Wisbech Castle Project

Wisbech Castle Project

I have been asked by the Leader of Wisbech Town Council if I will Chair the new Castle Committee, whose job will be to handle the oversight of Wisbech Castle once the Town Council has it under its control.  Since my time as Mayor comes to an end in May, freeing up a lot of time, I have accepted the role.  Being the Chairman does not mean I am “in charge” of Wisbech Castle, it simply means I will be Chairman of the Committee and Working Party.  Running the Castle will be very much a team effort.  I’d like to talk a little about my initial ideas for the running structure of Wisbech Castle.  These are just ideas, subject to discussion and agreement of everybody else involved.

I think it appropriate for there to be three platforms to running the Castle.  The Castle Committee, the Castle Working Party and the Friends Of Wisbech Castle group.  The way the Committee and the Working Party will interact will run on a similar basis to the Town Council’s Festivals’ Committee and Working Party, which has proved to be a successful model over recent years.

The Castle Committee will be a constituted Committee of Wisbech Town Council, made up of seven Town Councillors, whose primary role will be to maintain the Council’s control of the project and scrutinise the spending on it and to oversee the work done by the Working Party.   I would guess the Castle Committee will meet three or four times a year.

The Castle Working Party – who will do most of the work and organisation of the day-to-day running of the Castle – will be a group made up of Councillors, representatives of interested local groups, and knowledgeable volunteers who bring skills to the table.  I hope that this Working Party will be a dynamic and imaginative bunch, with a mixture of skills and backgrounds, able to press on with multiple projects, income streams and public offers.  I would welcome communication from anybody who might like to be on the Castle Working Party.  But please bear in mind that members of the Working Party will be expected to put time and effort into the project on a voluntary basis, and so should be sure they are able to handle the commitment that something as important as this will take.  I would expect the Castle Working Party to have monthly meetings, and for members to touch base with each other and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman, often.

The Friends Of Wisbech Castle  will be a completely free voluntary organisation made up of anybody who values Wisbech Castle and want to join.  People who become “friends” will receive regular direct updates, early notifications of plans and events and possibly special opportunities and offers to enjoy all that I hope Wisbech Castle will come to offer.  Once this launches, I hope we will get hundreds, or even thousands, of people join in and become a part of the future of Wisbech Castle.

Aims
I see the aims of the project to be threefold.  First, to maintain Wisbech Castle as a public resource and asset, regularly accessible to the people of Wisbech and its guests to enjoy and make use of.  Second, to maintain and preserve the historic building in good order for current and future generations.  Third, to work towards making sure the building is not an undue burden on taxpayers of the Town and to aim towards cost neutrality, or profitability as early as feasibly possible.  I should add that cooperation and partnership with other Wisbech features like Wisbech Museum and Peckover House will not only be desirable, but crucial.

First Things First
What we can do in the very short term is limited by the work needing to be done in the building.  First priority will be to get urgent repairs done so that the building is in a fit state to be used.  To clean up the gardens and get the whole site ready for further use.  If this is planned well and the work goes without too many issues, then the Castle should be usable for at least some activities in the next few months.  After that we can pick and choose what to renovate and work on as the Committees decide on what the various uses will be, so that we can roll out activities and ideas in phases.

Ideas
There are so many ideas for what the Castle could be used for and how its access and usefulness could grow.  Both for things that have gone before like school visits and weddings, heritage open days, fetes, art fairs and garden tours – to many brand new ideas for the future.  While I am Chairman I will encourage creativity, imagination and fresh thinking.  The door will be open to anybody with a great suggestion or proposal.  If everything goes according to plan, Wisbech Castle will take its rightful place as a centre-piece and an incredible community asset for now and for the future.

