Thursday, 15 March 2018

Standing up for Peterborough

Article from the Peterborough Telegraph: Lack of government funding in our city
Have you heard about the city council's 'Stand up for Peterborough' campaign?

Read this article on the Peterborough Telegraph website.

It cannot have escaped your attention. Essential services, services that are paid for in part via our council tax, are no longer up to scratch. Our streets are dirty. Housing lists are long. Treasured local services like Orton's bowling club are yet again under threat. What might not be so clear are the reasons why Peterborough City Council is currently experiencing such challenging circumstances.

Council tax just went up by 6% so why is there a problem?

There isn't one single reason for this present financial crisis. Management of the budget has a role to play, as do the decisions taken by city council. However, it is undeniably the case that Peterborough is suffering due to a dramatic cut in the amount of funding the Treasury makes available to our city council.

The problem is a programme of cuts known as 'austerity'. In 2013/14, Peterborough City Council received £55million via a Revenue Support Grant from the Treasury. This grant supports a range of council services. The grant will have reduced to £15million in 2018/19 and then right down to £10million in 2019/20, a reduction of 80% over seven years! It's not fair, not fair at all.

In response, Peterborough City Council Leader Cllr John Holdich launched a public campaign 'Stand up for Peterborough' on 30 November 2017, the aim of which is to garner local public support and to then lobby the Treasury for an increase in funding. If you haven't heard of this campaign you are not alone. I don't think many local residents in Orton have heard about it and from what I've heard support from the public has been slow to catch on.

My background is in campaigning for disabled people's rights. I understand why the city councillors feel that the 'Stand up for Peterborough' campaign should be effective. I also understand why it's failing to capture the imagination of residents. The trouble is, for a campaign like this to succeed it needs a massive amount of grassroots support, and this is something that very few local councillors in our city have managed to achieve. Essentially, if you want to attract the attention of residents over a particular issue you have to speak to them, clearly and frequently. You cannot suddenly spring a campaign on them out of the blue and expect them to support it. You have to work hard for residents all the time. When you do, then and only then, can you expect them to get on board. This is really basic stuff.

So I went to Westminster

Julie Howell with Caroline Lucas MP
I accompanied Caroline Lucas MP to the Treasury to hand in our letter

I do care about Peterborough. I care a great deal. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. On Wednesday 28th February, when the snow was falling thick and fast in London, I travelled to Westminister. Once there, I met up with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and together we walked to The Treasury where we handed in a letter for the attention of Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequor.

This is what the letter said:

Rt Hon Philip Hammond, MP
Chancellor of the Exchequer
HM Treasury
I Horse Guards Road                                                   Date: 28 February 2018
London SW1A 2HQ                                                    Ref: ML.C0069.RD.22.02.18
Dear Philip,

Spring Statement 2018 and local government funding

As Green Party councillors and council candidates, we are writing to you, ahead of your Spring Statement on 13 March, to urge you to heed warnings from the Local Government Association (LGA) of real and growing uncertainty about how local services will be funded beyond 2020, and to urgently provide local councils with the money they so clearly need to protect services and restore spending on community and frontline services to sustainable levels.

As the LGA noted in December:

“Local services are facing a £5.8 billion funding gap in 2019/20, as well as a £1.3 billion pressure to stabilise the adult social care provider market today. The additional council tax flexibility – estimated by our analysis to be worth up to £540 million in 2019/20 if all councils use it in both 2018/19 and 2019/20 – is nowhere near enough to meet the funding gap. The Government needs to provide new funding for all councils over the next few years so they can protect vital local services from further cutbacks.

It is extremely disappointing that the Government has again chosen not to address the continuing funding gap for children’s and adult social care. We have repeatedly warned of the serious consequences of funding pressures facing these services, for both the people that rely on them and the financial sustainability of other services councils provide. An injection of new money from central government is the only way to protect the vital services which care for older and disabled people, protect children and support families.”

