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Monday, January 31, 2005

Briefly

My council meeting tonight is shorter than I'd expected, and I'm home by half past nine.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Stop Stansted Expansion

For some reason, we sleep through the alarm, so it's gone eight o'clock before the day begins. I have to be out of the house by 11:20, as I need to catch the 11:36 to Stansted Airport for the Stop Stansted Expansion conference.

After a luncheon courtesy of SSE chairman Peter Sanders, the event is opened by Alan Dean, Leader of Uttlesford Council (the conference sponsors) who welcomes us to what he reminds us is 'the largest surface car parking lot in Europe'.

There are some informative and interesting presentations from various SSE members, including a star turn from SSE economics adviser Brian Ross. BAA Chief Executive Mike Clasper said last month that the cost of Stansted expansion would equate only to the price of a couple of Starbucks coffees per passenger. Ross's presentation, The Economics of Starbucks Airport, takes the Starbucks coffee as its currency and ends up with a very different sum, and a final PowerPoint screen covered with Starbucks cups.

Brian's table of figures, arguing that Stansted makes a loss of £1.03 per passenger per annum on aeronautics operations, and only turns a profit through income from car parking charges and retail sales in the airport shops, gives us all pause for thought.

There's a good turnout of Liberal Democrat friends and colleagues at the conference; I find myself sitting between Uttlesford councillors Alan Thawley and Martin Savage, chatting with councillor David Morson over tea, and greeting Saffron Walden parliamentary spokesman Elfreda Tealby-Watson and Member of the European Parliament Andrew Duff MEP, who are also here for the occasion.

There's a lot of energy, determination and professionalism in the room. If I were BAA, I'd be quite worried.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Doing business

Despite my best endeavours, a morning at home doesn't reduce the paperwork by that much. In among my council post is a letter from Ron Bill of the Civic Society, a regular correspondent always with something interesting to say - our political opinions are usually poles apart, but he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Harlow and often attaches a press cutting from thirty or forty years ago to illustrate his point.

After lunch, I cycle over to Tye Green for our local party's Executive Committee meeting. There's a good turnout; it's Chris Robins' first meeting in his new role as local party chair, and he handles it superbly. At about a quarter to four we take a short break, and pick up some takeaway teas and coffees from Greggs in Bush Fair; they're obviously not expecting a bulk order at that time on a Saturday afternoon, and it's like the catering equivalent of a run on the bank - cardboard carrying trays everywhere, machines being refilled with water, cups and lids in serried ranks on the counter.

After a very productive meeting, I cycle back home, and after dinner use the Harlow Liberal Democrats internet shop to book a short trip to go home to Jersey and see my family for a few days next month. (It's nearly six months since I was last there). Using the internet shop means that the local Liberal Democrats get a small fee for the transaction, at no extra cost to me. It's a great way to give a bit more money painlessly to the party I support, and the shop has everything from computer bits to flights, flowers and even Debenhams!

Friday, January 28, 2005

Another frantic Friday

One-to-one meetings with Sal, my IDEA peer support, and my group colleague Eleanor take up most of the morning. After a brief lunch break, my fellow joint leader and I meet Mike and Elsie from the Townwide Tenants' Advisory Group; I pop in for a few words with the IDEA team; then there's a joint leaders' meeting and finally a joint meeting with Bill Rammell MP.

It's 6:30pm before I leave the Civic Centre to cycle home. As soon as I arrive, we're off out for dinner at the Hand & Crown in High Wych. We get chatting to the couple at the next table, also from Harlow, with whom we find we have a lot of connections and a number of shared acquaintances - and spend a very pleasant evening in their company.

I spend what little remains of Friday catching up with email and opening my post.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and Chair of Harlow Council Ian Jackson has organised an event in the Civic Centre to enable the local community to remember the terrible history of mass genocide under the Nazis. Some of us councillors have another meeting to attend, but we adjourn shortly before 8:00pm so that we can go upstairs to the Council Chamber and take part.

