The last couple of weeks have been very difficult.
Part of the problem is the intense frustration associated with failings of the system I can do little or nothing about.
I am extremely upset that the Caterham Hill branch of the Children’s Centre is being evicted to less than ideal premises because the landlord has had, apparently, a wealthier tenant knock on the door. As the landlord is a charity with community interests at its heart it is very disappointing, especially as the staff are undergoing a consultation process about the very future of their service, facing cuts across the County of at least £9.7m or 20%- which is itself marked by uncertainty and imprecision and therefore very stressful.
The offer at the Children’s Centre has grown and been enriched by the level of support offered for families and their wellbeing- either through the traditional offer they continue to make for new mums and their babies or the support and information they offer where children have emerging special needs or mental health problems. For many families they make the difference between hanging on and giving up. The service they offer at the Townhill Surgery, even though it is still officially a pilot, is confirming how significant is the partnership between the Children’s Centre and primary care which can hold families and individuals in trouble and refer them on to services which can appropriately meet their needs, often within the umbrella of the Children’s Centre itself.
The idea of this pilot began after the floods in June 2016 when we identified that there was no counselling support apparently available for those in shock and traumatised by having their homes inundated. Many had to live in temporary accommodation, some for over a year. I was at the time struck by the calm and stoicism of the victims, who had to carry on for their children, get them to school from their hotel, try to manage a family life. There was no flurry of publicity which alerted the public mind to their plight, no fundraising, no public campaign. Some had no insurance. All had to wrestle with loss adjustors, builders’ reliability and their home in ruins, hidden by and large from the public eye and with no structured support. There was no coherent way for us to identify who the victims were- some houses in a street were affected, some not. When victims called the council for help, call handlers had no idea what to do or say. There was no help line. They must have felt terribly alone.
The National Flood Forum established a local Flood Action Group, whose expenses were largely funded by the Parish Council. We hope that the Flood Action Group’s wisdom, drawn from the experiences of the victims, will inform the response to crises, but also ensure that the risk of future such events is minimised. Their vigilance about blocked drains and the badgering of the Flood Authority (SCC) first to commission, and then to publish, a report indicating what mitigations might be possible to limit the number of properties which might be affected by future inundations, is about to bear fruit. W S Atkins are about to publish their report. Options are likely to include a bank on the north side of Queens Park to hold back water (Queens Park is the start of the flow through Caterham on the Hill) ponds and culverts and improved drains. The judgement will come later, how many millions of pounds to save however many homes; it is unlikely that all properties can be protected.
The Failed “Masterplan”
All of which makes it especially galling that TDC brings forward a so-called Masterplan for the future enhancement of our town without any reference to, or indeed waiting for, the Flood Report, or even any consideration of the known passage of flood water. Many will remember that the dip outside the Golden Lion flooded, yet the pub is slated as a key development site without any recognition of the need to mitigate the flood risk. (The “plan” also failed to meet the challenge of parking provision in the Valley- my colleague Cllr Alun Jones and I voted against it- but the other councillors voted it in as a Supplementary Planning document. A severe insult to the victims of the flooding and the Flood Action Group.) I am really concerned that the lessons of the flooding are not being learned by key public bodies.
Our waste and sewage are dealt with by Thames Water, yet they are not consultees on the development of new homes. Builders have a “right to connect” to existing sewage systems. For large developments special provision will be made, but in Caterham Hill we have had year after year on extra house building with no new main sewer and so when heavy rains come the system cannot cope and rain water mixes with foul water and floods fields and roads- Banstead Road suffers from this every time there is heavy rain. We report the problem. We cone off the flooded area to stop people being splashed with sewage every time a car goes through the puddle, yet motorists shout abuse and no-one comes to rebuild the failed, under capacity drain.
The Parish Council of course doesn’t forget these lessons. We will by the autumn establish a Resilience Officer who will coordinate statutory and voluntary responses to local emergencies, whether ice and snow, flooding, power cuts or loss of mains water. We have already started investing in the necessary equipment. We will also establish an emergency contact arrangement- again, learning the lessons of June 2016. The Resilience Officer will be paid a small honorarium but will be ready to lead on the local response to such crises as may occur.
The Poor get Poorer
I am asking a question at the County Council next week about the impact of a change in the income threshold for children to receive free school meals. Children will only qualify for FSM if their family income on Universal Credit is below £7,400. A cut from £16,190. This is a very severe cut and will really rub the noses of the poor into the ground. Except if you live in Ulster, in which case the threshold will be £14,000. The deal with the DUP!
How can this be permitted in a country which claims to have a safety net for the poor? Or does it?
Gone to Pot.
In relation to the grinding poverty some of our families have to face, or the loss of your home to an inundation of sewage, the daily irritation of the potholes in the road seems relatively mild. But of course they are the outward and visible sign of a decaying infrastructure, a flawed contract with the maintenance company (doesn’t seem to be much better than the old one with Carillion) and of the extreme shortage of funds because of the central government cuts in funding. They are a visible and sometimes damaging witness to systemic failure of a structure we are, literally, bought in to. I understand the frustration of the highways engineers who can’t deliver to the professional standards they were trained for. I understand the frustration of residents who lose a tyre or worse on the edge of a pothole, maybe disguised at night or by a puddle in it.
I am asked to bid to a pool of £5m for the whole of Surrey made available to mitigate the impact of the recent cold spell on the roads and I wonder how far whatever my Division’s share is will go. It will feel like putting make up on a dead pig. A commentator on Facebook has told me I should give up my councillor’s allowance to pay for the holes in Church Road.
My school governor duties brought me this morning face to face with the impact on teachers and senior staff of the day to day routine abuse they have to face and the need for them to dredge up from somewhere the energy and resilience to deal with it and calm down before they go home to their families.
The Head said to me, “We are as professional as we can be, but we all have a breaking point, and it hurts.”
As part of my duties as a member of Surrey’s Corporate Parenting Board (the responsible body for our Looked After Children) I and colleagues met with young people leaving, or who have just left, care to understand how well prepared they felt for the challenges of living on their own, managing money and day-to-day tasks. We heard how social workers and advocates supported their planning for the future, some of the failings in the way the system worked (turn over of social workers being the most challenging- some young people have had as many as 7 social workers in 3 years. Imagine the impact that has on how the young people learn to trust.)
It was hard to hear their stories but uplifting to understand how they survived the system and have come through to be able to lead a full and enriching life. We then had to share some of what we learnt with Ofsted, who are currently inspecting Surrey’s children’s services. I think we conveyed our passion to make things better, our deep concern for the children and young people. But passion doesn’t recruit and retain social workers who can’t afford to live in Surrey. Concern can’t repair the trust issues of a vulnerable young person who has told her story, laid her soul bare, to so many people, only for them to disappear.
All of which, I have to confess, frequently leaves me feeling flayed, bruised and terrified, my skin ripped off in a storm of witnessed suffering, my bones aching from the vicarious blows, and terrified that I can do nothing to alleviate the pain I see and the hurt I hear. I switch off and hide, but there is always the terror that a new suffering awaits the turning on of phone or computer. And this week, like so many others, ends with a sense that I am inadequate to fight all these battles, or even to talk about them.