Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 23rd May 2018

Last week, British tradition and ceremony received more than their usual level of coverage, indeed global recognition, in the run up to the Royal Wedding. I think we all wish the happy couple well, as we do with any two young people beginning their lives together.

At Crawley Borough Council, we had our own town traditions to follow, as we began the process of kicking off the new council year with our Annual Council Meeting. This meeting is essentially a ceremonial one: it recognises the result from the last set of local elections, re-appoints members to committees and, most notably, selects the Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the coming year.

I’ve never been much for standing on ceremony. When I first got on the council I was even reprimanded by a Conservative councillor for pointing out that a Mayor’s ruling on a matter of process at a meeting was in breach of the Standing Orders. However, the position is a symbolic representation of the town and should be treated with a level of decorum.

That decorum was sadly lacking amongst Conservative members last week. To put up alternative candidates for the roles is their right, even if it is fairly pointless when you’re in opposition. However, to make personal attacks on candidates for a non-political role, whether they be in the Council Chamber or on social media is fairly low, such behaviour alongside shunning major events in the council’s civic calendar do the Conservatives no great favour.

Instead, we got the usual complaint that everything was unfair because they didn’t get the committee chairmanships they wanted, ignoring that no such arrangement was in place when they were in control and at the county council Labour are left entirely without positions. In the past, they even refused to join a panel investigating how we could make Crawley a fairer place on the grounds they viewed it as unfair they didn’t get the positions they wanted. I guess that’s the difference really: when we talk about fairness, we’re talking about fairness for everybody and not just us personally getting what we want.

Press Release: Council appoints two new senior managers

Two new senior managers have been appointed at Crawley Borough Council.

Ian Duke will take on the role of Deputy Chief Executive from 11 June and Simon Jones will become Head of Digital and Transformation on 9 July.

Both roles were subject to a vigorous selection process, which included presentation and panel interviews with officers and councillors.

Ian brings a wide range of experience across several service areas from a number of local authorities over 20 years. He worked at Gosport Borough Council in economic development, inward investment and regeneration programmes before moving to the London Borough of Greenwich to lead on regeneration policy, the London Thames Gateway and external funding. Whilst at Greenwich, Ian delivered a range of government programmes to improve frontline services and outcomes within one of the country’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. He took this learning into consultancy supporting local authorities to work with communities to improve services.

For the past five years, Ian has worked at the London Borough of Hounslow and has been responsible for developing the organisational and partnership priorities, translating these into strategy, developing new ways of working, ensuring delivery and supporting transformation ahead of a move into a new civic centre.

Ian said: “I’m delighted to be joining at such an exciting time for the town and the council. The new Town Hall site is an important landmark in the ongoing development of the town centre and is a one-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we deliver services for our communities.

“I look forward to working with everyone to ensure that through this development and others, such as the new neighbourhood at Forge Wood, we deliver the benefits that our residents and communities deserve.”

Simon is currently Head of the East Sussex Better Together Alliance Digital Programme. He was formerly Head of IT for East Sussex County Council and for several years he also led digital/ IT provision for a large London social housing provider. Simon has also been responsible for overseeing numerous transformation programmes.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “This is an exciting time for Crawley, as we take big steps moving the town and the council forward. To deliver on our aspirations for the town we need a strong team at the Town Hall.

“I’m confident that with Ian and Simon joining the council’s senior management team, we have the right people in the right roles to help build a better future for Crawley.”

Crawley News 24 Column, Monday 21st May 2018

It seems as though railways are never really out of the news. In the same week as we’re faced with radical timetable changes, the Government has decided to temporarily nationalise the East Coast Mainline. Railways have a big impact upon Crawley. Increasing numbers of residents commute to London daily, two-thirds of Crawley’s own workforce lives outside of town and millions of passengers pass through Gatwick monthly. When railways fail the local impact is huge.

The Government’s decision to takeover the East Coast franchise was prompted by poor performance, although they say they intend to hand it back to the private sector in due course. We’ve been round this circle before: companies are brought in and fail, franchises are then taken over by the Government and recover, before being re-privatised. The irony that many of the companies running the franchises are owned by foreign Governments appears lost on them, but the reality is UK passengers are subsidising other countries’ networks with their high ticket prices.

This has to stop. Since 2002, the physical rail network has been back in public hands and working well again, it’s time to do likewise with the rail companies. It doesn’t even have to cost anything, all we have to do is to wait for the franchises to run out and they automatically revert to public ownership.

As a council, we’ve worked hard to try to improve local rail services, helping to secure the investment for major improvements to both Three Bridges and Crawley, pushing for a solution to ongoing poor performance by GTR and standing up for customers over the gradual reductions in service standards. Unfortunately, at the end of the day so long as the railways are accountable to these companies and not to the British public, the likelihood of things changing course is low.

Press Release: Cabinet changes at Crawley Borough Council

A new Cabinet has been appointed at Crawley Borough Council.

