Life as an Old Dean Cllr

Below is a message that I sent to our Labour members within Surrey Heath over the weekend.

“Firstly I would like to welcome the 120+ new members to Surrey Heath CLP that have joined in the last 4 weeks.  These are interesting and challenging times for all of the political parties but thank you for joining and being part of our team.  Surrey Heath Labour Party is a friendly and active group with members actively involved in all aspects of political and community life.  I look forward to meeting with you in coming weeks and months at future events and socials.

As your only Labour elected rep in Surrey Heath, I do a regular update of my Old Dean Cllr activities so you get to know more about life at the local Council.  Feel free to send me your thoughts and local updates. Please be aware that this only covers Surrey Heath Borough Council so members living in Ash, Ash Vale and Tongham come under Guildford Borough Council (who have 2 Labour Cllrs)

On 20th June, it was good to meet many of you at Camberley Theatre when we had a talk from Roger Liddle about the European Union.  This was also an opportunity for us to pay our own quiet tribute to Jo Cox MP. Thank you to Murray Rowlands for arranging this at short notice.

On Thursday 30th June, I attended the Surrey Heath Local Area Committee at Portesbury School in Deepcut.  I am one of the 6 Borough reps along with the 6 County Cllrs.  During the meeting, we received a petition from residents of Gibbet Lane in Camberley concerned about speeding their road and also resolved previous petitions relating to Bagshot High Street, HGV use in Lucas Green Road (West End) and HGV signage throughout West End, Bisley and to Woking.

The next evening, I attended the Phil Collins Annual Dinner at Aldershot CLP which included a very balanced discussion of the national leadership situation from Syd Rapson (former Lab MP in Portsmouth)

On Saturday 2nd July, I attended the Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Camberley War Memorial which commemorated 100 years of the start of the Battle of the Somme.  This was also attended by other Cllrs including the Mayors of Surrey Heath and Rushmoor and many members of the public and was a moving ceremony. I have always thought it important to try and attend remembrance events as a small way of recognising the huge sacrifice given by others.

On 5th July, Surrey Heath Cllrs received a private briefing on the options relating to fast trains to London from the area before a consultant report was made public. Unfortunately, this has concluded that despite looking at various options, there was little value for money in trying to connect Surrey Heath stations to the Woking fast line to speed up journeys (for example by building a connection somewhere between Frimley and Ash Vale). This means that improvements can not really be done by engineering but by scheduling improvements. There are possible options for this (such as more direct trains without changing at Ascot) and now is a good time to look at this as the train franchise is currently being considered. We will have to wait and see if anything comes from this.

The following evening, we held a members meeting at St.Mary’s at short notice to discuss the national leadership situation. Thank you to those that attended and contributed your thoughts on the night. It was clear that members had strongly held but contrasting opinions and as requested, I since wrote to Tom Watson and to the Regional Chair with our agreed position calling on everyone to work together within party rules. Since the meeting, we now know that there will be a leadership election with the final candidates known in the next week.

The following day, I went to a meeting of the Old Dean Community Group which discussed various local community projects and activities including a future networking lunch and community noticeboards.

On Tuesday 12th July, I attended the Surrey Heath Council Executive where I can speak but not vote.  Items discussed at this meeting included a financial update, details of our spending on professional advisors (£402k between Apr 15 and Mar 16) and a proposal to introduce marked parking and enforcement at Frimley Lodge Park as there had been problems with obstructing access roads.  However, there were two items of particular interest to me where I spoke namely:-

  1. Review of Housing Allocation & Homelessness Update

I unsuccessfully objected to changes in the policy that meant that people would have to be in “continuous employment for 12 months” to be eligible rather than settled employment. Unfortunately, many hard working people may not have this luxury in these difficult economic times but may have secured a job more recently and I don’t see why they should be penalised.

