Tuesday, September 29, 2009

City Homes South Campaign moves to Housing Management Board

Coleridge Conservatives campaign to save the City Homes South Area office moved to the Council's Housing Management Board this evening.

The Council's customer services strategy involves moving customer facing services from departments across the Council to the customer service centre at Mandela House, and cutting staff numbers. As a Conservative I would encourage new ways of providing services, particularly where there are service improvements such as longer opening hours.

But for managing the Council's housing stock, I have a number of concerns.

Reserves have been run down to pay for the customer service centre, so there is now significant pressure to achieve the cost savings in the service lines - City Homes have big savings targets, but this may not be possible without significant problems in delivering services on the ground when so many activities must be face to face.

But it also puts the area offices, City Homes North and South at serious risk. The Lib Dems running the Council have said they will keep the area offices open for a year whilst the transition takes place and will 'take the decision then' as to whether to keep area offices. Sounds to me like the decision has already been taken - they are trying to save money and won't be able to operate two systems at the same time for very long.

I think the City Council needs to maintain a public facing physical presence outside the City Centre - if not as dedicated housing offices (where members of the public can already, for example, review planning applications), then as general purpose offices where residents could access a wide range of Council services. It may not save all the money the customer service strategy hopes to, but the Council mustn't become a remote city centre bureaucracy. Concerns were also raised at tonights meeting about how accessible Mandela House is for people needing disabled parking and after several meetings at Mandela House, from me about the woeful lack of cycle parking.

Usually committees at the Council have a majority of Lib Dems, but Housing Management Board has voting tenant representatives. Thanks to this, my proposal that a report is brought back to the January committee to look at all the aspects of City Homes move to the customer service centre, including the future of the area offices was passed, despite the Lib Dems abstaining. Conservatives will be keeping up the pressure to make City Council services more locally accessible.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tesco appeal against Mill Road alcohol refusal

Following the decision of the Licensing Sub-Committee on the 17th August 2009, the City Council has been advised that Tesco Stores Ltd. have appealed the Sub-Committee's decision and consequently the matter will be subject to a further hearing in the Magistrates Court. It is likely that persons who attended to speak on the 17th August may be asked to attend the Magistrates Court on a date to be set by them. We will keep you advised of developments.

I hope the strongly expressed views of local residents aren't ignored in the Magistrates Court...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nursing Home expansion plans still too much

Expansion plans by the nursing Home at 369 Cherry Hinton Road were reviewed at a development control forum at the City Council last week.

These forums are designed to bring the applicants and objectors together prior to deciding on a planning application to see if objections can be resolved. A previous application for the site was turned down by East Area committee, after objectors, including Coleridge Conservatives successfully argued that the expansion was an overdevelopment of the site that would introduce problems with car parking and delivery van obstruction on Kelvin Close.

The latest plans seem to be essentially the same - a pair of semi detached houses on the close will be bulldozed and the building increased in size by about 50%. The key change is to move the entrance to the building to discourage delivery from Kelvin Close.

Having listened to the arguments, I agree with the objectors' representative at the meeting that this revised application really doesn't fix the problems. There will still be delivery from the road, and plans for the car parking spaces to only increase by 1 despite the significant increase in size of the home will only add to problems on the road - this application is still to much for the site.

It was particularly disappointing to hear the response from the highways department at the County Council that they thought the applicants had a 'reasonable approach to avoiding an overprovision of car parking spaces' and parking on the road won't cause a problem. It is clear to me that parking could be a significant problem - yes we need to encourage alternatives to car travel, by artificially reducing car parking spaces on new developments such that demand for parking spills into neighbouring roads isn't the solution.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Are taxpayers being ripped off?

Over at the Cambridge Evening News, Labour are getting exercised that rebuilding the house tragically destroyed in Cherry Hinton isn't covered by the Council's insurance, and the Council will have to find £150,000 itself to do the building.

That may or may not be fair comment - if the insurance excess was lower, the premiums would be higher.

