Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Blanket of Snow

Back to a frozen Britain and hour or so ago from a much warmer Abu Dhabi. The 'fast' train from St Pancras turned into a rather slow one as it negotiated deep snow across the Kent countryside and struggled into Margate fifteen minutes late. Meanwhile, I heard at the station that no trains from Victoria had arrived in our direction in a couple of hours.

Thanet appears relatively unscathed in contrast to the thick snow I witnessed through the rest of Kent, which appeared to thin-out around Minster. If we have any more, as forecast overnight then I suspect we may see a repeat of last year's chaos, although the County Council appears much better prepared than it was before.

Have a thought for the small creatures in you gardens. An early cold snap proved deadly to countless thousands of birds and small mammals last year and so if you can put anything out for them it could be the difference between life and death if these unseasonably cold conditions continue. Meanwhile, as you can see from my photo of just over twenty-four hours ago, there are warmer places to dream about on these dark winter evenings!

The great Sheik Zayed  Grand Mosque stands just opposite where I was staying at the Armed Forces Officers Club and it's a longer walk than it looks. An incredibly impressive feat of architecture both inside and out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

BT’s Broadband Answer for Thanet

For the benefit of Cllr Mike Harrison and others concerned by what appears to be a second class broadband service here in Thanet, I've just had a reply from the Head of Government Relations at BT, who I happen to know with another of my 'hats' on. I'm most grateful that she took the time to answer my question and to clarify BT's plans for broadband 'deprived' areas such as our own, she writes:

"Sorry for delay in getting back to you.

I think the first point to make is that we do not cap the speed of broadband at our exchanges as you suggested in your article. As part of BT Broadband we always provide the best speed that a line can support, but we can't guarantee a certain speed. Speeds aren't fixed, and the rate mainly depends on the particular phone line and how far a customer lives from the telephone exchange. Speeds will also fluctuate as the number of people using the network changes.

We give customers an estimated speed for their broadband when they place an order. For example. the estimated speed for broadband to the Ramsgate Youth and Community Centre, High Street, Ramsgate, CT11 9, telephone number 01843 592014, is 6Mb. We advise customers who are not getting the estimated speed for their line to report it as a fault to their provider who can report in turn to Openreach if the problems is with the BT line. Openreach engineers can then investigate and make sure that the line is supporting the best possible broadband speed given its electrical characteristics.

BT are investing to install ADSL2+, the next generation of broadband equipment offering speeds of up to 20Mg, at exchanges across the UK. To date, Thanet (Margate). Ramsgate and Herne Bay exchanges have been enabled and Broadstairs is in the roll-out and will be enabled by March 2011.

There are also live Ethernet nodes at Thanet (Margate), Ramsgate and Herne Bay, which offer highly reliable, flexible and un-contended fixed Internet access services over a wide range of technologies and leased line connections to business users.

BT is currently installing fibre optic technology offering broadband speeds of up to 40M/bits in several locations across the country. To date we have announced over 620 telephone exchanges where we will be installing this technology by the end of 2011 and plan to roll out to exchanges covering over 60% of the UK by 2015. Herne Bay has been announced in this roll-out. We plan to start offering service from this exchange from September 2011 and over 16,000 customers it serves will be able to benefit. Unfortunately, other exchanges in Thanet have not been included in these plans to date. The 'final third' of the UK is mainly made up of the more rural, less populated areas, and is more challenging to reach.

The government has suggested a minimum 2 M/bits across the UK by 2015, and funding was announced by the Chancellor in the recent spending review statement. As you are probably aware, each of the pilot four areas announced by the Chancellor will be allocated around £5-10m from a total of £530m funding announced to support the roll-out of broadband between now and 2015 to areas like this that the market alone will not reach. We will look at this as more detail is announced and will continue to explore all options that might bring broadband to more of our customers.

Selective Opinion

I see from today's Thanet Gazette, that plans by the council (presently under consultation) to introduce 'Selective Licensing' of rented properties in the most deprived wards in Margate and Cliftonville is encountering stiff resistance from landlords. The local paper reports one view that such a measure might be 'illegal' and the landlords' association claim that there is no evidence to link the density of privately rented properties and social landlords with prevalent anti-social behaviour and crime statistics.

Without offering any opinion, I am aware of a number of such selective successes elsewhere in the country, which have stimulated the idea of introducing it in Thanet. Looking at my notes from a meeting earlier in the year, I see that 84% of dwellings are flats, 45% involve single persons and 57% are indicated as not meeting a decent homes standard; with 21% of residents living there less than a year. Annual turnover approaches 30%.

Last month, I watched a BBC Panorama programme on rented social housing with some interest but I'm equally interested in reading and hearing the views from all sides when it comes to the real challenge of making those more deprived areas of Cliftonville and Margate, with such high levels of disability, incapacity and benefits, a safer, cleaner and more decent place to call home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Westgate Renaissance

I was deeply disappointed to see that the public toilets in Westgate were expensively 'trashed' this week and in the most disgusting manner imaginable. With public money in increasingly short supply, this type of primitive vandalism hurts the community that has to pay for the repairs and begs searching questions about the disturbed mental state of the youths responsible.

