#Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 5th August 2020

Since March, the UK has been subject to greater limitations on personal liberty than at any other peacetime period in modern times. I’m not in any way criticising the imposition of these restrictions–if anything the UK’s relaxed approach to COVID-19 compared to other countries explains why our country has performed so badly in getting the disease under control. Viruses can’t spread themselves, only people spread contagion. That’s why such restrictions are necessary, because one person exercising their liberties in a way which spreads the disease imposes upon the liberties of a great many more.

My issue isn’t the rules, it’s how they’re enforced. From the start, there has been confusion over who actually had the power to undertake enforcement on the ground, with authorities only being notified after public announcements had been made and on occasion with the relevant changes to the law happening days after the rule had been brought into effect.

At the press conference where the Government announced that face-masks would be mandatory on public transport, a journalist asked about enforcement and was told the Government were just expecting people to comply. It didn’t work. After all, if we could rely upon people to do always what was right we wouldn’t need laws in the first place, never mind the police. That’s why when discussing on the radio the plan to make face-masks compulsory in shops, I made it clear that without someone to enforce it the rule was pointless.

Instead of clarity, we have ended up with a confusing mishmash of responsibilities and powers for enforcement spread between Crawley Borough Council, West Sussex County Council, Sussex Police, and Public Health England. Where the enforcement duty begins and ends on any given issue is often unclear even to those running one of the organisations.

In principle having everyone pull together is great, in practice the different remits of each organisation results in different ways of approaching issues, creating uncertainty when clarity is needed. The need for the Government to rationalise responsibilities on the ground is clear, the question is if that will happen before disaster strikes.

#Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 29th July 2020

Back when I was new to the Labour Party, I remember wondering why people spent so much time at party meetings discussing ‘planning’ when most of us had joined to support public services, tackle poverty, and fight inequalities. What I didn’t know then was how much planning shapes all of these things, along with every other part of our daily lives.

Without effective planning we lack affordable housing, we lose local employers, and public services end up overstretched. The planning system exists so that all local needs can be assessed, suitable areas can be designated for meeting those needs, and organisations can then bring forward development meeting those needs in those areas.

These plans cover a fifteen year period and are brought forward on a rolling basis, ensuring all local needs can be met. Unfortunately, over the last ten years this system has come under assault, with developers increasingly being given the power to bring forward some types of development without needing planning permission or paying any of the usual contributions towards increasing local public services and infrastructure to meet the new demands their development is creating.

The Government’s argument has been that local authorities needlessly turn down applications, so to get housing built they have to be bypassed. Yet, councils in England have already given developers permission to build over 400,000 new homes which they have chosen not to use and the developments they are bringing forward without planning permission are those low-grade office conversions which everyone complaints about. National reviews of the impact of this change in policy have thoroughly condemned its impact on communities.

Now the Government is taking this policy even further, including giving people the ability to double the height of their home without needing planning permission. That means neither you, nor your whole street, nor any of your elected representatives will be able to do a thing if your neighbours do something which ruins the appearance of your entire street.

Planning exists for a reason, it affects the whole community, yet Government seem determined to remove people’s ability to say what happens to their area.

Shadow Chancellor joins call to save #Crawley’s jobs

Visiting an empty Gatwick terminal, Labour Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds joined Crawley’s Council Leader and Labour’s Leader in West Sussex in calling for a plan to save Crawley’s jobs

With so much of the local economy connected to aviation, it is predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to higher job losses in Crawley than any other town. Thousands of redundancies have already been announced at major local employers such as Virgin Atlantic, Easyjet, and Swissport, while some companies such as British Airways have used the crisis as an opportunity to impose drastic changes to working conditions.

For months, local politicians, businesses and trade organisations have been calling for Government action to avoid mass unemployment and to rebuild Crawley’s economy – so far without success.

From the start of August the furlough support scheme will only cover 60% of a worker’s salary. With Government flight restrictions severely limiting the ability of the sector to compete, many employers will have to choose between maintaining a payroll they can no longer afford or making big cuts to their local workforce. The Government has to act now to save Crawley’s jobs.

Anneliese Dodds MP said:

“Sectors hardest hit by Covid-19, such as aviation, need their own deal to protect jobs and working conditions. Labour has already set out a six-condition plan for aviation which would save thousands of jobs connected to the sector in Crawley, while forcing companies to clean up their act on tax avoidance and the environment.”

Cllr Peter Lamb, Crawley Council Leader responded:

“I’m very grateful to the Shadow Chancellor for meeting us today and lending her support to our call that the Government acts now to save local jobs and protect working conditions. We are just days away from the furlough scheme winding down, the Government can’t afford to delay any longer.”

Cllr Michael Jones, West Sussex Labour Leader added:

“This isn’t just an issue for the area immediately surrounding Gatwick, many industries and jobs are linked to the airport right across the region, including all of West Sussex.

“We must also fully support those campaigning to stop companies like British Airways trying to force through the rehiring of their remaining workers on worse terms and conditions.  It’s massively unacceptable for the Government to allow anyone to use the furlough scheme and then act in this way, which is why locally we are backing the aims of the BA Betrayal campaign one hundred percent.”

