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Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 5th December 2018

As adults we seem to form two camps when it comes to Christmas: those who think it’s the most wonderful time of the year and those who can’t wait for it to be over. For children, regardless of their opinions on Santa, Christmas remains truly magical.

Yet, for children living in poverty it’s hard to know what sort of Christmas they can expect and the struggles their parents will be forced to go through to provide the things we all see as a normal part of the holiday. I’m not talking about kids in Somalia or depressed Northern economies, I’m talking about the almost 7,000 children in Crawley alive today who, based on the Government’s own data, are living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of the town’s children.

While parents will always do their best to ensure their kids don’t stand out, if you look closely you can see the signs of people struggling all around us. It’s there in the enormous demand for food banks, it’s there in the hidden homelessness of people relying upon the sofas of friends and families to keep a roof over their head or trapped in bed and breakfasts, and it’s there in the increasing numbers forced to beg and borrow to make ends meet.

It hasn’t always been this way. The last Labour Government set out to end child poverty in a generation and when it left office child poverty had been halved, largely through tax credits and reform of the benefits system. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report, released yesterday, makes harsh reading but it’s conclusions are clear: under this Government, child poverty is on the rise, almost all the increase in working families, with the Government’s changes to social security pulling the rug out from under parents’ feet. Who on Earth are we as a country if we think treating children this way is acceptable?

So while it’s nice to see our MP running a Christmas Card contest in schools, my question to him is this: when you voted to make this happen, were you thinking of those children then?

Crawley News 24 Column, Tuesday 4th December 2018

Last month, I joined with hundreds of other elected representatives in calling for the Government to drop its plans designating exploratory drilling for fracking as ‘permitted development’.

Permitted development is where any planning application of a particular type gets automatically approved. If you want to know why so many of Crawley’s office buildings have been turned into poor quality housing, without parking or even bin stores to keep the rubbish off of our high streets, it was because the Government’s made these types of office conversions permitted development.

For the council, they have been nothing but trouble, you see planning exists for a reason, it’s there to protect the whole community from developments that harm the wider community and to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to avoid future problems. Without planning we are powerless to protect the neighbourhoods from developments that enrich a few at the cost of the many and spend years playing catch-up with the problems. This opposition to ‘planning’ as a concept by the Government certainly explains a lot of the mess we now find ourselves in on the national level.

No major development should skip the planning process, but when it comes to fracking the situation becomes much more serious, depriving communities of any say on one of the most controversial environmental issues of the day. Given that the biggest UK protests against fracking took place just down the road at Balcombe, next to Crawley’s nearest reservoir, it’s an issue which really hits close to home.

Fracking involves using various chemicals to break open rocks below the groundwater level to release the fossil fuels trapped inside. While it is believed that a well-regulated system can avoid polluting water supplies, where poor regulation is in place communities have found serious health issues emerging after fracking has begun. In the rush to attract fracking the Government has left us with one of the least well-regulated systems in Europe.

Were fracking completely safe, it would still be worth asking if we can afford to delay a switch to renewable energy sources. Instead the Government is trying to ensure that the wishes of communities are by-passed, regardless of the potential risks to people’s homes and health.

A full copy of the letter can be read below:

Dear James Brokenshire MP (CC Greg Clark MP, Kit Malthouse MP, Claire Perry MP),

The UK government has proposed changes to planning rules that would allow exploratory drilling for shale gas to be considered “permitted development”, removing the need for fracking companies to apply for planning permission.

The current planning framework for shale gas provides an important regulatory process for the industry, offering necessary checks and balances by local authorities who best understand the circumstances in their areas. Crucially, it also allows communities directly affected a say in how, and whether, shale gas exploration proceeds in their neighbourhoods.

We believe that applying permitted development to exploratory shale gas drilling represents a distortion of its intention and is a misuse of the planning system. Permitted Development was originally intended to be used to speed up planning decisions on small developments – like garden sheds or erecting a fence – not drilling for shale gas.

As elected representatives of our communities, we the undersigned call for the withdrawal of this proposal, and respect for the right of communities to make decisions on shale gas activities in their areas through the local planning system.

Yours Sincerely,

805 Councillors, 11 MPs and 34 Other (Parish Councillors and Assembly Members)

Press Release: 76 Labour council leaders write to James Brokenshire calling for increased funding at next week’s local government finance settlement

Ahead of the Government’s expected announcement next Thursday [6th December] setting out the funding given to local councils next year, 76 Labour council leaders have written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire MP, demanding an end to the cuts that have devastated local councils.

