Easter update from Councillor Robert Mitchell, Braintree Eastern Division

Dear Reader,

I am very conscious that Parish Council meetings, for the most part, are the connection with your local County Councillor and are the best time for reports, as to what has been going on at County Hall over the previous month, along with plans for the future.

Unfortunately, as many Parish meetings have been cancelled, or have reverted to a round-robin of emails, it makes it more difficult to keep everyone up to date, especially as the worldwide situation under the Covid-19 curse means advice & information changes by the day, sometimes by the hour – hence me dating this! I also should apologise for the length of it in advance…..

While most of us have been isolated in our homes for a fortnight of changing, & occasionally conflicting, advice from many directions, it seems a good opportunity to try & take a breather and remind everybody of what else is going on both locally, and in wider Essex.  
You should be aware that the County Councils’ main focus has been on looking after the most vulnerable, specifically social care and support for the NHS. Following a call for volunteers to help in numerous areas, there has been an amazing & selfless response from thousands of our kind-hearted residents. Our volunteers are starting to be deployed in many different areas, from phone-calling vulnerable individuals without families, who would otherwise have no social contact, to dropping round essential medicine & food to those who can’t get out, and much in between. I am aware that there are also many local groups who are helping neighbours, whilst keeping at least the social distance of 2m away, of course.

For many with children now at home for an extended period, it has opened a window into the life of teachers, sometimes challenging, often rewarding, occasionally hilarious – the rainbow pictures, and now animal explanations, that have appeared in windows & on pavements, certainly in Kelvedon & Feering, have brightened walking-exercise and also shown great support for all our Key Workers.

For those working from home (sometimes also teaching!), it has been a time of experiment and discovery as we explore the 2020 technology in more detail, and in many cases, we find it actually allows us to do a significant amount of work WITHOUT having to go anywhere, saving time, fuel, emissions & money - which is in short supply, for many, anyway. 

This extends to Local Authority business, where many of us have been learning that a “Teams” or “Zoom” meeting can get as much done as a normal meeting. I was proud to chair the first virtual Local Highways Panel (LHP) meeting last Friday for the Braintree District where we were able to confirm projects we would like to prioritise in 2020-21. This will allow Essex Highways officers to move forward (from home!) with designs, & devise plans for implementation as soon as we can after the crisis measures are relaxed.  

The meeting helped to unlock what would otherwise be an undesirable delay in welcome improvements to our local road network. I have this week spent time encouraging other Chairs of LHPs to utilise the virtual meetings, certainly during the emergency period, though I expect many other, particularly smaller private meetings, will also be exploring this (significantly more sustainable) meeting style.
Given the ease with which they can be conducted, I would strongly suggest that Parishes might consider holding virtual meetings where possible? 

As Deputy Cabinet Member for Highways & Infrastructure, our team have been busy every day, reacting to the latest updates and helping the other parts of the wider Essex team provide resilience in all infrastructure areas during this emergency, from Stansted to Harwich; Rochford to the M25 and the London borders. The overall aim, of course, is to ensure safe passage for Carers; the NHS; Emergency Services, essential workers and food deliveries, as well as consistent, and all important, internet!

We are very aware that, with Essex Highways only just getting to the end of the winter-service period that, as the weather warms, we would expect the surfacing and defect-rectification programme to be getting underway. Unfortunately, with some staff isolating, and the need to maintain social distancing, many engineering procedures just cannot, currently, be carried out safely. We do have teams out dealing with emergency repairs, and some notable projects are still being worked on, so long as the workforce can work safely. All of this may seem a shame, when the roads have seen flow reductions of over 70% and it might seem a good time to fix many problems, but we cannot ask our engineers to work in unsafe proximity.

We have also been looking forward to when we eventually get back to some sense of normality, though I sense that it will be a New Normal, not the old one, and that the return could easily take twice as long as the lockdown, if not longer. What we do know is that where this disease has caused delay to many planned highway works, this could easily stretch into, or beyond, next winter. Like the current pleas to look after the NHS, we need to treat our Highways with similar care until we can attend to as many defects as we have done in the past.

With my Parking Partnerships responsibilities, I’ve also been busy. I’ve been pleased to encourage the extension of Residents Parking, & season tickets, by three months. This has been accompanied by “light touch” enforcement of restrictions while aware that, with so many people at home, our main focus is on helping keep roads clear enough for emergency & essential services, rather than issue tickets to those needing to park somewhere sensible while they stay at home. Please use common sense – if there’s no space for essential vehicles, or you park on a junction with double yellows, reducing safety, your lack of consideration does nothing for fellow residents!

Please note that I have only just joined Facebook, with a “Councillor Robert Mitchell” page. I’m still learning and am finding it quite challenging to fight through the clutter – Twitter @CllrRob is a much cleaner platform in my view! Please bear with me while I get to grips with FB and, for those wishing to make contact, please DO NOT use FB, as I cannot give any assurance that I will see it, but I will respond to emails to my County address.

Do be reassured that ECC is still very much working, with most very satisfactorily from home. As a recent appointee to the Essex Climate Commission, I have been observing the massive, sustainable, improvements we can continue to make in public service by maximising the virtual options for both meetings and now decision making.

My apologies for the length of this, but this is a both a scary (and exciting in technology areas) time in history, like no other ever envisaged, so please continue to stay safe & look after yourselves during what’s likely to be an unusual, and possibly disjointed, Easter Weekend.

Stay Home; Protect the NHS; Save Lives

Robert Mitchell

Always contactable by email: Cllr.Robert.Mitchell@essex.gov.uk