Communication
All Committee Meetings will be open to the public.  Discussions, ideas and decisions will be published transparently.  I hope that Wisbech Castle will have a Facebook Page and a Twitter Feed.  I hope to have a website for Wisbech Castle set up.  These things will all be free and operated by volunteers.  It will be my aim to encourage engagement, support and volunteering throughout the Wisbech Castle Project – to welcome anybody who loves the Castle and the Town to be a part of it and to contribute to it.  I would welcome participation, even from critics of the project, as long as those critics come to the table with an open mind and a desire to help.  I would hope that people who have something to say will come and be a part of the project and say it on record so that it can be thought about and addressed, rather than just snipe from afar on social media or elsewhere.

And Finally…
Once again, these are just my initial ideas.  They are all subject to discussion, to debate and to challenge by those people who are part of the Project.  I wanted to put my ideas down so that people could see where I’m coming from, but that should not be taken to mean the whole thing isn’t open to the great ideas and suggestions of everybody else.  In fact I know that several of my Town Council colleagues are overflowing with ideas, as are members of local organisations and also many individuals.  There is nothing easy about this project and I will not claim there is.  It’s a real challenge and also carries some risk.  No doubt about it.  But is it worth trying?  Is it worth doing?  I believe so.  Wisbech Castle is part of the fibre of the Town, built into its DNA, a long-standing historic monument both in its current form and for what has gone before.

A Committee of Councillors can’t do this alone.  Wisbech Town Council can’t do this alone.  But together, I really believe we have a great opportunity here to deliver something absolutely incredible for Wisbech and everybody who lives here.  If you are excited about Wisbech Castle, if you think you have something to offer or can help – please get in touch. 

New Leadership Team At FDC

New Leadership Team At FDC

I’ve been away for a week and in my absence the new leader of Fenland District has been announced and his choice of top positions laid out by the Wisbech Standard here.

This is interesting, since it takes a meeting of Full Council to elect a new Leader and that hasn’t happened yet.  But I guess what the Wisbech Standard is saying is that its got wind of what new Leader the Conservative Group has chosen and is presuming a foregone conclusion.  So, not entirely accurate, but still probably a fair assumption.

The “New Leader” (to be confirmed at Full Council) of FDC is the veteran Councillor, Chris Seaton and the newspaper goes into some depth about the people he has chosen as his leadership team.

I feel cautiously optimistic with the news as reported.  I’ll be honest, I’d expected Chris Seaton as Leader would be just the same as John Clark as Leader, with broadly the same faces and broadly the same choices.  I have nothing against John Clark, who I always found to be a genuine man with honest intentions, but I am certainly one of the Conservative group who has hoped for some fresh ideas and a new approach.

It would appear that I have underestimated Cllr. Seaton.  Because, against all expectations (on my part, anyway) he has made some fairly radical changes.  Cllr. Mark Buckton in for the Leisure and Young People portfolio is a good choice, I think.  Cllr Buckton has long been an underused individual whose talents were crying out for a bigger role.  Tourism, in particular, needs a shot in the arm urgently and I think he may well be able to gain some ground in this area.

Even more importantly, Cllr Dee Laws is taking on the Planning portfolio.  In my opinion this is an inspirational choice.  Planning is an area which FDC has really struggled with in the last couple of years and given how important it is for our communities that the correct forward-thinking decisions are taken, getting the right innovative person in place is a key consideration.

Cllr. Ann Hay takes on the Finance portfolio.  I don’t know Cllr Hay very well and I think she probably sits on a different “wing” of Conservatism to me, but her reputation is of somebody whose skills would be well-suited to this role and I am sure she will excel.  I’d like to see a lot more challenge of figures presented by Officers and I hope she will lead on this.

I would have liked to see Chris Boden in a Cabinet role.  Nevertheless, by making him Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, Cllr Seaton has made a very smart placement.  Cllr. Boden is an analytical thinker of the first order and under his guidance I would expect O&S to take on a sharp, focused and insightful direction.  The purpose of any O&S committee is to challenge, review and act as a critical friend.  Run properly, a strong O&S Committee will catch poor policy early and put it right or stop it outright, amend, suggest, propose and consider in such a way as to make decisions more robust, more accurate and more likely to deliver decent outcomes.  A strong O&S Committee can make life uncomfortable for a weak Leader and it shows a strength of character to put somebody like Cllr Boden in charge of it – it represents a real desire to see the job done well and done right.  Very commendable, in my view.

