Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Freeriders are doing it for themselves

Meeting with the Alnwick freeriders
I had a great meeting this afternoon with the Alnwick Freeriders, a group of young lads who are trying to get a bike track to enable them to keep up with their sport, which is one of the fastest growing in the country.

They have been working with the Gallery youth project to get a space that is suitable. They are negotiating for some land from Northumberland Estates. I met with them to see how the County Council could help. I'm taking it back to county hall and we're going to see what we can do. This is a really good example of young people breaking with the stereotype that is all too often attached to them. I was really impressed and am going to do what we can. I recommended that they get in touch with people from my home town such as Neville Potts, who has done a lot to push forwards Mountain biking in the town. Incidentally, it was a good day for cycling all round today as Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith introduced a ten minute rule bill in parliament calling for blind spots in lorries to be eradicated to make things. You can watch it here

Alnwick to swap Potter Magic for Olympic Magic

Yesterday I heard the wonderful news that The Olympic torch relay is going to be running through Northumberland for a day and a half during the 14th and 15th of June next year, which has been announced today. It will be stopping for the evening of the 14th in Alnwick. There will be a big celebration event that day and the world will be looking at Northumberland. It is chance to put the whole county in the shop window and a brilliant chance to get the next generation motivated.

It is well known with my friends that I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to some of the wilder predicitions of nationwide economic gain from London 2012. Nevertheless, these two days are the opportunity to get people involved and to put on a really good show for people.

I am really keen that residents get involved in these two days. We are lobbying for additional events over the two days and I hope that we will be able to take the torch out to other parts of the county that are not on the main route of the torch. In particular, I would love to see the torch being brought to Hadrians Wall, which would highlight the appeal of the west of the county as well.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ashington Leisure Centre - an update

Ashngton deserves better and we will deliver

Yesterday, I went to Ashington in my role as portfolio holder for culture and customer services. I took a team of senior officers to have a good look round the leisure centre and Library, both of which need major investment.

I just want to say that the council is 100% committed to funding a massively improved leisure facility. Senior officers have now set up a working party and we are getting a dedicated officer to push this forward. We are going to get a full options appraisal to look at all the options including refurbishment on site and then we are going to press ahead.

I love the Waterworld facility in Prudhoe. It's a great facility and the people of Ashington deserve as good a facility. The current centre is not good enough and is not getting enough users. It has suffered from decades of no investment under Labour run Wansbeck Council while places such as Prudhoe (where I'm the councillor for) and Hexham were investing in new faciltiies.

So just to reiterate. We will not close Ashington Leisure Centre. We are going to build a better centre. There is money allocated for this. It will probably take a few years but we will deliver it as quickly as possible. This is just to counter some of what has been said to date by people looking to create arguments as opposed to people who haven't been kept informed.

Personally, I think there is the scope for the new facility to drive the regeneration in Ashington. If we are going to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers cash, we need to ensure it makes the town more attractive. We also need to make sure that we use this opportunity to integrate leisure services with other services for the public so that they can feed into each other. Examples would include the Library and the Customer service centres in Ashington, which badly need better facilities.

In addition, I want to make sure we learn from mistakes made in the past. I want to make sure people in Ashington are kept "in the loop" and that we never again fail to keep people informed. ALso I want to hear your views. Comment below or send me an email at my county council address. I would put it here but I will then get lot's of spam!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A bad day at the office for Willetts

The governments tuition fees policy seems to be in a right mess. Considering that the Browne report was in line with the big party consensus (any idea that Labour wouldn't be doing this now if in government is laughable  They commissioned the report), the whole thing seems to be unravelling very quickly.

I have no problem with the concept that students should bear more of the cost of their education. It is awkward though because before all this we must ensure it doesn't put a single person who should go to university from a poorer background going. As a friend of mine (who is not as far as I know a Lib Dem) just said on Facebook, "I don't feel that I have the right to advocate for a drawing up of the rope ladder for anyone who comes after me.".

I have made this argument before but Universities have presided over a massive power grab to turn what were vocational professions into ones that require a degree. Governments have massively expanded the number of places to get more people from a poorer background into unis. But the top universities have not made great strides in getting more people fro deprived backgrounds into their campuses. Governments approach to this reminds me of a top boss who once told me that half of his staff were women so there was no equality problems at his office. He forgot to mention that 99% of the women were the secretaries and the tea ladies.

