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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.

Crawley Question Time panel revealed

The panel for the first ever virtual Crawley Question Time has been announced.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be broadcast live on Microsoft Teams on Tuesday (16 March) from 7-9pm. It will also be recorded and available to view on YouTube the following day.

This year’s panel will be:

  • Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Duncan Crow, Leader of the Opposition at Crawley Borough Council and Cabinet member for Fire & Rescue and Communities at West Sussex County Council
  • Councillor Peter Smith, Cabinet member for Planning and Economic Development at Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Bob Lanzer, Cabinet member for Economy and Corporate Services at West Sussex County Council
  • Dr Laura Hill, Clinical Chair, NHS West Sussex CCG
  • Pennie Ford, Executive Managing Director, NHS West Sussex CCG
  • Inspector Steve Turner, Crawley Police
  • Leon Mukazi, Crawley Youth Mayor

Crawley Question Time takes the form of an independently-chaired general debate and discussion. There are no set topics so attendees can raise any areas or concerns for discussion, such as Covid-19, the economy, planning, community safety, Gatwick Airport, parking and so much more!

The event is open to everyone; the public, business leaders and partner organisations. The views and comments expressed will help the council and others to plan work on improving services and the town in general.

Questions can be sent in advance to haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk or on the night in the ‘chat’ function of Microsoft Teams.

To watch this year’s Crawley Question Time, visit bit.ly/crawleyqt from 6.45pm on Tuesday 16 March.

If you have any questions about the event, email haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 10th March 2021

The Budget is out and Crawley is getting £21.1m. Good news, or at least it was when it was first announced in July 2019–you might recall the Facebook campaign they ran at the time using public money just before the General Election, only back then the figure plastered everywhere was £25m. The only news in the Budget was that the figure would now be £3.9m lower than previously advertised.

This ‘Town Deal’ money was promised to Crawley to fund improvements which were already needed when we were the densest centre of employment in the UK outside London. Since then, the Government’s coronavirus restrictions have made Crawley the UK’s furlough capital, with 23,000 either unemployed or waiting to see if they have jobs to return to. We desperately need job protection and creation schemes and that’s how Crawley Borough Council plans to spend the money, only we’ll now have less of it and the Government won’t release it until April 2022, by which time it will be too late for thousands of local families.

For almost a year now, we have written to Government raising the unemployment crisis Crawley is facing and how much worse it will become the moment furlough ends, throughout all of which the only response they had was to say we were getting the Town Deal funding and the Budget stuck to this script. Requests for support in the form of major infrastructure, such as the freeport, were instead sent up North to help shore up new Conservative areas and Crawley has been put in the lowest priority of support for Levelling Up funding of all UK authorities. Simply put, now that we’re a safe seat, why bother investing in Crawley?

Well, I’ll tell you why. In March 2020, Crawley had one of the most successful economies in the country, with industrial sectors which were only set to grow in the future, by March 2021 our economy had been hit harder than almost anywhere else. The only reason we are struggling now are decisions taken by this Government and that means they have a moral duty to help put things right.

Crawley Live Column, Spring 2021

A year on from COVID-19 reaching the UK, it is hard to overstate the effect it has had on Crawley. Our town’s economy–which had grown by a quarter during the time I’d been Leader–has been hit harder than any other in the country, creating the worst employment crisis in the town’s history and leaving a visible impact upon the town centre.

For the council, the priorities are clear. We need to focus on getting residents back into employment as fast as possible, helping to keep a roof over their heads until that can be achieved, and working to ensure businesses which are lost from the town’s key economic areas are replaced. This won’t be easy and we will need support from central government if we are going to turn things around quickly, but I am determined to ensure that Crawley’s best days remain ahead of it.

I must take this chance to pay tribute to the amazing work of council workers throughout the pandemic. Many have been working flat-out for twelve months now, often undertaking tasks which are nothing to do with their day jobs, sometimes in frontline roles, all of it to help our community through these tough times. The last year has shown just how critical public services are for our survival, they deserve better than the pay freeze announced by the Chancellor or the cuts the council is now forced to make to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 hollowing out the local authority’s finances.

Send us your questions now for the first ever virtual Crawley Question Time

Crawley Question Time is back for another year – and this time you can ‘attend’ from the comfort of your own home.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be virtual. It will be broadcast live on Microsoft Teams on Tuesday 16 March from 7-9pm. It will also be recorded and available to view on YouTube the following day.

Crawley Question Time takes the form of an independently-chaired general debate and discussion. There are no set topics so attendees can raise any areas or concerns for discussion, such as Covid-19, the economy, planning, community safety, Gatwick Airport, parking and so much more!

The event is open to everyone; the public, business leaders and partner organisations. The views and comments expressed will help the council and others to plan work on improving services and the town in general.

Questions can be sent in advance to haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk or on the night in the ‘chat’ function of Microsoft Teams.

This year’s panellists will be:

  • Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Duncan Crow, Leader of the Opposition at Crawley Borough Council and Cabinet member for Fire & Rescue and Communities at West Sussex County Council
  • Councillor Peter Smith, Cabinet member for Planning and Economic Development at Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Bob Lanzer, Cabinet member for Economy and Corporate Services at West Sussex County Council
  • Dr Laura Hill, Clinical Chair, NHS West Sussex CCG
  • Inspector Steve Turner, Crawley Police
  • Leon Mukazi, Crawley Youth Mayor.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of the council, said: “While COVID has taken much from Crawley, it has also made meetings more accessible by moving them online. With most of the town’s decision-makers making themselves available for this call, it’s the easiest chance you will get this year to have your questions answered.”

To watch this year’s Crawley Question Time, visit bit.ly/crawleyqt from 6.45pm on Tuesday 16 March.

If you have any questions about the event, email haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk

Council welcomes new head of service

Crawley Borough Council has appointed a new senior manager.

Siraj Choudhury will take on the role of Head of Legal, Governance and HR from 29 March following a rigorous selection process, which included a virtual presentation and panel interviews with officers and councillors.

As the council’s principal legal advisor and Monitoring Officer, Siraj will have the specific duty of ensuring that the council, its officers and its elected members maintain the highest standard of conduct in all that they do. He will also oversee HR, Democratic Services, Elections, Audit and Corporate Support.

Siraj brings strong legal, governance and project management expertise from his various roles in local government and the third sector. After starting out as a housing solicitor, he obtained a masters in spatial planning before joining Spelthorne Borough Council’s legal team in 2008. Regularly representing the local authority in court, Siraj conducted litigation and handled a range of regulatory prosecutions, planning inquiries and inquest matters. He also acted as legal advisor for the planning committee and licensing sub-committees.

In 2015, Siraj served as a Principal Solicitor before being appointed to the role of Deputy Group Head (Commissioning & Transformation) the following year. Working across this multi-disciplinary group, he gained a wider corporate exposure and led on Spelthorne’s rapid workplace transformation project. Siraj has also served as the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and has held other non-executive positions.

Siraj said: “I am delighted to be joining Crawley Borough Council. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in significant challenges for the council and for local residents and businesses. I intend to promote a culture of good governance, transparency and accountability as the council drives forward the recovery, restores economic prosperity and combats climate change.”

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “The Monitoring Officer is one of the three most important positions at the council, with responsibility for ensuring the council acts legally and with extensive powers to ensure that happens. The whole interview panel were impressed by Siraj’s detailed understanding of not only the role itself, but the town, the council, and the challenges we currently face. I am confident that he will prove a strong addition to the council’s management team.”