Crawley News 24 Column, Monday 18th June 2018

Last Saturday saw Crawley’s largest public demonstration in 20 years, as teachers, parents, pupils and community members came together to protest planned cuts to Thomas Bennett Community College.

Crawley’s schools have been struggling financially for years and, despite the commitments from our MP, eight years into Conservative Government the funding situation is only getting worse. Nevertheless, the cuts proposed at Thomas Bennett go further than anything so far proposed by the town’s other schools, including those saddled with the same PFI debt our MP landed them with when he ran West Sussex County Council.

For years Thomas Bennett was the best value added school in the county and it continues to play a pivotal role in Crawley’s Special Educational Needs provision. These cuts effectively end that role, a vital one in a town which already has the worst social mobility in the region. Yet, as an academy, the chain running the school remains unaccountable to anyone outside of central government, free to do what they like with taxpayer money.

This isn’t only about Thomas Bennett. The chain which runs the school runs many others in Crawley; if we allow these cuts to happen don’t be surprised when other schools and other chains follow suit. This fight is about whether our town’s children will get access to the decent education they deserve or if we will allow a generation of our country to grow up without the skills necessary to compete in the global economy. This isn’t just about their lives, it’s about all of our futures.

Our Conservative MP may have washed his hands of this issue, the Conservative County Council too, but Labour councillors were proud to stand side-by-side with teachers and parents in demanding that Crawley’s children have at least the same opportunities succeed in life that we had.

Crawley News 24 Column, Thursday 14th June 2018

Toxic chemicals pumped into Crawley’s air supply would make headlines, you’d assume. Unfortunately, like other important decisions, people tend to only become aware of an issue after the decision has already been taken.

Next Tuesday, West Sussex County Council’s Planning Committee will be ruling on an application for a 24-hour incinerator with a 93 metre chimney to be built. While the structure itself would be built in Horsham, the wind direction would scatter much of the material over Crawley and that’s the worry.

In theory, a well-regulated incinerator could remove most toxic material from its exhaust, but the UK’s regulatory regime is weak and that leaves claims about the safety of the technology highly suspect. Crawley’s air quality is poor, with an Air Quality Management Area already in place around the worst affected part of the town. Campaigners estimate that the new incinerator will put out an additional 162,000kg of nitrous oxide alone into our air supply. When better alternatives to burning waste exist, we shouldn’t allow our health to be put at risk.

So what can you do about it? Write to Planning members and encourage others to do likewise, let them know what you think about the proposed incinerator’s risks. Fortunately the committee’s chair is Duncan Crow, Leader of Crawley’s Conservatives and County Councillor for Tilgate and Furnace Green, who will hopefully be open to protecting Crawley’s air quality. Next, try and make it along to the Planning Committee meeting on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they’ve refused to have the meeting near to where the incinerator would be built, so the meeting will be taking place in Chichester. Finally, sign and share this petition, to show the level of opposition to the proposals: http://www.change.org/p/no-incinerator-4-horsham

Your health isn’t a commodity to be sold off, let’s hope the committee remembers that next week.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 13th June 2018

Last week, the Planning Committee approved plans for redeveloping the Town Hall. Understandably, the story attracted lots of comments, with some wondering why the decision was taken at a time the council’s budget is under pressure. The answer is: it’s being done precisely because the council’s budget is under pressure.

Local government funding isn’t the easiest thing to get your head around, but one basic rule is there are two types of funding: the General Fund, which mostly pays for services, and capital, which can only be spent on assets. Most council’s reserves are capital, spending them on services would be illegal and, of course, reserves eventually run out.

To get around this, for years the council invested capital reserves in financial products and used the interest to fund services. Unfortunately, after the crash the return on these investments nose-dived which, combined with Government cuts to council incomes, has forced greater creativity in how we invest capital.

The Town Hall project is the latest and largest part of this strategy. The old Town Hall was great for its time, but that time has passed and much of the building’s plant has reached the end of its life. Simply keeping things as they are would cost taxpayers almost £20m, retaining a half-empty building we’re paying full business rates on, and which is inefficient to both heat and cool.

The new Town Hall’s design will make it far more energy efficient in terms of lighting, heating and cooling, and cheaper to maintain and operate. Above the Town Hall, floors of commercial A Grade office space will provide the council with a major new income stream for services, as will the new combined heat and power plant being built on the site, which will massively reduce carbon emissions across the town centre. Finally, the redevelopment will provide a new public square and many new homes, 40% affordable.

So, we have the chance to generate new money for services, reduce carbon emissions, improve the town centre’s appearance and house hundreds of local people in a single project. To me, that sounds like a good deal.

Press Release: New Deal for Manor Royal

The Manor Royal BID Company has signed a new deal with Crawley Borough Council and West Sussex County Council aimed at supporting local businesses and boosting economic growth. The signing of the Manor Royal Deal comes on the back of the recent vote by businesses to renew the Manor Royal BID (Business Improvement District) and the successful Crawley Growth Programme bid to secure an investment package of £60m for the town.