2. Camberley Ice Rink

The Executive agreed to hold a Christmas Ice Rink and market at London Road Recreation Ground.  This to me is a complete waste of officer time and Council money and I strongly argued against this.  Leaving aside the local resident opinion which appears also to be against, Camberley is not a tourist attraction and comparing it to Winchester and Windsor is nonsense. My main concern is that any such attraction needs to be in the heart of the town centre in areas of high footfall such as Park Street or the Mall and not on a out of town tennis court hidden behind an old pavilion.  As a result, the Council have now committed to spending £10k on marketing this plus lots of officer time which should have been redirected to hard pressed local businesses worried about the economy or to community projects.  I suspect this will be another Council flop such as the Camberley Theatre Café and the large anchor store that never happened but we will wait and see..

Finally and on a much more positive note, it was great to attend a farewell reception for two athletes from Camberley Judo Club that will be representing their respective countries at the Olympics in Rio. This is a fantastic achievement and I am particularly pleased as they are based on the Old Dean. They also had other athletes that narrowly missed on selection..good luck to Szandra for Ghana and Ashley for the UK and please look out for their results!

Best wishes

Cllr Rodney Bates

Labour Cllr for Old Dean”

Vote Love not vote leave

As most of you know, I have been actively involved in student and local politics for over 20 years. This has often been challenging making difficult decisions between closely balanced arguments.

However, deciding to vote in the EU referendum has been the easiest political decision I have ever made and for those that have yet to decide, here’s why:

I want to live in a tolerant, inclusive society where people are judged by the gifts that they bring and the behaviour they display rather than being deliberately and hatefully divided based on their nationality, religion, colour or creed.

I want to live in a world where we have both a strong economy and a strong community both within the UK and elsewhere but where people work together to address deeply difficult issues that do not respect artificial borders such as environment, crime, famine and poverty recognising that no one person and no one country can address these issues alone. Where we break down barriers rather than building up walls. Where we lead the world rather than ignore the world.

I want to live in a country where our politics is passionately but respectfully argued recognising strongly held opinion from all voices are welcome but where deliberate lies and unintended inaccuracies are challenged, changed and apologised. Where we actively stir up hope rather than actively stirring up hate.

I want to vote for a future not for a past that can never be recovered. I want to vote for an economic reality and not an unfocused guess which even the most passionate supporter admits they don’t know the answer.

In the end, it was really easy. I wanted to vote Love and not vote Leave.

Surrey Heath Cllr diary

Here is my latest Cllr diary from the last few weeks.

On Tuesday 15th March, I met up with the 3 other non-Conservative Councillors in Surrey Heath mainly to discuss the forthcoming electoral review for the area and catch up on local news from the various committees. Although there is no Group “whip” as we represent three different parties, we do informally keep each other updated and sub for each other on Council meetings to ensure there is always an opposing Cllr present.

The next morning, I had a local duty by attending the Advisory Board meeting of our Childrens Centre in Old Dean.  This is such an important community resource for local families and the Old Dean Centre does a great job. Our main challenge is actually trying to make links with families that live outside the Old Dean but within the catchment area (for example in Camberley Town Centre) as their contact rates within the Old Dean are high. This is such a lifeline for parents particularly those who have other life challenges and make such a difference. 

During that week, I also met up with the Windle Valley Youth Project over a coffee for an update and attended a meeting of the Governance Working Party at the Council Offices.

Easter Week was quieter but on Tuesday 22nd, I attended the Borough Council Executive. The main items of discussion were the awarding of some community grants and to submit a borough response to some Government proposals on Planning changes. It was clear that the local Conservatives did not think much of these Government ideas for example the idea of “competition” for some planning applications via “Approved Planning Officers”. The big concern here is that if these external planning officers could bid for certain applications, the Council would then have to resolve their recommendations within a very short time (perhaps 1 or 2 weeks) thus negating the role of local Cllrs in planning committees.

 Also on the agenda was an interesting idea to have a 10 day “Camberley International Festival” celebrating the culture and arts within the Town Centre in June 2016.  In principle, this is a very good idea bringing together some current events with some live music and other activities. However, I remain extremely sceptical of the event finale being a “Picnic in the Park” about which I have blogged separately and it was clear that the practicalities had not been fully considered at this stage.

