Friday, 22 October 2010

Spending review

So with the Chancellor's recent announcement the challenge we are going to face balancing the council's books over the next four years is a little clearer although we will not have all the small print and the final detail until december. It is going to be challenging but we cannot allow the public debt to continue rising as has been the case under the last government. If we listened to the Labour leadership our debt would be almost £100 billion higher by the end of the current parliament and we would be paying £4billion more in debt interest alone by the time of the next election. As it is under the last government they doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest budget deficit in the G20 with interest of £120M interest each day - that is just about Southend Council's entire annual revenue expenditure accruing in daily interest! It is madness and simply can't continue - it is simply not fair on our children and grandchildren who will end up paying the bill.So now the hard work really starts to find the necessary economies with as little effect on council tax payers as possible.

Airport expansion - an update

What is happening about the continuing saga of the proposed extension to the airport’s runway. Whilst we were anticipating a debate by the full council in September to consider whether we should allow a variation of the airport lease to allow such extension, and if so on what terms, this has been delayed by court proceedings commenced by a local resident seeking a judicial review of the earlier planning decision. We are now faced with the ridiculous situation that through the legal aid system we as taxpayers are funding an expensive, and in my view speculative court action, and Southend council tax payers are also funding an expensive defence of the claim. This will result in a final bill for the public purse amounting to many tens of thousands of pounds whatever the outcome – hardly helpful in the current economic climate. In the meantime we are unable to move to the real debate namely do we block the runway extension and force the airport to expand on its present runway but with an absence of effective environmental controls, or do we allow the extension but linked to reasonable and effective controls on flight direction, flight numbers, volumes of cargo, increased radar provision etc. This delay only further extends the anxiety of some residents and the commercial uncertainty for the airport not helped by some council members who seem determined to cloud the true debate by misleading the public in suggesting that the Council can somehow stop any airport expansion or unilaterally impose restrictions on night flights, flight numbers or a range of other issues which we cannot. If we are to deliver improved environmental controls and indeed facilitate and harness the commercial benefits that airport expansion can bring we will only do so by being realistic as to our present negotiating position and concentrating on the effective controls that can be delivered.

Creating a better traffic jam

The four major road schemes at Progress Road, Victoria Circus, Cuckoo Corner and the central seafront are approaching completion. These projects should improve traffic flow and in the case of the seafront give this important area a much needed face lift. However I would be surprised if you have not wondered why we have undertaken four such significant schemes at the same time, and also simultaneously allowed the utility companies to continue to cause disruption to other roads across the Town. You may even have sat in a traffic jam fuming at the incompetence of the Council.
Let me say a few words in our defence. We received confirmation from the government in late 2009 that we were being allocated over £25M to deliver the four schemes in question but that the money had to be spent in its entirety by no later than March 2011. There was no option but to undertake the schemes simultaneously or lose the money. Significant preparation was undertaken to try to keep disruption to a minimum to include working with contractors to keep carriageways open during rush hours, requests to the utility companies to avoid work at the same time, reduction of work on the seafront during the school holidays to reduce the effect on business, and an attempt to get as much done as possible to the carriageways prior to the pre Christmas rush. There has also been an ongoing publicity campaign to keep residents, visitors and businesses updated on the plans. Unfortunately we do not have the power to stop road works by utility companies and their activities during the last few months has been frustrating and annoying. However we are now well advanced with all four large and complex projects and remain on target and on budget. If we had rejected the money we would have been open to valid criticism so let us hope that this short term pain will be worth a long term gain.

Time to deliver!

When I first stood for election in West Leigh some four and a half years ago it was a popular refrain on the doorstep to be asked when Southend Council was going to stop talking about exciting new plans using pretty artist impressions and actually start delivering some real improvements to the town’s infrastructure.
Well I don’t think anyone can dispute that things have changed. For the second year in a row we will be delivering over £100M of investment into the roads, schools and facilities of the town and we are seeing the imminent conclusion or significant progress to schemes as diverse as the new schools at Belfairs and Hinguar, the swimming and diving pools at Garon Park, the pay on exit multi storey car park under the University’s “lego building” providing safe and convenient town centre parking, the improvements to Warrior Square Gardens, the new visitor centre at Priory Park, the pier head improvement works and redevelopment, the reopening of the historic cliff lift, the new youth centre at Shoebury, the sea front cycle track, and so the list goes on. This represents real investment in the future of the Town making clear that we are open for business.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Budget challenges

As Southend Council starts to consult with members and the public to identify significant budget savings for the coming year I was given food for thought by an e mail from a local resident who asked "..since you have now scrapped free swimming for the over 60s what are you going to do to ensure that those who can't afford to swim will exercise as otherwise there will be blood on your hands." Obviously I explained that the subsidy had been cut across the country by the Government and that in the present climate we could not fund it from the Council's resources, but it also got me thinking about what the public expects from the public sector. We live in a great place with good parks, long beaches and other green areas all around us. Is it unreasonable to suggest that there are plenty of places to walk or cycle which are great ways of getting or keeping fit and other than the cost of a pair of shoes or a bike are free.Surely the trick is to help people to help themselves and not expect everything to be delivered on a plate by the Government or local council. We can then concentrate on those who can't help themselves. On the same theme a resident complaining about the frequency of litter collection in his road seemed dumbstruck when I suggested that perhaps the real problem was how to educate or persuade people to not drop litter which would then avoid us all meeting the massive cost of getting a contractor to pick it up! Perhaps this is what they mean by the Big Society.

