Sunday, 28 April 2013

Behind the Leaflet II – Putting People First

Second in this series spelling out a little more of the thinking behind some of the bullet points in my election leaflet 

“Put people first in social services – the system may be complicated and cut to the bone, but that’s not a reason to make things confusing or even more difficult for service users”

OK – Government funding is such that health care, adult care, family support, education, the adoption service, benefits etc etc is managed through different funding pots by different agencies with different structures operating over different areas. Much of the work of social workers, health care workers, police, benefits advisers goes into multi-agency liaison panels, case conferences and general coordination of activities and interventions. And when things go wrong – the media and the politicians generally blame the workforce for not co-ordinating their activities better.

But all this necessary mechanism is just that – machinery for operating the system and managing budgets and resources. The people in need, the people being helped by these services, shouldn’t have to learn the system to get help. They shouldn’t be passed from one support worker to another according to how funding streams divide up the work, even when liaison between those support workers is great and they can signpost people to one another. 

From the point of view of the vulnerable and confused people – and their frustrated relatives – the appropriate help should be available from one or two people who can build up a good relationship. They should never be told “I can’t help you with that – you’ll need to get in touch with…”

The government has argued for better coordination between agencies whilst cutting resources, fragmenting services and abolishing the structures they co-operated too. I’m suggesting something a bit different – more like a ‘personal shopper’ system.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Behind the Leaflet I – Localisation of Welfare Benefits

Of necessity my election leaflet has a number of fairly cryptic bullet points which refer to ‘hidden’ manifesto ideas behind them. In the run-up to the local elections on May 2nd (Vote for me!), I intend to use this blog to spell some of these out in more detail. So – 

“Manage the localisation of welfare benefits with carefully thought-through schemes that support claimants through a difficult transition.”

The present government is devolving a number of benefits to local authorities to deliver – at the same time changing their character and criteria and reducing the amount of money available. The Green Party are obviously campaigning on this at a national level – but at a local council level, all that can be done is to manage the transition well, creating the minimum of bureaucracy-caused hardship. As Chair of Northumberland Credit Union, sitting on the county Financial Wellbeing Partnership – I’m on the fringes of these matters already.

I’ve already blogged about the localisation of council tax benefits – mainly concentrating on the unforeseen impact on parish council precepts. The government has awarded a ‘discretionary fund’ amounting to about 90% of the money previously spent on council tax benefits, then set a number of criteria prescribing how this should be allocated. NCC has topped this up by upping the council tax on second homes, so is mostly able to meet claims. But because this changes the local council tax base, it has turned parish precepts into a regressive tax, with lower taxes in areas with lots of second homes and higher council tax where there are a lot of people getting council tax benefit. 

As regards the cuts to housing benefits linked to house occupancy, the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – I’m told that there are about 3,500 households affected in the county, with an estimated £38,000 per week reduction in benefits. The Government has awarded NCC £415,000 for ‘discretionary payments’ – but that won’t go far… I gather that many housing benefits recipients have said that they will ‘absorb’ the reduction – but housing associations are preparing for a spike in arrears when they do their four-weekly assessments at the end of April.

However – the Northumberland Emergency Transition Support scheme is perhaps more interesting: it replaces the former Social Fund Crisis Grants with a system of interest-free loans, ASDA food vouchers, food parcels and – as a last resort – cash. Claimants can claim up to twice a year (as opposed to three times a year under the national scheme). The assessment has been outsourced to DAWN and Voices, and is very stringent, I gather in the first ten days of the scheme running (it started ion 2nd April), there were 324 applications and only 9 were granted awards.   

So – the Council is in for a tough time running a local benefits system prescribed fairly tightly and under-resourced by the government, and will see real hardship and poverty in the county if they get it wrong. Isn’t this something candidates should be aware of and talking about? 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Voting Positively...

Nice to get a mention in the LibDems leaflet - must mean I'm worrying them. Of course they've just added 'Greens' to Labour under their "can't win here" list - but that's just normal negative campaigning tactics.

OK - in 'safe seats' in parliamentary elections like Wansbeck, the argument "can't win here" may be valid - at least until we get PR for Westminster (though the LibDems have messed up prospects of that) - but in small local elections like Morpeth North, where maybe at total of 2-2500 votes will be cast - anyone can win (if they get enough votes - I reckon you could win with around 700 votes). 

