Wednesday, 21 June 2017

CWaC measurements and metrics

At CWaC's cabinet today we discussed the council's performance metrics.

Whilst I fully accept that performance data is important we all have to be clear that what is being measured is real, relevant and informative.  We also have to worry that whatever performance metrics are used that they do not have a distorting effect on performance.  Then there is the danger of 'marking your own homework' - where the council sets its own targets and then judges itself against those targets.

A few examples:

The council has set itself the following targets on highway maintenance:

KPI:  Maintain the condition of the highway network in a steady state – percentage requiring structural maintenance (annual measure, data available Q4).
A Roads - 1%; B&C Roads - 6%; U Roads 7%.

Now against this target the council has reported that those targets have been achieved.  However the metrics show that the targets are to be relaxed.  So the council will still give itself a 'green tick' in 2019-20 if 3% of A Roads, 8% of B&C Roads and 9% of U roads require structural maintenance.  In other words managing decline will be considered to be acceptable.  Personally to have 3% of A roads in need of structural maintenance is a worry... and if you live on the 9% of side roads that require structural maintenance - every time you drive you car along such a potholed road you won't consider the council deserves a 'green tick.'

I also worry about whether the use of such metrics can encourage unintended and indeed unwanted consequences.  For example the council measures itself with regard to repeat referrals to children's care within 12 months.  Ideally no one wants to have a repeat referral social care.  Does the presence of such a metric encourage poor or inappropriate behaviours?  Would an officer seek to delay a repeat referral to the other side of a 12 month boundary so as to ensure the data looked better?  One sincerely hopes that this would not happen - however there are far too many examples within the wider public sector where exactly this sort of data manipulating behaviours have occurred.

The report highlights the declining performance with regard to patient/care delayed discharges.  In other words the delays for a patient from leaving hospital to go into care.  This is a complex area.  CWaC isn't solely responsible for the delays - however the Cabinet member did recognise that the council was responsible for around 1/3rd of them.  There are performance differences between the West Cheshire CCG area (most of the Borough and including Frodsham) and the Vale Royal CCG area (Northwich and Winsford).  Largely this is the difference in approach taken by GPs in the CCG areas and by the Countess of Cheshire and Leighton Hospitals.  CWaC tells me it adopts the same approach irrespective of which CCG is involved.

If you want to read the full metrics do look out the CWaC Cabinet agenda from today on the CWaC website.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Labour want charge for all car parking in Frodsham

Conservatives call on council to 'park the car parking charges'

Frodsham residents are being urged to back a campaign calling on the council to scrap plans to introduce parking charges.

The Labour administration at CWaC want to bring in car parking charges for everyone.

We oppose that.

The Conservative campaign to oppose car parking charges has been brought about as CWaC's Labour administration published its car parking strategy.  Their strategy will see car parking charges introduced into places like Frodsham and Helsby for the first time ever for our public car parks.  Even Blue Badge holders will have to pay.

Lynn Riley, Conservative group leader and Frodsham Councillor, said “these plans will hit businesses across Frodsham.We are calling on the council to 'park these charges' and keep at least three hours free in Frodsham for short stayers.  If charges for short visits are introduced, residents and visitors will think twice about coming to town and may choose to shop elsewhere which will hurt the local economy.  There is evidence from places as close as the Wirral which show how car parking charges damage local economies.

Cllr Andrew Dawson  added “We understand that the council wants to make money, but what is being proposed will hit small independent traders and people on low and fixed incomes the hardest. Our call for 3 free hours will help with managing long stay commuters whilst still allowing locals to use Frodsham’s shops without having to stump up cash every time.”

The Council retained parking consultants Mott McDonald in 2016 for a six figure sum to draft the over arching strategy together with separate plans for Chester, Ellesmere Port, Northwich, Frodsham and other village centres.

For the first time since CWaC was created in 2008 and only 10 days since the General Election, the borough will see the global introduction of parking charges for all areas including residents parking schemes and Blue Badge holders.

Other recommendations include plans to improve the quality of existing parking, more cycle parking and charging points for electric vehicles and new ways to pay. The most surprising recommendation is that the Council intends to invest in buying up more car parks and  will collaborate with private providers to ensure that other parking facilities do not undermine the overall strategy.

