Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance in Frodsham

Remembrance Sunday is always a poignant time in Frodsham.

At this morning's commemoration at St Laurence church we listened to the names of those who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts who are recorded on Frodsham's war memorials or who have graves in St Laurence churchyard.  There are now over 140 names read out.

That's over 140 grieving families, that's over 140 individuals who did not go on to have or to see their own families grow up.  Those losses and missing people echo down the generations.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Wales and his colleagues in tracing the names of those whose names were not recorded on our war memorials and who are now being remembered as they should be.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

Frodsham war memorial after all the wreaths were laid.
The soldier's boot and poppies are a particular poignant memorial laid for our Mayor Cllr Alan Oulton
Cllr Oulton laid a wreath on behalf of all of us

Junior Mayors
Cllrs Andrew Dawson & Lynn Riley

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remembrance in Yerevan

I’m writing this blog piece at 03:27 in the morning at Yerevan Airport, Armenia on 11 November 2017.

I’ve been in Armenia with the Council of Europe for 2 days contributing to a conference celebrating their local government reforms and encouraging them to go further in their push for devolution and decentralisation.  They wanted to hear how devolution was going in England - that's why I was there.

Armenian War Memorial, Yerevan
Now when the Council of Europe asked me to go to Armenia for the conference I was insistent that I got back to Frodsham to take part in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations.  That’s why I’m at the airport at an ‘oh-my-goodness’ hour in the morning and facing 9 hours of travel, a 28 hour day (Armenia is 4 hours ahead of their UK) and hopping home via Vienna and Frankfurt.  Unfortunately I am not able to get back to Frodsham for 11am on 11 November.  If all goes well I’ll be in Manchester just before lunchtime.

From my earliest days I’ve attended remembrance commemorations. I make it my business, where ever I am to attend local commemorations.

Knowing that I would be in Yerevan I contacted the UK ambassador to Armenia and enquired where it would be appropriate for me to lay poppies.  The ambassador suggested that I lay them at Armenia’s eternal flame - what she didn’t tell me, but what I found out, was that the eternal flame was in front of a huge war memorial, flanked by Soviet tanks and planes.  That huge memorial also contains Armenia’s war museum.  I walked to the memorial with Udo - a German journalist who was also at the conference.   

Placing poppies at the eternal flame, Yerevan, Armenia
We took the opportunity to go into the war museum.  It was organised on two levels.  The top level remembered Armenians who had died in the all too recent conflicts with Azerbaijan.  

I’m used to walking around war museums and being grateful that I am looking at historic artefacts.   This was something different - I was looking at the belongings of people who had died - and these were people younger than me.  The brutality of the recent conflict was really brought home.

T34 Tank - Soviet Union WWII era tank
The Armenian curators encouraged us then to go downstairs to look at the exhibits from World War I , the Armenian Genocide and World War II.   

Soviet commemoration

Amongst those exhibits which understandably were largely about Soviet battles in World War II in Armenia there was a wall commemorating Armenian pilots who fought and died with the RAF in the Battle of Britain.   I didn’t expect to see RAF medals and squadron memorabilia in Yerevan - but there they were.

Commemorating Armenians who fought
and died fighting in the Battle of Britain
The squadron shield and badge comes from No XVII Squadron RAF.   This Squadron can trace its origins back to World War I.  In June 1939 the Squadron was equipped with Hurricanes and saw action first over France and the Low Countries before being one of the last units evacuated from France in May 1940.  No XVII Squadron was then heavily engaged over the south of England during the Battle of Britain.

Just imagine fighting in a war.  Imagine fighting in a war so far from your own home.   Imagine making the ultimate sacrifice.  Imagine the grief and the pain of your family friends and community.

We will remember them.

We must remember all who suffered in war and those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Let the people decide?

Today is a momentous day in Cheshire West.  Lynn and I have a motion before the council seeking to pursuade the council to hold a local referendum in areas affected by controversial planning applications - and in particular planning applications which will have long lasting consequences and ramifications.   The law already exists to do this - s116 Local Government Act 2003 - and it was drafted with precisely these circumstances in mind.

We have Tony Blair to thank!  He and his government forsaw that local referendums could be particularly useful when dealing with controversial planning applications - and said as much in their 1998 policy announcement which led to the 2003 law.

'The Government believes that council should see and use referendums as an important tool to give local people a bigger say... Councils might want to use referendums to consult their local people on such issues as major local developments or matters of particular local controversy.'  (Modern Local Government: in touch with the people 1998 white paper)

Now our motion to council has arisen  in the context of the two applications seeking consent for unconventional gas extractions locally - however the principle applies equally to other proposed developments such as incinerators or large housing schemes.

We have far too much evidence in and around Frodsham and the Mersey Esturay of the planning system not listening to us and the 'great and the good' imposing developments on us that the vast majority of us do not want.  The planning system does not encourage developers to take proper account of the needs of the neighbouring communities - and I see the use of such local referendums as a means of redressing the balance.

