Sunday, 21 June 2015

Grass verge cutting - what went wrong?

Over the past few weeks I, like every other County Councillor, have been inundated with complaints about the state of grass verges.

On Thursday I had a meeting with senior officers at County Hall to discuss why, during May and early June, grass verge cutting had gone so badly wrong. My meeting was enlightening but also gave me a degree of confidence that lessons have been learned and measures will be put in place where these are at all practicable.

We all know that due to budgetary restrictions Leicestershire County Council have reduced the number of grass verge cuts from 8/9 to 5 per year. This measure has been introduced a part of the government's austerity agenda and was largely supported through a wide reaching public consultation exercise which the County Council undertook last year.

What local residents may be unaware of however is that from April this year the County Council has brought it's grass cuttings operation back in house following a long term contract with a private operator.

Officers confirmed to me that this has led to some teething troubles, particularly around North West Leicestershire where complaints stand at approximately double the next most affected district.

As part of moving the grass cutting operation in house new industrial scale 'flail' machines have been purchased as part of an invest to save programme. Officers have informed me there have been a number of issues with the settings on these machines. In effect a combination of cutting height and stipulated speed have caused a great deal of 'springback' (where the mower effectively flattens but does not cut). Investigations are being carried out to identify the optimum height and speed to accommodate the cutting timetable here in Leicestershire.

I am informed that North West Leicestershire has been particularly badly affected by staff ill-health absence. This has resulted in alternative staff being shipped in from other areas to cover. Clearly staff who do not know the area are uncertain about which parts of green space should be cut and this leads to a slowing down of the mowing process, effectively a vicious circle.

It is undoubtedly the case that many local residents will be unhappy about the reduction in frequency of cuts, sadly, there is very little I can do about this.

As I have been informed in North West Leicestershire there have been problems over and above grass cutting frequency, which is possibly understandable as a result new significant set of processes. I am hopeful and reassured that these will not reoccur.

As services are reduced much of the job of a councillor (even an opposition one) is explaining about why things are happening. Clearly the vast majority of residents would prefer to see more regularly grass verge cutting, the reality says that that isn't possible.

I shall, as ever, try to keep you informed with what is happening at County Hall.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Lourdes: where humanity triumphs over the chaos - my Catholic Universe column

