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Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year

Here's hoping 2005 will be good for Harlow. A very happy New Year to everyone!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Flu

A strategically timed bout of flu can devastate the best laid plans. All that I'd planned to do is put aside, while I spend the day either asleep or dipping into a novel - Dan Brown's The da Vinci Code. How much is fact and how much is fiction it's hard to tell, but it's a timely read in view of the speculation about the new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly and the strict Roman Catholic organisation Opus Dei.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Aid for south east Asia

The dreadful news continues to emerge from south east Asia. For those wanting to make a donation, the BBC has published a helpful list of aid organisations working in the disaster zone and what they need our money for.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Turkey Soup Day

28 December is almost invariably Turkey Soup Day. It's not just soup, it's a symbolic event. Now that the carcase has been transferred from the bottom of the fridge to the pot, and the remaining vegetables chopped and added, there's more storage space and the kitchen can return to something approaching normal; and it's also the day on which each year I start to try to make corresponding order out of chaos in the rest of the house - the study in particular.

Even with a lot of papers stored in the Liberal Democrat Group office at the Civic Centre, being a councillor certainly does take over the house, with shelves full of files, folders, CD-ROMs, stationery and books - not to mention the desks, computers, printers and filing cabinet. The week between Christmas and New Year (no meetings, no post, few emails) is an ideal time to sort it all out - the office equivalent of the turkey soup. At Christmas 2002 I managed to send a record 15 shelved feet of paper to the recycling bank; I doubt this year's tidy-up will be as productive, but I hope I have time to complete the task so that I can see what I'm doing, as I certainly won't have any more time from now till the elections in May.

The 24 hour TV news channels continue to show the devastation unfolding in south east Asia, and the death toll continues to mount throughout the day, from 11,000 in the morning to over 55,000 by teatime. A couple of Harlow names flash across the ticker-tape along the bottom of the TV screen - people who, thankfully, are safe and on their way home. Georgina comes home from yet another trip to the sales, with the news that the family of a work colleague of hers, who were out on holiday in the affected area, are also home safely.

Monday, December 27, 2004

The last hunt

Maybe it's because I'm a townie (by adoption if not by birth), but I've never understood why anyone should want to celebrate the day after Christmas by getting onto a horse and going out killing animals for sport. If, as the BBC reports, today (postponed from yesterday, because apparently hunts never take place on Sundays) is the last legal Boxing Day hunt, it won't be a moment too soon.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The right to protest

Christmas Eve, and everyone seems to have the same idea as me - make all those business calls and dash off all those emails that need to be cleared before the holiday. So the phone rings incessantly all morning, and Nick (previously merely a Grumpy Old Man in training) now flings away his L-plates and becomes a fully-fledged grouse, tut-tutting disapprovingly at every call.

Nick's not the only one wanting to protest. Stop Harlow North, the group campaigning against the East of England Regional Plan, have emailed me wanting to make arrangements for a demonstration in the Water Gardens in the New Year. They've not had a response to their enquiry, so I've emailed the Water Gardens manager on their behalf, who rings me to let me know that she'll be in touch with them.

One of the letters I've put in the post today is to the Civic Society, who have written to me complaining that a political demonstration by another group outside the Civic Centre was recently challenged by Water Gardens staff. The Civic Centre is a public building where public decisions are made, and is bound to be the place where people will want to exercise their lawful right to protest about decisions they disagree with. But the Water Gardens development is private land, giving the shopping centre managers - on behalf of the owners - rights over events on the site; and the management's primary interest is the shopper, not the protestor.

The Water Gardens manager and I discuss the need to get the balance right, between allowing shoppers to go about their business unimpeded on the one hand, and the democratic right of residents to make their views known on the other. And we agree that she and the relevant council officer need to meet to work out a clear policy that anyone wanting to mount a demonstration at the Civic Centre can be given, so that everyone knows - literally - where they stand.

