Thursday, 31 May 2012

Living Well?

Government at all levels has a language all of its own.  I've been asked to head a policy development board that goes under the snappy title of 'Living Well.'  It certainly isn't one of those 'it does what it says on the tin' type titles!  This policy development board will consider, amongst other things, how we can re shape the delivery of  public sector services at a local level.  I had an interesting discussion on this topic last night.

Inevitably it has set me thinking - what is my community?  For some things it is clearly Frodsham, for others perhaps it could be my road.   If given a blank sheet of paper what do you end up with when it comes to delivering services locally?  Is it based on geography - or perhaps on linked themes of common interest?

Well I'll be wrestling with this for the next few months.  Let me know your thoughts please!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Making progress?

We had the Annual Town Meeting last night in Frodsham.  About 20 people came.

Can you read anything into the low turnout?  Who knows?

Where does attending the annual town meeting rank alongside what's on the telly, or taking your children to cubs or brownies or whatever else is going on?  Does this show something about how well the event was advertised?

What history has told us in Frodsham is that if there are things that interest or rankle with the community you will get a higher turnout.  So I can draw some comfort from that whatever else FTC is doing at the moment we are not winding up the vast majority of our parishioners.

I presented the annual report in short form - you are welcome to read the full report by calling into the council offices or by viewing it on the Frodsham Town Council website.

I was challenged on a few issues and I report here on my recollection of the challenges and my replies to them.

One local resident questioned the rise in the council tax.  

The rise in the tax for the entire year in Frodsham on a Band D property is of the order of £2.  That's £2 for a whole year.   Effectively the council tax has been frozen - and the changes we made to FTC's budget in January 2012 meant that an extra £32,000 came to FTC as opposed to CWaC.  That is money that we can spend for the benefit of our community.

The same resident wanted to know why things like the proposed spending on the Town Champion, the Christmas Lights and proposals for CCTV etc were not in the manifesto for the election in May 2011.

The Frodsham First manifesto set out how things were to be done - not the individual projects.  The council did consult the locals extensively in the summer of last year and the residents supported more investment in the Christmas lights.  You can't set out every proposal in a manifesto for a 4 year term - especially when so much depends on the turn of events.  It wasn't until January 2012 that the Mary Portas town centre proposals were published by the government.  It wasn't until January 2012 with the changes in council tax that we knew we would be able to fund a position such as a Town Champion.  

Also in terms of husbanding the council's resources we were able to demonstrate an improved cash position over the previous year as we constrained expenditure.   The council is better off by more than £10,000 because of this.

Another question raised the question of CWaC's Governance Review for all of our parish councils and why FTC had requested its boundaries be changed to encompass the land between the River Weaver and the Navigation.

I replied that the Governance Review was long overdue.  They were meant to have been done every 10 years - but they hadn't been done in our part of Cheshire in any recent time - and certainly not in any comprehensive way.  All parishes and the unparished areas are being consulted and the decisions will be for CWaC to determine as a full council in due course after extensive consultations which will last 12 months.  With regard to the specifics I replied that if one asked the people of Frodsham where they thought the boundary was they would reply 'the swing bridge' and not the stone bridge.   No doubt this is something that will be tested in the consultation process.  I also pointed out that the businesses in Lady Heyes also want to be associated with Frodsham.  The Governance Review also will be looking at our electoral arrangements.  I pointed out that we needed to be re-warded as 4 FTC Cllrs are elected in north ward with well over 2,000 electors, whereas 5 Cllrs are elected in East ward where there are 1963 electors on the current roll.

Interestingly one of the other FTC Cllrs chimed up to say he didn't want to see the boundary changed given what he judged to be the extensive ground contamination in that area.  Unfortunately that shows he perhaps doesn't understand the ambit of a Town Council, and its powers and responsibilities. The existence or otherwise of contamination does not impact on the town council.  And in fact if there are issues of ground contamination on our door step I would rather be a part of finding solutions and being in a position to drive matters than not.

One resident questioned how I had gone about dealing with the public toilets in Frodsham.

