Statement on House of Fraser in Camberley

Earlier today, I released the following public statement made in agreement and on behalf of the 5 non Conservative Cllrs representing the Others Group at Surrey Heath Borough Council.

“We have noted with sadness that House of Fraser announced yesterday their intention to close their Camberley store.  This will clearly impact on many hard working local employees and residents that will now lose their jobs should these proposals be agreed. For our part, we will be happy to meet with any impacted constituent and help refer them to suitable employment and benefit advice services should they need this

It is no secret that we as opposition Cllrs representing different political opinions have been concerned for some time about the reliance of traditional retail in Camberley Town Centre development plans.  It is particularly alarming that House of Fraser have chosen to propose closing the Camberley store whilst keeping many other stores open in other towns and cities across the UK including at Guildford and Reading.  This suggests a lack of confidence by House of Fraser in the redevelopment of Camberley despite the Council having repeated talks with them about future plans. As a result, it raises serious questions about the future town centre plans of Surrey Heath Borough Council.

Whilst we all want to see a positive vision and future for Camberley, it is important that we and all elected Cllrs understand the impact of this closure to our residents and local taxpayers. We remain committed to ensuring that our local residents receive answers and assurances as to the future of Camberley.”

Advertisements

Cllr role – Latest update

This blog has already gone out to Labour members in Surrey Heath and gives a flavour of my role as an Old Dean Cllr.

“In mid March, I attended a meeting of the Old Dean Community Group at St.Martin’s.  The main purpose was to discuss various local issues in the area such as potholes, lack of high speed internet access in certain areas and our upcoming AGM.  For members living in Old Dean, you are very welcome to come along on Saturday 28th April at 1030 at St.Martin’s Church – free food and breakfast provided.

I had a meeting with the Borough Chief Exec on 19th March in my Group Leader capacity with the main focus being updates on Camberley town centre work and Fairoaks airfield in Chobham.  These are likely to be the two biggest issues within the borough over the next 12 months and more details on both will be given in due course.

The following evening was a meeting of the Surrey County Labour Party in Woking and a chance to hear from Cllr Peter Lamb, the Labour Leader of Crawley. Peter shared his commitment for housing in his community and other positive community projects. It was also good to hear an update from Lab Cllr Robert Evans on events within Surrey County Council.

On 21st March, I attended the advisory board of the childrens centre in Old Dean where much of the focus was on proposed changes to the overall service within Surrey. There will be more details and public consultation in coming months and I would urge you to look carefully at this and make your views known when the time arises.

Later that day, I popped into Collingwood College in order to assist a student with their citizenship project. They had contacted me to request an interview as they were concerned about youth centre cuts. I always try and help these requests when I can as it’s also a chance to hear about the reality of a service from someone using it rather than just the corporate messages given to us by senior Cllrs or officers.   The same evening, I subbed for another opposition Cllr at a Performance & Scrutiny meeting at the Council. During the meeting, we heard about emergency planning and I used the opportunity to raise lessons learnt from Grenfell Tower following a conversation with a Lab colleague at Kensington that Cllrs needed to be kept fully informed as they tended to be trusted more than other authorities. This was accepted and confirmed in writing to me after the meeting.  We also discussed the Borough Annual Plan although not in any meaningful way as the Plan had already been agreed. Many backbench Cllrs in all parties find this immensely frustrating as it means only a small number of Executive Cllrs get to shape this and so the voices of other communities get excluded. An annual Cllr workshop or similar would be a simple practical way to start off the process and ensure this views are given whilst recognising the final plan will be decided by the majority group at Exec.

On 27th March, I met up with one of the Conservative Cllrs at their request to discuss child poverty. It was good to offer various practical measures for them to take back and consider through political channels. However, it was encouraging that the local Conservative Group acknowledge the issue enough to privately discuss although obviously we will see what practically happens in future months.

Thank you to those members that did some local campaigning on Easter Saturday in Camberley and on 14th April in Frimley. It is important that we get our positive messages to residents throughout the year and not just at elections.  Similarly thank you to the members that joined our All Members meeting on 10th April and of course to Dr Alan Whitehead (MP in Southampton) who kindly joined us for an informative event.

