Liverpool ’08 and West Lancs. A City Region of Culture?

The Liverpool ’08 Capital of Culture project is in chaos – this isn’t new news. They’ve only just appointed a new Chief Exec for the Liverpool Culture Company, many projects are in free-fall and events might not happen as described recently in the Guardian and here. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the political mess left by last year’s spat between ex-Chief Exec David Henshaw and ex-Leader Mike Storey will be resolved.

Such mismanagement just leads to a political and administrative vacuum at the heart of the project. Last year, businesses tried to fill the commercial vacuum by announcing a rival logo to show support, and the Liverpool Culture Company are trying hard to regenerate some momentum and interest with thier ambassador scheme.

Amidst this mess, is there a role for other neighbouring authorities to help fill the gap?

Liverpool is not just that area covered by Liverpool City Council. Local Government Minister David Milliband has been promoting the idea of city regions which would see other neighbouring authorities take part in the strategic decision making covering all their areas. There is surely a role for those authorities within easy commuting distance to take an active role in the Capital of Culture scheme, and it fits with what the Government is calling for.

West Lancashire should be looking to see how it can exploit the obvious advantages of Liverpool being the Capital of Culture. If Liverpool is unable to cope with the project in isolation then it’s time for other, smaller, authorities to fill the gap. We don’t have the money that is being poured into Liverpool, but we have facilities that we can take advantage of.

Tourism could be encouraged in our many charming villages, Ormskirk and the beacon. We could organise a series of artistic and cultural events through the year in 2008 to compliment those larger events in Liverpool – and working with the Liverpool Culture Company – we could promote West Lancashire as an ideal place to stay for tourists: close to the city, but a short journey from the Lakes and many of the other tourist attractions of the North West.

Skelmersdale centre, even without a major redevelopment, has ample space and resources to host events. And why not promote Skem as a place to visit?

Nothing that we could do would be on the scale of that in the city centre, but there is an opportunity for us, and other neighbouring councils, to take the initiative and build a city region of culture.

Budget Scrutiny (or not) – Budget Book Available

WLDC have published their budget book online (here). This outlines what the council spends in each department and the council income. It has the breakdown from last year and this year to allow comparison.

Expenditure in 2006/2007 will be £18,790,79 against £16,645,957 last year. An increase of just over £2 million, or more than 10%.

The other week when we had the budget meeting and during the run-up to the budget, I realised that councillors really don’t have any idea what the approximately £20 million budget consists of. Budget negotiations appear to take the following form:

  • Officers come up with a list of things they want to do for the next year – “growth items”. This includes some items that they really don’t expect to get and some items that are genuinely needed. There isn’t an obvious difference between the two in the way they’re presented.
  • This year, as part of the so-called scrutiny process (controlled by the Conservatives), the capital budget went to the Overview and Scrutiny committee in February. The papers are online if you’re interested. The main thing here is that the growth items are scattered through the report as footnotes and it takes quite a bit of time to build a picture of what’s being asked for.
  • It was generally agreed at the O&S meeting that we didn’t have the knowledge or training to interpret the figures given in the papers and so they were basically just noted and left to the finance spokespeople and political groups to come up with their budgets. If you check the online reports you’ll see that we asked for some basic training to understand the budgets better.
  • The two political groups then look at the growth items, see which ones suit their political objectives, add their own specific requirements and come up with a budget that is proposed on the night.

The problem with this process is twofold. First, the focus of all the discussion and development of the budget centres on the growth items. When first presented these came to over £3 million and would have meant a massive Council Tax bill. Reduced down they account for most of the £2 million increase in expenditure. That means that the politicians only consider a fraction of the Council’s budget in a year.

Secondly, there is absolutely no scrutiny, and no understanding, of the bulk of expenditure at the Council.

The scrutiny issue gets to the heart of a bigger problem at the Council, that is – that the elected members don’t really hold the officers and the council to account, who could get away with all sorts if they so wished. The scrutiny process is sadly controlled by the Conservative group, who seem unwilling or unable to make any changes to the situation.

