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Goodbye and Good Luck!, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 1st June 2022

It’s always an odd feeling doing something for the last time. It’s ten years since I began writing this column, putting forward Crawley Labour’s view on the week’s developments and, now, here is my last.

Delivering 350-words each week for the over 500 editions which followed has been a challenge at times, but I’ve never regretted this opportunity to communicate directly with residents in my own words. Local newspapers are an immensely important public asset. It’s to the Observer’s enormous credit they continue to provide this regular contact between their readership and Crawley’s decision-makers.

In all those years, there’s only one occasion they ever refused to print what I’d written and, even then, that decision was on legal grounds. I should take this opportunity to apologise to the various journalists who found themselves still waiting for my copy minutes before print deadline. Those 350-words were often tricky to find.

I’m also very grateful to you, dear reader. Upon hitting ‘send’, I’ve often wondered if anyone will actually read the column, but the emails and conversations I’ve had with residents over the years has provided sufficient proof that there is indeed an audience. In a busy world with almost infinite free content, it’s a huge privilege to have people prepared to offer you their attention.

For me, after two years as Opposition Leader and eight as Council Leader, it’s time to move on. I’m not 25 any longer and other commitments must now take priority. It has been an enormous honour to have had this chance to lead our town, through Austerity, Brexit, and COVID-19, to steer the council through two years of No Overall Control and to now leave the authority back in Labour control and on a stable financial footing to face the challenges ahead.

I love our town and I look forward to serving our community in new ways. Crawley is a place with so much going for it. Our one weakness is the energy spent doing ourselves down. Just imagine if we used that energy to make things better.

Wishing you the best for the future, Peter

Advice for those with money worries

With the rising cost of living hitting local families hard, Crawley Borough Council has produced a guide for residents on its website to help show people where support is available.

The dedicated page on the Crawley Borough Council website provides guidance on maximising your income, housing financial support, employment, managing money and debts, as well as loans and savings.

The page also includes guidance on support with food and managing food bills, whatever your situation, with a number of local options. In addition, there are details of Community Cafes where you can access either a free hot meal or donate whatever you can afford towards a meal.

It is well known that money worries can also have an impact on health, particularly mental wellbeing. We encourage residents to get support if they need it and the guide outlines the range of help available in Crawley.

The page is now live at: http://crawley.gov.uk/council-information/help-money-worries. Alongside this dedicated page, a range of advice for residents seeking to address home energy costs can also be found on the council website at https://crawley.gov.uk/environment/energy/home-energy

Peter Lamb, Leader of the Council, said:

“I know that many people, perhaps most, in our community are struggling with the rising cost of living right now. While the council lacks the powers necessary to bring inflation under control, we hope that by providing residents with easy access to information on what support is available, we might be able to help some local families to keep their heads above water, until real action is finally taken to address the cost of living.”

The Government’s treatment of Crawley is a national disgrace, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 25th May 2022

“You lot can’t do anything, anyway.” You get fairly used to cynicism on the doorstep. It often feels as though it’s a comfort blanket people wrap themselves in after having had their hopes dashed one too many times. The reality is that the council can actually do a lot, it controls half of local services in Crawley, it’s one of the biggest landlords in the South East, and has extensive regulatory powers. The problem isn’t that the council is powerless, it’s that the powers we do have aren’t the ones that person needs to help them with the challenge they are facing.

It’s a disappointment I share, not least when it comes to the financial crisis currently facing families across Crawley. Even before the pandemic started, one in three children in the town were growing up in poverty, a number which was increasing fast.

Despite being a working-class town based in an expensive region, one thing has historically prevented Crawley from seeing the level of deprivation many communities have faced during earlier periods of economic turmoil: low unemployment. The overabundance of jobs has meant that the vast majority of households has been able to earn enough to keep their heads above water, even if it has been a struggle at times. The pandemic ended that.

While the Government were right to introduce restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID, the failure to realise that this needed to be coupled with targeted support for the towns and industries which endured the consequences of those regulations is a national disgrace, one which has left residents in Crawley feeling the pain more intensely than anywhere else in the county. To find that the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda now has any support we were due instead heading North, to secure votes in newly-won Conservative seats, just compounds the disgrace.

