Free to be young – and other great stuff from Spring Conference

I made the trip to Birmingham yesterday, getting up at some ungodly hour, for the Lib Dem Spring Conference. Unfortunately I could only stay for the one day, but what a great day it was.

The highlight of the day was our policy paper on young people, entitled Free to be Young. This policy is overwhelmingly positive, focusing on why we should celebrate our young people, and help them to make a positive contribution to society. I know loads of teenagers who are brilliant role models, and get so frustrated when certain sections of the media portray them as nothing better than ‘hoodies’ hanging round causing trouble. Of course there are a few people of all age groups that cause trouble – but the Labour government spend vast amounts of money locking up young offenders, and hardly anything on schemes to prevent them offending in the first place. Where’s the logic in that?

But what else went on…?

I got to hear the main speech by Vince Cable, which was extraordinarily competent as ever. The prospect of George Osborne being our next chancellor of the exchequer, frankly, fills me with dread.

I also attended the Q&A session with Nick Clegg. Which other party leader is brave enough to offer himself up for open questions from the audience? Nick does this up and down the country, and was grilled just as hard (if not harder) by Liberal Democrats in Birmingham. He answered all questions well and showed just how well he has grown into the role of leader since his election.

At lunchtime, I attended a fringe meeting by ALDES with no particular agenda, but speeches by the great Evan Harris and also Julian Huppert from Cambridge. Two excellent speakers, and real assets to the party. There are not enough scientists in the House of Commons. Hopefully that will change come May!

Unfortunately I missed the debate on Freedom, Creativity and the Internet this morning, being back in Yorkshire, but I needn’t have worried. After a slightly embarrassing episode in the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, many technologically-minded Lib Dems were up in arms. This motion, passed overwhelmingly, puts us back on the right course to develop some sound policy on IT and the Internet, which is sorely needed.

Conference is a great place to meet people. I bumped into my old friend Jane Brophy, who was preparing a speech against the main environment motion, saying it didn’t go far enough. As a regular dissenter myself (only the Liberal Democrats will let people like us stand on the main stage and speak against party policy) I tried to give a few pointers. In the end, her speech came across very well.

Overall the conference reminded me why I’m a Liberal Democrat. Not only do I agree with the overwhelming majority of our policy, but the very way we make it is completely different from the other parties. I simply can’t imagine having anywhere near as much freedom to discuss, debate and disagree in either Labour or the Conservatives. I’m now looking forward to the main conference in Liverpool in September and, of course, the general and local elections in May (or whenever!).

The only down side to the day was the train journey home. Not only was Birmingham New Street station gruesome as ever, but my train back from Manchester to Hebden was packed to overflowing. We were literally crammed in like sardines. This is partly due to the reduction in trains to Rochdale following the Oldham Loop Line’s conversion to Metrolink – however Northern Rail have shown precious little enthusiasm for actually doing anything about it.

Electronic patient records – are we getting the whole story?

Letter written to the Hebden Bridge times today, following an article they published, which looks like it was heavily based on a government press release.

In response to the article “New records will help patient care” published on 25 February, I am writing to express serious concerns that myself and others have about the new system of storing medical details on a central government computer system.

Currently medical records are stored by each GP practice and can only be accessed by staff belonging to that practice. The new system changes this so that certain information is held on a central system and can be accessed from anywhere. The placing of information onto this new system is being done with “implied consent” which means if people do nothing your information will go on. However, it is possible to opt out.

The system will initially be storing details of allergies and prescriptions. However, in the future other information may be added such as blood test results, or letters from specialists.

A British Medical Association press release dated 1 March 2010, entitled “Patients are not being adequately informed about electronic patient records”, protests that the new system is being rolled out too quickly without sufficient consultation with patients.

The government has an extremely poor record on storing data and has lost discs and memory sticks containing confidential data on a regular basis. Will the system even be secure? The equivalent system in Scotland has already been broken into, and the medical records of Gordon Brown (amongst others) were hacked.

Of course, certain people will want to have their records on the system. For example, anyone with an ongoing medical condition or serious allergies should speak to their GP before considering opting out.