A recent study revealed the increasing importance of the Manor Royal Business District that now provides over a quarter of all jobs in Crawley, more than 30% of all business rates for the town and a home to over 600 businesses. The study also highlighted the increasingly competitive environment in which Manor Royal operates and that close partnership working between businesses and the local authorities would be key to continued success.

The deal is the first of its kind in the county and sets out how the Manor Royal BID and the two councils will work together to plan and deliver additional services, including the Crawley Growth Programme, the new BID Business Plan, as well as respond to other opportunities as they arise.

“This Deal with the county and borough councils formalises what has become a very productive partnership over the past few years,” said Trevor Williams, Thales UK and Manor Royal BID Chair. “The future programme is exciting but can only be achieved by clear and positive partnership between the BID and both councils. This is what the deal provides.”

Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council, said: “The business community’s vote of confidence in the Manor Royal BID is testament to all the hard work that’s gone into the initiative in the last five years.”Now we’re looking forward to continuing to help forge effective business partnerships in the Manor Royal Business District in the future.”

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “Crawley Borough Council is committed to delivering better career prospects for local residents and to do that we need to maintain and develop Manor Royal’s status as one of the leading locations in the UK for doing business. “The BID, in partnership with local councils, has already delivered much for the business district. This deal will enable us to take things to the next level.”

The three organisations are wasting no time and are already working together to plan the first projects to be delivered following the signing of the deal that will include new digital advertising signage and information boards, improvements to entranceways and significant investment in transport infrastructure.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 6th June 2018

On Saturday 16th June, parents, teachers and concerned members of the community will be meeting in the town centre in opposition to the severe threat to education in Crawley posed by the cuts planned at Thomas Bennett Community College.

I don’t think there are many people left who are unaware that Crawley’s schools are critically underfunded. Despite the commitments of our Conservative MP, they continue to struggle while the Conservative Government gambled away millions on their failed Free School experiment and recently announcement of £50m for new Grammar Schools, even though every study shows they don’t add anything to overall levels of education.

Even so, the cuts planned at Thomas Bennett go beyond that of other local schools. While the academy chain has blamed the school’s bad PFI deal for draining their resources, a deal negotiated by our Conservative MP when he ran West Sussex County Council, Thomas Bennett is not the only school in Crawley with such a bad deal and other schools are not proposing cuts of this scale.

Why? Clearly most schools are making different choices about what they do to tackle their funding deficit. Unfortunately, as an academy we can’t scrutinise Thomas Bennett’s budget in the way we can with local authority run schools, we don’t get consulted in the same way and local representatives can’t intervene to protect the interests of local kids. No, academisation has allowed closed groups to set up empires of schools paid for out of taxes and yet unaccountable to taxpayers.

For Crawley these cuts could be the tip of the iceberg. TKAT, the academy chain running Thomas Bennett, operate seven of Crawley’s schools. If we allow the cuts to occur at one school we’re leaving the door open for similar cuts across the board.

That’s why we need residents to join with us on the 16th June to make it clear what the town expects from its schools and for its children, not just because it’s the right thing to do for them but because without a well-educated population to deliver the future prosperity of our country, everyone will suffer.

Crawley News 24 Column, Monday 4th June 2018

Last Sunday, Jeremy Hunt became the longest-running Secretary of State for Health in UK history. Given that when Theresa May tried to remove him in January he not only hung on but emerged with new responsibility for social care, his talent for survival really is impressive, it’s a pity his impact upon the survival of the NHS doesn’t look quite so rosy.

Back in Summer 2017, Crawley’s Clinical Commissioning Group, the body responsible for paying for all local residents’ NHS treatment, fell into Special Measures as they were no longer able to afford the treatments people needed within the budget the Government had allocated them. At the time we were told that there was ‘no clear plan’, a phrase we hear far too often about the Government, as to how they would close the funding gap with suggestions that Crawley patients would face a rationing of treatment. Unfortunately, almost a year later we seem no closer to a solution.

The idea of a loved one going without life-saving treatment because the Government has decided Crawley’s has already had its share of healthcare is heartbreaking, beyond that it’s just morally wrong. This week, Labour announced its plans for reversing the Conservatives’ slow privatisation of our NHS, bringing the service back into public ownership and its financial resources fully-focused on delivering healthcare for those who need it. The NHS can be saved, you just need a Government which believes it’s worth saving.

It’s often claimed that Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, said it would survive for so long as there were those left with the faith to fight for it. We believe that healthcare isn’t an optional extra, it’s what makes us a decent society. We’re going to go on fighting for it, and with your support we’re going to win.

Press Release: Have your say on community safety

The Safer Crawley Partnership is seeking resident’s views to identify what community safety issues are important for Crawley in order to shape what they will focus on for the next year.

Made up of Crawley Borough Council, West Sussex County Council, Sussex Police, West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, Probation and Crawley Clinical Commissioning Group, the partnership has a duty to reduce crime and disorder, substance misuse, anti-social behaviour and reduce reoffending.

In 2017/18 they focused on three main areas; serious and organised crime, street community and vulnerable individuals.

