21 July 2017

Power to the People?

I have been thinking recently about democracy and accountability.  Not in any great philosophical way but about how it works in my life, where I live, what local issues concern me and whether I or any other ordinary people actually have any say in what happens. Coupled with these thoughts have been others on freedom of speech, particularly with regard to blogging. Do I have any right to inflict my own opinions on others? Do I feel a responsibility towards those who ask me to speak in their behalf?

Freedom of speech is a phrase banded around usually by those who don't have any idea that freedom of speech does come with a responsibility of which, I am acutely aware; that of saying what you want to say but without insult and injury to those who you speak to and of  not breaking any laws designed to protect certain groups of people and individuals. It's a difficult line to follow sometimes. I never actively go out to insult someone but occasionally what I have written is taken that way. As a person who tends to call a digging implement a spade, I can be taken aback when it is deemed that I have caused offence but if I have, I  always apologise and hopefully things move on from there.

Now and then something is said that is possibly a little too close to the truth for some people to deal with and that is when the accusations of insult come out to play. I don't believe in going around in circles to explain my discomfort with someone or something. I just say it, in a polite manner and without breaking any laws!

In recent times I have blogged about local issues and the accountability of those that have been elected and those who have not! I have been concerned that local democracy has been subverted by unelected, unaccountable individuals, groups and organisations. In searching for a definition of the word democracy I find that every publication has its own take on the word. No surprise really in the age of spin. I find one of the Harper Collins definitions (yes, even dictionary publishers have more than one definition available!) 'a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members' as an understandable definition but how does that definition fit in with the definition of 'accountability'? Both words are interleaved and locked, for surely you cannot have democracy without accountability and if it is the unelected that make the decisions and runs the show, then accountability is none existent.

Accountability has in recent years become a rather negative word in that is it's generally used in a negative context. In our blame culture someone always has to be accountable when the proverbial poop hits the fan. Yet the definition of the word talks of accountability being 'the quality or  state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one's actions'. Politicians for the most part, take their obligation to mean that accountability will be taken care of at the ballot box and if they haven't done well they will not be re-elected! Unfortunately  in the words of Larry J Sabato, "Every election is determined by the people who show up"! In a democratic society lots of people exercise their right not to vote because they fail to see how their one vote will change anything, make their life any better or worse. They fail to see and understand that politics pervades every part of life, from waste disposal to pot holes to schooling, to social services and care for the elderly, the disabled and the young, to policing, to health services, to transport, to parks. You get the picture. Life is political and therefore to participate in an election is to hold to account those who stand for office.

But what about those who take on responsibilities for whatever reason and yet can never be held accountable? There are small groups of people, even individuals who are not elected, not accountable to anyone but themselves and who make decisions on behalf of local communities that can change the face of an area. I have seen this happen in Aldridge and I have blogged about it. The reason behind the blogging of such episodes is to inform people what is being done in their name and with their money and of decisions made behind closed doors. Sometimes I am approached to give a voice to an issue that someone cares about and for whatever reason feels unable to do so themselves. I'm happy to help and yes, I do feel a responsibility to those people even if I disagree with them!

I have blogged about Aldridge, Walsall and what I care about for years. They are my own thoughts or ramblings of a mad old baggage. I don't need permission from anyone to write about what is on my mind or to report upon local events because I don't claim to speak on behalf of the whole community nor represent them. I hopefully stick to the law, don't insult and help keep people informed. I do this because I care about where I live and what happens. I care about those who are disenfranchised in some way and do not have a voice. Recent local events have been tragic and truly awful. A call was made by someone, a local resident whom I have know for years, for a public meeting and another person who had contacts very kindly liaised with others to bring together that meeting. However, unless you are a member of a certain group on Facebook there is no input for you. So those who don't do the internet, those who don't do Facebook and those who are not members of one particular group are disenfranchised because I have seen no other form of communication about this apart from leaflets advertising the meeting.

This concerns me.

At the meeting the Chair said that people would make reports and get back to 'you'. Who is 'you'? Now apparently there will be another meeting at some point so at least those who attend that meeting will learn a little of what is happening but what about everyone else? And who should be disseminating information, passing it on and deciding what can and cannot be said or asked? Should it be an unelected and unaccountable individual or should it be one of our local councillors perhaps? Or possibly a council officer who can use the resources available to ensure that there is more than one platform for people to report to and learn from?

