Author: pkl204

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 12th May 2021

A heartfelt thank you to all those who voted last Thursday. While the results weren’t what I was hoping for, Labour in Crawley suffered the net loss of just a single seat to Conservatives compared to the scores lost in other town of our type. However, that loss puts the town in a difficult position.

Two years ago, the Local Government Boundary Commission revised the Crawley Borough Council ward boundaries, reducing the number of seats from 37 to 36. A number of us warned the commission at the time that having an even number of seats was a recipe for trouble, given Crawley’s history of close results and tendency to only elect two parties, and that it was just a matter of time until we ended up with a divided council.

After Thursday, the council has 18 Conservative, 17 Labour and one Independent former Labour councillor, meaning we are effectively in deadlock for the next year. Crawley’s economy has been hit harder by COVID restrictions than any other, we have a Government agency seeking to build 10,000 houses on our Western boarder, and the pandemic continues to cause major financial problems for the council. The risk now is that rather than addressing these issues, the council spends 12 months unable to take any major decisions.

I don’t believe that anyone wants that for Crawley, I certainly don’t, which is why it’s important some deal is reached between the groups on the council. For the last year Labour and the Conservatives have had a deal, but as Labour hold the casting vote on who the next Mayor will be and consequently who will wield the casting vote for the next year, a Labour-Independent deal would work, as I’m sure a Conservative-Independent deal would also.

Conversations have been taking place around what such deals might look like for the last week and are likely to continue for the next week, with an ultimate cut-off being the deadline for publishing the Annual Council papers on 20th May. Whatever the outcome, Labour councillors will work to deliver the commitments upon which we were elected.

Thank you…but what happens now?

A huge thanks to everyone who took the time to vote in this year’s local elections. The elections saw a 36% turnout, an improvement on the previous local elections despite the pandemic, with record numbers of postal voters.

These were a huge bumper set of elections, with Crawley holding elections for Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner election, every West Sussex County Council seat, a third of Crawley Borough Council seats and an additional two Crawley Borough Council by-elections.

The results for Crawley Labour were clearly disappointing. The reality is that most Labour campaigns focus on heavy community engagement and while we did everything we could to safely speak with voters this time around, we simply couldn’t run the type of campaign which typically delivers wins for Labour.

While we have to wait until Monday to find out who won the Police and Crime Commissioner Election, we already know that in Crawley Labour has seen a net loss of one seat on West Sussex County Council and another net loss of one on Crawley Borough Council since the last set of elections. Considering what has happened to Labour nationally, and particularly in other New Towns, we were expecting to do much worse, but we can’t pretend that this is the result we wanted.

For Crawley, this means the borough council remains in No Overall Control, with the Conservatives having 18 seats, Labour having 17, and 1 Independent (former Labour) councillor. So, what happens next?

Crawley Borough Council operates the ‘Strong Leader Model’ under which day-to-day decisions are delegated to the Council Leader and the Cabinet they appoint, with the Full Council responsible for the big strategic decisions. We elect the Council Leader for a four year term and my current term is due to end in May 2022, but realistically a Leader who cannot deliver a majority on key votes in the chamber will either resign or face a confidence vote in which the council replaces them. The first opportunity for this to happen is the Annual Council meeting, this year the meeting is scheduled for the 28th May, at which point committee and civic appointments for the coming year will be made, most importantly the Mayor.

While the Mayor of Crawley is a largely symbolic position, they are responsible for chairing meetings of the Full Council, as part of which they are granted a casting vote whenever there is a draw. Given the current 18-17-1 split on the council, this appointment has become incredibly important politically and due to the resignation of the last Mayor, the casting vote for this appointment will be made by the current Deputy Mayor, who is currently a Labour councillor.

So, what comes next? While it is possible for us to just wait until the Annual Council and see what happens, everyone seems to want to find a way to ensure stability for the forthcoming year and that means finding some sort of agreement between at least two of the three blocks of councillors. These conversations are happening now, to try to find a reasonable compromise which will ensure the council can deal with the substantial problems facing the council and our community.

I believe that a compromise which will deliver stability for the next year will be reached before the Annual Council, but at this stage I really don’t know what it will look like and ultimately it won’t be down to me to decide. However, based on conversations so far, it’s clear that everyone really wants to ensure an arrangement which will deliver the best for the town over the next year.

