Pensioners are next on the Conservatives’ cutting block, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 13th April 2022

In past columns, I’ve written a lot about the pain younger generations have suffered since the Conservatives took power. Not without reason, these generations are the first in modern times to receive a worse deal than that of their parents. Whether it’s cuts to Education and the massive increase in University fees, being unable to access home ownership or council housing, the collapse of working conditions which leaves growing numbers hovering around the poverty line, and now a hike in National Insurance to protect inheritances for those with over £86,000 in the bank. You wonder why young people don’t vote Conservative?

What I’ve struggled to understand is why older generations do vote Conservative. True, the older you get the less you need to have decent working conditions and chances are you already have somewhere to live, but you’re also more dependent upon an NHS increasingly being run into the ground and the Conservatives’ failure to provide a genuine solution for social care leaves many of our elderly living their final years in misery.

I guess, increases in tax-funded benefits for older generations, such as the triple-lock guarantee, do help to mask some of this from pensioners. Or at least until next Monday, when pensioners will see the value of their payments fall to their lowest point in 50 years, as the Conservatives opt to make a substantial real-terms cut in the value of all benefits and introduce a major rise in pensioner poverty, something all-but eliminated under the last Labour Government.

It’s not the only sign of the Conservatives’ new War on the Elderly. While people are now familiar with the TV licences being removed, plans were announced for issuing 60-65 year olds with £100 Penalty Charge Notices if they failed to realise what medicines the Conservatives no longer allowing them to have for free. It’s beyond a joke For four General Elections, pensioners have been the Conservatives’ strongest supporters. Like all Conservative supporters that support is now taken for granted. They don’t believe pensioners will ever vote against them and until they’re proven wrong, this new war won’t stop.

A decade of inaction on the problems facing Britain, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 6th April 2022

This May marks ten years since I became Labour Leader on Crawley Borough Council. To say a lot has happened in that time is an understatement, given the general chaos in which the country now seems to find itself plunged into once crisis or another year after year.

Yet, for everything which has happened, a decade on it’s depressing to realise that the big problems facing most people in Crawley and across the UK remain much the same as they were in 2012. The cost-of-living crisis, the absence of a plan for adult social care, the shortage of housing people can afford, the underfunding of our National Health Service, the lack of action on crime and antisocial behaviour. For all the commitments made, nothing much our Conservative Government has done with the time they have had has helped move the UK forwards.

Let’s take childcare as an example. Pledges to make childcare cheaper to help parents get back into work have been a regular feature in Conservative manifestos, including at the last General Election. Yet, for all the promises, the cost of childcare for a 38-week school year now costs parents in our area £10,984.28, with surveys indicating 39% of parents in our region have been forced to cut their working hours due to the cost of childcare.

This system isn’t only bad for those families, it’s bad for the country’s economy and consequently on the public services which depend upon UK tax revenue. The fact we’ve reached this point shouldn’t come as any surprise, all the signs were there a decade ago, we just needed a Government prepared to do more than bluster.

There is an alternative and Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan would enable children to go to breakfast clubs and after school activities for free, boosting children’s wellbeing post-pandemic, and support working parents.

Surely, it’s the role of Government to actually try to help fix problems facing the country, rather than just paying them lip service and then pointing the finger at everyone other than those actually responsible. Unfortunately, for now, it seems that’s what we’re stuck with.

£1,088 pay cut for every worker in Crawley, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 30th March 2022

A week on from the Spring Statement and the fallout has yet to end. The statement not only failed to meaningfully address the cost of living crisis affecting households across the UK, but their subsequent spin revealed a Government deeply out of touch with how most people live their lives. This crisis didn’t come out of nowhere, its roots stretch back to 2010 and the lack of action on living costs since then gives little reason to believe the Conservative Party will ever do anything to tackle it.

For families in Crawley, the hike in the cost of essentials couldn’t come at a worse time, with unemployment far higher than at almost any other time in the town’s history due to the Government’s COVID restrictions and the lack of Government support which followed.

Now, on top of everything else, both workers and employers face a tax increase in National Insurance, actively penalising companies for creating new jobs and consequently slowing the economy down further. It’s almost beyond belief. Even the Government’s own advisors made it clear the increase isn’t necessary.