I explained that neither FTC not CWaC has any statutory responsibility to provide public toilets in Frodsham.  We have to contemplate that such a service may not be offered going forward - although there are no plans to remove the public provision at the moment.  As has often been reported it costs of the order of £20,000 a year for CWaC to provide our public toilets in Frodsham.  CWaC would, like a shot transfer those toilets to FTC for us to manage.  But there is no point in us taking on such a responsibility unless we have plans for what could be done.  Many towns and communities invite businesses to let the public use their facilities.  I have been exploring that issue with 5 different businesses and organisations in Frodsham.  I made the point there is no point in trying to deal with a problem unless you tell people that you are dealing with it.  The real thrust of complaint centred around the publicity associated with the issue and not, I suspect the provision itself.

The same resident raised the issue of the swing bridge and what FTC was doing about it.
The reality is, that whilst this bridge is of vital importance to Frodsham it is, unless a governance review changes the boundaries, it is in Sutton Weaver and thus in parish council terms it is right that they raise the issue with the public authorities.  However, as a town council FTC has no role in this matter other than as a lobbyist and a consultee.  The real debates and issues lie between British Waterways and CWaC.

The bridge belongs to British Waterways and they have a legal obligation to maintain the bridge.  My simple view is that they are in breach of that obligation - but that only takes us so far.  The bridge now needs structural work doing to it.  The estimated costs are of the order of £4.5m.  To put that in context that £4.5m would represent half of CWaC's road maintenance budget for a year.  So how are we going to bridge that funding gap?  Cllr Lynn Riley and I, and a host of other people are working on this at the moment.

There have been a few schemes suggested such as getting volunteers to paint the bridge, having quantities of paint donated to at least smarten up the structure.  Enquries have suggested that these voluntary schemes are  untested and very likely untenable - however here I am reporting what others have advised me.  There is also the fundamental issue of having volunteers paint the visible structure when the real problem lies in the vehicle deck.

So there are no magic wands - if only there were.  In reality whilst FTC can say things about the bridge the Town Council isn't in a position to do much about the swing bridge other than lobbying.  The decisions about it lie elsewhere.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Questions in the press

I was approached by a journalist yesterday to see if I would reply to a couple of statements made by two FTC Councillors who opposed the split of our Mayorship and Chairmanship.   I publish here what I was asked and my reply:

"Rita Shearn says she would not be Mayor because under the new set up the Mayor would not be allowed to speak for the council and this would make it impossible for her to represent the people who elected her. Frank Pennington says he would not be Mayor because for the last 12 months the council had been "run by one man"  (you) and that as Mayor he would have been expected to be your "puppet." Neither of them think the changes will be good for Frodsham.  Would you like to respond?"

The reply I sent was:

"Many thanks for your email.  It will come as no surprise if I disagree with what is suggested.  You will be aware that this issue about the separation of the Mayor and Chairman has been long debated by FTC.  It was voted through 7-5 in April and the motion to overturn that decision was defeated last night 10-6.  It is a matter of great regret to me that some of those who lost the vote and whose views did not prevail have displayed a degree of unnecessary petulance. I thought Cllr Bondi had it right last night when he accepted the Deputy Mayorship.  He had voted against the split - but accepted the decision of the majority and the offer of the Deputy Mayorship.  He made the telling point that being the Deputy Mayor and representing Frodsham was a great honour.  He also made the point about putting the community above oneself and being selfless.   I completely agree with him.

The suggestion that any councillor who undertakes the role of Mayor can't speak up for the people that elected him or her is simply wrong.   The point made by Cllr Shearn regarding 'speaking for the council' perhaps shows a misunderstanding of the civic role of the Mayor.  I can't think of any civic occasion I attended in the last year when there was a need for the Mayor to speak 'for the council.'  When performing the civic role you spend a lot of time thanking and encouraging people and promoting Frodsham - you don't spend your time making great speeches about council policy.  In fact if you did you wouldn't get invited back.  However this is also a non-point as under our new arrangements the Mayor is also the Deputy Chairman and so could speak for the council should the need arise in that capacity.

Cllr Pennington absented himself from the Mayoral Investiture yesterday - the only Councillor to do so.  I think that showed great disrespect to the council and to our Mayorship.  His point about the council being run by one man is complete nonsense.  The vast majority of the significant changes we brought about this year were voted through either unanimously or with large majorities - that doesn't happen with a one-man show.   I think Cllr Pennington's comment is more about producing sound bites than a reflection on reality.  As you know I announced a long time ago that I wouldn't be seeking any senior role within FTC this year.  I committed to giving the council one year of significant effort.  That is exactly what I have done.  I will be taking up a senior position at CWaC which is all about delivering localism.   I will therefore be taking a back seat a FTC for a while.   

