Moving home!

Regrettably, having been a loyal user of WordPress for almost five years, I am moving my posts over to a new platform, ‘Blogger’.

I didn’t WANT to do this but WordPress have changed their system to one more aligned with the needs of professional journalists. They said they wanted to do this some time ago but retained the option for those of us with less sophisticated needs to continue using their “classic” system of editing. They’ve now removed that option.

The new platform for this blog is now at…

dtremellen.blogspot.com

Although existing articles will stay on this platform until the annual subscritpion runs out, in the interim I’m moving articles across, using this as an opportunity to update and, in some cases, streamline them. New articles will only appear on the new platform.

And thanks to the over 2,600 viewers who read these articles for both their patience in sitting down to read what are often lengthy pieces, and for their continued presence which, believe me, I do feel the ‘presence’ of when I challenge those in positions of power who believe that their actions go unnoticed by the general public. Mind you, some of them don’t care what Joe Public thinks anyway, so sure are they of themselves and their positions.

I remember one time when I was stopped by one irate councillor in a Shirehall corrider who had obviously only just discovered that this blog existed…

“What you said [he mentioned a particular article] was almost libellous!”

‘Ah, yes [I said their name], but the operative word there is “almost”, because every word of it was true.’

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men

Protest

Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 1850-1919

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

#67: May 1st: County Councillor’s Report

My last report generated quite a bit of comment on the local Facebook pages, but no one appreciated the full significance of the decision to allow those 20 ‘affordable’ houses intended for the site alongside the bridleway behind the telephone exchange. Understandable because there was a lot of smoke and mirrors involved in the process because the underlying sensitivity of this site lies in the impact the earlier decision to refuse permission would have had on Council plans for the larger site just yards away to the north.

I can only imagine the panic when the full import of that refusal by that case officer became known to the rest of the planning department. I bet it wasn’t long before the full weight of the more senior principle plannning officers descended on the poor man’s head.

Another refusal for that smaller site, especially on the grounds of “over-development” outlined by earlier Planning Inspectors, would call into question all of Shropshire Council planning department’s plans for the much larger neighbouring site, just a bridleway-width away, for 122 houses, a housing development equal to every housing development we’ve seen built here since 2013; that’s another Hitchens Way (58), another Staley Grove (35), another St Peters View (19) and Whittles Close (10).

As I said in April, I was particularly angry that the application repeated assertions about the low impact that those 20 affordable houses will have on the traffic situation at what is LOCALLY (Shropshire Council highways have a different take on things) considered to be one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Highley, both for vehicles and, critically, given the “affordable” category of family housing proposed, young children of school age.

Whilst that assertion of ‘low impact’ persisted throughout the officer and consultee comments on the earlier application for nine bungalows, it acknowledged that the relatively low impact was BECAUSE they were bungalows!

On the basis that a typical domestic dwelling generates on average 6 vehicle movements per day, the 9 dwellings proposed would generate possibly 54 movements plus any associated with the farm access, although it is noted that the dwellings are bungalows and are likely to be occupied by older people who may not make as many journeys each day.

But by carefully phrasing his report to committee to emphasise the classification of those 20 houses as “affordable homes” and the site itself as an “exception site” (= outside the development boundary of a settlement) the planning officer assigned to the resubmission over-rode all other considerations, amongst which I’d have to put ‘common sense’. What was also over-ridden and hence this second article on the subject, was the cumulative impact on Highley of that proposal for the 122-house development alongside it, using the same access exiting onto the same bend on the same stretch of road.

On the basis of those official calculations for the amount of traffic generated by one house, “on average 6 vehicle movements per day”, 122 houses would generate “on average” 732 (= 6 x 122) movements “plus any associated with the farm access” to Hazelwells Farm at the other end of the bridleway.

But hey, what the heck am I doing forgetting Tremellen’s First Law of Fundamental Errors, which has do with the disappointment generated by the lack of joined-up thinking being directly proportional to expectation. The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when that expectation isn’t met. Silly me.

Back in 2013 I was so naive that I didn’t understand the lack of joined-up thinking behind some of the decisions I saw being made at Shirehall. What was there seemed to follow an agenda that had a beginning and an end but nothing in between. Sleight of hand and tongue, the definition of words that took semantics into the higher realms of deniability was the norm, which sums up the report that the case officer on that application for those 20 houses presented to the planning committee. I can’t wait to see what he does in his report for those 122 houses, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating.

Dave Tremellen

#66: Define “whole”.

County Councillor’s Report

First appeared in the February edition of the Highley Forum.

Back in September 2014 I wrote…

Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives.

I was talking then about the way changes at Shropshire Council were impacting on the way the council engaged with the people of Shropshire, although more accurately I should say increasingly disengaged with the people of Shropshire, a process that, if anything, has increased since then.

There are still a lot of people who persist in thinking that “the council” is still what they’ve always thought of as “the council” – it ain’t!

When, in 2009, the old district councils and county council became a single unitary council, changing from a committee system to one known as (and I kid you not) ‘Strong Leader Plus Cabinet’, Shropshire Council has increasingly become what I would call a “Service Director led administration”, where the directors of service departments, in close partnership with consultants, no longer just advise the elected councillors in the Cabinet but determine policy which is rubber-stamped by Cabinet portfolio holders and presented to ‘Full Council’ (which no longer meets monthly) where it is voted through by the majority of votes of the ruling group from which Cabinet is drawn.

Directors of Service and consultants are not answerable – and certainly not accountable – to the electorate whose lives they influence and who have to drive over the roads they have allowed to deteriorate to the point of absolute misery, adding insult to injury by forcing the electorate who pay the taxes that pay their salaries and consultancy fees to then pay for the resulting damage caused by their failure to do the job they’re employed to do.

For years the North Shropshire MPs and North Shropshire councillors who are nine of the ten members of the Cabinet have campaigned for the North West Relief Road around Shrewsbury. (Those of an uncertain disposition who have paid for new tyres and/or wheels try to contain yourselves.)

The Department of Transport has agreed to give £54m towards the construction of Shrewsbury’s north-west relief road, with work expected to start in 2022.’

The full cost of the road is estimated at £71m, with the council to provide any remaining funds.’

[My note: Do the sums: £71m – £54m = £17m of OUR money.]

Steve Davenport, cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “The North West Relief Road will benefit not just Shrewsbury but the whole of Shropshire…”’

Define “whole”. There is an argument for the NWRR, but there is an over-riding argument for the roads in the rest of Shropshire to be addressed with more than a passing sympathetic remark and an explanation of how cash-strapped the Authority is and therefore, “sorry, (forced smile, slight tilt of the head to one side and a shrug of the shoulders) you’ll have to wait a bit longer”.

Our MP (Philip Dunne, a nice chap) has just stepped up to the mark on behalf of South Shropshire. A little late, but welcome aboard Philip. Let’s see if anything changes on the B4555.

Dave Tremellen

16 January 2020

#65: Consultants, eh? Who’d have ’em?

Article first appeared in the Highley Forum, March 2020 edition.

County Councillor’s Report

£130,000 + £380,000 = £510,000

Nice work if you can get it. Bit late for me to scramble onto the consultancy bandwagon, though, even with an Upper Second Honours degree in Business Studies I’ve spent too long in the real world to convince potential clients that I’m the right person to tell them what they want to hear rather than the truth.

A lifetime ago, after graduating, I looked into going into business consultancy with an ex-copper friend, Ron, who I’d been at college with and the name we decided on was ‘NBS Consultancy’, the first initial standing for ‘No’ . But Ron’s circumstances changed and the idea was dropped, although I did do two and a half years freelance work for various local and central government agencies, but soon tired of finding myself sitting on the opposite side of some executive’s desk, dying to tell him (women execs were usually more switched on) that he was actually the problem he’d called me in to try and find!

As far as the recent furore over Shropshire Council’s employing consultants at the £510,000 cost given at the head of this article (£130K to advise on “solutions” to our highways issues and £380K to advise on the refurbishment of Shirehall), what angered me was that within the Council we had people who were more than able to tell anyone who asked what the problems were and what needed to be done to put them right.

In response to the Chief Executive’s email to all Elected Members telling us of his unilateral decision to appoint a highways consultant, I wrote back…

This is some kind of joke, right?

Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary, expertise that has the detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department we WOULD have had if only officers had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do, if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!

Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.

Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, especially given that five years ago, in February 2014 – yes 2014 – I asked this question of the highways portfolio holder at Full Council…

Will the Portfolio Holder for Highways admit that they have lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire? In the event that they still cling to the delusion that they are in fact still in control of roads in my part of the county, would they point to the evidence to support that claim.

Claire Wild, Portfolio Holder for Highways and Transport, replied: Shropshire Council has not lost the battle with potholes in South East Shropshire.

She went on to list a number of major jobs that were programmed for Highley (including the complete resurfacing of High Street), NONE of which were ever started, so if her argument was open to challenge back then, her successor has even more of a challenge to contend with because we’ve had five years of a crumbling highways network getting even further beyond hope of being salvaged by anyone, let alone a consultant at the going rate of £1,000 a day for six months.

Too much and too late anyway.

Dave Tremellen

(The very) Independent Member for Highley Ward of Shropshire Council.

#64: The first thing elected Members knew about the highways consultant employed by Shropshire Council was via an email sent to all councillors and some service directors.

It was not marked Confidential nor did it come with a notice that circulation was in any way restricted, hence…

On 29 Jan 2020, at 14:44, Clive Wright wrote:

Dear Member

I want to inform you of changes I am making, with the support of the Portfolio Holder, Steve Davenport, in Highways with immediate effect. As you are all aware, we need to improve performance and delivery at pace. To achieve this the following actions have been taken:

1) We have appointed a consultant, Tom Blackburn-Maze, who will be with us until the end of June. Tom is providing advice on how to make crucial improvements based on his experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere. Tom will be providing advice to myself, Mark Barrow and the Highways team.

2) ******** has been asked to take on a different role.  He will continue to deal with front facing issues and add vital management capacity to the work of highways which is so critical to members, town and parish councils and the public.

3) ******** will continue as Interim Head of Highways and will manage the day to day operation of Highway repairs and maintenance.

4) Alun and Steve will act on the advice of Tom but will report to Mark Barrow or me in Mark’s absence (on leave for 2 weeks).

5) We are moving the Highways front of house into the Customer Service Centre. This will coincide with reconfiguring CONFIRM (the Highways computerised management system) to provide Members with up to date information on line. The Customer Contact Centre already successfully handles complex referrals such as, for example, children and/or adults requiring social care.

6) Robust conversations have taken place with Kier at the highest levels. We have agreed an up scaling of Kier mobilisation and I expect to see a change over the next few weeks.

7) We will be working at faster pace focusing on areas of highest need over coming months. We will work to eliminate unproductive behaviour such as, for example, fixing one pothole whilst leaving the one next to it. Concentrating on areas will enable more work to be done faster and make it easier for us to supervise and ensure quality.

8) We will experiment with using local contractors as an alternative to using Kier. We can do this within the terms of our contract with Kier. This will provide evidence of the best way to proceed going forwards.

9) I expect highways repair costs to increase and these costs are being projected. We also anticipate that the Government will again make available additional ‘Pothole Funding’, though this is not yet confirmed.

10) We will reduce the rate of temporary repairs with an initial target of less than 5%.

11) We will hold a Members workshop at the end of February to update all Members.

12) The Portfolio Holder has requested that Scrutiny take a look at Highways improvement to provide a forum for all Members to be as involved as they wish. This is, of course, a decision to be made by Scrutiny as to whether they wish to include Highways in their programme.

As it stands there is currently 3500 reported highway defects on our systems. Clearing this backlog is our priority. We would ask Members to please use the on line portal to report further defects as this is the fastest way to ensure that issues are logged and acted upon. We understand that some Members prefer to call the engineers or email officers directly. Where this occurs the response will be for those staff to refer these enquiries in to the Customer Service Centre and let Members know. Having multiple channels of reporting is causing defects to be missed or double logging of the same defect. We can review this as we move forward and once we are on top of outstanding work.

I hope this keeps you informed.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council

 

My furious response was…

Dave Tremellen 30 Jan 2020, 09:43 (4 days ago)

to Clive, Members, Directors, Tom, Alun, Steven

This is some kind of joke, right?

Everything’s falling apart so “we” employ another consultant when we’ve got all the expertise we need in-house and have done since the district and county councils were operating prior to going unitary and, moreover, expertise that has the intimate, detailed LOCAL knowledge that informs the work programme of the efficient highways department that we WOULD have if only the officers we’ve ALWAYS had had been allowed to do the job they’ve trained to do – if only they were given the resources they so desperately need to do the job they’re professionally qualified to do!

What you’ve done is an insult to every one of those highways professionals and a poke in the eye for David Evans with his arms-length list of highways problems across Craven Arms; David Turner with his catalogue of highways problems across Much Wenlock; Kevin Pardy and a lethal roundabout he’s been trying to get made less lethal for years; Me, with collapsing carriageways and an army of residents with damaged cars (one phoned me yesterday to report her EIGHTH smashed wheel) not to mention a GP practice who can’t get a locum to attend because they refuse to travel the B4555; so what do “we” do, we employ another highways consultant on top of the department full of consultants we’ve already got in WSP, all of whom, presumably, were taken on because they come with “…experience of running very successful Highways operations elsewhere”.

No way a consultant will sort that lot out, let alone the rest of the county, but now he’s here, whilst he’s at it perhaps he’ll explain to the rest of us how the hell the North West Relief Road is going to benefit the rest of Shropshire, as Steve so confidently assured those us concerned about where the £17 million difference in the predicted cost of the scheme of £71 million and the grant of £54 million is going to come from, because we KNOW where it’s going to come from – US!

Let the people we’ve got do their job and give them the resources they need to do it. It really is that simple.

Angry? Me? It’s gone beyond angry, Clive.

Regards

Dave Tremellen

Independent Member for Highley Ward

Shropshire Council

Which got me this response…

From: Clive Wright
Sent: 31 January 2020 08:41
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Members; Directors; Tom Blackburne-Maze; Alun Morgan.Highways
Subject: Re: Highways Management Changes

Dear Dave

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate that there has been a number of false starts and ongoing problems in the Highways service. This is why I have now stepped in directly and personally as other management action has failed.

I agree with the thrust of what you are saying. My first port of call in initiating action was to approach and work with front line staff. The time had come to roll up sleeves etc. I have listened to what they consider is needed and I hope and believe we are winning their support. I offered to make immediately available budgets of £2.5m, their response was that this alone would not fix the problems and might make things worse. We must fix the the budget (and we have, albeit in times where resources are limited); our working processes (we are engaging our staff on this, not serving it up to them); incentivise our contractor to mobilise (we are doing this) or find alternative arrangements for small works (we are also doing this with local contractors); and provide different leadership (and I have made swift changes). We are continuing to engage the Highways staff and I met them all for an open conversation earlier this week and to feedback how we are acting on their input, what specific actions are being taken and today how we can only be successful through them.

Solutions are often seem simple from the outside and are more complicated in reality. My approach has been to understand the problem before we come up with the solution. Having said that, what we have to do in this case is not rocket science. There are four components: leadership and motivation; right process; contractor will and capability; resources – money and right skills in the right place. We have to fix all four. The goal is high quality and efficient delivery.

I agree that we should have been able to fix this ourselves without consultant input but we are way past that point and with the support of the Portfolio Holder we agreed it was time to bring things to a head. The consultant is here to bring experience, but his remit is to work with our staff and design solutions with them, not for them. The solutions for Shropshire are likely to be different to those in other places, though there are some fundamental things that we are currently getting wrong. Experience is a massive lift in this respect. I am not blaming our staff but an example is where we have been temporary fixing 74% of potholes, this should be closer to zero or no more than 5%. This change alone implemented quickly will likely pay for the cost of the consultant.

Some of the problems we have, such as parts of the network not being designed for heavy agricultural vehicles won’t be solved anytime soon (though we are lobbying and applying for funding). However, I do intend to dramatically improve our performance on the issues you raise, particularly small works and maintenance. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating and I hope you will afford me the chance to demonstrate the change.

Finally, as you know, I too live in South Shropshire, and I’m not proud of our performance or with our contractor.  All services are stretched but overall staff motivation and optimism is good and we will continue to perform beyond what might be reasonable with the resources we have. We can and must do better with the resources we have in Highways, we will need to add funding and ensure this is well spent. I hope that Members will continue to support and work with us towards this goal. Challenge is always welcome, it provides opportunity to see things from a different perspective and this is a great strength in our Council. I am always open to finding better solutions. Right now, confidence is low in all quarters (Members, the Public, staff and our contractor), but we can and will rebuild this by getting things done on the ground.

I hope this provides you with some assurance.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

Chief Executive

Shropshire Council

Assurance it did not provide. Well, not entirely, although as a statement of intent it doesn’t leave much to challenge.

My fear is that circumstances will overtake the good intentions listed there for the simple reason that Shropshire Council’s priorities do not have to do with the concerns of ALL its citizens, as witness an economic growth policy predicated entirely on HS2 and the development of the north west of the county, everywhere else can “do one”.

There is not even any support for anywhere in the other three-quarters of the county to even think about doing something for themselves because all those of us representing that rest of the county can get is advice because it comes cheap – unless it comes via a consultant at £1,000 a day!

As I said in my response to Clive Wright’s announcement, we already had all the expertise we ever needed, it was just ignored, by-passed, marginalised, take your pick.

In the case of my own electoral ward, significant programmes of work had been planned over the last several years by our existing highways engineers, designed and costed and all of them subsequently pulled in favour of works elsewhere by people who “knew better where to allocate resources”.

Hmmmmm.