I was away during the week this all happened and my information is gleaned from reading the Wisbech Standard – which may yet turn out not to be 100% correct.  But if it all pans out as the newspaper claims then I would think that a very positive outcome.  Cllr Seaton appears to have understood what needed changing as a priority and what did not, and has taken decisions that will earn him some grumpiness in some quarters, but in my opinion are pretty good choices as a starting point for a new direction of healthy travel*.

Bravo.

 

*I should stress that you should read no implicit criticism of previous office-holders in my writing.  Each Councillor serves as best they can, in the positions as assigned by the Council Leader.  I have no doubt that the previous office holders worked hard and did the best they could.  Nevertheless, I reserve the right to the opinion that these are positive changes for the Council and for Fenland as a whole.  There remains a lot of work to be done, of course.  And this new team will be tested by challenges and circumstances.  I wish them all the best.

On Momentum

On Momentum

Isn’t the whole Momentum thing interesting?  It has almost become a metaphor for change of certain kinds and the word is bandied around only loosely in context, often by people who don’t actually have much of an understanding of politics.

But what is Momentum actually doing?

Well, from an external point of view they are a bunch of left-wing radicals who think the Labour party should be more left-wing radical, and have set about trying to change the Labour party from within to effect that change.  They’ve done it by encouraging true believers to join the party, by getting themselves into positions of authority within the Labour party, by talking to others in the Labour party and encouraging them to support their view of things.  They believe in the ideological strength of their arguments and think that the Labour party has strayed too far from its roots and needs to get back to its core message.  Some of them don’t even recognise the New Labour lot as part of the same movement as them, so great are their differences.

“Moderates” in the Labour party see it differently.  They see a bunch of people who would make the Labour party unelectable, who want to tear apart existing structures and remove old players who have been around a long time.  Some maintain that they are the wise old heads who should be in charge and not these  new whipper-snappers.

Both sides make accusations against the other.  With “Moderates” saying that Momentum are bullying them, and Momentum saying those people are simply sore losers in a fair and democratic battle.

Who is right?

Probably none of them.  Each is seeing the events from their own lens, and each sees their cause as the heroic one.  Because everybody is the hero of their own story. I don’t know where it will all end when the dust settles – and as a lifelong Conservative its really none of my business – but its interesting to watch.  And it’s nothing that hasn’t happened on many levels a thousand times before.

Now if Momentum were to “win” and mold the Labour Party in their image, what then?  How long would it be before they became the “establishment?”  How long before some new group, who thought they were completely off track, came and did precisely the same to them?  This is often the cycle of things – with each fresh new event eventually becoming older and more stale and more tired and less hungry – until it eventually crumbles away from sheer entropy.

What is most interesting about this cycle is how quickly the new players forget how they toppled the old and begin to see themselves as the solid establishment which deserve to stay in control forever.  How quickly they abandon the positions they took when they came to power.  How, in denial, they continue to blame any other bogeyman that allows them to alleviate any sense that they could possibly be the architects of their own problems.

Momentum may win and take control of the Labour party.  Or they may not.  But whatever the outcome, it will only be the status quo for as long as they new leaders retain their focus, drive and energy.  Let it slip, and there’s always some new force eager to step in and relieve them of the burden.

I really don’t care which lot wins, but more popcorn is definitely a requirement for viewing.

FGA Extravaganza Performance

FGA Extravaganza Performance

Wow.

Just wow.

Tonight I watched the Fenland Gynmastics Academy’s big show.

I watched a huge number of incredibly talented and skilled young people; ages ranging from not much more than one or two right up to teenagers – just blow the audience away.

A spectacularly colourful and vibrant performance, confident and powerful, sizzling the crowd with one jaw-dropping team after another.

The Fenland Gymnastics Academy is a sparkling gem in the town’s crown. An inspirational parade of some of the best young people you could ever hope to see, displaying the results of hard work and dedication, natural gifts and learned skills.

