Monthly Archives: January 2013

Election! Starting Gun Fired in Chobham


The famous Chobham Cannon was presented to the village to commemorate the 1853 Chobham Encampment on the Common which Queen Victoria visited.

The famous Chobham Cannon was presented to the village to commemorate the 1853 Chobham Encampment on the Common which Queen Victoria visited.

Chobham Parish Council recently declared a casual vacancy after the resignation of Cllr Sally Waller (Independent). Casual vacancies on parish councils can be filled by by-elections or by co-opting. To have a by-election, ten local voters have to write to the Returning Officer (at Surrey Heath Borough Council, since they administer parish council elections here) and ask for it, by the deadline of 31 January in this case.

I collected the ten signatures today and submitted them to the Returning Officer. I’m happy to say that all ten were valid signatures and I expect a by-election to be called in the next week or two. Then potential candidates will be able to submit nomination papers and, if there are at least two valid nominations, the polling day will be confirmed, probably in March I think.

If there is a by-election, it will be the second for Chobham Parish Council this term. The last one was on 26 April 2012 and was caused by Cllr Linda Bainton (Con) resigning. I wasn’t involved in forcing the election but I did stand as the Labour Party candidate then. The Conservative Party candidate was elected.

There are usually nine councillors on Chobham Parish Council. With the current vacancy, the eight remaining are five Conservative and three Independents, so whoever wins this time the majority group will remain the same. However, each councillor has an important voice and people with energy and talent are always needed to work on behalf of all the people of Chobham regardless of their party affiliation.

Chobham is an interesting community. It has social rented housing and enormous mansions and everything in between. It has a wide range of issues and many active community leaders working hard to tackle them. The new Co-op store is thriving (I was in there today) but a Tesco is opening soon. Traffic during the rush hours is awful and will get much worse if the DERA development goes ahead. Of all the villages in Surrey Heath, Chobham needs inclusive active leadership.

People have already raised the issue of the Chobham and West End doctors’ surgeries proposing to merge and open a new site somewhere between the two. This will need to be in consultation with local people. Vulnerable groups will need proper representation when this decision is made.

Parish Councils are gaining many new powers under the localism agenda. Chobham is well-placed to take advantage of this. Hopefully the Council will prepare a Neighbourhood Plan and use it to promote the village and residents’ interests.

There is a strange voting anomaly in Chobham. There are two polling districts: SA and SB. SA has over 3,000 registered voters and SB has about 120. The polling station for SA is the Village Hall, and for SB it is the Valley End Institute. Only 12 people voted in person at Valley End in the last by-election. I have proposed closing the Valley End polling station and opening another one in the north part of the village, perhaps at the Chobham Community Centre. If the village (and parish) was split more evenly between the two polling stations turnout would be higher and people wouldn’t have to drive down the high street on polling day. Last polling day it was raining and the turnout in some parts of northern Chobham was just 6%. The Community Centre is handy for the sheltered housing and the post office and wouldn’t cost any more than Valley End.

Anyway, democracy is coming to Chobham again. If you live here, make sure you are registered to vote and remember anyone can apply for a postal vote nowadays and you don’t need to get it countersigned any more.

Have your say – vote in the Chobham Parish by-election 2013!

Vote Early and Vote Often – The Case for Lowering Voting Age to 16


Last week, MPs voted in favour of a back-bench motion to reduce the age at which people can first vote in elections from 18 to 16 years old. It was a non-binding vote and not a bill so the law has not changed. Yet. Nearly all of the back-benchers who spoke were in favour of the motion. However, the Conservative Party are against the change so there will, almost certainly, not be a bill in this parliament to lower the voting age.

Since 1832 the franchise has been widened many times. Women, non-landowners, under 21s and other groups can now vote. These changes were opposed at the time by the same sort of people who oppose the change to 16. They used the same arguments too. They said that women couldn’t think seriously enough, that non-landowners would influence government policy to benefit themselves, and that under-21s were not mature enough to be trusted.

The reality is, of course, that 16- and 17-year olds can think more seriously about current affairs than many people much older than them. Government policy affects young people as much as any other group, so they deserve the right to vote on it too. As regards maturity, I know many older adults who are far less mature than an average 16-year old. Indeed, the older some people get the less sensible their political views become e.g. Ian Hislop.

