Why Surrey Heath Council Tax should not have gone up

Here is a summary of my speech to Full Council tonight opposing the 1.94% Council Tax increase.

Our responsibility as local politicians is to use our resources wisely.  Whilst Surrey Heath cannot help the cuts made by the government, they are responsible for decisions on the monies they have been given and to spend those wisely.

1) Are there any areas of wasteful or questionable spending?

– Really enjoy going to the theatre but should we really be spending £279 000 subsidising a theatre when huge cuts have to be made?  Even this appears to be the low side making an assumption that the theatre café would make £85 000 income over the year? This is not a sustainable level of subsidy.

·  We need some advertising and marketing but do we need 13 different advertising/marketing budgets? This needs to be sharper and more innovative in approach using the internet wherever we can.

– No more pet projects of councillors – we cannot afford to waste Council money on camel statues or other similar schemes.

– Cllr allowances – There are far too many highly questionable “non-jobs” for Cllrs with a total cost of £282k. Almost every Conservative Cllr has received a “special” allowance at some point over the last 4 years.  At a County level, it is completely appalling for Conservative Cllrs to vote for increases of up to 60% whilst considering closing Pinehurst residential home and Mytchett Children’s Centre serving our community. Even many Conservatives recognise that this is an embarrassment.

2) Are there any areas for potential income?

Need to be far more innovative thinking about funding for discretionary services such as museum, theatre and parks. We have areas of poverty but also areas of huge affluence and especially around wills and legacies where families of loved ones would want to have a permanent recognition through trees, benches, exhibitions, artefacts, sponsorship. Other public bodies do this – so should we.

3) If you have addressed waste and ensured you have considered all income streams, raising Council Tax should then be considered as a last resort and only to the level which is necessary.

As this Council is still wasting money and not looking at all alternative income streams, I cannot support the proposed rise of 1.94%.

Local flytipping

There was a local issue in this week’s Camberley News and as I hadn’t written a blog for a while, I thought it was a good time to go through this one.  The local reporter did try to contact me just before their deadline but due to work, I wasn’t able to add my update.

A local resident has rightly complained to the newspaper about a piece of land in Old Dean which is between Kingston Road and Surbiton Road which has been prone to flytipping for some time.  In fact, some residents contacted me about this some months ago and I went out to go and see them and the problems first hand.

The land in question is not owned by the Borough Council as some believe but by Accent Housing Association.  For many years, it has been a wasteland although many residents have access rights to their back garages and believe that the land was transferred over initially to Surrey Heath Housing Association and then to Accent where Surrey Heath Borough Council transferred their housing stock.  The land has two other potentially useful purposes namely to house secure storage containers for kitchen and bathroom units and in the long-term, potentially houses.

So some months ago and after speaking to residents, I contacted the local Housing Officer for Accent to express my concerns and ask for action to be taken. This resulted in some immediate action namely that storage containers were secured and a skip was removed. After further follow-up from myself and a visiting Rushmoor colleague, Accent took action with their on-site contractors and the containers were all removed.   This meant that the only remaining problem was the litter and flytipping.

Since then, we have entered a semi regular cycle of flytipping by unknown persons followed by clearance by Accent. The site cannot be completely secured due to the local access rights but does have a locked gate to stop other drivers.

It’s important to correct one aspect of this story namely that Accent are responsible for regular clearing regardless of whether they know the offending person or not. Of course, they would like to identify and prosecute the offenders as they are not Accent contractors as some believe. However, they are not legally obliged to remove unless an Environmental Health hazard.

Another resident belief is that the site can be easily redeveloped for housing but unfortunately this is not correct. We would love to have more social housing in Old Dean but our location is so close to the Special Protection Area that it virtually rules out any new housing development.

So the options now are:-

– Accent gather enough evidence to take legal action against the offenders. This could include evidence from local residents and possibly CCTV if a suitable site for the camera existed. My preferred option but not easy and takes time.

– Close the site and secure – This would mean residents waiving their access rights so unlikely to be an option.

– Alternative use for land – Potentially worth progressing as a community garden but should be recognised that this may not reduce the flytipping as other community gardens know.

So none of these are great but I will be contacting Accent again and ask them to consider all options as well as asking them to do a local resident letter to explain the situation in more detail. I have a lot of sympathy with these local residents and agree that they should not suffer due to the selfishness of a tiny minority.

