Monthly Archives: February 2013

Surrey Heath Council Tax Going Up


At the Full Council meeting of Surrey Heath Borough Council tonight, they voted to increase your Council Tax by 1.9%. The BBC reported tonight that 4 in 10 councils are raising Council Tax this year. Ours is one of them.

Surrey County Council have already decided to raise their share by 1.99% and the new Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner is raising his share by 1.99% too.

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, urged councils to freeze Council Tax and has branded councils which raise it by just under 2% as “democracy dodgers”. If Council Tax is raised by over 2%, the council has to hold a referendum to approve it. This would be costly and almost certainly fail to approve any rise.

Surrey Heath Borough Council is within the constituency of Michael Gove, Tory leadership hopeful. Even in his constituency, loyal Tories are saying, “enough is enough!”. Budgets have been cut too far and now we are paying the price.

SHBC still waste money on buying lavish meals for wealthy businessmen and propaganda magazines. They have voted for the most extreme cuts to Council Tax benefits in the country which will cost the council due to non-payments. Basically, they have messed up their finances and now Council Tax payers have to stump up.

DERA Site: Wildlife Decision


One of the biggest threats to Chobham and Windlesham is the proposed development on the ex-DERA site on Chobham Common. If the 1,700 homes and business park go ahead without the appropriate infrastructure, the traffic and community problems will be huge.

Also, the plans present a threat to nearby wildlife and countryside. There are sites on Chobham Common which are protected by European legislation because of the very rare species living there and rare heathland habitats. Councils are required to consider the effect on these sites of any new developments.

The Planning Committee of Surrey Heath Borough Council voted to hand over this responsibility to Runnymede Borough Council because 80% of the DERA site is in their area. However, much more of the protected sites are in SHBC area. The Windlesham Society committee asked me to write to the Leader of SHBC and explain that we thought it was best to retain this responsibility in Surrey Heath. We thought that if SHBC does not have enough expertise on these protected sites then they should acquire it because of how important wildlife and habitats are to local people.

The final decision on whether to hand over responsibility to RBC was taken at tonight’s Full Council meeting. I’m very pleased, and surprised, to report that the Planning Committee’s decision has been reversed and the agreement with RBC will not now be entered into.

This is a small but potentially important victory for the Society on behalf of Surrey Heath residents.

Eastleigh: Things Got Better


I had a brilliant time last week campaigning in Eastleigh for the parliamentary by-election. Today is polling day and I have been back there again. There is a tremendous buzz in the Labour HQ with hundreds of people bustling in and out. Labour MPs, shadow cabinet ministers and famous faces from the TV are all mixing with ordinary party volunteers like me.

Here are some photos I took of the walls where we all wrote our names:

photohEastleighEastleigh

I really enjoyed helping last time, but being here today was something special. The eyes of the country are on Eastleigh today, TV crews and photographers everywhere. I got to speak to John O’Farrell, our candidate, and many other Labour celebs.

Most of the day was spent door-knocking with two different teams:

Me, Tom, Rich and Steve

Me, Tom, Rich and Steve

Emily, me, Dave and Simon

Emily, me, Dave and Simon

There was great camaraderie within the teams. We all had a good laugh (including at two Lib Dem students who seemed to have forgotten that Nick Clegg trebled their tuition fees!). I picked up many good tips for campaigning locally which I will use as soon as I can to benefit people in Surrey Heath too.

When we were back at HQ for a short break, I got talking to an agitated elderly man outside in the street. His name was Michael and he had just been into the polling station nearby and had been told he couldn’t vote because he didn’t have his card. Now, I know that you don’t need your polling card to vote so I went with him back to the polling station. The staff explained that Michael was registered for a postal vote so he had to use that. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what had become of his postal ballot paper, or if he ever received it. The polling station staff said he had to go to the civic offices to get issued with a new one. I drove Michael to the civic offices and a very helpful assistant Returning Officer issued him with a new ballot and he filled it in then and there (in a private area where I couldn’t see, of course) and the officer accepted it. I drove him back home then went for lunch, late but feeling pretty good.

