All posts by paul francis

The Friday Five - a round-up the week's top political stories in Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, September 5 2014

The Mayor of London considered it a dream but others saw it as nightmare. But it was Boris who woke up in a cold sweat this week when Sir Howard Davies finally sunk his grand plans for a Thames Estuary airport.

In a conclusive demolition of the scheme, the Commission said it was too costly, too environmentally damaging and too disruptive. Boris reacted in characteristically forthright fashion. "In one myopic stroke, the Commission has set the debate back by half a century," he railed. But for all his fluster, the scheme looks dead and buried. Unless BoJo becomes Prime Minister.

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There was not much evidence of entente cordiale as migrants gathered at Calais resorted to increasingly desperate attempts to cross to the UK. The Mayor of Calais threatened to blockade the port - a threat that didn't go down terribly well with Kent MPs or ministers. UKIP leader Nigel Farage remained uncharacteristially quiet...

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It was described by its creator as a "abstracted diagrammatic river...and a calligraphic motif simultaneously embedded in and separate from the surrounding streetscape." But the £100,000 concrete "flume" - an artistic feature of the divisive shared space road scheme in Ashford is falling apart and is to be ripped up. And who is to pay for it? Have a wild guess...

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After the defection of Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to UKIP, the spotlight shone on other likely suspects who might follow suit. The Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless was the subject of this speculation but killed it off swiftly while Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson revealed he had been contacted by someone asking if he would like to consider joining. No, he said.

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Still, the UKIP bandwagon keeps rolling on although I doubt very much that Mr Cameron will be quaking in his boots just yet to learn that the Conservatives have lost a by-election in Folkestone.

Congratulations to David Callahan, though, who took the seat from the Conservatives with 27.9% of the vote, six points ahead of Tory candidate Rodica Wheeler with 21.7%.

 

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Categories: Precept | Relationships

Dropping Boris Island won't make the next airport decision any easier

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, September 2 2014

For Boris Johnson, it was a dream solution but for many in Kent and Medway, it was a nightmare.

Now the Mayor of London has seen his vision of a four-runway hub airport grounded and unlikely to take off again at any time in the near future.

Grounded: The estuary airport plan is cut adrift>>>

For all the Mayor's protestations, the one thing he cannot complain about is that the Davies Commission didn't give him a fair hearing.

The review of the option allowed the Mayor and Lord Foster to argue their case again with the commission but it was to no avail - and some suspect it was always going to get knocked back.

The costs, the environmental damage and the disruption caused by closing and relocating an airport were all cited as difficulties that the commission concluded would be insurmountable.

It was not as if the arguments were finely balanced. The case against going ahead was fairly clear despite Lord Foster's assertion that the conclusion reached by the commission meant a fairly predictable compromise.

Attention now focuses on whether Heathrow or Gatwick should expand and both options are politically awkward.

Expansion of Heathrow would expose the Conservatives to the legitimate charge of performing a huge U-turn. Expanding Gatwick risks opposition from traditionally Conservative supporting heartlands - including west Kent.

The review will not report back until next September, conveniently after the general election.

What happens then is anyone's guess - particularly if there is a change in government and the possibility that Boris is back at Westminster.

The major problem with addressing aviation capacity in the south east is perhaps the fact that politicians are involved.

No decision will be taken until all the political ramifications are carefully calibrated and measured against the economic arguments.

Don't expect a quick decision - even if that is what UK plc desperately needs.

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After the coronation - now UKIP leader Nigel Farage faces the heavy artillery

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, August 27 2014

There was never really any doubt about the outcome of UKIP's hustings meeting to select the party's election candidate for Thanet South and if it wasn't quite a coronation, it came pretty close. It might have been billed as a genuine contest between the four candidates but Nigel Farage had activists eating out of his hands from the moment he took the stage.

Nigel Farage canters to victory in UKIP hustings>>>

Although in later interviews he reined back a little over his declaration that UKIP might hold the balance of power  next May, you could, in the febrile and euphoric atmosphere at the Odd Fellows Hall in Ramsgate, see why he said it.

