Friday, 27 July 2012

Breckland By-elections; Round 2

So our second set of Breckland By-elections is over! The torrential rain that dogged the Attleborough by-election was replaced by considerable sunshine and heat. I'm not sure what I dislike more, canvassing and leafletting in the rain, or doing so when you are sweating and hot & bothered.

I provided an analysis of the election last week, so I had best do so again this week.

I'll start with Harling & Heathlands Ward;

Let's start by making clear that this is a very solidly Conservative ward. The top placed Conservative last year got 928 with the second placed Conservative getting 875. The first placed candidate then, Lady Kay Fisher, was the one that resigned this time around - she had been a Councillor for many years, a former Cabinet member, a well known name and significant land owner locally, hence her stronger showing in the polls. The Labour candidate in 2011 was Stephen Green who polled a very respectable 403 votes, after a dormant period of limited opposition and very limited activity. That gap between the Conservative candidates and the Labour candidate in 2011 was the biggest out of all 54 Breckland Council seats. The Conservative vote for this two member ward was higher than it was for some Council wards where it is a 3 member ward and a greater number of voters available.

What happened this time around? The Conservatives polled 453 votes, which was a good result for them on an almost 20% less turnout. The Labour vote of 168 was disappointing, given the hard work, but we earned every one of those votes. The Lib Dem vote was fascinatingly high at 129 votes, given their relatively limited activity locally and unpopularity nationally and a UKIP showing of 184 was a very good result for them. I suspect the UKIP and Lib Dem candidates collected a lot of Labour votes as there were in effect three 'non-Conservative' candidates to choose from and therefore more choice so people spread their vote around. I suspect the Lib Dem effort was more about keeping their profile up locally prior to the County elections next May, when their candidate for H&H is likely to be the same candidate for the relevant County Ward. The Conservative share of the vote did fall by 21.1% with an overall vote share this time of 48.5%. I'm aware that the UKIP leaflet spoke of their opposition to car parking charges in Breckland, and I suspect the Lim Dem leaflet did as well, although I've not seen it, so again that anti car parking charge vote was spread around. I'm aware that many Conservative voters took the opportunity to express concerns to Conservative activists / Councillors about a variety of issues but still ultimately voted Blue. Our candidate Stephen Green was a very good candidate and I am sure he learnt a lot this time around and I hope that he will stand again in the future. The support of his wife Rainie, and friends & family members was lovely to see. We had a team of 11 out in Harling one evening, with 6 of them being under 28.

Mid Forest...

This is one of the most affluent (if not the most) statistically affluent wards in the whole of Breckland. Further, there has not been a district council contest in this ward for over a decade, and I was determined not to allow that to happen this time. I was delighted when one of our members who lives in the ward said he would like to put his name forward, with the primary intention of giving people locally a chance to vote and express their opinion - a very laudable aim. Our campaigning was limited, given our focus initially on Attleborough, and then Harling & Heathlands, but we did do the best we could, and a vote tally of 151 is a fantastic achievement - just 106 votes behind the Conservative candidate. It goes to show that Labour can field candidates in more rural areas and can get votes, with a stronger effort, Labour could win seats such as this.

Again, I was delighted with our candidate - Alex Vyse. At just 22, he is exactly the sort of person that I would like the Breckland Labour Group to be engaging. With a Business Economics degree under his belt as well, and the fact that he lives in the ward and grew up there would have helped his vote score. I am sure that Alex learned a lot, and he wasn't expecting to win, so I'm sure he was not too disappointed but will hopefully stand again as a Labour candidate in the future.


I won't say too much seeing as they are the opposition, but a brief word on the Conservative campaign; they worked hard. There is no denying that. They selected two strong candidates, and they got their voters out. They have considerably more resources than any of the other party's locally (combined!) and they put them to work, with visits from the MP, and one of their MEPs, and a large number of Conservative District Cllrs who were out and about leafletting and canvassing. Driving along from Garboldisham to Harling yesterday I spotted no less than 3 Breckland Cabinet members, 2 Executive supporters members and the 1 ex Tory Candidate that resigned, all out and about making sure Conservatives went to vote. The last thing that Conservative Councillors will want is for seats in Breckland to start slipping from Blue to Red.

However, as one person said to me yesterday; "You (Breckland Labour) have made politics in Breckland interesting again" - high praise indeed and our efforts have been noticed. We ran 3 strong campaigns, and I am delighted with all of them and look forward to the day when our efforts result in Labour wins.

