Monday, 6 September 2010

Local councillors blogs and beware of asking for something in case you get it, a ramble in-between bookshop customers.

On the first of this month I posted my Pinch and a Punch post as I do and mentioned the recent lack of posts on our local councillors blogs; “local councillors who used to blog regularly and about local issues just don’t anymore.”

I don’t really know about anyone else, but I find it very difficult to work out what is going on within our local government, the press releases from the council don’t usually convey very much, those from the Labour group aren’t balanced with ones from the conservative group. Indeed the only press release I have ever received from the Conservative group was last week, saying that a local councillor had resigned the Conservative whip. A message that in itself is in a kind of code that suggests a group of people rather whipped up with their own jargon and yes I do know what they mean, but frankly as this is the only message from this group since the new cabinet was formed, it hardly reflects an attitude of wanting to explain what they are doing locally to govern us.

I suppose there is an argument here that, if we really want to know what’s going on within our local government, we should read the massive amount of official documentation that they produce. This is however a bit of a “wood from the trees” situation, what concerns me more is that many things, that from the outside seem rather strange or even bizarre, occur locally that seem to probably emanate from local government and yet explanation, even when one asks is pretty thin on the ground.

Recently here in Ramsgate, for instance we have had some problems with the drains, normally one assumes that it is only in very underdeveloped countries that sewage gets where sewage shouldn’t be and I would suppose that most people assume that local government look after all the mysterious plumbing of the place, or at the very least have something to say to the people who do. There is also the business with large local developments, plans appear, if you know where to look, often the development doesn’t appear when we expect or sometimes even the size we expect, sometimes the development is cancelled, although often one only finds out In a random way. Another example of what I mean is the large amount of council owned properties, either that have been empty for years or where some sort of activity is occurring. The simple information i.e. what is going on just isn’t forthcoming, rumour abounds, bizarre things happen, like Westcliff hall appearing in a residential auction, work starts like the pavilion although what is actually going to be achieved in terms of a usable building remains a mystery.

What is indeed very difficult to find out, from the outside, is what the council are up to, what they are doing on our behalf. An example of this relates to where I work and trade, twenty three years ago I moved here to what was a busy trading street, since then there have been good and bad economic times, Conservative and Labour government at national and local level, much of what were the shops that formed this busy trading street, have turned into social housing or private landlord residential conversions and many of these conversions don’t seem to have produced good and desirable residences. Much of what is left of the shopping part of the street has been fragmented by conversions. Was this and is it part of some undisclosed plan, or has it all happened by accident, by this I mean do the council intend the whole street to become residential and if so why don’t they say, or do they intend the street to return to being a busy trading street and if so why do they have some sort of plan to achieve this. This isn’t an issue of money as the whole street pavements and road have been completely re-laid twice since I have been here. Going from a busy two way through road, to a one-way street that leads nowhere much, but the plans for pedestrianisation vanished along the way and the cramped pavements needed for the two way road remain. In fact despite all of the money spent, broken, uneven and potholed is what we have.

So what of these councillors blogs, well one has come up with a post that seems for the most part to say that another councillor posted a comment on his blog, over a month ago, and that he doesn’t like it. See http://marknottingham.blogspot.com/ in amongst this is a problem about building on some land that the local children play football on. Something that could be important and I suppose this is a “could” because it begs the question, where will they play football if the land is built on? If the answer is in your street, through your window, against your car, you may think it very important.

Reading the post does not inspire much confidence on local government. Further to that is the obvious thought why in public and are we the public being asked to make some sort of judgment here?

Another councillor has put up a post http://birchington.blogspot.com/2010/09/sunday-politics.html and reading the local code, mostly in that it part of it relates to the same bit of land that local children play football on, one supposes the two posts are probably related. In this case social housing is mentioned. Now when I hear the phrase “social housing” particularly in conjunction with urban areas of Thanet, my ears prick up. Just where I live there is a lot of social housing and this seems to have been misused to some extent as a tool of “social engineering” you have to live in the middle of this Brave New World to really appreciate it.

Here for instance there is nowhere for the older children to play football, apart from in the street, or the council flats garage area that has steel garage doors, something that makes a considerable noise when struck by a football.

Of course social engineering by moving tenants of a type into one small area may be some sort of solution, but if this happens then appropriate support needs to be moved in with them.