Normal diary service will resume on Monday 27 December. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

In memoriam

I hadn't expected the day to start with a funeral. It was only yesterday that Su rang me to say that Penny Loates from Berecroft had died in St Clare's Hospice on 18 December after a short illness, and that the funeral would be at 10:00am today. So at 9:45 I join Penny's family, friends, neighbours, plus a couple of council staff and others at the Parndon Wood crematorium to say goodbye.

Penny was an energetic and outgoing person, who gave generously of her time to make her community a better place. She was actively involved with Berecroft Residents Association, with Ryelands Housing Board, and latterly with the Maunds Hatch Community Centre project. It hardly seems six months since she was dashing about on the field behind Berecroft at the estate Fun Day, making sure that everyone had a good time and that everything was running smoothly. There aren't enough people like Penny, and her sudden loss is a real blow to us all.

It's almost exactly a year since my father's funeral, so the occasion brings back all the memories. Back in the town centre, I go and have my acrylic finger-nails 'infilled' ("you thought you'd bought them, now you realise you'd only rented them", a friend quipped when I told him about the cost of maintenance!). Perhaps as a reaction to the sadness of the funeral, I decide to be uncharacteristically frivolous and have them painted with silver tips and a lilac sheen for Christmas; after all, there are no more meetings until the new year at which I have to look official and efficient.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Goldsmiths

A letter leaves my desk today, on its way to Conservative county councillor Derek Robinson, responsible for community care at Essex County Council, to ask him what on earth is going on about Goldsmiths elderly people's home in Harlow.

I've been given a copy of the Essex & Hertfordshire Care Services Directory for 2004/5, and Goldsmiths, already facing uncertainty about its future, seems to have gone missing. It's not even mentioned. Ashlyn has a listing, as do the four schemes in Harlow for residents with learning disabilities - but Goldsmiths has vanished without a trace.

A company called Quantum Care is currently working in partnership with a housing association - Bedfordshire Pilgrims - to provide a new care home on the former Yorkes site, not far from Goldsmiths. It's expected to open in late 2005. Quantum does not expect to be taking on staff or residents from the existing scheme at Goldsmiths, though it is believed that the County Council has expressed possible interest in purchasing some places in the new scheme.

But Essex County Council is also currently advertising on its website for new care staff for Goldsmiths. The job advertisement for Goldsmiths states that "Proposals are being developed for Goldsmiths to be reprovided in partnership with Bedfordshire Pilgrims Housing Association". This doesn't seem likely, given what's happening both at Yorkes and at Goldsmiths. With existing staff at Goldsmiths uncertain whether they'll have a job in twelve months' time, and resident numbers being run down, why is the county council advertising for more staff?

Essex County Council's early promises about a future for Goldsmiths with voluntary sector and housing association partners seems to have been abandoned, and the county council now seems to be talking about selling the existing home to a private company.

So what's going on? The situation regarding the future for Goldsmiths is currently very confused indeed. It appears to me that Essex County Council has a duty to clarify for the benefit of staff and residents exactly what its intentions are. Cllr Robinson needs to respond by being open and honest about his plans for Goldsmiths' future. I send my letter on its way, and await a reply.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Congratulations and celebrations

The Chair of the Council is hosting a small get-together this evening to enable councillors to thank the staff for their work during the year. It's a year since the council moved into the new Civic Centre, and a lot has happened in that time -including some notable successes and real achievements by the council and the town.

The Henry Moore statue, symbol of Harlow, has returned to the town. Architects at New Hall have won a 'Planning for New Neighbourhoods' award. Kingsmoor House and Sams Place have passed their inspections with flying colours. Three local nature reserves have been announced. Harlow has been held up as an example of the council and the police working well together on anti-social behaviour. The council's new extended kerbside recycling scheme has already beaten our recycling targets for this year. The council has been shortlisted for an Information Management Award. The Water Gardens development is joint winner of the 2004 Town Centre Environmental Gold Standard Award. The council has won a national gold award in the Green Apple Awards for Environmental Best Practice. Three Harlow residents achieved amazing things in the Athens Paralympics.

Even in a year when the council has been judged 'Poor' by Government inspectors, there is still lots for Harlow to celebrate and to be proud of.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Can I see your papers, please, sir?

