Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Fair Haven planning application rejected

Whilst I am not a member of the Development Control Committee it is not surprising in planning terms that the application to build a new hospice on green belt land on Belton Hills has been rejected - even if the unanimous result of the committee was unexpected!. The case for allowing this major development had not been made out - as was made clear in the recommendation from the Council's planning officers - but it was nonetheless a challenging decision for members, particularly when faced with a well populated public gallery including many hospice supporters. I am pleased at the decision which I believe is right. Southend is one of the most densely populated local authority areas outside London and we need to fight to protect and preserve the limited green belt land we have available to us. When we allow one application it will inevitably be followed by others and this important green lung will have been lost.I remain surprised that the Hospice continued with the application even when it became apparent that there was significant public opposition. As I said to their Chief Executive before the 1st application was submitted, and whatever the planning merits or otherwise, it was always apparent that the plan would generate significant opposition and upset and for an organisation so dependent on the support of the local community what was the benefit of pursuing such a potentially divisive proposal. It is now my hope that the Hospice do not extend this damaging debate by seeking to appeal. I also hope that we can work with them to try to identify an alternative site so that they can continue their excellent and important work with enlarged and improved facilities. I would also hope that those previous supporters of the Hospice who have been deterred by this application will now put the matter behind them so that we can work together to provide the necessary financial and practical support for the future.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Boundary changes - sense at last!

Whilst I know that the whole issue of parliamentary boundary reorganisation is in the air with doubt as to whether the promised reduction of mps will be implemented I was delighted to note that in the revised proposals issued by the Boundary Commission today the ridiculous suggestion to transfer the wards of Leigh and West Leigh to Castle Point has been dropped. Like many others I voiced my opposition to a recommendation which would have left the community of Leigh split between 2 constituencies, Southend Council with 3 mps, and a sure recipe for confusion. The new proposal leaves Southend West mostly unchanged but for the addition of Victoria.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Wake up and smell the coffee.

At last nights Council meeting we had the usual succession of opposition councilors moaning about the alleged reductions made in some service areas and criticizing the administration for not allocating more cash. On each occasion this is raised I make the point that we go through an extended budget process which is specifically intended to allow all members to participate and indicate their views as to spending priorities. If these views are not accepted they have the opportunity during the budget debate to propose variations to the budget and in particular to suggest increased expenditure wherever they feel appropriate – the only pre condition is that they must also identify the corresponding saving so that the budget balances. In my years as leader there has not been a single proposal made during the budget debate to increase revenue funding and yet having failed to take advantage of the opportunity provided opposition members then immediately start whining about spending. There are those who say that when in opposition it is not their responsibility to make constructive budget proposals but simply to oppose and complain. In my view this is an example of some local politicians trying to hide behind national party politics. Local politics is different. It is not a party political argument as to whether we concentrate funding on youth centres or highway maintenance and upkeep; adult social care or weekly rubbish collection. We may approach these issues based on our different underlying political philosophies but in a local context there is a debate to be had and it is based on a need to evaluate local needs and priorities and persuade others to accept your views. Ducking the debate is not political necessity but cowardice. I say put the towns’ money where your mouth is and make your case, not only for areas where you believe funding should be protected or increased but also where the balancing savings come from

Taxi drivers – part of our public transport service

Like many others I was disgusted at last nights council meeting by Leigh Liberal Peter Wexham’s description of the Town’s taxi drivers as “mafia” and indeed his refusal to withdraw the slur notwithstanding the opportunity provided to him by my colleague Cllr Tony Cox. I sometimes wonder whether councilors so used to an empty public gallery forget that they are speaking as representatives of the community at a public meeting. In my view his comment is wholly unacceptable. In Southend we are fortunate to have an extensive taxi service which makes all parts of the town accessible around the clock and compares very favourably with the service available in many towns and cities across the country. At times where there is either no cover by the bus and train services or times are limited our taxis provide an essential means of public transport to our residents providing a safe and reliable transport system. In my view this service should be acknowledged and its providers not unfairly vilified.