My ramblings on what goes around in my head at 4am. Welcome to my world! I'm not sure if I've reached any conclusions here or even made any sense but I feel better for writing about what is troubling me. If what I have written troubles you in some way then possibly you need to think about your attitude towards local democracy and accountability.

I welcome discussion and debate especially about how we should now deal with the consequences of the recent meeting. All comments are published whether I like them or not apart from any that are deeply nasty or insulting. If you resort to that, I have no time for your comments.

I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the many dozens of people who have contacted me in various forms to thank me for raising issues and also to thank my fellow local bloggers who as always, have been most supportive, even if they can't stand me and disagree with everything I say!

15 July 2017

Public Meeting Held Aldridge Community Centre 14th July 2017

This isn't one of my usual blogs. It is a summary of the meeting that was held last night at Aldridge Community Centre, called for by the residents of Aldridge in response to an unusual number of high profile crimes committed in Aldridge in recent months and in particular the tragic murder of James Brindley.

Firstly, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to James' parents, sister, wider family and his friends. To lose a child is for me, unimaginable, to lose a child in this manner is beyond tragic. Your statements and public appearances demonstrate a dignity and courage that is admirable, your faces betrayed the terrible pain you suffer. You are in my thoughts every day.

This summary is in no way intended to reflect everything that was said at the meeting. It is not intended to be a verbatim report or a  set of minutes. It's merely a personal summing up  made from my notes and from my impressions.

Apparently a full recording has been made and will be available soon, as will a set of minutes. I'm not sure where they will be published. We all witness things in different ways and you, if you were present, may have heard or taken on board things that were said, completely differently to me.

A big thank you to those who facilitated the organisation of the meeting, including Jean Ash, Russell Smith, John Morris and Erika Stanton-Bullock.

Top Table: Wendy Morton MP - Chair, Inspector Sophie Worthington WMP, Superintendent Sue Parker WMP (in charge of policing in Walsall), Sgt. Mari Amos WMP (Aldridge), Lynette Kelly Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner West Midlands, Cllr Lee Jeavons Walsall Council, Cllr Tim Wilson Aldridge Central, Cllr John Murray Aldridge Central, Rev John Coyne Rector of Aldridge, Erika Stanton-Bullock

To assist everyone here is a LINK providing details of the local policing team and another LINK detailing the area they cover. This is a LINK for details of your local councillors.

Also in the audience were Cllr John Rochelle Aldridge Central, all three councillors for Aldridge North and Walsall Wood Messrs Clarke, Harris and Sears plus I also spotted Cllr Richard Worrall from Rushall and Cllr Steve Wade from Brownhills.

I'm not sure of exact figures in attendance but seating was for 200. This was all taken and there was an overflow of people into the side room and the foyer so possibly 300 to 350. I stand to be corrected if anyone has the actual figures.

There was an agenda and also a list of pre submitted questions. Alas neither were really followed and not all the questions were addressed, as the meeting ran out of time.

Following opening comments and thanks from Wendy Morton, Rev Coyne read out a short message from the family of James Brindley and a minutes silence was held.

Supt Parker gave an update on the murder investigation, thanked the community for the support that the Police had received and reflected on social media commentary that day, which in her opinion had been unhelpful. She pointed out that they were still in the early stages of a complex investigation and that comments could have an impact upon that investigation. Comments should be respectful to James' family and should not jeopardise the investigation.

The first question concerned what action was being taken to protect the community. Supt Parker recognised that detailing the low crime statistics doesn't always give reassurance and recognised that in a short space of time there had been a spike in significant crimes that was unusual for Aldridge. Investigations were ongoing in all those crimes. She spoke about the local neighbourhood team and that they would not be seen every day and on every shift. They are dedicated to the local area and aim to build up partnerships with local community groups, neighbourhood watch, the council and councillors and engage with the community. She acknowledged the high levels of support that the Police received from the residents of Aldridge. Backing up the neighbourhood team are response teams and other support. She pointed out that resources had to be prioritised to high areas of demand such as Walsall Town Centre.