Using emotional arguments FOR immigration

Some years ago, I used to work in the training field and learnt loads of really interesting stuff about how people think. Without getting too scientific, lots of people make decisions based on logic (weighing up the evidence before coming to a conclusion) whereas others make decisions based on emotion (how something feels to them)  It’s all to do with brain makeup and how people use the left and right side of their brains more. Now I admit that doesn’t sound very interesting for a political blog until you start linking in to certain key political issues and in particular the rise of UKIP.

In this country, most politicians in most parties are logical thinkers and you can tell that by the way they speak. So for example, they will talk about facts and figures and talk in detail about policies to try and address the issue. Problem is that many people in the population don’t think like that and that is because they are emotive thinkers – they decide due to their emotions such as what makes them happy, sad, angry, anxious etc. without using any particular logic or reason and many politicians don’t understand that.

So let’s take a controversial subject such as immigration – generally recognised as one of the top 3 issues raised in public polling. We have all heard people on the doorstep who say that “There are too many foreigners, they take our jobs, my kids can’t get a house, they use up our NHS” etc. etc

Mainstream political thinking when faced with a resident like this is to spout facts & figures at them, examples in other countries, argue with them or find some way of ending the conversation quickly. However, this is usually a bad idea and doesn’t actually address what the voter is saying and more particularly, HOW they are saying it.  This then leaves parties such as UKIP who cleverly use emotional connections with the voter such as fear and anxiety to their advantage and ultimately are currently picking up more of their votes.

The reason is that the overwhelming majority of the public are either not interested in politics or only have a passing interest and therefore are simply not interested in detailed analysis of policies. Obviously some people are and that is why parties look for serious and detailed policies but for others, it doesn’t matter and they don’t care about any policies, it is what they feel that counts.

So for something like immigration, I think there are 3 ways that the mainstream parties can improve on this issue without getting involved in policy arguments:-

1) Be willing to listen to a resident who raises immigration and in particular listen to their story and WHY they are concerned. Is it jobs? Is it housing? Is it worry about family security? Have they read something negative?  Even if their views are based on complete myths or exaggerations, it is real to them and they have one vote just like everyone. Let them get any anger out of their system and just listen without trying to argue with them even if their views are uncomfortable listening..

2)   If they allow, acknowledge their experience and agree (if you can) that this sounds terrible and accept why they therefore feel as they do,  Acknowledge that there have been bad examples of immigration which have been in the news and that those examples also make you feel angry, sad, upset or whatever emotion they have put to you.

3) Once a common emotional bond is established, that’s the point to then share the positive aspects about immigration.  Not in some meaningless facts and figures way but talking about real people that they know.  So, did they know that the following people were immigrants or came from immigrant families? (there are many examples – here are just some)

– Winston Churchill (grandparents from France/America)

– Prince Philip (Greek) – therefore meaning Prince William and Prince George have immigrant ancestry.

– John Lennon (Irish parents)

– Dame Helen Mirren – well known for playing the Queen but in fact had Russian parents and real birth name is Russian.

Even William Marks (from Marks & Spencers) was actually a Polish immigrant

You can also have TS Eliot, the composer Handel, Andrew Strauss who captained England cricke, Mo Farah and of course the numerous footballers at Premier League football clubs – all of whom contribute massively to British society.  So it’s fair to say that whilst there are some “bad” immigrants, there are also some very good ones and most people (apart from a few BNP supporters) would accept that point.

Ah – but it is not those people they say, it’s those others who come into the country now – what about them? They just take our benefits and housing and there are too many etc.

Well, an emotive argument to use at this point would be to give specific examples in the local community of people who are immigrants and contributing such as specifically naming my local doctor (Indian) and dentist (South African) and try to get them to agree he or she are good people in the area. There are probably immigrant teachers, business leaders, faith groups, sport teams or others in their friendship circles where they can think of positive role models. I even had someone in Old Dean who was very angry about immigration who then realised that they were good friends with their next door neighbours (a Pakistani couple) and actually it wasn’t so bad after all!

At that point, the debate is redefined and you have got people emotively thinking of particular immigrants as positives and real examples of friends rather than them immediately thinking of immigrants as terrorists or in some way, threatening their way of life.

