Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 16th January 2019

Despite the ongoing chaos on the national level, with our country left with a Conservative Government which is in office but out of control, I will resist the temptation to again raise Brexit and its potential implications for Crawley, and instead discuss something which really got to me this week.

For years, young people have been complaining that Sussex Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, or CAMHS to use its well-known acronym, isn’t fit for purpose. This isn’t the fault of the mental healthcare workers, who will always do their best, but as with the rest of our NHS it simply doesn’t have anything like the resources it needs to deal with the ongoing spread of mental illness amongst Britain’s youth, with children left in despair for months unable to access the treatment they need to get well.

This week I was confronted with the utter desperation that this creates. Where a young person’s cry for help left their body permanently damaged and where a parent was left with no one to turn to when the services we would all expect were already filled to capacity. A decade ago, England’s NHS adopted a constitution which said mental health would be treated as just as much of a priority as physical health, and yet ten years on attempted suicide is left up to a parent to deal with. Is this the sort of country we are letting our Government turn us into: totally uncaring about the needs of its people.

We need much, much more investment in mental health services, but that alone doesn’t go nearly far enough. We have to ask ourselves why so many young people now feel that there is no hope, that they have no value, that they are unloved, and then we owe it to them and to ourselves to fix it. We need to build a society which no longer sees people as a number, be it what they have in the bank or their number of friends on Facebook, but which puts people and community back at the heart of our system once more.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 9th January 2019

Another month goes by and Crawley sees another major crime take place in the heart of our community. I’m sick of it and I know most residents feel the same as I do, we shouldn’t be forced to put up with crime on our streets. I regularly have residents writing to me about things they’ve reported which haven’t been investigated and telling me on the doorstep that the ongoing wave of drugs and violence on Crawley’s streets is one of their biggest concerns.

Last Summer, when I called for the Police to be given more resources to get crime under control I was condemned by our local Conservative elite. We had the Police and Crime Commissioner telling us there wasn’t a problem and that the Police Force had all the resources it needed. Yet, here we are months later and the problem simply isn’t going away. It’s time ‘the powers that be’ took their fingers out of their ears and started to listen to what we are all telling them.

Since the 2010 General Election, our area has lost over 700 police officers. Is it any wonder that we see crime going up? For all their boasting about new recruitment, when you take into account the number of police retiring from the force over the next few years they are recruiting less than a third of what they have cut.

Our police do an amazing job, but no matter how capable a team, how on Earth are they supposed to restore order when the Government insists they do it with such low numbers?

Enough is enough, Crawley needs its police back and an end to the wave of drugs and violence plaguing our community.

Unfortunately, Crawley Borough Council isn’t in control of the Police and, while a number of failings on the Police and Crime Commissioner’s part have been highlighted in the past, it’s ultimately central government which sets their grant. If this Government won’t give us the police the town needs, then maybe it’s time the country took Labour up on its offer of an extra 10,000 officers back on the beat.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 2nd January 2019

2018 was a year of great uncertainty, a year we may well be pleased to see the back of. Unfortunately, for those hoping 2019 will mark a return to normality, the country’s failure to resolve the big issues of the past year means that next year is unlikely to be much better.

The biggest issue of all is, of course, Brexit. Crawley’s economy is heavily dependent upon getting some kind of a deal with the EU, with a potentially huge impact for most of our major local employers if nothing is agreed. With the Prime Minister unable to deliver, what will happen next is anyone’s guess, but Crawley’s MP has chosen to pour flames on the fire, rather than to fight our corner right now.

We also wait to see if austerity is actually over. Despite all the promises, Crawley’s Clinical Commissioning Group–responsible for paying for residents’ NHS treatment–remains in financial Special Measures, Sussex Police remain hundreds of officers short from what they had eight years ago helping along the rise of drugs and violence on our streets, and local schools are left without the funding they need to give our children the education they need to build Britain’s future.

