March 2010

New Information and Advice Centre

When I was first elected to the Council 13 years ago, many residents were complaining about how difficult it was to communicate with the Council.

When they phoned with a query or problem they were passed from one person to another - if they got through in the first place, that is.

When they turned up in person they didn't know where to go or who to speak to, and would sometimes be berated for speaking to the 'wrong' person.

When they wrote a letter they got a reply written in a complex official style that was often difficult to interpret.

Eight years ago, when the Liberal Democrats took control of Kingston Council, I was given a role with responsibility for Communications and Participation. The first thing I did was to set up a Better Letters campaign. This enforced the use of Plain English in all Council letters. We even gave an award for the most improved standard letter.

We also created the first phone contact centres, for Environmental Services and Council Tax & Housing Benefit. When you phoned a dedicated number you spoke pretty immediately to someone, and the aim was that the person who answered the phone should be able to deal with at least 90% of the queries. Call management software was installed, so that the staff could see exactly how many people were queueing, and so that other staff could be brought on to the system at busy times. This was a huge improvement on what we had to put up with before.

Another innovation under my watch were the new Information points staffed by people who could help with queries on any Council service. They were positioned at the main desks at the Guildhall, and at the Malden Centre and in the South of the Borough Neighbourhood Office in Elm Road. This last was moved across to the Hook Centre when it opened.

Lots of other steps have been taken since then to improve communications, and the latest has been quietly launched this year.

The new Information and Advice Centre is in Guildhall 2, which is the building behind the main Guildhall that straddles the Hogsmill River. (Look out for the resident heron)

When you go in through the main door you are greeted by one of the Information Staff, as in the photo. Tell them what you need advice on - anything to do with the Council - and they will try to help you directly.

If you need to see a specialist they will log you in and direct you across the hallway to the attractive advice area. Here you should wait no longer than 10 minutes to see someone.

In the background, similar work is going on to bring all the phone contact centres together into one Information and Advice help line. Don't worry - this is not going to be outsourced to another country. When you phone you will be speaking to a Kingston council employee located in the Borough.

What's happening in Elm Road?

The simple answer is that it has been closed to traffic, because it is about to be resurfaced.

You've probably read in the national press about the pothole crisis. The severe weather this winter has really damaged the surface of the roads, so in the last few weeks the engineers have been out surveying every road in the borough.

There are three kinds of repairs that can be done. The cheapest option is patching, where the pothole is filled in and levelled. Next comes resurfacing, where the surface of a whole stretch of road is removed and then new tarmac applied.

The third option is for a complete rebuild of a road. This is done when the underlying structure beneath the tarmac surface has become damaged and deformed, so the builders have to go down a foot or so to replace the materials. This option is very expensive.

The engineers have decided that some local roads need substantial urgent repairs. Buses do damage the roadway, so it's not surprising that most of the roads in most urgent need are heavily used bus routes. Unfortunately that also means that buses have to be diverted while the repairs are going on.

Elm Road is being resurfaced rather than completely rebuilt. The stretch of Moor Lane from Gosbury Hill to the bridge will be done next.

Also due for resurfacing are Stormont Way and Woodgate Avenue (which will be done in two phases so the buses can continue).

Garrison Lane, down near Chessington South Station, will need to be completely rebuilt in the next few months and buses will have to be diverted. More about that nearer the time.

In the meantime, patching will be done across the borough on all the other roads damaged by the weather, although it will take some time to get around the hundreds of miles of roads.

I'm not the kingmaker

Nick Clegg has sent out an email to members and supporters, which I thought was worth reprinting in full, given the clamour about a possible hung Parliament.

"I'm not the kingmaker.

45 million voters are the kingmakers.

Today I've used my keynote speech to our Spring Conference in Birmingham to make that one very simple, very important point. Some days the papers say our party is doing a deal with Labour. Some days the Conservatives. But they can't predict the future. I can't predict the future.

Voters should give politicians their marching orders - not the other way around.

We've made it clear how our Party will change Britain.

Under the Liberal Democrats, no-one will pay tax on the first £10,000 they earn. That's the most fundamental change to the tax system for decades.

We will give every child the fair start they deserve, by reducing class sizes and increasing one to one tuition in our schools.

We'll rebalance the economy so that Britain is no longer just betting on things, but Britain starts building things again.

And we will build a clean, open, fair politics.

Things don't have to be the way they are. The coming election is a chance to get fairness and to get change.

Almost 1 in 4 voters chose the Liberal Democrats at the last election. If that increased to 1 in 3, we could lead the next government.

That is what we can achieve together. Thank you for all you are doing to bring it about."

School places

A number of primary schools in the borough are being expanded to meet the increased numbers of young children.

