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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Auf Wiedersehen

Today I publish my decision not to put my name forward as leader of my group at next Monday's group AGM, after fourteen years in post. I'll still be an active local councillor, and am looking forward to making a different contribution - whatever that may be - to the local Liberal Democrats and the council group. No doubt, in the closed world of local politics, speculation will abound as to the reasons for my decision, and those with no goodwill towards the Liberal Democrats will invent their own, which will sound far more exciting than the real thing - which is simply that fourteen years is far too long for any one person to be leader. Change and variety are essential for a political group.

I shall, of course, miss it enormously - it'll be like losing a limb. I'll give my full support to the new group leader, and will try as hard as I can not to sit on his or her shoulder - though it will be difficult after all this time. I'm aware of my more polite nicknames ('she who must be obeyed', for example) in council circles; and remember the acute embarrassment of one (then) very senior officer who once accidentally called me 'Ma'am' to my face!

Although I've hugely enjoyed the opportunity to lead the council, the circumstances have often been frustrating - I have sometimes envied council leaders elsewhere in the country who have just been able to get on and implement their manifesto. Harlow Council's dire financial and organisational situation has made life much more complex. But the council is now much further along the road to recovering, and I'm proud of the part my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat group have played in that. Now it's over to others to take on the reins, and the responsibility.

Of course, now that I'm no longer a council leader - or a parliamentary candidate now that the general election is over - my internet diary will fall into abeyance. It's been an interesting process, and I'm pleased to have had the discipline to keep a daily entry for six months, but I see no purpose in vanity publishing for its own sake. It's been an interesting exercise in political accountability, and in the responsibility of elected representatives to explain what they're doing and why. It's generated enquiries from as far afield as France and Australia.

I'm grateful to all those who've read my diary and commented constructively on it. Perhaps it may resurface at a future date. But for now, as the late Alistair Cooke used to say at the end of Letter from America: if you have been, thanks for listening.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On the surface

A resident of Peterswood calls yesterday about the road resurfacing taking place in the estate. The new surface material is very powdery, and is slipping down the drains - along with diesel apparently poured by the contractors. I log a call to Contact Harlow for the urgent attention of the county council highways team and Environmental Health.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Queen's Speech

44 bills and six draft bills in the Queen's Speech today, setting out Labour's legislative programme. It appears that they're determined to foist identity cards on us, come what may, in what will easily be the most controversial and hard-fought bill of the year. But there are other proposals that will also have an impact on Harlow residents - on subjects as diverse as child care provision, aircraft noise, housing benefits, smoking in public places, compensation for hospital mistakes, maternity pay - and proposals for a 'more flexible system of fixed penalties', which seems a contradiction in terms.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Seeing the sites

The Liberal Democrat Group meets tonight. There's a special council meeting next Monday to consider the Local Plan, and in particular the thorny issue of employment land - so, among all its other business, the Group needs to discuss the options.

The county council's Structure Plan requires Harlow Council to find an extra 13.7 hectares of land for future employment use. If we don't do that in our Local Plan, it won't conform to the Structure Plan, and won't be approved - and that could give rise to all sorts of problems.

Originally, the proposal in the Local Plan, supported by our Group, was to fill the gap by re-designating the land currently used by the Maypole sports and social club near Nortel for employment use - and providing the club with new replacement facilities nearby. The club didn't want this, and the Labour group on the council therefore opposed it, without proposing an alternative. The Conservative group, as usual, kept changing its mind on whether it supported it or not. The Liberal Democrat group consistently supported the proposals to use the Maypole land, as the best that could be done to meet a difficult challenge.

With no clear way forward, an all-party group of councillors who had been working on the Local Plan were sent away to look at all the other possible sites where this extra employment land could be put instead of at the Maypole club, and report back. Their report is certainly thorough.

A number of possible alternatives have been ruled out: East End, the greyhound stadium, the green belt west of the Pinnacles, the green wedge south west of the Pinnacles, the rugby club, Ash Tree Fields, the road safety centre, Templefields and Riverway, Bush Fair trading area, Staple Tye trading area, the Stow, green wedge land north of New Hall, and green belt land east of New Hall.

In addition to the Maypole club, there are a number of parcels of land at Nortel that could be considered - the former Cossors club, the United Glass club, Nortel sports ground, and a fenced-off green wedge south west of Nortel.