So David Blunkett's parting gift to the British public - the ID card - moves one step closer tonight, as Conservative and Labour MPs join forces to see the identity card bill through its next stage in the parliamentary process.

ID cards are expensive (we could employ an extra 10,000 police on our streets with the money), and their introduction is one of those technological projects that in government hands always ends up not only costing an arm and a leg but also falling over in a heap, and not achieving what it's supposed to. Law-abiding citizens will have to pay over £80 to be able to prove they are who they say they are, while a huge new criminal industry will grow up in forged cards.

The Tories' extraordinary decision to do a U-turn and support Labour's introduction of ID cards leaves the Liberal Democrats as the only major party opposing this illiberal and wasteful measure.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Town Park

In between a day of household chores, I re-read the report on the Town Park written by Ron Bill and Moira Jones from the Harlow Civic Society, and write a note to Ron.

Some parts of the report we will simply have to agree to disagree about. The Gateway project including the current swimming pool site now has planning approval, and far more local residents wrote in support of the proposal than opposed it.

I'm unsure too why the Civic Society should think that the animal sponsorship scheme at Pets Corner is "silly". A scheme like it operated very successfully at the Jersey Zoo all through my childhood, and it helps raise money for the animals from people who want to pay, as well as giving local people a stronger connection with the animals. I don't sponsor an animal at Pets Corner, though I have sponsored a wolf in Reading - but that's another story!

Some of the suggestions in the Civic Society's report, such as the renovation and renewal of the Adventure Playground, are already on the council's radar. Others, such as improving toilet facilities, the council will need to judge alongside other priorities. Some however should be straightforward, and I draft a letter to the council asking for an update on the Civic Society's suggestions.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Chip and pin

It's the first chance I've had to do any Christmas shopping, so much of the day is taken up wandering round the new shops in the Water Gardens in search of inspiration. Crowds, queues, incessant Christmas muzak - Jingle bells, Abba, Jona Lewie, Jingle Bells, Slade, Jingle Bells.

The new machines for reading 'chip and pin' credit cards are much in evidence in all the shops I visit. Today I see a leading security expert has warned that the new cards could be open to fraud. The banking industry has responded by saying that the system is "extremely robust".

Apparently one in five of us using the new cards are still signing for goods rather than using the new pin number - because, according to researchers, we haven't memorised it (I certainly haven't) or because the new system makes us nervous. But from 1 January, shops can refuse to accept our signature if we have a chip and pin card.

Modern life seems to rely on us memorising vast quantities of pin numbers and passwords - the Government has even been pushing pensioners to give up their pension books in favour of accounts with pin numbers. We're not supposed to have them all the same as each other, we're not supposed to write them down, we're supposed to keep changing them for additional security. How much can we be expected to carry around in our heads, for goodness' sake?

There you are - too much Christmas shopping and I start sounding as if I'm auditioning for Grumpy Old Women. Bah humbug.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Work goes on

The second day of our course in Coventry is livelier and more relevant than the first. We have some interesting discussions about how political groups work, about relationships between councillors and council officers - and a chance to focus on some of the actual problems and challenges we are facing on our own councils.

I come back to the delightful surprise that Tom has arrived home for the Christmas break, a day earlier than expected. However, we have little time to talk - there are literally hundreds of emails, a stack of post, and a telephone call from a resident in another ward worried about clamping of cars parked at Staple Tye shopping centre by patients visiting the doctor's surgery at Lister House. I did some work on this months ago, so I promise to dig out and copy to him the emailed correspondence I had with the council at the time, and the reply the council got me from the centre's managing agents. I agree with the caller that the managing agents should be asked to publicise more effectively their promise not to clamp residents using the car park for perfectly legitimate purposes like going to the doctor.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Polling day

The first polling day I've missed since 1995! The Little Parndon & Town Centre by-election is on, and I'm in Coventry for the second module of the Leadership Academy.

