Friday, 14 October 2011

Red tape - that sounds like a good wheeze!

One question raised at the Youth Council's Question Time event was whether the Council was proposing to cut "bureaucracy" to close the budget gap. It was a good question because it helps highlight one of the games our opposition parties will no doubt be playing over the coming months. The reality is that having cut about £50M from our revenue budget over the last 7 years or so there is not an area of the council's activity which has not been subject to intense scrutiny and review to a point where the Council is a lean machine delivering excellent value for money and financial efficiency. As we try to identify another £25M budget reductions over the next few years it will be impossible to avoid service cuts in some areas which no doubt the opposition groups will endeavour to distance themselves from. One cheap way of doing this is to make bland claims that massive sums can be saved by cutting bureaucracy or improved financial management! It is as though there are cupboards of red tape in the Civic Centre which can be easily removed with no effect on service provision. The reality is that a cut to "bureaucracy" means a cut to staff numbers or direct service provision which will have an effect on residents.So let's be up front and tell our voters how it really is - the debate is then which services do we stop providing, reduce or attempt to deliver in other ways.

Youth Council - Question Time

I was on the panel of a special Question Time arranged by the Youth Council for local schools and colleges.Ages ranged from Year 6 to A Level students and there was a wide range of questions. The event was well run and was a great demonstration of the interest our young people have in the town and its challenges. Well done to the Youth Council for making the arrangements.The panel consisted of myself, 2 cabinet colleagues Mark Flewitt & Derek Jarvis, the 3 opposition group leaders and our local police Divisional Commander. It was slightly surreal to spot another member of council attending the event in the audience - not exactly a member of the target audience for the event and certainly too old to be an active member of the Youth Council. I would have thought that he heard enough of us at council meetings but let us hope he learnt something from our responses!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Zero Based Budgeting - that's an idea!

It has been a running theme of mine that the problem Southend’s Independent Party faces is that having no common philosophical base they cannot offer the electorate a cogent alternative and must instead rely on scaremongering (eg the fight to prevent the closure of Westcliff Library which they knew had never been proposed!) or claiming the benefit for the achievements of others (eg the picture of Cllrs Chalk & Assenheim in the Echo appearing to claim credit for the Shoebury Heritage Centre). This is not surprising in a group that includes ex Labour candidates like Ann Chalk and Martin Terry but also the likes of Senor Delaney who had a reputation of being to the right of the Conservative party before he was dumped as a candidate. In these circumstances isn’t it just typical that when they do find a significant cross Borough policy which they appear to agree on they should choose a stinker like Zero Based Budgeting. In the words of the Council’s Head of Finance and Resources, who is a genuine expert in public finance : “Effectively ZBB is an old text book theory with relatively little practical implementation or empirical evidence of success in the UK public sector since its formation in the 1960’s and 1970’s when it was used within the United States of America.....undertaking detailed, resource hungry reviews across the Council will distract the organisation from delivering the required corporate savings target for minimal net benefit. It is therefore recommended that the Council do not proceed with utilising the technique of Zero-based budgeting as part of the Council’s budget process.” Oh dear – what “financial expert” dreamt that one up - well better luck next time!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Boundary reorganisation - a divided Leigh!

So we now have the Boundary Commission's recommendations for the new parliamentary constituencies. Whilst I fully support the drive to reduce the overall number of MPs and to introduce constituencies with similar numbers of residents I am concerned by the effect of the proposals on Leigh. If approved the wards of Leigh and West Leigh will join Castle Point with Milton, Victoria & St Lukes moving from Rochford & Southend East to join with the remainder of Southend West. Rochford & Southend East will then be swelled by Hockley & Hawkwell. For Southend it would mean that as a relatively small unitary we would have representation from 3 MPs of which only 1 was representing Southend alone - the other 2 having the majority of their residents living outside the Borough. Whilst Leigh & West Leigh would share an MP the other "Leigh" wards including Blenheim & Belfairs, as well as Chalkwell would have a different MP meaning no single parliamentary voice for the community of Leigh.Whereas Southend & Leigh form very much one community I am not sure that the same can be said of Leigh & Canvey! With local authority boundaries unchanged it means that West Leigh residents could be voting on the same day for their Southend Councillor & Castle Point MP. It will be interesting to see how residents react to these proposals. It has been suggested to me that perhaps it is also signalling a blurring of the boundaries across south east Essex leading to an increasing demand for a single south east Essex unitary authority - or is that just mischief making!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Leigh Police Station (Part 2)