The personal testimonies of people who lived through those years are deeply moving. Though it's sixty years since the concentration camps were liberated, we mustn't allow the Holocaust to be forgotten, as all involved in tonight's event rightly say.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The wonders of modern communication

Among this morning's emails I find a request from a pupil at a local secondary school, asking me to fill in a questionnaire about whether I think voting in parliamentary elections should be made compulsory (I don't), and how more young people can be encouraged to get involved in politics and vote at election time. As part of my answer, I tell her about Westminster Day, organised every year to give young people the chance to find out more about parliament and how it all works.

There's also a small flurry of emails during the day - eleven, to be precise - from people wanting to let me know that they've read my internet diary, and how opposed they are to the development of extra homes and amenities north of Harlow. Only one gives a Harlow address, and the majority of the rest are from people who freely tell me they don't live in the town. I appreciate and respect their point of view, and they'll all receive an individual reply (not necessarily tonight). But I'm elected to represent Harlow residents and their interests first and foremost.

In the afternoon, Essex County Council and Harlow Council launch the next stage of our project to provide information about both councils' services through Contact Harlow, our 'front desk' operation at Harlow's Civic Centre. For a little while now, we've been providing information about some county council services through the district council call centre, switchboard and reception counter. After all, most residents don't want to know which organisation is responsible for providing a service - they just want to know that they can report a problem or pick up a brochure quickly and conveniently. Now we're consulting residents about what other service information they'd like to see available from this shared front desk. There are huge opportunities in the future, from payments over the council's web site to mobile phone text messages to remind residents of the Christmas bin collection dates. County councillor Stephen Castle and I are the two speakers, and the event is well attended - with a chance to chat with staff and guests over a spread of fruit, biscuits and cake afterwards.

Even my hairdresser, when I pop in for a haircut in the early afternoon, tells me he's thinking of setting up a facility for customers to book appointments on the internet.

To think that it's only twenty five years since I typed my college essays on an electric typewriter and thought this was as technological as the world would get!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Asylum

On the train to work in London today, everyone's newspapers seem full of headlines on asylum and immigration, following the full-page anti-immigration advertisement by Michael Howard's Tories in the Sunday press.

It's strange that the son of refugees who were given safe haven in this country appears so determined to deny that lifeline to others facing fear and torture, but that's by the by. It's just as well that the newspapers are also reporting that even the Tories' recently imported Australian adviser has come to the conclusion that Michael Howard's chances of winning the General Election are zero.

People who arrive in this country because they fear persecution, terror and even death in their own home countries really ought to be dealt with on an international level. We ought to be working together to take shared responsibility for refugees - not withdrawing from the United Nations Convention, as the Tories want to do. And then we need a fair, sensible and workable policy on other forms of immigration - not the kind of rhetoric that just fuels the BNP.

Monday, January 24, 2005

All things being equal

Harlow Council has just appointed an Equalities Officer, Sharon, and I've an appointment to meet her. I'm impressed by her background and experience, and look forward to working with her. We have a useful conversation about how the council deals with equalities issues at the moment, and what the priorities are for improving the ways in which we work with minority communities of all kinds.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sunday

Paperwork in the morning, preparing for Harlow Liberal Democrats' executive committee meeting next Saturday; and round Harlow on the tricycle doing various bits and pieces in the afternoon, to Tye Green Village, Netteswell, Pennymead, Templefields and back home through the Town Park.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Harlow 2020 Conference

The Harlow 2020 Conference meets in the Council Chamber at 10:00, to discuss the proposals in the East of England Plan. It's a well attended event - much fuller than the Regional Assembly consultation meeting in the same room on 6 January - and it's good to see some friendly familiar faces. The organised opposition to new homes is represented too, though scattered throughout the room and only a small minority of the total attendance.

Harlow 2020 Chair David Ellerby introduces the speakers, and Regional Assembly planning officer Alan Moore gives a presentation on what is proposed. Bill Rammell MP says his bit, and I'm on after that, followed by Kevin Brooks and then Tory councillor JP Goddard (substituting at the last minute for his group leader).

