Monday, 7 April 2014

Superfast fiber broadband is beginning to arrive

A man sat by a cabinet full of wires near my house for quite a while recently.  Now I have access to superfast broadband.  Only I have to pay for it to activate it.

When superfast broadband comes to your area you don't actually get it unless you upgrade and pay more to your provider for it - as they have to pay for access to it on your behalf. 

Talktalk want an extra £10 a month for 'medium superfast broadband' or £15 a month for 'super-superfast broadband'.  As I can manage okay at the minute I'll do without for now but I'm grateful to have the option.  The vast majority of Cumbrian residents should have it by the end of 2015.  You can check availability in you area here.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The challenges of implementing the new primary curriculum

I've written a report which analyses the challenges our primary schools face in trying to implement the new Primary National Curriculum.

It's available as a free download here:

Monday, 25 November 2013

Education - Ofsted

Most who know me know that the reason I got involved in politics is education, and in particular Michael Gove.

Having participated in and quietly contributed to consultations on education policy over the years I saw first hand how all consultation ended in 2010 and only too clearly understood the implications of that.

With an unusually deep background in the economics of education and the underlying associated issues of professional freedom, I could clearly see that the vast majority of Mr Gove's initiatives were without and foundation and were destined to catastrophic and vastly expensive failure. 

The one bright light seemed to be that he stated he was determined to improve the way Ofsted functioned to allow schools greater professional freedom.  So I watched the inquiry which took place over the winter of 2010/11 to discover how to achieve this closely. I took to the discussion forums to try to explore possible ways forward and was horrified to find that I was subject to systematic and extreme abuse, the systematic deletion of my posts, partial moderation and, when these tactics failed to deter me from posting, to being banned from posting and threatened with legal action if I wrote about what was going on.

Meanwhile inspector after inspector visited the enquiry stating clearly that Ofsted could not be improved.

Satisfactory became the new unsatisfactory, inspections became more brutal and ministers used Ofsted as a tool for pursuing their own pet policies.  Schools still had no rights whatsoever to challenge decisions in any circumstances (except to Ofsted and Mr Gove) so no matter how ignorant and inappropriate the inspection outcome schools are left with Hobson's choice of accepting it or objecting, brining more negative attention on the school and getting nowhere for it.

I gave up my plans to write a PhD in maths education and pursued instead the objective of creating free forums.  This was an objective which was achieved on some platforms by the beginning of 2012.  Coaxing people into posting in public and giving them the time they needed to develop their thinking and fluency on policy issues has taken longer.

Meanwhile I also researched policy surrounding Ofsted, making a substantial breakthrough when I started to look at best practice in regulation policy and methodology outside education.  I discovered that there were established codes of best practice in regulation to which Ofsted could be obligated using the same legal framework already in place for the vast majority of regulated UK organisations.

This was the resulting policy (note the references are at the end of the document after the other policy motions):

The motion got 100% support and is now widely understood and accepted and supported within the Liberal Democrats:

I've worked hard to get it adopted by other parties and by unions, but so far have been unable to move beyond getting the support of individuals without those groups.

I'm publishing this because I am horrified by what's going on in Cumbria with Ofsted now.  This could have been avoided if I'd managed to get sufficient wide based support to take on Mr Gove.

I'm easy to find if anyone wants to help.

Rebecca Hanson
12 Kirkgate, Cockermouth.  On and Facebook.

Friday, 18 October 2013

In Praise of our Foodbank

I was delighted to hear the Trussell Trust calling for a public enquiry into the reasons behind the surge in the use of food banks. 

In this report Kelly Taylor talks about the humiliation of visiting a foodbank but then reflect on the reality that prior to the Foodbank existing she stole for food and ended up in prison.  When your life is falling apart, rapidly plugging a gaping hole like being able to feed yourself and your family helps you deal with the many other issues you have to face.  Where people are adjusting to reduced circumstances food parcels which are accompanied by personal advice on how to make that adjustment effectively can stop a crisis escalating.  It is clear that Foodbanks are providing a substantial benefit to both the people affected and to society which was not previously available and that much of the work they do falls into this category.  It is also clear this work will continue to be of great importance to society in the future as global population growth and the consequential competition for resources will prevent the kinds of rising levels of affluence we saw in parts of the 20th century. 