I thought they could not top last year’s show, but they really did. Incredible. The staff, helpers and organisers are amazing. The parents should all be immensely proud – and I could tell they were.

My Wife and I were just utterly dazzled by it all. Thank you so much. A really proud moment for Wisbech and we were thrilled by every second of it.

March Mayor’s Ball

March Mayor’s Ball

Last night my Wife and I attended the Mayor of March, Kim French ‘s Mayoral Ball.
 
The organisation, decor and food was incredible. The evening was themed 1920s and many people wore clothing from the period. The excellent band played jazz and swing also in keeping with the theme.
 
It was a successful event which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite trying to recover from flu. Great company and a warm welcome from our Sister town.

Why Radical Conservative Leaders Are Rare

Why Radical Conservative Leaders Are Rare

*This blog post is just general thinking.  It does not relate to any specific body or individuals.

This thought experiment came about as a result of a conversation I was having with a friend who lives in America.  The gist of the debate was why it is that, a few obvious exceptions aside, it is so rare to find Conservative leaders who are ready to enact radical change.

It’s not that Conservatives don’t want radical change.  Although its a broad church, conservatism is a political movement that believes, like all political movements believe, that the world would be a better place if it operated under the structures they prefer.

But still it seems that organisations, councils and Governments slip, over time, ever left-wards in their policies.  The “norm” which is “accepted” also drifts relentlessly to the liberal left, leaving long-time Conservatives asking questions like: “Where are the real Conservatives?” of their leaders, or even: “What is the difference between the parties?”

I believe the truth comes down to the very nature of what makes those on the left, and those on the right, “tick.”  The Left is absolutely comfortable with radicals.  In fact, the rise of Momentum and Corbyn is a clear demonstration of how the party and its supporters react if it perceives there has not been enough radicalism.

The political right-of-centre, on the other hand, has a real problem.  It is uncomfortable and wary of change.  Now this can be a good thing, for preserving what is best about society, for taking a careful view of proposals, for not just changing for change’s sake.  But it does also lead to a fear of anybody who might in any way “rock the boat.”

By their very nature, radicals will always rock the boat.  They challenge, argue, propose and throw ideas out.  Many of those ideas are bad ones.  Some of them are very good ones.  But any Leader and institution that is too wary of change gets stuck, institutionalised, afraid of its own shadow.

Time and again we chose leaders who we perceive as a “safe pair of hands.”  Which translates as meaning “somebody who won’t do anything too scary.”  Or somebody who’s appetite for risk is very limited.  Like the epitome of a middle manager, happy to serve their days doing just what needs to be done and no more.

Now to be completely fair, in the normal political swing from left to right and back, a new right-wing administration often ends up spending an inordinate amount of time just fixing the problms the previous Left-Wing administration made.  This is always politically-difficult, as the left are famous for giving away free stuff that can’t be afforded and then leaving it to those who come after to take that free stuff away and be branded for it.

But here’s the problem.  Unafraid of being radical, left-wing leaders will push their administration hard to the left.  They will plough on, ignoring warning signs, borrowing, spending and enacting constitutional and administrative changes at very fundamental levels.  When they inevitably get booted out, all this must be reversed.  In order to just get back to the status quo, the right-wing leader would have to be at least as radical as their predecessor, which they seldom are.

And so the cycle continues, with the left-wing pushing hard to the left, and the right-wing gentle correcting the course.  Never enough.  So with each decade we drift further towards left-liberal dogma and further from any opposing ideas.

The only way for this to change is for Conservative politicians, at every level, in every organisation, to be more courageous in their convictions.  To choose leaders who articulate a common-sense view of conservatism and are not afraid to put those views into practice.  This is not a low-stakes task.  Because Conservatives believe that following fundamental principles of liberty, justice, free markets, family, tradition and fair play – is the best way to build a safer, stronger, healthier and more prosperous community for everybody.  We can’t do that if we allow a relentless leftward shift to take place.  We have to shake our natural concern in regards to change and be ready to embrace old ideas and new ones.  Or we are simply ceding victory to the socialists, marxists and communists.  That’s a dark place and a hard place to return from.

