Archive

Archive for the ‘Tewkesbury Borough Council’ Category

A 10-point plan to begin SAVING CLEEVE HILL GOLF COURSE

September 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Hello again. I wrote a blog a few days ago on Saving Cleeve Common Golf Course and covered the essential points that I wanted to share with you all, given my background as a former Tewkesbury Borough Councillor and Licensing Chair, and with the connection with Cleeve Common that both I and my family have, given that my Father Chris was Warden of the Common for the last 15 years of his life.

As a lot of you have taken the time to read what I have said, I felt it only fair that I follow up and provide an overview of my immediate thoughts on how I would approach saving Cleeve Common Golf Course and the Golf Club, and what I would suggest that you all need to think about to get started if that’s what you are resolved to do.

This overview is not comprehensive, and neither is it intended to be. In fact, I’ll bet that you will start to think of things yourself as you read through it. This is how you can all begin to put together a plan that will work!

Before I say anything else, what I am sure of from reading the comments and the views that I have by following the Facebook Group Save Cleeve Hill Golf Course, is there is both the will and passion necessary to do all that needs to be done, providing that everyone involved can approach this project with an open mind and remains committed to seeing it through – even when those lined up against you sound convincing when they say that it cannot be done.

The next thing is probably the most difficult thing for many to read, absorb and accept:

This is not just about saving the Golf Course and keeping Golf on Cleeve Common. This is about saving a community resource that must have the same meaning for everyone, whatever the Club represents to them. So, every perspective needs to be accommodated in your plans for the future as if it is your own personal No1 choice.

Representatives of different community Groups with an interest in the Common, The Golf Club or Cleeve Hill have been commenting and saying they are doing this or they are doing that – with the inference intended or otherwise, that others need to fall in line behind their efforts, because what they are already doing is somehow more important and more credible in some way.

The reality is that none of you will succeed if you attempt to develop a plan for the Course and the Club that focuses primarily on your own use and aims for these facilities.

YOU MUST give equal weight and value to those uses, priorities and opportunities that are not only your own.

Golf is no longer sustainable in its own right on Cleeve Common.

The suggestion has been made a number of times that the Clubhouse could be pulled down and replaced with temporary buildings as a simple golf club and that the Council would be happy with that.

Please, please, please think this through again.

I have seen nothing to suggest that there isn’t a longer-term plan for the Clubhouse and Car Park site in mind that will have a return for Tewkesbury Borough Council.

Without a formal repudiation of this possibility and guarantee that the site will be used as a car park and nothing else in perpetuity from Tewkesbury Borough Council (if the closure goes ahead), I would suggest that all bets would be on a sale or development plan for the site coming into public view as soon as the facilities are fully closed, the Course has been returned to ‘common’ and there is a perception that the matter has been forgotten.

Your job now, is to come up with a plan that means more to the Council and how it is perceived by Taxpayers than what they might believe to be simple economic sense.

Saving the Golf Course and the Clubhouse have to be seen as one and the same. As the future of both as a community resource lies in them being saved, preserved and taken forward together.

Neither the Golf Course nor the Clubhouse will survive on their own.

Whilst the Clubhouse is ‘old’ and in ‘desperate’ need of renewal and refurbishment, I have no reason to doubt that retaining the existing ‘iconic’ building and actually making it the centrepieces of this project is the best thing to do.

Reports for local authorities and government organisations are notorious for having the conclusions spoon-fed to consultants as part of their brief. So it would take a lot to convince me that the structure of the Clubhouse is so far gone that in the hands of someone who wants to save it and is prepared to use creativity to do that, it cannot therefore be saved.

Finally, it is also vital to understand and accept that this isn’t just a Cleeve Hill thing.

It’s a Bishops Cleeve thing.

It’s a Winchcombe thing

It’s a Woodmancote thing.

It’s a Cheltenham thing.

It’s a Tewkesbury thing.

It’s a Cotswold thing.

And if you start to think about it in those terms, you will begin to see the wide range of possibilities for co-working, partnerships and the stakeholder engagement opportunities that are involved that are there to be seized. The ideas turned into action that can and will make this project work.

It is vital that you recognise that you have the power to achieve the goal of saving the Golf Course and the Clubhouse. But every time you pass on or ‘surrender’ that decision or choice to Politicians, to Groups, to the Council, to the Media or to anyone else who isn’t amongst those who feel and believe the same, part of the momentum and with it part of the sum of the chances that together will lead to success will be lost.

If it is your decision to save Cleeve Hill Golf Course and Clubhouse, Do it.

Don’t let anyone else convince you that the future of the ‘Club’ is anyone else’s to ‘own’ or dictate.

And bear in mind, action speak louder than words.

So, to the steps:

1.) Set up ‘Silver Linings’ – The management group and operating company

To be successful, you need to create a management group that will become the board of the operating company. Let’s call it ‘Silver Linings Leisure’. (You get it?!)

Getting the membership of this board right is important. The decisions they make on behalf of everyone will influence whether this project succeeds or fails, and what particular events or actions happen that will push it either way.

You ideally need 6-12 people who are not only committed to saving the Golf Course and Clubhouse. They must also be committed enough and be able to offer the time and energy over at least the next 6-12 months to take this idea and lead the process to make it happen – against all the odds.

Of the board, all of the key user groups should be represented and have voting rights.

Members of the board who are representatives of other community groups MUST have the delegated responsibility to make representative decisions there and then at meetings of the board – as there will not be the time to go back and forth to consult.

Don’t include politicians or anyone else who is an activist looking to gain, grow or enhance their public profile locally. Also don’t include representatives of the staff – or at least don’t let them vote on decisions if you really feel that you must do so.

PLEASE BE AWARE: ALL of you will be volunteers.

You WILL NOT be paid for what you are doing unless you become employed by the operating company in the future.

As a volunteer it is important to remember that everyone else is volunteering too and that you cannot treat others like they are doing a job or like they are employed.

Volunteers take on voluntary roles because they will get something from helping that may not be apparent to anyone else involved. If you make demands on them as if they don’t have a choice, they will very quickly walk.

Expect nothing. Appreciate everything that everyone else does!

2.) Identify your key officers and their responsibilities, agree a basic constitution and become a legal entity

Whilst this really will be a community effort, it is still essential that people take on the key roles and become identifiable as the ‘people to go to’ for those outside of ‘Silver Linings’ so that this specific project will work.

My suggestion is the key roles go to people who have experience of running and developing businesses or organisations, of working with a range of different people and probably have project management skills in the broader sense (Whole business unit rather than just a piece of work or delivering a specific project). They will know who they are, and I would encourage them to make themselves known to the group quickly – IF they feel they can commit the energy and time.

As a start you will probably need:

  • chairman/spokesperson,
  • finance officer/treasurer
  • secretary/public point of contact
  • social media manager
  • media officer
  • project officer
  • purchasing officer
  • an acceptance that the requirements of this project may need responsibilities to flow between  

All of your new Officers must be happy having a public profile and be sure that there will be no conflict with their day jobs or any other roles that they have in the local community. (Conflict means anything that could influence them to change decisions or make decisions that they wouldn’t if they had not become involved. It’s the possibility that counts. Not whether they would or wouldn’t do it)

Write and agree your basic constitution:

You must become a legal entity to be taken seriously by the Council, the Board of Conservators and any other organisation (like funders and sponsors) with whom ‘Silver Linings’ wishes to become involved.

The constitution doesn’t need to be complicated. It just needs to cover the basic reasons for ‘Silver Linings’ being ‘constituted’ in the first place – and the key reason is widely known!

This document is also how where you divide up responsibilities and put together some basic protocols for governance and how decisions are made and where responsibility falls.

Register as a charity and/or limited company

Once you have your Officers and your Constitution, you can set up ‘Silver Linings’ as a legal entity.

 In the first instance, setting up as a charity and registering a limited company would probably be wise. This is after all a community venture with a commercial drive, or what some people recognise as a ‘social enterprise’.

There will very probably be an accountant, solicitor and/or barrister based locally who would be supportive of the project and be prepared to help get this part of the process tied up so that the members of the board are protected right from the start. Find the right one and they may even take on one of your key board roles!

Set up a bank account

Coronavirus and the Lockdown has slowed down the process of getting business bank accounts open. So as soon as the Constitution is agreed, you have the names of your Board (and account signatories) agreed and you have ‘Silver Linings’ legally set up, you should get the process underway.

Ideally there should be a number of different signatories on the account and any payment should only be able to be authorised by a minimum of two.

3.) Arrange meetings with the Key Stakeholders

Meet with Tewkesbury Borough Council.

You MUST engage with Tewkesbury Council as quickly as possible.

