Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A busy day at the office(s)

What a day today! I got into the office early to try to get some work done. This time of year is very busy in my work at the CAB, as the end of the financial year ends. It's been hard this year as we have been dealing with a changing funding landscape, with cuts from national and local funders. As I prepared for my organisations board meeting, where my trustees will consider our budget, I got a call from BBC radio Tees, who wanted to find out about the work of or CAB and the challenges we face, both in terms of funding and the higher workload we are experiencing in these hard economic times. One of our clients, Irene, was keen to speak about the difference the CAB made to her life. I was very grateful, because we really value client confidentiality and wouldn't ask most clients. Irene, who we have helped with financial problems after she was hospitalised, was a great advert for our service and talked about how having the stress relieved from her life was as important to her health as a recent operation.

As a result of all that, I was running late for our group meeting before the Northumberland County Council meeting to decide next years budget. So after, a brisk drive up to Morpeth, I went into the bear pit of the council chamber. Since the council became No Overall Control in 2008, with the Lib Dems leading a minority administration, the full council has become much more vital. You never quite know how the vote is going to go! Despite a lot of noise before the meeting, for the third year running our budget was the only one presented and was passed with one amendment, proposed by Simon Reed our portfolio holder for adult services. Labour leader Grant Davey moved a few amendments, proposing various extra ideas for spending. Some of them sounded worthy of further investigation but unfortunately he had not put them forward in advance and they weren't very well advocated. For one of them, he stated that a move would save £64,000, when in fact it would only save £6,000. So they were voted down but I hope he will bring them back for further consideration. We genuinely need all the good ideas we can get!

The headlines are a 0% council tax rise and a drive to save front line services. In many (mainly Labour) councils, there have been library, leisure centre and toilet closures. Despite a tough settlement that has been unfairly front loaded by DCLG, I think the budget proposed is a good one and was relatively happy to vote for it. It makes the best use of the money we have. I was particularly pleased with the freezing of council tax. Council tax is a particularly unfair levy, with the poorest in society paying a much higher share of their income in it. If a purely Lib Dem government had taken office, we would be abolishing it but at least we are able to stop it increasing.

Then it was off to a meeting of Prudhoe Town Council and a very busy agenda! We looked at plans for a community governance review of the council, which means reviewing the number of councillors and ward boundaries in Prudhoe. Then we heard about changes in affordable housing rules from the government and how some of this may impact a 60 house development on the site of Prudhoe Hospital. I am concerned that the poor state of the housing market is helping developers from using the low value of property to renege on their previous commitments on the number of houses that are affordable in developments. We also looked at plans from Northumberland Water to improve the sewerage system on the Castlefields estate. This is long overdue, as residents have long experienced flooding. It unfortunately means residents will have to put up with Castlefields Drive being closed in part for 5 weeks but I cannot praise Northumberland Water enough. They have kept us all informed at all stages and have not gone for the cheapest option.

Then I updated Town Councillors on the Decisions taken at County Hall and went home. A busy day but I enjoy doing a bit of everything.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Poetry in tarmac - progress on the worst road in Prudhoe

Since I was first elected to the District Council in 2003, I have been campaigning for Milton Grove in Prudhoe to have it's road surface and pavements sorted out. This road was completed in 1940 and hasn't been resurfaced since! The problem is that it is a concrete road and these surfaces are so robust they don't suffer structural damage. But Milton Groves road surface is now very tatty, with cracks all over its surface and the pavements, which have no foundations, have sunk below the level of the road in some places. These pavements are now wobbly and hard for the pensioners who live on the street to walk on.

In 2004 a large petition was raised but the County Council at the time was not interested. When I got elected in 2008 to the County Council, I set out to sort that out. I got the road onto the list for resurfacing but after two years, it was not getting high enough priority as the cost of completely replacing the concrete plates was a likely six figure sum.

So on Tuesday, I had a meeting with council officials to look at the road and see what can be done. They have agreed to sort out the structural cracks and to resurface the road in the summer and are looking a programme of replacing the pavements. I will not stop on this one until it is finished but I am glad we are at the start of the end.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Chopwell and Kielder need better management not sell off

Over the hills from my house is the excellent Chopwell Woods, a Forestry Commission property. It has a great range of walks and is well used. The Christmas fayres there are great and raise money for the active friends group.

Further north, in the constituency I live in, is Kielder forest. It's a massive expanse of managed woodland and is a great place for a break. One of my friends regularly gives talks at the excellent observatory there (it is remote and a great place to watch the stars) and there is a great ferry service around the lake with a wonderful walks and mountain bike trails. So when the news was announced that they were going to be sold off, I joined MPs such as my local Tory MP Guy Opperman and my friend Tim Farron, Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, in condemning the move.

Now it seems David Cameron has listened and is putting the breaks on the move. I welcome this. There is no doubt that the Forestry Commission is too bureaucratic and doesn't make enough money from its forests. But the thing to do is not to sell off the forests before they can be turned around and the rights of users can be more enshrined. Sometimes governments need to be congratulated when they do a U turn. This is one of them.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

I agree with Pickles but he's not extreme enough

It's fair to say Eric Pickles isn't the most popular minister in the coalition government with Lib Dems. I have been disappointed with many of his initiatives which often promise to devolve power but often take away power as much as they give. Ultimately, I just don't think he believes in decentralisation if it doesn't go the way he wants. If you decentralise power it will be delivered differently everywhere. That's not a bad thing. Both parties in the coalition (and apparently Labour too) believe in localism but too often national politicians cannot resist keeping control. The main freedom we have been given is how to cut our councils, which is hardly the positive idea I was hoping for.