On Thursday 24th March, I had been invited to Woking Youth Arts Centre to watch a performance of “Hidden” by Peer Productions. This was delivered by 10 young performers on the subject of self-harm who usually present within schools but was a special performance for guests and supporters.  I have to say that this was extremely good – challenging and moving in parts and it is no surprise that after performing in schools, they have had a number of disclosures from other young people. It also turned out that one of the young leads was a resident of Old Dean who I subsequently met again recently at the local Cafe to discuss life as a young person living on the Old Dean.

On Thursday 31st March, I attended the funeral of the Surrey Heath Conservative election agent, Alan Cleverly.  I had known Alan for many years and wanted to pay my respects both personally and on behalf of our CLP of a worthy political opponent with whom we had regular friendly banter.  Around 500 people attended the service at Guildford Cathedral – family, friends and political colleagues and it was a good send off.

In the evening, we had the Audit Committee and the return of our External Auditors.  After several months of wrangling and much delay, we heard that the External Auditors have now agreed to sign off the 2014/15 accounts although only offering a qualified opinion in relation to the value for money aspect.  The main reason for these problems was because the Council decided to get a new finance system. Unfortunately, the amount of work involved in transferring was severely underestimated especially with some technical issues that arose. This was then compounded with staffing issues specifically sickness meaning that the submissions were late and rushed. This resulted in mistakes and the external auditor then decided to conduct a far more detailed audit than usual which of course now means a larger bill. At the meeting, it was clear that borough officers were not overly happy with every recommendation made by the auditor but which they have now implemented or with a clear timetable of doing so. We don’t yet know the final bill for this but clearly not one of Surrey Heath’s finest hours and one that will hopefully not happen again.

Festival finale is not a picnic in the park..

At tonight’s Surrey Heath Executive, there was a item titled, “Camberley International Festival”. Flicking through the report, this was the latest attempt by the Council to try and use London Road Recreation Ground for town centre activities following a previously predicted debacle of a proposed festive ice rink. This had quickly collapsed when it became apparent that there were significant licensing issues and a large amount of local opposition.

To start with a positive, the “International Festival” is actually a clever marketing technique bringing together some already popular activities into a common theme such as the Rooftop Cinema. This will include poetry, live music and some headline acts over a 10 day period and different venues.  This is a very good idea and one that should be supported.

However, the “finale” is planned to be a “Queen’s 90th birthday picnic event on the London Road Recreation Ground.”  Initially, and as per the ice rink, this sounds a superficially good idea – combining a national event for our monarch with national picnic week.  What could be more British than hundreds of couples and families sitting in the sunshine enjoying a shared meal perched onto blankets and nibbling from their plastic containers?

Except…

This romantic vision is rarely a reality.  London Road Recreation Ground is pleasant enough but is urban and noisy and not a destination for a picnic as somewhere like Frimley Lodge or Lightwater Country Park would be. Would you want to sit in the middle of a football pitch for a family picnic?

More importantly, a  large scale well organised picnic involves lots of carrying – a picnic basket, bags, picnic chairs and all the equipment. This means needing to have car parking very close by so carrying is at an minimum or a short level walk.  It also needs toilets, consideration of the atmosphere (do you allow alcohol or not), some kind of wider draw/entertainment and obviously issues like rubbish collection to ensure the event goes well. This is understood by well known outdoor picnic venues that make a success of this.

So unless the event allows onsite parking (i.e. within the rec) or cuts a deal with the Arena so picnickers can use up their car park on a busy Saturday then I doubt this event will work.  It was admitted tonight that there is absolutely no wet weather provision (understandably) and lugging large items some distance from a multi storey car park battling through large numbers of Saturday morning shoppers seems doubtful.

Bizarrely, the  (male) Executive Member when questioned  suggested tonight that people could drop off their wife (!) and items before going off to park but this seems unlikely and presents highway safety issues. This idea would have more chance of success on a smaller scale (for example the immediate neighbouring community to the park as a Neighbourhood Watch or Resident Association event)

This is being billed as the finale to an international festival and publicised throughout the whole of Surrey Heath. Nice idea but no.

 

 

Welfare means “well fair” in the eyes of the public..