However, if you opt out now, you can opt in again at a later date. It is much harder to get off the computer system once you’re on it.

This new system moves control of my information from medical professionals to the state. It will be open to hundreds of thousands of people, not just doctors. I will be opting out of the system to protect my data, and I would urge people to make sure they have a full picture of what will happen before making their own decision. Opt out forms are available from www.nhscarerecords.nhs.uk.

Save 6 Music – by listening to it

The BBC Trust today admitted that the stories leaked last week – that 6 Music and Asian Network would be recommended for closure – were true.

BBC 6 Music is the only radio station I’ve encountered that is focused solely on good (non-classical) music, with a particular emphasis on up-and-coming singers and groups. The entire station is essentially a continuation of the work done for many years by the late great John Peel.

The DJs are extremely knowledgable about the music played, and regularly have bands into the studio to perform live and talk about the music, continuing a tradition that goes back to the early 60s when the Beatles (amongst others) would come in to perform on the light programme. There is no time for the tedious light-hearted “banter” engaged in by the likes of Jonathan Ross or Terry Wogan on Radio 2.

My favourite show, and the reason I have a DAB aerial stuck to the front of my house, is Marc Riley’s weekday evening show. Not only does he play great music, but he has a fantastically subtle dry sense of humour, not unlike that of Eddie Mair. And he has the best jingles. I also enjoy Lauren Laverne, Craig Charles’ Funk ‘n’ Soul show (yes, that Craig Charles!), and Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour (when it’s on).

A quick look through my iTunes ‘purchased music’ list reveals that I’ve bought music from Voluntary Butler Scheme, King Creosote, The Loves, The Poems, Pete and The Pirates, The Wave Pictures, Half Man Half Biscuit, XX Teens, Vetiver, Wild Billy Childish and Beans on Toast – all as a result of hearing them on 6 Music. I’ve also seen several of these groups live. Most of these are new groups who get vital exposure on 6 Music. Radio 1, Radio 2 and the commercial stations simply won’t take the risk of playing anything other than safe music designed to appeal to a middle-of-the-road audience and advertisers.

Lib Dem spokesperson Don Foster has said that 6 Music and the Asian Network are being used as sacrificial lambs. He’s absolutely right – if cost savings need to be made, there are plenty of other places that they could look. I would suggest that taking a long hard look at TV channels BBC3 and BBC4 would be a good start.

So what can we do to help save 6 Music? Well, of course, comment on the BBC Trust’s consultation. But most of all, listen to the station, and if you like it, tell your friends. It’s been very poorly advertised up till now, and hopefully the listener figures will take a big jump as a result of this week’s publicity. You can listen on Freeview (TV), DAB (radio) or online. Anyone listening live online will be counted by the BBC’s servers, so why not listen while browsing, or check out some old shows on iPlayer.

Hopefully together we can persuade the BBC to reverse this decision.

Edit 3 March 2010: Join the Facebook campaign to save 6 Music. Also don’t forget to complete the BBC Trust’s consultation. Tell them what you think!

Recycling (or not) with Northern Rail

Earlier this year, I noticed a number of the following posters appearing on Northern Rail trains. I am strongly in favour of recycling, but they seem to have the wrong end of the stick.

Recycling is just as much about reuse as it is about reprocessing materials and making something new. Leaving newspapers on the train (especially copies of Metro) is a perfect example of recycling in action. If everybody took their own copy of the Metro home to recycle, then they’d need to print twice as many.

Of course, at the end of the day, all the day’s newspapers should be recycled. However, I have never seen a recycling point (for newspapers, cans, bottles, or anything for that matter) on board a Northern Rail train, or at a Northern Rail station in West Yorkshire.

To that end, I have written Northern Rail the following letter:

Dear Northern Rail,

I am writing regarding the recycling poster that has appeared recently on your trains around West Yorkshire. It states:

“Please recycle your newspaper. Leaving it behind is littering.”

As a keen supporter of recycling, I am glad to see that you are taking the issue seriously.