In South of the Borough there are proposals to expand both Ellingham Primary and Lovelace Primary, each by one form of entry. If you'd like to find out more, the Council is holding consultation meetings as follows:

Lovelace Primary, 27th April, 7pm at the school

Ellingham Primary, 29th April, 7pm at the school

You can find more infromation about the plans on the Council's website.

Moor Lane springs a leak

The work began this week to resurface Moor Lane between Gosbury Hill and the railway bridge - that's good news, of course.

But the bad news is that the contractor uncovered an old Thames Water trench near Tudor Close that needed to be repaired before the road could be tarmaced. Thames Water have been working on it, and eventually Bardons, the road contractors, will be back to finish the resurfacing. In the mean time, Bardons had to withdraw their team and put them on another job while Thames Water were doing their repairs.

The South of the Borough Community Plan is having an impact

A year ago the South of the Borough's Community Plan was brought to life in a workshop. Anyone was welcome was welcome to attend and participate, but we made sure that we invited leaders of as many local organisations as we could find.

We also asked for volunteers to form a Community Steering Group, whose main task would be to turn the ideas generated at the workshop into a viable action plan. Everyone present was invited to join the online Community Panel which would act as a sounding board for these and other local issues.

This was a new venture in the Borough, thought up by the councillors, and now other Neighbourhoods are doing the same thing.

What it means is that the priorities of the Neighbourhood Committee (that is, all the councillors in the Neighbourhood) are driven by members of the community.

The Community Plan wasn't just about the Council, but also referred to services provided by NHS Kingston, the Mayor for London and the police. This means that councillors have to work with these other bodies to ensure that the needs of our community are met.

Last year's Community Plan included these issues:

1. Accommodation for the Safer Neighbourhood Police: Although our Safer Neighbourhood teams were the first in the Borough, the teams still do not have suitable accommodation within the Neighbourhood.

2. Our inability, shared with RBK, to influence planning decisions on housing: Planning Inspectors at recent planning appeals have indicated that if the Authority had an approved Character Study and agreed minimum standards of amenity space provision, it would be in a better position to defend some planning appeals.

3. Policing: There has been concern over a long period that road policing on the A3 and A243 is only conducted by CCTV, radar traps and ANPR exercises. This does not address the all day, endemic nature of bad driving, mobile phone use and crime that takes place on our roads.

4. Health and Traffic Pollution: South of the Borough has the highest incidence of chronic chest disease (COPD) in Kingston. It has been suggested that this may be due to pollution from the A3 and A243.

5. Traffic Volume: Concerns at volume of traffic using A243

6. Communications:
a. TfL: The levels of customer care offered to the local community by TfL are of concern to the local community.
b. RBK: This failure to communicate is also reflected in the community’s experience with RBK. Despite the best efforts of officers and Councillors, contractors do not respond.

7. Facilities for youth: The Participatory Needs Assessment for York Way, Garrison Lane and Green Lane housing estates identified a need for a youth cafe where young people can get involved in music, youth cinema, sports, computers, outdoor activities and outings.

You can download this list, with an update on what has been achieved over the last year, from the Council website.

Last week we revisited the Community Plan with a new workshop, starting the process all over again. Some interesting new issues were identified.

If you would like to join the Community Panel then get in touch with Barry Allen, the Neighbourhood Manager, [email protected].

Gosbury Hill is not the right place for a walk-in clinic

Last month I wrote a lengthy post giving all the background to the proposal for a GP-led walk-in clinic in the Hook Clinic in Gosbury Hill.

I had to be rather guarded at the time about my views on these plans, because there was a good chance that planning permission would be required very soon. As a councillor, and Chair of the local planning committee (South of the Borough Neighbourhood Committee), if I had expressed an opinion ahead of the relevant planning meeting then I would have predetermined my views and would have been barred from the meeting. That would have applied to all my Neighbourhood colleagues as well.

Last week we heard from the Planning Officers that planning permission was not required so I am now free to say what I think.

And it is this: I do not think this is the right location. I have come round to the view that a walk-in clinic would be an asset for the Neighbourhood, provided it is on a suitable site.

Gosbury Hill is not a suitable site, for a number of reasons.

The prime reasons relate to the impact on quiet suburban streets - Gosbury Hill, Orchard Gardens, Elm Road and Moor Lane. All currently have limited parking, and patients find it difficult to find a space when visiting the GPs now. The new proposals will include a new GP practice, which will generate its own traffic, plus a clinic that will be open to anyone, wherever they may live. Although on a bus route, most patients attending the walk-in clinic will come by car.

There is also the problem of disturbance at weekends and over public holidays. The clinic will be open to allcomers from 8am to 8pm every single day of the year - yes, including Christmas Day. This is a substantial change from the current Monday to Friday surgery hours, with occasional appointments on Saturday.