For the purposes of budget preparation next year, the Labour group will try to push for changes in the overall O&S structure. That will probably fail because it would be seen (wrongly) as just playing politics. If it does fail, I’ll try to raise something at O&S that we look at the budget in more detail before next year. I don’t hold out much hope, but I think there is a similar frustration within some of the Tory ranks at the Council.

Embarrassing Picture Time

Steve... a long time ago!Found an old railcard from when I started working after Uni. Ah, I was just a child! It had a 1995 pass in the wallet, so the photo was probably from around ’94 (when I moved to Twickenham).

Steve... Older, greyer, but happy!Of course, time hasn’t been kind to me and today I’m a shadow of my former self. Here’s a more recent picture of me and my wife, Jude, at Formby Point, a couple of years ago.

Lily and Joel weren’t on the scene yet, and I wasn’t yet a councillor – hence I don’t have a head of grey hair!

What’s this got to do with West Lancs, the Labour party, or anything? Nothing. I just thought someone might want to see a picture. If you’re _really_ interested, there are some pictures over at flickr, but I need to dig out the URL.

Chief Exec bloggers – update

I got a reply from Bill Taylor today about blogging. He tells me that he’s going to set one up… and a podcast… and other exciting stuff too on the horizon. Sounds great, and it is. No matter how clumsy our steps are in setting up these sites, broadcasts, or whatever – we’re trying to reach out in different ways.

On that point… it’s been remiss of me to not try and raise the profile of this site. I’ve held back partly because I sometimes just rehearse ideas here and (weirdly, perhaps for a local politician) I’m naturally a quiet person and feel rather embarrassed that anyone would be interested in this stuff. However, I think that should change and I’ll try to put my URL on leaflets and flyers that I put out in Moorside. Let’s see what happens…

Some notes from visiting the community centre today

An interesting visit for the surgery today at Digmoor Community Centre. It wasn’t busy, but often chatting to the staff at the centre is useful.

Things complained about: the cuts in the budget for community centre staff (understandably), the state of local politics and the local labour party, poor levels of recycling, poor refuse collection service, broken fences by the roads, knackered bus shelters. Oh, and dog fouling and what’s happening to St Luke’s school.

Often people will apologise for complaining about something. “I don’t normally complain, but…”, and sometimes they’re a bit embarrassed about coming across all moany and complainy. Thing is, it’s my job to listen and act on that – if there weren’t any complaints there’d be something wrong, I’m sure.

Thanks to Mandy at the centre for sorting out some food and a brew when I visited. The community centre is a lovely place and the people who work and help out there do a fantastic job. I get my ear bent about the stand we took on LSVT, but it’s always a pleasure to go and visit :-)

‘Local government, new localism and the delivery of regeneration’

Yet another speech from local government ministers about the broad range of changes going on in local government. Some of which have already happened (LAA’s, LSP’s and some devolution to communities) and some that look possible – namely, city regions, changes to two-tier areas and further devolution.

The problem that seems to be raised, particularly with the two-tier reform, is that people want to know the terms of the changes – some ground rules. Understandably this comes from both members and officers. The line from the ODPM seems to be that no decision has been made on two-tier areas yet. This is probably to avoid jumpiness from councils that might be scrapped, but it adds to the uncertainty. The lack of ground rules also means that when we’re asked to come forward with our proposals for what we think the most appropriate local government structures should be – there is a concern that we don’t know what things like the preferred population should be.

I think it’s actually quite clear what the government are trying to achieve, and it’s spelled out yet again in the speech by Jim Kirkpatrick. The devil is in the detail. And while the govt appears to be trying to consult to create the ground rules and build a consensus on the way forward, many in local govt can’t help but get stuck in the detail – because that’s their job.

So while the whole thing has been an open process and the govt are trying to make a good job of it, it wouldn’t surprise me if the white paper still comes as a surprise to people.

Budget – life matters

There aren’t that many things that the council does that can save lives, but the GP referral scheme was one of them. And the Tories have now scrapped it.