Ideally you should meet with the relevant Portfolio Holder (Who I understand to be Cllr. Rob Vines), The CEO (Mike Dawson), whoever the delegated officer dealing with the matter day to day will be, and the Ward Councillor(s) representing Cleeve Hill should really be at the first meeting too.

The local Councillors should be included so that they can fulfil their role as local elected representatives. This IS NOT the same thing as representing your case directly to the Council and I would advise strongly against entrusting them to communicate with either the Council or with Council Officers on your behalf, as there is simply too much to lose.

Your primary aim at the meeting should be to identify what Tewkesbury Borough Council would be seeking in the first instance from ‘Silver Linings’ to take on the Lease on 1st April 2021.

This will include things like:

  • Lease fees (rent)
  • Deposit
  • Guarantees
  • liabilities (who fixes what etc)
  • duration of the Lease etc.

What the Council will want now may be different to what they will accept once a full proposal has been put together which is credible and demonstrates how the project will benefit the community (and the Council) both economically AND in other ways.

It is essential that you DO NOT approach the Council expecting them to give you anything less than the terms of what you know the existing Lease to be in the first instance.

This is The Council’s opportunity to set out its stall. I would be inclined to take what they say they will or won’t do very seriously, as this is the stepping off point and the basis upon which the ‘Silver Linings’ project can be built.

Record the meeting if they will allow you to. Do not do so without permission.

Take notes either way and write the minutes whilst the meeting is fresh in your mind. Run them past whoever was there from the board to check that nothing was missed or nothing was misheard.

Meet with the Board of Conservators:

Gauge how they feel about things and see what they can do to support ‘Silver Linings’.

Is there a way that you could support what they are doing and build it into the ‘plan’?

Please be aware that Tewkesbury Borough Council is represented by a Borough Councillor on the Board of Conservators

4.) Publicise ALL progress and be transparent

Publish the minutes of all meetings ASAP.

Send copies to ALL other parties so that they have the opportunity to challenge any conclusions from your notes or ask for changes and/or reviews.

Make sure that EVERYONE with an interest gets a copy sent directly to their Inbox and a copy is made publicly available on the website.

If you have someone who is good at writing and has time, think about starting a blog diary of events and everything that is being done. This will be a fantastic way to engage the local community and gain support as you go along!

5.) Set up a Crowdfunder

Saving Cleeve Hill Golf Course is enough in itself to get a Go Fund Me page (or similar) going right now.

Money will be needed for basic things like a website and basic expenses to begin with and its not a good habit for anyone to simply cover the cost of anything they do directly out of their own pocket without it being recorded.

Information like this helps with the business plan and could potentially be used in future funding bids if you ever apply for ‘match funding’ where a funder effectively offers to match what you are putting in from other sources – which could include direct ‘donations’.

Be patient about pushing a more substantial funding campaign. You will only be able to start putting the more substantive capital and revenue costs together as you go down this list and know what it will take financially to get the new ‘Silver Linings’ Clubhouse open and supported financially for an appropriate period until it breaks even, can sustain itself and then even pay back loans or better still, reinvest in the development of the ‘business’!

.Once the full project has been costed, that will be the right time to consider whether issuing shares in the new operating company would work. You will need to answer questions like:

  • How much would they need to be?
  • Will we be able to offer any dividends?
  • If we don’t offer dividends, what will our ‘shareholders’ get in return

6.) Write your Business Plan

I’m not sure anyone who has ever launched a business likes writing their own business plans. It’s too easy to get carried away and think you already know everything that needs to be done, but it’s that same enthusiasm that can really catch you out.

Even if you didn’t need a credible business plan to show to Stakeholders, investors and anyone you might be seeking support from, it’s a really good idea to put the most comprehensive business plan that you can together and work out the costings down to a detailed level, making sure that you build in as much scope to cover unforeseen or unanticipated events and risks as possible.

Writing a plan can be tricky with a seasonal business like this one will be. The good news is you already know your handover date or rather the date that ‘Silver Linings’ will move in and takeover Cleeve Hill Golf Course and the Clubhouse if this project is a success!

You have a timeline and so you know when everything needs to be done.

The Council and The Board of Conservators will want to see a credible plan built around this timeline that demonstrates you have thought everything through and how the process of turning the business around will be worked through, when ‘milestones’ or key events in the timetable will be reached and basically, when everything that needs to be done will get done.

The key question:

The biggest part of the project will be refurbishing the Clubhouse.

I would suggest that the best way to do this will be to utilise all of the local tradesmen talent who already use the Club and aim to do something like DIY SOS where everyone mucks in over a period of a week or a fortnight to upgrade, install and refurbish the Clubhouse from top to bottom so that the new ‘Club’ and the services that it offers as a ‘Hub’ can all be offered immediately in a late April or May Bank Holiday ‘relaunch’.

Detail is important, so this isn’t just rewiring, repanelling, repainting.

  • Can internal walls be moved?
  • Can the bar be changed?
  • How can the toilets be better planned?
  • What facilities MUST we have?
  • What needs to be changed to meet current legislation and rules?

You will need to agree on what the ‘Clubhouse’ experience will be. How it is now is how it has been for a long time and it’s going to need to be decorated and designed in a way that it maximises the strengths that it has.

If I was looking at this project on my own, I’d probably be asking questions along the lines of would it be possible to decorate the whole thing like an alpine or Rocky Mountain chalet with a centrepiece wood burner with Cotswold stone and reclaimed wood panels or something like that. It would fit with the whole thing.

Detail is really important to and as part of the revamp, I’d be considering the machinery area, the car park and the walls around the site too. NOT only what you think other people will see.

Also, could a neighbouring field be rented in the summer months to provide car parking perhaps?

Where is the added value for people going to be that is not obvious to see?

So how will ‘Silver Linings’ pay?

The USP or unique selling point of the Clubhouse and the Golf Course is the location.

The questions that need to be answered and thought through include:

  • What services can be offered from the site that we can provide?
  • What services can be offered from the site that a partner commercial organisation could and would want to provide?
  • What local organisations would benefit from the facilities?
  • What can the site offer tourists to the area?
  • What services could you offer if you paired up with local stables, local hotels, local B&Bs, Local breweries, local distilleries, Local Schools, local community organisations and treated the Clubhouse as a local ‘Hub’?

What is important to bear in mind is that people easily forget that things they haven’t experienced themselves are there.

  • How will you get new people in?
  • How will you get them coming back again?
  • How will you ensure that the customer/user experience is always as good as you yourself would want it to be?

Having a facility like this lends itself to year-round, all-day activities and sales opportunities if everything is thought through and is used as it should.

You will need a management in team that has the vison to see this and the wherewithal to implement it too.

But as I said in my last blog, the biggest responsibility for keeping people coming through the doors will be down to you.

7.) Get commitments from ‘contractors’

You will need an architect and/or surveyor to check out everything that can, cannot and must be done to the clubhouse.

Once you have a style and format agreed, you can then look at dividing up the different tasks to the different contractors and tradespeople that I mentioned above.

By this stage, you will have fixed dates in mind and you will be able to tell everyone who is able to volunteer when you will require their time.

8.) Think about getting sponsorship

The list of local companies likely to want to support a ‘feel good’ local community project might not be as long right now as it would at other times, but the opportunities for relationships that are mutually beneficial may have never been so good – particularly if you can sell a company’s products for them!

People have mentioned Julian Dunkerton from Superdry. Well he owns a Dunkerton’s Cider too and whilst the Clubhouse might not be on the Lucky Onion’s hitlist, a commitment to sell his Cider for a short time might get you a discount on the purchase price and be all it takes to get some help and expertise to redevelop the bar and kitchen area to see how it can be made to work best. They may well be happy to promote ‘Silver Linings’ too!

Cotswold Distillery, Hook Norton Brewery, Goff’s, Donnington Brewery to name but a few may all have an interest in you promoting their products. There are bakers, butchers, ice cream makers and all sorts of other great local producers too. So, pick up the phone and ask what they would be prepared to do!

9.) Think about starting funding applications

Once you’ve covered the bases above, you’ll be starting to get a much clearer picture of what ‘Silver Linings’ is going to look like and what its going to cost going forward.

But there are other questions to be asked such as:

  • What investment will the Golf Course need to attract the players, membership and recognition that it needs?
  • What resources does the Clubhouse need to become more attractive to other users – for instance would a minibus and a service down to Cleeve and Winchcombe be the help that it needs?

For a social enterprise that is aiming high to help the community, there will be funding options that can be considered for the long term. But they may not be available in the time that you would like and that’s where the cycle of funding and going back to crowdfunding and then issuing share options begins.

10.) Handover in April 2021

Never lose sight of this date. This is what you are working to. If you can’t be ready to take over the running of Cleeve Hill Golf Course and the Clubhouse on this date – it cannot be done!