All three political parties on Harlow Council have agreed a statement welcoming the proposals in the Plan. Such rare cross-party consensus is good news for Harlow, but creates something of a dilemma for Tory parliamentary hopeful Robert Halfon (who arrives at the conference half an hour late, wanders to the back of the room, doesn't ask a question and leaves early - much to the bewilderment of other politicians present). He's apparently an opponent of the proposals for extra homes for Harlow, but his group on the council are backing the plans. Some local Tories seem to have a foot in both camps. Where do they stand, and which is their real view of the Plan?

After a coffee break, there are questions from the public about the proposals. Eighteen have been submitted, and the panel goes into Question Time mode as we answer them. The questions are wide-ranging - from waste management proposals, park and ride schemes and hospital provision to questions designed simply as statements of opposition. There is only a small scattering of organised applause for those questioners from the floor who oppose the proposals - not the massive opposition to the plans that the letters columns of the local press would have us believe.

I mention a timely piece of news - the Halifax bank survey published today which states that first-time buyers can't afford a home in 92 per cent of UK towns. Combine that with the growing waiting list for a council home (a wait of more than 15 years for some young people) and it becomes obvious that we can't go on as we are and that we need to provide affordable homes to meet the needs of our community.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Poker

At 2:15pm the Monitoring Board meets for the first time, to sit in judgement on what we've done so far as councillors to start the long, slow process of improving Harlow Council after its Poor rating.

Myself and the Labour leader and senior council officers are there; the Conservative opposition has been invited, but there's an empty seat where their representative should have been. Odd.

The Monitoring Board is chaired by Elizabeth Forbes, who used to be Chief Executive of our next door council, Uttlesford. Other familiar faces round the table include our 'Lead Official', Colin Rockall; our Audit Commission 'relationship manager'; and civil servant John Dowie from the Government's Regional Office in Cambridge. There are also a number of other officials to accompany them.

Labour leader Kevin Brooks and I give a presentation on what the council has achieved since the CPA report was published in June, and the Monitoring Board ask questions about our progress. John Dowie asks about something mentioned in our presentation, prompted - he says - by some of our body language. Was it Kevin? Was it me? What did I do? Was it my hands? Did I smile? Frown? Look surprised? I'll have to look a bit more wooden when we meet again in February, in case I unintentionally give the wrong impression about something.

The meeting concludes at about 3:45pm. Next time, we've been asked to give another presentation, this time about the council's corporate plan and budget, which should both have been agreed just over a week earlier.

It's Tom's last evening at home before heading back to Derby for his second term, so we spend some time as a family, playing poker with his new set of cards and chips that he bought the other day. I've never played poker before, but I gather it's important to keep an unemotional 'poker face', so that the other players don't know what you think of your chances or the cards in your hand. Sounds like it's a skill I could do with practising between now and February.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I like to ride my tricycle

The new tricycle gets its first trial run this morning. Wiser heads have advised that this should be to the corner of the road and back, or (if really adventurous) round the block. However, never one to do things by halves, I decide on a journey that takes me from Spring Hills to my ward - to see some residents in Risdens, then take photos of local issues for our next Focus newsletter.

I cycle right across town to Staple Tye, then past Longbanks and Woodhill, through Barleycroft, Lower Meadow and the Briars, and then back home. It's a totally different view of Harlow - lots of cheery greetings from passers-by (or perhaps they just think I've taken leave of my senses and they need to humour me), and some lovely green cycle tracks in the centre of a densely packed urban area. A couple of residents from Jerounds stop and chat near Blockbusters at Staple Tye, where they've spotted rats in the greenery along the cycle track, no doubt attracted by all the takeaway food outlets. I make a note to contact Environmental Health.

