Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance in Frodsham

Remembrance Sunday is always a poignant time in Frodsham.

At this morning's commemoration at St Laurence church we listened to the names of those who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts who are recorded on Frodsham's war memorials or who have graves in St Laurence churchyard.  There are now over 140 names read out.

That's over 140 grieving families, that's over 140 individuals who did not go on to have or to see their own families grow up.  Those losses and missing people echo down the generations.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Wales and his colleagues in tracing the names of those whose names were not recorded on our war memorials and who are now being remembered as they should be.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

Frodsham war memorial after all the wreaths were laid.
The soldier's boot and poppies are a particular poignant memorial laid for our Mayor Cllr Alan Oulton
Cllr Oulton laid a wreath on behalf of all of us

Junior Mayors
Cllrs Andrew Dawson & Lynn Riley

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remembrance in Yerevan

I’m writing this blog piece at 03:27 in the morning at Yerevan Airport, Armenia on 11 November 2017.

I’ve been in Armenia with the Council of Europe for 2 days contributing to a conference celebrating their local government reforms and encouraging them to go further in their push for devolution and decentralisation.  They wanted to hear how devolution was going in England - that's why I was there.

Armenian War Memorial, Yerevan
Now when the Council of Europe asked me to go to Armenia for the conference I was insistent that I got back to Frodsham to take part in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations.  That’s why I’m at the airport at an ‘oh-my-goodness’ hour in the morning and facing 9 hours of travel, a 28 hour day (Armenia is 4 hours ahead of their UK) and hopping home via Vienna and Frankfurt.  Unfortunately I am not able to get back to Frodsham for 11am on 11 November.  If all goes well I’ll be in Manchester just before lunchtime.

From my earliest days I’ve attended remembrance commemorations. I make it my business, where ever I am to attend local commemorations.

Knowing that I would be in Yerevan I contacted the UK ambassador to Armenia and enquired where it would be appropriate for me to lay poppies.  The ambassador suggested that I lay them at Armenia’s eternal flame - what she didn’t tell me, but what I found out, was that the eternal flame was in front of a huge war memorial, flanked by Soviet tanks and planes.  That huge memorial also contains Armenia’s war museum.  I walked to the memorial with Udo - a German journalist who was also at the conference.   

Placing poppies at the eternal flame, Yerevan, Armenia
We took the opportunity to go into the war museum.  It was organised on two levels.  The top level remembered Armenians who had died in the all too recent conflicts with Azerbaijan.  

I’m used to walking around war museums and being grateful that I am looking at historic artefacts.   This was something different - I was looking at the belongings of people who had died - and these were people younger than me.  The brutality of the recent conflict was really brought home.

T34 Tank - Soviet Union WWII era tank
The Armenian curators encouraged us then to go downstairs to look at the exhibits from World War I , the Armenian Genocide and World War II.   

Soviet commemoration

Amongst those exhibits which understandably were largely about Soviet battles in World War II in Armenia there was a wall commemorating Armenian pilots who fought and died with the RAF in the Battle of Britain.   I didn’t expect to see RAF medals and squadron memorabilia in Yerevan - but there they were.

Commemorating Armenians who fought
and died fighting in the Battle of Britain
The squadron shield and badge comes from No XVII Squadron RAF.   This Squadron can trace its origins back to World War I.  In June 1939 the Squadron was equipped with Hurricanes and saw action first over France and the Low Countries before being one of the last units evacuated from France in May 1940.  No XVII Squadron was then heavily engaged over the south of England during the Battle of Britain.

Just imagine fighting in a war.  Imagine fighting in a war so far from your own home.   Imagine making the ultimate sacrifice.  Imagine the grief and the pain of your family friends and community.

We will remember them.

We must remember all who suffered in war and those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Let the people decide?

Today is a momentous day in Cheshire West.  Lynn and I have a motion before the council seeking to pursuade the council to hold a local referendum in areas affected by controversial planning applications - and in particular planning applications which will have long lasting consequences and ramifications.   The law already exists to do this - s116 Local Government Act 2003 - and it was drafted with precisely these circumstances in mind.

We have Tony Blair to thank!  He and his government forsaw that local referendums could be particularly useful when dealing with controversial planning applications - and said as much in their 1998 policy announcement which led to the 2003 law.

'The Government believes that council should see and use referendums as an important tool to give local people a bigger say... Councils might want to use referendums to consult their local people on such issues as major local developments or matters of particular local controversy.'  (Modern Local Government: in touch with the people 1998 white paper)

Now our motion to council has arisen  in the context of the two applications seeking consent for unconventional gas extractions locally - however the principle applies equally to other proposed developments such as incinerators or large housing schemes.

We have far too much evidence in and around Frodsham and the Mersey Esturay of the planning system not listening to us and the 'great and the good' imposing developments on us that the vast majority of us do not want.  The planning system does not encourage developers to take proper account of the needs of the neighbouring communities - and I see the use of such local referendums as a means of redressing the balance.

