Conferenece Day Three: Tying Children to the railway in the high street

Or at least that’s what it seemed like at the end of a long evening when three separate fringes (one on Children’s Mental Health, one on Railways, and one on Localism in the High Street) began to merge together.

Dont let anyone tell you that going to conference is fun, or just a jolly day out. With the 15 hour days (I have just got back to my digs in Rock Ferry after leaving here just after 7am), the constant shuffling between meetings, often in different places around Liverpool, and of course sometimes scheduled at the same time. Its just like being a Government minister!

After a few days of this, things start to blur together, which is a shame, as this evening there were some fascinating events, however none of them seems to want to serve food, so hunger may explain some of my confusion. At least I have some fish and a generous (described as small) portion of chips to help me as I write this.

At lunchtime (at least there was some lunch) I attended a session run by the co-operative group around the decline of the high street. To be honest I was a little bored, as it all seemed to be talking of the changes to planning law which the coalition are planning for England, rather than revitalising high streets all over the country (I am particularly thinking of Brechin here, but there are few high streets in Angus which could be described as thriving at the moment).  It seems that planning law which has been in place since the 40’s (the Town & Country planning act was brought in by Atlee’s Labour Government and invented the Green Belt) is being ripped up by the coalition.

The key message was that despite being simplified, the new neighbourhood plans will in all likelihood be drawn up by the big supermarkets, offering to do this expensive job for small communities in exchange for planning permission for their sheds. It be wrapped up in “We’ll do this so you dont get that wind farm/housing estate/incinerator built you dont want”…. It seems that vested interests are everywhere! Even the guy from the Co-Op said they were now as much part of the problem as the solution, although he dd say they wouldnt be doing that, unlike some other companies. The key to revitalising a High Street, according to Jack Dromey was to make them somewere people want to go.

After Ed’s speech, and the dodgy wifi connection in the convention centre (apologies if I havnt replied to you – it was probably lost in the ether) there was an event in the youth centre (you wouldnt get that at the Tory conference!) on the issues surrounding young peoples mental health.  Chaired by David Brindle of the Guardian, the panel included a number of workers in the field of mental health and youth workers, alongside Debbie Abrahams, elected earlier this year in Oldham East & Saddleworth, and Baroness Thornton, from the shadow front bench.

After some interesting opening remarks from the panellists, which dwelt mainly on the problems of dealing with mental health problems in young people, and the issues around stigma and lack of provision with the current spending cuts, I offered the question on whether the fact that we as a society are adding to young peoples stress levels through constant testing at school, and shouldnt we do something about it, was almost dismissed, or at least not addressed, other than the noble Baroness saying that she now understood that it was a real problem after her nephew experienced it during exam time. It all seemed to be about being reactive, and less about being proactive. There was a lot of sympathy in the room, when Charlotte, a young conference delegate, spoke of how after she had been recently diasgnosed, she was just put on anti-depressents and then onto a waiting list for CBT, with no further contact. This was a result of the postcode lottery now developing after the cuts.

After not having any food, I scoured the guide for a fringe event with refreshments. The problem is, of course that there is no differentiation – after all the mental health fringe was supposed to have them too. A quick run over to the marquee took me to Andrew Rawnsley’s interview with Yvette Cooper. However the Observer had only laid on wine with no food, so a few glasses to the good I tottered across to the hall for my transport fringe.

There was a good panel, including Paul Salveson, Louise Ellman, Simon Weller of ASLEF and Andrew Gynne from the shadow health team. The best line came from Simon, descibing the state owned German railways as a big player in the UK market, saying we all wanted a state owned railway, we didnt realise it was going to be the German state! The point was made that a mutual railway would mean that staff would be incentivised and passengers would feel they had a real stake.

Oyster cards were naturally praised, and the co-op promoted their excellent People’s Rail policy. Paul, an ex-railwaymen himself said that even now the staff are committed to the railway as a public service, so any transition would be relatively smooth, while Simon made the point that staff, no matter what colour uniform they are wearing this week, refer to THE railway, and not Virgin, or First or Southern.

It wouldnt be a transport fringe without the Stop HS2 group hijacking it. It doesnt matter if the fringe is about busses or a mutual solution to rail ownership, they are there to harrass a shadow minister (or a transport economist). Today the message seemed to be about wanting investment in connections between northern cities instead of spending money on HS2. “But thats not an argument against HS2, we’d want that investment AS WELL AS HS2”. Oh well. As I left, I saw Andrew Gynne getting button holed further by the protestor. Doesnt he realise that his campaign is bankrolled by people who would quite happily concrete over all railways?

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