Thursday, November 29, 2012

Doctoral Research into Affordable Housing in the UK


In November 2012 I was fortunate to be able to establish a part-time PhD research position at University of the West of England.

My initial research proposition follows, although I suspect over the next year or so it will change.

The Affordable Housing sector in England, and particularly Housing Associations have been influenced and impacted by several changes in legislation and policy over many years. It is intended to examine whether the sector has been effective in delivering the outcomes required to all the stakeholders in the English Housing market, and whether the sector is able to deliver the outcomes required over the next 25 years? What evidence from other housing geographies can assist in clarifying a way forward for affordable housing in England?

Outline of Study Objectives
1. Identify and classify the intended and unintended outcomes from the social housing sector since its foundation in the 19th century.
2. Identify the change in capacity, intended outcomes and actual outcomes from Affordable Housing.
3. Survey Housing Providers to assess their success in responding to the changed nature of housing provision since 1974
4. Survey residents and stakeholders on the current housing market and its effectiveness in delivering their outcome expectations.
5. Survey and research other geographies (Europe, Asia, Australasia, Americas) and compare expectations of outcomes and current structure of those markets with the English environment.
6. Develop a comparative assessment of the future capacity of the English housing market and that in other geographies to deliver the range of outcomes explicitly or implicitly expected of the sector.
Research Justification

The ‘housing market’ in England is a complex, ever changing mix of private ownership, private rental, social rent, shared ownership and leasehold with supply being delivered by different agencies working under different regulatory structures. Families and individuals in need of accomodation are drawn into one or other tenure state based on income, family situation, local supply and demand and a range of other factors.

In 2008 the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit said that 240,000 new homes would need to be built in England each year by 2016; in the 12 months to 2012 the number built was 118,000, in 2011 109,020, and in 2010 103,300. Capital funding for development is being severely squeezed by the continuing economic difficulties while the anticipated Universal Benefits revision in 2013 will affect a significant proportion of the population’s income (and potentially change the way Housing Associations’ income is assessed by lenders.

Housing Associations account for 10% of the 22m+ residential units in England. Tenants in Social Housing are twice as likely as any other housing tenure to have no formal qualifications, and 1/5 as likely to have a degree. The National Inequality Panel investigated the linkages between inequalities in economic outcomes and people’s circumstances (Hills et al. 2010). It found that housing tenure was important in reflecting and exacerbating inequalities, and in particular ‘growing up in social housing’ was more closely associated with poorer economic outcomes in adulthood than in

Councils can now force homeless people into the private rented sector under new laws which came into effect in 2012. The new rules mean local housing authorities can end their duty to homeless people by offering accommodation in the private sector without an individual’s agreement. Previously, a council would still have to house someone if they refused the private rented sector accommodation offered to them. Underoccupancy is intended to be assessed and ‘addressed’ in planned legislation. New houses are required at a rate determined in significant degree by teh number of ‘new households’ being formed in England every year. The implied need to use land that is currently not developed, and the need for sustainable use of limited resources potentially act as restraints on the options for effective response to the continuing housing need.
The availability, characteristics and environment of housing has a profound effect on health, wellbeing, educational attainment, social inclusion and equality. This research will provide another component on the evidence base that could be used to modulate the reshaping of the English housing market to meet changing requiremenst from stakeholders.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Save South Petherton Library


We all know times are tough at the moment. The government and local authorities are cutting non-essential services, reducing waste and making less go further. Unfortunately some services that many consider essential are also under threat; police, fire, social care, housing benefits, disability allowances and others. One of the services that is coming under pressure in many places across the country is the free local lending library.

400 libraries across the country are under threat of imminent closure - including ours.

National statutes require that Somerset County Council provides “a comprehensive and efficient” library service – this has been confirmed by the minister Ed Vaizey, who was approached by David Laws MP on South Petherton's behalf. Lending of books must be at no cost, although other facilities such as computer access, DVD rental and others can be charged for, and there is an income from things such as fines, and for sourcing books from other libraries.

Somerset County Council have announced that only 14 libraries out of the 34 across Somerset will stay open. The Council say the other 20 will close unless local communities take over responsibility and funding. South Petherton, Martock and Ilminster are all on the list of 20 to close. The visiting library bus service is likely to be reduced in frequency and coverage.

Many Somerset residents are deeply concerned about the loss of all local library services. Protests and campaigns are going on - in Glastonbury, where a film has been produced with nationally known local figures (Michael Eavis and others) – in Wiveliscombe where they are planning to check every book out of the library to show how used it is. The Facebook campaign Save Somerset Libraries includes many library communities like ours that are appalled at the prospect of not having a library. Possible legal challenge is being considered.

South Petherton have handed over a petition with over 700 names on it to the County Council Portfolio Holder, David Huxtable, and the County Council are well aware that there is a great strength of feeling in the village that the Library should stay. The question is how can we keep it?
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I have been asked by the Parish Council to take the lead in working out what is achievable. I have visited library groups in Buckinghamshire who had to go through a very similar thing a few years ago and now run Community libraries. I have also had talks with potential charity and private funders who could make a significant contribution to the ongoing provision of a library in South Petherton. If local individuals are willing to take part in a volunteer group to help run the Library, this will form a very good basis for an attempt to develop a plan for the long term.

If the library closes there are other less effective and costly alternatives. We could travel to Crewkerne or Yeovil, the Library bus could visit every now and then, or we could operate a drop in and pick up service with no books on show. Before we accept any of those alternatives I think we need to consider the continuation of a 'proper' library first.

Providing a library service needs 4 key things – books (obviously), somewhere to house the books with good access for everyone, staff to run the library, and a way of adding new books and getting hold of ones our own library does not hold. Once these are in place there are other very useful facilities such as computer access and reference collections (local history for example) that are invaluable to young and old alike.

The Community Information Centre has been running for a year. When it was set up there was a strong desire to work together with the library. Creating a single place for the library, information centre, police post that also provides public toilets could be the most efficient way forward, especially if they are all located in the centre of the village.

The Somerset Library Service does not own our Library building. The lease has run out, so it is easy for them to stop the contract. This does mean that if the village aims to take over the Library we can evaluate which building would work best. If we add in the Community Information Centre, relocate the toilets from Prigg Lane and create links with the school then 3 options that have been proposed by various residents are all possible – the existing library (quite expensive to rent), the old Co-op (very expensive), and the ground floor of the Blake Hall (owned by the Parish but already in regular use for the club). We need to focus on the property issues very soon.

If the Community take over the Library volunteers could be asked to do a job now done by employed professionals. I have a big problem with this in principle, as I know other people do . We could plan to share qualified paid staff with other local libraries that are facing the same situation, and supplement their time with volunteers (as they do in Burton Bradstock).

The technology that allows books to be issued and given back to the library and access other books from the wider library network is not available to us if we take over the Library. A new, lower cost Broadband access service is under development but will not be ready until much later in the year. We need to agree with the County Library Service to keep on the current library until that technology is available so that we can take over properly.

The 2 libraries in Buckinghamshire have gone through this already, taken over their own libraries, and after several years are thriving with (if anything) too many volunteers. They have been very helpful, and we have fully developed business plans from them that we can base any future plans on. The key issues they suggest must be resolved are full connection to the library network, support from the County Council on an ongoing basis, a well managed and willing volunteer group, a building (Chalfont St Giles Parish Council bought the library building), and access to cash to make it all work.

Money, building, library network connection and people are the things we need to fix. Possible sources of money are to transfer the funding we already have for the CIC (for the next 2 years) to also support the library, find some private funding from individuals (I already have tentative offers), some substantial funding from businesses or charities (some positive discussions already underway) and contributions from both the Parish precept and the County Council.

The village has responded very strongly by calling on the Parish Council to increase the precept to support the library, resulting in £10,000 a year being allocated from the precept starting in 2011. That is separate from money that is planned to be spent on youth services, play, recreation, the Information Centre and toilets. Altogether we will have access to a quite substantial regular income to support the combined activities of library, information centre, publicly accessible toilets, IT suite and youth evening drop-in.

The newly appointed Parish Council will start in May 2011 and will oversee how this funding is allocated, as well delivering a whole range of other new facilities that will be funded by the precept and by money contributed by developers of major housing schemes at Lightgate and Prigg Lane. There is going to be a lot going on!

We have established a not for profit organisation to run the library, and held our first meetings. Unfortunately since then our numbers have dwindled and during the next few months it will be important to find 2 or 3 people willing to take an active role in delivering the library project and acting as trustees to over-see the long term operations. Anyone who is interested please contact me directly on 01460 249119 or at savethelibrary@southpetherton.com.

