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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Gridlock

Nick leaves home later than usual, at just after 9:00, because he's got an off-site meeting. At 10:25 he rings home to say that he's still caught in traffic in Harlow near the M11 roundabout.

On my way from the town centre by cab at 4:45, Fifth Avenue and all the roundabouts are gridlocked.

Harlow's traffic problems are becoming notorious; they're top of the list of concerns for the Chamber of Commerce, and a serious obstacle to businesses seeking to bring new jobs to Harlow.

One of the reasons for considering additional homes north of Harlow is to attract the investment Harlow's transport system needs - a new road north east of Harlow to take traffic from the A414 to a new junction on the M11, and public transport to link Epping, North Weald and Harlow up to Stansted.

Without this expansion, it's hard to see how we'll solve our serious transport problems - or how our young people will ever be able to afford a local home.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A question of priorities

Sal and I meet for lunch. She's my peer mentor, provided by the local government Improvement & Development Agency to support me as group leader while the council is 'recovering'. We talk about how things are going - we both agree that there's a lot happening and that I'm going to need to prioritise my time very carefully.

A lot of time in my group meeting in the evening is also spent discussing priorities - how to spend the council's limited resources. If we want Harlow's share of the council tax to stay still, we need to save £1.8 million from the council's budget. Even if we are prepared to see our share of the council tax go up by 6 per cent - about as much as the Government is likely to allow without stepping in to 'cap' us - that's still £1.5 million in savings to find. That's serious money, and it's not going to be easy, or painless; but we can't go on trying to do everything, and doing everything badly.

The trouble is, one person's idea of an unnecessary luxury is another person's essential service. Difficult things, priorities.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

UKIP

A UKIP leaflet has arrived through my letterbox for the forthcoming Essex County Council by-election. Strangely, the front page includes a large picture of politician-turned-TV-presenter-turned-politician Robert Kilroy Silk. I didn't think he was terribly interested in becoming a Harlow county councillor. I also would have thought that after his botched bid to seize control of UKIP, his party would be far from keen to remind people of him.

The leaflet itself is unpleasant and disturbing. Harlow has in the main been a town where diverse communities and cultures get on reasonably well together. Political literature that wrongly blames local housing shortages for our next generation on "immigrants" and all our problems on the rest of Europe, is hardly likely to promote tolerance and wellbeing.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Delivery

Out in the fresh crisp morning, joining our team delivering leaflets for the county council by-election on 16 December - 'keep fit with a purpose', I call it, as we trudge along terraces and up and down stairs in flat blocks. Lots of friendly greetings from local residents, and only two or three dogs trying to rip my fingers off through the letterboxes.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Time flies

Friday, as usual, passes in a blur of meetings.

11:00 - Gateway scheme project board (updates on progress)
13:00 - Chamber of Commerce (useful chance to discuss matters of concern to local businesses)
14:00 - Recovery Working Group (improving the council after our inspection)
16:00 - Preview & Best Value meeting on child care (preparing a report on child care charges)
17:30 - Meeting with Labour Group leader and the MP (general information sharing).

It's a quarter to seven before I can rip off my council badge for the day, and return to the paperwork and stack of emails that await me at home.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

It's been a long day

Normally I don't have any trouble sleeping, but this isn't one of those occasions. Having woken at 5 am, I can't get back to sleep, so I make the best of a bad job and spend two hours in the study. It's amazing how much work you can clear in the wee small hours before the rest of the world wakes up - emails, letters, reports, diary.

Although it means I start the day feeling virtuous, I'm working all day in London today, so by early evening I'm exhausted. But it's Full Council tonight, so there's a Group meeting at 7 pm. Normally this would take an hour, but there's an officer presentation to the Council on the Regional Spatial Strategy at 7.30 pm - as a result, it's all rather rushed.

Several members of the council are absent tonight, and the Chair of the Council has to leave at 9:30 pm. The agenda for tonight is one of the thinnest I've known, and any sensible Council would clear it all up in fifty minutes. But the Conservative opposition is out to make trouble again, and when the Chair leaves at 9:30pm they count the heads and realise that with all the absences they've got a majority on the casting vote of the (Tory) Vice Chair. All bedlam breaks loose over, of all things, appointments to the Licensing Committee. It's a week since the Tories were given the report proposing an increase in the size of the Licensing Committee from 10 members to 12, but they're acting as if it's all a big surprise, and they rapidly turn the Council into a street auction. Not 12 members - 15! No, 14! 12 for now, but have another report on the same subject to discuss all over again at the next meeting! Without a majority, we can't restore common sense so we have to reach the best compromise we can in the circumstances.