Cllr Ware Lane - jammy dodger?

Worrying news has reached my ears about Council new boy Julian Ware Lane who on his blog has been vocal against the provision of free food to councilors. My source (who must remain confidential but is a member of an opposition group!) assures me that at last night’s council meeting Cllr Ware Lane was spotted tucking into a free jammy dodger supplied at the expense of the council tax payer. I find it hard to believe but the public must be told. Is there a crumb of truth in this or is someone trying to drop Cllr Lane in the red and sticky! In any event I will not mention my source – except perhaps in exchange for a free bourbon.

Magistrates Court closures?

What do they say about buses? No sooner does one story crop up that covers both my political and legal interests another one does, namely the very worrying rumour that consideration may be in hand to consider closing Southend and Basildon Magistrates Courts and transferring the work to Chelmsford. Alerted by the local Law Society I am pursuing further investigation but would strongly oppose any such proposal. Southend is the largest urban conurbation in the East of England and needs all aspects of the public sector to operate from South East Essex and be accessible to our residents. Apart from anything else the public transport links between Southend and Chelmsford are simply not up to the job.

Employee share schemes – I’m not convinced.

Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement on proposals to allow employees to exchange their legal employment rights for tax free shares in their employer leaves me cold and left me uncertain whether to raise it on my council blog or my Tolhurst Fisher blog so for the first time I thought I would put it on both! I don’t know why all the major parties continue to fall foul of conference-itis when in power and feel the need to announce initiatives which often seem incomplete, ill thought out and raise more questions than answers. I remain very sceptical as to whether the Government will be able to formulate plans which are attractive enough to entice many employees to risk something as fundamental as their ongoing job and income protection in exchange for the possibility of un quantified benefits in the future – and how many private companies will want to create potential issues with their share structure. As usual I did not attend the party conference this year – I was given the choice to either attend or walk over hot coals and the blisters are starting to heal!!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Members allowances

I received an interesting call from a resident this afternoon during which she was complaining about the allowance I receive as a result of my role as council leader for what she described as "a couple of hours a week." She seemed astounded when I gave her some detail as to the time the role involved on a weekly basis and had also not realised that our allowances are taxable income with income tax being paid in the usual way. Apparently her misunderstanding had been encouraged by a leaflet from her local Independent Party councillor. It led to an interesting discussion about how our allowances are calculated. In particular she had no idea that they were based on recommendations from an independent panel which based its view on the time involved with our work as ward councillors together with any additional responsibilities undertaken. I was also able to explain that the panel made an initial assumption that the first block of time spent each month should be unpaid - representing a community contribution by members to the town with allowances being based on the additional workload over and above that. In fact the only allowances which are not recommended by the panel on the basis of the actual work undertaken are the additional allowances paid to the opposition leaders which are based on the number of members of their group. It does seem strange to me that Cllr Martin Terry the Leader of the Independent Group happily takes this allowance in full notwithstanding his constant claim that he is not a party leader but simply a group spokesman. Indeed other members of his group have regularly commented that Cllr Terry is not their "leader"! In the circumstances how does he justify receiving this "leader" allowance which in an even more bizarre twist has increased since Cllr Morgan left the Lib Dems and joined the Liberal Party. Because he also became a member of the Independent Group on Southend Council Cllr Terry gets an increased allowance. If they are a party without leader perhaps their leader allowance should be equally shared by them all! It would make it slightly easier to listen to Cllr Terry's regular chest thumping on the need to give a fair return for public money. In the meantime I am in no doubt that no local councillor of any party does it for the money - the return on the time spent could be improved by doing almost any other job but without the satisfaction of trying to make Southend a better place.