In Crawley, the recent review of local government ward boundaries means that for the first time in fifteen years, every councillor will be up for election at the same time. For the last five years, Labour has worked to protect the town from cuts passed down from central government and to build large numbers of new affordable homes for local people, will the town stay the course or go back to stagnation under the Conservatives?

Yet, despite all this uncertainty, we should remain optimistic and not give in to those who profit from apathy. None of the problems we face as a town or a country are irresolvable, they all have solutions if we remain open minded and are prepared to put in the work. Whether we are willing to do what is necessary to thrive, we shall see over the course of 2019. A Happy New Year to you all.

Crawley Rail Fares Rip-off

Crawley Labour activists kicked-off 2019 by raising awareness of another rail fare hike at Three Bridges this morning, joined by Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Margaret Greenwood MP.

Under the Conservatives, the cost of getting to work has risen by 36%, vastly out pacing family incomes. As a commuter myself, I know first-hand that while we are being asked to pay more and more, every year we still see local services getting worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way, other countries don’t put up with it. It’s time the railways were put back in public hands and made to serve the national interest.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 26th December 2018

So, what happened in Crawley in 2018. Well, at Crawley Borough Council we continued building new affordable homes for local people, working hard to secure better job opportunities and maintaining the town’s services in the face of huge cuts from Government. Indeed, despite the wild verges following appalling weather at the start of the year, borough council services residents notice the most–bin collections and grass cutting, continue to improve.

Where other organisations are responsible for services and letting Crawley down, whether its the lack of police on our streets, massive cuts at local academies or the proposed closure of Crawley Post Office, we’ve fought the town’s case all the way.

Unfortunately, this was also the year West Sussex County Council went from being just a poorly performing local authority to moral bankruptcy, consciously taking decisions they know will result in unnecessary deaths on Crawley’s streets. The biggest of these was confirmed in the last fortnight: ending funding for charities providing refuge for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse, in addition to cutting support designed to help the elderly remain in their own homes.

Despite opposition from local MPs, district-level councils, charities and backbench county councillors of every party, West Sussex’s leadership imposed the decision unilaterally. Given that experts proposed workable alternatives, it’s hard to know how Council Leader Goldsmith and Chief Executive Elvery can bear to look at themselves the a mirror, certainly very few of the council’s partner organisations are keen to work with them now that their mask has slipped.

In addition, 2019 saw two issues with potentially huge impacts for Crawley come to the fore. The first is the proposal to enable Gatwick’s standby runway to operate at the same time as its main runway. While this would benefit the local economy, without major investment in infrastructure it’s hard to see how Crawley can cope with the passenger growth. The other issue is obviously Brexit, where it’s becoming clear that, despite promises from our MP, a ‘No Deal’ Brexit will put Crawley residents into significant hardship, for no clear benefit. How these issues will develop, only 2019 knows.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 19th December 2018

With less than a week left before Christmas Day, I’ll resist the temptation to discuss our ongoing national turmoil and its implications for Crawley, or the latest improvements to the town being driven by Crawley Borough Council, and focus on something more seasonal.

Amongst all the fun with friends and family, the gift giving, and the food and the drink maybe we should take some time to consider those for whom Christmas will be very different.

Almost a million people in the UK have to work on Christmas Day. The most obvious groups affected work in our NHS, the blue-light services and the armed forces, without whom lives would be lost. However, they’re far from alone. We also need people to keep our utilities working, provide hospitality through the day, and keep our transport system operating. Locally, much of Gatwick continues to operate throughout the day. True, some of those working volunteer, but for many this isn’t the case and, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t all compensated for the inconvenience.

Next, there are the town’s homeless. Ironically, Christmas is, relatively speaking, not so bad as it’s the one time of year the public wake up and feel the duty to support local homeless shelters. It’s the other 364 days a year that Christmas Spirit could really be used.

Lastly, there are those for whom the basics of Christmas are something they can barely afford, if afford at all. In-work poverty has grown appallingly over the last eight years as cuts to public services and benefits have had their inevitable impact. As I pointed out two weeks ago, we now live in a town where over a quarter of local children are forced to live in poverty.