The short survey asks:

  • What are you most concerned about in your neighbourhood?
  • What crimes do you think should be treated as priorities?
  • Are you worried about becoming a victim of crime?
  • Have you been a victim of crime in the past 12 months?

Leader of the Council, Councillor Peter Lamb said: “Community safety is a priority for Crawley Borough Council and in order to use our resources in the most effective way, the Safer Crawley Partnership needs to understand your priorities, so please take a few moments to complete this survey and tell us what matters most to you.”

The survey runs until 20 June and can be found at http://www.crawley.gov.uk/consultation

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 30th May 2018

Next week public exhibitions are taking place covering the next stage of town centre redevelopment. It’s an exciting time and it comes at the end of a long road for Crawley. When our town centre was built it was cutting edge, unfortunately while the world has moved on, many of those units remain in the same condition as when they were first built, no longer as attractive to retailers as they once were and yet too expensive to knock down.

Delivering regeneration has been tough. The council owns very little property in the town centre, and consequently depends upon the cooperation private owners, and several economic downturns came right at the point schemes were set to launch.

Nonetheless, the site-by-site approach we first advocated for in opposition is delivering results where big schemes never began. Already we’ve seen the Upper High Street transformed by re-development of the site where Morrisons now stands, the Northern Boulevard has gone from empty office blocks to new housing and the once derelict Southern Counties site is now providing housing for local people, 40% of which affordable.

Meanwhile public areas in the town centre are gradually being enhanced, particularly with the Queens Square and Queensway schemes. The council is similarly bringing forward its own sites. Hundreds of new homes, again 40% affordable, will soon be built on the derelict Telford Place site. The redevelopment of the Town Hall site will provide the same percentage of affordable housing, a more efficient Town Hall, and high grade office space and low carbon energy generation for the town centre, providing new income sources for council services.

The exhibitions next week will show how Station Way and College Road will be transformed, with an impressive new station, new housing replacing the hideous Overline House and much enhanced public areas and pedestrian connectivity throughout these portions of the town centre.

Ultimately retail is changing and town centres in the future will no longer simply be about shopping, but even as these things change the council is working to ensure Crawley’s town centre remains an attractive heart at the centre of our community.

Crawley News 24 Column, Tuesday 29th May 2018

Enough is enough. The police cuts have gone too far. We need our officers and PCSOs back on Crawley’s streets. Whatever the Government likes to claim, violent crime has risen in-line with police cuts and to assume that is just a coincidence is gambling with people’s safety.

Even with the money Sussex Police do get, which increasingly has to be paid from your council tax while the Government cuts their grant, the Police and Crime Commissioner is making the wrong decisions. For four years, Crawley’s Labour representatives on the Sussex Police and Crime Panel, including myself, have dissected the Sussex Police budget and highlighted that millions of pounds of cuts to neighbourhood policing could have been avoided. Unfortunately, no one listened.

The result is where we are now, with violent crime on the rise and residents complaining that when they are attacked with fireworks in the street, when people are breaking into their cars and when there is violence on the High Street, there simply aren’t the police available to respond anymore. At the end of the day, that comes down to a political choice about their funding and no amount of spin can hide it.

Without the police to enforce the law, laws become pointless and without laws we’re forced to live in a state of chaos. As the Leader of Crawley Borough Council, I’m tired of being asked to bite my tongue and rely upon a quiet word with the right people to turn things around. Well, the subtle approach doesn’t seem to be working, so let’s just make the reality clear for people: the Government and the Police and Crime Commissioner have the power in their hands to turn this all around, if they decide not to then we’ll know what our safety is worth to them.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 23rd May 2018

Last week, British tradition and ceremony received more than their usual level of coverage, indeed global recognition, in the run up to the Royal Wedding. I think we all wish the happy couple well, as we do with any two young people beginning their lives together.

At Crawley Borough Council, we had our own town traditions to follow, as we began the process of kicking off the new council year with our Annual Council Meeting. This meeting is essentially a ceremonial one: it recognises the result from the last set of local elections, re-appoints members to committees and, most notably, selects the Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the coming year.

I’ve never been much for standing on ceremony. When I first got on the council I was even reprimanded by a Conservative councillor for pointing out that a Mayor’s ruling on a matter of process at a meeting was in breach of the Standing Orders. However, the position is a symbolic representation of the town and should be treated with a level of decorum.

That decorum was sadly lacking amongst Conservative members last week. To put up alternative candidates for the roles is their right, even if it is fairly pointless when you’re in opposition. However, to make personal attacks on candidates for a non-political role, whether they be in the Council Chamber or on social media is fairly low, such behaviour alongside shunning major events in the council’s civic calendar do the Conservatives no great favour.

Instead, we got the usual complaint that everything was unfair because they didn’t get the committee chairmanships they wanted, ignoring that no such arrangement was in place when they were in control and at the county council Labour are left entirely without positions. In the past, they even refused to join a panel investigating how we could make Crawley a fairer place on the grounds they viewed it as unfair they didn’t get the positions they wanted. I guess that’s the difference really: when we talk about fairness, we’re talking about fairness for everybody and not just us personally getting what we want.