Art trail for the Civic Centre

Today I attended the launch of an exciting new collaboration between Southend Council and Studio 3 - an artistic collective based in Leigh and operated by 5 local artists, including a number of people involved with the massively successful Leigh Art Trail.The agreement allows Studio 3 to provide, without charge, artwork created by local artists which will be displayed around the offices in the Civic Centre on a 6 month rolling programme.There will be the opportunity for staff or other visitors to buy the pictures if they wish. The scheme opens up a new prospective audience to the local artists on display whilst enhancing the workplace for council staff in an exciting way. It is very much a win-win idea and based on the art displayed today for the opening the quality is fantastic - looks like a good opportunity to find Mrs H's Christmas present!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Backlash against planning relaxation grows

I am delighted to see that opposition to the recently proposed relaxation of planning rules across non protected areas continues to grow. In particular it is not acceptable to implement a three year relaxation of the rules to allow home extensions of up to eight meters to be built without permission. This may be all well and good in some rural areas but in built up urban areas it is a recipe for disaster setting neighbour against neighbour and leaving councils to try to pick up the pieces. Southend is one of the most densely populated authorities outside London and the reality is that what one house owner builds in their back garden often has a significant effect on their neighbours with issues as to loss of light and privacy. As Councillors we already find some extension applications contentious but at least we are all working to the same rules with the Development Control Committee acting , in effect, as an independent arbiter. I note an ally of the PM is now mentioning the need to create balance between homeowner and neighbour which hopefully signals an intention to rein back this policy before it is too late.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Leigh West Leigh Focus

I have just received my latest copy of Leigh West Leigh Focus from the Leigh Lib Dem Councillors which always provides an amusing read - although not deliberately on their part! Firstly we have Cllr Crystall continuing to scaremonger on the Leigh Community Centre site and urging "...everyone who cares about saving [the Centre and Leigh Police Station] to go along and tell the consultants what they think". I wonder if this will include Cllr Crystall suggesting that the Police Station should be demolished and Cllr Wexham suggesting the Community Centre should go, being the opinions they have previously expressed but to a more selective audience. The reality is that there are no plans for anything as yet (Leigh Town Council have been given a 5 year lease on the Centre!) but instead a full, proper and adult consultation exercise which will extend over some years is being undertaken and would be more constructive if the Lib Dems encouraged all residents to engage with an open mind and in the absence of scaremongering. We then have Councillor Godwin expressing his concerns about aircraft noise and encouraging everybody to complain. I agree that the complaint process is there to be used but I am not sure that Cllr Godwin will be making too many complaints as it must be difficult to hear the planes from his home in Thorpe Bay. Finally we have the heading "Southend Tories' Latest Idea - Make the Poorest Pay!". This refers to the disgraceful decision on the part of the Government to pass the administration of council tax benefits to local authorities but then not also give sufficient funding to fully pay for the benefits. No mention is made that this policy is being implemented by a government of which their party is a full partner and which presumably they continue to support. They suggest the shortfall can be met by "cutting out more waste and inefficiencies", raising council tax for everybody by 2.5% or only paying the council tax benefits received from the government to claimants rather than asking everybody to pick up the bill. We are told that the Tories will be making the decision - well no they won't. This is a decision which will be taken when setting next years budget and in case Leigh Lib Dems had not noticed the Conservatives are in a minority and can be outvoted by the opposition on any issue. I wait with interest the proposals made by the Lib Dems to deal with this. Perhaps they will identify the "waste and inefficiencies" even though they have failed to do so over the last 5 years that I have dealt with the budget setting. If they want to hike the council tax this will presumably be on top of the increase which will be required anyway - so perhaps a 5% rise - unless they are going to find even more economies. I will be keeping my copy of Focus and look forward to reminding them of their comments when we hear their proposals. What a shame they can think of nothing positive to say about the town or their ward - but don't worry at least you have your party conference to look forward to - the rest of us are!