The new schemes mean half of people will never pay off their tuition fees and push repayments far further back. Obviously this, along with cuts in grants to universities, means that fees have to go up. The problem seems to be that government naiively believed the fees would come in at about £7,500 when many more unis than anticipated have set their rate at £9,000, the cap. To be fair most people will pay an extra £4,500 in many years time if they earn enough money to pay for it. 

All these stresses and strains could be met if the government borrowed money to finance the scheme. But my understanding is that the treasury is insisting that the funds for these fees are met up front by the Department of Education. This is causing a big problem and I believe was part of David WIlletts rather desperate attempts to raise money by people from the UK paying the "full whack".

I do not support the current tuition fees arrangements. If there was a majority Lib Dem government they wouldn't have happened. I do think we need to cut the number of university places to enable them to be more fully state paid places for people from poorer backgrounds. If that means some thicker posh kids go to get their university education abroad then that would be no bad thing for them. I know my views are not even in the Lib Dem mainstream but the current problem was entirely avoidable by the treasury realising you need to borrow to facilitate the new regime. With interest rates at record low levels for UK government borrowing (due to the essential decisions of the UK government) this wouldn't be such a bad thing. Borrowing to fund regular spending that is not sustainable is a bad idea but borrowing money when you know you will get it back is not such a bad idea.

It is probably not Willetts fault that the Treasury are not playing ball but his ideas seem unlikely to make things better.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Time to stop "a coach and horses" being driven through affordable homes policy

My political stalkers will know that I have had issues with the recent decision to lower the affordable housing levels on the development at part of the Prudhoe Hospital site (see my letter to the Courant here). I am principally concerned not with the councils handling of the decision, which was correct, but of the fact that developers who buy land at high prices and who then see that land drop in value can just recover their losses by reducing the affordable level of housing. The "economic viability" test is perfectly normal elsewhere but has never been seen (to my knowledge) in Tynedale.

We have precious few sites suitable for housing and it's deeply disappoint when such a low number of them go towards solving the affordable housing crisis here. There are thousands of families and vulnerable people who can't afford market prices and need a help. I have met with the portfolio holder in Northumberland, Tom Brechany, and he agrees that we need to feed in our views to the government. Fingers crossed that they listen.

Monday, 9 May 2011

First day at work

Today was my first day at work as the Portfolio holder for Customer Service and Culture. First thing I had a chat with the outgoing portfolio holder Cllr Jim Smith, who has been elected as vice chair of the council. He's been doing a good job in the portfolio and briefed me on the developments. Then it was for a quick chat with the head of the department. Very important to me is the Customer Service brief. I think it's very important that we get every officer and worker at the council with a resident friendly attitude. Staff already go the extra mile for residents but the challenge is to make 100% sure that residents are "kept in the loop" at all times.

Then the Executive itself. The council reaffirmed it's commitment to look at closer working between the Northumberland and Cumbria fire brigades. We are looking at the possibility of merging some senior manager positions and a full merger. There are some problems about the finances of it but it's completely right to look at any saving that doesn't cut back on the front line.

We then looked at the petition opposing changes to the counties music service. This petition was posted before the current service review concluded and what I believe was the principle objection, the loss of an experienced music teacher, has been sorted as all staff have been found a role without any compulsory redundancies. It gave us a chance to see the breadth of the counties music service which is far more comprehensive than neighbouring services.

We then discussed some very exciting and alarming issues that were on pink paper (ie confidential) so I can't tell you. Needless to say, when it all comes out residents will be very happy and angry respectively. The administration is taking the initiative on both and doing a good job. All in all a busy day and it will take a while to get my head round what the council is doing and to get my vision for this portfolio across.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Some of the people may have abandoned us but they can't afford for us to abandon them

Thursday was a bad set of elections for the Lib Dems. In Blaydon constituency, where I stood at the General Election last year, the trend of Labour gains against the Lib Dems accelerated. I was particularly sad to see Brenda Osborne in Winlaton and Derek Anderson in Crawcrook lose their seats. Brenda has worked tirelessly for her community and gives people hell when they are not doing their job and helping people. Derek has worked tirelessly with a residents group (the DSD estate) to generate a real community spirit. In addition, SOnya Hawkins in Whickham East and Dunston Hill was a great candidate who would have been a great councillor. All lost to Labour candidates with little pedigree. In Whickham East, Sonya lost to a Labour councillor who defected from the Lib Dems when she saw the way the tide was turning, which is hardly an honourable way to behave.