The definitive guide to tomorrow’s Election Day in Crawley

Tomorrow (Thursday 6th May) is Election Day and thanks to COVID-19, it is going to be rather unusual.

Due to last years’ elections being postponed we now have a number of council elections all at once. So, when you go to vote you will be voting on who will represent you on Crawley Borough Council, on West Sussex County Council, and as Police and Crime Commissioner (Furnace Green is the odd-one-out as it has no borough council seat up this year).

Both West Sussex County Council and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner are currently Conservative. Crawley Borough Council isn’t currently controlled by any party, with 16 Conservative, 15 Labour, 2 Independents (elected as Labour), and 2 vacant seats. With just 14 out of 36 council seats up for election this year, the only possible outcomes from this election are a Labour council, a Conservative council, or continued stalemate.

Because there are also by-elections happening in Ifield and Tilgate, electors in those areas will get to vote for two candidates on their Crawley Borough Council ballot paper. The first-placed candidate will get the full four-year term and the second-placed candidate will get the rest of the vacant seat’s term.

Police and Crime Commissioner ballot papers are also unusual, because the votes are counted in two rounds. In the first column you can vote for your favourite candidate, but if they aren’t one of the top two candidates the second column enables you to vote for whichever of the most likely top two candidates you would prefer.

At every Police and Crime Commissioner election in Sussex so far, only the Labour and Conservative candidates have made the second round. At both the last Crawley Borough Council and West Sussex County Council election, Labour and Conservative candidates were the top two contenders in every seat, with no third party candidate coming close to winning a ward.

Polling stations are open from 7am to 10pm. Due to COVID-19, there are special procedures in place at polling stations: sterilising voting areas and controlling the numbers voting at any one time. So, don’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a queue. While it should be possible for people to get in and vote quickly, please try to go at a quieter time and come prepared in case there’s a queue. Remember, if you like to vote last thing, so long as you’ve joined a queue by 10pm you have to be allowed to vote.

To reduce the risk to the public, all the parties in Crawley have agreed not to have people standing at polling stations this year. It’s not the law, so we can’t force people to follow this agreement, but it is a matter of honour and if anyone is seen breaking that agreement I’d encourage voters to think about what it says that they didn’t keep to their word.
You don’t need your polling card to vote, but you will need your mask–unless you are medically exempt, and while the council is planning on having enough pencils for each likely voter, we are recommending that people bring their own pencil or pen just in case.

Most postal voters have already returned their ballots, but if you haven’t managed to post them yet, completed postal ballot packs can still be handed in on the day at any Crawley polling station, either by yourself or someone else on your behalf. Any lost or spoilt postal votes can be replaced by up to 5pm tomorrow by getting in touch with the council. It is also possible to arrange for someone else to cast an emergency proxy vote on your behalf under certain circumstances (such as being unable to vote due to being required to the Coronavirus), so long as this is done before 5pm tomorrow by contacting the council).

Once polling stations are closed the ballot boxes will be held securely by the council overnight (parties are allowed to send representatives to observe this should they choose), before being validated at 9am to on Friday to ensure the number of votes in each box matches the records for the number of ballot papers issued. Crawley Borough Council’s count will begin at 10am, concluding in the late afternoon, after which the West Sussex County Council votes will be counted.

The Police and Crime Commissioner count has been postponed until Monday, with counting taking place in each local authority area simultaneously and the final tabulation based at Brighton and Hove City Council. Special procedures are also being used at the count to protect people’s safety, with social distancing measures and lateral flow testing of those attending the count. While this is only an obligation for those involved in the counting of the votes, parties have all agreed (again, as a matter of honour) that their representatives attending the count will do the same.

For candidates and their supporters, tomorrow is going to be a very long day, over the course of which we will be reminding people that it is Election Day and that it is important to get out and vote. We have procedures in place to do this with the minimum amount of risk, but if you have any issues with what you’ve seen a particular campaigner do then please get in touch with their party so that action can be taken.

Here’s hoping that tomorrow is a dry day and many thanks for doing your democratic duty.