The local neighbourhood team consists of one Sergeant, four PCs and 6 PCSOs. The team is on until midnight and is based in Aldridge. Cover in the evenings is based upon need. Recently there have been other resources brought into Aldridge in the form of reassurance patrols plus other support.  Supt Parker said the policing was effective and smart. It was confirmed that although patrols are made outside of the immediate area of Aldridge centre, they were not made frequently and were directed to areas where problems had been reported.

Cllr Wilson agreed that the local councillors do work closely with the Police but said there needed to be an increase in numbers. Cllr Murray commented that perhaps people did not appreciate all of the jobs that the Police have to do.

The second question concerned  CCTV for Aldridge, funding for that and for increased lighting in certain areas such as the Croft.

Cllr Jeavons spoke on behalf of the council and said he was pleased to see such a good attendance and saw that the community was united. He described  the CCTV for the whole of the Borough as archaic. There are currently 90 fixed CCTV and 20 mobile CCTV units for the whole Borough. The Council are investing £450K in a new system. The council would not be adding to any CCTV in their control in the area unless the 'spike' in crime became a 'trend', then there might be change. He added that Aldridge was still a great place to live.

Cllr Jeavons explained that street lighting was for the illumination of the highways and not for security purposes so there would be no additional lighting provided however, the Council is now investing in new LED lighting, which is a white light and gives greater clarity and shows events up better on CCTV. He did not know how many CCTV cameras there were in Aldridge but would find out and pass the information on.

Several questions were asked by members of the audience regarding specific problem areas such as Middlemore Lane where drug dealing often takes place along with car crime etc and also regarding anti-social behaviour including one particular heartfelt plea from a resident who is at his wits end and with regard to the latter asked how he could get help because the social landlord was not helping at all. Mention was also made of the sign in Middlemore Lane advising that there was CCTV. Residents had  only discovered that there was no camera, just a sign when crimes had been committed and had not been recorded.

The Police reiterated their close working relationships with partners including social landlords and licencees. They also explained that they were now responsible for dealing with and recording crime that was previously 'hidden' such as domestic violence and child trafficking. With regards to anti social behaviour, if a police partner (any partner, social landlord, council etc) was not providing the assistance it was thought was needed, then a person can use the 'Community Trigger Process'.

The Assistant PCC Lynette Kelly, explained a little of how the office of PCC works. The PCC sets policies for the Police but these are carried out by the Chief Constable. They are there to support neighbourhoods. They do not have a budget for CCTV as if money was used in that way it would have to come straight out of front line policing budgets. The PCC does have  a small budget for special projects. Lynette acknowledged that in the last few weeks there had been problems with the 101 number.

There were then a number of comments and questions from the audience covering speeding vehicles, noise from vehicles, more on the problems around the community centre in the form of racing cars and drug dealing and taking. There was also a question about how we move forward.

The Police advice was to log car registration numbers and to make reports on 101. Letters would be sent to registered owners. The public are the Police's eyes and ears and there was encouragement to the public to sign up for WM Now and to monitor Police twitter and facebook accounts. People were encouraged to report by social media too HOWEVER a note from me here...do not report crime on twitter. Every Police twitter account I have ever seen states categorically that crime must not be reported on twitter! The public can still make face to face contact with local officers through pop up events. The Police recognise the 'spike' in crime levels in Aldridge, they are grateful for the public support and want to move forward by building on neighbourhood policing and their partnerships.

One audience member asked for clarification of what number should be called, 999 or 101. This followed a particularly disturbing incident that she had witnessed outside a funeral directors when an elderly man was surrounded by 20 young men who had been behaving in an anti social manner. It took 101 50 minutes to respond. Questions were raised about crime prevention.

The police acknowledged that the response for the incident mentioned was not acceptable. They asked that 999 not be used unnecessarily as there was a risk to people if it was misused. They also acknowledged that there were challenges with 101 at present due to a high demand, not just locally but nationally.  The volume of calls in the last three weeks has been equivalent to New Years Eve (traditionally the busiest day of the year) every single day. There has been an unprecedented level of demand. 101 was the number to be used for non-emergencies although there is a risk assessment with every call as to whether the situation required an immediate response or not.