John O’Farrell wrote this yesterday to explain why politics matters. I found it really moving. Politics gave us the NHS. The polls close at 10pm. If you live in Eastleigh, do something meaningful today, like Michael did: Vote Labour!

 

Chobham Museum


Chobham Museum is a millenium project staffed by volunteers

Chobham Museum is a millennium project staffed by volunteers

There’s going to be an influx of party workers into Chobham during the next two weeks. Some people might not know Chobham very well so I can recommend a visit to the excellent Chobham Museum in between canvassing sessions.

Chobham has a fascinating history. Queen Victoria visited the famous Chobham Encampment on Chobham Common. Many of my fellow countrymen were among the British troops stationed there and they impressed passing artists with their Highland games. The pictures can be seen in the museum.

There are lots of photos and artefacts from World War Two as well. Remember that was when the DERA site, as we now call it, on the Common was seized by the government for tank design, research and building. We never got it back.

The museum is staffed by very knowledgable volunteers. I particularly enjoyed the story one told me about the so-called treacle mines on Chobham Common. During the Encampment, soldiers were given tins of molasses to celebrate the Queen’s visit. This wasn’t really to their taste so many troops buried the tins on the Common. They are not exactly bio-degradable so their contents can still turn up when the tins trigger metal detectors.

Chobham Museum is only open at weekends during the winter and is located beside the Co-op on Bagshot Road. Give it a visit when you’re here and don’t forget to sign the visitors’ book.

End Homophobia in Chobham


A couple of weeks ago, the Same Sex Marriage Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons. This triggered an outpouring of homophobia from some extreme political factions. Sadly, Surrey Heath, and Chobham in particular, is home to one of those factions.

Dinosaurs Not Yet Extinct

In this podcast, the President of the Surrey Heath Conservative Party, Geoffrey Vero, speaks out against David Cameron for taking a step towards marriage equality. Mr Vero went to Number 10 to lobby the Prime Minister to drop the Same Sex Marriage Bill. Cameron had brought this bill forward to try to show that the Tory Party is not full of bigoted dinosaurs. This backfired because a majority of Tory MPs opposed their leader’s bill. It was only passed thanks to Labour MPs supporting it.

Mr Vero could have lobbied the PM to preserve our Green Belt. He could have asked him to protect the NHS from unscrupulous private companies. He didn’t.

Chobham Councillor’s Hate Speech Against LGBT Minority

Later in the podcast, 4 min 20 secs from the start, county Cllr Lavinia Sealy (Chobham, West End and Bisley) exposes her real fear and hatred of lesbian and gay people. Cllr Sealy is the chairman of Surrey County Council. She doesn’t disguise that she believes discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation is acceptable. She discusses deselecting Michael Gove because he supports the bill. Now, there are many reasons local Tories should deselect Gove but his support for this bill is not one of them. Even the Daily Mail thought Cllr Sealy’s rant was beyond the pale.

She says that gay and lesbian couples shouldn’t bring up children and spits out the words, “medical ethics”, to show her contempt for this minority. The modern Tory Party’s mask has slipped in Chobham.

The Choice for Chobham Voters

Local Tories are showing how out of touch they are. They are used to sharing their comfortable old-fashioned prejudices with each other. When voters in Chobham hear what they are saying, they are appalled. Tory councillors don’t understand that the world has moved on and persecuting minorities is no longer acceptable.

The bill is currently in committee stage in parliament. We can send a message to MPs that the majority of people in Chobham are not bigots.

The Chobham Parish Council by-election is on 14 March 2013. Voters have a clear choice. If you believe that all couples deserve an equal right to show their love for each other by getting married, vote Labour for a candidate who can stand up for all minorities. If you don’t want the Same Sex Marriage Bill to affect you, don’t marry someone of the same sex!

Chobham Needs a Doctors’ Surgery


Chobham doctors’ surgery is part of a GP practice which includes the surgery in West End. There are plans to close both surgeries and open a new, large, surgery on a site between the two villages. The practice manager says that operating two separate sites is not sustainable.