Best wishes,

Peter

Cllr Peter Lamb
Leader, Crawley Borough Council 

Letter to the Secretary of State on West of Ifield

Over recent weeks a number of new questions have arisen regarding the proposed West of Ifield development, what is driving it, and what options are available for preventing or amending the proposals. There are also many outstanding issues, the answers to which are central to any attempt to effectively avoid 10,000 units being built on the side of our town and which for some reason we have been waiting months for our MP to find the time to raise. Consequently, I have written to the Secretary of State on behalf of the town to seek answers to these questions.

The current council administration’s position on this is clear and we would encourage local representatives who genuinely object to the proposals to focus on running an effective campaign, rather than paying lip service or issuing press releases with off-the-wall suggestions.

_______________________

Dear Mr Jenrick,

As you may or may not be aware, Homes England—the Government’s housing delivery agency, are looking to build up to 10,000 houses immediately adjacent to our current urban area: West of Ifield.

Having reviewed these plans, we are concerned that the proposed development will cause significant ecological harm to our area, stretch the town’s infrastructure beyond what it is sustainable, and ultimately fail to deliver housing the town’s residents can actually afford.

In addition, the proposed housing would be constructed beneath the flightpath of the world’s busiest single-runway airport, in a floodplain, and assumes a level of employment need based on when Crawley had the highest density of jobs in the country, something which you will be aware from my past-correspondence is certainly no longer true.

While this development would see Crawley, the largest population centre in the county, increase its size by around a quarter, due to the land falling within the boundaries of Horsham District Council current planning rules means we will play no decision-making role around this proposal.

This is clearly a breach of natural justice, one which under current planning rules with a private developer we would just be forced to accept. Fortunately, Homes England are a public body and ultimately report to you, which is why I am writing to you now to raise a number of questions which have arisen over recent months:

1) The Chair of Horsham District Council’s Planning Committee has stated that: ‘The Housing Minister has INSTRUCTED us to build 30,000 houses over the next 25 years’, as the Housing Minister reports to you, can you confirm whether or not this is the case and if this instruction would require the West of Ifield development to be included within the council’s Local Plan?

2) Homes England report to the Government, have their targets set by the Government, and reportedly the development of the West of Ifield site has already been taken into account in their delivery targets. Could you confirm that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are not pushing the development of the West of Ifield and would not provide no opposition should Homes England decide to not proceed with their current plans for the site?

3) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, grants Homes England the status of a planning authority where the Secretary of State has granted a designation order. Can you confirm that in the event that Horsham District Council do not grant planning permission for the development of land West of Ifield, no designation order will be granted for this site?

4) Homes England is the successor body of a long line of development agencies, stretching back to the original New Town Development Corporations. A number of these agencies had their own planning powers and comments from a past Chief Executive of Homes England have suggested that some of these powers might be used in the future to bring forward development where councils would not. In the event that they attempted to use these powers West of Ifield, could the Secretary of State confirm that he would intervene either directly with Homes England, such as through the use of his call-in power?

5) As previously outlined, in the event that Horsham District Council do grant permission for the development of West of Ifield, Crawley Borough Council and consequently Crawley residents will have no decision-making power over plans which will inevitably have a significant impact on the town’s future and which are allegedly about meeting the town’s needs. Will you intervene to ensure that a principal authority review can be carried out before any development takes place, ensuring that the local residents can decide for themselves how their town will develop by making Crawley Borough Council the decision-making authority?

6) If a principal authority is not possible within these timescales, as Homes England are a body reporting to your Ministry, will you require Homes England to pay the same heed to the requirements set out by Crawley Borough Council as if we were ourselves the local planning authority?

7) Alternatively, will you require that Homes England develop the site in a way which meets the bare minimum requirements identified to actually deliver a viable new community without substantially negatively impacting the town’s existing population, these being:

• That at least 40% of the housing is affordable (with a 70% social housing and 30% intermediate tenure mix)
• That there is the provision of a Western relief road, running all the way from the A264 to a junction at the North of the Manor Royal Business Park
• That the development follows the New Town’s ‘Neighbourhood Principal’ upon which Crawley was built, with services provided upfront and large quantities of urban green space
• That everything possible is done to minimise the environmental impact of any development, including the flood risk to adjacent areas

