Saturday, 30 June 2012

Conservatives select PCC Candidate for Cheshire

John Dwyer has been adopted by Cheshire Conservatives as the candidate to contest the election for the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire police on 15th November.

Congratulations John.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Recycling in style

I have to confess when my friend and colleague Cllr Lynn Riley announced the details of the new CWaC household waste collection and recycling contract about a year ago I was not immediately enthusiastic.  After all in old Vale Royal we had a well functioning and well respected bi-weekly collection service with pretty good recycling figures.  More importantly, at home, I understood it, and was happy enough to segregate materials.

I was worried, in particular by two aspects of the new scheme - first that the volume of the residual waste bin would shrink to 180l from 240l and that we would have a weekly collection of food waste from a kitchen caddy.  I was told I would be recycling more - so that the pressure on the residual waste stream would reduce.  I also struggled to see how weekly collections could be justified on the basis of the likely increased cost for such collections and the environmental dis-benefits of running additional vehicle miles.  After all the bi-weekly collections had worked very well.

So the new collection regime has started.  I'm getting used to using my existing containers for other purposes and seeing the kitchen caddy - in the kitchen!

What I have noticed - and Lynn you were right - is that I'm putting much less in residual waste - I'm diverting more materials into recycling - even if I do ponder about using fresh drinking water to washout receptacles for recycling.

Even in the muggy weather we have been having - and the gutting many fish - the kitchen caddy hasn't been smelling at all.

One problem I have witnessed so far came on Monday when I was driving down Howey Lane and saw the traffic held up whilst a collection vehicle was being filled.  One of the operators was sorting the waste standing in the middle of the road.  By doing this the entire road was effectively blocked.  I hope this is just a teething problem.  I'm told the contract requires the sorting to take place at the kerb-side - not in the middle of the road.  Also it is not the wisest timetabling to have a large vehicle in Howey Lane during rush hour leaving aside the very proper concerns for health and safety that arises from sorting waste in the middle of the road!

So well done Lynn, the officers involved and the new contractor.  Our recycling rates will greatly increase as a Borough.  The cost savings in the new contract are truly staggering over its life time.  It only took me a week to come to grips with what went where.  If I can do it - so can everyone else!

Update - where do I put the Pringles tube does it go with the metal or cardboard?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Cheshire Show

Its that time of year again - the Cheshire Show is being held today on 19 June and tomorrow on 20 June.  My wife and I spent most of the day at the show.   It is wonderful to see so many people celebrating our county, its marvellous diversity and its proud agricultural heritage.  There was a wonderful atmosphere - no doubt aided by the fact we actually had a fine day!

I have to make special mention of the Cheshire West and Chester Council stand - which won 2 awards and where members of the public could try various country crafts.  I was assisted in making a besom.  For those not in the know - I now have my very own witch's broom stick.  

You could no doubt imagine the jokes that were made - more than one person was invited to attempt to fly home on my very own 'Nimbus' - you'll get the reference if you are into Harry Potter!

We've come home with lots of wonderful foods - which I intend to enjoy over the next few days!

Cheshire West and Chester's stand at the Cheshire Show

Democracy and citizenship

I've made two very inspiring and uplifting visits today.

First I was honoured to be invited to visit our neighbouring borough of Halton to speak to the year 9 pupils at the The Heath school about democracy.   The school has been told it is to receive government funding to assist it in modernising its campus and the students were invited to devise campaigns setting out how they wanted their new school to be.  The idea was that the pupils would then vote for their preferred schemes.  The school also rewarded the successful teams with a trip to the cinema, or 10 pin bowling etc. I was very impressed with the passion and commitment the students showed.
Visiting the Heath Technology College in Runcorn

Tonight I was invited to attend the Frodsham Army Cadet Detachment - another inspiring group of youngsters showing confidence, competence and leadership at such a young age.

We had several presentations including on first aid and how to build a basher.  I was challenged with a couple of dad's to be able to replicate what the cadets did.  We also saw the cadets do drill and new cadets join the detachments.

On behalf of the community I thanked the youngsters and their commitment to the detachment and to becoming good citizens, to the adult volunteers who lead the detachments and help the youngsters in their training.  And last, nut not least, the parents who support their children in their ACF activities.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dealing with nasty brutish trolls.

Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are essential in our society.   Challenge and scrutiny are the lifeblood of any democracy.

