Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Time to talk

Today I was invited to be the "guest" for the weekly chat show on our local hospital radio. The hospital has over 1,100 beds and judging from this weeks news a patient in most of them.

I arrived, took my place in the normal juggle to find a parking place, and was taken down into the bowels of the hospital. Here a group of volunteers run the radio program. They have no idea how many people listen in, but they get many thank-yous. I was told by a doctor that little things like the radio station can make a difference to those "trapped as a prisoner in their hospital beds".

I was asked to speak about the plans to save our country park, I discussed our new towns, the pressure from rising house prices and we also discussed the role local councils have in trying to protect the environment.

I had been asked to chose some pieces of music. I'd heard that many patients like a bit of classical from time to time but are to embarrassed to ask - so I obliged - the final tune was the wonderful Radio 4 theme tune (alas no more) that crescendos to a finale of Rule Britannia. There, with the wonderful band of volunteers from different nations all contributing to their local community, I was proud to be British.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Where did all those skills go?

Two years ago I stood outside the gates of Longbridge when 6,000 people lost their jobs and MG Rover folded. I was the Conservative Party Candidate and it was the eve of the general election. I had met many of the employees, many of whom were highly skilled engineers and designers.

Today car making has re-started at the plant and 130 people are employed there. Where did all those skills go? - mostly overseas or to work for non-British designers. Many of the less skilled workers still don't have proper jobs.

Before Rover folded I ranted about lack of support for British industry. At the time I was frustrated because the local police force had just bought a fleet of foreign produced Volvos. I believed that there was no excuse - British businesses should be able to develop and engineer products as well as our European competitors. If we weren't our government should be concerned about it.

Also today there is the story that we will be sourcing our next Aircraft Carriers from the French. At £3.9 billion, this is one of the largest capital purchases that Mr Brown will make and will involve much highly skilled work. Of course assembly jobs will be assured as this will take place in the neighbourhood of Mr Browns own constituency. But the loss of highly skilled work is a lost legacy.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Every Child does Matter

The government flagship on education is that "every child matters" yes they do.

This week I returned to my favourite pre-school. Like many other mums, during my own children's pre-school years I struggled to find the right balance for my children whilst I was working. 7 out of 10 mums now work, possibly more.

After many false starts I finally found the right formula for my family. A community run, open door, affordable, fun, playing and learning environment that kept my children in their local community. The staff are hugely experienced and largely parents themselves. This pre-school also allowed me totally flexible 9-5 childcare by its links to the local out of school club. I became the chairman of the governing body and have seen how this pre-school allows parents to re-engage their professional skills in the workforce whilst having utter stability in their child's care.

Every year we have been brought children with "special needs". These were often children who, even aged 2-3 had already found other childcare environments had failed them. For example, Charlie who had two older siblings - both autistic. When he came to us he couldn't look another child in they eye, let alone play or interact - he was set on a dangerous rail track for his entire education. A year later Charlie was playing happily, chatting with friends. I have learnt that extra help at this age can redirect a child and set them up for life. I also learnt that every child can be educated at their own level - but not if one only relies on government funding,

I have also learnt that without amazing volunteers and staff these charities would fold. We've been fundraising for four years to build the children their own outside play space and garden.

We tick all the right boxes. Special needs, extended schools etc etc but everytime we are promised government money the goal posts move. The volunteers feel like giving up. We've built the garden but the funds promised for equipment and plants have not turned up. This week I cut the ribbon on an empty garden it could be so much better. We owe our children more than this. Come on!

Monday, 21 May 2007

What do the police do?

I spent this morning at one of those "partnership" meetings that we local councillors attend. This was about crime attended by local police and their bigwigs, the senior firemen, probation service, health service. Lots of council officers, a few councillors. I do believe that everyone there, including the police, wants to make life safer.

But - here are the shackles

From "this summer" under a new white paper these partnerships are to be given more "Scope" - we must look at crime and antisocial behaviour and substance misuse and behaviour that adversely affects the environment???.....