The latest information we have to hand in mid-April (when this article is being prepared) is that the County Library Service will continue to employ librarians who will be allocated to Community-Supported Libraries at a commitment of 1/3 of the hours that the Library is open. We will pay the County Council for the services of a Librarian, we will not directly employ her. Our volunteers will work with the professional librarian and will receive full training during a 3 month handover period from April to June 2012 with a full-time librarian.

The important thing to do now is to build a fund of money to be used to prepare whichever building we ultimately occupy and to run the library effectively. Fund raising is not easy at the best of times, but when the whole country is having to tighten its belt its even worse. There is a big administrative and legal burden just to establish a charitable organisation, let alone use the money when we have it.

With the active support of the Parish Council we have arranged to work with Somerset Community Foundation www.somersetcf.org.uk who will act as our banker, and we will operate within their existing and very effective charity operation, allowing us to support gift-aided donations.

The arrangement with Somerset Community Foundation offers significant benefits for the Library and for our supporters. The legal framework and administrative support already exist. The charitable intent of the Community Foundation and its existing supporters is consistent with our aims. Somerset Community Foundation have an excellent network of contacts and a high reputation for projects such as recycling winter fuel payments from those that do not need them to those that do. This arrangement will ensure that funds are secure and properly allocated in line with the agreed aims.

Donations will be received directly by Somerset Community Foundation and individuals or companies need not be identified to the Library operation. This invitation is funded by the income from our first fundraising event held in March when we were privileged to be able to listen to one of the world's leading young guitarists Michael Partington. Check him out at www.michaelpartington.com.

We are hoping for both one-off capital funding for building works or buying books and also for long term commitments of annual revenue funding to contribute to the £20,000 plus per annum we expect to have to fund every year. The funds collected by the Friends will be used to supplement Parish Council and any other grant or operational funding that we can arrange.

Please think very hard about whether an endowment or regular contribution to the Friends of South Petherton Library suits your views of how to support our local community. If you have any questions, want to volunteer, or want to find out more up to date information please come in to the Community Information Centre where I will create an information point for anyone to see progress.

I would like to thank those people who have already approached me both to volunteer and to pledge support. I would also like to thank the young lady who brought her daughter to the concert, apologised that she could not actually stay to listen but wanted to thank us for making sure South Petherton and its young people has the library it deserves – that sort of support makes it all worthwhile.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Best Strategic Partnership in the Country

On February 4th 2010 
South Somerset Together was awarded 
'Best Local Strategic Partnership'
at the Community Partnership Awards!!

http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/index.jsp?articleid=45589

Fantastic news for the many individuals and organisations who have worked so hard to deliver spectacular programmes of community change, innovation in service provision, and created a robust, enduring collaborative, non-partisan group.

I am proud to have been Chairman of the Partnership for nearly 4 years and to have worked with leaders from local government, police, fire, health services, voluntary sector, charities, climate change, faith and equality groups, national organisations such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, The National Trust and with local businesses.

For more information on South Somerset Together and our Sustainable Community Strategy have a look at our website

www.southsomersettogether.org.uk

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Community Information Centre and Police Post opens in South Petherton

In December 2009 we opened the South Petherton Community Information Centre and Police Post.

http://www.thisisdorset.co.uk/westerngazette/news/Village-post-boost-police-presence/article-1541833-detail/article.html

Some years ago we arranged for a small room at the back of the David Hall (our spectacular performing arts venue) to be used as a Police Post. Volunteers and Somerset and Avon Police provided a valuable service to the local community dealing with issues, complaints and crime-reduction.

We built on that success with the Local Action Group which you can read about elsewhere in the blog.

Now the village has combined the 2, added a fully staffed information centre, and created a vital additional resource for South Petherton. Anyone who wants to know anything about pretty much anything, needs to read planning applications, meet their local Councillors, have private conversations with the regularly attending police and PCSOs and get involved with the multitude of activities in the village can drop in 6 days a week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Climate Change Action Day

I am delighted to share with thousand of others around the worl din blogging for climate change.

In South Somerset we are working to a corporate plan of zero carbon by 2020 - we may fail, but we are going to have a damn good try!

ZeroSom is our initiative, backed up by several active Transition Groups, a strong clinate change agenda driven by the Community, and a lot of individuals who are passionate.

Keith Wheaton Green
Joe Burlington
Cara Naden
Rob and Becky Cotterill
Vega Sturgess
Andrew Turpin
Kate Vanonvitch
Tim Rook

and so many others.

We are showing Age of Stupid in South Petherton  next Thursday, and have a 350 event planned with our MEP Graham Watson on the 24th.

visit breathe at http://transitiontowns.org/South-Petherton/South-Petherton

visit our South Somerset District Council's climate change agenda at
http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/index.jsp?articleid=767

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

South West Charter for Member Development

South West Charter for Member Development
Hilton Hotel, Swindon
February 27th 2009


The Charter for Member Development requires councils to ensure that their elected representatives are able to manage large budgets, take difficult decisions for their communities with the necessary knowledge, balance conflicting demands, be aware of political differences and to show an ability to accommodate each other for the benefit of local communities. It is about developing and training councillors to a ‘benchmark level’.

Development means a mix of training, on the job experience and learning new ways of working, and this is what our councillors receive at South Somerset. What is most important is that we have been out delivering all the good things that we have learnt, and it is those things that make the difference to local people’s lives.

The message for me is that we were the first of many in the South West because of our long history of commitment to the member development philosophy.

Phil Dolan, Chief Executive of South Somerset District Council said "I am obviously delighted for staff and councillors that we are the first in the South West to gain this tremendous accolade but let’s not forget the reality of what this means; our councillors get some of the best training and development opportunities in local government for the sole purpose of better serving our residents. That’s the real good news”.

At South Somerset the induction process for new members starts even before the election with a Becoming a Councillor booklet available on line and sent to all candidates. Throughout the year events for young people and community visits by the Democratic Services team offer every elector the chance to appreciate the value of becoming a Councillor. Whether people start as a Parish Councillor or Town Councillor and then stand for election at District or County Council the underlying issues are the same, a need for true altruistic detachment, a recognition that there will be a lot of hard work, late evenings and short weekends and acceptance that being in the public eye means less privacy and often some interruption of 'normal' life.

After the election a comprehensive series of information and education training sessions on all areas of councillor business is organised. These cover everything from how to participate positively in meetings, make presentations, as well as the more typical financial regulation and planning training. Every new Councillor turned up after the 2007 elections, and some of those re-elected joined in as well for a refresher. One of the most interesting parts of the training is a bus tour of the District - I for one was quite daunted by the area covered by South Somerset and the totally different environments and communities we support.

South Somerset District Council’s commitment to joint development with partner organisations is actively demonstrated through seminars and training sessions – out of 49 development opportunities in a five-month period, 31 were provided externally. Our internal courses are open to other Councils when we can, and we look for ways to minimise cost while maximising the quality of training and support we give each Councillor.

Lyn Lockyer, Member Development Officer at South Somerset District Council says, “An important aspect of our councillor training is that people with little or no experience of local government are able to become a fully functioning councillor who is confident of their community role.

“Our 60 councillors go out into the community, getting involved in things, taking a leadership role. Last year we also held a Beacon event and many members came from far and wide to learn from their example. I am so pleased that their efforts to learn and develop have been recognised.”

Lyn must be congratulated for being one of the main reasons South Somerset's scheme has been so effective. Her boundless enthusiasm and commitment is known and admired by everyone.

Member Development is a perfect partner for officer development. Most of our middle managers have attended management diploma courses specifically designed for South Somerset and a number are continuing on to even higher qualification levels. Matching the officer and member development has lead to even more informed debate from all quarters with a wide range of members from all parties being involved in detailed budget examination through the review and scrutiny process.

Leadership is a vital part of Council group work. The leaders of both the party in control and the main opposition have attended the Leadership Academy and several councillors have achieved BTEC qualifications - some of them are here today to receive them.

One final aspect to discuss is mentoring. New councillors, whether young or old, and existing councillors taking on new responsibilities often welcome support from someone with specific expertise. Whether this is a local arrangement or through the IDeA peer mentor scheme there are great benefits to be had for both the Councillor and mentor.

I am delighted to be able to receive the Member Charter on behalf of South Somerset, but saddened by the reason our Leader and others cannot attend. Today is the funeral of Alan Cornelius who stood down in 2007 after 58 years of being a Councillor. Alderman Cornelius was the epitome of Councillors - unstoppable when working on behalf of a constituent, impartial and objective when chairing the Regulation Committee and unfailingly polite and supportive of officers. We will all miss him enormously and I would like to dedicate our award to Alan's memory as an example to us all.