OK. So this was a little longer than I thought it would be, but its really only a guide and a guide to what needs to be done as a start at that.

If I can answer questions about any of the above, please post them as comments on this blog below. I will aim to help wherever I can.

Best wishes and good luck to you all!

Adam

Advertisement

The community can SAVE CLEEVE HILL GOLF COURSE. But don’t expect Tewkesbury Borough Council or any local politicians to do it on their own

September 9, 2020 2 comments

I was deeply saddened to read the news this week that Cleeve Hill Golf Club is set to close at the end of March 2021.

Reading the comments on the Facebook Page Save Cleeve Hill Golf Course that has been set up to try and save this well-known local community resource, I could feel the passion and frustration that is already tangible amongst a great many people, whilst from a very different perspective understand fully why the decision and circumstances that are publicly known today will come across as being so unfair.

Those of you who know me will be aware that Cleeve Common occupies a very special part of my family history. My father Chris was the Warden of the Common for some 15 years up until shortly before his death in early 2006 and I am a regular walking visitor myself, having only been for a circular walk with my new pup early this past Sunday morning.

I was also a Tewkesbury Borough Councillor for 8 years and Chair of the Licensing Committee for 4 of them. Whilst I don’t agree with the conclusions or views from the Council I have read publicly, I am well aware of how such decisions these days will have been reached and what factors are likely to have motivated them.

On the Council’s side of the ‘problem’, the current Leaseholder has given notice or taken the opportunity not to renew the Lease (Which regrettably makes a lot of sense). The Council has commissioned a report that says the Golf Club and Course isn’t commercially viable. The Council has concluded that the Clubhouse is beyond a sensible cost for renewal and repair.

But it’s what the Council isn’t saying publicly about their longer-term plans for the Clubhouse site which should really be the starting point for any public interest about the way the decision has been reached – especially in such challenging times for the hospitality and leisure industries.

With the prospect of such a well-known public facility about to be closed, everyone with an interest in Cleeve Hill and the Golf Club has the right to be sure that there isn’t some hidden agenda or longer-term plan at work that is being sold to us as something else as it is convenient and politically expedient to do so right now.

Tewkesbury Borough Council would do well to formally assure the Public immediately that there isn’t any plan for the value of the Clubhouse site to be realised in the future by allowing private development to take place in a process that will benefit the Council financially or in some other way.

To be fair to Tewkesbury Borough, ALL Councils are struggling financially for a range of reasons. Some are local and of their own making. But many are handed to them by the Westminster Government and are therefore not theirs to own.

Right across Local Government, Councillors and Officers have simply lost sight of the fact that they are there to manage public assets like these in our best interests and that Councils are not a business that they can or should even try to run like it is something that they personally own.

Meanwhile, on the Public side of ‘debate’, Cleeve Hill Golf Course is a community asset. Golf Courses are popular and financially viable all around the Cotswolds and the Gloucestershire area. The Course is a landmark and part of our local history and is arguably unique. The Golf course could be better utilised to give local people – and especially young people more constructive things to do.

But the numbers of fee-paying players who go through the Clubhouse and on to a Course like Cleeve Common, in this state and in this location is probably smaller that it may to appearances seem.

The Clubhouse itself is not used regularly in the way that it could be by significant numbers of local people as a pub or destination, and certainly not now during these times that the Government response to Coronavirus continues. Could you really look back to cold, dark misty winter nights on Cleeve Hill and say that this is somewhere that you would then definitely want to be?

Painful as it is to write, the reality is that Tewkesbury Borough Council has already indicated that it will not subsidise the Golf Course. We must all be big enough to recognise that there is a case to be argued that if the Council were going to subsidise anything, there are likely to be other public services that local Public money should be used to prioritise within the local community first.

Equally however, none of us would knowingly invest money in any project that would not command a realistic return. With the cost of modernising and refitting the Clubhouse likely to be the reason why the Council’s Consultants have concluded that it would be better to pull it down, you might begin to see that the Council would probably want to have any investment returned in full in what might be little more than a ten-year period.

Put it this way, if the work considered necessary to re-let the Clubhouse and Course commercially were £400,000.00 up front, the £769.23 per week repayment cost before interest, added to the existing c.£1000.00 per week rental fee would simply make the prospect of taking on the project commercially absurd, when you put it into the perspective of the impact of Coronavirus, The Lockdown and everything else.

Whilst what I have written above is intended merely as a quick guide of the likely mechanics of what is going on, it certainly doesn’t make the decision or any of the unseen influences upon it feel in any way right.

What it does do is suggest strongly that petitions and banging on the doors of Councillors and the Tewkesbury and Cheltenham MPs will ultimately prove not to be enough to yield any meaningful fruit – no matter how sympathetic they or any other local person of influence may be minded to be about saving the Clubhouse and the Course.

If you genuinely want to save Cleeve Hill Golf Course, the community made up of people with an interest in using it will need to come up with an alternative solution to the one that our local Councillors and the Officers that advise them have tabled.

It will have to be one that really works.

It is likely that the Golf Course and the Golf Clubhouse can and will only be saved by a community based, not-for-profit approach such as a social enterprise.

Any kind of commercial or ‘profit-making’ approach without a ridiculous amount of risk and accepted loss is extremely unlikely to be viable in any way.

Whether right or wrong, the starting point for any valid discussion with the Council would be the general understanding and acceptance on the part of everyone who wants to save Cleeve Hill Golf Course that the only thing that can be expected as a minimum will be the good will of the Council to keep the Golf Course open as a Public Community Asset. There must be recognition that any acceptable plan is unlikely to have any additional financial cost to the Council involved.

Crowdfunding is an option to cover remedial work and repairs – especially as the site and location is so popular. This project would have significant attraction if it was marketed just right.

But if there is a genuine will amongst the local community to not only save Cleeve Hill Golf Club and the Clubhouse, but to actually see it thrive, then everyone who wants to see it open and there to use will also have to be both a user and evangelist of the facilities that are on offer. Everyone must make sure that no matter whether they are golfers, a youth group or a local group of ramblers, the operating company that takes over runs and promotes the whole thing and manages this fabulous community asset as both a facility and experience that is accessible to all and is open and ready year-round for everyone to use.

There isn’t much time. To save this resource, a sensible and non-combative dialogue needs to begin with Tewkesbury Borough Council right now, so that the Council has the chance to make clear what they can and can’t do. The Community will then be better placed to consider, put together and then table a proposal and take the steps necessary that might then lead to a 2021 win-win for users, the Council and of course, most if not all of those who are currently facing the loss of their jobs.

The people who use and love the Golf Course and the Common may not have the skills and experience to tackle this issues and drive forward as individuals alone.

But working together, it is almost certain that all of the skills, experience and motivation necessary to save Cleeve Hill Golf Course already exists.

Once this shitstorm of a Government ends, we don’t want to be governed by people who only know how to complain loudly and tell us what they don’t want

August 20, 2020 Leave a comment

In a number of different blogs I have published recently, I have focused on what happens next once the Johnson Administration falls as it is likely to do so, probably within only weeks or months from now.

It has been an attempt to reach perhaps some of the growing mass of disenfranchised people and those who have found themselves on the receiving end of the fallout from the Lockdown, Social Distancing and the measures that are turning the UK into a totalitarian state, whilst many others don’t even appear to be aware of what’s going on.

Regrettably, those who believe they are already in possession of ‘the truth’ and are furiously accusing other people of being wrong whilst in the same breath expecting them to change their minds, rarely have the capacity to understand that they themselves may only understand a certain perspective or part of the truth. There a much bigger picture at work that even fewer understand.

A #KBF activist tweeted a picture yesterday of what appeared to be the hands of Morpheus from the Film The Matrix offering Neo the choice of a blue pill that would keep him at the same level, which was ‘continued sleep’ or the red pill which would ‘awaken’ him and liberate his understanding of how his world really operated as if he was in ‘wonderland’. The accompanying text said something like ‘If I can get one person to take the red pill today, I will feel that I have achieved something’.

The sentiment said much about the difference between members of one social group that appears to be blindly doing what the Government tells them to do and accepts as truth everything that the media tells them, and another that sees itself to be awake to the truth, whilst unwittingly bordering on if not actually dipping into a foray of progressively unbridled conspiracy theories as they do so. It says much about the complexity of the situation that we are now in.

Finding a solution to all this – as the Brexit debate has already proven – will be ridiculously divisive if people continue to paint the choice for everyone as binary or being simply a question of black or white.