I have regularly blogged about “emotional” topics and the sudden resignation of Ian Duncan Smith is another example of how politicians can misunderstand public opinion ending up with some bad policy.

As Ali G once said, “is it called welfare coz it is well fair?” Well, obviously not but discuss welfare on the streets and it will almost always end up with a discussion about perceived fairness.So, whilst public opinion is generally hostile to “welfare”, you have to dig deeper to understand what is actually being expressed.

So in the “well fair” category in the view of many would be the elderly, the disabled, those who have worked hard but now in difficult times due to redundancy, illness, bereavement. In all my years, I have never heard any member of the public say that the meagre incomes of the genuinely disabled should be cut and people seem happy to ensure benefits go to either those who “deserve” it or are seen as “good causes”

But in the “well unfair” category are 3 groups often mentioned namely:-

(a) “scroungers” – a caricature of people who could work but instead sit at home drinking and watching Jeremy Kyle. “why are we paying for them” is the regular phrase you get to hear.

(b) “immigrants sponging off the state” by allegedly claiming large numbers of benefits having paid nothing in.

(c) “fraudsters” i.e. people who say they are sick when they are not.

Now the problem is that the public perceive the second group of “well unfair” to be huge and the vast majority of benefit claimants no doubt because extremist cases can appear in the media. Therefore, when the call goes up to “cut welfare”, this is the group that they actually mean rather than the elderly or disabled.

Unfortunately, as all Governments find out, this is predicated on a big fat myth and in fact the “well unfair” group is very small or false and already pretty well targeted  by whichever party is in power.  In fact, many would argue that they are already over targeted for example the most hated and generally derided ATOS tests relating to disability.

However, very large numbers of claimants (the overwhelming majority) are in the “well fair” group especially the elderly with the number 1 benefit being pensions. Not surprisingly, very few politicians want to challenge this as it suits a rhetoric to go after the “undeserving” first.

So it’s really no surprise that the Government have become unstuck firstly on tax credits and now disability payments. It’s because these are generally value judged as fair payments to those in genuine need.

Ironically, Ian Duncan Smith is right in one regard – if you do want to reduce welfare, you need to look at the payments currently protected for older people. However, I suspect that the “grey vote” will mean that when the rhetoric against welfare increases so will the actual budget.. .

Surrey Heath update – Full Council and community events

This is going to be an important year for Surrey Heath as we will be having a boundary review over the next few months.  On Monday 15th Feb, I therefore met with the Electoral Commission along with the Conservative Group leader to hear how this process will work before a briefing to all members was then given.  The reason why this is taking place is because there are three wards where there is an imbalance of more than 10%. Two of these (St.Michael’s and Watchetts) currently have too many voters whereas Bisley has too few.

The first step is that a decision would need to be taken about how many Cllrs are needed at Surrey Heath from 2019 (we currently have 16 wards and 40 Cllrs). This means looking at how many Cllrs are needed to do the various roles such as planning, licensing, exec, scrutiny, civic etc.  When that figure has been decided, the Electoral Commission will then look as issues such as community boundaries and voter numbers so that each Cllr represents a similar number of voters. This is likely to mean that all wards will be affected by redrawing boundaries including possibly removing or adding wards (not just those currently unbalanced)

This is a long process and the decision maker is the Electoral Commission rather than the Council so it is very much a chance to have our say.  The deadline for the first stage (number of Councillors) will be June 2016 and it is likely the Council will put forward their preferred number in May.

On Wednesday 17th Feb, we had our first Surrey Heath Labour Party “pubchat” session in Bagshot and it was great to speak with members informally about a range of local and national issues.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this and we intend to repeat this again with the next one likely to be in Camberley in a few weeks time.

On Tuesday 23rd February, I took a trip over the border to join Rushmoor Labour Party who were having a fish and chip fundraiser along with a talk and questions by Michael Dugher MP for Barnsley. It was very interesting to listen to Michael who gave a blunt and honest critique of the Party of where we were doing well and also where we needed to improve.  His key point was that we need to win power in order to make a difference and urged all members to help where they can.

Wednesday 24th February was Full Council at Surrey Heath and a chance to raise a number of important points.