Indeed, our local experience confirms that the current funding gap presents an existential challenge not only to valued community services, but to essential frontline services such as support for users of adult social care, older people, looked-after children, care leavers, those with disabilities or special educational needs, survivors of domestic violence, and low-income families in crisis. And it is having a deeply negative impact on initiatives needed to improve equality, sustainability and resilience, such as providing genuinely affordable, energy efficient homes, supporting socially necessary bus services, transforming how we collect and sort waste, and public-backed investment in renewable energy. 

This cannot go on. We believe the Government must act now to end this unprecedented and ultimately counter-productive erosion of local government. Strong communities require strong local services to support the most vulnerable and those in temporary crisis. It is vital that essential local services are both protected from further cuts and restored to sustainable levels.

Yours sincerely, 
Julie Howell, Peterborough

Standing up for Peterborough

I am not opposed to Peterborough City Council's 'Stand Up For Peterborough' campaign. However, some of us have always stood up for Peterborough and feel disappointed that the situation has been allowed to get as bad as it has before our city councillors made any effort to inform the rest of us of our city's plight.

I also doubt very much that many of our city councillors really support the campaign. When you visit the campaign website you are offered an opportunity to download a campaign 'frame' to add to your Facebook profile image. To date, I haven't found a single city councillor using it. If they have so little faith in the campaign, why should we lend our support to it?

The MP for Orton (and the rest of the NW Cambs constituency) is Shailesh Vara (rarely seen here but he is pretty responsive on email in my experience). He made a video supporting the 'Stand Up For Peterborough' campaign. When I looked at it just now it only had 28 views, and it's been on YouTube since 27 November 2017. That's not very impressive really, is it? 

My experience of Orton residents is that they are smart, switched on and perfectly able to stand up for themselves. But we can only do this effectively as a community when we know what's going on.

Find out more about Peterborough City Council's 'Stand up for Peterborough' campaign. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Why Doesn't Peterborough City Council Pick Up Litter? (and other frequently asked questions)

Litter pick in Kilham
A recent litter pick around Kilham in Orton Goldhay

While Peterborough hides under a blanket of snow, you may have temporarily forgotten about our war against litter. Unfortunately, in just a few days from now, the ice will have melted and the snow will have thawed and any litter that was hidden beneath it will look even worse than it did before Storm Emma came.

This afternoon, one brave resident trekked a mile through a virtual blizzard to put a note through my door with a list of questions about why we do the things we do in Peterborough Green Party.

As the snow shows no sign of letting up this afternoon, I have the perfect opportunity to stay indoors and address his/her excellent questions about litter, the council and Peterborough Green Party.

"Whilst it is very admirable of you and your team to tidy up the litter I would like to suggest/ask..."

1. Why don't the council undertake the task?

This is an excellent question. The council is indeed responsible for keeping our streets free from litter. However, it is painfully clear that Peterborough City Council, like many councils around the country, isn't keeping on top of it.

It is no secret that Peterborough City Council is in financial trouble. Budget cuts imposed by central Government are having a devastating effect on the council's ability to provide essential services to an adequate standard. But this is only part of the problem. The council isn't the one doing the littering. That, I'm afraid, is the rest of us, aided and abetted by the manufacturers that have introduced a completely unsustainable amount of single-use plastic into our lives. 

An exponential increase in the amount of single-use plastics in our shops (particularly drink bottles and sweet wrappers) combined with cuts to local government budgets multiplied by a laissez faire attitude among some people to taking their litter home with them has got us all into this situation. 

Peterborough Green Party regularly organises litter picks in response to requests from residents. We don't do this because we want to do the council's work for it. Like all Peterborough residents, we pay council tax for the council to provide this service. We don't do it to show the council up either, though residents often tell us that the council's contractors rarely do a good job and only bother to pick up the litter that is obvious, rather that the stuff that is caught up in the undergrowth where it does real harm to our local environment. 