Of course, this doesn’t work with everyone but it does work with lots more than you might think- the question is whether any of the mainstream parties will try this approach and start talking publicly in “the language of the pub” or just carry on coming up with soundbite policies instead.

Cllr Margaret Moher

It is with much sadness to announce that my ward colleague for Old Dean and good friend, Cllr Margaret Moher, has today passed away at Frimley Park Hospital.

Margaret was a fantastic community champion for Old Dean and served as their councillor for over 13 years. She spent most of her life living within the community that she loved. Her passion and knowledge of the Old Dean residents was hugely respected across the political spectrum and it is touching that many have already passed on their own personal condolences and personal memories.

She lives behind many family members, friends and colleagues who are greatly shocked and saddened at this time.

I am personally honoured to have spent 7 fantastic years as her ward colleague and will greatly miss her.

The Politics of Emotion

In the usual post-election fallout, there have been a huge amount of blogs across the whole political spectrum all discussing how to improve their perceived own party position. There is a common theme amongst most of them which basically boils down to the author suggesting one of two solutions namely:-

A) Change the policy (i.e. to an area that the author supports)
B) Change aspects of or even replace the author’s leader.

Now there are times where this is needed in any party but actually there is a third area often forgotten but well known in the training and psychology field and that is the power of emotion in affecting viewpoints and decision making.

So going back 15 years to my previous time as a trainer, here in one paragraph is a very simple summary:-

When people make decisions, they do so in two ways – emotional thinking and critical thinking. All of us do both to some degree but mainly critical thinkers are those who weigh up the pros and cons of a decision and come to a view based on evidence. Emotional thinkers are very different in that they tend to be instinctive and make decisions on how they feel rather than any facts.

Research is sketchy in this area but as a rough estimate, it is believed that around 20-25% of the population are essentially critical thinkers and the rest to varying degrees are mainly emotional thinkers.

But this is a political blog rather than psychology so how is this relevant to the UK political system? Well let’s take one particular topic – immigration and link to the current rise of UKIP and a general mistrust of politicians.

If we look at national and even local politics and politicians in all parties, they almost entirely come from and therefore talk to people in attempting to address opinion in the style of critical thinkers. You can see this when discussing a topic, they naturally reach for the answer being a practical policy and expect the voters to respond positively to this. Therefore, taking the issue of immigration, if you look at all of the party positions, they actually have a number of pretty similar views namely that they wish to support the concept of immigration, reduce overall net migration, encourage people to become part of their community and support UK residents in getting jobs. The vast majority of the public will not be able to tell you much about any party policy and especially any of the details and yet too much party political energy goes on this.

The problem with this approach is that no matter what the policy may be or indeed the pros and cons of a policy, it will not relate in any way to those in the population who are emotional thinkers. These are the majority of the population who are actually not particularly interested in the facts or even care about aspects such as the rational pros and cons of the European Union. Instead many of these people will take a view on say, immigration, based purely on an emotive or perceptive reason even if it is not based on any fact or reality.

So for example, when people say “There are too many foreigners in the country” – this is misunderstood by politicians who think that the answer is to set an figure or try and use facts or logic as a response. This won’t work for emotive thinkers and is why many in the “political class” are viewed as “out of touch”. What this person is actually seeking is not a number but an emotional response i.e. one which starts by recognising and addresses their emotional well-being rather than coming up with an actual solution.

At this point, “critical thinkers” then start to object because this type of response runs a different sort of risk. So for example, if a voter says, “There are too many foreigners in the country” – an answer of “You’re right and I agree with you” might quickly satisfy the voter on a doorstep but quickly fails under public scrutiny and inconsistent messaging. In the medium term, it doesn’t actually address any problem in a detailed policy setting and nor does it balance wider national and international interests that all governments must take into account.

Therefore, any serious political party needs a balance of both. UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular (along with Alex Salmond in Scotland and Boris Johnson to a lesser degree) are clearly aiming at the emotive thinkers by speaking in emotive ways e.g. “485 million people have the right to live and work in the UK” ignoring the fact that if we left the EU, 60 million UK people have the right to live and work in the much smaller area of Surrey Heath.

The challenge for other parties (and I am only really interested in the Labour side) is therefore nothing to do with policy or leadership but to reach out towards the emotional thinkers. In particular, it means making an emotional argument on some of the difficult subjects that politicians have been prone to avoid as they tend to be emotive.

