Thursday, 1 November 2018

Children's Centre Debate At TTC 30.10.18

There was a really good debate at Thetford Town Council meeting last night about the possible closure of Children's Centres. I'm so pleased that the Town Council unanimously agreed to my proposal that we (the Council) would write to Norfolk County Council formally objecting to the closure. Several Councillors made some really good contributions about why children's centres should not be closed. The Town Council agreed they would also be doing more to promote the consultation locally. Here's my notes that I read out at the meeting;
1. Thetford was not afforded a specific consultation session, and when one was organised, it was not widely promoted by Norfolk County Council. This is very disappointing. Further, Councillors have not been provided with hard copies of the consultation form until well into the consultation period.
2. Staff at Thetford, with significant experience and expertise, were not consulted or made aware in advance of public notice about these proposals. The staff, who know far more than any Councillor, should be respected and listened to, to a much greater extent, and their views used to shape alternative proposals.
3. The consultation itself is unclear and confusing. Online primarily with ambiguous and misleading questions.
4. The current delivery model is working. Children's centres are working! Norfolk County Council’s own statistics show that the centre’s are reaching 75% or more of their target audience. How many Council services can claim such a success rate? The narrative surrounding the proposals is not sufficiently respectful of the good work that's being undertaken and implies the service is not working - which is not the case.
5. Thetford is an area of entrenched deprivation. Within top 10% in the UK. Significant demand locally for services provided by children’s centres.
6. Crucial to a child’s development that support is available from a young age. Without such support, development may be compromised and much more difficult, and costly, to rectify in later years. We have issues with poor educational attainment locally already which will be exacerbated if children's centres close. Thetford Academy obtained some of the worst GCSE results in Norfolk this year (believed to be second worst in County).
7. NCC proposal relies on other buildings being available for activities when children's centres close – but there has been no review in Thetford of availability and suitability of such venues. Local knowledge would suggest there are few buildings available (that's why children's centres were created, the one at Kingsway purpose built for its use).
8. Proposals do not take into account rurality and a lack of public transport. Thetford is a market town.
9. Social mobility is a major issue in Breckland, of the 324 local authorities in England, Breckland is ranked at 300 in terms of poor social mobility. That’s a worse position that Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn.
10. The new proposal has not been properly quantified – how many sessions will be delivered? And where? No evaluation of time travelling to venues, taking equipment etc. cost of hiring other buildings.
11. Let’s face it – we’ve already lost so much in Thetford. Youth Service - gone. Youth Centre on Croxton Road - gone. Connexions - gone. Adult Education base at Tanner House - gone. Elm Road pupil referral unit and social services base - gone. Teaching Assistants in Schools - reduced significantly. Schools in Thetford alone have lost £817,647 – between 2015-2020. Where does it end? Council now wanting to reduce services for babies. Enough is enough.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Breckland Full Council 27.07.17

Full Council at Breckland today. There's 8 Councillors covering the wards in Thetford - just 3 turned up for the meeting. Myself, Mark Robinson and Mark Taylor - bit pathetic hey? Just 1 of the 4 strong UKIP group bothered to turn up - they're the official opposition and get paid to help keep the ruling administration in check and ask questions - pah! More often than not they vote with the Tories and say nothing at the meeting and can't even turn up today. I made the following points: 1. Void rates: Has the situation with void rates for Flagship properties improved? previously properties were being left empty on average for 30 days when someone moved out and someone new moved in (primarily due to the uselessness of RFT) - other housing associations are achieving turnarounds on average under a week. Is the Council continuing to apply pressure on Flagship. The longer dozens of properties are left empty the longer people sit on the housing waiting list or suffer homelessness etc. 2. I asked for clarity on the Council's constitution - can a member of the Council continue to serve even though they are resident in another Country? Will they still be paid their £440 a month allowance as a Cllr despite not attending resident meetings or Council meetings? 3. Local plan / Affordable housing targets - I asked whether the Council's new Local Plan accurately quantified the need for affordable homes - some of the data is years old and recent austerity measures have surely significantly increased the demand. The target for affordable homes on new developments is being cut in Breckland from 40% of all new developments to just 25%, will that meet the demand? The numbers of affordable homes delivered is much less than the number of affordable homes anticipated to be delivered - is this realistic and how will the Council reassure people that these figures are deliverable? I didn't think I was being overly party political but Councillor Bill Borrett accused me of "cheap political point scoring" - no shock there then, everything I say elicits a similar response from him. He carries on as if there is no hardship in Breckland and everything is hunky dory - apparently we have very high employment. As I responded, yes wonderful, we could have 100% employment but frankly if wages remain as low as they are, and the cost of living is such, there will remain hardship and a need for affordable housing. I reminded him and other Councillors that the majority of clients at Thetford Foodbank are in full time work - such is the situation with low wages locally (Breckland nationally recognised as a low wage area). Who locally on minimum wage or even somewhat above minimum wage can afford to rent a property? or get a deposit / mortgage offer together? Also reminded him that public sector workers continue to have pay freezes or rises not significant enough to keep up with the cost of living increases. Arghhhhhh another day where I wish to god there were more Labour Councillors on Breckland or frankly anyone that spouted something different to what the huge number of Tories do. And breathe and back to work.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Norfolk County Council - 24th July 2017