In Newcastle we lost some great councillors, such as Karen Robinson in North Heaton and Philip Lower in Blakelaw. All were positive influences on local politics. It was a bad night for anyone who is a Lib Dem. We had taken many these seats over the last 13 years under a Labour government. But we kept some seats like Whickham North, which were just as marginal. When you are unpopular nationally, you have to redouble your efforts to keep in touch with the electorate. In Bedford, we kept the elected mayor seat, even though we came third in the local elections on the same day. We increased our seats in Eastbourne and did well in the Redcar constituency.

The thing is, I joined the Lib Dems when we were on 4% in the polls and we were being called a dead parrot by the Tories. I joined because I believe in Liberalism. I don't believe in left vs right or working class against middle class. I want the state to get off our backs and to help everyone achieve what they are capable of. The AV referendum confirmed for me that I could never be in either of the two conservative parties, that hate radical reform. Labour is happy to rack up votes in its northern heartlands and lose the argument in the south. The Tories don't believe in change. There is still a massive need for a thoughtful, moderate political party that believes in giving people the power to change their lives. If there wasn't a Lib Dem party then we'd have to invent it. If we want to increase our appeal, the answer isn't to engage in recriminations but to get out there and make a difference to peoples lives and then to let them know what we did.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Guess What? I'm voting yes

I know, it has been the talking point for months (well at least if you haven't read an earlier blog posting of mine). How is committed Lib Dem and and broadly progressive local politician Neil Bradbury voting in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum?

Well ...... I'm voting yes! AV isn't a massive change from the existing system of electing First Past the Post. Personally I would like to see where people can elect politicians in proportion to the votes they cast. A Tory councillor said to me that the argument would have been easier if it had been full PR that had been on the ballot. But he then said "of course you wouldn't get that as an option from us or Labour because people might vote for."

But AV keeps all the perceived benefits of the current system (one member constituencies, an easy to understand system) but ensures that the MP elected has to be the most popular candidate in the constituency. First Past the Post should really be known as Candidate Elected Well Before the Winning Post. But CEWBTW is even worse to use as an acronym. AV will at least mean that the most popular front runner is elected. It won't make a massive change, maybe 2 or 3 seats would have been in different hands in the North East at the General Election. But is is better than the current system so we should make the change.

A few myths from the No campaign to dismiss. It won't cost any more than FPTP to count. Australia has used AV for years and counts by hand. In the US they use our system and count using expensive machines. It won't create more coalitions. Most analyses show that all the winners of general elections in the UK would still win. In Australia there has been only one coalition in years. We get coalitions when people don't just vote for 2 parties. In the UK the days of there being just two parties is long dead. And rightly so, we know there is no right or wrong answer on many issues.

Many labour MPs from the north are backing the No campaign (although I commend those such as Catherine McKinnell for campaigning for a Yes vote) while a lot of southern Labour MPs are backing YES. If Labour is ever to become a truly nationwide party again, it needs representation in the South. AV could also help the Tories win a few more seats up north. Then you might see less of the phenomenon of Northern and Scottish Tories moving south to become MPs and Southerners like Ed and Dave Millliband moving up north to get into parliament.

So make sure you vote tomorrow and vote yes. Also if you live in an area where there is a local election,  consider supporting the Lib Dem. I have been helping a little in Gateshead and Newcastle and in both areas you have hard working Lib Dem councillors who genuinely care about their communities. In Gateshead you have a Labour group accusing us of being Nazis and in Newcastle the Labour group promise if elected to have an emergency budget. Why, I wonder? The current administration has protected front line services in the face of big cuts, so I would imagine they will be following the example of other Labour councils and cutting services like Libraries and toilets to protect the terms and conditions of managers.