Blame the behaviour and not “travellers”

The big story in Surrey Heath this week has been an unauthorised traveller incursion in Heatherside Recreation Ground. Indeed, the front page of this week’s Camberley News & Mail says, “Travellers leave “chaos” at rec” followed by, “Rubbish and human waste left at recreation ground will cost £10,000 to clear away.”

These sorts of headlines are understandable albeit depressing to read.  Why?  Because it wrongly and unfairly condemns an entire ethnic minority for the selfish conduct of a few.

There appears to be 3 main concerns so let’s deal with these in turn.

(a) Unauthorised incursion namely that people set up a camp when not allowed to do this.

It is absolutely true that this situation should not have occurred and that the 30 or so caravans should not have been there. Residents are right to express concern about security. However, whilst saying this, it is important to try and understand why this might occur and try to understand the issue as a whole.

Travellers generally “travel” in extended family units especially throughout the summer. Many will visit various events with the main ones being the Epsom Derby and the Appleby Fayre. In this case, it has been reported that one member of the group was heavily pregnant and whilst I don’t know if this was true, incursions tend to occur in this type of event or where a group member has serious illness. What tends to happen is that they “camp” near a hospital until the health situation is resolved and then move on after a few days generally just before authorities take enforcement action against them anyway.

So whilst it is absolutely correct to take enforcement action, the problem is the breach of planning regulations and not the ethnic group of the people breaking them. Put another way, is it just gypsies and travellers that break planning regs? Of course not, most Councils regularly have to deal with retrospective planning applications or where developers have failed to build something as agreed. The real question is do we act with the same vigour when dealing with these breaches or just those of travellers?

We should also consider that Surrey Heath has a recognised shortage of 18 gypsy and traveller pitches and the Council appear to have no obvious plan to address this.

(b) Litter and flytipping left behind

Again, I have no truck with flytippers and litterbugs and it is right to highlight the financial cost of this.

However, one of the main reasons why there tends to be litter and flytipping left after an incursion is because very often, they are not provided with a refuse service, skips or litterbins. Travellers are no different to anyone else in that they generate rubbish both personally and in relation to the work that they do. However, whilst the “settled community” would have a weekly bin collection from their house, travellers on the road don’t. Most Councils provide skips and bins (charged to the occupiers) in recognition of this in order to reduce the environmental damage that occurs although I don’t know whether this occurred in Heatherside. If not, I would definitely recommend this for any future incursion that may occur in the borough.

In addition, despite myths to the contrary, a caravan used by a Gypsy or Traveller would generally be extremely clean inside. Part of this is historic but it has to be clean for practical and health reasons too. Therefore, people do not want to keep any rubbish inside their properties at all especially things like food waste so it gets dumped outside generally away from caravans hence why it ends up in hedges and fields.

This rightly causes anger in communities where it occurs because of the excessive litter and flytipping and the clear-up costs. However, whilst £10k and around 25 tons of rubbish sounds a large amount, it’s worth putting that in context with the amounts that we spend clearing up litter and rubbish from Camberley Town Centre every single day. Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have bins and cleaners in our town centre for a week or our local parks or our streets…would they remain spotless or would they quickly become a dumping ground with litter strewn everywhere and rubbish bags all over the place? Would that be the fault of gypsies and travellers or the fault of some selfish people of all backgrounds in all communities?

3. Human waste

As highlighted earlier, caravans tend to be extremely clean and for this reason would quite often not have a toilet facility. We may find this strange but for some cultures particularly those within the Gypsy and some traveller communities, the idea of a toilet in the caravan would be considered “dirty” and even on official pitches, their toilet and bathroom would be in a different external area and not in their caravan.

So whilst human waste in public areas is obviously disgusting and deeply unpleasant, the fact is that everyone needs to use the toilet on a regular basis. Again, the best way to resolve this during an incursion is to arrange a temporary toilet facility for occupiers. This is a cost but ultimately far cheaper than cleaning up public areas and far less unpleasant for local residents.

Of course, it’s not just members of this community that may produce human waste in public. If you go into a town centre at a weekend, it’s not uncommon to see people urinate or defecate in more secluded areas or being sick all over the pavement. And if we are really honest, how many times have any one of us been “caught short” when out in the countryside and decided to have a pee or a poo behind a tree?  If we are going to criticise people for using public areas as a toilet then travellers are hardly the only people in society who do this and perhaps we should all be humble enough to recognise that.

Society has now moved on and the fight for equality has meant that many people are no longer stigmatised to the same extent as even 20 years ago. The vast majority consider that it is no longer acceptable to criticise someone on the grounds of their colour, their race or their sexuality but yet there still seems to be a way to go when it comes to gypsies and travellers. I doubt we would have seen a headline, “White British men and women leave “chaos” in rec” or “Irish people leave “chaos” in rec” so why have we mentioned travellers?