There are two main arguments in favour of lowering the voting age:

1. It would be good for democracy. In countries where the voting age has been lowered, e.g. Austria, the turnout has increased. Low turnout is a problem in Britain. Many people never vote and their interests suffer because of it. Look at the way the government will cut benefits for the poor but won’t touch pensioners’ benefits and perks. This is because pensioners are more likely to vote. If young people voted more then politicians would be obliged to keep promises on policies like tuition fees.

Also, if 16-year olds get the chance to vote while still at school they will be much more likely to continue voting in later life. If young people get to see how easy it is to vote and how to weigh up various parties’ policies, they will not be afraid of doing it once they leave school.

2. It would be good for young people. The later teenage years are a transition from childhood to adulthood. At this age people are making important decisions about their lives. Taking responsibility for themselves and others is a process that is difficult for some, so we should show that we trust them to make a decision as part of our society. This would involve young people, rather than exclude them. If people feel part of society and have a stake in it, they will be more responsible members of the community. If we trust young people to vote, we can be confident they will be worthy of it.

Your Country Needs You

Society needs as many people, from as many different groups, as possible to participate in setting the direction of the country, the county, the borough and the parish. Many other countries have already lowered the voting age: Austria, Brazil, Argentina and Germany. Even in these isles under-18s can vote in certain polls: Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey and Scotland for the independence referendum.

Teenagers are just as politically and ideologically aware and active as any other age group. At that age I was involved with CND, Anti-Apartheid, Greenpeace, and the Labour Party. It doesn’t cost much, if anything. The Labour Party only charges £1 pa for this age group for membership, or you can sign up online to be a registered supporter for free. Lowering the voting age to 16 was in the last Labour manifesto. If you want to help decide what will be in the next one then get involved!

Personally, I would like to see future generations of ideological young people. Engaging them in the democratic process while they are still at school and trusting them to make decisions will help to achieve this.

 

Deeply Dippy – The Deepcut Housing Development


Carry On, Sergeant

The British Army has a long association with Surrey Heath and the surrounding area. I have mentioned the common land seized during the war to build tanks on previously. The Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut were in the news a few years ago due to the deaths of army recruits there. Now the army is planning to pull out and make way for a large housing development.

Conflict of Interests

New housing, particularly affordable housing, is desperately needed in this area. Surrey Heath Borough Council has targets to meet in this regard and gets a New Homes Bonus from central government too. This helps fund the Council, which is good for all of us, in theory.

However, new housing needs to be properly planned. Provision has to be made for community facilities like schools, healthcare, play areas, sports and cultural facilities. Businesses need space to provide shops, pubs, post offices and the like. Transport infrastructure is vitally important, not just for the new residents but also for existing residents of nearby towns and villages.

Plan of Attack

There are three phases of construction planned at Deepcut:

  • Phase 1 (2016 to 2019) – 489 new homes
  • Phase 2 (2019 to 2022) – 381 new homes
  • Phase 3 (2022 to 2025) – 330 new homes

There will be about 1,200 new homes in total. The developers say it takes approximately three months to build each house, therefore about 30 houses will be under construction at any one time for about ten years.

Logistical Uncertainties

They have analysed the traffic that will be generated and compared it to traffic that could currently be using the site to calculate the extra traffic that the local roads will have to cope with. They claim that the first 450 homes will not have any detrimental effect on local traffic.

I have been campaigning for sustainable transport for a long time: buses, cycle lanes, walking routes, etc. These are mentioned in the planning documents but only as an after-thought. I hope the plans can be modified to place sustainability at the heart of the development.

Swings and Roundabouts

For what it is worth, here are the road improvement schemes they propose for traffic leaving or entering Deepcut and using the Red Road, A322 and junction 3 of the M3.

M3 J3 Changes

Red Road – Maultway Roundabout Changes

Red Road A322 Roundabout Changes

As anyone who uses these roads at the moment will confirm, they are dangerous and congested at peak hours already. Traffic already uses rat-runs through nearby villages on narrow country roads. The effects of extra traffic: noise, congestion, danger, pollution, will be spread over a large area.

The Big Picture

Like all the proposed housing schemes in this area, the Deepcut development is being treated in isolation. We need to take a combined view of DERA, Deepcut, Aldershot, and all the other current proposals to see the crippling effect this will have on local roads.

New affordable housing is critically needed here but there must be massive investment in sustainable infrastructure at the same time. The developers have to pay for this if planning authorities require it. Authorities will be failing current and future residents if they do not demand this of the developers.

