Cllr Alastair McCraw
THE SECRETS OF SANTA
SOME ANSWERS TO THE TOUGH SANTA QUESTIONS.
The i newspaper recently provided a list of the toughest questions asked about Santa. They got me thinking, so as a service (and because it amuses me) I thought to provide some rational responses.
- A) How does Santa get to every house in the world? How come Santa doesn't run out of time delivering all those presents? How does Santa get in if we don't have a chimney?
Santa can operate in a separate part of the space time continuum, effectively out of phase with space, time and solid matter. This can also be carried out virtually simultaneously, being able to be everywhere at once in our space time frame. In practice, however that is rather tiring. So, the work follows the sleeping hours around the planet in the depths of the night within each time zone. This of course requires an immense amount of planning to optimise the routes and spread the load through 24 hours. (Also aided by different delivery date requirements in some places). Santa and the elves operate the world’s largest spreadsheet to achieve this. It exists in four dimensions, the fourth being used to describe time. Modern virtual reality with a little something extra allows Santa's staff to virtually explore inside the spreadsheet itself. Think of Marvel movies where Iron man slides images in the air.
Being out of phase allows access without a chimney being required. In a very complex form this is both Quantum and superstring. SIMPLE VERSION: Santa is magic!
- B) How does Santa know... What I'd like, If I've been naughty or nice, and where I live?
Santa, or Big Red as he is sometimes referred to internally, operates the most sophisticated and far reaching Intelligence network the world has ever known, or ever will. Over the course of at least 2,000 years (Opinions vary due to cultural beliefs) he has had no nationalistic concerns and a lot of time; Countries keep changing anyway! In a very real sense, we are all working for Santa and he relies upon us all. Please do not equate this concept with any religious beliefs. That is a matter of interpretation only.
The required information has only become easier to obtain since the existence of the World Wide Web. Team Santa were ahead of that game and IT, in itself, was something of a ‘gift’. For that reason, location (GPS and the original Santa version) desired presents and the all-important Naughty/Nice (N/N?) ratio are something of an open book to him. In the UK alone, all letters posted to Santa are duly forwarded by a special Post Office Unit (True). Parents and Teachers obviously form a major influence on the N/N? assessment. This point should be emphasised strongly. Yes, there will be the odd error (socks, for example) but this is down to his agents who can make mistakes. Santa does not!
- C) Do Santa and his elves make all the toys and how do elves know how to make toys? How many elves are there?
Elves are naturally gifted artisans and craftsmen and always have been. In former times they were able to specialise, after proper training of course. One particular branch has been much noted in the field of shoe manufacture. As the range of desired presents has expanded over the many centuries, they have increasingly turned to out-sourcing much of the present present range. This is why you can receive branded products from commercial operations. As to numbers, there are as many elves as there need to be, but Santa does not require the use of cloning techniques. The process is very effectively run by the Elf Service who deal with both sourcing and preparation to provide a service which is free to children at the point of delivery. This brings us neatly to the next question.
- D) Where does Santa get all the money from?
Business requires payment, and the economic impact of Santa cannot be underestimated. (Plus there ARE other benefits). Santa has been around for a long time. An operation of that length has accumulated assets based on original capital derived from precious metals and gems that the elves and their cousins (dwarves and gnomes etc) have had long access to. Compound interest, a head start (Intelligence Network) and a lot of time mean that Santa NPF (Not for Profit).org has major shareholdings in every significant company in the world. They bought Microsoft, Bitcoin, Google and so on just after their startups. Divesting themselves of redundant industry or concerns, they form a major part of the World Economy, even where this is not known or politically acceptable. Santa NPF.org is also virtually immune to taxes (a bit like Amazon) by tacit agreement amongst world governments not to rock the boat against somebody who can buy or sell most of them.
- E) How can Santa speak all the languages of the world?
A lot of time and experience. Actually Santa can still speak quite a number of languages that either no longer exist or have become much changed. For example, English. A certain amount of his time in each year is spent catching up with new colloquialisms and sentence structures, but he may just be the worlds greatest linguist and philologist. His other down-time periods are spent refining the systems for next year, taking a holiday or two (incognito of course...all old bearded men tend to look the same) and keeping up with all our absurdities.
I'm grateful to writers like Terry Pratchett, Raymond Briggs and Bill Willingham, to name just three. Every childrens writer has described part of the story and background. In a quantum universe, there can be alternative and infinite Santas. You only have to watch afternoon TV films during December to see a wide variety. These are mostly US made as it's written into US Equity rules that everybody must do at least one Christmas themed movie, which explains Die Hard. Santa is always in the right place at the right time though.
Merry Christmas everybody, and God bless us, every one.
Alastair McCraw. 2019
Babergh District Councillor Alastair McCraw (Brantham ward)
This was written as a regular report to the Parish that kind of grew into an examination of the Planning process. So it contains some references specific to current situations in Brantham, but the general points hold true within Babergh and all other Local Planning Authorities (LPA’s….we love an acronym). I’ve intended to write such a piece for the last two years, simply to try and throw some light onto an extremely complicated, and significant area of Council activity. Nobody, in their right minds, doubts the impacts of planning. In rural areas, this is often even more noticeable.
SLOUGH ROAD AND ALL THAT.