We all recall the windfarm planning application - and the gamesmanship of the developer that submitted a larger scheme for permission knowing that it had to be determined nationally - only then to revise the scheme - taking it below that national determination threshold when permission was already granted.  We had the outrage of a planning inspector claiming that he had found 'substantial support' for the windfarm scheme - when we knew from speaking to people in Frodsham that the local population was overwhelmingly against it.  We all know that Peel effectively ignored the local community and did not engage with us in any meaningful sense.  Had they had to test local opinion in a local referendum then I suspect they would have behaved towards us with much greater respect and made much more tangible contributions to the wellbeing of the area.

Then there was the further outrage of neighbouring Halton Council granting permission for the huge incinerator at Ineos - burning all of Greater Manchester's waste - without properly taking account of our needs.  Both Halton Council and the developer refused our request to have air quality monitoring in Frodsham - so Lynn and I had to arrange for it via our member's grants.  I see that approach by both a council and a developer as absolutely outrageous and totally unacceptable.  Would they have dared to do so - had they been required to enagage properly with the local community?

And then we have the Protos scheme at Ince.  We have the old planning policy of Ellesmere Port and Neston Council to thank for laying the ground work to permit two incinerators and now an application for unconventional gas extraction.  When the Secretary of State granted permission for the Protos scheme there was no requirement for a community benefit scheme - one has only come about because of Lynn and my work.  All of us will be working for many years to come on ensuring that this scheme is operated with the community rather than inspite of it.

By having a local referendum for such controversial schemes we will be tipping the scales back towards the communities.  I see there being many, many benefits including:

  1. making the developer properly engage with the community - setting out fully what is involved and how it will protect, benefit and enhance the community - it will encourage them to be good neighbours;
  2. promoting honest debate where all sides of the argument can be put forward democratically and without fear or favour;
  3. enabling residents who feel disenfranchised by the current system - how many people write in about planning applications or appeals - to express their wishes in a simple vote;
  4. protecting residents who feel pressured by campaigners to express their personal opinion in the privacy of the polling station;
  5. making the ultimate decision makers properly take account of the democratically expressed wishes - preventing the 'invention of support' - or assuming the silent majority are in favour of a scheme when they may not be.  Just think how powerful a significant vote in one direction would be especially when backed up by large turnout.  It would be unlikely to be ignored.
Now like the Brexit referendum these local referendums are 'advisory.'  However when the advice is 'loud and clear' woe bedtides anyone who ignores it.  

The cost of holding a local referendum is modest.  All the democratic infrastructure already exists.  However democracy does come at a cost.   But then just think how much money has been spent by Frodsham Town Council on by-elections for Town Councillors over the years - and then judge whether you think spending money on a local referendum about a planning scheme that will last for generations is worth it.  I know which side of the argument I am on.

 If I'd had my way at the Local Plan Working Group I'd have had the developer pay such costs as part of its application process and I'd have had calling such local referendums written into the planning policy guidance.

Incidentally when I raised calling a local referendum with senior council officials - the initial response which came after the idea had been reviewed was 'this is one of the most exciting things I have seen for engaging local communities for ages.'   We should all bear in mind that councils have a duty to promote democracy.

At my request CWaC is looking into local polls and referendums.  Lynn and I have deliberately set out to garner cross party support for this motion tonight.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Car crash of a car parking policy

As many of you will have noticed we have been campaigning around Frodsham and elsewhere in the Borough to get Labour to revisit what we see as its potentially disastrous car parking policy.

Labour has decided to do away with 'free after three' in Chester and to introduce car parking charges in places like Frodsham - and all this without any form of economic risk assessment.

Ask yourself the question - how happy would you be to pay say 50p every time you wanted to park on Main Street - even for a short period of time, such as the time it takes to buy you fruit and veg, or one of Coward's pies?

Everyone I've spoken to about this in Frodsham supports the idea of some parking changes and perhaps charges for those parking 'long-stay' at the station.  Everyone wants to keep free short stay car parking to support the town and its businesses.  Labour have no plans to increase car parking capacity in Frodsham even though the Halton Curve's opening and through trains to Liverpool are only a year or so away.

They also appear to be lacking any plans to deal with car parking being displaced onto residential roads as those seeking to park in Frodsham try to avoid car parking charges.

How long would it be, do you think, before car parking charges, even for short stay car parking would decimate our local businesses.  I've seen this happen already and I know the dangers that even low level charges such as £2 per a day can bring.  Just go and look at Birkenhead.

My legal business's main office is in Birkenhead.  There used to be free, on street car parking in Birkenhead.  Wirral decided many years ago to introduce charges both for on-street car parking and for parking in the council's designated car parks.   The effect of the charges - and they are only small charges has been to create a desert.  The council's pay and display meters stand unused and forlorn.   Their army of parking attendants now have little to do in many areas.  Business users and shoppers have been driven away.

To demonstrate the wilderness that had been created in Birkenhead to CWaC I took a series of photographs as I walked about 4km.   The photographs were taken just as you'd expect a surge of employees to be arriving for work - i.e. after 8:30am.  They were centred on the business district where there are lots of office based businesses and quite a few metal bashing businesses too.   There are also many local shops that could benefit from close at hand free car parking.  I put the photographs together into a short video with some other observations, which, if you'd like to view, you can be clicking here.

Unfortunately Labour has, so far, dismissed our concerns.  Not for the first time their 'silo working' approach looks set to cause harm.  They are only looking at car parking as a 'revenue raiser' for the council - not as an integral part of a wider residential and business picture on which we all depend.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Unnecessary politics and division from disaster

Last week's council meeting at CWaC, for me was absolutely dreadful.