How can the UK be the world leader for sustainable buildings after Covid-19?

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at an online event looking into what the UK should do to make its buildings more sustainable. As a council we’ve been doing increasing amounts over the last decade to improve the sustainability of new buildings in the town and particularly the council’s own stock, but we can’t meet the challenge of the climate emergency without tackling the energy inefficiency of existing buildings which is what we’re now gearing up to do.

Both this, and a range of other interesting issues, were tackled as part of the event which can now be watched online here:

#Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 22nd July 2020

Since I became Leader of Crawley Borough Council in 2014, we have worked hard to ensure that the cuts to our grant made by Government are not passed onto frontline services. Generating new income from council assets has proven highly successful, which is why despite losing our grant the Budget we set back in February maintained net revenue expenditure of £14m, the same as when I took office.

COVID-19 has put an end to that. Over the last ten years, the Government has increasingly tied council incomes to local economic performance. While our increased expenditure tackling the virus has been just over £1.5m, the cut to the council’s income has been £3m, which the Government has refused to help cover. This is not just a one year problem either, the economic impact of COVID on Crawley is such that the annual budget will need to be cut by £2m for the foreseeable future.

So, for the first time since I became Leader, the council is going to need to made actual cuts. We will of course do everything we can to limit the pain by focusing on genuine efficiency improvements, holding posts vacant, and avoiding the frontline as far as possible. However, the simple truth is that it is not possible to cut a seventh of a council’s expenditure without that having a noticeable impact.

In some ways, we are lucky that we have managed to go six years through the toughest period of local government funding in history without having to cut, but that does not make the decisions we now have to take any easier.

Even so, this is not the biggest issue Crawley right now. The risk of mass-unemployment amongst local residents and the lack of action from Government to help us avoid it is a far greater problem. Not only is the impact of unemployment on people’s lives far greater than any loss of local services, but the gap in council funding is the result of the economic crisis currently facing local businesses. Government action now would not only help save local jobs, but local services too.

Town Hall to reopen for appointments only

Crawley Borough Council is offering a limited, appointment-only service at the Town Hall from Wednesday (22 July).

The Town Hall, on The Boulevard, has been closed since 24 March following government guidance.

It will reopen for you to pay in cash if you’re unable to pay via our other channels, drop-off or collect an item or to use a self-service terminal. Where possible, please scan documents and send them to the council electronically. Appointments to access other services aren’t currently available but this will be reviewed regularly.

Several changes have been made to the ground floor of the building and how the council operates to ensure your safety and the safety of staff. These include:

  • You must have an appointment to enter the Town Hall. Please arrive on time; if you arrive early you will have to wait outside the building
  • You will have to sanitise your hands on entering and exiting the building
  • Council officers will sanitise surfaces after every visitor
  • A one-way system will be in place to ensure social distancing
  • Only one payment kiosk will be open and there will be no cashiers’ service. Cash payments will have to be made at the kiosk. Cheque, debit and credit card payments will not be accepted; debit card and credit card payments can be made online at crawley.gov.uk/payments, over the phone by calling our automated payments line on 01293 438312 or at your bank
  • The only public entrance to the building will be the front doors on The Boulevard; there will be no access from the multi-storey car park
  • The front doors will be closed and manually opened by a Customer Service Advisor to people with booked appointments.

To book an appointment, please call 01293 438000 or email comments@crawley.gov.uk Council officers will try to help you with your enquiry or advise of other ways to access our services in the first instance.

When booking, you will be asked for your full name, address and contact information for track and trace purposes. This information will be kept for a minimum of 21 days before being destroyed. You will also be asked if you have any accessibility needs.

If you are dropping off or collecting an item, or making a payment, you will be given a 15-minute appointment. Self-service appointments will be an hour long.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “Almost everything anyone ever needs to contact the council for can now be done online or over the phone, we would ask that people only come in if they have absolutely no alternative other than to make the trip. Pandemics do not spread themselves, only people spread pandemics.”

A wide range of council services, including paying bills and reporting a problem, can be accessed online through smartphones, tablets and computers.

Visit the council’s website at http://www.crawley.gov.uk for information and use myCrawley to access real-time information on your rubbish, recycling and garden waste collections, Council Tax account and much more. Sign up at my.crawley.gov.uk

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 15th July 2020

Last week saw the Government set out their response to the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19 in their Summer Statement.

There were positive elements to what was proposed, most notably the Future Jobs Fund for young workers, but nothing which in any serious way will help Crawley through its impending unemployment crisis.

Time is running out. There’s less than three weeks to go until furloughing starts winding down and employers begin letting people go, with thousands of local job losses already announced.

Crawley has more people on furlough or the self-employment support scheme than almost anywhere else. With aviation such a major part of our economy, without real action from Government many more will join the already greatly inflated numbers now forced to claim benefits in an area which once had full employment. The Government’s blanket withdrawal of furloughing from the hospitality sector alone, at a time when Gatwick is barely operating, means over 11,000 jobs in Crawley could go within weeks.

