for next year, under the title 'A Fresh Start for Britain'. It was basically a summary of key policies that we already have, and an indication of some of the priorities.

In the meantime, Nick has been warning everyone that we must be prepared for cuts. And we must be honest with the electorate about what we propose, even if it is a little too early to be specific right now. He is right, but party members were getting jittery about their favourite bits of policy. No sacred cows? - well, Conference made it very clear that that there are some policies that they really do want to keep, however challenging it might be - to abolish tuition fees, in particular, and no means testing for child benefits, for another.

One early election slogan was mooted: Vote for the Liberal Democrats and get Vince Cable as Chancellor.

Democracy Live - brilliant new BBC initiative

I have just come from a packed fringe meeting where Andrew Neil and Mark Byford (the Deputy Director-General of the BBC) unveiled an astonishing new offering that will go live in November.

It's called Democracy Live and it will bring together all the political resources into one space on the BBC website. We were shown a film of the development site, so I can't link to it yet. The home page had a video wall giving live feeds from the Commons, Lords, Select Committees, Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Irish Assemblies and the European Parliament. It plans to add the London Assembly very soon, too.

Around this are postcode searches for elected representatives and a very clever search function that will allow you to track down video of anything your chosen MP, MEP, AM etc has said.

All this will be backed by information about the powers and functions of all levels of government. Local government is within the frame too, initially with feeds from local councils and links to websites.

Very exciting stuff, and I feel privileged to have seen a preview. Watch out for it in November!

View the Kingston presentation at Conference.

You can view the presentation that Kingston Lib Dems gave to the Conference on Sunday.

It may only be on the BBC i-player site for a few more days, so catch it while you can.

Click here and then move forward about 1 hour 13mins.

Update

The video isn't available anymore on the BBC site. But we will be posting an extract here later in the week.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo which shows a shows a shot taken at the South of the Borough Neighbourhood Committee behind my head.

Blogging councillors

Random fact - well, not so random really.

In the UK ...

  • 7% of all Liberal Democrat councillors have websites/blogs.
  • 2% of all Conservative councillors have websites/blogs.
  • 1% of all Labour councillors have websites/blogs.

The regulation of friendship

When some ghastly crime against children, such as the Soham or Baby P murders, clobbers the nation's conscience, the first guilty reaction is to bring in new regulations.

The problem with trying to legislate against evil is that it can also legislate against good.

The response to the Victoria Climbie case in 2000, was, as I've said before, one of the most humane government reports that I have seen - 'Every Child Matters'. It called for agencies that support children to work together. Obvious, really.

In parallel, the Criminal Records Bureau was set up in 2002, amid growing concern and some scaremongering about paedophiles. This had come to a head with the murder of Sarah Payne, also in 2000, who it must be said, was taken by a stranger, not by a professional. Nevertheless there had been enough coverage in the press about abuse in children's homes for parents to believe that their children were constantly at risk from predatory adults.

The response to the Soham murders, which happened just months after the CRB was launched, was to tighten up the regulations, making it essential for anyone who had been offered a job with children to have a CRB check done before they started work.

All well and good.

But every regulation is a curtailment of an individual's freedom, so needs to be both justified and proportionate. Liberal Democrats have liberty as a core value; this does not mean that we should all be free to do whatever we like, but rather that any restriction on liberty must be for the general good.

This must involve a careful assessment of risk. We cannot remove risks completely, and indeed some element of risk is essential if children are to grow into confident and courageous adults. The important thing is to balance the level of risk against the restrictions created by regulations.

The use of CRB checks on people who work with children has always seemed to me to be a sensible thing to do. Parents hand their children over to professionals in schools and nurseries, some of whom may be completely unknown to them, so they need to be sure that their children are not at risk from people with a criminal record.

Further laudable legislation in the Children's Act 2006 means that childminders have to be registered and follow certain rules.

But once a regulation is unleashed on society it tends to take on a life of its own. Job's-worth employees tell us that we can't do something that is completely harmless because 'it's the regulation'.

And that is what seems to have happened with the regulations around child care.

The case in the press this weekend concerned two police officers who were job-sharing. When each was on duty the other cared for both sets of children. This is an eminently sensible solution and I've known other pairs of friends who have done the same thing. It has huge benefits - the children are cared for in a consistent way and with the same companions, each parent is confident that their child is being well cared for, and no money needs to change hands.

But it appears that this arrangement falls foul of the regulations, and the police officers face prosecution because they were not registered as childminders.

Now family and friendship lie at the heart of our society; but the importance of friends is often overlooked. When family may be far away, many parents rely on their network of friends for support. Friends make us laugh, help us to keep our sense of proportion, listen to us, confide in us, share our interests and generally make our lives better. We choose our friends, and we take the consequences if we make bad choices.

So it is entirely natural for parents to trust their friends to look after their children. And indeed, society simply wouldn't function if we didn't have all kinds of informal arrangements between friends.

My first step into community activism was to set up a babysitting group when my first child was a baby. We invented our own currency, in the form of vouchers that we exchanged for each hour of babysitting that we did or received. We all met up once a month with the children, developing a strong support network for each other. Each parent chose who to ask to babysit, so we each remained in control.

Lifelong friendships have developed from that group, both between the parents and between the children. It was altogether beneficial, and one of those informal, unregulated activities that make a community work.

It seems that such arrangements could also be 'illegal' under the Children's Act, although I guess it has yet to be tested in court.

And yet, all the evidence suggests that children are at far greater risk from family members (who are not covered by the legislation) than from family friends.

The balance has gone wrong - regulation and legislation must be proportionate to the perceived potential for harm.

We must remain free to choose our friends, and to choose to entrust them with our children.

Update

There is an online petition to No 10 on this very issue, so do sign it if you agree with me.

Kingston's presentation at conference

The presentation that Kingston Liberal Democrats made at Conference is now ready for your viewing pleasure.

Part 1 ...




Part 2 ...



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