It was dreadful for me for many reasons.  It was very emotional, unnecessarily divisive and political, and ultimately a denial of democracy.

First and foremost it was dreadful because it touched several personal emotional raw nerves.  We debated the April 1989 Hillsborough disaster in the context of last years unlawful killing inquest verdicts, the decision to bring prosecutions and the Sun's newspaper coverage - both at the time of the disaster and subsequently.  The Labour motion put to the council recogised the extent of the disaster, the long fight for truth and justice and offered solidarity and support for the families and friends of the 96 who were killed.  However the motion then also challenged the entire notion of a free press.  Part of the motion that was put (and subsequently passed) was that the council had to:

'Ensure that elected members and staff do not advertise or give interviews to the S*n newspaper.'

We don't often discuss the wider ramifications of Hillsborough.  We rightly concentrate on the families and friends of the deceased.  For them the effects of the disaster were devastating.   Last night's debate forced me to re-live the day and its aftermath.  Like many, many thousands of people with connections to the area my family, the wider City area and region my family was touched.  My elder brother was at Hillsborough that day.  Fortuantely he had a seat.  He was sat overlooking the Lepping's Lane stand.  He was an eye witness to disaster.   These were the days before mobile phones and instant communication.  I well remember the family trauma of knowing that there had been a major disaster and that he was at the game.  For us the fear, the 'not knowing' only lasted the afternoon and evening - but that was bad enough.  He returned home near midnight.

In the days that followed the accounts of what happened to the people started to emerge.  A family friend was also at the game.  He was, and still is a medic.  He was involved in trying to save people on that day.

A fortnight after the disaster a memorial service was held at Liverpool Cathedral.  It was an emotionally raw affair.  I was (and still am) a member of Liverpool Cathedral Cross Guild.  The Cross Guild are all former Cathedral chorister who wear the processional robes and carry the crosses and maces in services.  I was one of three members of the Cross Guild asked to stand at the newly consecrated memorial stone as wreathes were laid.   April 1989 was hard, very very hard for many people.  It was hard for me.   It was far far harder for the families as were the months and years that followed.

But as is often said - time is a healer... or is it.

In the years that passed I remained interested in what had happened - but relieved not to be intimately involved.  Part of my legal career required me to give advice on the safety of sports grounds and the associated health and safety implications.  I also advise and undertake advocacy at Inquests.

And then, as an Evertonian I was at Goodison a couple of years ago when Everton commemorated the disaster.  Now I've been at Goodison and Anfield for the derby games.  I know just how 'tribal', just how challenging the atmosphere can be when both sets of fans are at 'full cry.'  That day at Goodison the crowd remembered the disaster in silence.  You could hear a 'pin drop.'  And then a young girl in Everton colours wearing '9' and younger lad in Liverpool colours wearing '6' walked onto the pitch.

I cried.

I have never cried in public before - and ideally I don't want to do it again.  I can't write these words without welling up.

I can't write these words without intense feelings regarding the stupidity and the gross negligence of the people involved in managing the game at Hillsborough.  It was a monumental failure.  But those feelings become intense anger when I contemplate the lies and the cover-up that followed.  All of us and especially the families were entitled to expect so much more, so much more compentence, capability and especially honesty and integrity.

Had the council given me a motion that would allow me to express all of these things and crucially absolute and unequivocal support and respect for the families of the 96 I would readily supported it. However unnecessary politics was brought into play.

Framing a motion that would require the council to ensure that councillors should not talk to a newspaper and effectively a motion that would require the council to police councillors over this was not just wrong - it was outrageous in my view.  It would inevitably blur everyone's solidarity with the families and friends of the 96 with questions of democracy and a free press.

There could have been unanimity in the Chamber had a motion been put to us expressing solidarity and support - however the political motion put to the council denied that opportunity.

I fully support everyone's individual right to choose what newspaper they buy if any.  I fully support private individuals lobbying others not to buy any particular newspaper.  However I do not believe it is the place of public bodies to have a view on these things when the newspaper in question is lawfully on sale.

The Sun published seriously damaging, false information after the disaster.  It took them 15 years to offer an apology that wasn't remotely good enough... They then allowed their former editor Kelvin McKenzie to return to the paper as a comment writer - and then he wrote an unnecessarily offensive piece.  I don't read the Sun.  Its unlikely I ever will.  I don't encourage anyone to read it either... but I respect everyone's right to choose.

The motion put to council was framed deliberately, in my view, to expose differences.  I deplore that.  However the debate did lead to some of the finest speeches I have ever heard in the council chamber.  If you are interested in watching them - they are available here.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Warringtonisation of the Police and Crime Commissioner

I've learnt a new word - 'Warringtonisation.'

The term was coined at the latest Cheshire Police and Crime Panel held on 12 July.

The panel held a confirmation hearing for the PCC's new Chief of Staff Mr Peter Astley.

Mr Astley was a former Warrington BC employee - and someone who had worked closely with Cllr Keane before too.  Now those who have been following the PCC's actions may have realised that this sounds very similar to what happened when a Deputy PCC was appointed too.  The resonance with the PCC's move to Stockton Heath may also be in mind.

If you'd like to see an extract from the confirmation hearing click here.