Following the retirement of former councillor Stephen Joyce, Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of the Council, has chosen a new Deputy Leader, Cabinet member for Housing and Cabinet member for Public Protection and Community Engagement.

The full changes are:

Councillor Peter Smith becomes Deputy Leader of the Council
Councillor Michael Jones moves from Public Protection and Community Engagement to the Housing portfolio
Councillor Brenda Smith becomes Cabinet member for Public Protection and Community Engagement.

The council’s Cabinet is:

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of the Council
Councillor Peter Smith, Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet member for Planning and Economic Development
Councillor Michael Jones, Cabinet member for Housing
Councillor Chris Mullins, Cabinet member for Wellbeing
Councillor Andrew Skudder, Cabinet member for Wellbeing
Councillor Brenda Smith, Cabinet member for Public Protection and Community Engagement
Councillor Geraint Thomas, Cabinet member for Environmental Services and Sustainability.

Councillor Lamb said: “This is an administration dedicated to delivering for the town on the commitments we have made to the voters, and that means having the right team at the top. With this reshuffle I’m confident that we have the right people in the right posts to meet residents’ ambitions for Crawley.

“I’d like to offer my thanks to Stephen Joyce for all his support as Deputy Leader. He leaves the council with one of the strongest track records on delivering affordable housing of any housing portfolio holder in the country.”

The first Cabinet meeting of the new council year will be on Wednesday 27 June.

For more information on the council’s Cabinet visit www.crawley.gov.uk/democracy

Crawley News 24 Column, Thursday 17th May 2018

Five months into 2018 and it still feels like we’re waiting for the good weather to start. True, the Early May Bank Holiday was the hottest on record, but it was still snowing in March and we’ve yet to go more than a few days without cold or rainy weather. Campaigning in the rain during local elections wasn’t much fun and it has played havoc with grass cutting, where rain has both encouraged faster grass growth at the same time as preventing heavy cutting machinery from being used.

We did, however, get lucky with the weather on Sunday, as Crawley played host to the town’s first half marathon. It was great to see such a large mass-participation event take place in Crawley, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and it gave a boost to a range of local businesses. As a council administration, Labour are constantly working to increase the range of leisure opportunities and events in the town, to boost Crawley’s reputation and promote the local economy.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely plain sailing. The half marathon inevitably involved some road closures and understandably this result in some complaints. For all the people you see enjoying the new Queens Square there are others who view it as a waste of money, just as there were those who complained when we finally managed to bring an ice rink to Crawley at Christmas, after years of residents’ requests.

Sadly, in government, you’re never going to please everybody with anything you do. At the end of the day, the only way to avoid any objections or complaints would be to do nothing, in which case we’d all lose by default. Crawley is a great place to live and so long as Labour control the council, we’re going to keep working to make it even better.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 16th May 2018

Running from danger is a natural part of our survival instinct. Yet, for those dangers to be overcome, some men and women must run into the flames. Literally. The men and women of our Fire and Rescue Service are the reason we know when the worst comes to pass and we find ourselves and our property engulfed in flame, or we or a loved one is involved in a car accident, we know help is on the way.

Several years ago, West Sussex County Council cut Crawley’s third fire engine and all its retained fire fighters as part of reductions to the service across the county. Labour country councillors warned that even with increasing fire prevention, cuts would increase response times and put lives at risk. Despite what local Conservatives said at the time, that’s exactly what happened. However much you try to limit the need for the fire engines, they remain a vital part of our emergency services and seconds can be the matter between life and death.

So, it’s with alarm that I notice the county council are consulting on a new ‘West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service Integrated Risk Management Plan’, plotting out how the service will change over coming years. While no one at the council would be foolish enough to spell out exactly what this means in terms of numbers of fire engines and firefighters, reading between the lines further cuts seem inevitable and the submission made by the county’s front-line firefighters through their union the FBU raises real cause for concern.

We as citizens are faced with a choice: we can sit quietly by and allow the Conservatives to keep rolling the dice with our safety or we can stand alongside the men and women who so regularly put their own lives on the line for ours. We can save our fire service, but no one else will do it for us, if you want it you need to act to save it. A consultation is currently taking place on the draft plan, make sure to make your voice heard by going to: https://haveyoursay.westsussex.gov.uk/risk/west-sussex-fire-rescue-service-risk-management-pl/

Press Release: Helping the local homeless community

Come and find out how you can help rough sleepers in your community at an information day in Queens Square on 1 June from 10am until 2pm.

Crawley Borough Council Officers along with partners from Crawley Open House, Crawley and Gatwick Business Watch, Sussex Police and Sussex Probation Service, will be on hand to answer questions about supporting the homeless community through diverted giving, an initiative which aims to encourage the public to donate to homelessness support charities instead of directly to rough sleepers.

Many of the town’s residents are incredibly generous and often give rough sleepers money for food and other important items, but begging is illegal and not the most effective way to help the homeless.

Instead, donating to charities such as Crawley Open House is much more beneficial as it will not only enable them to carry on their vital work supporting the town’s homeless community, but it will also encourage those begging to take up help and move towards a better, more stable future.

