Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The residents of Thorpe Bay, West Leigh & Eastwood deliver a Labour led Council!

It is ironic that with the recent removal of the Conservative Council Leader and appointment of his Labour successor the vote was effectively swung by the votes of the “Independent” councillors representing Thorpe and the Liberal Democrats recently elected to represent West Leigh and Eastwood.

I would question whether the residents of these wards would approve of their elected representatives supporting a left wing Labour administration - certainly the support for Labour candidates in these wards would not suggest that this was their wish.

The reality is that the election results were not a vote against the Conservative run council. As all who knocked on doors in the campaign know the vote was driven by Brexit and frustration at the inability of Westminster to resolve matters. This led to some councillors being elected on this national issue rather than local concerns.

Following his election Conservative Tony Cox issued a clear and sensible 10 point plan for immediate implementation including: extra Community Special Constables, the reintroduction of the 1 hour town centre parking band, the removal of parking charges in the roads around the High Street for a 2 hour visit, the removal of unnecessary yellow lines to increase parking provision, the improvement of parking provision in the vicinity of the seafront, access for all the Town’s children to good or outstanding schools, the introduction of measures to enhance the ability of backbench councillors to put forward policy, action to improve enforcement on dog fouling and an investigation into reducing carbon emissions from the council vehicle fleet.

These ideas were popular and deliverable.

On his election Cllr Ian Gilbert has announced his priorities which include (according to the Echo) more social housing, the introduction of registration of private landlords, improved street lighting, more 20mph schemes, a parking review and the provision of further multi storey car parks, improving recycling, promoting ethical employment practices and more apprenticeships, improving children centres, providing extra care beds and health centres, and supporting the retention of Southend Hospital.

Much of this is not particularly controversial however the problem is that they are either simply restating policies which already exist (e.g apprenticeships, Southend Hospital and recycling), are potentially controversial and will take years to deliver (e.g landlord registration, parking reviews, multi storey carparks and 20 mph schemes), are extremely expensive (e.g social housing, children’s centres and health centres) with no indication on how they will be funded, or are in the control of others (e.g employment practices and Southend Hospital)
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With apologies to the late Harold Macmillan for slightly misquoting him this new Administration can best be described as being driven by a mixture of deliverable and original ideas – the problem is that none of the deliverable ideas are original and none of the original ideas are deliverable.

Southend Council - a situation comedy in the making

Having been involved in local politics in Southend for over 40 years it has often occurred to me that it would provide excellent material for a “Croft & Perry” type situation comedy, but if so recent events at Southend Borough Council would make an excellent pilot episode.
The plot line would read along the following lines:

1. After local elections Council left with no overall control but with Conservatives as the main party;

2. The non Conservative groups are unable to agree on a new Leader and following the elimination of the “Independent” candidate in the Leadership vote his colleagues refuse to support the Labour candidate, abstaining in the vote and allowing the Conservative leader to be elected;

3. The Conservative leader appoints his cabinet and all other committee roles are filled and a preliminary action plan is issued which is well received by residents and businesses alike;

4. The unsuccessful “Independent” candidate publishes a letter in the local press blaming Labour and the Liberals for the situation and emphasising that the “Independent’s” stance was dictated by the need to be “free from the control of any political party” as a result of which they were only prepared to work “..under a politically neutral leader”;

5. Within days, and in a remarkable volte-face a number of “independents”, including their unsuccessful leadership candidate, lodge what is in effect a vote of no confidence in the Conservative Council Leader notwithstanding the fact that there have been no meetings or formal decisions;

6. With “Independent” support the Conservative Leader is deposed and a new Labour leader elected. The unsuccessful “Independent” candidate accepts a post in cabinet together with 2 of his colleagues;

7. The new Labour leader and his party colleagues herald the election of a radical Labour led administration – not exactly “politically neutral”;

8. The change of Leader means that almost the first month of this Council year have been wasted and new committee appointments are made.

I’m not sure that it is not too ridiculous to make a good programme.

What would follow the pilot – perhaps a power struggle in cabinet between the “radical left wing leadership” and the ineffective Independents, or perhaps a further “flip flop” by the Independents and another vote of no confidence.

The problem is that with a Town Centre in need of urgent action along the lines proposed by the now deposed Conservative Leader this political game playing by a number of the “Independents” is not funny!!

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.