Where does that leave us? With a town where thousands of households are struggling to avoid falling below the poverty line and a Government, the only organisation with the power to resolve the problems they themselves have created, unwilling to lift a finger for Crawley.

The future of local government in Crawley, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 18th May 2022

It’s almost a year since I announced Crawley’s bid for city status, recognising the scale of the town’s growth in the year of both the Queen’s Platinum Anniversary and New Town’s 75th Anniversary. While the result hasn’t yet been announced, even being in the position to mount a credible bid is a testament to how far Crawley has changed since those early days.

One question which has been continuously raised with me throughout the bid is whether city status would mean Crawley Borough Council receiving more powers. While the answer is ‘no’, the question touches at the general belief of residents that unitary status would be good for Crawley.

While most people do understand the difference between West Sussex County Council and Crawley Borough Council, the division still causes confusion at times. Worse is the general sense decisions taken in Chichester often don’t reflect those which would have been taken closer to home. This isn’t a partisan point, I have yet to find a Conservative supporter on the doorstep who would disagree with the claim that West Sussex are short-changing Crawley.

I, too, would like to see Crawley voters have total control over their own public services, but the Conservative Government has made it clear that they will only consider new unitaries with a population size of at least 300,000, way in excess of what the town is likely ever likely to reach.

Despite their caginess, it’s well known the leadership at West Sussex County Council would like to see the county become a unitary authority, ending any decision making at the local level. However, this seems unlikely to happen, not least because the only people in the whole county who seem to it’s a good idea are those currently running West Sussex.

If the current government does decide to restructure local government, the most likely outcome is the county being split into two, a northern and a southern council. Were such proposed, the question is whether Crawley’s Conservatives would fight to retain the right of Crawley residents to control their own services or if their loyalties truly rest elsewhere.

Cllr Michael Jones is new Leader of Crawley Borough Council Labour Group

Crawley Borough Council Labour Group is pleased to announce Labour councillor for Bewbush and Broadfield North Michael Jones has been elected to be their new leader for the forthcoming year.

Cllr Jones will be put forward as the Labour Group’s nomination for the new leader of the council when the outgoing Labour leader of the council Cllr Peter Lamb stands down at the forthcoming annual general meeting of the council, which is due to take place on 27 May.

  • Cllr Lamb announced following the election count results on Thursday that he would not be putting his name forward as Leader for the forthcoming year.
  • This began the process where an election for a new leader of the Labour Group took place and Cllr Jones was selected.
  • Cllr Jones was first elected to Crawley Borough Council in 2010 and has served continuously since then. He has formerly been Cabinet Member for Community Engagement and Public Protection, Cabinet Member for Housing and Chair of the Licensing Committee at the council. He has also served previously on West Sussex County Council where he was also leader of that council’s Labour Group between 2019 and 2021 and represents Crawley on the Sussex Police and Crime Panel.

Responding to the result Cllr Jones said:

“It is an enormous privilege to be able to serve the public in this way. I will become leader of the council at an exciting but crucial time, this year we are set to move into a brand new, modern town hall with a regenerated town centre and leisure facilities across the borough that would be the envy of many larger cities.

“I begin my leadership at a time society is adjusting back to some kind of normality from lockdown and Covid, people want to reconnect, to get back to the sort of lives we once had. I see a key part of the council’s role going forward in helping people to reconnect and build an even stronger community.

“It also comes at a time Crawley is still recovering from being one of the worst hit areas to its economy and industry by Covid – and at a time our residents may be facing the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, so I am far from complacent.

“We need more council homes for local families to live in, we need to maintain a beautiful environment with sustainable technology that does not harm it, we want development that is in keeping with the new town we all came to live in.

“This is a Labour council with an outstanding record and valued by its residents. The recent council election results reflect that. I aim to ensure that people always know Crawley Borough Council is a vibrant place in touch with local priorities and is out there in every part of every neighbourhood working for them.”

Cllr Jones added his own praise for the outgoing council Leader Peter Lamb:

“I want to pay tribute to Peter Lamb, although he is standing down, he is leaving this council with a golden inheritance and a record that we can all be proud of. He has continued to uphold the sheer scale of vision for the borough that dates back to the very early days of the New Town pioneers. Thank you, Peter, for all you have done.”

