Thursday 25 January 2007
We hold our one day seminar on the White Paper at Manchester's new Hilton skyscraper. Its only been open a few months and I have previously driven detours around it as it constantly reminds me of the 1970s film towering inferno. Obviously others have thought the same as several people reference the film during the day, adding to my feeling of unease.
David Prout the Lead Civil Servant on the Local Government Bill follows my opening scenesetting of the conference and the 175 delegates are willing to engage in debate with him. Especially after I stir things up by pointing out that there has been no engagement or consultation with the masses in Local Government, David responds by referencing discussions with the LGA since 2004. At this point I decide to utilise the old trick of bringing in the audience asking how many people in the room feel they have had the opportunity to put forward their views or influence the process, David's hand is the only one which rises - 15 love. To be fair a lot of what David says is welcomed and he takes on board the point made.
Michael Hughes in his new role as Director of Studies at the Audit Commission also makes a good contribution and Steve Cirell from Eversheds gets in a laugh by suggesting that if anyones mobile phone goes off during his session then they have to get up and sing the first record they ever bought.
We have some really good interactive workshops in the afternoon covering topics such as citizen engagement, choice, community ownership and Best Value. One of the points that strikes me is if we really want to engage with the public and design user responsive services then we should really be trying to harness the information exchange that takes place at the interface between those on the ground who deliver services and those who consume them. In my experience this often happens one step removed from this.
Wednesday 24 January 2007
Went to the Scottish Executive's Health and Physical Activity Council meeting in Edinburgh today along with Pat our Principal Advisor in Scotland.
The initiatives they are undertaking fill me with a lot of pride, they kicked off the School Meals changes with 'Hungry for success', long before Jamie Oliver had even thought about turkey twizellers and they are now taking the lead with regard to the physical activity agenda. Having said all of this you have to recognise that we didn't get our 'sickman of Europe' tag because of our dietary precision, physical perfection or accomplishment at doing all things in moderation. Starting from a low point is something that Scots have an aptitude for, we are always do our best when considered the underdog.
Having said all of that I think the new Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament takes the type of approach required to make generational change. The proposals to place a duty on schools to become health promoting environments mean that this will become ingrained in the very ethos and culture of the school rather than only in the canteen or gym. This will also be measured to assess performance.
The Civil Servants are really getting their act together in this area and the conceptual framework Matt Lowther is pulling together is the correct approach. Of course I would say that as APSE are playing an important role in this.
Friday 19 January 2007
Give the lead presentation in a debate on the future of Housing at an event held on public services by the left of centre think tank Compass in conjunction with UNISON.
I push four key themes in my contribution where I focus on Social Housing rather than wider policy. My main emphasis is on the need to start building affordable Social Housing again, pointing to the needs of the 1.3m people on council housing waiting lists. I also stress the need for new policy beyond the Decent Homes Standard in 2010, calling for people to start thinking beyond a silo approach to Housing, seeing it in a wider social policy context, this would be helped by replacing the DHS with a broader Decent Neighbourhoods Standard.
I also point to the fact that beyond 2010 its time the Government got itself out of its self imposed policy straight jacket for Housing and recognises that the general public and some local authorities have chosen to retain stock under council control. The Government should really wake up and smell the coffee here as every authority has now made the decision on what model it will follow and they would appease an awful lot of their own parties members by giving equity of funding to all options, having voted for this at their party conference in each of the last three years. My final point is that any policy has to be flexible enough to deal with regional differences, as need in the North East is very different to that in the South East.
The session goes on for over an hour and when we go back into the main plenary I am delighted to see that APSEs four proposals are incorporated into six key points that Compass will take forward as their proposals to Government in this area.
If only I could be as effective in the area of transport. Having reached Euston at 5pm pretty pleased with myself my mood changes quickly as I discover that all trains North have been cancelled because of storm damage. Just as the panic starts to set in someone tells me that one train is leaving for Wolverhampton, so I jump on this get off at Birmingham, get a bus to Warrington, get a train back to Manchester and get home at 1am. Who said this is the age of the train?
Friday 19 January 2007
Visit the offices of the MJ today to meet Deputy Editor, Heather Jameson to discuss the column that I am writing for them. Heather gives me some good advice and I encourage her to be harsh with the editing when required.
Michael Burton, the MJ Editor is also in the office and we catch up over a cup of tea, while swapping stories from around the circuit. Heather and Michael have been at the MJ for as long as I have been at APSE and we know each other well. We discuss how the MJ and APSE can work collaboratively to further each others interests.
With the MJ being a key target journal for APSE I leave their offices happy.
Thursday 18 January 2007
Meet the Liberal Democrat Local Government Spokesperson Andrew Stunnell MP at Westminster today to discuss a range of matters including the White Paper, Housing, Healthy Living and the Environment. He knows his brief having previously been a Councillor on three different local authorities.
We spend an hour in Andrew's private office exchanging views on the various topic's and he agrees to write an article for APSEs magazine . Andrew knows APSE from our regular contributions at Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors conferences and he agrees to move amendments on our behalf when the new Local Government Bill is negotiating its way through the parliamentary process.
Saturday 13 January 2007
Held a meeting today with Civil Servants from the Scottish Executive on the issue of trading and charging. This has been a major dilemma for Scottish local authorities since a drafting error at the final stages of the publication of the 2003 Local Government Act (Scotland).
Basically the Act was designed to bring a bright new dawn to the area of trading and charging, encouraging local authorities to be more outgoing and innovative in their approach. However when the post bill tidy up happened the explanatory notes changed this intention into one where local authorities were limited in this area to utilising surplus capacity. Never discussed or debated in parliament, this now turned an enabling piece of legislation into a regressive one. What had been an area of uncertainty was now even more uncertain than ever.
I am now starting to feel old as the meeting was with the latest Civil Servant with responsibility for sorting out the mess and this was the fourth person with responsibility since it began in 2003. Fortunately those involved genuinely appear to want to resolve this issue now and I am taking an active role in ensuring that the Association does everything it can to help.