I was at County Hall yesterday (Monday 24th July 2017) for the Full Council meeting of Norfolk County Council. Amongst the usual Council business there was a rather timely motion about Norfolk Fire Service - full motion by Steve Morphew pictured. I was pleased to speak in support of the motion but sadly it was no carried with every Conservative Councillor, including the one representing Thetford, voting against.
"Mr Chairman, I am pleased to be able to support this motion and want to particularly comment upon the section that talks about flooding, point 3.

Whenever you see flooding incidents on the television or in the newspapers, whether they be coastal related flooding incidents or situations further inland, more often than not, pretty much all the time in fact, you’ll see a fire engine somewhere in the immediate vicinity and you’ll see the distinctive uniform of our fire service men and women. They can be relied upon to get in there and start tackling the problem, whether that be helping to transport people to safety or pumping water away. Certainly from a public point of view, if you were to dial 999 and you needed the fire service to assist, you'd expect them to be there.
It comes as a surprise therefore to many that there is not a formal requirement for the fire service to respond to incidents of flooding as it is not regarded as a statutory duty.
That should come as a particular concern to us here in Norfolk Mr Chairman.
The Flood Risk Assessment report that went before the most recent ETD Committee confirmed that the flood risk from surface water run-off and groundwater is significant in our County. Over 10,000 properties at risk in Norwich alone nearly 500 in Attleborough and over 1,000 in my own town of Thetford.
That’s before we even consider the risk associated with near 100 miles of coastline, the Broads, and the low lying nature of our land.
A report that went before a Committee of this Council in 2011 predicted that there were over 100,000 properties in Norfolk at risk of flooding – a figure that put Norfolk in the national top ten list for flooding concerns. Nearly half of all properties, nearly 50,000 identified were at risk from tidal flooding alone.
During December 2013 and at the height of the tidal surge in Great Yarmouth there were 200 breaches of Norfolk’s flood defences.
We should be particularly concerned that the support needed to assist with incidents is not regarded as a statutory function and that with general fire service funding being inadequate, core functions will inevitably be prioritised. This puts an even greater risk that those non statutory functions, like dealing with flooding, will not be met.
In September 2016 the then Norfolk Chief Fire Officer said in an interview with the Lynn News said that the “fire service would not be able to send crews to flooding incidents unless proper funding was forthcoming”. At the time the grim prediction was that less than a quarter of the funding needed for flood support was being made available.
It is crucial therefore Mr Chairman that we support this motion, which includes reference to flooding so that we can continue to emphasise the importance of responses to flooding being a statutory duty and try and ensure that the funding is somewhat closer to matching the evident demand here in Norfolk. And funding that is to a greater extent equitable to the level of risk".

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Speech to Mayor's Charity Ball - 11th March 2017

Speech to Mayor’s Ball – Saturday 11th March 2017

Good evening Ladies and Gentleman, It is my sincere pleasure to welcome you to the Carnegie Rooms this evening for the annual Mayor’s Charity Ball.