The poster encourages people to recycle newspapers that they have been reading on the train, many of which will be the free papers provided in your stations.

Could you let me know what facilities are available for recycling on board your trains and at your stations?

Also, do your cleaners recycle items (eg. newspapers, cans, bottles) found on board trains when cleaning them?

I would challenge your assertion that leaving a newspaper on the train is littering. I almost never pick up a copy of Metro from the piles available at your stations, but regularly pick one up that has been left on the train. If everybody took home their own copy of the Metro, then you’d have to print twice as many, which isn’t very green.

My suggestion for addressing this issue would be that you provide areas in each train carriage, and at each station, where people can leave their newspapers. This chould be a shelf clearly marked “Leave your newspaper here”. It should not be a bin, the idea being that other people could pick up a newspaper from the shelf to read, then replace it when they’ve finished. At the end of the day, your cleaners could clear the shelf straight into a paper recycling bin. This would encourage both reuse and recycling of the newspapers, which is surely better all round.

I look forward to hearing what you think.

Labour letting down our teenagers on sex education

This week’s shocking U-turn by the Labour Government, to allow religious schools to put their own slant on sex and relationship education, will let down thousands of teenagers (and younger children) across the country. Ed Balls’ amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill will almost certainly lead to state-funded religious schools teaching that contraception is immoral and that having a gay relationship is wrong.

At the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference last year, I summated the Calderdale motion on faith schools. I made the point that someone growing up lgbt in a religious school will have a much harder time when teachers are allowed to say that a relationship with someone of the same sex is wrong. Also, some religions are against contraception. With 21st Century Britain having such a high teenage pregnancy rate, and many developing countries struggling with overpopulation, I believe that such a position is indefensible.

Speaking on the amendment was an interesting experience as I had to persuade a couple of thousand Liberal Democrats to vote against Vince Cable, who had spoken against our amendment. The end result was – as it so often is – a compromise. The resulting Liberal Democrat policy is that faith schools can continue to exist, but must demonstrate the diversity of their intake, ie. not just fill up with children of one religion. I believe very strongly that growing up with people who are of different religions, races, and sexualities, is essential to overcome prejudice, which is caused by the fear of the unknown.

The Accord Coalition, made up of people from many religions and none, has strongly criticised Ed Balls’ amendment, drawing parallels with the infamous Section 28. It is shocking that a Labour Government, who scrapped Section 28 and introduced civil partnerships, is taking such a backward step on lgbt issues. Equally worrying is the fact that youngsters across the country may not be properly taught about contraception, potentially leading to STDs and hundreds of unwanted pregnancies. Whilst I respect the right of any religion to have its own views, children in state-funded schools need to be taught the basic facts of life in an unbiased way.

It is clear that the once-radical Labour Party have given up any hope of improving things for lgbt youngsters. The Tories have always been hopeless, so it is now left to the Liberal Democrats – with our promise of full marriage between any two consenting adults regardless of gender, and our sensible policies on faith schools – to carry the lgbt flame.

Youth in Hebden Bridge – not all bad news!

The young people of Hebden Bridge have not had the best of press recently. This week, The Times published an article alleging (without statistics) that the town has one of the highest suicide rates in England. This follows a previous article in the Independent on Sunday, and a general perception amongst certain sections of the population that youngsters in the town spend most of their evenings drinking and taking drugs, leading to dependency, social meltdown, and eventually death.

Whilst there certainly are young people drinking and taking drugs in Hebden, in my experience it’s not much worse than anywhere else. The smell of grass on the town’s streets – and I don’t mean the freshly mown variety – is no worse than in suburban Cheshire where I lived before moving here.

However, there is a bit of a problem with things to do for under-18s. There is very little provision in terms of live music, as the local live music club (Trades Club) has a policy of not hosting performances by young rock bands or DJs, and not allowing under 18s to Friday or Saturday night gigs. There is not really anywhere for young people to go with lighting and shelter. There is a youth club one night a week but that’s not for everybody. We do have an excellent cinema but on the surface of things that’s about it.