Paull Robathan


Councillor Paull Robathan is ward member for South Petherton on South Somerset District Council. A former Leader of the Council Paull was Portfolio Holder for Finance and Member Development when South Somerset were assessed for the Charter. He is Chairman of the Local Strategic Partnership, Board member of Somerset Waste Partnership, a Governor of Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust and a member of the Raglan Housing Regional Committee.

A Local perspective on the art of integrating sustainability

AN INTEGRATED APPROACH TO PLANNING THE FUTURE – YES WE CAN!
- Embedding Sustainable Development into the new
government processes & strategy for the South West region

Sustainability South West Conference, Weston Super Mare, March 2nd 2009

Sustainability South West have been a major contributor to the South Somerset Sustainable Community Strategy, their presentations to working groups and inciteful commentary on our working papers have lifted the work up to a higher level. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk briefly about the local issues around integrating sustainability.

The trick is in the title - there is an art in involving and integrating the very local communities we find everywhere we look in the world. There may be scientific techniques and political processes, but the art is in the way the tools and techniques are deployed and the attitudes and aspirations of the people involved.


South Somerset Together is the local strategic partnership for the District of South Somerset - not a cute name, but the "together" says it all, sustainable worthwhile community development will only succeed if most, and preferably all, public, private and voluntary organisations deliver time, money and emotional commitment.

The road to commitment is long, and needs to be straight. One of the most difficult things for a body such as a District Council to do is to engender trust in long term consistency. This is due in part to the 4 year political cycle, and the potential for 180 degree shifts in policy and practice, but also due to the inherent distrust many residents have in local and central government. "They" are not expected to be doing things for the benefit of the community without a personal or political agenda that has self-serving components that may overwhelm the apparent social utility offered as the public face of any policy.

To counter the knee-jerk reaction to a policy announcement there needs to be a frame of reference within which to set the policy and evidence of follow-through - not once - not twice - but every time, and over a long period. The Gary Player adage of the more I practice the luckier I get holds equally true in this circumstance.

South Somerset has built the frame of reference of sustainability over many years. Even so we cannot rest on our laurels, and we have not done enough. Despite individuals' best efforts we are only scratching the surface of globally vital issues. We cannot succeed without widening the accord from District Council level - upwards to government and to transnational initiatives (including the South West Climate Change Action Plan 2008 - 2010 that has many specific short term actions to create a long term directional shift), but critically downwards to each and every person in our community and in every other community across the world. As a member of the South West Cohesion Steering Group I can confirm that excellent work is clearly being done at transnational level to address that strata of issues, but we need to work right down at the grass roots as well.

In doing so we need to see things from others' view point. In South Somerset we have a decade and more of tradition in enabling others to do, rather than doing to them.

The Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development was initially funded with a grant from South Somerset District Council and has grown itself into an internationally respected and self-sustaining leader in sustainable development.

Great Bow Yard, LangportImage by yellow book ltd via Flickr


The trustees of Ecos Trust (as it is now called) over the period since 2000 give a clear indication of how consistency plays a part, but also how having world class experts locally makes for a virtuous circle - Charles Couzens, David Gordon, Simon Fairlie, Julia Hailes and many others. My predecessor as District Councillor in my ward, Lucy Durnan, continues to be a resolute campaigner and advocate of sustainability. Its that consistency and commitment that provides the underpinning to a deliverable integrated sustainable strategy, but its only the framework. There needs to be a rich fabric woven from many many people's own efforts. Baroness Miller, a former leader of the Council continues to spearhead environmental issues nationally.

Within the Council we have been very fortunate to have expertise from Keith Wheaton Green. In 2005 the South Somerset HydroPower Group were recognised by the international Ashden Awards for their development of a collaborative micro hydro development down the rivers of Somerset and into Dorset - Keith deployed a few hundred pounds of SSDC money, but a huge amount of faith, commitment and effort. The Ashden Awards showcase UK and International projects - in 2005 SOLEC from India won an award for their very low cost small photovoltaic systems that have brought light to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Kanatarka, perhaps suggesting that our UK approach of high cost all embracing systems are self defeating compared with the affordable locally made units in India.

2005 was also the year that the District Council won the first of 3 successive Beacon Awards for community engagement "Getting Closer to Communities". It was when the tag line 'Enable Partner Deliver' was coined that has become the mantra for all of the corporate activity of South Somerset District. It is significant that the Beacon coordinator was Saveria Moss, who is now the Local Strategic Partnership coordinator and the senior manager from the District Council was Vega Sturgess, now corporate Director for Environment and lead officer for the new SSDC Corporate Plan. Consistency of intention and delivery.

The very close relationship between the Local Strategic Partnership and the District Council is cemented by Helen Rutter who is employed by the District Council as Community Development Manager and also dedicates about 1/3 of her time to overseeing the Local Strategic Partnership. From top to bottom, and throughout our many partners' organisations there is a commitment and a continuing follow through of intense involvement.

At the County Council through local community officer Vicky Breeze (who we first met when she championed the Biodiversity Action Plan) and on up to Lord Cameron, well known to environmentalists, and Chairman of the Somerset Strategic Partnership there is a commonality of purpose and a consistency of commitment.

Recent highlights are the completion of ratification of our Sustainable Community Strategy to 2026. The Local Strategic Partnership is being bold in its targets (even Charles Couzens thought so...) strongly supported by Joe Burlington of South Somerset Climate Change Action Group who when he joined us was, I suspect, a bit suspicious of being on the inside and losing his objectivity but I hope he does not feel that now!

Our strategy has been developed over 2 years. Most of that time was spent working up from the many Parish and Community Plans that have been painstakingly created by many of our 121 parishes and towns. There is no substitute for local involvement, but I am convinced the quality and level of engagement owes a lot to our continuing support for local community engagement, so that people really believe us when we say we are listening!

The Local Strategic Partnership has been running for about 8 years. It started by doing necessary projects and sharing resources and ideas with partners. We have evolved into a very tight knit group of 30+ senior people from public sector, community groups and the businesses in South Somerset - and the reason we all keep turning up is its worth our while. Each organisation puts in senior time, delivers support, effort in kind and money. The result is a self perpetuating group who give what they can and get what they need.

Examples of projects completed and work programmes under way can be found on our website

www.southsomersettogether.org.uk

We are now entering a very exciting phase. The District and County Councils have consistent, interlocking Community Strategies, our District Council Corporate Plan is driven by the needs of the Community as expressed in the Sustainable Community Strategy and there are a number of projects under way with a very sustainability feel about them. Partners use the Sustainable Community Strategy as an evidence base for their internal plan developments.

The local business association is undertaking a green business initiative educating and mentoring 80 South Somerset businesses in Waste Management and Minimisation, Energy Efficiency, Water efficiency in manufacturing processes and Green management systems and environmental policies. The aim is for the organisations to take specific measurable steps to reduce their carbon footprint and improve environmental conditions as a direct result.

The Local Strategic Partnership will run a major local event at the Yeovil Innovation Centre in the summer. This event will publicly launch the South Somerset Sustainable Community Strategy by raising awareness of the sustainability agenda with everyone in the district. It will provide information and practical expert advice on what can be done individually and collectively about the “big” issues including Climate Change mitigation and adaptation through reducing CO² emissions, generating heat and power from renewable sources, further reducing waste to landfill, sourcing food and products locally, etc. The event will be geared to the general public, with presentations, information and activities suitable for all including children, families, businesses, etc. In another example of long term joined up thinking our unique Somerset Waste Partnership now delivers a higher percentage of waste for recycling than anywhere in the country - after a 10 year continuing programme of development.

One of the major avenues for action on sustainability is the Transition Town movement. Both Somerset County and South Somerset District have made commitments to Transition and in South Somerset specifically our Corporate Plan requires officers to provide active and substantive support to the growing number of local Transition initiatives. The Transition Town movement exemplifies the local involvement but international significance of sustainability. Ever since Rob Hopkins and his students in Kinsale kick started local social consciences a wave of mainly young people has risen up (at least in South Somerset) who are passionate about the environment and want a better world to live in for them and their children.

In 1992 I was very fortunate to be involved in a Club of Rome inspired program that culminated in a 'Declaration of Barcelona', whose key message was "there are underlying and growing fears about what may result from changes underway in European society. Many individuals are afraid of losing their jobs, fearful of losing their freedom because of the loss of confidence in current political institutions and frightened of losing their identity" - that message was an echo of Kurt Waldheim's 1975 address 'The international system of economic trade relations which was devised 30 years ago is now manifestly inadequate for the needs of the world community as a whole. The charge against that order is that in the past it worked well for the affluent and against the poor. It cannot now even be said it works well for the affluent."