Tonight is a celebration of our community, it is an opportunity to raise money for charity and yes, tonight is also about having a good time – which I really hope you all do.

Having been born and raised in Thetford, I thought I knew a fair amount about our town. I went to school here, I grew up here and I’ve served as a Councillor for nearly 10 years. This past year serving as your Mayor has however been somewhat of an eye opener. I’ve met groups I never knew existed and discovered support mechanisms going about their work very much under the radar.

Groups such as Link Up, the talking newspaper for the blind and partially sighted – whose volunteers are helping in excess of 100 people a fortnight to stay in touch with local news. Thetford Dementia Support group who’s Christmas Party I joined and saw how they comfort those battling the debilitating illness and provide support for those caring for them. A visit to the Thetford Breathe Easy group revealed how people with illnesses such as COPD are still very much enjoying life – incidentally, they hold the record so far for the longest raffle that I’ve been present for with in excess of 50 prizes.

I’ve learnt about our heritage – aspects that I never fully understood or appreciated. I’ve been down a pit at Grimes Graves - wearing the Mayoral chain. I spoke at the gravesite of Maharajah Duleep Singh to commemorate the anniversary of his death – I’ve almost worked out how to pronounce Maharajah – although I’m not quite there. I’ve attended the handing over of a first edition book by Thomas Paine and visited the Charles Burrell Museum – so many fascinating aspects about our heritage.

I’ve learnt about of twin towns and better understood our twinning relationships – I’ve delivered a speech in our twin town of Hurth in Germany, received the Mayor of our twin town of Skawina in Poland here in Thetford in Kings House gardens for afternoon tea and been the guest of our twin town of Les Ulis in France for a sound and light show highlighting the history of Les Ulis since its birth 40 years ago – incredibly I went to Les Ulis as an 11 year child as part of a school trip to celebrate its 20th birthday and the signing of our twinning agreement with Thetford and then returned 20 years later as the Mayor of the town I was born in.

I’ve also endured the consternation of the French when I admitted I didn’t like red wine and witnessed the sheer horror on a German translator’s face when visiting Versailles in France and Corinne asked them to translate “ostentatious”. Similar horror that was probably visible on my face when Corinne started to talk to the German delegation in a confined space about Dads Army and the War – clearly forgetting that they “don’t like it up em”.

During the year I’ve also sought to improve community cohesion and represent the whole of Thetford – I’ve visited the Polish Language School which I helped to officially open along with representatives from the Polish embassy and I’ve opened a new Portuguese run support service with the Portuguese ambassador – almost caused a diplomatic incident when I highlighted in my speech that the Ambassador had not brought with him any ferroro roche. I’ve welcomed the Deputy Mayor of Nagawa, Japan who we are now twinned with through grimes graves and the obsidian mines in Nagawa. I now know what obsidian is and I can sing you a catchy song about it as well and I know of its similarities to our flint. We’ve also co-ordinated an event to mark and support the United Nations International Day of Tolerance.

I can now tell you what a black and white horse is – a piebald – thanks to the Thetford Mastermind final – I was told that no, it wasn’t in fact a zebra. I’ve learnt that some people really, really love hats – some can’t wait to take them off, some can’t hold back in forcing others to keep them on. Yes, 2016 has not only been the year of Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s been the year of hatgate as well.

Talking of the Council, I asked on social media this week for some advice on what to include in my speech this evening and how to make it funny. Talk about dicks said one of those that commented – they’re always good for a laugh. But seeing as those Councillors aren’t here I’ll just move on.

Without doubt however, visiting schools and youth groups across Thetford has been a particular highlight this year and it has shown that our young people are bright, they’re full of energy and they’re certainly inquisitive. I hope through those visits at least young people are aware of a little bit about our democratic institutions and failing that – they at least now know that No, I am not the King, I do not live in a Castle, I’m not a millionaire – and no, Corinne Fulford is not my stalker, even though as pointed about by one young person, and I quote “she follows you everywhere”.

