First World War – remembering our heroes

I find it hard to take in that 100 years ago, families across our six towns – indeed across the whole country – were enjoying the last few months of peace before the start of the First World War.

Before long, thousands of local lads were making their way to fight in the bloodiest of conflicts – and many tragically never returned.

Harold_John_Colley_VCThe war also came to people’s doorsteps on the home front, with Zeppelin raids on Tipton and Wednesbury in 1916, killing men, women and children.

It’s only fitting that here in Sandwell we will be marking the centenary of the First World War, remembering those who fought, those who made the ultimate sacrifice and those who lost loved ones.

It’s important our young people today hear the stories, so they can pass them on to future generations.

We’ll be holding a number of events and activities over the next four years to commemorate the 1914-18 war, and we’re starting by inviting you to send in your family memories for an exhibition we’re planning this autumn at our museums.

We need 250-word stories about relatives who fought in the war – or about family memories of the home front, including the Zeppelin raids on Tipton and Wednesbury.

I’m proud, too, that we’ll be laying paving stones to three men born in the borough who were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour. This is part of a government-funded centenary commemoration scheme.

Our museums staff have already tracked down the descendants of two, Robert Edwin Phillips, of West Bromwich, who fought in Kut, Iraq, and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 and Joseph John Davies, from Tipton, who was awarded his medal in 1916.

We’re desperately trying to trace the family of Harold John Colley, from Smethwick – my home town. Harold was killed on the Western Front and awarded the highest military honour posthumously in 1918. If you can help us find his descendants, please let us know.

The paving stones will be placed at the nearest cenotaph to where each of the men were born and we want their families to have a say in the placement of the stone honouring their bravery.

Two other Victoria Crosses went to Herbert James, who had been a teacher at Brasshouse Lane and fought in Gallipoli in 1915, and Thomas Barratt, who was born in Sedgley but lived and worked in Wednesbury, and died on the Western Front.

Next time I’m walking past the war memorial at Smethwick Council House, I’ll be thinking about Harold Colley and all these men, their families and friends, enjoying those last months of peace in 1914, of what lay ahead for them and the bravery they showed in circumstances few of us today can truly comprehend.

We owe it to them – and to all those who served in the Great War – to remember.

If you have a family story to tell or can help us track down Harold Colley’s descendants, please contact Frank Caldwell, our Sandwell museums service manager, by emailing or calling 0121 569 8342.

No s**t Sherlock. The campaign against dog mess in Sandwell

I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to the council’s anti-dog fouling campaign which I launched this week.

Our hard-hitting posters have been praised as a bold move against the scourge of filthy folk who don’t pick up after their pets.

People have also said it’s nice to see a council with a “sense of humour”. I’m thrilled so many people like them.

No s**t Sherlock - one of the posters you will see in the towns and parks of Sandwell

No s**t Sherlock – one of the posters you will see in the towns and parks of Sandwell

By our reckoning, the posters have been seen by tens of thousands of people all over the world through the power of social media. Our Facebook page and Twitter was alight with people’s reactions. You’ll also be seeing the posters in our parks and on our streets over the coming weeks.

All but a very small number have welcomed our stance on the issue of dog mess.

Admittedly, some people haven’t liked the use of the word s**t on one of the posters, which features the slogan “No s**t Sherlock. And some folks don’t like the graphic image of the dog poo.

To the people who feel we’ve gone too far – well, we don’t mean to cause any offence. But the fact of the matter is, dog mess is disgusting and it’s time we really do something about it.

Dog mess is in our parks, on our streets and it fouls up our football pitches (which dog walkers should note – are a no-go area for dogs. We don’t allow dogs on sports pitches in Sandwell).

Dog mess is a nightmare for parents pushing buggies and walking children to school while they dodge stinking piles of it on our pavements. It’s a pain in the backside for footballers who have to walk the pitch checking for it before they play a match, lest they take a sliding tackle into a pile of the stuff.

It’s the top priority for many of our residents – the council had over 800 complaints about dog fouling last year.

So we want to get people talking about it and I think the posters do just that. We want the selfish minority of people who allow their dogs to foul Sandwell’s streets and parks to know that we’re onto them.

It’s vile, it’s lazy and it’s got to stop.

