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Useless Herts County Council makes a mess of its web info again

Whilst local media are busy reporting the huge number of school closures the
County Council website was maintaining at 8 am this morning that the snow
showers are light and schools will be open.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Chris White said: ‘The county website is really
worse than useless. Parents are being told that schools are open while
national and local news outlets are telling people to stay at home and not
to travel. It is also almost impossible to navigate.

‘Our advice is to check your child’s school website, many of which have been
updated, and to listen to local radio.

‘We will yet again be raising with the county council the lamentable state
of its website.’

New bus stop signage welcome

As part of the Herts Highways/ Passenger Transport Units development of the
bus waiting facilities in St Peters Street the shelters are to be fitted
with electronic screens that will display departure information. The
screens will have the capability to display real time if it becomes
available in the future.

The installations have been approved by SADC conservation and the
accomodation works are commencing to install the associated
cabling etc in to the underground ducts that were provided as part of the
City Centre Road Safety Scheme.

Chris gives evidence to House of Commons Committee on crime

I gave evidence on Tuesday to the House of Commons Bill Committee, dealing with the Policing and Crime Bill.

My evidence concentrated on licensing and I was able to get the following key points across:
– local people feel that they have too little say over premises which are causing a nuisance
– councils need local discretion over general licensing conditions – these should not be imposed by Whitehall which cannot know local circumstances
– councils need to be able to challenge licences (currently only the police can do this)
– too much of the legislation was aimed at young people rather than those in their twenties and thirties who cause alcohol-fuelled disruption and should know better
– if the Government were to press ahead with standard conditions for licences, it was vital that there be full consultation with residents who are affected (not just organisations). Young people also needed to be involved.

I was also asked about whether the problem was more with pubs or off sales. It is clear to me that in general pubs are well-regulated places. Supermarket off sales often contributed to the habit of ‘pre-loading’ (tanking up at home before an evening out on the town).

I was able to emphasise that good licensing authorities like St Albans work closely with the licensees because it is in the interest of the community and of the trade to work together.

The LGA had also put in submissions opposing the current system of temporary event notices (a loophole in the 2003 Act device by which licensed premises can in effect subvert their licensing conditions twelve times a year). The LGA also questioned the new rules about lap-dancing which would allow establishments to operate without a sexual encounter premises licence provided that lap-dancing took place less than once a month.

Call to review County Council’s treasury advisors

The Liberal Democrats have today called for the county council to review its
arrangements with Butlers, the company which advised the council on credit
ratings for its treasury management operations.

Chris White, Liberal Democrat Group Leader, said: ‘It is quite disturbing
that one third of the councils advised by Butlers lost money in Iceland. The
norm was just 20%.

‘If a supplier has a failure rate this high then it is only reasonable to
query whether there should be continued use.’

The company has attracted media attention not just because of its recent
advice record but also because it is run by the Treasurer of the
Conservative Party.

Notes to editors

The Independent’s research shows that 35 per cent of councils advised by
Butlers lost money in Iceland, compared with one in five that employed other
advisers. The investments of councils advised by Sector Treasury Services
accounted for £313m of frozen council funds. About half of all UK councils
use the services of the company, which is part of the Capita group.

School place crisis continues

Parents who are concerned about not being allocated the primary school of their choice are welcome to contact me. But it is important to recognnise that the Government has in effect abolished the appeals system by prohibiting classes in excess of 30. In St Albans, there are a number of areas in the city centre which are in effect a black hole. We continue to lobby the County Council to provide an additional school – and continue to get no sensible answers.

We issued this press release last week.

Figures out last week showed that 581 children in Hertfordshire were left
without a primary school place of their choice for September 09. The
majority of schools received more applications than there were spaces for
their child to attend.
Children most affected live in the districts council areas of Dacorum, East
Hertfordshire, Hertsmere, St Albans, Stevenage, Three Rivers, Watford and
Welwyn Hatfield.

County Councillor Aislinn Lee, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson said:
‘This is appalling – nearly 600 families wondering where their pre-school
child is going to start their school life, often in a school they have not
chosen that is too far from home. Starting school aged 4 is one of the most
stressful experiences that parents face in raising children.

‘The County Council is reviewing this currently, but this years figures show
that this must be done urgently and in areas like St Albans and Watford new
schools must be delivered.’

Of the 581 children that have not been offered a school of their choice 55
children have been offered school places that are more than 2 miles from
their homes. This means they are entitled to free home school transport
.

Time for the pedestrianisation of Market Place

Readers may well remember a blissful time over a decade ago when Market Place was pedestrianised. A rather sad episode of party politics reversed this and it became open to traffic. This has facilitated the street being used as a short cut and some on street parking (by whom?) and did nothing for the vast majority of users – those on foot.