Lesley texts me after dinner to tell me the result - a Labour hold with a majority of over 350 votes. If the Conservatives called this by-election with the hope of showing they could win the General Election, it looks as if they've significantly misjudged matters.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

David Blunkett

So David Blunkett has finally faced the inevitable and resigned. He won't be missed by me - he has been even more illiberal as Home Secretary than Jack Straw. A week ago, we might have hoped that this would have been a killer blow to the plan for national identity cards. Ironically, with their usual crass timing, it's only this week that Michael Howard's Conservatives have decided to support Labour's ID card bill.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A meeting with the Leader

This afternoon I make the train journey into Central London for a summit of invited council leaders with party leader Charles Kennedy at Local Government House. I join colleagues who lead groundbreaking councils like Newcastle, Liverpool, Islington, Southwark and Somerset, in an animated discussion with Charles and Shadow ODPM Minister Ed Davey MP about some of the key issues: our excellent track record on crime and safety, and concern about the forthcoming council tax revaluation being among them. Lib Dem LGA leader Chris Clarke reminds us that Liberal Democrats run councils responsible for 10 million UK residents and over £10 billion of public money.

After a collective photo with more Lib Dem leaders on the steps of St Johns Smith Square, we walk over to the House of Commons for a meeting between the party's local government leaders and MPs highlighting some of the achievements of Liberal Democrat councils. Cathy Bakewell from Somerset talks about children's services, and Liverpool leader Mike Storey explains how his council has contributed to Liverpool being the second safest city in the country. The safest city, Newcastle, is also run by the Liberal Democrats!

I can't stay to the end of the meeting, as I need to be in Chelmsford by 6:00pm for a meeting about the East of England Regional Plan. County and district councillors are here to share information about the consultation that the Regional Assembly will be organising on the Plan, and discuss some of the issues that are likely to be raised. It's a brief meeting, covering fairly familiar ground, and I leave at about half past seven, not sure I'm that much better informed by it, and pleased to be heading home.

Monday, December 13, 2004

What a way to spend a birthday

It's my birthday, so of course it starts off with presents. But duty calls, even today. So at 9:30 I'm in the Civic Centre for the verification of the postal votes in the Little Parndon & Town Centre by-election. It's an hour of watching paint dry as they open the envelopes, followed by about twenty minutes of eagle-eyed scrutiny.

I've not yet delivered my FOCUS round from the weekend, so the rest of the morning is spent doing that. The by-election is on Thursday, after all, so time is limited. I've got a leaflet and a Christmas card with calendar to deliver together. My ward colleague Su has rung to tell me that three of the four Sundays in July haven't printed on the calendar - but we've decided we can't afford the time or money for a reprint (the Sundays were missing on the proof, and I didn't spot them, so it's not the printer's fault).

It's perishingly cold, and my fingers are numb. Some of the letter boxes are impossible - narrow, stiff, down at the bottom of people's doors so you've got to get down almost on your hands and knees to post anything. Then there are the ones with the flap behind that refuses to budge an inch; or the brush that's supposed to keep the draught out but just sends the leaflet rebounding back at you. At one point, a narrow letter box set vertically into a door just defeats me, and I end up dropping all my leaflets and cards on the ground and having to gather them all up again before they get blown down the street.

I'm glad to get in at lunchtime for a bowl of hot soup. I'm working at home this afternoon, then Nick's taking me out for a birthday dinner at the Jolly Fisherman at Stanstead Abbots - a much more civilised way to spend time on my birthday.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Not such a new town

At noon today Nick and I are at the Museum of Harlow. Former MP Stan Newens is handing over to the town a copy of a 1616 map of Mark Hall parish, which was passed to him by the Arkwright family - famous for the invention of the 'spinning Jenny' at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and one-time landowners in Harlow.

The map is amazing, demonstrating clearly Mark Hall's part in the parishing of Harlow into a series of vertical strips, ensuring that each parish had access to the full range of natural resources necessary for self-sufficiency: water from the river in the north, meadow and pasture land in the south. Many of the place names on the map are recognisable in local housing estates today - Oldhouse Croft, Little Pynchons, The Downs, Great Plumtree. Harlow Council Head of Arts Laurence Sach tells us that there's a row of hawthorn in Old Harlow that quite clearly corresponds to the boundary of the old strip cultivation plots to the top right of the map. And there are little pictures of the fair at Bush Fair (the name of one of our local shopping areas, and a Lib Dem council ward) and the clergy beating the bounds of the parish. Harlow has a reputation as a post-war New Town - but we have a great deal of history too.