However - funding has been cut... last year this partnership had a small pool of money that was given to real community projects. They made a difference; fitting door chains on the homes of the elderly, getting disenchanted youths do work experience as firemen, buying a few cctv cameras, a cop car, a police bike and a fire alarm for the farmers that constantly find their stacks on fire. This year there will be effectively no funding for these projects.

The government has a new approach the "Community Call for Action" which sounds great - from April any community can call for us to do action... but there is no guidance and no cash promised so how does one answer the call?

So instead the partnership monitors the statistics as required by the Home Office. "We're a low crime area" I'm told. "We have more PCSOs" I'm told.

How do I explain that to the families of the 21 people who have needlessly sacrificed their lives on my local road. Local people just want a few cop cars out there getting people to slow down. Death on the road is not a crime statistic. PCSOs can't give you a speeding ticket.

How do I explain it to the parent at school whose kid was nearly run over this week? That doesn't appear in the crime stats either.

How do I explain it to my fellow councillors who are noticing a rise in kids causing arson and fearing a hot, dry, tinderbox of a summer.

How do I explain it to the farmer who was robbed. The burglar was not the brightest button. He took what he wanted and left the remainder down the road but on part of the same farm! Whilst dumping it he left some papers including his name and address. What more evidence does one need. That was last August. The police finally went to arrest him this week (May). He was out.

I am guilty. I made this meeting last longer that it would have done ... but I'm simply not prepared to sit there and only listen to the "home office" questions and not the community's concerns.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

A bit of a laugh.....

I do enjoy halowe'en with the children... so I couldn't turn down the offer to be a spooky internet ghost of the enviroment minister.... the Ghost Cabinet launches today.

boys things...

I met the chairman of school governors today at one of those partnership meetings we local councillors go to.

Before we even sat down he explained "I have a problem. Its largely a male pupil problem. Sorry (smile).. but it is."

He then told me that he was desperate to find hands on training for young men who are dis-enchanted with the classroom and want something to do - "there are no apprenticeships" he explained.

We are a "growth area" thousands of houses are being built. I suggested we approach the developers at the nearby building site and see they can offer a few hours of work experience. Reaction - WOW - AMAZING - YES - WHAT A GREAT IDEA.

Of course then Health and Safety is brought up.

Later I spoke to a Tory Councillor in Birmingham whom I know as fought for similar projects. He has sorted out the following. 1. The local higher education college now run their building skills courses from on site in their regeneration area, 2. their local housing association now take on local apprentices, 3. their council house maintenance company now employ local apprentices.

Next I spoke to a neighbour who is currently paying a bricklayer £200 a day - he's a very good bricklayer. Its not a bad job.

I hope something good will come from today.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

A little too late - and not enough

Patricia Hewitt has finally agreed with every person in the Health Service that the new medical training system is a disaster. If only she had listened back in February when it all started.

All the doctors I have spoken to say just want to treat patients - they dont want to have to do this.

Its only 10 weeks before 22,000 doctors are due to change jobs in every major hospital in the country - a bit late. Doctors have had to cancel operations due in August as they know already there won't be enough staff.

Today the doctors start their legal challenge against the goverment with a Judicial Review. Good luck to them all, we need them back in our hospitals.

Views from the East

A busy day yesterday - at lunchtime I was the guest speaker to the Conservative Women's Association in Rochford and Southend. This very well informed and active group meets every month bringing different speakers from across the UK. They wanted to hear about my experiences campaigning across the country. I spoke about the Junior Doctors campaign, our local campaigns for safer roads and the country park as well as political campaigns.

They told me the problems they face in Southend - its a small unitary authority and like others has found it very hard to meet the ballooning costs of social services. "Its the hidden population" they said "we know Southend is growing, doctors surgeries, schools and houses are all full - but as many of these people are recent arrivals they don't appear in the statistics and we don't get funding to help them". Immigration again.

In the evening I was the guest speaker for the Abridge Conservative Supper Club near Epping. They have now been meeting for 30 years and must be one of the oldest such clubs in the country (though their members were far from old!) The last female politician to speak at their club was Ann Widdecombe and many had recently been to another dinner with William Hague as the speaker. No pressure then! They were a great crowd. Epping conservatives like my own local group have recently taking control of their district council. Their first action was sorting out the bins. Our Conservative politicians must make sure they deliver excellent, value for money services at a local level. Unless we run our councils well how will we be trusted to run the country.