So, can he win in Thanet South? Here are the reasons he might - and the reasons why he might not:

For:

  • UKIP has established a solid base of support in the constituency, with a growing number of activists and volunteers prepared to pound the streets, stuff envelopes and generally do anything they can to get him elected. After successes that exceeded the party's expectations in the county council election last May, UKIP believe it has momentum that will carry them through to next May.
  • Nigel Farage may not be to everyone's taste but he is a skilled and astute politician, who knows the area well and has a proven track record in winning elections. Yes, his claim to local connections are a little tendentious - he lives in west Kent - but he is hardly the first candidate to stand in a constituency he does not (yet) live in. The Conservative candidate CraIg McKinlay, for example, lives in Medway.
  • Although UKIP has become an established political organisation, it is still regarded as being outside the political mainstream. Voter disenchantment with the main parties remains high and UKIP continues to be a repository of support for the disaffected. It will benefit from the "plague on all your houses" sentiment for all it is worth
  • UKIP views on immigration and the EU continue to chime with a lot of voters across the political spectrum. It will push the message that if you want UKIP, you have to vote UKIP. Europe will be a big issue in the election in a way that it wasn't in 2010 and Thanet has arguably seen the consequences of a failure by successive governments to properl tackle immigration over the years
  • Voters like backing winners - if people feel UKIP is in with a chance of causing a political upset, they may want to join in.

Against:

  • By his own admission, the UKIP leader is a marmite politician. He divides opinion in a way few politicians do - you either like him or you don't. There's no middle ground.
  • While voters are concerned about immigration, as well as being sceptical over the EU, they will also want to know where UKIP stands on other issues. At the moment, there is a big policy gap that it needs to fill fairly quickly.
  • The other parties see UKIP as a genuine threat - although they might not admit it publicly. That means they will bring in the heavy artillery during the campaign to try and see it off. Expect Thanet to be inundated by a stream of visits from political heavyweights in the run up to May's poll.
  • UKIP is undergoing much more scrutiny than before and continues to have candidates and supporters capable of dropping the party in it with the odd unguarded remark and throwaway comment. It will have to be hard on disciplining transgressions rather than letting them go unpunished if it wants to be seen as a "serious" party.


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Categories: Precept

Has Nigel let Janice off the hook in the latest UKIP row?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, August 20 2014

You can't deny that UKIP leader Nigel Farage acted swiftly in response to the row over the now infamous 'ting tong' comments made by fellow MEP Janice Atkinson, captured by the BBC South East while filming in Ramsgate.

In a damage limitation exercise, he made a personal visit to Vince and Fa Munday the day after the comments were broadcast, allowing himself to be filmed in their house delivering an apology on behalf of UKIP.

   

 

As these things go, it was about as successful as it could have been   - with some caveats, the couple absolved him of any blame over a fairly disastrous and embarrassing episode and even suggested they would continue to support the party.

His decisiveness in visiting the couple is one thing. But it has not been matched by a willingness to stamp his authority by imposing any serious sanctions on Janice Atkinson.

Instead, he has promised to give her a stern ticking off and warn that he will not countenance any further digressions.

This is a bit like a headmaster calling a wayward pupil into the office to say that he or she is in the last-chance saloon and next time they step out of line, they will be really for it.

This is a missed opportunity. The charge often levelled against UKIP, which it strongly disputes, is that many of its members and supporters are racist.

The offensive comments made by Janice Atkinson add fuel to that fire and will hand UKIP's opponents value ammunition in the general election campaign.

Nigel Farage has said he does not want to trigger official disciplinary procedures which are there to act when any member brings the party into disrepute. He said it would be inappropriate for what he described as "a first offence."

Loyalty to a party colleague in a bit of bother is fine but I doubt very much that others will see it that way.

Forcing his fellow MEP to resign was never likely but one option would have been to remove the whip temporarily from the beleaguered Janice Atkinson, as he did with the Godfrey Bloom in the "sluts" row.