Wisbech Town Council Budget 2018/19

Wisbech Town Council Budget 2018/19

At its meeting on 22 January 2018 Wisbech Town Council set its budget and associated parish precept for 2018/19.

In setting its budget, the council considered very carefully the cost of continuing to run its existing services, facilities and activities, as well as enhancing those and operating, delivering and managing additional ones.

Not surprisingly, the council will be increasing its estimated gross expenditure from 363,840.00 in the current financial year (2017/18) to £450,150.00 in 2018/19.

A consequence of increasing expenditure is a need to increase the parish precept. The parish precept is a form of taxation which a Town or Parish Council is able to levy upon each household in the Town or Parish area – and is collected by the District Council as part of the overall Council tax bill – to be able to a local council to fund the difference between its annual income and expenditure.

The level of Parish Precept in Wisbech for the current financial year is £265,374.00; this equates to a sum of £43.16 for the year for each Band D (for Council Tax) equivalent property. The figure for such a household in the financial year 2018/19, to cover a precept of £364,237.00, will increase to £57.87; this means an increase in cost for the year of £14.71 (or 34.0%) to the 2017/18 figure.

The additional cost to the occupiers of a Band D equivalent property (of which there are 6,294 in Wisbech) will be around £1.20 per month. More than half of the 8,156 properties in Wisbech are in Council Tax band A; those households will face an increase of approximately 80 pence per month.

It is worth noting that, according to research undertaken by the Department for Communities and Local Government, the national average Parish Precept set by a local council in 2017/18 is £61.03. In Wisbech it is £43.16 currently and will rise to £57.87. It is likely that the UK figure will rise to around £63.00.

So despite the misinformation spread by some, Wisbech is actually considerably lower than the average for the country and, I think, offers good value for money.  People can see what the Council does and hear what it would like to do, and I think people broadly understand that these things cannot be done without the necessary funds.

Councillor Miss Samantha Hoy, Leader of Wisbech Town Council, says “Given Wisbech Town Council’s increasing role in the delivery and enhancement of services – such as the operation, restoration and management of Wisbech Castle, enhancement of the Market Place, taking on an area of public car parking to the rear of the Queen Mary Centre, enhancements to public toilets etc – generates a need for additional money. The council also needs to collect additional revenue to compensate for the reduction (of around £12,000 in 2018/19) in the level of Council Tax Support Grant that it will receive from Fenland District Council and to replenish the Elections reserve, which has been depleted because of the number of unanticipated by-elections over the last 18 months or so.

Although the percentage increase in the precept may look high, the actual financial amount is not – what else is a household in Wisbech able to purchase for around £1.00 a month?

Over the last few years Wisbech Town Council has set very low levels of parish precept and there becomes a time at which such a situation can no longer be sustained; in fact, until the financial year 2016/17 Wisbech Town Council had not increased its parish precept since the financial year 2012/13; for the financial year 2015/16, the level of Precept was actually reduced by 1.2%.

Notice that regular critics weren’t cheering when the Council froze or cut the Council Tax over those years.    In the same way they they would have been quick to damn the Town Council if it had let the Castle go into private ownership.  Some folks want to find fault whatever happens, but the Councillors of WTC seek to do the best for the people of Wisbech at the most reasonable rates they can.

Wisbech Town Council, as the local authority which is closest to the people of Wisbech – and the money collected through the precept can only be spent for the benefit of people in Wisbech (not the case with the District Council, the County Council, the Police and Crime Commissioner and the Fire Authority) – has ambitions to make Wisbech a better place for people to live, work and visit; this cannot be done without investment of time and money at the appropriate levels.

When a rise goes to another authority – one of the huge ones – it can get lost in the levels of bureaucracy.  Not so Wisbech Town Council, where every penny can be tracked and every expenditure seen and often enjoyed by the people who live here.

Wisbech Town Council is hopeful that the people of the town will understand the council’s rationale in increasing the level of parish precept for Wisbech for 2018/19 and not be critical of action which is being taken to drive improvements through investment in services and facilities”.