It’s important to say that the drugs issue is not being ignored, with Calderdale MBC working together with other organisations like Lifeline Calderdale / Step 2 to help address these issues.

Back to young people, though. Just before I was elected 18 months ago, the Town Council set up a Young People’s Working Party. One of the campaigning Focus leaflets for my election (see pic) focused on the issue of youth provision and I was pleased that Hebden Royd were doing something about it. Unfortunately that incarnation of the working party didn’t really get anywhere. However, in late 2009, things started moving again. The indomitable Lesley Jones resurrected the working party and we held a small meeting with Calderdale MBC Youth Workers and a few other organisations providing young people’s services.

One of the ideas that was raised was that of auditing youth provision in Hebden Royd, and getting everyone together for a big youth day on Calder Holmes Park later in the year. The second meeting was held this week, and I was expecting the same small bunch of people. I was surprised and extremely pleased when the committee room filled up… and people kept arriving. People were literally sharing chairs and sitting on other items of furniture. Not only were there representatives of loads of local organisations, as well as Hebden Royd Town Councillors and Calderdale MBC Youth Workers, but around a dozen young people as well. I wish I’d had my camera to take a photo for the press release!

Lesley somehow managed to keep the meeting on track and we heard from the young folk there as well as the adults. They raised issues like a lack of access to gigs and sports, as well as a general lack of things to do and places to hang out. A separate steering committee – led by the young people – has been set up to plan the event in Calder Holmes Park, and will invite anyone and everyone working with young people in the area, from skateboarders to the woodcraft folk, to be a part of it. The main working party will continue to review and hopefully move forward other youth provision.

One of the groups represented at the meeting was Project X, a social enterprise recently formed to work with young people in the Upper Calder Valley. On Friday, they held a fund-raising gig at the Trades Club (no under 18s allowed!) featuring local North-African band Maghribibeat. I went along and had a great time. The main band were good but they were followed, unexpectedly, by Recorded Filth, a group of local youngsters who were much more interesting. Their performance ranged from performance poetry through rap (in both English and French) to R’n’B/soul, including a stunning version of Bring It On Home to Me. And where else but Hebden Bridge would a group encore with a comic rap about Necrophilia?!

It was a great night, and goes to show that local youngsters do much more than just hang round on street corners smoking and drinking. I am hopeful that, with the involvement of local young people, Hebden Royd Town Council can help improve youth provision in the area and hopefully prevent future generations from going off the rails.

Edit 16 February 2010: Anthony Rae has dug out some official suicide statistics for the area which do not support the sensationalist headline in The Times, although it must be stressed that the figures are so low that drawing any kind of serious conclusion is impossible. Also, they presumably don’t include any deaths due to accidental drug or alcohol overdoses.

Hebden Royd Budget 2010/11

Hebden Royd Town Hall

Last week Hebden Royd Town Council agreed the budget for 2010/11, which is almost entirely funded by council tax payers in our area. The budget agreed is a total of £277,100, up from £255,600 in 2009/10. Taking into account our bank balance at the end of the financial year, and the grant of £8,941 from Calderdale MBC, the cost to a council tax payer in a band D property is estimated to be £58.64 over the whole year, a 0.7% increase on last year.

All the Lib Dem councillors supported this budget, and I personally am extremely happy with the final figures that were put together. Many Labour councillors also supported it, although a few – predictably – wanted a larger raise. Neither of the independent councillors were present at the meeting.

I have campaigned in the past for low council tax increases, and keeping the increase to less than 1% without any cuts is a great achievement. The country is only just emerging from the recession, and many people are struggling to pay bills, so a raise of much more than this would be hard to justify.

So what do the council tax payers of Hebden Royd get for their hard earned cash?