As I said last month, the recovery of our 5 Year land Supply position was of aid in the recent decision to refuse Planning permission for 65 houses here. The reasons for Refusal were confirmed this week, w/c 7/10. The decision can, of course, be appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and that’s why those reasons need to be as strong as is possible, so Babergh can defend that decision with less fear of being overturned or even suffering financial penalties for making an ‘unreasonable decision’.
With other major applications underway (Brooklands Farm, expected to be heard Mid November) or in preparation (Church Field, with a public exhibition in Mid-October) it might be useful to use this as an opportunity to go through some of the process involved in a single Application like this one.
Anybody can apply for Planning Permission for anything. The applicant can pay for professional advice before from Babergh or others. They can produce leaflets, engage with the community, the PC or hold exhibitions. Those can all produce actual changes in their plans, so don’t ignore them. When they are ready, the actual application is lodged, and a planning fee is paid. (It covers costs, that’s all). This is checked for validity and then published on our website. It is then ‘live’ and some time frames are involved from then on. Public consultation, a minimum 3 weeks, starts. Immediate neighbours to the ‘red line’ site receive letters, public notices are posted at the site itself. The statutory consultees, Highways, Education, NHS, Libraries, Parish Councils affected, Fire Service, Flood Management, Ecological, Heritage, Water companies, Environmental Agencies and a host of others are all invited to comment. You, as a member of the public, anyone in fact, can comment in writing, by email or directly online. There is a shed load of information presented, all available online. (We’ve had marketing ‘bots’ attack our site, so it’s not always our fault when you can’t load the site or documents).
In major, or ‘tricky’ applications your councillor or the committee can request a site visit, not to rehearse the decision, but only to see and ask questions of information. It’s very rigidly controlled to avoid pre-determination. From all this massive load of stuff, a report is prepared to bring the determination to a Planning Committee. One officer will take the lead, but they work in teams and are able to take advice. I often discuss cases and material considerations with officers, asking questions as I go. There’s a time limit to decide, so the report summarises the Relevant Policies that apply, the Planning Position, the various comments (these do not make the decision but advise) made by consultees focussing on the most relevant and material. A presentation is also prepared with photographs, maps and other information. Financial and other agreements (Section 106 for Highways, NHS, Education, etc) and conditions that will apply are also included, as these are all very relevant in making a decision. The report concludes with a Recommendation from the Planning Dept/Officer. It’s important to say, that they are all doing a professional job, according to their current understanding of Planning law and Policy, as are the consultees. The absurdities that we sometimes see on Social Media are just that, completely absurd! If you don’t believe me, walk in my shoes some time.
THAT is what the members of the Planning Committee get. The report, to read beforehand, online access to check individual points, Street View to look at the site from a roadside, Site visits (sometimes on their own), The presentation, Legal advice. We have a Planning Charter, which describes our procedures in meetings and holds members to a standard of open mindedness in consideration of applications. Members also must be up to date in planning training, many having been involved in writing local policy.
At the actual meeting, the presentation is given, questions are taken from members. Registered speakers may address the meeting for three minutes. The Parish Council, an objector, a supporter, the applicant/agent, the County Council member on CC issues only, and the local Ward member, who has five minutes. All can be questioned by the committee. The officers may be asked to comment at each stage. Legal advice is also on hand and can be brought in at any time.
The debate and discussion then starts between members. At some point, a member may propose a motion to grant permission, to refuse, even to defer decision. They will be asked to supply reasons for that motion, although the exact wording can be defined later. A seconder is sought. Debate continues until it is clear that the vote should be taken. The motion must be determined before any other is considered. If defeated, other motions may be made until one is passed. The reason for the decision is normally defined at this point. For Slough Road, additional legal advice was sought by the committee to be returned to them at the later meeting we’ve just had.
The main point I‘m making is that NONE of this is casual, hurried, cursory, biased (except by the law). None of it has been decided in advance, pre-determined. There might be a balance of probability, but never a decision. It’s simply too important, with huge penalties for getting it wrong. Members make their decision to vote for honest reasons. You may not agree with them. Sometimes I don’t either, but I don’t doubt their sincerity.
The current undoubted, manifold faults in our planning system do not come from our Planning Departments, our Districts or the Planning Committees who make the determination. They derive, almost completely, from National Planning Policy adopted in 2011 and revised to be worse in 2018. Everything else, Core Strategy, Joint Local Plan, Neighbourhood Plans and the decision-making process itself rest on that. I say current faults because they can, and should, be changed. An opportunity to do so was missed in 2018. The ball was fumbled, and some good proposed changes were quietly dropped. I hope this is of some help in clearing up misconceptions, often widely held. I’m always happy to discuss these matters, in Brantham and elsewhere.
REPORT TO PARISHES, ALTON WARD
LOOKING FORWARD (TO IT)
This will be my last report to Alton Ward. The new wards start on the very day of the election, May 2nd. I’ll continue to represent Alton Ward meantime. So, should something come up, I can cover it for you.
The new ward structure sees Tattingstone in Orwell Ward and Stutton in Stour Ward, just labels but nice names. Your parishes should be served equally. It’s been a privilege to learn more about, to serve, Stutton and Tattingstone. I’ve really enjoyed the experience, learnt, made a few friends, had a few beers, and shared common experience with the excellent Parish Councils you have. It’s where I come from. I’ll be an Independent candidate for the Brantham Ward, where I’ve lived, raised my family, worked, and the place I’ve loved. Brantham will be facing massive planning pressures in the next few years. Dealing with that has already occupied six years of my life.