So as someone who is pro-immigration, political messaging on the doorstep might mean…

– Point out that lots of famous people in the UK were actually born outside the UK (for example Boris Johnson, Cliff Richard, numerous England cricket players and even St.George himself – the patron saint of England – the list is endless) Some trade unions are already working on this strategy.

– Naming local people who are immigrants and invite people to ask what is wrong with them (doctors, businesses, care workers, restaurants) – I tried this recently when canvassing and found one resident initially complaining about immigration actually had very friendly neighbours from Pakistan and they got on really well but hadn’t made the link…

– If you know your football, ask whether they have a favourite football team and if they say Chelsea, ask what they think of Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez for Liverpool, Vincent Company for Man City etc. point out what a good player they are…sporting role models are particularly powerful argument.

– Ask why should British workers be banned from taking the jobs of foreigners abroad as would happen if free movement across the EU was stopped. Point out the huge number of retired Brits living abroad.

– Agree and empathise with whatever you can (for example issues around low pay, housing, crime in area) This can be done without you agreeing that immigrants are the cause of this.

There are many other emotional arguments that could be used and obviously they won’t work for every “emotional thinker”. However, the key is simple political messaging which allows space to highlight the positives and subtly change the dynamics. Will this happen at a national level – we’ll wait and see!

Surrey Heath Euro results in full

Results are in from Surrey Heath who have voted as follows:-

An Independence 4 Europe 385 (1.8%)
BNP 118 (0.5%)
Christian Peoples Alliance 141 (0.6%)
Conservative 8422 (39.3%)
English Democrats 152 (0.7%)
Green 1343 (6.3%)
Harmony 20 (0.1%)
Labour 2060 (9.6%)
Liberal Democrats 1539 (7.2%)
Liberty 19 (0.1%)
Peace 76 (0.4%)
Roman 31 (0.2%)
Socialist 20 (0.1%)
UKIP 7007 (32.7%)
Your Voice 24 (0.1%)

Spoilt 60
Total votes cast 21417 (33.21%)

The prediction made on Thursday was therefore fairly accurate with all party shares within 3%.

As expected, the postal vote operation meant the Conservatives topped the poll although it would have been very close amongst those who voted in person with UKIP.

Surrey Heath was a relatively low turnout at 33% but Old Dean was especially low with only about 25% voting. I think this shows that Europe is not a key issue in some of our poorer communities and is therefore likely to artificially depress the comparative Labour vote in areas across the country where they were no local elections.

The South East elect 10 candidates and therefore the Surrey Heath result (using the same system) would have meant:-

Con 5
UKIP 4
Lab 1

This compares to the actual SE result of 4 UKIP, 3 Con, 1 Lab, 1 Green, 1 Lib Dem.

Prediction of Surrey Heath Euro results

The polls have now closed but we will have to wait 3 days to know how the Surrey Heath jury have voted in the Eurovision contest. Having completely failed to predict the Surrey PCC result, this is a very rough guide to how the Surrey Heath parties are likely to fare this year.

The starting point is last year’s County elections which resulted in the following:-

Con 48.3% – 8340 votes
UKIP 26.9% – 4646
Lab 15.9% – 2739
Lib Dem 8.9% – 1531 (although only stood in 4 of 6 wards)

Guessing is complicated by a couple of factors namely that these are European rather than local elections and also by the fact that there are 15 parties taking part including the Greens and a number of fringe parties that were not available at the County elections.

Although Surrey Heath will not officially declare (as we are part of the wider South East result), my guess is as follows:-

Con – around 37%
UKIP – around 33%
Lab – around 12%
Lib Dem – around 7%
Green – around 7%
Independence 4 Europe – 3%
Others – 1% (combined)
Overall turnout – around 30%

I still expect the Cons to get the most votes in Surrey Heath as they have a far bigger and better electoral machine than UKIP who have relied on national coverage. That said, UKIP should increase their local % of the vote at the expense of other parties.

Will try to tweet the Surrey Heath numbers on Sunday night to see how close this is….

UPDATE – 24/04 – The Surrey Heath turnout was 33.21% . Converting the above percentages into number of votes gives predicted numbers of ..

Con 7925
UKIP 7275
Lab 2550
Lib Dem 1500
Green 1500
Others 850