We do it because it is a simple act of kindness that we can show towards our community. It doesn't make a huge difference long-term, we know that. But it can bring a bit of happiness to an area that is being neglected and we know that residents are grateful for a bit of TLC, even though what we can do has a relatively small impact in the greater scheme of things.

We also do it because we believe in leading by example. People very rarely drop litter when they see us working hard to pick it up. Positive action has a positive effect.

But I have to let you into a secret... when we litter pick we don't just pick up litter. No. We also report fly tipping and other issues that the council is able to fix. And we talk to people. Lots of people. I've never been on a litter pick where local residents haven't come up to us and engaged us in conversation about the local community. 

Litter pick in Matley
The new Lapwing  Retirement Apartments in Orton Brimbles are a wonderful addition to the community.
But nearby Matley is always strewn with litter.

2. Why aren't people who have been given a punishment of community service forced to clear up the area? Can't people from the prison be tasked with such work?

Community service is a great idea and I believe that to some extent this does happen. I would imagine it's slightly more difficult to deploy people from the prison due to the costs of administering this (overseeing the prisoners while they work, for example).

I wrote an article about this for the Peterborough Telegraph in 2017. I suggested that those responsible for fly-tipping might be made to clear it up as this would be better use of taxpayer money than imprisoning them. You can read the article here.

Litter pick in Orton Northgate
Recent high winds caused recycling bins to blow over in Orton Northgate.
As neither the council nor the developer seemed interested in helping, residents cleared this lot up ourselves.

3. Unemployed people, claiming benefits, may be pleased of such work

Unfortunately, such work is likely to be low paid and therefore not suitable for people claiming benefits due to the rules regarding what you can and can't do when you are claiming certain benefits. However, this is a fault of the way the welfare system is structured. I must add that many of the people who come on our litter picks are unemployed, on benefits or retired. In fact, very few of our volunteers are in full-time work. 

Sack of beer cans
A bag full of cans. We pull hundreds from bushes and streams every year.

A bush is not a bin 

We can all do something to reduce the amount of litter in our environment and take the pressure off Peterborough City Council: by taking our litter home with us.

I guarantee, prod any hedgerow in Orton with a litter picker and you will very quickly hit a beer can. There seems to be a myth circulation around our local community that a bush is some kind of magic litter bin. I bring news that will come as a shock to some: it isn't. A bush can do a lot of things, including providing shelter for us from noise and pollution and habitat for a wide range of wildlife. But a can in a bush will just sit there forever until some removes it.

Milder March weather will soon replace the snow and Peterborough's shame - our blanket of litter - will be exposed once more. My team will happily come out into your communities again, but for us all to see a real difference in the amount of litter in our environment we all have to change our ways, permanently. 

Litter pick in Orton Goldhay
Litter pulled from bushes near Beckingham, Orton Goldhay

Friday, 2 February 2018

Peterborough is an Environmental City? I don't think so...

I appeared live on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning, to express my disgust at the 15% increase to the charge for kerbside collections of garden wast (aka brown bins).

Peterborough City Council leaders have no idea how people live.

At this rate, everyone with a small garden will simply pave over it to avoid the problem of garden waste disposal, while our populations of garden birds and hedgehogs will continue to decrease dramatically, as is the case in London. 

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

People on lower incomes in rented accommodation are compelled by the terms of their tenancy agreement to keep they gardens in good order. For many, this increase to £45 per year will simply be more than they can manage on their tight household budget. This is a service the council should provide for free (rather, it should be paid for via our council tax, which, we are also informed, will rise by 6% this year) as we're not encouraged to light bonfires any more.

We will see an increase in fly tipped brown bins and fly tipped garden waste that introduces inappropriate nutrients and non-native specious to our precious woodland.

Residents with large houses and large gardens may well be able to afford the charge. Perhaps Peterborough City Council might consider introducing it for households that can reasonably afford to pay, e.g. band D properties and above. 

