Saturday, 18 May 2019

Less a Vote of Confidence and more an Incompetent Vote

With the ongoing saga of Brexit I suppose it was always beyond any reasonable doubt that the Conservatives would lose overall control of Southend Council on 2nd May and did well to maintain their position as the largest party group.

Inevitably negotiations then ensued as the parties investigated the possibility of formal coalitions or confidence and supply agreements. In my view quite correctly new Conservative Leader Tony Cox made clear that whilst he would not form a coalition he would negotiate an agreement with one of the smaller groups to accept certain policies and non-administration appointments in exchange for support on any confidence votes and the budget. This was the type of agreement I negotiated with the then Independent Party Leader Ron Woodley in 2012 which enabled the Conservatives to form and operate a successful minority administration for 2 years.

However this time it was clear that Ron, notwithstanding his position as a member of only the 3rd largest party group, wished the leadership for himself and in negotiations no agreement was reached.

Accordingly at Mayor Making on 9th May there was a 3 way vote with Tony Cox as Leader of the largest Group against Labour Leader Ian Gilbert and Ron Woodley. The voting went along party lines and with the smallest vote Ron dropped out. Then bizarrely he and his Independent colleagues decided not to vote for either candidate in what was an unbelievable dereliction of their duty to residents on one of the most important votes of the year. This must have been an agreed ploy as the outcome of the vote was not in doubt and allowed Tony Cox to win the subsequent vote by 2 votes. I will leave to another time any comment on the usual bloc voting of the Independent Party which once again reiterates that they are a party group and not a group of true Independents!

Following the vote Tony formed a cabinet, issued a positive, and in my view excellent, list of his administration’s immediate priorities which was very well received by local residents and businesses and started to work with officers.

In this scenario it simply beggars belief that the Independents are now apparently seeking to propose a vote of no confidence to try to engineer a removal of the current Administration. As Tony has pointed out this is before there have been any formal meetings or decisions and whilst it is therefore a statement of the obvious there has been nothing which the current Administration has yet done which could lead to a loss of confidence!

The decision on leadership was within the control of the Independent Party on 9th May but they collectively bottled it. To now waste time and money on this latest stunt can only further undermine the reputation of politicians with the public and demonstrates beyond doubt that notwithstanding their repeated claims that they are above party politics and are only interested in the best interests of the Town the Independent Party are the prime examples of those elements of the current system which they are so quick to criticise – unless of course they would like to explain what has changed so dramatically between 9th May and now.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Two hours free Town Centre parking and the elephant in the room!

The latest edition of Oracle dropped through my letter box this week and I see that the magazine is encouraging readers to download a petition form calling for Southend Council to make the first 2 hours parking in Town Centre car parks free to help stimulate town centre business.

This was one of the recommendations of an informative initiative facilitated by Philip Miller before Christmas to help save the Town Centre which included other excellent suggestions such as the reintroduction of vehicles to parts of the High Street and an increased emphasis on residential use.

It is difficult to argue against the claim that to introduce free parking would assist the retailers in the Town Centre however the problem with current calls is that no one is addressing the obvious elephant in the room namely what would fill the resulting and significant hole in the Council’s income.

In my time as Leader of the Council I asked officers to cost an initial period of free parking, but other than for a very limited introduction at Xmas, it was simply financially undeliverable. Instead we had to fall back on freezing the charges for 6 of the relevant 7 years and introducing other user friendly policies such as “pay on exit” – whatever happened to that!

For this to be deliverable there has to be a clear indication of how the hole in the Council’s finances would be filled – funding which would have to be income not capital and be sustainable moving forward.

There are other issues such as:
1. users would still need to take a ticket to check when the “free” period had expired;
2. what charge would apply after 2 hours? If at present levels the hit for staying slightly more than 2 hours would be dramatic and discourage stayers and to reduce would further erode income;
3. if the concession is limited to the Town Centre how would this affect parking on the seafront and preventing the Town Centre car parks filling with visitors not seeking to support retailers?

It is easy to say that the Council wastes money and it would be a brave man to deny that some waste existed however not at this level, particularly in circumstances where central government funding continues to decrease and demands for council services increase.

One option would be to increase council tax but this would be likely to require a local referendum and my experience of campaigning in local elections in the Town for the last 40 years is that it is highly unlikely that residents would support a council tax increase for this reason. Similarly money strapped businesses are unlikely to be able (or enthusiastic) about subsidising the scheme.

So a great idea but there needs to be a sensible debate on funding. In the meantime “pay on exit”, the return of 1 and 3 hour bands and machines that take cash would all help make council car parks more user friendly rather than downright hostile as they sometimes seem at present!

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Is cash no longer legal tender in Southend?

I have commented before on the efforts Southend Council appear to be making to dissuade visitors from using the Town's car parks by making payment as difficult as possible.