The result is that by 2023, workers in Crawley face an average real terms pay cut of £1,088 compared to the start of this year. That’s money most families cannot afford to lose. Yet, rather than reversing their tax cuts for the superrich or having a windfall tax on the profits of businesses exploiting the current crisis, this Government is doing what it has always done: targeting ordinary hard-working families while cutting their services. It should be clear to everyone by now that no matter who they elect as leader, no matter whatever else is going on in the world, the Conservatives’ approach won’t ever change because it can’t, it is at the core of what holds their party together.

So, what next? Well, really that’s up to you. In a democracy, Governments only have the ability to treat their citizens with contempt when they know they can rely upon their support. With local elections taking place in early May, the question is what message do you want to send?

Geraint Thomas House official opening

A Crawley Borough Council housing development named after Geraint Thomas, who was the council’s cabinet member for Environmental Services and Sustainability when he sadly passed away in November 2019, was officially recognised today in a short ceremony outside the building.

The site was named Geraint Thomas House in honour of former councillor Geraint Thomas. From his many years teaching geography in Crawley, to his 10 years serving as a councillor in Northgate and Ifield wards and three years as Cabinet member for Environmental Services and Sustainability, Geraint was a passionate advocate for the environment and this is seen as a fitting way to remember the exceptional work he did for the area.

Family and friends of Geraint Thomas, council officers, council leader Peter Lamb, councillor Ian Irvine and senior directors from housing provider A2Dominion, gathered together to mark the official opening of the building. Geraint Thomas’ wife, Jenny, cut the ribbon and Peter Lamb gave a short speech.

Peter Lamb said: “Geraint was one of Crawley’s leading champions. His many years work in the town as a teacher, community activist and councillor have left a lasting legacy in Crawley, and it brings me real joy that in Geraint Thomas House we have a lasting monument to his dedicated service.”

Jenny Thomas added: “Geraint loved Crawley. In his work as a councillor, he was committed to sustainably improving the lives of its residents. Geraint’s family and friends are proud of what he achieved and grateful that he will be remembered in this development which provides a place for people to call home.”

Simon Potts, Director of Land and Planning at A2Dominion, commented: “Geraint Thomas House has been a great achievement for us, working together with Crawley Borough Council. It was important that we provide high-quality, affordable new homes, and that the look and feel of the development made a positive impact to the local environment.”

The Geraint Thomas House development is 100% affordable, with 33 shared ownership apartments and 58 apartments for affordable rent.

National Day of Reflection, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 23rd March 2022

Today is the second National Day of Reflection, a day dedicated to those lost during the course of the pandemic, two years on from the UK’s first lockdown.

It’s hard to overstate the impact COVID-19 has had on the UK, the level of government restrictions and interventions alone are unlike anything experienced before during peacetime. Unfortunately, the human brain is hardwired to deem acceptable things which become routine, even if at any other time we would consider them to be horrific.

Joseph Stalin is alleged to have said: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” While it would be easy to discount this as the warped ravings of a mass-murderer, the reality is we see it all the time with global disasters, with people reacting far more strongly to the tale of a single human life lost rather than updates on the overall death total.

We have lost over 185,000 members of our community to a pathogen unknown to the world just three years ago, yet we don’t seem to be acting as though we recognise this as the deadliest incident our country has faced since WWII.

Perhaps it’s the myth that all those who died were old or had underlying conditions, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary? Yet, even if that were true, many ‘underlying conditions’ would not have prevented people from living a full lifespan and with average life expectancy being over 80, someone dying in their early 70s still amounts to a decade lost.

Today is a chance to remember all those lost and that every one of those 185,000 had people who are grieving; to remember the pandemic isn’t over and our actions today will determine how high the numbers grieving will continue to rise. We’re not being asked to pick up a gun to save our countrymen or to even to wear a poppy in remembrance. The only sacrifice asked of us is to keep wearing face masks when away from home. It’s a simple act, yet one which helps protect others from having to grieve.

