Oxford Canal Heritage Project Launch and Open Day

I had great fun this morning with the Oxford Canal Heritage project.  We started with an opening at the start of the canal on Hythe Bridge Street where I gave a short speech and thanked those involved for the work done so far in the project.


We moved on later to the Old Fire Station where we had coffee and lovely biscuits made by Restore.  Tony Joyce gave a short speech as chair of the Civic Society,  as did I.

Some might think that canals are really only relevant to the past but this could not really be further from the truth – canals are often vibrant arteries of life in our Cities and Oxford’s is certainly no exception.

Not only is Oxford canal a green lung and recreation space for many of Oxford’s people and visitors it also contributes to the economy of our City in so many other important ways. Transport is easy along the canal towpath and along the canal itself for water-borne vessels. People use the canal for walking, jogging, cycling, angling, boating and many other pursuits. Many enjoy a simple wander along its towpath in this green and pleasant part of Oxford absorbed by the myriad fascinating and wonderful sights and sounds along its banks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’ll probably be aware of how acutely short of housing Oxford is. Of course the canal helps here too as there are many boats moored that are actually the homes of Oxford people who are contributing greatly to our City in all sorts of ways. I think this is a great way to live and be housed and will certainly do all I can to make sure the Council supports canal-dwellers as well as it possibly can.
It is good that plans to redevelop the Jericho Boatyard are progressing and I think that will be very important in preserving the traditional Oxford Boating community as immortalised in booked such local author Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. There are many other great books about Oxford Canal such as “A towpath walk in Oxford” by Mark Davies and Catherine Robinson.

Canals are often not as well-known as rivers in Cities, and are seen as poorer second cousins. The Thames, or Isis has certainly been making itself known recently with its flooding earlier in the year but today is about taking some of the limelight for the canal. I’m so pleased that the Canal Heritage project has done, and is doing, so much good work to challenge that relative obscurity and bring the canal back into the public eye, back up the agenda of so many people and organisations.

It’s good to hear the vision of the project in ensuring that the canal becomes a distinctive and well-known destination for locals, students and tourists and visitors. I think opportunities to learn about the canal’s industrial heritage while enjoying its natural environment will be very attractive to all who live in, study in, work in or just visit our City. I am delighted that future visitors will be able to find this gem more easily thanks to a dedicated gateway, improved signage and accessible information presented in a range of formats from information pillars to audio trails. This is great work!

Oxford is a City that is good at community involvement so I am pleased to see that this is also an aim of this work. Knowledge, skills and interests of many local communities from Wolvercote to Jericho have been invaluable in getting it this far. I am grateful to all their input and that from the boating community, neighbourhood forums, community associations, schools, faith groups, businesses and shops. It’s a great team effort!

If you haven’t had a look at it yet I recommend the excellent website that has been set up about this project. It has a wealth of resources including maps and a great audio guide. See www.oxfordcanalheritage.org


Rip-off parking charges at the ice rink

Parking info at Oxford

I received an email today from someone who lives away from Oxford and normally takes her daughter to Milton Keynes ice rink for regular skating practice.  That rink is currently closed for refurbishment so she brings her to Oxford.  Her email was about the fact that the City Council appears to have changed the parking arrangements such that there is no longer a free hour concession for those who pay the overnight midnight to 8am charge so charges don’t stack up and make things unfair on early, regular and dedicated skaters and/or their parents.  It appears the concession was dropped silently and when challenged (point 3 on the sign below clearly says it was there) the sign was also removed silently.  This means that although the normal parking charge during the day is £4.10 for two hours, if someone parks between 7.30am and 8.30am, for example, they have to pay a £2.50 night charge for the first half hour of that slot and then another £2.50 charge for the second half hour as it is in daytime.  This is £5 for one hour as against £4.10 for two hours if they had arrived after 8am.

This hardly seems fair and hardly seems a sensible way for the City Council to be attracting more use of its sports facilities.  I have asked the service manager to look into this but have not had an answer after nearly a week so I am also asking the portfolio holder for City Leisure a question at full council next week.  Watch this space!

Hidden Spire: How lucky are you?


I have the great privelege of attending the first night of the show at Crisis Skylight Oxford in partnership with Arts at the OFS tonight and I must say I really enjoyed it.  It was a moving performance with about half the cast being fmo Oxford’s homeless community.  There were some really thought provoking moments, some good acting and some good music.  Highly recommended.  Rather than take it from me, I take the liberty of adding an extract from a much better review by Helen Ward of Daily Information.