Of course the problems on our large housing estates need to be solved and one way of solving these problems is to move out the people causing the problems, I gather this has worked very well in Newington for instance where the crime rate has dropped like a stone. The problem though remains that the people still have to be housed, commercially moving the problems to the town centres may not make much sense, but then this rather comes down to what aspirations local government has for its town centres. At the moment they seem to be using the American model, an out of town shopping mall surrounded by deserted town centres, this may all be part of the plan.

Anyway back to the small green space, which is what I think these two blog posts is about, after all what councillor A said about councillor B and even the possible unsavoury activities of group of councillors X, for most of us pales into insignificance against issues like will our living room, shop, window be the next goal.

Anyway here is this argument about a local square and where the development should or shouldn’t be, mixed up with what councillor A said about councillor B and frankly I don’t understand who is in the right or the wrong or even if they are all somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps some pictures would help, or perhaps a map would be better, pictures of the green space and Dalby Square I mean, not the councillor,s a map though perhaps of Dalby Square, probably not one of where the social housing is and where the councillors live.

Oh and there were some pictures of Ramsgate today, se http://www.michaelsbookshop.com/910/id3.htm work on the Pav something happening on the Pleasurama site and more of the building in Kent Terrace that shorter that expected.

9 comments:

  1. Michael

    There's plenty of information on what the council is up to, one way or another, coming out in both press releases on the council site and hard copy. Just because you haven't received such information personally to your weblog doesn't mean it doesn't exist!

    As regards Dalby Square, there is a crying need for good quality social housing in Thanet and in Cliftonville in particular. This particular plot gives the council an opportunity for such but at the cost of the green space that presently covers the land (an interim measure) since the hotel was pulled down.

    Across the way is the seafront with adequate space for football on those occasions when the teenagers may wish to play. I recall that when I was young, it was on the seafront grass that I used to play football. We have lots of such space here in Thanet.

    I think the mistake you make is in believing that every aspect of life is micro-managed by the council and the truth is that the resources simply don't exist for such. So an inflection point, a butterfly flapping its wings at A) may have unanticipated consequences on B) where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts! It sounds trite perhaps but the focus is on those policies that can best regenerate, provide employment and improve the quality of life for all in an environment of deep fiscal austerity

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  2. Michael, you seem to make some very specific points regarding the lack of information comming from the council. You seem to be a person that can find his way round the TDC web site and I am sure that if the info you refer to was there you would have found it. Maybe somebody at TDC can direct you to the specific reports.

    You could add the lack of info from TDC when the ferry operation was being promised as another example but the stock answer normally given is that such matters are commercially sensitive.
    What chance do the public that rely on local newspapers for council information stand? Probably they will get information when its too late.

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  3. Simon I will reply para by para.

    1 Information from the council when viewed from outside seems very muddled and lacking in priorities, pretty much all the information I get from the council is obtained online and it seems to me that the council waste resources on a massive scale because of their failure to use the internet well.

    Much of the problem stems from turning electronic files into paper and then back to a less usable file.

    Much also stems from failing to put information online as the main resource for officers, councillors and the public.

    Working from a premise of open government, with provisos to those putting information in, that information should be submitted electronically and available for public scrutiny in all but exceptional circumstances.

    What is happening instead is that the council’s IT team seem to trying to manage the information, rather than facilitating the officers and public submitting the information themselves.

    Even where this facility exists with the proviso that it will be public as it does on the planning site the council has locked the information so it is invisible to the public.

    I think you may be confusing my desire to have the majority of the information the council holds available to the public with some desire to have it available personally to me.

    2 & 3 The Dalby Square development being the subject of some sort of inter party conflict surprises me as it appears to be a very good development, much better than most in Thanet.

    With the Pleasurama development, with plans that make little sense to anyone I have discussed it with, including several councillors of both parties, the one in Kent Terrace that has just come out about a metre shorter than the plans show and looks like a purpose built HMO to name but two, one would of thought councillors would have more contentious developments to argue about.

    4 You could be right here I may be developing council related querulant delusions, they may however be justified if your hypostasis that the council is run on the principle of chaos theory is correct. I am sure you appreciate that the butterfly effect is part of chaos theory and that thinking that parts of Thanet are being persecuted, may actually be the result of this being the case.

    I am a bit suspicious of the fiscal austerity line for a number of reasons, mainly that the problems I am referring to predate the economic crisis, although to fair most of them also predate the Conservative administration in TDC.