Local NHS: Priceless


I recently had a minor health scare and it got me thinking about the emotional place that the NHS occupies in our society.

I hadn’t visited a GP for many years, and I had never seen a doctor at the surgery in Bagshot, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I phoned the 01276 number to make an appointment and, when the time came, parked in their ample car park, checked-in on a touch screen and nervously waited my turn.

It is remarkable how reassuring it is to be told by a highly qualified professional that they know what is wrong and how to deal with it swiftly. As an airline captain I often speak to nervous passengers and see this effect on people. It’s reassuring to take complicated financial or legal problems to accountants and lawyers too. It costs a lot of money to achieve this reassurance because professionals take a long time and a lot of talent to acquire the education, training and experience necessary.

However, the NHS is unique because it is free at the point of delivery. It really struck me how valuable the NHS is by being a patient. It shows how the people of this country want to care for each other. We pay tax according to our ability to pay and everyone can rely on care when they are sick.

I read recently that the average cost each year to each person for the network of GP surgeries in the UK is less than you would pay to insure your hamster. Imagine there was no NHS and everyone had to sort out their own medical coverage. We really are lucky to be able to see a doctor without worrying about whether our insurance is up to date or whether we can afford the recommended treatment.

The NHS is surely the greatest achievement of our society. It provides high quality healthcare efficiently to everyone but also the reassurance that whatever happens to you, you will be looked after. You can’t put a price on that.

There are many changes on the way for the NHS. It is vital we keep informed and have our say about them. The NHS exists because British people willed it into existence. It will only continue to exist, and improve, if we demand it.

Lightwater Surgery’s 0844 Phone Number Rip-Off


As a member of Which?, the consumer association, I remember being surprised to read that they found in April 2011 that 8% of doctors’ surgeries were still using revenue-sharing 0844 phone numbers after they were banned. Nearly two years later, I’m less surprised that Lightwater Surgery are still using theirs, however. I’ve had many dealings with this practice, and in particular with one of the four partners, Dr Adrian Davis.

Retreat from Windlesham

Lightwater Surgery used to have a branch in Windlesham. They closed it down after a sham consultation process, which I will blog about in full at a later date. I saw then one instance of Davis putting his own interests before his patients’. Like many people in Windlesham, I have re-registered with another practice. I didn’t do this because I thought Davis was a bad doctor (I never consulted him), I don’t feel qualified to judge this. I changed practice for the same reasons that I now drink Costa coffee instead of Starbucks.

In December last year I stood as the Labour candidate in the Lightwater West by-election. Although I didn’t win this time, we spoke to hundreds of people on the doorstep and I feel I now have a mandate to campaign on the issues they raised. One of these issues was the additional cost of phoning the surgery for an appointment over and above the cost of a normal local call.

The Contract

The crux of the issue is clause 29B of the General Medical Services contract, which is a contract between the practice and the local Primary Care Trust (ours is NHS Surrey).

29B.1. Where the Contractor is party to an existing contract or other arrangement for telephone services under which persons making relevant calls to the practice call a number which is not a geographical number, the Contractor must comply with sub-clause 29B.2.

29B.2. The Contractor shall—

29B.2.1. before 1st April 2011, review the arrangement and consider whether, having regard to the arrangement as a whole, persons pay more to make relevant calls than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographical number, and

29B.2.2. if the Contractor so considers, take all reasonable steps, including in particular considering the matters specified in sub-clause 29B.3, to ensure that, having regard to the arrangement as a whole, persons will not pay more to make relevant calls than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographical number.

29B.3. The matters referred to in clause 29B.2.2. are—

29B.3.1. varying the terms of the contract or arrangement,

29B.3.2. renegotiating the contract or arrangement, and

29B.3.3. terminating the contract or arrangement.

The next question is: do calls to 0844 numbers cost more to call than a local number having regard to the arrangement as a whole? Well clearly they do. Two thirds of BT customers have inclusive call packages so it costs them more to call one of the 8% of surgeries with 0844 numbers. There are set-up charges for phoning 0844 numbers that don’t apply to geographical numbers. Also, half of all phone calls in the UK are made using mobiles and these often cost much more to phone 0844 numbers.

So, it is clear that having regard to the arrangement as a whole these numbers cost more so GP practices shouldn’t be using them. All we need now is for the contract to be enforced.

