A wonder of the railway world

St. Pancras Station and its associated hotel building is probably one of the great wonders of the railway world and as regular readers will know I am a railway enthusiast.

A couple of years ago my daughter who is very much into building conservation had the opportunity to visit the newly refurbished St. Pancras Station and to take a guest on a guided tour. Obviously I jumped at the opportunity to go with Jen and a great day out we had.

There is an excellent book about the station written by Simon Bradley and published in 2007 which I had read prior to being invited to go see it. Here is a picture of me standing with the wonderful statue of Sir John Betjeman who of course fought to save the station when it was under threat.

Sadly when we travel to London by train from Liverpool the end of the journey is the appalling Euston Station vandalised in the 1960’s by fools. Thanks goodness for the campaign to save St. Pancras; it is quite magnificent.

Academies, ballots and tough decisions

Turning high schools into Academies and therefore taking them out of local authority control was a high profile project for the last Labour government (and an unpopular one amongst true socialists who think that the state and councils should control everything I might add) and the process is now being taken forward and developed by the Coalition government. But is this the right way forward?

I suspect that the answer will be different when looking at the individual circumstances of each high school considering a move to Academy status. However, it is clear that the governing bodies of quite a few Sefton high schools are potentially sold on the idea of turning their schools in Academies.

The initial periods of consultation undertaken by the schools who are thinking of transferring seemed to bring back little in the way of objections from each school community although of course each consultation would have been done in differing ways. That was why we Lib Dems on Sefton Council decided to put it to the Council that each School should hold a ballot of the parents/guardians prior to taking transfer forward. Such ballots are not mandatory and would not be binding on the governing body it should be noted but they would give each and every parent/guardian a say. Our motion gained support across the Council and was passed in March. Subsequently each school in the Borough was made aware of the Council’s recommended ballot.

Moving on, Maghull Town Council followed the lead of the Borough and passed a similar resolution in May, which we Lib Dems supported. Interestingly on this occasion it was proposed by Labour who, when in government, did not require such ballots to be undertaken and as I said before I suspect that many Labour activists were always unhappy with Labour’s promotion of Academies. At least current Labour body language gives that impression whilst they have stopped short of opposing Academies now they are in opposition. Of course those on the left of the Labour Party, who are now quite vocal and in the ascendancy, were kept quiet during the Labour government years by the likes of John Prescot.

The teaching unions oppose Academies but that is to be expected as they fear loss of national terms and conditions of employment. Also, as I have posted before, trade unions are by their very nature almost always opposed to change and I say that as a trade union activist for over 30 years!

The bottom line for me is will Academy status improve educational standards? Political leaders of all the main parties obviously think so and that is why they are promoting them. I certainly feel that the state should not be a monopoly provider of education and parental choice as to the types of school they can send their kids to is important. Many parents currently don’t have a choice i.e. it’s a state school or a state school unless they want a religion based education (not for me as don’t have a religion) for their children. Trouble is that if the vast majority of high schools become Academies then again choice may become limited unless, of course, the freedom that Academies will have leads to high schools being very different animals.

Looking at logically, the answer is that only time will tell after some schools have transferred to an Academy. As to the ballots (assuming that all or some schools choose to hold them) which as I say I support; they will only be as useful as the debate that surrounds them is informed and rational. If the campaigns become biased, irrational and dominated by fear and misrepresentation then how will the governing bodies of the schools react to them? In the end the governors will have to make their decision taking everything into account. A tough time for governors I suggest.

Time to reflect as I move from being Council Leader to opposition leader on Sefton Council

It’s time to reflect on a few things after 7 years as Leader of Sefton Council and 23 years as Leader of Maghull Town Council.
May of 2011 will hardly go down as one of the best set of elections for the Lib Dems and sadly they could hardly have been worse but in politics a wise man once said to me that you win things you don’t deserve to win and you lose things you don’t deserve to lose. One could also add that if you can’t stand the political heat don’t go into the political kitchen.

So a few comments on my time leading these two Councils. Firstly, a comment made to me on the day I became Leader of Sefton Council by Labour Cllr. Dave Martin who, like me this May, had suffered in his case a loss of Labour seats and was stepping down as Council Leader. Dave said ‘Within 6 months lad every nutter in the Borough will know who you are’. Well I certainly came across some colourful folks in my 7 years as Leader! In the rest of this posting I will answer questions that have been put to me in recent times:-

But what was it like leading a balanced Council? On the whole quite rewarding but at times very frustrating. I found working with politicians of other parties to be amicable with just the odd difficulty. Being a consensus politician by nature I don’t easily subscribe to the traditional and very childlike British approach of extreme tribalism in party politics.

Do I watch political programme on the TV? Hardly ever, I find them too tribal with far too much petty bickering, a bit like the House of Commons sadly!

