So Long And Thanks For All The Fishies?

So Long And Thanks For All The Fishies?

Last Friday, parents and children of Gorefield School received the following message:

“Sadly, the school has not been able to find a way to make ‘ FISHY NEWS’ compatible with the current safeguarding requirements for schools and as a consequence fishy news will not be continuing. The decision, from the governors rather than from Annie Appleby, was a difficult but necessary one. I’m sure you would wish to join me in thanking Annie for her years of enthusiasm and energy. Her legacy is the joy and learning she has brought to so many children of the school over the last four years.”

Fishy News is a project that was the brainchild of local lady Annie Appleby who decided, four years ago, to give much of her free time and skills to establishing a school newspaper for the local Primary School, encouraging the kids to run it, write it and produce it.  For four years that is what she has done, enabling dozens of local children to express themselves, be creative, work as a team, build their confidence and develop a professional publication that was simultaneously useful and immense fun to read.

Just a few months ago I attended the Fishy News open day, where scores of local supporters and people visited the school and watched the kids who were involved in the production put on a show as the years changed and different kids took over the running of Fishy News.

In all the years I have been a Councillor, in all the schools i’ve visited and heard about, I don’t believe I have ever seen a project so perfectly put together, so loved and so clearly a labour of that love.  Really, and I do not say this lightly, the Fishy News Project in its entirety was wonderful.  Parents whose kids benefited from participation are unanimous, as far as I can tell, in their praise.  Even as recently as a few months ago the teachers were openly saying how great it was and “if only we could clone Annie Appleby.”  And they were right.  If we could clone Annie Appleby and her ability to enthuse, motivate and organise our brilliant kids, education would get a whole lot easier.

I do not know precisely what “safeguarding requirements” have meant that Fishy News must end – but whatever Safeguarding Requirements they may be, if they prevent something as exciting and effective and empowering as this from being able to continue, they are ill-considered indeed.  The Governors who made the decision no doubt had their reasons, but I wonder if they realise just what they’ve done?  Do they realise that these sort of projects do not come along every day?  That this is exactly the sort of thing that most schools seek but struggle to find?

I have been receiving calls and emails from parents about this.  I am no longer the County Councillor for their area and there’s little I can do except to write this blog and ask “Why?”  What sort of rules deprive kids of an opportunity like this to learn and grow?

I can’t believe I have seen the last silly, zany, off-the-wall brilliant Fishy News.  It seems such a bizarre outcome.  I wish there were something I could do.

On Uber

On Uber

Like many of you I have seen the outcry, mostly from taxi drivers, about the travel innovator Uber.  But I’d never used it so I really didn’t know what all the fuss was about.  While in Manchester I gave it a try – and I can now see what they are so upset about.

This is how Uber works.

You download an Application for your smartphone.   You give it your payment details.

Then, when you need a ride somewhere, you press it’s little icon.  You tell it where you are (which it can usually detect anyway, from your phone’s locator capabilities) and where you want to go.  It then tells you which Uber driver is closest to you, how long it will take them to get to you, and can give you a rough estimate of the fare.  You can also see how the driver has been rated by other people that have travelled with them.

If you are happy with the offer of a driver, you click a button to complete the transaction.  Or you can choose a different driver, as it offers the next nearest to you.

Once you have agreed on your driver, which took a total of about four key presses, a little map appears showing the car driving towards you.  In my experience (three journeys) it is pretty much 100% accurate.  You see the car approaching – the slowest of the three journeys I booked was four minutes, the fastest arrived almost immediately – and as the little car icon arrives at your destination the Uber driver pulls up outside.

The car has the Uber logo on the side so you know it’s an authorised Uber driver and when you get in the driver confirms your name, to make sure you are not a cab-snatching opportunist.  All three cars I travelled in were comfortable, clean and pleasant.  The drivers were polite and professional.  They had their phone on their dash in a little holder, presumably with the “driver version” of the Uber app which allows them to receive bookings.  They can choose whether or not to take a booking in the same way you can.

No money changes hands and no cash is stored in the car.  The money is paid directly to Uber through the app using the details you provided.  Uber take a 20% cut and forward the balance each week as a lump sum to the driver.  After the journey you get a chance to rate your driver so that a history of their service style grows over time.