Now none of this should stop our enjoyment of the season, but when we consider the sacrifices and sufferings of those around us, perhaps when it’s over we ought ask ourselves if as a country we are doing everything we should to make their lives at least a little better.

With that thought, I wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas.

Press Release: Leader of Crawley Council visits The Gatwick School

The Leader of Crawley Borough Council, Councillor, Peter Lamb, paid a visit to The Gatwick School in Crawley recently to see first-hand the progress of one of Crawley’s newest schools.  Operated by Aurora Academies Trust, The Gatwick School caters for students aged 4-16 and it began life as a free school in 2014 with only 44 children on roll. Just 4 years later there are over 650 students and the school has waiting lists for places. Councillor Lamb was keen to see why the school has become so popular and he was not disappointed!

Visits to classrooms were organised and led by some of the student councillors including the Head Girl and Boy from both the primary and secondary phases.  Councillor Lamb was extremely impressed with the standards of teaching and learning throughout the school and commented on the high quality learning environment and the engagement in lessons, particularly noting one English lesson in which students were actively involved in constructing a reasoned argument, a skill needed by politicians at all levels!

Head of School, Mark Roessler said “This was a great opportunity for us to host the visit of the Leader of the Council and it was very definitely a two-way meeting: Councillor Lamb was able to see the high quality of education on offer and our students also got the chance to question him about his job and his vision for the town. He more than held his own in that exchange and replied very professionally to all the questions thrown at him!”.

Aurora’s Director of Education and Executive Head Paul Reilly said “In our first inspection we were rated by Ofsted as being Good with some Outstanding features and that has really helped cement our reputation in the community. We were thrilled that Councillor Lamb gave us so much of his time and showed such interest in seeing how the school has developed”.

Councillor Lamb later added “This was my first visit to the school since its opening. It’s great to see how things have developed over those last four years and there were a number of pleasant surprises for me in the way subjects are being tackled at the school. I look forward to seeing how The Gatwick School continues to grow and take shape over the years to come.”

Aurora’s CEO Tim McCarthy concluded “Aurora Academies Trust is very proud of The Gatwick School and everything that has been achieved here and we believe that we have delivered on the promise we gave to Crawley Borough Council from the outset that we would provide a great education for children and families in this area.  We are delighted that Councillor Lamb has been able to see this for himself”.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 12th December 2018

The principle each generation should do better than the last is one we hold in common. Surely, it’s only fair when our parents left us a better deal than they got, as did their parents and theirs’ before. That progress is why we no longer live in caves, why we have personal freedom, and why we have the rights in life and work that benefit us all, including the Christmas holiday people will soon be enjoying.

Yet, in recent years progress has stalled. Since the global economic crash a decade ago it’s less certain those young people today will get a life as good as their parents’, with a property market and cuts in public spending moving wealth from younger to older generations. As part of that generation of Crawley residents still house-sharing in my thirties, it’s something I know all-too-well.

People have always claimed that things were better in their day, but research increasingly finds not only older generations believe life was better for young people in the 1960s, but younger generations too. That’s historically unique. Even the Government’s Social Mobility Commission highlights young people now find hard work no longer enough to succeed, that who their parents are increasingly decides where they end up regardless of talent.

That’s something we have to change. Crawley Borough Council is currently running a review to look into what can be done locally, with our town rated the worst in the region for social mobility. The review is doing good work, but even if we can improve social mobility it’s not enough to just let ‘bright ones escape’, any true democracy should seek to improve the lives of all its citizens, like a rising tide lifting all boats.

That’s far from impossible, our economy has from the 1980s focused on employment sectors which increase inequality, the loss of affordable housing and cuts to public services have all made things worse. We must recapture that post-war spirit which built the comprehensive public services and the strong economy we all took for granted, to deliver a United Kingdom which again works for the many.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 5th December 2018

As adults we seem to form two camps when it comes to Christmas: those who think it’s the most wonderful time of the year and those who can’t wait for it to be over. For children, regardless of their opinions on Santa, Christmas remains truly magical.

