Saturday, 21 November 2015

In defence of the Charles Burrell Centre

On Friday, at NCCs ETD meeting, a leading member (former Deputy Leader of the whole Council if I recall correctly) - Councillor Ian Mackie, criticised for the second meeting running, the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford. Apparently if the County had not "given away" the "asset" then we could have done something better with it and the County would not be so strapped financially. He clearly doesn't understand the background to the project or understand what's currently being achieved, so I thought best to email him the below.

Dear Ian,
I hope you are well.
At two ETD meetings in a row you have felt the need the criticise the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford – today you outlined with a bit more detail why you thought this was a bad deal for NCC, and as a result, it occurred to me that you are either unaware of the detail of this matter or have forgotten.
In short, in 2009 NCC decided to close one of the two High Schools in Thetford, the site earmarked for closure was Charles Burrell High School towards the south of the town (in an area of entrenched deprivation and already bereft of many services). As a Town Councillor at the time I wrote to then Leader of NCC, Derrick Murphy and urged him to ensure that consideration was given to usage of the site once it closed, particularly given that it was located in a deprived area and the venue was relied upon by numerous organisations. NCC ‘slept-walk’ into the closure of the site and in 2013 it closed without no plan put in place for its future use. At the time of its closure it was costing NCC £2,000 a week to remain shut (security, utilities, rates etc) – I understand that in total this cost in excess of £100,000!
The site is constrained in that it is within the 1500 metres ‘stone curlew buffer zone’ and therefore no development (e.g. housing) would be permitted making alternative uses of the site limited.
Any commercial use of the site was clearly limited and in any case, this had not been developed over the two years that it had been known that it was closing. The danger of course was that the longer you left the building empty, the harder it would be to bring it back into use – it could become prone to vandalism and issues with damp etc. Considerable equipment and furniture had been left on the site and NCC would have incurred costs dealing with this.
Thankfully when the administration changed at NCC a different tone was taken and NCC agreed to lease the site to Thetford Town Council for a peppercorn rent - resulting in NCC no longer incurring the costs that it was.
From 1st April this year the site has been run by Charles Burrell Centre Ltd – a new organisation set up as a ‘co-operative’ with exempt charity status granted by HMRC.
There’s something like 30 permanent tenants on site now ranging from Thetford Toy Library and Thetford Foodbank to commercial tenants including ‘Hertz’ (car rental) and Recruitment Zoo (a recruitment agency) and Zebra TM (call centre).
In addition, there’s around 40 weekly sessional hirings including Slimming World, Zumba etc (all your usual’s).
We’ve also managed to get West Suffolk College to invest in the site, becoming one of the major tenants by opening a ‘Thetford Campus’ and providing more than 200 courses which were previously not available locally (enrolment has been significant).
A soon to be announced tenant will be the NHS. Co-locating services has brought significant benefits, particularly considering the diverse mix of voluntary and commercial – the centre truly ‘adds value’.
In short, what this decision has done has enabled jobs to be created, new services to be provided, training courses to be undertaken and people’s lives improved – this is something I would urge that all NCC councillors should be proud of, and something the Council should be proud of.
Quantifying these outcomes is a clear task that needs to be completed.
In addition, we’re close to the end of signing a deal with Norfolk Energy Futures for them to install solar panels on some of the roof space which will generate a significant return for NCC (and assist the Centre with reduced electricity and of course there are environmental benefits).
There is a NCC rep on the CBC Ltd board in the form of Cllr Ian Monson – who’s contributions are most valued. (there’s 11 Board members: 3 Town Council reps, 3 Tenants reps – elected by all tenants on site, 3 co-opted for specific skills and expertise, 1 NCC rep and 1 local resident rep).
I’d urge you (and anyone else interested) to visit the site, either with myself, or with the Centre Manager, and gauge for yourself if this is indeed a good investment for the Council.
Best wishes,

Obstinate for the fun of it.... the NCC Tory Group

It's Friday.... I need to rant... particularly when it's a Friday and it includes an Environment, Transport and Development (ETD) Committee meeting at Norfolk County Council, of which I am a member.

I know I have not been in this politics world too long, OK - (I've been a Town Councillor for 8 years, on the District for 5 and on County for 2), but I remain shocked on occasions at the way in which decisions are made and the way in which people (Councillors) conduct themselves. (Remain shocked and at times want to rip my own head off).

I wish more people would get involved and take an interest in local government, their eyes would be well and truly opened and a great many Councillors would never be elected again.