Who would disagree in 2009 that the thoughts of 34 years ago and 17 years ago are any less true today? At every local point in the world there needs to be a commonality of purpose to transition to a new model, one of lower consumption, higher social conscience, non-destructive food production and alternative sustainable fuel supplies. We need to embed sustainability into everything we do, and government both local and national have a fundamental role to play.

What are my does and don'ts?

Do involve every willing person at every level, but don't force them into a one size fits all model. Let people contribute in their own way.

Do arrange meetings and events at different times of the day or evening and in different locations and settings.

Don't assume anyone understands acronyms, national policy or even why local decisions have been made

Don't judge or criticise individual comments - give them all due weight in collective research

Don't give up

But above all take advantage of opportunities

- like the one the recession is giving us. If Airlines are willingly cutting 10% or more of their flights from the schedule lets fight to keep them cut.

- if insulating homes can create work for local installers lets reduce the % heat lost from our homes to such an extent that Nuclear Power is not necessary

...and I am sure we could all add our own. Lets make sure we do.

Paull Robathan













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Saturday, November 29, 2008

SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES ACT

In October the Government invited Councils to 'opt in' to the Sustainable Communities Act. This piece of private member legislation offers a new means of requiring Government to respond to grass roots needs, and should be a very effective additional way of identifying and initiating action on local concerns.

I proposed a motion to South Somerset District Council in a similar vein to that offered as a template by LocalWorks - www.localworks.org - Steve Shaw generously gave his time to inform the Council about the massive backing and keen interest in the Act.

The motion, which was carried unanimously was -

That South Somerset District Council:

Having been recognised nationally as a Beacon for Community Engagement and Local Involvement

(i) believes that local authorities and their communities know best on the solutions to local problems and so should determine how to promote thriving communities; and so

(ii) supports the bottom up process in the Sustainable Communities Act designed to allow local authorities and their communities to drive the help that central government gives in reversing community decline and promoting thriving, sustainable communities;

(iii) notes that the Act became law in October 2007 with full cross party support and that this was a result of 5 year campaign run by a coalition of over 90 national citizens organisations called Local Works;

(iv) notes that the Act gives local authorities the power to
• make proposals to government on the action government must take to reverse
community decline and promote sustainable communities, and

• argue for a transfer of public money and function from central to local control;

(v) notes that the Act defines the sustainability of local communities broadly, that definition having the 4 aspects of

• the improvement of the local economy,

• protection of the environment,

• promotion of social inclusion, and

• participation in civic and political activity;

(vi) notes that the Local Works campaign give a number of reasons for why a local authority should choose to use the Act, those reasons being

1. Assistance from government - Community decline is happening everywhere and local authorities are not able to prevent it on their own. They need government help. This Act gives government a legal duty 'to assist local authorities in promoting the sustainability of local communities'. So by ‘opting in’ local authorities are, in fact, signing up to receive that 'assistance'.

2. Power to determine that assistance - The Act also gives local authorities (and their representative body, the Local Government Association) real power to determine the nature of the assistance that they receive from government, as explained more fully in our campaign broadsheet on implementing the Act (contact us for free copies).

3. Strength in numbers - By opting in, local authorities can act in unison to put in proposals to government supported by their colleagues elsewhere. Joint suggestions by many authorities will make it even harder for the government to refuse to act on suggestions made by local authorities.

4. Transferring functions and monies from central to local control - The Act also enables local authorities - and thus local authorities acting together - to request the transfer of functions from government or government agencies to themselves. Because decisions on these requests must be made by the LGA and the Secretary of State trying to reach agreement (i.e. in co-operation), this can be used to regain from central government control of many powers and spending that affect local areas.

5. Access to Central Spending Accounts Information - The requirement in the Act for the government to ‘open the books’ will mean that local authorities will know just how much extra money they can access if they push for a transfer of functions.

6. Democratic citizen involvement - All politicians (and many local authority officers) talk a lot about lack of public involvement in democracy. The recent Power report showed that the more people think that their involvement matters, the more they are likely to get involved. The very 'hassle' required by this Act (reaching agreement with – not consulting – citizens’ panels) empowers citizens. South Somerset District Council welcomes new ways to engage with, and empower, all communities.

(vii) further notes that the new burdens procedure means that central government shall provide financial assistance to local authorities that do choose to use the Act;

(viii) resolves, when invited to by central government, to use the Act by preparing and submitting proposals on how central government can help through a mechanism to be created using the best elements of South Somerset District Council’s award winning community engagement, and enhanced as necessary to ensure the fullest community involvement consistent with the Act.

(ix) further resolves to

• to inform all of our local communities of this decision;

• to inform all Local Strategic Partnership partners of the decision

• to widely publicise the Sustainable Communities Act and SSDC’s involvement

• to write to local MPs, informing them of this decision; and

• to write to Local Works (at Local Works, c/o Unlock Democracy, 6 Cynthia St,
London N1 9JF) informing them of their resolution to use the Act.

(x) requests the Chief Executive to put the appropriate mechanisms in place as soon as possible.

Friday, August 29, 2008

SMOKE FREE SOUTH SOMERSET

This is the text of a letter I sent recently as Health Champion for South Somerset District - so far 3 major local newspapers have run the letter, 2 are doing extra features. Please let us know what you think.

Dear Editor


SMOKE FREE SOUTH SOMERSET??


Just over a year ago the smoking ban came into force to protect workers and the public from the effects of second-hand smoke. The ban included most work vehicles as well, and has been described as the biggest advance for public health in a generation. Although smoking has declined it is still by far the biggest cause of premature death. Half of all lifelong smokers are killed by tobacco, and half of those die 20-25 years early. Only 3 out of 10 heavy smokers will survive past retirement age.


The Government is now consulting on the next steps in tackling smoking, and as Health Champion for South Somerset, I particularly want to focus on protecting our children from smoking.


Children are far more vulnerable to the effects of smoke than adults, as their lungs are small and not yet fully formed.
• Thousands of children a year in the UK are admitted to hospital due to the
effects of second-hand smoke.
• Children of smokers are 72 times more likely to suffer serious chest infections than the children of non-smokers.
• Most cot deaths are now due to second hand smoke.
• Children who live with smokers are far more likely to become smokers themselves.


So I want to know if your readers agree with me that we need to do more to protect children from smoking.


Research evidence has shown that the smoke from just one cigarette results in a toxic atmosphere inside the car. Levels of minute particles are many times higher than recognised safety limits after just a few minutes. This is the case even with the driver’s window open a few inches.




In the home, the problem is that invisible toxic gases in cigarette smoke go right through the house. Confining smoking to one room, or smoking by an open window, doesn’t really help much. The only sure way to protect children from cigarette smoke is not to smoke inside the house.


No one is suggesting that the smoking ban should be extended to people’s homes, but some countries have made it illegal to smoke in cars when children are present. Should we?


Should the government be running smokefree homes campaigns to help more people make their homes smokefree, to protect children?


Should shops require a licence to sell tobacco, and if so, should they lose it if they sell to children?


We’d like to know what the people of South Somerset think about these issues. Your readers can tell us by email: smokefree@southsomerset.gov.uk


Your readers might also like to respond to the consultation themselves by September 8th via www.smokefreeaction.org.uk

South Petherton Local Action Group

South Petherton is blessed with a very active, successful and inspirational group of young people who over the years have developed the Youth Club and Youth Parish Council into nationally recognised beacons of excellence. Their success continues with Hannah Strugnell being named as Young Volunteer of the Year at the recent ‘Oscars’ in Yeovil and the Youth Parish Council responding to a request from DEFRA to prepare a report……… Despite these really successful efforts, it was probably never going to be possible to involve and engage absolutely every young person all of the time, and the village continues to experience Anti-Social Behaviour and many individual residents suffer from unpleasant and worrying incidents that often they feel the police have not done enough about.

About a year ago I was asked to chair the Local Action Group (LAG) - formed under the auspices of the Area North Community Safety Action Panel. Lots of jargon, but the basic premise is that local issues, particularly with Anti-Social Behaviour, need a mix of very local direct involvement but cannot be totally effective without support from the various experts and agencies such as Police, District Council, County Council and any one else with relevant skills.

We meet on about a monthly cycle in the Blake Hall committee room. I am very grateful to all the many local people and particularly young people who are actively involved and also to the external support we have from the police, Community safety Partnership, District Young People’s Officer, County Youth Service and my fellow Councillors.