The same people celebrate that those they disagree with block them or run from debate because there is no basis to their argument. Yet at the same time those preaching talk up marches, riots, the weight of numbers and prosecutions of those ‘responsible for doing wrong’ when these are all sure signs of a surprisingly similar narrative. One where the speakers are not confident of their own position to be sure that they have all the bases covered and know deep down that they really have a formula that is legitimate or even on the pathway to being right.

Everything is relative to something. This whole debate about what the Government has done and what happens next is by no means relative to everything. But it is still relative to a whole lot more than the list of wrongdoings that those lined up against the Government today are making allowance for.

The philosophy they have, like the Brexit or Leave movement before, is based in the greater part only on getting rid of what they don’t want.

It is a perverse form of idealism that only pays lip service to what the problem will be replaced with and is accompanied by no genuinely tangible information on how they would achieve what they want to do.

This kind of approach simply doesn’t wash or create genuine buy-in with the majority of people. Especially when experience suggests that the only people who can be relied upon to run the country in the future will be drawn from the groups of politicians who are running it now.

Cheap talk, threats of violence and promises of punishing those we have made guilty doesn’t sort out the problems that a Country has at anytime. Least of all now when we are in the middle of a National Crisis that stupidity running riot within the existing establishment has made exponentially worse than it ever needed to be.

Confidence and inspiration for everyone will only come from the creation of a credible alternative. One that can replace the false promise of a track-record with the motivation and desire to take a leap of faith in people who will see through in government what they promise us. Will treat us as adults as they do so and then turn everything around in the UK so that everything works for all.

Yes, the British Political System is completely broken. But until we have made it work for us so that we can legitimately replace the out-of-touch politicians that we have got, we cannot begin the comprehensive public policy reform that will make democracy work for us all.

What looks like the easy answer is unlikely to be it. It is clear that within this new wave of activists, few understand the role that they can play in being that change.

Simply following someone who has a name, a profile and sounds like they are right about a few things that a few people agree with is likely to be yet another paving slab on our current pathway to hell.

I walked away from frontline politics at the moment it became clear that I could not put the needs of my electors before the aims of the local Conservative Group and by that I mean the people who led it. I cannot support anyone seeking elected office who approaches representative government and the responsibilities that those elected have to others in anything like the same way.

I am looking for a solution; a new movement that comes from the grassroots up, respects the need to work with the political system (and our system of democracy) as it is now, so that it can be restored to how it should really be. Above all, one that wants to be inclusive and genuinely blind to the differences between us whether they are physical, in the way we think or whatever our past approach to politics and questions like Brexit once involved.

It is neither rocket science nor beyond the capability of normal, everyday people to start something new now that could quickly become very big and ready to take over and then take on what will be the long and arduous process of putting everything right where Johnson, this rotten political culture and all these stupid politicians who should never have been in elected office left off.

We just need to start a new conversation. Begin with the right approach. Keep going with it uncompromisingly  as we go along.

Are you ready to be the change and do it properly?

10 Years on from the 2007 Gloucestershire Floods: Some things are different, but out of sight is still very much out of mind for the politicians and this is what must really change

July 20, 2017 2 comments

Floods 2007 1

Unloading water at the Wheatpieces Community Centre, Walton Cardiff, near Tewkesbury, following the July 2007 Floods

With 10 years now passed since the Gloucestershire floods of 2007 we cast our minds back to the magnitude of those events that affected significant numbers of people and communities across the County and surrounding areas in the middle of July that year.

Only a matter of weeks into my first term as an elected councillor at Tewkesbury Borough, I remember well that the significance of what felt like a tropical rainstorm parked overhead for most of that Friday would go way beyond a vast extension of what sadly remains a regular local event.

So much water trying to find its way to a natural watercourse created rivers and lakes in the most unexpected locations and seeing upended cars by the roadside and in ditches the following day, like some scene from War of the Worlds left a picture in my mind which was at the very least quite surreal.

But it was on the Sunday, when word really began to spread that there had been a problem at the Mythe Water Treatment Plant as a result of the Flooding which meant tap water was about to run out, that the real consequences of what we were afterwards told was a 1 in 100 year event really began to unfold.

After an unexpected phone call from a constituent that afternoon, asking where they could get water I found myself spending over two weeks delivering water and coordinating drinking water supplies around my Council Ward, increasingly conscious of how very thin the veil of individual social responsibility, commonly known as civil order actually is, when it was pricked in so many other areas by people fighting over water, steeling it and even urinating in bowsers where communities had been supplied. We can only begin to imagine what would have happened if the emergency services had not won their battle against the rising floodwaters of the River Severn when just centimetres from flooding the Walham Electricity Substation just outside Gloucester.

From my own perspective, the contact with members of the community I then represented that getting so directly involved gave me was of incalculable benefit. Not only did I see the impact of the breakdown of our utility service supply at first hand, I also gained real-time understanding of flooding and also what can be the very localised nature and requirements of our arbitrary Planning system, which continues to fail local people, and the communities in which they live every day.

The news channels have today made use of the good-news stories which followed the 2007 Floods, such as the permanent flood protection and defences that have been erected in places such as Upton on Severn, just a few miles upstream from Tewkesbury. Yet the bigger story beyond remains the lack of understanding or failure to acknowledge the real impact of building not only near or on flood plains themselves, but also on ground which in extreme weather events, would or has historically become the natural channels where a rainfall overload will find its way to our local main rivers via the floodplains in between.

Sadly, consideration of the issues which sit behind those which are most obvious is not something that Government at National or Local level beyond is happy to embrace, particularly at a time when the politically expedient route to solving our housing supply problems is to simply focus on everything that encourages people and businesses to build.

Events like the 2007 Gloucestershire Floods are not rare events. This fact has been only too well illustrated by the many different experiences that Towns, Villages and in some cases even Cities have been continuing to experience ever since, and yet we still have a Planning system, environmental policies and public sector approach which is in real terms not even fully reactive in nature.

The pain, loss and suffering which people suffer, often much longer than during the time of these flooding events themselves should have by now resulted in a proactive approach to flood prevention. But 10 years now gone – a period in which even the very slow wheels of Government could have delivered the creative and fully considered policy changes and developments which might at least have future-proofed existing properties from what might be avoidable disaster – Politicians are still failing to adapt to dealing with the biggest issues which are facing communities, albeit the ones that are far from being obvious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flooding: It’s wet, getting wetter and the funds are drying up. Government Reform and Policy change is the only way to get all the protection that we need and that process must start now

February 10, 2014 1 comment

Flooding and the affects that it can have on all of us has been a consistent theme since the very beginning of my time as a local Councillor near Tewkesbury.

In July-August 2007, Adam spent over 2 weeks coordinating and delivering bottled water across the Ashchurch with Walton Cardiff Ward. Pictured here in Pamington delivering to the service point set up by then County Councillor Gordon Shurmer

In July-August 2007, Adam spent over 2 weeks coordinating and delivering drinking water supplies across the Ashchurch with Walton Cardiff Ward. Pictured in Pamington unloading at a service point set up by then County Cllr Gordon Shurmer

If you come from outside the immediate area, memories of the summer of 2007 and the notoriety of the July ‘Floods’ in Gloucestershire tend to focus attention more on the water shortages that hit the County for those who still remember, rather than the significant and extremely rapid flooding event responsible which took place in just one day on Friday 20th July 2007.

In less than 48 hours, the life that we all so easily take for granted was compromised. Not because of a war, famine or catastrophic crash of our economy, but because the drinking water in our taps was literally switched off when flood water polluted the tanks at the Mythe Water Treatment Plant near Tewkesbury. These floods suddenly affected everyone, and not just those who had been flooded out; many of whom were themselves within whole neighbourhoods where river torrents coming through your home would normally be the very last thing on your mind on a midsummer day.

The complacency and complete lack of urgency demonstrated by officials that follows an event of this magnitude when life is perceived to be ‘back to normal’ is a strange thing to deal with if you have had firsthand experience of it. But this is exactly what people in Tewkesbury and the surrounding Villages have had to frustratingly deal with ever since and what the people of the Somerset Levels have clearly had to endure now too.

Sadly, Towns, Villages, Hamlets, Communities and Businesses simply at risk of flooding don’t have the newsworthiness of water in the way it does when it literally covers the ground. This is a real problem for anyone living with the realities of these events as news teams seldom camp out for anything good. Most people would much prefer not to have the camera crews taking up semi-permanent residence ever again to report such stories. But it seems that it will take exactly that to happen before any sense of urgency to deal with existing and weather-changing threats or those that Developers may indeed be creating, will be adequately addressed.

Taking nothing away from the many people who spent up to a year living in caravans on their driveways after the 2007 pluvial ‘event’ who now also have insurance ‘blight’ as a result, some areas around Tewkesbury and Gloucester such as the historic Village of Walton Cardiff in the Ashchurch with Walton Cardiff Ward that I represent regularly have to face the prospect of river or fluvial flooding too.