Today's a good example which is typical of the behaviour of the Tory group at Norfolk:

Proposal 1 - to reduce the amount of cutting of grass verges around Norfolk. This applies in rural areas, it's something that would increase bio-diversity, help wildlife, improve the landscape etc - environmentalists are (largely) in favour of it and it's generally a good thing. Road safety people at County Council been consulted and no concerns. I spoke in the debate and and said all fine, crucial however is flexibility in the approach - some areas it will not be appropriate (sharp bends etc) and other areas would be delighted. 8 Tory members of the Committee vote on block not to support. 9 'Others' do support - motion carried. (Committee is balanced with 8 Tories, 3 Labour, 3 UKIP, 2 Lib Dem and 1 Green).

Next, a discussion about incineration. We are currently sending tonnes and tonnes of waste to landfill in Norfolk. Ever since the failed incinerator project, the fault of the previous Tory administration, (costing £30+million to terminate the contract with nothing to show for it) the County has been in a mess on dealing with waste and it's been costing taxpayers dearly. Proposal was to send a large amount of waste to incineration in Germany and the Netherlands. I'm ideological opposed to incineration, but, this proposal would save £2million a year (£2million!) and the burnt material would generate electricity and heat. The incinerators were not objected to by residents in these areas (as far as I can tell) and there are not the environmental concerns that the Norfolk incinerator generated (as far as I am aware). So, you'd think the Conservatives who led the previous incinerator proposal, and ideologically in favour of incineration would support? No. Voting against en block - for what reason other than to be obstinate, I really don't know.

Finally... recycling centres.... sadly the County Council has voted to close the recycling centre at Docking. It's the least used recycling centre in the whole of Norfolk and there were clear alternatives for residents within a reasonable travelling distance. As the Chair of the Committee said a number of times, "given the scale of the Government funding cuts, if you're merely inconvenienced by cuts to services at this present time, then you've got off lightly".

And there's the rub of the matter - every single one of the proposals was primarily driven by money - no wonder when Norfolk County Council is having to try and provide services when the Conservative Government is allocating it hundreds of millions (!!!) of less funding at a time when costs and demands are increasing.

When I challenged the Tory position on opposing these matters, and explained that should they not wish to cut these services (neither do I!) then what are their alternatives proposals, i'd love to hear them. "It's your problem, you sort it out" - is so often the reply. One of them couldn't wait to have a pop, for the second meeting in a row, about the Charles Burrell Centre and how it's a "waste" and that it should have never of been given away - clearly forgetting that under the Tory controlled Council they allowed it to edge towards closing whilst doing nothing about it - despite me warning them - and it ended up costing them over £100,000 to keep it SHUT! (Hey, that £100k could have kept Docking open for a while bit longer), and whilst CBC is not paying them for the privilege of saving them a tonne of money, it is helping to create jobs, provide services and all the rest of it - but as usual, these numpties open their mouths and criticise something before they've even had the decency of researching it. So I shall be writing to said 'numpty' and asking if he'd like to come round CBC for a tour, so he can properly evaluate what they've "given away".

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Which services are we cutting today?

as usual an interesting meeting of the Norfolk County Council Environment, Transport and Development Committee was held yesterday (or 'TED' as I like to call it). Sadly, as with most council meetings - the primarily focus was on 'which services are we cutting today?' - such is the state of local Government finances thanks to the Conservative Government. Sadly as a committee we had to vote through to close a recycling centre at Docking, it's currently a part-time recycling centre but it's the less well used in the county and has the least tonnage deposited there annually and as officers pointed out there are alternative recycling facilities within an acceptable travelling distance ('acceptable' is of course dependent upon your opinion). Three other sites were also reduced from full-time to part-time provision. What was annoying as ever was the Conservative members of the ETD Committee grand-standing and objecting to this closure but offering no alternatives for saving the money that was needed to be saved. As I pointed out to them, I did not stand for election because I wanted to close anything, reduce to part-time or cut back on services in any way but; look at the context. Massive funding cuts from the Conservative Government, increasing demand for Council services particularly in relation to adult social care and children's services, rising costs as a result and other cost pressures, Conservative County Councillors and UKIP blocking any increase in Norfolk County Council's share of Council Tax and departments that have already teased out 'efficiencies' over many years so there is little less to save - what do you get? oh yes, CUTS. Another proposal on the agenda was to close all of Norfolk's recycling centres on bank holidays, i.e. all 5 bank holidays in the year. I could not bring myself to back this and it was not supported by the committee (only just)!. The Committee did accept my amendment however to establish a working group with Councillors looking at other ideas to save money so that further cuts, including closure on bank holidays, is not necessary - answers on a postcard anyone? (Personally, I think the opening hours for recycling centres are incredibly generous - 7 days a week, I'd much rather we reviewed what are the quietest days, I think probably Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and close on these days to maintain a stronger service for the remaining five) Interestingly, at the same meeting we had a long discussion about waste. District Councils collect waste, i.e. wheelie bins and also fly-tipping, but it's the County's responsibility to dispose of it - this currently costs £40million a year in Norfolk and as a County we only recycle 43%. I think there's a big opportunity to increase this 43%, particularly through better publicity and education and there's also a strong message there; recycle more so it costs less, which means more money for fire stations, schools, recycling centres! etc.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Charles Burrell Mayor Making Report - May 2015


