Friday, 30 January 2009
There is a real challenge for councils. How do they identify children at risk? Once identified, is taking them from their families and into care the best thing to do? What levels of risk are 'acceptable'? When it costs around £30,000 a year for a council to care for a child, how many can be cared for from the taxpayers' pocket? There are a whole series of ethical, professional and financial considerations to be balanced. Councils can not stop children ever being killed or harmed through abuse or neglect, but they have a key role in reducing the risks.
This is why I have volunteered to be the councillor on a review group which the Council has set up to look at children 'on the edge of care'; those where there are significant risks to their safety, but where the professional opinion is that they are better off with their families (not necessarily their parents) than in council care. This is obviously a key group in terms of safety and I want to be confident myself that the Council is doing all that it can. We've had a first meeting and there are already some good ideas on the table about how Bristol could do better within the resources available.
Thursday, 29 January 2009
The issue at stake would appear to be Labour's decision to close or merge a number of primary schools in the city due to falling numbers. There has been a long consultation process and they have given way on a number of schools initially slated for closure - like St George's on Brandon Hill, which Lib Dem councillor Mark Wright worked hard to save. The balance is that the government is offering Bristol £12 million to improve its schools, but only if the city cuts 'surplus' places. This seems slightly daft given that the same government is arguing that Bristol has to increase its population in the coming years! Nevertheless, like it or not, no cuts means no money.
However, the real situation is that they are trying to destablise the running of the Council in the run-up to the June elections. It was the Tories who put Labour back into power in May 2007 as part of a pact between the two of them which ran very nicely (for them!) until David Cameron told Tories that they weren't allowed to have pacts with Labour anymore! Since then, the Bristol Tories have been trying a whole raft of ways to distance themselves and generally cause mayhem and instability - just what the city needs, I don't think...
I don't like the Labour administration much myself. I think they have been secretive and isolationist, with poor consultation and a lack of vision or willingness to address hard topics. I don't like their backsliding on environmental issues. I would like to see the back of them. But this is for the voters to decide in June, not the Tories to decide in a fit of pique and political gameplaying on a false premise which risks £12 million of investment in the city. It is certainly not for David Cameron to decide who runs the city and who does not.
The meeting on the 10th February promises to be something of a non-event. We Lib Dems have already made clear that we will be voting against the Tories' motion and in favour of a stable Council administration until June when the people of Bristol can choose.
Of the Bristol MPs, Labour's Dawn Primarolo, Kerry McCarthy, Doug Naysmith and Roger Berry all voted in favour of a significant expansion in air traffic at Heathrow. Lib Dem Stephen Williams voted against. Well done Stephen! You can read the debate and see who voted how in Hansard.
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
Congratulations to Redland & Cotham Amenities Society for the work they have put into the project. I have been happy to provide help with getting a bit of extra funding, consulting with residents and providing occasional fire from the hills to keep the project moving along, but they've done the real work of deciding what needs doing and planning how to get it done.
Sunday, 25 January 2009
Two pilot zones are being consulted on in Bristol. One is Ashley-Easton-Lawrence Hill and the other is Southville-Bedminster. I hope that residents there see the advantages and back the plans. My only frustration is that the pilot zones seem to have been decided, in typical Labour style, in a backroom without any discussion with other councillors. I didn't get a chance to advocate for Cotham to be a pilot area, but I will now put my sour grapes away and just push for us to be part of the second wave!
We had a fantastic presentation from a senior manager of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. This is the publicly accountable organisation which oversees the bus, tram and local train services in Sheffield and the surrounding towns. As I understand it, Bristol missed out on having a similar organisation through a quirk of history - being part of Avon at the time PTEs were introduced, it was not deemed a metropolitan area in the same way as Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle and so on.
Under the recently passed Tranport Act, Bristol does now have the chance to be part of the new wave of similar organisations - Integrated Transport Authorities. These give the chance to have much more control over public transport in the area, provided that the surrounding councils also want to be part of it. At the moment, Bristol has little more than moral influence over the way in which its buses and trains operate. What a wonderful gift of the last Conservative government privatisation was!
