Saturday, 5 January 2019

Kingsley Park and Links View Residents Association - A chance for lasting change

A really great part of being a local Councillor is working with other Councillors in the area to get real lasting change a benefit for the people we are meant to serve. Very soon after my election, Cllr Cathrine Russell pulled together an initial meeting of the Kingsley Park and Links View Residents Association. The groups has now been set up with a brand spanking new constitution. The group hopes to provide a forum for local residents and businesses to work together for the benefit of the area. As a local Councillor it’s a real help to have a group of local people who are passionate about where they live and have opinions about how changes that local councils can make, can improve life for local people.

The group are keen to get more local people involved and in particular want to involve people in the Links View Area. They are having their next meeting on 17th January in the Pioneer Pub, Fulford Dr, Northampton NN2 7NU at 7.30pm. If you cannot make the meeting please visit their website, and like them on facebook.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Anything Changed Yet? - Who Cares About The Public Voice?

A year ago, Max Caller, an Inspector from the government, was in Northamptonshire County Council examining current and historical documents concerning the council and talking to officers, councillors and other stakeholders. The inspection report he eventually published had a headline stating Northamptonshire Council Council had failed and the most quoted comment was that local government was about “doing the boring well”.
Revisiting it, it’s interesting to examine whether we’re making progress. The Caller report also stated that “The council’s approach comes across as sloppy, lacking in rigour and without challenge“. There was particular concern about the secrecy of the administration and the lack of information given to councillors event when they asked for it. Genuinely, the pace of change has meant that it’s really hard to keep up for those in the organisation, let alone the public.
It’s being eight years since Northamptonshire County Council has held a meeting to genuinely ask the public what they think of the budget proposals affecting their local services and spending their council tax money. After only fourteen people attended a meeting in Kettering, the then Tory leadership axed consultation as a waste of money.
In the 2013/14 budget consultation there were public sessions in advance of budget scrutiny workshops for Councillors on the key thematic areas of the budget. These continued in subsequent years but not this year. For the first time, there is no opportunity for the public to make their voice heard about the council’s budget plans.
There are other ways local people can express their views of course, but the process of having budget consultation meetings is about inclusion, engagement and above all transparency. The failure of Northamptonshire County Council to have any consultation events with the public is evidence that the “carry on regardless” attitude is still present with council tax payers treated as non-stakeholders event though they are paying for the services. Also, as consumers of those services, they are in a key position to challenge in a way that provides insight into how services might be more effectively run. There are positive reasons why challenge provides better services, better decision making and more valued services.
However, above all, the public should have a right to comment about local services as it is morally the correct thing to do. This has been raised by the Labour group with senior officers. When commissioners came to discuss the budget with the Labour group I questioned whether there would be consultation meetings and was assured that, consultation meetings would take place. Labour’s Cllr Mick Scrimshaw as Chair of the new over-arching Overview and Scrutiny Committee has sought that there is at least one meeting that the public will be allowed to address on 23rd January. This meeting will take place at the end of the scrutiny process, where the committees response will be finalised, and there will be a recap on the individual meetings councillors will have had. Although Labour are not in control of the Council they have recognised and acted on this glaring omission. It’s unsurprising that the Tory administration don’t see the need for people to have their say. Acting, as usual, for the few not the many.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Number 19 bus returns on 20th January 2019

After a massive campaign by the Chronicle and Echo, the number 19 bus will be re-instated with a half hourly service. The challenge now is to ensure that it is sustainable and the best way of doing this is to make sure it is used. A key group of people who can make this a success are older people with bus passes. Even though the trip doesn't cost the individual anything, the bus provider gets paid by the County Council for each journey undertaken.

You can see the new timetable here.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Make the workers pay

It’s all about managing resources. Something that Northamptonshire County Council have been struggling with for quite some time. Decisions about the problems it has faced have been impeded by the lack of transparency and the failure to involve both councillors and the public in understanding issues and proposed solutions. I have written more about this hereOne of NCC’s many areas of mismanagement concerns decisions about the council workforce. Over the last few weeks it has emerged that 2015 seems to have been a critical year for Northamptonshire County Council. The Chief Finance Officer had written to the Council's political leadership stating an intention of issuing a section 114 notice effectively declaring the Council bankrupt. 

In 2015, with the whole country in the midst of the fifth year of austerity, within the Northamptonshire bubble the section 114 was never implemented. This was despite all of the then cabinet, including the current leader of the authority, Cllr Matt Golby, being aware of the statutory duty of the Chief Finance Officer to invoke it. Whilst the council didn’t go bankrupt, the butterfly-effect of its decisions fell heavy on the rest of Council resources. As a consequence, cuts to budgets had a dramatic impact on users of the county council’s services. It had an even starker impact on staff working for the county council. It was at this time that deliberate decisions were taken to make all staff pay for the privilege of working for the authority. The county council needed the dosh but, with an election looming, was unwilling to increase council tax and cut services dramatically.  So the staff had to make the sacrifice which included being taken out of nationally negotiated pay terms and conditions. This meant that if they could switch job to one in Bedford, Leicester, Rugby or Market Harborough they instantly had a better deal than any on offer in Northampton. Other changes included not paying staff for the first day they were off sick which had a bigger impact on part-time staff than anyone else. The way this was implemented was also brutal, with staff being effectively sacked and re hired on the new terms and conditions. 