If Cllr Pennington wants to be someone's puppet - that is a matter for him - however I won't be pulling the strings.     

I find the whole turn of events very sad.  The whole council would have supported both Cllrs Shearn and Pennington as Mayor and Deputy Mayor unanimously.  In April they were with the other councillors who voted unanimously to accept the convention as a way of offering the Mayorship - but less than a month later they didn't follow what they had voted for - just try following that logic.

However whilst I'm sure neither Cllr Lynn Riley nor Cllr Graham Bondi walked into the meeting last night thinking they would emerge with a civic role I am delighted that they have.  I am also delighted that Cllr Mark Warren is to be our new Chairman of the council.  With Mark, Lynn and Graham taking centre stage Frodsham Town Council couldn't be in better hands going forward."

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

And now this.....

So what do you do as a Councillor when you've lost a democratically taken vote?  It is a fact of everyday life in any form of democracy that decisions are taken by votes.  The majority view prevails.  Some you win, some you lose - but at the end of the day you accept the decision of the majority and move on.

We had a little bit of drama at FTC last night and it all centred on who should be the next Mayor and the ability to move on when you lose a vote.

When I became Mayor a year ago it was immediately following the May 2011 elections when those campaigning on the Frodsham First manifesto swept the board.  Given that we were elected on the basis of radically changing the council it made sense that one of us became Mayor - as being Mayor brought with it the Chairmanship of the council.  I was duly elected by an overwhelming majority.

I have some regret that, that meeting wasn't as dignified as I would have liked.  Two councillors in particular who would have considered themselves to have been on the loosing side of the May 2011 election made the transition difficult - but that was their democratic right.  One suggested that as I was so busy perhaps I should only take the role of Chairman and let someone else be Mayor.

FTC's then arrangements didn't provide for that split.  I took on both roles - and did my best.

This issue of splitting the Mayorship from the Chairmanship came back to the council in the autumn of 2011 when we had a general discussion considering whether we would like to continue to look into it.  The decision was that we should and thus three reports came before the council before the March meeting where they were outlined, and then discussed and voted on in April.

The first report - which was accepted unanimously in April - made the case for making more of our civic representation for Frodsham.  This isn't all about Councillor's going on junkets - this is about promotion of Frodsham outside our town and promoting civic society and democracy within.  We all agreed we should do more - and bring in our schools and invite them to have junior Mayor's of Frodsham who can join in the ceremonial.

The second report - also passed unanimously in April - was to select our Mayor's on the basis of a convention.  This happens elsewhere.  Effectively the councillor with the longest service since they were elected or were last Mayor is offered the opportunity to become Mayor.  They don't have to accept the honour - and if they don't then the Mayorship would be offered to the next longest serving member and so on.

The third report passed by a majority in April which was for the Mayorship and Chairmanship of the Council to be separated.  I won't bore you with the details - but effectively through a creative combination of the council's powers to promote Frodsham, its business and culture, and using the fact that the Local Government Act 1972 allows the council to have a vice-chairman who can fulfill any and all of the roles of the Chairman - we have been able to split the roles.  This also allows our Mayor to concentrate solely on promoting Frodsham - and leaves the Chairman to manage and lead council business.  Not everyone is comfortable performing a civic role, not everyone has the skill to be a Chairman.

The members who lost the vote in April asked for this decision to be reviewed.  This was debated last night, the council rejected the motion to overturn the decision - this time by a larger majority than had been achieved for the original decision in April.  In April the decision was 7-5 to make the change.  Yesterday those seeking to overturn the decision lost 6-10.

Given the timing of the meeting we then, after this vote had to proceed to elect our new Mayor.

Under the convention the Mayorship was offered to Cllr Shearn - she was Deputy Mayor last year.  Even though she would have been elected to the post unanimously she declined to accept the Mayorship.  She was one of the councillors who had been opposed to the split.  Following the convention the next councillor to be offered the role was Cllr Frank Pennington - he was last Mayor in 1992.  He declined the offer.   This gave us a little bit of interesting, but thoroughly unnecessary theatre.