You did not have to visit Mystic Meg to work out that any significant police restructure was likely to have implications for the front counter at Leigh Police Station. The reality is that the number of callers is small and in the face of the cuts required by the Coalition Government (who I assume Peter Wexham and his Lib Dem colleagues support) caused by the financial mismanagement of the last government (couldn't leave Labour out)decisions of this kind are unavoidable. For me I would rather prioritise a police presence on our streets rather than behind a police station counter as that is where the vast majority of us have day to day contact with our local force. If the Chief Constable can provide good cover on the streets of the Town by reorganising accomodation then in my view he is to be supported. However what I do feel remains important is that with the large number of restaurants, pubs and bars in Leigh and its thriving night time economy the police retain an obvious and outward presence, whether at the current station or otherwise, to provide reassurance to us all and deterence to those who seek to act irresponsibly. I shall continue to maintain pressure on the Chief Constable to achive this end.

Leigh Police Station Closure

I was amused to read in the latest edition of Leigh Times that local Liberal Democrat Peter Wexham is trying to suggest that I am responsible for the closure of the front desk at Leigh Police Station. This interesting allegation is based on the fact that I have had the temerity to speculate that with the Adult College about to transfer from Leigh Community College to Belfairs School there is an opportunity to consider future uses for the significant area of land in Elm Road which is in public ownership and to query whether it could offer a solution to the ongoing parking stress which understandably frustrates residents, traders and visitors to central Leigh alike. Perhaps I should be pleased to think that my musing on the issue would have such an immediate effect on the Chief Constable's strategy for future policing in the town but no - come on Peter get real. Do you want to hold me responsible for the poor weather, global economy and recent riots as well! Whatever the future of the police station the remainder of the publically owned site offers opportunities which should not be lost on any local politician, particularly when in the same eiditon you are whinging that Leigh is losing out on highway investment to West Leigh.For my further thoughts on the issue of policing in Leigh see my next post.

Southend Bikeathon 2011

Southend Bikeathon is nearly on us again with this popular annual event taking place this sunday (4th September). I am pleased to say that I am entering again this year and have persuaded some family and friends to join me as "The Saddle Soarers!".Let's hope the rain keeps off and in the meantime the event offers an enjoyable route, some exercise and the opportunity to raise money for a great charity.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Independent votes against allowance reduction

At last thursday's full council meeting the report of the the independent panel on councillor remuneration was considered. The panel had proposed freezing the majority of allowances but also suggested some selective but significant cuts. By way of example (and unlike the other group leaders) my own allowances will reduce by £4K per annum. I thought the report was generally reasonable and properly recognised the economic challenges the council currently faces. However it was a surprise that leading Independent Ron Woodley was the only member of council to vote against the recommendations of the panel which, as no alternatives or amendments had been proposed by any member, would have blocked the proposed cuts.I am not sure whether this was his intention but if not it is surprising that even after 4 years as a councillor he can make such a straightforward error. No doubt he will say that he really wanted to reduce allowances - then why not make a proposal or amendment to that effect!

Monday, 27 June 2011

The HandyVan Scheme

The HandyVan scheme is run by Age UK, fully supported by Essex Police and Southend CDRP and is aimed at residents of the Borough aged 60 and over. The scheme is not means tested.

The HandyVan fitter will visit the homes of referred residents meeting the above criteria, carry out a full security and safety survey and supply & fit the following items absolutely free of charge. These are high quality door and window locks (both 5-lever mortice and rim night latch), bolts, door chains, door viewers, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, grab rails (for showers, bathrooms, toilets and to assist with entry and exit to the house), stair rails.

Referrals can be made direct to HandyVan on 0845 026 1055.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

South Bank praise for Council exhibit

I have previously mentioned Southend's contribution to the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank however I was delighted to see an item in the Independent this Sunday which commenting on our exhibit says "First, directly in front of the Royal Festival Hall, there is a tribute to Southend, Essex's legendary beach resort. Springing out of the paving next to the vintage ice-cream van.........the Southend bed is a glorious celebration of the kind of municipal horticulture you usually get only by the seaside."

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Do the Independent Party have a whip fetish?

In his latest comment in the Leigh Times the Independent party leader embarks on another of his regular moans suggesting that local conservatives are "chicken" and that our leadership is bullying and a political dictatorship relying on an annually elected whip. Frankly I almost expected him to hold me personally responsible for global warming, the country's economic woes and problems with the England football team but at least he stopped short of that. It is interesting to note that he continues to focus on negative campaigning and misinformation of this type whilst still bemoaning the negativity of party politics - a pat on the back for anybody who can spot the inconsistency! The reality is that the policies which are put forward are those of the Conservative group and not just the cabinet and all members of the group have the opportunity to influence their development and do so in a constructive and effective manner.In addition in my 4+ years as group leader we have never enforced a party "whip" or instruction on any issue and recognising this the redundant position of whip was scrapped a couple of years ago.Still no point in letting a few factual inaccuracies get in the way of typical Independent claptrap. It is also a pity that rather that wasting a great opportunity to get his message across to the electorate he still fails to give any indication as to what his party would do differently. Wot no policies!!