Yet, for children living in poverty it’s hard to know what sort of Christmas they can expect and the struggles their parents will be forced to go through to provide the things we all see as a normal part of the holiday. I’m not talking about kids in Somalia or depressed Northern economies, I’m talking about the almost 7,000 children in Crawley alive today who, based on the Government’s own data, are living in poverty. That’s over a quarter of the town’s children.

While parents will always do their best to ensure their kids don’t stand out, if you look closely you can see the signs of people struggling all around us. It’s there in the enormous demand for food banks, it’s there in the hidden homelessness of people relying upon the sofas of friends and families to keep a roof over their head or trapped in bed and breakfasts, and it’s there in the increasing numbers forced to beg and borrow to make ends meet.

It hasn’t always been this way. The last Labour Government set out to end child poverty in a generation and when it left office child poverty had been halved, largely through tax credits and reform of the benefits system. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report, released yesterday, makes harsh reading but it’s conclusions are clear: under this Government, child poverty is on the rise, almost all the increase in working families, with the Government’s changes to social security pulling the rug out from under parents’ feet. Who on Earth are we as a country if we think treating children this way is acceptable?

So while it’s nice to see our MP running a Christmas Card contest in schools, my question to him is this: when you voted to make this happen, were you thinking of those children then?

Crawley News 24 Column, Tuesday 4th December 2018

Last month, I joined with hundreds of other elected representatives in calling for the Government to drop its plans designating exploratory drilling for fracking as ‘permitted development’.

Permitted development is where any planning application of a particular type gets automatically approved. If you want to know why so many of Crawley’s office buildings have been turned into poor quality housing, without parking or even bin stores to keep the rubbish off of our high streets, it was because the Government’s made these types of office conversions permitted development.

For the council, they have been nothing but trouble, you see planning exists for a reason, it’s there to protect the whole community from developments that harm the wider community and to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to avoid future problems. Without planning we are powerless to protect the neighbourhoods from developments that enrich a few at the cost of the many and spend years playing catch-up with the problems. This opposition to ‘planning’ as a concept by the Government certainly explains a lot of the mess we now find ourselves in on the national level.

No major development should skip the planning process, but when it comes to fracking the situation becomes much more serious, depriving communities of any say on one of the most controversial environmental issues of the day. Given that the biggest UK protests against fracking took place just down the road at Balcombe, next to Crawley’s nearest reservoir, it’s an issue which really hits close to home.

Fracking involves using various chemicals to break open rocks below the groundwater level to release the fossil fuels trapped inside. While it is believed that a well-regulated system can avoid polluting water supplies, where poor regulation is in place communities have found serious health issues emerging after fracking has begun. In the rush to attract fracking the Government has left us with one of the least well-regulated systems in Europe.

Were fracking completely safe, it would still be worth asking if we can afford to delay a switch to renewable energy sources. Instead the Government is trying to ensure that the wishes of communities are by-passed, regardless of the potential risks to people’s homes and health.

A full copy of the letter can be read below:

Dear James Brokenshire MP (CC Greg Clark MP, Kit Malthouse MP, Claire Perry MP),

The UK government has proposed changes to planning rules that would allow exploratory drilling for shale gas to be considered “permitted development”, removing the need for fracking companies to apply for planning permission.

The current planning framework for shale gas provides an important regulatory process for the industry, offering necessary checks and balances by local authorities who best understand the circumstances in their areas. Crucially, it also allows communities directly affected a say in how, and whether, shale gas exploration proceeds in their neighbourhoods.

We believe that applying permitted development to exploratory shale gas drilling represents a distortion of its intention and is a misuse of the planning system. Permitted Development was originally intended to be used to speed up planning decisions on small developments – like garden sheds or erecting a fence – not drilling for shale gas.

As elected representatives of our communities, we the undersigned call for the withdrawal of this proposal, and respect for the right of communities to make decisions on shale gas activities in their areas through the local planning system.

Yours Sincerely,

805 Councillors, 11 MPs and 34 Other (Parish Councillors and Assembly Members)