What I am shocked about is the cost of this rebuilding. A friend in the building trade told me the other day that I could buy a brand new 3 bedroom house in Soham for £150,000 - and that needs to cover the cost of the land, the cost of all the stuff Councils charge developers for on new developments, the cost of marketing and profit for the developer and of course the cost of building. The City Council already owns the land, and is replacing an existing house - how on earth can this cost so much to do? It is pretty clear that so called 'affordable' housing isn't low cost housing - it is housing that is very expensive to build, but let at significantly below market rates. Someone has to pay for this situation - and most likely it is taxpayers in private housing that are footing the bill.

The costs charged to Government for getting capital projects done seem to be completely out of all control. When the Council refurbishes its sheltered housing schemes to create self contained units, I understand the cost to the Council on some schemes is around £125,000 per unit - to refurbish! The cost of the A14 upgrade is now estimated to be over £1 billion pounds, that is £1,000,000,000 - for a short stretch of dual carriageway. The Guided Busway will cost the Council around £120 million - and there are still huge cost overruns to be picked up by the contractor. A few speed humps and raised junctions for Mill Road - £400,000. Even a few metres of humble yellow lines in Coleridge are estimated to cost the Council £2,000.

I appreciate that some projects are just complex and expensive, but I do worry that when it comes to estimating jobs for the public sector, contractors seem to be able to get away with extracting the maximum possible cash from the taxpayer. Its time we looked into this aspect of public spending with a much finer toothcomb - what is it exactly about what the Council's specify, or how they go about procuring work that makes the cost to the taxpayer of these projects so mind-bogglingly high...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tackling Crime and Burglary

A number of agencies and organisations will be available on Saturday, September 19 at Brookfield's Hospital between 10am and 3pm to give residents advice about protecting themselves, and their homes.

- Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service will visit homes and advise on smoke alarm fitting and arson prevention.
- Cambridge City Council will be on hand to talk about community safety issues, anti-social behaviour and graffiti.
- Cambridgeshire Constabulary will give residents advice about burglary prevention and law and order
- The Bobby Scheme will be offering home security improvements to the elderly and vulnerable.

Residents will also be able to get information about Neighbourhood Watch schemes, and find out more about keeping in touch with local police officers through the e-cops email service.

Any local residents in Coleridge, Romsey or the surrounding area concerned about crime and community safety in their area are welcome to come along and get some help and advice.

If you have any questions please contact community safety at the city council on 01223 457950.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Post Office Industrial Action

Looks like the post service in Cambridge has stopped working - had the following from the City Council's post room:

"Due to industrial action at Royal Mail there is no incoming postal service today (14/09/09). Outgoing post will collected as normal from offices today, delays are expected in the delivery of these items."

The Communications Workers Union seem to have planned a series of stoppages, doubtless designed to cause maximum inconvenience to their customers at minimum cost to their members. They are also balloting nationally for a strike. I was surprised to hear the stoppage only started today - I haven't received any mail for days.

The Royal Mail is a nationalised industry, working in an area that has seen huge changes caused by new technology available to deliver information and by competition from companies working on a much more commercial basis, who live and die based on their ability to service their customer's needs. Yet the union thinks it is acceptable to resist changes to working practices, even if they are essential to improve the efficiency of the service, and then go on strike if they don't get their way. This type of behaviour should have gone out of fashion with flares and bankrupt Labour Governments in the 1970s - but some people just don't seem to learn from their mistakes.

My sympathy is with the many small local businesses who need to receive payments from customers or they will suffer cashflow problems, in an already challenging economic environment. Strike action like we have seen today is simply not an acceptable way of dealing with problems in the modern world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Government by Database

The government has announced new measures that on the face of it suggest a vast increase in the number of people that will be subject to criminal record checks before they are allowed to have contact with children

The aim of the initiative nobody could disagree with - to protect children from paedophiles and others who may harm them. I fear the result of this measure, like so many other 'government by database' initiatives will be one of expensive failure. I'm thinking ID cards to 'protect' us from terrorism/immigrants/whatever the excuse is this month, vast DNA databases of innocent people to 'protect' us from crime, or automated speed cameras to solve all our road safety problems.

The basic theory of 'government by database' is that a complex problem like stopping terrorism, saving children from paedophiles, ensuring road safety etc can be essentially solved by creating a vast state controlled database, then applying a relatively simple test (a single analysis of simple inputs producing a narrow range of defined conclusions), and using the results of the test to punish someone or stop them doing something.