The meeting closes and we emerge into the Water Gardens far later than necessary.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

In sickness and in health

A sick daughter and a sick dog this morning. Georgina (the daughter) has woken up with a nasty virus, which she takes with her to her First Aid course. Ruddock (by a process of elimination, the dog) is still a bit unsteady on his legs - the vet has just diagnosed arthritis, and he's also got a temperature. He's on antibiotics, and all being well should start his anti-inflammatory medication on Friday.

At two o'clock I chair a meeting of Harlow 2020's Community Health & Wellbeing Sub Group. We review the recent Health Fair we organised at the Sportcentre, and discuss the comments of those who attended. We agree which organisations these comments need to be referred to for action. Our facilitator, Alison Cowie from the Primary Care Trust, reveals the shocking statistic that Harlow is fourth in the national league table of deaths attributable to smoking related illnesses - only parts of Liverpool and Hull are worse. Four in every ten Harlow deaths have a smoking related connection. We decide this has to be a priority for the Sub Group to consider at its next meeting.

It's now time to visit some constituents I've promised to see, a mother and daughter - both unwell - whose lives and health are being ruined by anti-social behaviour from a minority of local youngsters. I need to write a letter tonight to alert relevant council officers and see if we can find some solutions.

I'm due to be in a meeting on Sport & Recreation in the town centre at 6:00. I haven't got time to go home beforehand, so I pop in to Macdonalds for a take-out quarterpounder with cheese meal with Diet Coke. I feel even guiltier than usual now that the walls are covered with pictures of their new salads, particularly between meetings discussing health and fitness - but clearly not guilty enough.

On my way to the Civic Centre with my burger and fries and fizzy pop, I walk hastily past the health and fitness centre. When was the last time I used my membership there for a workout or a swim? I'm just too busy. Clutching my Macdonalds, I walk to my meeting on sport and fitness, reflecting that irony certainly isn't dead yet.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Proof of identity

A significant day in the political calendar - the Queen's Speech, containing what is likely to be the last programme of legislation from this government before the general election. It's much as expected, with some sensible proposals which deserve support, and others that will be fiercely debated.

One of the most controversial will be the introduction of identity cards. Why are the Government intent on spending billions of pounds on an identity card system which didn't work in New York or Madrid, instead of spending the money on more police? It makes no sense - as the campaign at http://www.no2id.net/ clearly shows.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A question of sport

The highlight of today is a reception at the Civic Centre for Harlow's paralympic athletes, hosted by council chairman Cllr Ian Jackson.

Harlow is probably unique for its size in being home to no fewer than three disabled sportsmen and women who represented their country in Athens earlier this year - pistol shooter Isabel Newstead, runner Noel Thatcher and wheelchair racer Anne Strike.

It's an impressive achievement for the town, and one that seems set to continue, with up-and-coming paralympic athlete Aiden Clarke aiming for the 2012 Olympics - and hoping it's in London. What an opportunity that would be for the town and our young people.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

A tour of Europe

A free day in Brussels, so we take the Metro to Heysel station for the Bruparck and spend the morning at Mini-Europe. It's an amazing achievement, with scores of 1:25 scale models of major European landmarks or typical national scenes - the Eiffel Tower, the Escorial in Spain, the ruins of Athens, the Berlin Wall being pulled down, our own Houses of Parliament, and even a shaking Vesuvius belching smoke! There are spaces set aside for more models representing the new accession countries that have recently joined the European Union.

After an hour in the centre of Brussels for some last minute gift shopping, we pick up our luggage from the hotel and make our way to Midi station and the Eurostar terminal. All agree it's been a great weekend.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Training day

We spend most of the day in a training room provided by our hotel, talking through our campaign plans and preparing for the six months ahead. It's hard work, rewarded at the end with a stroll to the impressive Grand'Place, and an evening spent over a shared meal at a restaurant recommended by Robert and Chris - La Moule Sacree, or the Sacred Mussel. You can't come to Belgium and not eat mussels!