Our first meetings were a bit tense – there is a reasonable concern that talking shops can be set up that tick boxes but don’t actually DO anything other than make themselves feel good. Local residents, particularly in St James Street, Prigg Lane and Roundwell Street were looking for action not words. Malcolm Lake has been a strong champion for the local residents and I am delighted that he has shown leadership in meeting with the young people and taking an active part in some of the activities we have been able to develop. Its not easy, but getting to know the young people in the car park, and them you is a big step towards mutual respect.

(I remember Richard Palmer when he was the Parish Council liaison with the Youth Club going to his first meeting and recounting that the next day he walked through the card park and was surprised to hear a number of the previously anonymous and ‘hooded’ group of young people calling out ‘Hi Richard’ – a major improvement!!)

So – what to do?

With the organisational skills of Sharon Blake as our foundation the LAG identified that we needed to do several things, quickly.

- Reduce the level of anti-social behaviour,
- increase the comfort local residents had with the response from police and other agencies,
- develop activities that all young people could engage with,
- and create sustainable solutions to somewhere for all young people to ‘hang out’ while protecting those areas that were not appropriate.

With small amounts of grant funding from the Community Safety Action Panel initially, then from County, District and Police funding augmented by some local parish funds, we have addressed each of the issues to a significant degree and there has been a general improvement in all cases. Not perfect, and not a one off exercise, we will have to persevere but its been a very good start.

What have we done?

The Time Out Together community bus was set up in Yeovil to address similar issues there. Using the old District Council double decker bus (must be 50 years old now) this voluntary group brought the bus to the St James St car park for an evening a number of weeks over Christmas and well in to the New Year. Activities such as computing, coffee shop and general chat were supported by both volunteers from the Time Out Together group but also local residents – Jenny Derbyshire has been magnificent. Time Out Together also won an ‘Oscar’ and Dana and her team have shown us that you can engage all of the young people some of the time – and it was a great ice-breaker. We have booked the bus for later in the year during the cold winter evenings!

The David Hall, often seeming to be the target of some behaviour, have been very supportive and I would like to thank their committee for providing time for a number of taster activities put on by the Yeovil Foyer Outreach group, lead by Lisa Warr. Together with the District Young People’s Officer the Foyer began a series of sessions to identify what activities young people would want to get involved with – a number of things have come out of this – street soccer, DJ skills and others that are being pursued and will (with the support of volunteers) be a continuing part of village life.

The entrance to the Library used to be a haven for young people when it rained – but its not the perfect place, no light, no seats and a not really the right location. The photograph shows the new Youth Shelter, installed a few weeks ago and already being well used. The recreation ground was clearly seen as a better place for young people to congregate in the summer evenings, and the games area is great but without lighting and without a shelter that was lit the dark nights meant young people went back to the village centre after dark…..

Now the shelter with its solar panels providing gentle light until well into the evening and the new lights for the multi use games area (installed with much help from the police, Russell Knight and Keith Vincent – and 15 young people digging trenches on the first night) will offer a safe, accessible place for all young people to congregate.

The Youth Club continues to operate twonighst each week with a further evening session panned tostart in September. The parish Coucnuikl has now arranged for Peter May and his team from Active Learning Skills to arrange additional activities na Friday evening to complement the work of the County Youth Service. SCC have just appointed a new Senior Youth Worker who will be able concentrate much more on South Petherton and we look forward to him arriving next month.

All of this (and there is more) are on the positive side, but we cannot shrink from taking affirmative action when things still don not go right. The level of police intervention and action has increased significantly, the level of incidents has reduced but the severity of penalty has increased.

Neighbourhood Watch Schemes have been established in the central part of the village and along with the existing schemes are well supported by our Police Community Support Officers, Michelle Haimes and Peter Brember and by Jon Watson, Police Community Beat Manager . Jon has run 2 extremely successful exercises since he joined our area. The first was a meeting of all young people in the rec with over 30 attendees where the issues were openly discussed and actions agreed, the second a PACT (Police and Community Together’ session at the annual parish meeting, where the 3 key issues of concern were

1. Anti Social Behaviour
2. Parking
3. Speeding

The balance between plenty to do, an open attitude between young and older residents, and strong action by police in response to recorded incidents is the key to lower levels of concern and even greater comfort in this best of all villages. There has been a higher level of parking enforcement, and with enough volunteers Community Speedwatch could restart and will be supported actively by the police as it is in other parishes.

And that’s the big message from the Local Action Group’s first year. There is a real opportunity to make a difference if everyone gets together with a positive attitude and gets on with doing something. We have made a good start, its not a finished project but so far its making a real improvement that we will strive to continue to deliver.


(submitted for inclusion in the TA13 local magazine)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Community Strategy leads Rural Continuity

South Somerset is made up of a diverse mix of town, village and rural localities.

If you want to live in an idyllic village with fields, animals and 'air' you can, but where you have to work to support that lifestyle, or how to get from home to the shops, cinema or even the pub without access to transport can be an insurmountable problem.

There is a major problem about balance - Where do you start?

More employment, building factories and encouraging office development creates new jobs, but if this comes first then staff will have to travel from where they live now.

More transport, to allow the staff to travel to work generates extra traffic and leaves people living where they do now - so the need to build houses for the workers in the jobs you have created isn't there any more.

If you do build houses first then people will have to travel away from home until there is work locally.

What should a rural community do?

The first thing is NOT to do is to drive young people looking for their first home away from the village - so we need affordable homes in rural villages. This aim is totally incompatible with government's drive for low cost housing on brown field land while preserving 'the green belt'.

We need to bring parcels of land in to use in all our rural communities both for local people to stay local and to relieve the pressure on rapidly growing towns swelling uncomfortably under the weight of focussed development. To make this work there must be efficient mass transport (either bus or rail) to link small rural locations to centres of economic activity for either work or play day and night.

Agricultural land at £3,000 an acre suddenly becomes development land at 100 times the price if you add 'hope value' to a potential site.

Paying such a high price for land makes houses too expensive.......unless we find a way to release land in communities for development at a price that makes the housing affordable. If we can do that then some of the money saved can be used to create improved transport infrastructure and go towards supporting both shops and offices / workplaces to locate in secondary settlements that offer a higher quality of environment than big towns while still offering all the facilities.

The Sustainable Community Strategy being developed by South Somerset Together is attempting to collect and rationalise the conflicting demands on retaining viable rural communities.

Read the initial issues document and give your opinions about the development of the strategy by accessing
http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/index.jsp?articleid=11535

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One size fits all?


The Unitary debate is reaching a key stage across the country.

Responses to the Department of Communities and Local Government consultation on their selected bids is due by June 22nd.

In Somerset we are still debating whether the right option was selected (it wasn't) but at the same time I hope we are getting closer to some shared understanding on what would have been a more generally acceptable proposition if DCLG had provided the time, process and will to enter into bottom-up consultation as well as create a top-down straightjacket.

I chair the Local Strategic Partnership (South Somerset Together) and we had our Annual General Meeting last week. As well as launching the consultation on a complete revision of our Sustainable Community Strategy we discussed amongst ourselves as the LSP and with representatives from a wide range of our parishes, towns and partner organisations what characteristics would make any future local authority in South Somerset either markedly better - or markedly worse.

The gravest concerns were the possibility of a significant reduction in democratic representation (down to 116 Councillors for 500,000 people) and the possibility of losing the internationally recognised Community Development and Engagement by officers of the South Somerset District Council which is so strongly supported through active Area Committees made up from all members of all parties. County Council representatives at the meeting made a robust response to both these points, and clearly the County opinion is that these concerns should be allayed by the way in which the new authority will actually do its job - time will possibly tell, but the confidence our audience felt was not helped by the clear message that the promises of 'not more than 2% council tax rises for 5 years' and others could not be mandated on the new authority!

There was hope expressed that any new authority would simplify decision making, reduce central and overhead costs and fit better with the other partner agencies. At our District level there was major concern that a County wide approach to these aspects would result in remoteness of decision making, more direction from Government through a single body, and a reduction in the level of personal heavy commitment from District Councillors in education, community safety, health and well being.

The Local Strategic Partnership is a consultee in the Unitary process. It is odd (to say the least) that a non-statutory body such as the LSP gets to make a formal response when the more formal public bodies such as town councils and parish councils do not have a specific route to get their responses heard and weighed. I hope our exercise will repair that deficit to some extent - but it is not enough.

We will be writing to the DCLG in time for their deadline. I hope that the referendum has been reported by then because it will help us address one of the five categories that DCLG have proposed our response should cover:

- that the proposal should be supported by a broad cross ection of partners and stakeholders.......