There's some confusion about my two o'clock meeting at the Civic Centre, which seems to have been forgotten by all but me, though it's plain as a pikestaff in the diary. At three o'clock I chair another meeting of the Community Health & Wellbeing Sub Group, which is discussing in more detail the options to really tackle smoking in public places. We think this is a priority for Harlow, where, as I've said before, one in four deaths is smoking-related. We decide to bring some proposals to the next meeting in a month's time.

The evening is my ward's Community Partnership meeting. It's better attended than usual, and residents have plenty of pertinent comments to make about local issues the council hasn't dealt with. We also consider the bids into our £8,000 budget, awarding some but rejecting others. The meeting goes on considerably longer than planned, and I don't reach home until half past ten.

My legs ache, and I now know intimately the meaning of the phrase 'saddle sore'.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

All things being equal

We've got so used to Tom being around that it'll be very strange to see him go back to university this weekend. He and Lottie have been worrying about their utility bills - I've passed them details of a web site that helps you compare the costs of different gas and electricity suppliers, but it's all a struggle.

Still, at least he's there and working towards a good qualification. Today the Higher Education Funding Council for England has published its report which shows the percentage of young people from each parliamentary constituency taking up degree-level courses. Harlow, at only 16 per cent, is one of the lowest in the country; the highest is Kensington & Chelsea with 69 per cent. That's some difference!

Of course a number of factors play a part, but the mountain of debt facing modern students has to be a huge deterrent, especially to young people from poorer households. And in this part of the country where housing costs will be so high for graduates leaving university and starting out in life, being heavily in debt before you even start looking for a home and mortgage is a dreadful prospect.

Access to university is obviously still very unequal, despite Labour's stated aim that 50 per cent of young people would have a degree-level education. It's nothing like that for Harlow - nor will it be, I believe, since this Labour government introduced tuition fees and broke its promise on top-up fees. Restoring the right to free tuition for all, with maintenance grants for poorer students, would help reduce this inequality and open up higher education to all those able to benefit from it. Surely Harlow's young people deserve this much?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Raising our game

How best to bring together the various organisations offering sport and leisure in Harlow, so that we can make the best use of everyone's efforts and contribution?

That's the question that councillors have been asking, and after several meetings, we're at the final stage of putting together a report to the council's scrutiny committee at the end of the month. A small group of three of us have been working on a set of proposals, and we meet briefly this evening with two council officers to dot the I's and cross the T's on our report. It'll be discussed by the scrutiny committee on 27 January - and we hope it'll be agreed.

The proposals centre around a possible new structure for bringing together the groups that provide sporting facilities, and the groups that develop sports strategy or offer funding. With Harlow's new sports centre, football and athletics facilities and other opportunities all happening, there's never been a better time to get everyone round a table to really raise the game for sport and leisure in our town.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The best laid plans

Today starts promisingly; I zip through writing half a dozen letters to constituents before breakfast and I'm on course for a really productive day. I also make a start on revising the local party's development plan, the document that sets our targets for things like numbers of members recruited and FOCUS newsletters delivered.

But it's one of those days where everything that I planned just doesn't work out. I had booked a place on a conference in London, but in view of the number of things I've got to do (for work and local politics) I've decided not to go - fortunately there are no costs attached, so nothing's been lost.

Mid-morning, Georgina receives some terrible news; a close friend of hers has been found dead at home, having fallen downstairs late last night. It's a huge shock, and the rest of the day just isn't the same.

I keep a lunch appointment with Robert to talk about how our local campaigning is going. Afterwards, (councillor) Lesley and her husband Ian take me to Sawbridgeworth to collect my new tricycle, where the experts at Cycle King have been fitting the brake and gears. It fitted in Ian's cab on the way there last week - but now that the tyres are pumped up and the basket's been screwed on, there's no way we can get it in the cab and close the doors. So Ian unscrews the basket and deflates the tyres; it just about fits, and we get it home where Ian puts the basket back on and - with the loan by a neighbour of a pump you can plug in to the car - refills the tyres. I sit on the saddle and wobble the few yards in front of the garages and back again. It's going to take some getting used to.