I had submitted a written question asking about the Government Planning and Housing Bill as this was going to potentially cause major issues to those living as a tenant of our housing associations.  As expected, the response received was an attempt to put positive spin on these rather than the issues that would arise. In my follow up question, I pointed out that under pay to stay, “tenants on higher incomes” actually meant that households with two people earning £15k a year each or the lower than the “living wage” and therefore asked for a further report to the Executive once the Bill had been completed and this was verbally agreed.

We then turned to the setting of the Council Tax in Surrey Heath for 2016/17. The two choices which had been written up were an increase of 1.94% or an increase of £5 a year (2.55%) However, both of these budgets relied on unspecified “savings targets” of either £197 000 or £241 000.  I therefore asked for detail as to where these savings may arise such as which services would be potentially cut.  The Executive member for Finance refused to give any detail and therefore I decided to vote against.  I have some sympathy with local Councils as their budgets have been drastically cut but this budget was not balanced and Cllrs might as well make up any figure they like as an unspecified “savings target” and present it as a budget!

Also on the agenda was my motion, “This Council believes that it is in the best interests of our residents and businesses for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.”  This had been submitted as an educated guess that the Prime Minister would come back with a deal and that many Surrey Heath Conservatives had already told me they would be against this.   This was seconded by the Lib Dem Cllr for Bagshot.

After speaking on the subject (including giving rare praise for David Cameron and directly quoting George Osborne, Theresa May and the CBI which didn’t appear to go down too well), the Leader of the Council gave a bizarre speech in which she claimed that supporting the motion would mean that individual Cllrs would not be able to give a contrary opinion and that many Conservative Cllrs did not want to give a public view on the subject (although she was happy to say she wants to leave). This seemed very strange when many Councils had already discussed the subject and come to a view including the Conservative Council of Bexley the night before. Oddly, she also seemed to forget that only two weeks before, she had herself proposed that the Council writes to the Government to express concern about the plight of persecuted Christians and other religions in Syria. This was indeed a good cause but of much less impact to Surrey Heath residents than businesses potentially leaving Surrey Heath and resettling within the European Union.

The motion was then defeated but BBC Surrey turned up to listen to the debate but there was a good news report on the radio including a quick interview (go to 1:49:42 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03j124z#play)

On Thursday 25th Feb, I attended a private meeting of the Surrey Heath Local Area Committee where we received presentations on mental health services for young people, CrossRail 2, bus services review and the cycle strategy.  There is currently a consultation affecting some Surrey Heath buses with some of these decided by SCC but others being commercial and thus decided by the bus operator.  The main issue appears to be to split some services at Camberley such as the number 1,2 and 3.  If you have any comments, please send these on line to www.surreycc.gov.uk/transportreview by Monday 14th March.

And finally on Friday 26th, I was grateful to have a behind the scenes tour of the Arena Leisure Centre from Carly, the General Manager. This was very interesting and helpful in discussing and seeing a number of practical issues that had been reported to me. She seemed very open and approachable to service users including two who mentioned issues on the way round. I said that I would keep in touch and therefore if any party member or Old Dean resident does have any comments, please let me know and I can discuss/forward to her directly.

After this, I then went to the Old Dean pavilion where we had an open session for community groups to drop by and see the renovations. The idea is that we can think about how this facility in a key location can be better used and some useful ideas were generated that can be followed up over the coming months.

 

Update – Life as an Old Dean Cllr

It has been a busy time in the last 4 weeks with lots to update about life on the Council.

On 19th Jan, I attended a meeting of the Council’s External Partnerships Committee in order to hear from 3 very important local charities namely Alzheimer’s Society, the Camberley Care Trust and Lightwater Information for the Vulnerable and Elderly.  These all work to improve the lives of those most in need. My concern is to ensure that public services are “dementia friendly” and therefore that there is better education for town centre businesses and services.  We heard there were 16000 people diagnosed within Surrey but obviously much larger numbers who are not. It should be remembered that not everyone with dementia is elderly and that early onset dementia has particular challenges too.