Personally I think we need to do a lot more to build community understanding such as explaining why certain traditions or problems occur and the impact of these to all. By taking some simple practical steps, we can ensure that both local residents and visiting “travellers” then get the support they need.

Why the Council should have skated over a Camberley Ice Rink..

The first Exec of the new Council saw an interesting community topic for new Councillors namely whether Camberley should get a temporary ice rink at London Road Recreation Ground for Christmas.

Now the romantic side of anyone will naturally find this idea appealing – who can fail to get a warm feeling about the idea of families skating together with grandparents looking on supping their mulled wine and nibbling their Christmas biscuits?  That is why iconic venues across the UK such as Somerset House, Winchester Cathedral and Windsor are so popular and ambitious town centres wish to grab some of this spirit and the monies that may come from it.

But would we seriously say the same about the London Road Recreation Ground on the edge of Camberley Town Centre? Now granted, I have played football there on many occasions and it has the Leisure Centre next to it but it’s not exactly a Christmassy venue no matter how many “Victorian pavilions” aka “changing rooms” are based there.

Ah, but what about all those other Town Centres that operate ice rinks around the country? Now it is true that there are city centres which operate similar ventures but they are based in the centre of a large city usually right in the middle of the main shopping area.  They compliment rather than compete with the shops. Other Councils have tried and failed to make them work hence why you don’t see them in every town. The attraction of financial success has proved to be a pipe dream.

In contrast, London Road Recreation Ground does not adjoin any shops and is removed from our main shopping areas. Yes it is a 5 min walk but to access you would have to cross a number of busy roads not suitable for children and walk to a part of town that apart from the leisure centre has few natural visitors. Personally I doubt that many will choose to do so unless they park at the Arena (discouraged)

Therefore, by definition, anyone who is visiting the ice rink/Christmas stalls will not be visiting our shops at the same time. Instead,the Council have decided to set up a rival town centre location such that customers could park in Main Square and walk there without passing a single shop. How is this possibly promoting town centre redevelopment of our shopping area?  Even if this did attract new destination shoppers to try Camberley (which I doubt), the distance means that there is no guarantee they will bother to look round our town centre which is actually what we want people to do. To use a football analogy, it seems the equivalent of scoring an own goal.

The venue also lacks any kind of visual presence as it will not be seen by drivers along the A30 (blocked by the Leisure Centre) and will have limited viewing from Southwell Park Road. Most people will not realise that it is there without a heavy marketing campaign that would be better spent on the town centre itself.  I dread to think how much officer time will now be sucked up trying to make this work that could and should be spent elsewhere.

Some Cllrs did realise this at the meeting and there were increasingly desperate attempts to put forward alternative town centre venues such as Park Street  and both the ground floor and top floor of a car park but apparently it was here or not at all. At this point, it should have been obvious that we were trying to fit our town centre to match an ice rink and not the other way round and immediately scrapped the idea with regret. Sadly that didn’t happen.

Ironically, even if the idea is a roaring success, that brings a range of other problems which were articulately raised by Cllr Colin Dougan namely parking, noise, policing and traffic impact to his local residents. None of these were answered at the meeting although he will at least be consulted on progress along with the Town Cllrs whose residents won’t be impacted at all.

The emotional argument for an ice rink in Camberley is inviting and I suspect that some have been carried away with the success of events like the cycle race such that judgement has been clouded. The logical argument against using London Road Rec is compelling and the risk to the town centre vision alarming.

Labour lost nationally by forgetting who actually votes…

There are a lot of discussions in Labour circles at the moment trying to work out why the election result was so decisive.   The first rule of any election is that the public are always right even if you don’t like what they have told you.  The second rule is even more important – unless you win, you cannot impact the lives of those for whom we care about.

So lesson 1 for the Labour Party is really very simple – to win an election, you have to get the most votes at least 326 seats for a general election.  This means that even if we had won every single seat in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives would still have had a majority in this election. Therefore to win a future election, Labour has to do one of two things:-

1) Get enough non-voters into the Labour column

This is being argued by some on the grounds that only 70% of the electorate did vote. Their argument is that if Labour attracted most of this group, there would be enough people to overtake Tories in their marginal seats.  My own view is that this is doomed for failure. It’s a sad fact borne out by years successfully polling in this marginal southern Council seat that those who are most in need of our support are also those least likely to vote. Those living in social housing flats will rarely vote because they don’t see the point, don’t understand it or their lives are so difficult and chaotic that voting is just not a priority for them. I met numerous residents with desperately sad stories impacted by the bedroom tax, benefit changes and using food banks but none of them voted according to our records.  Why? Because they never have done. Their lives are dominated by worrying about their kids, heating or food and the idea of walking 20 mins down the road with a double buggy would be irrelevant to them and it always will be for many. Our poorest roads were around the 20% turnout mark and this is common around the country. No amount of pleading or persuasion would change this.