Both successful candidates will be much better Councillors having worked hard across their respective wards, spoken to voters, and earned their support. Councillors that walk into seats, either uncontested or with little opposition too easily take things for granted and forget why they are there.

My two favourite moments of the campaign?

1. Leafletting the picturesque village of Oxborough, not sure if there is a single Labour voter at all. When suddenly our team were greeted by a man who rushed out of his house to introduce himself, reveal his emphatic support for Labour and explain how he used to be a good drinking buddy of Ken Livingstones in London in the 1970s.

2. When leafletting Harling, I came across a house that had proudly displayed every leaflet that they had received in their front window. They were clearly engaging in the democratic process and it was nice to see.

My least favourite?

Thankfully not too many disappointing aspects. As per usual I got so very frustrated when knocking on so many doors of people who simply do not care and will not vote. It's so disappointing. Particularly the guy that proclaimed "they're all w@nkers!" Did he really make an effort to scrutinise them and come to that conclusion? I really don't think so.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Giving local politics a bad name....

Some weeks ago, the 4 Independents on Breckland Council clubbed together and formed their own political 'group' and seeing as there are now only 3 Labour members on the Council they assumed the position as 'official opposition' and therefore their Leader, Terry Lamb, became the Leader of the Opposition, and eligible for the extra £2,600 that I was receiving as Leader of the Opp. For those of you that know me, you will realise that this would have come as somewhat a blow. Having given up my full-time job to focus on my local political responsibilities I relied on that money. I was already struggling financially as the £400 a month I got for being a Councillor and the extra £200 that I received for being Leader was hardly a kings ransom, but it did mean that my mortgage got paid and I had a basic level of income that I topped up through other work. Now these things happen, and legally (certainly not morally) the group of 4 had the right to do this. If they had a burning desire to serve the Breckland electorate and radically fulfill the role of Breckland opposition then you could perhaps understand their motivations, or if I, and the Labour Group had been fulfilling the role ineffectively, failing to attend meetings, failing to contribute then again, you could have understood and respected the motivations. Now, I cannot critique my own performance, but, I have put in the effort and I have made contributions. If you look at the Attleborough by-election you will see that the public there at least put their faith in Labour and voted for the Labour candidate and other than the Conservatives it is only the Breckland Labour Group that is contesting all 3 of these by-elections. The new Leader of the Opp has already stated that he won't attend the meetings like I did, e.g. attending every Cabinet meeting, Chairing Overview & Scrutiny when required etc. I doubt that he will undertake the research that I did and make the speech's at Full Council like I did. So what is the motivation? According to his EDP comments, the motivation is also not financial, as he intends to give away the extra money that he receives. Therefore I have two conclusions, he partly wanted to give me a bit of a kicking while he could - Mr Lamb and I are from entirely different generations and have opposing views and do clash at Thetford Town Council meetings, although we are both fiercely passionate about Thetford and I've never understood why we could not find common ground, hey ho! I suspect he also wanted to give Labour a knock, as he is basically a Tory that sits as an Independent, although, he's probably too right wing even for Tories to cope with. This is exactly the sort of political games that gives local politics a bad name and why the public switch off from it all. Self interest, rather than public interest. Short term personal / political game rather than wider appreciation of what is best for local residents collectively. What's been achieved? Removing what opposition there was on Breckland Council, something that will not serve anyone, including the ruling group, well at all.

Friday, 20 July 2012

My speech to Thetford Town Council on the TAAP; 18th July 2012

TAAP comments from TJ on Weds 18th July 2012 debate

• Can I start by saying how pleased I am that this Council has actually gone through this process and at least considered the options available to us, and I thank the Clerk for making the necessary arrangements and thank Councillors for engaging with the discussions. Whilst some have known where they stand on this issue for sometime, others have agonised over the way they intend to cast their vote this evening, and their consideration of the issues and open minded approach should be commended.

• An important point that I want to make is the fact that the 16 of us are here to represent existing residents of Thetford. We’re not here to represent ourselves, or personal interest, we’re not here to represent Breckland Council, Kilverstone Estate or Shadwell Estate. My driving force throughout this debate has been about how this plan impacts upon the people of the Saxon Ward as their representative and whether it would enhance their quality of life or be detrimental to it.

• I remain of the opinion that the TAAP would not assist the communities that I serve or the Town as a whole, and I continue to oppose it.