Tuition fees - my view

Spurred on by Nick Clegg (see below) I thought that I would take the opportunity to restate my own view on tuition fees which is that I am totally opposed to them and believe that they should be scrapped as soon as possible. I suppose that I should declare an interest in that I have 2 daughters - one of whom has completed her degree and is about to start a Masters and the other who is about to start her second year on a degree - so I have some first hand knowledge of the level of debt many of our young people now have hanging round their necks. Now I know that we are told that it will be years before they have to pay anything back and that even then it will be at some very low rate however one of the problems with society is the level of personal debt we have all accumulated. If I was a young person with an outstanding debt of £30K relating to my degree course I could only cope by pushing it to the far reaches of my mind and having achieved that I might be tempted to play the same trick with my credit card balance, bank overdraft etc etc. I just do not believe that we are playing fair with our young. Now I realise that university costs are spiraling out of control and something needs to be done but is that our fault or the fault of the kids being encouraged to take courses with a massive price tag but no promise of employment at the end. Surely the starting point must be to ensure uni's are offering courses which either ensure graduates are well placed to obtain well paid employment and who will therefore repay society for the investment in their careers with increased tax payments over many years, or are gaining qualifications which will add to the fabric of society such as nursing, medical research, teachers etc who may not earn mega bucks and generate massive tax revenue but will repay society by the nature of the jobs they do. In my view the fault rests on the last Labour government and their determination to get 50% of our young people to university without putting a firm and fair funding arrangement in place and the ridiculous blurring of uni's and polytechnics. The polys provided a range of sensible, cost effective practical courses but have now fallen over each other to become universities eager to offer academic based courses which are not always to the same standard, result in too many graduates in academic areas where jobs simply do not exist and leaving a shortage of more practical courses. I came from a one parent family where money was tight - I enjoyed good education from state schools in the town and was funded through my law degree and solicitors final course by full grants from the state. I believe that I have repaid that investment through my tax contributions and my effort to contribute to society but would I have been able to embark on the same journey if I was now 18 - I have considerable doubts!

Tuition fees - some apology!

Nice to see that at last Nick Clegg has seen fit to offer an apology over the tuition fee fiasco but does that make it all better. I suspect that he is not helped by his party colleagues who obviously don't share his stance. Vince Cable was on radio stressing that he had been against the pledge all along and there was some lib Dem mp (who I had never heard of) on Jeremy Vine today saying that an apology wasn't necessary because a third of students were now paying less than would have been the case. It really is pathetic. We all know that using normal Lib Dem election tactics they had decided that there were student votes to be won on the issue and they targeted university towns trying to buy votes with their personal pledge never believing they would have a sniff of government and as a result would not have to deliver. It would have been far more honourable to have fought as hard on the issue as they have done on House of Lords reform.Vince Cable seems to want his cake and to eat it. We are told that he is a central player in his party and government but as soon as anything unpopular happens he is the first to try to distance himself.Perhaps the time has come for him to start accepting some collective responsibility or to return to the back benches although I suspect that if that happens it will be shortly ahead of the next election to ensure he has as much time as possible in his important government post before demonstrating his principles to voters. So Clegg's apology is too little too late but at least better than most of his colleagues.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Tony Tomassi

Very sad news this week with the death of Mr Tony Tomassi, a freeman of the town, but also an essential part of our recent history through his longstanding and popular High Street restaurant. As a child the ultimate holiday or weekend treat was a visit to Peter Pan's playground followed by a visit for lunch or tea to the Tomassi restaurant. Originally on the east of the High Street the main course was good but only the warm up act for the real treat for any child - the amazing selection of Ice creams. Initially it was the Ice cream Clown but as the years passed there was a brief dalliance with the Coca Cola Float (or at least that it was I think it was called) and then onto the ultimate - the Knickerbocker Glory.And every visit incomplete without a welcome from Mr or Mrs Tomassi always on hand to check that everything was perfect. It was an experience subsequently enjoyed by my children and whilst the restaurant may have now crossed the road and introduced some new twists the old magic remains. Whilst it is now in the safe hands of the next generation the reassuring presence of Mr Tomassi remained often on hand. I can't pretend to have known him other than exchanging pleasantries from time to time although I was at school briefly with one of his sons and know his daughter Anna well through politics however I will still greatly miss him. It is a particular frustration that I will be unable to attend his funeral on tuesday which clashes with a full public cabinet meeting but we will be honouring his passing with a minutes silence at the beginning of the meeting and I know that I will struggle not to think back to those glorious days of Clowns, Floats and of course the Knickerbocker Glory!

