Meanwhile, Through The Looking Glass

Meanwhile, Through The Looking Glass

I have never really thought of Cllr. Paul Clapp as a political mastermind, but I have to give it to him.  His latest piece of spin is truly exceptional in both its avoidance and sheer gall.  I probably should be surprised that a local newspaper would give it the time of day, but I’m not. :)  Here it is: Link

This is what it says:

Faded white lines on a busy zebra crossing in Wisbech are to be re-painted after eight months of what a councillor has said had become a potential death trap.

The crossing in Churchill Road, that takes pedestrians from the Horsefair shopping centre to the garage on the other side, is to see the lines re-instated by county council workers on Friday August 26.

“With the lines faded, motorists new to the area had no idea it was a crossing point and people have been reporting near misses for months, said councillor Paul Clapp.

“I’m delighted it’s being repainted but it should never have got that bad in the first place.

“I’ve nearly been squashed there countless times and I know of plenty others in the same situation. It was like a death trap.”

He added: “It’s all down to Government cuts slowing down essential work such as this.”

Other work being carried out on the same day includes a keep clear sign being re-instated in Norwich road at the junction with Kennedy Court and white line painting in Wisbech North.

Councillor Virginia Bucknor said “The crossing is in a terrible condition but in addition it is very poorly designed for how busy that roundabout is now.

“It was put there 30 years ago when Wisbech didn’t have half the traffic of today.

“The town has gone from a population of 20,000 to more than 44,000 yet the highways infrastructure has been neglected for decades and cannot cope.”

A pedestrian trying to cross in 2016 was a very different story to one crossing thirty years ago due to traffic volume, she added.

And this is what I would propose it SHOULD say:

Faded white lines on a busy zebra crossing in Wisbech are to be re-painted after eight months of County Councillor failure to address a potential death trap.

The crossing in Churchill Road, that takes pedestrians from the Horsefair shopping centre to the garage on the other side, is to see the lines re-instated by county council workers on Friday August 26.

“With the lines faded, motorists new to the area had no idea it was a crossing point and people have been reporting near misses for months, is what could have been said by councillor Paul Clapp, who is the elected County Councillor for the area and whose job it is to make sure this sort of work gets done in a timely fashion so that people are not put at risk. “Why are you blaming the Government for your inability to do your job?” a balanced and investigative reporter interested in the truth could have asked.

“I’m delighted it’s being repainted but it should never have got that bad in the first place. If only I had been able to do the very thing that I was elected to do. Ah well, never mind.”

“I’ve nearly been squashed there countless times and I know of plenty others in the same situation. It was like a death trap. Somebody needs to get hold of the person responsible and give them a piece of their mind. Has anybody got a mirror?

He could have added: “It’s all down to Government cuts slowing down essential work such as this.” The fact that the work is being done may seem to prove that it had nothing at all to do with “Government Cuts” and more to do with bureaucracy and effective representation, but that’s definitely not the case. Nope. No Chance At all. Ahem.

Councillor Virginia Bucknor could have said “The crossing is in a terrible condition but in addition it is very poorly designed for how busy that roundabout is now. If my current County Councillor was a Conservative I’d be quick to lay the blame, but since its UKIP and I’m terrified they might stand against me in an election because I know I’d lose, I’ll not mention the Councillor at all.”

“The town has gone from a population of 20,000 to more than 44,000 yet the highways infrastructure has been neglected for decades and cannot cope. If only there were people we elected to County Council to make sensible decisions about spending priorities….”

Nevertheless, nice work Paul.  It’s like a shopkeeper moaning about the window displays in their own shop.  “Nobody is buying anything!  If only I had a better window display!”  :)

Anybody would think there was an election coming next year.  :)

Direction Of Travel

Direction Of Travel

The following blog post is my personal view only, based on my anecdotes as previous Cabinet Member for Health & Wellbeing at County Council many years ago, as (briefly) the Chairman of the Health and Wellbeing Board, and based on the alleged leaks brought to public attention by Steve Barclay MP.  They are strictly my personal view and not the view of any Council or other body – and they are based on the emerging picture and my observations only.  

