Edge Hill Uni public meeting – some personal notes

I’ve been meaning to write something about the public meeting last Wednesday about Edge Hill University.

Can I apoligise at the start for the length of this post and the rambling nature. This is basically my view of the meeting a couple of days after the event.

The meeting had been arranged by the Ormskirk Community Partnership and they had invited Steve Igoe the pro-vice chancellor of the Uni to address the meeting and discuss the University and town’s future together.

This is the first public meeting that I’ve been to in Ormskirk and it was good to see that the room was basically full.

I must say at the start the I think that the meeting was a lot more interesting than I expected and I was pleased to see such a range of people in the room. Most of whom were there because they have one or more problems with students and anti-social behaviour.

Before I stood for the County Council this year I had been aware of the problems experienced by the people along St Helens Road and Ruff Lane, but not around the rest of the town. It was only by knocking on doors around the town that I came to appreciate the range of problems and the number of people affected (and the county ward didn’t include Wigan Road, Thompson Avenue, St Helens Road, etc).

Coming into the meeting I was sceptical on two levels: firstly, that Steve Igoe would just talk for as long as possible and thus leave no time for questions (I’ve seen that one before!) and that the meeting itself would be overwhelmed by St Helens Road / Ruff Lane residents. That’s not to say that they don’t have a problem, but I was concerned that others might be drowned out by a group that have shown themselves to be well organised and articulate in the past.

Steve Igoe started out by talking a lot about how well the University was doing, it’s market position within the North West and its ambitions to grow further and to be recognised as one of the leading Universities in the region.

There was some considerable murmuring and eye-rolling from those sat near me.

Others got more animated when he moved to the development plans of the University – in particular moving the sports facilities into the green belt and using the freed up space for additional accomodation and car parking.

The Community Partnership had identified three areas of concerns: the growth of the university (and the effect on St Helens Road / Ruff Lane), the movement of students in the town and “pockets” of problems around the town. I was particularly unhappy about the last part, because I think that the quality of life issues for those living near students is going to be the main problem as the student population reaches into more areas in the town.

However, to give the public the credit, they didn’t stick to the suggested areas and basically let rip with their concerns about the
growth of the university and the behaviour of the students. In many ways Steve Igoe got an easy ride because he mainly just had to deal with people making statements about the problems they faced. When presented with a question, he dealt with the issues very well, as one would hope.

During the questions, the most interesting part for me was when the discussion moved to the proportion of students living in an area. It was stated that the proportion living in Ormskirk was around 10% while in parts of some city centres like Liverpool and Manchester it was more like 20%. The University view seemed to be that this was therefore a good thing, but it missed the point that the type of area is completely different in Ormskirk compared to a city centre.

The inappropriate level of students was underlined by a slide used by Steve Igoe himself, citing a North West Development Agency report that stated that an increased student population is good because they live in otherwise deserted parts of town
(perhaps the case in the city centres, but not Ormskirk).

The other concern amongst the public attending the meeting was a disbelief that extra accomodation on the campus itself would lead to an easing of pressure in the town itself. Quite reasonably they asked where would students live in the second and third years of their degrees.

For me, this wasn’t helped by Steve Igoe stating that the University wants to be seen as more than a University for teachers and nurses and that it is expanding the number of courses it does. If that’s the case, then we are likely to have more students who are studying at EHU throughout the academic year, compared to the current situation where, say, 60% are in work placements in schools or hospitals through much of the year.

And so the meeting went on… broken by a surreal moment when County Cllr Rob Bailey stood up, introduced himself and then proceeded to tell the assembled members of the public that there wasn’t actually a problem in Ormskirk and that there had only been a handful of complaints.

It was a real head-in-hands moment.

To try and give Cllr Bailey the benefit of the doubt, what I think (at least hope) he was saying was that if more people complained then it would be taken more seriously. However, his choice of words was manner was very poor and many people felt that he was basically calling them liars for complaining in the first place.

Quite reasonably there were shouts of “do you live in Ormskirk?” to which he just replied “no”… which is possibly the most reasonable thing he said. He could have said “no, I live the other side of Parbold”, but that would have been like a red rag to a bunch of already annoyed bulls. He stood up (which noone else did) and he also stated upstanding for a lot longer than was necessary – just to take a lot of flack.