Warrior Square Gardens

Great that the massive improvement work to this popular area is now all but complete - with just the fitting out of the cafe and completion of the feature "petal" roof to be finalised. For too long the gardens had become a haunt for drug users and alcoholics lurking behind the old hedges and making the atmosphere sometimes threatening. By removing these areas and opening up the gardens it should now attract families and other visitors and continue to represent an important green lung in the town centre. Certainly when I visited a couple of days ago it was looking good and was being well used.

Easyjet comes to Southend

Amazing news today that Easyjet are poised to commit to Southend airport and will start to operate as soon as the runway extension is completed and the new enviromental controls are in effect. Not only will this immediately create 150ish new jobs but it will also encourage others to invest in Southend and offer a great facility for those in the area who travel abroad and would like to avoid the journey to Gatwick or Stanstead. It will be interesting to see what destinations are on offer.

Southend churches - Big Society in action

I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Southend Deanery Synod last night to discuss with them the funding challenges facing local government and the contribution that the church might play in helping us bridge the gap. It was a positive and stimulating evening and gave me food for thought as to how we can build on the community support which our churches (of all denominations) currently give.The concept of the Big Society has left many people cold but the reality is that the type of community involvement which it encourages is already strong and well in Southend through not only the churches but our strong voluntary sector. We need to build on and encourage this contribution as well as challenging other members of our community to join in.

London Naked Bike Ride 2011

In London on saturday I encountered this years annual naked bike ride - whilst it had escaped my notice previously it involved over 1000 brave(!!) souls baring "as much as they dared" (which in most cases appeared to be everything) to cycle about 9 miles around central London and past all the main tourist attractions in the buff. The protest, which involved many thousands of participants at various locations around England and in many countries across the world, was intended to champion the need for safer cycling and highlight society's over dependence on oil and the motor car. The nudity was intended to demonstrate how vulnerable cyclists can be on our roads. It also meant that the sight of such a large group of naked bodies riding around Covent Garden etc could not fail to achieve maximum notice from the many thousands of visitors. Southend may have set a world record for its naked rollercoaster ride earlier in the year but I am not sure the town is ready for a naked bike ride yet! However the cause was a good one so well done to all the brave participants who seemed to attract a positive and enthusiastic response from the onlookers.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Southend on the South Bank

Had west end theatre tickets on Friday (Betty Blue Eyes - very entertaining with great cast) and having decided to stay up in London for the night we wandered along the south bank on Saturday morning to see the Festival of Britain event. It is well worth the visit and particularly good to see Southend playing such a central part. Not only our display representing the Southend coastline but also in many other exhibits - particularly the row of beach huts with one containing many old picture postcards of the town and another remembering the floods of 53 when Canvey was cut off and partially flooded. For free entertainment it takes some beating and don't miss the museum display in the ground floor of the South Bank Centre - as my wife commented we have never been to a exhibition when it was so apparent that nearly all of the other visitors were being transported back to their own memories either of the festival itself, or for those of us too young to experience it, of the items of furniture etc many of which featured in the homes of our parents or grandparents as we were growing up.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Cabinet - the pros and cons

I see another letter in the Echo today suggesting that the root of all evil is the cabinet system. I do not recognise the name of the writer and I suspect that, like many of the recent critics of the system, he has not had the pleasure of serving as an elected councillor. I have been a member, committee chair and opposition member under the committee system as well as a member, cabinet member and leader under the cabinet system so feel that I am well positioned to express an opinion. Firstly it is important to remember that the cabinet system was effectively imposed by the last Labour government and at present, other than an elected Mayor, there is no alternative - although we are promised change. The reality is that the differences between the systems, particularly as operated in Southend, are minimal.Our cabinet members have no executive powers and all cabinet decisions are subject to ratification by full council. Accordingly there is an opportunity to block or change decisions if a majority of members wish to do so. Under the committee system the committee chairs would replace the cabinet and would discuss and work up policy before presenting proposals on those items requiring specific decision to a committee. The aspirations and plans of the administration would remain un altered and the overiding power of the council as a collective body would remain as at present.The ability of individual members to influence policy would remain the same and is effectively undertaken by negotiation and discussion as policies are worked up and proceed through the system rather than necessarily and inevitably in formal meetings. I am also entertained by suggestions that the council has been ill served by the cabinet system. I invite anyone to look at performance across all service areas, relying on external inspection reports, peer inspection reports and performance against targets to justify such a bizarre suggestion.

