A30 parking scheme and angry residents..

Haven’t written a blog for a while but tonight we had the next instalment of the sorry saga regarding the A30 parking permit scheme in Camberley. For those new to all this, hundreds of people in Surrey Heath were caught out by a parking change in a short stretch of Camberley Town Centre road along the A30 and ended up having to pay expensive fines. Whilst due process in terms of the letter of the law was followed by both Councils, we had a typical local government problem of procedure and buck-passing trumping common sense and empathy. End result is of course lots of angry residents losing valuable money and no-one being seen to take any kind of responsibility.

Tonight saw a petition and speech from local vicar, Bruce Nicole of over 800 local residents requesting a refund for fines prior to the larger signs being established. In addition, many other residents were very angry about other associated and relevant issues.

Much as I would have liked to publicly comment on the subject during the meeting, I am there as a rep from Surrey Heath Borough Council albeit as an opposition member. As such, I can’t really speak for SHBC on this issue but it was a pity that the Cllr responsible (who was present in the audience) chose not to identify themselves or make any kind of contribution on any of the important points raised.

Starting with the process, anyone unhappy with a penalty charge on procedural grounds can and should appeal and the details of this are on the Council website.

http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/transport/carparking/PCN.htm

These details are also on the letter of the penalty charge and involve writing to the Council summarising the grounds and including any evidence such as photos. This will be considered by a different Parking officer based on the evidence provided and I think is generally by one of the Parking team leaders/managers although can’t confirm this for sure. It is not a Panel either of officers or Cllrs as was suggested tonight.

If your appeal is rejected by the Council, you can then appeal to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and their website is here. http://www.trafficpenaltytribunal.gov.uk/site/index.php
They are a body completely independent of the Council and will look at your evidence and that of the Council before coming to a final decision which is binding on all parties. It is very rare for any costs to be awarded against people who appeal.

However, it would appear (at least from a letter that one resident kindly showed me today) that the Borough Council do not actually tell people about the Traffic Penalty Tribunal when they give their decision about someone’s appeal. It does appear on the Council’s website albeit not in a prominent place. This means that many residents are not even aware that there is a completely independent body that can overturn a Council’s decision about the validity of an individual charge or that they can then appeal to them.

I wasn’t aware of this omission and it seems very wrong to me so I will be asking the Portfolio Holder to change this. In my view, every appeal decision letter should include details of the Traffic Penalty Tribunal so residents can take it further if they so wish.

It is important to note that the Tribunal cannot overturn Council policy but is merely there to interpret the validity or otherwise of a penalty charge notice.

On a different note, it also appears that the customer service of the Borough Council has been found lacking on this subject. A number of residents stated that they had contacted the Council/senior officers and found no response or very delayed. As was mentioned by a colleague, part of this can be explained by current personal circumstances of one senior officer to whom we offer our full support. However, it would appear that despite best endeavours, some resident messages may have slipped through the Council net and therefore not received any or a suitable response. This is clearly very frustrating for those residents who still expect the Council as an entity to respond even if individuals for very good reason are not able to do so at this time. Hopefully, other senior officers and members will relook at whether there are any current gaps and cover as best they can even if just with a holding response. Most residents will give the Council a lot of credit if they are just kept informed without needing every detail.

Telling residents caught out that it is all their fault is just not a suitable response either and greatly irritates people. No-one is forced to park in Camberley and all that happens is they will go elsewhere and tell others about how bad Camberley and how bad the Council is. Like any business, it takes a long time to gain a customer and a short time to lose them. The argument put by many is that it is the Council’s responsibility to put up signs big enough for people to see and there is no law to stop them being bigger than “national guidelines”.

Turning to a different issue and the conduct of individual parking officers was also questioned again with one resident claiming that two officers watched them park but said nothing to them and then gave them a ticket. It is important to note that the Borough Council have repeatedly stated that staff do not get any bonus or financial incentive to issue tickets.