A few years ago when the County Council first went to “no overall control” and the Rainbow Alliance of UKIP, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Independents set about their act of turning it into a Committee System rather than a Cabinet System I warned what the consequences would be.  I said that it was a recipe for stagnation and weakness and that we would be feeling the consequences for years to come.  We have been and we still are.  Trouble is, when some bad policy appears it can be hard to trace the roots back and note the cause.  Such is always the way with these things.

Our current problem with the C.C.G.’s apparent desire to close our Minor Injuries Unit is one of those consequences.  But how?  It certainly is hard to see and you have to understand some of what went on, and why, to follow it.  Defenders of the Committee System, who really should be hanging their heads in shame by now, will deny deny deny as they always do.  Which is a shame because the ongoing local costs of this farce will continue to reverberate until the whole useless shambles of a system is wiped away.

Back when the Coalition Government decided to controversially shake up the NHS one of the aims was to localise the NHS service.  To make it more flexible and driven by local needs.  To make it more answerable to local demand.  To give it local strategic and democratic insight instead of being run by very remote and distant bureaucratic grey-suited bean counters.  It was a laudable aim.  Although there was a lot of political saber-rattling about it, many senior NHS people I spoke to would privately admit that they saw the sense in it.

The senior body which would provide the strategic links and the democratic oversight was a new County-Wide body called the Health & Wellbeing Board.  That Committee would comprise of senior people from County Council, District Councils, health partners, Public Health and the NHS.

The County Council Leader at the time was Nick Clarke and he understood very quickly the importance of this Committee to make the whole thing work.  He determined to keep the Committee small, with only “senior players” at the table, in order to make it a place where meaningful decisions could be quickly taken and carried through.  He also chose to be the Chairman himself.  At the time some thought this a bit of a “power grab” given that he was already Leader of the County Council, but I believe that was not a fair view of his motivations.  Indeed, the Senior NHS people and County Officers told me at the time that they thought this a strong move and they supported it.  “It shows we are serious about the remit and breadth of this Committee and its role,” I was told by more than one senior official.

After a time, Nick Clarke handed the Chairmanship to me as the appropriate Cabinet Member – once he was confident that I understood his vision for it.  I did.  It had to be dynamic, flexible and provide an opportunity for all the parties involved to become greater than the sum of their parts.  If something controversial, like the closing of a Minor Injuries Unit, were to emerge it was the Health & Wellbeing Board who would be on it in a flash, calling the C.C.G. to account, able to get to the bottom and look at alternatives very quickly because everybody who needed to make a decision was already connected to the Board.  The results of the County Election meant that I never got to continue as Chair the Health & Wellbeing Board, but I certainly hoped it would be well-placed to continue its important role.

Unfortunately, that was when the Council fell to “no overall control” and the Rainbow Alliance immediately set to work dismantling a system that had worked well, replacing it with the toothless shadow that has emerged.  They will tell you they did this to “reflect the changes in the political make up” and to be “more democratic.”  I don’t believe a word of that.  In my opinion, they did it partly out of spite – they didn’t want Conservatives in “control” anymore.  And partly to give themselves the trappings of “power” without the responsibility that should come with it.

They created, in one short year, a system where the buck stops nowhere.  Where decisions can be taken and apparently everybody can say: “Nothing to do with me Guv.”  Where everything is quietly run by Officers and democratic oversight only happens when the dirt really badly hits the fan and creates enough waves to force the warring parties to briefly align in their position.  Though not even then, sometimes.  Watchers of County Council have noticed that the whole place has become disfunctional with some County Councillors openly calling for their own Council’s dissolution.  Recently, they voted for “devolution” which most people I’ve spoken to are confident will ultimately mean the end of County Council (if they are prepared to give you a candid answer.)  Yep.  It could well be that indirectly, they voted for their own demise.

The effect on the Health & Wellbeing Board was apparent.  The first thing they did was stuff it full of loads more members.  The argument that this was “more democratic” didn’t mention that it was also taking a streamlined and effective Committee and changing its very nature.  A bunch more Councillors from all different parties joined, creating an adversarial and political backdrop that had previously been absent.  Its not that any of those individuals had anything but the best intentions.  It’s not a failing of the Chairman or any other specific individual.  Only that they were now one voice in a throng, lost in the hubbub of competing views.  The power of the Committee was now diluted, in my view.  I suspect this was deliberate.  Some people take a very ideological view of the NHS and don’t want to see any democratic oversight on it.