Later, back in our hotel, we get an update from the barman on last night's armed siege drama. When the perpetrator was coaxed down from the construction site crane where he'd taken up his vantage point outside the hotel, the weapon turned out to be imitation - to everyone's great relief.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Appointments

I take the chair of the council's Appointments Sub-Committee at 8:15am. We're interviewing several applicants today, and it demands concentration and focus. The council can't improve without good people in the right jobs, so it's one of our most important tasks.

Then it's off to Brussels tonight for a Harlow Lib Dem away weekend. Robert has managed to get us an astonishing deal on Eurostar, so it's time to pack up and head to Waterloo.

We arrive in Brussels at 10:45, and pile into cabs to head for our hotel. When we arrive, we find the whole square cordoned off by the police, and a TV news crew with van and satellite dish. Our hotel is under siege from a lone gunman, and the emergency services aren't allowing anyone in. It's been going on for two hours, we're told, and there's no indication when it'll end. We head for the Sheraton Hotel across the square, and buy coffees and beers while we wait for order to be restored. Just before midnight, the gunman is apprehended and - very late - we make our way to our rooms and a well-earned night's sleep.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Money worries

Harlow Council's Policy & Resources Committee meets tonight: 179 pages of reports and several separate papers. I gather council officers sometimes make bets on the likely closing times of council meetings - there'll be no smart money on anything before ten thirty tonight.

While I await my lift to the meeting, Tom rings from Derby, to say that it's snowing, and he's still sorting out his problem with the electricity company, which seems to have charged him £110 for £20 worth of supply. Money's tight for university students these days, with tuition fees and massive loans - problems I never had to face.

Before the committee meeting, we hear a presentation from the Youth Council, about what local young people think of life in Harlow. Money is high on their list of worries too; the cost of bus travel and things to do in the evenings is mentioned several times. I can't help thinking that life is much tougher for the next generation than it was for their parents.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wars and rumours of wars

Rumour - often rife in Harlow's Civic Centre - reaches fever pitch today.

A Conservative leaflet delivered in Harlow this month claims - quite wrongly - that Harlow Council has 'no recovery plan' to deal with being judged poor in its recent inspection. But the whole Conservative Group voted for the 'non-existent' plan on 14 October. The Conservative councillor responsible for the leaflet is a member of the Recovery Board that is overseeing the plan being put into action. And the leader of the Conservative Group signed the introduction to the recovery plan that was submitted, on time, to the Government on 5 November.

So the claim is clearly bizarre as well as inaccurate. Liberal Democrats have pointed this out in a letter to the councillor responsible, demanding an apology and a withdrawal of the offending leaflet. Neither has happened - indeed the Tory publisher was reported in the local papers as sticking by his extraordinary claims.

But the leaflet appears to have caused even more trouble within local Tory ranks than for the other political parties they were trying to attack. Conservative Future - the youth wing of the local Conservative party - is said to have advised the Conservative agent not to publish the leaflet, but was apparently ignored. There is allegedly severe discontent within the Tory Group on the council - potentially even among its leadership - that they are associated with the leaflet and its contents.

It all sounds like a spectacular own goal, even by Harlow Tories' usual standards - and keeps the gossip-mill busy for hours.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Moorfield garages: a light at the end of the tunnel?

Moorfield is one of the few estates in my ward with a thriving residents' association. Today I join Derek and Bill from the association, plus Julie from the council's community partnership team, and Alan from building control, on site.

The residents' association has done tremendous work to improve many of the little things on the estate, but there are a few major issues that need lots of money to tackle. The longstanding problem in hand today is an unappealing garage block that, frankly, has seen better days. The top storey is fine, but the lower deck - open at both ends - is half unlet, neglected and being used as a cut-through. Derek and Bill believe that blocking off one end would help matters, but we're worried that if an exit has to be built into the blocked-off end, and particularly if it has to comply with disability legislation, the council might not be able to afford it at all.