In addition to the appeal process for fines mentioned above, if ever people wish to raise concern about any individual Surrey Heath officer, you can also use the Council’s Complaints system and details of this can be found here:-

http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/services/list.htm?mode=8&pk_services=250

Again, if you exhaust the Council’s internal system which involves consideration by senior managers, there is the Local Government Ombudsman who is independent. You can also contact your local Cllr if you think there is a policy or political issue that needs addressing. However, Cllrs won’t get involved in staffing matters (such as complaints against individual officers) which are dealt with by senior managers. Cllrs should (it does vary though) outline the general process to you and can make enquiries about the progression.

As I have previously said, this situation is a sorry state of affairs to which neither Council or any Cllrs emerge with any credit. Personally, I don’t think that anyone is “to blame” but the system failed and no-one should allow this to happen again. If we can all raise awareness and avoid a repeat then at least one positive will come from it.

Parking foul-ups don’t help Camberley…

The last Full Council meeting before Christmas tends to be a low-key affair going through a few formalities before Cllrs disappear off for mulled wine and mince pies.

However, tonight was different as parking was on the agenda. I had submitted a written question as follows:-

“As a Council, it is important that we keep high levels of public confidence particularly regarding our parking offer in Camberley Town Centre. Therefore,
(a) How many penalty charge notices have been issued for failing to display a valid permit on the A30 slip road since this scheme came in earlier this year?
(b) How many vehicles and therefore tickets were affected on the evening of Saturday 16th November (Christmas Lights Switch-on) when people were wrongly charged for parking in Knoll Road at a time when it was advertised as being free after 4pm?”

The answer I was expecting was two numbers. However, instead we got a very lengthy speech by the Business Portfolio Holder which lasted several minutes – the summary of which was that (a) was entirely the fault of Surrey County Council. It was only at the very end that we actually got the response which was an astonishing 598 penalty charge notices in a 6 week period. This means that 100 people a week are getting charged £35 (doubled if not paid in 14 days) and over £20k has now been racked up to the public purse.

Now granted, a small percentage may be deliberate people who wouldn’t care perhaps similar to the 13 people who parked for longer than 30 minutes in the neighbouring bay. However, this still leaves several hundred people who have been charged £35 for not realising that the area had now changed and their free 30 mins no longer applies.

The public really don’t actually care whether this is the fault of the Borough Council or the County Council. Nor do they care much for silly finger pointing when both authorities are led by the same political party and should therefore (in theory) get on but clearly don’t.

So what really happened here and more importantly, what are the lessons to be learnt?

Early in 2013, it seems that there was a request from some businesses and residents adjoining the A30 who found it difficult to park. They therefore contacted SCC (I think) to request consideration of a permit scheme along part of the road.

This was then included along with around 75 other requests at a meeting of the Surrey Heath Local Area Committee in March 2013. I attended this meeting as one of the members and the meeting report is here http://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents/g2632/Public%20reports%20pack%20Thursday%2014-Mar-2013%2018.30%20Surrey%20Heath%20Local%20Committee.pdf?T=10

Within a 25 page report on the subject of “Annual Review of On-street parking” – the only mention is this,

“London Road Service Road (1321)
Convert part of the limited waiting bay outside numbers 125 to 139 to ‘permit holders only’. This will make it easier for residents who live in nearby flats located above shops etc to find somewhere to park.”
Now in a meeting that mainly discussed Red Road and youth commissioning, this item did generate debate but mainly on one item namely areas of Heatherside following a delegation from residents. There was no actual discussion (at least from memory) of this particular scheme or any other items. Some of us (wrongly) believed that this particular scheme related to the service road and car park behind the shops whereas others perhaps were in favour, had no opinion or didn’t realise. This matter was therefore agreed without formal voting.

What happens to have happened next is that public notices appeared as usual in the newspapers giving a notice period for objection which no one did.

SCC Officers then preceded to put up these signs (standard size) and the scheme came in. No further information was then given and although some people were then caught, SHBC officers had a standard 2 week grace period before tickets were issued. After then, it was enforced – many hundreds have been caught including cllrs who didn’t realise and then insisted on bigger signs.