In their wisdom, the Tories have ended a scheme where doctors could prescribe exercise to patients who are suffering from, for example, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, etc. This was a tremendously important scheme and I’ve already had a number of people contact me to complain about it’s demise.

1500 people since 1998 have been referred to the WLDC Life Matters. This is a massive number of people. The figures show that 200 people a year were referred, with many more on a waiting list. This isn’t a scheme that should have been scrapped, it should have been expanded and improved in partnership with the PCT and others in the District
The life matters scheme ran in Skelmersdale, Ormskirk, Burscough and North Meols. Patients would have an initial consultation and then were given exercise programme tailored to their individual needs. It was introducing the idea of an active, healthy lifestyle to thousands in the District.

What the Council has actually done is get rid of the “GP Referral Officer” post who was the link between the GP’s, the council, other agencies and the community. It’s not just a liaison post. The officers’s work led directly to the introduction of “health walks” with the countryside rangers and the “nifty 50’s clubs” in sports centres around the district.

Instead of being up-front about it, the Tories hid this away on the night of the budget and it didn’t emerge until we asked for the details. I suppose they hoped that it would go unnoticed, but there are many people out there who have benefitted from this service and it’s wrong to deny it to others.

Wigan’s Grand Arcade

Grand Arcade in construction - from grand-arcade.comConstruction of Wigan’s Grand Arcade is well under way. If you drive past the site you’ll appreciate the scale of the development. It runs from Standishgate down to the Riverway bypass.

The website says that Wigan is ideally situated for such a development:

Management Horizons Europe say:‘Highly populated catchment area – total of 1,052,000 residents.

Total annual retail expenditure (all product categories) £2.8 billion (Ex.VAT).Grand Arcade will increase Wigan’s market size by 43% and it’s Core Catchment market share (it’s principal trading area) from 35% to 46%’.

Data Source: Managment Horizons Europe

There are other similar figures, and it all sounds very familiar. The Skelmersdale Vision process came up with similar figures for catchment areas – arguing that Skem could be a sub-regional centre, but some – not all – of the proposals were based on shopping.

The vision will be out soon and I hope that it isn’t based on shopping alone. Such a scheme would need lots of private money to help construct a new town centre, and if there are bigger, better places nearby, any scheme for Skem probably won’t get off the ground.

Serco, swimming pool complaints

It seems that there is a small note in the Ormskirk advertiser this week that mentions my name. It’s based on a press release that I sent them about six weeks ago regarding Stockport swimming pool and Serco’s reported renegotiation with the Council.

In the article it says that I’m not convinced that we’re getting the full story from the Council and from Serco about what’s going on at the pools and the leisure facilities and that there will be a debate at the Overview and Scrutiny meeting next month – gripping stuff.

Anyway, I start getting phone calls saying how bad things are now at the pools since Serco took over. These chime with tales that I’ve heard over the past twelve months and so I’m guessing there’s something in it.

Some of the issues revolve around staff, that they change frequently and that they are unhappy with the new setup. Also that the water seems to be colder since Serco took over (a common complaint, and one that the Council reacted to strongly when I asked last time).

There seems to be a thread that people feel like corners are being cut and that they are being squeezed for more and more money – for example the children’s swimming lessons are paid for in advance. I am told that previously the lessons used to have a break during the school holidays at Christmas, Easter and Summer. Now Serco are running the classes through the holidays and parents have to pay for the extra weeks whether or not they’re able to attend. I get the impression that people feel the service has gone down while the costs have increased.

If there are any more issues such as this I would be interested in hearing them. I don’t think we’re hearing half the story and it would be good to get some more information before the briefing at Overview and Scrutiny.

Wigan World – a blast from the past

Wigan World is a fantastic site with old pictures of Wigan, including some of Up Holland. If I come across any sites with pictures of Skem or Ormskirk or anywhere else in West Lancashire then let me know and I’ll put a link here.

Having grown up in Abram, it’s great to see some old pictures of the town – particularly Abram Hall which I had read about when I was young, but never seen.