I’ve been able to compare and contrast life today for young people in Thetford with my own – growing up in a small market town with limited opportunities and limited transport links can be tough – add to that mix today that everything is seen through the prism of social media, or a camera, everything is documented and recorded and accessible – makes it all the more difficult and the challenges, particularly mentally, all the harder to overcome.
That is why, profits raised from this evening, including the raffle, will go towards my Mayor’s Charity Fund which this year is supporting groups locally providing services and opportunities for children and young people, groups such as the Benjamin Foundation and Meet Up Café, groups such as Thetford Community Association and Charles Burrell Centre who are all represented here this evening. I urge you to give generously and thank those local businesses that have provided raffle prizes. I particularly thank the main financial donor for the ball itself Lawsons Estate Agents who have given generously to help cover some of the costs staging this evening -

There have been some emotional moments this year, plenty of frustrations, but this year has been such fun as well – taking the Lord Mayor of Norwich in full robes and chains on the waltzers at Kings Lynn mart was a particular highlight, supporting 39 events during the two week Thetford Festival, the 80s disco and Christmas quiz as well. Thank-you to everyone that played a part and embraced and supported the year.

Another highlight was undoubtedly the Lord Mayors Parade in Norwich – my seating position on the official platform led to many thinking that I was in fact the Lord Mayor, highly embarrassing, but thankfully taken in good spirit by the actual Lord Mayor, who has referred to me as the Deputy Lord Mayor for the remainder of the year, so much so that staff at County Hall also refer to me as Lord Mayor. The procession was also a highlight for Corinne, she came face to face with the Star Wars appreciation society and Chewbacca – for those that don’t know Corinne has a thing for Chewbacca – so I have a little gift for her.

Corinne please stand – this Ball probably wouldn’t’ have happened if it were not for Corinne, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened to the same standard, Corinne has supported me immensely in my year as Mayor, so I’d like to ask you to all put your hands together – Corinne, thank-you.

I thank also the local organisation’s that have crafted the fantastic table centre pieces this evening – each depicting an aspect of Thetford – you’ll see on your table a sheet for choosing your favourite – this is in part designed to encourage you to walk round and view each table and appreciate what’s on offer.

As these tables confirm, we have much to be proud of in Thetford; we have environmental assets and heritage that are the envy of many, we have people rich in passion with unending potential. We are geographically placed to reap great rewards.

Let’s tonight celebrate what we have, and tomorrow continue to spread that positive message and work to make Thetford greater than it already is.

Thank-you and enjoy your evening.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Portuguese Ambassador Visits Thetford

Busy day yesterday but incredibly interesting and useful. The Portuguese Ambassador visited Thetford for the day stopping off at a number of locations. Firstly we visited the Ancient House Museum to witness the handing over of a rare first edition Thomas Paine book - this was found by a Portuguese man who was in Thetford two years ago for an event at the Charles Burrell Centre and got talking to people about Thomas Paine which started an interest for him which resulted in him finding this book which has now been made available to the Ancient House Museum. Following this we had lunch at Chocolate Mirror in the Town centre. We then went to Thetford Academy where over 100 Portuguese students had gathered in the auditorium and the Ambassador spoke to them about his role and his career and he fielded questions. Really interesting discussions and the young people were a credit to the school. From there to Charles Burrell Centre where the Ambassador and I officially opened a new support service at the Centre for young people run by a local Portuguese couple and finally a question and answer session in the main hall with members of the local Portuguese community. Clearly lots of anxiety and concern about Brexit. Disappointing that I was with the Ambassador all day and not once did he offer me a Ferrero Roche 😒 (thanks for some of the photos Carlos Ribeiro)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Redcastle Play Area - T&B 22.02.17