This is frankly a sorry affair in which both Councils have followed their own procedures correctly but the overall system was flawed. The lessons are therefore:-

  • - Need for clearer and more concise committee reports for members
  • County members to personally sign off schemes in their area thus showing their clear support for proposal.
  • Need for greater use of publicity such as social media networks rather than expecting public to read notices buried away in newspapers. This is the responsibility of both councils.
  • Need for better liaison between senior members at County/Borough level including regular meetings about key sensitive areas.
  • More flexibility around signage size particularly in sites known to attract large numbers of visitors (such as town centres)

Turning to my second question, the answer I was given tonight was that the Council were only aware of 2 people who had been affected namely myself and another Cllr.

Whilst it may be true that only 2 people had bothered to contact the Council to point this out, I would estimate that the numbers affected would be at least 100 vehicles and potentially 300 people (assuming 2 adults and 1 child). These people wouldn’t have bothered to chase up their £1.50 or £2 but instead will have complained about it to their friends and relatives possibly spoiling their otherwise good experience. I know from Twitter that night that it was certainly more than me and one other Cllr affected.

On the night in question, the Council repeatedly boasted beforehand that there would be free parking after 4pm in their car parks. This was to attract people to attend the Christmas lights switch on in Mall at 4.30pm and a concert in Park Street at 5pm along with a very good Christmas market in the High St during the day. This is an important principle that the Council should not benefit from residents getting caught out in this way.

Sadly, they messed up at Knoll Road – people arriving after 4pm collected their ticket as normal, went to Christmas activities and then found that their “free time” after 4pm was not free after all. Now, it is true that the Council fixed this at some point in the evening and raised the barriers but at the earliest, this wasn’t before 5pm (I left just before 5pm and it certainly wasn’t fixed then).

So, according to the Council response given tonight, on a very busy Saturday afternoon with lots of attractions in town all day, a grand total of 2 vehicles entered or left Knoll Road car park in the hour between 4pm and 5pm (or possibly later). Through a remarkable act of coincidence, both of these vehicles just happened to be driven by one of the 40 Cllrs at Surrey Heath.

Now there may be some people who believe this incredible explanation but I don’t. Instead, I remember cars coming in at the same time as me also wanting to see the lights and concert. Why not acknowledge this and accept this as an error rather than hiding behind those who have bothered to contact the Council about it?

Apparently the current ticket machines in Knoll Road are unable to tell but the good news is that we found out tonight that we have CCTV covering the entrances. Think I might request a copy of the tape for that night to see what actually happened and to get the numbers affected…

It’s quite clear from lots of follow up questions tonight and also other Twitter users and blogs that people are very unhappy with parking in Camberley TC. A new parking strategy agreed last night will eventually help but based on tonight, it’s not hard to see why people are so cross.

Support the living then remember the dead

Like many over this weekend, I have spent time remembering those who have given their lives for others and have taken part in 4 varied acts of remembrance. On Saturday, it was with 45 000 football fans at Anfield where an immaculate quiet gently intervened in the usually noisy atmosphere. On Sunday morning, it was with family watching the events at the Cenotaph and then in the afternoon joining local veterans, residents and Cllrs for the annual service and remembrance in Camberley with hundreds of local people. Then this morning at 11am, a time of silence with colleagues at my workplace who gathered and stood quietly around a flagpole.

And yet the most poignant story which really made me think concerned the story of Mr Harold Jellicoe Percival. He was a war veteran aged 99 who died recently in a Lancashire nursing home.

Mr Percival was unmarried and never had children. He spent his last years in a nursing home and according to reports without any friends or family visiting. The funeral director, apparently concerned that his funeral would be poorly attended decided to put an advert in a local paper. Word spread by social media and his funeral today at 11am saw hundreds of people coming along. You can read about this here.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10441173/Hundreds-of-strangers-attend-veterans-funeral.html

So why is this such a sad story? After all, many strangers came along to pay their respects and hopefully this gave comfort to his remaining family. In fact, so many of them came wanting to give him a good send-off that they stood outside in the rain being unable to get in to the ceremony.

And yet the real sadness here is that Mr Percival like many other war veterans seemingly ended his life alone and with few people caring about his existence. As one colleague caustically said today, “where was those people when he was alive and when he needed them the most?”

There are many thousands of people in this country just like Mr Percival. People who fought for their country perhaps sacrificing a future family or time with friends in doing so. It is no surprise that many of these suffer afterwards with broken relationships or try to block out memories with drink or have poor mental health. Sadly, if you talk to those sleeping rough on the streets, you will realise that many of them will come from an ex-services background but have found it impossible to adapt to civvy street.