Perhaps he feels the vilification that has been directed at her is enough of a punishment.

Up until she made her "ting tong" comments, she was widely expected to land the nomination in another UKIP target seat - perhaps in Folkestone and Hythe - but I imagine those prospects have been seriously diminished if not holed below the waterline.

Having an outspoken candidate is one thing but constituency associations will tread very warily around a would-be MP whose every utterance will be scrutinised and every action put under the spotlight.

Even UKIP's enthusiasm for plain-speaking and controversy has its limits.

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Meanwhile, the Thanet South UKIP constituency association has released the details of the four candidates in the running for what is a key target seat.

 

It is an interesting list - included is the Lib Dem candidate who stood in the Thanet South election back in 2010 - but it is impossible to see the party members going for anyone other than the party leader.

We will find out next Tuesday. 

 

 

 

 

 

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UKIP leader Farage will be in it to win it

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, August 15 2014

Finally, the speculation over where UKIP leader Nigel Farage is going to stand at the general election is over. And, as expected, he is to go for the nomination in Thanet South, where the party feels it has a better than evens chance of making a long-awaited parliamentary breakthrough.

Of course, he has yet to go through his party's selection process but even allowing for the occasionally perverse choices made by local constituency associations,  it is inconceivable that activists would want anyone else.

I will stand for nomination in Thanet South, says UKIP leader Farage>>>

So, can UKIP win? National polls would suggest not but that is to ignore local circumstances and demographics.

The current MP Laura Sandys is standing down, meaning that any personal vote she may have carried is gone.

UKIP can legitimately claim to have established Thanet as a power base after the county council election last year, when it won seven of the divisions up for grabs. it has a well organised local association and won't have difficulty in mobilising foot soldiers to pound the streets come election time.

The fact that the Conservatives have chosen a former UKIP member, Craig Mackinlay, to be its candidate is an indication of how anxious they are about the challenge - underlined vividly by the share of the vote UKIP took at the recent European election - 45.9% - compared to 22% for the Conservatives, albeit in an election with a low turnout.

The charismatic Farage will bring some stardust  to the campaign but that is a double-edged sword: plenty of people like him as a plain-talking, unspun "man of the people" but equally, many see this as precisely the opposite and a carefully contrived - but entertaining - act.

Labour will also have some anxieties over a strong UKIP push in a seat they have eyed up as a target for some time. The worrying scenario for them is that some polls are suggesting that UKIP is drawing as many votes from them as it is from the Conservatives - which will play to UKIP's claim that Thanet South is a tight three-way marginal.

UKIP's prospects for an historic parliamentary breakthrough in Kent are probably about as good as they will ever be. The party has momentum, a high profile and a leader who enjoys popular support and knows that the issue of Britain's membership of the EU will be centre stage in the election campaign.

Perhaps the only prediction about which there can be an certainty is that Thanet South will be a key electoral battleground. And if you are not enthused by politics or politicians, it could be a place to give wide berth to next May.

 

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Categories: Politics

UKIP and a little local difficulty over Nigel Farage

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, August 11 2014

An unguarded remark from an UKIP constituency official in Thanet South set off another round of speculation about  Nigel Farage and his interest in standing in the target seat of Thanet South in 2015.

But no-one seems any the wiser about whether he will apply for the seat - or has already - despite the assertion, reported in the Financial Times, that it was "the worst kept secret" in Thanet.

Separating fact from fiction is rather tricky and UKIP has not helped itself by the ambiguity of statements hurriedly put out at the end of last week.

The local UKIP association had been expected to announce a shortlist of would-be candidates on Friday.

It didn't and offered as explanation that it had received a number of late applications for the candidacy that meant it would now have to carry out a fuller shortlisting exercise, whittling them down for a final hustings meeting on August 26.

In answer to the question about whether Nigel Farage had thrown his hat in the ring, UKIP evaded a direct response by saying that nominations had continued to come in and the selection process was continuing. In the absence of a straight "yes he has" or "no he hasn't" you can understand the subsequent confusion.