Again the questions came into a long exchange about the pressures they see from the increased population. Not surprising given its all over the news at the moment. Not only housing, but infrastructure, schooling and health services. Interestingly it was the people who had come to the UK from other countries in the past who are most concerned about current immigration / migration pressures. They have worked hard and contributed to this economy, they say that those arriving today must do the same.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

How Green is Brown's Eco Town

There's lots of local consternation about the spin put on Brown's EcoTowns in the weekend papers. Here and Here.

The first of these towns will be Northstowe - which just happens to be in my district council's area and the council has been working on this for four years so this is not a great new idea from Mr Brown. As I am a cabinet member on that council I will pick my words carefully.

First claim "homes will be zero-carbon". Its a lovely aspiration which everyone would like to achieve but actually the current plans are more like 10% energy from renewable sources. Zero carbon homes would be very expensive so Brown will need to follow this up with lots of money.

Next claim "These towns are to be built on brownfield sites". Northstowe will be built on land previously used by the MOD at Oakington. A small part of it has been built on before - but land used by the MOD as the green spaces around aeroplane landing strips is also defined as "brown-field".

Next claim "combining the environment with housing" and "They will take as their model Poundbury, the village created in 1993 by the Prince of Wales in Cornwall. " - I've been to Poundbury (actually it's in Dorset). I was impressed. There is lots of open space. Northstowe was initally meant to be 8,000 homes. At 10,000 homes there will be far higher densities of housing than Poundbury. Plans for open spaces, a country park and undeveloped countryside "green seperation" between the town and the existing villages could all be much more difficult to fit in.

Another claim "The towns will have new road and rail links and will include zero-carbon schools and health centres." Actually the main road to Northstowe comes off the notorious A14 at its most congested stretch. Work to improve the A14 will not even start until AFTER the first residents have moved in. There are no rail links as such planned but a guided bus way will take people down the old railway line and then join buses on Cambridge's streets. Yes it will have a health centre but the local hospital, Hinchingbrooke, faces a deficit of £49 million and is currently undergoing public consultation about how to strip £14 million from "costs"...........

We do need affordable housing, housing for young people, for young people to be able to get on the property ladder. Cambridge house prices been showing some of the biggest hikes in the country. We want these houses to be as eco friendly as possible. I also want local people to still have a say on planning. As a councillor I know that to get this we have to work with the government. If Mr Brown is to make this his personal "flagship" he is going to have to address some of these concerns.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

The Blair Legacy - what has it given me?

10 years ago I walked into an election night party crammed full of my university friends. As I entered Sam, the host, took one look at me and declared to the crowd "You voted Tory didn't you". I was the only person in that room who had not voted for Tony Blair.

Having said that the next day ,as I watched Tony arrive at number 10, I was caught up in the hope, hope for a new vision, for investment in trains that worked, hospitals and schools that we needed. I was prepared to pay Tony's taxes if they rebuilt Britain.

This week I sorted out some papers and found my great-grandfather's obituary. He had been involved in local government in Cambridge for 52 years from 1892-1944. He founded the school dental service that was then adopted nationally (today we fight to find NHS dentists), he worked to improve housing for young people and secured playing fields for schools. He fought to expand the hospital and give it sound finances. Today, 100 years on, I am still fighting the same battles as my great grandfather.

What has Tony given me personally? This week, this month, this year.

OK money has been spent on health - but not sensibly. Today I've been discussing our council's response to the proposals for "saving" one of our local hospitals. All of the proposals involved cuts - some of the "cuts" are spun as "restructurings". We are one of the fastest growing parts of the country, we need more health services not less. Couple this with hearing that we are now the worst European country for Cancer care (my husband's speciality) and that our doctors and nurses won't receive the same training he did - I am let down. 10 years ago I gave birth to my first child. I speak to midwives now and am glad that I am not testing the maternity services of today.

