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Sign up now for Crawley Question Time 2020

Crawley Question Time is back for another year, giving residents an opportunity to ask questions about topics important to them.

The annual event takes place from 7-9pm on Thursday 12 March at Crawley College in the town centre.

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 community safety, planning, health, Gatwick Airport, parking, the economy and so much more!

This year’s panel will include representatives from Crawley Borough Council, West Sussex County Council, Sussex Police, Crawley Clinical Commissioning Group, Crawley College and the Crawley Youth Council. Confirmed panellists will be announced shoitly.

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.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “Crawley Question Time is the one time a year residents have the chance to ask questions of all the local decision-makers at the same time, giving people a real opportunity to get to the bottom of the issues which bother them the most.”

“Come along and make sure your voice is heard.”

To register for your free ticket to attend the debate visit http://www.eventbrite.co.uk and search for ‘Crawley Question Time 2020’.

Free parking is available at the college after 6pm.

If you have any questions about the event, email haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk or call 01293 438000.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 12th February 2020

The UK has spent the last decade in a housing crisis. Since I became Leader of Crawley Borough Council in 2014, tackling this has been my top priority and we’ve made good progress: delivering hundreds of new affordable homes each year, while introducing the strongest local-connection requirements possible within current law.

Despite all the hard work, we remain thousands of affordable homes away from what Crawley residents need and all the while the Government has been introducing policies which have made it harder to get the job done.

From huge cuts to council revenue to changing ‘viability’ requirements to make it easier for developers to shirk their responsibilities to the community, the Government has made it clear how little they care about the crisis.

Nowhere is this more blatant than the changes to ‘permitted development rights’, the expansion of which has enabled building owners to produce poor quality housing while dodging any duty to deliver affordable housing or contribute to the infrastructure costs their development has created.

Crawley has suffered a blight of such properties under the current Government. If you’ve ever wandered through town and asked yourself ‘what idiot gave permission for that thing to be built,’ chances are no one did. That’s the thing about ‘permitted development’ rules, they allow people to make major changes to the town without going through the planning process, denying residents any say in the decision and allowing buildings to be built without meeting even basic requirements. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has found that only 30% of units built this way even meet national space standards.

The last three years alone, this ‘get out clause’ has enabled developers a chance to dodge planning rules which would have seen over 13,500 affordable homes built, denying so many families a place of their own.

For six years, Crawley Labour have been pushing for the Government to change these rules, which is why I am very happy to see Labour nationally announce plans to bring an end to the con and ensure that homes in Crawley are built to decent standards and affordable for local people again.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 5th February 2020

We are failing our children. Truth be told, that statement could be made of anything from climate change to trade policy, but in this case I’m referring to something more direct.

Since 2010, the Government has regularly announced millions more for Education, but these announcements are typically less than inflation, require cuts to be made elsewhere or include money already announced,  and–crucially–the headline figures hides what sits underneath. That’s why, despite all the rhetoric during the General Election, the increases in Education funding only get schools funding back to what it was under Labour, while Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision remains in crisis.

The funding for SEN is now so short West Sussex County Council regularly refuses to even assess children, fearing they will struggle to afford the support the children will be assessed as needing. While that may be a solution for the council’s financial problems, it does nothing to address the realities for those families affected in Crawley.

Of course there’s a huge human cost to this, to both children and their loved ones. Unfortunately, such concerns don’t seem to count for much anymore, so let’s instead consider the cost of this to the UK. Countries spend huge amounts on educating young people, they do this because education enables individuals to provide for themselves, it provides the basis for future economic and technological growth in an international market place, and it ensures we have the skills we need to provide public services.

Without SEN provision all three of these things are weakened. We are creating a system in which large numbers of citizens will lack the skills they need to provide for themselves or perform a useful economic role. The end result will be that they need greater external support, at the very least in terms of benefits to cover their basic living costs and potentially social care support, while at the same time being unable to make a contribution to either UK economic growth or its tax base.

Such cuts are clearly a false economy, the question is will the Government will do anything about it?

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 29th January 2020

With the Government’s constant cuts to local authority funding, council budgets have never been more stretched. Which is why one of the most agonising parts of my role is writing-off ‘irrecoverable debts’.