There was a short Full Council on 11th April and in light of the hostilities in Syria, I asked the Leader when we would be receiving our now long overdue Syrian refugees. Sadly she still refused to give a timeframe. Whatever your views on the Syrian situation, it is disgraceful that the MP for Surrey Heath approved military action but has repeatedly failed to ensure a single Syrian refugee is housed within their main Borough Council area (Guildford have taken some so may be a small number in Ash)

The following day, I spent an enjoyable evening at a peace event arranged by the Ahmadiyya community in Woking following an invite from one of our party members.  This was an interfaith event including the Mayor and MP for Woking, other Cllrs, different faith groups (including Humanist) and community members. This was obviously a topical subject and one of much common ground.  It was encouraging to hear in detail about the positive community work undertaken and I was made to feel very welcome.  The event ended with a shared meal, lots of discussion about football allegiances and of course, excellent food.

On 17th April, we had a network meeting at the Old Dean Youth Centre discussing family partnership working.  There are many great agencies and workers in this area but there was one common theme namely around involvement of local residents and information sharing about what everyone does. There are no easy answers to this as social isolation is a big issue in this area and we don’t have the resident groups or parish councils of elsewhere.

Finally,  a trip to Parliament the following day in order to join an event organised by the Labour MP for South Shields (Emma Lewell-Buck) on the subject of “Local Solutions to Hunger”  This was held in one of the formal committee rooms with a huge picture of Robert Peel looking down on us!  However, it was interesting to hear the experiences of different food banks and community kitchens all of which sadly confirm the terrible impact of Government welfare measures on people. Emma is trying to pilot a food poverty bill through the Commons later this year and I will send out details when received.”

Closing the Museum & child poverty

I haven’t blogged for a while but a number of important community items were discussed at this week’s Executive starting with the Borough Museum.

Around 30 members of the public came along to hear discussion about the proposed closure of the Museum. This has caused a lot of local controversy and several people had contacted me about this.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a vote at Executive meetings but did want to directly raise some of the concerns and some of these remain outstanding.

  1. Consultation

The council did undertake a detailed consultation process and received over 400 responses.  However, this masks the fact that the consultation form did not actually ask anyone about the specific proposal to close the Museum but merely some general questions.  I have been told that the reason for this was so that officers could shape a proposal from the consultations.  However, in my view this is simply the wrong approach.  What should have happened is that after this initial request for thoughts, the Council should have put together a detailed proposal and then put that to consultation again.  Despite repeated requests, I have yet to be told how many people actually support these proposals outside the Council offices.  As a result, I suspect the answer is very few hence the reason for some local anger.

This is a pity because many of the proposals are very good and if implemented, would enhance the heritage service offered.  However, the failure to fully engage with those most interested has clearly resulted in trust issues. Without support of key groups and residents then this will be much harder to get the level of engagement that all want.

2. Central Museum Base

Aside from the outreach activities, the main proposal was to close the Museum and instead have a summer exhibition somewhere in the town centre and some displays in the Council offices.

Personally, I can’t support the ongoing Museum at the Council Offices and agree that this needed to be reviewed as the visitor numbers are so low.  However, it is disappointing to note that the obvious alternative (namely a different town centre location) was not explored within the report. This does seem strange especially when the Council stated that this was supposedly not a cost cutting review and that the plan is to have a town centre location within the summer holidays anyway. A town centre unit would obviously have a cost but this could be cost neutral assuming the Council receive rental for the space currently occupied by the Museum. In my view, that should have been resolved first rather than closing without an alternative.

Interestingly, the Portfolio Holder appeared to be sympathetic himself and suggested that this would be considered within the wider town centre redevelopment proposals.  This went well beyond the report and will now give Museum campaigners an alternative angle in the future.

Accreditation for the Museum was also a concern and is quite a technical and unclear area. Having read into this and discussed with some, my understanding is that the closure of a permanent museum base WOULD detrimentally impact potential accreditation under the CURRENT criteria of the Arts Council. However, the Arts Council are currently undertaking a review of their criteria as there are more Heritage services around the country going down this route. The Council are therefore confident that this review will result in a criteria change so that “Museums without walls” such as this would be accredited taking into account new aspects such as outreach services and better websites.

