Here we go again – this is my followup to Monday’s post on the subject of local politics. I’m expressing here a view of my own, of things as I see them – I’m aware many readers will disagree. But this blog has always been mindful of local politics, and will continue to be so. To the person who sent me a lengthy email decrying my ‘slide into politics’ – don’t read it, don’t read the blog. I don’t care – the receptionist will happily refund your subscription at the desk on your way out. To everyone else, back to history, bad typing and incorrect assumptions about railway vehicles tomorrow.
Back on Monday I pointed out that there are local Council and PCC elections in the borough of Walsall this week, on Thursday, 5th May 2016, when you get to vote for one of the three councillors to represent your ward at Walsall, as well as selecting the next Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands.
Every ward in Walsall has three councillors – ours are currently Councillor Steve Wade – Labour, Councillor Ken Ferguson – Conservative and Steve Craddock – UKIP. It’s Steve Wade that’s up for election this year. Councillors are elected for four year terms, in consecutive years with one year in the cycle when no elections take place.
This time around, Councillor Steve Wade is up for re-election, standing against Conservative candidate Ben Brittain and UKIP candidate Derek Bennett. Steve and Ben live in the area of Brownhills.
On Monday I took an unusual step – in seven years of this blog, I’ve never really expressed a preference for any candidate in local elections. I know readers have their own political views and that’s fine, and most readers will know I’m a left winger at heart. But the reason I’ve spoken up this time in support of Councillor Steve Wade and this is not political, it’s about fairness and about the best candidate for the job.
I’m old fashioned. I believe being a local Councillor is a job that carries a lot of responsibility, and in reality, for little reward. It’s a job I would be totally unsuitable for, and I have deep respect for anyone serving their community in that role who does so diligently and well, whatever their political affiliation. In Walsall there are good Councillors across the political spectrum, and I appreciate them. I was happy to pay tribute to Conservative Mike Flower when he stepped down, still in his 20s, after a period in which he showed care and concern for Walsall Wood that went beyond simply ‘doing the job’ – likewise, much as I find him annoying, I recognise that Liberal Democrat Leader in Walsall Ian Shires owes his continued success to his passionate support of his ward residents. For Labour, you’d have to go a long way to beat the commitment to their position that Richard Worrall shows. I respect any Councillor doing a good job.
I believe Steve Wade to be a dedicated and caring man – I haven’t managed to find anyone outside of the local Conservative circle who has a bad word to say for him. He’s a Brownhills resident and has been a dedicated, committed Councillor since 2012. Steve, on the few occasions I’ve met him has been softly spoken but passionate, and a man committed to helping those he serves.
My decision to speak up for Steve was made way back in November 2015, when one single post on Facebook by Ben Brittain left a very nasty taste in the mouth, and summed up my unease with the nature of the then ongoing, but silent election campaign in the ward.
It prompted me to do some research, and after talking to a number of people, I found the following.
I don’t think many people realise but the building constructed as the Senior Citizens Centre in Pier Street, Brownhills – just next to the old marketplace – is used as a day service facility by Walsall Social Services in the daytime, and at other times, is used for the Senior Citizens Club. The building provides a vital hub for not just for vulnerable adults, but for older members of the community. The services it provides are appreciated and cherished by those who use them.
It was with some disquiet last autumn that Steve was approached by concerned members of the Senior Citizens Club who were worried about the future of the building. Rumours had been circulating for some time about cuts to Walsall’s social care services, resulting in the contraction of day service back to central locations to save money – a process which has been ongoing for some time. The seniors were concerned not just for the daytime service users, but also for the future of their own social club.
Steve set about trying to find what the plan was. As any caring Councillor would. Steve and some of those concerned attended a couple of meetings with Council Officers to discuss the implications of such a move, but could obtain no reassurances of the future of either group of users at Pier Street, being told that they would merely be ‘acomodated’. After advice to contact the Portfolio Holder, no assurances were forthcoming and Steve used one of the few tools in a Councillor’s armoury: he started a petition.
As acts of civil insurrection go, starting a petition is pretty low down the scale. At every council meeting petitions are presented to varying effect and they serve to bring a matter to wider prominence, and to show a degree of support.
What happened next was most surprising. A post appeared on Facebook posted by Ben Brittain on 3rd November 2015. At this point Ben was clearly being presented as a future Council candidate, but has no more right to speak for Walsall Council than you or I. He has not yet been elected, but seems to speak a lot for Ken Ferguson, their relationship seeming akin to Keith Harris and Cuddles.
Here we have the spectacle of a young man in his early twenties with no Council experience whatsoever, repeatedly asserting that an elected representative lied and suggesting he was unfit to fulfil his role for what heinous crime? Speaking up for the concerns of his ward residents.