Residents there have sadly come to be so used to it, that one homeowner with the means to do so has even bought an amphibious buggy which he uses to help other Residents when the roads become impassable. Whilst community-minded in the extreme, I will probably be far from alone in having concerns that such acts are taken by Government Politicians to mean that there is a general acceptance on the part of those living with the risk of flooding that they are simply happy with the status quo. Let me tell you; they aren’t.

The constant threat of both types of flooding is never far from the minds of those whose homes are at risk of either the flooding that it is ‘reasonable’ to expect, or that which ‘normal’ disaster planning doesn’t allow for that comes in the form of events that the Environment Agency and other Organisations communicate in terms such as ‘a one in a hundred year event’.

The problem is that the Floods in question aren’t only happening once every one hundred years or whatever the particular ‘banding’ may be and the type of lottery derived statistics that are being used as this benchmark for support to our communities is now proving to be a form of gamble that’s only paying off for those who are most distant from the problem.

There are actually some very painful realities sitting behind the lack of support for our communities. Getting the results that we all need relies on a significant number of issues needing to be addressed and whilst I have no intention of dismissing the action that the Prime Minister and Eric Pickles are now reactively taking to the Somerset problems in particular, it is only by dealing with all the problems comprehensively – and accepting that matters which on the face of it have little to do with Flooding also have an effect – that there will ever be any genuine first and meaningful steps to dealing with this situation in its truest depth.

The interactive nature of these contributory issues with other seemingly non-related Policies make statements like that made by the the Environment Agency Head Lord Smith last week potentially misleading. Suggesting that there may be a hard choice to be made over whether we protect Towns and Cities or Rural Areas is arguably very subjective indeed. Whilst in the sense of funding for defence and maintenance work accurate, a statement like this doesn’t take into consideration the other contributory issues that come with it. The issues include:

Funding

In isolation, we can all easily draw the conclusion that solving Flood Defence problems is just about the money that Local Authorities, Central Government Departments and Non Government Organisations such as the Environment Agency have to spend. But it isn’t.

Essentially any work that is undertaken does have to be paid for by the public purse as Flood Prevention is fundamentally in the public interest. However, the days when such an issue in itself was enough to trigger an immediate and responsive spend on a ‘size doesn’t matter’ basis has long gone – if it ever actually existed before in anything other than wartime.

The problem for us today is that the Country is now effectively bankrupt after generations of profligate spending by Government on Policies which are considered populist only in the sense of the number of votes that they will win. They should have been in the best interests of the wider community – which is arguably how every political decision should actually be made.

Budgets are and will most likely continue to be cut from all Publicly Funded Organisations and will continue to do so whilst the gargantuan plate-spinning effort to keep the Economy and Public Spending from smashing on the floor continues. Lack of discussion and reference to the National Debt, whilst overplay on the prospect of reaching a zero Deficit in maybe a few years time is a key indicator of the high stakes game that is already well in play. Any upward change in spending that might come from a change in Government could actually bring matters to a conclusion even sooner.

The £100 Million promised just to the Somerset Levels alone this week might sound like a lot of money to those struggling to survive on an average wage. But in real terms and without any unfortunate pun intended, it is in reality a mere drop in the ocean of the fund that would actually be needed to cover the cost of protecting the UK against Flooding if no other options were to be genuinely considered.

Painful as it is to accept, the fact is that without significant change in the way that all parts of Government raise and spend money, there will never be anywhere near enough funds to address the Flooding problems with a cash only solution and Government really needs to start being straight with people about this.

Planning

Prevention is almost certainly better than waiting to work on a cure. Whilst many people who have experience of a Flood Event will already have significant anecdotal evidence to illustrate how building on flood plains has exacerbated the problems that we already face, it is the Planning Policies and Procedures which exist today that provide part of the greatest threat to both individual properties and whole communities.

Unloading water at the Wheatpieces Community Centre, Walton Cardiff, near Tewkesbury, following the July 2007 Floods

Unloading bottled drinking water at the Wheatpieces Community Centre, Walton Cardiff, near Tewkesbury, following the July 2007 Floods

A good example is that Planning Policy arguably only takes fluvial flooding into account, the effects of which themselves can open to the bizarrest forms of interpretation possible. A case which demonstrates this well would be the Wheatpieces Development within my Ward, some of which is well known locally to have been built on what was mapped historically as flood plain. However, I understand that it is not considered to be as such for Planning purposes by the Environment Agency – and therefore Planners – because the houses built on these areas were erected on built up land or infill which when the earthworks were completed then complied with the requirement of being the required ground level height above Ordnance Datum Newlyn, which I also understand was at the time of Permission being granted, some 12 Feet.

Such an undertaking is for current Planning purposes apparently enough to quantify that a development has not been constructed on Floodplain, but then gives sparse consideration for the knock on effects that creating an island in the middle of natures own flood remedy will have had on properties that would otherwise have been at significantly less risk of flooding. Build as many reed beds and flood tanks under a new development as you like, but when storms of the nature we are now experiencing come in the increasingly menacing way that they do, such developments can be akin to dropping a breeze block into an overflowing bath.

Some will call it cynical to say this, but evidence strongly suggests that the deficiencies in Planning Policy today leave existing homes and developments open to threat from the increased risk of flooding which is created by new developments – the properties upon which are unlikely to face the same threat. Couple this with the headlong rush by successive governments to build houses as the silver bullet to solve all ills, and you might begin to realise the level of threat that a Planning Policy which does not consider the whole picture has actually become. Planning Policy isn’t actually working in the best interests of anybody other than the Politicians, builders and companies that lend people the money to buy the new houses.

The irresponsibility of the Government and Opposition in hanging the fate of the Economy and those desperate for affordable homes on house building is not only fueling the growth of an already uncontrollable credit bubble; it is also determining a fate of misery and loss to the owners and occupants for many existing homes who will almost certainly be put at greater risk of flooding.

The role of ‘Respondents’ of the Planning Process

Symptomatic of our correctness culture has been the exponential rise of the Quango and distribution of powers to what are non-elected Bodies, some of whom don’t even report to Government Ministers. A number of these are involved in both the Planning system as ‘Respondents’, but also within the other processes which relate to Flood Prevention.

A great weight of responsibility has been given to many of these Organisations and their opinion, view or interpretation of their Policy in relation to specific cases and subsequently are seen to have what can sometimes feel like limitless power to those who have witnessed it.

Alone, their objections can halt an application on the spot, whilst the absence of an objection from any such Respondent can and does lead Members of Planning Committees to conclude that objecting to an application is little more than a futile act, as with these agencies not objecting, a Planning Inspector will surely approve it should the Application then go to Appeal.

With all working to very centralised; one-size-fits-all Policies which are without any real consideration for the very localised issues that the Planning System does encounter and specifically Flooding issues, the realities of the influence that these bureaucratic entities have is significant. Developers know that if they table Applications that effectively tick all the boxes that each of these Organisations have on their checklists, Local Authority Planning Committees simply won’t have a prayer if a developer then takes a rejection to Appeal  – which they rarely have hesitation in doing so.

The influence that these Organisations have over the Planning Process is simply too much and is at best an arbitrary way of dealing with what are ever increasingly sensitive issues that require a level of interpretation, consideration and understanding which genuinely reflects locality and the concept of Localism that the Coalition Government has done so much to sell itself upon.

Maintenance – when money isn’t a problem

The Environment Agency once again plays a critical role in the preventative maintenance which is already or should already be undertaken on watercourses and rivers, as do Local Borough, District, County and Unitary Authorities that have Drainage responsibilities.

The often complex relationships or rather chain of decision making that arises as a result of multiple organisations or ‘stakeholders’ being involved in a decision relating to Flood Prevention will almost always cause delays, or worse still, like the Planning Process, will result in one of them being perceived to carry more weight, and for the buck to effectively stop with them. In a compensation and blame culture, taking action actually appears to be the very last thing on the mind of the Representatives of these Organisations, and this can serve no purpose other than their own.

Sadly I do not recall one conversation with Residents or indeed other Politicians which has reflected positively upon the work of the Environment Agency. I have spoken to Farmers who have watercourses and rivers crossing their properties and most look back comparatively fondly on one of the forerunners of the Environment Agency, the National Rivers Authority (NRA) which is remembered for a much more proactive, less obstructive and therefore constructive approach to clearance and dredging.

I can remember seeing specially modified tractors working the banks of the contributory rivers to the Severn during the period of the NRA’s tenure and it is clear that anecdotal evidence of the benefit of such work correlates well with a period when fluvial flooding seemed to affect a whole lot less of the area.