At a Health & Wellbeing Board meeting in May one of the Agenda Items was called “Sustainability And Transformation Programme Update.”  This from the minutes of the meeting:-

The Board received a report updating it on the progress of the Fit for the Future, Sustainability and Transformation programme for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough area, since the last report on 17 March 2016. The report was presented by Catherine Pollard, Programme Director, NHS Improvement (NHSI) and Matthew Smith, CCG Assistant Director, Improving Outcomes. It was explained that the Programme Director was attending to mark the importance NHSI and NHS England (NHSE) attached to supporting the work being done in partnership with local colleagues to establish a long-term plan to bring the health economy back to financial balance, and more importantly, to address and deliver improvements in healthcare.

Introducing discussion of the report, the Chairman drew attention to its statements that a further update would be provided at the Board development day, and that early engagement with the public was planned from July 2016. Points made in the course of discussion included

(1) one of the themes of the Sustainability and Transformation Plan spoke of the importance of avoiding the need for acute care, yet under the Action Log item earlier in the meeting, the question of withdrawal and closure of services from communities had been raised; such actions (or rumoured actions) ran counter to the direction of travel, which was to extend services rather than withdraw them

(2) the Plan was about making resources work best for patients; it was necessary for the CCG and partner providers to take a broad and objective look at what patients wanted and needed, and avoid piecemeal discussion about closure in isolation from the Plan, particularly if older people were to get the services they needed within their communities

as part of efforts to make the Sustainability and Transformation work more publicly useful, and to support more positive wider public engagement, Healthwatch had been working with the CCG on the question of patient and public involvement within each organisation

(3)  it was not entirely clear where leadership of the system resided

the financial situation of the NHS and last year’s significant overspend had created anxiety which was raising questions about future structures

(4) working together in the course of developing the Older People and Adult Community Services contract with UnitingCare had brought local health partners closer together

local councillor members of the HWB and NHS members needed to work together to improve the way the NHS functioned locally.

So first (1) they are challenged about closure of local services and they declare that this runs “counter to the direction of travel.”  Notice that they don’t actually say they aren’t going to do it.  But they certainly intimate that.  “Move along now, nothing to see here.”  Except, since our local MP has received leaked information we now know this was, it certainly appears, completely false.  It would seem that at that point, while telling the Health & Wellbeing Board that they weren’t aiming to close local services, they have already decided that was exactly what they wanted to do.

The second paragraph (2) is a bit weasely, don’t you think?  “Making resources work for patients” doesn’t sound like it means closing them down.  But when you start hearing that people want to take a “broad objective look” and “avoid piecemeal discussion about closure” alarm bells should start to ring.

Particularly shocking is the idea that (3) “it was not entirely clear where leadership of the system resided.”  Not because I’m actually surprised about that, only that it’s an outright admission of exactly what I predicted from the outset.  Leadership should very clearly originate with the collective Senior People on the Health & Wellbeing Board, or at least with one of them answerable to the others, all working together to get the best outcome for the people of Cambridgeshire.  But apparently that’s “not clear.”  I guess, hypothetically, if you’ve cocked up a massive contract, lost millions and are looking to close vital services to pay for those mistakes, not being “entirely clear” where Leadership lies is quite useful.

Finally, the meeting apparently reminded “local Councillor members” of the Boards duty to “work together to improve the way the NHS functioned locally.”  It’s a shame they felt the need to remind them.  The only Wisbech Councillor on the Health & Wellbeing Board is Cllr. Paul Clapp, who was present at the meeting.  I would have hoped he might double down on the claim that the Minor Injuries Unit was not going to be closed and get it in the minutes for posterity.  It doesn’t appear that he did, sadly.  But it’s hard to really blame the guy – after all, you heard what the NHS said:  “Closing stuff?  Nah.  Don’t be ridiculous.  That’s counter to the direction of travel.”  Or words to that effect.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that we are now subject to the arbitrary decisions of remote, unelected bureaucrats again.  The exact situation the new system was supposed to cure.  That the new “working towards the services communities need” approach appears to mean closing them down.

