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.