All posts tagged 'KCC'

Inhalers, pollution and a council tax shock: The week in Kent Politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 4 2014

Here's my pick of the week's top political news in the county:

1. As a toxic cloud hung over much of the county and we were advised to stay indoors, the Liberal Democrat minister for climate change Ed Davey gamely paid a visit to one of the county's most polluted roads in Maidstone - where he was pictured enthusiastically drawing on an inhaler and blowing his nose. No, it wasn't a PR set-up despite some being a little sceptical about his inhaling technique. His prognosis on more days of heavily polluted air?  "We will just have to get used to it," he said. 

2. The question of whether  Manston Airport could survive continued to dominate the headlines. There were more twists and turns as it emerged that an unidentified consortium had withdrawn its offer to take over the airport, seeming to signal another major setback. But unions representing the 150 staff under threat revealed that they had put forward plans to safeguard its future. Meanwhile, the two Thanet MPs secured a commitment from the Kent MP and business minister Michael Fallon to throw his weight behind a task force dedicated to saving Manston as an airport. But behind the scenes, speculation continued that the site could eventually be sold for housing development.

3. Council tax bills are rising - and there is a sting in the tail as thousands of the poorest households discovered this week they were being asked to pay a greater contribution than last year. Councils blamed the government; the government said it was all down to cutting the welfare bill and charities warned the increases  would tip more people into poverty.

4. It was round two in the European "hokey cokey" debate with Farage and Clegg squaring up over whether we should be in or out. Neither delivered a knockout blow but the post-debate polls made rather grisly reading for the Liberal Democrat leader who - despite getting some credit for initiating the debate - might now be regretting the whole idea.

Meanwhile, UKIP sources revealed that the UKIP election campaign would wind up with a huge rally in Thanet just days before polling day. Let's hope they don't do a Labour-style Sheffield rally....

5. And finally, there was the shock news that Kent could be at the sharp end of another migrant influx - this time from Scotland if it voted for independence. It was claimed KCC had prepared contingency plans to deal with a new migrant wave of Scots, drawn by the supposedly better climatic conditions for "growing" haggis in the Garden of England. Suspicions about the credibility of the story quickly grew however when the date was spotted....

 

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The Friday Five: the top political news stories of the week

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 28 2014

This week's political round-up features Disneyland, more on the Manston airport saga and yet another setback for the Kent grammar school plan....

1. There have been plenty more twists and turns in the tale of Manston Airport. After last week's announcement that the owner Ann Gloag was consutling on closure, there seemed to be fresh hope when Thanet North MP  Roger Gale announced he had been in touch with a potential buyer.

But the consortium said to be interested in taking over the airport was shrouded in secrecy and it was unclear if the owner was interested in selling. Meanwhile, Saudi Cargo said it would suspend its operations from next week and KLM followed suit, saying it was not taking bookings beyond April 10. Meanwhile, KCC and Thanet council announced the creation of a task force dedicated to keeping Manston going. To coin a phrase, everything is up in the air...

2.  Councillors in Gravesham were in a spot of hot water over their plans to take a trip to Disneyland and other theme parks in Florida at taxpayers' expense. The reason?

The "fact finding" trip was planned so councillors and six officers could  examine how a theme park operated so they could better manage the planning process for the huge Paramount scheme expected to be built in north Kent. Inevitably, the council was forced on the defensive, saying that the council would be dealing with a scheme of "global significance". For some reason, that justification for the £15,500 trip failed to impress many....

3. There was yet another setback for Kent's grammar school annex plan with the news that governors of the Weald of Kent Girls Grammar had decided against going co-ed - a move that would have paved the way for it to become the sponsor school for the Sevenoaks satellite. Campaigners seeemd resigned to the possibility that this development might signal the end of the road for the project.

4. Canterbury must rank as one of Kent's most congested places so there was some potentially good news for long-suffering motorists and others with the announcement of a £53m package of road improvement schemes. The city council said the schemes represented the biggest shake-ups in the road network since the 1970s. 