This came home to me again last week when my wife and I decided to go to the Odeon to see the latest Mary Poppins film. Perhaps I am showing my age but my mobile telephone is not permanently attached to my body and knowing that it would not be needed in the cinema I left it at home.

We were delighted to find a space in the small car park to the north of London Road close to Pizza Express and indeed were surprised to note the number of spaces available. Having got out of my car to find the payment machine the problem then dawned - the only available payment option was by phone or via the app and with no phone I was completely stymied. So there were spaces and I was happy and willing to pay but was unable to do so because of the absence of a payment machine which accepted cash or credit card.

There was someone else also trying to park who did not want to download the app and was trying to follow the directions to pay be text message but her attempts were being rejected.

So in the end we both left and parked further down London Road opposite Nazareth House avoiding any payment. Ok so this parking fee would not have underpinned the social care budget for the coming year but how often is this happening and how many visitors, like my fellow unsuccessful parker, are threatening not to return!

Friday, 7 December 2018

Seaway carpark development - part 2

In my last post I commented on the controversy currently raging with regard to the proposed development of the Seaway car park. I thought it might be helpful in better facilitating a proper debate for me to comment on my previous involvement.
I would make clear that I will not disclose any information which was or remains confidential but will refer to the council minutes which are publically available on its website.

The motivation behind the scheme was a recognition as to the ongoing plight of the High Street, the strength of the seafront as a draw to the town to include not only the beach but a number of highly effective seafront businesses, the strength of the wider cultural appeal across the Town and the over dependence of the Council on car park revenue.

I have previously been critical of the recent changes to car park charges and I stand by those criticisms however what has to be recognised by those who claim that charges should be significantly reduced or abandoned is that for historical reason these charges make an important contribution to the council’s income and with reducing central government support and increasing demand on council services such as social care the money has to come from somewhere. Accordingly what was needed was to try to generate alternative income sources with as little risk as possible to make the car park income less significant and allow substantial reductions in charges to be made.

Seaway was identified as an important link between the seafront and town centre and whilst full on certain days there were also times when this important strategic site was underused. Accordingly this scheme was developed as a possible option with a new independent cinema operator providing a more focussed selection of films and supported with a new multi storey carpark, residential, some business use and improved access to the seafront. This was intended to work to the potential benefit of both the High Street as it attempts to modify its offer and layout and the seafront traders and strengthen the all year offer with benefit to the Town as a whole.

As is confirmed in the recorded minutes:
1. The proposed deal was subject to external certification for compliance with S123 Local Government Act 1972 which provides, amongst other things: Except with the consent of the Secretary of State, a council shall not dispose of land under this section, otherwise than by way of a short tenancy, for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained;
2. There should be a fixed timescale for delivery;
3. The leisure development would be delivered ahead of the occupancy of the residential accommodation;
4. The Council’s then revenue return from the site would be retained and improved with a share of the long-term income from the development.
5. Any change to the Heads of Terms would be considered in consultation with all Group Leaders.

I cannot comment on the capital aspect for the reasons I have mentioned however the key triggers for the scheme were the improvement of the Council’s revenue return and the enhancement of leisure facilities within the Town, building on the seafront and creating a better link with the High Street. It was also acknowledged in debate that alternative car parking provision in the vicinity of the seafront would be needed.

That was where things stood when the Conservatives lost control and I stepped down from the Council. I do not know what happened subsequently other than I understand that out preferred cinema operator withdrew with obvious ramifications and the scheme has still to be delivered.

I await with interest confirmation from Cllr Ron Woodley, who as the next leader signed off the deal in November 2014, and the current administration as to where we are now as it is quite possible that the economic and practical challenges and opportunities which existed in January 2015 no longer apply.

Seaway Car Park development - part 1

The Leigh edition of the Oracle dropped through my letterbox recently and I note that it included an article by Paul Thompson criticising the Council on its plan to redevelop the Seaway Carpark. The objection was based on the loss of car parking spaces and the assertion that, in effect, the Council had failed to strike an appropriate financial deal.

This article followed various comments and tweets by a number of other local businessmen and residents along similar lines. At present I have still to see a response by the current Administration justifying their approach to the scheme. I fully appreciate that this is in part because aspects of the deal are financially and commercially sensitive and therefore confidential however I would still encourage the relevant portfolio holders to reassure residents as to their stance in general terms on both the economics of the scheme and its current status bearing in mind the obvious delays.

It would also be interesting to hear Cllr Ron Woodley’s’ justification of his previous actions bearing in mind that the scheme was signed off by him. The deal was originally developed during my leadership of the council and in my next blog I will set out why in my view the decision was the right one to take at that time.

However in the meantime I am intrigued by Mr Thompson’s comment that “In November 2014 the new then leader of the council, Cllr Ron Woodley was advised by senior council officers to sign this agreement”.