The next Councillors in line for the role were Councillors Lynn Riley (who has never been Mayor) and Councillor Graham Bondi who has been Mayor twice before.  Both accepted the offer and were duly elected Mayor and Deputy Mayor respectively.

We then moved into our Annual General Meeting where the first item of business was, as it must be, the election of our Chairman.  Cllr Mark Warren was elected unanimously to that role.  Cllr Lynn Riley is Vice-Chairman.

Once the AGM was finished we then duly invested our new Mayor with her Chain.  It gave me great pleasure to enchain my good friend and colleague Cllr Lynn Riley into the role.  I'm sure she will carry it off absolutely magnificently!   Both Cllrs Lynn Riley and Graham Bondi made short speeches - both touching on the fact that they hadn't expected the honour, that they would have gladly seen Cllr Shearn in the role, and making the point that the majority view should be respected.  Cllr Bondi made the telling point that it was, as he saw it, his civic duty to accept the decision and perform the role.

A vote of thanks for my work was passed and I made a short speech emphasising just how much work had been done in the year, and the tremendous changes we had made.  I also pointed out that much of the pace and pressure we've felt since January came about through others' decisions.

We were the only parish council out of 97 to take advantage of CWaC reducing our local council tax, we had to recruit  a new town clerk, then we had the Mary Portas bid process, its submission and the recruitment process for our Town Champion - all since January 2012 - and all achieved by April 2012!  This is remarkable, almost unheard of speed in Local Government.  Oh, and by the way this co-incided with our financial year end as well.

It is no wonder that Frodsham Town Council is now seen as a well respected local council and that we are attracting the attention of others for what we have been doing. The recent awards for our innovation with the Action for Market Towns being a case in point.

Only yesterday I was contacted by a CWaC Cllr suggesting that Frodsham take part in the September heritage days when people can visit unusual buildings in the locale and get to see inside.  We've been offered the help of Chester's Civic Trust.  This is exactly what promoting Frodsham is all about - and putting us on the map.

Ah well - it is the end of my one year stint at the helm.  It has been an immense honour and privilege.  I will rightly now take a back seat - the new team need to take us on in their way.  I will always be there to help - but with Mark at the helm and Lynn promoting Frodsham we couldn't be in safer hands.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The last hurrah

Well that's it. I've done my Mayoral year. It's been momentous and hard work; but most of all it has been a tremendous honour to have been Mayor.

Many congratulations to Cllr Mark Warren who takes up the mantle of Chairman and to Cllr Lynn Riley our new Mayor.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Reluctant Mayor

Well it is incredible to think that I have been Mayor of Frodsham for a year.  Actually it was on 16 May 2011 that I became Mayor of Frodsham.  This was after the elections on 5 May 2011 which saw all the candidates standing on the Frodsham First manifesto elected top of the polls where there were contested elections.

I vividly remember explaining to my wife, and the present Mayoress of Frodsham, that, in all likelihood I would return from that Council meeting as the Mayor of Frodsham.  I wasn't looking for the civic honour - rather the chairmanship of the council - which was needed to implement the significant changes to the council we wanted to bring about.  Last year the role of Chairman and Mayor went together. She let it be known to me - in jest I hasten to add - that if I returned as Mayor I could expect divorce papers!

In April this year the Council decided unanimously to:
  • make much more of our civics.  We agreed we should maximise the opportunities to celebrate and promote Frodsham.  Our Mayor should be our primary ambassador - although he or she could be joined by past Mayors, existing councillors and junior Mayors from our Primary Schools; and
  • select our Mayors based on them being willing to serve and the years they have served the council since they were first elected or were last Mayor.
The council also decided by a majority to separate the role of Chairman of the Council from that of the Mayor.

We were meant to have our Annual General Meeting yesterday and that should have led onto our Investiture for our Mayor.  We've had to postpone it until 22 May as some of our councillors wish to debate the separation one more time.  We had an informal meeting last night instead where we debated the issues again and we will do so again in a formal setting on 22 May.