Many will go on to live a long life but like many older people will spend their final years experiencing intense isolation. No-one comes to visit, no-one phones up and the only letters they receive are bills. There will be hundreds of people in Surrey Heath living or existing in this way but it would seem to them that no-one notices and no-one cares. Their only human contact for the week may be the person serving them at the post office or supermarket checkout.

When they are medically unable to look after themselves, many will then be put in a home. Their final days spent with even their most personal needs being done by complete strangers who are being paid to do so.

Is it really a good send-off when the person is not alive to appreciate it? Or instead, should we as a society treat older people and especially our veterans with time and dignity so that their last years can be fondly remembered and even celebrated by them?

It is important that we never forget those who died whilst serving the country and to stand in silent recognition for a few minutes a year. But the real remembrance is surely in the story of Mr Percival; to remember the living, those who survived or got left behind when life moved on. This is a huge challenge to all of us but we should never forget.

Surrey Heath support a camel but not a shopowner

Tonight’s meeting of Surrey Heath Exec. showed just why local politics can be so eccentric.

First up, we had a very important decision to make in committing a large amount of money towards consultant and legal fees for our town centre redevelopment plans. There is no doubt that Camberley needs future vision and therefore I was pleased to speak in support of moving this forward towards getting a development agreement in place with other partners. Some of the details will need more investigation but it’s clear that the majority of residents are keen to see long term plans being discussed.

Next up was some community projects where funding was being requested. So money rightly went to Frimley Cricket Club, a child bereavement service, Camberley CAB, Windle Valley Youth Project and a helpline for local LGBT people.

However, in this time of national austerity, Council cutbacks, huge energy bills and increased Council Tax, is it really acceptable for the Borough Council to spend £2000 tonight on …a statue of a camel?

Now granted, it could be argued that it is a very nice looking camel and sat upon it is a bloke by the name of General Gordon. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with camel statues and this particular camel has proudly stood in Gordons School since 1959 where people can inspect it by appointment or at an annual historic day. It’s good that there is a community group wanting to renovate the statue and trying to fundraise through any source they can.

But however the Council want to dress this up, it is still a statue of a camel. If the Council does have £2000 lying around of OUR money, is this really the best use for it? Or is this in fact an example of what Eric Pickles has in mind when he talks about waste in local councils and the need for a freeze in Council Tax? (which Surrey Heath ignored)

More importantly, my ward of Old Dean is one of the poorest in the whole County of Surrey. There are real issues of deprivation and life expectancy is lower here than elsewhere in the borough. I have spent part of today working on a case of a constituent who owes £75 in Council Tax due to the benefit changes earlier this year and he claims that he just cannot afford to pay. I simply can’t justify to my community why we should spend £2000 of their Council money on a camel statue when we have this degree of local need and many living in serious poverty.

However, whilst the camel got support from the Conservative Executive, the same couldn’t be said for a petition of 473 people plus 572 letters concerning increased parking charges in the town centre. This campaign has been extremely well led by Ian McDonald of McDonalds Gifts who spoke passionately and clearly about the subject for the allotted 5 minutes pointing out the complete failure over many years to provide a Council parking strategy.

Disappointingly, only Executive members were allowed to speak and it was clear that their minds had already been made up with the rest of us having to shake our heads whilst listening.

Yet again, we heard a number of completely irrelevant comparisons with other town centres such as Aldershot, Guildford, Woking, Farnborough, Bracknell and even North Camp got a mention. It still seems that some Cllrs falsely believe that these are our competitors when at course the reality is out of town shopping developments like The Meadows and Farnborough Gate. Apart from those in Chobham and nearby, if local people decide to drive to Woking, it is not the parking costs they consider but the wider experience of entertainment, size and type of shops, market and ambience with parking being a very minor issue.

So whilst it’s great to see some improvements in Camberley with more to come, the situation is what do potential shoppers/commuters think now and why would they choose Camberley and then why/where do they park. Unfortunately because no-one has bothered to do a parking strategy to date, we simply don’t know any of this and therefore any Council proposal is simply guesswork which has already proved to be wrong over many years.