• The question remains for those of us that do oppose it; do we oppose it strongly enough to want to spend Thetford taxpayers money on challenging it legally.

• I’ve not heard any definitive answer on costings of such action, but the scare stories of it “bankrupting the town” and costing in the region of £100k now seem unrealistic. However, I think if the Town Council were to undertake this, we need to prepared to lose up to £50k.

• That’s a large sum of money, and I am sure that we could all think of other ways to spend this. However, this is the blueprint for growth for the next 20 years, if we get this wrong, the financial cost for years to come will be far greater. £50,000 is approximately a cost of £5 for every Band D household in Thetford, broken down like this is does not sound all that expensive. Furthermore, this is a document that will be relevant certainly for the next 10 years, so a cost of just 50p for each of its initial years of existence. We will be debating as a Council spending millions of pounds on the Guildhall / Carnegie room, but cannot find £50k for these important plans? As one resident of Thetford said to me, you found £20k for the Jubilee without much drama, why not for this? We have over £400k in revenue reserves alone as of this very moment.

Any decision to not proceed with this action quite clearly should not be because as a Council we can’t afford it, when clearly we can.

• On the point about Shadwell; I would support a joint challenge with Shadwell as their motivations would appear to be similar to mine in that they want to TAAP revisted, and improved. I do not want it thrown out completely, but the Town wants as I believe, a fairer distribution of houses across the town, the Town want a greater commitment to regeneration and any revisiting would ultimately delay this plan allowing the Town Centre master plan to catch up and a greater commitment to infrastructure development to materialise. This rush to growth seems totally unnecessary and I will be voting for this Council to do what we are here to do, which is to look out for the best interests of the people we serve, and I will vote for a legal challenge. History will judge whether our actions here tonight were right or wrong.

Attleborough By-election; my thoughts & analysis

For months I had wanted a by-election to pop up in Breckland, something that I could really get my teeth into as the new Leader of the Labour Group, and then I got more than I bargained for when 3 came along together. The first was Attleborough Queens Ward which took place yesterday. Having stood as a paper candidate for a Queens Ward by election some years ago myself, I knew that it had a good number of Labour voters, and was winnable to some extent, but there had been no Labour activity in the area for nearly 20 years, no active branch functioning and only a handful of members. Worst of all, Labour hadn't even managed to field a candidate in the 2011 District b-election and 3 Tories were elected unopposed - something I always hate!

My first task was to find a strong, credible Labour candidate, and I was delighted when John Williams put his hat into the ring. A sports journalist by trade, party member for over 40 years, a life member of the National Union of Journalists, and a previous candidate in Attleborough. This is the sort of candidate that Breckland Labour group wants to field across the whole district. He came within a handful of votes of beating Adrian Stasiak for the other Attleborogh District seat some years ago.

I obviously wanted to focus the campaign on car parking charges, as this has been a key issue in Breckland, but Attleborough would be tricky as Attleborough was an area with probably the least resistance to car parking charges. Its high street is doing relatively well compared to many in Norfolk and Breckland and being located along a main train line there is a distinct problem with motorists leaving their cars in public car parks all day and whizzing off to work in Norwich or Cambridge etc on the train, blocking spaces that could be used by shoppers. Just having a quick look at the 1800 signatures to the online car parking charges petition shows approximately around just 20 signatures from Attleborough residents.

That said, the car parking charges campaign did resonate with the public and many people voted Labour because of the campaign. One of my favourite moments of the campaign was when I knocked on someones door and he said; "I f*cking hate Labour, but I f*ucking hate car parking charges as well, so for the first time ever, I'm going to vote for your guy". National issues was a factor as well, and I was suprised at how life long Conservative votes openly said how they never voted Labour previously, but hated the Coalition Government, and / or hated David Cameron and "would be voting Labour to teach them a lesson". The biggest winner however was clearly apathy - turnout did not even reach 17%. There is nearly 700 people registered to vote by post for Attleborough Queens Ward, and I don't think even half of them bothered, and they had ballots sent to them direct! I am sure the weather played a part, as it was a particularly wet and miserable day, particularly in the evening when I am sure that many people would have intended to vote after work. The potentially limited choice was an issue as well, as there were only two candidates - although, Breckland is pretty much a two horse race between Labour and Conservatives so people should be used to this. But there were strong campaigns on both sides, a stronger campaign for a district council seat in Breckland than I am sure many can recall.

