Thursday, 27 September 2012

Speech to first formal gathering of Sort It membership


Sort it began informally in February 2012, after a small group of people got together to discuss whether or not Thetford should apply to become a ‘Portas Pilot’. The Government came up with the pilots concepts in response to the Portas Review that was published on the 12th December 2011. The review contained 28 recommendations that in theory would help revitalise high streets and each pilot needed to ‘test’ at least one of the 28 recommendations.

The Sort It Facebook page was created as a quick and easy way to canvass the views of local residents and businesses so that this information could feed into the application itself. However, the membership of the Sort It Facebook page grew rapidly and within a very short period of time hundreds of people were engaging with the site and sharing ideas and views. Many views were incredibly positive and actually very thought provoking, other comments revealed how much work would needed to be done to engage many highly sceptical and apathetic sections of the wider community.

The bid was submitted at the end of March, and we were informed about a month later that we were unsuccessful. 371 bids in total were submitted and 12 were selected. During the initial bidding phase we met with Grant Shapps, the Minister responsible and presented our case. Our MP – Elizabeth Truss arranged the visit and accompanied us. After the initial application process we tweaked the bid slightly, and resubmitted in July, but again we were unsuccessful, with 450 bids being submitted the second time.

What was clear from the analysis of those areas that were successful was that it wasn’t our ideas or concepts that were wrong, many areas were proposing almost identical projects to ours. But the figures surrounding shop vacancy rates for other areas were much higher than ours, and frankly many of the areas were in far worst position than Thetford. There were also several ‘test’ areas, for example there was an inner London ‘Town’, a seaside Town, a rural Town and others. The ‘pilot’ aspect clearly was key and the Government wanted to see if the pilots worked and therefore whether they could be rolled out elsewhere. Many bids were also far more aggressively led by their local Council or established Town Centre teams and probably included a much higher level of match funding than our bid. Our bid started from scratch, and had limited match funding available and less ‘buy in’ from local retailers than some other areas.

Despite the disappointment of the application being unsuccessful, it was of course not entirely surprising. What has genuinely been a surprise is the level of engagement from the wider public with Sort It and the momentum that it has generated.

We can obtain the aims and objectives of Sort It without a large flood of funding, the Portas money would have served as a catalyst and everything would have happened very quickly, but even without that money progress can be made, and indeed it is already being made.

Sort’ED – What became clear very quickly was that there were quite a number of people who were interested in trading locally, whether it be from a market stall or from a shop unit. Many lacked the initial capital to get their business off the ground and were unaware about what support services did exist. Whilst others had jitters about rental prices or business rates. There was a lot of confusion and misinformation out there, and the Sort It Facebook page gradually addressed this. We were fortunate that so many members of the Sort It Team were avid Facebook users so could address the points that were raised quickly and with factual information although inevitably some people doubted what was being presented to them. There were people many that had a good idea, but lacked the skills to take their concept to the next step. Sort’Ed aims to address that. It is basically the educational part of Sort It. The idea would be to provide training for people wanting to establish a new business or provide an opportunity for existing businesses to improve up on skills. For example, skills around customer service. This is not a new concept, but support of this nature is somewhat lacking locally at the current time. Dartford, who were successful with their bid, focused on a ‘school for shopkeepers’ concept where experts from nearby Bluewater would assist traders in Dartford with merchandising tips for example. This tied in nicely with the Portas concept that high streets need to be experts in their field to compete with supermarkets who were more focused in stacking things high, and selling them cheap, with little product knowledge. High streets need to be able to provide a more quality shopping experience. There is room for improvement in this regard in Thetford.

Importantly, the Sort’Ed aspect also offers practical support through the Night Markets concept, allowing traders to test their idea, and build a customer base before committing further. Additional practical support opportunities can be developed over time, but may include for example the sharing of equipment – Town Council purchased gazebos being a good practical example of support.

The Sort It Pledge – this is co-ordinated by Sort It, but the success of the idea is very much dependent on the established business community. By committing to the Pledge, businesses agree to help other businesses, or new businesses with guidance or expertise that they have. This came about through the Facebook page where people were saying that they would like to start a business, but wasn’t sure on a particular aspect. Suddenly there was a whole variety of people with a mix of skills offering to help. Sort It’s role would have a match-making role, linking businesses that are prepared to help with people in search of guidance and mentoring.

The Sort It Challenge – again, this is something that initiated through the Facebook group. A number of members commented that they would like to support the high street shops more, but could not afford to. On a number of occasions other members would post examples of high street prices, versus supermarket prices. Members branded this themselves, and called it the Sort It Challenge. Soon people were undertaking a whole shop in the high street and sharing their surprise at the availability of goods, plus the quality and price in many examples.

Marketing & Communications – this is clearly an important aspect of Sort It and an area where progress has been made. As well as encouraging new business it is important that we embrace and support what businesses already exist. Many have limited or no advertising budgets and cannot compete with the glossy promos coming from the supermarkets. Things need to be done differently, embracing the usage of the internet and social media and clubbing together to achieve economies of scale. This is where Sort It can really assist.