Who Can Enforce the Contract on Our Behalf?

PCTs like NHS Surrey are branches of the Department of Health and exist to ensure that the public is properly served by GP surgeries which are independent businesses run to make a profit for their owners usually. NHS Surrey didn’t seem to know about clause 29B until I informed them and they are trying to ignore its significance now. PCTs will be abolished in a few months so it would be embarrassing and a lot of effort for them to enforce the contract now.

I addressed Windlesham Parish Council to ask them to contact NHS Surrey and request that the contract be enforced. Here is how it was minuted:

A further question had been raised by a Windlesham resident about the 0844 telephone number being provided by the Lightwater doctor’s surgery for incoming calls and requested that the Parish Council write to NHS Surrey to ask them to change this to a local number.

Members had said that they would investigate this matter and take any necessary action. At the full Council meeting, the Clerk had read out a letter from the Lightwater Surgery in which it had stated that the Practice complies with the NHS regulations in respect of using an 0844 number but it is likely that the Surgery will move to a local 01276 number next year. The Clerk had been asked by Members to get official confirmation from NHS Surrey and report back at a future meeting.

The letter referred to is here: Davis letter to WPC. I obtained this using a Freedom of Information request.

It seems Davis is unaware of clause 29B too. His letter is misleading to the Council, presumably unintentionally. There has never been any technological barrier to having multiple phone lines on an 01276 number. His contract requires him to cancel the phone package with the provider, by April 2011.

Follow the Money

As I told the Council, Davis and the PCT seem to want to run down the clock until the PCT is abolished and hope they can leave the 0844 number in place. Surgeries gain financially by having an 0844 number because their overall phone package is cheaper, including line rental and outgoing calls. Patients lose out because their phone calls cost more. The net result is money going from the patients to the doctors. That is why it’s banned.

I wrote an article about this for a local magazine which was shown to Davis for comment before publication. He threatened to sue the magazine and call in the Press Complaints Commission. Understandably it got spiked. This is how Davis works. I am lucky enough to be able to withstand his threats so I published the article here. This is what he didn’t want you to read.

There is another surgery in Surrey Heath which still uses a 0844 number, Park Road Surgery, Camberley. One of the partners there is Dr Andy Brooks, the Chief Officer of the Surrey Heath Clinical Commissioning Group. I tried to ask him about this at a meeting for the CCG but he refused to answer because he was there in his capacity as Chief Officer not practice partner. I left a note requesting a statement from him about it. Answer came there none.

Join the Campaign

If you would like to help force Lightwater Surgery, or Park Road Surgery, to obey their legal contracts, please write to Michael Gove MP with copies of your phone bills showing calls to the surgery and other, geographical, calls to compare the costs. Please do this soon to stop this unjustifiable rip-off of NHS patients.

If reading this makes you feel like changing doctors, just pop into another doctors’ practice and ask to re-register. I did this at Bagshot and filled in a form there and then without remembering to bring my NHS number card or anything else. If you have to drive to Lightwater Surgery, you might as well drive to Bagshot where the parking is better too.

Doctors’ practices get money for each person on their register. You are the customer. The customer is always right.

Post Script

I should point out that many others have been involved in this campaign and I’ll be very happy to name and credit them here if they contact me with their permission to do so.

Post Post Script

Davis’s letter above admits that they will have to change their number, belatedly, this year. However, I hear it could be very soon indeed. Well done to everyone involved. Victory in sight!

Surrey’s Libraries Under Threat


“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” -Walter Cronkite

Conservative Surrey County Council has been trying to close libraries for 30 years or more and now they want to use “austerity” as an excuse to do it. It’s the same excuse that David Cameron is using to privatise the NHS, cut the police, slash employment rights, remove support for the disabled, and all the other policies they got into politics to achieve. Previous Tory governments used “inflation” as an excuse to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Today it’s “austerity” but the aim is the same.

 

New Model Army

To disguise their motive, Surrey County Council (SCC) claimed that small libraries would be able to stay open if groups of volunteers could be found to replace paid staff. They claimed this would save money and we live in straitened times. This was all Tory councillors needed to hear to support the policy. A sense of financial emergency was induced to encourage volunteers to come forward. The Big Society’s volunteer new model army was on the march!