The NRA itself adopted the responsibilities which were once included within the portfolio of the ten former Regional Water Authorities with what we now know to be this expensive, but critical form of work not being adopted by the privatised Water Companies. One could easily conclude that the formation of the Environment Agency and absorption of the NRA within it in 1996 was seen as the ideal time to cut back on proactive and costly Flood Prevention works and that this may have been considered a much safer time to do so rather than the late Eighties when Privatisation itself took place.

I will add that one of my own experiences of questioning an Environment Agency Representative during a post-flood seminar held at Tewkesbury Abbey in the weeks following the 2007 Flood, I can honestly say that I found the responses given to my questions on dredging and clearance to be conflicting. I walked away with the distinct impression that giving excuses rather than any meaningful response was the chosen modus operandi  of this Organisation – even when they might have honestly said  ‘there isn’t the money available’.

Distance and lack of situational objectivity on the part of decision makers

Flooding is an issue that is simply not recognised for the problem that it is right now, has been and will be by Government and the Staff of the Organisations that matter. People making  decisions do not have the first hand knowledge or exposure not only to the Flood incidents themselves, but to what can be the very localised nature of the contributory factors as they exist today and how they may come into play as the result of apparently unleashed development.

Officers of all the Organisations discussed who may be rightly and properly qualified to be called experts arguably don’t use their expertise in the way that the public should rightly expect. Tick box decision making appears to have replaced that of using common sense and recognising the need to seek the fullest perspective, arguably for little more reason than the threat which comes from taking responsibility within the protectionist culture which is now an inherent part of Government Administration.

The earlier system of buck-passing which grew decision making into a very expensive system of ‘one-job, one-role; keep passing it on until we can justify engaging a consultant’, has systematically inflated the size of ‘back room operations’, and taken money that was available away from frontline service delivery, where ironically as a result, the need for even more precise and robust decision making becomes ever more critical. We can all see the results.

The Weather

There is no question that weather patterns are changing. We don’t however know if this is due to a phenomenon like global warming, or whether it is actually part of very extensive climate changing cycles which have affected the earth historically, and which there is evidence to suggest might be the case.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that Government and the Organisations involved have not developed a proactive bias to Flood Prevention measures and that the approach taken is far more reactive in nature. It is what could easily be called ‘out of site; out of mind’ management, as work only seems to be concentrated on issues which are in the Public view – or can be guaranteed to be regularly so.

Many will probably be quietly asking whether the ‘intensity’ of effort now focussing on Somerset will for instance continue once the roads are passable and life is deemed to have returned to ‘normal’.

These are apparently ‘irregular’ events after all. But it was indeed telling that the Military first arrived in the form of just two Personnel who apparently decided that there was nothing at that point which they could do. Given that much of the amphibious and landing–type craft which could at very least help these stranded Communities are likely to be based with Royal Marine and Royal Naval Units in the South and South West anyway, should it really have been that difficult to put some of these vehicles on low-loading lorries and get them to the Levels within a few hours? 

Either way, attitudes must change even if the funds are limited. Government has been entrusted with great power on our behalf along with the responsibility to use it. So why aren’t they?

The painful reality is that there are likely to be other contributory factors that I and certainly others are not aware of, but which are important all the same.

Money is the overriding factor which has, is and will continue to inhibit the development of capital flood defence projects whether they are inland, riverside or on the coast and there is a danger that neither the realistic sums which could be raised for these projects, nor the changes in the many other policy areas that could positively assist will come into being unless there is a complete change in the way that Politicians assess, develop and then act upon their priorities.

Tewkesbury in Flood. Image thanks to www.theguardian.com

Tewkesbury in Flood. Image thanks to http://www.theguardian.com

As we have seen in Tewkesbury with the effect on water supply; in Devon with the effect on Railways and in Somerset with the effect upon land and roads; doing nothing places critical Infrastructure at risk. So funnelling truckloads of borrowed cash into any service or benefit that will put around 350 MP’s or more in power for the next five years when all they will then do is think about doing the same again – all to the incalculable cost of the majority of Taxpayers – can simply no longer be sustained.

With money being the problem that the Government doesn’t want to talk about, it is unlikely that any Minister will stand up any time soon and simply say ‘we don’t have the money to do all the work that needs doing’. Even less likely would be finding one of them saying and actually meaning ‘we don’t have all the money, but we will make all the changes that we possibly can which will serve all of your interests’ best’.

When these Politicians have moved past the sound bites, the portrayals of being belated men of action and giving hollow apologies when pinned down by interviewers, the best advice any Politician could now take would be to stop treating the Electorate like they are idiots and that the issues facing Government are beyond their understanding.

Good communication crosses all barriers and honesty coupled with the emotional intelligence that can only be utilised by those who are fully ‘in touch’ with issues will surely build the foundations of a wholly different kind of support. They might start by:

Listening Locally

It will be in everyone’s interests to develop a culture where local voices are heard even when they don’t have the profile of people like Michael Eavis, the founder of the Glastonbury Festival who wrote a very useful and telling article in the Mail on Sunday on 2nd February 2014.

Mr Eavis brought precisely the kind of invaluable and historical knowledge of the Somerset Levels to the table that no doubt many people could, if they were given the opportunity to do so.

Too much useful information is discounted because of the emotional buy-in that often accompanies very local issues and which is often badged as being Nimby-ism. Yes, there are people who will say no to everything simply because they don’t want change or others who make demands simply because they want something for themselves. But applying this very negative and destructive view on anyone who is promoting a local view, without taking adequate steps to discern the value from what they may be saying, is ultimately selling everyone short and is far from the hallmark of a fully enlightened form of Politics.

Reforming the Planning System and creating Local Planning Courts to make Localism really mean something and empower local people in the process

In the absence of the money that we need being available without either borrowing or taking money from services which may actually be invaluable elsewhere, Planning and its reform will be a key factor in proactively addressing future Flood Events.

Power of veto – whether negative or indeed positive, should never be held in the hands of unelected bureaucrats or people who are neither trained nor prepared to make decisions which truly reflect the very localised and area specific issues which relate to flooding.

We must move away from tick-box decision making which brings little more than the one-size-fits-all mentality to almost every Planning Application that will have an affect on the wider community and particularly so when it comes to Flooding.

Agencies and Local Authorities should inform, but ultimately not define the planning process and the only eventuality in which Government Ministers should intervene should be at moments when the genuine National interest overrides that of the local community and those who will be directly impacted by developments within it.

This could be done by transferring all Planning Decisions to a local ‘Planning Court’, in which evidence could be given by the Applicants, all respondents and interested parties to a Judge or panel, but where the power of appeal is limited to the same or a similarly localised Court, and where the Policies upon which decisions are based are those developed democratically by the Local Council’s themselves.

Such a process would be much more tailored to localised needs and allow and encourage Agencies to advise rather than administer, and leave people feeling much more empowered when it comes to their fate. It would also give the opportunity to consider new forms of information that come available through advances in technology and understanding, such as up-to-date computerised flood or water behaviour mapping, which would allow considerations to be made for issues such as pluvial flooding, which is likely to become ever relevant.

Central Government would have its role to play in assisting this by changing all appropriate Policies to reflect a genuine need-led, rather than projected development requirement and bringing into being all forms of legislation to prevent economic reliance and profiteering from building developments and multiple property ownership which skews the market.

Moving responsibility for Preventative Maintenance back to the Water Companies

It seems incredible that dredging and maintenance didn’t remain the responsibility of the Water Companies after Privatisation, but now makes a great deal more sense as we begin to gain a better understanding of the true costs involved and the resistance of any private company to undertake work which may be in the public interest, but which itself is distinctly non-profitable in nature.

The Water Companies gain significant benefit from the use of rivers and watercourses both as a source of water and as a route of discharge for treated effluent which no longer has value in its current form. These Companies could once again be harnessed with the responsibility for all the services that they once were before Privatisation and thereby take a more commercial approach to long term flooding defence and maintenance provision, which it would seem most natural for them to do so.

With successive Governments already responsible for failing to adequately regulate the profiteering nature of these Companies, the risk that the transfer of this responsibility would be seen as just another opportunity to raise fees would be real. As such, this would be another vital area where Government would have policy making work to do, but where the blood and guts approach of a return to real conviction and end-user focus politics could really make a profound difference in future flooding risk, whilst also dealing with key components of the real cost of living crisis.

Government Reform to facilitate the Funding that can come from no other source

Ultimately, only significant capital spending of a level which the Country currently cannot afford would provide the sea defences, river defences and perhaps even dykes of the kind seen in the Netherlands that the UK may now actually need to protect against and limit existing threats that exist right now. And there is of course the requirement to ‘future-proof’ or to then prevent against the impact and escalation which comes from the changes in weather patterns.