In theory, this is the bureaucrats dream - difficult problems solved through the application of technology. A degree of control of undesirable behaviour that previous generations of authoritarian leaning governments could only dream of.

Trouble is, it is deeply, deeply flawed. I would suggest as a plan it is obviously flawed, but the Labour government has been so keen on pursuing this agenda, it is worth analysing in general terms why 'government by database' is such a bad idea.

Put simply, it doesn't work. You can't model a complex social situation in a single test. ID cards are touted as a 'foolproof' method of proving my identity, and therefore some proponents of them (like the aspiring-MP and Coleridge Labour Councillor who supports the government's ID card agenda) actually think individuals should welcome them as something useful.

The reality of life is that complex situations cannot be resolved to simple test. How do I prove my identity? - that can never be answered by a record on a database, that could be manipulated by any number of people, it is about who I am, where I live, my friends, my work, my beliefs and ideals, a vast array of complex interactions and information. You can never guarantee that you are speaking to who you think you are, or if they really have the characteristics they suggest and that you are interested in when deciding whether or not to undertake a social transaction, but the more you know about someone, the more a human can reach a reliable conclusion that they are comfortable with that interaction.

By contrast, the 'government by database' approach fails at many fundamental and simple levels.

The inputs to the database could be wrong - in the case of today's anti-paedophile announcement, one false allegation, one accidental misconnection of an event to the wrong person with a similar name, and the test could condemn innocent people, in an area where 'false positives' can have a devastating effect on the individual concerned.

Whilst the problem of wrong data should be a worry to those who think they have done nothing wrong (and therefore, as proponents will often remind, have 'nothing to fear'), wrong data is a huge opportunity for those who the systems are designed to protect us from. Who is to say information that indicates a potentially paedophile will ever make it on to the database, or if it is there, that any one of the thousands who are necessarily authorised to update the data won't amend this data to present a false picture of an individual.

Normally it just wouldn't be worth the risk of prosecution for a systems administrator who alters or accesses data, but the power of a single 'foolproof' test, and the faith placed in the result of that test by people who have no information other than the test result add immensely to the value of infiltrating the bureaucrats and technocrats who administer the systems, be it by paedophile rings or terrorist groups.

With the message from Government that we can absolutely trust the results of the 'government by database' test, even when that patently isn't true, we could even find ourselves less protected as slavery to the database changes behaviour. Human beings, like headteachers or social workers traditionally exercise professional judgement about the desirability of a person working with children based on all the information available to them (or they use social interactions to increase their available information if they don't think it is sufficient to reach a reliable conclusion). With this task outsourced to a government database - will the temptation be to reduce vigilance based around common sense. With the road safety example, as driving safely is ever more equated with simply not exceeding an often arbitrary speed limit - people are less inclined to think about the vastly complex risks present at all speeds of driving that could make a serious accident more likely.

What makes me really angry about the 'government by database' strategy is that despite it being deeply broken, the price we all have to pay is vast. Government IT is vastly expensive, a non-trivial part of the huge budget mess Labour will leave to the next government, but worse still, the government will be in possession of vast amounts of data, that could live on forever, and be used by a government to control us as individuals or our children for generations.

I'll stop as this appears to have turned into a rant - and to think I was going to do a rare post about how right the Prime Minister was today with his comments on Alan Turing...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Election Count Arrangements

There is some speculation at the moment as to when local authorities will organise their counts for the next general election - with the suggestion that more authorities will start counting on the Friday following the poll, rather than immediately on close of polls.

I'm not sure who actually makes this decision, but I've written to the City Council's Chief Executive to find out, and to urge that we count as soon as possible after the close of polls - a new government can't come soon enough...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Future of URC on Cherry Hinton Road discussed

This afternoon Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Cherry Hinton Road held a public discussion about possible future uses for their site. I was at the church's barbecue, presentation and discussion this afternoon at which various ideas were bounced around.

For background: the church on Cherry Hinton Road merged with Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street in January this year. The regular congregation at Cherry Hinton Road is around eight at the moment, but while they have every intention of continuing to worship there they are keen for the site to have a greater level of use than it currently has.