The panel - made up of Conservative, Labour and independent members unanimously resolved not to recommend Mr Astley's appointment.

The letter written to the PCC is here:

The PCC did not accepted the advice from the panel.  His response was:

The turn of events was sufficiently unusual for the BBC to report on what happened.  If you click here you can link directly to the BBC news item.

Local Plan Working Group - Gypsies and Travellers, Housing and Employment land

CWaC's Local Plan Working Group had to manage a mammoth 560 page agenda at its meeting last night.  Notwithstanding the abundance of paperwork (handily all read on iPads) there were only two substantive items on the agenda.

First we considered the approach to the creation of new Gypsy and Traveller sites in the Borough.  Then we considered housing and employment land allocations.

If you want to watch an informal video of the meeting (it lasts 1:44hrs so it won't be for everyone) click on this link .  If you want to read the lengthy agenda - then click on this link.

The Local Plan Working Group can't take decisions - it can only make recommendations to the Council's cabinet.  That might suggest that the working group has little influence - however I suspect in this case the recommendations will be profound.

The Working Group and a smaller task group that had been set up had been wrestling with finding suitable sites for Gypsy and Travellers to meet the need that had previously been identified.   The council had previously invested in new purpose built sites for the Gypsy and Travellers to use - however those public sites were not to their liking.  Smaller privately owned sites are preferred by the Gypsy and Traveller community in our Borough.

The council has now allocated the pitches at the public sites - and we still need to find further sites and ideally we should allocate them in our Local Plan Part II.

However the process has proved fraught.  Suitable sites have not been identified.  Personally I think the council has wasted the money it spent on Consultants specifically tasked to find the sites.  I also think the Council made terrible errors at the start of this process by trying to 'sneak' the initial report without the appropriate publication or advance notice.

The working group considered the issues long and hard again.  The consensus that we reached was that the council needed to do more work - and that, as matters stood we couldn't recommend policies for the emerging Part II of the Local Plan.  The council will look to produce a separate policy document covering Gypsy and Traveller sites in due course - probably in 2019.  The hope is that the Planning Inspector who will need to examine the draft Part II Plan will accept that the council has exhausted what it could achieve now - and that it will work towards new 'G&T' policies in 2019.

In the meantime there is a risk that as the council may not be meeting the demand for new pitches that planning applications seeking permission for new sites in open countryside may have permission granted - either by the council or on appeal.  The council will still look to resist any new sites in inappropriate locations such as greenbelt.  Frodsham is surrounded by greenbelt.

The second part of our meeting looked at housing and employment land allocations.  Frodsham already has all its houses either built or with planning permission granted to achieve the planned increase in numbers between now and 2030!   The implications of this on Frodsham will be profound I'm sure.  Just think of the demographics and who can or cannot afford to live here.

One of the sites we specifically discussed was land to the east of the Protos waste/incinerator site at Ince.  In the old Ellemere Port days this land was earmarked for potential expansion of any of the oil and gas industries in the location.  No development is expected on this land before the end of the plan period in 2030.  I enquired of the officers which option would give the council more control over the land in planning terms.  Were we better leaving the land unallocated, or having it 'washed over' by open countryside policies.  I'm pleased to say I was able to persuade my collegues that the old allocation by Ellesmere Port and Neston Council be done away with - and thus our recommendation was that the draft policy should show this land as open countryside.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Halton Curve - the work begins

Today is a momentous day.  Work on the Halton Curve has begun!  The physical works are likely to be completed by the end of May 2018 with new rail services introduced in December 2018.  The services currently planned are an hourly service (in each direction) running from Chester to Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime Street with strong hints being made that additional services are planned from places further away.

Frodsham Station
Those of us involved in lobbying for the Halton Curve were invited to the formal commencement event at Frodsham Junction and the nearby Holiday Inn.  This £10m scheme affecting 1.5 miles of single track will be truly transformative not only for Frodsham, but also for Liverpool, Chester, Helsby, North Wales and Liverpool Airport.

Just think of all the rail journeys that will be able to be made not only from Liverpool to North Wales and all places in between - but crucially also the connections that can be made whether at Runcorn or elsewhere.  Just think, as Frodsham residents, we will be able to walk from our homes to Frodsham station and be able to go to London or further afield.

Current projections suggest a boost to our economy of more than £100m each year.  Equally impressive is that the new rail service is likely to carry around 250,000 people a year and get rid of around 170,000 car journey a year too.

Network Rail will be installing cross of junctions at both the Frodsham and Runcorn ends of the curve - enabling for the first time in over 50 years for trains to run southbound as well as northbound.  The signalling arrangements will be completed updated.  The line and the surrounding existing control areas will be upgraded to the latest signalling.  The old semaphore signals and signal levers will be replaced.  I've asked Network Rail for the old semaphore signal from the Frodsham Junction along with some of the old signal levers to be donated to us as a community so we can preserve them - perhaps at Castle Park or at the restored Frodsham Railway station building.

As you'd expect there were one or two speeches this morning.  The most impressive speeches were made by Ced Green Chairman of the North Cheshire Rail Users Group and Karla Telford Network Rail's project engineer who will be masterminding the project.   Many of the speakers congratulated Ced for his tireless work of lobbying for the restoration of the Halton Curve.  In his turn Ced thanked Lynn, me and Alan McKie (Helsby Councillor) for our support and efforts too.