Personally, I am not sure that the Arts Council are ready to make that national change which would be fundamental to many. They have already reviewed their definition of a Museum and decided to leave it unchanged. My reading is that it will change at some point but probably not yet. If so, the Council’s assumptions would be premature meaning accreditation would be unobtainable at least for the time being. We will obviously have to wait and see and I would be happy to be proved wrong.

On a more positive note, I was pleased that the Executive unanimously agreed my motion referred from Full Council which was as follows:-

This Council notes with sadness that there are many children within the borough that are experiencing poverty including a third of all children within Old Dean. As a result, the Council requests officers bring forward a report to the Executive within the next 6 months outlining practical steps that the Council could consider in order to help address this issue in partnership with others.”

As I made clear at the meeting and in private, this was not a partisan motion and I recognise that all of us are keen to do the best we can for our local children. The numbers in some of our Council wards are horrific. For my area of Old Dean, it is the second highest in the whole of Surrey and even worse than all but one ward in inner city Reading.  St.Michael’s ward has a quarter of children in poverty and both Watchetts and Chobham have a fifth of children in poverty. Surrey Heath as a whole has just under 2500 children in poverty despite being a generally affluent borough. This is just unacceptable and challenges all Cllrs to consider what can be done.

It was therefore pleasing that Cllrs in all parties privately agreed with confirmation by the Executive that our officers will now consider this. Of course, many officers already experience this issue on a daily basis in their work and I have no doubt that there may be many simple practical ways that we can help improve local lives. Some preliminary discussions have already taken place and I have also asked Accent (our local Housing Association) to consider the same issue in their work too. It will be interesting to see where this leads when the report returns in September.

Addressing terrorism in the UK

After the terrible events of Manchester and London, I have come across many people who are asking the same simple questions. I’m no expert but a Politics degree covering political violence has the occasional use and therefore here’s my attempt to try and explain some of the main areas.

  1. Why now?

We have a history of terrorism within the UK and this isn’t a sudden phenomenon. Over the last 40 years, the UK has seen terrorism relating to animal rights, Ireland from both nationalist and republican, far right extremism and now “Muslim” extremists. This is in addition to other terrorist events elsewhere in the world relating to Israel & Palestine, guerrilla groups in various countries and separatist groups such as ETA in Spain.

The main difference now is that where before the perpetrators tended to commit violence and then run away so to commit further offences, the perpetrators now are actively wanting to die. There are three reasons namely (a) where they have a religious belief, they believe they will get rewarded in after life (b) (whether religious belief or not) their name becomes famous in history and (c) the cause is more important to them than their life.

2. How do people become terrorists?

This is actually pretty common across all causes and people are not born terrorists – indeed most are born and citizens of the host country. It usually starts with a trigger incident of a perceived injustice (such as a war or bombing) where the person is then extremely angry. This then gets compounded by further incidents of perceived injustice such as watching repeated internet videos of other incidents combined with watching highly emotional speeches/messages linking the cause.  Already impressionable people then connect using via social media but occasionally through community links with others of similar views to watch further videos and speakers compounding their angry emotions even more.  Over time, some of these get so radicalised that they see the issue as a war and therefore that they have no option but to fight back against the perceived enemy. At this point, most will link into “cells” of usually around 3 to 5 with one person being a link to a wider terrorist group with others just working individually. A small number will travel somewhere for specific training but more common now is organisation through social media with WhatsApp being the main medium.

3. Why are the terrorists Muslim?

Many terrorist incidents are not actually committed by people from any faith for example the man who killed Jo Cox or the Norway atrocity in 2011.  However, there has been an increase in “Islamic fundamentalism” i.e. people who are claiming to be committing terrorism by saying that it is on behalf of Allah.

However, that’s very different to actually being in the name of Islam.  In fact, if you look at the people who actually commit these offences, they are usually linked with Wahhabism rather than Islam. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative sect which was first established in the mid 1700s but had little impact until the mid 1970s where it became more popular in the Persian Gulf.  Whilst it claims to be following Islamic teaching, the overwhelming view of Muslims disagree with their interpretations of the Quran and consider followers to be a cult.

It is correct that there have been attempts within a small number of UK mosques for Wahhabism to take over from mainstream Islam.  It is difficult to know exactly how many mosques have been affected within the UK but estimates are very few due to the low number of their actual followers within the UK.