Report for Mayor Making / Annual Town Meeting – May 2015

By Terry Jermy

The Charles Burrell Committee met frequently over the past year as the plan to re-open the Centre materalised and things quickly took off. This time last year our first tenants had moved in and began delivering their activities. Word quickly spread that the Centre was open for business and several new organisations came forward. 2 became 4, which became 8, which became 16 quite quickly – as of today there’s 27 permanent tenants and up to 30 regular sessional hirers. The project received a significant boost in September last year when a new manager came onboard in the form of Mark Snowdon, a former Charles Burrell pupil himself who had 9 years experience as the Deputy Manager at the Leisure Centre. Marks first week of work was dominated by the Centres Open Day that took place on the 6th September which turned out to be a huge success, organized by one the centres regular volunteers – Sharon Nash. The event gave groups that use the Centre the opportunity to showcase themselves; recruiting new volunteers and members and raising funds in some cases. The open day also gave former pupils, some from the 1960’s and 70’s the chance to walk around the school and see how it had changed over time. Several former teachers also attended. Pupils and teachers alike were so pleased that the school had been saved from demolition. It was pleasing to be able to offer former pupils and teachers with a venue to hold a memorable service to notable former headmaster Derek Briggs who sadly passed away – a memorial bench dedicated to Mr Briggs now also stands in the middle courtyard section of the site.

Moving forward, new tenants continued to confirm throughout the Autumn and into the Winter months – the most significant of which was West Suffolk College who committed to six classrooms and two offices, not just boosting the Centre financially, but also improving the education and training offer in Thetford – a win win for the town. The most recent tenant to confirm has been Hertz, the car rental business, highlighting that the Centre is a home for a broad range of organisations ranging from Thetford Foodbank through to commercial businesses – all benefitting from usage of the centre and additionally benefiting from increased networking opportunities and enhanced ability to work together; sharing ideas and resources wherever possible.

This rush of interest at the start of this year led to the Town Council agreeing an injection of cash to bring forward the recruitment of a new full-time administration assistant to help with the rapidly increasing enquiries and admin related tasks. We were pleased to be able to offer the position to Karen Robinson, a resident of the Barnham Cross area and herself a former user of the site through her daughters involvement with roller skating. Karen was one of the people that attended the public meeting way back in July 2013 to discuss keeping the site open, fitting therefore that Karen was now joining the staff team to make the project a success.

From the 1st April this year the Centre has been run by a newly created organization – Charles Burrell Centre Ltd – which has taken on the management and development of the site from Thetford Town Council. This saw the completion of the Committees work and our last meeting took place during March of this year. From the 1st April a new management committee was formed for Charles Burrell Centre Ltd, consisting of 11 members. There are 3 Town Council representatives, elected by the Town Council, 3 tenant representatives elected by tenants at the Centre, 1 Norfolk County Council representative, elected by the NCC Communities Committee and 1 community representative, the current Chairman of the Barnham residents group. In addition to this there are 3 co-opted members of the board, chosen for specific skills and experience which they can offer. This new board, democratically chosen in an open and transparent way as it should be and reflecting the various stakeholders that exist.

It is early days but the new board are already making fantastic progress and they are optimistic for the year ahead. Anyone can become a member of the new organization and have a say in the future of the Centre, shares can be purchased for just £1 and as you might expect, I have share forms here if anyone would like one. In addition, there’s numerous volunteering opportunities at the Centre so please do enquire if you are interested. Applications forms also available!