In the coming months and years you will see the physical changes this £1.00 a month can bring when in the hands of a small but dedicated Council.  You will see the Castle remain in public use, the Market Place improved, toilets improved, and the wonderful town festivals grow bigger and better.  Watch this space.

Wisbech Castle vs Mrs Bucknor?

Wisbech Castle vs Mrs Bucknor?

Mrs Bucknor and the usual crowd seem to have been suggesting that Wisbech Town Council should not now save Wisbech Castle because the proposed Council Tax Rise (80p a month for Band A, just over a pound a month for Band D) is too great a price to pay. She is encouraging people to visit Town Council and protest it, it appears.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that she was still a Councillor at WTC when this was proposed:

Putting aside for a moment the spin that “34%” represents a huge sum of money for people, by suggesting its the whole Council Tax bill rather than the tiny Town Council portion of it.

Putting aside that she certainly enjoyed stoking the outrage back when Wisbech Castle first risked being sold off:

Putting aside that she has endlessly demanded that Town Council should have prevented the sale of the old Court House by stepping in and buying it, and whether that’s a little hypocritical given her recent complete about face:

Putting aside that Wisbech Town Council would have tens of thousands of pounds MORE money if it hadn’t had to pay for a series of by-elections caused by Mrs Bucknor and her friends:

Wisbech Castle is a centre-piece of our Town. It is a vital part of our history and heritage. If we do not take it over we will lose it. We cannot take it over, repair it and run it without some additional funds because money does not grow on trees.

I have never been a supporter of big Council Tax rises but I am and always have been a realist. Of course, as with every issue, some people will not agree. I genuinely believe that a majority of our Town support Wisbech Town Council stepping in to save Wisbech Castle. I believe that the majority of our town support the rise (once again 80p a month for Band A and a bit over a pound a month for a Band D) is a price worth paying to save Wisbech Castle.

Mrs Bucknor clearly believes that she and her friends can gain some political advantage by taking a firm line against our saving Wisbech Castle. I think she has misjudged the people of Wisbech, most of whom value our heritage, and understand the reality that things do cost money. I don’t believe her stance – no matter how she and her friends heckle – will gain traction. Because the people of Wisbech are not stupid and will not fall for this opportunistic and cynical attempt to manipulate them and cast a shadow on this important work.

In the same way that she is now struggling to claim she had something significant to do with the forthcoming Skate Park (she raised £30 in six years, the four new Town Councillors secured £70,000 in a few weeks) people will see through it, I feel confident.

If you agree that Wisbech Castle is worth saving and that scaremongering about Council Tax is not appropriate, please respond to the people making these claims when and if you see them. Tell them its not acceptable.

272 Squadron

272 Squadron

Last night I attended my first meeting as the new Chairman of the 272 Squadron Air Training Corps Civilian Committee.

It looks like I have a fantastic Committee to work with and I was impressed by every last one of them.  This is good news as a strong and active Committee like this makes being a Chairman an easy job.  :)

I am adding a new tag to my blog as I expect to be writing about lots of things that the Wisbech Air Cadets are doing throughout the year, and will be encouraging readers to participate and assist where possible.

John Clark Resigns

John Clark Resigns

Last week, somewhat out of the blue, Cllr John Clark – the Leader of Fenland District Council and its Conservative group, resigned his post as Leader.

Some of the things he said in his resignation speech I didn’t agree with, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  People don’t always agree.

John and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on policy (I once stood against him in order to prevent Paid Parking being introduced in Wisbech.)

But all in all John has been an honest Leader who has worked hard to unite an often-difficult bunch of Councillors (myself included.)  I think he can be proud of his time as Leader and I respect his decision to step aside now as an honourable one.

There was some rumours I might stand.  I’m not going to do any such thing.

But I wish all the best to whoever does take over the position.   It’s an important one that will only become more important as things change across the country in the future.

I’d like to thank John for his work and dedication to the role of Leader and I look forward to working with him on the back benches – or wherever he ends up.