Author: pkl204

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 16th October 2019

Just imagine it. For years issues with the country has been worrying you. You’ve taken the time to weigh up which option is best for your family. You’ve walked down to your local school or community centre with your polling card and when you’ve got there you’re told you won’t be allowed to use the right to vote that generations of your ancestors fought and died for. Why? Because you don’t have ID.

In the UK, we’ve never been required to have identity cards, in fact when ID cards were suggested it faced a wave of ‘principled’ opposition from the Conservatives, including from our current MP, before he was elected to Parliament. All that is about to change, for the first time every citizen will be required to have an ID, or you’ll lose your right to vote.

Fraud at UK elections is incredibly rare, at the last election there was only one individual convicted for impersonating another voter, the existing systems already mean it would be almost impossible to undertake fraud at a level which would affect the outcome of a single seat.

Meanwhile, in the eight council areas the Government has already trialled the new system, 819 voters have been turned away due to not having an ID. Those sorts of numbers would change election results, which is probably why they are doing it.

There are 11m people in the UK without a Passport or Driver’s License, most of them on lower incomes and the majority are not Conservative voters. Without the roll out of voter ID by Republicans in the USA, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Don’t doubt how effective this will be at rigging our democracy.

The UK already has one of the lowest turnouts in the West, these proposals will only make that worse. Let’s be clear, they’re taking away your liberty by making you have an ID card, taking away your vote if you don’t go along with it, and they will happily mutilate our democracy so long as it keeps them in power. That’s what your Conservative Government is doing in your name.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 9th October 2019

Two years ago I stood down as a West Sussex County Councillor. I did so for several reasons, but one of the biggest being that I had become convinced that the way the council was run made it impossible for councillors to deliver for residents and that common sense counted for little with the leadership.

Last week, Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council, resigned after a decade in the role. It would be mean-spirited not to acknowledge that I believe she felt what she was doing as leader was in the best interests of the area, that there were times she did help us to genuinely improve things in Crawley–particularly around economic development, and that the problems which led to her downfall began before she took on the role.

Nonetheless, her approach to leadership made a bad situation much worse, to the extent that central government is about to take one of the council’s major services away due to its appalling condition. The question now is what, if anything, the new leader will do to get things back on track?

I won’t repeat the stream-of-consciousness blog I posted on my website following news of her resignation, but I do believe most of the council’s problems can be summed up in one sentence and resolved with fairly minor changes, the sentence being: the county council is too big and runs too many services for one person to control everything. Certainly, that’s now how I run Crawley, and our geographical footprint is much smaller.

What does this mean in practice? Appointing competent officers, not just people who agree with the leader, and trusting them to do their jobs. Delegating decisions to cabinet members and working to support them, rather than the other way around. Reversing the centralisation of decision-making at the council so that all councillors can at least vote on big changes, rather than Cabinet resolving them by email. Lastly, restoring relationships with other councils and organisations which almost ended last year, if West Sussex are ready to behave as a partner again my door is certainly open.

Five steps to get West Sussex County Council functioning again

So, Louise Goldsmith has resigned as Leader of West Sussex County Council following a run of appalling independent reviews of performance at the authority and a little over a year after I called for her to go.

While we have not yet seen the latest report which finished her off, the summary presented in the Local Government Chronical certainly reflects my experience of four years as a councillor at the council, as I know it does for many who have worked with West Sussex over recent years (although, to be fair the problems at the authority go way back before Louise became leader).

Despite one local chief executive suggesting to me a few years back that the only way to fix West Sussex was to shut it down and start again, we are where we are and the departures of Louise and Nathan does give the council the chance to at least start giving West Sussex the chance to stop being a massively underperforming authority. Here are five possible steps for doing that:

1) Appoint a competent chief exec

For the last decade it has been Louise’s way or the highway, that’s how she has managed to get through more chief executives than anyone has ever managed in that timeframe before. This included a period in which the entire role was deleted and Louise stood completely unchallenged. As a leader I know my role is policy and the chief exec is there to run operations. It works this way because my mandate comes on the back of securing public support for political positions and the chief exec is a career civil servant with the expertise to turn that into reality. Councils go wrong when people forget their role or where chief execs go along with things they know to be wrong because their leader is unwilling to listen. Leaders need to appoint capable people and trust their judgement.

2) Delegate to Cabinet Members

Much the same as point 1, you have a Cabinet and you need to trust them to do their job. You simply cannot keep on top of the whole work of a council by yourself and it is not your job to. Your role is to set a direction for the council as a whole, to be its face looking outwards, to resolve differences between cabinet members and crises as they emerge, and to help deliver the resources cabinet members and senior officers need to do their role. If you cannot trust your cabinet then you need to appoint a new one.

3) Open the decision making up

During my time as a county councillor, I was lied to by various officers, I repeatedly had reasonable requests for information rejected and key decisions were taken behind closed doors. To say there is a culture of secrecy at the council is an understatement and the complete rejection of effective scrutiny is a large part of how things got so bad. Under the Cabinet Model, you can have greater and lesser levels of delegation to cabinet members and senior officers. At West Sussex this delegation (or rather centralisation) has been taken so far that almost all major decisions never go before the Full Council. Those of us who have served on other councils know this level of centralisation is utterly absurd and it needs to go. Cabinet should start meeting regularly in person, key decisions should be voted on by councillors representing the whole of the electorate, and officers should never again fear the consequences of being honest with elected members.