‘We’re all in this together’ the Conservatives said, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 16th March 2022

‘We’re all in this together’, that’s what George Osborne said just before the Conservatives took power in 2010. We were told it as we lost jobs and services, as families saw their taxes go up and the cost-of-living bite deep, as the wealthy became the super-wealthy and saw their taxes cut. While the UK Government cannot be blamed for the global pandemic or the war in the Ukraine, the reality is years of poor decision-making by the Conservatives, fully supported by Crawley’s MP, has left most local families in a far poorer financial condition for surviving the challenges ahead than should have been the case.

Following a decade of lost growth and stagnant incomes, with out-of-control property prices, the tax burden shifted from high-earning to medium and low earning households, and the loss of social security, families are now facing an unprecedent cost-of-living crisis.

This month we are enduring a total increase in Crawley’s energy bill of £30.3m, set to rise still further in six months when the war in the Ukraine leaves its mark. Meanwhile fuel and food continue to see big price hikes, and the cost of housing continues ever upward.

We cannot go back in time to undo the Conservatives’ mistakes, but they do have a duty to households make ends meet, starting with cancelling obvious new mistakes. Increasing the National Insurance tax which will not only hit incomes hard right when people can’t afford it, but also put a tax on job creation. An outgoing member of the Government’s own Budget Responsibility Committee made it clear that following through with the increase could only be explained by party politics, not economics.

On food, housing, fuel and energy costs real Government action is possible. For instance, instead of forcing Crawley families to take out a collective £8.6m in debt as part of their energy plans, the Government should follow Labour’s plan to use a windfall tax on the bumper profits of oil and gas companies to help reduce people’s energy bills. None of this is rocket science, we just need a Government with our interests at heart.

Crawley Live Column, Spring 2022

Since 2020, COVID-19 has drastically cut the council’s sources of income, leading to the cross-party cuts agreed last year, the only cuts made during my time as Leader. While the pandemic lingers on, I’m pleased to say that with hard work, we’ve managed to a deliver a budget this year which is balanced and yet won’t require any further cuts.

For all the restrictions, the last year has been busy for the council. We’ve brought forward major investment in the town’s physical and digital infrastructure. The completion of the new Town Hall and renting of its commercial space will provide a big boost to the council’s ability to pay for services and reduce the burden on council taxpayers. We’ve also overseen millions of pounds of grant funding going into providing new employment and training opportunities in Crawley, helping those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and providing better career options for the town as a whole.

Alongside this we’ve been stepping up the efforts to create a cleaner, greener Crawley, with the first stage of the town’s District Heat Network now fully up and running, a better bike network helping both cyclists and motorists get where they’re going faster, green investment in Manor Royal, and Crawley Borough Council passing a comprehensive plan for reaching Net Zero.

The last few years have been tough, but looking ahead, we can be confident that Crawley is moving in the right direction again and its best days are still yet to come.

Conservatives increase Crawley rail season ticket price up 50%, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 9th March 2022

Due to the historic strength of our local jobs market, with Crawley having to import two-thirds of its workforce from out of town daily, it’s easy to forget Crawley is also a major commuter base. Large numbers of residents already commute to London daily and that figure will only grow as house prices draw families out of the city in search of relatively cheaper property prices.

Unfortunately, this also leaves increasing numbers of Crawley residents vulnerable to rail fare rises and this month the dreaded price hike finally arrived. At a time when households are already struggling with the cost of living, this latest Government-authorised increase is the last thing local families needed. It comes after a long run of annual increases, with a Three Bridges to London season ticket now 50% more expensive than it was under the last Labour Government.

That railway companies demand more and more of people’s take-home pay is bad enough, that our Conservative MP happily lets them get away with is even more disappointing, but what really underlines just how bad things are is that these record price highs have been occurring at the same time as the quality of services have been declining.

As a commuter, I’ve seen local trains consistently growing more cramped, the network has become increasingly unreliable, and the quality of the services commuters receive being stripped back more and more.

The Brighton Mainline is critically short of capacity and if catching a train from Crawley to London is to even remain possible, we desperately need improvements at Windmill Junction. Yet, for all the money being taken out of Southern railway users, this project has yet to receive approval. So, where is all the extra money going?

Much as with all other areas of Government policy it is clear now that areas like ours have become little more than a cashpoint for the Conservatives, giving them the money they need to buy votes in Red Wall seats, and until it becomes clear to them that treating Crawley this way will cost them votes at elections, don’t expect things to change.