We were incredibly fortunate to safeguard Charles Burrell for the town, a rare window of opportunity, and rarer still, one that was grasped. Now it’s everyone’s job to keep it available and to enable it to thrive. Throughout our research stage we travelled to both Barnsley and Leeds to view examples of good community projects and to learn from what they had done. Our discussion on the train journey home on those occasions about how it would be great for people to visit Thetford to learn from our community, may just be that little bit more realistic now. Thank-you.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

RIP Matthew Percy

On Monday night of this week something tragic happened; a young 21 year-old guy that I knew called Matthew Percy from Ipswich decided to take his own life. This person was not someone that I knew very well but as a fellow member of the Labour Party we were ‘connected’ and I would regularly see him at Labour Party events where we would say hello etc. Through social media - it added a different level of ‘connectivity’ and we would ‘like’ and comment on each other’s statuses and engage in discussions about local politics and community issues. Ever since I found out that Matthew had died I have thought about him and his situation a lot. I saw so much of myself in Matthew, I became actively involved in politics at a young age and despite only being 21, Matthew was already a local Councillor and through his Facebook statuses his passion was clear – I remember thinking regularly that everything was so important for Matthew, I’m sure that was partly his age, and no doubt partly because of his autism, but also because of his passion. I saw on Monday a Facebook thread of Matthews where there was a debate about suicide, it seemed quite intense but that was not of surprise. I did not see that later on Matthew had posted a Facebook status that was in effect a suicide note. Reading as I did the following day the comments from people frantically trying to contact him and discussing who should phone the police was absolutely harrowing. To read officially that he had indeed died - I gasped out loud. To have it play out online in that way was just excruciating. Death is such a final thing, I’ve always struggled with it, there’s no returning from it – nothing you can do can make any difference once someone has gone – that’s what’s so saddening about it for me. We will never know how Matthew could have developed and what he could have achieved. That's a big part of the reason this is tragic. It’s inevitable I guess but I can’t help but think of what more could have been done, what could have prevented this? I think if we’re all honest we all have insecurities, we all have things that make us unhappy. The difference is that we all deal with this in different ways, we all tolerate things to greater or lesser extents and we all have different support structures in place, whether they be friends or family, or professional forms of support. I’ve really taken a lesson from Matthews situation that we should all be more considerate of others, we should all think about making comments that may cause somebody anxiety or distress. I guess in short we should all be more human. I think too that we should also make sure that there is support there for others. Matthew was somebody that cared deeply for others, he did this despite clearly having his own issues. Whilst I know that nothing can be done for Matthew, I hope, I so so hope that it does not need to happen to anyone else and whilst we cannot bring him back, we can try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s my only crumb of comfort in what is otherwise an incredibly tragic and sad situation. RIP Matthew.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Labour Group proposal to Breckland Council Budget setting meeting

Breckland Council Budget Setting Meeting, Thurs 26th February 2015

Views of Breckland Labour Group

"There is much detail in these reports and I thank those members and officers that have been involved in their production. I found very informative the Director of Place (Julie Kennealy) presentation at the Overview and Scrutiny Commission meeting and I thank her for that.

There was a very positive and upbeat tone at that meeting and lots of “aren’t we doing well?” – forgive me if I do not join in completely.

This is not a package of measures that should be applauded and trumpeted in totality. Whilst there are a number of aspects that I applaud, keeping car parking free for example, and recently committed to regeneration projects as well as the proposals agreed to this week in relation to support for neighbourhood plans. Many will see this is a budget that continues to provide very limited services for people in the District and offers little sign of action to address many concerns that exist. I could highlight bold measures taken by neighbouring councils and I could talk at length Mr Chairman about what aspects I have concerns with and what I would feel the other priorities of residents are – but I am restricted to my 3 minutes long response and I recognize that ultimately, the Conservative majority of this Council will pass this budget.

I do however want to offer one improvement to this budget as I would see it -

Housing continues to be the issue that is raised with me above any else Mr Chairman, and that is why I would therefore like to propose an amendment to this budget. Appendix E highlights the money due to be received in New Homes bonus income up to 2019. It’s purpose....? for ‘community projects’. 

If we are to address our housing issues, we need to make the funds available and I would therefore propose that this money is ring-fenced for community housing projects, with a specific focus on creating one and two bedroom properties. Some of this money is needed to fill a gap in the revenue budget, but for the amount simply being transferred to reserves, which currently has not planned usage – we could be making better use of. This would serve a number of purposes; increasing the number of affordable homes that are available clearly, but also alleviating the impact of the spare room subsidy, commonly known as the bedroom tax, by providing alternative accommodation for those that have been hit by this. 