    Take one example TDCIT and try as a novice to the council’s website to navigate from the council’s homepage to something important that they have published online, as you are no novice to IT I recommend you start with plans for the Turner Contemporary.

    20.24 I think that the fundamental problem there is that the council officers don’t appear to have to use the council’s website, here in the not so commercially cutting edge world of secondhand bookselling trade, information ceased to be available on paper in 1995 because we simply couldn’t afford any other solution.

    I am afraid my thoughts on the fast ferry, something I supported but had reservations about are not something that I can go into here. Had you wanted it the information would have been available via the district auditor, but you have missed the time window now.

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  4. Michael

    I grant you that ICT & Communications can always be improved and as I've written before, if the money and resources existed in addition to more flexible public sector rules on data management, storage and presentation, then things might be a little different.

    Put another way, I'm trying to encourage the streamlining and improvement of such services but the priority goes to the front-line stuff as the resources and the budget to do what you and I might both like, simply doesn't exist. For example, I'm looking at a harsh budget cut and by Xmas, I suspect, people may start to realise the size of the train about to hit the public sector, as central government figures are announced.

    As for matters like the ferry. Commercial confidences are just that. In fact the council officers should be applauded for acting absolutely properly in such circumstances.

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  5. DrM. You state "There's plenty of information on what the council is up to". Could you please tell me where I can find information on what the Council is up to with regard to some of Ramsgate's historic buildings, in particular the Maritime Museum, West Cliff Concert Hall & Eagle Cafe.

    I have no political slant on this; I would just like to be able to inform followers of my Forum. I can't find details anywhere, and local Councillors don't appear to know.

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  6. Simon I am reluctant to give you more flack an you are a cabinet member and you have at least tried to respond here.

    The council’s web site should be saving the council money and could be if the information was there, of if it is there findable.

    Some of the basic problems inherent in the council’s website, would have bankrupted most businesses, were it a commercial website.

    I was talking to somone from within the council on Sunday about aspects of this and they mentioned that so much council property that should be generating income is empty, they also mentioned that there is an imbalance between Margate and Ramsgate here.

    Several shop properties in Ramsgate, that have recently become empty, that I didn’t even know belonged to the council, an example here is the one that was Present Company in Harbour Street, I got the impression that the council are putting up shop rents in Ramsgate, while operating a reverse policy Margate to try and create a good impression for the opening of the Turner Contemporary.

    I think it is very important that any savings that the council have to make are seen to be fair and that council waste like the long term empty council owned commercial properties are put onto the market at fair and viable rents.

    Is there some sort of register of council owned commercial properties? If there is perhaps you could send me a copy or better still if it is available on line send me the web address.

    Obvious council waste, like the lights on the council flats near me that are on all the time, is something that the council should look at dealing with, perhaps if the tenants could have a switch to turn them off when they didn’t need them, or some such solution could be worth considering.

    A far as the commercial confidentiality goes, although this a part of the remit with an foi request, it doesn’t apply to documents requested via the district auditor.

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  7. In response to the first gentleman's request, "Ramsgate's historic buildings, in particular the Maritime Museum, West Cliff Concert Hall & Eagle Cafe." that's a detailed enquiry on specific matters, that I suspect should be properly directed at your local councillor which is what they are there for.

    As for a register of council-owned commercial properties, these will exist on an asset register but whether this is available in an appropriate format for open distribution under an FOI request I can't say.

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  8. Simon I suppose you could call that hitting the nail on the head, let us suppose that the council were a commercial property company with 200 vacant shops, factory units and so on.

    Then they would be advertised to let and I suppose very soon there would be a lot less than 200.

    Do you suppose that it has occurred to anyone in the council that listing their available property in such a way that it requires an foi request to obtain it, is the reason that the council has so much empty property?

    Incidentally I have only requested one document from the council using the foi act, eleven months and about fifty emails later and god alone knows how much cost to the council, I received it, missing a small part that I am still trying to get them to send me.

    This wasn’t because it was confidential information as far as I understand they just left it out by mistake.

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  9. Thanks for answering my post DrM. Regrettably, I have asked my local Coucillor who couldn't help me but suggested I should ask a Cabinet Member. This is the problem, we get passed from pillar to post if we dare ask questions. Should our Councillors not be routinely briefed on what's happening within their wards? Or maybe our Councillors should routinely ask what's happening within their wards. Either way, it would be nice for us to know what's going on.

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