Westgate residents may have noticed over the past couple of months how much more vibrant the village has become in the middle of a recession. A very good new coffee shop in Fredericks, a new family butcher and green-grocer and a Somerfield transformed into a Co-op to name but a few changes with more to come.

In times like these, what helps a business survive is being different and catering to niche local needs, instead of attempting to compete with the larger retail chains. This is the problem that Margate High Street has suffered badly from, while Birchington and Westgate, to a lesser degree, have managed to maintain a local identity and loyalty.

There are still a couple of empty spaces in Westgate and talking with a friend last week, I fondly reminisced over Howes, the hardware shop that I recall was the magical  source of paraffin and all household hardware items, much like a more modest version of Goodwins in Westbrook. If people 'shop local' then the whole community benefits as successful small businesses improve the look and feel of the town. So perhaps we have a small Westgate renaissance underway, which would indeed be something to celebrate in the run-up to Christmas 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Very Wet Parade

A very wet Remembrance Sunday parade at Westgate today, admirably organised by Mr Geoff Shaw Case and the Reverend Tom Barnfather, despite the weather. Our small town was very privileged to have the United States Air Force Attache, Lt.Col Ahmed in attendance (Pictured with Cllr Tom King) and when the ceremony was finished, I walked him over to the memorial plaque on the clifftop, past the pavilion, which commemorates the crews of two Liberator bombers lost in April 1944.
As the Mayor of Margate's representative today, I would like to thank all those who attended the parade, service and reception and made it possible from faith, veterans and community groups, as well as a stoic crowd of onlookersand children in the steady rain. It demonstrates how communities such as our own represent a public tide of support for the sacrifices of our servicemen and women both past and present in protecting the common principles of liberty and democracy that we share as a nation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Not Forgotten

With Remembrance Sunday this weekend, I will be joining our community alongside my fellow Westgate councillors, Cllr Goodwin and Cllr King, laying a wreath from the Margate Charter Trustees at the War Memorial in Sea Rd at 11:30.

I'm reminded of a friend, now 91 who has two of his books sitting on my bookshelf. A true hero and World War II veteran; a former pilot whose remarkable personal qualities and heroism express the spirit of those times.

Steve Stevens DFC is famous for his wartime exploits flying Beaufighters into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, as described in his book Beaufighter over the Balkans. After the war Steve went on to help found Mission Aviation Fellowship and this weekend, The Sunday Mirror plans to honour Steve and a wartime comrade of his with a centre-page spread.

Steve, I'm sure I share the sentiments of all my readers in acknowledging your courage and spirit and the sacrifices of your wartime comrades, so many of whom you left behind, in giving us the freedom we enjoy today and frequently take for granted.

Local Performer

One poor chap is desperate for me to fly his marriage proposal around Leeds castle today. In this wind, he's going to be disappointed but as I told him, "It all works out in the end" and with a little patience, the weather will break over the coming week and he won't have to 'pop the question' in a howling gale!

Perhaps it's something to do with November, who knows but another romantic, living in the unexplored wilds of Norfolk asked if I could do the same up around Cromer. But even that pales in contrast with suitor No#3, who asked if I could fly to a spot near Bradford with a proposal at 8pm. "She won't be able to see it," I said, "it's dark" but he hadn't thought of that! Maybe there's a new market for luminous advertising, or huge flying signs, like those in the Sci-fi cult movie, 'Blade Runner."

Cabinet last night and standing outside the Gateway in Margate, a solitary middle-aged lady was singing loudly, a can of something cheerful  gripped tightly in one hand. At both the bus stops, the new Samsung 'Galaxy' tab was being advertised by Tesco, only £500 for Christmas and incongruous I thought, in the circumstances and the location. Worlds apart but close enough to touch in a brief passing image of modern society.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Freezing Rain

It's showing 5 degrees outside and a big change from last week's balmy 18 degrees. Passing Nash Road, a little earlier, I was concerned to see a group of miserable-looking horses, heads bowed against the freezing rain, huddled together in the corner of a waterlogged field and not all wearing turnout coats to keep them warm. I would have thought in these conditions it would be sensible, if not humane, to keep them in the stables!

Later this evening it's the monthly meeting of the Westgate & Westbrook residents association and I understand that KCC councillor, Robert Burgess, will be delivering a quick update on the future of Westgate fire station. I can't really offer to report more than I said last month other than comment on the impact of last month's Comprehensive Spending Review. Many people I speak with still struggle to grasp the real implications of the spending cuts ahead and I'm frequently asked: "Where's my council tax gone?" The answer is of course that it only paid a fractional amount of the cost of local public services and the really big balance of funding came from central government and the county council.

Thanet is strangely enough in a better financial position, in terms of its reserves, than many of its coastal neighbours, thanks to good housekeeping policies but with £21 million to find over the coming four years, the starting balance may appear more than a little irrelevant and the figure too large to imagine.