Alan's initial professional opinion is that the regulations might allow us to block off the end quite safely without an exit, as the structure is wide enough to let people get out in the event of fire anywhere on the lower deck. He'll check with the fire service, and he's also wondering whether the materials used to build these garages in the 1960s include something called 'high-aluminous cement', which apparently would be bad news for the long term fitness of the whole block. But if we don't need to build in an exit, blocking off one end of the garages as a short term solution could be much cheaper than we'd feared. Maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Drugs and alcohol

The day does not start well. The dentist at my local surgery (Addison House at Wych Elm) confirms that my toothache is indeed - as I suspect - an infection, and prescribes two different antibiotics. I take the prescription up to Boots in Harlow town centre, and pay nearly £13 for my medication. In 1979 the charge for a prescription was 45p - now it's £6.40. Whatever happened to the dream of a national health service free at the point of use? I wonder how many families go without medicines they need because they simply can't afford them.

Our regular council group meeting takes place in the evening. It's supposed to finish by ten o'clock, but stretches out to ten fifteen. A lot of our time is taken up talking about how Harlow Council is going to cope with the changes to the licensing laws.

From next year councils will be responsible for issuing licenses that were previously issued by magistrates - for entertainment, alcohol and so on. The council's present Licensing Committee of ten just won't be big enough for all the sub-committee meetings that will be needed to issue all these licenses - so there's talk of increasing the size of the committee to twelve or even fifteen members. That's nearly half the council! They will all have to be trained by February, and sub-committee meetings will have to be taking place about three times a week - including in the daytime, when many councillors work. (Being a councillor is, after all, a spare time activity - it's not paid like regular employment).

I can't help feeling frustrated at the tendency of Government to hand over responsibilities to local councils without considering the resources to go with them, or the serious impact on councillors' workload.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and I attend the ceremony at Netteswell Cross to lay a wreath on behalf of the local Liberal Democrats. It's a sobering thought this year to remember the British armed forces currently on active service in Iraq as well as those in earlier conflicts.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Pavement politics

Over to County Hall in Chelmsford for a meeting with other Liberal Democrat councillors and campaigners. It's a useful chance to hear what's going on in other parts of the county, and to share experiences and good ideas.

I point out the problems we in Harlow are having with the county council cuts to our road repairs budget. On top of that, the County Council's Conservative-controlled highways department doesn't want residents to ring Contact Harlow for queries about roads and paving any more. It's insisting that there must be a special separate County Council number for all Essex residents to ring, just for highways problems. Goodness knows where the operators would be based; it doesn't sound very user-friendly or particularly local, and I can't see how residents will get anything but a worse service if they have to ring somewhere thirty miles away about their local pavements.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Selecting a candidate (or two)

The day starts early - too early, as I've managed to acquire a major cold in the night which has woken me up at about five o'clock; my nose is blocked and my throat feels like sandpaper. It's the second day of the Leadership Academy in Coventry, for council leaders wanting to develop their leadership skills. It's an excellent opportunity to work through some of the challenges that face a complex council like Harlow and think about new ways of addressing them.

The second day of the course builds on some of the work we did yesterday; we discuss who needs to be involved in turning visions into practical realities on the council; and how to identify and deal with the obstacles that can stop change happening. We come away at the end of the day with Personal Development Plans to complete ready for the next two-day course block in December.

The train from Coventry back to Euston is late, and packed with standing passengers in second class. Eventually Virgin Trains relents and lets us all troop through to the dozens of empty seats in first class. There must be a better way to run a railway service than this.

A quick turnaround at home, with a change of clothes and a chance to catch up on the most urgent of two days' worth of email. Then off to the Latton Bush Centre, where the Liberal Democrats are selecting their prospective parliamentary candidate. I'm delighted to be selected for the fourth time, with the overwhelming support of my local party. With Labour suffering a real crisis of public trust, and the Tories under Michael Howard at a lower point than even under Iain Duncan Smith before they got rid of him, there's every reason for local residents to be turning to the Liberal Democrats this time.

The meeting also selects respected local councillor Chris Millington as its candidate for the by-election caused by the recent death of county councillor Rene Morris. Chris chairs Harlow Council's Environment & Community Committee, and is incensed at the recent decision of Tory Essex County Council to slash Harlow's budget to mend roads and pavements by 30 per cent. Chris has decided to take the fight to County Hall and campaign even more vigorously to stop Harlow's roads falling to pieces under the Essex Conservatives.

Finally the evening is over, and I get the chance to relax with Nick over dinner. It's been a long day.

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