June 21st. The story so far………
This is the story of my first six weeks as a County Councillor, and after twenty years as a District Councillor it feels very different.
Firstly, and I suppose rather obviously, it is a question of scale. There are 81 County Councillors of whom 61 are Conservative. There are people who work hard, and as the current Chairman calls them, there are the Chinos- Councillors Here In Name Only. As an Opposition member, I cannot be one of them. So the first task is to learn how to make an impact. Immediately. There are issues that need to be challenged and remedied.
Despite the very severe budget cuts that Surrey has had to face, there seem to be so many people working at County Hall. All friendly, all helpful. None will appear, or even be, obstructive. But at the same time they can’t really solve the first problem- how to get something fixed, how to stop a closure, how to save a valued service.
I am on the Select Committee which looks after Children, Schools and Families. That is perfect for me. But the first and urgent challenge I have to face is the proposed closure of The Beeches.
This is a service in Reigate which provides respite care for children with severe disabilities and enables families to have a break from their caring duties for such a brief period. The service can save marriages and enable families to keep their children at home where they can love and care for them rather than send them away. There is no similar replacement on offer and no comparable service in East Surrey.
Five years ago County and Health commissioners decided the service was too expensive and over the intervening period have been through a whole series of “consultations” on new, cheaper services which families have said are not safe, convenient or suitable for their child because of unmet complex needs. The final “consultation” is under way and I attended a meeting of the parents affected. The stories they told of the difference this service made to their lives and the challenges they face every minute of the day fighting for their child to get access to the services they need broke my heart- there were many tears in the room. Having a severely disabled child is difficult enough, but to have to fight for access to services just compounds the challenges of these wonderful parents’ lives.
The SCC Cabinet will consider the issue on 18th July. I need to get them to re-consider the whole issue and keep a service these children and families need. I can count on the support of my Group, ten, but that leaves 71 to convince!
I receive many complaints about highways, drains- very much an issue a year on after the floods here, pavements, street lighting and so many other matters. I set aside time every day to contact the right officer, get the complaint heard and then respond to the complainant. What strikes me is that they very often have really low expectations of the service they will get from the Council. At least I don’t have to manage too many expectations downwards!
The main District Council issue at the moment is the Local Plan. The owners of the land to the west of Chaldon have proposed a garden village there, one of 5 across the District.
This proposal is absurd. The people of Chaldon and Caterham can rest easy in their beds, knowing that I, and the excellent Chaldon Village Council, will fight this proposal to extinction.
Finally, thank you to Julia Church for organising the Caterham Question Time and for asking me onto the Panel. We covered a range of questions, including the Local Plan, and it was a very well attended event.