So that’s it.  It may not sound like much, but it felt like a game changer to me.  For those who are comfortable with apps and phones this was incredibly easy to use.  It was simple, user-friendly and hassle-free.  The prices seemed significant cheaper than cabs normally are, but the drivers I travelled with were every bit as professional.  In short, it feels exactly the same as a decent taxi company, except that the software replaces the central office as co-ordinator.

What you do away with are the: “Cab will be with you in five minutes” then it turns up forty minutes later, or never.  You can see where the cab is at all times and if you want to you can call the driver by clicking the “contact” button on the phone.  No cash changes hands, which makes for a quick, clean and comfortable transaction.

I can see why so many cab drivers are terrified.  I think they are right to be concerned.  The modern world is changing fast, as is communication, and the tide has reached them.  Some are urging the Government to take action to protect them.  It won’t work.  The Government has never been powerful enough to stop innovation, no matter how urgent the cry.  If I were a cab driver I would be looking into Uber, and its competitors (even innovators have competitors) to see how I could use them and work with them.  It’s big cities now, but it will spread and it will evolve its way around legislation and obstacles as all such ideas do.

I found Uber to be a positive experience.  I would certainly use it again if I were back in a strange city.  I’ll continue to use the local drivers I know and trust at home, but would urge all drivers to think about the change that is coming. I don’t believe you can stop it, but its not too late to grow with it and make it work for you.

Hellholes & Crack Dens

Hellholes & Crack Dens

When I first left home, many years ago, I spent two years living in what used to be called sharehouses. It was both affordable and convenient, allowing me to get my own space even though I was earning very little. I was able to use my time there to save up and buy my first house. Some of the other tenants became very good friends of mine and at least one of them still is to this day. I have fond memories of that first simple, affordable and comfortable room that was my first home on my own.

First time home buyers often find that to help them afford that house, they take in a lodger or two.  Sometimes, one of the family loses a job and a lodger or two are the perfect way to avoid losing the home while the job hunt proceeds.  Very often these would qualify as HMOs.

Recently, as part of their ongoing agenda, certain people have been trying to dirty the name of HMOs, which means House Of Multiple Occupancy. The suggestion is that all HMOs are dirty, or nasty, and that they represent some attempt to “rip people off” or to treat them in an unpleasant way.

This is completely misrepresenting the facts – something that is being done deliberately by a few individuals and which is then taken up by gullible folk. This is easy to demonstrate for anybody who is bothered about the truth, rather than the spin.

Your home is a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) if both of the following apply:

  • at least 3 tenants live there, forming more than 1 household
  • you share toilet, bathroom or kitchen facilities with other tenants

There are hundreds of thousands of HMOs, by the Government definition, in the United Kingdom. If a young couple in a two bedroom house let their friend and his wife live in the spare bedroom for a while, that’s a HMO. If a landlord has a four bedroom house and rents the rooms out to individuals – what used to be called a “sharehouse” – that’s a HMO. Any University town is inundated with sharehouses / HMOs.  I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine who was studying to be a Veterinary nurse, living in a HMO with other nurse trainees in her student years.  This is incredibly common.

Although I don’t know for sure, I believe that quite a few of my neighbours on Alexandra Road are living in HMOs.  They cause no trouble, keep their houses very nice, and are excellent neighbours.  Of course there are houses out there which are not so nice to live besides, but that is also true of some houses with families in them – if the family behave in an antisocial way.

There are hundreds of variations of HMO and the vast majority are perfectly nice, perfectly comfortable places to live. Running, or living in a HMO is not illegal and I very much hope the fools who say “HMOs should be illegal” never get their way. Because then we really WILL have a housing crisis in the UK. A crisis when huge numbers of people suddenly lose their homes, and when thousands of others can’t afford theirs because they can’t rent the rooms anymore.

You see, there is a very big difference between a house with three couples in three double rooms, where the premises is clean, the regulations all kept to and the landlord reliable and fair – and a monstrous den with no carpet or curtains where people are sleeping on dirty mattresses on the floor, abused, and trapped by their circumstances.  They are like chalk and cheese.