Chobham's doctors' surgery is much loved by many local residents

Chobham’s doctors’ surgery is much loved by many local residents. It’s handy for Chobham Rugby Club too for patching up players after the match!

As the campaign for the Chobham Parish Council by-election on 14 March heats up, people have been contacting me to express their support for keeping a GP surgery in Chobham. It has been mentioned that the existing building should have better access for disabled people though.

The area surrounding the current location has sheltered and retirement housing and many patients arrive by mobility scooter. Also, it is within easy walking distance of relatively dense residential areas of northern Chobham. If it were to move a mile or two outside the village, people in this area would be severely disadvantaged. Public transport is not adequate here.

The small group of retailers in this part of Windsor Road could struggle if their footfall is reduced by the closure of the surgery. Would the pharmacy survive if the doctors moved away? Would the Post Office survive?

The doctors’ surgery is a vital resource for Chobham. Nearby elderly residents value their independence and wouldn’t want to be a burden on relatives who would have to take them to the doctors if they couldn’t walk there.

To ensure that primary healthcare is accessible to everyone in Chobham, free of charge, vote Labour on 14 March.

Things Can Only Get Better


I had a fantastic time today down the M3 in Eastleigh. There will be a parliamentary by-election there on 28 Feb because of the resignation of Chris Huhne. Huhne made his then wife take speeding points for him ten years ago then spent the next decade lying about it. He is awaiting sentencing for perverting the course of justice.

When a seat is vacated, the party of the previous MP gets to choose the timing of the by-election. The Lib Dems have called this one with indecent haste. They hope to bury the memory of Huhne’s disgrace quickly.

Below some famous names

Below some famous names

The Labour candidate is John O’Farrell, the broadcaster, satirist, Spitting Image writer and author of Things Can Only Get Better, among other things. I don’t go in for hero worship, but if I’m totally honest with you, the fact that John is the candidate was the main reason I drove there today to help out. I’m so glad I did – it was a brilliant experience, which I highly recommend.

Anyone can turn up to help at 69 Leigh Rd, Eastleigh. I just walked in and as I was signing the vistors’ register, Amy, the amazingly competent organiser welcomed me and immediately set me to work.

To start with another volunteer, Will (a student), and I phoned through a list of local voters and chatted about the election to them. Once enough people were gathered we formed a team of about 8, one of many, and set off to knock on doors in our assigned area. We were led by Tom, a young full-time party worker from Southampton, who carried a clipboard and sent us to a door each. Once we had chatted to the residents, or if they were out posted a leaflet through the letter box, we reported back to Tom with our findings and were given the next address.

Me, Raj, Brian, Will and Kerry

Me, Raj, Brian, Will and Kerry

We were a great team who immediately gelled, having so much in common already. Along with Will, Tom and me there was Brian, a former Eastleigh councillor, Jim and Angela from Fareham, Kerry, the Member of Parliament for Bristol East and Raj who is originally from Eastleigh and has come back to help out.

The weather was perfect and we had some really interesting conversations with voters, and with each other. Having such high morale in our team definitely rubbed off on the people were speaking to.

We had a break between canvassing sessions and talked politics the whole time. Kerry, a former lawyer, told us all about life as an MP and why she decided to stand for parliament. I haven’t met many MPs and it was great to have so much time to be able to ask about parliament and the Labour Party at the highest level. We discussed community organising, which is my priority, and which I pressed Ed Miliband on when I met him a while ago. I received lots of expert advice on campaigning issues I have come across in Surrey Heath.

Kerry McCathy MP and I met voters in Eastleigh today

Kerry McCathy MP and I met voters in Eastleigh today

Tom and Amy gave us advice on campaigning too. Tom talked about designing leaflets and Amy gave us some pointers on social media. We all swapped tips on leafleting, fundraising, organising, running elections and campaigning. We also gossiped furiously about the Tories and Lib Dems, especially Chris Huhne.

I had a great day and I’m going to go back soon. If you are a Labour supporter, I highly recommend going to Eastleigh for even an hour or two. If you are a Tory or Lib Dem, I think you should give it a miss.