Lynn, Alan and I took every opportunity to press for improvements to the Frodsham and Helsby station car parks.  I pointed out to Network Rail that they could help Frodsham in particular as they own land at the top of our station car park.

It was also great to see so many women at the event taking leading roles.  We were so impressed by Karla that we've invited her to speak to Helsby High School students about engineering!
Chelsea Green and Karla Telford from Network Rail

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Local democracy conference in Ukraine

The Council of Europe invited me to talk about local democracy in Ukraine this week.  I took part in discussions on 'trust in local politics' and on the involvement of the public in local decision making.  The 'experts' call that 'participatory budgeting.'

In the first discussion on trust I explained the UK's 'Nolan Principles' of public life.  These are the principles that all involved in public life sign up to - either in their declarations of accepting office, or in the various codes of practice or employment contracts.

They underpin - or perhaps more correctly - should underpin everything that politicians and public servants do.  The principles are:

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty 
  • Leadership
I was questioned about the size of UK budgets and what councillors get paid.  When I explained that Town Councillors get nothing, that CWaC Cllrs receive 'allowances' not wages - as if they were wages they'd breach the minimum wage requirements, and that you don't become a councillor for the money, you do it because you love your community I received a round of applause.

When it came to participatory budgeting - in other words the people deciding where public money should be spent not councillors - I told them to 'forget the experts' and do what will work in their community.  We've been doing this instinctively for years with community groups deciding where members grants are spent and with the over 70s vouchers.  I'd love to see us do this to a much greater extent though.

At the end of the conference I was asked to say a few words.  The delegates read out their agreed statement from the conference - and it included the Nolan Principles.  I was deeply moved by this.

The Ukrainian view of a budget

If participatory budgeting is to work we all need attention spans longer than a goldfish.

Explaining a CWaC Council Tax Bill statement and why £762m expenditure doesn't capture our imagination

Elected Mayor Vladimir Prebilič from Kočevje in Slovenia makes a telling point

Giovanni (Italian expert working in Portugal) and Serge from Ukraine 

If ever you feel cynical about democracy and democratic values just go and spend some time in Ukraine.  The country is beautiful.  The people I met really want reform.  They said 'we just want to be a European Country.'  They hate the waste that corruption brings to already scarce public resources.  They want to make a real difference.  The conference was made up of elected Mayors, Councillors and Young Leaders.  They were all impressive - but the Young Leaders in particular were fantastic.

The final conference declarations - who knew I'd be moved by the adoption of the  Ukrainian version of the ''Nolan Principles' 

I hope the last 4 days has helped to inspire them to have the courage to bring about real meaningful reform.  I was inspired by what I saw and heard.  I will be suggesting some of the e-government initiatives that Kiev are already trying.  They are well ahead of us.  Watch this space!

By the way - if you are looking for a European holiday - think about Ukraine.  You'll be welcomed with open arms.  The exchange rate for us is fantastic.   Ukraine International Airlines run a daily service from Gatwick.  They were on time - if only I could say the same about my rail journey north.

And if you think I was on a junket - think again.  It was long days and the only recompense I get is €175 per day - and out of that I have to pay for all meals and hotel accommodation.  I've also got to balance my day job.  I've not done the calculations yet - but I suspect I'll be out of pocket.  However that doesn't matter.  What matters is that Ukraine is embracing reform - and if part of that is a Ukranian version of the Nolan Principles - then that is absolutely priceless.

Giving people real influence in decision making

Have you noticed - democracy is changing?

In the UK our democracy is centred on MPs and Councillors - on elected representatives.  For those who study these things this is called 'representative democracy.'  It is very much the 'old school.'  There is now an increasing push for direct democracy - where decision making is in the hands of the people.

If you look around the world there are an increasing number of examples where real decision making power is being given to people.  Communities are given the opportunity to propose projects and then vote to decide which of them is given funding.   Portugal is leading the way - with 1000s of projects being suggested by people and with the people deciding which projects to back.  There are many examples in Portugal where more people vote on which projects to fund than vote for their local Mayor!

Clearly you can't set an entire council's budget this way - but it does strike me as a really good way of engaging communities in decision making and in choosing between competing projects and competing priorities.

This week I've been in Ukraine taking part in a Council of Europe forum on local democracy.  I was asked to talk about what the experts call 'Participatory Budgeting' in the UK from a practical standpoint.

From my personal point of view there are few success stories in the UK when it comes to these sorts of initiatives.  Just think how few people get involved in the CWaC budget consultations.  Out of our Borough's population of a third of a million people very few people get involved.  In Frodsham we had far more success with our Town Survey - when more than one-third of households responded.  In response terms this is one of the leading whole town surveys in the UK by the way!  I knew we had to rely on door to door deliveries if it was to work.  Just compare what we achieved in Frodsham with the pathetic responses to CWaC's budget consultation and Peel's Windfarm consultation - both measured in hundreds of responses where the populations were 330k or 18k respectively.  The Frodsham Town survey worked in households and we got more than a 30% response rate from under 4,000 houses.