“Despite a running time of just over an hour, How Lucky Are You? is a surprisingly thought-provoking and ultimately positive exploration of the theme of change and upheaval. Drawing strongly on their own experiences, the homeless members of the company have spent last four months working with a professional creative team to create a unique piece of theatre – an experience director Liz McBain described as “inspiring”.  Another member of the company told Daily Info, that the piece reflects the way in which homeless people often come together to form intensely caring and supportive families.”

Carols at Crisis

choirI went to a good event this evening at Oxford’s Crisis Skylight Centre.  I was pleased to be invited as this centre is in my ward and it has has support from my ward money allocation for the last two years.  We were treated to some nice mince pies and mulled punch and eleven separate carols, all well-known and all well-sung by the choir of Wesley Memorial Church, just round the corner.


We in the audience also sang, slightly less well!  The evening was rounded off by a prayer and blessing frrom Rev Martin Wellings, minister of Wesley Memorial Church.

On the way home along Cornmarket it struck me that Oxford City Council has done a good job on the Christmas lights this year – they look very good!

The utter hypocrisy!

temple cowleyI took this screen shot just now, 2320hrs. It shows a Labour Oxford City Councillor saying how much he enjoys the Gym and Swimming Facilities at Temple Cowley Pools. And Mike Rowley, the Labour executive member with responsibility for leisure facilities, has “liked” the status.  The Labour Councillor would have been at the pool and gym first thing this morning by my reckoning.

This is just a few hours after the Labour ruling group on the City Council was laughing at and interrupting Jane Alexander of the Save Temple Cowley Pools campaign when she gave a public address to the full City Council meeting yesterday evening about how much the pools, gym, sauna and steam are used and loved by the local community.  Flabbergasted only starts to describe how I feel about this Labour contempt for the people of Oxford.

That is truly shocking hypocrisy!

Note the post I have reproduced here has a little icon of the world just beside the words “17 hours ago via Mobile”.  That icon means the post is public and visible to anyone in the world with a facebook account, so I haven’t breached any privacy.

My first official engagement as Deputy Lord Mayor

Today I had my first official engagement as Deputy Lord Mayor.  Protocol says that I only attend engagements in this capacity if the Lord Mayor has been invited and cannot attend.  I learned that today she had five requests to attend events – she’s doing 3 and I’m doing 2.

lof_agmI had the great privilege of attending the AGM of the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre’s (NOC) League of Friends (LOF).  To anyone who thought it was just some little old ladies who make tea I have to say you couldn’t be more wrong!  The NOC LOF is extremely well organised, is almost 50 years old and does a huge amount of good work including running a café and shop, visiting patients on wards, raising serious amounts of money for the hospital and much more!  I was humbled to meet a lady who has been a member of the NOC LOF for 47 years!

We heard from a member of hospital staff about some the equipment and facilities that have been able be be bought due to the support of the LOF and I was amazed to hear that in the last four years he has been able to spend a total of just over £362,000 from grants given by the LOF.  That’s seriously impressive and has enabled new facilities and some therapies not available on the NHS to be funded.

LOF is a steady pillar in the ever changing world of hospitals and healthcare and I know its presence and its services are things that that many patients, relatives and visitors find to be a great comfort.  A LOF volunteer is so much nicer than a vending machine!  I remember myself working on a LOF stall when I was a teenager, with my mother.  We were even allowed to sell cigarettes in those days!

The event was finished off with a fascinating presentation and speech about the Berks/Oxon/Bucks air ambulance.  Did you know that it has been operating since 1999.  Did you know that the helicopter can travel at 150mph and that each call out costs around £2,500 with an average of 3 call-outs per day.  That’s an awful lot of money to raise!

League of Friends is always looking for more volunteers and although many are retired there are also younger people involved and there are no age limits .  The Oxford University Hospitals Trust has a web page about Oxford LOF groups where there is detail about YOU can volunteer.  How about it?  It was good to hear the the Oxford Mail has already helped with the drive for more volunteers too.  It’s great when the local press gets behind local volunteering initiatives that help so many people both directly and indirectly.

Lib Dem Achievements in Government

I don’t often post about the party rather than what I’m up to or what I think so I thought I would today.

Mark Pack, a well known Lib Dem has produced a wonderful poster to remind us of all the great things that the Lib Dems have achieved in government and I wanted to share it here.

Lib Dem achievements in government.