A vast number of transactions are undertaken with the council over the course of a year and in a small number of cases an individual or an organisation fails to pay what they owe. Crawley has one of the best track records in the country for recovering debts, yet debts cannot always be recovered.

Sometimes there are genuinely tragic reasons for this and in such circumstances people would expect the council to act compassionately. However, in most cases those responsible have either absconded or used legal processes to make recovery of the debt impossible. Auditors require councils to write-off such debts to avoid spending decisions being taken on the basis of money which will never be recovered.

Most of this debt comes in the form of business rates, which the council collects but has to hand almost all of which over to central government. In total, the amount lost is relatively little, but nationally such tax avoidance is estimated to cost the public sector £250m per year, with the Local Government Association now seeking greater powers to tackle the problem.

The UK has one the lowest rates of corporation tax and places amongst the fewest social obligations upon businesses of any economically developed country, so on the one hand we should do everything we can to ensure that businesses pay what they owe. On the other hand, the businesses which fail to pay their rates tend to be small and struggling.

Business rates trace their roots back to 1572, at a time when agriculture’s dominance meant that it was reasonable to assume that land and business success were the same thing. We need a new system, one which reflects the components of business success of the coming decade and which can afford to fund the public services we deserve. Because, ultimately, the best way to avoid writing-off irrecoverable debts is to ensure people don’t get into debt at all.

Have we learnt nothing? Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020

When I was at Holy Trinity, every year History and German students would have the chance to go on a school trip to Berlin, a city which as much as any other has the history of the past century written on its streets. As part of that trip we would be taken to visit the Wannsee Villa, a beautiful building a short distance from the city where, on 20th January 1942, high ranking Nazis met to agree the ‘Final Solution’.

78 years on, Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually around much of the world. Yet, for all the platitudes given at this time of year, you wonder how far the lessons of the past have really been learnt, does ‘Never Again’ really means that such events could never happen again.

In recent years, we’ve seen antisemitism become scarily widespread once more, with such racism even coming to infect parts of my own party.

The re-emergence on the Left seems largely to stem from a combination of the complexities around Israel-Palestine and a strong attraction to the idea that there is a rich elite preventing the movement’s success through their control of business and the media, rather than the more obvious answer that we just aren’t very good at doing the things you need to do to win elections. While such conspiracy theories exist in non-racial forms, all-too-often they have an antisemitic focus.

Ignorance clearly plays a major role in the re-emergence of this scourge, but were ignorance the only cause then we might rely upon traditional community cohesion interventions to counter the myths and bring greater understanding. Unfortunately, ignorance is not the only reason for antisemitism’s growth.

The truth is that political strategists on the Right have in various countries been busy resurrecting the old antisemitic tropes in order to build populist support for nationalistic candidates, starting with Viktor Orbán’s demonisation of George Soros in order to better secure his powerbase in Hungary.

We are far from free of such tactics in the UK, with similar depictions of Soros making their way into mainstream newspapers in reaction to his anti-Brexit viewpoints. It was in England that the word ‘Holocaust’ was first coined following a massacre of British Jews under Richard the Lionheart, we have a duty to be better than this and not only in tackling antisemitism.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, immigration controls did not exist in the UK. In 1905 this changed, with the Government introducing restrictions to prevent Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe from taking refuge in Britain. In the run-up to the Second World War, there were the Kindertransport, but the UK still turned around ten times as many Jews as were admitted. For all the social and technological progress over the years which have followed, today it seems our hearts remain hardened to the plight of refugees.

In 2015, Crawley was one of the first councils in the country to say that we would do our part in addressing the refugee crisis. In the end the Government agreed to place about a dozen families in the town phased over around five years. For a town approaching 45,000 properties, the impact of this is essentially nothing. Nonetheless the public reaction was largely hostile, with my parents even being told at a friend’s funeral that I was to blame for people not being housed due to my “letting all the refugees in”–and that was before a single family took up refuge here.

Given how little support there is for helping refugees amongst the public, is it any wonder that our populist Tory government reflects such attitudes, even shooting down attempts to reunite children with their parents?