With such great friendly young talented people driving the Labour Party forward, the future is inevitable: Things can only get better!

Vote Labour for a One Nation alternative in Eastleigh. Raj, Tom, Will, me and Kerry

Vote Labour for a One Nation alternative in Eastleigh. Raj, Tom, Will, me and Kerry

Chobham By-Election: Runners and Riders


And they’re off!

Regular readers will remember that I forced the by-election to fill the recent vacancy on Chobham Parish Council by collecting ten signatures of local voters and submitting them to the Returning Officer.

Today, the Returning Officer published a list of all the valid nominations for candidates at the election. I’m gratified to see that I’m not alone in thinking that an election would be a good idea. There are two other candidates (as well as me!).

Surprisingly, the Conservative Party are fielding a candidate. They have been criticising me, including in their column in the Woking News and Mail (there’s no Labour column, unfortunately), for calling the election. They must have changed their minds and realise now that I was right and having an election is the right thing to do. I hope they can move on from this sort of point-scoring for the campaign.

The last time I stood for the parish council in Chobham, the Labour vote was split by the independent candidate. This time the Tory vote will be split. This gives us a great chance to snatch victory from under their noses.

The timetable from now on is:

Noon Wed 20 Feb – Last chance for candidates to withdraw

Wed 27 Feb – Last date to be registered to vote or to apply for postal vote

Wed 6 Mar – Notice of Poll published

Wed 13 Mar – Opening of Postal Votes

Thurs 14 Mar – Polling stations open 0700-2200

I expect the count will take place in Chobham Village Hall after the polling station closes at 10pm on polling day but this has not been confirmed yet.

We have already started canvassing and leafleting but there is a lot still to do. Please contact me if you would like to help on richard_wilson@hotmail.com 

People have been telling me that they are worried about the relocation and merger plan for the Chobham and West End GP surgeries. I am the only candidate who has relevant experience campaigning in this area. Chobham Common is dear to the hearts of everyone in Chobham and my campaigning here is appreciated too.

Chobham is a unique community. It has people from all walks of life and the Parish Council needs an active, inclusive councillor with the energy to represent all the people of Chobham.

Vote Labour on 14 March for a One Nation alternative for Chobham.

Surrey Heath Council Tax Extremists


For about 1,900 residents in Surrey Heath, this will be the most important story of the year.

Currently, central government funds a system of Council Tax benefit for unemployed people or those on very low incomes. From April 2013 this system will be “localised” to borough, unitary and district councils like Surrey Heath. This means that they will decide who receives benefit to pay their Council Tax. At the same time, Eric Pickles is cutting the funding for the benefit by 10% and saying that pensioners’ benefits cannot be affected. This means that councils will be about 20% short when it comes to funding Council Tax benefits for working age claimants, including the disabled.

Each borough and unitary council has had to decide what to do about this. Would they keep benefits as they are and fund the shortfall by cutting elsewhere or raising Council Tax (the “status quo” option)? Would they place all the cuts on the backs of the poor, and a bit extra to cover the increase in non-payments (the “fully funded” option)? Or would they opt for something in between?

Surrey Heath Extremists

There are 235 such councils in England and about 20% went for the “status quo” option. Nearly all of the rest went for something in between, such as demanding everyone pays at least 8.5% of their Council Tax bill. Can you guess which option Surrey Heath Borough Council went for? Yes, they went for the most extreme, so-called “fully funded”, option, requiring at least 30% of Council Tax be paid by benefit recipients. Of all the councils in the country, they will be charging benefit recipients the highest, about £8 per week on average.

Job Seekers’ Allowance can be as low as £56.25 for under 25s, or £71pw for over 25s. This pays for food, gas, electricity, clothing, transport, etc and is only paid to people looking for a job. Job seekers can now be forced to work for free for unscrupulous employers like Poundland so they don’t even have time to look for paid work. A local Tory website here helps employers prey on desperate people looking for work too, calling them, “a bit of free resource.” JSA also has to pay for nappies, toiletries, school uniforms, packed lunches, children’s books and Internet access. Now Surrey Heath Tories will take an average of £8pw from these families.