Supporting Cllr Jones’ comments, outgoing council Leader Cllr Peter Lamb said:

“I’d like to congratulate Michael Jones on his successful election as Labour Group Leader. I’ve worked closely with Michael for many years, he brings a wealth of experience to the leadership from his considerable time spent at Crawley Borough Council and West Sussex County Council, and I know he is fiercely committed to securing the best for our community. I wish him well in the role and he knows he has my full support as he takes on the challenges, new and old, facing Crawley.”

Thank you for voting, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 11th May 2022

A huge thanks to all who took the time to vote in this year’s local elections. I know in Crawley we have to go out to vote more frequently than in most places, with at the very least a local election for the borough or county council taking place every year, but in a town where the result often comes down to a handful of votes, it really does make a difference.

The result last week puts Crawley Borough Council back into majority control after almost two years as a hung council, with Labour gaining two seats and winning the popular vote for the first time in years. Significantly, wards which Labour has not been competitive in since the party’s peak popularity in the 1990s have also become marginal.

With one party back in control, the horse-trading which has had to take place behind closed doors over recent years is no longer required, and the town is able to have the strong leadership it needs to address the major challenges we now face. Crawley Labour were the only party running this year to have produced a local manifesto and consequently you can find out exactly what we are working to deliver for residents by going to the local party’s website.

Unfortunately, this certainty might not last long, with a by-election set to take place in Southgate on 9th June. As Labour are on 18 seats and the Conservatives on 17, the only result which will avoid a hung council is a Labour win. With the Conservatives having come close second in the ward, there’s a real risk of returning to the chaos of uncertainty.

Whatever the outcome, it will be for the new council leader elected at our Annual Council meeting to decide what happens next. After two complete terms as Leader, the first to achieve it under the council’s ‘Strong Leader’ model, I have decided not to seek a third term in the role. I am moving on to new challenges, yet you can be confident I will be continuing to contribute to Crawley in whatever way I can.

A (mostly) impartial guide to today’s election in Crawley

Today one third of Crawley Borough Council seats are up for election. The borough council run around half of local services in Crawley, with the others being the responsibility of West Sussex County Council.

Responsibilities by local authority type

In addition to running a number of important services, the borough council gets to set part of local council tax in Crawley, with the remainder set by West Sussex County Council and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner.

Where Crawley’s council tax goes (2022/23)

At the moment, no single party runs Crawley Borough Council and for the last year a joint Labour-Independent has been in administration, with the Conservatives as the sole opposition party on the council. With the council finely-balanced, both Labour and the Conservatives could gain a majority on the council today and in most years key seats are won by a couple of dozen votes.

Polling stations will be open today from 7am to 10pm, although anyone who is queueing at that time will still be allowed to vote. If you haven’t already sent back your postal vote, the completed and sealed ballot pack can be handed in at any polling station in Crawley (all the major parties have agreed to a code of conduct which prohibits campaigners from handling postal votes to prevent fraud, so unfortunately no campaigner will be able to help you with this. To find your local polling station go to: https://iwillvote.org.uk or by scanning the QR code below.

Despite the recent coverage, you don’t need any ID to vote, nor do you need your polling card. If you do turn up with your card it is likely that any party representatives at the polling station will ask for the number on it. You don’t have to share this, but the parties do this to check who has turned out to vote and if they know that everyone in your household has already voted you are less likely to get a knock on the door later that day. Throughout the day, parties will be sending campaigners around to encourage people to turnout to vote and they may well knock more than once. Sorry for any disturbance, but the evidence is that this significantly increases voter turnout, which is why people are using up their annual leave to do it.

It’s not obligatory, but please do wear a mask in the polling station if you can. Pens/pencils will be provided, but if you do take your own that will also help to reduce the further spread of COVID.

When in the polling station, give your name and address at the table and you will be issued with a ballot paper. There are alcoves provided so you can vote in secret. As there is only one election taking place in Crawley on Thursday and no by-elections, you will only receive one ballot paper and can vote for only one candidate. Please put a clear cross in the box next to the name of the candidate you wish to vote for and put nothing else on the ballot paper. Where other things are put on the ballot paper this has to be resolved at the count and if it isn’t clear which one candidate you are voting for your vote won’t be counted. If there is anything on the ballot which would enable you to be identified (name, address, signature, etc.) it will be automatically rejected, to prevent voters from being coerced to vote a particular way.