There is also an A3 PDF available for printing.  For those of you with screen readers I’ll list the achievements here too:

  1. Income tax cuts with 2.7m lower earners being freed of income tax burden completely.
  2. Tax hikes for the rich – a £1m/year earner will pay £381k tax more over the five years of this government than they did under the last 5 years of the Labour government
  3. Created the world’s first National Green Development Bank
  4. Started move than 502,600 apprenticeships in 20011/12 – more than Britain has ever had before.
  5. The pupil premium – in 2013 their school is given £900 for each eligible child (generally those that get free school meals or have done so in the last six years)
  6. Pensions and earnings are linked better again so we won’t see repeats of some of the awful derisory rises that we have seen in the past.
  7. Bank reform means that High Street banks will be better protected from some of the excesses of casino banking that really hit the UK in the banking crisis
  8. Civil Liberties:  scrapping ID cards, banning storing DNA of innocent people, stopping detention of children during immigration cases, cutting the maximum period of detention without charge, and much more.
  9. Protecting post offices
  10. Building more homes.  190,000 affordable units over the next four years.  The first net increase in social housing for over 30 years.
  11. Equal Marriage – very nearly there!
  12. Shared parental leave and 15 hours of free childcare for all 3 and 4 year olds.

All pretty amazing stuff!

Provision for homeless and rough sleepers in cold snap

Freezing and rough sleepingI’ve had a few emails about homeless people and rough sleepers in this cold snap. The City Council does have things in place and here is some information:

Oxford City Council has a “Severe Weather Emergency Protocol and extended cold weather provision” (SWEP) which is a protocol for provision of additional bed spaces in hostels in Oxford City.

The protocol sets out a joint effort between Oxford City Council and single homelessness service providers in Oxford City to take all possible steps to avoid deaths on the streets due to people sleeping rough during severe winter weather conditions. The protocol ensures that Oxford City Council and local agencies provide appropriate responses for homeless people during cold and severe weather periods.

This is based on national guidance and follows the principles mentioned below that if temperatures are forecast to be sub-zero for 3 nights then emergency bed provision kicks in.

Currently, the city has 19 people accessing provision over this period which is forecasted to stay open for at least the rest of the week.

This is the third time this winter that the City Council has opened SWEP provision.

Any rough sleepers should – during this period only – be directed to O’Hanlon House (Tel: 304600). After this cold period, the situation will revert to normal, with any rough sleepers needing to be assessed under the No Second Night Out (NSNO) arrangements (Tel: Broadway, Oxford City Outreach Team on 304611).

If you want to do something to help then please DON’T give people money on the street but please DO consider making financial donations to OxHop, offering warm clothing to be distributed (dropped off at O’Hanlon House) and raising awareness via social media accounts.

Partnerships Training

This session was set up for councillors by two officers from Strategic Policy and Partnerships.

I found it useful to have an overview of how the City Council works in partnership with other bodies both at the City and the County level and there was some useful information about changes to partnerships since the change of government in May 2010.  In particular we noted:

•Scrapping of the Local Area Agreement
•Scrapping of the National Indicators
•Removal of statutory duty to develop a Sustainable Community Strategy (and therefore the need for Local Strategic Partnerships)
•Scrapping of regional bodies (SEEDA, GOSE)
•Introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships
•Changes to the Health and Well Being Board linked to the NHS reforms

The Oxford Strategic Partnership has some new priorities, structure and subgroups also:

Partnerships DiagramYou can click the image to get an even bigger version.

I had no idea there were so many bodies involved in the Oxford Strategic Partnership.  They include:  Oxford City Council; Oxfordshire County Council; NHS Oxfordshire; Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action; Oxford University; Oxford Brookes University; Oxford and Cherwell Valley College; Thames Valley Police; Oxford Inspires; Critchleys; and Oxford Preservation Trust.

The one suggestion I made was that meetings of all the partnerships, which are public and published should be added to the Council’s meetings newsfeed to get the importance of partnership working higher up on the agenda.

A useful meeting about HMO licensing

I had a meeting today with Tim Sadler, Executive Director City Services, and Ian Wright, Health Development Service Manager in Environmental Development.  My colleagues Cllr Mark Mills and Cllr John Goddard also attended.  The subject of the meeting was to discuss the problems and unintended consequences that are occurring with the City-wide licensing of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs).

The discussion centred around the inflexibility of the Amenities and Facilities guide.  I made a statement in full council about one of these issues a while back and two more have since arisen:

In the first case we have a landlord who owns a few some modern executive houses (built in 2003/4) and has six tenants in each.  They have plenty of bathrooms and toilets and a huge kitchen/lounge communal area with which the tenants are all happy.  The problem is that for six tenants the dreaded document insists on an extra sink (or a sink and a dishwasher).  The tenants are happy with one sink and don’t want either another sink or a dishwasher as this would reduce the cupboard space available to them for storage of their own personal food.  The council is however insisting this work be done against the wishes both of the tenants and the landlord.  This seems bonkers to me and only creates expense for the landlord that will inevitably be passed to the tenants in the next rent rise.  See the ground floor plan on the left.