Cllr Van Looy - the saga continues

I see that Independent Party councillor Paul Van Looy is trying to justify his decision to sit on only 2 working parties and 1 outside body by suggesting that he can turn up to any committee and speak anyway. We were previously told that the delay was “…whilst he learnt the ropes” but now he seems able to advise us all on council procedure – except of course he is wrong. It is not the case that any councillor can just turn up to any committee, speak and then disappear off. The opportunity for such input is limited as otherwise we might as well just put all 51 councillors on everything! He also tells us that he is working with his group who will soon be issuing details of their policies. That should be interesting as we are always being told that they are not a formal party and have no common line or policies but are only in a formal group to obtain adequate representation on committees. Finally he suggests the Town has a record deficit and disastrous policies. The current borrowing level is in line with most other authorities and in accordance with government expectations. If he thinks it should be less then what are the list of council funded initiatives over recent years which he would not have undertaken – certainly no opposition was voiced by his party colleagues during past budget debates or when reviewing the regular treasury management reports. As for policies try reading the many recent external reports on council services before you make unfounded and incorrect assertions – alternatively you could earn your council allowance and actually attend some committees when you might find out the actual position.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Airshow hits heights again this year.

I had an enjoyable afternoon at the airshow on sunday with many thousands of other residents and visitors. Whilst it was a bit windy at the top of the hills we found a sheltered spot and the show was as entertaining as usual with the wing walkers and red arrows representing my personal highlights.The roads ran smoothly and an excellent job was undertaken by Corys in cleaning up afterwards. When I ventured along the seafront on monday morning all traces and rubbish had been efficiently removed.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Independent angst!

I see that my surprised response to new St Luke's Independent Party councillor Van Looy's refusal to sit on any of the council's scrutiny committees has resulted in the usual angst from his party leader when confronted with any criticism.

We are told that Cllr Van Looy has commented that "I just want to spend more time in St Luke's ward. My priority at the moment is to the residents who have elected me..". Meanwhile his party leader calls my comments "nasty" relying on his colleague being "...a complete novice.." who "... needs to learn to ropes...". Well for somebody who has run one of the most vitriolic and negative campaigns for years perhaps he should have learnt a little more about the role before being so forthright in his criticism of others.It is as important to be representing his residents in formal meetings as dealing with their personal concerns, and as an elected councillor he also has an obligation to contribute to the wider picture. Perhaps his leader should explain that as a member of a committee all that is required is to read the papers in advance, raise any queries with officers, listen to the debate, participate if he has anything relevant to say and , if required, vote. I am delighted that my new members are more than comfortable with doing so as well as dealing with their individual resident's concerns.

Over recent years many independent party candidates have chosen to concentrate on throwing metaphoric stones at sitting councillors and the administration - perhaps it is time to move out of your glass houses!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Low proifle for new Independent in St Lukes

I was not the only person astounded when new Independent Councillor Paul Van Looy apparently declined any post on the council's 3 important scrutiny committees - either as a member or even as a substitute. In my time on the council such an approach from a new member is unheard of and certainly the 3 new members of the Tory Group, Adam Jones, Trevor Byford & James Courtenay have been anxious to immediatly play a full role in the affairs of the council. The scrutiny committees are important opportunities to review the actions of the administration without the time restraints and formality of full council meetings, and to investigate other areas of importance to the council. They also give an ideal opportunity for new members to get a real feel for the council's functions and activities. Cllr Van Looy has spent the last 3 years running negative campaigns criticising the Conservative Administration and its members who whilst doing an excellent job representing their ward residents have also stepped up to the wider role of working for the advancement of the whole town. Come on Cllr Van Looy let's be hearing your constructive proposals for the future - after all the rest of us have to enjoy the extended contributions of your party colleagues Terry, Woodley & Assenheim to scrutiny meetings - why should you escape!

What an ass!