The vast majority of people get the idea that freedom of speech is not unqualified.  You mustn't, in the exercise of your right to free speech, infringe others' rights such as inciting racial hatred.   The criminal law can protect from harassment - including harassment through email etc, and then there is the somewhat tortuous option of the civil courts and defamation proceedings.

Watching the Leveson Inquiry I was very taken with the evidence given by former PM Gordon Brown who complained about the 'conflation' by the media of fact and opinion.  In other words his complaint is that the press have on occasion passed off their own opinions as being facts and thereby misleading people.

When the newspapers do this - I believe they do it intentionally.  Experienced journalists are rigorous in checking their facts and understand the difference between straight reporting of facts and opinion.

In these days of the internet, blogs and email most of the comments made in public are now made by the general public - those who are not schooled in journalism and journalistic standards.   And then on top of this you have the issue of the comparative intelligence and education.  Should one be more forgiving of an individual who perhaps doesn't express him or herself effectively as intended - but in any event makes offensive, wrong or perhaps harassing or defamatory comments?  However the harm felt or perceived by those on the receiving end almost certainly won't be lessened simply because the author was more or less skilled in communication.

In my life as a councillor I have found that the vast majority of people understand that having an open honest debate where people have differing views is essential.  However I have also encountered people who don't play by the rules, who don't sense automatically where the line is - the line which shouldn't be overstepped.  I have had to deal with anonymous threats, threats of adverse publicity unless I act in a particular way as well as abusive and defamatory remarks.

I met an individual today, a person I hadn't met for perhaps close on a year.  After exchanging the usual pleasantries this individual immediately raised difficulties he had had, and his organisation had had in dealing with one particular individual who either would not, or could not correspond with him or his organisation reasonably and inline with the normal approach to correspondence.  He described the steps he had had to take to protect his staff.  I know our MP and other councillors have encountered similar difficulties - as indeed have I.  

I have seen today 3 examples from 3 different people of what I would term using very mild language - 'misbehaviour' - by this I mean misuse of the internet in one form or other.  I fear this misbehaviour is only likely to get worse.  I also read tonight an article in the Daily Mail (not my normal reading btw) where a lawyer also raises concerns that things are going to get worse.   He comments on the cases where Facebook has been compelled to reveal IP addresses of anonymous abusers and the troll who threatened Louise Mensch MP and her children has been given a suspended prison term. 

The Daily Mail piece is depressing in that the author does't believe that this court action will have the desired effect of improving behaviour.  

All this has got me wondering.  How about a court order denying these abusers access to the internet?   The power is there to do this.  If someone consistently and persistently abuses people by using the internet and email in some inappropriate way - is the best way of preventing harm unplugging him or her from the net? 

Frodsham Medical Centre

I was honoured and delighted to be present at the formal opening of our Medical Centre this evening.  Our Mayor of Frodsham Cllr Lynn Riley 'cut the ribbon' and declared the centre open.  Centre Manager Paul Smith made a couple of speeches explaining the lengthy 14 year journey that had finally led to this magnificent facility.  Dr Milroy led us all in toasting the building and all who work in her!

The centre held two meetings tonight - the opening and a meeting of the new GP Commissioning Group for Western Cheshire who will be aiming to to become fully fledged and authorised by April 2013.

Cllr Lynn Riley cutting the ribbon with centre manager Paul Smith

treatment room
treatment room

conference room
some of the DNA themed art work

public meeting discussing GP commssioning
public meeting

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Planning problems - dealing with a 'brutalist concrete box' in the greenbelt

CWaC Planning Committee had a knotty problem to resolve last night.  It was a planning application I had called into committee on the grounds of conflicting development policies.

What do you do with a 'drab box' in the green belt?

This particular 'drab box' was constructed as an indoor squash court having gained planning permission for that use in 1977.  As with most, if not all squash courts of that date it doesn't have windows!  It literally is a concrete box with a typical 1970s brutalist styling.

So this drab box... how about you convert it into holiday flats?  Well in 2004 a planning application was turned down by a planning inspector on grounds which included the fact that this sort of development was inappropriate in the green belt.

Time passed.

The applicants applied again - this time seeking to convert the building into a single holiday let.

Holiday lets in the green belt are supported in our local plan as such development supports tourism.  There is an interesting debate and judgment to make as to whether piercing the 'drab box' to create doors and windows more in keeping with a house is an improvement and how much of a change to the exterior and outbuildings is acceptable.  New government planning guidance encourages the re-use of buildings in the green belt.