I think there are several issues holding the UK back.  First there is the reluctance to innovate - especially by the larger councils.  Then there is the tendency of elected representatives to hold on to the power they think they have beeen given where they were elected.  There is then the very real cynicism that the choices being offered are illusory or a sham.  Then you have to add to this the additional time effort and cost required to support real public participation.  However to my mind the effort is worth it.

Instinctively I want to see much more decision making in the hands of 'real people.'  Its why for years Lynn and I have let community groups decide where member's grant monies should go.  It is also the principle underpinning the 'Over 70s Vouchers' in Frodsham.  Our older folk can decide where that public money is to be spent in Frodsham.

Now my political opponents seem to be opposed to direct democracy.  They have been opposing Lynn and my desire to call a local poll or referendum if we have to face large scale or controversial planning applications.  They'll be given another opportunity next week to either 'get with the programme' and commit to the principle of greater resident participation or to block it.  I wonder what the outcome will be?

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Downhill Run and Festival in the Park

We've had a wonderful day in Frodsham.  The Downhill Run and Festival in the Park.  The weather has been kind to us - sunny, but not too hot.  The Downhill Run is one of those wonderful events that brings us all together.  Everyone from serious runners, to families with youngsters and those who just want to walk down the hill can take part.

We all should say a huge thank you to the Community Centre and the many, many volunteers who help and make the day a really special for us.   It is also wonderful to have so many people lining the route cheering and clapping us on.

The leader at the Ring O'Bells

My daughter Sarah has taken more than 300 photographs of the runners.  She was outside St Lawrence's church.

If anyone would like any of the photos please drop me an email to: ( and let me know the numbers of the runners you are interested in.

Here are some of the 300 photographs!  There are loads more.

It would also help me identify the runners if you give me some description of who I'm looking for - such as:

Runner 144 - 6'2" 53 year old man blue shorts with pale legs - that's me by the way leading young Cllr Liam Jones home!  He never did catch me down Howey Lane!  I've no idea what time I finished in - but my watch tells me my average pace was 4 mins 45 per km.  

I'm really pleased with that.  I'm not a great runner - walking fast is more my game!

I'll readily give the photos to anyone who wants them.  All I ask is that you use them privately.  I'm sure Sarah will want to assert her copyright if anyone wants to use the images commercially!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

CWaC measurements and metrics

At CWaC's cabinet today we discussed the council's performance metrics.

Whilst I fully accept that performance data is important we all have to be clear that what is being measured is real, relevant and informative.  We also have to worry that whatever performance metrics are used that they do not have a distorting effect on performance.  Then there is the danger of 'marking your own homework' - where the council sets its own targets and then judges itself against those targets.

A few examples:

The council has set itself the following targets on highway maintenance:

KPI:  Maintain the condition of the highway network in a steady state – percentage requiring structural maintenance (annual measure, data available Q4).
A Roads - 1%; B&C Roads - 6%; U Roads 7%.

Now against this target the council has reported that those targets have been achieved.  However the metrics show that the targets are to be relaxed.  So the council will still give itself a 'green tick' in 2019-20 if 3% of A Roads, 8% of B&C Roads and 9% of U roads require structural maintenance.  In other words managing decline will be considered to be acceptable.  Personally to have 3% of A roads in need of structural maintenance is a worry... and if you live on the 9% of side roads that require structural maintenance - every time you drive you car along such a potholed road you won't consider the council deserves a 'green tick.'

I also worry about whether the use of such metrics can encourage unintended and indeed unwanted consequences.  For example the council measures itself with regard to repeat referrals to children's care within 12 months.  Ideally no one wants to have a repeat referral social care.  Does the presence of such a metric encourage poor or inappropriate behaviours?  Would an officer seek to delay a repeat referral to the other side of a 12 month boundary so as to ensure the data looked better?  One sincerely hopes that this would not happen - however there are far too many examples within the wider public sector where exactly this sort of data manipulating behaviours have occurred.

The report highlights the declining performance with regard to patient/care delayed discharges.  In other words the delays for a patient from leaving hospital to go into care.  This is a complex area.  CWaC isn't solely responsible for the delays - however the Cabinet member did recognise that the council was responsible for around 1/3rd of them.  There are performance differences between the West Cheshire CCG area (most of the Borough and including Frodsham) and the Vale Royal CCG area (Northwich and Winsford).  Largely this is the difference in approach taken by GPs in the CCG areas and by the Countess of Cheshire and Leighton Hospitals.  CWaC tells me it adopts the same approach irrespective of which CCG is involved.

If you want to read the full metrics do look out the CWaC Cabinet agenda from today on the CWaC website.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Labour want charge for all car parking in Frodsham

Conservatives call on council to 'park the car parking charges'

Frodsham residents are being urged to back a campaign calling on the council to scrap plans to introduce parking charges.

The Labour administration at CWaC want to bring in car parking charges for everyone.

We oppose that.

The Conservative campaign to oppose car parking charges has been brought about as CWaC's Labour administration published its car parking strategy.  Their strategy will see car parking charges introduced into places like Frodsham and Helsby for the first time ever for our public car parks.  Even Blue Badge holders will have to pay.

Lynn Riley, Conservative group leader and Frodsham Councillor, said “these plans will hit businesses across Frodsham.We are calling on the council to 'park these charges' and keep at least three hours free in Frodsham for short stayers.  If charges for short visits are introduced, residents and visitors will think twice about coming to town and may choose to shop elsewhere which will hurt the local economy.  There is evidence from places as close as the Wirral which show how car parking charges damage local economies.