He’s got a lot to learn.

My intervention wasn’t a classic. The question I really wanted to ask was about growth, which someone else asked right at the start. I made a statement along the lines of there being a problem across the town – which I felt needed making because I was concerned about a possible mis-reprensentation of the meeting, but by the end of the meeting it was quite clear that was the case anyway.

Having said all this, the Ormskirk Community Partnership should be congratulated for organising the meeting. If I have any criticism of it, it is that there didn’t seem to be a conclusion, a way forward. The University’s representative heard the concerns, but it felt like he would just go back and the Uni would carry on with their plans as if it hadn’t taken place.

I am one of those who wants EHU to succeed further and to build on the success it already has. However, I also want the residents to be able to enjoy living in a market town without the problems that come about with high numbers of students living in the area.

I have always said that it is the local Borough Council that has the ultimate responsibility in maintaining this balance, and it is a shame that no-one of authority from the Borough Council was at the meeting.

If anything, the meeting showed that the student population is now making it’s presence known across the town and that only a “whole town” solution to the problem will work. I think that’s a step forward.

Scarisbrick Parish Council – prison update

I attended the Scarisbrick Parish Council meeting last night, where they were due to discuss the recent reports of a prison to be sited at Hurslton Hall Golf Club.

The discussion was at the beginning of the meeting and was done so that members of the public could also contribute.

I then stayed for most of the rest of the meeting, leaving when it looked like there would be a non-public session near the end. Having said that, I doubt that

Why was I there? Because I think that a prison at Scarisbrick would have a massive effect on Ormskirk as well as Scarisbrick. There is no doubt that the infrastucture in Scarisbrick wouldn’t support the services and staff that are needed by such an institution and that Ormskirk would be the obvious source of resources. So I wanted to know what the current situation is.

The Chair should be congratulated for trying to keep the meeting as non-political as possible. However, the main debate seemed to be around the nature of reassurances that have come from our MP.

A leaflet from Rosie Cooper had been distributed in the village earlier that day which included a letter from Jack Straw saying that yes, Scarisbrick had been considered for a prison but that it wasn’t suitable for the Titan prisons; and that there are now no plans for a prison in the village.

Cllr Andrew Fowler had a series of questions against this: basically that the letter referred to the Titan scheme of prisons which had been abandoned, that there was no guarantee that a future prison wouldn’t be built on the site and then regrettably some nit-picking about the golf club being on Hurlston Lane not Southport Road. I say regrettably, because he started to veer towards party politics which was completely unnecessary.

Between these two points there was an impasse. Rosie Cooper’s office manager attended the meeting to present the situation and to reassure those present that Rosie was doing all that she could to prevent it from happening. He used the analogy that we go to bed assuming that we’ll wake up in the morning, but that we can’t be 100% certain. However, Cllr Fowler wanted a copper-bottomed guarantee that it wouldn’t happen.

The difficulty is that there is now a fresh round to find sites for the smaller mini-Titans. No-one can honestly say that a site is or isn’t included. There is a process that will have to take place. The assurance that we got about the new process was that there would be a “massive breach of trust” between the Justice Department and Rosie should the prison go ahead. One member of the public agreed that Rosie would certainly have “egg on her face” if a prison did go ahead given the leaflet that had been distributed.

If I’m honest, I didn’t come away knowing anything more than when I went in. Indeed, I think that most of the interested members of the public will have felt the same way. The problem being that these arguments are usually carried out in terms of absolutes, which in these circumstances, they can’t.

The assurances about the prison not being built shifted from a near-absolute guarantee that it wouldn’t be built to one with questions regarding the correspondence presented and concerns about the forthcoming mini-Titan search.

Similarly, the position presented by Cllr Fowler was weak because he undermined some of the points he was trying to make by appearing to stray into party politics (and was stopped by the Chair).

In the end the Parish Council took a vote that it would continue to object to a prison being built in Scarisbrick and maintain a level of vigilance in the future.

For me there was a missed opportunity. The argument was around whether Jack Straw and Rosie Cooper were effectively mis-informing people, when really it should have been about what to do if it comes on the radar again.