And some things don't change. Local historian Ron Bill shows me a cutting from a 1960s local newspaper that he's copied about the Arkwright family. I notice wryly that there's also an article on the same page about Essex County Council cutting the highways maintenance budget for Harlow - the same argument local politicians are having at the moment.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Party season

It's hard to believe it's only two weeks to Christmas. The new stores in the award-winning Water Gardens appear to be doing a roaring trade, and the introduction of a new pay and display system in the car park appears to have reduced the tailbacks of traffic at the entrance.

I pop in briefly to the farewell party for my friends Peter and Jenny from Westfield, who are moving away to Cornwall. We've known each other for nearly twenty years, our children are of identical ages, and I shall miss them. We have quite a few friends in common, so I catch up with Bill who used to repair my washing machine, Tim who chairs the Harlow Fairtrade Action Group, and many others.

In the evening, the Lib Dems hold a Christmas games evening and social at Lesley's house. It's great fun, uses up all the frozen sausages and burgers left over from our post-election party, and raises over £100 for Liberal Democrat campaign funds. As it's my birthday on Monday, I'm the subject of a 'Guess the Age of the Leader' competition (humph!). I award the winner's prize - and a spontaneous runner-up prize of 50p to the young man who put in a very flattering guess of five years younger than my real age.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Regional Assembly

I'm collected at Harlow Station at half past eight by my friend and colleague Cllr Alan Dean from Stansted, who has kindly offered me a lift to the Regional Assembly meeting in Hatfield today.

The meeting is at the Fielder Centre in Hatfield, and as a venue for an event of this type it's a total disaster. The microphones don't work properly, the seats are uncomfortable, and there are no tables to rest the voluminous piles of bumf that the Region seems to spawn.

The day starts with meetings of the respective Groups; Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Stakeholder. The first item of business after coffee is a presentation on renewable energy by Renewables East, including some magnificent photographs of the new offshore wind farm at Scroby Sands off Great Yarmouth.

However, after lunch the political temperature rises. The Conservative Group on the Regional Assembly has returned to the question of the East of England Plan, and has proposed a motion that "deplores the Government's grossly inadequate funding of the transport infrastructure costs associated with the additional 478,000 houses planned for the region between 2001-2021".

All Groups on the Regional Assembly - even Labour - are prepared to support this statement. However, the Conservative motion then "suspends" the Assembly's support for the Regional Plan until the Government re-examines its proposed transport funding. It's not clear that such a suspension would have any legal status, nor (one suspects) is the motion designed to be helpful or constructive.

The Stakeholder group, which consists of various regional bodies and groupings who aren't elected politicians, have proposed an amendment to the Conservative motion. It continues (rightly) to deplore the funding gap, but removes the reference to suspending support for the Plan, and simply expresses concern and urges the Government to reconsider. This is a more measured response, and I'm inclined to support it. Unfortunately, it includes a description of the Regional Assembly as "acting as the agent of Government" in launching the consultation on the Regional Plan - which we certainly aren't, and this clumsy wording is clearly going to lose the amendment some support.

The Stakeholder amendment - which I broadly support, apart from the clunky reference to being an "agent of Government" - is defeated, by 34 votes to 38. The only choice left is therefore to vote for the deeply unsatisfactory Conservative motion, or to say nothing at all about the transport funding. As one of Harlow's most important reasons for supporting the Regional Plan is the need to attract money to solve our transport problems, I believe only one of those options is feasible, and I end up voting in favour of the Conservative motion, which is successful by 43 votes to 30.