We all recall the windfarm planning application - and the gamesmanship of the developer that submitted a larger scheme for permission knowing that it had to be determined nationally - only then to revise the scheme - taking it below that national determination threshold when permission was already granted.  We had the outrage of a planning inspector claiming that he had found 'substantial support' for the windfarm scheme - when we knew from speaking to people in Frodsham that the local population was overwhelmingly against it.  We all know that Peel effectively ignored the local community and did not engage with us in any meaningful sense.  Had they had to test local opinion in a local referendum then I suspect they would have behaved towards us with much greater respect and made much more tangible contributions to the wellbeing of the area.

Then there was the further outrage of neighbouring Halton Council granting permission for the huge incinerator at Ineos - burning all of Greater Manchester's waste - without properly taking account of our needs.  Both Halton Council and the developer refused our request to have air quality monitoring in Frodsham - so Lynn and I had to arrange for it via our member's grants.  I see that approach by both a council and a developer as absolutely outrageous and totally unacceptable.  Would they have dared to do so - had they been required to enagage properly with the local community?

And then we have the Protos scheme at Ince.  We have the old planning policy of Ellesmere Port and Neston Council to thank for laying the ground work to permit two incinerators and now an application for unconventional gas extraction.  When the Secretary of State granted permission for the Protos scheme there was no requirement for a community benefit scheme - one has only come about because of Lynn and my work.  All of us will be working for many years to come on ensuring that this scheme is operated with the community rather than inspite of it.

By having a local referendum for such controversial schemes we will be tipping the scales back towards the communities.  I see there being many, many benefits including:

  1. making the developer properly engage with the community - setting out fully what is involved and how it will protect, benefit and enhance the community - it will encourage them to be good neighbours;
  2. promoting honest debate where all sides of the argument can be put forward democratically and without fear or favour;
  3. enabling residents who feel disenfranchised by the current system - how many people write in about planning applications or appeals - to express their wishes in a simple vote;
  4. protecting residents who feel pressured by campaigners to express their personal opinion in the privacy of the polling station;
  5. making the ultimate decision makers properly take account of the democratically expressed wishes - preventing the 'invention of support' - or assuming the silent majority are in favour of a scheme when they may not be.  Just think how powerful a significant vote in one direction would be especially when backed up by large turnout.  It would be unlikely to be ignored.
Now like the Brexit referendum these local referendums are 'advisory.'  However when the advice is 'loud and clear' woe bedtides anyone who ignores it.  

The cost of holding a local referendum is modest.  All the democratic infrastructure already exists.  However democracy does come at a cost.   But then just think how much money has been spent by Frodsham Town Council on by-elections for Town Councillors over the years - and then judge whether you think spending money on a local referendum about a planning scheme that will last for generations is worth it.  I know which side of the argument I am on.

 If I'd had my way at the Local Plan Working Group I'd have had the developer pay such costs as part of its application process and I'd have had calling such local referendums written into the planning policy guidance.

Incidentally when I raised calling a local referendum with senior council officials - the initial response which came after the idea had been reviewed was 'this is one of the most exciting things I have seen for engaging local communities for ages.'   We should all bear in mind that councils have a duty to promote democracy.

At my request CWaC is looking into local polls and referendums.  Lynn and I have deliberately set out to garner cross party support for this motion tonight.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Car crash of a car parking policy

As many of you will have noticed we have been campaigning around Frodsham and elsewhere in the Borough to get Labour to revisit what we see as its potentially disastrous car parking policy.

Labour has decided to do away with 'free after three' in Chester and to introduce car parking charges in places like Frodsham - and all this without any form of economic risk assessment.

Ask yourself the question - how happy would you be to pay say 50p every time you wanted to park on Main Street - even for a short period of time, such as the time it takes to buy you fruit and veg, or one of Coward's pies?

Everyone I've spoken to about this in Frodsham supports the idea of some parking changes and perhaps charges for those parking 'long-stay' at the station.  Everyone wants to keep free short stay car parking to support the town and its businesses.  Labour have no plans to increase car parking capacity in Frodsham even though the Halton Curve's opening and through trains to Liverpool are only a year or so away.

They also appear to be lacking any plans to deal with car parking being displaced onto residential roads as those seeking to park in Frodsham try to avoid car parking charges.

How long would it be, do you think, before car parking charges, even for short stay car parking would decimate our local businesses.  I've seen this happen already and I know the dangers that even low level charges such as £2 per a day can bring.  Just go and look at Birkenhead.

My legal business's main office is in Birkenhead.  There used to be free, on street car parking in Birkenhead.  Wirral decided many years ago to introduce charges both for on-street car parking and for parking in the council's designated car parks.   The effect of the charges - and they are only small charges has been to create a desert.  The council's pay and display meters stand unused and forlorn.   Their army of parking attendants now have little to do in many areas.  Business users and shoppers have been driven away.

To demonstrate the wilderness that had been created in Birkenhead to CWaC I took a series of photographs as I walked about 4km.   The photographs were taken just as you'd expect a surge of employees to be arriving for work - i.e. after 8:30am.  They were centred on the business district where there are lots of office based businesses and quite a few metal bashing businesses too.   There are also many local shops that could benefit from close at hand free car parking.  I put the photographs together into a short video with some other observations, which, if you'd like to view, you can be clicking here.