The biggest spend outside of staff salaries is the £60,000 allocation for grants for community groups, a £5,000 increase from last year. These grants are extremely popular and enable many groups in the area to complete small projects. £25,000 has been allocated for environmental projects, and £10,000 for Christmas lights – although a large chunk of this will be taken up simply storing and putting up/taking down the lights we already have. £10,500 will go towards celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of Hebden Bridge this year, and £3,000 for the associated twinning events, as residents of both Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise (France) and Warstein (Germany) are visiting over the course of the year. The £30,000 we already have allocated for resurfacing the unadopted Central Street will remain, although we are struggling to get the help required from Calderdale MBC to see this one through. To balance the spend across the council area, £9,500 has been allocated for Mytholmroyd Memorial Gardens.

Finally – and as chair of the committee in question I am particularly pleased – we have increased the allotments budget to £7,500, in order to support three prospective projects across Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge which will hopefully be coming to fruition in 2010 and 2011. There is a real desire for new allotments in the area, not least because the majority of our houses don’t have gardens, and I’m hopeful that we will finally manage to get some more plots available. Allotments are one of the few things for which Town and Parish Councils are actually responsible. The lack of them is something we can’t blame on Calderdale MBC!

In the past, the budget has been decided at a somewhat acrimonious meeting of full council. This year, each committee made a recommendation for their own budget, and the Strategy & Review committee pulled together all of the recommendations, made a few tweaks, and produced a recommended budget for full council to approve. This worked extremely well, and enabled both Lib Dem and Labour councillors to have their say. However, the debate approving the budget at full council was rather short. I personally would have liked a longer debate with perhaps the chair of each committee outlining their plans rather than just waving through the recommendations. It worked out well in the end, though.

One final note – again this year, no one from the local media turned up to the budget meeting. Perhaps the discussion on how to spend over a quarter of a million pounds of tax payers money wasn’t of any interest to them?

Spotted in Salford

On a walk through Salford this morning I spotted my first David Cameron election poster, most pleasingly daubed with an alternative slogan underneath. It was a nice surprise as although the Tories aren’t exactly popular in Salford, it’s hardly a bastion of Liberal Democracy either. Good to see that, despite the myriad of parodies of this poster appearing online, old fashioned graffiti is still around.

I was only passing through central Salford to get to a friend’s flat, but I was amazed at the variety of interesting buildings to be found there, in various states of repair. I just had to keep taking photos and have posted the most interesting below. For anyone interested in architecture, I can certainly recommend a visit to Salford, particularly Chapel Street, and preferably with a copy of the SE Lancashire Pevsner to hand.

Former Police Station
Independent Chapel, with modern buildings looming overhead
Salford Education Offices
Salford Cathedral (RC)
Salford Matrix Club - some parts of Salford still living up to the stereotype
Church of St. Philip and Manchester & Salford Savings Bank
Salford Lads' Club, opened by Baden-Powell and immortalised by the famous photo of The Smiths standing in its doorway

Expenses and attendance

A certain “they’re only in it for themselves” attitude seems to infuse many people’s attitudes to politicians these days. A few months after being elected as a councillor, I went on a trip – at my own expense – to Hebden Bridge’s twin town of Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise. A friend’s immediate reaction when I mentioned that I was going was to ask if it was a council-funded jolly. In fact it cost me £75.

To set the record straight, the only Hebden Royd Town Councillor who receives an allowance is the mayor, with the deputy mayor also receiving some limited expenses. Additionally, the council occasionally pays for some councillors to attend training courses.

Just to make it completely clear, I have added a page to this website detailing what I have and (more frequently) have not received as a councillor, including a list of trips attended as a councillor at my own expense.

I have also added details of my council attendance. This is a somewhat thornier issue for town councillors! I am sad to say that I have never seen all eighteen Hebden Royd Town Councillors present in the council chamber at the same time. Councillor attendance records are published in the Town Talk newsletter, available from the council website. My own attendance is pretty good, although I didn’t quite manage 100% last year (2009) due to a holiday and meetings clashing with other things. Still, 21 out of 23 meetings is not bad. Congratulations to Cllr. Lesley Jones (Lib Dem) and Cllr. Dave Young (Labour) who both managed 100% attendance. At my suggestion, the latest figures list full council and committee attendance separately.