For about a decade my award for the most jaw dropping quote by a Southend councillor has remained in the safe hands of Liberal Democrat Alan Crystall. It dates back to when the Lib/Lab Administration was in power in the 90s and plans were announced for a possible demolition of a semi detached house in Leigh which was owned by the Council - it is the house in Elm Road currently occupied by Leigh Town Council. The owner of the attached semi was understandably miffed by the public suggestion of the house attached to his being demolished to which Cllr Crystall responded that he should be happy because he would be getting a detached house!Well not quite Alan. However I am pleased to confirm that the award has now passed to Shoebury Independent Party Councillor Mike Assenheim who in trying to defend his remarkable volte-face on Hinguar School is reported in the Echo as coming out with this peach "I don't think the council is as cash-strapped as it is implying." Frankly for somebody who has been a sitting councillor for 4 years and has sat through detailed budget discussions over the last 12 months to come out with this leaves me speachless. If he really believes it then the residents of Shoebury may consider they would be better served by somebody who has some elementary grasp of public finance. In the meantime he takes my award by demonstrating the ass in Assenheim!!

Friday, 6 May 2011

Hinguar School

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog the Independents attack on the current level of Council borrowing is bizarre in circumstances where they have made no comment on the 3 monthly treasury management reports presented to them or sought to alter the capital programme. They have also still to identify the council funded capital projects which they would not have undertaken or to explain why they oppose investment in the town's infrastucture which has been anticipated in the funding provided by central government.

However the latest contradiction is their latest stunt on Hinguar School. Everybody agreed that there was an urgent need to build a new replacement school and that no external funding was available. Accordingly it was also agreed that a new school would be build and part funded by the sale of the current site. No objection was made at the time by members of the Independent Party. Now they have been encouraging residents to support a scheme to use the old building for community purposes. Ignoring the additional capital funds which would be needed to convert the old building or the revenue strain of operating it this would leave a massive hole in the funding of the new school which could only be filled by increased borrowing.

To adapt the wise words of George Orwell it would seem that all borrowing is evil but some borrowing is less evil than others - if it can be ignored or manipulated for political advantage.

If all they want to do is run populist campaigns without defending them in the council chamber or providing the necessary funding or plans for delivery why bother to stand for the council - just set up a pressure group. Oh wait a minute what about BERA?

Independent Party - crunch time approachs!

No doubt the members of the Independent Party will be pretty happy after yesterday's elections having increased their tally by 2 councillors. The time to stop referring to them as a "party" is clearly over as in general terms their activities are indistinquishable from the other parties with coordinated campaigns, candidates, publicity and voting.

Of course there is one difference - they continue to have no common policies or vision for the future development or regeneration of the town. This is not surprising bearing in mind they comprise a group including a non adopted Conservative councillor, unsuccessful Labour candidates and others. Working for individual residents and helping with their problems is only one part of our role - the other is to develop a vision for the future whether as the administration or as a viable opposition.It is not enough to simply oppose everything on the doorstep - particularly without similar opposition in the council chamber or without a viable alternative.

The public tell us that they don't like negative campaigning.Maybe - but last night's results in St Lukes, Shoebury and elsewhere confirm that negative campaigning, mis information and personal attack can deliver short term gains for the Independent Party but for how much longer. We are told by councillors who only appear to have found a taste for an Independent Label when striving to gain an otherwise unachievable seat that the public are tired of party politics. I disagree -they may have believed the spin which has conveniently coincided with more general misgivings about the political sysytem, but any council officer will confirm that to function effectively and efficiently a local authority needs a clear direction and element of certainty - whatever the underlying party political direction. To move into the vacuum of independent policy would be a sure route to disaster in these financially challenging times.

Election news

As usual election day was long and demanding yesterday starting with a stint of telling on Marine Parade at 7am and eventually finishing following the last declaration at Garon Park at 3.30am this morning! A day of mixed emotions - we retain our overall majority of 5 having lost 2 seats to the Independent Party and gained 2 seats from the Liberals. Bearing in mind that the Government is pushing through potentially unpopular measures to address the national deficit left by the last government, and that we have had to deliver over £15M in savings in Southend to balance the budget this is a great performance. However it is sad to see Anna Waite lose her seat. Whether you agree with her views or not no reasonable person can deny her total committment to Southend and its residents together with her tireless work, interlect and application. More particularly never has a local councillor in Southend had to face the level of personal vitriol which has been directed at her by some political opponents and others.Why would any sensible and successful local resident or businessperson want to subject themselves to this - unless all those involved in local government in this town show basic respect for other members and acknowledge that whilst we may differ on how to take the town forward we all share the same passion and concern, we run the risk of frightening off any quality candidates from standing for election - after all who needs it!. In West Leigh we are celebrating Gwen Horrigan's emphatic victory once again demonstrating the support she enjoys and we will be working hard to consolidate that support over the next 12 months. Elsewhere in the town Conservative candidates performed beyond expectation delivering healthy majorities in Belfairs, Eastwood, Chalkwell and West Shoebury and winning 9 of the 17 seats available.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Town Centre parking charge reversal