The meeting maunders on until just after 4:00pm, and Alan kindly drives me back to Harlow again. As we exit the station roundabout, I see the usual gridlock along Elizabeth Way, a great stream of stationary car headlights winking in the winter evening. This is what the debate this afternoon was all about, and that was why I had to vote the way I did.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Mobile phone masts

Tonight I chair a meeting of residents from Sakins Croft and The Readings, two estates in my ward, to discuss the mobile phone masts recently erected on the roof of the Latton Bush Centre. The masts were agreed by Harlow Council's planning department in May 2001, and a licence signed by the council and O2 in December 2002. But the masts weren't installed until August 2004, and residents feel aggrieved that they weren't adequately consulted.

Mobile phone masts are a growing problem. Demand for mobile phones is increasing - there are now 50 million of them in the UK, almost enough for one for every man, woman and child in the country. We want a good signal, we want 3G phones - and phones inevitably mean masts. The most authoritative guidance we have at present, the Stewart Report, says there is no evidence demonstrating any health risk from masts or base stations (indeed, the phones themselves pose far more of a risk), but research continues and in the meantime people are understandably anxious as stories spread.

The council will shortly be considering a proposed new policy for buildings it owns, which should mean mobile operators sharing their future plans better with the council, and the council consulting better with local residents about possible sites of future masts. But on the other hand, the council has already lost two appeals by operators whom the council refused planning permission for masts, and a third appeal is on the way - so we don't always have a choice or a free hand.

Residents express their views and ask questions of the panel, consisting of representatives from O2, Council planning and environmental health officers, and management staff from the centre. Measurements have been taken near the homes of some residents, which appear to show emissions of only a thousandth of the levels set by experts - but some residents are far from convinced. We discuss whether covering the masts to make them less visually intrusive would be a good idea - and there's a mixed view. It's probably one of the most contentious and difficult subjects local councillors have to deal with, and one on which it's impossible to please everyone.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Yes, Minister

Off to Whitehall in the afternoon, to meet Phil Hope MP, the minister at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who's dealing with Harlow Council's recovery plan - the famous document whose very existence has been in hot dispute over the last few weeks, but which representatives of all three parties have been summoned to discuss. The Labour leader and I are there, as is the council's Chief Executive; the Tory leader isn't coming, but has sent a substitute.

It's a reasonably positive meeting, and an opportunity to talk about the plan's contents - agreed by all parties back in mid-October - and how the council intends to move forward with putting it into practice.

Back to Harlow on the train in the rush hour, and then meeting after meeting - the Harlow Trust for the Furtherance of Education appoints its new auditor, the council's Joint Negotiating Committee discusses current issues with the trade unions, and then the Labour leader and I have a brief meeting. Fortunately, I make it back to the take-away at Colt Hatch before it closes, and head back home juggling my briefcase, a pack of fish and chips and the mobile phone while I call Tom to wish him a happy 21st birthday in Derby.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Howard fails to impress

It appears from the national press that Michael Howard's Tories are already scrapping their much-hyped 'ten word manifesto', weeks after it was launched and only months before the General Election which is expected to take place next May. According to the Evening Standard, "Private polling is said to show Michael Howard will struggle to match even the poor results achieved in 2001 under William Hague."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Transport of delight

I've ordered a tricycle. I've never been able to ride a bike, I can't drive a car, and I've decided I need to be able to get around Harlow under my own steam. A search on the internet has revealed a firm that sells tricycles by email order, so I've taken the plunge and bought one. Apparently it arrives flat pack, like furniture from IKEA, and you have to put it together yourself. I can't wait; it'll certainly help me check out residents' comments about the state of the local cycle paths.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Home sweet home

Our house is becoming more and more like something halfway through Changing Rooms - we're expecting a new carpet tomorrow, and two sofas before Christmas. Nick has been decorating, and it's all at that awful stage that's the DIY equivalent of 'the darkest hour is just before the dawn'.