Or was it? Time passed and the SCC cabinet member for libraries was fired and placed under investigation. The new cabinet member took office and admitted that this so-called Community Partnered Libraries scheme actually wouldn’t save any money. She said it was about getting more use from the libraries but the threat of closure still hangs over them, for some reason.

 

“Cutting libraries in recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague”― Eleanor Crumblehulme

Why Are We Doing This Again?

So there was no financial emergency in the new version of history from SCC. They still wanted to sack the librarians though. Librarians are not highly paid fat cats raking in huge bonuses. They are people who love books and their calling is to introduce as many people as possible to reading and open their minds. You can see why Conservative councillors want rid of them.

It is estimated that between 80 and 120 volunteers will be required to replace one librarian. This allows for natural wastage and the amount of time people are usually prepared to put in. Librarians are trained in data protection and how to deal with vulnerable groups. For volunteers to replace them completely they would need that training, which would have to be kept up to date and properly documented.

SCC decided to get round the data protection problem by removing certain IT capability from volunteer run libraries. Removing it costs money and the resulting service to customers is worse. Books often have to be moved from one library to another just to be entered onto a computer now. They have increased the cost and reduced the service.

Dealing with vulnerable groups is something that SCC doesn’t prioritise. They thought equalities training could be a box-ticking exercise. They were wrong. The pressure group SLAM, Surrey Libraries Action Movement, warned them that they would be breaking the law but SCC didn’t listen. SLAM was forced to take SCC to the High Court and won a judicial review. SCC were SLAM-dunked!

 

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” –Andrew Carnegie

Not Listening!

After their victory in court, SLAM and other residents’ groups presented proposals to SCC for how volunteers could work alongside paid staff. This would save the training costs and mean the computer links could stay. SCC refused to listen again.

Unfortunately our local county councillors all toed the party line to protect their political careers instead of voting for what their electorate wanted. Cllr Stuart MacLeod (Con, Bagshot, Windlesham & Lightwater East) was on the Communities Select Committee and voted for the Tory plan. If one Tory had broken ranks it would have been sent back for further consideration. MacLeod was replaced on the committee after he was convicted of a drink-driving offence. His replacement, hard right-winger, Cllr Denis Fuller (Con, Camberley West), also voted for his party’s plan. They both betrayed their electorate very badly. The next county council election is 2 May 2013.

 

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Hitlists

There were ten small libraries on the first hitlist, including Bagshot, and a further nine on the second, including Lightwater, Ash and Frimley Green, which was planned for a year after the first. Only three of the first list are now being run by volunteers. SCC found Tory Party activists who would give up their time to promote the policy. Once all 19 libraries have been handed over to volunteers (or closed) they can drift away with the reward of a job well done and over the subsequent years the remaining libraries will no doubt close, one by one.

Why do I think this will happen? It’s true there are many motivated library volunteers who are not Tory Party activists. Many of them will give up their time to save their local library from closure. Will they keep doing it, forever? Will they be prepared to take over legal liability for what happens in the building, like accidents? SCC are demanding this. Will they remain motivated when they realise that their volunteering has led to their librarian being sacked? When they become unable to volunteer who will recruit the next generation of free library workers?

 

Me at the "Love your library" rally, Bagshot, Oct 2011.

Me at the “Love your library” rally, Bagshot, Oct 2011.

 

Libraries Need Librarians

There is a reason why libraries have librarians. I walked through the snow today to Lightwater Library which was open and inviting as usual. The enthusiastic friendly librarian was at work, despite the weather. She was there to advise people about books but also on how to use the computers and the internet. Without a knowledgeable librarian some people will be cut off from online services like banking, shopping and communicating with friends and family.

If volunteers worked alongside paid librarians, they could increase and improve the libraries’ services and create a supportive social atmosphere for the community which would encourage people into the library. It is what residents want too. SCC won’t allow it, even though it won’t cost any more, because it would secure the future of the small libraries and make it more difficult to close them, which is their ideological aim.

 

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” -Andrew Carnegie

Village Family

Libraries provide a vital function, particularly in villages. When the Tories scrapped the mobile library last year, its loss was felt like a bereavement by many in Windlesham. One day a week it had connected people who are now more isolated. The professional staff were part of the village family.

In Lightwater and Bagshot the libraries are used by the young and old, but for different reasons. Entering the world of books as a child opens up endless possibilities for learning, fulfilment and entertainment throughout life. Free public libraries are the only way to ensure that every child can achieve this. For the elderly, the library links them to their community. Practically, many people need the library and librarians to get online too.