What does seem rather odd is that the local party had a plan to reveal its shortlist on Friday but seemed  to have been steered away from doing so by the national party, which was possibly concerned that if, as predicted, Nigel Farage is to apply the selection would become a coronation rather than a contest.

That, of course, is still the likely outcome: it is stretching the imagination to conceive a situation where party members faced with a shortlist that includes the party leader would opt for someone else. It makes the claim that there had been a late flurry of applications less credible - given the steady drip drip of hints and speculation about the leader's intentions.

Even if you subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity, this rather messy turn of events has not been UKIP's finest hour.

Although I doubt local actvivists and party members will mind terribly if, come August 26, Nigel Farage is confirmed as the prospective candidate for Thanet South.

But we will have to wait until then to find out.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: blogs and bloggers | Politics | Urban Gravesham

A reboot for the Kent Crime Commisioner - but will it work

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, July 25 2014

A very different Ann Barnes appeared before the inquistory Kent and Medway Crime Panel this week, a month on from being told to "reassess her style" and repair the damage done by her appearance in the disastrous TV documentary "Meet The Commissioner".

It was a less combative, more consensual and contrite commissioner who set out a range of proposals to improve the way she worked, especially in terms of her engagement with the public and the force, where many officers remain deeply unhappy they have been tarnished by association by the public relations car crash the Chanel 4 documentary proved to be.

So, what did we learn? What was clear is that the commissioner has grasped that the  Ann Barnes "brand" that proved successful when it came to winning the election has become a toxic one in office. So, there was a common theme to many of the proposals, which was a clear move to "depersonalise" her role.

This even involves re-branding her social media profile: her Twitter account no longer features her image or even her name, which you could argue is contradictory when considerinig the underlying reason behind commissioners, namely that the public have a readily identfiable accountable person overseeing the force.

There is to be an end to what she described as "confetti big bang publicity" events -  another tacit admission that her personality is a weakness as much as a strength. In its place will be greater focus on the commissioner's "office"  - again, an attempt to take away the spotlight from her and turn it....well, we are not quite sure where.

There were still flashes of the old Ann, when she referred to the panel as "gentlemen" - overlooking the three female members present and stated it was not necessarily a bad thing to have "a distinctive" style, even though that is what has landed her in difficulty.

Then there is the future of the van - dubbed Ann Force 1 during the election - which the commissioner has determined needs to be retired. Why? Because, according to Ann, she no longer wanted it "to be the story."

This may seem inconsequential but it goes to the heart of her difficulties and what underpins this reboot. The van was actually quite a good PR asset - when it came to the election, she bowled around the county in it to drum up support and the media were regularly told where it would be calling.

But in continuing to use it in office during "meet the commissioner" events, stripped off the promotional stickers, still gave the impression in some quarters that its real purpose was to continue to promote Ann - in other words, some considered it was all part of a rolling election campaign with one eye on 2016, when the next elections will be held.

You might have thought that members of the panel would have murmured their general approval with this decision but in a bizarre twist,  a succession of councillors got to their feet to implore Ann to keep the van. Cllr John Burden, the leader of Gravesham council, was among the cheerleaders. He said that if it was cost-effective and did the job, she should keep using it. A double bluff? Who knows but support came from all quarters, regardless of political allegiance.

The commissioner herself seemed rather perplexed, saying she would reflect on what the panel had said - leaving the van's fate in limbo.

Evidence, if she needed it, that rebranding is not an easy thing - and that it is particularly difficult to de-personalise a brand that has become so toxic largely because of the personality of the person involved.

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Our efforts to ask the commissioner a few questions about the changes were rejected when the meeting was completed. The commissioner said she had an engagement in Canterbury and didn't have time.

 

 


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Categories: Police | Politics

Out with stale males - but will anyone really care at election time?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, July 16 2014

With the kind of chutzpah you tend to expect from politicians, David Cameron declared that his reshuffle presented the best of modern Britain, which begged the obvious but unanswered question as to what sort of Britain we have been living in until this week.