5. Finally, there was a political spat over at County Hall in the wake of a backbench report that suggested that Kent could benefit to the tune of £100m from the EU in the next six years. The opposition UKIP group were distinctly unimpressed but the largely positivie report was welcomed by an unusual alliance of the Tory group, Labour and the Lib Dems. Mind you, they may have some trouble selling that on the doorstep in the run-up to the Euro election in May.

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Categories: Margate | Mayoralty | Precept

Are heads right to bridle at KCC's "hire-and-fire" plan?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 12 2014

Kent County Council is facing some awkward questions and unwanted publicity over a draft protocol that sets out to head teachers what might happen to them if they preside over a failing school and have been in charge for two years or more.

Under the proposals, heads will effectively be eased out, put on gardening leave and replaced. Given that under Ofsted's own inspection regime, if a school is in special measures it is regarded as failing to have the necessary leadership skills to improve things, you might well ask why head teachers are complaining.

Especially given that KCC has drawn up the policy document after being requested to by the Kent Primary School Forum. Cllr Roger Gough, the politician in charge of schooling and standards, admits he is slightly puzzled by the furore - as diplomatic as ever.

It is not as if head teachers don't know that this is the likely scenario - indeed, it happens more or less every time a school is failed by Ofsted, not just in Kent but every other part of the country. And many parents would find it hard to understand why, if their child's school is failing to make the grade, there is no change in the leadership of that school.

So, do heads have a genuine grievance? The long shadow of Ofsted looms daily over schools. Heads, governors and teachers live in an almost constant state of tension and nervousness about a visit from inspectors.

At the same time, education authorities bear the corporate responsibility of improving standards at all schools - yes, even academies - and education officials at County Hall have the DfE breathing down their necks, which is then transposed to schools.

It is a toxic combination. You can forgive heads for feeling a little aggrieved at the stark way in which KCC has set out the likely sequence of events although invoking the Argentinian junta's policy of "disappearing" military dissidents is a little over the top.

The analogy one head made with football club managers struggling to keep their team from relegation and keeping demanding owners happy with results is a fairer one.

The problem seems to be that heads, rightly or wrongly, feel that KCC has got the balance between offering support and threatening sanctions skewed towards the latter. 

There is no doubt that Kent does have a problem with recruitment at the top. In a selective system, the challenges facing non-selective secondary schools are sometimes seen as a disincentive to aspiring heads although there are a number of all-ability schools that prove that becoming an outstanding schools is not beyond them. 

KCC insists its overriding priority is to provide schools and heads with appropriate support, although given the axe that is being taken to school improvement services that becomes more difficult.

Under the stewardship of its director Patrick Leeson, standards have steadily improved but there are some signs that sustaining this improvement is going to be a greater challenge.

Heads are right to flag up their concerns about recruitment.

They are also right to question what looks like a fairly uncompromising approach by KCC to under-performance. 

The authority appears to have forgotten its own mantra that  'one size does not fit all.'

 

 

 

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Gove's academy revolution and the school place free-for-all

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 26 2014

Kent County Council's decision to consult over closing the Chaucer Technology College has unsurprisingly caused anger and dismay among parents and pupils, who had thought the future was secure only a few weeks ago and are now levelling accusations of betrayal.

Had the politicians had any alternative, there is no doubt they would have sought to find one.

Decisions to close schools are almost always contentious and invariably trigger campaigns to keep them open. In the case of the Chaucer School,  it has been a particularly messy affair - not helped in this case by the fact that Kent County Council had believed an academy chain wanted to take it over  but then withdrew their interest.

Chaucer's future will be determined in June but the proposal to shut it provides a vivid illustration of the tension between education authorities and the Department for Education when it comes to planning and providing enough places.

The county council's statutory obligation is to ensure that there are enough school places across Kent. In the jargon, it is now a "commissioner" of places rather than a "provider." This obligation also requires the council to make sure that there are not too many empty desks or surplus places.

This job has become much more difficult with the advent of academy schools, which are independent and outside council control. Under Michael Gove's revolution, academies have been empowered to expand and grow to meet parental demand.

Why? Because the government believes that the often illusory concept of choice is enhanced if you allow popular schools to expand.