And I'd have thought the argument "Vote LibDem to keep out the Tories" was a bit worn these days - though of course the parliamentary situation is totally different from the County Council.

So no! There's no need to vote tactically against a party - no need to settle for 'second best' - vote for the person you want to be your county councillor for the next four years. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

On the Doorstep II - Speed Limits, On-Street Parking and the School Run

Well - more feedback from canvassing:

Along Mitford Road, residents seem to be coming to terms with the floodworks in their gardens - many have recruited an enterprising agent to deal with the EA and the contractors - though there are reports of poor communication between the EA and contractors and instances of poor people skills shown by the workforce.

Aside from that - main issues seem to be the speed of traffic coming past the schools from the Low Ford bridge and car parking by parents collecting children from the Middle Schools. I remember working as the ward town councillor with former County Councillor Stuart McKellar about ten-twelve years back on the former issue - there needs to be a 20mph zone outside the schools (at the very least) and probably one of those light-up 30mph signs that they have on every other road into the town. The problem as I recall is that the curve of the road from the west (which makes the approach to the schools blind and therefore even more dangerous) means that there is not enough of a sightline for speed restriction signs to be visible enough, though apparently a better case could be made if a child was killed or injured on the road. At least that's what the Highways Engineers and police said at the time - maybe it is worth revisiting without the need for a sacrifice.

And - twice a day - despite car parking being available at the Rugby Club, the whole street is lined with cars picking up children. And because lots of school buses are coming through, most of the cars are parked up on the pavement, so that the children (and other pedestrians) have to step out into the road - into the traffic - both to get round the cars and also get into cars. It is a nightmare. Although the Middle Schools do attract children from way outside Morpeth, I'd guess that most of those come by school bus. So - if there were safe routes for children to walk or cycle to the schools, there'd be no need for this mayhem. Someone suggested opening up Carlisle Park and the river promenade along High Stanners for cyclists (maybe only during the school run periods?) - so that children had a mainly off-road route to the schools.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

A Water Folly

The new water feature that replaced the Red Bull pub on the corner of Staithes Lane was tested for the first time this week. 

In keeping with the apparent intent the create a Versailles of Superstores or at least pose a local challenge to the Alnwick Gardens - the fountain is evidently capable of projecting a narrow jet of water some twenty feet into the air. The test was a half-power with merely a ten foot high jet and conditions were a bit windy - which isn't all that unusual on that corner, particularly since most of the surrounding buildings, trees, walls and hedges have been demolished and replaced with an expanse of tarmac.

So - I gather - the unfortunate workmen who were deputed to roleplay Morrisons' customers or simply passers by on the pavement were thoroughly soaked as the water sprayed over the steps, the ramps, the balustrades and halfway across the road (giving passing cars an unexpected patch of wet road on which to brake as they approach the pedestrian controlled lights). 

So - NCC Highways have decided that the water feature can only be turned on in near windless conditions. At least that means the rarity of the event will make it another visitor attraction for the town.

 But even that might not be the case: while out canvassing this evening, I just happened to meet someone who designs urban public realm water features and he told me that it was a well-established fact that even in still air, the spray from a fountain travelled horizontally as far as the fountain is high. A twenty foot fountain will generate spray over a twenty foot circle even in windless conditions - and that he would not have put such a feature in that location.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lord Adonis agrees with me...

In my election leaflet (available through all good letter boxes in your area now), one of the things I argue that the county council should do is::

"Introduce a countywide ‘oyster-style’ card for bus, train and taxi travel"

ie an integrated smart card for public transport.

Meanwhile, Lord Adonis has been heading up the North East Independent Economic Review commissioned by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership - the Review recommendations are now published, and one of the main recommendations on transport is:

"A key priority, which needs to be agreed by mid-2013, is the joint commitment of the bus operators association and Nexus/the LA7 to introduce competitively-priced all-operator smartcard ticketing for the North East, as good as or better than London’s Oyster, to be available by autumn 2014."

ie an integrated smart card for buses across Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and Co Durham.

Great minds think alike!