Today we remember the Holocaust. No doubt there will be speeches and events publicly commemorating the lives lost due to the actions of Nazis and the complicity of far greater numbers. Yet, despite such public declarations of sorrow, it appears that as individuals and as countries, we have in truth learned nothing.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 15th January 2020

Last Thursday marked 73 years since Crawley New Town was founded. In 1947, the post-war Labour Government which created our NHS decided Crawley would form part of their plan to end the UK’s housing crisis by becoming a New Town.

It was an ambitious project, they wouldn’t just seek to create housing but to do it in a way which would avoid the slums cities had been allowed to become, where employment would be plentiful, and leisure space built into every neighbourhood. For all those who choose to talk our town down, the reality is that national league tables of cities and large towns show that they succeeded by almost every measure, so much so that every major party for at least the last decade has paid lip service to New Towns in their housing policies.

At the time the New Town was built, what was to become Crawley was a collection of farms, private estates and three villages: Crawley, Ifield, and Three Bridges. To enable construction, Crawley Development Corporation bought up large amounts of land in and around the villages and got to work. 73 years on Homes England exists as the great-grandchild of Crawley Development Corporation and the land they bought is now our home. That is, except for a piece which sits West of Ifield, the second largest piece of land Homes England owns.

Last year, Homes England, whose Chairman at the time was Conservative politician Sir Edward Lister–now Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser, announced a plan to build 10,000 houses on this land, that’s almost a quarter of the size of our current town. Clearly, that size of development will impact upon the town as a whole. The question is, if they get permission from Horsham District Council, will Homes England make the cost worthwhile?

Will Homes England make the housing affordable, so local young people have the chance of a home? Will they build decent facilities, so residents don’t see current services suffer? Will they provide a relief road, so our roads aren’t locked up permanently? They have an amazing legacy to live up to, will they do it?

Crawley Borough Council and Westrock begin major town centre regeneration

Crawley Borough Council and property investment and development firm Westrock have started a major mixed-use scheme that will help regenerate the town centre and provide much-needed new housing and office space.

The public private partnership between Crawley Borough Council and Westrock will ultimately see the current Town Hall replaced.

Once finished, the redevelopment at the eastern end of The Boulevard in Crawley will include:

·     A new, nine-storey building housing a new Town Hall and office space

·     273 new apartments, including 109 affordable homes

·     A new public square with public artwork

·     New commercial units.

Work is well underway to build 91 apartments over nine storeys on the site of the former two-storey car park next to the current Town Hall. These are scheduled for completion in November 2020.

The eastern end of the Town Hall complex has been decommissioned, with demolition starting this month.

The nine-storey building, which will house the new 41,000 sq. ft. Town Hall and 77,000 sq. ft. commercial offices across 5.5 floors, will start to be constructed by Kier in spring 2020. This building is scheduled for completion in late 2021.

A new public square with artwork will also be created outside the new building.

Once the new building is open, the remainder of the current Town Hall will be demolished to make way for the final phase of redevelopment – a 10-storey block featuring 182 apartments with ground floor commercial space opening on to the new square.

Through its rental brand PLATFORM_, Westrock has already delivered 185 purpose-built rented homes in Crawley, which benefit from professional on-site management and a range of amenities including gym, residents’ lounge, roof terrace and a yoga studio.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “This is a hugely important step in this major project because this investment will save money for taxpayers and generate income for the council, which will help us maintain services. This is a very good deal for Crawley.

Matt Willcock, Development Director of Westrock, said: “Our joint venture with Crawley Borough Council shows the benefits of public-private partnerships. Working closely with Crawley, we will deliver much-needed new housing, workspace and public realm as well as an upgraded Town Hall.”

For more details on these plans visit www.regeneratingcrawley.org.uk/townhallsite

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 8th January 2020

Not a day goes by without at least one headline raising the issue of climate change. With increasingly frequent and destructive natural disasters taking place around the world, from flooding in the UK to fires in Australia, it’s not hard to see why.