4) Reset the relationship with partners

No one enjoys working with West Sussex right now. I work happily with many other councils of different political colours, but the dishonesty and arrogance of West Sussex reps has alienated the very same partners the council will depend upon if they want to get back on their feet. A new leader and chief exec will give the council a chance to reset this relationship, and let me be the first to extend my hand to whomever gets the roles. Things can’t go on like this, we need to work as equals to get things moving again.

5) West Sussex needs a new Monitoring Officer

Every council has a ‘Monitoring Officer’, typically the head of Legal Services and their role is to ensure that the council operates legally. The latest report shows that the council has not been acting legally in how its Children’s Services department has been running, that the law was not followed in dealing with the scandal around the Nathan Elvery’s relocation bonus, and that the Monitoring Officer appears to have tried to cover this up. How can anyone have any confidence in them continuing to carry out a role when they have failed so badly in the past? My own experience dealing with them leaves me with no confidence, having seen them essentially do whatever they were told by the administration regardless of whether it was right and the regular failure to respond adequately to FOI requests. Much as it pains me to say that anyone should ever lose their job, this step is fundamenal for anyone who wishes to restore confidence in the authority.

Cabinet agrees tax on empty houses

Crawley Borough Council’s Cabinet agreed plans to increase Council Tax rates for empty properties at its meeting last Wednesday (25 September).

The decision was made to increase rates to incentivise property owners to bring them back into occupation.

Currently, owners of empty properties are required to pay an additional 50 per cent on top of the normal rate of tax according to the property’s banding. However, amendments to the Rating and Council Tax Act 2018 enables local authorities to apply a higher rate to any properties that have remained unoccupied and unfurnished for more than two years.

The changes will take place from 1 April 2020 and the increased rate of Council Tax will be decided depending on the number of years the property has remained vacant.

In Crawley there are currently:

  • 13 properties that have remained vacant for between two and five years. The owners of these properties would be required to pay a 100 per cent increase from April 2020
  • Five properties that have remained vacant for five years or more. The owners would be required to pay a 200 per cent increase from April 2020
  • Five properties that have remained vacant for more than 10 years. The owners would be required to pay a 300 per cent increase from April 2021.

If these properties remain empty, the increase in Council Tax will bring in an additional £53,913, with the council retaining 11.5p for every £1 billed (£6,200), West Sussex County Council receiving 77.8p and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner receiving 10.7p.

Leader of the Council, Councillor Peter Lamb, said: “The demand for housing is ever increasing and while the council is progressing with the development of new properties, it’s important to ensure that existing properties are being utilised.

“While the number of empty properties in Crawley is low, the increased rates will help encourage property owners to bring them back into use and contribute to the housing need in the town.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 2nd October 2019

There’s a well-known phrase often attributed to George Orwell: ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ While it’s disputed whether he used the exact phrase, it certainly represented the socialist author’s views, expressed both in his works and–more importantly–his actions: taking up arms to fight Fascism in the Spanish Civil War and repeatedly attempting to join the British Army in the Second World War, only being rejected on the grounds of his health.

Almost seventy years since Orwell’s death–at 46, from tuberculosis–the truth of his words and actions live on. Our society lives free from violence and oppression only thanks to men and women putting their lives at risk to defend us from harm. The question for our community is how we should repay that debt.

Last week, a national campaign was launched to reduce the number of homeless veterans to zero. This is something I wholeheartedly support and Crawley Borough Council are already undertaking the actions suggested by the campaign. After all, we were one of the first councils to sign-up to provide support to current and former servicemen and women through an Armed Forces Covenant, and I was proud to introduce the Veterans Interview Scheme at the council to ensure veterans had the chance to highlight their unique abilities in a way CVs to not always easily show.

There’s always more which can be done and, as a member of Labour Friends of the Forces, I look closely at what others are providing elsewhere to see what we should do next. Yet, not every problem can be tackled on the council-level and earlier in the year a report produced by the House of Commons Defence Committee showed: “there is no doubt that some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.” In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that simply isn’t good enough. It’s time the Government did their bit to ensure our veterans get the support they deserve.

Crime up 77% in Tilgate and 13% across Crawley

New figures reveal crime in Crawley has risen by 13% in under a year, including a staggering 77% increase in Tilgate. The figures have prompted renewed calls from the town’s Labour councillors for frontline Police cuts to be reversed.

Sussex Police figures reveal that between August last year and July 2019—the most recent month for which data has been made available—crime in Crawley has risen by almost a sixth, with Tilgate suffering the biggest increase.

Since 2010, Sussex Police—who are responsible for policing in Crawley—have lost a third of their funding from central government, meaning that despite large increases in the police’s portion of council tax the service remains seriously under-funded.

Over the same period, Sussex Police have lost 634 Police Officers and 160 PCSOs, with 98% of police cuts coming from frontline roles.