Our neighbourhood wardens’ highest priority is tackling dog mess – so be warned. Don’t pick up after your dog and we will fine you £75.

I’m keen to also reward people who can tell us about irresponsible dog owners who don’t pick up their pet’s mess. That’s why I’m asking my officers to bring in a £50 reward for anyone who reports a dog owner who we later issue with a fine for dog fouling. More news on that once we’ve got it sorted.

I’d love to hear what you think of our poster campaign here on my blog. And I want you to report dog mess to the council so we can get it cleaned up.

And if you live in Sandwell, we’d like to give you a free pack of dog mess bags and a holder, you can request them on our website.

Foul isn't it? Everyone seems to feel the same about dog mess - it's vile, lazy and it's got to stop.

Foul isn’t it? Everyone seems to feel the same about dog mess – it’s vile, lazy and it’s got to stop.

Blog by Tom Watson MP – RIP Dave Lawley

We said goodbye to a Sandwell legend this week. My friend Dave Lawley died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 61.

He was the funniest man I’ve ever met. His was the funeral where we laughed through the tears.

I first me Dave whilst working as a volunteer in Adrian Bailey’s by-election. I’d left my shoes on a train. My spare pair were with a cobbler in Oldbury. I turned up to collect them only to be told they weren’t ready.

So I spent the next two hours in a black suit and white trainers on a visit to Sainsbury’s with Adrian and a government minister. Dave rightly mocked me for a decade.

Dave was legendary for being stubborn. His favourite pastime was lingering on the phone with sales professionals from mobile phone companies, in order to negotiate the best tariff for his latest handset. In the end I think they ended up paying him in order to go away.

He was at his best when moaning about the price of BMW parts for his second hand BMW sports car, which he loved and hated in equal measure. I will never buy a BMW after his many stories of poor service and extortionate pricing. They employed someone to specifically persecute him. Or that’s what he used to tell me anyway.

You had to get to know him to see his gentle side but he had one. He was always the first to call when I resigned, always the one to share a kind word when the chips were down. And that kindness was commented on by many at his funeral and wake. And there were many successful journalists who talked of how he helped them with a kind word as they embarked on their journey in newspapers and broadcasting.

I always told him he should write a book, so many and varied were his stories from nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter in the Black Country. He had a curiosity that allowed him to get the best out of people, often because he lightened the most serious moods of his subjects with a gentle wit that was rare and disarming.

And his stories were simply hilarious. I have spent hours with him in laughter, overwhelming uncontrollable laughter. He would tell yarn after yarn, often at the expense of the political classes of the West Midlands. He never spared anyone, left and right were all targets for his satirical analysis.

Dave was an accomplished guitar player and he loved his music. He’d often follow local bands, particularly those that could play the guitar. We ended his funeral with Led Zeppelin. It felt just right for our Dave.

And then Phil Challoner, another great Sandwell figure, sang Bring him Home from Les Miserables.

I’m looking at his picture and missing him today, annoyed I’d not found the time to have a pint with him in recent months. His passing reminds me that life is for living.

My thoughts are with his loved ones, particularly his wife, Hilary, daughter Bec and his dad, Dennis.

They’re going to need us in the difficult months ahead. I hope they take some solace in the knowledge that Dave was loved.

Sandwell Snow Champions are coming to town!

A band of 7,000 Snow Champions will help keep Sandwell moving this winter, using salt and snow shovels given to them by the council.

sc4The equipment is given to residents for them to use to clear pavements and help clear the paths of elderly and vulnerable neighbours if we get heavy snow or ice.  Anyone who received a Snow Champion kit in the past two winters will get 6kg (almost a stone) of salt delivered to their door in the coming weeks.

The council is also giving away 500 new kits to people who haven’t applied to be Snow Champions before.  Leader of Sandwell Council, Councillor Darren Cooper said the campaign had been a great success over the past two winters.

“It never ceases to amaze me how community-spirited the people of Sandwell are.  “We started the Snow Champion campaign back in 2011 and it’s really taken off since then.

SC3“The first year, we had 2,500 people apply to become Snow Champions and then last year, we added another 4,000.

“We had so much good feedback from people who used the equipment to help their neighbours and communities that we wanted to extend it this year.

“We’ve got an extra 500 kits to give to people who haven’t had one before, which means added to the Snow Champions who applied over the past two winters, we’ll have 7,000 Snow Champions helping out across Sandwell.”

The Snow Champion campaign is now in its third year after 6,500 people signed up during 2011 and 2012.  Everyone who is already signed up to be a Snow Champion will get two 3kg tubs of salt delivered to their door.

There is no need to apply again if you are already a Snow Champion.  Anyone who isn’t already a Snow Champion can apply for one of 500 kits (which contains a snow shovel, salt and a high-vis vest) on the council’s website:

The offer is on a first come, first served basis and is only open to people who live in Sandwell. Only one kit per household.  The idea behind the campaign is that Snow Champions clear pavements and paths to help people get around their neighbourhoods, or use the equipment to clear paths and driveways for elderly or vulnerable people who might slip on snow or ice.

snow4Councillor Cooper added: “I’m keeping an eye on the weather forecast and I’m hearing that if some predictions are to be believed, our Snow Champions could be very busy this winter.”  In addition to this winter’s Snow Champion campaign, the council is also offering Sandwell schools free snow clearing equipment.

Schools can apply for six free snow shovels, a grit bin and half a tonne of salt to help keep school sites open if Sandwell is hit by heavy snow.

HS2 – the view from the Black Country

It seems you can’t move these days without bumping into someone mouthing off about the benefits – or otherwise – of HS2, the planned high-speed rail link between London and the north of England.

1332225362_d321019fabNot surprising, I suppose. There’s an awful lot of public money being earmarked for it – over £42 billion (that’s billion, not million) at the last count.

And the proposed route is proving a headache for lots of people living alongside.

My own view is based fair and square on how much good HS2 would do Sandwell and the rest of the Black Country.

And I have to say for me the case is still unproven.

It seems to me most of HS2’s much talked about economic benefits will flow to London – and I therefore wonder why thousands and thousands of people living elsewhere should have their home lives disrupted.
What’s more, I’m far from convinced that the new line will necessarily improve journeys for people travelling from Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Dudley.

In this context, I was a bit saddened to see Birmingham’s Sir Albert Bore coming out so strongly in favour of HS2.

He’s entitled to his views, of course, and I respect them.
But people shouldn’t run away with the idea that on this issue Sir Albert represents the views of all his colleagues in local government.

There are others!


image source

A new future for The Public building

The Public – it seems it’s hardly been out of the news these past few months.

Well today, I can confirm we’re pressing ahead with a deal with Sandwell College to transform the building into a sixth form centre, arts space and business support facility.

My Cabinet colleagues and I agreed this afternoon this ambitious plan gives the best option for a more affordable, long-term future for the building.

I believe this is great news for education in Sandwell. Thousands of young people for generations to come will benefit from having a much-needed, high-class sixth form learning centre right in the heart of West Bromwich town centre.

We’re always striving to improve education in Sandwell – it’s so important. And in my view this prospective deal is the icing on the cake to what we offer to our young people.

Our 25-year partnership with the college means people will still be able to enjoy a variety of arts-based activities at the building when it opens as a sixth form centre in September 2014. Together, we’re also making sure the building will support enterprise and business. The college will be paying for conversion costs.

The decision over The Public’s future has been a difficult one. I know it means a lot to many people – and we’ve listened to concerns people have raised.

But the harsh reality is that massive government cuts mean we simply can’t afford to carry on as we are, subsidising to the tune of £30,000 a week – or nearly £1.6 million a year.

We can’t please everybody. But I hope people will understand we’ve had to take a tough decision that helps us save money to protect frontline services for the majority of local people, while also securing a future for the building that invests in our young people’s education and still supports arts, enterprise and business.

I want to place on record once more my thanks to Sandwell Arts Trust and staff at The Public for their work and efforts over the past four years.

We are working with businesses and groups that have been using the building to help find them new premises. We want to make sure their work and activities continue in the town when the building closes in its current form on 16 November in preparation for work to convert it to start.

Finally, I look forward to us working with the college and finalising our agreement, so we can look to a new era and secure future for the building following the uncertainty of recent months.

You can read more on the council website.

The Public – tough decisions in tough times

The PublicThere’s been a lot of talk these past few days in the press and on social media about The Public building in West Bromwich.

I want to make it clear the council is not permanently closing the building – and we’ve never said we were going to.

What we have agreed today is that we have to do things differently because we can’t afford for The Public to carry on as it is at £30,000 a week – nearly £1.6 million a year.

As leader of the council, I am having to make tough decisions because of the scale of central government cuts.  We wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for these cuts.

I’ve always said I will focus on protecting vital frontline services and I’ve asked myself time and again, if we continue with The Public in its current form, what else would have to go?

I want to place on record my thanks to Sandwell Arts Trust – they’ve done a great job. They have asked us for a new five-year deal and didn’t want any further short-term agreements. Because of the financial circumstances, we couldn’t offer them five years – and so we’re in the position we are in. The Trust has agreed to continue until 30 November when it will hand the building back to us.

I want to reassure everyone that we are working to secure a long-term, financially viable future for the building. If it does shut for a period of time for work to be carried out, this will be temporary, not permanent.

We are looking at a number of options – one of which is Sandwell College using the building as a sixth form and lifelong learning centre – with arts, community and business provision too. I’m sorry I can’t say more about that today other than to say our talks continue.

I know the building means a lot to many people and we’ve listened to those who’ve campaigned to keep it as it is. We will ensure the building still serves the local community and supports arts, learning and business – but in a different and more affordable way to now.

We do support the arts in many ways in Sandwell at a number of venues across the borough – for example just this week we have the Sandwell Arts Festival getting under way and we currently have the Bill Viola exhibition at Wednesbury Museum & Art Gallery on loan from the Tate and National Galleries Scotland.

And to the businesses and groups that use The Public building, I want to say we will be talking to you to make sure your work and activities continue in the town centre.

Finally, I would like to remind everyone that the council rescued The Public after it went into administration some years ago – we could have walked away then but we didn’t.

We remain committed to securing The Public building’s long-term future. I hope people will understand that, in the face of very difficult economic times, we are working to give the building a more secure future and definitely not turning our backs and shutting its doors for good.

The bottom line on The Public

This week I’ve been interviewed by the BBC about the future of The Public arts centre in West Bromwich.

I know this is a controversial subject for many reasons and lots of people have strong views.

But my bottom line is that the council can’t continue to subsidise The Public. Perhaps I can explain why.

The Public arts centre in West Bromwich

The Public arts centre in West Bromwich

As it stands, the council is funding this building to the tune of about £30,000 a week.

That’s nearly £1.6million a year.

That money is taxpayers’ money. In the face of the cuts the council is facing, this can’t carry on.

I know the building means a lot to many people. Not just those who work there, but the people who enjoy the arts activities, the gigs, the café and the exhibitions.

And I appreciate the lengths people have gone to with their petition and their campaign to keep The Public open.

But it remains the case that the way The Public is run at the moment isn’t sustainable.

Currently, there is no entrance fee, so the number of people coming through the door doesn’t necessarily mean more money in the till.

The gigs don’t generate the kind of revenue needed to keep the place open as an entertainment venue. In fact I’ve been told ticket sales at some gigs haven’t covered the artist’s fee.

I wonder if the acts who have campaigned to keep The Public open (John Challis, to name one) knew that council taxpayers may have effectively helped foot the bill for their appearances?

Let’s be fair – I think the Arts Trust has done a great job over the past couple of years. But this situation can’t continue.

So, we’re now in talks with Sandwell College about them taking over the building to use it as a sixth form.

The success of their new Sandwell Campus down the road has been incredible, and they are turning away hundreds of potential students as their courses are oversubscribed.

If The Public building is taken on by the college, then I’m told this might include some arts provision.

Plans are by no means finalised, but it would mean the building could still have arts activities as well as gigs, comedy nights and other events. I’d be in favour of this if the college was happy with the arrangement and if the running of the events was self-sufficient.

I also want to be absolutely clear that the cost of refurbishing the inside of the building would be met by the college if they do take it over. Not by the council.

And if the plan with the college doesn’t come off, we will have to consider other ideas for the future of the building.

But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in saying that this council can no longer afford this commitment to financing The Public.

We’ve lost many millions of pounds as a council over the past few years from the money we get from the government.

I happen to think that Sandwell has coped pretty well with softening the impact of massive cuts like this and keeping services going for local people.

But there comes a time when, surely, something has to give – especially as the cuts are going to continue for years to come.