I regarded this post with incredulity. Pulling the rug from under opponents by suddenly changing ongoing policy sadly isn’t unusual in politics and is to be expected – but the sheer unpleasantness of this attack made me decide to speak up for Steve when appropriate.
Ben, I’m sure, is a very passionate young man. He’s been telling Brownhills he’s a suitable and community minded candidate, and I’m sure his desire to serve and speak up for Brownhills is genuine. But this attack on a decent, hardworking man was unpleasant and disrespectful, particularly from a youngster with such a lot to learn.
Steve was approached by people who were concerned, he sought to allay those concerns, Unable to get a definite answer, he started campaigning for them – in that respect, it worked; the Conservatives moved on the matter. That is the job Steve was elected to do, and will be a position that the next incumbent – be it Steve, Ben or Derek – will on occasion find themselves.
Further, how long does this assurance of Ben and Councillor Ferguson last? Since neither can tell the future budget or plans of the council, it seems a pretty bold statement to make.
Like a lot of people, I’m not prepared to be be lectured to about integrity by a person younger than much of the content of my sock drawer; such an unpleasant attack for what equates to Steve offering support to those concerned shows a lack of maturity and speaks of the politics of the playground.
The last time I saw a political campaign of this nature locally was Walsall North in the last General Election, where a concerted and prolonged attempt to oust David Winnick with some pretty harsh campaigning failed. I’m personally not a fan of Mr. Winnick but if ever there was natural justice, that was it.
Then, there’s the question of Ravens Court, the derelict shopping precinct in the centre of Brownhills. The history is long and involved, and can be read up in this post here… But in essence, following the withdrawal of Tesco’s plans to develop a new store using the site, the owners of Ravens Court – a London based property company, not connected with Tesco – have allowed the precinct to fall into disrepair.
There was good news on the horizon in autumn, 2014, when Brownhills UKIP Councillor Steve Craddock – working apparently with Conservative regeneration whizz Adrian Andrew – had been in deep negotiations with the site agents and there was going to be a planning application ‘in the new year’ to redevelop the eyesore that is Ravens Court.
While this was happening, and for some time previously, Labour Councillors Steve Wade and Barbara Cassidy were working to get Walsall Council to apply a section 215 notice to force the owners of the site to at least tidy it up and bring it into better repair.
This action was held off to allow a planning application to be made. It never happened. Ravens Court continues to decay, but all the time there are rumours ‘a big name is interested’, or we’re primed for a ‘big announcement’ that never seems to come. Understandably, residents are keen to see action, and made this a local election issue.
So in last Autum’s edition of ‘In Touch’, the Conservative party promotional freesheet, we have this:
On the face of it this implies there’s good news. We are, apparently, a ‘step closer’ to ‘redevelopment’ and there is, apparently ‘a plan to regenerate Ravens Court’. Oddly enough, they don’t mention what this plan is, or where details can be found. Which is a shame, as without substance, it looks a bit like waffle. There’s certainly no planning permission, and the only hi-vis around there is not building workers, but local volunteers, having to do tidy days because the landlords won’t.
Subsequently, last December, Ben issued the following statement, which was helpfully shared to my timeline.
What this flowery codswallop boils down to is that the agent is preparing a ‘Marketing Brochure’ for Ravenscourt (one assumes) and that nobody is interested, there’s still no planning application on the horizon and absolutely nothing has been achieved.
But hey, there’ll be a lovely new brochure. Any sign of that yet…?
Interestingly, I can find no evidence of the Lightquote owned area of Ravens Court being even for sale. Can anyone find something I can’t?
While all this redevelopment hasn’t been happening, Ravens Court continues to decline, suffer ASB and attract vandalism. Steve Wade continues to push – as he has all along – for legal action to at least force the owners to take some responsibility for keeping it maintained and secure. There’s no easy solution here as I’ve been pointing out for a very long time.
Beware of those promising solutions around the corner – there is no evidence of them and we’ve heard this repeatedly. In order to deal with this we need people around who aren’t easily taken in and actually have a hard head for Brownhills.
If there’s a plan, share it with the community. Let’s all have a gander. But there’s been one common factor to the years of redevelopment failure of Brownhills from the ludicrous by-pass plan to Tesco: that’s Conservative politicians making promises and then failing to deliver.
I would suggest it’s time to stop swallowing developer flapdoodle and get tough. We need a Councillor capable and experienced enough to do this. Only Steve Wade appears to be be able to see through it.
All in all the unpleasantness of some of the campaigning, the politicisation of local issues like unauthorised traveller encampments on which councillors should stand together, and the general posturing, I feel the only candidate I can personally support is Steve Wade.
You should and will make your own decisions – but this is my view. Ben Brittain may be keen and have a high profile – but high-vis littler picks and press calls with the new MP aren’t what the job is about. It’s about listening, understanding, and putting people before politics.
It’s about Brownhills.