Leader of Crawley Borough Council, Councillor Peter Lamb, said: “Here at the council we work hard to ensure rough sleepers have access to all available support to improve their safety and wellbeing, this in turn will also help us address the fear of crime and safety that rough sleeping in town centres has on the town.”

Crawley Open House is a key homeless charity in Crawley, they provide temporary accommodation, healthcare, financial advice, employment support to those sleeping rough, with the aim of helping them to get back on their feet and into a healthier lifestyle.

For more information about Crawley Open House, visit http://www.crawleyopenhouse.co.uk

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 9th May 2018

On behalf of Crawley Labour, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who voted last week, those involved in running the election, and everyone who put themselves forward to run or campaign, ensuring our town’s democratic process remains alive and kicking.

With all the votes counted, every seat contested remained in the same party’s hands as before the contest with Labour winning eight of twelve wards, although almost every seat now has a smaller majority. The popular vote across the town was essentially a draw, with the Tories securing a lead of only 5 votes in a constituency they won by almost 2,500 last June. It seems in Crawley, as in the country, voters are fundamentally divided on the big political questions.

Over the last week I’ve been repeatedly asked what this result means for Labour and the next General Election. Frankly, I’m tired of the spin, the truth is no one really knows. What’s sad is no one asked me what the result means for Crawley, the most important question. For Crawley, it means Labour has another year delivering our programme for office: making housing more affordable, securing better job opportunities, regenerating Crawley’s infrastructure and maintaining local services despite national cuts.

In 2019, new electoral boundaries are being introduced for Crawley, meaning that every councillor will have to re-stand for election on the new boundaries and residents will have the opportunity to completely replace the council should they choose. Over the next year, all of Crawley’s parties will have to clearly set-out their vision for the town and how they intend to deliver what they promise. It is dishonest to promise every road a parking improvement scheme when the borrowing cost would take most of the next century to pay off, particularly not when it’s a West Sussex County Council responsibility and they already take the vast majority of Crawley’s council tax.

For Crawley Labour though, there is no time to take a break. We are back in the Town Hall, working to deliver on the commitments we made to the public and keep building a better future for Crawley.

Crawley News 24 Column, Tuesday 8th May 2018

Well, all the votes are now in and counted and the result for Crawley is: just the same as it was before. For the first time in twenty eight years, not a single seat has changed hands. Meanwhile, the popular vote across Crawley was essentially a draw between Labour and the Conservatives, with majorities shrinking significantly in both Labour and Conservative seats.

Crawley is regarded as a ‘bellwether’ constituency, since at each General Election the town has voted the same way as the country, and given that the British public now appears so totally split down the middle on the most basic questions of our national direction, perhaps this result shouldn’t be surprising. Maybe, both parties should accept the result with a certain amount of humility and realise we probably haven’t yet made the case clearly enough as to why we believe the things we believe. With all-out elections coming next year, we will certainly have our chance.

In the meantime, it’s back to work. The council now needs to reconstitute itself, welcoming new members and making all the formal appointments for coming year. As for myself, it has been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as the bank holiday weekend has been packed with community events, including another fantastic May Fayre in Ifield, and trying to make my way through the significant backlog of casework and policy which the election put on hold over recent weeks. Just this morning, the first full day back in the office, I have been in meetings discussing how we can significantly improve the way we work at the council in meeting local residents’ needs and a potentially major development for the Town Centre over the next year. After all, there is more to local government than elections.

Crawley News 24 Column, Tuesday 2nd May 2018

Elections are exhausting. Countless hours go into every campaign canvassing and leafleting, amongst a vast array of other activities required to fight an election. If most people knew how few people were sustaining our democracy and how much time they give up to do it, they’d be amazed.

Nonetheless, I support retaining Crawley’s annual elections, against Conservative wishes, as they ensure representatives remain in touch with residents and give the public the power to do something about it if they fail.

I joke with Labour canvassers that if a resident raises a problem, it’s probably the county council’s fault. The sad thing is, that tends to be true and this year was no exception. The main issues this year were: potholes, pavements and parking. All county council responsibilities and all failing to meet residents’ expectations.

Parking is a particularly difficult issue. Much of Crawley was built when households couldn’t afford a car, certainly not more than one, with little that can now be done to fix things and every new bay costing on average tens of thousands of pounds. Even starting to address parking would cost more than twice Crawley Borough Council’s annual budget.

Consequently, it came as a surprise that the Conservatives appear to be committing to fixing Crawley’s parking problems on their election leaflets. Putting aside the fact we lack the space and money, they already run the county council, the only organisation with the Highways powers necessary to tackle parking and with a far bigger budget than the borough council. The relevant cabinet member is even a Crawley Conservative.

So if, in the remaining hours of the campaign you have a chance to speak with a Conservative representative, make sure you ask why, if they’re serious about tackling Crawley’s parking issues, they haven’t just done it already?