The locals were very much opposed to this development proposal.  They saw this as getting a new dwelling in the greenbelt.  Certainly had an application come forward for a single dwelling on this site it would, almost certainly, have been turned down.

Then there is the issue that if the holiday let business proves to be unsustainable which planning committee or planning inspector would refuse a planning application to change the use of the house into an ordinary dwelling house for occupation by a family?

I described this proposal as an application in search of a policy.  However leaving aside that soundbite - I fully respect the applicants right to submit an application and to bring the development scheme with the local plan policy documentation - after all that is why the local plan exists in the first place!

And the result - a unanimous decision by the planning committee to grant approval.

And the question I don't know the answer to - is a brutalist 1970s box in the green belt better or worse when it has windows, a door and tourists visiting?  

I think I was right to call this matter in to the committee - I think the debate had to be aired in public.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A good year

So what do you think of Frodsham Town Council's performance last year?   We've had the Annual Town Meeting and I've presented my 14 page report.  Well these are my personal views.

Lets bear in mind that most of the councillors elected this time around were new councillors and were elected as independents under a common Frodsham First manifesto which committed the councillors to engage in dialogue and consultation and 'cut out waste.'

One of the first things the council did was to consult with the people of Frodsham on a wide range of issues including whether:
  • the over 70s lunch should be withdrawn and replaced with vouchers;
  • there was support for a winter gritting scheme, 
  • the Frodsham Post should be replaced;
  • whether the Christmas lights should be replaced.
Most of the changes consulted on emerged as expected - however the public did indicate they valued the New Year fireworks and so they were retained.

The council received commendations from the Association of Market Towns in March this year for its winter gritting scheme and the over 70s vouchers - however not all councillors had supported those initiatives.  This is the first time FTC has received any sort of recognition for its work.  The fact that we picked up 2 awards out of around 30 awarded nationally can be a matter of great pride for us.  Both of these schemes had to be launched quickly.  We showed we could work with pace.

The change to the Frodsham Bee from the Post has been well received.  It was a broadly cost neutral change - it certainly relieved the office of much administration.  Crucially, however it allowed the council to communicate in a more timely and effective way than ever before.

Financially the new council rejected the old councils plans to spend £4 for every £3 of income.  In fact last year the council made a surplus of around £15,000.  We brought our income and expenditure broadly into line.

We were the only one of 97 Town and Parish Councils to spot the changes to CWaC's council tax charging arrangements could allow for FTC to raise its precept by around £32,000 without increasing the tax take from local residents.  Frodsham residents pay less in council tax than any other town in the Borough with a town/parish council and the difference between what we pay in Frodsham and what unparished residents of Chester City pay has been reduced from around £30 per year to around £20 per year.  All this is moving in the right direction!  We pay less than our neighbours in Helsby and Elton too - and, we do far more than they do.

We chose to invest the additional monies we raised in a Town Champion (jointly funded with CWaC) - and are establishing the Frodsham Foundation - our own charitable social enterprise company - which will concentrate on promoting and supporting Frodsham and its community.  This innovation has been described as 'the most exciting thing in local government' by a CWaC officer.  In a time of public austerity we are set to bring more resources into Frodsham than ever before and be able to do more, more flexibly than ever before as a community.  At the moment our external lawyers are setting up the company.

We commissioned Groundworks to report on our play areas - they are due to report shortly.

In terms of the council's own administration the number of committee and council meetings were halved and even though we ended up with 6 more council meetings in the year than the planned 12 we still made significant cuts in the number of meetings where councillors talk to councillors with a clerk or an office manager present to administer them. 

The changes made to the committee structure were originally made without changing any of our constitutional arrangements - however at the end of the year we modernised our standing orders and brought ourselves into line with the National Association of Local Councils suggested standing orders.

We now have a standing item at our council meetings where Love Frodsham can address the council - showing the greater business focus this council has over its predecessors.

We brought the community together in our bid to become a Portas Pilot.  We seem to have lost out to larger communities - however with the Foundation and the links forged with Love Frodsham we are set to continue along Portas bid lines.

And we decided unanimously to make more of our civic representation and promote Frodsham more widely, to choose our Mayor by a convention, and we decided by a majority to have a separate Mayor and Chairman so as to build our capacity to do more.  Having voted to do this by a 7-5 majority the proposal to overturn this decision was defeated by an overwhelming 10-6.

In fact so many of the changes we brought about to FTC passed unanimously or by such large majorities that we became very used to consensus... and all this was done without party politics or pre-meetings taking place.