The timing of this announcement seems cynical as it is only days after the General Election when people are understandably weary of politics.  

Conservative Councillors are hoping that strong public opinion will force Labour to rethink and learn from their past mistakes when parking charges damaged local economies. 

With no economic impact assessment carried out, parking charges and penalties will impact the fragile recovery of our town centres. When in Administration at CWAC from 2009-15, the Conservatives held parking charges where they had formerly existed prior to the creation of the unitary council, rolled out Free-After-3 to these areas and were actively removing charges in Ellesmere Port as well as  building new facilities to support regeneration.

To us this looks like a step backwards and shows Labour's fundamental misunderstanding of local needs.   Not everyone is fit enough to walk into Frodsham.  These charges will hit business and those least able to afford them.  But then Labour has often seen Frodsham simply as a 'cash cow.'  We saw that in the budget debate and the budget papers just this year.  The only time Frodsham was mentioned was to pay council tax.  It wasn't on the list for investment.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Council of Europe - supporting local democracy in Tbilisi, Georgia

I've just come back from Tbilisi.

The Council of Europe invited me to address a conference aimed at supporting local government reforms in Georgia.  As you may expect I was honoured and humbled to be asked to participate in such conference.  This was my first invitation to such an international event.

As one of the UK's 18 delegates to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on the Council of Europe these invitations may come my way - however I did ask why, of all the delegates from the UK the Council of Europe had invited me.  As it turned out I was the only Congress delegate outside Georgia in attendance.  So - had I known - the question should have been why out of all the 300+ delegates from 47 countries did the Council of Europe consider inviting me.

I was told that the secretariat was particularly interested in what we've achieved in Frodsham in terms  of revitalising and energising local democracy.  They've been watching and reading!

So what was so interesting.

If you think back to 2007 - there were 16 candidates for 16 places on Frodsham Town Council.  All candidates were elected unopposed.  FTC did very little and, so far as I am concerned did what little it did badly.  One of the reasons I became a local politician was because I was so annoyed by the fact that Frodsham residents were paying a higher council tax than most areas in the old Vale Royal and we saw precious little for that.

The first 4 year term I served on FTC from 2007-2011 was soul destroying.

Decisions were made by a group of councillors who deliberately excluded Cllr Riley and me.  These were councillors who were either members of the Labour Party or Labour Party sympathisers.  Ironically these were councillors who asserted they were 'independent' - however they stated on their declarations of member's interests that they were members of the Labour Party.  

They made it hard to bring new ideas and new thinking forward.

Now I have absolutely nothing against people supporting lawful political parties.  In fact I positively welcome it.  It is no secret - none of us have a monopoly on wisdom - even if some pretend that they have it!  Our political system relies on challenge and dialogue to achieve the best policies.  It can be a bruising process - literally the school of hard knocks - if you are on the receiving end of it!  But life would be boring if we all held the same views.

Anyway the experience of that 2007-11 council led me to find a coalition of the willing from all parts of the political spectrum to reform FTC.  That Frodsham First coalition was made up of people who voted for every mainstream political party.

Now whatever you may think of Frodsham Town Council from 2011-2015 it achieved many things.

We got new energy efficient Christmas Lights - that paid for themselves with the energy savings;
Our Christmas festivals were energised and became even better;
We got comprehensive defibrillator coverage in Frodsham;
We got a local winter gritting scheme;
We got a new play area at Churchfields;
We firmly established the Mayor of Frodsham as the ambassador of the town and as our first citizen;
We separated this 'first citizen role' from the Chairmanship of the Council to ensure our first citizen was, and was seen to be politically independent;
We brought youngsters into celebrating our community through the involvement of our schools and the Junior Mayors; and
We brought in the 'Freedom of Frodsham' and the concept of celebrating members of our community who have gone above and beyond in serving us.

The aim, of course was to build community cohesion and pride in Frodsham.

This local pride and celebration was what the Council of Europe liked - alongside my descriptions of local government arrangements in the UK.