Cllr Andrew Dawson  added “We understand that the council wants to make money, but what is being proposed will hit small independent traders and people on low and fixed incomes the hardest. Our call for 3 free hours will help with managing long stay commuters whilst still allowing locals to use Frodsham’s shops without having to stump up cash every time.”

The Council retained parking consultants Mott McDonald in 2016 for a six figure sum to draft the over arching strategy together with separate plans for Chester, Ellesmere Port, Northwich, Frodsham and other village centres.

For the first time since CWaC was created in 2008 and only 10 days since the General Election, the borough will see the global introduction of parking charges for all areas including residents parking schemes and Blue Badge holders.

Other recommendations include plans to improve the quality of existing parking, more cycle parking and charging points for electric vehicles and new ways to pay. The most surprising recommendation is that the Council intends to invest in buying up more car parks and  will collaborate with private providers to ensure that other parking facilities do not undermine the overall strategy.

The timing of this announcement seems cynical as it is only days after the General Election when people are understandably weary of politics.  

Conservative Councillors are hoping that strong public opinion will force Labour to rethink and learn from their past mistakes when parking charges damaged local economies. 

With no economic impact assessment carried out, parking charges and penalties will impact the fragile recovery of our town centres. When in Administration at CWAC from 2009-15, the Conservatives held parking charges where they had formerly existed prior to the creation of the unitary council, rolled out Free-After-3 to these areas and were actively removing charges in Ellesmere Port as well as  building new facilities to support regeneration.

To us this looks like a step backwards and shows Labour's fundamental misunderstanding of local needs.   Not everyone is fit enough to walk into Frodsham.  These charges will hit business and those least able to afford them.  But then Labour has often seen Frodsham simply as a 'cash cow.'  We saw that in the budget debate and the budget papers just this year.  The only time Frodsham was mentioned was to pay council tax.  It wasn't on the list for investment.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Council of Europe - supporting local democracy in Tbilisi, Georgia

I've just come back from Tbilisi.

The Council of Europe invited me to address a conference aimed at supporting local government reforms in Georgia.  As you may expect I was honoured and humbled to be asked to participate in such conference.  This was my first invitation to such an international event.

As one of the UK's 18 delegates to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on the Council of Europe these invitations may come my way - however I did ask why, of all the delegates from the UK the Council of Europe had invited me.  As it turned out I was the only Congress delegate outside Georgia in attendance.  So - had I known - the question should have been why out of all the 300+ delegates from 47 countries did the Council of Europe consider inviting me.

I was told that the secretariat was particularly interested in what we've achieved in Frodsham in terms  of revitalising and energising local democracy.  They've been watching and reading!

So what was so interesting.

If you think back to 2007 - there were 16 candidates for 16 places on Frodsham Town Council.  All candidates were elected unopposed.  FTC did very little and, so far as I am concerned did what little it did badly.  One of the reasons I became a local politician was because I was so annoyed by the fact that Frodsham residents were paying a higher council tax than most areas in the old Vale Royal and we saw precious little for that.

The first 4 year term I served on FTC from 2007-2011 was soul destroying.

Decisions were made by a group of councillors who deliberately excluded Cllr Riley and me.  These were councillors who were either members of the Labour Party or Labour Party sympathisers.  Ironically these were councillors who asserted they were 'independent' - however they stated on their declarations of member's interests that they were members of the Labour Party.  

They made it hard to bring new ideas and new thinking forward.

Now I have absolutely nothing against people supporting lawful political parties.  In fact I positively welcome it.  It is no secret - none of us have a monopoly on wisdom - even if some pretend that they have it!  Our political system relies on challenge and dialogue to achieve the best policies.  It can be a bruising process - literally the school of hard knocks - if you are on the receiving end of it!  But life would be boring if we all held the same views.

Anyway the experience of that 2007-11 council led me to find a coalition of the willing from all parts of the political spectrum to reform FTC.  That Frodsham First coalition was made up of people who voted for every mainstream political party.

Now whatever you may think of Frodsham Town Council from 2011-2015 it achieved many things.

We got new energy efficient Christmas Lights - that paid for themselves with the energy savings;
Our Christmas festivals were energised and became even better;
We got comprehensive defibrillator coverage in Frodsham;
We got a local winter gritting scheme;
We got a new play area at Churchfields;
We firmly established the Mayor of Frodsham as the ambassador of the town and as our first citizen;
We separated this 'first citizen role' from the Chairmanship of the Council to ensure our first citizen was, and was seen to be politically independent;
We brought youngsters into celebrating our community through the involvement of our schools and the Junior Mayors; and
We brought in the 'Freedom of Frodsham' and the concept of celebrating members of our community who have gone above and beyond in serving us.

The aim, of course was to build community cohesion and pride in Frodsham.

This local pride and celebration was what the Council of Europe liked - alongside my descriptions of local government arrangements in the UK.

I was also honoured to be the sole male asked to take part in a debate about greater female participation in local democracy.  FTC has been gender balanced since 2011 - and we should all celebrate that.  I explained how CWaC and Cheshire East are all led by women.