8) Lastly, if the development comes forward within the current boundaries, council tax and other forms of funding for providing services will be paid to Horsham District Council. Due to the development’s location the majority of the services accessed by residents will be paid for by Crawley Borough Council. This not only deprives those living West of Ifield with democratic input into the way their services are run, it will result in the borough suffering a significant increase in pressure on its services without the funding to improve capacity. At peak Crawley Borough Council had net revenue expenditure of £27m, cuts by this Government have forced our expenditure down to £13m, there is simply no way we can accommodate a 25% increase in demand within our current funding and still maintain local services at anything like their current level. In the event the development does go ahead and a principal area review is not possible, does the Secretary of State plan to make any changes to the level of financial support the council receives to adapt to the pressures brought on by an agency reporting to him?

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Peter Lamb
Leader, Crawley Borough Council

It’s time to end fire and rehire

Today is a national day of action against the use of ‘fire and rehire’, the controversial practice by which employers force employees to re-apply for their current jobs on poorer terms and conditions or face being made redundant. So far the Government has refused to act to ban this practice, and that’s what today’s day of action is all about.

With so many people now either unemployed or facing unemployment, it’s too easy to ignore the rise of fire and rehire, but the reality is that many of these companies aren’t in struggling industries right now, instead they are cynically taking advantage of the current unemployment crisis to increase their profit margins by picking the pockets of their workforce. Including, right here in Crawley.

It is wrong, it is immoral, and it needs to stop. There are a number of ways that you can support the campaign to get the Government to act:

1)     A socially distanced, covid-safe group photograph with a banner/posters – materials are available in regional offices.

2)     Distribution of leaflets within workplaces

3)     Share images and videos on social media using #EndFireAndRehire hashtag and tag @UnitePolitics

4)    Invite your local MP/Councillor candidate to visit demonstrations to show solidarity

7)   Write to your local paper

8)   Email your MP and get them to sign this Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 24th March 2021

Yesterday was the first ‘National Day of Reflection’. A chance, a year on from the first lockdown, to reflect upon what has happened and those we have lost. In the last twelve months, COVID-19 has killed roughly three times more people in the UK than those who died during the Blitz. While some never miss an opportunity to say that most of those who died either old or had pre-existing conditions, as if that makes those people expendable, what is often ignored is that pre-existing conditions includes things with which people would have still expected a full measure of life and that the ‘elderly’ would have often been expected to have lived several decades more.

It will take time to come to terms with the death toll of this pandemic and the world it now leaves us. After a year in which we have all been able to do very little, it’s easy to think nothing has changed. Certainly at the council, much of what we’d planned to deliver last year was put on hold while we tackled the pandemic. Yet, the truth is that for Crawley, everything has changed.

Before last March, Crawley’s economy had grown a quarter in just the time I’d been Leader, becoming the densest centre for employment in the country outside of London. Today, we are faced with an unemployment crisis and the prospect that when furlough eventually has to end the problem will become much much worse. Where unemployment goes, homelessness soon follows and we are already facing a tidal wave of evictions when the ban ceases.

These aren’t problems which will fix themselves the moment COVID goes. It will take time and enormous efforts to rebuilt what was lost, a task which would have been eased considerably if Government had done anything in the Budget to recognise the challenges Crawley faces. The council has been developing a recovery strategy since last April. Out of the loss of this last year there can be new growth, but it’s down to us as a community to come together to get Crawley back on its feet.

Letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg on enabling Crawley BC to meet remotely until the pandemic is over

Dear Mr Rees-Mogg,

Extension of local authority remote meeting arrangements

Last January, Crawley lost one of its councillors to COVID-19 and even with the progress of the vaccination programme we have members for whom the coronavirus continues to pose a deadly risk. I am asking for your help to ensure that no member of Crawley Borough Council is forced to choose between putting their health at risk or fulfilling their duties as a member of the council, by allowing councils to continue to hold meetings remotely until the pandemic has ended.

While there are many areas on which the different political groups on Crawley Borough Council disagree, the request to continue meeting remotely until the risk has passed benefits from cross-party support, as expressed unanimously at a recent meeting of the council’s Governance Committee: https://democracy.crawley.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=136&MId=3062

We would urge the Government not to make the mistake of conflating the desire for Parliament to return to in-person meetings with a decision around the appropriate arrangements for local government. Councillors act on a voluntary basis and are typically of a more advanced age than Members of Parliament.