But the greatest success of last year was the removal of party politics from the council table.  At the beginning of the year those independents who stood on the Frodsham First manifesto indicated they did not want to caucus as a political party.  This left the Conservatives as the largest party with 4 out of the 16 seats.  As one of those 4 I can tell you there has never been party orders telling me or anyone else how to vote.  I think Sara Wakefield (Con) got it right when I asked her in a public meeting had I ever told her or asked her to vote in a particular way.  She replied no - and that if I had she would have told me to get stuffed!

OK so far so good.

So what wasn't quite as good as we hoped so far?

Well we didn't get our zero based budget drafted this last year - but one of the up sides of that was that all councillors were engaged in drawing up the budget for this year.

We discovered gaps in the council's administration - many of which appear to have persisted for many years - but these are now both recognised and being addressed.  Interestingly the responsibility for the HR side of the council has for years been the responsibility of the Policy and Process Committee and its predecessor the Finance and General Purposes Committee.   It has never been under the control of the Chairman.  There may well be an argument for bringing the responsibility for the HR issues either to full Council or to our Chairman. 

We also learnt last year which councillors bothered to read their papers in advance of meetings and inform themselves about what is going on and to work through the ramifications of various decisions.

I regret not being able to get round to updating the council's website - but I'm part of a group of councillors looking into this going forward.

Personally I am quite cross that two or three people portray last year as being a 'one-man' council.  This is very unfair to the councillors who attended more meetings than I did and made many more decisions and recommendations than  I did.  I only attended the council meetings (in fact I missed one of them too) and one working group.  My attendance record was one of the best.  

And then there was the curious undemocratic reaction of some to having lost the vote on separating the Mayorship and the Chairmanship.  The Nolan principles of public life require councillors and other public servants to be 'selfless' in their approach.  We are also required not to bring the council into disrepute by our code of conduct. I think a couple of people need to re-read the code of conduct and compare their actions with it.  

Ironically had we worked like political parties this particular public spat may have been avoided - but then open democracy - even in its very raw state - is often for the best.

So was last year perfect - well of course not - but it was by far one of the best years the council has ever had.  It was very instructive.  We showed we could act together.  We could have a common purpose, we could act with pace and determination.  I have been very touched my the welcome feedback I have received from so many sources.  Typical amongst the comments has been the fact that the council now appears to be doing something!

Last year I used the analogy of FTC being a car - we have a Rolls Royce body - but I'm not quite sure what our engine size is.  Like it or not localism is heading in our direction - we either shape up and deal with it - or others will deal with localism for us.

I think the car analogy holds good this year too.  This year we have shown we have a strong majority of councillors who want to drive FTC forward for the benefit of the community.  Whilst there are some that are still grabbing the hand brake and want to slow the pace of change the vast majority want us to continue to innovate.

Is FTC solely to concentrate on the small issues - or are we going to grow up and influence far more for the benefit of our wonderful town?  This will be the debate I think will underpin many of the discussions we have this year.  Personally I want to see more, and more important decisions taken at the FTC Council table.  If FTC doesn't want that, or isn't able to perform, then those crucial decisions may end up being taken by just a couple of people... I also want our capacity to be improved locally so we are better able to implement or commission the public services we want.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Celebrating the Jubilee - Part II

Here are some more photographs of Frodsham's celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee.  These ones are from Monday evening - with the lighting of the beacon and the firework display.

Liverpool from Frodsham Hill
Music festival with fireworks!

The beacon and monument
The beacon burning brightly

And one or two more images ...

spotting the beacon on Moel Famau

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Celebrating the Jubilee - Part I

Frodsham, Helsby and indeed the whole country has been celebrating Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee.  The weather on Saturday wasn't great - but at least it was reasonably dry.  Dianne had great fun following the procession in Helsby - one of our daughters was playing in Helsby High School's Senior Band.  

Zumba Band led the procession
Helsby's own Royalty

Helsby High School Band
Alderman Marie Birkenhead en fete
Helsby WI

On Saturday afternoon Frodsham had an over 70s garden party.

Mayor of Frodsham Cllr Lynn Riley

Frodsham Royalty


On Sunday in driving rain we had the picnic in the park - with lots of entertainment.

Mayor Cllr Lynn Riley dressed 

Lynn and Sue Blanchard

Belly Dancing

Joe Beswick leads the procession 

Joe with the Belly Dancers

Joe Beswick with me and the Olympic Torch