I see our chums in opposition complaining about my cabinet colleague Mark Flewitt signalling an early intention to listen to public concerns and to reverse the decision to extend charging periods in some local car parks.Amazing - as part of the process we have to consult prior to introduction and this has resulted in many reasonable and justifyable concerns.It would seem that if we listen to the public our opposition friends don't like it but at the same time they are always moaning that we ignore public consultation. The truth is that when we consult we listen to what people have to say and reevaluate proposals in the light of their comments. A consultation is not a referendum but if valid objections are raised it is right and proper that we react.

City Beach and other projects

On sunday I went to look at our four new road schemes in action. Traffic flow through Kent Elms Corner, Cuckoo Corner and Victoria Circus was good notwithstanding the high number of visitors drawn to the seafront for a hot bank holiday weekend. Meanwhile the central seafront was packed, with the atmosphere of the area transformed by the improvements. In particular the new fountains were a major draw as were the new lights as the evening drew in. All great news for the town and for our seafront traders. How about some of the moaners who have spent the last 18 months complaining accepting that the short term hassle was worth the long term gain.

Lb Dem straddles fence on new library

It was entertaining to see Lib Dem Leader quoted in last week's echo doing his best to straddle the fence on a major issue as usual! The item was based on him questioning the plans for a new library whilst at the same time stressing that he was not saying that he was opposed to it. Come on make your mind up one way or the other - you have had every opportunity to see the proposals which will be to provide a joint public, further education & higher education library bringing together the resources of our library service as well as the resources of Essex Uni and South Essex College. Not only will this provide a facility suitable for a cutting edge library service being a ground breaking alliance between 3 public bodies but will also allow members of the public access to these academic resources and will reduce the revenue costs of all three organisations both because of the energy saving design but also by sharing the maintenance and operating costs. If you want to oppose this plan then say so but if not do not try to create doubts which are not justified on the basis of the information you have available to you. I suppose we should not be surprised - this is from the party who duringthe recent budget debate castigated the Labour group for the economies being unavoidable as a result of the actions of the last government, criticised the Conservative Administration for making the cuts identified but failed to make any amendments or alternative proposals.

Friday, 4 March 2011

In denial

Why do the opposition groups struggle to come to terms with the fact that the council has made such giant strides over the last few years in service delivery and organisational performance? The facts speak for themselves! In all areas of the council we have seen improvements in the quality of services provided. Substantial parts of the organisation now perform at top quartile levels with continuing rises in both customer and staff satisfaction levels. A range of our teams have enjoyed national recognition to include those in Revenues and Benefits, Street Cleaning and cleanliness, museums and libraries, cycling, and housing. Our youth offending team is one of the best performing in the country and our family intervention project and work on autism have both received national recognition. The Care Quality Commissions assessment of our adult social care department demonstrates the transformation of this service over the last 4 years. These are only a few examples of cross organisational success which have been recognised by our short listing for the most improved council last year and our recent short listing for council of the year.
In addition we will have delivered capital projects with a value in excess of £100M to include the much complimented new swimming and diving pool at Garon Park, a modern and safe pay on exit town centre multi storey car park, and the four creating a better Southend schemes which notwithstanding the onerous time limits imposed by the previous government remain on time and on budget. Opposition councillors are good are "heartfelt" statements about council employees whose jobs are at risk but don't they understand that their constant nasty and inaccurate jibes about council performance are more damaging to staff morale than the cuts we are having to find. Come on - step up to your responsibilities as corporate employers and start giving our employees and the services they provide the credit they deserve.


Cllr Woodley and his independent group have now decided that the next great issue is the level of council borrowing. Notwithstanding his self proclaimed status as financial guru Cllr Woodley expresses sudden concern and surpise at council borrowing levels as though he has just discovered the situation following some detailed investigation. Infact every member of council receives 3 monthly treasury management reports, an annual treasury management statement and details of funding linked to the capital programme which means that anyone who bothers to read the paperwork must be fully aware of our treasury management policy. He has been on the council for four years - did he not understand this information or if he did why did he not raise his concerns before. What he fails to mention is that in calculating local government funding the government has always included an allowance for the funding of capital borrowing realising that capital investment is essential. Previously this was seperately identified but more recently has just been included in the general pot. A failure to use this funding would result in significant underinvestment which was the case before we got a proper hold of the capital programme a few years ago. The cost of borrowing is about 2% of the council's annual budget which is less than many other authorities and is"prudent, affordable and sustainable" to use the words of our Head of Finance (who is qualified and experienced in public funding). So Ron why is this only mentioned now and without giving the full story and which capital projects which we have funded over recent years do you oppose? And the really frightening thing is that the Independents think that members should be micro managing the councils overall buget of £500M rather than make the policy relying on the expertise of our professional officers.