I was delighted that the campaign motivated Attleborough members to come out and leaflet, it enticed activists from Norwich and Thetford to assist and a number of non party members as well. I think approximately 25 different people helped to varying amounts over the past few weeks and I, and John, are incredibly grateful for their support.

So, in the short term I am disappointed, as I understand it a win yesterday would have meant that I would have regained the position as Leader of the Opposition, rather than just Leader of the Labour group, which is somewhat a setback for me personally, but, in the medium / longer term this is a fantastic result for Breckland Labour and will stand us in good stead for future elections. I learnt a considerable amount personally, it was my first by election as Breckland Labour Group Leader, and my first bite of a really active campaign other than my own campaigns either for Town or District for Thetford-Saxon Ward. Labour has firmly reaffirmed itself as 'the opposition' in Breckland, and not just in a couple of seats in Thetford and Dereham- we must establish support District wide, and be a challenge in more than just the usual seats. I do now wonder whether running the Conservatives so close in an area which they regard as 'safe' (I'm sure they will say they take nothing for granted!) will it make them seriously reconsider parking charges?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

My comments at Breckland Council meeting on 5th July 2012 regarding play area transfers

Thank-you Mr Chairman, I wanted to comment on the play areas issue if I may because it is very pertinent to the wider debate that this Council will be having over the coming months; indeed a debate that Councillors will be continuing after this very meeting.

Now call me an old cynic, but I do not see that this ongoing handing over of the play areas is entirely for the reasons as altruistic as Cllr Sherwood refers to in these notes. The point I was making at the meeting was that surely when as a Council we are reviewing what services should be provided by Breckland, and what could be provided by others, we should have a very firm eye not just on cost, but also on value for money. For example, I don’t suppose that Breckland has much of an idea about the cost to Breckland of providing play areas, versus for example Dereham Town Council and others individually providing them. If the Chair of Dereham Town Council Finance committee is to be believed, tax payers in Dereham will ultimately be picking up the bill for the offloading of this particular service, referred to of course as the transfer of assets, when in reality it is the transfer of community assets, with the associated financial liabilities. If the public ultimately end up paying more for the same service, because those economies of scale have been removed, what has been gained? Do the public mind too much who they pay? No, they care about how much they pay and the public will view this as Breckland sidestepping another responsibility.

In short, the point I am making is to of course consider services and who is best to provide them, but also consider the cost, and the value for money. Or is this council about offloading as much as it can, to keep its own share of the council tax down at any cost to the public through other avenues.

Will this commitment to localism see Breckland hand to Thetford Town Council the 300,000 square feet of office accommodation / retail units that it owns, and the £1million plus yearly income that they yield? I think not.

My speech to Breckland Council re: TAAP on 5th July 2012

Thank-you Mr Chairman, I speak on this subject as an elected representative of the people of Thetford, and in particular the Thetford Saxon Ward. This issue is not a party political issue. It goes beyond that.

My concerns regarding the growth plans for Thetford are well known. Many other people have expressed similar and additional concerns. Thousands of people have been involved in the numerous consultations and nearly 2,500 voted in a referendum on the issue of the bus station. Further to this, many organisations have submitted views, and many have raised concerns.

Let’s be clear, this is not a debate about Thetford moving forward or not, it is not about old versus new it is not about change versus stagnation. I welcome growth, and I welcome the opportunities that it may bring – this is a view almost universally shared in the town. But, if there is one thing that the history of the town of Thetford shows, it is that growth must be meticulously planned as well as appropriately and sensitively managed. If it is not, the consequences will have to be suffered for generations to follow.

I remain unconvinced that the present plans detailed in the TAAP are in the best interests of present day Thetford or its future. For example, these plans will do little to improve existing residents quality of life, and improve the areas that they live in, indeed I fear what may materialise will be to the detriment of existing areas. Shiny new schools and new community centres will not help what limited facilities currently exist, many left to ruin by this council, but the realization of the plan will highlight the stark contrast that exists to a far greater extent. And peripheral new retail areas and service centres will not encourage more people to shop in the high street, they will further assist in its decline. Relocating all high school provision to one end of town will not assist with the education of many of the towns young people who will now be faced with a 6 mile walk each day to and from school, these proposals will be to the detriment of their education.

Had I been presented today with a plan for growth that showed me a true commitment to regeneration, sympathetic, meaningful and tangible support for our historical and environmental assets and a determination not to create a two tier Thetford then it would have my emphatic support, this plan is not that plan, and I will not support it.