I was also honoured to be the sole male asked to take part in a debate about greater female participation in local democracy.  FTC has been gender balanced since 2011 - and we should all celebrate that.  I explained how CWaC and Cheshire East are all led by women.

I encouraged the conference to watch 'Made in Dagenham' to gain an insight into the struggle for gender equality in the UK.

That said I was more than a little troubled that we didn't go on to discuss LGBT rights - but that will come.  I did raise that in the plenary sessions of the whole Congress in October.

I was really impressed with the desire for reform in Georgia and their willingness to embrace and embed democracy.  

And finally I will always remember the few hours I spent in the country as the flight in was very eventful. We had significant turbulence and the mother of all thunderstorms to contend with.  On landing the passengers gave a heartfelt round of applause!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Frodsham Air Quality Management Area Consultation

CWaC has finally published its Consultation Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) documentation for the Fluin Lane / A56 junction.  The consultation examines the extent of the traffic pollution problem and considers what could be done to improve the situation.

The entire consultation documentation can be found by clicking here.  

I have ensured that everyone living in the AQMA area has received paper copies of the full report. They will also be invited to consultation events arranged just for them.  There will also be community wide events organised.

The consultation will run until 28 July 2017.

First the good news.  The Air Monitoring Station at Manor House school shows that the quality of air in and around Frodsham is typically very good.   The problems we occasionally have are traffic related.  Cllr Riley and I have ensured that Frodsham has been covered with air monitoring devices over the last decade or so.  It is through that work that we discovered that the air quality at the Fluin Lane / A56 junction can fall beneath acceptable standards. This has led to CWaC declaring an AQMA at this junction. 

The AQMA area is shown by the red line on the map shown below.  There are 18 residential properties within the area that are exposed, at certain times, to poor air quality caused by traffic pollution.  The principal concerns are the various nitrogen oxides (typically referred to as NOx) largely associated with diesel engines.  As we all know there can be extensive queues of traffic along the A56 and on Fluin Lane.  The worst pollution is likely to arise when we have those queues coinciding at the same time as there being little air movement.  The 'canyon like' environment at the bottom of Fluin Lane doesn't help either.

Having identified we have a problem the AQMA consultation documentation then considers what potentially can be done about it.

A number of proposals - all aimed at reducing traffic pollution at the junction have been put forward. The engineers consider that each of these schemes could reduce air pollution.

Right turn lanes on the A56

The sketch below shows two right turn lanes on the A56 - aiding traffic moving into Fluin Lane and St Hilda's Drive whilst potentially maintaining traffic flow along the A56.

My initial view on seeing this suggestion is that whilst it may contribute in some small way to keeping traffic moving along the A56 - traffic behind the occasional vehicle looking to turn right would be able to continue along the A56 it will make the queuing along Fluin Lane worse.  A vehicle looking to turn right out of Fluin Lane (or St Hilda's Drive) could be blocked by a car waiting to turn right on the A56.

Traffic Lights

This proposal builds on the right turn lane suggestion and adds traffic lights.

My thoughts on this are that whilst this could assist at some times of the day - it is unlikely to reduce traffic pollution at peak periods.  If the problem is pollution from slow moving and queuing traffic actually compelling traffic stop at traffic lights and then accelerate away (causing more pollution) may actually make things worse.


It took me quite a while to get my head around the idea of a chicane on Fluin Lane.  The idea is that traffic queuing to exit Fluin Lane would have to wait up hill of the chicane (which would be by the terraced properties) until there was no traffic coming up Fluin Lane and their exit to reach the give way junction was clear.  This suggestion would evidently reduce the number of cars that could queue in front of those houses.

My thoughts on this proposal is that I suspect it may be unworkable in practice and would increase the risks of accidents.  From my experience cars making the left hand turn into Fluin Lane typically come round that bend at 20 mph or more - and they can't be seen until they are negotiating the bend by anyone higher up Fluin Lane.  This suggests to me that there would be very little reaction time for anyone wishing to negotiate the chicane.

This scheme also worries me as it, in effect merely displaces the queuing traffic further up Fluin Lane.  It also strikes me that it would make exiting from Langdale Way onto Fluin Lane more problematic than it already can be.