Alternatively, there is land north of Gilden Way that is already identified for possible future development; a playing field south of Gilden Way; and taking some of the land already allocated for future housing beyond 2011 at New Hall.

Six different options have been suggested for councillors to consider next Monday, using different combinations of the various sites being proposed as possible replacements for the Maypole site. They all add up to the 13.7 hectares required; and they all have disadvantages.

Once the council has agreed its response to the inspector's report on the Local Plan, including the employment land, we then face the prospect of another inquiry by another inspector before the Plan can be adopted and we all know where we stand.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Little arrows

The Sunday political programmes on television are agog with speculation about what's going to be in the forthcoming Queen's Speech. Will Labour try to bring back its ID card proposal, relying on Tory support if it can't whip its own backbenchers into line behind it? What's going to happen to tuition fees and top-up fees now that the university towns have given Tony Blair and his party a bloody nose in the election?

It's pretty certain that crime and anti-social behaviour will be on the Labour Government's legislative shopping list again this year. We've had umpteen new laws over the last few years, but consisting mostly of gimmicks rather than action. It's a precedent Home Office minister Hazel Blears seems set to continue, as she proposes a new uniform for people doing community service. It's clearly a bonkers idea, and there's no shortage of people willing to stand up and say so. There are even worries that a new uniform could become an aspirational teenage fashion statement - another item of clothing Bluewater shopping centre will want to ban, maybe, like hooded tops. Will we see young people across the country choosing to wear the new 'suit of shame' as a gesture of solidarity, in some kind of sartorial 'I am Spartacus' movement?

Why not just scrap the ID cards, Hazel, and spend the £3 billion on more police officers and support officers to patrol our local estates? Or would that be too much substance and not enough spin?

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Thank You Party

The Saturday after the Saturday after polling day is the traditional day for Harlow Liberal Democrats' thank-you party, to thank our candidates and helpers. This year it's a barbecue in Mike's garden - plenty to eat and drink, and a chance to sit down and talk with friends and colleagues.

Not that the aftermath of the election is so enjoyable for everyone. One defeated Labour MP in Peterborough has applied to join the Tories; another defeated Labour MP in Manchester is clearly not a gracious loser, publishing the Lib Dem winner's private mobile phone number on the internet and encouraging residents to ring it 'at any time'; and the husband of a re-elected Labour MP in Merseyside has been fined for vandalism after defacing Tory posters.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Unlucky for some

The Harlow 2020 Partnership meets at 11:00, to discuss the restructure we've been working on since March. We review the membership of the partnership board, and the various action groups that will be taking responsibility for meeting the partnership's objectives for health and fitness, education, transport, and other issues; and plan the broad outline of the way in which we're going to update the 2020 Vision. It's an interesting meeting, lasting two and a quarter hours, so the visit I'd planned to the gym at lunchtime is curtailed to just a swim.

Meetings at three and at half past four, then home just long enough to chuck my bags in the hall before Nick and I head out to the Bengal Cottage for dinner. Over a meat biryani (I never order anything else off their menu, and Nick teases me as usual) we discuss his first week in his new job (he's enjoying it enormously) and my week back in full harness on the council after the elections.

After the meal, I text Tom from the restaurant to ask when he's coming home from university - and he replies to say he's already there and waiting for us! We pay and leave as quickly as we can; it's great to have him home for a few months, with his first year at university under his belt.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Update

My first meeting with the council's Chief Executive since the election; there's a lot to catch up on.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Watch out

I'm supposed to be interviewed for a TV news programme on housing growth in the south east of England; but it's more like 5:30 when they reach the civic centre, and gone 6:00 by the time I'm free. I gather it's being broadcast on Monday and Friday next week.

At 6:30 it's the Recreation Trust, where we consider a funding application from the local Stort Cricket Club for a Bola bowling machine to help the younger players. The meeting is over by ten past seven (howzat!) just in time for me to grab a cab across town for my next appointment.

Harlow's Neighbourhood Watch holds its annual conference tonight at the Latton Bush Centre. In a display of partnership working to mark the occasion, the local Police Community Consultative Group decides to hold its meeting on the same night in the same building.