I encouraged the conference to watch 'Made in Dagenham' to gain an insight into the struggle for gender equality in the UK.

That said I was more than a little troubled that we didn't go on to discuss LGBT rights - but that will come.  I did raise that in the plenary sessions of the whole Congress in October.

I was really impressed with the desire for reform in Georgia and their willingness to embrace and embed democracy.  

And finally I will always remember the few hours I spent in the country as the flight in was very eventful. We had significant turbulence and the mother of all thunderstorms to contend with.  On landing the passengers gave a heartfelt round of applause!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Frodsham Air Quality Management Area Consultation

CWaC has finally published its Consultation Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) documentation for the Fluin Lane / A56 junction.  The consultation examines the extent of the traffic pollution problem and considers what could be done to improve the situation.

The entire consultation documentation can be found by clicking here.  

I have ensured that everyone living in the AQMA area has received paper copies of the full report. They will also be invited to consultation events arranged just for them.  There will also be community wide events organised.

The consultation will run until 28 July 2017.

First the good news.  The Air Monitoring Station at Manor House school shows that the quality of air in and around Frodsham is typically very good.   The problems we occasionally have are traffic related.  Cllr Riley and I have ensured that Frodsham has been covered with air monitoring devices over the last decade or so.  It is through that work that we discovered that the air quality at the Fluin Lane / A56 junction can fall beneath acceptable standards. This has led to CWaC declaring an AQMA at this junction. 

The AQMA area is shown by the red line on the map shown below.  There are 18 residential properties within the area that are exposed, at certain times, to poor air quality caused by traffic pollution.  The principal concerns are the various nitrogen oxides (typically referred to as NOx) largely associated with diesel engines.  As we all know there can be extensive queues of traffic along the A56 and on Fluin Lane.  The worst pollution is likely to arise when we have those queues coinciding at the same time as there being little air movement.  The 'canyon like' environment at the bottom of Fluin Lane doesn't help either.

Having identified we have a problem the AQMA consultation documentation then considers what potentially can be done about it.

A number of proposals - all aimed at reducing traffic pollution at the junction have been put forward. The engineers consider that each of these schemes could reduce air pollution.

Right turn lanes on the A56

The sketch below shows two right turn lanes on the A56 - aiding traffic moving into Fluin Lane and St Hilda's Drive whilst potentially maintaining traffic flow along the A56.

My initial view on seeing this suggestion is that whilst it may contribute in some small way to keeping traffic moving along the A56 - traffic behind the occasional vehicle looking to turn right would be able to continue along the A56 it will make the queuing along Fluin Lane worse.  A vehicle looking to turn right out of Fluin Lane (or St Hilda's Drive) could be blocked by a car waiting to turn right on the A56.

Traffic Lights

This proposal builds on the right turn lane suggestion and adds traffic lights.

My thoughts on this are that whilst this could assist at some times of the day - it is unlikely to reduce traffic pollution at peak periods.  If the problem is pollution from slow moving and queuing traffic actually compelling traffic stop at traffic lights and then accelerate away (causing more pollution) may actually make things worse.


It took me quite a while to get my head around the idea of a chicane on Fluin Lane.  The idea is that traffic queuing to exit Fluin Lane would have to wait up hill of the chicane (which would be by the terraced properties) until there was no traffic coming up Fluin Lane and their exit to reach the give way junction was clear.  This suggestion would evidently reduce the number of cars that could queue in front of those houses.

My thoughts on this proposal is that I suspect it may be unworkable in practice and would increase the risks of accidents.  From my experience cars making the left hand turn into Fluin Lane typically come round that bend at 20 mph or more - and they can't be seen until they are negotiating the bend by anyone higher up Fluin Lane.  This suggests to me that there would be very little reaction time for anyone wishing to negotiate the chicane.

This scheme also worries me as it, in effect merely displaces the queuing traffic further up Fluin Lane.  It also strikes me that it would make exiting from Langdale Way onto Fluin Lane more problematic than it already can be.

Mini roundabout 

Of all the schemes suggested this is the one I prefer.  

Instinctively I believe the problem is queuing traffic.  A roundabout gives the greatest chance for cars to keep moving - providing cars do not queue on the roundabout itself.  I believe a significant contributor to traffic problems in Frodsham are the traffic lights at the Bear's Paw.  Certainly the traffic flows into and out of Frodsham ebb and flow with the sequencing of those lights.  Could we have a roundabout there too?  If we did though, how would we manage pedestrian safety?

Normal roundabout

As this drawing shows there isn't enough land available for this proposal.

My concluding thoughts on this AQMA consultation are that we need to have a community wide conversation.  Most of use this junction several times during the week, if not during the day.  We owe it to our friends and neighbours who live in the AQMA or are affected by it to do what we can reasonably to improve their and our air quality.  

I'd like to see a wider review of traffic management in Frodsham.  It would be madness to improve a situation in one location only to exacerbate it elsewhere.  Solving Fluin Lane only to increase pollution on Church Street, as an example, wouldn't be clever. 

Technology can play its part.  There are an increasing number of electric cars on the road. More and more engines have stop/start technology.  When we come to change our cars we can swap away from diesel power.   All this can help - however I don't think those changes can come fast enough.  We have to do something now... but what?

Please get involved and share your thoughts.