Unfortunately Labour has, so far, dismissed our concerns.  Not for the first time their 'silo working' approach looks set to cause harm.  They are only looking at car parking as a 'revenue raiser' for the council - not as an integral part of a wider residential and business picture on which we all depend.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Unnecessary politics and division from disaster

Last week's council meeting at CWaC, for me was absolutely dreadful.

It was dreadful for me for many reasons.  It was very emotional, unnecessarily divisive and political, and ultimately a denial of democracy.

First and foremost it was dreadful because it touched several personal emotional raw nerves.  We debated the April 1989 Hillsborough disaster in the context of last years unlawful killing inquest verdicts, the decision to bring prosecutions and the Sun's newspaper coverage - both at the time of the disaster and subsequently.  The Labour motion put to the council recogised the extent of the disaster, the long fight for truth and justice and offered solidarity and support for the families and friends of the 96 who were killed.  However the motion then also challenged the entire notion of a free press.  Part of the motion that was put (and subsequently passed) was that the council had to:

'Ensure that elected members and staff do not advertise or give interviews to the S*n newspaper.'

We don't often discuss the wider ramifications of Hillsborough.  We rightly concentrate on the families and friends of the deceased.  For them the effects of the disaster were devastating.   Last night's debate forced me to re-live the day and its aftermath.  Like many, many thousands of people with connections to the area my family, the wider City area and region my family was touched.  My elder brother was at Hillsborough that day.  Fortuantely he had a seat.  He was sat overlooking the Lepping's Lane stand.  He was an eye witness to disaster.   These were the days before mobile phones and instant communication.  I well remember the family trauma of knowing that there had been a major disaster and that he was at the game.  For us the fear, the 'not knowing' only lasted the afternoon and evening - but that was bad enough.  He returned home near midnight.

In the days that followed the accounts of what happened to the people started to emerge.  A family friend was also at the game.  He was, and still is a medic.  He was involved in trying to save people on that day.

A fortnight after the disaster a memorial service was held at Liverpool Cathedral.  It was an emotionally raw affair.  I was (and still am) a member of Liverpool Cathedral Cross Guild.  The Cross Guild are all former Cathedral chorister who wear the processional robes and carry the crosses and maces in services.  I was one of three members of the Cross Guild asked to stand at the newly consecrated memorial stone as wreathes were laid.   April 1989 was hard, very very hard for many people.  It was hard for me.   It was far far harder for the families as were the months and years that followed.

But as is often said - time is a healer... or is it.

In the years that passed I remained interested in what had happened - but relieved not to be intimately involved.  Part of my legal career required me to give advice on the safety of sports grounds and the associated health and safety implications.  I also advise and undertake advocacy at Inquests.

And then, as an Evertonian I was at Goodison a couple of years ago when Everton commemorated the disaster.  Now I've been at Goodison and Anfield for the derby games.  I know just how 'tribal', just how challenging the atmosphere can be when both sets of fans are at 'full cry.'  That day at Goodison the crowd remembered the disaster in silence.  You could hear a 'pin drop.'  And then a young girl in Everton colours wearing '9' and younger lad in Liverpool colours wearing '6' walked onto the pitch.

I cried.

I have never cried in public before - and ideally I don't want to do it again.  I can't write these words without welling up.

I can't write these words without intense feelings regarding the stupidity and the gross negligence of the people involved in managing the game at Hillsborough.  It was a monumental failure.  But those feelings become intense anger when I contemplate the lies and the cover-up that followed.  All of us and especially the families were entitled to expect so much more, so much more compentence, capability and especially honesty and integrity.

Had the council given me a motion that would allow me to express all of these things and crucially absolute and unequivocal support and respect for the families of the 96 I would readily supported it. However unnecessary politics was brought into play.

Framing a motion that would require the council to ensure that councillors should not talk to a newspaper and effectively a motion that would require the council to police councillors over this was not just wrong - it was outrageous in my view.  It would inevitably blur everyone's solidarity with the families and friends of the 96 with questions of democracy and a free press.

There could have been unanimity in the Chamber had a motion been put to us expressing solidarity and support - however the political motion put to the council denied that opportunity.

I fully support everyone's individual right to choose what newspaper they buy if any.  I fully support private individuals lobbying others not to buy any particular newspaper.  However I do not believe it is the place of public bodies to have a view on these things when the newspaper in question is lawfully on sale.

The Sun published seriously damaging, false information after the disaster.  It took them 15 years to offer an apology that wasn't remotely good enough... They then allowed their former editor Kelvin McKenzie to return to the paper as a comment writer - and then he wrote an unnecessarily offensive piece.  I don't read the Sun.  Its unlikely I ever will.  I don't encourage anyone to read it either... but I respect everyone's right to choose.

The motion put to council was framed deliberately, in my view, to expose differences.  I deplore that.  However the debate did lead to some of the finest speeches I have ever heard in the council chamber.  If you are interested in watching them - they are available here.