Oddly, my usual big envelope of council mail is delivered today instead of on Saturday. Among the many items it contains is a letter about a query I've raised on behalf of a local council tenant, who says she is being harassed in her home and wants to move. The letter tells me that the resident concerned hasn't enough housing transfer points for a move, and that there isn't enough evidence to prove harassment; I drop her a line to tell her the bad news, and enclose a copy of the council's letter, suggesting that she might want to consider other options such as a housing association. Shortage of affordable rented housing is probably the largest single item contributing to my - and most Harlow councillors' - mailbag. It's one of the most upsetting, too. Those of us who have a home we can feel happy to call our own - even if it's filled with paint pots and unattached lengths of skirting - are fortunate indeed.

My incoming email today contains the minutes of the recent East of England Regional Assembly. The Assembly discussed where additional homes might be built in the area, including around Harlow - a subject that will continue to be controversial. I wonder how my constituent on the waiting list, and many thousands like her, feel about the prospect of more affordable rented homes being built nearby - and what she might think of those who don't want these new homes to be built, but offer no solution to her problem.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Disco diva

It's the first Saturday in the month - so that means it's my ward surgery at Staple Tye. I stop off at the postbox on my way to drop in my postal vote for Chris Millington in the Essex County Council by-election; then spend an hour at the council office, discussing residents' housing problems.

Our campaign team has a meeting in the afternoon, following up on our recent Brussels weekend. Then it's home for a quick couple of hours on paperwork and email.

In the evening, Nick and I have been invited to the Christmas social event of Harlow Neighbourhood Watch, by its ever-energetic chairman Albert Hobdell and his wife Hazel. It's an immensely enjoyable dance and buffet at Roydon Village Hall - and so Saturday ends with me dancing in line to Billy Joel's Uptown Girl and Abba medleys.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Christmas is coming

Another frantic Friday, with meetings wall-to-wall - Chief Executive, officers, Recovery lead official, Harlow 2020, fellow Joint Leader, Chair of Policy & Resources. I'm in the Civic Centre at 8:20, and don't leave till 5:30.

In among all this, I'm delighted to have been asked to present Tesco shopping vouchers to the four lucky winners of the Harlowsave questionnaire. Harlowsave is Harlow's own local credit union - a community-sized not-for-profit savings and loan scheme. I'm a member, and save £10 a month by direct debit. It has the security of a national bank or building society, but it's there to help and support its local members here in Harlow. It's a great way of putting aside a little money on a regular basis, so that you can call on it, or borrow more at reasonable rates of interest, when you need to. The winners are clearly delighted with their prizes, which have come just at the right time for the Christmas shopping.

I'm not yet in festive mood, personally, but I end the working day lugging home a great big box of Christmas cards for myself and my fellow joint leader of the council to sign and send. I left the choice of design to him - enough said!

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Cashback

I finally get round to putting together my expenses for work, and for the council. I'm horrified to realise that some of my receipts go back to July, and that it's six months since I claimed back the money I've spent - mostly on travel to meetings. No wonder my bank balance is that interesting red colour for so much of the month!

Today is the day councillors with responsibility for council finances have been waiting for - the Chancellor's pre-budget statement. Gordon Brown is clearly worried about the effect that high council tax rises might have on Labour's General Election prospects, so he's organised a last-minute whip-round from Government departments in Whitehall to try to limit the damage. Harlow's increase is better than some of us had feared - but even if we have a couple of hundred thousand pounds extra for next year, that's still small beer compared to the £1.7 million savings we'd need to make to avoid putting up the council tax.

Of course, after the General Election the Government intends to revalue properties for council tax purposes, so the smaller increases this year could just be storing up trouble for later. Why the Government doesn't replace the council tax with a fairer system I'll never understand - council tax isn't based on ability to pay, and it costs a fortune to administer with its own massive bureaucracy. A local income tax would leave 70 per cent of Harlow residents better or no worse off, and be much cheaper to collect.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

In training

I'm the only one of Harlow's 33 councillors who's agreed to be trained to chair job evaluation appeals panels, where council staff who believe managers have incorrectly evaluated their jobs for salary purposes can request a review of the decision. Today myself, some council managers and union representatives are being trained for the task, at the Latton Bush Centre. It's one of dozens of things I end up doing that I didn't realise were involved in being a councillor when I first got elected thirteen and a half years ago.

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