Speaking about the state of policing in Crawley, Cllr Lamb said:

“Everyone could see that cutting police numbers would result in an increase in crime and yet year-after-year local residents are being forced to live with the growing risk that they or their loved ones will be a victim of crime.

“For all the Government’s promises, the numbers show our local police force still won’t see their funding fully restored or officers returned, leaving criminals to do as they want. That is totally unacceptable. Crawley deserves better.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 25th September 2019

Every country has a constitution, the UK might be rare in that our constitution is found in an uncodified collection of laws, books and traditions rather than a single written document, but it remains a constitution nonetheless. That constitution sets down the rules as to how our country will run itself, including the checks and balances which prevent our Government from becoming a dictatorship and protect our democratic rights as citizens.

Yesterday’s decision, by Britain’s most senior judges, made it clear the Government has gone beyond the limits of their powers under the UK Constitution, that in order to secure the prorogation of Parliament Boris Johnson lied to the Queen, and through her the British people.

On the one hand, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, Mr Johnson is a man who was fired from The Times for writing fraudulent articles and more famously promised £350m for the NHS which he has since had to accept does not exist, so why wouldn’t he lie to the Monarch in order to get what he wanted? However, it does raise a question: is this the most we can expect from our country’s Prime Minister?

I don’t claim to be perfect in any way, but any council officer or Labour member who has spent time with me will know the importance I place in politicians honouring their word, even to the point of delivering things people mistakenly thought we had promised in order to avoid adding to the cynicism in politics. The simple fact is a democracy cannot function when we cannot believe what the Government is telling us.

Maybe that’s all too optimistic, but just consider where we are now. Many of the powers delegated to the Prime Minister and the Government are technically still in the hands of the Queen, who acts on their advice. Yet, we now find ourselves in a position where her Supreme Court has told her she cannot trust the advice of her ministers. This is a situation which cannot last under the UK’s constitution. Something is going to have to change for the nation to survive.

Press Release: Council Leader calls for the return of Crawley’s police funding

Following the release of new figures showing that Government cuts to police budgets are over three times greater than the recently announced new funding, Cllr Peter Lamb has called for Boris Johnson to keep his word and return Crawley’s police funding.

Since the Conservatives came to power, Sussex Police—who are responsible for policing in Crawley—have lost 32.3% of their funding from central government, leaving local policing in a weakened state.

The news comes on the back of recent revelations that despite 98% of police officers lost from the service in recent years having been cut from the frontline, around 7,000 police recruits will never see frontline duty.

Speaking about the state of policing in Crawley, Cllr Lamb said:

“Following the loss of frontline officers, crime and antisocial behaviour are now the top issues residents raise with me on the doorstep. They are tired of seeing it in our town centre and across Crawley’s neighbourhoods. Only the police have the power to end the decline and only the Government has the funding to give us the officers we need.

“We deserve more from our Prime Minister than empty promises, it’s time he learnt to keep his word and gave Crawley back its police.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 18th September 2019

Earlier this year, Crawley Borough Council joined with other local authorities and legislatures around the world to declare a climate emergency, recognising the rapidly decreasing window of opportunity mankind has to stop catastrophic climate change.

While the challenge is global, this is a war which can only be won if action taken by every individual at every level of human activity. The importance of conserving water and energy, reducing consumption and recycling where possible, and switching to more sustainable forms of transportation are all well advertised and most people do now seem to make an effort to do their bit, even if we all have room for improvement in our lives.

The council is also currently towards carbon neutrality. In addition to reducing the town’s dependence on carbon by helping to roll-out greener sources of energy, we’re working to enhance the insulation of local homes, improve the town’s public transport and cycling infrastructure, make greater use of wildflower verges, and switch council vehicles over from fossil fuels. Our goal is to ensure that with each new set of improvements we can bring the target date for carbon neutrality forward.

Yet, while we can all do our part, ultimately we cannot achieve the change we need without change at the top, we need a national strategy with the power to build the economy of the future. 250 years ago the UK kicked off the Industrial Revolution, a force which was not only swept the country, but the world and made our country the world’s strongest economy on the planet for well over a century.

For the last few years, Labour has been creating the policies necessary to kick-start a Green Industrial Revolution, at the heart of which is a principle that giving up on fossil fuels does not mean giving up on improving people’s lives. On the contrary, by making the UK a global leader in the next stage of the world’s economic development we have the chance to not only help undo the damage of our first Industrial Revolution, but to deliver a better quality of life for all UK residents.

Crawley Live Column, Autumn 2019

The two biggest decisions for our town for many years have arisen over the last few months: Gatwick Airport have asked to be allowed to bring forward a second runway by using both their main and stand-by runways at the same time and Homes England, a successor body to the Commission for New Towns which built Crawley, is seeking permission to build thousands of new homes on the Western-side of Crawley.

Amazingly, Crawley Borough Council is not the decision-maker for either of these decisions, with the Government set to decide upon Gatwick’s plans and the housing development falling within the planning area of Horsham District Council. Nonetheless, we are working hard to ensure that the implications of these developments for Crawley are clearly understood by the decision-makers and that, in the event either proposal is approved, every possible measure is put in place to limit their impact upon the town.