2) Get enough Tory voters to switch

I have heard some anecdotal stories about Labour canvassing only those they believed to vote Labour. That’s fine but you will never win a marginal seat just on strong Labour promises. You have to take the “don’t knows” with you as well at least get more don’t knows than the Conservatives. These are people who do vote but often switch between elections without any particular tribal leaning.  The issue here is that you know they will vote and if they do switch, they also take one off the opponent as well. It’s actually easy to track who votes and who doesn’t as you can get a marked register from previous elections.

To win an election, you need to get the support of those who do vote rather than those who don’t. This inevitably means that the middle of the electorate is therefore to the right of society as a whole. For Labour to get a majority, they will have to win in England by getting votes from people that have never been on zero hour contracts, benefits, the minimum wage or used a foodbank. This means being relevant to them offering security in an uncertain time.

Two issues were critical to many in this group – the economy and the SNP. Their view was that the Conservatives were trusted more with the country finances and they definitely did not want the Scottish National Party potentially involved in Government.

I don’t have a preferred choice of leader or deputy but do support a longer think before rushing towards particular people. The direction of the ship is more important than the ship’s captain at this point of the electoral cycle.

Surrey Heath elections – a local view

All the votes have been counted and the final result is 36 Conservatives, 2 Independents in Chobham, 1 Lab in Old Dean and 1 Liberal Democrat in Bagshot.  This is almost identical to the previous Council except that the Conservatives gained 2 seats taking one seat comfortably from the Lib Dems in Frimley Green and another by 20 votes from Lab in Old Dean. The Lib Dems took one seat in Bagshot from the Conservatives making it a net gain of 1.

However, this masks a number of surprising local results all round.

The first point to make here is that Surrey Heath is an extremely Conservative area with a high profile MP.  Michael Gove won a majority of almost 25000 which makes Surrey Heath the 24th safest seat in the entire UK (out of 650) and the 16th safest Conservative seat.  During a general election year particularly where there has been a large Conservative swing, it would have been no surprise if the Conservatives had won all 40 seats as per the 1970s and 80s.

However, this huge majority did not reflect in many areas to local voting.

Personally, I was astonished that the Lib Dems won a seat in Bagshot when you consider the national picture. They only put up one candidate albeit a local community campaigner and Parish Cllr when 3 seats were available. This seems to have been a total surprise to them as well as most of their team went home before the result was announced . This seat had been previously held by Lib Dems albeit narrowly in 2007 but even so, it was unexpected. There seems to have been an exceptionally large amount of personal or split voting with huge differences in the Conservative candidates vote for reasons I do not know.

Next, Independent candidates did well holding both seats in Chobham and only missing in West End by 54 votes. Other lone Independents polled well in Bisley and Mytchett. A lone Lib Dem also got very close in Heatherside almost taking the 3rd seat.

The Conservatives in turn were surprised to win one seat in Old Dean. Whilst personally disappointed, Old Dean has historically been a marginal and I was always expecting a tight result. The 2007 election was only won by 14 votes and two subsequent elections split the Con vote due to UKIP standing which didn’t happen this time. I doubt this was a personal vote effect as the successful Con is not a local activist nor live in the area. Turnout was much lower in Old Dean and initial checks suggest that Cons turned out but many Lab voters did not.  There is a national trend which I will blog about in due course.

So Surrey Heath remains a local community where 90% of those elected are Conservative but only with about 60% of the vote. However, at least opposition voices will be there and it will be our job to ensure that the 40% are also heard loud and clear.

“So this voting then, how does it work??”

Here is the 2nd part of some genuine election queries I’ve heard and tried to answer but this time all associated with voting itself.

Q: What do I do to vote?

A: Walk into your local designated polling station, tell the staff who you are and present your polling card (if you have it).  The officer will then cross out your name on the electoral roll and then issue you with two marked ballot papers (or three if you live in an area with parish elections).  Then go into a private booth.

Q:  Then what?

A: Mark the ballot papers by putting a cross against your preferred candidate(s).  For Old Dean local election, you can make up to 2 crosses on the ballot paper but only one on the parliamentary paper.

Q: What happens if I make a mistake or mark the paper and then change my mind?

A: You can cross out and remark as long as your voting intention is clear. If not, go back to the officer and say you have made a mistake, and would like a new paper. Do not put your mistaken ballot paper in the box or you will not be issued with a new one but give it to them and they will dispose. Under no circumstances should you sign and initial any changes as this will invalidate your vote (which has to be secret)

Q: What if I don’t know who to vote for – can I ask the officers for any advice?

