Councillor’s dispatch number three

October 14, 2013

Martin WhybrowFive months in and I’ve more or less worked out the priorities, opportunities and challenges of the KCC role, as well as understanding many of the workings and dynamics of the council and becoming embroiled, hopefully helpfully some times at least, in plenty of issues brought to me by local residents.

I’ve spent time with many of those providing services in Shepway (social workers, the learning disabilities team, Hythe Children’s Centre, Hythe Youth Centre, Kent Highways officers etc). I’ve also met with other bodies that contribute or complement those services, such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Folkestone Rainbow Centre, Age UK, the Pensioners’ Forum, Shepway District Council, and East Kent Housing.

DSCF1332I’ve attended lots of briefings and training sessions, three full council meetings, the Shepway Joint Transport Board, the Youth Advisory Group, Cycle Shepway and initial meetings for the two committees that I now sit on – Environment, Highways and Waste, and Governance and Audit. I’ve also arranged meetings with other departments and organisations, including KCC’s Climate Change team, Unison (particularly to discuss the Living Wage – see below), and KCC Trading Standards (to discuss live animal exports).

Then there’s the Hythe High Street survey, which is under way, the Green Party Conference in Brighton, and the aforementioned wide array of issues brought to me by individual constituents spanning, to date, school transport, benefits, social housing, transport, flooding, highways and recycling.

The future of the Children’s Centre in Hythe and others in the county is a major cause for concern at present, and the situation regarding the area’s youth services has been far from satisfactory, a failure of commissioning processes that has seen Hythe with more or less no facility for most of the year (it has just reopened, two nights a week).

At the centre of KCC, it seems clear that even as an individual voice I can have a fair amount of influence, including speaking and writing in the media on a host of issues. In particular:

  • The environment barely gains a look in at KCC, so there is always the need to put across the Green agenda (see, for instance, KCC’s disappointing report on the future of Kent’s airports).
  • There are also lots of concerns about the intended transformation of KCC towards commissioning ever more services. My experience to date is that the best services are provided by KCC staff, not by third parties.
  • And it is clear that the Secretary of State for [sic] Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, has grabbed planning decisions by the back door with his National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), described by KCC’s head of planning as ‘unashamedly pro-growth’ or, as I’d put it, ‘unashamedly pro-growth at all costs’. At present, it trumps large swathes of councils’ planning policies, including KCC’s slowly evolving new Minerals and Waste Local Plan, which has been incubating for four years and, with a fair wind, might be finalised before the next scheduled general election in 2015. The significance of this is that with shale gas exploration (aka fracking) heading to Kent, decision-making will be out of KCC’s hands and we all know which way government policy is blowing on this.

To date in full council and committees, I have:

  • Brought a motion to try to introduce the Living Wage at KCC and, although narrowly defeated, this has brought the topic into the spotlight and I will continue to press for this, recently liaising with trade union, Unison, on next steps as well as other issues including zero hour contracts.
  • Pressed for a dominant place for the Public Services Social Value Act in all future commissioning, pointing out that this is a legal obligation but, at present, one that does not appear to feature in the transformation plans. The Act rules that when commissioning services, authorities should consider not only the financial aspects but also community value. The emphasis, I argued, should be on breaking up large contracts and allowing charities, local enterprises and other such groups to be better able to bid.
  • I’ve criticised KCC’s watered down recommendations related to 20mph schemes, slating its study for ‘going into contortions’ to avoid a clear strategy despite overwhelming evidence that they improve road safety and public health.
  • I’ve queried what appears to be a levelling off of recycling levels in the county, with little or no improvement in the last six months.
  • I’ve criticised the ‘false savings’ from the proposed closure and reduction in opening hours of Kent’s Children’s Centres and questioned the member for children’s services, Jenny Whittle, via a full council meeting about the manner in which the proposals were relayed to staff. I’ve met with Jenny, staff and parents at the Hythe Centre.
  • I’ve also called in full council and in a letter in the Observer newspaper for an increase in council tax in the upper bands to close some of the funding gap and to also allow a reduction in business rates to aid local businesses.
  • And I have spoken in full council against the privatisation of the Royal Mail and in favour of an extension of the Freedom Pass to 17 and 18 year-olds to reflect the government’s policy of keeping this age group in full-time education or training.

If you really have a mind to do so, quite a few of my contributions are recorded for posterity on webcasts on the KCC website – search on full council meetings since 2nd May or on the last Governance and Audit Committee and Environment, Highways and Waste Committee meetings and then scroll down the list of speakers.

Among the most interesting and useful meetings I’ve had to date have been the following:

A day shadowing KCC’s Shepway Children in Care social worker team, which included three visits to children in foster care. I was left in awe of the work of this team, with the pressure brought home early in the day when it was pointed out that the two parking slots in the basement of their Folkestone office are allocated to the two staff members who have the worst threats against them at any moment in time. KCC has been heavily criticised by Ofsted in the recent past for this part of its service but it seems that, in Shepway at least, there has been considerable improvement, including a much reduced case load per social worker so that they can give more time to each situation. I was also so impressed by the resilience of the kids, having first listened to their often heart-wrenching stories ahead of meeting them. An immediate tangible opportunity to help presented itself, so we were delighted to take a team to their quiz night in Dover, raising funds for a Christmas party for the foster children.

A day with the learning disabilities team, visiting the new hubs in Hythe (the Bridge Centre) and Folkestone (at the Sports Centre). As I wrote in an opinion piece in Kent on Sunday, I feel the changes – moving from one large, central district centre – to the smaller centres has been wholly beneficial, bringing the users of these much closer to the community.

Several meetings with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Rainbow Centre, plus other voluntary groups involved in providing services to Shepway’s most vulnerable residents, as well as with the District Council’s social housing team and partners, East Kent Housing. From the CAB and Rainbow Centre, as well as from early case work with local residents, it is clear that the changes to benefits are having a huge negative impact. By the end of September, for instance, the Rainbow Centre had seen as many visits as in the whole of 2012. Demand is heading one way, funding is heading the other. I’ll do a separate piece on the appalling effects of benefit cuts and changes, including the evil bedroom tax, in a separate dispatch.

A meeting with the head of Shepway Library Services to discuss the way they are seeking to redefine themselves and stay one step ahead of the cuts and closures, an impressive feat. I was particularly impressed by the way the service is coping with the social problems that it encounters in Shepway, not pushing away the youngsters who cause trouble but looking to work with them, finding funding for a regular youth worker. Mind you they have had to surrender their battle to keep open the public toilets, following regular vandalism, drug use (a blue light was installed, which apparently stops drug users locating their veins) and then, the final straw, finding on a couple of occasions it was being used by a local prostitute and her customers.

There are great challenges ahead, as the next round of deep cuts hit front-line services, but there’s not been a dull moment! It could have been a rather lonely existence as the first ever Green Party KCC member, but I’ve had great support from the local and Kent branches, from local residents and (crucially) from my family. I’ve also learnt quickly that things are seldom clear-cut and I’ve found good people doing a decent job in places (and from political parties) that I did not expect but I’ve also been underwhelmed by the quality of debate and transparency at KCC. I’ve also learned that where a budget is being cut in the region of 40 per cent in five years, this brings complexities to every argument: basically, how will it be paid for? I am thoroughly enjoying the experience and, I hope, coming someway at least to living up the expectations of those who voted for me.