I am enthusiastic about the opportunities that an ITA would offer Bristol and the surrounding area. It would give us the chance to have real control over routes, timetables and fares. It would be a big boon in integrated and cashless ticketing - like the Oyster Card, although I understand that London is thinking about dropping theirs!
What was particularly useful about the South Yorkshire experience was that it was realistic. The person made it clear that a PTE/ITA isn't an instant panacea for all the transport woes of an area. It won't create new funding, but it will make negotation with national government easier. It won't cut fares, but it will improve service standards. It won't create a network like it was in the 1960s, but it will give a focus to increasing routes and improving timetables. It won't stop people bickering about what the priorities are, but it will give them a focus for their discussions and a better chance of making progress.
If you want to find out more, you can see the webcast on the Council website.
Thursday, 15 January 2009
Greenpeace are running the AIRPLOT campaign to make people joint owners of a plot of land which would be under compulsory purchase for the building of the runway. This will make the purchase far more difficult, with the government having to negotiate with potentially millions of owners! I've signed up and I encourage everyone else to do the same.
(Lest I be accused of being a hypocrit and holier-than-thou, I should say that I do fly myself. I always carbon offset, I always look at alternatives and I don't fly that often. My position is that the first step in reducing flying is to stop expanding it and encouraging people's reliance on it, especially for short-haul trips within the UK. We then perhaps need to look at some form of air-miles quota system, coupled with a proper green tax system which directs funds from flying to less polluting forms of transport. Remember, unless something radical happens, no-one will be flying in fifty years time as there won't be any fuel...)
Update : the Labour government have bizarrely refused a public vote on the decision, in their latest attempt to stifle discussion (remember that MPs had to beg to have a vote on Blair and Brown's Iraq War). They knew that the Lib Dems, the fair-weather Tories and some Labour rebels would have voted against and it might have been close. So they said 'no' and took their ball away. This caused the Heathrow local MP (who is Labour) to have a shouting match with the Speaker and run off with the parliamentary mace!
In essence, a useful and constructive compromise was reached, based quite heavily on the suggestions which I made at the Cabinet meeting in November and on the statement which I submitted to the Call-In (which I have appended below). Labour agreed to a number of concessions proposed by the Lib Dems, principally :
- a reconsultation of the Zones and the surrounding areas to verify July's dodgy consultation results.
- a commitment to defining what 'pilot' means in terms of timescales, measures of success and an exit strategy.
- measures to mitigate against any knock-on effect in the areas near to the pilot Zones, including enforcement against illegal parking.
Remembering that the July 2008 consultation was about a barmy and draconian scheme, I think that the reconsultation in the pilot Zones will show more support for residents' parking now, not less. We'll have to wait and see!
I was particularly pleased with the third of the points above. Little, if any of Cotham is going to be in the pilot Zones, but there is the real potential for knock-on effects into the surrounding areas. Resources are needed therefore for better signage (e.g. yellow lines on corners) and enforcement (e.g. of pavement parking or blocking dropped kerbs).
The final point I want to make is that I understand from those that were able to attend the meeting is that the Conservatives demonstrated that their interest in residents' parking is all about grandstanding and scoring political points. Not a single Tory councillor submitted a statement to the meeting, despite them calling it. In the meeting itself, their lone representative refused to work with the compromise, apparently demanding a discussion in Full Council. He knows as well as I that this would be all about getting press attention and not about reaching sensible solutions.
My statement to the Call-In meeting is below :
Due to a long-planned holiday, I am regrettably unable to attend the call-in meeting, so please accept this statement concerning Residents’ Parking Zones (RPZs).
My views about the consultation on RPZs undertaken in July 2008 are well-known, having been made in public on a number of occasions. The consultation was shambolic in both the approach taken and the materials used. It did not give residents a reasonable opportunity to express their views on what is always going to be a contentious topic. Unforgivably, local councillors were not involved in the consultation in any way.
I do not agree with those who say that the consultation was biased in favour of adopting RPZs. Rather, the bias was polarising, forcing opinions to the extremes, when my experience, in Cotham Ward at least, is that residents’ views are rather more nuanced and complex. The process was further undermined by the actions of officers who reportedly gave residents the impression that it was a ‘done deal’.