The money to do this will never be available whilst Government spending continues on the levels based only upon election-focussed service provision and a benefits system which propagates legitimate abuse. The services which attract most public money are themselves at risk from the same black financial cloud hovering above us, but could be run far more cost effectively – and arguably at lower cost – with the kind of holistic, joined-up and end-user focus reform that so many services provided by Government now need. Public servants must be encouraged to move away from the ‘what’s will be the benefit or risk to me’ culture and start focussing on a ‘how we can do the best possible for Taxpayers’ culture instead.

Sticking plaster solutions are no answer either to Flooding issues or to the many other problems which the Government faces. Parliamentarians seem so unwilling to tackle complex policy making and reform for the greater good and meanwhile, almost everyone else suffers.

Getting to the place where communities need to be; a place where they feel safe, protected and able to maintain a basic standard of living that doesn’t require lending money or a compromise of the services that they should be able to expect is a long and tough journey.  People must again be trusted locally by Parliamentarians and empowered to deal with the matters which relate only to their own fate, without centralised Policy or non-elected bureaucrats being able to override them.

A Coalition Government will never be equipped to even begin taking the steps which will be necessary to achieve this because they are by their very nature a relationship built upon compromise. You will never get the very best solution for all when a compromise has been necessary.

We can only hope that the next Government will take their responsibilities to all of us far more seriously. But with things looking as they are, it may not happen next time either.

See Adam’s related Blogs on:

Flooding

Dealing with the Energy Companies

Why the Political focus on house building is wrong

The Real Cost of Living Crisis

The influence of Utility Providers on the cost of living

Building on the Greenbelt could be avoided if Politicians were prepared to tackle the causes of Housing Crisis head on. Their failure to do so may leave many of these new homes empty and not just immigrants living in modern-day slums which are currently known as ‘beds in sheds’…

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

On a day that the reality of modern day, back-garden ‘beds-in-sheds’ or rather the slums springing up across the UK to house immigrants hit the pages, we also see the news that more than half of Councils plan to build on our green belt.

You may be forgiven for thinking that there is an obvious link. But the only real relationship between these two issues, neither of which should arguably have ever have become fact, is that they provide a very telling story not only about the excessive cost of housing, but also the very painful reality that members of our communities from one end to the other are being overlooked by Government Policy.

In a recent blog, I discussed the issues that sit rather uncomfortably behind the incessant drive on the part of Politicians to build more and more houses as a method of stimulating the economy and solving the UK’s housing crisis, whilst actually doing anything but.

As they do so, they are overlooking the permanent damage that will be inflicted upon Towns and Villages up and down the Country, whilst failing to demonstrate either an understanding of the factors which are causing the problems for so many people, or indeed how many more issues that this form of recklessness sold to us as responsibility will cause.

why_do_we_behave_like_lemmings_4677351My own concerns about the foolishness which is leading the development of these Policies throughout the Local Authority Network and specifically at local level – where many Councillors behaviour can most politely be described as being very similar to that of Lemmings going off a cliff, is well known.

My inbox regularly has mail which has been written by local people from right across the area that Tewkesbury Borough Council covers who are rightly and quite simply horrified by the Plans which are now well on the way to being put in place. In many cases these very Plans are being very effectively picked apart by these impassioned members of the public who have very little experience of how the Planning System actually works. Will it make any difference? Probably not.

I recognise the value in the arguments they make. Somehow things really don’t add up when questions about the impact on such essential matters as future infrastructure, the merging of historically separate Towns and both fluvial AND pluvial flooding issues seem to go unanswered.

I also appreciate that I may be doing a disservice to the multitude of other very localised issues which face other communities across the Country which are just as important to the people that live there, but which I have overlooked just because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of them and most respectfully have no reason to do so.

The problem is that the Policy frameworks and guidance on which all local ‘Strategies’ are being set have been stewarded into being by Westminster-based Politicians who should not only know and understand these things, they seem oblivious to the fact that their own knowledge and outlook is actually so limited and are just as immune to hearing or seeing the very clear messages that are out there to tell them all about it.

With Politicians drunk and dependent upon the power and retention of their own positions, and whilst they bound around oblivious to the issues that are facing everyone else, there are sadly no forms of breathalyser out there which will demonstrate just how out of control the drivers of this vehicle may be for the unknown period it will take before it crashes and causes us all some significant damage.

The one thing that is certain is that concreting over the green belt to build houses that nobody can actually be sure we will need won’t solve the housing crisis on its own.

In fact, without dealing with the real issues that sit behind the housing problem and tackling them head on, many more people will find themselves unable to afford to live in them anyway and may have to face the unenviable horror of joining those who are living in what should by now have been consigned to long-term history in the form of anachronistic slums.

Image thanks to unknown source

Council Spending Cuts: Savings must be the objective, not simply the means to reducing Local Authority expenditure and without providing the tools to affect real reforming change, it’s beginning to look like Eric Pickles is wielding a lot of stick without even a hint of any carrot…

December 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Local government conference

I don’t envy the position that any Government Minister has in respect of either the Deficit – which the Government are all too happy to talk about; or the escalating mountain of Debt – which they are apparently not.

Cuts in public spending are and have been inevitable since way before the last General Election. But it always seems to be the same ‘soft’ targets that get picked, rather than the controversial policy areas that make most MP’s go green, even if they are just asked to talk about them. Therefore, the announcement of a 2.9% cut in the Local Government settlement in 2014-15 is surely one of the most obvious cases of ‘passing the buck’ that there ever could be.

As both a sitting Councillor and past Local Authority Officer, I have no doubt that considerable opportunities to make savings continue to exist within most Council administrative, executive and operational functions. However, I also realise that making such savings is far from a straightforward exercise and particularly so when some areas of service provision simply cannot be cut, or in some cases will even require greater funding in the future.

Whilst cutting spending to reduce the National Deficit and hopefully at some point, start tackling the National Debt is a sensible aim, it should arguably be used as the objective rather than the means itself, and the failure of Central Government to support Local Authorities by providing the machinery of reform – whilst restricting the tax-raising ability that Councils have, is doing little more than necessitating the removal of structural security from within.

Councils are after all left with little choice but to consider and engage in the sharing of services not only between departments, but also within other Authorities as well. Whilst local politicians can already speculate about a hidden agenda moving us all towards Unitary status, there is no question that any service shared, or even Officers being given cross-disciplinary responsibility is just another step away from the end user, in the level of quality of the service being delivered if nothing else.

That’s hardly Localism now is it Mr Cameron?

The reality of the situation is that the savings that will be required to sort out the mess that the UK actually is in may well necessitate a restructure of the way that all Local Government operates.

But we are not at that point yet and it would be far better that we be able to instigate the real processes of change right now in the hope of retaining as much in terms of local services delivered locally for local people, rather than waiting for a point where financial collapse makes even these possibilities we have right now unviable, simply because a Westminster Government decided that it would be easiest inflicting budget cuts on others in the wild hope that somebody else would be responsible enough to bring about change.

Image thanks to http://www.guardian.com 

Food banks are here to stay for as long as Politicians keep acting as if poverty is someone else’s problem

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment

download (18)Fill yourself with festive cheer, for the deficit should be defunct in just a few more years!

The Government does indeed seem to be peacock-proud of its fiscal management which has manifested itself in the form of great optimism during the recent Autumn Statement.

Strange then that little mention should be made or focus placed upon the spiralling debt mountain that as a Nation, we the UK currently sit upon, or what might happen if economic forces beyond Osborne and the Bank of England dictate that borrowing money can no longer remain so inordinately cheap.

However, insulated as we may seem from the realities of an economic meltdown bluffingly put on hold whilst politicians still have the ability to do nothing more than concentrate on the next election, the fact is that the only real difference between the debt that the Government ‘manages’ on our behalf and the financial problems facing so many of the Voters who unwittingly put them there is that people living in the real world have no elaborate schemes or devices to hide the problems that they currently face.

Being in touch with the painful realities of UK life for those who have the worry of meeting their monthly bottom line is a gift which seems to have eluded many of the Political Class.

Only this week, Lord Freud intimated that Local Authorities should pick up responsibility for funding food banks; an act which in itself demonstrates the severe lack of understanding that those in Government have of the problems which people genuinely face.

It is all too clear that they have no idea what steps really need to be taken simply to arrest the backward slide in living standards which is already stretching far beyond the realms of the financially poor. It is an unspoken truth that is changing the way that just about everyone without the joy of having a surplus income before pay day are having to cope with, each and every month.

Localism has of course given the lie to the idea that more and more services and methods of support will be provided at local level, by local organisations for local people.