Don’t let them divide us!

I’ve been haunted all weekend by just how close we came in Tipton at 1.06pm on Friday to someone – or more than one person – being maimed or killed.

You’ll all know from news reports of the nailbomb that went off  precisely then near the Kanzul Iman Masjid mosque in Binfield Street at a time when it would normally been full of worshippers.

As I write police investigations are continuing and it’s too soon to know everything about something which bears all the hallmarks of  a vile and cowardly attack.

But fair-minded people of all communities will rightly condemn it.

They will join me, too, in giving thanks that luckily – and it seems to be more by luck than judgement – no-one was hurt, or worse.

We must all support police as they continue their investigations. Our aim must be to bring those responsible to justice by tracking them down and putting them before the courts.

Inevitably, we all reflect on what such an outrage means for our community as a whole.

I believe we must all keep one thing uppermost in our minds – a determination not to allow the people who did this to succeed in their aim of dividing us.

Extremists on all sides hate unity and thrive on division.

We must deny them.

We are proud of the settled relations that communities in Tipton have enjoyed for many years.

Our best way of defeating extremism is to stay calm and make sure that those relations continue.

That’s why I’ve been heartened by the response to Friday’s attack  from the mosque itself, from faith leaders from all religions and from members of the local community.

It’s been one of solidarity, togetherness and calm in the face of a shocking incident.

My fellow council member, Ian Jones, has said it’s been a case of “business as usual” – the best way to respond to those seeking to disrupt community life. I agree.

In this context, I can do no better than quote Imam Ghulam Rasool from the Kanzul Iman Masjid mosque, who said on Saturday:

“Yesterday a senseless act tried to divide us. Today, we respond united together and more determined to come out stronger in condemnation of extremism and in maintaining and further strengthening existing good community relations in the borough. For those who wish to divide us and fringe elements that may wish to exploit this situation we have this message:

“We are One Borough, One Community that remains united in defiance of extremism wherever it may come from; united in support of strong community and interfaith relations and united in our belief that this is a borough and country that values freedom of speech, expression and religious co-existence. Acts such as these will only strengthen our resolve and not break it.

“To the wider community we say this: Let’s continue to go about our lives not intimidated by fear or violence, not provoked by senseless acts of extremism or terrorism designed to undermine our borough’s harmony and cohesion.

“The people of Tipton and Sandwell will never succumb or be seduced to senseless acts or initiatives designed to spread fear, messages of hate and division that bring disharmony to our communities.”

NB: The council has been working behind the scenes since Friday to do what we can on the ground in Tipton to help.

Among other things we

  • responded immediately to a police request to set up a rest centre at Coneygre Centre on Friday as a place for those who were evacuated from the scene to go to;
  • supported police with signs for the road closures in the area cordoned off;
  • found overnight accommodation for families who could not return to their homes; and
  • supported police in getting messages and updates to the community via social media.

We’re going to do better on child protection

Ofsted’s latest report on child protection in Sandwell makes for grim reading – but it doesn’t come as any real surprise.  It judges our service “inadequate” across the board, or in other words “failing” or “broken”. It’s the worst possible rating.

We already knew we were in a bad way through our own internal checks – and in fact we told Ofsted we’d fail an inspection.

That’s why we signed a contract at the end of last year with a private sector specialist called iMPOWER for a package of support and an experienced Director of Children’s Services, Simon White.

It was one of the very few positives in the report –although Ofsted said the partnership hadn’t had long enough to make a real impact.

Saying that, I won’t make any excuses because there aren’t any. I accept the verdict and have already said sorry to children and young people in the borough; we have let them down and that is unacceptable.

That’s why I think it right the cabinet member in charge, Councillor Bob Badham, and the service director Helen Smith, have stepped down from their posts.

Bob was a cabinet member for a long time and he did a lot of good work but child protection is a basic we have to get right, full stop.

In fact it’s also why I have asked Councillor Simon Hackett to take over our children’s services.  I’ve worked with him for several years and he has shown real drive, enthusiasm and determination.

A father of four, a local man and an experienced cabinet member, he’s a straight-talker who gets things done.  It’s a big challenge but I’m sure he will turn things around quickly.

 I won’t say it’s going to be easy, but I will say we are going to get there, whatever it takes.  That’s a promise.