One current Council initiative is to offer free parking on Thursday nights at Christmas but this is actually the reverse of what we should do. Parking like business is a simple case of supply & demand so if the costs are too high, people won’t use it and instead use alternatives.

Our two main Camberley car parks have very low occupancy according to figures tonight. It was claimed that Main Square has only 55% occupancy and Knoll Road an appalling 35%. This means that on average two out of every 3 spaces are not being used in Knoll Road and we need to understand why. Shoving the costs up even more will not help here and nor in the short-term will investment in the car parks although this will benefit everyone over time.

The fact is that the Camberley offer for parking is simply wrong. We have quite a few free spaces in prime locations and then very expensive 2 hr parking or longer with little in-between. There is no parking strategy which has properly examined customer behaviour or looked at their needs. There appears to have been no thought about staff or business parking and why people park in residential roads rather than in Knoll Road where we would wish and get their fees.

For many years, I have tried (but failed) to encourage a serious look at flexible pricing for parking using a similar model to that used by trains or planes. This means that prices are very low when demand is low and higher when demand is high. So for example, early, weekday and seasonal parking should be low whereas Saturday and Christmas/sales parking should be higher at times when customer spend is also higher.

Now no-one likes paying for parking but we also need to be far more explicit as to what parking money is actually spent on and not be afraid to advertise that within the car parks.

The current approach is just too vague and the public think that their money just goes into a big Council pot called waste or based on tonight, a pot marked camel.

Gypsies and travellers need homes too..

This evening, I attended a training session at Surrey Heath on the subject on gypsies and travellers within our community. As this was a private session, I won’t share the contents other to say that I hope that it enlightened local Cllrs on the actual reality rather than the urban myths circulating about these communities.

Surrey Heath have an interesting decision to make in the coming months along with many other local authorities. We have to find 19 new pitches for gypsies and travellers within the borough as there is a recognised community need. If we ignore this, then expect to see unauthorised sites cropping up almost anyway and if it is on private land then there will be little that could be done about it regardless of whether the locals like it or not. Even areas like school fields in the holidays will be difficult for agencies to evict.

So how many sites have we identified at present to address this pressing need and avert this problem? Well, absolutely none at all apart from one pitch from a redesign at a current site. So that means a gap of 18 pitches that needs to be identified with little idea at present as to how this will happen.

Now there are two options available to local politicians at this point.

1) Do nothing – put our head in the sand and hope it all goes away. The result of this will be unauthorised encampments will crop up anywhere, the Council will have little option but to grant temporary planning permission or lose costly court battles at the expense of the public purse and then the site will get permanent permission regardless of suitability.

2) Take a risk by being the community champions that we have been elected to be and actively challenging prejudice wherever it occurs. If this sounds tough and unpopular then think that for many years, we had prejudice and discrimination against women, then it was people of “colour” then it was homosexuals but every time, society moved on and eventually took a sizeable public opinion with them.

So what needs to be done? Well, the Labour and Independent Cllrs have already got together, realised the problem and come up with a rough plan following a recent public meeting in Chobham. It’s not perfect but in the absence of any other plan, it at least gives a framework and a way forward for us to push. Here it is..

1) A starting assumption is made that each of the 16 wards in the borough would provide 2 pitches.

2) The councillors for each ward should meet as a group with planning policy officers and on a map, identify every possible option within their own boundaries for small sites of 1 or 2 pitches.

3) The 3 wards where this process starts should be Windlesham, West End and Old Dean. These represent the wards of the current Council Leader, Regulatory Portfolio Holder and my own ward as the Leader of the Opposition. We need to do this first to set an example to other wards who would then follow shortly after. If any Cllr doesn’t want to have the conversation in their own ward, then I am sure the rest of us will be more than happy to do so for them with the officers!

4) Officers then undertake feasibility studies relating to all of the proposed sites in each ward identifying which options would be potentially viable or the steps that would be needed to make it viable.

5) Councillors then take a lead in public consultation within their own communities with the support of officers and therefore identify the preferred local site(s) in each ward.

6) The Council would then formally agree the final sites to be allocated through the formal decision making process with the planning applications to come in future.