I cook dinner, and Georgina manages to eat some. She's playing her favourite Bon Jovi DVD in the living room, and I can hear I'll Sleep When I'm Dead wafting up the stairs.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Day off

A rare day off today, to visit my father-in-law George and his wife Sylvie in Oxfordshire - the Christmas visit we should have made a fortnight ago but had to put off while I recovered from flu. Both are dedicated travellers - George is a climber, photographer and freelance travel lecturer, Sylvie a writer of (among other things) travel books - and we spend part of the afternoon being given our own very enjoyable personal slide presentation of their recent travels in Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Chinese garden

At about 12:20 I pop in to the Chinese Centre, the old playbarn at Lower Meadow, to see how the public consultation is going on the plans for a Chinese garden outside the Centre. Anita from the Chinese school kindly makes me a cup of tea, and I spend some time chatting with Cheema and Kathleen from Berecroft, Karen from Longbanks, and Charlotte from Groundwork Hertfordshire.

Harlow Council has been successful in its bid for a substantial grant for work on enhancing the town's green spaces. A small amount of that money is being used to improve the green area outside the Chinese Centre. The scheme is perfectly timed to coordinate with the plans drawn up and developed by local residents, to upgrade and improve the community facilities at Maunds Hatch on the other side of the road. The idea has been to create a Chinese garden to complement the Chinese Centre, while retaining space for local young people to continue to play five-a-side football.

We discuss whether it's possible to create some space for open-air tai chi for local residents too, and how big the playground will be when the council has finished investing in it. It's really terrific to see residents like those here today taking control of their local area, and working together to create better facilities for everyone.

The Chinese school resumes at one o'clock, so we have to leave. I've an appointment anyway about fifteen minutes' walk away to see a family with five children - the state of their council home leaves a lot to be desired, and I feel a strong letter coming on to the council's housing department over the weekend!

Then it's a long walk along Southern Way to Bush Fair, for a three hour group meeting discussing ideas about the council's budget for this coming year. I'm grateful for an evening at home - even if the paperwork is still building up and I'm going to spend the whole evening at my computer again.

Friday, January 14, 2005

What people told us

Meetings from 8:50am to 7:00pm with only fifteen minutes to grab a sandwich - it's a long and tiring day.

At 12:30 Labour leader Cllr Kevin Brooks and I hold a press conference in the Council Chamber. Unusually, as well as the local press, we've also invited council staff and a Conservative group representative.

The aim of the press conference is to report the results of the recent 'SIMALTO' consultation carried out by a research company for the council. 507 local residents have been interviewed in depth in their homes, spending 'points' on council services to give us some information about people's priorities for council spending. The feedback from the exercise will advise councillors as we make difficult and painful decisions about cutting about £2 million from the council's budget of £14 million this year.

24 services have been included in the consultation, from bulky waste collection to child care. Residents are generally clear about services that they would prefer not to see cut - tackling anti social behaviour, recycling, street cleaning, the town show and bonfire night, young people's services, the Leah Manning Centre, pools and leisure centres, town centre management and CCTV, Shopmobility, parks and landscape maintenance and the Playhouse. Other services people are more willing to consider for reductions or extra income: the study centre, arts development, the community partnerships, grants to voluntary organisations, Sumners leisure centre, the Museum, public contact points at Staple Tye and The Stow, concessionary travel, and the introduction of charges for Pets' Corner and for car parks across the town.

Clearly it's the job of councillors to interpret this information; we need to pay attention to the findings and respect them, without allowing them to dictate our actions. We need to consider the complex implications of what we've been told, so just because a service is in one list or the other doesn't automatically mean it will continue or cease. There's a lot of work still to do.

The ability of councillors to agree a budget with clear priorities will be an acid test of whether the council is able to improve from its recent Poor rating, and the information this research has provided offers a better basis on which to do this than we've ever had. Even a day as hectic as this can end on a note of faint optimism.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Full Council

One of the shortest Full Council meetings on record! Starting at eight, and finishing at just over half past eight. Two questions from the public, none from councillors, no motions, and only a few reports which are generally uncontroversial.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Immobile phones

I'm working in the office in Westminster today. While I'm there, our office manager Andrew forwards an email from the local beat officer reminding us about the new scheme to help address the problem of stolen mobile phones.