The individuals who seek to muddy the name of a HMO act as though all HMOs are like crack dens. They are not. The very very vast majority of HMOs are just places people share a house but don’t happen to all be family. It is very dangerous and ignorant to spread this cack about them as though they are a plague, when in fact they are a vital part of our housing infrastructure which has existed for hundreds of years and will continue to exist for hundreds more – perfectly legally.

A few years ago, the law was changed to require *some* HMOs to apply for planning permission when they started out. The purpose of the change was that some University towns were being overrun by large, packed HMOs full of students. The laws on when you do or do not qualify as a HMO or a Large HMO, when you do or don’t need a license and when you do or don’t need planning permission are complex. Because the purpose is to require registation, payment and regulation, rather than prevention, Councils try to work with landlords rather than against them. And different Councils do take different views, just to add to the complexity.  Unless a place really is a hellhole, like one of these aforementioned crack den types, they will usually prefer a constructive dialogue that corrects whatever minor omission they may notice.

HMOs are just homes that a few people share. Large HMOs are just bigger homes that a few people share. Not everybody can afford to buy a house or even rent a house and not everybody can get into a Council House or Housing Association Home. Sometimes, it suits people to share. Often, in fact. It takes a special sort of snobbery to automatically presume there is something wrong with that. save your outrage for the hellholes and the crack dens – the places that actually deserve it.  Unless it’s not actually snobbery at all.  Perhaps what you really dislike is the fact that foreign people live in some of these places?  If, in truth, that is your reason – there’s a word for that too.

POLICE REPORT, to Wisbech Town Council 28/10/15

POLICE REPORT, to Wisbech Town Council 28/10/15

Crime Trends

The main concern revolves around shoplifting of which there has been an increase in both of the wards where our main retail outlets can be found. PC Stevens, along with PCSO’s Megan Sargent and Andy Bush will look into this further to determine what educational/prevention activities can be undertaken to reduce this crime type.

Anti-Social Behaviour

The overall trend continues to be a reduction in the reports of ASB. We have had some issues within the town park during the summer holidays however these reports do appear to be decreasing. Waterless where we had some significant issues in late 2014 has seen a current reduction of 39% in reported ASB when compared to the same April to August period of 2014.

We currently continue to have a close working relationship with both FDC and Cambs County Council about the play park at the Spinney.

There has been some concern raised about activities in the Admirals Drive area of Waterlees and as a result PCSO Steve Staniforth and partners have completed an environmental audit in the locality today to better understand the issues and possible causes.

Street Drinking

We continue to work closely with our partners in supporting the Alcohol Project being led by Aaron Locks. Through our patrol activity we obtain details of all those involved in street drinking activity and the details from these reports helps identify and influence how our partners can support those individuals who have or appear to have long term alcohol abuse problems.


Each of the primary schools have been allocated an identified PCSO who will be visible at the schools morning or afternoon when on duty and will also develop closer working relationships with staff to support safeguarding activities.

In the last week we have been working with FDC with the delivery of some educational work linked to Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). This has involved a theatre group production being performed which is based on true events linked to CSE, question & answer sessions and some workshops. Some of you may have had the opportunity to attend one of these sessions. I found the production very thought provoking, hard hitting and emotional. These events were held at Thomas Clarkson, Isle College and the Fenland Learning Base.

Shared Planning

Shared Planning

I voted against the Shared Planning Proposal between Peterborough City Council and Fenland District Council today at the Staff Committee.  This is different to the way I voted at the Full Council meeting recently and a colleague commented on this, so I thought it worth explaining my position here.

The idea of a shared planning arrangement between the Councils was first mooted a couple of months ago in a Members’ Seminar at Fenland Hall.  The presentation was very slick and professionally done, but although there was a lot of information – I did not feel that the case being made presented a strong argument for the change.  The reasoning is both as a method of improving the Planning Service and also of saving money.  To have some idea whether this will actually happen, the entire issue would have to be interrogated to a much deeper level.  Instead, the Seminar appeared to present a case and then push for an early resolution “in case Peterborough went elsewhere”, as it were.