All six speakers - three police representatives, and three politicians including myself - have been asked to speak on 'how can you help the neighbourhood watch?'. The contributions are interesting, and there are half a dozen questions from the floor. The biggest issue facing Neighbourhood Watch last year, premises, now seems to have been resolved, as Albie and his team have settled into some space on the ground floor of the council office at Staple Tye. The police are also talking about possible sources of funding to help Neighbourhood Watch carry out its activities, which will be very welcome indeed.

The agenda for the evening includes a mysterious 'extra item' - and it's not until the end of the evening that we find out what it is. Albert and Neighbourhood Watch have been developing a baseball initiative, to provide something interesting for local children to do. It's really taken off, with not only players but a growing group of cheerleaders, whose final contribution to the evening is a demonstration of what they can do. No pom-poms (the full outfit isn't quite ready yet) but who needs them when you've got all that enthusiasm?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Someone to watch over me

Mid-afternoon, I meet Sal, our group's mentor, for another chat in advance of our group meetings before the council AGM on 26 May.

There's enough time afterwards to dash home and cook a meal before heading back to the Civic Centre for a meeting of the Recovery Working Group. The government minister responsible for overseeing Harlow's 'recovery', Phil Hope, has been moved out of the relevant department, so it looks as if we're going to have to start to build a new relationship with someone else.

The three main projects in the Recovery Plan are all on track, and we'll be reporting on progress to the Monitoring Board at the end of the month.

Monday, May 09, 2005

New jobs

A red-letter day in the family calendar today, as Nick starts his new job at Harlow College. It was a job at the College that brought us to Harlow twenty five years ago, though of course at that time the College was still opposite the Playhouse (where Dads Wood now is), and its current site was still Netteswell School.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair has been busy re-shuffling his cabinet, so there are new jobs for a lot more people than just Nick. I hear on the grapevine that there's been a move for Bill Rammell. Could be interesting.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Normal life resumes

The election campaign is over, and everything that's been put on hold for so long at home is now clamouring for attention. The heaps of paper all over the study floor are pleading to be filed away or recycled; I need to sort out my finances and my diary; the kitchen needs a good sorting out.

But of course there is also the letter of thanks to the local press to write; and it's tempting to spend time flicking through the election news on the BBC web site, checking colleagues' results in different parts of the country and chatting by email about the outcome in different seats. And as soon as one election is over, another one begins. I'm already thinking about what happens next in the local party, and starting to jot down thoughts and future plans.

Meanwhile at Westminster, I see Labour MPs are already circling around Tony Blair, blaming him for the massive collapse in Labour's parliamentary majority (now only 60 or so seats instead of the 160-ish they enjoyed previously) and accusing him of being a liability rather than an asset. Is he really going to hang on as Prime Minister for another five years?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Recount

The counting of the votes for the parliamentary and county council elections resumes at 10:00am. The national media has turned up, to film the last constituency to declare. The bundles of votes, retrieved from the police station where they've been held since the early hours of yesterday morning, are counted and checked meticulously. At last the result is declared - a win for Labour by 97 votes over the Tory. I secure 5,002 votes, 12.6 per cent of the total.

Labour has its final seat, and can now boast 55 per cent of the seats in Parliament with only 35 per cent of the vote - the lowest vote share for a governing party since 1945. The need to replace our clapped-out and unrepresentative voting system with something that reflects what the voters want is becoming increasingly clear. But nationally the Liberal Democrats have done well to increase our representation in parliament, with 62 seats and some excellent new MPs like David Howarth, John Hemming, Jenny Willott, Lorely Burt, and (at 25) the youngest member of parliament Jo Swinson.

After the speeches (congratulate your opponents, thank the staff and your team), there's a thirty minute break and it's into the count for the county council election. Harlow has four seats on the county council this time instead of the previous five, and the boundaries have been redrawn. Labour holds three of the four seats, and the Tories gain one. The county council is now thoroughly Tory, with only a smattering of Labour councillors and an even smaller smattering of Liberal Democrat ones to provide any sort of opposition.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Out for the count

The Harlow election count achieves national notoriety today, as the last seat in England to declare its result - which won't now happen until after the recount tomorrow morning. A small, urban constituency, there's no good reason not be able to declare a result by 2:30 or 3:00am at the latest; party agents and candidates alike are frustrated beyond measure as the ballot papers are verified, counted, bundle checked and recounted. It's still not right, and by 6:00am the counters are just too tired to be able to start another full recount. The county council elections - the Cinderella of polling day - don't even begin to be counted, so tomorrow looks to be a long day too.
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