The Government must not abandon our community. We need targeted support for those industries and communities hardest hit by the lockdown, rather than the generalised approach we’ve seen so far. When a sector like aviation collapses the job losses aren’t distributed across the country in small numbers, they are concentrated in one or two places. That is why Crawley’s economy has been identified as being the most at risk in the UK for mass-unemployment.

As we have been arguing for months, we need solutions which address the immediate risks and build for the long-term. Right now, Crawley needs a targeted deal to sustain the jobs of those in the aviation sector, this could be with conditions around their tax status or greening the industry as has happened in other countries. While for the long-term we need to build a more diversified local economy, particularly around green technology as a sector which is set to grow massively over the next few decades.

Crawley’s jobs can be saved and we can create better opportunities for the future, for that to happen we need Government support and they’re running out of time.

We need a fairer social security system #UniversalDisCredit

Today Unite is running a day of action to raise awareness of the problems with the current social security system and calling for improvements.

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, those looking at what would happen to them if they got sick or lost their job will have been shocked at just little support now exists for those who fall on hard times.

While furloughing has helped most to avoid relying on those systems for the last few months, far too many families have had no other option. Over 5,000 people are now dependant upon Universal Credit to survive in Crawley, a big change for a town of typically close to full employment. Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. With the thousands of job losses already announced set to grow sharply with the end of the furloughing scheme.

If the system is left as it is thousands of people will be left struggling to survive in one of the most expensive parts of England for the years it will take for the local economy to recover. People made unemployed through no fault of their own should not face poverty. At minimum the system shouldn’t take five weeks for people to get their first payment, the temporary £20 per week extra payment should be maintained, and benefit sanctions need to end. Be in no doubt even then people will struggle, but it will help many to avoid the destitution the current system is creating.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 8th July 2020

Last weekend marked the NHS’s 72nd anniversary. Nigel Lawson, reflecting on his time as Cabinet Minister, famously remarked ‘the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion’. If so, this year has witnessed renewed devotion, with public rounds of applause, rainbows proudly displayed in windows, and large-scale fundraising efforts.

Of course, this year we’ve had even more reason than usual to recognise the amazing people who make up our National Health Service as they lead the national fight against COVID-19. Putting themselves at risk, often in appalling conditions, with inadequate personal protective equipment.

While it’s great to see people recognising the various ways public services play an essential role in all of our lives, there are two things which do give cause for concern.

The first is that the NHS was set up to ensure the medical needs of our national community would be met free at the point of use and paid for out of taxation, the fact that members of the public are having to fundraise and help supply materials to the service rather than it getting what it needs from the Government should be a source of national shame.

The second is how quickly we move on from an issue. It is great that people are acknowledging the sacrifices being made by NHS personnel now, but when COVID is gone, will people remember? Will they remember when it comes to the issue of the NHS needing an extra £10bn? Will they remember when it comes to nurses being forced to visit food banks due to low pay? Will they remember when they are next to choose a Government to run it.

Or, is this something people feel now but will forget, while conditions in the NHS are allowed to degrade year-after-year? So, that the next time we face a pandemic, or indeed need it for any other reason, we no longer have an NHS worth the name. Our NHS heroes have stood by the country through this pandemic, as they have for the last 72 years, when the time comes will we stand with them?

One rule for Tories and another for the rest of us?

After each set of local elections, we hold a few training sessions we ask all new councillors to attend. I jokingly refer to these sessions as ‘Introduction to not getting us sued’, it’s not the snappiest title, but it’s accurate because the biggest focus of the training is on what we’re not legally allowed to do.

Of all the council’s committees, Planning has the most rules because it is supposed to act ‘quasi-judicially’, essentially following the same process for ruling on applications as courts are required to do ruling on defendants’ innocence. Just as everyone expects to have a fair trial, every application is supposed to be assessed fairly, with decisions being taken based solely upon the evidence and arguments presented at the meeting, there’s no making your mind up before.

So, why am I writing about this now? Well, Robert Jenrick–the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the man who sets these rules, overruled the decision of a council and his own planning inspector, to enable a Conservative donor to massively increase his profits at the community’s expense, something even he admitted is unlawful.

And what did he decide? When new houses are built developers have to contribute to the cost of improving local facilities, like schools and GPs, so new residents don’t preventing existing residents from accessing them. The council had already given planning permission, Jenrick’s decision was to allow the Conservative donor to avoid paying the £150m local public services need to deal with the impact of the unaffordable housing he is planning to build.

New ‘cash for favours’ stories are emerging daily, but even now the Prime Minister refuses to fire Jenrick. Aside from the corruption just think of the hypocrisy. Jenrick sets the rules making it clear every decision has to be fair and based on evidence, he appoints inspectors to ensure that happens, that process is followed, then Jenrick overrules it. What evidence was that based on exactly? Or is it yet another case of this Government saying it’s one rule for them and one for the rest of us?

This piece was prepared as the Labour column for the Wednesday 1st July 2020 edition of the Crawley Observer. Unfortunately, due to an editorial disagreement over its wording, the column was not printed but is instead published here in its entirety.