The effects of this on the council’s ability to undertake its responsibilities to look after vulnerable people cannot be overstated. It is now extremely difficult to recruit for essential roles, such as social workers and some of the strategies designed to convert agency workers to being on the council’s books have massively backfired. Half of the social workers recruited by Northants County Council last year have already left. So, massive expenditure by NCC has failed to deliver the kind of services vulnerable local people deserve and have paid Council taxes for. The concept of conservative financial competence is dead in the water in Northamptonshire. 

A better  way of delivering essential public services is possible but honesty in local government governance is required for this to happen. It is possible to have properly funded and responsibly managed  local government but this needs to start with transparency about how the council will balance its books and openness about where any axe to services will fall. Only by doing this can we understand the funding gap from central government. Over a month after the second section 114 notice was published we’re still no clearer about this.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Openess and Transparency - Doing Democracy Well

It seems like Northamptonshire County Council has been facing stick forever. After the recent Judicial review victory by Library campaigners, it’s worth stating that the stick seems well justified. Most criticisms have focussed on the the deterioration in services but there have also been failures in the organisational culture, as anyone whose had any kind of engagement with the Council may have noticed. As an opposition councillor it is extremely hard to influence budget decisions and this is why my immediate focus will be on the organisational culture.

Here’s some statements made by others about this.

In the Local Government Authority (LGA) Peer Review;
“Decisions taken by the Cabinet need greater transparency. Council members and scrutiny chairs need access to more information. There was a desire expressed from some cabinet members for greater discussion and challenge across portfolios. However, where challenge has been provided, for example from the Audit Committee, that has not been welcomed.”
(Financial Peer Review - Northamptonshire County Council, Dates: 12th – 14th September 2017, Feedback Report)

Max Caller (the Government appointed Commissioner) in his report stated,
“the approach adopted made it very difficult for any backbench councillor to establish what was going on and the absence of effective controls made the job of budget management an exercise”. (2.12)
“Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information, most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority. To refuse it outright is just wrong.” (3.82)
“challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best.”
“The council did not respond well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism. Individual councillors appear to have been denied answers to questions that were entirely legitimate to ask and scrutiny arrangements were constrained by what was felt the executive would allow. When external agencies reported adverse findings these were not reported with an analysis of the issues and either a justification or an action led response to a relevant decision taking body. At its most extreme, the two KPMG ISA 260 reports, stating an adverse opinion on Value For Money matters were just reported to the Audit Committee without comment and the unprecedented KPMG Advisory Notice issued under the 2014 Act was reported to full council without any officer covering report giving advice on what the response was recommended to be.”

Since my first Council meeting, on 1st August, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in dealing with the public in County Council meetings. I’ve regularly attended Council meetings, as a member of the public, often registering to speak. Even when not registered to speak, as a member of the public I was able to sit in the public gallery and watch proceedings. But, since 1st August, members of the public who haven’t registered to speak at least two days before the Council meeting, are ushered into a side room where they can only view one camera angle from the Council chamber and thus unable to see all the speakers. This additional resource comes without council papers (which were previously available) but with a security guard. 

The creation of this distance from the public shows the Council failing in it’s requirement for transparency at the very time that it is most needed. Without transparency, there is less likely to be confidence in the decisions taken by the administration. It also indicates the Council’s wish for distance between decision making and the community. The Chair of the Council has on at least two occasions stated that members of the public who heckle in public would not be given the right to speak at Council again.

At a time when communities, families and staff are promised swingeing cuts and massive job losses, the Council’s Chairman requires decorum to continue above all else. This approach denies the reality of the pain being felt in the County. It denies the passion that local people have about their public services and denies the life and death nature of some of the decisions being taken in the Council. Hearing the views of members of the public who often give a context to how decisions made or about to be made would impact on their communities, is an important element in local democracy. But we are now seeing an erosion to these rights. The three minute limit is often reduced to two, which makes it more difficult to make a point.

Prior to February of this year Council meetings were webcast, so anyone across the world could see what was happening and the decisions being taken. But the contract was allowed to run out and because most meetings happen during the day it’s now impossible for the majority of the public to view what goes on. More evidence that the Council wants decisions taken out of sight and out of mind of the public.