Norfolk County Council Budget Speech - 20th February 2017

My speech to Norfolk County Council budget meeting - 20th February 2017: Mr Chairman, at the start of this debate the Leader of the Council, Mr Cliff Jordan (Conservative), said that it was his "Pleasure" to propose this budget. I thought that maybe it was a slip of the tongue - a strange word to use in this context, pleasure? But it was followed up by the Deputy Leader Mrs Alison Thomas who also used the word pleasure and went on further to say that she commended the budget proposals to us.
I take no pleasure from this process whatsoever. I don't know how someone can commend what is before us today.
I take no pleasure in a budget that will be to the detriment to some of the most vulnerable people in Norfolk. Older people with a reduced quality of life, younger people receiving less support if they were to find themselves homeless. Disabled residents with reduced opportunities. That's what is before us. I take no pleasure from these proposals. I also don't think there is much financial sense in the proposals - think of one aspect - cuts to services for younger people - work such as that undertaken by the Benjamin Foundation and YMCA - think of the cost to the taxpayer from future generations failed at an early stage rather than receiving the support and intervention that could have put them on the right path early on.
Support early on saves far more money in the long run.
There are bigger issues at work here. More fundamental issues. Our society is changing and the mechanisms and support services needed are not keeping up with that change.
One of the biggest changes which the country and particularly Norfolk faces is our aging population. This should be celebrated. We're living longer thanks to medical advancements and other improvements. But with this change in our society we have to recognise that our structures in society need to change. Our NHS is struggling for a variety of reasons, a lack of funding yes, but demand is increasing and costs increasing. Year on year cuts to adult social care is without doubt contributing to that increasing demand at the other end. A reduction in preventative action, means there are pieces that have to be picked up later on -often at greater cost. We are reducing financial support at a time when we should be doing the exact opposite.
This approach of reductions in funding, like this budget, is not a solution. It's a sticking plaster. It's a delaying of the inevitable of what is required, a more fundamental change in care support, a change too in the way local government is funded.
I also take no pleasure in this budget given the increase in council tax proposed. Council tax is a regressive tax, different neighbours on a street can pay the same tax for the property, despite their financial differences, as the tax takes no account of their ability to pay or individual circumstances.
The affect of this near £60 band D increase will be felt to lesser or greater extents by residents across Norfolk depending on the extent to which district councils support disadvantaged people with council tax. Breckland Council does not support those on low incomes with their council tax payments. This increase will cause hardship. National priorities filtering down to people in my division - I don't doubt the desire of the residents I represent to fund services and pay their fair share - but paying more, receiving less support, all at a time when some of the wealthiest in society are paying less into the pot than they previously were - that would test the charitable will of many.
Because let's face it - this increase is not to improve services provided. It's purely to substitute the loss of money from government. The increase is not to fund something new. We are asking for more money but proposing to deliver less. The increase is purely plugging the reduced support from the Conservative government.
So I am happy to support the Labour Group amendment, it goes some way towards addressing the harshness of these proposals for the most vulnerable but regardless of whatever is adopted today, we should all be aware of the fact that whatever we adopt is in no way a solution and we should most certainly take no pleasure whatsoever from it.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Speech to Uncle Dennis's Funeral 23.01.17

Earlier this month, about a week or so after Dennis had passed away, New Years Honours were awarded; MBEs for sports stars, knighthoods for celebrities, there were also many ordinary people up and down the Country that received recognition for what they had done for others. Uncle Dennis never received an award as such, but we all know he was the sort of guy who surely deserved one for he was very much a person who would help out absolutely anyone and over many, many years has no doubt done something for probably the vast majority of people in Church today.

One very practical way that Dennis helped others was making available space in his house for people to live when there was a need. My sister Michelle, her friend Nayna, Cousin Lee and my brother Mark have all at times lived at Dennis’s house. When I was 21, I found myself in a difficult situation with nowhere particular to live, it was Uncle Dennis that offered me a place to stay. I didn’t know Dennis particularly well at that point but it was over that 2 and a half years that I lived there that I really came to understand what he was all about. Uncle Dennis was a very quiet, very humble man who went about his life. He worked nights at TNT so as I would often be coming home from work or a night out with friends, Dennis would be getting up for work. I’d be just about getting ready to go to sleep on a cold night and would say to Dennis how I didn’t envy him going out to work throughout the night in the cold. Other than the usual Dennis grumbles which we all knew and loved, he didn’t particularly moan – he just got on with it – that was very much his way. With his simple cheese sandwhich in a plastic food bag and perhaps a tomato to take to. He never really ate very much. In fact, he had a fairly rigourous routine – you could guarantee that at any time of the year, on any particular day you could open his fridge or a cupboard and find the same items – Bread, Cheese, Tomatoes of course a bottle of Whiskey somewhere in a cupboard and of course a Fray Bentos pie.