It has been claimed that there is not sufficient time to bring in alternative arrangements before the May deadline. However, I was at Westminster the evening the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was forced through the Commons in a single night. Where there is a need for it, provision can always be made.

Even if fast-tracking is not considered acceptable, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has the power under section 16 of the Local Government Act 1999 to modify the Local Government Act 1972 to allow these arrangements to continue, without the need for primary legislation. Alternatively, a deregulation order could be considered under section 1 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, even though there is now limited time for consultation.

As we carefully transition out of the pandemic, let us decide how to best mix in-person and remote meetings locally. Councils are democratically elected and locally accountable bodies, and we should have the flexibility to determine how, when and where to use this flexibility to benefit local communities. We fully understand that many meetings are best held in person – in many instances there can be no substitute for the face to face contact we have all missed. However, our council meets for many reasons, taking decisions across a wide variety of issues, and in many of these cases a meeting can be held just as satisfactorily online.

In the short term, if these powers are lost after 6 May, we will be in the impossible position of not being able to hold meetings remotely, but also having to restrict the numbers of councillors that attend in-person meetings to adhere to social distancing requirements.  Whatever our ambition, it is not realistic for councils to find alternative local venues that can host a whole council meeting of 36 councillors, officers and members of the public in ways that adhere to current requirements.

The Prime Minister’s Roadmap to move our communities out of restrictions makes clear that gatherings of over 30 people outdoors will remain illegal until at least 21 June. Families and friends will continue to miss funerals and weddings, so we do not see how it is reasonable to require local authorities to hold lengthy gatherings of well over 30 people indoors to carry out council business which can easily be conducted remotely until further restrictions are lifted.  Paragraph 3.4 of the Government’s own guidance on “Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19)” makes clear the arrangements that businesses should make, the first step being to avoid in-person meetings.

If the provisions are not extended, it will be the case that many democratically elected councillors will be disenfranchised, and communities will effectively lose representation on the local issues at a key point in our local health and economic recovery.  Indeed, remote meetings have facilitated local democracy, making it more accessible to different groups in our communities, making it more accessible to different groups in our communities, and we want to keep that flexibility about how we hold our meetings in future, not just during the pandemic.

We would encourage you to work with the Secretary of State the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP to enable councils like ourselves to have choice about how we organise our meetings, so that we can use our local knowledge, and local judgment, to conduct our business effectively for the benefit of local communities.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Peter Lamb

Leader, Crawley Borough Council

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 17th March 2021

Under the Conservatives, nurses’ pay has fallen 15%. Even before the pandemic, nurses being forced to rely upon foodbanks was a national scandal, but the Government’s decision to again give them a real-terms pay cut is deeply insulting when they’ve just been through hell to beat COVID-19.

The financial cost of the pandemic is huge and it will take a long time for the country to repay it, but the claim the UK cannot afford to even maintain nurses’ pay at current levels needs context. Over the last year, the Government has given away £2bn in crony contracts, £37bn on a test and trace system that simply hasn’t worked, just this week unveiled an totally unnecessary multi-million pound White House-style press room at Downing Street, they even gave Dominic Cummings a 40% pay raise while he was out breaking lockdown restrictions. This isn’t about money, it’s about priorities, and the Government’s priorities aren’t our priorities.

Yes the Government is having to borrow, far more in fact than the last Labour Government ever did, but the cost of borrowing has never been cheaper. When the economy is struggling, investors look to invest in the safest bet there is: the country. In fact, so many investors are looking to lend the Government money that in some cases the are paying negative interest rates, meaning the Government will pay back less than lenders lend them. Why? Because things are so uncertain right now that even knowing they will lose some money is still less risky than the alternatives. The fact is the Government can afford to at the very least maintain nurses’ pay, even if they still won’t pay them what they are worth.

The UK must pay back what it borrows, but we tried austerity after 2008 and all it left us with was a stagnant economy and failing services, while countries which focused on growing their way our of recession shot past us. With a thriving economy, tax generated by businesses and employees will pay down the UK’s debt while we maintain services. There’s no point in returning to a race to the bottom.