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.