It is important to say that the vast majority of Wahhabi followers will not be tempted towards terrorism but that a small number may be more open to the idea especially if they are disconnected from society for other reasons (drug use, mental health, housing etc.) Incidentally this tends to be single young men – female terrorism does happen but is less common.

Unfortunately, many people of other faiths and none do not understand this distinction and falsely lump everyone together as Muslim. A good way of understanding how insulting this is to the vast majority of Muslims is if you say that Catholics support terrorism because the IRA happened to claim a Catholic identity.

4. What can be done to address terrorism of this nature?

There are no easy answers but here are my proposals.

  1. Assertively challenging the basic beliefs

We should be patriotic in standing up for what we believe in and assertively challenging values and beliefs which go against this.  The key is to do this in an assertive rather than aggressive way and through persuasion through laws.  Banning the Burka entirely is one example of what we should not do because it merely confirms a prejudice in the minds of believers when other religious clothes are not banned.

2.Need to support mainstream Islam

This is the most important area and the most obvious and yet for some reason, the most controversial. Islam is a peaceful religion and followers are equally appalled that atrocities are being wrongly announced in their name.  This means giving prominent platforms and space to mainstream Muslim voices.  Most importantly, we must challenge at every opportunity where ignorant people wrongly blame Muslims for these acts. Instead, we need to bring our communities together sharing the many values we celebrate rather than focusing on what divides.

3.Cut off the fuel of hate videos

This is one area that politicians of all parties can quickly resolve.  Far too many people are getting radicalised from their bedrooms watching emotive videos where people die or are injured.  We are not talking here about balanced news stories but endless propaganda and hate preaching. Social media has many strengths but we need to be able to filter material so it is not accessible within the UK.  This is not a freedom of speech issue.

4.Recognise foreign policy will have an impact

It is always difficult making decisions about whether or not to intervene in another country and there are always implications of acting or not.  We have to recognise that if we decide to intervene and more particularly through military means that some people will get very upset by this especially if innocent civilians are killed or injured as a result.  That does not mean that intervention is wrong but merely that we have to work out what is the greater good not only in the short term but the long term as well as ensuring there are long term humanitarian measures in place.

5. Tight Security checks on young males travelling from or been to key countries where intelligence suggests (e.g. Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen)

Immigration has a role to play but not to the prominence that many politicians claim.  It should be remembered that most UK terrorists will be born and brought up in the UK.  However, we may catch a few that have been to training camps in the recent past especially where any intelligence has been received about that person and these are more likely to be young men.   This does not mean banning refugees from those countries which is again just based on ignorance.

6.Increase community policing and community workers.

 These are especially important in areas with different cultures.  The purpose is to build bridges and not build walls.

7. Ensure policing levels are adequate in all communities

The response to last night in London was remarkable. We need to understand that if the prevention measures have failed, the last resort is firm and lethal action to stop an incident at the earliest possible opportunity thus minimising the number of deaths.  This means having sufficient armed response officers throughout the country and not just in our large cities.  This obviously does mean a cost to the public purse but is worth paying.

 

Surrey Heath Borough Council plan a year of…clear targets or corporate flannel??

Tonight saw Surrey Heath Borough Council’s Executive Committee meet with the first item being to consider the Council’s Annual Plan for 2017/18.  The purpose of this is to explain simply to the public what the Council intend to do and apparently to be accountable.

So here using the exact words are some of the plans for this coming year that were agreed.  You can come to your own view as to whether this is a genuine attempt at positive vision and clear targeted action or just a load of meaningless non committal words dressed up as a plan.

The Council state that “In 2017/18, we will..”

1. “Work to increase residential development within the borough.”

Laudable but Surrey Heath BC does receives hundreds of planning applications every year – many are for residential developments and the Council would ordinarily consider these as part of their ordinary work.

2. “Work with Business Associations across the Borough to develop projects to deliver improvements.”

Great but Business Associations would hardly wish to work with the Council to deliver worsening services.  What projects are we talking about, what improvements and how will we know these are actually improvements?

3. “Work with partners to promote the health and wellbeing of our residents and encourage delivery of activities that promote sport and healthy living.”

Which partners? What activities? How can this be measured?  Note “encourage delivery” rather than actually delivering anything.

4. “Deliver a programme of high quality community events.”