Recently published figures show that there has been a 55% increase in the number of people in Breckland that are in receipt of housing benefit, even though they are working.

Such is the demand for housing, landlords can charge rents that are unaffordable and this gets topped up by tax payers – what a waste of public funds in a time of austerity. Public funds should be spent on providing good quality, affordable homes, rather than paying off the mortgages of private landlords on an industrial scale. We need to turn that current situation on its head. We know too that there have been over 1,000 families affected by the bedroom tax in our District alone and whilst I am not sure to what extend other members here are aware of personal cases, I can could recount many to members which are very distressing. Utilising this money in this way would help to generate further income, partly from additional new homes bonus money, but also through the rents from the properties.

If there were one aspect of this budget where I would urge a re-focus, this would be it.

AMENDMENT – Proposed by Councillor Jermy

a) For the ‘New Homes bonus’ income, as outlined in Appendix B, not required to support the revenue budget and currently being proposed to be transferred to reserves for an unspecified purpose - to be ring-fenced for ‘community housing projects’. B) Officers to be asked to investigate options for utilizing this money, with a specific focus on creating 1 and 2 bedroom properties, with options to be tabled to a future Cabinet meeting.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Tales from canvassing session number 3 - 25.02.15

another enjoyable morning out talking to local residents with Brenda Canham,Mike Brindle and Gerald Bass - this time covering Gloucester Way and Hereford Close on the Abbey Estate. Some people don't like 'canvassing' and some people don't like being 'canvassed' but it's so important for local Councillors and candidates to talk with residents about issues which they are concerned about. Today I had some interesting conversations regarding street lights and lot of people raised concerns about the ones that go off near mid-night (Norfolk County Council owned lights) and also those that and permanently off through lack of maintenance (Breckland Council owned lights). I also wrote down the column numbers of several that were on during the day, presumably all day long. Some interesting discussions about fly-tipping too. The bedroom tax was raised again several times. What continues to surprise me is the amount of people who are still so angry at the bus station move decision. Several people I've spoken to over a number of weeks are completely put off the democratic process as they were "ignored" regarding the bus station but as I have explained to a number of people, that only plays into the hands of those that ignore you. It should motivate you to ensure you always vote, and get others to vote, rather than putting you off voting. The bus station move was pushed through by the Moving Thetford Forward board which was full of Breckland Council Conservatives - not voting only helps them. Nice to see today that the car park at the front of the shops on Abbey was getting a thorough clean - this is something we reported whilst out last time. Attached picture shows the garage block at the top of Gloucester Way which, like most garage blocks, is in an appalling state - they are simply not maintained properly by Flagship, this is something I will email through today along with the other issues picked up.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tales from canvassing duties... 11.02.15

good morning today out canvassing in advance of the May 7th elections with Brenda CanhamMike Brindle and Peter Smith - (all seats on Thetford Town Council and Breckland Council are up for election on the same day as the General Election) - today we did Chester, Coventry and Durham on the Abbey Estate. People wanted to discuss a range of things including; wanting improved play areas, pot-holes needing to be addressed, immigration concerns and general estate cleanliness. As usual many people are not interested in voting at all, which is very sad, but at least those people now cannot say that they never see their Councillors, or no-body cares etc etc. One lady explained how she is being hit by the bedroom tax on top of losing her husband and that she is now living off the money that he received from his redundancy that was thankfully received just before he died. As she said to us, "why should I be punished for living in a house which I've lived in for years and years and paid for the rent and looked after it?" The bedroom tax remains one of the most nasty policies that the Conservative-led Government has introduced in the past five years, and I am so pleased that the Labour Party has pledged to scrap it if elected in May. We also spoke with a man who was caring for his sister who had recently had a stroke and he was not registered to vote, so we were able to help with that and advise on the fact that she could vote by post if she wanted. Total of 81 people spoken to. Also whilst out between now and May I will be taking lots of photos of matters that need to be reported - including for example this mess in a garage block on Durham Way.

Friday, 30 January 2015

New year and much has changed

Apologies for the lack of postings - so much has changed since last year! I'm going to make a concerted effort to post more regularly! one of the reasons I've been so busy is that myself and my brother and sister have taken on the responsibility for the design, print and delivery of the monthly About Thetford magazine that goes to every house in the town. I'm delighted to be able to share with you the February edition which has just been uploaded online for all to read: February About Thetford magazine