Pickles latest crusade is against Council chief executive pay. He is proposing to make councils vote for the pay of any officer paid more than £100,000.  I have no major issue with this. Councils, along with much of the public sector and the private sector, have let top executive pay get out of control. When I came onto Northumberland Council, at the very first meeting it was announced that the Chief Executive was leaving and that his severance pay had been agreed a few days before the election by the outgoing Labour administration. Worse still, it was subject to a confidentiality agreement so couldn't be reviewed in anyway. That was wrong. Our current chief executive, Steve Stewart, took a voluntary pay cut of 5% but did not want an announcement made about it. He is also signed up to our agenda of scrapping the councils generous lease car scheme, which is an effective salary perk which councillors like myself and Derek Kennedy from Hexham have been criticizing.

At £179,035 his pay is still very generous, although less than his predecessor. The counter argument goes that he is managing a budget of half a billion pounds and if he does not deliver on his targets we will get rid of him.

But hang on. why just pick on Local Government? What about Chief Executives of PCTs? Chief Executives of the SHA? Permanent Secretaries in Central Government? Heads of Government Agencies? There are far more central government bureaucrats on more than £100,000 and we know far less about them. The House of Commons should vote on each of them. The problem with his policy is that local government seems to being picked out for scorn. It is inefficient and at Northumberland we have stripped out millions of pounds of expenditure and thousands of jobs with little effect on front line services. This year I hope we can not rise the unfair council tax. But central government and other public sector organisations are far far more inefficient. Some NHS organisations have just cut management costs by 40%. Noticed a difference? Central Government is the worst. Anyone working with it (and I did for a number of years) will see how they dither for months to make a decision then just shorten the timetable for you to respond to keep the end date the same.

Pickles should get MPs to vote on all mandarins under his control paid more than £100,000. Otherwise it is just an attack on Local Government for purely ideological reasons.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The future is bright, the future is Orange (Book)

Every time I hear a Labour party talking about the Lib Dems (including Dave Anderson MP during the election campaign), I hear us being split into the good Liberals, who are slightly deluded but well intentioned, and the Bad Thatcherite Economic "Orange Book" Liberals. The Orange Book liberals believe in a small state and want vicious cuts. They are virtual Tories except they are maybe a bit more in favour of civil liberties.

This Orange Book must be a very powerful book, I hear people say. Well not really. I bought a copy when it was launched in 2004. It's name is a sly reference to the Yellow Book (aka Britain's Industrial Future) of 1929, which outlined a firm shift in the Liberal Party towards a Keynesian agenda.

It's a book of disparate essays by a variety of Lib Dem parliamentarians who were seen as prominent at the time. Some like Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne (both then MEPs) and Vince Cable, have gone on to great things. Others such as Mark Oaten and Susan Kramer, have foundered politically (but for very differing reasons!). It is seen as marking out a more economic Liberal direction for the party (ie small state) but in reality is a bit of a mixed bag. What I think it marked was the party starting to  transform itself from one of protest to one that may be able to exercise power. It started a serious debate about our values. But there is no "Orange Book" wing in the party. We leave internal factions to the Labour and Conservative party.  We are too small to be able to fall out between ourselves. As long as there is a need for a Liberal agenda to be presented, we will be here.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Libraries matter but need reform

Today has been a day of protest. First the deluded fools of the EDL unfortunately chimed with David Cameron's anti multicultural speech (more about that later). More important to me was the nationwide protests of people whose libraries are at risk of the cuts.

Hopefully there wasn't much protest in Northumberland. The council remains committed to our libraries. Personally the library growing up was very important to me. I devoured books as a child and remember the excitement when I was allowed an adult ticket. It filled me with a love of reading.  When I go to other peoples houses thought I often notice the lack of books in peoples houses. Councils need to preserve the facility for people to read and learn independently.

In Northumberland, we are cutting out Audio visual lending, as demand for CDs and DVDs has collapsed. This saves around £40,000. We are cutting one mobile Library facility, which covers areas with very low demand and where we think the remaining mobile vans can cover the work. All told the library service has escaped rather unscathed compared to the big cuts and efficiency savings we are making across the council.

The council has already been working on making our small libraries more cost effective. In places like Haddon, Corbridge, Heddon and Kielder we have been putting our libraries in the same building as other community facilities. Some of our libraries are now community run. In Haltwhistle we have a brand new library. Mopeth library was renewed after the floods in that town.

Most exciting, in my biased view, is the new multi million pound library and info point being built in Prudhoe now. This embraces all the positive changes in Libraries in the county. The building will be community owned by the Prudhoe Community Partnership, and the library will be part of a much more varied range of council and other public services. Our library staff continue to deliver brilliant inclusion programmes on very tight budgets. For the past 3 years, I have handed out medals at Prudhoes summer reading challenge, which is aimed at younger children. Last September, the award ceremony had to be held over 4 evenings as record numbers of kids took up the challenge.

We need to continue to invest in libraries to keep them relevant. The public demand higher and higher    customer service. and in an age of instant downloads and cheap books from Amazon and others, they demand an almost infinite range of books available at a time of their choosing. I am keen that the county looks over the next few years at the growing ebook revolution. Other councils are trialling ebook lending, where you can download a book for free for a month long period. This can of course be done at any time and from anywhere. As the technology becomes ever cheaper, there may be merit in giving ebooks to people in areas of the county where Libraries are hard to access and where young people might live in a household with a lack of books.

Unless libraries improve they wither away until they are prime candidates for cuts. It is important that we do not let that happen in Northumberland.