Village Green

This Saturday will see the 3rd Village Green event at Chalkwell Park. This is a great cultural celebration which provides a fantastic day out for everybody. I visited the park yesterday to help hundreds of other residents generate some pedal power which will run one of the stages. If you have the time why not pop down for half an hour to do your bit. In the meantime let's hope for good weather on Saturday. This is another example of what makes Southend a special place to live and follows a succession of fun events throughout the summer.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Labour's budget games

What a surprise! - The Labour Group on Southend Council has announced that it will not participate in the confidential member discussions on possible budget cuts for next year. In every budget debate the opposition parties whinge about the fact they are allegedly excluded from the budget process untill decisions have been taken by the Administration. This year they have been given the chance to contribute at the very beginning of the process and to influence where the difficult decisions are being made but have refused to do so.Perhaps they are too busy! What is the point of electing councillors who fail to take advantage of important opportunities to represent their residents? Of course they can always repeat their tactics of the last 3 years - make no suggestions or amendments to the proposed budget and simply vote against it. So much for constructive politics! Let us see if the other opposition parties take advantage of this chance.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

West Leigh School traffic plans

Proposals have been published which would be funded by KeyMed and are designed to make access to West Leigh School safer as well as reducing traffic stress in the area. They include preventing access into London Road by the lights next to the school which would allow the removal of a phase of the traffic light sequence and improve traffic flow along the A13. This works to the advantage of residents as the easier the traffic flow along this main road the less the incentive for rat running. Some residents are expressing concern so we await the outcome of the consultation with interest.

Leigh Marsh Car Parking

The new extended car parking facility on Leigh marsh is now open but I am not convinced that the charging rate of £1 is right. All that it is doing is providing cheap commuter parking and undercutting the railway car park. Whilst the charges levied by the railway are, in my opinion, ridiculously high and hardly encourage usage, it was not the purpose of the extended council car park to provide cheap parking for commuters but to ensure adequate and safe parking for leisure users. I will be pressing for the rates to increase at the begining of the day but then to reduce. This should deter communter use (or at least get a reasonable return if this persists)and provide car parking for residents wanting to visit the area for walking or other leisure purposes.

Hospice on Belton Hills

I have already raised my concerns on this blog with regard to the plans announced by Fair Havens to relocate their hospice from Chalkwell Avenue to the green belt on Belton Hills. As the plan becomes more widely known I have received contact from increasing numbers of residents who are opposed to it. Fair Havens does great work for the local community but to encroach on this important open space just doesn't make sense. I will continue to encourage them to find an alternative site which we can all support.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Lego building reaches completion

Great to see that the new university accomodation building with public multi storey car park beneath is almost finished. The car park will be a great improvement on the old Farringdon site with safe and well lit provision and pay on exit. In the meantime the Uni has excellant purpose built flats for its students. Love or hate the design (and everybody seems to fall into one category or the other) it certainly can't be missed.

Victoria Gateway - the last tree goes

I see that the conspiracy theorists are working overtime to suggest that the decision to remove a further tree from Victoria Circus was always the council's plan. What rubbish! If we could have saved the tree why would we have done otherwise? When the scheme was published it was intended to remove all trees but on the information originally received from the utility companies it seemed possible to save one, so the scheme was adjusted accordingly. Months later British Telecom then announced that if the road was built where now intended a fibre optic cable serving a substantial % of Southend would have to be moved at a cost of about £1M. Additionally the delay in carrying out the work would have resulted in the project over running and the Government clawing back a further £1-2M. The only solution was to remove the tree and avoid the cable. No choice - to save the tree would cost Southend council tax payers over £2M. Sorry that the protesters are cross that they were not given advance notice - if so they would no doubt have tried to repeat their actions at Cuckoo Corner resulting in massive costs and delay, which would once again fall to the Southend council tax payer. The scheme includes full landscaping and tree planting and the sooner it is completed the better.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Members allowances