This is a subject that reaches beyond politics but I'm sure that it's one that won't avoid it in the months until next May!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Blast from the Past

I'm sure that many readers recall Oasis Airlines from Hong Kong and Gatwick doing their circuit training at Manston, a couple of years ago, before the airline fell victim to the recession. I just stumbled upon this company 747 training video on YouTube, seen below, which with the airport presently a topical subject may provoke both interest and comment together! In the video you can watch a simulated engine failure and how it's dealt with in the cockpit

Friday, November 05, 2010

Whose Benefit?

I see the Thanet Gazette reports this morning that benefit fraud in Thanet is on the increase and 'Has almost doubled' on last year. I won't say by how much otherwise the Gazette will complain that I'm depriving them of their 60p for you to find out and in any case, this blog is reportedly so dull that you must have arrived here by complete accident along with several hundred other political tourists today.

In fact, as the cabinet member for benefits, I was at the interview reported by the paper but predictably remain the 'invisible man.' What I said, should anyone be vaguely interested, is that tackling benefit fraud remains a high priority and it's a problem that has consequences for all of us paying our council tax, because if there's an overpayment, with a 40% - 60% split with the Department of Work & Pensions, if we don't recover the money, we lose it. When you consider for a moment that we are facing a £21 million shortfall in our local budget over the next four years, a big growth in benefit fraud doesn't go unnoticed.

In many cases, overpayments can be accidental, because people forget or simply omit to inform the DWP or council of a change of circumstances but like many councils, Thanet is seeing cases where very large sums are claimed fraudulently, sometimes in an organised manner and that hurts us all, as a community struggling to makes ends meet at a difficult time.

I have a zero tolerance approach to benefit fraud and I'm sure readers will feel the same way. I've an excellent team of officers working hard to tackle the problem but Britain has a generous welfare system which is and always has been open to abuse, as reflected in the 30% or so more National Insurance cards than there are members of the working population. Fraud on this scale raises uncomfortable questions about our society and the way in which we have moved from responsibility to dependence in a generation. What we need to do is somehow address the root cause of a problem that successive socialist governments have been unwilling to tackle. However. Like the housing benefit debate in London, this is going to raise strong feelings and may risk dividing an already divided society even further.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Margate Twinned with Rio de Janeiro?

I visited Rio de Janeiro on business a few years ago and had a wonderful time, walking around with a constant smile on my face at the vibrancy and colour of my surroundings.

Yesterday, I was amazed, nay, even stunned, that Frommers travel guide 'Has placed the seaside town and the surrounding area alongside top global destinations such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Stockholm in Sweden. Frommer's writers and editors have classed the Kent coast among the dozen most desirable destinations in the world for 2011.'

As a Thanet councillor and Margate Charter Trustee I'm delighted and council leader Bob Bayford and South Thanet MP, Laura Sandys are both quoted in today's Daily Mail. Laura adds:

'Well we join Brazil and Chile in Frommer's top 12 international destinations. This is fantastic news for Thanet and shows that our environmental beauty, our historic tourism, our sandy beaches and the character of each of our towns shines through.'

Frommer's Guide, which is one of the most reputable international travel guides, said that "there is plenty to keep visitors going over a long weekend, from quirky independent shops to worthy eateries to stylish boutique hotels."

I'm sure this accolade will attract more than a few comments but in difficult times, it gives us all optimism for the future, with under a year until the opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Manston Night Flights - An Open Letter to Clive Hart

Dear Clive

The headline in today's Thanet Times, 'Labour's 'NO' to flights at night', leads many to believe the policy of Thanet Council's Labour Group is now one of total opposition to 'any' night-time flying activity at Manston airport.

If this is the case, I am disturbed and surprised. Most of your group have previously accepted, and voted for, some night time activity. The fact that the current s.106 agreement, which was drafted and approved under the previous Labour administration, made specific provision for a future night-time flying policy and demonstrates Labour's consistency over the past decade. Indeed, the working party which oversaw the drafting of this agreement included some of your current and most senior councillors.

For the sake of clarity, I formally invite you to publicly declare your position. This needs to be a simple 'Yes' or 'No' to the question ' Does the Labour Group on Thanet District Council completely rule out night-time flying activity at Manston Airport?'

At the moment, the 'No to Night Flights' lobby appear to believe you are solid supporters of their position. The remainder of the Island's population deserves to know whether this volte face is really true.

Kind Regards

Bob Bayford

Thanet Labour Disqualified from Taking Part in Manston Night Flight Decision?

I was disappointed to read in today's Thanet Times the news that the Labour Group has predetermined its position by coming out against any night flying from Manston airport.

As this is a planning-related matter, I suspect, that they will have precluded themselves from taking part in any future debate that might decide the night-time flying policy from Manston.

The council's position on the matter was clearly explained in its press release yesterday and indicated that Thanet District Council continues to have a  measured and open-minded approach to this very important and complex issue.