·         The letter highlights the devastating level of cuts in funding councils have faced, pointing out that “since 2010 councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the last Labour Government had provided for local services.”

·         The letter also highlights that the “most deprived areas of the country have been hit much harder than the richest areas – nine of the ten most deprived councils in the country have seen cuts of almost three times the national average.”

·         According to the cross-party Local Government Association has stated that councils are facing a funding gap of £3.9 billion just to maintain services in 2019/20, including:

•         £1.5 billion gap in adult social care funding

•         £1.1 billion gap in children’s services

•         £460 million in public health

•         £113 million in tackling homelessness

·         The council leaders including some of those representing some of the UK’s biggest cities such as Manchester and Birmingham have called for next week’s settlement to “At an absolute minimum, you must use the funding settlement to cancel the planned further cut of £1.3 billion to next year’s Revenue Support Grant.”

Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“After eight years of continued austerity under the Tories, many councils have reached breaking point, putting vital services at risk and causing huge damage to communities up and down the country.

“The Government must listen to the warnings of our Local Government leaders and provide the funding we need to avoid a catastrophic collapse in key council services.

“The next Labour government will genuinely end austerity, sustainably fund our councils and put an end to this crisis.”

Ends

Notes to editors

 

·         The local government finance settlement is the annual determination of funding to local government. The provisional settlement for 2019/20 is expected to be announced next Thursday, 6th December.

·         Since 2010 councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the last Labour Government had provided for local services.

“Between 2010 and 2020, councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government had provided for services.”

1 October 2018, Local Government Association, https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/local-services-face-further-ps13-billion-government-funding-cut-201920

·         Local services face a further £1.3 billion government funding cut in 2019/20.

Main government grant funding for local services will be cut by a further £1.3 billion (36 per cent) in 2019/20 despite many councils already struggling to balance their books, facing overspends and having to make in-year budget cuts

1 October 2018, Local Government Association, https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/local-services-face-further-ps13-billion-government-funding-cut-201920

·         Full text of letter:

 

Dear Secretary of State,

1 December 2018

On Thursday 6th December, you will announce the Provisional Local Government Finance Settlement for 2019/20. As leaders of councils representing millions of citizens, we are writing to make clear that you must use the settlement to truly end austerity in local government and immediately provide the funding we need to avoid catastrophic collapse in key council services.

Under the Conservatives there have been unprecedented levels of cuts to local government. Since 2010 councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the last Labour Government had provided for local services. The most deprived areas of the country have been hit much harder than the richest areas – nine of the ten most deprived councils in the country have seen cuts of almost three times the national average.

After eight years of austerity, many councils have reached breaking point and council budgets are perilously close to collapse. Austerity has already caused huge damage to communities up and down the UK, with devastating effects on key public services that protect the most defenceless in society: children at risk, disabled adults, and vulnerable older people. Attempts to protect these demand-led services from the worst of the funding cuts are leading to even deeper reductions to services that everyone relies on like street cleaning, libraries, and children’s centres, and to many of the preventative services that previously reduced the pressure on the NHS and police.

We are writing to you because as leaders of many of our country’s towns and cities it is our responsibility to speak up for the communities we represent. As Communities Secretary it is your responsibility to deliver the funding that councils need to avoid collapse.

The cross-party Local Government Association has stated that councils are facing a funding gap of £3.9 billion just to maintain services in 2019/20, including:

•               £1.5 billion gap in adult social care funding

•               £1.1 billion gap in children’s services

•               £460 million in public health

•               £113 million in tackling homelessness

This funding gap will rise to £7.8 billion by 2025 if no action is taken. You must use the funding settlement to indicate how you intend to close this £3.9 billion funding gap in 2019/20, and make a public commitment to a full assessment of the overall funding needs of local government in the 2019 Spending Review.

This settlement should also be used as an opportunity by the Government to clear up the continued uncertainty that local authorities are facing. The uncertainty of what councils will face following the 2019 Spending Review is making it even harder for councils to plan financially, and with Brexit looming ever closer, councils are still unsure of what the impact will be on their local economies, their workforce, and key services once we leave the European Union.

At an absolute minimum, you must use the funding settlement to cancel the planned further cut of £1.3 billion to next year’s Revenue Support Grant. To blindly press on with further cuts at a time when local government is on the brink of collapse would be hugely irresponsible.

If you will not act then you should stand aside and let a Labour government build a society for the many, not the few.