In the brave new world of Michael Gove, in which freedom and autonomy for schools are valued above anything else, academies can expand without anyone outside the school having a say in whether it might be a good or bad thing. Councils have no power of veto over academies who want to take in more pupils which is precisely what the Canterbury Academy is doing. 

It plans to offer 50 more places to Year 7 children in a direct response to parental demand and its continuing popularity. And it is this that KCC cites as a key reason why Chauncer should close.

This growth at Canterbury Academy comes at a time when the demand for places in the district are forecast to fall over the next few years, in contrast with many other areas of the county.

The planned closure of Chaucer is not the fault of Canterbury Academy. It is simply doing what parents want and it certainly hasn't done it out of any malice towards Chaucer.

Kent County Council and the school undoubtedly have questions to answer about the way it has handled the decision, not the least of which is the apparent shortcomings in the way the news was communicated to shocked parents and pupils.

But some questions should also be asked of the government. It has sold the academy programme on claims that it will improve standards and critically give parents greater opportunity for their children to attend popular and successful schools locally - a promise that parents at Chaucer may well feel is hardly worth the paper it is written on.

An education system in which councils are given the job of planning for places but do so alongside increasing numbers of  individual schools who can do their own thing may not be totally impossible but certainly presents challenges.

And if the unfettered free-for-all for school places continues, we may find there are other schools becoming "unviable".

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Why is it taking so long for Kent crime commissioner Ann Barnes to announce who is to be her youth crime tsar?

Interviews for the post took place in November but since then, nothing has happened. Pressed on the issue by MP Mark Reckless at a Home Affairs Select Committee, Mrs Barnes said it wouldn't be too long before she could say anything but alluded to "various reasons" why there had been a delay.

Unfortunately, we are none the wiser as she added that she could not go into any details. Curious.

 

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County Hall balances the books but worse is to come

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 14 2014

In the end, there wasn't quite as much political drama as there might have been at Kent County Council's budget meeting.

After seven hours of debate and the usual slew of opposition amendments, the figures remained exactly as they did before 84 members trooped into County Hall to consider the best way of spending £1.6bn of public money and whether to back the first council tax rise in three years.

The ruling Conservatives had managed to diffuse a potential flashpoint by dropping its original plans for a cap on the popular children's Freedom Pass.

If the new plans did not completely neutralise the opposition parties, they did enough to ensure that potentially disaffected backbenchers in their own ranks did not rebel.

Indeed, it was pretty obvious that the Conservative group were under instructions to rally round the beleaguered cabinet member David Brazier, who has come in for a lot of flak for the way things have been handled.

We were told - not altogether convincingly - that far from being a humiliating U-turn, the heroic Mr Brazier deserved credit for having 'listened to the people' and responding accordingly with different plans. (Or a U-turn...)

There is also some talk of bringing in a pay-by-installments scheme to ease the burden on parents who have to buy more than one pass. It remains a tricky issue for KCC however: the cost of the post-16 pass at £400 is likely to prove too much for many and given the bleak financial outlook for councils, it may be something that KCC will be forced to revisit.

It was interesting to see some strange political alliances among the opposition parties - notably UKIP teaming up with the Lib Dems and the sole Green councillor - and although their efforts to amend parts of the budget were all voted down, I suspect we will see more of this opposition rainbow coalition.

It was also interesting to see that the Conservatives have clearly decided to go on the offensive against UKIP.  The role of chief tormentor has been handed to Cllr Jeremy Kite - also the leader of Dartford council - who relishes verbally duffing up the Ukip group in the way he did with the Lib Dems.

In a sense, this rather flatters the 17-strong UKIP group, who six months on since the county council election are beginning to show signs of being rather more effective in their role than they have been, notwithstanding the occasional naive amendment.

The main message coming out of County Hall is that while the books are balanced this year, there is worse to come.

Leader Paul Carter indicated that the need to save a further £90m in the next two years was likely to result in more pain for taxpayers. Whether the "Facing The Challenge" programme can deliver transformation without cuts to key services remain to be seen.


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Kent County Council carried out an extensive consultation over its budget plans this year and succeeded in getting many more people to respond than it has ever done before.

One interesting finding was that while residents clearly understood the need for restraint and broadly accepted the need for a council tax hike, when it came to whether there should be more privatisation or outsourcing to save money, only 13% supported the idea.

Underpinning this scepticism was the belief that private companies ultimately are more interested in how much money they can make from contracts rather than the quality of the services the provide.

KCC's transformation agenda envisages the council doing much more outsourcing and privatisation and is currently in the first stage of examining the level of interest there is among contractors to run services, including libraries.

The issue is whether, if contractors are not interested in some of these services, KCC feels able to continue with them given the financial cosh it is under.



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Categories: Politics

Savings here,savings there but still the bills rise

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 17 2014

Kent County Council, like every other authority, is facing a huge challenge trying to balance its books in the face of Draconian cuts in government grants.

Having frozen the council tax for three years, the Conservative-run authority now plans a hike of just under 2% - meaning that the savings it has to make are a little over £80m rather than £90m.

It believes council taxpayers will, with some reluctance, accept the hike - although they haven't got much option.

The council is delivering a strong message that despite the budget shortfall, its latest "transformation" project will mean frontline services will be spared and those who rely on them won't notice any difference.

That of course depends partly on what you call a key service.

Although it is discretionary, for example, there are lots of families who are discovering that the school Freedom Pass will cost them substantially more than they have been accustomed to paying for their children to get to and from school.

As with all council budgets, the devil is in the detail - and in KCC's case, you can't say it doesn't deliver on that front.

The difficulty is the rather imprecise and occasionally vague way some savings are described.

This year, the phrase of choice is "review" and there are more "reviews " than you would get at the opening night of the an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Some examples:

  • A review of the education psychology service, saving £280k;
  • A review of inclusion budgets, saving £193k;
  • A review of economic development activity, saving £640k
  • A review of staff management structures and other efficiencies, saving £1.05m.
  • A review of arrangements across the gateways porfolio, saving £150k

I am told  the word review has been chosen to reflect the fact the savings target is "deliverable" but  the precise way it will be achieved has not been determined. Which begs the obvious question of how does the council know it is 'deliverable?'

Elsewhere, the language is more precise in describing various reductions. For example:

  • A reduction in directors and managers, saving £750k;
  • A reduction in the use of agency staff in social services, saving £492k
  • A reduction in school improvement activity, saving £250k
  • A reduction in the libraries book fund, saving £150k

Some of the headline savings - or cuts - are already known, such as the £12m being saved in budget for looking after vulnerable elderly people and the £2m being cut from the budget for children's centres.

Elsewhere, there are references to "right-sizing," "procurement efficiencies" and "demand management" - all part of the local authority lexicon where budgets are concerned.

Given the scale of the savings being forced on it by the government, residents might need some persuading that Kent County Council is managing this without any cuts anywhere, no matter how they are described.

Still, this year's challenge of squaring the budget circle will not be the end. In 2015-16, the council has said it will have to save £43m and in 2016-17, a further £44m. As yet, the savings have not been identified.

Stand by for further reviews.

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Categories: Precept

Fracking push leaves councils in a bind.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 14 2014

There are good reasons why the planning system has legal safeguards to stop developers offering sweeteners to councils. 

But there is nothing to stop politicians from doing so - which explains how the government has been able, as it announced yesterday, to dangle the promise of money before hard-pressed local authorities if they give the go-ahead to fracking wells.

Government push for more fracking denounced as bribery>>>

The political line is that communities that are affected by fracking deserve a share in the rewards.

In this case, it is a pledge that councils will be able to keep 100% of the business rates companies pay. There is also the promise that communities where wells are sunk may get an additional dividend from any profits.

Of course, the politicians would prefer us to describe this as an incentive rather than a bribe.

But whatever term you use, it still looks like a fairly naked attempt to buy off councils who are desperately short of money - not least because the government has cut their grants. 

It is hard to tell how planning authorities will respond but they are in an invidious position. Give the go-ahead for drilling wells and they stand to be accused of putting money before the environment.

