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!