The correspondence says that Scarisbrick was considered, but wasn’t suitable for the large Titan prisons. A notice regarding prospective prison sites will again be published in the Estates Gazette and I doubt it will say “no sites from Scarisbrick, please”. There remains the possibility that Scarisbrick will appear on a list somewhere.

The question has to be: if Scarisbrick was unsuitable for a full-on Titan, is it still unsuitable for a mini-Titan – because that will be the first test from the Justice department. Specifically, we need to know: by what criteria was Scarisbrick deemed to be unsuitable for a Titan? and then it follows that we should ask what criteria will used to judge the prospective mini-Titan sites?

At least that would give us all a better understanding of where we are, what might happen in the future and how to resist it.

Skelmersdale Train Station – One Step Closer

Todays report of the Association of Train Operators lists Skelmersdale as one of the towns proposed for a new train station. Their report on expanding the train network has come about because of the massive increase in train use over the past ten years and the investment from both Government and train operators.

This would be great news for Skelmersdale. The appendix relating to Skelmersdale states:

• Station: Skelmersdale (potential for additional station
at Westhead, but not evaluated).
• Population: 39,000.
• Location: six miles west of Wigan.
• Catchment area: Skelmersdale new town.
• Current rail access: via Kirkby, Upholland or Wigan.
• Proposed link: single track electrified line, using the formation
of the former Ormskirk – Rainford Junction line. 3 miles long
from Ormskirk.
• Formation: mostly intact, but deviation to north of
Westhead required.
• Indicative capital cost: £31m.
• Train service: four trains per hour, extended from Ormskirk.
• Notes: station would be on north west corner of town near
the Skelmersdale Ring Road.

A shame that the report also lists the Burscough Curves as having been reviewed, but isn’t then listed in the proposed projects. Their argument being that it doesn’t satisfy the business tests. A shame because there certainly seems to be a demand locally.

However, the fact that a Skelmersdale train station has been recognised nationally, and by the train operators, is something to be welcomed.

Post-election thanks!

Just a quick post to say thanks to all those who supported me one way or another at the County elections.

From basically a standing start when I was selected in February we’ve been able to get around most of the town, talk to people and start a dialogue which I hope will continue over the coming years. We’ve had supporters out helping deliver leaflets and knocking on doors, with a real sense of optimism which has been lacking in the past few elections.

We also kept up the work during the Telegraph’s MP’s expenses onslaught. The reaction on the doorstep changed from broadly positive to broadly negative, combative and angry. It was clear that a lot of support was moving over towards UKIP or simply choosing not to vote.

It is extremely pleasing that we increased our share of the vote compared to last year’s elections in Scott and Knowsley. I honestly expected us to see a drop in support around the same as the Tories, but that didn’t happen.

I think it’s because we didn’t take the electorate for granted. We listened and tried to respond to what we were hearing on the doorstep.

We must have done something right because in the days before the election, I had people stopping me in the street wishing me good luck for Thursday.

Many people are worried about the declining state of the town, the knock-on effects of the University’s growth and the increase in traffic. These are problems that will not go away. In particular the state of the town and managing the University’s impact have come about while Conservatives have been in control of the Council. These won’t improve without some serious changes.

Standing this year was always going to be difficult, but thanks to a brilliant bunch of volunteers we bucked the trend, held our own and created a great platform to move forward in Ormskirk.

Election results stats, first cut

To try and gauge where we are following the elections, I did some comparisons of votes cast in the county elections compared to the district elections last year. Pointless doing a straight comparison with 2005 since there was a general election and things have changed so much since then.

The spreadsheet below is calculated by taking the share of the vote in 2009 and subtracting the share of the vote in 2008. Where there wasn’t an election in 2008 I went back to 2007 or 2006 (in the case of Hesketh with Becconsall, I took the last election that was contested).

The obvious highlights are:

  • Labour increased the share of the vote in West Lancs North and Ormskirk West – I think that bucks the national trend.
  • UKIP did incredibly well. Although they didn’t win any seats, they increased their share of the vote across the borough.
  • The Conservative vote dropped significantly across the borough, but they still won seats because they were so far ahead in all areas last year.

I’ll take a look at the stats over the past five years and will post something later, to put things into perspective.