(In Prime Minister's QuestionTime today (June 13th 2007) the Prime Minister expressed complete confidence that DCLG would take seriously the views of the 6 MPs in North Yorkshire about lack of cross-sectional support. Let us hope he does for Somerset as well - perhaps our MPs could get together and make a similar strong statement)

The other categories from DCLG are

- affordable (value for money and can be met from councils' "existing resource envelope")
- provide strong effective and accountable strategic leadership
- deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment
- deliver value for money and equity on public services

The LSP will be making a submission that we will make publicly available. Any individual or body NOT on the list of consultees can of course write direct to DCLG (accessing the www.communities.gov.uk website is a good start and look at consultations).

Whatever you choose to do - if you have an opinion make sure it is heard.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Rural Areas - the Dark Matter in Local Government

I had the opportunity to talk at the Henry Stewart Conference on City Regions or Cities and Regions on March 29th 2006.

The debate was considering whether Cities should be the centres of their own regions - or whether Cities should interact in some overarching way with their hinterlands while preserving the status quo of administrative boundaries.

There is no doubt that a significant group of policy leaders are focussing on large Cities and their impact on growth and prosperity to the detriment of non-City areas. Cumbria got particularly bad press, being told to just accept that this is not their time.....

My concern is not that the urban centric argument is wrong - indeed my presentation was about how ALL towns or any size offer exactly the same opportunity for focussed growth. The problem is when only Cities count for anything and areas of the Country without a City are written off in policy planning terms.

Rural Areas are the Dark Matter in the Local Government Universe.

If we do not pay attention to the very significant population that lives nowhere near a large City and not very close to even a small town we are denying the rights of many people and potentially increasing deprivation.

Whatever the administrative boundaries of Counties, Regions, Districts or Cities there is an overarching natural affinity shown by real people for foci of specific interest. Travel To Work, Travel to Play, Travel to Shop, Travel to Learn, Travel to Hospital can frequently all have a different answer for the same one person, and that answer will be dependent on preference - citizens exercising real choice.

To limit growth and investment in job and facility creation to large Cities is to rob the rural areas of their ability to sustain the massive population that resides NOT in a City.

In South Somerset there is no City.
In Somerset County Council there is no City.

Residents of South Somerset are an hour or more away from Bristol, Bath, Bornemouth, Exeter. Influence of each of these is felt in some way but no one City is either dominant over the others or sufficiently imposing to (of itself) affect the local economy directly.

South Somerset has one town, Yeovil. It is about the 300th largest town in England, the same size -ish as Amersham, Grantham or Winchester. One third of the population of South Somerset live in Yeovil. One third live in about a dozen Market Towns, the largest of which (Chard) is about 1500th in the scale of largest towns. the remaining one third live in small villages, hamlets or in the open countryside.

All of these 150 / 160,000 people have the same right to economic support and potential sustainable growth as their counterparts in Cities. Indeed the cost of sustaining a rural environment is potentially significantly lower due to the lack of recovery work needed just to keep our Cities alive.

Unless Yeovil and Chard are developed to be the centres for local industry, health, learning, retail and are served by sensible infrastructure then the economy and viability of South Somerset will suffer compared with more 'fortunate' locations closer to Cities. This is both divisive and unfair.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cutting the Wires

The New Local Government Network launches their report on wireless / mobile working today.

The text that follows is my contribution to that launch - the whole thing is accessible from the NLGN www.nlgn.org.uk

New Local Government Network

Cutting the Wires

February 8th 2006


Paull Robathan
Leader, South Somerset District Council

Can I first say how much I welcome this report, the work that went it to producing it and the intended outcomes of making wireless communications a key aspect of front line customer facing service delivery and community engagement for local authorities?

Technology has only 2 positive outcomes for Councils or for any adopter:

1. Doing something that is already done better or cheaper – preferably both.

2. Creating new opportunities that just were not there before.

There is much cynicism, with some justification, about the first - especially where computers are concerned; but the second is undeniable – radio, the telephone, television, the internet and many other technological leaps have served to transform our lives as individuals and also the way we fit in society. Take-up of expensive new technologies has tended to be from the ‘top’ down, early adopters are usually well-off, technologically aware and middle class; the last to adopt many technologies are the very ones for which we local authorities have such a great responsibility – the hard to reach, disadvantaged , access deprived or language constrained groups and frequently the young and old.

Just for once we are dealing today with a technology that is turning the accepted norms on their head. Mobile telephones (as this report confirms) are evenly, or perhaps intuitively disproportionately distributed in our target communities, the young adult population across all demographic classes are ubiquitous users. The opportunity is presented to us for a direct route to the very people we sometimes seem powerless to interact with. The language barrier is also lowered by transactional access in a constituents’ own language with the query presented to the council staff in their language – this is not a function of wireless technology, BUPA were taking histories for patients this way in 1970, but the message is the same.

Throughout “Cutting the Wires” there are real examples of how mobile, wireless technology can improve customer services for Local Authorities. But many of these examples are self-contained or ‘pilot’ schemes. The true step change is coming with integrated mobile connection as a direct and flexible extension to core services.

Our approach in South Somerset District Council (SSDC), as a mainly rural environment, is to bring up the level of access and service delivery across the whole breadth and depth of our range of offerings. Where data is collected, manipulated, shared and retrieved our mantra has been to do it once, and once only. Whatever the circumstance the available data should be the same, up to date and consistent. Whatever medium constituents use to access our service, face to face at neighbourhood offices, via self-managed internet, over the telephone to our contact centre or direct to a back office expert, the same data should be accessible – and this should extend to the chance meeting in the street or at local level. Trouble reporting is intended to be done either direct by the citizen online, or via a member of the council staff and then tracked through to resolution in a single consistent way.

To do all of this effectively requires secure, integrated underlying systems and procedures. Forget the attractions of wireless for a few moments, think about housing management software, refuse collection route management, streetscene incidents such as dogfouling or graffiti, and all the other separate things we do. The man in the street sees as part of a single ‘Council’ function, with no desire to have to work out which specific department or council is responsible.

For several years my authority in partnership with County, fellow Districts, Police and other agencies have worked on developing a common management and response mechanism so that one point of contact can deal with up to 80% of all issues in one interaction. At South Somerset we have done that through tight integration of data and processing from the very front where the customer touches the Council, right to the very back office where the detailed technical work is done – and then all the way back out to the customer again.

By selecting a combination of software systems that can communicate and by dedicating ourselves to getting the foundation solid we can now look at every opportunity to engage with the outside world secure in the knowledge that the systems can cope. This I suspect will be one of the harder aspects of mobile technology to get done because there are no quick wins or shortcuts here. But once it’s done the results speak for themselves.

In 2005 SSDC won the Beacon Award for Getting Closer to Communities, which we do through a network of neighbourhood offices, broadband enabled community bus, a sophisticated one stop shop for housing, a common customer contact centre for telephone access for all services, interactive digital TV and direct internet access to web services. Mobile and wireless working is now a direct and straightforward adjunct to the core systems and services delivering additional and direct benefits. We can look forward to taking our services with us wherever we go, and supporting our most hard to reach communities as effectively as any other.

Councillors at SSDC all have wireless laptop computers with the opportunity to connect via broadband from any location in the district, because through the combined efforts of County and District South Somerset is totally broadband enabled. Our Council Offices have wireless access in the public areas, Council Chamber and meeting rooms and in the Members’ room. Security of internal systems is maintained by separating the access so that the wireless networks and broadband access is to the public services – virtual private networks with secure identification provide a route through firewalls for authorized users, whether home working staff or mobile workers. The same capability is available here at the LGA.

Initiatives along with our County colleagues have raised awareness and access by business, parish, town and individual constituent alike. We are moving towards embracing WiMax as discussed in the report as well as enabling local communities with WiFi supporting mobile PCs and PDAs.

10 years ago I worked for a global high tech company that fired a senior member of staff for using the Internet at work.

3 years ago delivering interactive access to our Council systems at neighbourhood offices required costly dedicated fixed wired connections.

Today I (and everyone else) can sit anywhere in the world and access (with appropriate safeguards) our operational systems from a PDA, laptop or networked computer – or use virtually free Voice over IP telephone connections.

The issue is not whether mobile or wireless technology is here yet – it is.
The issue is not whether the use of mobile technology offers a step change – it does.
The issue is ensuring that our operational systems are sufficiently robust and integrated to be able to deliver the opportunities mobile / wireless connection can provide.

The e-technology advances over the last 2 – 3 years in Local Government, sponsored by a far-sighted Central Government vision, have given authorities that chose the right road a massive opportunity to improve and extend services throughout the wider community.