Friday 29th Jan saw a visit to our newly updated Old Dean pavilion in the Rec which looks great.  I will be hosting a drop in open session for interested community groups later this month with my Old Dean colleague, Cllr Nick Chambers and borough officers.

Monday 1st Feb was a meeting of the Old Dean Community Group where we were discussing future plans, governance and events.  Our particular aim is that we have some laptops designated for community use and these will be available twice a week at the St.Martin’s Church Café.

It was good to catch up with local Labour members and those of other political parties at the Politicos Event on 4th Feb.  Well done to the organisers for arranging such a varied panel with lots of thought provoking comments.  These events are worth attending if you have never been before and the audience was a real mixture right across the political spectrum.

The next meeting was at the Council Offices of the Governance Working Group. This is basically a small group of Cllrs that look at our Council procedures and constitution. This meeting looked at the procedure for site visits of planning applications, the Cllr IT Code of Practice and our Licensing Committee procedures. This may be at the dry end of politics for some but it is important that we get these right because we soon hear when something goes wrong.

The first weekend in February meant I was in Nottingham at the Labour Local Government Conference meeting up with other Cllrs around the country.  This involved a conference dinner on the Friday night hosted by Tom Watson where I joined a South East table of colleagues including Rushmoor, New Forest and Southampton.  The Saturday was a full conference day including a keynote from Tom Watson and a concluding speech from Jeremy Corbyn.  Some of you may have followed my extensive live tweeting of the event but if not, the main issues were the disproportionate and disconnected cuts that local govt were being forced to undertake.  Most of the Councillors attending appeared to have similar views – pragmatically having to make difficult decisions within their own communities whilst remaining fair. It was good that the entire Shadow Cabinet Local Govt team attended including Jon Trickett who spoke at the main conference and Steve Reed who spoke at a number of fringe events. 

On Sunday 7 Feb, I visited the Camberley Islamic Centre as part of the national Mosque Open Day.  This was a great event well attended and especially welcoming to visitors.  The people I spoke with were extremely open about aspects of their faith and were keen to give tours and allow people to watch their prayers including explaining afterwards what they said and why.  There was also homemade refreshments and all questions were answered openly and with humour. I sent a thank you e-mail afterwards and hope that events like these continue to build community bridges. It was also good to see other Cllrs and the Surrey Police & Crime Commissioner attending to show their support.

Our Surrey Heath Council Exec met on Tues 9 Feb with most of the items relating to the upcoming Council budget.  After extensive lobbying, the Govt at the last minute has decided to give additional grant to certain local Councils which in a remarkable coincidence are mainly Conservative ones!  This meant that Surrey County Council which was going to lose around £50 million is now going to lose around half of that.  Obviously this will be spun for political purposes as a “listening government” but in reality, the 10 poorest Councils have had cuts around 18 times larger than the 10 richest Council’s over the last few years. 

On a more positive note, I am pleased to report that after intensive lobbying by various faith groups, charities and after I had raised it twice in the Council Chamber, Surrey Heath has now agreed to accept some Syrian refugee households. This will be done on the basis of 2 households immediately followed by a review and then assuming everything is fine, a further 2 each year making a total of 10 households over 5 years and likely to be families. These will be housed in the private sector so will not impact on social housing waiting lists. I offered at the meeting to personally visit each of these households to welcome them to our community and ensure that they were linked into local services and provisions of which many are already waiting to give food, furniture or support.

We have our Full Council next week and I have submitted the following topical motion:

“This Council believes that it is in the best interests of our residents and businesses for the UK to remain a member of the European Union”.

I have also submitted a written question requesting an update on the potential implications to our residents of the Planning and Housing Bill currently being debated in Parliament.  (which are major for those living in or needing social housing)

Finally, there was a well attended Cllr briefing tonight all about an external review taking place this year.  This will be firstly deciding how many Cllrs there should be at Surrey Heath and then after that is sorted, we then get to the tricky issue of examining ward boundaries.  The reason why this is necessary is because 4 of our 16 wards are outside the accepted variance of +/- 10% which means some Cllrs are representing many more than others.  This review will take many months and everyone will have lots of time to have their say!

@RodneyBates1