My central point is what your future councillors will be facing in Babergh and in general. I’m working very hard here not to get too political. This is a report, not an election leaflet. I’ve always preferred analysis and information, as a consistent approach.
The overwhelming factors in Local Government have been the austerity programmes and the effects of National Planning Policy. Councils have seen cuts in central government support of 35-40+% (figures vary). Take away a third of your income? How would you deal with that? Planning policy has presumed, in a ‘golden thread’, that councils are legally obliged to grant planning permissions in favour of a, poorly defined, sustainabledevelopment. That ‘double whammy’ explains the decision making that we’ve often hated.
Still analysing, what will they be dealing with? 2015 saw a General Election, raised turnout and the first majority administration in Babergh’s history. With 31 out of 43 seats, and on board with the Government approach, Conservatives were able to plan to consolidate their position. This was the oppositions ‘mushroom period’, kept in the dark and covered. But when the Conservatives started splintering, we exerted ourselves and could take a larger role within Council decision making. The new members seem unlikely to face the initial situation. No General election, high tide past and fewer members. 32 will have to do the work of 43. Some didn’t do that much anyway (like most organisations) but all will now represent more people and carry out the same internal functions. They’re going to have to work harder. It’s never been tougher, with more responsibility, since 1974.
One improved aspect will be clear guidance on what to do. I had to write my own job description, developed since. There’s a cross party member development programme ready with extensive descriptions of all roles, initial training and future development. This existed before, but the commitment died out fairly quickly. I went to everything! 50% of the 2015 council were brand new. Some had done little preparation, not really expecting to be elected. There won’t be that much turnover this time, so hopefully more continuity. My own committee, Overview and Scrutiny have, by now, met to look forward, scrutinise our own work and make recommendations to our successors.
The last two years of 2015-19 have been, in my opinion, the better ones. Babergh have looked forward, prepared, updated our constitution even, based on those two years of experience. We have Cabinet Government for at least three more years, so I’ve sought to ‘deal’ with it, as has Derek Davis, the only opposition cabinet member. The new Council must complete the Joint Local Plan, a possible merger with Mid Suffolk is still possible, serious deficits loom for two years and there are a host of issues you’d never have thought of. An insight into some of them, might be in the Scrutiny Annual Report. Online, look in the papers for the final Council meeting on March 19th. I’m hoping it’ll be published separately as well. I’m honestly proud of the work that committee has done over the last two years.
That’s what I think your next councillors will face. Please vote for them because you think they’re the best candidate, who will do the work, who know their community. Experience can be gained. We all started knowing only a little. I’ve worked with members from all political groups and I don’t subscribe to the cynicism of social media. It’s a tool which can be used sensibly, or destructively. All candidates deserve your respect. They’re going to have to work hard and none of them deserve abuse. Above all, resist the temptation to give up on it all. These matters matter. They affect you. Use your vote.
The blue Claud Butler will be in service. I’ll be seeing a lot of you in Brantham shortly, and I may pop up elsewhere in April. The new Facebook group for Brantham will be ‘Alastair McCraw, Independent in Brantham’. Invitations to Alton members will be sent. Thank you all for your attention and the opportunity.
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 email@example.com
END OF TERM
There’s a funny atmosphere within the Council right now. As we approach the end of the four-year term of office we seem to be tying up some outstanding items of business, deferring others until May and onward, and quietly gearing up for the May election. The principal piece of business is the Budget. By the time this sees print, the Budget will have been voted upon. We’re looking forward here, with a three-year time frame included in our preparations. So, we have a balanced budget for this year, what looks like the potential for a substantial deficit next year and an improving situation the year after. The problem is that our reserves are almost completely used. Our Housing Revenue Account is somewhat healthier and there are real prospects of the Council building some more homes. The removal of the borrowing cap, long asked for by all authorities and the Local Government Association, opens up a lot more possibilities.
I’d hoped that the total Council Tax increase might be between 3 and 4%, but it looks like a chunky 4.7% now. Babergh are the collecting council. We’re proposing a £5 increase at Band D (3.25%). The next two years are planned at 3%. Suffolk County Council propose 2.99% plus 1% for Adult Social Care, so 4% really. The Police and Crime Commissioner is getting 12.7%, after last years 6.8% increase. We are promised a ‘step change’, which would be very nice. Parish Councils generally increase their small precepts by about 2%. Of your total Council Tax bill, about 75% will go to SCC, 12-13% to the PCC, 10% to Babergh and 2-3% to Parish Councils. In weekly terms that’s about £1/week for a Parish, £3/week for District, £4/week for PCC and £24/ week for SCC. Those are all rough figures at Band D, but it’s a useful way to remember.
A PLANNING STORY THAT YOU COULD EASILY MISS.
The National Audit Office (NAO) have confirmed what many of us (The LGA, all the Babergh opposition and (very loudly!) the communities) have been saying for years. The Governments Housing Policies are seriously flawed. They don't even deliver what they're supposed to. They've created a free for all, a false market in Planning Permissions without serious regard to methods of calculation, provision of infrastructure and supply of affordable homes. This is why so many of you have had cause to complain about Planning decisions, appeals and local policies. They all derive from a failed national approach, tying local authorities’ hands.