Living at Uncle Dennis’s for the time I did allowed me to save up for my first house. And once I had got enough money together I was able to move out. Dennis wasn’t done then of course with helping, he was a regular fixture coming round helping with maintenance work and other errands. Particularly so when Dad had his stroke and became Chief Foreman with Dennis ably filling the role of Apprentice.

Dennis was also full of surprises, I remember when he was taken into Addenbrokes for an operation and had to be kept in for a few days. I remember thinking that this wouldn’t be easy for him – out of his routine and no doubt in a ward full of people he didn’t know which may be uncomfortable for him. I made a point of visiting to check that he was OK and rather than finding him sat in a corner alone, he was leading a deep discussion with the other guys on the ward about cars. Dennis had found his audience and I think he was actually a bit sad when it was time to come home.

Even when I was ready to move out of my first house at Elm Road after a few years to my next house, it was Uncle Dennis who was there lending a hand. The week I had to move was frantic for me and I was working in Cambridge full time for a month leading up to the move. So every night I’d box up items to be moved and at some point the following day Dennis would turn up to pick up the items and take to his house for storage so that when the day of the move came things would be less stressful. Even once I had moved, Dennis would turn up to cut my grass when it needed doing – I had my own lawn mower, but he didn’t like it of course so brought his own along to get the job done. One particular day Mum and Dad were visiting and we spotted Dennis was in the garden cutting the grass so I quickly made him a cup of tea and went to take it down to him – by the time I’d got there he’d cut the grass and gone – no hanging around to wait for thank-yous. Off he went to get on with something else – that was is way.

I always wondered if Dennis was happy, he seemed content and he never particularly complained about anything so I guess he was – I certainly hope he was.

Since my Dad had his stroke he’s become a much more sociable person – sometimes frankly we can’t get him to stop talking or using the telephone – as I am sure many of you can now appreciate. And whilst of course we would all have wished it never had happened it has been so nice to see over recent years to see the time that Dennis and Dad have been able to spend with each other. Uncle Richard too has become a prominent member of the gang, particularly since Aunty Yvonne sadly passed away. Trevor, Dennis and Richard – a trio of likely suspects if ever there was one. But the fun that they had together was plain to see and always made me smile. I was genuinely concerned on occasions that they were laughing so hard they may cause themselves an injury. One such occasion was no doubt last Halloween when we decorated Mum and Dads house ready for trick or treaters but it was Dad and Uncle Richard who dressed up in costume and laid in the front garden in wait having already telephoned Uncle Dennis asking him to pop up. Once Dennis has been suitably scared, he got his own mask and took up a spot in the front garden.

Dennis didn’t have many hobbies as such but something he did enjoy doing was visiting Car Boot Sales – not content with visiting a morning bootsale he would often visit an afternoon one at a different location on the same day. Despite no doubt dozens and dozens of bootsale trips Dennis would rarely buy anything at all – I can’t actually remember anything he did buy but he no doubt got enjoyment from just visiting them.

When Dennis passed, I was asked if I wanted to visit at the Funeral Parlour – I decided not to. Every time I think of Uncle Dennis now I remember him on the night we all went out to celebrate his birthday at a local restaurant. Dennis was smiling and he was happy – nothing too extravagant but a night out with family and something to eat was good enough for him. The photo on the front of the service sheet today is Dennis on that night.

So, no award as such for Uncle Dennis, but neveretheless, a man that gave so much time to helping others for little or no reward. But someone that will be sadly missed and someone that will live on through others, others that will remember a man that was quiet and humble, someone that got on with their life and helped others when he could, a role model of sorts in world when those qualities are not always plain to see.

Thank-you Uncle Dennis on behalf of everyone you have ever done something for.