In summary of the meeting as a whole, what was clear from the audience was the they were frustrated by reactive policing and wanted proactive policing instead. Crime prevention was given scant regard. From the top table the message was that it is not an option for the number of police officers in Aldridge to be increased. Aldridge still has the lowest crime rate in the area and other areas need the resources. It is clear that more liaison with licensees regarding crime and CCTV and the need for good security is needed. It was acknowledged from the audience and the top table that there has been 'something' serious going wrong in society as a whole and not just Aldridge.

There was insufficient time to cover questions about drug taking, the local (closed to the public) police station, provision for young people, crime prevention and steps that could be taken by individuals for personal safety.

The Chair gave each of the top table an opportunity to make some final remarks.

Rev, Coyne acknowledged the deep sense of frustration apparent at the meeting. He suggested that the needs of the community needed to be recorded and he was happy to open the churches in Aldridge for individual experiences to be captured. Cllr Murray also acknowledged the frustration too, reiterated that they would continue to work closely with the police and asked that everyone kept feeding information back to the local councillors and  get in touch with them either by phone, email or at their regular surgeries, so that they would be aware of community feeling. Cllr Wilson thanked everyone for attending, also acknowledged the sense of frustration and expressed the hope that things would change. Cllr Jeavons also thanked everyone, repeated that new LED lighting and CCTV was on the way and acknowledged the closeness and passion of the community. Supt. Parker touched on the difference between reality and perception with regards to robberies. She encouraged everyone to participate in their local neighbourhood watch, also mentioned the active citizen scheme and thanked everyone for their support. Sgt Amos appealed for everyone to sign up to their local neighbourhood watch. Lynette Kelly said that the PCC was aware of the problems around 101. Enough staff were needed to do the job and pressure was being put on the Chief Constable. She also pointed out that WMP are now actively recruiting officers despite the fact that their budget had been reduced by central government to the tune of £145 million since 2011. She said that they did the best they could with the money available.

There was some talk about agreed actions but my understanding at the meeting was that apart from Rev Coyne's suggestion there were no agreed actions actually made at the meeting. I believe they were agreed afterwards or perhaps I just missed what happened because it was fairly chaotic by that time, with lots of people talking over one another! I will update on what will/may happen next, when I know.

I asked about a dozen people after the meeting if they felt it had done any good. Every single person said that their frustrations remained and that they didn't think it had done any good. This is a pity because people had worked hard to bring this together. The other problem was the 'P' word; politics. There was an attempt to keep it out of the meeting but this failed, first on the top table by one of our local councillors, then another and then failure in the audience too. My personal view is that you cannot keep politics out of a meeting such as this. Reason? Policing requires a large budget. That budget, set by national government has been reduced enormously since 2011. No matter how close a community is, no matter how much they all work together to reduce problems, the real elephant in the room was that there are not enough police in situ to be able to deal with the problems in society we have or to fund CCTV etc. As soon as our  representatives, be it in local or national government, communicate this to their leaders, the sooner we may see progress.

Personally I too felt the frustration of the audience. I also felt and heard anger, passion and heartbreak. There were many interruptions, some heckling, some shouting. It was a normal public meeting. I sincerely hope that some good will come of it. We could make a good start by tackling the appalling lack of youth provision in Aldridge and in Walsall as a whole.

Please don't shoot the messenger!

EDIT: I am making this edit because apparently people are up in arms (so I am told although I am not sure of the veracity of the source) at me having the audacity to publish a personal summary of the meeting. I have made it clear at the beginning of this blog that this is a personal summary and that it is not a set of minutes. I'm sure any local media outlets that bother to read this blog will have taken that on board and will not confuse the blabbering of a mad old baggage with official accounts of the meeting, links to which will be published in due course. I am concerned that free speech may be an endangered species. I do so hope that it isn't as that will mean I am endangered too! Thank you for reading and please comment if you have any questions or require clarification of any points I make. I am always happy to engage in polite discussion !

FURTHER EDIT 17/07/17: Although official minutes are yet to be published, you can now listen to the whole meeting HERE. It's not the best recording in the world, there is a lot of fading in and out but if you're interested, stick with it. It's a great thing whoever did the recording and thank you (sorry I don't know your names). Please comment and we will acknowledge your contribution to the community.