Ironically after a White Paper, the NPPF (National Planning Policy) was revised last year. It was a missed opportunity that didn't contain any of the sensible suggestions from that White Paper.
The NAO don't make criticism lightly and operate independently of government. This was reported in the media, but probably drowned out by ‘other matters. I’ve linked on Facebook to the BBC story, but here I’m including a link to the National Audit Office web page. The Summary is manageable at only eight pages rather than the 52 of the full report. In NAO code, what I read from this is ‘what a bunch of shockers!’ https://tinyurl.com/y5kqeh3c
Babergh may be winding down a bit, but I’m just winding up right now. Alton (and Brantham) may be the only ward in the country including two AONB’s. A recent, and broadly attended, meeting ‘Planning in a Designated Landscape’ was very useful. It’s also currently very relevant.
We (always) have some strategies out for consultation. Our Community Engagement Strategy describes how we should do that. (Sometimes blindingly obvious, but worth a look). Our Parking Plan is likely to follow soon. It’s a toolkit identifying all the problems and some possible approaches to dealing with them. However, any action will depend on Westminster granting us the powers for Civil Parking Enforcement. We’re just getting ready right now.
Babergh & Mid Suffolk councillors have been issued another Toolkit recently. This was on the active recommendation of both Overview and Scrutiny Committees. It gives the members contact points, and websites to help our constituents in the areas of Safeguarding, PREVENT, Hate Crime, County Lines (a big subject I will return to), Domestic Abuse and Support, and Sexual Abuse. It should be something we hope never to have to use.
The blue Claud Butler needs a service, but I’ve found a rusty spare. If you’d like more regular updates, you could consider joining the Facebook group. At times it must be repetitious, but it is immediate. Any suggestions for the required name change soon?
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Alton, Alastair McCraw & Harriet Steer
REPORT TO PARISHES, ALTON WARD
Babergh District Councillor Alastair McCraw
It’s time to have a look back at 2018. There’s been more change at Babergh than might be obvious. We started 2018 facing ‘Options for Change’, as a planned Merger with Mid Suffolk was presented to us. Without going into detail, it’s fair to say that opinion was split, particularly on having a Local Poll to make the decision. The opposition rallied, with support from other members. The result was that the Leader resigned and the new leader committed to no further moves in this direction until 2019. I fully expect this to be revived in the run up to the May elections. Expect presentation in Election leaflets as a ‘Manifesto’ commitment. My own opinion of Manifestos is not high. In local government you’re electing councillors, people capable of doing the work, and not just parties to form a quasi-government. There may be merits of such a merger. There are synergies, financial considerations and we already work together though as separate sovereign councils. There are also differences and the actual effect would be (how can I put this nicely?) to reduce the variety of thought and representation in Babergh. I personally value that variety and I hope that you do too.You were asked in 2011, if you wanted to merge. You should be directly asked again in the same way.
Other associated changes came about through the leadership change. The tone of the council has changed a little. After three years, we know each other better with more of a sense of cooperation. The opposition were brought into the Cabinet with the appointment of another Independent, Derek Davis to the Organisational Delivery role. That deals with our direct services to the public, computer systems and improving performance across the board. Out of this Derek has launched the pop-up services at Shotley and Hadleigh and there will be more to follow. A more constructive dialogue within the council is a further bonus.
I was genuinely surprised to be voted in as Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny committee. We’ve always felt that this is a role best suited for an opposition member. In our Cabinet model this is a crucial bridge between the power of the Cabinet and the responsibilities of the members. We report and recommend to both Cabinet and Council, work with the officers and staff and act as a ‘critical friend’ to all. Our brief is wide. A third of our constitution relates to O & S activity. By examining decisions and areas of concern before, during and after they are discussed elsewhere, we have aimed to amend, to improve and to inform. My annual Scrutiny report to the Council in March will contain more detail, but there have been some very successful projects in Voids (vacant council properties), Investments and in just making Babergh work better.
One principle change in the year was regaining our ability to demonstrate a Five-Year Land Supply. After some pushing from Scrutiny, we got out of the trap where we were limited in resisting some very speculative planning applications. (Mid Suffolk still lacks this!). In Babergh, we’re now able to apply our own local policies with their full weight. Our emerging Joint Local Plan will probably progress after May, so that the newly elected councils can be fully involved. Locally, the largest focus in Alton right now is on Brantham. The 288-house application in the Regeneration Area/Green Field will be submitted shortly. There has been a recent flurry of applications in the Brantham Church Lane area. One of these, Brantham Place, is a Major Application to be heard by the Planning Committee. Documents and public responses are still coming in. I understand these will be accepted until the end of January. Another, on the corner of Ipswich Road and Gravel Pit Lane is a partnership between Babergh & Iceni Homes to provide affordable housing only. That too will go to committee. On any of these and all others, I’m always happy to discuss the situation and provide any information I can. Just ask, phone or email me.
The blue Claud Butler has been whimpering about neglect recently, so I’ll be out and about as the days lengthen. I do like to be able to keep you in touch as much as possible, so you could consider joining the Facebook group. It has the huge advantage of being immediate. With the Ward change for the May election, I’ll have to rename it shortly. Meanwhile, I wish you a, belated, Happy New Year.