Given the public interest in this matter we will be publishing this letter.

Yours sincerely,

1.      Cllr Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle Council and Leader of the LGA Labour Group

2.      Cllr Derek Long, Leader of St Helens

3.      Cllr Miles Parkinson, Leader of Hyndburn Borough Council

4.      Cllr Danny Thorpe, Leader of Greenwich Council

5.      Cllr Darren Rodwell, Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council

6.      Cllr Tom Beattie, Leader of Corby Borough Council

7.      Cllr Peter Chowney, Leader of Hastings Council

8.      Cllr Rishi Shori, Leader of Bury Council

9.      Cllr Mark Ingall, Leader of Harlow District Council

10.  Cllr Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford Council

11.  Cllr Linda Thomas, Leader of Bolton Borough

12.  Cllr Ian Moran, Leader of  West Lancashire Borough Council

13.  Cllr Muhammed Butt, Leader of Brent Borough

14.  Cllr Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council

15. Cllr Julian Bell, Leader of Ealing Council

16.  Cllr Richard Watts, Leader of Islington Council

17.   Cllr Hazel Simmons, Leader of Luton Council

18.  Cllr Chris Read, Leader of Rotherham Council

19.  Cllr Christopher Hammond, Leader of Southampton Council

20.  Cllr Ray Oxby, Leader of North East Lincolnshire Council

21.  Cllr George Adamson, Leader of Cannock Chase Council

22.  Cllr Graham Morgan, Leader of Knowsley Council

23.  Cllr Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth Council

24.  Cllr Matthew Brown, Leader of Preston Council

25.  Cllr Mark Townsend, Leader of Burnley Council

26.  Cllr Martin Gannon, Leader of Gateshead Council

27.  Cllr Sue Jeffrey, Leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council

28.  Cllr Tim Swift, Leader of Calderdale Council

29.  Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council

30.  Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol

31.  Cllr Stephen Harker, Leader of Darlington Borough Council

32.  Cllr Phil Davies, Leader of Wirral Council

33.  Cllr Steve Eling, Leader of Sandwell Council

34.  Cllr Ian Ward, Leader of Birmingham Council

35.  Cllr Terry O’Neill, Leader of Warrington Council

36.  Paul Dennett, Mayor of Salford

37.  Cllr Rob Polhill, Leader of Halton Borough Council

38.  Cllr Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council

39.  Cllr Stephen Cowan, Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council

40.  Cllr Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge Council

41.  Cllr Qadar Zada, Leader of Dudley Council

42.  Cllr Alyson Barnes, Leader of Rossendale Council

43.  Cllr John Clarke, Leader of Gedling Council

44.  Cllr Peter Edwards, Leader of Exeter Council

45.  Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham Council

46.  Cllr Simon Greaves, Leader of Bassetlaw District Council

47.  Cllr Shaun Davies, Leader of Telford and Wrekin Council

48.  Ros Jones, Mayor of Doncaster

49.  Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE, Leader of Stevenage Council

50.  Cllr James Swindlehurt, Leader of Slough Council

51.  Cllr Ann Syrett Leader of Bolsover Council

52.  Cllr Samantha Dixon, Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council

53.  Cllr Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council

54.  Joe Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool

55.  Cllr David Ellesmere, Leader of Ipswich Borough Council

56.  Cllr Julie Dore, Leader of Sheffield Council

57.  Cllr Tudor Evans, Leader of Plymouth Council

58.  Cllr Andrew Western, Leader of Trafford Council

59.  Cllr Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds Council

60.  Cllr Ian Maher, Leader of Sefton Borough Council

61.  Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham

62.  Cllr Jo Lovelock, Leading of Reading Council

63.  Cllr Alexander Ganotis, Leader of Stockport Council

64.  Cllr Stephen Alambritis, Leader of Merton Council

65.  Cllr Clare Goghill, Leader of Waltham Forest Council

66.  Cllr Alistair Bradley, Leader of Chorley Council

67.  Cllr Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council

68.  Cllr Christopher Akers-Belcher, Leader of Hartlepool Council

69.  Cllr Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council

70.  Cllr Peter Box, Leader of Wakefield Council

71.  Cllr Eileen Blamire, Leader of Lancaster City Council

72.  Norma Redfearn, Mayor of North Tyneside

73.  Cllr Jas Athwal, Leader of Redbridge Council

74.  Dave Budd, Mayor of Middlesbrough

75.  Cllr Daniel Yates, Leader of Brighton and Hove Council

76.  Cllr Sir Steve Hougton CBE, Leader of Barnsley Council

Help us to #SaveOurPostOffice in Crawley

Post Office Limited, a company which unlike the Royal Mail is still fully owned by the UK Government, is planning to close the Crown Post Office in Crawley.