So, whilst the people of Northampton can still express their views directly to the Council it is no longer possible to sit in the public gallery unless you have registered to speak (remember to register two days in advance).  And for those who choose to speak they would like you be polite, stick to your two minutes and go away and don’t expect anyone not able to be present to hear what you have to say.  Yet another example of the dysfunctional organisational culture at the heart of this Conservative administration.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Housing lack of options

Growing up on the east side of Northampton, Billing Aquadrome was something we generally associated with as fun. Over the years the park has changed in a number of different ways with increasing numbers of people choosing to live full time. For some it is being seen by some as a route to having stable housing. But the thing is it just isn’t. I was on the site yesterday, the day before it was shutting down for a month. With residents required to be off site for four weeks of the year, the stability is limited. A couple of years back my daughter took in a pensioner who’s family had said that they had saved for a hotel for the four weeks break. When push came to shove, when the money wasn’t there, the family went to a range of alternatives including sofa’s of friends and tents.  Unwilling to see a pensioner living in a tent over January, my daughter took her in for the four weeks.
Over the four week break, the site seems increasingly prone to flooding. Over the weekend much of the areas around the paths and community facilities on site seemed waterlogged. The burden on home makers and care givers increase in such conditions, particularly when making a move for four weeks. A far cry from the summer fun of the fair.
People talk about the advantages in only having to pay for ground rent rather than Council tax but this in itself goes into the thousands. Coupled to the fact that fuel has to be purchased from the camp management and gas is about twice the cost of that off site. There are other hidden costs such as the requirement for Gas safety certifications which have to purchased from the site management and any improvements to pitches (decking or fencing) having to be again be purchased from site management at inflated costs.
The concern is that people living in these environments are disconnected from the rest of the community. With no access to postal services and a long walk to most other facilities, it’s easy to see why people living on the site have no voice. As just a market opportunity to be exploited, the human cost of which is hidden. It is after all somebody else’s business, somebody else’s choice. Of the people that I know living on this site many have taken the option as a result of broken relationships, and with the leading cause of homelessness being the cessation of private sector tenancies, the option of living in a caravan park is increasingly an option. Much less of a choice than, an potion on an every reducing list of options.
Part of the reason for the voicelessness is the disconnect from the rest of the system. This includes electorally with few if any being registered to vote. With Tory Councillors on the borough and County Council having responsibility for the area for the last fourteen years, (with the notable interlude of a Tory councillor who defected to labour in 2011) there is no interest in addressing these issues.
Over the Christmas new year period, the has been quite rightly focus on the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, but homelessness is so much more complex than that. With at least one woman saying to me that the ones on the street are the only genuinely homeless people there seems to be a reticence to deal with the wider aspiration of affordable housing in the town that is available for all.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

County Council Cuts

Northampton communities are getting to grips with the shock and awe cost saving ideas from Northamptonshire County Council. After twelve years of Conservative control and over seven years of Tory and Lib Dem government austerity, council services that have survived are already cut to the bone.
There is understandable outrage about the effect these new proposals will have on library services but other proposed cuts will also have a sizeable impact on local communities.

One of the cuts that hasn't had a lot of exposure, is the proposed 42% reduction to the Trading Standards budget. Trading Standards staff play a vital role in protecting the public and their work covers a wide area:

  • Fraud (such things as rogue trading)
  • Age-restricted sales
  • Animal Health and Welfare
  • Consumer &  Business Advice
  • Environmental Controls
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Fair Trading (including weights and measures, descriptions, pricing, consumer credit, etc.)
  • Food, Health and Agricultural Standards
  • Licensing and Registration

Their recent successes in Northamptonshire include:

getting compensation for a bride who had her wedding day ruined by a catering firm that included nuts in her wedding cake, despite her telling them that she had a nut allergy. You can read more here
Prosecuting shopkeepers who sold cigarettes to underage children. You can read more here
Taking dangerous skin creams off the shelves of shops. You can read more here
Taking a trader to court who sold an un-roadworthy and dangerous car to a local teenager. They also supported the young person taking the trader to court to get their money back. You can read more here.

The details about the cuts are in the Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) here

The EqIA gives a lot of detail about how older people and people with disabilities will be particularly adversely affected. This is a service which has protecting the public at it's heart. After the Grenfell tragedy, the mood of local people is to be more and more critical of the decades of deregulation and cost cutting that can link back to hazards, risks and health concerns. In addition to this, cost cutting will lead to an increase in sales of illegal tobacco and product testing is likely to reduce by over 50%. 

Northamptonshire’s investment in the skills and equipment to provide a local product testing service generated income to a cash-strapped council. It now seems that investment will be collateral damage in the cuts to a service which is vital to the well-being of Northamptonshire people.

So what can be done?
Please sign my petition against all Council budget cuts here.

Please support my campaign to become the prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Northampton North. If you are a member of the Labour Party, let me know that you are supporting my campaign. If you are not a member of the Labour Party, join us here.