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 email@example.com
Facebook: Alton, Alastair McCraw & Harriet Steer
REPORT TO PARISHES, ALTON WARD
Brantham, Stutton & Tattingstone
I was rather racking my brains for content this month. It’s not that nothing has been going on, but much of my part can be in the mundane, but necessary, areas of Council. For example, I’m currently involved in looking at our Constitution (needs a bit of sorting out), our Pre-Application Process in Planning (Is it working they way we hoped?), an extensive Staff Survey (the positives and the negatives), the Dedham Vale AONB (having just been appointed to its Joint Advisory Committee) and a host of matters that come before Cabinet, Council and Scrutiny. The aim is always to make things work….and then make them work better. It’s interesting, even absorbing, but hardly headline stuff. However this arrived……
IT’S PLANNING AGAIN!
Then, this morning, Babergh released their Annual Monitoring Report with a real headline piece of news. As of 11thJuly, Babergh believes it can demonstrate a Housing Land Supply of 6.7 years. For over a year now, we have not been able to do show the 5 year target. Because of that developers have been able to insist that our own local policies have less worth than the National Policy. That says ‘Grant permission’ for all ‘Sustainable Development’. Sustainable is a usefully broad term for their purposes as nobody has a solid definition of what it means. Effectively we, and you, have been in the position of having to accept Government sanctioned bullying. Now we might have a better chance to ensure that permissions given are actually useful to our needs.
I must sound some notes of caution though. I'm afraid it doesn't affect permissions already given, including those with Outline Permission. Applications currently going through the process will be affected, as will future applications.This just brings the Planning Committee back to where we were in 2015 & 2016, when I seem to remember a LOT of unwelcome permissions being granted. There are still plenty of financial and political incentives for Councils to grant permissions all over the place. The National Policy still calls for a PRESUMPTION in favour. The capitals are deliberate, if crude. In my opinion we now only have onehand tied behind our back.
You can find the Annual Monitoring Report here: https://tinyurl.com/ybgzjs4j
A brief scan tells me that more houses were actually built and there are lots of outstanding permissions. 36% of the house built were ‘affordable’, although 80% of market value isn’t that affordable for most. Work on our new Joint Local Plan progresses. I intend to be fully involved in that. More communities are now looking at Neighbourhood Plans in an effort to take some measure of control of Planning issues in their own backyard. We have an ageing population and that trend can be expected to continue for around 10 years. And, finally, 90% of our employment businesses are ‘micro-businesses’ with 9 or fewer employees.
If you’d like to understand more about the planning process and how it works (or is supposed to) I recommend this document. Our Statement of Community Involvement: Planning Issues, currently out for Consultation. Appendix 1 might give ideas of previous suggestions. Even if you don’t want to comment, it’s a very useful summary that I wish I’d had years ago. https://tinyurl.com/y75vb3ag
BRANTHAM REGENERATION AREA
I’m sorry to say that Brantham residents can expect to see some activity here. UK Power Networks are being contracted to replace overhead power lines with underground cable from the Lower Playing Field along the south side of the Temple Pattle area. I also understand that Taylor Wimpey will be the principal housing developer. This is just emerging, but there will be ample opportunity for the public, Parish Council and myself to become involved before a full Public Consultation takes place. My personal aim is to keep things rational, polite and civilised. I think the PC feel the same way. When feelings run high feel free to give me a call. I know that blasting off on Social Media is very satisfying, but it’s preaching to the choir really. In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted on Facebook and during my travels. There’s still a long way to go.
The blue Claud Butler (and a train to Halesworth) took me to the Womens Tour successfully. It’s the only way to go to a bike race. Representing Babergh (nobody noticed much though!) at the Southwold finish, I found that Suffolk got a lot of credit from that stage. I can always be contacted as below.
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Alton, Alastair McCraw & Harriet Steer (a joint Open group that would like to reach more people, so just click!).
I thought that I didn’t have much to say this month, but that never seemed likely to anybody. Babergh held its Annual Council Meeting in May where, like all Councils, we appoint our Chair, Vice Chair and the other statutory appointments to committees and outside bodies. The new Chairman is Barry Gaspar, previously Chair of Overview and Scrutiny. I thought I’d write about that a bit, so you might have a little more information on at least one Committee. I’m sure this is exactly what you were hoping for when you started reading this. Please bear with me, because in our Cabinet system of operation it’s a great deal more useful, and even important, than it might appear.
The Cabinet are considered to be the Executive, with a wide range of decision making powers. They are appointed by the Council Leader, currently John Ward. The votes of the largest number of councillors decide who the leader is. The leader then appoints the Cabinet with individual areas of responsibility. The Council are considered the non-Executive. Although they make decisions, they have been limited in what areas those decisions can be in. Those are the people that everybody voted for. The majority get to appoint a leader. He appoints the cabinet members. The rest get to use what powers they have to influence. One of the checks and balances is a having a strong Overview & Scrutiny Committee. Exciting stuff, yes? I voted against the Cabinet model, the opposition voted against it and some of the people who voted forit have apologised. But there we are for some years to come.
OK! This last year I’ve been serving as the Vice Chair of Scrutiny in our first year of this Cabinet government. Looking back, I think we challenged quite a few assumptions about how the Council should run. The idea of Scrutiny is not to make decisions, but to allow the Council and Cabinet to make better decisions in the future. In the extreme, our recommendations might see a serious re-examination of a previously made decision. In one notable instance, we found that the suggested move to merge with Mid Suffolk had not been decided correctly and with the proper process. The fact that the then leader subsequently resigned was not our intent. We sent it back for a, more or less, binding recommendation for proper debate based on a proper case. If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, and I wouldn’t blame you, opposition pressure for a repeat referendum on merger saw that result. The new leader then changed policy.
In a Cabinet run Council, Scrutiny is the link between the Cabinet and the Councillors you elected. We’re part of a triangle that should reinforce and protect those viewpoints. It’s a surprisingly non party-based process. ‘Make it work, make it fair and make it open’ seem to be the basis we’ve operated on this last year.
That was all fairly obscure for many, but I think you should know something more about the operation of this particular committee. (I could do a series). As it happened, I was elected as the new Chair of that Overview and Scrutiny Committee for Babergh. I’ll be working with my counterparts at Mid Suffolk as well. I also look to both focus and expand the range of topics we examine. There’s an expression we seem to use in Scrutiny matters. ‘ADD VALUE’. Both of those words apply, together and apart.
As ever, I can be contacted as below, and I’ll be out and about on that old blue Claud Butler pushbike, even to the Women’s Tour of Britain in Southwold (just watching for many obvious reasons).
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 email@example.com
Facebook: Alton, Alastair McCraw & Harriet Steer (a joint Open group)
In the years I spent in retail, every 6 months we’d do a stocktake. This was just to make sure we still had what we should that we hadn’t sold. We also kept an eye on every one of the figures, not just annually but monthly. Being sensible, we used our eyes daily though! Local Government is a bit slower than that. To be fair, there’s a different degree of complexity. So, the figures are monitored daily, but the reports might be quarterly.
The ‘Stocktake’ is an annual process we all tend to take at some point. We measure the changes in our lives. Each of your Parishes will hold an Annual Parish Meeting (to inform you) and an Annual Council Meeting (to deal with appointments under the law). Babergh do the same thing. As I write we’re about to have our Annual Council Meeting. We’ll change some political responsibilities, we’ll move some committee members about and the rest of the stuff we need to do. More importantly, we’ll be mentally reviewing what happened last year and what will happen next. Some of that will be looking at end of year reports, but a lot should be about what the council did wrong, what it could do better and how to make it happen. The elephant in the room, that very few people are going to mention, is that this will be the last year of this elected council before the May 2019 elections. Some of us, if not all, are going to be judged. Some of us will be found wanting.
Babergh was not the Council I expected, when elected. It’s changed since. To my mind this has not obviously been for the better, but I must deal with things as they are, not as I would like them to be. In this year, the administration (in a much weaker position) might pay more attention to some important points about explaining the councils’ actions better, about communicating to provide some understanding andabout listening to what the people in parishes and towns have been saying for years.
I recently learnt that we have a Statement of Community Engagement in Planning Matters. This was because it needed to be revised. Nearly every member didn’t even know it existed! Why does that matter? Well for a start, it’s a pretty fair summary of how the Planning system is supposed to operate. It describes the stages, the responsibilities, Neighbourhood Plans, the bits you can expect and some you can’t. If the councillors don’t know about this ‘Statement of Community Involvement’, I’m pretty sure you don’t. What does it state in the Title? ‘Community Involvement’! We should have had that document (to help you) in front of us as soon as we were elected. It would have made all our lives a little easier, instead of having to learn step by laborious step. This isn’t a deliberate action by the council though. It’s just a failure to think things through. All councils seem to be in their own local government bubble in these matters. I guess that’s where we come in, but we must hear about it first! You’re going to have a chance to see the Statement soon, as it goes out for consultation shortly. If you’ve ever had any questions as to ‘WHY’ in planning, this might help.
As ever, I’m around on the blue Claud Butler bike. The rusty chain broke a couple of times under the weight of papers on my back, but it’s fixed now. (Thanks to the Bike Doctor!). I can always be contacted as below.
Alastair McCraw. 07812 564188 firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook: Alton, Alastair McCraw & Harriet Steer (a joint Open group that would like to reach more people, so just click!).
People sometimes wonder why we are Councillors. Not so much why anybody voted for us, although that’s always a possibility, but why we did we stand and WHY do we do it? Obviously, there’s the glamour. We clearly have a very high boredom threshold, a love of jargon and long complicated sentences and a serious addiction to complicated sets of initials like NPPF and SHMA. (You don’t want to know). But across the board, I’d say that we want to make a difference. That’s no bad thing in itself. Lots of people make a difference on a daily basis within all the communities. They run local groups, raise money, keep the day to day activities of all our lives going for the benefit of all. Some are appointed as Parish councillors, school governors and officers in local societies. Others just quietly get on with things, less formally but no less usefully, as local and national volunteers. If they get some pleasure, social contact and a sense of quiet satisfaction out of it as their reward that’s all to the good.
‘Small p’ politics (which is what I believe a District Council should be about) is just a bit of a step up from that. Surprisingly few have ‘large P’ Politics as their primary motivation. Some do, it’s true, and some of the major changes made in the course of the last three years have been the result. But the majority of us are people who wanted to make a difference. In some cases, a choice of party was a mixture of inclination and the only viable means to actually get elected. For Independents it’s frequently out of frustration.