Why Hit Poorest Families Hardest?

So why did Surrey Heath Borough councillors choose to be the most extreme council in the country? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. They are the most right-wing councillors in the country. Well, possibly. Some of the them are ideologically off the scale, but I think there is more to it than that.
2. They didn’t understand what they were voting for. This definitely applies to some of them. The briefing document prepared by the officers was, necessarily, long and detailed and I know some of the Tory councillors would not be literate enough to read it. I was at the council’s Executive when this was debated and it was clear to me that the detail and the principle was incomprehensible to most of the Conservative councillors present. The Leader of the Opposition tried to explain it to them but I think council officers should have done more to educate their dimmer pupils too.
3. They didn’t care. Surrey Heath is one of the most affluent boroughs in the country. The number of benefit claimants here is very small. Tory councillors don’t know anyone who claims Council Tax benefit and they don’t, and can’t, understand the pressures they are under. However, since the numbers are small, we can easily afford to continue providing benefits.
4. They wanted to toe the line. Many Tory councillors benefit personally, socially and financially, from being councillors. So even non-extremist councillors who did understand it and care about people in financial crisis might have voted with their party for their own reasons. SHBC pays patronage payments to reward loyal service, dressed up as vice-chair responsibility allowances. Ordinary councillors get paid an allowance regardless of how much work they do and they wouldn’t want to be deselected and lose this cash. Those loyal enough to be selected as county councillors get over £11k per year, some going for months without attending any meetings. Also, SHBC has a high proportion of Freemasons within its ranks and this might have influenced these people too.

What would I do?

Budgets are tight and it is not really SHBC’s fault that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in Westminster has chosen to cut their budget again. However, by choosing the most extreme policy SHBC has hit the poorest hardest. Many people will be unable to pay the required 30% minimum that they are demanding. Non-payments will increase. People will be criminalised. Bailiffs will be called. Courts will be clogged up and in the end, SHBC will lose money overall. Also, Surrey County Council and Surrey Police will suffer because of the increase in non-payments as the borough council collect Council Tax on their behalf. There will be greater demand on council services as families collapse financially.

Personally, I would have voted for the “status quo” option. I believe the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor.

I would fund this by:

  • Removing vice-chair allowances.
  • Charging for the council’s Business Breakfast where the wealthiest businessmen get £30 of free food every 6 months paid for by you and me.
  • Scrapping the SHBC propaganda magazine Heathscene.

These measures alone would just about cover the cost. If necessary, I would raise Council Tax too.

I estimate there are about 400 families in the Bagshot, Windlesham and Chobham division who will be affected by SHBC’s extremist decision to cut their benefit. Many will never have paid Council Tax before. They are already in financial crisis. They have little or no savings, little income and now are castigated by David Cameron and George Osborne as “scroungers” and “skivers”. Other benefits are being held well below inflation and housing benefit is being cut too.

Whether you are affected by this or not, stand up against Conservatives adding insult to grave injury to the least fortunate people in Surrey Heath. The Surrey County Council election is on 2 May 2013.

The 500 Bus: Full Disclosure


I’ve had a lot of interesting information from Surrey County Council about bus services and the number 500 bus service in particular. I thought it would be useful to publish it all for passengers and bus enthusiasts to read. I’m going to editorialise as little as possible as an experiment.

Most recently, I asked about unexpected service cancellations and I can’t really disagree with:

Further to your recent query, all bus companies do have occasion when a journey fails to operate, usually for circumstances beyond their control, such as compound delays caused by traffic congestion or a road traffic accident. Occasionally, a failure may be down to a mechanical problem with the vehicle and rarer still, lack of a driver. This represents a very small percentage out of total mileage operated.