Mini roundabout 

Of all the schemes suggested this is the one I prefer.  

Instinctively I believe the problem is queuing traffic.  A roundabout gives the greatest chance for cars to keep moving - providing cars do not queue on the roundabout itself.  I believe a significant contributor to traffic problems in Frodsham are the traffic lights at the Bear's Paw.  Certainly the traffic flows into and out of Frodsham ebb and flow with the sequencing of those lights.  Could we have a roundabout there too?  If we did though, how would we manage pedestrian safety?

Normal roundabout

As this drawing shows there isn't enough land available for this proposal.

My concluding thoughts on this AQMA consultation are that we need to have a community wide conversation.  Most of use this junction several times during the week, if not during the day.  We owe it to our friends and neighbours who live in the AQMA or are affected by it to do what we can reasonably to improve their and our air quality.  

I'd like to see a wider review of traffic management in Frodsham.  It would be madness to improve a situation in one location only to exacerbate it elsewhere.  Solving Fluin Lane only to increase pollution on Church Street, as an example, wouldn't be clever. 

Technology can play its part.  There are an increasing number of electric cars on the road. More and more engines have stop/start technology.  When we come to change our cars we can swap away from diesel power.   All this can help - however I don't think those changes can come fast enough.  We have to do something now... but what?

Please get involved and share your thoughts.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Storyhouse Theatre grand opening

My wife and I went to the new Storehouse Theatre for its opening night on Thursday.  If you get the chance - go.  The new facilities are fantastic.  Within the old cinema building there is a theatre, a cinema, Chester's new library as well as bar and restaurant facilities.

This wonderful building was a CWaC Conservative project.  Lynn was very involved in the work that brought this wonderful facility to the Borough.  She's penned the following piece celebrating its formal first night:

'As Storyhouse raises its the new curtain on its first production, there's a considerable amount of 'happy talk' going on right now.  This iconic new venture is not just the talk of the town, it's being celebrated for its national significance with all media covering the 'story.' There is a marked absence of anything that looks or sounds remotely critical and to a person, everyone who has had the chance of a look around has emerged as an ambassador for Storyhouse and all that it can do for the city and the wider Borough.

Inevitably it hasn't always been this way and if a week is a long time in politics, then the 7 year journey that has led to Storyhouse's opening feels like a marathon. 

This marathon started when Chester City's then Labour Council shut the old Gateway Theatre in March 2007.  Since the day those doors closed, the City aspired to opening new ones. When Cheshire West and Chester Council arrived in 2009 we got this message loud and clear.  We set out to dream the dream and put a deliverable plan to the the music of 

'You've got to have a dream, 
if you don't have a dream, 

how you gonna have a dream come true.' 

The One City Plan created for the City, remains the blueprint for Chester.  One of the key chapters, written into that screenplay, is culture - in all its eclectic forms! 

The real achievement is the 7 year relay that brought together and involved so many passionate and committed individuals and groups.  They've all stayed the distance that has lit the beacon of our Storyhouse. 

It's been the opportunity to encourage the environment where those involved in the arts and theatre can play on, whilst we built them a stage. In so many ways, the absence of a theatre since 2007 fanned the cultural flames.  The annual calendar is now packed with innovative productions like the Mystery Plays, the Open Air Theatre, Theatre in the Quarter.  They've all used the City as their stage.

Indeed, for Storehouse  the Oscaresque thank-you speech would have run to hours.  This is largely down to the brave decision at the time to support and ultimately appoint Chester Performs, a local, grassroots theatre company to manage it.

It's been a hard path from the 2010 'vision' to the 2017 'voila,' dogged by vocal local critics along the way. This week I googled the 2013 criticism about the failed  application for Capital of Culture 2017. Today of all days, it feels like we got there in spite of the judges and the City's armchair critics.

As Conservatives, our politics is about getting things done and making a difference.  We are proud of our leading role in bringing about the theatre. This is truly our S Tory house!  

'Men [and women] are sometimes are masters of their fate.'  This quote comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - which is one of the opening round of productions.  

We seised the opportunity.  We had the vision and confidence to build something great.  Something that will be long lasting.  Not something you see in the current 'Labour's lost' administration.