Libraries are the repository of local history in many communities. Without them we may forget the previous inhabitants and stories of our villages.

If you would like to help save your local library, just visit it, look around, sign up for a library card if you don’t have one, borrow something interesting, and read a book!

 

“Without the library, you have no civilization.” -Ray Bradbury

 

What’s Latin for Omnishambles?


Prime Minister David Cameron was recently mocked on American TV because he didn’t know the literal meaning of Magna Carta. There’s not much call for Latin these days and even the Old Etonian himself couldn’t dredge it up. What really matters, of course, is that the Magna Carta, nearly 800 years ago, enshrined equality under the law. OK, it was just equality for men, and didn’t include serfs, but it was a start.

Right to Party?

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 in Runnymede, Surrey. With just two years until its 800th anniversary, Runnymede Borough Council (RBC) are making plans to celebrate. So far, so good: as the Beastie Boys pointed out 771 years after Magna Carta, certain rights have to be fought for.

However, RBC haven’t got any money. This is one of the reasons why they are trying to push through the DERA development, for example. So how could they celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta?

One idea would be to spend nothing on it and promote it through private donations and local schools and museums. After all, foodbanks are setting up in RBC’s area, their funding from central government is being cut, and the poorest are being hit by benefit cuts so need vital council-provided services more than ever. Celebrations are important, but not that important.

Another idea would be to spend a small sum and coordinate with Egham Museum to celebrate the anniversary in Egham town centre where it might attract tourists to benefit struggling local businesses and would be close to public transport links. Although this idea might cost some public money, at least it would recoup some or all of it for local people.

A really bad idea would be to plan a £5million brand new Magna Carta Centre in an area prone to flooding, with no public transport links and few local businesses which would benefit from the visitors. It would be an even worse idea for Surrey County Council (SCC) to offer to fund this vanity project.

Can you guess which idea our elected representatives decided to go for?

Robin Hood or King John?

Like many worried Surrey residents I wrote to the SCC cabinet members to ask them to cancel this spending. £5million represents about half of the increase in Council Tax that SCC charged us all in the last year. To spend this all in one borough (out of 11), for no tangible benefit, on a white elephant is the height of irresponsibility.

Rather than listen to us at the time, SCC cabinet re-confirmed their pledge of £5million after the Communities Select Committee asked them to reconsider it. SCC have a long history of ignoring residents and sticking to unviable decisions to the last gasp, until they are forced into humiliating U-turns like this.

Now they have been forced to back down, RBC will have less time to make alternative arrangements. It is a self-induced shambles by SCC. Again.

Fall of Rome

There comes a time when an administration has been in power too long, when it becomes unable to adapt, to notice, to listen. Surrey County Council is one such administration. After the debacle of the so-called Community Partnered Libraries programme (of which more soon), this latest climbdown that has been forced upon them shows how out of touch they have become.

Evidence of the disarray was displayed today when a Tory councillor quit the party and welcomed the end of the “vanity” project. Other Tories have not exactly covered themselves in glory during their last term. For instance, the councillor for Bagshot, Windlesham and Lightwater East is currently banned from driving. Like the cabinet member responsible for transport, he committed an aggravated drink-driving offence. SCC have been organising “away days” for councillors and senior staff at a castle, at our expense. The council’s propaganda magazine, Surrey Pravda, continues to be sent to all households in Surrey despite cuts to vital services. In the last days of the current Surrey County Council empire, they are fiddling while Surrey burns (they are also cutting fire engines!).

Choices, Choices

Even here, in Surrey, people are having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children. Even here, foodbanks are opening, people can’t find jobs, and school-leavers are missing out on university.

£5million could be spent on reducing the burden of benefit cuts on families, enhancing our libraries (like a new building for Bagshot Library), making cyclists safer on our roads, improving public transport, or reducing the inequality in the county. SCC raise our Council Tax, spend our money like drunken sailors on shore leave, and preside over worsening services and the permanent loss of our natural environment.

This U-turn shows above all that Surrey County Council has lost its way. Luckily there is an election on 2 May when we can all vote for new county councillors to represent us.

Above the Law


‘No man is above the law and no man below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it’ – Theodore Roosevelt

When the Conservative-led government introduced Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) last year they didn’t do so because of a groundswell of public opinion demanding it. It wasn’t because the criminal justice system was in crisis and needed reform either. They did it because some young bright sparks at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange thought it would be a good ruse and many of them got into the lower ranks of David Cameron’s government. To keep them quiet, and to have someone to blame (the PCCs) when their 20% cut to police budgets comes home to roost, they rushed through a new powerful role in the criminal justice system.

Absolute Power?

They hadn’t given much thought about how office-holders in the criminal justice system could stand as candidates for the new post. For the judiciary, the then Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Goldring, had to draw up his own guidelines. For the police, no restrictions were applied to ex-police becoming game-keepers at all, which is storing up trouble for the future.

Among the six candidates here in Surrey we had an ex-magistrate who was chairman of the Police Authority, two ex-police officers (although neither had been a chief officer in the UK) and one serving, current magistrate who did not resign when she became a candidate. There was plenty of scope for them to misuse their public offices in their race to win the well-paid job of PCC. That was why it was so disappointing that only the judiciary had stipulated guidelines and even they were watered down for this, the first, election.

Iles of Wonder

The current, serving magistrate was the Conservative Party candidate, Julie Iles, and many people have been wondering why she had to resign even though she wasn’t elected as PCC.

Before we move on, just consider that for a moment: the Conservative Party candidate failed to win in Surrey, the Tories’ safest police force area. Their party has become so complacent and sclerotic that they couldn’t connect with their own, now ex-, voters. These are the parliamentary constituencies of Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond, cabinet ministers who have lost the trust of their own electorates.

Anyway, Julie Iles had to resign as a magistrate because of a complaint I made to the judicial authorities about her conduct. Importantly, this was a complaint about her conduct as a magistrate, not as a PCC candidate. The rules she broke were those that apply to magistrates. See below for copies of the letters to and from the authorities.

There were two main reasons for my complaint. Firstly, Julie used the reputation of the judiciary to promote her campaign. Goldring had wanted magistrates to be “highly circumspect” about their work if they stood in the PCC election. For example, in an interview on a Tory website, when asked why she was selected to be the Conservative Party candidate, she answered, “The reason I was selected by them is because I have 10 years experience as a magistrate.” That’s not exactly highly circumspect. In fact there were many instances of Julie mentioning her office as the sole, or most prominent, reason for her to be elected or selected. Possibly this was because it was the only relevant qualification she had for the PCC job. I don’t know.

Secondly, Julie didn’t mention (until after my complaint was revealed to her) that she would have to resign as a magistrate if elected. The impression she gave to some voters was that she could tell the police to arrest certain groups of suspects and then ensure that they were dealt with harshly by the courts. This was never true, of course, but the perception of such a process was there and it undermined the impartiality of the judiciary. Perception is reality.

Let Them Eat Cake

Julie Iles might think the decision of the inquiry panel to punish her is harsh but the reputation of the British judiciary is more important than the political ambitions of one person. She cannot have her cake and eat it. By resigning, rather than accepting her punishment, she has prioritised her service to the Conservative Party above service to society as a magistrate. That is her choice. After losing the safest Tory police area in the country, she will now try to salvage her political career by standing as a parliamentary candidate at the 2015 general election. Perhaps people will have forgotten her misconduct as a magistrate by then.

This episode has illustrated an important lesson, that nobody is above the law, not even magistrates and senior Tory Party officers. Nearly 800 years ago the Magna Carta was signed in Surrey. Its principles still apply today and protect our freedoms. Stay tuned for more about this…

Summary of complaint against Julie Iles

letter 1 received

letter 2 received

Details of complaint

letter 3 received

Story in local press here

Fanfare for the Common Land


We are very lucky in Windlesham, Chobham and the surrounding villages, to have Chobham Common nearby. It is a set of lungs for all the villages and towns in the area. The whole character of Surrey Heath would be diminished if we were to lose the “Heath” bit.

The Common is an open space available to people to enjoy. We admire the views, walk, ride horses or exercise dogs there. It is also vital for preserving wildlife and habitats which are becoming endangered. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. While the Common is a great asset for all of us, we also have a responsibility to keep it special for future generations.

Seized!: History of the DERA Site

Part of the Common was seized by the government in 1941, during the Second World War, to build and test tanks on. After the War it was never returned to common ownership and used by the Ministry of Defence then the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, DERA.