The second case is even more bizarre.  This is another house with six tenants.  It has two bathrooms, each of which contain a toilet.  You’d think that would be fine as the guide says that for 1-4 tenants one bathroom that contains a toilet is sufficient.  But no – for six people if you have two bathrooms that both contain a toilet you also have to have a separate toilet.  I understand that toiled has now been fitted after the issue was forced by the council –  in a room that opens onto the kitchen, as one of the options the council suggested.  The tenants hate it and never use it because of the smell into the kitchen and obvious hygiene issue.   The work the council has imposed again strikes me as a waste of money and another inevitable rent rise.  I really don’t see why the house can’t be treated as two groups of three people with a toilet-containing bathroom for each group.

My real issue with all this – both these cases, and the one I talked about at full council – is that these are groups of consenting and non-vulnerable adults sharing a house in a responsible and neighbourly way, with good relationships with their landlords.  One of them even said to me: “As a landlord it is my policy to provide almost anything my tenants ask for.  They are, after all, my customers.  Thus, for example, if one tells me that their mattress is uncomfortable I don’t even check it myself.  If they say it is uncomfortable…it is; so I change it.   A quick phone call to my supplier who delivers and takes away the old one is easy and not very expensive.  It makes good business sense to treat tenants well.  I even turned out to fix a leak on Christmas Day.  The tenants really do not want these things that Council officers are forcing us to do.

The council is not protecting tenants in these cases – it is making problems and rent rises when there were no problems and everyone was happy.  This is absolutely classic Labour behaviour:  We’ll decide what’s best for you and make sure you have it – even if you don’t want it! This attempt to impose a one-size fits all policy on a complex situation where one set of guidelines clearly does not fit all situations is just causing unnecessary expense and waste for landlords and rent rises for tenants in a not exactly financially buoyant time of the economic cycle.  Tenancies come in many different forms – some are room by room, some are whole-house, some have individual locks on rooms, some don’t.

I am of course all in favour of pursuing landlords who are negligent, don’t keep their properties in good repair and treat their tenants badly.  These are not examples of that though – these tenants are financially capable working people who choose to live in high quality HMOs because they can’t afford to live in other way in Oxford with housing being in such short supply and so expensive.  The landlords are providing essential accommodation for the people of Oxford and running decent, honest businesses doing it.  In many cases this is to fund retirement – which seems entirely reasonable to me.  If the landlords were not treating the tenants well they would move out!

There are two ends of the HMO spectrum in Oxford.  At one end you have cases like those I’ve mentioned and at the other end you have run-down, damp, cold, overcrowded properties with vulnerable tenants with few choices.  In my mind THESE are the places where council intervention is welcome and essential.  But it really is not welcome or needed when landlord and tenants were happy and everything was fine – it is not the job of the council to disrupt perfectly good and safe arrangements between good landlords and non-vulnerable tenants.  The Labour council should be arguing about numbers of cockroaches in some properties – not numbers of sinks or toilets in places where everyone is happy!

This was put rather well by one of the landlords at the last full council also:

“I would ask that the council focus on the highest risk properties and are not deflected by technical breaches of guidelines. That they use scarce resources and strong enforcement powers to protect vulnerable tenants and do not waste their energies on nitpicking …. Please avoid the temptation to consider being a landlord as a life choice of the more unsavoury end of the spectrum.”

She is absolutely right! I really want this council to accept that decent, honest landlords actually provide vital housing for many of Oxford’s students and young professionals.  These good landlords want the bad landlords brought to account just as much as the council and we councillors do.  The problem is that it feels like the council is currently treating all landlords like the enemy – when the council writes to them for example wouldn’t a few sentences in the letter acknowledging the important contribution they are making to the City’s housing needs be quite useful?  It might achieve a much better relationship and much better outcomes.

Both of the landlords quoted above have told me they are seriously considering getting out of the business because it is too much hassle.  Neither is young and both are providing good quality accommodation that Oxford desperately needs.  I think it would be a real tragedy if the Labour council’s actions pushed these and others out of what is actually an essential business in Oxford thereby removing even more housing stock for young professionals and students who are an absolutely vital part of the economy of our City.