It is clear from recent ‘Cabinet’ minutes that the District Council is interested in this being made pedestrian only again. The County Council, which runs highways, is nervous of any more St Peter’s Street fiascos and needs local support from the District Council and from local councillors – and most especially local residents. Local district and county councillors have made clear their support.

Closure is in the transport plan and highways officials are ready and willing to bring proposals to the ‘Highways Joint Member Panel’ (the local county council committee which has influence over highways decisions).

But the county council’s enthusiasm could hardly be described as overwhelming.

Your views would be welcome. Please email me on chriswhite@cix.co.uk

Extract from St Albans District Council Cabinet minutes (6 January):

‘With regard to the possible closure to
traffic of Market Place, (which a Member considered had previously been successful and
popular), once the Plan was adopted the Joint Member Panel would consider priorities, and if
the Panel considered this to be a priority and funding was available this closure could be
considered. Further Member views on this would be welcomed, as well as further discussion
with local traders.’

Central Government targets put children at risk

Councils up and down the country have put children at risk by meeting
central government targets. While requests for court orders remain at an all
time high since the Baby P case, social workers have been reviewing all
their child protection cases alongside CAFCASS (*Children and Family Court
Advisory Support Service)*, the organisation that represents children’s
interests in court.

CAFCASS yesterday announced that in reviewing the cases many children who
have remained with their parents have been put at greater risk than if they
had been taken into care.

Chris White, Liberal Democrat Group Leader, said: ‘We have always been
concerned that central government targets to reduce the numbers of children
on the at risk register and in care would put children at greater risk. If a
child is in danger every effort should be made to ensure their safety.
Central government target setting has put councils in an impossible
situation. To gain a good inspection report the numbers on the at risk
register and the numbers in care must be low.

‘We demand that the Government drop these targets immediately and that
children at risk are properly assessed. If they are at risk they must either
go on the “at risk” register or be taken into the care of the local
authority.’

M25 widening seemingly abandonned

It would appear that the plans to widen the M25 have been abandonned, presumably to save money (given the recession and the fact that banks are no longer paying corporation tax etc).

This should be welcome: continually expanding roads only generates extra traffic and pollution, as we have seen countless times before. The proposal to use the hard shoulder, something I have observed working successfully in the Midlands, is not without its difficulties and will involve some additional widening in the ‘safe havens’ that need to be created at 500 metre or 800 metre intervals – these are essentially secondary hard shoulders to deal with broken down vehicles.

As ever, though, it is only half a policy. We learn this morning that the Government’s rail programme depended on high passenger numbers and we can only fear that lost reveneues will yet again be recovered by increased ticket pries. Rail is too expensive. If we want a working transport system, we need to make rail affordable and reliable. Ten days ago I was forced to drive to Liverpool and back because of the unreliability of the railway line. This is madness.

Heathrow is a problem here too

It might be easy to suppose that the outrageous Labour plan for a third runway at Heathrow has little impact on this area. Climate change (and it does exist, despite the bleatings of those with a vested interest in motoring or the oil industry) affects us all. The pollution from an expanded Heathrow will affect the planet. But more immediately we are under the flight path to the various expanding airports on or near our county borders. Recent consultations show that revised flightpaths will clip St Albans.

Perhaps even more annoying is the diverted rail investment. The Government clealy does not get it. We DON’T want a new high speed rail line TO an airport. We want high speed rail lines instead of airports.

What can we do? Support the protestors at Heathrow, at Stansted and in Harpenden (concerned about the menace from Luton airport). Don’t fly unless you really have to. Going to Paris? Go by train. Brussels? Train. Spain? Train (yes – really , I did it this summer).

Am I calling for a boycott? A boycott always smacks of hurting yourself to prove a point. If you want to, do it. The point is, however, that travelling by train rather than by air is often more pleasant. There are exceptions, like the west coast mainline. And the pricing policy required by this Government makes train travel seem an expensive way of moving about. But think train first. And don’t use BAA airports.

Is this the right time to be leaderless?

It is worrying to see that the independent Chair of the Safeguarding Children Board in Hertfordshire has resigned. This is a key post and she had been in office for only a short time. Hertfordshire is very much in the public gaze at the moment because there are some serious doubts about its capacity to protect childen at risk. The resignation of the chair cannot help things. I do hope that a new chair, with the relevant skills and time, can be found to ensure that there are no tragic incidents in Hertfordshire.

If anyone has any concerns about how the county council handles child protection they should contact me – full anonymity is assured.