It’s been a very strange and emotional week in the Spence household, we’ve had birthdays, deaths and the first Holy Communion of our youngest child.
It’s funny because every time Gabriel does something for the first time, whether it’s a communion, starting a new school year or any other of a plethora of ‘firsts’ my wife and I reflect that it will be the last time we are doing it as parents.
We are seeing our youngest son growing up knowing that we won’t be having that shared experience of a first, whatever it is, ever again with one of our children.
Believe me it’s difficult even to type this sort of stuff but I’m certain that it’s no different from the feelings and emotions of countless, very early middle aged parents up and down the country (my wife says I’m not allowed to term us middle aged just yet, hence the presence of ‘very early’)
So, as I’m sure you will appreciate as I’ve surfed the internet this week, as I am occasionally found doing, my mind has been set on my past.
All of this led me to coming across the annual calendar of pilgrimages visiting the shrine of Lourdes, and further led me to remember that we are very fast approaching the peak season of a few short weeks every July when most of the diocesan pilgrimages from around Britain make their annual trek to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Before anyone starts writing in, diocesan pilgrimages are very particular things, I know that there are a few that visit outside of this peak season.
Lourdes is a very special place to me. When I was a teenager I visited the shrine with my own diocesan pilgrimage of Nottingham and after the week was over I kept going back.
I went to Lourdes with my diocese every year even at one stage becoming Deputy Chief Brancadier, I still have the badge to prove it. Then I started going to Lourdes at Easter to work for the hospitalite at the station, at ceremonies and in the baths. At one stage I even spent the whole of the summer working with that wonderful charity HCPT at their centre Hosanna House in the village of Bartres.
Just like many other couples I met my wife in Lourdes, it was the first ‘holiday’ we took all of our children on, I even – much to my wife’s annoyance – went to do a stage just a couple of days after our second child was born.
Lourdes was my life. And then it stopped.
Other priorities such as jobs, bills and health took over and until last summer we hadn’t been back to visit Our Lady for a very long time.
Now I am sure you have noticed that this column is usually about politics and so why, I hear you ask, am I writing about a small market town, with an international scale pilgrimage business in the French Haut Pyrenees?
The truth is this I have never encountered anywhere the better epitomises all that is terribly wrong and gloriously right about politics than Lourdes.
Lourdes can demonstrate the notion of politics in its very worst light. Take an organisation as startlingly bureaucratic as the Hospitalite Notre Dame de Lourdes, the body responsible for organising volunteers, add in a language barrier encompassing French, Italian and English and then a small measure of knowing how to do things better, an ever present in every voluntary group I have ever seen, and you have the perfect recipe for all that is wrong with politics.
I lost count very early on of the number of fulsome arguments I have heard about how a procession can be run better, I have heard and been part of passionate arguments about whether pilgrims should be ‘snaked’ or ‘funneled’, I have seen first-hand how making someone a team leader or a chef makes them extremely important and can on rare occasions bring with it a ‘don’t you know who I am’ persona that would easily surpass that of all but the most haughty minister of state.
Lourdes can make a Labour Party constituency meeting look the most harmonious thing in the world, and if you have ever experienced one of those you will know just how bad the organisation of the shrine can be.
The politics of Lourdes can be the most negative and off-putting feature of the town, it’s probably why I didn’t return for so long.
When I did go back however it wasn’t that aspect that I remembered but the beauty of why people go and the astonishing good work that is done there.
I have never encountered anywhere that is more truly egalitarian. People go to Lourdes from all over the world first and foremost as pilgrims. Some will work in the baths, some will be pushed in wheelchairs to services and some will merely arrive as part of a coach trip but all will congregate at the services and not least afterwards in the cafes.
Lourdes brings people, young and old, disabled or able-bodied, rich and poor together. No one ever judges you where you come from, what you do for a living or what type of house you live in. The fact is you are there, in Lourdes, on a shared experience of faith and everyone is accepted.
When I used to visit the shrine very regularly I always used to say that I didn’t know and didn’t really care whether Our Lady actually appeared in the grotto. I still don’t know and I still really don’t care.
Finding a mountain spring wasn’t the true miracle of Lourdes, the catalogue of miraculous cures isn’t even the most special thing.
The true miracle is to see pilgrims arrive on a Friday isolated, down and being on the fringe of society and leave the following week uplifted accepted and playing just as vital a role in a community as anyone else.
I’m fairly certain that a great many of the people I worked with in Lourdes were back home Tories, Liberals and of every other political persuasion. What their party politics was did not matter we were all there with the same goal of a shared experience and a shared opportunity to make everyone’s pilgrimage special.
That sort of experience is why I always try not to denigrate other political parties. People are essentially good, whilst our views differ our nature remains the same.
I love Lourdes and all of the experiences I have had there, it has been very good to me and one day I very much hope to return. But a little bit of the spirit of Lourdes is always with me, that acceptance and faith in human nature is overwhelmingly why I first became involved in politics.
Quite a few politicians and political activists may be very well served by a visit to the grotto of massabielle and all that Lourdes teaches us.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Putin's posturing makes EU solidarity crucial - my Catholic Universe column

Whenever I visit the USA I am transfixed by American television. I find it fascinating that as one programme ends and another one starts there are no adverts in between, you’re more likely to keep watching without such a diversion, although don’t worry they will be coming in great number within seconds of the titles appearing.

I am enthralled by the adverts as well, especially by the seemingly endless selection of mattresses that are on offer to US consumers.

But most of all I am addicted to the atrociousness of American news programmes. On a visit last year to Nevada I watched an entire breakfast news show on a leading network affiliate and literally the only information which was imparted to me was about traffic collisions and upcoming special offers for the Thanksgiving holiday. It was awful in the same way that one passes an accident on the northbound M1 as you head south, you know you shouldn’t look but you can’t draw your eyes away,  and so for three hours you sit unthinking and unfulfilled.

Cable news networks such as MSNBC, CNN and notably Fox News are worse. Unlike Britain there is no attempt at impartiality, an unbiased dissemination of the facts, all news has a political angle. It does make you realise what an amazing institution the BBC is.

The most striking thing about US news however is that you could, quite easily, watch it for days on end and never see a mention of a country other than America. There has always been an understanding that Britain is an island and that there is so much more going on out there, in terms of news coverage however it has always seemed to me that it is the US who is isolated from the outside world.

Of course the attitude of the news networks in no small part reflects the views of millions of American citizens for whom the 48 contiguous states, and very occasionally Alaska and Hawaii, are the centre of the world.

I’ve always felt that way until very recently we Brits have taken a more open-minded, adventurous view of our earth. Our history of travelling and trading in Europe and further afield has led us to be a tolerant nation who welcomes change and the opportunity to work with other peoples.

I have to say however I am becoming increasingly concerned.

For the past few months, understandably perhaps, our news agenda has been completely dominated by domestic politics. We had months where our newspapers and television covered little else other than a campaign for a general election and since early May we have had nothing but the fallout from that election result, a new legislative agenda for a Conservative government and new leaders for virtually every other party.

I, and I am sure many more like me, have taken my eye off the ball when it comes to what is happening in the outside world. I’ve taken a very similar attitude to all of those who watch American network news.