What the Localism Agenda doesn’t contain within all the talk that has gone with it however, is that whilst Westminster politicians audibly pass the buck to their Local Authority counterparts with one hand, they are systematically stripping them of the resources and ability to maintain their existing responsibilities with the other.

Without cutting existing services, raising Council Tax beyond 5%, using savings, cashing in publically owned property or borrowing, there is simply no way that Local Authorities can take on a National problem locally without outside help to do it. And when the only politicians that have the ability to tackle the causes of the problems facing so many people head on are sat in London, it is at best disingenuous if not bordering on pure fantasy to even hint that the real cost of living crisis is something which confines itself to communities at a very local level.

People would be starving right now, were it not for the tremendous efforts of the organisations and individuals who are working so hard to help those many people who are already experiencing a regular sequence of hours in need.

Food banks are a treatment for a problem, but by no means a cure.

Ministers really must start recognising this now, rather than seeming to be content to do little more than pretend that the problem doesn’t exist; or worse still, to behave in such a way to suggest that the many people experiencing both the extremities and day-to-day realities of contemporary poverty have somehow knowingly chosen to be there.

download (19)

If you have found this article whilst researching food banks, further information about Tewkesbury Food bank can be found at www.tewkesbury.foodbank.org.uk or for those in other areas, please see this link on the Trussell Trust Website.

Top Image thanks to source unknown

Councillors’ Pay: Throwing money at more of the same just increases the odds of things going from bad to even worse

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment

If you feel at all cynical about politicians and their motives for seeking power, you are unlikely to have been left feeling refreshed by the latest row over councillors’ pay which has surfaced this morning. After all, one set of politicians laying out the stall to put more money into the pockets of another is hardly the story that anyone outside of politics wants to hear. But is the promise of higher pay for councillors really the only answer to better local government?

The motives for becoming a politician at any level are not what many would hope or perhaps expect. Whilst the pathway to becoming a member of a local authority may be based upon an entirely different set of aspirations from those who become MP’s, the biggest difference between the two is the full-time and fully remunerated nature of all the roles in Westminster which have propagated and supported the rise of the ‘career politician’.

As a Local Councillor myself, I can look back on my own political history to date and know that it was not money which motivated me to contest my first Borough Election in 2003 and come 5th for a 2-seat Ward. It was not looking good and being seen by others as having responsibility in a public role which drove me to take part in the County Elections of 2005 and experience a recount to finish in 3rd place for a 2-seat Division. But it was a belief in something better for all and the sense of providing a voice for those who choose not or are unable to do so for themselves that did push me to go out each time and then win my first Borough Seat in 2007. Sadly it is not the same for all too many others.

The reality of local government, whether you are Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP or Independent, is that it is a place of frustration for the well-intended. A place where the power to influence decision making in its greatest sense simply doesn’t exist – much in the same way that the handful of our better-intentioned MP’s will have discovered to their absolute horror when they first arrived in Parliament.

It is a cold hard fact that within any system of government where so many of the would-be decision makers have arrived on the basis of personal gain and advancement, it is that very same emotional buy-in which propelled them there that prevents them and others from doing anything truly selfless when it has even the slightest risk of making those selfishly-based positions any less secure.

Such fear has propagated the growth of an insidious culture within local government where officers are often left leading the leaders with their own protectionist based views which put jobs, conditions and the limitation of all risks above any decision which actually may be the right one for the Taxpayers who fund them. It is a pathway which over many years has led to the unsustainable cost of direct services that should never have even been put at risk; coupled to a future which above all else is inextricably linked to such wonders as the bottomless pit which is the Local Government Pension Scheme.

Increasing councillors ‘pay’ to ‘realistic levels’, will only encourage more of those with the same self-interest to step forward and to then fight even harder to protect their own interests once elected. Part-time career politicians would quickly become as prevalent throughout the lower tiers of government as their full time counterparts are at Westminster, and it is the very term ‘career’ which in this sense says so very much about what is wrong with politics and where the true motives of many politicians lie today.

Reform at all levels of government should be an absolute priority, but should not be restricted to executive, administrative or technical functions.

The political party system is also failing people as much locally as it is nationally and throwing money at more of the same just increases the odds of things going from bad to even worse.

Flooding: A truly democratic system should allow for changes in Planning Legislation which will limit the damage which future flooding events have the power to cause

December 25, 2012 1 comment

Christmas will not be that merry for many who have been hit by flooding over recent days, weeks and what has now become months. Even today, news that the seemingly freak weather patterns that have haunted the UK in 2012 are staying put will be sending a shiver down the spines of all those who have closely witnessed or experienced the nightmare of being in a flood.

But is the perceived change in weather patterns the only factor we should be considering for future flood protection, or are the issues governing the severity of future flooding events far more deep seated, but with the potential for control?

In July 2007 and less than 3 months into my first Term as a Councillor, Tewkesbury Borough sat at what felt to many of us like the epicentre of a disastrous flood which demonstrated just how the impact of unforeseen water damage and a systematic failure to plan ahead can actually be and how its power can touch the lives of people who would never normally have reason to live in such fear.

Over a period of 36 hours, home after home in areas that had never been previously considered at risk of flooding became submersed by the affects of just 1 days deluge right across Gloucestershire. Whole Villages went under and for some home owners, many months of pain and torment lay ahead as driveway-based caravans suddenly became the only way to live, rather than the home from home that many choose to put on the road every Easter.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of this unpredictable event was the pollution of fresh drinking water supplies at the Mythe Water Treatment Works near Tewkesbury. Residents and businesses throughout Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury were left without drinking water for over two weeks and stories of water thefts and fights at distribution points soon made many aware of just how quickly the civilised facade of our society can begin to break down when the basic elements of daily life that we take for granted are put at risk.

Daily deliveries of bottled water throughout the Ashchurch with Walton Cardiff Ward thereafter and dealing with many flood related issues on behalf of Residents to date has provided an invaluable insight into both the flooding events themselves and the way that the whole issue is handled by organisations as diverse as single-issue pressure groups, local Authorities, the Environment Agency and Central Government.

One of the most concerning elements of that experience has been the illumination of the way in which our centrally-derived Planning Laws and Policies simply do not allow people with local knowledge to exert meaningful levels of influence on building which many quietly agree does not consider either extreme levels of river or fluvial flooding or indeed the more concerning and unpredictable rain-based or pluvial flooding. It is such pluvial events as in 2007 that can present those extreme volumes of water in such short periods of time that  rivers and streams cease to exist leaving an out of control torrent to create its own destructive pathway to its gravity-borne destination.

Most worryingly still is the apparent lack of interest from authorities in these pluvial flood issues, with most prevention work concentrating on fluvial targets and where anything else may be ceremoniously rebuffed with the excuse that such events are so very, very rare and perhaps a only a ‘1 in a 100 year event’. When coupled with such arguable intransigence as the suggestion that built-up land on flood plain by its very nature ceases to be a flood plain – irrespective of where future floods might therefore go; you might see that even politicians like myself have good reason to be concerned for what the future may hold not only for those communities already experienced with floods, but also for those whose experiences may regrettably be still yet to come.

It is a frightening reality that Local Authorities with Planning functions are at this very moment in time formulating policies and projections on building development for the next 20 or 30 years. Development which when even only in existence upon paper is by that very existence arguably irreversible when Councils have effectively been coerced by Central Government to let the development genie out of the bottle, thereby granting the wishes of developers who now appear to be out of control. Developers who have pockets deep enough to challenge any refusal to grant planning permission by those Councils who may go against what may actually be official advice and challenge on the basis of what is right. Councils that may if not already, soon be on the verge of bankruptcy because of other centrally derived and disastrous ‘one size fits all’ policies that are serving nobody but their political architects.

In times when sustainability is a Government mantra, the unsustainable practice of what is in effect unbridled green-field development has to cease.

Housing need must not only be determined by local people at local level; that level of development must itself be based upon what any one local area can support and not upon what Westminster Officials decide as being a requirement.

As a Nation, we simply cannot concrete and tarmac over fields in order to sustain exploding population growth which itself is not contributing either the equivalent or more of what it then demands from a paymaster which continues to function well beyond its means.

Long term housing projections should cease, not only for being the gift that they have become for unscrupulous land-banking developers, but also because we simply do not know what lies in store for us as a population next year, let alone that which may be the case in 30 more.

It is local people and their representatives who should have both the power to decide upon what is and is not sustainable in building terms, along with the right to say no to developers without any fear of unseen bureaucrats undermining or reversing those very same decisions based upon an external and self-serving strategy.

Mankind may not have yet discovered the way to change the weather, but a democratic system should actually allow for changes in Legislation which will limit the amount of damage which future flooding events have the power to cause.

Local people should have the choice to protect their homes, businesses and even lives right now. Not when there is nothing left insurable.

%d bloggers like this: