Interesting Times

Mondays are usually a bit of a blur for me. Today was worse than usual because the M1 was stuffed up and I ended up trying to get to work through the backroads of Northamptonshire to make a meeting at 9:30 – only to get there and realise I’d left my pass at home so would have to go through the security palaver, making me five minutes late.

Harumph! But then a bit of news from the homeland came my way – Laura Moffatt has decided not to stand for another term as MP for Crawley. Only last week she was making a public point of refusing her pay increase and next week was due to debate with the other candidates next Thursday. The seat was about the most marginal in the country, with a majority of 37 over the Tories, and so with no swing it was vulnerable *and everyone has known that for nearly 5 years*. With the Tories making gains in the polls between 2007 and 2009, the seat looked lost (although it’s hard for an insider to accept such things as certain), and Laura did not stand down. Now that the polls are narrowing, the race would be tighter but still a very tough one to win. I get the impression that this was a personal decision, not one force on her, but I don’t know what it is, beyond the stated one: “The work of an MP is challenging and exciting but it takes its toll on family life which is why I have taken this difficult decision.” One theory I heard today was that she was worried she might win.

The timing is awful for the local party though. There’s very little time to organise a selection before the campaign officially starts (which could well be soon after next week’s budget), and a candidate would need to be in place ready. The seat was an All-Woman-Shortlist for 1997, so there could be pressure for it to be so again. There are a load of people on the national shortlist who could go for it, but it may be that a local person would be better placed – and would avoid accusations of being a parachute. Of course the question then would be who locally would be a good candidate.

Local lad still doing well

I wonder if he knows it, but Iain Dale and his contributing baying Tory commenters have put our Skuds in the top 100 ‘left of centre blogs’ for the second year in a row.

More bad news for the Crawley Tories

Back in January, the Conservatives had to admit defeat on their badly thought through and costed plans to transfer Crawley’s Council Housing stock.

Essentially, all of the bodies that had to approve their proposals refused to do so, mainly on the basis that the projected £60M costs were inflated. The Audit Commission, the local tenant’s panel, the ‘shadow board’ (the group set up to create the new entity which would take over the housing) and the Government office of the South East are difficult to argue with. Until then, it had only been the Labour councillors who had opposed putting the flawed plan to the vote of tenants. The Lib Dems appeared to prefer to tinker with the edges, and it was only when they gained a Tory defector and the true extent of the debace was apparent that they came to a definite position.

One of the things that was highlighted back in November was that the council had spent £30K on a DVD which had been rendered incorrect even before it was sent out. The Tory leadership had included a reference to the possibility of charging more for the vital Lifeline service (which provides a direct link between vulnerable elderly and ill tenants and the emergency/health services). However, this was defeated by Labour, Lib Dem and dissident Tory votes, but it was too late to remove this ‘threat’ from the DVD.

Turns out that this was not the only problem with it, or with other advertising sent out by the Council around the time to promote the idea of transfer. Today the Advertising Standards Authority said that Crawley Borough Council had potentially misled tenants and upheld two complaints:

A newsletter headlined “Council faces £12m shortfall to reach Decent Homes Standard (DHS)” said the Crawley authority would not be able to meet a £60m figure which it claimed was the minimum spend required on housing stock by 2010.

But the ASA upheld a complaint that this figure was misleading, because it included future maintenance costs beyond DHS guidance.

A second point of complaint concerned a promotional DVD which questioned the reliability of other information being disseminated at the time by the Defend Council Housing group.

The ASA concluded the material “unfairly denigrated” the aims of the group, which campaigned against the housing transfer.

So, the DVD also attacked the Defend Council Housing group. But the more important thing is that the ASA have also picked up on the Tory claims of a £12M shortfall in funding due to a need to spend £60M in three years. Even after the Audit Commission and others had pointed out that the £60M figure was too high, or referred to a much longer period of time, the Tory councillors were still sticking to the £12M funding gap. It doesn’t exist! And yet again, the Council are finding that an august body has called them on the claims.

Crawley council said: “We’re baffled because everything was checked and approved by the relevant parties in line with government guidelines.”

I’m ‘baffled’ because the Labour councillors, Defend Council Housing and others had been asking them to clarify their figures for months before they were ignominiously dropped. The fact that they did not, and still have not, suggests that either they didn’t know what the basis for the £60M really was (and how it compared to the actual spend to meet the Decent Homes Standard), or they did but didn’t want to admit that it was incorrect.

So did they lie, or can’t they add up? And the people of Crawley elected more of these muppets to run the town in May.

Life Expectancy – the elephant in the room

The Crawley News has obtained comparitive figures for Life Expectancy across the town. There is (and this is not a surprise to me as I’ve seen similar figures in the past) a significant difference between the highest and the lowest wards:

Maidenbower 83.5
Southgate 77.1

The low figure for Southgate can be partially explained by the disproportionate number of residential care homes. So they don’t compare my neck of the woods with Maidy, but they take the next lowest, Bewbush (77.6).

Now, they make the usual statistical error of mixing up the people with the place – by suggesting that if you move, it will improve your prospects. Of course, the figures are an average based on the people currently living there. If you personally have a low life expectancy, moving to Maidenbower or Pound Hill is not likely to increase your time in this mortal coil (although it might slightly reduce their average…). Fair enough, it’s a standard misconception and it’s easily done. Oh, and these are the expectancy at birth based on data from 1998 to 2002, so it’s not even relevant to people born outside Crawley, or before 1998!!

Of course, it’s not like we can actually get accurate figures for life expectancy for areas which had virtually nobody living in them less than 60 years ago (most of Crawley), but we can do for the people who live there now.

However, when comparing Bewbush and Maidenbower, and casting around for possible reasons, they are a bit blinkered. A Maidenbower resident jokes that it is ‘easier to be stabbed in Bewbush’, which is particularly crass (I don’t know anyone who has been stabbed in Bewbush, but I did once work with a guy who got stabbed in Horsham – and it was easy for him as he was the wrong colour). A Bewbush resident also mentions crime and violence. Another Maidenbowerite who uses the word ‘one’ for ‘I’ puts it down to diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Of course, these are possible contributory factors (although it’s not like people in nice areas don’t get murdered, such as in Poles Lane.

The one factor that is completely missed is the also one that tends to also influence crime, diet, lifestyle etc.

Wealth, or the lack of it.

Poverty levels in Bewbush are much higher than in Maidenbower. The correlation between income and life expectancy is very close. Similarly, Broadfield has higher levels of deprivation (although it also has some more comfortable parts), and Pound Hill is also relatively wealthy.

However, there are pockets of deprivation in Pound Hill, and even in Maidenbower. The average life expectancy for those people will likely be lower than for their near neighbours.

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Ruminations while delivering

I was out delivering newsletters today, on a long walk around the West side of Southgate. A few things made me thing as I was plodding about…

  1. Number 13. Some places have them, others don’t. I know some people fear the number, but the practice is inconsistent. For example, the new houses behind Newlands Road and around West Street were all built at the same time. They have themed names (Winter Gardens, Autumn Close, Summer House, Spring Close), and yet while Winter Gardens hasn’t got a 13, Autumn Close has. However, in a stroke of genius, it’s in the wrong place. The numbers run in sequence, but 13 is after 8 and before 9. So it took a while to find it.

    Weird

  2. Flats. Getting into them. This is pretty much a universal problem for deliverers of leaflets, flyers etc. Some places have a ‘Tradesman’ button which works between certain hours (usually early morning). Others have post boxes outside. Otherwise you have to hope someone left the door ajar, or try pressing buttons and hope that they let you in, or give up.

    Now that Royal Mail doesn’t always deliver in the mornings, how do they ensure that they get letters into these places?

  3. Odd people. Well, only one today. She watched me walk up the drive and, unusually, opened the door. So instead of letting me post the thing, she initiated contact:

    “What’s this?”
    “It’s a newsletter, from the local Labour Party”, I said.
    “Oh. We don’t usually….” she said, pointing to the police sign saying that ‘we don’t answer the door to traders etc’
    (Clearly that’s a lie, I thought) “Well, I was only intending to deliver it. Is that all right?”
    “Umm, well, no actually, you can have it back,” she said handing it back.
    “Don’t you want to know what is going on in the area?”
    “Not if it’s from the Labour Party,” she said, closing the door.