However we need to know whether our systems of ordinary state provision, and in particular our benefits system, is now inadequate (and if so precisely where its inadequacies lie) so that we can address those weak points efficiently and effectively.   At present most feedback comes through individual cases which are reported to MPs and Councillors who then try to analyse the implications of the cases they have heard during policy debates at their political conferences.  This process of feedback is also essential and I would strongly advise anyone who knows of a case which need to be understood for policy reform to support the individual or individuals affected in meeting their MP or councillor and if they would like to they are also warmly invited to contact me.  However a detailed report from the circumstances of the people Foodbanks are supporting would greatly improve the quality of the debate.  This is why I sincerely hope this analysis recommended by the Trussell Trust goes ahead.
In the meantime I would strongly recommend everyone supports the organisation we have.  More food donations are urgently needed and more volunteers are also needed to help the hundred who drive vans and staff the warehouse and the five distributions centres in Cockermouth, Workington, Whitehaven, Maryport and Wigton.  Between April and August this year they gave out food to 1789 people in crisis (about 120/week) and West Cumbria is a much better place because they did that.  The team are an inspirational bunch of volunteers who are very welcoming to people who can only offer a little time or only offer time for a short period.  If you’re in either category I strongly recommend getting involved not only because you’d be able to do a great deal of good but also because it will help you better understand West Cumbria.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Cockermouth Traffic and the Story Homes Development

Sadly Story Homes have decided to continue to try to promote the view that it is possible to build hundreds of houses on the east side of Cockermouth without building any road infrastructure to carry traffic away from the development.  They also still want to block off the roads which were build to connect Slatefell and Gable Avenue to Strawberry How road.  

This will create very serious safety issues as well as substantial delays for residents on the east side of Cockermouth.  In this letter I've attempted to explain exactly why this is the case.  This letter is published here for open criticism and comment.  If I am wrong and there are ways to easily sort out the traffic infrastructure problems that we have then I want to know what they are.

Steven Eggleston: Traffic specialist for the Story Homes development at Strawberry How
Cc: Pieter Barnard, Cumbria Highways.
Cc: open circulation for open critical comment.

19th September 2013

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your time yesterday and your patience in talking to me and exploring the traffic issues involved in Story Homes’ proposal for housing at Strawberry How. 

I am very disappointed that Story Homes are choosing to pursue attempts to create the impression there is sufficient road infrastructure in place to cope with over 300 more homes on the East side of Cockermouth.   The purpose of this letter is to lay out in detail why this is not the case to help you move forward in understanding why your development is currently facing universal opposition.

The essence of the problem is the limited capacity of the junction between Lorton Street, Station Road and Station Street which I will refer to as junction A.  This is a substandard junction with four way lights allowing each road to have full priority (required because the junction is so narrow) and a pedestrian phase on request.  This junction is under stress due to the volume of traffic using it and generally continues to flow only because so much traffic manages to use Kirkgate and Market Place despite the limitations of that route.

However Kirkgate is often shut due to there being a substantial single width strip of road with no pavements which has to close whenever work is done to the services underneath the road or to the buildings which border it.  The frequent closures of Kirkgate are part of life in Cockermouth and must be expected.  Although they are usually done during the school holidays or at off peak times, they still cause junction A to fail to cope in a very severe way.  Junction A backs up in all direction.  On the East side of Cockrmouth the queue of traffic rapidly extends beyond the top of Kirkgate.  Traffic therefore queues for very long periods of time to access this route from all roads but most importantly from the substantial Slatefell/Gable Avenue estate.  Because the alternative routes via Embleton and Southwaite are so long and involve roads many drivers choose to avoid, vehicles which would be prepared to use those routes are blocked by those which aren’t and cannot exit their roads and estates as each has only one exit. 

This creates a severe safety hazard as obviously emergency vehicles cannot access these areas of town.

By creating an extra 200 cars/hour we know you will be inflicting these issues on us all the time rather than just when Kirkgate shuts.  We will also have to cope with much more serious issues Kirkgate shuts as it inevitably will.

There is no need for any of these issues as we live in an area where it is perfectly possible to construct suitable infrastructure. 

Story Homes’ continued assertion that significant improvements to traffic flow can be made through minor modifications exists despite the obvious reality that this not true.  This is obvious to all Cockermouth residents and it the fact that this assertion is still being made seriously undermines Story Homes’ espoused commitment to being a responsible developer.  Given my knowledge of what has already been done I would challenge you to come up with any modifications which will create any improvements whatsoever.  Given the reality that we live in a context where other developments, most particularly the new hospital, will also impact negatively on traffic flow it’s unrealistic to expect anything other than a deterioration even without the development you are proposing.  If you really do have any ways of improving traffic issues with minor changes I would ask you to share them and we are very open to new ideas which stand up to scrutiny.

It is not, for example, the case that simply modifications can be made to the phasing of lights at junction A which improve things.  When the junction is beyond capacity traffic backs up in all directions, most obviously uphill from this junction where the next junction also fails to flow due to downhill traffic being backed up beyond it.  It’s important to understand the lights do substantially favour Lorton Street but that traffic can use junction A at a slow rate due to the tight angle and the narrowness of the junction.  Each large vehicle causes significant delays. 

Unless Story Homes decides to address the serious loss of amenity to the town and the safety issues which would be caused by building this development without the construction of essential road infrastructure they it’s unrealistic to expect anything but unified opposition from the whole town. 