By logging on to a new website and entering a few straightforward pieces of information, you can register the details of your mobile phone. Then if you're ever unfortunate enough to have your phone stolen (as Georgina did some time ago), you can alert the scheme and your stolen phone will be blocked. And in the event that it's later found, the police can check the phone against the national database and return it to its rightful owner. You can also register other items on the site, like iPods and handheld computers. I've registered my phone now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Let there be light

This morning I'm due to chair the quarterly meeting of Harlow's Community Legal Services Partnership. This is the gathering of local organisations that provide advice services to residents, and includes everyone from local solicitors, Harlow Welfare Rights & Advice and the Citizens' Advice Bureau (both based at the Advice Centre), to groups such as the Grandparents' Federation and the Young People's Information Centre.

Harlow's Partnership is regarded very highly - in many other parts of the region, the CLSP idea hasn't really caught on. But in Harlow it's really taken off, and has completed positive projects such as electronic referral systems, a CD-ROM of housing advice, discussions with local health providers on mental health advice referrals, and even put forward some comments to the council that have resulted in proposed improvements to the way the council deals with suspected cases of benefit fraud. We also hosted a major conference in March last year, which enabled us to show some of our best initiatives to others in the East of England. It may sound a bit academic, but it all improves residents' experience of local advice services, which is the important thing.

When I arrive for the meeting, I'm asked whether I can spare five minutes to present a local resident with some free light bulbs. Energy suppliers have provided a large consignment of energy-saving light bulbs to give away to residents on lower incomes. Thirty per cent of the bulbs are being distributed to local pensioners through Age Concern at Bush Fair; the rest are being given out at the Advice Centre to people on certain benefits. There's a limit of four bulbs per person. I chat to Mark, the resident to whom I'm presenting his four light bulbs. He tells me they're great, and that his electricity costs went down a lot when he last installed them. It's really great to see positive action for the environment and people on lower incomes cutting their energy bills too - a real win-win situation!

Monday, January 10, 2005

Flooding

There can't be anyone in the country who hasn't seen the appalling pictures of the after-effects of the tsunami in South East Asia. Yesterday, closer to home, Carlisle hit the headlines, with tales of flooding, power loss and damage to thousands of homes.

Meanwhile, today's news is of plans to build a new 10-mile flood barrier across the Thames, from Sheerness to Southend. It's a proposal from four academics who have been studying how to protect London against rises in sea level caused by climate change. They have found that without a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels could rise far faster than the two or three feet already expected by 2100 - and that London needs the extra sea defences to avoid being flooded out.

It's all a stark reminder that climate change is real and is already affecting the lives of people in Britain, and that the Government needs to start taking it seriously.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Coleen Gill

The judgements of the Standards Board for England - the body set up by the present Government supposedly to improve standards among councillors - are becoming ever more worrying. (Isn't it interesting how this body has no remit to deal with standards among our MPs, or the thousands of quangos running our lives?).

Today I've been passed the details of the judgement against Coleen Gill, a councillor in the East Riding of Yorkshire, who it seems has been disqualified for a year for the crime of representing a constituent to the best of her ability, something any good councillor does all the time.

Coleen responded to a request for help from a resident in her area who was facing her two children being placed on the Child Protection Register. She attended a meeting to support her constituent, and referred the matter to her local MP. Her reward for representing someone needing help is removal as a councillor, and a long and expensive battle in the High Court to have the judgement against her overturned.

I've sent a message of support to Coleen, and made a donation to Coleen's Appeal Fund. There but for the grace of God goes any local councillor trying to represent their local constituents - and any resident seeking help from the representative they have elected to do exactly that.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Diversity

Nick and I have tickets for the Harlow Ethnic Minority Umbrella buffet and dance at the Latton Bush Centre. Neela, the chair of the group, has been very busy, as have other members of the HEMU committee, making sure it's a success, and the turnout is certainly testament to that.