Now is the time to do it because there will be no elections taking place until May 2015 and therefore no political advantage to anyone. If everyone looks to positively address the issue then we can do this by working together over the next 12 months. It would involve lots of community consultation both with the settled communities and the gypsy/travellers themselves but there are officers and agencies willing to help.

Will this be unpopular? Probably… but politics is the wrong place if you want to make friends. The real question is whether it’s the right thing to do and that is pretty obvious…

Help to work? No it doesn’t…

So Mr Osborne has made a new pledge today for the long-term unemployed entitled “Help to Work” – the idea is to do “useful work, meals for the elderly, tidy up litter” etc.etc. “No-one will get something for nothing” – an interesting phrase by someone whose own background is as an heir apparent to a Irish baronetcy.

Now there is no doubt that the long-term unemployed are seen by many in this country as scrounging layabouts who all spend their time watching daytime TV on massive flat screen televisions courtesy of the taxes from the rest of us. A caricature? Not for many – it is what they genuinely but falsely believe based mainly on exaggerated newspaper stories.

Being unemployed is a horrible place to be. Your own self-worth takes a massive hit and it is therefore no surprise that many long-term unemployed end up severely depressed by the constant degradation that comes upon them from others. The longer that people are out of work means that it is easier to get into a rut and harder to then get out to work with all the social problems that this brings. And all this for the princely sum of £56.80 a week (current Job Seekers Allowance)

So it is superficially attractive for Mr Osborne to put forward a new plan to address the “something for nothing” culture. But the reality is somewhat different…

2 years is far too long for people to be out of work – as a country, we need everyone to be using their gifts and talents wisely. If we give someone a job, we also give them confidence, some stability in their lives and helps the public purse. Therefore, we should be looking at 1 year or less before intervening more formally.

Now one of the three “options” put forward today has received the least coverage but is pretty positive namely the compulsion in receiving drugs and alcohol support. There are some practicalities that would need sorting around this but the principle is correct in giving people the opportunity to restart their lives and moving away from some of the addictive barriers. If the Government are serious about this option (and I have my doubts) then it must come with extra funds for the support agencies and charities to properly deal with the needs of these people which can be complex and very difficult to overcome.

But sadly the other two “options” are ridiculous. The choice in having a daily sign in at a job centre would be the preferred option for many as long as they live near enough to a job centre to walk there. Wait a few minutes, sign a piece of paper and walk out again. Support for the employee? No chance – jobs centres are already overstretched with a fortnightly sign-in so just imagine what a daily one would be like. Of course, if you need a bus or public transport (even if you can access which you can’t in rural areas) then this is no option as your £56 benefit will get eaten up just getting to the job centre every day.

And the same can be said for the real Tory headline – 30 hrs of community work/forced labour with 10 hours of “job-related activity”. This works out less than £1.50 a hour, an equivalent rate far below the levels of the national minimum wage with again the problems of people being able to get to it. Will claimants get a travel card to get to their “community service?” There is also the whole issue of supervision costs and arrangements for this unpaid work, what happens with sickness etc. The management costs for such projects is likely to be pretty significant here and would certainly eat into any “savings” that might arise. It’s not clear yet how or even whether this has been thought through or is just intended as political rhetoric thrown out as red-meat to the die-hard Tory conference supporters.

This option would be more sensible if people were given national minimum wage at least for the 30 hours they work and keep a proportion of their current benefits for the 10 hrs “job-related” time. In that way, they are not treated as a punishment (as per those who are given community service in court) and there is still an incentive to get another job which pays at least a living wage. It would also mean that people get more than on unemployment benefits so the incentive remains.

Everyone agrees that long term unemployment is a situation that suits no-one and especially the individuals themselves. These proposals will only affect 2% of those looking for work but seem to be more aimed at the court of public opinion than a genuine effort to understand and address the different problems that arise.

Back to local issues

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks over the summer purely because like most normal people, it’s good to take a break. People are not generally politically engaged in August and instead are more concerned with sun, sand or in my case, cricket.

But the Council programme in Surrey Heath has kicked back into action and tonight was the first Executive of this school term with some interesting local issues.