The revised RPZ plans that were presented to Cabinet in November 2008 were significantly different (and more appropriate) than those in the original consultation. In fact, they tallied much more closely with the proposals that I and my Liberal Democrats colleagues had been making prior to and during the consultation period. The principles of different solutions for different areas and the folly of 24/7 operation had been accepted.
As such, I believe that the plans in the November 2008 cabinet papers form a sensible basis for an on-going dialogue around the issue of RPZs. In principle, I believe that RPZs have the potential to offer significant gains in quality of life for local residents; they work well and are broadly popular in many other towns and cities. Bristol needs to have the same conversation with its residents as these other communities have had.
I believe that Bristol City Council should have a worked-up residents’ parking scheme available for discussion. I do not agree with those who are opposed to the idea at all costs or those who want the ability to veto RPZs in areas other than their own. I believe that residents (along with businesses and community organisations) should have the ability to opt-in to RPZs where they have majority support. Equally, I do not believe that residents should have RPZs imposed open them against their will. I also do not believe that RPZs should be used as a revenue-raising exercise for the Council, and I am confident that this is not the intention within the current plans.
The July 2008 consultation was deeply flawed. At best, it has given the Council some idea about those areas where there is significant support for RPZs, although I have no confidence in the boundaries as currently defined, given the paucity of the data collection exercise which was used to create them.
Moving forwards, I believe that the following steps need to be taken :
A re-consultation needs to be undertaken based around the two proposed pilot zones, but covering a larger area than the proposed boundaries, to seek the views of residents on the November 2008 plans (which are quite distinct from the July 2008 plans on which the initial consultation was based). This should comprise more than simply a repeated questionnaire, including public meetings and the involvement of local councillors and Neighbourhood Partnerships. Only if there continues to be majority support for RPZs should plans progress.
A clear project plan needs to be developed and published, detailing how any pilot zones would be managed. In order to be a ‘pilot’ in the true sense, there needs to be (a) defined measures of success, (b) periodic evaluation, (c) a defined pilot timeframe, and (c) an exit strategy. None are currently laid down in the RPZ plans. Specifically, if it is found after a period of time (perhaps two years) that the RPZs are not offering benefits to residents, they should be removed.
The plans need to incorporate measures to mitigate against knock-on effects of the implementation of RPZs on surrounding areas due to the displacement of vehicles. This would include the protection of pavements, dropped kerbs, driveways and corners, including both physical measures (e.g. yellow lines) and enforcement. It is important that RPZs do not create additional problems for residents outside the zones.
The finalised detailed plans need to worked up with the full involvement of the local community, but then need to be brought back to Cabinet for final approval, giving residents in the affected areas a final chance to register their opposition in public and to seek to amend or dispose of the proposal.
If these four conditions are met, I am happy that the plans should proceed to the next stage. This does not mean that I support the inevitable implementation of the two pilot zones as defined in the November 2008 plans. It means that I want to see a “fair and proper consultation” (to use the phrase of the Keep Parking Free campaign) before zones are put into place. However, if that consultation results in the finding that residents in certain areas do indeed want to be part of an RPZ, then I would support them in their aspirations.
Regrettably, the ‘call-in’ process is likely to serve to polarise debate even further, causing antagonism between neighbours – like many councillors, I am being lobbied by both those for and against. The Conservatives contributed little or nothing to the discussion about RPZs prior to the November 2008 Cabinet meeting, despite ample opportunities. They have now used the call-in process to make political capital for themselves, sadly demonstrating once again that they are keen on opportunistically seeking to take credit, but not responsibility, for how the city is governed.
All residents of Cotham Ward are welcome to attend. The meeting will be discussing priorities for both short-term action and longer-term solutions for the local area. Various Council staff will be there (from waste, highways, planning etc), as well as the Police.
We will also be talking about how to spend the modest amount of money provided to the Partnership for the current financial year. Ideas currently on the table include more street trees and better waste enforcement.
The last meeting attracted around 100 people and we are hopeful that this one will attract more as word gets around. Everyone is genuinely welcome to come along, even if they have not been involved before. If you want to find out more, drop me a line.