Refuse and others will complain that they are running scared and want to avoid becoming the next Balcombe, let alone forfeiting money that could be used to support crucial frontline services.

Fracking is controversial and the government's latest intervention is only likely to make it more so. In fact, it reinforces the perception that there are risks associated with the way shale gas is extracted.

After all, if the arguments in favour of fracking were so comprehensive and persuasive, would there be any need to make such offers?

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Kent County Council has produced a new version of its report that rather controversially asserted that there was a link between the government's welfare reforms and rising crime, homelessness and food bank use.

It followed a decision from council leader Paul Carter to withdraw the report over concerns that the evidence on which conclusions were drawn was flawed and data was misnterpreted

Guess what?

The second report has concluded that the evidence on which the conclusions were drawn was indeed flawed and it was too early to say "with any certainty" what the impact of the changes might be.

Fancy that.

 

 

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Welfare Reforms, County Hall And The Sound of Shredding

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, December 5 2013

If you have passed by County Hall in the last couple of days and heard machinery whirring into action, it may well be the sound of copies of KCC's report into welfare reforms being shredded.

The report and its contents were due to have been discussed by a backbench watchdog cabinet scrutiny committee on Friday (6) but it has been taken off the agenda.

KCC leader Paul Carter intervened to withdraw it after a closer reading of its conclusions, saying that it was not well-evidenced (debatable,in my opinion) and he had asked for it to be rewritten.

Politically, you can understand why he was anxious about its findings, which explicitly linked the government's welfare reforms to rising rates of homelessness, crime and the use of food banks.

He clearly realised the report - which cautioned that the findings were "tentative" - would be seized on by other parties to undermine and embarrass the government over its flagship reforms.

The irony is that in withdrawing it, the county council has only succeeded in drawing more attention to it than if it had been left on the agenda.

From a PR perspective, it was not the greatest triumph.

Inevitably, the council now stands accused of suppressing a report because it has politically unpalatable conclusions. It wasn't too long before opposition parties leapt into action to accuse the leader of "playing politics."

When I first spoke to Cllr Carter on Monday, he was circumspect about the conclusions, arguing there had yet to be a direct causal link between the reforms and rising homlessness.

At the same time, he accepted the package of changes introduced by the government could be a "significant component part of increasing homelessness and the start of migration into the boroughs and districts" -  adding that it was "early days" and the trends would be monitored.

That struck me as a perfectly reasonable response. Clearly, he later had a chance to reflect on the contents and concluded it would be better if it was rewritten.

The difficulty with this is that the new version will inevitably be contasted with the first draft - and KCC risks being accused of a whitewash on top of trying to suppress findings because they are politically uncomfortable.

The fact the report was written at all is because county councillors asked for it. It represented the first six-monthly account "to help monitor and update on these impacts."

Councillors have rightly decided they need to be kept abreast of the reforms and how they are impacting on Kent and vulnerable groups.

The problem they now have is wondering whether anything that is presented to them represents the impartial expert view of officers or has been massaged by politicians before it gets into the public domain.

You can join the 3,000+ people who already have and  read the report here.

 

 

 

 

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Is KCC about to thaw over council tax freeze?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 6 2013

It is a few months before councils decide how much residents will have to pay next year by way of the council tax but it looks like many are weighing up whether continuing with a freeze on household bills is viable and sustainable.

Some councils in Kent have already bitten the bullet and ignored the government's edict to freeze bills this year, arguing that they have had no alternative in the face of the budget cuts enforced on them by the government as it grapples with the public sector deficit.

Kent County Council's Conservative administration will be setting out its draft budget proposals at the end of the week and it will be interesting to see whether the spending plans include an option to hike up bills.

A number of county councils rejected the government's offer of a one off grant equivalent to a one per cent increase in bills - including Oxfordshire, which just so happens to cover David Cameron's constituency so KCC would not be striking out alone. Others that chose to increase bills said it was not worth taking the government's grant handout.

