Highways – resurfacing woes, and safety improvements

I met the Head of Highways, Clive Hall, last Friday, which was very helpful. One of the things we talked about was learning lessons from the A4103 resurfacing road closures in autumn 2017. Clive explained some of the background (including the delays due to the unexpected General Election purdah period), and I made two main points:
1) Communication: This simply wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t enough consultation with residents in affected wards, and there wasn’t adequate real-time information available to travellers, neither online nor on the ground. Disruption was worse as a result.
2) Compensation: Individuals shouldn’t have to bear disproportionate costs for improvements that are for public benefit. Many business owners along the road suffered very significant financial losses during the closure, and haven’t had adequate compensation. Future compensation schemes need to be much better designed.

The stretch of A4103 from Newtown Cross to Hereford is also due for resurfacing later this year, and the council are currently consulting with affected people. Amazingly, they weren’t planning to consult with our ward! I made a very clear request that we should be consulted, as road closure in the Hereford direction will obviously have knock-on effects on the same businesses that already suffered last autumn. I’ll post that info separately. I very much hope that lessons will be learned from last year’s debacle, and that this year’s work will be much better organised.

Finally on roads, I met the council’s senior road safety investigator at Stoney Cross on Tuesday to discuss the planned works on the junction there. This has reached the top of the priority list due to a cluster of accidents in recent years, and so the planned works will straighten the road somewhat, prevent overtaking at the junction, and improve the camber. I’m glad to see that Cradley is getting this investment to improve safety at this junction; and I’m also glad that the works will be done with traffic lights and convoys, i.e. there will be no full road closure.

You can check on planned roadworks using this map: https://www.herefordshire.gov.uk/…/2001…/roads/234/roadworks

Ellie Chowns – Councillor induction completed

Other news from the past week: I’ve completed my official induction – lots of useful briefing meetings with officers from all parts of the council, although rather surprisingly not with anyone from Highways, which is one of the issues that ward residents contact me about most often. So, I’ve arranged my own meeting with the head of Highways this coming Friday.
I’m very much hoping that Balfour Beatty will appoint a new Locality Steward for our ward ASAP (I do keep on asking them about this…) It’s somewhat frustrating that we don’t have one in place at the moment, as it makes it that bit harder to make progress on addressing some of the highways issues that are coming up.
Tomorrow I’ll be attending a lecture at the Hfds and Ludlow College on ‘Hospitals and home: Good health care in Herefordshire’ (part of my developing interest in social care), and then going to the Cradley Parish Council meeting. I’m looking forward to meeting all the newly-elected parish councillors, and very much hoping that the PC will be able to move forward all together, leaving past divisions behind.
Later in the week I’ll be attending the Adults and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee meeting (again, as an observer, part of learning more about the sector), and on Friday it’s my first full Council meeting. So there’s lots to read…

Ellie Chowns – thoughts on Hereford University

Today I went to a briefing on Hereford’s planned new University, www.nmite.org.uk, given by Prof Janusz Kozinski, the CEO. It’s an ambitious plan – to create a completely new, engineering-focused University, with a project-based, problem-solving approach to teaching and learning. As a University teacher myself (currently working at the Uni of Bath) there’s lots about the proposed approach that I find very exciting.

Prof Kozinski and team plan to recruit the first ‘Design Cohort’ of 25 students to start in October this year, with the aim of expanding to 1200 students and 110 staff by October 2022. The new Uni could have a significant impact on Hereford city in all sorts of ways – economically, culturally and demographically.

One thing I’m still a bit puzzled by, though, is what the real focus of the Uni will be. Prof Kozinski talked a lot about ‘humanist engineers’, and emphasised the four key curriculum themes: Feeding the World, Shaping the Future, Living in Harmony, and A Healthy Planet. It all sounds pretty good from a Green perspective, doesn’t it? But… it’s puzzling because when I’ve heard others talk about the new Uni (including senior local Conservatives) the emphasis has been all about servicing the ‘defence’ industry; and the two key corporate partners so far are Siemens and Qinetiq. I asked a question about this, and didn’t get as clear an answer as I’d like.