Of course, unless you read your newspapers cover to cover or pay particular attention towards the end of our nightly news programmes, there is a very big story emerging in the shape of a new period of Russian aggression.

You will remember that early last year the Russian Federation annexed the internationally recognised Ukrainian territory of Crimea. A popular revolution in Ukraine led to Moscow intervening militarily in the region with a highly questionable, and internationally disputed, referendum following shortly thereafter to give at least a pretence of popular support for Russia’s pre-emptive and highly provocative actions.

As is often the case following the initial reporting of Russia’s military incursion what appears in our media has become less and less, the real worry is the increasing signs of a worsening relationship between President Putin and his international neighbours.

In recent months you may have noticed a number of stories of Russian military assets seemingly taunting Britain. In February RAF jets had to be scrambled after Russian bombers were seen off the coast of Cornwall.

The diplomatic situation between the West and Russia is rapidly deteriorating.

In recent days, if you look in the right places, you will see President Putin courting the Greek government with a view to providing funding for that debt-ridden country, a measure designed to weaken the Greeks already strained relationship with the European Union even further.

This weekend The Times reported that in a further deterioration of diplomatic relations the United States is considering sending missiles to Europe in response to Russia testing a new cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload in breach of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987 by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.

In Bavaria leaders from the G7 nations have met, as is there way, to discuss trade, violent extremism and climate change. Top of the agenda however was the topic of ‘standing up to Russian aggression’, particularly in Ukraine. You will have noticed that the G7 itself used to be called the G8 until Russia itself was excluded as a direct result of its actions in Ukraine.

There is very little doubt that with the catalogue of Russian aggression and, at times, Western retaliation taking place we are on the verge of a new cold war and wise and patient diplomacy has not been needed to the extent that it currently is for a very long time.

I was born in 1973. In fact if you are reading this on Sunday after church I am sure you will be delighted to know it is my birthday today. I’m very lucky that in the 42 years I’ve been alive I have lived in very much a world of comparative peace. Of course in that time Britain has been in conflicts and at war but I, and my generation, do not know what it is like to have battle on my doorstep, literally an hours ferry ride away.

I am acutely aware that peace in Europe has been hard fought and has in no small part been achieved through the partnership and cooperation of the European Union project, by working ever closer together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and benefit there is no doubt in my mind at least we have minimised the prospect of conflict on the continent. By working together we have a much stronger voice when dealing with our more challenging neighbours.

Today’s column seems like a whistle-stop tour of the globe but it reflects that our world is so much smaller than it has ever been before. Britain needs to have a continued voice in that world and although no one would ever described the European Union as perfect our voice is much stronger, much more influential, as an important part of that wider community.

In two years, maybe less, we will all have the choice whether to stay in the EU or to come out once and for all. There will be many discussions about immigration, there will be many discussions about the economy, but when it does finally come down to making my decision I know at the back of my mind will be the peace that we have benefitted from for all of my life. It may just be the case that the EU contributes to maintaining that peace in our discussions with Russia sooner rather than later.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Whitwick Community Defibrillator - online donations open

As regular readers will know I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about raising funds to allow us to install a community defibrillator in Whitwick. The Coop have kindly said we can place one outside their new shop in Whitwick Market Place.

I'm delighted to say that I have been working with national charity The Community Heartbeat Trust and it is now possible to make online donations to the fundraising.

Online fundraising means collecting gift aid is easy and anyone can donate at any time in a secure way knowing your donation is safe and will go direct to our local scheme.

If you would like to make a donation, no amount is too small or too large, you can do so by clicking here.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Taster day for Year 5 pupils at Loughborough Grammar and High Schools

Parents with children in Year 5 at primary schools in the East Midlands who are considering an independent education for their child from Year 7 are invited to register them for a taster day at Loughborough Grammar school for boys and Loughborough High School for girls on Tuesday 23rd June.

Children will have the opportunity to meet staff and pupils, and enjoy subject-related activities designed especially for them at the two senior schools which are part of Loughborough Endowed Schools and located on the same campus.

Loughborough Endowed Schools operates an extensive bus network providing transport from across the region, including pickups in Whitwick.

For more information, or to reserve a place, telephone Loughborough Grammar School on 01509 283745 or Loughborough High School on 01509 283800.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Market Place crossing to be installed in July

A local councillor has expressed his delight that a long-campaigned for pedestrian crossing is finally to be built.

A 'Temporary Traffic Regulation Order' has been issued for 5 days commencing on Sunday 26th July to allow from the crossing on Whitwick Market Place to be created.

Councillor Leon Spence, County Councillor for Whitwick, said 'A lot of people have been asking for this crossing for a long time. It will be great to see it built, it will make the Market Place considerably safer.

Councillor Spence said 'There will be a few days of inconvenience and it's important that local residents are aware of this but the result will be well worth the wait.'