A: No – the poll clerks can only answer questions relating to the process. They cannot tell you any further information other than that contained on the ballot papers or in the booths. For example, they cannot tell you which candidates are in the same party as David Cameron or Ed Miliband.

Q:  Does it have to be a cross?

A: No although this is strongly encouraged. It has to be a clear mark so for example a tick would be acceptable whereas a smiley face has been argued. It does have to be clearly within the candidate section so for example if someone put a large cross covering their paper, this would be classed as spoilt rather than a vote for a middle candidate.

Q: What if I want to deliberately spoil my vote because I don’t like any of the candidates?

A: A ballot paper can be spoilt if it is left blank, voted for too many candidates, has no official mark or is void due to uncertainty.  All spoilt papers are put to one side at the count and then the returning officer will look at each one with the candidate agents  and adjudicate.  Any ballot paper which is signed or has other writing that could identify the voter is also invalid. Don’t bother using your ballot paper to complain about Council services as these will just be ignored. (it has been known!)

Q: When will we know the results?

A: Around 5am on Friday morning for Surrey Heath parliamentary. The local election count starts at 1pm on Friday and should be known by 5pm/6pm.

Q: Who are the people who hang about outside the polling station and what do they do?

A: Called party tellers and have no official status. Their job is to try and find out who has voted so they can remind their supporters later in the day. You are under no legal obligation to tell them your voter number but if you don’t, you may get a knock on your door later on from various party activists which would be a waste of time all round.  They are only interested in your elector number (on your card) and not who you may be voting for. They should work together regardless of the colour of their rosette so tell any of them.

Q:  What if I need help due to disability or visual impairment?

A: The officers in the polling station will offer practical assistance to ensure that you can vote and make every effort to ensure this is done privately. If you need help in the polling booth, officers can give this as a last resort but are legally compelled to keep your vote confidential.

Q: I have a postal vote but haven’t got round to posting it. Can I vote at the polling station instead?

A: No – if you turn up, you will not be given another vote. However, you can drop off your postal vote at a polling station in Surrey Heath.

If you are ill on the day, you can get an emergency proxy vote up until 5pm on voting day.

A simple guide to the elections

So the starting gun has now been officially fired for the 2015 election and lots of politicians of all parties are now desperately scrambling around for votes.

But whilst some are politically engaged, there are huge numbers of people who don’t really understand what this is all about.  Some years ago when not politically active, I actually helped to administer a general election polling station and was genuinely surprised how many people came up with questions that polling staff were not mainly allowed to answer. Other questions have come up socially, colleagues, young people or when knocking on the doors. So here goes with the first instalment (all of which are genuine questions asked)…

Q:  What am I actually voting for?

A:  Every adult in Surrey Heath has 1 vote (about 70 000 people) to decide who they want to be their representative (or MP). That person will then go to Parliament and vote on national issues like health, education, transport and defence. There are 650 MPs in total and they cover the whole of the UK namely England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Q: Who are my candidates?

A: We don’t know for sure as the list of candidates will be published by the local Council on Friday 10th April. However, there are currently 7 people that have stated they wish to stand for election in Surrey Heath.

Q: Can I vote for David Cameron/Ed Miliband/Nigel Farage/Boris Johnson etc? Why are they not on the ballot paper?

A: No – You can only vote for one of the candidates standing in Surrey Heath.  David Cameron is a candidate in Oxfordshire, Ed Miliband in Doncaster, Nigel Farage in Kent and Boris Johnson in London.

Q: I don’t understand all the party stuff – what’s that about?

A: Most candidates standing in the national (or general) election are doing so on behalf of a political party. Therefore, in Surrey Heath, the candidates are from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, United Kingdom Independence Party, Green Party, Art Party and Christian Party. You can just stand as yourself (or Independent) if you want. All of the parties have different ideas (or policies) on what they would do if they won. The names of the parties will be on the ballot paper along with their party logo.

Q: I’m Scottish and want to vote for the Scottish National Party – can I do this here?

A: No – Not in Surrey Heath – they have decided only to put up candidates in Scotland.

Q: But I thought that  being a Councillor was the same as being an MP?

A:No – there are also local elections taking place on the same day and that decides who is your local rep. In Surrey Heath, there are currently 16 different areas (called wards) and 40 people will be elected. These people will decide local issues like refuse collection, planning and parks and they meet in Camberley.

Q: Can I vote on the internet?

A: No  – you either have to turn up in person to your local polling station or make an application in advance to vote by post.

Q: Can I go to any polling station – there will be one near where I work?

A: No  – You should receive a card in the post in the next week or so from the Council and this will tell you where you need to go. If you don’t get a card or don’t know, the Council should be able to help especially if you have moved house over the last year.

Will tweet any more questions and do a 2nd instalment nearer Election Day all about voting.

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%.