That the signing of major contracts can lead to disaster and millions lost, and that this absolute disaster can be spun to sound like (4) a good thing “working together in the course of developing the Older People and Adult Community Services contract with UnitingCare had brought local health partners closer together”.  Unbelievable.  Essentially: “Our massive multi-million pound disaster has made us work well together.”  As team-building exercises go, I’d stick with paintball.  And isn’t “making health partners work well together” supposed to be the role of the Health & Wellbeing Board.  Isn’t that its entire original remit, in short summary?

If the leaked information is correct that would seem to mean that the senior body covering Health & Wellbeing for our County, the better part of a million people, can now be openly deceived by the NHS with no consequences whatsoever.  Except the consequences to the thousands of Fenland people who face the potential closure of their Minor Injuries Units.  But it is not too late.  The Health & Wellbeing Board can prove themselves as strong as ever.  They can do so by making it quite clear, at their next meeting, that there will be no closures.  That there will be no change in the “direction of travel.”  And that the people of Fenland will not pay the price for the bad contractual management of the CCG or its lack of “clear leadership.”

Wisbech Rock Festival 2016

Wisbech Rock Festival 2016

It began at 6.30 AM when a small group of volunteers rolled up, blinking in the early morning sun, to begin to long job of setting up the biggest and most ambitious Rock Festival that Wisbech Town Council has ever put on.

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By 11AM people had begun to arrive.  Drifting in with their friends and families they began to lay out their picnic blankets and sun chairs and little tents for the day ahead.

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With the whole park being used for three different music stages people were more spread out and at the start it looked quite sparse.

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People got comfortable and were clearly ready for the long haul.

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As we edged into the afternoon, people kept arriving.

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Little groups covering every age and so many different types of people.  The atmosphere was relaxed and bouyant.

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As well as the main stall area there were interesting little attractions and businesses scattered about.

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There really was a lot of things to do and see.

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And eat.

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Still people kept arriving.

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Several teams of Citizens’ Patrol were there, helping the stewards.

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The kids were having a great time.

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As were the parents.

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More and more kept coming…

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… and coming ….

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… and coming …

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… and coming …

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… and coming …

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By now there was a good crowd at the two smaller stages and the main stage was looking very busy.

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Then more arrived.

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… and still more

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Until the event was heaving with thousands of people.

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The weather got hotter, but everybody continued to have fun.

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Nor was the action contained to the main stage.  This was the Dance Stage…

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As was this …

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All in all I would estimate that we had 4000+ people visit during the day and at least 2000 there from about 2PM onwards.   Probably more, since it was hard to tell with them being spread over the whole park instead of just concentrated in the central area.

The event was pulled off without a hitch.  The music was great.  Everybody seemed to leave in great spirits.

Every year we pull out the stops and make Wisbech Rock Festival bigger and better.  This year we did it again.  Gawd knows how we’ll top this one next year, but I suspect Samantha Hoy, David Oliver and the other masterminds are already thinking about it.  Well, maybe not quite already.  It was a long long day and everybody was shattered by the end.  But tomorrow, I imagine. ;)

Stall At The Rock Festival

Stall At The Rock Festival

Wisbech Citizens Patrol have a STALL, all day at the Wisbech Rock Festival.

Please come and support us, try your hand at our fun dice game, get a free sticker, eat a cupcake, win a prize – and help us raise a few bob for equipment, batteries and the like!

Teams of WCP will also be patrolling the event throughout, assisting stewards and security to help keep people safe and happy.

See you there!

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Throwing Water On The Coals

Throwing Water On The Coals

I don’t know how many readers have ever sat in a sauna?  Quite a few, I would imagine.  You will recognise, then, the little bucket you sometimes find, complete with a ladle to put some additional water on the coals.  Doing this creates a hiss of steam as the air grows suddenly much hotter.  Sometimes, in a show of much macho bravado, I have seen people pour several ladles onto the coals at once.  The air becomes unbearable, it hurts to breathe, your skin stings with the high temperature of the steam that rises quickly up to the ceiling.

But what is really happening?  Does the sauna get hotter?

Nope.

In fact, every time you ladle more water onto those coals you cool the sauna down.  It doesn’t feel like that’s what is happening, because the temporary burst of steam itself is immediate and hot.  But the overall ambient temperature falls, as the heat energy is used to turn the cold water to hot steam.

