June 2011

Who is 'surprised' that Kingston has the second best shopping street in the country?

So Kingston Market Place is, according the the Guardian, the 'surprising' second in Google Street View's poll to find the best shopping street in the UK. (Hopefully, this link will show the final results later today, but in the mean time they can be seen on the Guardian page)

Why 'surprising'?

A rather fuzzy photo I took when the TA were parading through the Market last yearA rather fuzzy photo I took when the TA were parading through the Market last yearUp to half a million visitors per week come shopping in Kingston, so presumably they enjoy its very special surroundings. The Ancient Market area is a group of mediaeval streets surrounding a triangular open space, which houses a daily fruit and vegetable market that has a charter going back 400 years, and a history going back to the Saxons. Whether shopping in Ghost or Kew, Patisserie Valerie or Greggs, you do need to look up and take in the fascinating architecture.

The oldest shop in the Market is the late sixteenth century house to the left of the iconic building that used to house Next (I do hope it gets a new tenant soon), but there are several others dating from Tudor times. My favourite is the tiny black and white shop, which used to be the town mortuary, situated round the corner in the Memorial Gardens.

I'm not a fan of pastiche architecture, preferring new buildings in an honest contemporary style, so I was rather worried about the reconstruction of the west (river) side of the Market as part of the large development by St George's. They decided to give the store where Next now is, three different facades, reflecting the Tudor, Regency and Victorian styles found in the area. But I have to admit that they have done it with flair.

Chrissie Hitchcock must be very proud of the Google accolade. She was Chair of Kingston Town Neighbourhood until her stint last year as Mayor. She campaigned for the pedestrianisation of the Market Place, against Conservative opposition, and that has given the space a piazza atmosphere, with outdoor cafe seating, visiting food markets and a German Christmas market.

Chrissie was also responsible for the delightful flat-bed fountain. In the summer (and sometimes in the winter too) children love running in and out of the unpredictable spouts of water.

Half a million visitors a week is a lot for this small borough of 160,000 residents to cope with. Although the Ancient Market is the heart of the town, Clarence Street with the excellent Bentalls Centre, John Lewis and all the High Street brands is just round the corner. The Market itself is close to the river with all its pubs and restaurants and the Rose Theatre.

For some years we have had a Kingston Town Centre Management team, which is independent of the Council but with its full support. In 2004 it established the first Business Improvement District in the UK, branded as Kingston First. This takes a 1% levy on top of Business Rates from all the businesses in the town centre, and the funding is used to make improvements.

This has been hugely successful - and again I have to point out that this was a Lib Dem initiative.

But going back to that Guardian article about the 'best shopping street' award, I was taken aback by the claim that London did not make the shortlist. Er ... Kingston is in Greater London, you know.

Isn't it odd how Kingston is seen as part of London when it comes to raising funds for the Olympics (even though Kingston will have no direct benefit) but that it never appears in lists of things to do in the capital. London is too often equated with London postal districts (the old Inner London) rather than Greater London. Kingston seems to fall into a crack between London and Surrey.

In spite of this, shoppers come to Kingston and foodies find restaurants like The French Table not far away in Surbiton.

So, thank you, to everyone who voted for Kingston (and yes, I did vote for it!)

Great Ormond Street Hospital: the Baby P scandal is not over

You may have seen Lynne Featherstone (Equalities Minister and Liberal Democrat MP) on the BBC calling for the Chief Executive of Great Ormond Street Hospital to resign over the Baby P scandal.

You can watch the interview and read Lynne's own blog on the subject which gives far more detail than I ever could. Mark Pack gives a useful summary on Lib Dem Voice.

In a nutshell, Lynne claims that senior staff at Great Ormond Street withheld important information from the Serious Case Reviews into Baby P's death. You may remember that while Haringey Social Services were heavily criticised at the time, there was also real concern about the medical incompetence at the hospital where doctors failed to pick up very serious injuries to the child.

Update: 2nd July 2011

Doctors at Great Ormond Street have called for an inquiry into the cover-up.

Bloggers and journos at the Social Liberal Forum Conference

Chris Huhne's speech at the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday makes the main headline in the Guardian today. Sadly I missed the actual speech because I was busy on some of the admin of the conference.