Finally, we have been campaigning for ages for better facilities for the two practices (Orchard Practice and Grays Practice), and were delighted when NHS Kingston offered them the lease of the Hook Clinic, which has been little used for years. The current conditions for the two practices are very inadequate and the extra space in the Hook Clinic building would have provided both practices with reasonable accommodation in the short term, and a good site on which to do a new build in the long term.

So I, and many others, were astonished when Dr Gray proposed bringing in the new GP practice and walk-in clinic, onto the same site. In fact the new facilities will take over the Hook Clinic leaving both GP practices in exactly the same unsatisfactory state as before.

Sadly, it looks as though NHS Kingston will go ahead with this, in spite of widespread opposition. The NHS does not operate within a local democracy - its local policies are dictated to from Whitehall, or NHS London, and it only pays lip service to local consultation and the views of residents.

Standing down

I am standing down as a councillor on May 6th, when we will have the elections to Kingston Council.

My reasons are very simple - I have done my bit and feel ready to move on now. Not surprisingly, Ian and I have discussed this for quite a while and we decided to stand down together.

We both have work and projects that will keep us fully occupied. In my case, I am revising a book that I wrote a few years ago and have some ideas for future publications, while Ian continues working at the hospital. I will also be able to give more time to a number of voluntary things that I'm involved in - e-democracy, charities and the Rose Theatre.

It was over 13 years ago that I was asked to stand in a by-election in what was then Hook ward. The previous Lib Dem councillor had to resign through ill-health and my husband Ian was the other councillor in the ward.

In fact, although Ian had been elected in 1990 I had been heavily involved in the local party since the 1970s. For many years I was employed by Kingston Council so was ineligible to stand as a councillor. Instead I organised political activities in the background. But by 1997 Kingston College, where I then worked, had become independent of the Council so I was free to put my name forward.

The by-election was in February. On the doorstep the main issue was gritting. It was very cold, and the evenings were dark. I much prefer spring elections!

It was also just a few months before the expected General Election so all the local parties used my by-election as an opportunity to do some early canvassing and as a training exercise for their activists. Over 100 helpers turned up at my house during the short election campaign. It was hectic, exciting and totally exhausting. (And paid dividends with Edward Davey's astonishing victory in June that year)

It was also complicated by the fact that I was Mayoress at the time! I had to stand down from mayoral duties during the election period because the Council could not be seen to be favouring any one candidate.

Since then I have had a number of roles on the Council - opposition spokesperson on Education and Leisure, Executive (Cabinet) Member for Participation and Communication, Executive Member for Children and Young People's Services, Chair of South of the Borough Neighbourhood, plus a wonderful year as Mayor.

It has been almost entirely enjoyable - at times stressful, at times frustrating, but the overall feeling is one of satisfaction that we councillors can actually do things that make a difference to people's lives. Some of those things that I have been closely involved with are publicly known: a random list includes the Hook Centre, transforming Beverley Boys School into Coombe Boys, e-petitions, Moor Lane Centre, e-ticketing on the Council website, Plain English in all Council communications, pedestrian crossings on the A243, Neighbourhood Community Plan, Council information points, Devon Way Centre, school bus to Hinchley Wood, resisting all back garden development in the ward, and (close to my heart) the Rose Theatre. Other things have to remain confidential, because my casework covers all kinds of personal issues and problems that I have usually managed to solve successfully.

I'll miss some of it, but I'm not the sort of person who has regrets or withdrawal symptoms. Instead I'll just get on with enjoying the next stage of my life, and be grateful that I've experienced the privilege of being active in public life in the Royal Borough.

Oh - and I intend to carry on blogging.

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Tory U-turn on threat to Kingston Hospital

At last night's Full Council meeting the Tories finally acknowledged that our MPs had been right all along about the threat to Kingston Hospital.

(See the Save Kingston Hospital campaign site for more information and to sign the petition)

At the Council meeting the Conservatives decided to support the Liberal Democrat motion which called on NHS London to release in full the 'South West London Strategic Plan' and condemned any proposals to reduce services at the hospital.

This was in marked contrast to all the accusations of 'scaremongering' and 'electioneering' that they have been shouting over the last couple of months.

At the special Health Overview Panel meeting last month, Healthcare for South West London admitted that the leaked document was genuine and contained 18 options, of which 16 would mean cutting major services at Kingston Hospital. Even so, the Tories on the Panel voted against the recommendation, which was essentially the same as the one agreed last night.

Of course, it is good that we now have a united campaign. But it is sad that the Tories have been so blinkered by their election campaign that they have not been able to acknowledge that a real threat existed.

Published by Mary Reid, 126 Clayton Road, Hook Chessington KT9 1NJ
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