When the polls closed, the boxes are all sealed with a tamper-proof tag and then stored safely overnight before being taken to the count the next morning. Candidates, a limited number of their guests, and journalists are all allowed to attend the count to ensure the process is conducted fairly.

The first step of which is checking that the number of ballots in each box either matches the number which were issued at the polling stations (that’s the paperwork they draw a line on when they give you your ballot) or verified at the Town Hall for the postal vote box. Once all of that has been verified, we start counting the actual ballots and it’s at this point that a decision is taken on any unusual ballots, eventually culminating in a result (subject to recounts).

If you’d like to know more about the candidates up for election this year, local party websites tend to contain details, alternatively the independent website https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ provides summaries about each candidate on a single website.

As this election will produce either a Conservative or Labour controlled local authority this year, you might also wish to look at the local party manifestos. The Crawley Labour manifesto for this and past years can be found here: https://www.crawleylabour.org.uk/manifestos/

Unfortunately, no other local party appears to have produced a manifesto for this year’s election, but their respective websites and Facebook pages are likely to contain some details of the policy commitments they are seeking election to introduce.

Obviously, I strongly feel that one party stands to really look out for the needs of the community, but whoever you plan to vote for, please do take the time to vote. People continue to fight and die for the right to choose their own Government, just as past generations fought to preserve our rights.

Election Day tomorrow, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 4th May 2022

This Thursday is Election Day, when we’ll get to decide who we want representing our neighbourhoods and in doing so, which party runs local services. For almost two years, no party has had a majority on Crawley Borough Council with very narrow majorities for the eight years before that. The reality is that in Crawley, more than almost anywhere else in the country, your vote really does affect the result.

The difference between Labour and Conservative candidates in Crawley winning a seat regularly comes down to less than 100 votes. The most famous example of this was at the 2005 General Election, where the Labour majority was cut to just 37 votes, but that is by far not the only time a handful of voters could have changed the outcome.

Just last year, had 14 voters in Three Bridges voted differently Crawley would now have a Conservative majority council running Crawley and a similar number would have changed the result back in 2018.

The last time the Conservatives took control of Crawley was in 2006, the only time in the history of the borough so far. As the results came in, the Labour and Conservative Groups were down to the same number of seats with one seat yet to be declared. In that ward, there were an exactly equal number of votes for the two parties and after a drawing of lots the Conservatives gained the council.

Can you imagine? Waking up in the next morning and knowing for a fact that if you had gone to vote or if instead of voting Green or Lib Dem you had cast a single extra vote for Labour, you could have prevented Crawley’s local Conservatives from cutting spending on local services by half?

The claim that voting doesn’t make a difference has always been a nonsense and in Crawley it’s one which can be disproven very easily. It takes just a few minutes looking at past election results and comparing the Conservatives’ time running the council with Labour’s to know how important it is to make sure you use your vote tomorrow.

Soaring fuel costs hit families in Crawley for £17m – new analysis

New analysis by Labour has revealed that families in Crawley will collectively fork out an extra £17,043,000 on petrol, compared to just this time last year.

The figures come as oil and gas producers, including Shell and BP, took in billions in soaring profits, with BP hailing “more money than we know what to do with”. And this week working people in Crawley were hit with a tax hike in their pay packets this week after the Chancellor chose to raise national insurance. The Chancellor has raised taxes 15 times in total, costing families £1,060 this year.

Labour is calling on the government to bring forward an emergency budget to tackle the Tory cost of living crisis. This would prioritise five measures including with a one-off windfall tax on the soaring profits of oil and gas producers to help households through the crisis with up to £600 in support. Labour would also ramp up home insulation, scrap the unfair National Insurance hike, and provide support for struggling businesses.

Cllr Peter Lamb, Labour Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said:

“Even before the pandemic, the policies of this Government meant that over a third of local children were growing up in poverty. Now, as Crawley works to recover from suffering the harshest economic hit of any town in the country, residents are facing the biggest reduction in living standards in over half a century.”

“The Chancellor claimed this week that calls for Government action to support people through this crisis were ‘silly’. Everyone else calls it common sense.”