It's a wonderful evening - good company, good food, and a warm welcome. The gathering is immensely diverse, with members of the local Chinese, Muslim, Gujerati and Philippine communities among many others, and people of all ages, from the elderly down to tiny tots, having a great time together. The disco music ranges from Abba to bhangra, and it's all a terrific celebration of the cultures and communities that make up our town.

But the tsunami has also been on everyone's minds - everybody knows somebody who has been affected - and it's been decided that half the takings from the event will go to the tsunami appeal.

It's 11:00pm by the time I arrive home, and Jerry Springer - The Opera is half way through its controversial airing on BBC2. I switch on to see what all the fuss is about; and end up falling asleep after about twenty minutes. At least I had the choice whether to watch or not - and I'm glad the BBC didn't give in to the calls for censorship which are becoming all too frequent these days.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ladies who lunch

I join Alison Cowie from the local Primary Care Trust for lunch in Nando's today, to discuss the work programme for Harlow 2020's Community Health & Wellbeing Sub Group. We both do our bit for our own health by ordering salads, but I can't persuade myself to go for the mineral water as Alison does, and instead have two large glasses of diet cola.

Diet is just one of the local health issues we agree that the Sub Group needs to get its teeth into this year - along with smoking, alcohol, exercise, mental wellbeing and sexual health. We've already agreed that smoking is a major priority, given the high proportion of deaths in Harlow with a smoking-related connection. The other items are also important, and we both agree that the group will have its work cut out between now and the autumn. We both go away with lists of people to talk to, to try to get other local organisations and agencies involved in the Sub Group.

While I'm out over lunch, the ntl engineer has been busy at home installing my broadband connection; 'www' should, I hope, no longer stand for 'world wide wait'!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Regional Plan

Harlow's Civic Centre is the venue for the first public consultation meeting organised by the East of England Regional Assembly, to consult residents on the Regional Plan. I'm there by 9:20 am, as are the first two representatives of Stop Harlow North, who are here to set up a demonstration against the proposals. The agreement everyone has come to - after negotiations over previous weeks - is that the demonstration will take place upstairs inside the Civic Centre.

The meeting doesn't start till 10:30, so there's a chance to chat to participants over coffee. There's a contingent from East Herts District Council (vehemently opposed to the plan), Harlow Civic Society, some of the parish councillors - fewer than 100 people in total.

The meeting starts with three presentations - from the Regional Assembly, Essex County Council and Hertfordshire County Council respectively, and it's nearly noon by the time the audience gets to have its say. Whatever they think of the regional plan, all are in agreement: Harlow needs solutions to its clogged roads, poor public transport connections, shortages of affordable housing and escalating house prices. We need regeneration, and as a town we need to be able to play the significant part in the region that our location suggests but that we've never really been able to fulfil.

That's why all three political groups on Harlow Council are supporting the regional plan's proposals, which offer a unique opportunity to address these problems by providing extra homes on Harlow's boundaries, with a new link to the motorway to take traffic out of Harlow, and new public transport connections to Epping, North Weald and Stansted.

But, say opponents of the regional plan, we can solve Harlow's problems without the extra homes proposed in the plan.

My question, to opponents of the plan, is described by the County Council planning officer as 'provocative'. If opponents of the plan believe all this is possible without growth, will they be submitting - by the deadline of 16 March - alternative proposals that will demonstrably solve our highways and transport difficulties, house people on Harlow's waiting list and provide affordable housing for the future, and regenerate Harlow, all without growth around Harlow?

The answer, as expected, is No.