This report demonstrates that the time is ripe for picking the fruits or our endeavours and I commend “Cutting the Wires” and its recommendations most highly.

Thank you.


Paull Robathan
Leader
South Somerset District Council.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Charles Kennedy

A very difficult few days for the Liberal Democrats.

Charles Kennedy did a very good personal political job yesterday by declaring his alcoholism and an election for the leadership at the same time. but it may have been very bad politics for the Liberal Democrat party

It is a pity that, from my point of view, he is very wrong if he thinks either the members or the general public are broadly supportive. In our locality every person I have spoken to today is convinced he has to go - either because they have thought this for some time or because they believe he has now nowhere to go after his statement last night. SKY NEWS is telling me he says he has overwhelming support - thats not what I see or hear.

The parliamentary party members who have finally and bravely gone public today with their concerns are clearly suffering from the pain of taking such extreme measures but they should be looking at what is best for the party. In a couple of years time we will be able to look back on this period and either say we ducked a major issue and became a divided and weakened party - or made a bold (if painful) transition to a leader selected at an open election giving us the possibility of another step change in support and power.

I do not think there is any reason why Charles Kennedy could not stand in the election, but it must be against the most credible and willing candidates. Ming, Mark Oaten, Simon Hughes and whoever else would stand must not be constrained by any historical commitment and Charles could free them from those commitments by standing down before an election - but then if he wishes standing again for the leadership.

The whole membership votes, and their single transferable vote will be final. If the result is Charles Kennedy again he is going to HAVE to work with people who have openly criticised him. If he cannot work with them then we may see a fragmentation of the party which would perhaps cause some even more cataclysmic change in the other parties - impossible to predict.

I hope that (whoever is elected) the new leader can be a strong policy advocate with presence, integrity and capable of inspiring a large number of dedicated and committed party members across the country.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Full Ironman in South Somerset and Dorset

This morning I was at the start of the UK's Full Ironman event. One of 23 Ironman around the world 1500 competitors swam, cycled and ran from Sherborne Castle to Dorchester and to Yeovil and beyond.

The commitment and fitness to just do one Ironman Triathlon is beyond my comprehension but for one of the competitors to be competing in their 59th is just astonishing.

We are very fortunate to be on the world stage with this event and when I left after the swim segment the beautiful weather was looking to build up to quite a temperature, a possible problem for some competitors. I expect they were happier with that than with the mist that delayed the start for 2 hours as it hung over Sherborne Castle and its surroundings.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Green Flag Award and Civic Trust


10 days ago I was fortunate to go to Swansea's Brangwyn Hall together with the Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture and 2 of our Countryside Rangers to pick up 2 Green Flag awards for Excellent Open Spaces - Ham Hill and Yeovil Country Park were both awarded the prestigious award at the first time of entering which is a great achievement.

Whatever building development is needed to enhance the competitiveness and viability of locales such as Yeovil there must be a continuing balance with sustaining the access to green spaces and the development of easily reachable natural, relaxing areas. Research cited at the award ceremony indicated that unless there is green space was within 5 minutes easy travel then people do not bother to go to it, and miss out on essential release and relaxation.

The awards are sponsored by the Civic Trust, a national organisation that also works with excellent civic design, urban regeneration and has assisted in the Market and Coastal Towns Initiative so important to the balanced development of South Somerset. I met today with Paul Davies of Civic Trust and look forward to exploring how we might work together.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Peer Mentors

Attended the peer mentor accreditation day for the I&DeA on Wednesday. The whole idea of supporting councillors and officers in their normal work environment through mentoring, coaching, peer assessment and training / education seems like an excellent plan. Wide range of attendees from the main parties.

District Executive approved budget for presentation to Full Council. Two changes - we removed the proposal to charge for rat infestation (after consultation with the Leader of Worthing Lib Dems it seems like a bad plan, especially as the officers really did not want to carry it through any more. Second change is to car park charges - need to confirm the rates, times and durations before the budget is complete. At a planned 3% we are at the low end of rises by the look of it, with a sizable number aiming for 5% or just below. I prefer to protect the many from an inequitable tax and move the funding burden towards a 'user pays' model, thus the car park charges instead of higher Council Tax.

On Friday attended the launch of a CD advertising and making accessible data on Somerset as a location for business. We need to do even more in SSDC to promote business through our Area structure - perhaps assess the potential employer types who would benefit from the sites / premises we have available and then target them....

Libera has launched wimax (802.16) wide area wireless high speed broadband in Bristol. If SSDC can find a suitable partner its likely that only 2 or 3 transmitter / receivers positioned on the A303 would cover the whole District making very high speed data, voice and video a reality.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

School mentors

I visited Westfield School in Yeovil on Thursday to present certificates to Year 11 Mentors. This seems to be an excellent scheme where older pupils work with younger ones on a personal or self organised group basis to support them, particularly with respect to bullying and similar circumstances.

The assembly was full. Paul Rose, the Year 7 year group leader, has been one of the leading lights in the Gifted and Talented groups which have done such fabulous work on Ham Hill over the years. He never seems to stop working.

I was really pleased to make the awards for 2 reasons. First I am a mentor with the Princes' Trust and have seen from that experience how just a little support from another person who is NOT judgmental can help someone beginning a new business of their own. But secondly my son's experience at St Christopher School in Letchworth was dramatic - when he transferred to St Christopher I met with the Head Teacher and discussed issues such as bullying, to be met with the reponse that ' the students do not allow bullying', and that self management for the overall good was a key feature of the excellent environment at the school that helped my son become much more confident, outgoing, and developed friendships that will persist.

I mentioned the St Christopher's Head's comments at Westfield and both Paul and I noticed quite a strong reaction around the room. He will follow up in discussions with the pupils and I will be interested to see the outcome.

Monday, January 24, 2005

now its a routine

This is the second of my entries, and hopefully this will become a routine - every week I hope to deliver some useful information about the District Council and its activities and also occasional comments about the world at large from my point of view.

Over the weekend of January 22nd and 23rd I attended the last of the 4 modules of the IDEA Leadership Academy. Pretty much all of the group turned up in Edinburgh for a couple of cold days in January - they must find it as useful as I do.

Scottish Parliament

The most interesting session for me was a visit to the new Scottish Parliament building which is a spectacular edifice. We went to discuss the Petitions Panel, where any individual can raise an issue that concerns them about pretty much any aspect of services and policies in Scotland. The process seems to be both very accessible through the Petitions Office or directly into a discussion group on the Net; petitioners are heard by a panel of MSPs and there have been enough successes for the process to have great validity.

I can't help thinking something of this type would be useful in the English system. Perhaps the Regional Assembly could offer this wide ranging public legitimacy as well as its forum responsibility. I will be getting in touch with the SWRA to discuss.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

First Post

I decided to start this weblog after writing a diary for an article soon to be published.

I have recreated the diary as my first real entry, and hope to continue at the same sort of scale every week from 1st January 2005.

Sunday 31st October -

Work at home preparing for major planning meeting during the week. Visit the Octagon Theatre, built and run by the District Council, to see Buddy Holly and the Cricketers (sad but true) - the original was better, I know, I am old enough to remember him but still younger than the average age of SSDC councillors. When I joined the local Liberal Democrat branch I was told by one of our stalwart members that I was their 'great young hope'. At 56 this is a bit depressing and I am working to involve younger people in politics generally and the Lib Dems in particular. 3 of us councillors took part in a Question Time event at Yeovil College recently and the level of questions, coupled with the strong commitment to vote was very encouraging. SSDC was the only council to have no polling stations at all in the last election in 2003, with a mix of postal, electronic and telephone voting pushing the % voting up by about 18%.

Monday 1st November -

Our new Chief Executive's first day at work. Phil Dolan comes to us from Blaby in Leicestershire with a reputation for developing and delivering strong performance managed strategic objectives. He stood out from the other external candidates for the job, and my faith was greatly strengthened by the abject disappointment of his current Leader and former Leader who were unambiguous in praise of his management ability, and also sanguine about his wanting to move on having delivered for them. South Somerset is one of the biggest District Councils in the UK with 151,000 constituents (although with Central Government still using 1991 Census data for 2001 we are being severely shortchanged on our government funding) and is a widespread rural community with one third living in our major town (Yeovil), another third living in 13 market towns and rural centres and the remaining third in the countryside. Phil recognises the coincidence and irony of moving from Blaby where my cousin Andrew is the local Conservative MP to South Somerset where the only other Robathan in politics is a Liberal Democrat (little does he know that our family spans the whole political spectrum pretty conclusively). Met with Phil and then he went off to meet as many of the staff as he could in one day.