I challenged the case being made at the Seminar.  Not, I stress, because I disagreed with it.  Simply because I did not feel that the case they were making in their presentation stacked up.  I looked at the projected cost savings versus the risk involved – after all this is a huge change to one of the intrinsic duties and functions of the Council – and just couldn’t agree that the benefits outweighed the potential for things to go wrong.  One question I asked was about their Risk Analysis.  Since the Seminar had presented such a positive spin on the policy I wanted to know what they had come up with when the explored the potential risks associated with the proposals.  The question resulted in some floundering that seemed to suggest they had not even considered a Risk Analysis.

The next place I heard the case was in a Conservative group meeting, where a number of my colleagues challenged the appropriate Cabinet Members on various issues.  Once again, I made the point that we simply did not have the information to make a sensible decision.  We had lots of positive aspirations and we had lots of grand opinions of how this was the right way forward.  Now there are many instances where I will acknowledge the opinion of colleagues and of Officers – I have no interest in micro-managing every decision they take.  But this was not a simple matter, rather it was a huge and complex change affecting a vital area of District Council Business.  In which case I expect the business case to be made and I want to be convinced by it.  Not only was I not convinced, I didn’t even feel there was enough evidence presented to take a view.  It wasn’t that I thought they were wrong, I just couldn’t see how we could guess one way or the other.

I felt, quite strongly, that this would have benefited from a significant review by the Scrutiny Committee.  It should have been subject to an extensive Task and Finish Review where Members could look in depth at the proposal, have time to research and analyse every aspect of it and to ask searching questions of Officers where necessary.  I pushed and managed to get it to Scrutiny before it went to full Council, but only for a single emergency meeting.  It was better than nothing, but not enough, I felt.

So when this came to Full Council I found myself in a difficult position.  I was still unconvinced by the arguments made, but I had asked for Scrutiny to look at it and Scrutiny had looked at it and found favour with it.  While I still felt the evidence was not there to mitigate the difference between Risk and potential Benefit, it was clear that the entire rest of the Council felt otherwise.  I considered voting against, but eventually supported the decision.  Despite my reservations, everybody else was supportive (including the Opposition) and what I had asked for (Scrutiny Review) had been done without finding any issues.  It was a difficult decision, but one I took on balance because I thought it best given what had gone on.

Today the same issue came to the Staff Committee, which I sit on.  This time with a whole new supporting paper including responses from the comprehensive consultation with members of staff.  Despite several weeks passing and the policy being now almost imminent, I simply could not see that the evidence was any better than it had been at the outset.  In fact, in a way it was worse.  We now had the full old and new proposed staff structures (but with no information as to the roles, connections etc of those positions.)  We were still missing the proposed wages for new senior staff – although some vague answers were given when I challenged this.

Recently, in Social Media, Members of the public have been challenging Councillors about the level of wages of senior staff.  Many people have made the point that Councillors are elected to oversee this.  I have tried to explain that it’s not as simple as that and many people are somewhat unforgiving in response.  “Don’t make excuses,” they are broadly saying, “You are supposed to be in charge – show us where you have challenged pay scales.”  And yet here we have a concrete proposal for whole new senior positions which have gone through Full Council and are now at the final Staff Committee hurdle and not a single Councillor knows what the proposal for pay is to the most Senior Planning Officer in the new set-up.  The paper we have before us says “TBC”, to be confirmed.  Asking about it I am told it will be on the “Hay Scale” which is set by an Independent External Body (as are many of the Senior Officers wage levels.)  I press harder and I am given a guesstimate – “Hay 4,” maybe £79,000 – £81,000 pa.

So at this point I am being asked to officially vote, on record, in the final Committee to have a say on this.  I am being asked to show support for a policy where I feel the risk may well outweigh the limited savings, where I have no evidence there will be an improvement in service for either Council, where I don’t know what we will be paying to our new staff, where I really have no clue what the effect will be on one of the most important aspects of Council business.