Newcomers to saunas don’t realise this.  They think that the more water you put on, the hotter the sauna gets.  This isn’t a poor conclusion, given the tangible evidence you experience.  It just happens to be wrong.  In fact, you are transferring heat from the coals to the air, which is why the sauna feels hotter temporarily due to the heated moisture/humidity now contacting your skin, while the overall temperature of the sauna as a whole fractionally falls.

The Bank Of England’s “solution” to the “problem” of a “slowdown” in the UK Economy after Brexit is to “stimulate” the economy through a series of measures.  They dropped the interest rate from half a percent, to quarter of a percent.  They’ve started another load of Devil’s Work Quantitative Easing.  All aimed at kicking the economy into action.

So, presuming the banks even bother to pass on the cut in interest rates, what do we achieve?  At a quarter of a percent, what is even the point of saving at all?  Inflation wipes out any gains you make.  Why would anybody bother?  At some point everybody seems to forget that in order to have money for people to borrow, somebody has to be saving it.

Unless, of course, you are just printing more money.  Then nobody needs to save, right?  You crank up the (virtual) printing press and out come those (virtual) crisp fresh notes.  Free money!   But it isn’t, is it?  It’s just devaluing all the money presently in existence.  Which creates price inflation.  Quantitative Easing is simply the transfer of money from everybody who has some, to whoever gets the new money the earliest.  Which, conveniently, is the banks and the Government.

Meanwhile, banks are encouraged to lend more, while nobody is encouraged to save more.  More and more and more borrowing to “stimulate” the economy.  This is Keynes at his foul work again, encourage Governments to do what they do best – tax, borrow and spend.

And the sad thing is – it works.  For a while.  The FTSE’s soar on the expectation of “stimulus” (and why wouldn’t they, when the Government is stealth taxing people and then hurling the money at the big players?).  Business grow “confident” – as long as you talk to and listen to the right businesses.  Those being the ones closest to the Magic Money Tree.   It’s win-win.  Since, if it causes economic stagnation, inflation, unemployment, cost-of-living rises and other economic woes you can just say: “We didn’t do enough, Brexit brought us down despite our efforts.”  And if it succeeds (due to other factors) you can say: “We’d have been better off without Brexit, but at least our stimulus saved us from the worst.”

By trying to create a growing economy by slashing interest rates below the point anybody would bother saving, and by printing new money and pushing it out into the markets – you are doing the economic equivalent of throwing water on the coals in the sauna.  There’s noise, and it feels really hot for a while, and you might even get burned.  But when the mist settles, the temperature drops below the level it was at before.  How much lower?  That depends on how much economic macho bravado you choose to indulge in.  A little and the harm is minimal.  A lot?  That’s a different pile of hot stones entirely.

This excellent video is aimed at an American audience, but remains every
bit as true in the United Kingdom.

And this is great too.

Spinney Play Day

Spinney Play Day

Wednesday was fun.  I spent the entire day as a volunteer DJ at the Spinney Play Day, which was part of the National Play Day event.  Staff and volunteers made an extraordinary action-packed outing for all the family, while we were all blessed with fantastic warm weather.

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There was so much for kids to do including face painting, water play, adventure playground equipment, music, dancing, creative arts, inflatables and much much more.

Nor was I the only Councillor who was helping out.  Cllr Paul Clapp was there for a few hours on the barbecue, getting the burgers and hot dogs ready to fill hungry tums.  The Mayor, Cllr Garry Tibbs was also present and joined in with the fun in his usual good-natured way.  Given that I had the microphone I had a little fun at his expense, but he took it all in his stride and gamely joined in, doing silly dances, going down slides and posing with dozens of people for pictures “with the Mayor’s Bling.” :)

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It was disappointing to see the Bucknors who, rather than help with the event and the fun, chose to set up a marquee and push their very political “20s Plenty” Campaign at people who were just trying to enjoy a day out in the sun.  I know I wasn’t the only one who thought it was an odd thing to do at the Spinney “Play Day” but most people just seemed to ignore them and got on with enjoying the festivities.