Still, the reshuffle threw up enough changes to satisfy the hungriest of political commentators and observers, not least in the departure of the much-maligned education secretary Michael Gove, who will now get first hand experience of the challenge faced by many teachers every day - handling an undisciplined group of disinterested people.

For Kent's MPs, it proved to be a mixed bag. The much heralded cull of stale middle-aged males led to the unexpected sacking of policing minister Damian Green, the Ashford MP. What had he done wrong? Nothing at all.

Even the hard-nosed Police Federation lamented his departure, surely a first. But he fell into the political demographic being targeted by the PM and paid the price - the irony being that as a moderate, progressive Tory he no doubt believes that Mr Cameron may be doing the right thing in freshening up his top team. Having said that, in replacing Mr Green with Mike Penning - who is the kind of stale male Cameron wanted to cull, he is entitled to  be a little perplexed.

He is not a natural rebel, with consensual tendencies but his note of defiance in a tweet was intriguing, announcing that he would continue to fight for what he believed in. What could it mean? 

Also heading for the exit door is the Faversham and Mid Kent MP Hugh Robertson, widely praised for his stint as Olympics minister.

He decided to stand down as foreign office minister to take stock with his family about his future, which leaves open a variety of options. Having had arguably two of the most interesting ministerial briefs and overseeing the London Olympics, he may consider that he won't top that unless he gets a senior cabinet role. Might he decide to leave politics? A possibility as he has never made secret that he would like the chance to try his hand at another career.

Anti-fracking groups will no doubt be celebrating the departure of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon, who has landed the role of defence minister after a lengthy parliamentary career and who may owe his elevation partly to his Euro-sceptic tendencies.

The question is whether anyone will, come May 2015, care two hoots about this reshuffle? Cameron is obviously concerned that many regard his government as being made up of a privileged, public-school educated male-dominated elite who, despite their protestations, have no real grasp of the daily challenges of "ordinary hard-working" families. 

I seriously doubt anyone will go into a polling both next year, reminding themselves that the PM changed his top team to include more women. Voters are not stupid and tend to see through this kind of opportunism but you can understand Cameron's dilemma. If he had stuck with his hand rather than twisted, he would have handed his opponents an easy target.

On balance, it seems the right thing to do but it also runs a risk. Some of those promoted are unknown quantities and lack experience at the top level. And beyond the confines of Westminster, there is a large constituency of stale males in their fifties who may feel ratheraffronted at being written off.

UKIP no doubt already has them in its sights.

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 Michael Gove's departure as education secretary is said to have prompted high-fives and cheers in staff rooms up and down the length of the country.

You might also have heard a smallish cheer at County Hall, where the relationships betwen KCC and the DfE have been slightly fractious to say the least. KCC started the ball rolling by joining a High Court challenge over the cancellation of various building projects under the BSF scheme scrapped by the coalition.

More recently, there has been the vexed progress - or lack of it - over KCC's attempts to create a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks, which Mr Gove seemed rather cool about.

Where the new education secretary Nicky Morgan stands on selection is anyone's guess. But KCC will be extending the hand of friendship to someone who they hope just might be more sympathetic to their plan. 

 

 

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Categories: Politics

Have the Conservatives shot the UKIP fox in Thanet?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, July 8 2014

Whatever other qualities Craig Mackinlay may have, it is pretty clear that when it came to the Conservatives choosing their prospective candidate for Thanet South, his former involvement with UKIP was a trump card.

Ordinarily, would-be MPs who have dallied with other parties are often treated with suspicion by constituency activists but in this case, it worked to his advantage.

Former UKIP man to contest Thanet South for the Conservatives>>>

The threat of a significant challenge by UKIP in a key UKIP target seat in 2015 may not have caused a meltdown in Conservative ranks but there is no doubt there was a certain sense of panic about how to respond.

The prospect of the charismatic leader Nigel Farage being UKIP's candidate only served to add to the Conservative anxiety. The indignity of possible defeat next May and becoming a footnote in parliamentary history was beginning to cast something of a dark shadow.