Today: Common Currency

Although it was once owned by all of us, the ex-DERA site is now owned by Aviva Investors and they are teaming up with Crest Nicholson to develop it. There is big money to be made here.

The DERA site is split into two parcels, the North and South sites. They are both part of the Green Belt and very close to the Special Protection Area set up to protect endangered birds. This limits what development is currently allowed there. Since local villages already suffer from chronic traffic problems, and local people want to keep the Common open and natural, surely there is little chance of large developments being permitted?

Well, money talks, of course, and Runnymede Borough Council control most of the area in question. Their finances are disastrous and central government think wildlife protection is “red tape” which should be macheted. Against the interests of residents of this area are financial and ideological pressures which mean more to our elected councillors. It seems likely that they will approve the development, at least of the North site, north of the M3. The decision will be made soon, within the next few months.

Hopey Changey Thing?

Despite all the money and power ranged against us on the DERA development, there is still hope. The North and South sites are planned to be removed from the Green Belt. However, there is no need to remove the North site to permit this development because of the existing “footprint” of the buildings there. This can be traded for the new buildings. We hope to be able to resist the removal of the sites from Green Belt.

Also, the lack of infrastructure to support even the North site plans means that the developer should have to fund new community and transport facilities as a condition of the planning permission. Hopefully, the borough councils and the county highways authority can be made to understand this and demand it of the developer.

Runnymede Borough Council hopes to cash in on the government’s New Homes Bonus by allowing new housing on the Common. However, there are other sites within their borough where many new houses could be built, with the consent of residents and with existing infrastructure. Perhaps we can convince them to change their mind and leave Chobham Common alone.

Clear and Present Danger

The prospect of the DERA sites being developed as planned is the greatest current threat to Windlesham, Chobham, Lightwater and Bagshot. The total plan would include 1700 homes and take over 22 years to construct. After decades of HGVs trundling along our village roads, we would have twice daily traffic gridlock and a shortage of health, education and utility capacity. We would lose our peaceful open spaces and wildlife forever.

The proposed development on the North site

The proposed development on the North site

Hello, Good Evening & Welcome


Question: Why does Surrey Heath require another community and political blog? After all there are so many other worthwhile blogs here. Um, OK, there are a couple.

Answer: There are so many pressing issues that will affect people in Surrey, it is vital that they are all covered and nothing is missed out because of the huge volume of changes and threats facing us.

Welcome to Red Sky at Night, the new blog for discussion of local, national and international issues covering government at all levels, society, ideology and parish notices.

Over the next few weeks, here are a few of the items on the agenda:

  • The proposed developments on Chobham Common at the ex-DERA site at Longcross
  • Surrey County Council’s threat to Bagshot and Lightwater Libraries
  • Lightwater Surgery’s use of a revenue-sharing phone number, contrary to their contact
  • Sustainable transport, or the lack thereof, in Surrey
  • How “Zero Tolerance” policing could benefit from a bit more, um, tolerance
  • The privatisation of the NHS and how we can combat this in Surrey Heath
  • Benefits and how Tories locally and nationally are castigating the poorest people
  • Foodbanks and the free meals that our councils provide for their richest supporters
  • Planning applications like Tesco and the Lightwater dance studio
  • Council Tax levels for the next year
  • Housing shortage and preserving the environment
  • Use and misuse of social media
  • Misconduct by local councillors
  • Surrey County Council elections on 2 May
  • Vacancy on Chobham Parish Council to be filled

We are governed nationally by the most ideologically-driven government ever, more so even than Thatcher’s. They are privatising the NHS and other public services, transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, entrenching privilege and pandering to xenophobes. Also, when central government says, “Jump!” our local councils ask, “How high?”. They share the extreme right-wing ideology but combine it with their own brand of mismanagement and incompetence. By scraping the bottom of the barrel for many of their councillors, the local Conservative Party has taken incompetency, confusion, waste, illiteracy and self-interest to new levels.

However, the tide is turning. People are organising locally and online. Labour are 15 percentage points ahead in the latest polls and preparing for the next general election in 2015 already.

Last week saw the darkest hour, the Tory-Lib Dem government voted to cap benefits below inflation and make the poor poorer. In Surrey Heath, the borough council executive voted for the change in Council Tax benefits which hits the poorest hardest too.

The darkest hour comes just before the dawn.

Sophia James

Labour Councillor for Katesgrove Ward

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This blog intends to be a left-leaning view from inside the Chamber,

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