Budget Debate

It was the budget debate last night and I continue to be perplexed by the attitude of our three opposition parties.Cllr Longley on behalf of the Lib Dems criticised the Labour Party for creating an economic situation where cuts of £15.5M were required and then criticised the Conservative Administration for making them, without giving any alternative suggestions or proposals of any kind. If he accepts that cuts have to be made and he doesn't have alternative suggestions it seems ridiculous to oppose our budget. Cllr Woodley on behalf of the Independents once again demonstrated (at considerable length) that he either doesn't understand public finance or chooses to mis interpret the information provided to him. Once again no amendments or alternatives but simply opposition to our budget without sensible reason. Finally Cllr Gilbert on behalf of the Labour Group, who is simply in denial that there is a national deficit or that it has anything to do with his party - once again no alternatives or amendments but just opposition. Tey even fail to acknowledge the progress the council has made in all areas of service provision over the last 4 years. So much for constructive opposition!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Airport latest

We now have confirmation that having had her application for Judicial Review thrown out at the first hurdle the legally aided SAEN supporter is now asking for a review of the decision at an oral hearing. I don't know whether this latest step is also legally aided but if so let's throw some more public money at this! Whatever may be suggested to the contrary anybody who loses an application for JR at the this point may apply for a review hearing without any leave or approval of the court so long as the application is lodged within 7 days. This next step does not indicate that anybody (other than SAEN and their supporter(s)) thinks the original decision was wrong. In the meantime the majority of residents, whichever side of the debate they are on, want to move to the debate on the lease variation so that the choice is clear - airport expansion with runway extension and enviromental controls or airport expansion with no extension or controls. The planning decision was taken following the specialist advice of council planning officers, was reviewed by the then Secretary of State and approved, and how now been ratified by a High Court judge on a very clear cut basis.

The joys of pavement politics

Was out last night delivering our latest In Touch to residents across part of the Highlands Estate. It is interesting delivering leaflets in the dark as it adds the perils of dark pathways (with hidden steps) and difficult to locate letter boxes to the usual challenge of dogs. It never fails to astound me how badly designed many letter boxes are, making the delivery of a leaflet tricky, never mind post or newspapers. You would think that when designing a letter box some thought would be given to how easy it is to post documents - that is after all the only purpose of it, but apparently no. It is also of concern that in increasing numbers of cases dogs leap aggressively at the letterbox whilst attempts are being made by the deliverer to beat the draft excluder and it astounds me that more injuries do not occur.I do wonder if owners are aware of their potential liability for the actions of their dog and whether any of their usual post is readable. And it isn't just because I am a politicial that they go for me because under the cover of darkness my identity is safe! Delivering leaflets is also a great way to keep a check on pavement and road conditions as well as any non working lights. I have sent my report in to council officers today and for residents of Braemar Crescent repairs to the road surface are due soon!!

Friday, 4 February 2011

Airport expansion & SAEN

I was asked yesterday to comment on BBC Radio Essex about the High Court decision and was followed by Denis Walker - local supported of SAEN and Friends of the Earth. 3 things struck me from his comments. It was interesting that he regarded a decision by a specialist High Court judge that the claims were not even arguable as an unsurprising first step and further pursual of the matter with the backing of legal aid as apparently inevitable. He made much of the SAEN "community contribution" as justifying the financial support the organisation is giving to the application. I would be interested to know hom much this is in the context of the costs incurred to date. Finally he continued to argue that the majority of residents of the town are opposed to airport expansion.That is not borne out by my experience canvassing door to door, speaking at public meetings or from my e mail inbox.

