Thursday, 27 December 2018
My speech at Norfolk County Council today during a debate about whether or not the Council should lobby the Government to stop further cuts to local Council funding.
Chairman, I welcome the intentions of this motion and its attempt to stem the cuts to Council funding through a relaxation of removal of the rate support grant.
During the recent children’s centre consultation, I had time and reason to reflect on what my own community in Thetford had lost of the years.
When I was growing up in Thetford, we had a County run youth centre in the town with employed, professional youth workers. All of course now gone. When I was a student, there was a Connexions service offering careers advice, also now gone. When I started work as a Community Development Worker in the town, we had a publicly accessible police station and I worked closely with Police Community Support Officers and we held multi-agency meetings to work towards reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. Now, our police station is not publicly accessible and there are no PCSOs – all 275 were made redundant in Norfolk and we have 177 fewer Police Officers. We had a vibrant adult education service, but the Adul Ed centre at Tanner Street in Thetford was closed and later sold to a private developer. My old pre-school Nursery at Elm Road was turned into a social services base and pupil referral unit – but that too was closed and has sat derelict for many years. More recently, whilst I’ve been a County Councillor, it was the Priorsmead Care Home, built when the estate was built in the 60’s, but closed and the building sold. Not because the demand for care had reduced of course, but budgetary constraints.
When I first started attending my local residents association – there would be a good group of residents, working alongside the Police, the local Housing Association and an officer from the District Council. None now attend – their roles deleted or such worked blocked through time pressures. As a local Councillor I’m pretty much the only person there able to answer any questions so do my best. If only my UKIP District Council colleague for the ward would attend maybe we could share the work, but that’s not to be either.
More recently of course its our children’s centres that are threatened. We’re now looking at taking services away from the very youngest in my community. My District of Breckland is already ranked 300th out of 324 local authorities for poor levels of social mobility. With even fewer support services, one might think Norfolk is aspiring to reach first place.
Recently, whilst delivering leaflets for the children’s centre consultation, I came across a guy with clear mental health issues – with our mental health trust rated inadequate yet again, I made the necessary referral knowing full well it’s unlikely he’ll get the support he needs.
And lastly, Council Tax – one might think that with so fewer services we can all rejoice that we’re paying less at least. A Band D in Thetford has seen a 25% increase in Council Tax over the past 10 years. Our Town Council’s share has increased by 71%! I doubt local people’s wages have increased to such an extent over the same period so people’s ability to pay will have inevitably been compromised, not least because not even the poorest in our communities are exempt from paying all of their Council Tax. Don’t get me started on cuts to welfare, universal credit and support for the disabled through services such as motability and what is going on with our health service.
This motion talks about a cliff-edge being presented in years to come, I would argue that in many areas, and for many services, we’re already there. For many, we Councillors are the front line. I see the end result of such cuts on a daily basis. I see the cumulative impact upon them and the erosion of the very structures that bind our communities together. If we don’t stand up for our residents here in Norfolk, who will?
I want this motion to be as effective as possible, I want it to have the greatest impact possible. I don’t entirely disagree with what is there now, but it could be so much stronger. I ask our Conservative colleagues to go further and to fight with more determination than has been evident thus far.
In December 2017, there was much outrage in Norfolk as Conservative members of Norfolk County Council voted to increase their own allowances by 10.5% against the recommendation of the independent renumeration panel. The panel exists purely to review Councillor allowances and after reviewing the situation, they recommended no increase, a recommendation which was ignored.
As if that actual increase wasn't controversial enough, the increase was backdated some 7 months so all Councillors received two pay packets in January 2018 - one with their normal monthly payment and the second with the backdated amount - near £700 alone for most of the 84 Councillors - those with special responsibilities received more. In total, the decision cost Norfolk taxpayers an additional £140,000 - and of course there would be additional costs year after year.
Like all Norfolk Labour Councillors, I voted against the increase. Sure the extra money would be great, but at a time when the Council is cutting services for some of the most vulnerable in our communities I couldn't vote for such an increase - it felt wrong.
It also felt wrong for us to be voting for our own pay packet and if we had to do this, surely we'd just note and accept the views of the panel? if you don't, you might as well scrap the panel?!
Labour Councillors vowed to not benefit personally from the decision but instead, we would make the money available for our communities. In Thetford I specifically wanted to use the money to help organisations and people that have been impacted by austerity. Through 2018, I have received an extra £1,498.90 (after tax). I've just made my final allocation of funds for 2018 and every penny has been allocated to local good causes.
Here's what I spent the money on this year:
Citizens Advice Bureau - I gave the full backdated amount of £685.01 to the local CAB way back in January 2018. With Gift Aid they will be able to claim an additional £171.25. The CAB have seen significant increases in demand thanks to Council cuts and welfare changes but many forget the CAB is a charity in its own right and very poorly funded.
In February I used £35 to purchase gift vouchers for Bishops School on the Abbey Estate to run a colouring competition with the school children.They helped design new speed awareness signs erected on the Estate to try and slow down cars passing the school gates. My separate NCC Councillor budget for highways was used to purchase and erect the new signs.
In March I used £25 to support the new Norwich Mustard campaign following news that Colmans Mustard may be leaving the county and Norwich Mustard crowdfunding to get a new community initiative off the ground.
In June I used £95 to support a vulnerable resident on St John's Way impacted by the bedroom tax and forced to leave her family home. Myself and other Councillors and members of the community decorated her new home with the money being used for paint and other essentials. Thetford Carpet Warehouse helped provide discounted new carpet for the property. Volunteers assisted with moving furniture etc. I separately lobbied Flagship Housing on behalf of the resident and secured a meeting with a member of the senior management team to highlight their failings as an organisation and suggest ways to improve in the future.
Also in June there was a donation of £50 to Leaping Hare who provide community and tourist information services locally but yet receive no regular core funding.
In July there was £20 donated to Thetford Foodbank to help prepare for an expected increase in demand linked to Universal Credit.
£36.25 was donated to Charles Burrell Centre in September.
In December I donated £161.03 worth of items to the Thetford Evening and Night Shelter project led by the Salvation Army and other local Churches. The shelter was set up to provide somewhere for homeless people to stay over the Christmas period. Item donated included; Toiletries, cooking equipment and clothing.
In December I purchased £136 worth of items to be used as raffle prizes for local charitable events, so that groups can use the items to earn more money for themselves. The first prizes will be used on New Year's Eve to raise money for the Charles Burrell Centre.
£179 has been allocated to fund publicity materials to help combat fly-tipping in Thetford - this is a major concern for local residents - not helped by Conservative Councillors at Norfolk implementing new charges for DIY waste without any publicity about what the new charges are etc. Our Thetford campaign will seek to address this in the new year.
Lastly, £76.61 to Croxton Road Community Association - they've been fundraising for some time to build a new play-park on the Ladies Estate at Harriet Martineau Close and it is hoped at some point in 2019 the go ahead will be given to start building.
Total: £1,498.00 (not including gift aid + amounts raised through facilitated fundraising)
Thursday, 1 November 2018
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
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
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.
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".
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
Sunday, 12 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
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
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.