Share scheme – this is perhaps one of the more quirky ideas and certainly one that has grabbed people’s attention. You don’t need to look too far along Thetford’s high street until you find a shop unit that is owned by a company based overseas or owned by a private investor. This is common across many high streets, and there is nothing wrong with this. However, in some examples landlords do little to invest in the town, but take the rental income away. Some units have sat empty for some time and it would that the units have not been proactively marketed, think Riverside Walk, or the former Aunty Pams Sweet Shop. The Sort It scheme would enable local residents to buy shares of £25 each, up to a maximum of £1,000, if enough people commit to the scheme the freehold of certain properties could then be purchased. The concept needs careful consideration, as you would be dealing with people’s personal finances, but there are many examples around the country where this has worked successfully, often through what’s known as an Industrial and Provident Society’s. See Plunkett Foundation website for more info. Shareholders would get an annual return on their investment, assuming a profit is made, and anything over and above that could be reinvested back into Sort It to help it achieve its aims and objectives.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A better place, a brighter future...? Not for housing tenants & small businesses


31.07.12 - Cabinet minutes; Page 12
Mr Chairman, I would like to pick up on one of the points on page 12 please regarding Breckland’s affordable housing figures. As detailed in the annual monitoring report, just 66 affordable homes have been built in the district in the last financial year. This is very disappointing. South Norfolk Council on the other hand, as mentioned in the minutes exceeded its target in the last year and other Councils are doing much better than Breckland. Why are we lagging so far behind? There was a fairly typical reply given when I raised this previously – which I shall paraphrase as “it’s the economy stupid” – but surely Breckland should be looking at its own record and what it is doing to address this issue. The minutes state that the policies are correct. Are they? One example of note; In the last 10 years, Breckland Council has received £3.5million in income from ‘right to buy receipts’. As tenants buy their houses, this council receives income. But each time it occurs there becomes one less house available for social rent. This Council chooses to not ring-fence this income, and therefore it does not have to be reinvested back into housing. In the same period that it received £3.5 million, Breckland has invested £2 million into affordable housing. Notice the difference? There’s £1.5 million less has gone back into new affordable housing over that period. No wonder there’s a decline in units available when this Council is taking the money from the demise of social housing, but not reinvesting in a like for like manner. The motto of this council is; “a better place, a brighter future”.

Well, there’s certainly one particular section of the population of Breckland who are wondering if that motto applies to them. A brighter future? Not for the people who have been sat on Breckland’s housing waiting list for years in the hope of getting a property, only to now be thrown off the list entirely. For those that remain, they must surely be wondering if they will ever get the property they need, in the knowledge that the pool of housing available is growing at a slower rate than the demand is increasing. What future remains for them?

04.09.12 – Cabinet minutes; Page 20

Mr Chairman, if our social housing tenants and those on the housing waiting list are feeling un-loved by this Council, spare a thought for our business community. Not only are they contending with the national economic doom and gloom of a double dip recession they’re fighting locally to safeguard their livelihoods and are ever fearful of the implications that charging for our public car parks may bring as well. On top of all that, our Cabinet has refused a request from our economic development team for £15,000 to support business start-ups and refused to match a generous contribution from County Council that would have seen ongoing support provided to businesses. At a time when this Council should be doing all that it can to support local businesses it is dragging its feet. A better place, a brighter future? Our local businesses will surely be thinking that this motto similarly does not apply to them either.

Friday, 14 September 2012

By-election success for Brenda Canham on Thetford Abbey Ward

The last time I posted a blog I ended by saying that I looked forward to the day when our efforts in elections locally resulted in success. This followed three losses at the other Breckland by-elections held over the Summer, including the disappointingly close result in Attleborough. That elusive success came yesterday when Brenda Canham topped the poll for the Thetford Abbey District seat securing a fantastic 334 votes. This compared to just 128 for the Conservatives, closely followed by UKIP with 117 who were in turn closely followed by the LibDems with 99. That's a majority of 206 for Brenda and nearly 50% of all votes cast, a 27% increase in the share of the vote. Brenda managed to secure more votes yesterday, than 2011 despite a near 10% less turnout from voters. Just 681 ballots were cast yesterday, compared to 965 in 2011. That result in 2011 was the lowest turnout figure for all Breckland Council seats.

Brenda will make an excellent Councillor. Having lived within the ward for as long as she has, and been involved with local community life for as long as she has, she thoroughly understands the issues that local people face and she will work to address these issues. She has earned the success after decades after hard work and determination.

Without taking anything away from Brenda, this was also a success for Labour. We ran a campaign that I am thoroughly proud off. We knocked on virtually every door on the Ladies Estate and ever door on the Abbey Estate - that's approx 1500 homes. Not everybody was home, and not everyone wanted to talk, but we put in a lot of effort and talked to a lot of people about their concerns. This is rarely easy, but it has got to be done. This was the first step in rebuilding a connection with voters and earning their trust and respect. In the same way that I have worked to build up the turnout for Thetford Saxon Ward (18% rising to 32& last May) we must now work to do the same for Thetford Abbey.

Labours members helped fantasticly with the campaign with the Leader of Suffolk County Council Labour Group - Sandy Martin attending on 3 occasions to assist, plus Peter Smith as Chair of SW Norfolk CLP, and Harry Clarke a member from Dereham, and Alex Mayer.

Onwards to future victories????