I also asked how people can find out whether the bus they are waiting for is delayed or cancelled:

Advising people that a journey is not running, whilst they are waiting at stops, is obviously a challenge. A few stops in Surrey Heath, for example, do have Real Time Information electronic screens and if used effectively by a bus company, they could show a message. As such technology becomes cheaper and more robust we do aim to increase the number of such screens, but it is a slower than ideal process, governed by funding availability; the locations have to be strictly prioritised.

Encouraging people to use public transport is vital and this Real Time Information system must be rolled out everywhere as soon as possible. Inevitably, funding pressures are mentioned but, as I suggested before, there may be ways round this.

What about the 500 bus at the moment? What should passengers do?:

The number of occasions when a route 500 journey is cancelled is extremely small. Usually, it is caused by compound delays due to unforeseen congestion in the A30 corridor – a small incident can have prolonged knock-on effect. Mr Dickson usually telephones our office to advise of the situation and any likely impact on the service, in case customers phone the Council for information, but in general instructs the drivers to cover the journey, however late they have become. The impression received is that the general reliability of the 500 is very good and negligible adverse comment is received.

A while ago I made a Freedom of Information request to find out some basic facts about the 500 bus service. Here is what SCC told me about the cost of the contract (I asked if any other council part-funds the service):

Dickson Travel only receives support from Surrey County Council. The contract is “package-priced ” with another service – the 48 from Frimley to Woking. The annual contract payment for routes 48 (one bus) and 500 (two buses) in 2012/13 is £197,854. A copy of the contract specification as issued to bidders when last tendered is attached, together with the generic Conditions of Contract applicable to all our contracted bus services.

The “Service Specification” is here.

The contract is here.

 

I asked about the passenger numbers on each day of the week and at different times of day:

The total number of passenger journeys made on the 500 for 2011/12 was in the region of 50,000. Disaggregated data may be obtainable from Mr Dickson. The vehicles have 25 – 27 seats.

I asked about the fares and who pays them:

The number of passenger journeys made by holders of Senior Citizen/Disabled Person passes is part of a dataset that is regarded as commercially confidential and likely to be exempt under FOI Act 2000. The amount of revenue collected may be available from Mr Dickson, if he chooses to share it, although he may well also regard that as commercially sensitive. Such information can also be exempt under FOI 2000. Free travel is received by holders of Over 60s/Disabled Persons permits and students under 16 years who are statutorily-eligible for free home to school transport. Discounted travel is received by children under 16, students aged 16-19 in full time education and resident in Surrey if they apply for and purchase a Student Fare Card and those who may purchase a period ticket from the operator.

Of course, the “Service Specification” above estimates that £300pw is received in fares.

I asked if they had ever considered making the service free:

No study has been carried out regarding making this service or any other, free to all. Universal free travel is simply unaffordable as the Council would be unable to find the additional subsidy to recompense for revenue forgone.

They provided some additional information:

Bus service 500 is not a commercially-viable proposition to any bus company. For that reason, Windlesham’s buses are specified, contracted and funded by Surrey County Council, as a socially necessary service. The service is procured by competitive tender, with the successful bidder being effectively subsidised for the difference between the cost of provision and the revenue generated. The operator retains the on-bus fares revenue and the Concessionary Fare re-imbursement.

Interestingly, they acknowledged that the closure of Windlesham branch GP surgery makes public transport more important:

The Council is always keen to promote further usage of any bus service. It currently has plans to raise awareness of, for example, the link by 500 bus to Sunningdale station, where car parking is now expensive and limited by capacity. It is also aware of and is considering the more recent requirement to travel to Lightwater for the surgery. However, the cost to the Council of adding, say, one additional bus on a service like the 500, to make it more frequent, could be in the region of £90,000 – £110,000 per year, as the likelihood of recouping the cost from extra revenue is slim. The Council is keen to explore the enhancement of services, but this must be affordable within a significantly reducing budget and must represent reasonable value for money to the taxpayer. To put this into context, a three year Bus Review has just concluded, with a requirement to reduce annual bus support expenditure countywide by £4m.

I’m glad that they are keen to enhance bus services. Hopefully with new energy and initiative at SCC we can achieve this. Next election here: 2 May 2013.

Sophia James

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