Now, we all differ a bit in our views on how to make that difference. Loyalty to your party view, to their support in getting you there and potentially in taking a larger role may colour some thinking or voting. Generally, you’re hoping that people are voting out of principle. You also hope that alternative arguments and views will be listened to, given consideration and affect a decision.
This roundabout explanation may explain some of the reasons why the character of Babergh has changed somewhat in the course of the last year or so. First two, then four, and currently six members of the Conservative administration have left the party whip to become ‘Independent Conservatives. More often than not, they have been voting with the Eight Independent, Three Lib Dems and Two Labour members on significant matters. Believe me, we are all aware of some of the resulting ironies. The relatively non-controversial matters continue as before. We have statutory responsibilities that go beyond any consideration of party lines.
It was that gradual shift, based upon solid reason and argument, that saw the resignation of one Council leader (which was NOT the opposition purpose) and a declared commitment to a local poll, or ‘referendum’, over a possible merger with Mid Suffolk (which decidedly WAS).
We all expected the full Business Plan, that the opposition stated as one requirement, to be presented for examination by both Scrutiny Committee and Council in preparation for some form of local poll to take place in the early summer of this year. And then everything changed…..again.
SCC Leader Colin Noble unilaterally commissioned a study into Unitary Council options for Suffolk, producing an almost instant request from all the other council leaders to stop. When he declined, Babergh & Mid Suffolk realised that there was little point in continuing to pursue their merger proposals while these possibilities existed. That shelves any referendum for now. Strangely, had the opposition not made their stand we might have been too far down the merger track to stop the merger process. We have no idea where this study will go or what options will be available, but I remain convinced that any eventual choices should be subject to a democratic vote on those options. Not by way of being seen to endorse a manifesto or leaflet, that few people ever read, but by a direct vote on the substantive issues.
(April) GOING ON
Over the last year or so, as those shifts have happened, Independent and Opposition members have been taking an increasing (and sometimes vocal) role in briefings, meetings and committees. That work has now been reflected in the appointment of an Independent member, Derek Davis, to the Babergh Cabinet. Until this point we had been given a Vice Chairmanship on the, admittedly important, Overview and Scrutiny Committee, currently to myself.
Derek has the Organisational Delivery portfolio which covers the, often-criticised, experience that you face in dealing with the Council by any means. He won’t be subject to any whip, but will deal with the issues as he sees them. He’s been quite critical himself and believes that you should be able to ‘put up or shut up’. My words, his sentiment (I think, but I’m sure he can correct me!)
What can I, you, or we expect? There’s a year left until the 2019 elections, so that’s a bit limited. I’d suggest we can expect a lot more than a sticking plaster and better than First Aid, but Major Open-Heart Surgery seems unlikely. The Cabinet now slightly better reflects the makeup of the Council and the possibility of some consensus now exists.
Some decisions previously made cannot be reversed. We are where we are, no matter what we voted for or against. There will still be disagreement and controversy, but perhaps the party lines can be less strongly taken. I’ve just left the most co-operative and grown up Cabinet meeting I’ve ever witnessed. This was part of the difference that Derek and I had hoped to make and that’s why I believe we shoulddo it.
This article was previously published in ‘In Touch’ May editions. My thanks to them for the regular platform and their patience about deadlines.
I don’t normally write about Suffolk County Council and education matters. You might, quite reasonably, say that wasn’t what I was elected for and somebody probably will. In the case of the current SCC consultation on School Transport though I think I must. This impacts upon our communities to a such a significant extent. There are but three whole days to respond as this closes at 11.59pm on Wednesday 28th February.
Fundamentally there are three options to consider. Option 1 reflects SCC’s belief that only fulfilling their legal responsibilities for free school transport will save money. It probably will, though some of the other consequences lead me to believe it won’t be nearly as much as they think. Option 2 would do the same thing but phased over a period of years, saving less theoretical money but creating a bit of an expensive bureaucratic nightmare. Oh, and confusion, winners and losers and loss of simple clarity. Option 3 is to make no changes to the current policy which raises a funding challenge which we are invited to solve. Apparently, this is very difficult, although there are some wrinkles hidden in there.
I’m obviously going to approach this from the point of view of Brantham, Stutton & Tattingstone, but many of these points apply across the whole county. The first peculiarity is that SCC appear to believe that children will walk two or three miles on Rights of Way, which is to say footpaths, bridleways and tracks as well as on un-pavemented roads. They may use such within communities like Holbrook or East Bergholt, where the serving secondary schools actually are. From the Alton villages it can only produce exhausted, late, muddy, dishevelled, possibly hungry pupils in no condition to be educated. At a time where we recognise how important the start of the school day is if we are ‘Raising the Bar’, the concept is well, flawed. And it won’t happen.