You really have to give it to the Playworkers though, who went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure the kids had the best day.  The Spinney really is a great achievement and something which serves Waterlees and Wisbech so well.  Strange to think that some people actually opposed it being built.  I suspect they must have now changed their minds.

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The only downside for me was that I stepped in a pothole and badly turned my ankle, which is now wrapped in bandages and I am unable to walk.  Still, it was worth a few knocks and scrapes for such a lovely day, in my view. ;)

*Pictures from the Spinney Facebook Page.

 

Not A Good Look

Not A Good Look

Richard Taylor is a Cambridge blogger and amateur journalist who has been watching and documenting local politics for many years.

Now to be frank, he can be a pain in the bum.  If he takes a dislike to somebody he can make their life hell, as he did to the previous Police & Crime Commissioner.  But then again, some might say the previous Police & Crime Commissioner had it coming.  Some might say.  Not me. ;)

He does have a tendency to make a claim to neutrality while actually being quite political, and to sometimes be unfair in both his style and characterization.

But he does also cast a very useful eye over the goings-on of County Council, and other local Councils in Cambridge.  He seems willing to take potshots at anybody and doesn’t have any “favourites” who he protects.  And he gives a hell of a lot of his own time and energy to shine a light on some of the behind-the-scenes and lesser known working of local politics.

Here he is, managing to wangle his way into a private meeting.  Now look, I don’t subscribe to this idea that every meeting must be “public.”  There is value to private brainstorming sessions and private briefings.  But we should certainly seek to make as many meetings public as we can.

In this instance, I don’t think the Officer handled the situation well at all.  Like Sir Graham Bright, instead of engaging with the points Richard Taylor was making, this gentleman “Richard Preston” takes a rude and somewhat aggressive approach.  Given that the issues at hand are issues of public interest, held in a public building and attended by public servants and elected Councillors, it is perfectly reasonable for Richard Taylor to ask why he cannot film it.  It’s perfectly reasonable for all of us to ask that.

More surprising is seeing the lack of support he gets from the supposedly progressive “people’s champion” Councillors present, who all look either embarrassed or perhaps a little ashamed.  (With the exception of Cllr Ian Manning, who makes a brave attempt to introduce some reason to the situation and is mocked for it.)

I was particularly surprised when Richard is told they may “get heavy” with him, like some bad scene out of a gangster movie.  A threat made doubly ridiculous when there is clearly no “security” to actually be summoned.  The fact that this Officer is able to act in this manner and Councillors do not question it is yet another example of what has gone wrong since authority was all but handed to Officers when the Committee System was introduced, in my opinion.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think its “okay” for Richard Taylor to creep into a meeting and then refuse to leave.  Clearly he makes hay with the opportunity to film this behaviour.  But nor do I think the way he is treated once he gets in there is right.  I don’t think i’ve ever encountered this Richard Preston before, but he really does not shower himself in glory with this performance.  The other attendees of the meeting are then also made complicit by their inaction.  Handled better, this could have been an opportunity to look polite, open and publicly engaged.  Instead, it ends up looking heavy-handed, rude and secretive.  That’s not a good look for County Council at all.

 

Out And About

Out And About

I’m sorry, dear reader, for my paucity of blog posts in the last ten days.  We’ve had the Wisbech Conservatives Summer Ball, my company’s big annual event the Madhouse Minicon and Rock Festival is this weekend.  On top of that I’ve had Speedwatch, Citizens Patrol, getting my latest Councillor Newsletter printed and delivered and all the normal workload things.

So I just haven’t had much time.

I’m at The Spinney tomorrow as their volunteer DJ for the Fun Day there.  This weekend I’m helping the Rock Festival from 6.30AM through till late in the evening.  On Friday I have Council meetings and then in the evening the Wisbech Medworth fundraising “Sausage and Cider” night.  There’s a stack still to get done and it’s all got to be complete before the end of next week when I’ll be flying off to Morocco for our holiday.  (We have 24-hour housesitters and dogs, and there’s nothing worth nicking anyway, so burglars beware.)  :)

It’s been a very busy year and I am looking forward to the opportunity to unwind for a while with my family.

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The Next Big Thing?

The Next Big Thing?

The Wisbech 2020 Summit today was very slick.  It was well attended.  But I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much of the Wisbech 2020 stuff left.