Southend Bikeathon

Participated in my 3rd Southend Bikeathon today as part of my family team "The Saddle Soarers" - well we thought it was a funny pun after a couple of bottles of red! The event is in aid of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research so a great reason to get onto a bike on a sunday morning. As usual the event was very well organised with friendly and helpful stewards on duty at every main junction and combined with good signage it was impossible to go wrong. A great balance of families and occasional riders together with those who clearly take cycling a little more seriously. For the first time I decided to take on the double circuit of 27 miles rather than the single of 13.5 miles. Great fun although it is strange how slight hills on the first circuit had been suddenly transformed into mountainous climbs by the second. If you've got a bike then I would recommend taking part next year. I suddenly intend to be back with the added benefit of raising money for great cause.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Council Teas

It was disappointing to note that one of the Labour group decided to attempt to make mischief on this issue, particularly as the coverage in the Echo contributed to the concerns expressed by many members of the public. Council teas were traditionally provided to members, senior officers and the media before the major council and scrutiny meetings. This gave members the opportunity to discuss the coming business in a less formal and confrontational manner and also addressed the problem faced by members who work full time and would come straight to the Civic Centre from work with no opportunity to eat first before participating in a potentially lengthy meeting starting at 6.30 and often continuing until 10pm or beyond. It was the Conservative administration which scrapped the teas, not because it resulted in a significant saving in the context of the overall council budget, but because it gave an outward message at a time of economic hardship. The change has not been wholly successful as now members tend to arrive a few minutes before the meetings with no time for discussion and for those who come straight from work there are no food outlets in the Civic Centre or immediate vicinity. Accordingly the Chief Executive with the agreement of all 4 group leaders decided to offer a tea for the first meeting of the year to judge the potential demand. It was always anticipated by the Leaders that members would make a voluntary donation to cover the cost which is what happened. The reason for the trial is that the numbers need to reach a certain level before the provision of catering is economically viable. There is little point in having these leader agreements if members of the groups do not support them or at least flag up potential disagreement in advance. The result of the fur-ore was a low take up but for what it is worth I remain of the view that food should be provided at the Civic Centre before these meetings but on the basis that it is charged to those who take it up at cost.

The Museum in the Cliffs

I was pleased to see that the planning application for the new museum and related cliff stabilisation was passed by the council's Development Control Committee with strong backing from all 4 party groups. This proposal addresses 3 issues. Firstly there remains a need to carry out further and significant stabilisation works in the area because of the continuing challenge of the soil conditions which exist along the cliffs from Belton Way to the Town Centre and threaten further land slips if the wrong weather and ground condition combine. Secondly the area of the current slip is unsightly and prevents safe public access in a central area which is important to the Town's public face. Thirdly it provides a proper home for a dramatic new museum to house the important Saxon King relics as well as other items and gives space for traveling exhibitions which will not only enable us to bring the Saxon King relics home but also greatly expand our tourist offer particularly in the context of trying to attract visitors for longer than a day. The Council has allocated scarce funds to carry out the required stabilisation but this does not include the reinstatement of the cliff as the funds for this are way beyond our resources. However by sinking the museum behind the stabilising wall we increase the effect, have a proposal which is more likely to attract funding and then have the opportunity to reinstate the cliff over the top to allow public access once again. It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest that we are able to stabilise, scrap the museum and reinstate the cliffs to their previous state.