    Now later I had a moment of esprit d’escalier when thought that I could have come back with “So, if you don’t read it, how will you know what to oppose?”.

    Ho hum. As sometimes we end up short, it can sometimes be a good thing when they hand you back your leaflet – they weren’t going to read it anyway (so clearly aren’t actually interested in what we say, only what other people say we say).

  4. Mormons. Clearly the knocking on doors thing isn’t working. I spotted a couple of young guys (clearly under 25) with badges saying ‘Elder’, approaching people on the street. Must be hard times for the evangelism industry.
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Reasons to moan

Well, I can think of some negative aspects of Crawley.

Firstly, I went for a night out last Friday. Only, because I wanted to go somewhere fairly relaxed with good music (preferably live) and which didn’t close at 11pm, there was very little choice locally. So I went to Brighton and had a great time, ended up at the Walkabout where there was a covers band doing everything from AC/DC to Outkast, no idiots around, good bar service comfy chairs…

What does Crawley have? Ikon/Diva, Brannigans and Bar Med if you want to listen to the same old music (ok, nothing wrong with house, rap, etc. but not everybody’s cup of tea). A variety of pubs, but very few with live music and a good atmosphere combined. It seems that any attempt to widen the cultural sphere of Crawley is doused by our collective lack of ambition. Yeah, there’s a Blues Club. But does anybody know where it is (I do, by the way)? This weekend is the Folk Festival, which is pretty good, but what happens the other weekends?

Secondly, I hate to say it, but there is a certain mentality in the town. A kind of inverted snobbery which seems to mean that people snipe at anyone with any originality or vision. A lack of ambition for the town (and so for ourselves). We can’t have a second runway at Gatwick, oh no! Apparently the employment base is too skewed in that direction anyway. But if an alternative crops up – like the proposed extensions to shopping areas (and we already attract shoppers from miles around), it’s like a red-rag to a bull for some. Can we have a successful football team? Sure, we do. But for some it’s simply a parking problem. And public art? Oh no!! the equivalent of halfpenny each is spent on a work of art and it’s the main gripe in the local papers for weeks…

So, yeah, I can whinge like the best of them myself.

But, really, Crawley is not too bad a place. Firstly, we don’t have major problems with unemployment and poverty. There are deprived areas, and I don’t want to belittle the problems of people caught up in difficult circumstances, but the vast majority of the town is comfortable. Crime is low (and falling). The town is very pleasant to look at. Perhaps people don’t agree, or they think it has deteriorated, but perhaps we should look around. Find a town of similar size to Crawley – such as Northampton. How green is it? does it have trees in almost every street? Walk around the town centre – how much of it looks run down? Crawley certainly isn’t perfect, but there are far worse places to be.

Crawley is thriving. As a result, it is growing. This seems to be one of the main gripes of the locals. There aways has been a tension between the generations in society, and with more people moving here for work, the older ones, who move here from London in the post-war period, have a warm memory of the old New Town. Unfortunately, that memory cannot be preserved in reality forever, the place will change. The alternative to growth is stagnation. The young will leave, the economy will be affected, the town will fall into decline, inhabited by the old and those who can’t get away. (shudder).

I’m not saying that unfettered growth is good. But, if we are to house the people who live here now, we need to expand, before we even think about those who are attracted to the place. There are hundreds of people in my generation around the town still living at home. I’m 30!! I’m lucky enough to have been in a position to buy, but I know that I am lucky. Many others are not so fortunate and they need help. Avoiding the issue, as many people would seem to want to do, will mean two things – major, controlled development won’t happen, so we don’t get the kind of housing we need, in the right place and for the right price; minor, uncontrolled development (such as knocking down a house or two and replacing them with flats, infill, etc) will happen, prices will stay high and the town will become cluttered.

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