I hope that Ron is not trying to evade responsibility for his part in this process. By November 2018 Ron had been Leader of the Council for 5 months, more than adequate to consider the merits of the scheme before authorising it to proceed. Equally significant when the Draft Heads of Agreement were approved by Cabinet on 6th January 2015 the item was then called in for detailed scrutiny by the relevant Scrutiny Committee the Chairman of which was Ron. The item was called in for further review at the following full council meeting at which he was also present and accordingly by November 2014 he was fully aware of the scheme and its pros and cons.

It is also the case that Ron regularly regaled other council members with confirmation as to his business and financial expertise and in such circumstances it is a little strange that he appears to be giving the impression that he was being led by council officers. Either he thought the deal was a good one which is why he signed it or he thought it was a bad one in which case why didn’t he block it. I cannot believe that he is suggesting for one minute that he did not understand what was being proposed or felt unable to stop it. So I would be interested to hear what he has to say on the matter and do hope that he will not attempt to hide behind officers which would hardly be consistent with the principle of “Ministerial responsibility” in so far as that applies to local government.

Friday, 21 September 2018

A new "bypass" - what goes around comes around!

I was delighted to see Cllr James Courtenay’s recent announcement (reported in the Echo) that as part of the Council’s 50 year strategy they are likely to include a new road linking from the A130 to ease access to the Town Centre and east of the Town.
I fully support this aspiration although it may be more accurate to describe this as being half way through a 100 year strategy rather than the beginning of a 50 year one.

Talk of a new access road has been on the table for some years, the theory being that if there was a new link road to the town centre and eastern areas the A127 could give concentrate on the west of the town leaving the A13 as a local feeder.

Back in I think the late 70s or 80s the then senior council officer Peter Longden had a plan for a scheme along these lines and when I was Chairman of the Highways Committee of the then lower tier Southend Council in the early 90s there were discussions on the plan with Essex County Council as the then Highway Authority.

In my years as leader whilst funding was obtained for improvements to the junctions of the A127 it was always made clear to the funding agencies that this was a short term fix but the long term solution could only be provided by a new northern access road.

Indeed there was a third party group who were attempting to formulate a more limited scheme which as far as I am aware has not progressed.
Unfortunately the progress over the last 40/50 years has been limited for two main reasons. Firstly to construct the road would cost a very significant sum and would the commercial and economic return justify this. Secondly it would involve large areas of land across Rayleigh and Rochford in particular not owned by Southend Council or falling within the Council’s geographical area.

There is nothing wrong with rebooting an aspiration of this kind and I wish it every success however an answer still needs to be found on the issues of the economics and land acquisition.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Southend Town Centre - a good intiative and some possible solutions

Firstly congratulation to Cllr James Courtenay for announcing a High Street Summit on 24th September.This has the look of a member driven initiative and is to be welcomed.

My only reservations are that it is important that he included the commercial property owners or their representatives in the invitee list; unless this has been a long time in the planning has he allowed sufficient time to ensure he gets who he needs at the meeting; he needs to ensure that discussions do not get bogged down in standard “local government” nonsense; and as the Council’s press team are already indicating that they will be sharing the outcomes on 25th September I hope that the results will be properly considered and that this is not simply a PR exercise.

For what it is worth I believe that the action points should include some of the following:

1. Agreement as to the future identity of the High Street. The days of lengthy high streets with large national retailers appears to be at an end. These national chains previously killed off the independence and originality of many High Streets across the country and are now being put to the sword by the internet. I would hope that the vision is based on building on the Town’s strong Culture/Tourism offer, supplemented by a return to smaller and independent niche traders and artists, with an increase in residential development in the High Street above street level with perhaps a supermarket and specialist food stores to serve a growing central population. Perhaps the increasingly vacant central section of the High Street could form a centre for these grocery shops to include a new more central Town Centre;
2. To achieve the above the larger units need to be subdivided in to manageable units with residential above and with affordable rents and Business Rates;
3. The issues with safety and the perception of safety need to be addressed. I believe we need to return traffic to the north and south ends of the High Street (at least in the evenings and for buses and taxis) which linked to greater residential use would increase footfall and safety. The rough sleeper issue needs to be dealt with. Not only is this bad for those forced to sleep on the streets but their presence can be threatening to other users;
4. There needs improved police presence in the High Street ;
5. The Town Centre market is positive and should continue;
6. The Council needs to deal with the parking issues. Make the use of council car parks simple and reasonable (not only to those prepared to download an app!) and reduce charges in the Town Centre in recognition of the fact that at present the offer is not sufficient to merit the levels being sought.

In summary concentrate on developing Southend as a safe and fun place to go for leisure and niche shopping with a strong residential presence and let us positively market the strengths which I identified in my last post.