Best regards,

Rebecca Hanson MA(cantab.) MEd, FRSA.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Make a FUSS over West Cumbrian Familes - a promise to the future

In this post I thought I'd write about an idea I've been talking about for quite a while now - in the hope that people will talk about it, share it, remind me of it or perhaps even think of getting involved in it.

So many households in West Cumbria, especially many of those with young children, are functioning in states of extreme stress.  The vast majority never complain, mainly because most of them don't think of themselves as being needy. 

We have a society of nuclear families and households living side-by-side on the same street without ever knowing each other.  As I knocked on every door in a street and chatted to groups of neighbours while canvassing in May it struck me forcefully how weak our local community bonds are. 

In particular it's obvious that we have young families who are under colossal stress living alongside people plenty to offer them but who don't know what's needed or how offer. 

Hence I think we need a charity which actively links families with young children up with neighbours and other local people who want to offer them support.  The obvious thing would be to appoint 'local grandparents' - one for each child, who spend an hour a week (ish - when they're around) ensuring that child has done his homework and is heard to read and is generally heard by an extra adult.  But once such a charity was set up and active it could do so much more.

Let's make a FUSS (Families under stress support) of our families.

When I suggest this to families the response from mothers in particular is quite overwhelming.  They give honest, rational and positive responses but quite often they're welling up with tears at the thought of how much they wish this had been there for them.  And how many fabulous parents do we have around out there who've raised their children and know what it's like and would love to be grandparents but won't be for ages and even when they are might be to kids who live hundreds of miles away?

Young families are good at making friends with each other but they also need friendship from people at different life stages. 

I don't think I'm the best person to set up such a charity - but I'll offer my full support to anyone who will.  If you're interested in being part of an organisation like this please do get in touch so that I can start to link people together.  Just add a comment to the blog or find me through Facebook or linkedin.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Broadband in the Cockermouth Area

While I was out canvassing in the villages of Cockermouth South in May I spoke at length with many villagers about the problems they are having with internet access.
I consider internet access to be of vital importance for both our economy (as so many of us in Cumbria work from home) and for our quality of life.  As a fellow of the RSA I write about and explore the importance of mass online discussion in enlightening society and improving the quality of democracy.

I’ve been startled by the level of complexity and chaos that I’ve found.  In this blog I’m going to try to describe what’s going on.  I may not have got it right and I’d be very grateful if others could add comments to help improve what I’ve written.
Two Routes for Broadband

The two routes for acquiring broadband are Connecting Cumbria (funded by BDUK and ERDF) and the RCBF (The Rural Communities Broadband Fund).  It is estimated that Connecting Cumbria will ensure 'superfast' (which is defined as being 24Mb/s or greater) broadband reaches 93% of properties in Cumbria by 2015.  Communities not receiving 24Mb/s can devise their own schemes and apply for RCBF funding.  
Connecting Cumbria

This scheme has been highly controversial as virtually all funding has gone straight to BT to help them upgrade their exchange equipment – something which they would have had to have done anyway (but would have had to do more slowly).  Another major problem with the scheme has been that BT have, in many cases, failed to release information regarding which houses will be in the 93% and which will not. There has also been criticism of the quality of the broadband some homes which are covered by the scheme will receive as alternative proposals planned to provide speeds in excess of 500Mb/s.
On a more positive note, 93% coverage is a very substantial undertaking in a very rural county.  Let’s look at the numbers.

According to Wikipedia 496,200 people live in Cumbria.  Of these 318,271 (64%) live in the 20 biggest towns and villages in Cumbria.  Distington is the smallest of these top 20 with just under 4000 people (Cleator Moor has 7000).  So let’s assume people who live in these places are covered.  That leaves 178,000 people in the smaller villages, hamlets and isolated dwelling of Cumbria.  Of these remaining people about 143,000 (80%) should be covered by Connecting Cumbria.  Clearly this figure must include most of our villages.   
On the other hand that still leaves about 35,000 people without broadband and far more with reason to doubt whether the quality of the broadband they look set to receive will meet current, yet alone emerging needs. 

In theory funding is available to help communities to set up their own schemes.   In practice this has been highly problematic due to not only to the uncertainty regarding what Connecting Cumbria will provide but also due to the complex red tape and the legal exposure those seeking to develop schemes have had to face.  Some progress has now been made as Cumbria County council have agreed to act as the accountable body for projects including Eden Valley Digital, Great Asby and Northern Fells.    The Northern Fells group are probably our best source of advice being located nearby (four of the seven parishes involved are in northern and eastern Allerdale).  I hear the BARN (B4NW) project is also making good progress in South Cumbria.

So what’s happening and what should be happening here in West Cumbria?  Your views are invited here, through public or private message on my Facebook page or by contacting my directly (even snailmail to 12 Kirkgate is welcome).
Rebecca Hanson.

Further information is available on the web via the following press releases:

Throughout this article my calculations assume we have the same average number of people per household in isolated dwelling as we have in urban areas.