Airport decision

So after a delay of many months we have received the decision of a High Court judge on the legally aided application for a judicial review on the airport runway planning application. His view is that none of the the claimant (Laura Millard) grounds for a judicial review are arguable and the application has therefore been rejected.It is pleasing that the Judge has justified the process adopted by the Council although perhaps not surprising bearing in mind that great effort that was taken to ensure that the application was dealt with in a proper manner. The process was also reviewed and approved by the then Secretary of State. No doubt SAEN will press for a review of the decision and then there remains the issue of a possible appeal. My view remains that the sooner the Council moves forward to debate whether or not to agree to a variation to the lease to allow a runway extension to be built the better. The real decision is should the airport be allowed to expand as it wishes but with a strong package of enviromental controls or be forced to operate on its current runway without adequate enviromental controls. As a resident of Leigh I know which I would prefer. In the meantime the airport needs to be able to plan its future activities and generate employment whilst resident need the longstanding issue to be resolved once and for all.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Budget Challenge

So the budget proposals have now been published. It has been the hardest challenge that I have faced since becoming council leader. £15.5M savings needed out of revenue to achieve a balanced budget of £135M. The difficult decision to reduce the council's workforce by 178(FTE) posts of which the only saving grace is that 70 are currently vacant. I remain hopeful that with natural wastage, voluntary redundancy and early retirement we can keep compulsory redundancies to a minimum.Bearing in mind the extent of the challenge it is remarkable that we have avoided scrapping any front line service although some will need to be centred on those in most need. Let's see what response we now get from the opposition parties but it is no good anybody highlighting and criticising any particular saving without suggesting an alternative. PS As I have mentioned previously no library closures (and in particular Westcliff Library remains open) - let's wait for the apology from Cllr Terry for scaremongering!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Budget Proposals

Tomorrow is an important day with our budget plans for the coming year being formally released.For me it is a busy day with briefing meetings for other group leaders, the trade unions, the press and 3 seperate staff briefings. The papers will also be circulated to all members and published on the council's website. The proposals will be discussed at the cabinet meeting on wednesday of next week and, subject to any amendments will then be circulated to the 3 member scrutiny groups. This will give all members of the council to comment and proposed amendments before the final proposal is approved by the cabinet and then debated by full council.It will be interesting to see if members of other groups engage in the scrutiny meetings in a constructive way.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Independents - what is the point?

I have still to be convinced of the relevance or contribution of independents in local government. Elected councillors have in my view two primary duties. The first is to aid ward residents in dealing with specific issues which may arise across a range of council run areas to include housing, planning, education, social care etc. There are many members locally from all parties who fulfil this role conscientiously and effectively, often benefiting for the assistance of more experienced party colleagues. The performance of each councillor relies primarily on their own skill and dedication and the colour rosette they choose to wear is relatively insignificant.

However the second important role is to collectively formulate policy and priorities and to oversee implementation by council officers. It is in the second area that successful local government remains dependent on party involvement.

Each party, whether mainstream or more fringe, offers a clear underlying philosophy on fundamental issues such as regeneration, adult social care, education etc. giving the electorate a meaningful choice. If elected the party group is able to rely on a basic and sufficient ideological cohesion and organisational unity to deliver its core values with responsibility being maintained by the existence of a credible opposition acting as a balancing force.

In Southend we have the unusual concept of a recognised group of independent councillors who cooperate and campaign in a manner similar to the other party groups but who have no shared ideological background, overriding issue or geographical base. This inevitably means that they must concentrate on specific ward sensitive local issues or pursue negative campaigning in that they lack any consensus on the more fundamental challenges facing local government.

They include an unsuccessful Labour candidate and a former Conservative councillor as well as others across the political spectrum. Whilst this is suggested by some as a strength the question remains as to what would happen if they were to hold the balance of power at some stage in the future. Which party administration would they support and how could they agree on the fundamental priorities of the council within their own group, never mind with their new political allies? They are seeking to build what is in all reality a party group without dealing with these fundamental issues.

Westcliff Library and petty party politics

I note that once again the Independent Party are playing political games to try to frighten residents into supporting them. They have been suggesting to residents in Westborough that plans are afoot to close Westcliff Library. This is complete nonsense. At no time during the preparation of the budget for the coming year has any member of the Conservative administration or senior officer indicated any plan to shut Westcliff library.Having made up this scare story they will no doubt then suggest that they have had a part in "rescuing it". Don't be fooled. Strange isn't it that the party group who claim to be independent from party politics are inevitably at the forefront of stunts of this kind.

10 Downing Street

I was delighted to be invited to meet the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street earlier this week. It was my first visit behind the famous black door and it was interesting to see what a large building it is and to walk up the famous staircase with photographs of previous prime ministers. No photograph of Gordon Brown as yet! It is clear that David Cameron is fully aware of the challenges we are facing in finding economies in Southend but maintaining front line services and his team has no shortage of exciting initiatives for the future. What a difference to have a dynamic prime minister who can really connect with the public.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all as we embark on what I am sure will be an exciting if demanding 12 months. It is very exciting that Southend Borough Council has been short listed for the "Council of the Year" award. We will know the result later this year but being in the top few authorities in the country is further evidence of the progress we have made over the last few years.