Now I must stress – none of this means the idea will fail.  It may well be that Officers and the Cabinet Member know things I don’t.  It may well be that the amalgamation will save us money, deliver fantastic new services and improve existing ones.  It may well be that all my fears are completely unfounded and I am a worrywart for no reason.  I know this.  But nothing in any of the reports I had seen proved this in a way that convinced me.  With that in mind I gritted my teeth and voted against the proposal.  I was the only one that did, so it is still carried.  Nevertheless, I hope that the policy exceeds all predications and proves my worries wrong.  Cllr. Will Sutton told me not to worry about it after the meeting, that it was going to work and work well.  He is a bright guy and he is probably right.  I’m probably too much of a pessimist. :)


Elliott Johnson

Elliott Johnson

My good friend Elliott Johnson died last week.

I had known Elliott for many years.  His first job was at Number 10 Cafe where we worked together.  He did his work experience with me when I was County Councillor.  Elliott was a Conservative activist, as am I, and we had fought many campaigns side by side.

There is nothing bad to say about Elliott.  He did not have a bad bone in his body.  He was just the most generous, caring, decent man.  He had such immense talent and was so noble and kind.  He was also the most true and loyal friend anybody could ever wish for.

I am so immensely sad, there are no more words.

Goodbye my friend. Rest in peace.


Perfectly Legal Activities

Perfectly Legal Activities

One of the interesting things about being a Councillor is how often people seem to want you to take some action about something which is not in any way illegal.

Time and again people insist that their preferences are enforced on the behaviour of others and they expect their local Councillor, or the Police, or some other authority  to be the weapon of choice to make it happen.

It is a mystery to me why people think that a Councillor is able to make somebody stop doing something which is perfectly legal.  And why, if that person refuses to stop doing the perfectly legal behaviour, the Councillor is somehow failing.

I blame the authoritarian Councillors.  These are the Councillors who are convinced that they should be able to intervene in other people’s perfectly legal activities.  When asked, they will say: “Oh yes, that is awful, something must be done.”  Even if they know nothing can be done because nobody is doing anything illegal.  Because, when they fail to do the thing they could never have done in the first place, they can blame somebody else for their failing.

To make matters worse – if you patiently point out why you cannot take action and explain the law, you will be called names.  When you point out that the Police and other authorities also can’t do anything, for the same reasons, they will be called names also.

This happens in regards to street drinking, parking, hot bedding, houses of multiple occupation and a whole host of other areas.  Nobody really cares what the law is or what can be genuinely done within it.  What they care about is being able to tell everybody how angry they are about xxx thing.  Then, depending on their personal tastes, they will blame the failure to stop the perfectly legal activity on “foreigners”, “bankers”, “evil Tories,” “Tony Blair”, “the Illuminati” or “The Council.”

It is a shame that people in communication positions don’t tell the truth, which might help everybody to understand the law and its limitations.  Then, should they want to, the people could campaign for a change in the law.

Refusing to condemn a person for their perfectly legal choices does not make you “part of the problem” and it does not mean you support whatever those choices are.  Rather, it means that you understand the statutory limitations of your role and don’t seek to try and gain power over the non-criminal choices of consenting adults.

Members’ Allowances Review

Members’ Allowances Review

The Independent Panel who look at Councillor’s Allowances were at Fenland Hall today and Councillors were invited to speak to them and comment on the allowances etc with a view to helping them decide what they are going to recommend to Council.

I have my interview at 16.15.

I was asked what I thought about the current level of the basic Councillor’s allowance.  I said I thought it was fine as it was and did not need any increase.

I was asked what I thought about the level of Special Responsibility Allowances.  I said that I thought most of them were okay, but has one or two comments in a couple of areas.

I was asked if the practice of the Chairman of Planning and the Chairman of O&S getting a higher SRA than other Chairman of Committees was reasonable and I thought it probably was.  Certainly for Planning.

The key point I made was in regards to Group Leader’s Allowances.  I said I felt it was a misuse of the system that a “group” can consist of just two people and that one of them can then get thousands of pounds to be the boss of the other one.  That has always seemed to me to be a gross abuse of the system, albeit one that is within the rules.

In my opinion two people do not constitute a “political group.”  Although the “starting point” is obviously an arbitrary choice, I think five is probably a good number that most people would accept is a “group.”  Maybe four.  But not two, in my humble opinion.