So, handing the candidancy to the avowedly Eurosceptic Mackinlay, who fought two elections as a UKIP candidate and was briefly leader, was a shrewd tactical move.

He didn't lose much time in getting on the front foot and suggesting there was no reason why Nigel Farage should stand, now there was a Conservative running who was equally scepticalabout the EU. We can expect more of this in the run up to the election.

For his part, Nigel Farage has a dilemma. Had UKIP got through its selection process and adopted the leader as its candidate earlier, it could have argued that it was forcing the Conservatives' hand.

If Nigel Farage now looks elsewhere in Kent, he faces being accused of running scared - ironically, the charge levelled by the party when current MP Laura Sandys, who is on the pro-European wing of the Conservatives, announced she was standing down.

He has responded to questions about his intentions by saying that Thanet South is one of several constituencies in the mix.

But he has also been compelled to say that he will announce where he wants to stand in a few weeks, which does make it look like he is responding to events rather than leading them. The suggestion is that UKIP will seek to depict Mackinlay as "UKIP-lite" and depict their candidate as the real deal.

I have until now thought that he would opt for Thanet South above Folkestone and Hythe or Dover and Deal.

On balance, I still think he will but the odds have lengthened a little and strangely, UKIP are for once on the defensive.

 

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Categories: Precept

Why Nigel Farage is the elephant in the room for Thanet Conservatives

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, July 2 2014

It is perhaps a measure of UKIP's spectacular growth as a political party - or movement  - that when Thanet Conservatives meet this week to decide who they want as their prospective parliamentary candidate for Thanet South,  the name many will be thinking of first is Nigel Farage rather than the three shortlisted for the role.

He is, as one Conservative put it, "the elephant in the room."  Which is what makes the selection of someone to succeed Laura Sandys so intriguing. On paper and under different circumstances, this probably would be a seat where the Conservatives would be in a two-way battle with Labour and the Conservatives might expect to win.

The Thanet South Conservative shortlist>>>>

But there is a fly in the ointment. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has dropped several hints that this is a constituency he may contest at the general election and the Conservatives are acutely aware that would present a major challenge. Thanet is now an  area where UKIP is well entrenched, with seven county councillors, all elected last May and in the process, ousting some long-standing Conservatives.

So, one of the key considerations of association members will be which candidate would be best placed to neutralise UKIP and the Farage factor? The association has already made clear that is after someone prepared to champion an 'in-out' referendum even earlier than David Cameron has committed the party to, although a statement to that effect on the association's website is no longer there.

One of the three shortlisted candidates is Craig Mackinlay, who was a leading figure in UKIP for 12 years and fought a couple of elections for the party before rejoining the Conservatives in 2005. His credentials on this front are therefore sound and if the UKIP threat is uppermost in members' minds, might be considered a favourite.

UKIP would find it awkward to contest a seat where the Conservative candidate is a hardline Eurosceptic whose views are barely any different from Nigel Farage.

On the other hand, UKIP might feel that they can exploit a candidate by suggesting that if voters want the real thing when it comes to the election, you can't get a much more authentic voice of Euroscepticism than Nigel Farage.

Away from Europe, another factor is that Conservative Central Office is known to be anxious for there to be more women candidates at the election as several current MPs are standing down.

There have been some rumours that this view has been communicated rather firmly  to Thanet Conservatives. As the only female candidate, if this factor comes into play, then the odds might swing towards Anna Firth, a barrister and Sevenoaks district councillor.

In terms of their CVs, the shortlisted trio are all very able and whoever gets the nomination will be a good candidate.

But if Nigel Farage does eventually opt for Thanet South, the Conservative candidate will be pitchforked into the cauldron of an election contest where they will be taking on a party determined  to secure an historic parliamentary breakthrough.

 

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Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

News, views, gossip and analysis on Kent's political scene, from County Hall to Westminster.

Welcome to my blog. As KM Group's political editor, I keep an eye on the county's corridors of power.

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