Brantham mostly sends secondary pupils to East Bergholt and Manningtree. The proposals (1 & 2) assess that free school travel will only be provided to the closest school. The basis of this calculation is a simple distance. It is a stupid calculation, but we don’t say that in a consultation, because it tends to annoy them. Call it an overlooked anomaly. From the Pippins to Cattawade where most of the population live, the closest school is Manningtree HS. Obviously, this ignores the current number of pupils (the majority) from there currently going to East Bergholt, but it also misses a couple of other points. Manningtree is in Essex, covered by another LEA (Local Education Authority). It has a rather tricky time-consuming railway crossing to get over, a winding road system to reach and a trip there, particularly in rush hours, takes a lot longer. That’s going to cost more! The north side of Brantham stretches beyond the Brantham Bull, halfway to Stutton. The furthest distance by road from there is further to East Bergholt HS than it would be from virtually any point in the whole of Brantham. For the most part they would both use the same Slough Road as the shortest route. This is still quicker and less troublesome than Manningtree. Now there are historical and family connections with Manningtree that should see the provision of free school travel there. That option should be maintained, but unevenly splitting the village in two makes no sense at all. SCC do not just serve individuals and families, they serve communities and should have some respect for that responsibility. Many of us will remember former historical educational arrangements that saw friends and families split up between primary and secondary levels. It caused anguish, hurt and caused some lasting resentments that exist to this day. It served education badly, it served communities badly and I would suggest it served society very badly. At a time where Suffolk is seeking to ‘Raise the Bar’ returning to those ideas is counterproductive.
The same situation applies in Tattingstone where the Heath end of the village would only receive free travel to East Bergholt and their near neighbours only to Holbrook. A few would only receive it to Stoke High School. This is of course insane. Stutton is completely covered by Holbrook, but neighbours on the Tattingstone border might be surprised to find they’re expected to go in different directions.
Of course, it may be that SCC are less concerned about saving money by having parents and pupils move to the designated schools and more about the £900 per pupil per year they wish to charge. Some will be able to afford that. I recall under a previous policy having to pay for both my children to attend East Bergholt. It had an impact. During that period, basically raising a family, we struggled with debt. A family of three might now be facing £2700 p.a. That is going to have a significant impact on anybody normally.
There are other effects of course. What of the schools themselves? The largest secondary in Suffolk, Thurston Community College, has gained national attention on this question. It faces a potential impact upon 54% of its pupils. East Bergholt though has the fourth highest such impact at 18% and Holbrook at 3%. I can see no figures for Manningtree High School, but sincerely doubt they would be equipped to absorb that many extra pupils from Brantham. Has anybody at SCC thought about asking the teaching profession what they think and what they can actually cope with? Being married to a teacher who has spoken to some of those affected by this, it seems a pretty negative response. Pupil numbers are carefully calculated, demographically, years in advance. Mucking around with those calculations for short term gain can have dramatic long-term consequences.
Most people, without multiples of £900 to spare, will use cars. The road congestion (rush hour), environmental impacts of extra journeys, the additional road maintenance that will be needed and, very notably, the stress levels involved for all do not appear to have been properly considered or assessed.
There are some local solutions suggested within the consultation that need looking at. They suggest 12 possible options for intelligent use of transport to reduce costs. I think I could support many, if not most of these, as an alternative to those appallingly short-sighted Options 1 & 2. They require consideration on an individual basis for each situation, not being imposed across the board. That flat simplistic set of answers is what’s produced this mess in the first place.
What about the money then? Where is it to come from? Those local solutions above can certainly help. Consideration of extra unforeseen costs involved in these proposals may point out potential false economies. AND SCC do have substantial reserves, which they seem very reluctant to spend. They’re being kept for a rainy day. This is such a rainy day and they should be prepared to release some of those reserves. I’m resisting childish point scoring as best I can, but need to point out that the reduction in Central Government funding is the product of decisions made by the same party as the SCC administration. They need to talk to each other. Starving local government at all levels is having some very negative short term and long-term effects. Potentially councillors voting for these proposals may find themselves being called to account, both now and in any future election.
But overall, there’s a bigger point here. It’s a trite cliché to say that ‘children are our future’ but none the less true. They’re our future workforce, taxpayers, voters, parents, teachers, and some (I can attest) are future politicians (heaven help them). Within our aging Suffolk demographic, we are going to come to rely upon them. Now they should be able to rely upon us. I urge anybody to respond to this consultation. Whether you are at school, a parent, a grandparent, planning to be a parent, or just a member of a community that can see further than simple accountancy please respond and do it soon. Option 3, suggesting that the current policy be kept with allowance for some local solutions seems to make the most sense to me. That is how I have responded. I’ve supplied some reasons, but I’m sure there are others. You can find the consultation online at https://tinyurl.com/y7gvka6t
This shortened URL brings you to a page where you can get all the information I’ve used. The booklet contains the meat of it, but your local school maps display the threat. Then, I implore you, HAVE YOUR SAY. It doesn’t take that long and it’s worthwhile time.
I’m not a Conservative, but I’m familiar enough with (and agree with) the conservative principle of providing choice. This has been applied as government policy in education. These proposals threaten to effectively reduce that choice. That’s a flawed idea. Suffolk County Council and education professionals have been working for years now to raise our county educational standards. ‘Raising the Bar’ has been remarkably effective in doing so, and although there is more to do I would applaud that concentrated effort. We are now much more aware of the wider factors involved in providing quality education to improve standards, of the social pressures and changes in society. Getting to and from a school and how it is done is one of these. If we’re working on improvements then we shouldn’t go in the opposite direction and end up ‘Barring the Raise’.
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