Education 20 years ago as a student I used to go into classrooms as a volunteer to help with the gifted mathematicians in local primary schools. Back then the teachers had time to greet me with a plan for the lesson, had time to suggest activities, to get feedback, to plan the next week's session. Today I still help as a volunteer and run a maths-games club at a local school - the teachers are wonderful but they are more stretched- they just don't have the time. It is my view based on personal observations that the education of our nations best and brightest has gone backwards.

Trains, Roads, Transport Tony, if you had told me you were going to build trains and roads that worked I would have happily given you all the tax you wanted. Instead I still sit in traffic jams. Wasted years, wasted time, wasted chances.

Northern Ireland Tony's final glory - peace in our nation. I grew up in Northern Ireland. I know what it is like to be in a classroom when a bomb blasts the glass through the windows. Omagh, my town, was ripped to pieces after the first peace agreement was supposedly settled. It is a wonderful hope that no child of today should have to face that fear.

When I was a child if we drove across the border it was like stepping back in time, roads were dreadful, rural homes were lucky to have ropey electricity and dodgy water. Even 20 years ago, as a student, Dublin showed the visitor the three Ds: Drugs, Drunks and Deprivation. There was a huge income differential between North and South. In my personal view, that differential caused much of the tension. It has changed so much. The South is now the wealthy nation - economic tensions have been removed.

"Peace" in Northern Ireland was started by John Major but in war-torn areas history is hard to put behind you and a change of government and time from Tony did help. However, I believe that the final "peace" has more to do with the booming economy of the South leapfrogging that of the complacent UK.

I could go on........ crime, interest rates, litter, industry, Iraq, defence, but it's enough of a rant already.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

What do we feed our children?

Food additives are back in the news . WARNING! we parents should avoid foods with certain E numbers.

During the last general election and the Rover meltdown I was very busy. My children were spoilt rotten with lots of family and friends helping to take charge and large amounts of sweets were dolled out. They were very happy but by the end of the campaign Edward (the middle one - then 5) had eczema galore. He couldn't get into the bath without complaining let alone the local swimming pool.

We did a two week purge, no E numbers, porridge and honey, homemade fudge for a treat - the children became food labelling gurus and by the end of it Edward's sores were cured. I know many parents who report anecdotal evidence about their children's behaviour after certain foods. As a parent helper I also see the junk that is still put into children's lunchboxes. As a pre-school chairman I know how difficult it is for schools to keep a balance between "healthy lunchboxes" and children who if only given "healthy" will then eat nothing at all.

As a mum I think my children are given too much choice, their school dinners allow them to opt in and out daily of a menu of 3 options or packed lunches. We just had to eat what was on our plates. I would like food to be more clearly labelled - the creep of more added sugar and salt by the manufacturers is unacceptable - but I also believe that sweets and chocolate biscuits should not be banned but be balanced. We all deserve treats.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Another Defection - to the Conservatives

This evening I am welcoming another key councillor to the Conservative Group on our Council. Mark Howell is a dedicated man who speaks up for the most needy in our area. He is a trustee of Papworth Hospital, the world famous heart transplant hosptial. A year ago he was dedicated to "independence" in local government - now he wants to be part of what we, as Conservatives, are doing locally. I am so proud to have him in the Conservative group. Is this happening across the country?

Saturday, 5 May 2007

First of the LD Defections

I just received this email

Re: Resignation from Liberal Democrat Group

I have resigned from the Liberal Democrat Group on South Cambridgeshire District Council and will henceforth sit as an Independent Liberal Democrat.
I believe that I can best serve the interests of all my constituents outside the LD. Group. James Quinlan

James is not a councillor I know well... He stood against Andrew Lansley in 1997. Is he the first of many LD defections across the country?

Victory high

Spirits high and feet still recovering from an amazing 48 hours - the votes poured into the ballot box. Both my own council of South Cambridgeshire and my neighbouring council of East Cambs are now Conservative controlled.

Lessons learnt
Good candidates win
Positive campaigning wins
Hard work wins

Now the real work starts - we have been given a chance by the electorate we must deliver on our promises to turn these councils around.

p.s. It was not a good time to lose all phone lines, I've been living on mobile and blackberry for 2 days so sorry for the lack of blog!