Now to be fair, quite a lot of the issues people raised, years ago, when we first started doing Wisbech 2020, have been dealt with.  Flood defences improved.  Constantine House renovated.  £1.9Million pound for Town Centre rejuvenation.  More jobs, less unemployment.  Better community cohesion.  These things have broadly all happened.

But the body of today’s meeting was about the Wisbech Garden Town proposals.  In fact, Wisbech 2020 has apparently been completely hijacked by the Garden Town proposals.  That’s fine – the garden town would certainly be a game changer if it went ahead, so perhaps it being brought under the 2020 umbrella makes perfect sense?

What has worried me from the start and continues to worry me is the attitude of some people that a development of 12,000 new houses – 22,000 more people – is automatically a ‘good thing’.  Some people seem to think we should be cheering and saying “bring it on” to this proposal alone.  I don’t believe that argument stacks up.

First of all, all but doubling the size of the town is a big decision by anybody’s standards.  While a population of 50,000 people would certain bring with it some benefits, it would also bring with it some negatives.  I would suggest that without any knowledge of who will be buying those homes, we can at best say that this policy is neutral.

Now the proposals come with a lot of new “infrastructure”; schools, medical; some new roads – but that’s not a bonus either.  That is what the additional 22,000 people would require for their own use.  It doesn’t bring anything new to the table for the Town as a whole, it simply keeps the playing field even.

A huge new country park with lakes and water features sounds nice, and would certainly bring an appeal to the Town that it presently lacks.  But a park like that comes with costs attached also, and eats up a lot of land that is presently being used for other things.  It’s not cost neutral.

The big selling point, the thing which makes the whole plan hang together as potentially economically viable – is the new Wisbech Train Link. Without a train link, it all breaks down.  The connection to Cambridge to allow the two areas to support one another’s weaknesses with one another’s strengths is gone.  The “diverse mix of new residents” becomes much more of a challenge without a quick commuter route.

Let’s tell it like it is.  This “Wisbech Garden Town” is not a gift to us.  It is a large housing development the Government would like to see happen in order to help them keep their house-building plans on track.  It’s a development nobody else in the County particularly wants.  Wisbech is not an “easy touch” and should not be treated as one.  It MAY be (may, not will) that the residents of our Town would accept a huge change like this if it came with the necessary infrastructure to allow us to really make a go of it.  It may be that this is the way to return Wisbech to its former heights of prosperity and to bring in investment, businesses and thereby more jobs.  But if the Powers That Be think that the people of Wisbech will accept this huge development without the jewel in the crown – the rail link – alongside a raft of other infrastructure investments – I think they are sorely mistaken.

Steve Barclay MP said so too.  When question time came and I made the point that I did not feel we could even begin to sell this to Wisbech residents without the Rail Link as a given, he was in total agreement.  In fact he instructed the planners to take any idea of a “Plan B” off the table entirely.  Which was a strong and helpful position.

The speakers today all felt that the Garden Town idea had public support and very little opposition.  I think that was a very optimistic view.  It’s early days, after all.  If the Powers That Be think they will face no opposition, they should wait until the residents of the villages and areas that will be the recipient of thousands of new houses get wind of how much it will change their home environment.  I suspect they will find there is rather more opposition than they expect.  What they need is a gathering point, a selling point around which supporters can rally.

The Rail Link is the key.  I’m not saying that the Rail Link makes it a certainty.  You can’t utterly change the face of a Town without getting at least a broad agreement from its residents.  Or you should not, anyway.  A change this big needs a real consultation, a genuinely open ear and open mind.  Not one of these sham: “We ask you some leading questions that all result in you saying what we want to hear” type deals.

We are not the beggars here, we are in a strong position.  We should stand, polite but firm, and make clear what we need for this to even make the starting line.  There should be none of this “how about a tram” or “what about if we did a bendy guided bus” nonsense.  Government’s bluff should be called.  Network Rail should be pressured by senior politicians to take a different view.

We should be prepared to think about doing this, in a sensible and well-planned way, in keeping with the excellent plans put forward by the design team.  But not without first getting the consent of the people.  And not without a Rail Link, the agreement for that etched in stone, Government seal stamped clearly upon it.