So, the new Uni is something I’m going to be taking a keen interest in going forward. I think it’s great that Hereford will be getting a University; other cities of similar size (e.g. Durham) or smaller (e.g. Warwick) have world-class universities, after all. And although I’m not an engineer myself, I do believe that technology can help solve many environmental and social challenges. I like the vision of ‘humanist engineering’; I just wonder whether funding and other pressures might push the new Uni in other directions. So, I’m going to be writing to Prof Kozinski with some more detailed questions, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on how the proposals for the new Hereford University evolve.

BTW, I’ve got an idea for a project the first lot of students could tackle: finding some way to keep the heat in the Shire Hall in the bottom 25% of the room, where the people actually are. It’s often freezing in there during our council meetings (today I got so cold I could barely type by the end) though I expect it’s baking up by the roof, with all the rising heat. I can’t help feeling it needs a layer of triple glazing part way up…

Ellie Chowns – starting as a County Councillor

I’ve been in post as Ward Councillor for Bishops Frome and Cradley for about 6 weeks now, and it’s been a busy time, Christmas and New Year notwithstanding (Happy 2018 everyone!). In addition to a series of formal induction meetings and training sessions, I’ve been busy learning about Council business in a range of other ways, including: attending / observing several Cabinet and Committee meetings; introducing myself to all the other councillors and having one-to-ones with as many of them as possible from all parties; getting to know the Planning officers (very important, as there are a number of high-public-interest planning issues in my ward); making contact with the Highways department and with Balfour Beatty about several local roads issues; and attending Parish Council meetings in Cradley, Bishops Frome and Avenbury, as well as meeting several members of Acton Beauchamp Group Parish Council. I’ve done four site visits regarding planning issues at the request of local residents, and have followed up on them all with the planners – two have been redirected to Planning Committee, as the residents hoped. And I’ve attended the Bingo at Bishops Frome, and the Christmas Fair at Cradley!

I see my role as having two key elements really. The first is being an effective and accountable advocate for residents on issues they care about. So far, about people have contacted me mainly about planning issues, about road repair / maintenance / gritting etc, and about broadband access. I’ve followed up on them all and I aim to get even quicker as I get to grips with exactly who does what in the council. So far I’ve had 20 contacts (mainly email, some phone) from residents with various enquiries; of these I’m still working on addressing five, and several others are pending parish council or planning committee meetings.

The other part of my role is about contributing a Green perspective on Council work more widely – hopefully, helping it be more effective, transparent, and Green! I’m going to be focusing on three areas in particular in 2018: 1) sustainable transport, 2) adult wellbeing and social care, and 3) sustainable investment. On this last point, the Council is in the middle of selling off its council farms and I understand will get >£35m from doing so; it plans to invest this with a ‘Development Partner’ in the hope of yielding long-term benefits for the County. There are both risks and opportunities involved… I’m going to take a very close interest in these plans to try to ensure that they offer real benefits, are good value for money, and are sustainable in every sense of the work. I will keep you posted!

One final point for today. At the Cabinet meeting I attended this morning, councillors discussed the Cabinet’s proposals on next year’s Council Tax rate, and on the Capital Investment Programme. These will go to Full Council in 2 weeks’ time (Friday 26 January) and I’ll report back then in more detail. The Cabinet proposes to increase council tax by 4.9% (including a 2% social care precept). Clearly, when many people are struggling to make ends meet and wages are stagnant, any increase in Council Tax is going to be unpopular. At the same time, we simply have to pay for the vital local services councils provide – and demand for those services is increasing all the time. I don’t think most people realise that the largest share of the Council’s money is spent on adult social care (I think it’s about 60% – I’ll post some more details on this in a future post). Personally I believe social care should be funded on a national basis in the same way as the NHS, not via Council Tax. But while we fight that long battle for a better approach to funding social care, we need to do the very best we can to deliver good services locally with the resources we have and to care for the most vulnerable in our communities.

Please let me know if you’d like more detail on any of the issues I’ve touched on here, and please use this forum to engage in conversation on what you’d like me to do as your Councillor.