The first item was a lengthy discussion reviewing the Council’s scrutiny function and what the scrutiny committees had actually done over the last year. According to the meeting papers, the answer appeared to be “not much” although the chairs and a vice-chair were very keen to tell us otherwise. The main point of these committees is to review Council services and then come up with ideas and suggestions as to what could be improved.

Unfortunately while this sounds good and lots of chats do indeed take place in meetings, this does not appear to filter into any kind of meaningful changes or actual improvements around the Council – just some occasional nice ideas that end up going nowhere in particular. Personally, I can’t think of any scrutiny discussions which have gone on to “make a difference to the Council” but perhaps other cllrs who read this blog can come up with some suggestions….

After that came a report on the Council finances and it appears that the Council have £455k of outstanding debts due to “overpaid benefits”. Most of this debt (£356k) is over 12 months old and according to officers “historic”. Now benefit overpayment can be for a range of reasons such as failure to advise of changed circumstances or admin error by agencies but this is a very high figure that suits neither the taxpayer or the benefit claimant that then has to worry how they will pay it back. A lot of this will have to be eventually completely written off due to people absconding, having no assets, moving abroad or even dying with no estate so this doesn’t help either.

It also doesn’t cover the issue of underpaid benefits namely when people entitled to claim either do not realise or have some other barrier that means they do not get the money they are properly entitled. This is an area rarely discussed and difficult to get figures on but important all the same.

On a more positive note, it was great to see £26k being allocated (from monies given to the Council by Sainsburys) to the Crabtree Rec skate park for improvements. This is an area that many local youth people have campaigned on for some time and is really well used. A good example of the positive role young people play in society and a very good campaign.

Turning next to a consultation response on the neighbourhood plan for Sunningdale and strangely, Surrey Heath wishing to oppose future plans for additional car parking at Sunningdale Station. This seems a poor decision to me – many of our Surrey Heath residents will use Sunningdale rather than the poor commuting links from Camberley and the station car park is regularly full along with the alternative at Brookwood. We surely need to be encouraging people to use the trains to London rather than adding to private vehicle numbers on the M3 and further up the A30? Whilst some vehicles do park along the A30 to avoid parking charges, that is a completely different issue to that of parking capacity which is insufficient. I therefore hope that our colleagues at Windsor and Maidenhead decide to ignore that aspect of the Surrey Heath response and increased car parking is built.

On a similar consultation and Surrey Heath’s response to the Airports Commission which is looking at the country’s airport capacity. There are a few ideas knocking around here with one being “Boris Island” – an airport built in the Thames Estuary to which the Mayor of London appears to be the only supporter. Under this idea, Heathrow Airport would be completely closed and replaced with housing for 250 000 people. This idea has little else going for it and would have a major impact on Surrey Heath due to the large numbers of people who currently work at the airport.

However, I am yet to be personally convinced that we do actually need more runways covering London. We already have 2 runways at Heathrow plus Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, London City and London Southend for commercial flights plus London Ashford (Lydd), Manston and even Farnborough for business flights leaving aside Eurotunnel for Paris. I can’t think of any other city in the world with so many airports within 90 mins of the centre but aviation experts are welcome to tell me otherwise…

Whilst the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow are heavily in demand, that does not mean that the future hub proposals have been fully thought through and in particular which flights go from which London airport and also the UK connections which are then available at different airports.

Even if it passes that test, Heathrow only becomes particularly attractive if the High Speed Train Link (HS2) extends by 17 miles to start from there. Whilst I support the HS2 project, it does appear to be in some doubt at this time and could become unviable if costs escalate.

On the other hand, enhancing Gatwick would have less issue with noise or traffic affecting Surrey Heath and has much less residential surround than Heathrow. A 2nd runway there would still be controversial but would be cheaper to build (around half the price albeit both would be privately funded) and quicker to implement. It would then mean London having 4 dual-runway airports thus giving greater overall capacity and flexible options surrounding London in a similar way to other international airports such as New York, Moscow and even Tokyo.

Sadly my offer of a cross-party joint letter suggesting the above was rejected so the official Council response in Surrey Heath encouraging the 3rd runway at Heathrow (only supported by the Conservatives) will now be cancelled out by a joint cross-party letter to the Commission to be written by myself and the Independent cllrs.

Perhaps Boris will get his airport after all…..