What did I enjoy the most as a Council Leader? I think that would be working with the 10 Parish Councils across Sefton trying to get them to be both taken seriously by the Borough Council and to use their collective and individual voices more effectively.

What projects have I fought for both winning and losing? The big pluses must be gaining Meadows Leisure Centre for the East Parishes communities, winning the battle for the Thornton to Switch Island Link Road, seeing Aintree Village get its new GP surgery, fighting for Aintree Davenhill Primary School to be rebuilt and getting Lydiate Village Centre built. On the down side not being able to find a way to get Maghull North railway station built or indeed to get the Burscough rail curves reconnected have been huge frustrations.

Who did I get along with or not? I get along with most folks but some people are worth a mention as being really great to do business with – Barry Smith (former Town Clerk to Maghull Town Council), Charlie Barker (former Strategic Director of Sefton Council), Cllr. David Tattersall (recently retired from Sefton Council), Sheila Nelson, Charles Walker and many others whom I worked with on Maghull Town Council. I deliberately have not mentioned any serving officers and councillors. As to those I did not find it easy to work with I will simply say what my dear old mum used to say – if you can’t say anything good say nothing at all.

Who did I go to for advice when times were tough? The previously mentioned David Tattersall, ever a wise sage as can also be said of Cllr. Anthony Hill, Cllr. Roy Connell, Cllr. David Rimmer, Cllr. Iain Brodie-Brown and my good friends Cllr. Andrew Blackburn and Keith Page.

So what does the future hold? Well I am now in effect the Leader of the opposition on Sefton Council seeing the new Labour Leader of the Council having to take difficult decisions of the kind I once had to make. I wish him luck as it will be tough. I will not be taking the difficult decisions for him and my Lib Dem Group will hold him to account if he takes what we view to be the wrong course in his Leadership. Sadly, I think politics on Sefton Council will become more tribal as I can’t see the new Leader trying to find a consensus; his politics, or at least those of his party are tribal to the core.

On Maghull Town Council I hope our Lib Dem Group can work with the new Labour administration as party politics on a Parish Council can be almost ridiculous when the issues of the day are parks, gardens and other matters that are hard to be defined as party political. In my experience as a Parish Councillor of 26 years and counting I have found that trouble on a Parish Council normally comes from folks who want to be Mr or Mrs Big and they can come from any political direction or none at all.

Will I enjoy opposition politics? Probably not as much as being a Council Leader as opposition can by its very nature be a negative process especially in our so odd and tribal British political culture. We will see……………………….

And finally two things that make it all worthwhile no matter how tough it gets. Firstly, I never forgot my Liberal values in my time as Council Leader and today my good friend Iain Brodie-Brown has posted on his Birkdale Focus Blog (check out the link in my list of useful links) about the core values of Liberalism – thanks Iain always a good idea to bring such thoughts to the surface every now and again because that is what drives us Liberals forward. Secondly, in the post today (and just as I was finalising this posting) came a lovely letter from the Clerk of one of Sefton’s 10 Parish Councils. The letter was a personal one thanking me for my efforts as Sefton Council Leader to promote the interests of the smaller communities within the Borough. I will long treasure the letter as it seems to define what I was always trying to achieve as Council Leader and the fact that someone has taken the trouble to compose it made me feel that all the late nights dealing with one crisis in the Borough or another were worthwhile.

Photovoltaics

Energy generation is becoming ever more important with fuel prices always on the increase and of course we all need to be living greener more environmentally friendly lifestyles if we are to save the planet.

Having looked at how my family can both save money and be a little greener we have opted to have photovoltaic cells fitted to the roof of our new home. Regular readers will recall that we are moving about quarter of a mile down the road we presently live on.

This is what the cells look like and 13 of them have been installed today:-

On a community basis both Maghull Town Hall and Lydiate Village Centre are having such cells fitted this year and with Maghull Town Hall being an older building (opened 1984) it is also having its mansard roof made more thermally efficient so that heat loss is minimised. Both these projects have been Lib Dem led so we don’t  just talk about the environment we do something about it. The Aintree and Maghull Champion newspaper covered the Town Hall project last week although I thought the article headline was rather negative when the project is a ‘spend to save’ one that will deliver benefits for years to come for a one off investmnet now. By the way both Maghull and Lydiate’s ‘green’ projects have gained lottery grants to support them.

Maghull Community Association and Maghull Town Hall

Blogging about Maghull Community Association getting involved in Maghull in Bloom reminded me of a story I was told some time ago about why Maghull Town Hall is called a ‘Town Hall’ instead of say ‘Community Centre’ which is in reality what the building is.

It seems that when the former Ratepayers Party, who ran the Town Council in the early 1980’s, wanted to name their new building (opened in 1984) they realised that if they called it a ‘Community Centre’ (a name that was all the rage for new community buildings back then) it could be confused with Maghull Community Association’s building in Green Lane Maghull hence the rather grand sounding title of ‘Town Hall’ was chosen.