KCC has already prepared the ground for the possible ending of the freeze. In its medium term financial plan  for 2013-15, finance chiefs acknowledged that the freeze "creates additional pressure on future years budgets..while the council remains committed to keeping council tax increases to an absolute minimum, at this stage an increasefor 2014/15 cannot be ruled out."

One of the challenges for KCC next year is that its longer term "transformation" project - involving another re-organisation and the outsourcing of many services - is unlikely to be delivering enough savings anticipated to ease the pressure on the council's coffers.

Councils are already fearing the worst and are ramping up the pressure on Eric Pickles, the Communities minister.

This week, the Local Government Association warned that some councils were getting close to being unable to meet their statutory obligations because of the spending squeeze. It said some councils were at breaking point - a rather dramatic claim. It urged the Chancellor to reverse £1bn of cuts to local government grant to provide some stability for authorities already creaking under the impact of successive years of government enforced cuts.

KCC is keeping tight-lipped until it unwraps its budget but my guess is that an option for a modest council tax increase might be incorporated into the draft budget - if only because it won't want to risk dipping into its reserves again.

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Doing more with less - Kent County Council's £240m funding gap

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, July 10 2013

Doing more with less has become a familiar challenge for all councils in recent years, particularly since the coalition decided budgets for local government would not be protected in the same way as schools and defence and foreign aid.

Kent County Council is to try and square the budget circle and address an estimated £240m funding gap through yet another "transformation" that will involve it becoming primarily a commissioning authority.

Translated this means it will get others to provide services rather than deliver them itself. 

It already does a lot of this anyway and it is not a new approach. Outsourcing, to use the jargon, is commonplace across local authorities. KCC leader Paul Carter was keen to emphasise that he and his colleagues are open-minded about who should run services and if a social entrepeneur was a better bet than a large conglomerate then the council would look at it. The council will be acutely conscious of the problems other councils have had in trying to recast themselves as "virtual" organisations or hiving off everything that moves to the private sector.

He also underlined that the council was not planning a "slash and burn" approach to discretionary services.

A report setting out the approach does hint, however, that the council will be creative over its definition of what amounts to statutory services (those it has to provide), saying "wherever possible, we will seek to redefine and benchmark our baseline definition of what statutory services mean in terms of cost, quality and scale for the people of Kent. Where such services are not considered to be a high priority, KCC will provide appropriate de minimis funding to meet its legal obligations and may even seek to have those legislative requirements removed."

It adds that the council "will not prioritise spending decisions purely on the basis that services are statutory."

Translated, this appears to mean that KCC will only spend the minimum it needs to on some services based on how important residents think they are, which could be problematic.

The notion that it could seek to have statutory obligations removed is intriguing and is the sort of thing that could end up in messy court challenges.

We don't know what exactly is in the pipeline but some familiar arguments are being rehearsed over privatisation. Opponents say private companies are interested only in the bottom line - money - meaning they are much more likley to cherry pick the most lucrative or viable. And just because you outsource a service, it doesn't mean you no longer have any responsibility for it: KCC will still need people to manage contracts and make sure the job is being done and for councillors the task of being the checks and balances to make sure things do not go awry.

Supporters say services can be much more efficient under the private sector and less costly to run. Either way, KCC hasn't done much more than set out its strategic approach. A second report setting out options will be published in September, although sources say much of it has already been written. 

Whether these options will genuinely protect and even enhance services will rather depend on which side of the political fence you sit.

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As the official opposition at County Hall, UKIP has to date been rather quiet. Its 17-strong group has not exactly been vocal and there are one or two whispers that it is rather too close to the Conservative administration. Which would be understandable, not to say something the Conservatives would be keen to encourage.

So, what does it think of the county council's commissioning strategy? Its leader Cllr Roger Latchford said that in the circumstances, the strategy provided the best way forward for the council but the party would scrutinise things as they came along.

Meanwhile, a rather different tone was struck by Swale UKIP councillor Mike Baldock, who tweeted that KCC’s approaoch was “a sure route to poor services and less value for money - exactly what people don’t want to see. A failure in other councils.” Not exactly singing from the same hymn sheet.

 

 

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