So, I was meant to be Mayor for 364 days - from 16 May 2011 to 14 May 2012.  However I remain Mayor reluctantly for a further 8 days - so my term of office will, in theory, be 372 days.  I wonder if that is a record for a consecutive term?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Video Link comes to Frodsham Library

Cheshire West and Chester Council has installed an 'iconnect' video link in Frodsham Library.
When operational the video link will enable residents to see a council advisor - who happens to be based at the  council's contact centre in Wyvern House Winsford.  They will be able to talk with the advisor via a webcam and telephone handset.
The advisor can fill out forms and allow the customers to see the completed form via the screen. The terminal also allows customers to have their documents scanned and documents printed for them to take away. There is a signature pad and the web cam can take photos. This is all controlled by the advisor in Wyvern House.

The initial Council Services available via this technology will include:

Blue disabled parking badges Concessionary bus passes

Highways Housing benefits

Council tax Planning

Blue badge Streetscene

Concessionary travel Registration services

Parking Schools Housing solutions

Environmental health Parking

The Council is exploring using this technology to connect with others and is looking to develop the system to take payments via the terminals in future.

This new way of accessing services reflects a commitment from CWaC to bring services closer to people in their communities, without the need to travel. The locations of the kiosks has been chosen using feedback from residents and areas which previously had little or no easy access to Council services.

The council is currently training all its staff within Customer Services to use the equipment and this will take several weeks.  Once the training has been completed there will be a marketing campaign to increase customer awareness of this new access channel - so watch this space! 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The opening of an Eglu!

I've finally done it.  In the last days of my Mayorship I've got to open something.  I was invited by Mrs Gail Fullbrook, the headteacher at Frodsham CofE Primary School to open the school's Eglu!  An Eglu is a modern hen coop.

You may remember that at the CWaC members' community grants evening in Frodsham at the end of February the community groups seeking money decided that the school's plans to have chickens in a secure coop should be supported - so they got the money.  The head teacher was kind enough to invite me to perform the official opening - to welcome the school's 3 hens!  I formally opened the coop to allow the hens an opportunity to use their run!  However they were somewhat scared off by the noise!

I gather they are now settling into their run and have been seen pecking!  They are not expected to lay for another 4 - 6 weeks and then around 5 eggs per hen per week.  It looks like omelette's all round at Overton Primary!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

David Copperfield and some other musings.

Dianne and I have just returned from Frodsham Player's performance of David Copperfield at the Community Centre.  It was a very ambitious production - performed 'in the round' style in the main hall with the audience seated either side of the performance area.  The cast relished the space and pulled off the difficult task of performing to an audience sitting either side of them.

The cast was brilliant with many star performers.  Iain Bennett played the adult David Copperfield and Alex Taylor the young David.  Both were stunning.  David Leslie as Mr Micawber (and a couple of other cameos) showed his great versatility.  He regularly had the audience giggling.  In his role as the head teacher Mr Creakle he broke his cane with  perhaps overly vigorous thrashing.  Who knows it may have been planned. Either way  I was much amused when he returned to the stage a little later with a shorter stick!

Dickens's portrayal of women is rarely sympathetic and many of the female characters are subordinate and not fully formed characters. Notwithstanding this the leading ladies were great.  I really enjoyed Carrie Brown's performances first as David Copperfield's put upon mother and then as 'child wife' Dora.

The players are fortunate to have several youngsters eager to perform.  It bodes very well for the future!  

I have to say, somewhat shamefacedly, that I don't really do Dickens.  I endured Great Expectations at school and developed an invincible dislike for his novels.  It was quite ironic some many years later when I was going through some advocacy training that my technique and English usage was  described as 'Dickensian'!    Perhaps too close to home?  However this merely increases my admiration for the cast and their great performances.  They kept the audience's attention throughout the two and a half hours - even the youngsters in the audience.

Now I'm nearing the end of my Mayoral year and this is my last planned cultural event.  We are so fortunate in Frodsham to have so many wonderful groups and societies with really talented performers and ever willing supporters.   It was nice to see so many past Mayors in the audience tonight.  I counted at least three and there may have been more. I'd love to see all of our past Mayors perform an ambassadorial role for Frodsham.   We can all 'fly the flag' for Frodsham.  I was also pleased to see and speak to Clare Hayes again tonight.   I attended a talk she gave at Newton Hall Residential Home last night about the former National Children's Home that is now Kingsley Green - which was called, as many of you know, Newton Hall.   She gave a very moving and wonderful talk.  Given the work I do with vulnerable children on the Fostering Panel it was great to hear of someone growing up in a children's home who speaks of it with great love and affection.  