I'm slightly irritated by the reference in the article to "a conference of social democrats" - although there is considerable overlap between Liberal Democrats who might describe themselves as either 'social liberals' or 'social democrats', the terms do not mean the same thing. You can read an interesting discussion about the distinctions between the two on the Liberal England blog.

(Incidently, there was a lot of media interest in the conference. I signed in BBC News, ITN, Channel 4 News, Sky News, the Independent on Sunday and The Observer)

One of my jobs at the conference was to set up interviews for bloggers with some of our star speakers - Vince Cable Chris Huhne and Evan Harris. I joined in the latter, and thanked Evan for graciously submitting himself to a uniquely Liberal Democrat form of interrogation.

Evan and I had just come from a conference session entitled "Health Reforms - good for us" which I had chaired and where he had been the main speaker. I started by asking Evan to summarise his reaction to a week that had seen the FutureForum's report on the consultation on NHS reform, and the Government's reaction to it.

He claimed a victory for the amendment that went to Spring Conference, and which was was heavily backed by the Social Liberal Forum.That led to a complete rethink by our Parliamentary party, and eventually to the 'pause' and then the climbdown that we have seen this week.

As demanded by Liberal Democrats, the revised proposals for the NHS have removed competition on price, have increased transparency and local accountability and have watered down the over-controlling brief given to Monitor (the new regulator) to drive competition.

But Evan was concerned that the FutureForum's report was written by Health officials, who appeared to have been instructed to find new ways of driving competition. Liberals Democrats are not against choice and competition, but in times of austerity other principles are far more important - quality of care, cost effectiveness, fairness, access to services, reduction in health inequalities - and yet these seem to have been downgraded in the report.

That was followed by an interesting discussion about the most effective ways for Liberal Democrat members to influence Government. Our party policy is determined by members at Spring and Autumn conferences, and the experience over the Health and Social Care Bill has shown just how powerful this can be. But it is, as someone said, a rather 'clunky' way of doing things and leaves a six month gap between conferences during which much can happen without members' involvement. Evan outlined the roles of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committees, where the Federal Policy Committee has a crucial part to play. Evan has also been involved with the SLF in developing conference motions to strengthen that link. However, this may seem rather arcane to readers who are not interested in internal party politics.

You can read a comprehensive record of the interview with Evan over at Spiderplantland.. Lisa Harding who writes that blog asked Evan a couple of thoughtful questions about the human impact of political upheaval. Evan had unexpectedly lost his seat after a campaign which had become personal and hurtful. He was surprisingly gracious and not at all bitter about the experience. However, he was worried that the success of the attacks on him would have two consequences, namely that it would encourage this unpleasant style of campaigning in the future and that it might put off good candidates from standing.

Would he stand again for Parliament? He would not commit himself on this question - it depended on the outcome of the Boundary Review. But even though his achievements from the outside have been momentous, I can't see him wanting to stand on the sidelines for ever.

From left: Andrew Emmerson, Andy Strange, Evan Harris, David Grace, me, Lisa Harding

Save the Surrey Comet

Local newspapers can be the bane of politicians, but they are vitally important in a lively democracy.

I've had my own ups and downs with the Surrey Comet, but I do have to say that they have a strong team of reporters at present. There have been one or two in the past whose grasp of the issues has been lamentable, but people like the current David Lindsell and Martin George research their topics thoroughly and get the facts right.

OK - that does look suspiciously like brown-nosing (a phrase that I hate, but I can't think of a better one). But I'm no longer a councillor and I've stopped getting those weekly phone calls asking for my snap judgement on local events, so you can trust me on this!

The Surrey Comet has been around since 1854, named after Halley's Comet, so it is quite an institution. It appears to be under threat from its owners, Newsquest, who own most of the local papers across South London.

Reporters have been working to rule and have been on strike for a couple of days in the last month about this. Vince Cable has stated his concern in relation to the Richmond and Twickenham Times, which is one of the titles affected by redundancies.

There's a Save the Surrey Comet blog where you can follow developments. And a petition to sign as well.

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