Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Partnership working alive and well in West Sussex

September has flown by and, as ever, it’s been a very busy one at County Hall.  I’ve been out and about a lot this month seeing what’s happening and meeting people – something I particularly enjoy.

One visit was to Selsey Academy where there was a large fire on August 21. Much of the building was destroyed and, standing looking at the burning embers on that day, the question was how would children be provided with their education?
Our Fire and Rescue Service is integrated with the County Council so, throughout the whole emergency response phase to that incident – the putting out of the fire and making sure everyone was safe and that neighbouring buildings were protected - our fire officers were liaising with teams from our Education and Children’s Services departments. It didn’t matter that it was a Sunday, staff from those departments were busy working to support and help Selsey Academy and its sponsor TKAT in every way possible from the minute the call came through to them.

Together, a plan was co-ordinated. Temporary accommodation was organised to provide classrooms on site (rather than children having to travel to other bases) and an interim school site being prepared to provide accommodation from October.

We did not lead on this work. TKAT must be commended for its swift planning and co-ordination in the face of this huge fire. But we stepped in to provide support and, I know they will be the first to say, we were instrumental in helping to get everything pulled together and ready for children for the start of the new school term. The temporary school buildings, for example, were from the Bohunt Academy in Worthing because they had just become available and were quickly reallocated over to Selsey.

So, 24 days after I stood watching firefighters put out the blaze and the community in Selsey rally to do everything they could to help, I found myself back at the Academy.

I visited the school and met with the head teacher who showed me around. It was good to see youngsters in class and learning and one had the feeling that it was very much ‘business as usual’. Of course the area will have to be cleared and the buildings replaced but for the children, they will be attending classes in Selsey.

Another of my visits out and about took me to Crawley where work has just started on the town centre refurbishment of Queen’s Square. We have been working on this project for some time with Crawley Borough Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership, Coast to Capital. The contractors are now on site and work has started and I really believe this will be an asset to the town centre.

Another partnership project close to my heart has been the refurbishment of Montague Place in Worthing. It is a really important space that leads from the town centre to the seafront. Plans were put forward and consulted on for this joint project between Worthing Town Centre Initiative, Worthing Borough Council and West Sussex County Council and on Friday there was a celebration of the completed works. It was sunny Worthing at its very best and just demonstrated what an attractive open space it now is for people to walk through and enjoy.

There are ambitious plans for a phased refurbishment of much of Worthing Town Centre and we are currently awaiting the outcome of a bid for funds to progress these plans.

These are just a few of the very many examples that are happening here in West Sussex thanks to joint collaborative working.

Together we can achieve so much by pooling resources, talents and skills with our partners to help achieve the very best outcomes for our residents, whatever their ages.

This is very much the future and I am really pleased there are so many good examples of it already happening in West Sussex. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

A27 Update

For several decades now various County Council Leaders, together with local politicians, have tried to ensure the A27 is upgraded by making the case to various governments that it needs to dual this vital route from East to West.

As local politicians we are often called upon  to make the case and fight for investment in your local area  where there is a real need in the community or where there is an economic imperative.

The A27 is a road managed and maintained by Highways England on behalf of government, not WSCC, but what happens on it affects everyone who lives, works and visits here.

Our limited role is to make the case strongly to the people who are in a position to decide and award funding -  and that’s what we have been doing for several decades!

But, for a variety of reasons, frustratingly, various schemes have fallen by the wayside.

Over those decades car usage has increased considerably and our population and economy has grown. But the A27 has, with the exception of some minor works, stayed the same. There has been no significant capital investment from government in this main arterial route across the county for many a decade. As a result we are all too familiar with the bottlenecks and traffic jams when we use this road and various communities suffer from rat running.

In 2014 the government was seeking bids for major road improvement schemes so once again we mounted a  Campaign – the A27Action. With the help of MPs, business communities, the County Council and District and Borough Councils we all made a strong case based on economic need. And we were successful and a financial commitment to making improvements at  Arundel and Worthing was announced. The Chichester Bypass was already in the pipeline.

Any decision about a major capital road improvement scheme on a trunk road such as the A27 is made by the Transport Minister. Highways England - the body responsible for these roads is responsible for identifying roads schemes, designing and building them.

Although West Sussex is the Highways Authority we are only a statutory consultee and have no powers over the ultimate decision.

In my years as a County Councillor I am only too aware that when it comes to road schemes, this can and always does tend to be a highly emotive subject for our residents and communities.  People’s homes can be affected, there are always environmental impacts and consequences to consider, and then, of course,  there are the cars users, the van and lorry drivers, commuters and motorists who are out on the road every day and want to travel with minimum disruption. The list of goes on and on. But I have to admit to being concerned how this has certainly polarised communities.

In July Highways England started a public consultation into 5 improvement options it has drawn up for the A27 at Chichester.

This long awaited consultation had been delayed for a number of reasons and we are now entering the last few weeks for people to have their say.

I know that not everyone is happy with the options that have been put forward by Highways England.  Given the nature of the problems we face with this road, I think it’s impossible that any single option could be one that wholly pleases everyone and ticks every box of what we need.

As a County Council we are currently assessing all of these five options on their technical merit and our assessment will be scrutinised by Councillors on our Environmental Services Committee.

I truly believe that improvements to the A27 are some of the most needed in the country – but finding the right improvement package that balances the economic needs of the county against the impact on communities and the environment will be incredibly difficult but that does not mean that nothing should be done.

Our wonderful mix of a historic Cathedral City areas of outstanding beauty which we all cherish such as Chichester Harbour and South Downs, magnificent countryside, north and south, make this an almost impossible task.

Our assessment so far concludes that all of the options put forward by Highways England have some merits but all also have detractors, and severe constraints.

However, after decades of pleading  , pressing and pushing for investment we now, finally, have a financial commitment from government for improvements to the A27 – something of a major feat in itself, and we need to protect that commitment as there are many other parts of the Country that want road improvements. If this funding was to be reallocated there is no certainty that we would get another allocation if and when there is another bidding opportunity.
And that is the Challenge here for all of us. After decades of putting the case we now have  once in a lifetime chance to improve  this vital trunk road the alternative is more years of uncertainties increasing traffic hold ups and yes gridlock - that cannot be right!

Any scheme will have its problems – some of these have already been highlighted by Highways England itself in its consultation document.  We, as a County Council and the local Highways Authority, will raise these issues and make the case for maximum alleviation and mitigation. That is our role. We will make the case strongly but I accept that this will not sit comfortably with many.

We have no idea what will happen in the future but what we do know is we have a multi-million allocation of investment now for Chichester and a road that currently cannot cope with the volume of traffic that uses it.

There is an old saying ‘A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush’. It aptly describes the current situation when responding to the Consultation.

On the 15th September our Environmental Services Select Committee will be considering the technical response to the 5 Options proposed by Highways England. This is a public meeting and starts at 10.30am. For those who cannot attend we are webcasting it live and it can be viewed here.

Could I make a final plea? Please, if you haven’t done so already, make sure you get your owns views into Highways England before the consultation closes on September 22 so that they are considered, with ours, when the final decision is taken by the Secretary of State for Transport.