I didn't lose the ironic juxtaposition in the space of 24 hours of Dickens's portrayal of Victorian England with all its casual brutality and Clare's talk of the care and love she felt at Newton Hall just after World War II.  Clare told the tale that the caring regime at Newton Hall only moved on from Victorian style conditions in the late 1920s.

So thanks Clare for last night and thanks again to the Frodsham Players for tonight.  Great stuff.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Freedom of information and democratic challenge - can you overstep the mark?

For me openness and transparency at all levels of government is vitally important without being daft about the stuff that needs to kept confidential like state secrets etc.

I am gently amused by Tony Blair's and Jack Straw's recent discomfiture with the Freedom of Information Act and their realisation that it was, in so many ways, naive.   Indeed it was.  But that particular genie is now well and truly 'out of the bottle' and almost certainly for the public good.

The trouble is, as always, the transition between the old and new ways of working.

The Act, effectively denies Ministers and Civil Servants (and everyone else in the government or local government world) the opportunity to think the unthinkable and discuss it in any form of formal setting.  Would Geoffrey Howe ever have advocated a policy of managed decline for Liverpool (not taken up incidentally) if he knew those thoughts would have ended up in public years later?  These thoughts have emerged with cabinet papers being made public after 30 years.  Whilst I think Geoffrey Howe was wrong on this point - and the Cabinet didn't agree with him in any event - I do think it was right for him to be able to discuss this topic or indeed another topic with colleagues in a formal setting.   But with the Freedom of Information Act this may no longer be possible.

Now Tony Blair was notorious for his informal 'sofa style' of government - quite possibly a good way of ensuring that there were few records of discussion and decision making.  As we know he has been criticised for this - most notably in relation to the inquiries into the war in Iraq.

Anyway this is all at the high end of politics.   Lets step down many levels.

Locally I am keen that as many people as possible are engaged in and interested in what happens at CWaC and FTC.  With few exceptions, all the books and records are available for inspection at both councils.  This must be right.  As an elected representative I go a step further.  If anyone wants to know anything that is going on they only have to ask me.  My help and assistance will always be freely and willingly given.  I will always try and answer a question as best I can and swiftly too.  I am happy to engage in any debate anyone wants to have.  All I request is that personalities be kept out of the debate.  I'd also hope that those engaging in a debate would listen (me included of course) to the other side - and dare I say it make sure they knew their facts - certainly before proclaiming their version of them to the world!

FTC will be debating its existing policy for managing communications at its next meeting.  It will be interesting to see how we manage democratic challenge set against scarce resources.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Frodsham Commended by Association of Market Towns

Frodsham Town Council have been commended twice yesterday (2 May 2012) by the Association of Market Towns recognising the innovative work of the Town Council regarding:
  • Community Winter Gritting Scheme
  • Over 70s Vouchers
The Association of Market Towns recognised the innovation shown by the Town Council in these schemes.

The winter gritting scheme involves Frodsham Town Council supplying grit to volunteer local residents who are encouraged to spread it on their residential roads and pavements that are not part of the principal route network gritted by Cheshire West and Chester Council.  We are always on the look out for more volunteers.

The over 70s voucher scheme replaced a poorly attended 'over 70s lunch' by offering each local resident aged 70 or over a £5 voucher to spend in local shops or to donate to local charities in the run up to Christmas.  The scheme was taken up by around 70% of Frodsham's estimated over 70s population of around 1200 people and saw around £3,500 that would otherwise have been spent on transporting a few to the lunch spent in our local shops or donated to our local charities.  We hope to build on this scheme for this Christmas.

The Association of Market Towns is a charitable company that seeks to spread good practice amongst its 400 or more small towns across the country.  The Action for Market Town Awards for 2012 were announced last night with 18 awards and 23 commendations being made nationally.

We think this is the first time that Frodsham has been recognised by the AMT and to get two commendations at one time is absolutely fantastic.   

... and this is ever before you think about our Public Access Defibrillators, the Frodsham Foundation and our Portas pilot bid...  and just wait for our new Christmas Lights!