Great but then the Council would hardly wish to deliver a programme of low quality community events.  How many events and how will the Council know whether or not it has been a high quality or even a successful event? No of people attending?  Satisfaction surveys? Town Centre footfall on those days? Retail sales on those days?

5. “Encourage an increase in the number of volunteers delivering sport and health related activities and events.”

Note this doesn’t say actually increasing the number of volunteers but merely encouraging this. The Council could therefore tick this off by sending out one tweet during the year encouraging people to become volunteers.

6. “Promote Surrey Heath as a location for companies to invest in.”

Note this doesn’t say that we would set a target to increase the number of companies or increase business investment into the area but merely promoting Surrey Heath. Again a simple tweet would tick this box.

7. “Continue to explore alternative ways to deliver our services more efficiently.”

How are the public meant to know whether or not this has actually been achieved? How will efficiency be measured? How many services will be considered for potential alternative ways in the next 12 months?

All of these are examples of passive language which don’t actually commit the Council to doing anything very  much at all.  Despite this, I have no doubt that in 12 months time, we will all be boastfully told that wonderful achievements have been made in all of the above areas despite little or no actual evidence being produced to back up these claims.

Interestingly, the Council have also decided this evening to repeat the Camberley International Festival and Cllrs were told that last year was a success because there were some magazine articles and some local radio interviews about the Festival. However, no actual figures were presented about the number of members of the public attending or involved. To be fair, the Executive Member did suggest measuring success through increased footfall in the town centre or feedback from host venues but this was oddly corrected by officers who suggested it was too early for this.

The logic of measuring success suggests that if I do an occasional interview on local BBC radio that I must therefore be a successful Cllr? Hmm… don’t think it works like that…

 

 

Challenging stereotypes on a train..

Having been away a few days, I travelled back from Liverpool late last night on the train.  Now Saturday evening is always an interesting experience on public transport but this one showed me a really good example of how stereotypes can be wrong in our society.

The first train from Liverpool from Birmingham was absolutely packed. In my carriage were a group of middle aged people in their late 40s and early 50s who were clearly drunk.  This meant lots of swearing and explicit sexual talk despite being in the immediate and obvious vicinity of young children. One woman in particular kept shouting out “Ellen” very loudly to such a level that was deafening to everyone else in the carriage.  The “Ellen” in question was her pal who spent much of the journey in the carriage toilet part of which was accompanied by some bloke. Thankfully, she and her group got off at Wilmslow after 45 mins of being extremely irritating and offensive to all probably without realising.

The second train from Birmingham to Reading was also absolutely packed and running around an hour late. In my carriage standing next to me were a teenage boy and girl who I would estimate to be around 18 and were students. In contrast to the previous “adults”, they were delightful offering unprompted practical help to an elderly couple with their bags and reassuring a foreign lady who was concerned she was on the wrong train. Despite standing themselves for over an hour, they then offered me a seat that came available rather than taking it themselves.  They got off at Banbury before I had a chance to privately recognise their efforts and the positive impact to others that they quietly made probably without realising.

It made me reflect that often it is students and young people that wrongly get blamed for problems in society when in fact it is behaviour rather than age or occupation that is the problem…

Why I voted No to Camberley Mall deal

Below is the contents of a press release that I have sent out tonight.

“On Monday 31st October 2016, Surrey Heath Borough Council formally announced that it is poised to purchase The Mall Shopping Centre in a deal worth around £86 million.

Speaking about this announcement, Cllr Rodney Bates said, “Now that this issue has been put into the public domain by Surrey Heath Borough Council, I can confirm that I voted against this deal at the relevant Council meeting.”

He added, “Whilst I have always supported a positive long-term vision for Camberley, the financial information presented to Cllrs at that time was not sufficiently convincing in my mind to be sure that this particular deal represented good value for money.  This is especially important recognising that £86 million is a very large amount of public money and that local taxpayers would have to bear any future loss.

I was also concerned that the demand for long term expensive retail units in town centres will be reduced due to the huge increase in internet shopping based from commercial units. This worry was further compounded by the national economic uncertainties caused by Brexit and what this may mean for the confidence of potential investors.

Taking this all into account, I reluctantly concluded on the available information that I could not support this risky deal but wish the Council every success in trying to make it work.”

END

Contact:  Rodney Bates  01276 679957