The church has canvassed local opinion and it is excellent news that they are trying to engage the wider community in their planning. The minister was keen to point out that no, they have no intention of allowing the site to become a Tesco store or high-rise flats!

Already there are many other things going on on the site, such as the Bumble Bears Pre-School Nursery, and the Christ Embassy Church also worships there. Many of the ideas discussed revolved around additional community activities, including shared meals, but seemed to be things which could be done without a principal change to the usage of the site. Some form of development of part of the site, such as for elderly residential use, was also in consideration.

The University of the Third Age was interested in leasing the site to use as a network of classrooms, since they are expecting to have to leave their site on Bridge Street in the future. [CORRECTION: see comment on this article from the Cambridge chairman - it seems this must just have been someone's suggestion as it's not part of their plans]

It was noted that the council is keen for the church to keep the building, and there did seem to be a lot of feeling that it should continue to be used for its current purpose.

A representative of the Greek Orthodox church, which currently uses St Clement's Anglican church on Bridge Street, said that they would be interested in buying a lease or freehold for the entire site so that they could move there, and if they did, to continue an arrangement with the two existing congregations and other uses of the site. This sounds to me like a potential win-win solution, but of course it will be up to URC members what they finally decide to do!

Thanks to the church for their hospitality from Andy, Phil and Chris of Coleridge Conservatives.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

East Area Committee this evening

This evening (Thurs 3rd) is the excitement of East Area committee - your chance to meet Councillors for Coleridge, Abbey, Romsey and Petersfield, and ask questions in the open forum.

On the agenda this evening is neighbourhood policing priorities, local environmental improvement schemes, an update on the new blue bins, and planning applications, including for Tiverton House.

The fun starts at 7pm at the Cherry Trees Day Centre, St Matthews St, Cambridge - I look forward to seeing you all later.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hill Road Bridge to fully reopen Sept 7th

The County Council have confirmed that the Guided Bus works on Hills Road bridge will finally be completed on 6th September. The County Council will then work overnight to implement a trial road layout to help cyclists across the bridge, that will be in place from Monday 7th. From their press release:

The safety trial will segregate cyclists and motorists using the bridge with temporary kerbs and a raised white line, known as a rumble strip. The trial is expected to be in place for up to four months."

Busway contractor, BAM Nuttall, has informed the Council they will finish all the work on the bridge this Sunday. Currently there are around 4,000 cycle trips each day over the bridge and it is hoped the new scheme will help cyclists and motorists as well as encouraging more people to use their bike.

Mike Davies, Programme Manager for Cycle Cambridge, said: "The aim of the trial is to show how the new cycle lanes could improve the safety of this busy route. Each day 4,000 people ride their bike over the bridge and by making it safer even more people will choose to cycle, rather than drive. Less cars on the road means good news for everybody.

"During the trial we will assess traffic flows at the junctions at either end of the bridge, queue lengths and driver behaviour before making a decision whether to make the cycle lanes permanent."

During the trial the bridge will return to two lanes in each direction, however the uphill sections will be reserved for cyclists only. We do not envisage the set-up of the trial causing any delays as we will be doing this overnight and the bridge will remain open.

If the trial is successful, the new cycle lanes could be made permanent as early as next year to coincide with the Cambridge Gateway construction, a £3 million project to improve public transport and safety for pedestrians and cyclists travelling to and from the station area.

Anyone with comments on the Hills Road Bridge cycle lane trial and the Cambridge Gateway project is encouraged to attend one of the consultation events. These are being held on Tuesday 8 September at Hills Road Sixth Form College, from 5.30pm to 7.30pm, and Thursday 10 September at St Paul's Church (Lower Hall), Hills Road, from 4.30pm to 7pm.

Further information on both projects, including a plan of the layout of the new cycle lane and a feedback form, is available by logging on to www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/transport/cambridgegateway

I hope this trial is a success - it is excellent news for the many cyclists on the bridge, and indirectly for pedestrians who are less likely to encounter cyclists on the pavements, and car drivers who could benefit from fewer cars if more people cycle! I am also particularly pleased that the County Council has arranged for the trial to go in immediately rather than having another separate set of works shortly after the Guided Bus works finished - this was something I had been asking for for a long while, and should give the trial the best possible chance of success.