Got in touch with the County Council Highways service (outsourced to WS Atkins) to ask for some moss to be removed from a very dangerous sloping pavemnt in my ward, one of the many pieces of constituency casework I pick up in my regular visits the Coffee Stop, the village cafe run by Julie and Rob - depending on the day and time I meet young mothers, the local GP and his wife, property developers, pensioners, ex City bankers and out of village visitors (and they do a great bacon sandwich).

Due to visit the Chief Executive of the South West Regional Assembly in Taunton this afternoon because I am due to attend my first Regional Assembly meeting next week having taken on the role from the previous leader who now represents the County on the Assembly. I believe that Local Government could do much more, with less money, if there was a clarity in the division of responsibilities of Central, Regional and Local Government. Removing some power from Westminster and devolving it to either a single tier of Local Government based on sensible economic geographical areas or to a slim but focussed regional body that had relevant responsibility for transport infrastructure, regional identity and promotion and for over arching spatial strategy would be a good plan. Council Tax has to go (or at least change markedly) with a new system based on ability to pay - such as local income tax - and delivered to the local service providers with much greater flexibility in the way they can apply those funds to match the needs of the regional economy.

The South West is a low wage, high cost economy due to its essentially rural and agricultural nature but there are gems such as Westland in our District that need to be supported and recognised as the leading edge hi tech business that they are. Inward migration to the South West is a positive benefit if it brings much needed spending power, but not if it means there are no afffordable homes or sensible transport infrastructure.

Worked on some projects for the 2 firms I still have associations with in London, on the one hand the world's leading (and largest) Design and Architectural firm Gensler, where I act as Technology Strategist, advising the firm and its clients on the interaction between technological advances, business processes and the built environment (Technology is the means to allow me to do this job from Somerset) for clients all over the world but there is still a need for face to face meetings so I spend an average of 3 days a month in London with Gensler or Mantix, the IT strategy firm with which Infact, the firm I founded in 1983 merged some years ago. As a shareholder in Mantix I have recently become reengaged on our City / Financial work to take best advantage of the recent upturn in prospects in that market; good to meet old friends and for them to remember me! The 9/11 incident was a strong trigger for me to bring forward our already formed relocation plans from Harrow to Somerset when many tens of personal friends died at a conference I was due to speak at near the top of the World Trade Centre - so due to speak that I heard that friends in Australia had mourned my death - it was quite a shock.

One of the reasons for moving to the country (apart from living in the area that part of my family has inhabited for 400 or so years) was to start a biodynamic vineyard - since I was elected leader this year my wife Margaret has taken over a lot of the manual work of looking after our 4000 vines which we planted the day after I was elected as a District Councillor on May 1st 2003. We spent some time today discussing the effects of the recent heavy storms and the need to restake and tie up many of the vines (photo attached of the first month last year, and of now).

Tuesday 2nd November -

Early meeting at the District Council. When I say early I have made a rule not to start meetings before 9am, so that I can have breakfast with Margaret and take the dog for a walk before going in to the District Council, where I have an office and share the most spectacularly efficient PA, Sally Nash, with the CEO. I try to spend all of Tuesday and Thursday at the Council, leaving the rest of the week for other things but its hard to limit the job to 2 days and on average I spend 3 to 3 1/2 days at the Council. Discussed the Thursday meeting of the District Executive which I will chair; South Somerset has been quite a long time it getting through the development of a Local Plan, this meeting is to respond to the 1200 or so public comments on our officers' responses to the previous public consultation on the inspector's report on our deposit draft. The planning is needed because the paperwork is complicated and both the public and members need to have a clear idea of what is intended - and I need to work out how to run the meeting, which will take a few hours I expect.

Attended the regular meeting of the South Somerset Disability Forum. I am the appointed Council representative for my area, and am quite involved in both the SSDF and another local body Able Advocacy where I am a trustee.The meeting discussed the progress of DDA compliance and how the District Council can work with the Forum to ensure we support and provide for disabled people of all capabilities in the most effective way possible.

Moved straight in to a meeting about another District Executive meeting planned for next week. This meeting is taking the regular agenda, rather than just planning as the meeting on Thursday will. A long agenda, with a few papers that needed some work before circulating to members. The CEO, retiring MD and the senior management team presented the papers and discussed the issues - we agreed the way forward and our Democratic Services officers took away the hige wad of papers to turm in to an agenda ready for despatch to members on Wednesday.

In the afternoon I attended the regular team meeting of the Legal Services team. I try to attend at least one of these meetings every couple of weeks to meet the staff, discuss the members' plans for the future and to deal with any questions or issues that might be in the minds of officers.

In the evening I just had time for dinner at home before leaving to join one of 4 parish council meetings I attend every month in my ward. I am very lucky that the meetings do not clash, and are spread throughout the month. My fellow councillor who shares my ward is a Conservative but at the very local level politics rarely gets a mention and we work very well together. The same can be said about our County Councillor who is a Liberal Democrat like me, and also attends every Parish Council.

Wednesday 3rd November -

Attended another team meeting, this time Leisure and Culture. We have a very active and successful programme of leisure and cultural activities and this group includes the Countryside Service who deal with footpaths, rights of way etc and area frequent topic of conversation at Parish Councils! I am Chair of the Ham Hill Study Group, looking at developing more educational facilities for schools and general visitors at Ham Hill. A massive Iron Age Hill fort with Roman and Medieval connections, Ham Hill is visited by many many visitors as well as being the best place for dog walking.

Moved straight on from there to the new Liberal Democrat Constituency Office. As the Treasurer of the local Constituency (David Laws MP, who took over from Paddy Ashdown) I am project managing the refurbishment of a nice listed cottage in the centre of Yeovil. We intend to relocate in the next few weeks and I meet the Constituency Organisor to discuss furnishings, filing and telephone systems. Luckily we have good parking at the new office so I can zip stright from there back home to walk the dog (my wife is out for the day) before returning to attend the monthly Area meeting for the Yeovil area. As Portfolio Holder for Environment and Waste I attend these meetings with the Group Manager to report performance in waste collection, litter and a range of other services. This month is particularly important because we rolled out our first wheelie bins in Yeovil 3 weeks ago and the results were keenly awaited - so far we haev had a very trouble free 5000 household collection and the volume of residual waste is well down, while the recycling % is well up. We are hoping for great things over the next 18 months as we work with our partners across Somerset to reach and exceed Government targets.

The evening is dedicated to a meetihg of the Galaxy Group, a joint District, County, Health Service, College, Voluntary Service, Chamber of Trade, local newspaper and key local business partnership to drive the redevelopment of Yeovil through a mechanism called Yeovil Vision - the mind of a CIty, the heart of the Country. Make good progress towards developing a more formal structure and discuss the planned traffic improvements in the next couple of years. This is a superb example of collaborative working across the public and private sector and sets the tone for similar groups across the District.

Thursday 4th November -

The day is pretty much totally taken up with the District Executive planning meeting. We discuss the Regional Spatial Strategy, and agree on the option to be lobbied for at the Regional Assembly next week. Then 5 or so hours on a painstaking review of every element of the Local Plan. A couple of major sites need to be considered again but in the main a very successful meeting. Relax at home with a stiff drink for once.

Friday 5th November -

Chair the Policy Panel for Environment and Waste. We have a strong reputation for innovative projects, including the first mico hydro scheme for creating electricity from old mill races. The meeting agreed a number of environmental objectives and a strong commitment to addressing climate change. We are working to developing our next mid term priorities and there is no doubt this panel wants high profile environmental projects to be included.

Rush back to my office to meet with the Health and Housing Portfolio Holder and the local MP David Laws to discuss Social Housing, then straight in to making the speech at our outgoing MD's retirement party. She is going to be spending quite a chunk of her time watching Welsh Rugby and as a Welshman I spend quite some time with Elaine and David talking up the Welsh before they meet South Africa on Saturday.

Take part in a conference call with my Gensler colleagues in London, then off to Able Advocacy to meet with the Manager to discuss a funding application. A restful evening at home and an early night because I need to be up early tomorrow.

Saturday 6th November -

6.04 train from Crewkerne to attend the Liberal Summer School on Climate Chaneg in Harpenden. A spell binding speech by Sir Crispin Tickell followed by a day of debate about the issues around climate change and what we should all be doing about it. As Leader of South Somerset District I have a lot to live up to - 2 of the other attendees were both leaders before me and are remembered for major environmental initiatives.

Train home by 10.00pm, but the day is marred by the tragic news of the train derailment in Berkshire. Watch News 24 to try to understand what went on. Check out the rugby score - we did well at 38 -36, Wales is definitely on the way back to the top.