Residents have until 5:00pm on 16 March to make their views known on the Regional Plan - online on the Regional Assembly's web site, by downloading a form from the site and sending it back, or by using the form in the hard copy of the plan. To get hold of a copy of the plan, residents can call the Region's planning office on 01284 729442 or 01284 729445, or email planning@eera.gov.uk for a paper copy or CD-ROM.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Last day of Christmas

While I'm out today (discussing options for the council's budget) Nick takes down our - artificial - Christmas tree. It'll live in the loft now until next Christmas. But from tomorrow until 19 January, residents with real trees can leave them out with their recyclables on their normal recycling day. The trees will be taken away to a central composting plant in Ongar, where they'll be turned into 100 per cent recycled soil improver or mulch.

Recycling has been one of Harlow's great success stories over the last two years - it has been a high priority for Liberal Democrats and people are really noticing the difference. From a pathetically low level left by the old Labour council in 2002, when we were one of the worst councils in Essex for recycling, under the chairmanship of my colleague Cllr Chris Millington we're now reaching levels of 18 per cent and more. It's certainly great to be able to leave out glass, plastics, paper and card at the kerbside and know that all that waste is being dealt with in an environmentally sustainable manner.

We've got a long way to go to match some of the recycling levels of other councils, but we've made terrific progress in a short period of time.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Back to work

The day starts with a letter from a resident in Church Langley about footpaths; I forward it to the council, and an acknowledgement to the questioner.

On Thursday the Regional Assembly will be holding a consultation meeting at the Civic Centre on the proposals for extra housing in the region. The question of people's right to protest outside the event has once again raised its head, so I'm involved in more phone calls to try to resolve this to everyone's satisfaction.

The late afternoon is my next meeting with my council group 'peer support', Sal; we spend a useful couple of hours talking, followed by a bite to eat in Nando's before our group meeting, which doesn't finish till gone ten o'clock.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Normal service is resumed

The telephone calls, emails and paperwork are hotting up, and my diary for the coming week is already hectic. Christmas is certainly well and truly over for another year.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Great train robbery

So from today, long-suffering rail passengers will be hit by yet another above-inflation fare increase - 4 per cent, in the case of services from Harlow now operated by the rather oddly-named 'One' rail company.

We keep being told that these massive rises of twice inflation are needed to improve the service. But most passengers I meet on my way to and from Westminster (where I work about once a fortnight) don't seem to think things are improving. And in any case, most normal businesses get the service right first and then charge afterwards. So why isn't that happening on our railways?

The railways were left in a mess when John Major privatised them, and all Tony Blair seems to have done is make sure we get more detailed reports on how much later the trains are. Moving the money out of the bureaucracy and into investing in decent carriages and track would be a real improvement to the quality of life of those of us who travel by train. In the meantime, however, from this week it'll be another 60p on my usual ticket - with precious little to show for it.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Freedom of Information

I'm late waking up, having battled the flu symptoms to stay up last night and see the new year in (with nothing stronger than orange juice and lemonade, unfortunately) - but I'm suffering all the more for having stayed awake till a quarter to one to watch The Wicker Man on television.

My first piece of constituency casework of 2005 arrives before half past ten - an elderly gentleman who tells me his heating has just failed. I alert the council's Repairs Centre and phone him back to let him know what's happening.

Today is a landmark day, not just because it's the first day of 2005, but also because it's the day the Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes fully into force.

The new Act gives everybody greatly increased access to information held by public authorities, including local councils. It means that anyone seeking information is now entitled to know whether the council holds that information, and if so, to be provided with it (in return for a fee set by the council under Government guidelines).

Most councillors, like myself, at least aim to set up an ordered system for dealing with queries from our constituents like the one I've received this morning - though a quick glance at the disorganised heaps of paper all around me rather undermines that claim; even my filing cabinet is left permanently open so that the tops of the files in the top drawer can serve as another working surface! The law also requires us to 'notify' the Information Commissioner individually if we hold or process these data in a structured way - at a fee of £35 a year for the privilege.

Still, to look on the bright side, perhaps the fact that I'm being taxed by the Government for being organised about my casework will be an extra spur to goad me into getting my money's worth by licking all these heaps of paper into shape. It's a new year's resolution, of a sort.

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