So the extended and expensive investigation into member expenses is now drawing to an end with a report from the Independent Remuneration Panel going to Full Council on Thursday. A particular target for some opposition members has been the claims for reimbursement of in-borough travel expenses. Claims for the 51 councillors amounted to about £7000 last year and the investigation and review has cost far more in officer time! It is now recommended that every member should receive £100 per year to reimburse in-borough travel expenses whether or not they incur them which it is argued will save officer time processing the claims - although these claims will still need to be submitted for out of borough expenses! I feel able to comment on this as I have never claimed travel expenses whether in or out of borough and do not intend to start now. I am not sure how a scheme involving a flat rate payment is just or equitable. If in-borough expenses are going to be paid then surely payments should reflect the expenses actually incurred rather than a system which could cost £5,100 (i.e 51 councillors @ £100)and where every councillor is likely to be either over reimbursed or under reimbursed. In addition by paying this flat rate it will be taxable so further reducing the effect but benefiting the taxman. I would have thought that we should either decide not to pay these expenses, or if we are, then we should acknowledge that different councillors undertake vastly different workloads and reimburse what they have actually incurred. I have said that I would support the recommendations of the Independent Panel which I will do, but I do struggle to follow the logic of their recommendations.

Budget cuts

Cuts to funds previously allocated to the Council by the Government continue to hit us. The previous subsidy to deliver free swimming for the under 16s and over 60s has gone with free swimming for these groups disappearing from 1st August. A further sum of about £2.6M covering a range of revenue and capital projects has also been called back. Whilst the Government has protected the Council's basic formula grant, which is used to pay for the majority of our services, it is withdrawing other funds which were allocated to specific areas. These in year cuts are really difficult to deal with as they need urgent steps to stop spending money we know longer have. Whilst the cuts which we face for the next financial year will be far worse at least we will have greater control over which services should be prioritised and we will also have the opportunity to consult with residents and plan in advance.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A New Haven in the Green Belt?

Fairhavens have released information suggesting that their prefered option for building a new hospice is on Belton Hills covering a 7 acre site on our precious green belt. Whilst no planning application has yet been submitted the site has been identified as providing an ideal location. There is no doubting the great job Fairhavens and Little Havens have done over many years, and clearly the current site in Chalkwell Avenue is too small and inflexible, however is there really no alternative to Belton Hills - one of the few green lungs in the Town. There are tight restrictions on developing the Green Belt so it will be interesting to see how any future application is presented however is the hospice a strong enough reason to build on such am important area and if granted will it be followed by further applications?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Leigh Folk Festival

Spent some very enjoyable hours down in Old Leigh on Sunday enjoying a fantastic Folk Festival. Great music, fantastic weather, large crowds, enthusiastic performers and cold beer - who could ask for more! This follows on from another great Leigh Art Trail. These events really connect with local residents and demonstrate how effective it is when the community takes the lead. Congratulations and thanks to all those who organised both events - your hard work was worth it. If you didn't support these events then don't miss out next year. You will not be disappointed. Quite made up for the disappointment in South Africa. Anyone for cricket or tennis?

Friday, 25 June 2010

The West Lothian Question

Spent a long and hot day yesterday doing a uni trip to Loughborough with my youngest daughter.As one daughter leaves uni the next one is looking to finalise her own plans and the whole process does raise the dreaded issue of tuition fees. A particular bugbear is that Scottish kids pay no fees whereas English kids do - even if attending uni in Scotland. Devolution is all well and good - and perhaps no bad thing for the English! - however how can it be right that decisions on matters relating only to England are taken by all members and therefore heavily influenced by members representing Scottish constituencies whose residents are not affected. As it is the Scottish are over represented on a per head basis, although we have been promised action on this by the Government. I also remain to be convinced that as English taxpayers we are not subsidising this benefit which is not available to our own children. It is time for a clear convention that if a parliamentary decision only applies in England it should be taken solely by MPs representing constituencies in England. We also need equal sized constituencies and clear confirmation that if one country within the UK decides on a cost bearing policy it will only be the residents of that country which bears the cost. In the meantime Loughborough was a great place although they were invovled in the development of the football being used in South Africa!!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Budget - first impressions

No great surprises in the budget although with such a wide range of new intiatives the detail will need careful consideration. Clearly local government will be required to deliver substantial savings in expenditure so the hard work continues. The wage freeze for council staff was well signposted but good news that the exemption has been increased to exclude staff earning up to £21K. Many of these lower paid staff make a very important contribution to front line services and will feel the effect of other tax measures more than most. The freeze will help us make economies as against our original plans. Interesting that we will be receiving support to avoid a council tax increase next year, something which I welcome, but we need to see the detail. Also good to see the Government's plans to limit housing benefit thereby cutting public funding support to private landowners - this has been a running theme for some of our Indie members who seem unable to grasp those issues which are within our control and those which are not! However a Conservative chancellor has now started to grip the problem. Good to have a government which has a clear idea of where we need to go and how to get there.

Monday, 21 June 2010


Welcome to my new blog giving me the opportunity to share up to date information on what is going on in Southend and in Southend Council and also to consult on important issues in West Leigh. Clearly the next few months are going to be challenging for us all. We have already received confirmation of cuts to funding previously allocated to the town in excess of £1M with the withdrawl of funding for free swimming for the young and over 60s with effect from the end of July - and this is only the beginning! Now all eyes are on tomorrow's budget.