The public seem roughly divided into four camps on this. There are of course those who feel it is the most pressing issue facing us today and that addressing it takes priority over everything else, and there are the tiny number who don’t believe it is real at all. Yet, most people either seem to feel it is a priority, but not at the cost of other things they want, or are so depressed by the way the world is going they don’t want to think about it.
In other words, most people expect politicians to avert a climate disaster, but not if it impacts upon them.
A few weeks back I was sent photos of rubbish piled up against a black bin with claims that the bin was too small. Was it too small? The recyclables pouring out of the bags seemed to indicate the red bin wasn’t used at all. Recycling was apparently too much effort.
Alternatively, every canvasser knows the biggest issue on the doorstep is parking. Better bus routes or safer cycle paths don’t make the top 30. Yet, if everyone who wants a car has one levels of CO2 emissions will increase substantially.
Unfortunately, you simply cannot have the levels of energy and resource consumption most of us have in our lives and reduce carbon to the levels we need.
Maybe we want Government to get tough, to fine people who don’t recycle, to impose limits on car numbers, to ban flights for nonessential purposes? Some might claim so, but I suspect any such Government’s time in office would be very short.
The honest truth is this. No one is coming to save us. If we want things to be better then we are the only people with the power do it. We don’t have to, but the consequences will be severe.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 1st January 2020

A Happy New Year to all readers.

Since I started writing this column, I have typically used the New Year’s edition to take a look back over the past year to sum up the key moments of the year in the town and at the council. Much as I would like to do so again, the reality is that my overriding memory of 2019 was of one never ending election cycle.

In May we had Crawley’s first all-out council elections in fifteen years, delivering essentially no changes in the overall composition of the council, followed straight after by European Parliamentary Elections. Due to the sad death of Cllr Petts, in September we then had by-elections in his county council and borough council seats, before rounding off the year with a General Election a fortnight before Christmas. If there’s one wish I have for the coming year it is that we have fewer elections and more actual governing in 2020.

Certainly there’s a lot which needs to be done. Brexit is now essentially guaranteed and the Withdrawal Agreement should at least give us some reasonable continuity on the ground as the UK goes into the next of many further rounds of negotiations with the EU.

Meanwhile decisions to be taken this year around the proposed development of 10,000 houses in Horsham District on border of Crawley and the planned expansion of Gatwick clearly have major implications for the future of our community.

Longer-term, we need to continue to prepare the town for the changes set to come, one in which our economy will run fundamentally differently. That means upskilling and reskilling workers to adapt as many of our current jobs automate, all the while converting our local economy over to zero-carbon running. We’re taking big steps on the ground to get things moving in the right direction, particularly in rolling-out the digital infrastructure, but it remains to be seen if we will get the support we require to deliver the changes we need at the necessary speed, or whether after a decade of cuts we are again asked to do even more with less.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 25th December 2019

Nature is highly competitive. Species and civilisations have been shaped by the competition for limited resources. While we now live in a world far less harsh than that of our ancestors, where the rule of law, welfare state, and various social contracts ensure our lives aren’t nasty, brutish and short, competition remains.

While we perhaps think of it most in the context of sport, competition in some way plays a role in all of our interactions with others, this is no less true of politics.

We’ve all seen the way in which our society has become increasingly divided over recent years and while it has become cliché to claim that these divisions began with Brexit, it definitely helped bring the splits to the surface and subsequently it’s certainly politics where behaviour has sunk the lowest.

In some ways this should be expected. The level of competition in politics is far greater than in almost any other area of social activity, we operate in a winner-takes-all system where the stakes are incredibly high. Yet, despite that, should we not expect more from those who lead and seek to lead our society? Should those of us in politics not expect more from ourselves?

It is a fortnight since the General Election and while elections are a divisive time, again and again on the campaign trail came questions of how we heal the rifts which have spit our country. I don’t claim to have a complete answer, but it seems to me any solution must involve those of us in politics acting to build unity, not division.

Consequently, I have an apology to make. A week ago at Full Council I accused the Conservatives of being bad people. While I made the remark in the heat of a debate filled with accusations, it was wrong. Bad policies don’t make bad people and no party has a monopoly on morality.

People hold different political opinions and we are going to disagree, but that doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable. Let us all use our own behaviour to help our country heal. Merry Christmas.