While some of the services will in future be provided by WH Smiths in County Mall, it is hard to imagine that the full range of services currently available at the Post Office will be provided on-site. It has already been confirmed that the biometric equipment required for renewing official documents will be lost, potentially requiring significant trips out of area for many residents.

I have already responded to the consultation outlining my concerns in detail, and I would encourage you to do the same: https://www.crawleynews24.co.uk/bad-bad-bad-crawley-council-leader-tells-post-office-why-proposed-closure-is-not-good/

The Conservative Government has made it clear that they don’t intend to stop the closure, despite their control over the Post Office, so it’s now up to us to #SaveOurPostOffice

Crawley Labour representatives including myself will be joining the CWU Day of Action outside Crawley Post Office from 10am tomorrow, fighting to save our local services and I’d encourage other concerned residents to join with us and make Crawley’s voice heard.

If you cannot attend the protest, but would like to help in some other way, the CWU has set up a website with a range of actions you can take at: http://www.saveourpostoffice.co.uk/

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 28th November 2018

Homelessness during winter can be deadly. For rough sleepers, those with nowhere else to go, life is already hard enough. The levels of mental illness and substance abuse amongst those living on the street are evidence enough. While in many cases these conditions contributed to their homelessness, even if mental health and substance abuse services hadn’t suffered from endless cuts, the harsh life on the streets is enough to tip people over the edge.

Crawley is building hundreds of genuinely affordable new homes for local people, but for those with complex needs providing a roof isn’t enough, they need more support to be able to re-claim their lives. Where public services have failed, the voluntary sector has stepped up and across West Sussex fantastic charities provide not only food and shelter but the help the most impoverished members of our community need to get back on their feet. That’s why we cannot allow this to become Crawley Open House’s last Christmas.

While these charities stretch the money they’re donated as far as they can, they depend upon public sector grants to provide the level of support necessary to help those with complex needs. Were the county council to go ahead with their proposal to end grant funding for shelters, they wouldn’t be able to keep going, that’s why I kicked off the petition to keep them open, gaining the support of approaching 15,000 people. The largest petition ever received by the county council and one they chose to ignore.

As a council, Crawley been clear we will do what we can to keep services going, but we don’t have the budget to save them all. The county council has both the money and the legal duty to maintain these grants and as citizens we have one last shot at saving them. West Sussex are currently running a consultation on the future of these services and we need people to respond, making it clear that as local taxpayers we object to any proposal which would see the loss of housing related support in our town, make your voice heard by emailing: housing.related.support@westsussex.gov.uk

Press Release: LEAP into action this winter

As the temperature drops, Crawley Borough Council and LEAP are on hand to help residents save money and keep warm this winter.

The newly established partnership offers a free energy and money advice service for the next three years to people most in need of support.

Through the programme, eligible households will be able to benefit from a complimentary home visit from one of their friendly, qualified home energy advisors.

The free of charge package, delivered by LEAP, can:

  • Help check if you are on the cheapest energy tariff – this could save you more than £280 per year
  • Install free simple energy saving measures which can save the average household £30 on their energy bills each year
  • Give day-to-day energy saving hints and tips to ensure your heating system is set up to keep you warm and save you money
  • Arrange for telephone advice to help with benefits, debt and other money problems
  • Can help you access other improvements such as loft insulation or a new boiler.

Those eligible for the scheme include people who are on a low income or are vulnerable to the cold because of health conditions.

LEAP can be especially helpful to those who:

  • Have high energy bills
  • Live in a draughty, damp or mouldy home
  • Have no or an inadequate heating system.

Leader of Crawley Borough Council, Councillor Peter Lamb, said “Almost 3,000 Crawley households will struggle to heat their homes this winter. To help combat this, we are very pleased to launch our partnership with LEAP.

“This service will be invaluable to those affected by fuel poverty; who will make good use of the money they could save by switching to a cheaper energy tariff.”

To find out more about LEAP and to arrange a free home visit from one of their friendly advisors, call 0800 060 7657 or apply online at www.applyforleap.org.uk

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 21st November 2018

When in the Summer I raised concerns over how far police numbers had been cut and the idea that the rise in violence and drug dealing which members of the public were experiencing might have something to do with there not being enough officers to tackle crime, I faced an onslaught of criticism. The Police said that they had more than enough officers to tackle the problem, the Leader of Crawley’s Conservatives claimed I should be focusing on other issues and bizarrely our MP tried to suggest it was the council’s fault. What no one seemed to be doing was listening, the result: the violence has continued to get worse.