And residents who cannot afford to pay may be better off composting their garden waste and selling it. You can get a composting bin for less than £10 and lots of good advice from

Over-priced and unreliable

It's not as if the city council's brown bin service is even reliable. 

I recently helped Orton resident Nell to get the council to empty her brown bin after they repeatedly failed to deliver the service she had paid for. Why should residents who have shelled out for this service then have to deal with the hassle of chasing the council to deliver the service they have paid for?

I helped Nell to get her brown bin emptied after the council let her down

It's a Garden Tax

It's time to call the brown bin collection charge what it is: a tax on having a garden.

I daresay Peterborough City Council will push ahead with this increase regardless of how residents' feel about it, but its aspiration to be an 'environmental city' really is nonsense. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

New Year, Same Old Rubbish - and it's not fair

Happy New Year!

Posted by Julie Howell on Saturday, 6 January 2018

We hit the ground running in 2018 with our first litter pick of the year on Saturday 6th January.

This time, we visited Kilham in Orton Goldhay, after a local resident called me to ask if anything could be done to improve the state of the litter along local public footpaths. The city council had recently cut the hedgerows right back revealing several year's worth of rubbish that was trapped there and had been hidden from view. It looked absolutely dreadful.

I'm not pointing the finger at people who live in this area. Wherever you have hedgerows that run alongside public footpaths you'll have rubbish and most of that rubbish is beer cans and fast food wrappers tossed into the bushes by passersby.

Four volunteers and seventeen sacks of litter
We pulled 17 bags of litter from the hedgerows

A litter crisis

We knew we had a big job on our hands this time. Over the course of two hours, my team of hardy volunteers pulled 17 bags-worth of rubbish from the hedges.

The footpaths are a thoroughfare from the Orton Centre to other parts of Orton and litter bins are in scarce supply, owing to the cost of emptying them (according to the council). But local residents pay council tax and quite rightly expect the council to regularly clear the area of litter. However, this just isn't happening frequently enough or thoroughly enough. Five of us cleared the area in two hours. If it was cleared every few weeks by the council it wouldn't get nearly as bad as it was when we visited.

I know a lot of people who live in this area. They're lovely. They don't deserve to live among this mess. It's really, really unfair.

We have a litter crisis in this country, not just in Peterborough. The Government needs to take steps to ensure that there is less plastic and aluminium in circulation as a great deal of it ends up in the local environment where it suffocates the earth, damages the habitat that local wildlife relies upon and looks awful.

We reported quite a lot of fly tip which the council has since taken away.

Take your litter home with you

The message for everyone is a simple one. Please, take your litter home with you and dispose of it with the rest of your household waste. Yes, we do all pay council tax for the council to clear away the mess from our environment and clearly not enough is being done to keep on top of it at the moment. But we can all help by not adding to the problem.

Roger holding a teddy he found in a bush
We find a lot of children's toys in the bushes, like this pre-loved teddy.

Beer and children should not mix

We find all sorts of things during our litter picks. It's not unusual to find children's toys buried in the dirt. It's great that children are playing outside in the fresh air and Orton has a lot of lovely green space for children to enjoy.

We also find things that no child should stumble across, including sanitary products, nappies and even a pregnancy testing kit (that had been used which meant that someone must have urinated on it - you don't want a child to pick that up). But the worst of it is undoubtedly the discarded beer cans. Do you really want children playing among these?

A sack of beer cans and a child's toy car
Beer cans and children's toys. These shouldn't be found together.

Report it

My team doesn't seek to do the council's job for it. Like every resident, I want the council to do the job we all pay it to do. But we are happy to come out and lend a hand, without judgement about how the litter got there or whose responsibility it is. I believe everyone has a right to live in a clean, tidy environment where they feel safe and healthy and where local nature can thrive. If you think my team of volunteers can make a difference in your street, let me know. In the meantime, you can always report any fly tip in your street to the council on 01733 747474.