It is interesting to see that committee attendance ranges from 0 (two councillors) to 22 meetings (Cllr. Robin Dixon). Full council attendance also ranges from 2 to 11. Two meetings a year is the minimum attendance necessary to stay on the council as, by law, if a councillor does not attend for six months then he or she is automatically thrown off. Even though we’re all volunteers on Hebden Royd, in my opinion anyone with such a poor attendance record should consider very seriously whether they are adequately representing the people who voted for them. Of course, if some councillors attend no committee meetings, the net result is that the rest of us have to attend more.

What about Calderdale councillors? Some councils, for example nearby Kirklees, publish very comprehensive details of who is paid how much for doing what. Unfortunately Calderdale’s equivalent page is much less impressive and, importantly, doesn’t name names. For any given councillor, it is extremely hard to work out how much they have received. I am a strong believer in open democracy, and find it quite shocking that this information is not readily available on Calderdale’s website. If anyone else has better luck looking for it then please let me know!

2010: A great year for Hebden Bridge

Chris at the bridge

As 2010 begins, I am looking forward to a great year for Hebden Bridge for many reasons, but two in particular, both of which involve Hebden Royd Town Council.

Firstly, it is the 500th anniversary of the bridge from which the town takes its name. Well, approximately. The bridge was built in c.1510, so we’re having our celebrations this year. It replaced an earlier wooden bridge and has been repaired several times since. If you’re visiting, look out for three carved stones which mark the repairs. The Victorians raised the parapet (an early example of health and safety?) but apart from that it has remained largely unchanged.

Hebden Royd Town Council convened a working party, which has subsequently morphed into a committee comprising Councillors, including myself, and many other key people from the town. We are working to improve the bridge’s environment, including reducing the size of some of the self-seeded trees in the river, improvements to Old Gate, and flags and banners – very sensitively designed – to be installed for a limited period later in the year.

Of course, many local people and organisations are organising events this year. Either special events to commemorate the anniversary, or regular annual events with a special 2010 theme. The committee has done its best to co-ordinate events so that, for example, a children’s choir doesn’t try to sing from the bridge at the same time as a civil war re-enactment takes place. The calendar is kept up-to-date at the Hebden Bridge 500 website. Hebden Royd Town Council is organising several events itself, notably those involving the visitors from our twin towns of St. Pol (France) and Warstein (Germany), as well as a special commemoration event on 20 June which will be… Well, let’s just say it will certainly involve a surprise or two.

The other exciting event which is happening this year is the transfer of the town hall in Hebden Bridge from Calderdale Council’s ownership to a local community-based organisation formed to take over its management. Prior to 1974, the town hall was owned by Hebden Royd Urban District council. It then passed into Calderdale’s hands, and has been allowed to slowly deteriorate ever since. Hebden Royd Town Council is the main tenant, with offices as well as regular use of the council chamber and meeting rooms. However, several surrounding parishes also meet there, Calderdale have some offices, there is a small business in an attic room, and Hebden Bridge Youth Theatre/Light Opera use the upstairs hall at the back.

There were two applications for the asset transfer process – Hebden Bridge Community Association applied to take over the whole site, and the Youth Theatre/Light Opera put in their own bid for the rear part only. Fortunately the community application won through, and is one of the first asset transfers of this type to be approved in the country. I know the trustees will work hard with all existing tenants in their exciting plans to refurbish the existing building, and ultimately expansion into the neighbouring car park. As part of this, an Audit of Internal Architectural Historical Characteristics [PDF] was carried out of all the nooks and crannies of the place. It’s a fascinating read for architecture fanatics like myself. Spot the reference to the wonderful first floor Victorian gents which has survived.

Hebden Royd Town Council recently became a member of the community association – a little on the late side, I felt, but better late than never. I have personally been a member since the association was launched.

So, to summarise, it’s a great year to visit, and for two of the town’s best known landmarks. Come and see what’s happening – although probably best wait until all the snow and ice has melted first!

Edit 8 January 2010: Removed an incorrect statement about HRTC paying rent to the Community Association for use of the building. Janet Battye has pointed out that as part of the asset transfer, Calderdale Council have agreed to pay the rent due for parish councils.