This isn’t the only time over recent months attempts to resolve a real problem have been met with a political response. When West Sussex first threatened the closure of the Open House homeless hostel in the county, I immediately started campaigning for it to be saved, I launched a petition which managed to secure over 10,000 signatures, raised awareness in the media and slept rough outside County Hall the night the petition was to be debated. Despite trying to get cross-party support for the campaign, the next thing I know local Conservatives are putting out leaflets saying that Labour was letting down local homeless people.

This isn’t about politics, this is about real people’s real lives. It’s no secret that I thought leaving the EU would create more problems than it solved, but with local voters having been promised by our MP that if they voted Leave they would receive a number of benefits my view has consistently been that he needs to deliver what he promised in that campaign or admit that he lied. Instead, he again seems to view this as a political problem, finding that what he has promised people cannot be delivered, rather than accept what he has done he is now undermining his Government at the most critical moment in delivering a deal. Now, I’m not a fan of the deal, but promises have been made, and rather than shirking his responsibility it’s time he delivered.

Today is #OurDay the day for remembering everything local government does for local communities

Today is #OurDay the annual effort by the Local Government Association to draw attention to everything councils do on behalf of local communities.

Under the Conservatives, local government has been hit far harder than any other part of the public sector (because it’s always easier to make other people take the tough decisions) and yet councils are responsible for many of the services citizens depend upon every day, from roads and rubbish collection, to homes and parks, to schools and social care. Despite the cuts passed down by central government, councillors and officers have gone on fighting for their local areas.

In Crawley, I’m proud that after four and a half years as Leader, Crawley is still able to spend the same amount on services as when I took office. It wasn’t easy, we’ve worked hard to find the money, but Crawley is worth it, and along the way we’ve built 1,000 new affordable homes and made big steps forward preparing the town’s economy for the future.

Crawley Live Column, Winter 2018

Christmas is almost here and the council has been working hard for months to deliver a programme of events fit for the season. Including, following years of residents’ requests, securing another Christmas ice rink for Crawley, this year even bigger and better than last.

As the cold sets in, I’m reminded that much of my focus over recent weeks has been taken up with the fight to save Crawley Open House from closure, following West Sussex County Council’s plan to cut their grant to zero.

Every council is facing tough financial choices following years of austerity, but making up budget gaps by taking money from the homeless cannot be the right thing to do and the way the local community has rallied round to support our campaign demanding West Sussex County Council reverse their proposals has really shown the difference in how people look out for each other in Crawley.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 14th November 2018

People don’t care who’s responsible for a service, they just want things fixed. I get that and as an elected representative it’s infuriating to have to tell residents that we either lack the legal authorisation to resolve an issue they’ve raised or that the Government has given the money to pay for it to an organisation which is unwilling to spend it to solve the problem.

The one which occurs most often is the division between Crawley Borough Council and West Sussex County Council, which is can be so confusing even councillors aren’t sure who is responsible for what. I often joke with people an easy rule of thumb in Crawley is if there’s a problem, it’s probably the county council’s fault. Sadly, when I talk to residents that’s almost always true.

The confusion over who’s responsible probably isn’t helped by Crawley stepping-in to improve services where West Sussex are responsible but under-performing, with Crawley tax payers essentially forced to pay twice for the same service and Crawley getting the blame for ongoing county council cuts.

Nonetheless, we’ll always do what we can to resolve issues with the money and powers Government allows us to have, regardless of who’s technically responsible. Two proposals coming to the next Cabinet meeting highlight this.

The first is a measure to try and tackle the blight of abandoned shopping trolleys. For years we’ve encouraged supermarkets to take responsibility and some have tried, yet the problem persists. So, we’ve dug through old legislation and found an alternative, enabling council workers to collect the abandoned trollies and return them to the supermarkets with a fine.

The second is an Order which will ban the car cruising which has turned Crawley’s streets increasingly dangerous and noisy at night. This is an issue the Police have been struggling to tackle using existing laws, but following Crawley’s decision here-on-out anyone participating in any such gathering will be eligible for an on-the-spot fine. The behaviour of such groups is a risk to the public, is causes disruption for residents in neighbouring areas and it’s time it came to an end.