Pier Building open at last

It has been a repeated pledge of our administration that we would reinstate a building at the end of the Pier and that in doing so we would follow the wishes of the public in the consultation carried out some years ago. It has not been easy. First there was extensive work to the structure of the Pier together with the necessary fire detection and protection systems, the withdrawal of the promised funding and yet another boat collision. However we have got there and the new building is a dramatic sight from the shore being a perfect blend between the listed pier and the dramatic and modern building. Having been in the building it provides some dramatic display space both inside and out and marvelous views to the sea and shore.The first of a busy calendar , a Southend Comedy Festival, has been a great success and promises to return next year. If you have not done so yet I would urge you to visit the end of the Pier and enjoy the perhaps forgotten pleasure of a stroll into the estuary with great views all round and the treat of the new cultural centre to reward you at the Pier head.with

Olympic Flame burns bright in Southend

It was great to see that the slightly damp weather conditions did not dampen the spirits of the thousands who watched the passage of the Olympic Flame across the town to include the amazing performance of the choir of 2000 singing the new anthem commissioned for the event. I would challenge anyone to dispute that the view of the flame holder standing in front of the choir in full voice with the tide in and pier stretching out behind was simply fantastic. As one of those traveling with the flame was happy to say more than once it was the most dramatic and effective sight he had witnessed in the torch's journey to that point. It was also great to see that in the BBC's recent 30 minute documentary the choir were pictured towards the end of the programme with a snatch of the anthem seeing the programme out.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Soaring Pigeons at City Beach

On Friday night we made one of our occasional visits to Chinnerys on the seafront to see the Pigeon Detectives who I have not seen live since the Reading Festival some years ago.Whilst the Cliffs Pavilion is now attracting some good bands there is nothing to beat the intimacy of Chinnerys - a truly fantastic venue for local music lovers.The Pigeons really rose to the occasion and were probably the best I have ever seen in the town - even beating the Sweet at the Kursaal in the early seventies!The night was up close, hot, sweaty, pushy, and cramped with crowd surfing,and water/beer everywhere - simply great.And to make it even better I know there was at least one person there who was older than me (but don't worry Pete I won't say who) I am looking forward to the next time already.

Freud and all that

Having greatly enjoyed the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy we had tried and failed to get in to the Lucien Freud Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.Undeterred we pre booked tickets and went yesterday morning.For me it did not reach the heights of the Hockney display (in particular his iPad pictures were amazing) but none the less well worth the trip and entrance money.Art really seems to be on the up with every recent visit we have made packed out with enthusiastic visitors.The day continued well with a beer (or 2!) in a central London pub watching the Rugby Premiership Final between Quins and Leicester.A great game with, in my impartial view, the right result but keeping us all on the edge of our seats until the final whistle.Come on Gloucester it is yours to lose next year!!!Theses visits help strengthen my own view that to continue to develop the Town as a cultural centre for the region has to be a priority as a way to attract visitors, employment and investment.a key to this remains our plans for the new museum and return of the Saxon King artefacts.

Flying start to fun packed summer

What a difference the sun makes and what a great start to the summer season with a well attended air festival in hot sunshine.Let us hope for similarly kind weather for a succession of events from the jubilee, cricket festival, art trail, Olympics, folk festival and on and on. That is not forgetting the opening of the renovated Priory with new visitor centre and the launch of the new Pier Head cultural centre.It promises to be an exciting 2012!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Chalk dust and fantasy,

I must admit to avoiding Shoebury Independent. (and former failed Labour candidate)Anne Chalks blog. If in the need of fiction I prefer Robert Ludlum - but I am told that she is now moaning about the proposal to put beach huts on the beach at Shoebury.This proposal was included quite clearly as a new capital item in the capital budget approved by the Council in April. It will come as no surprise that Cllr Chalk made no comment on the proposal during the budget process or debate and certainly did not suggest that it be rejected. Shoebury residents may be thinking why bother have her as a councillor.She is in the privileged position (like all of us) to raise issues of concern at the time not simply at a later date when she thinks there may be a few votes in it.The question is did she not bother to read the budget papers at the time, or did she read them and agree with the proposal and has only changed her mind now.This all sounds very familiar as those who recall my earlier items on Hinguar School will know.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Southend Pier

What a great sight yesterday as the new cultural centre was lifted onto the end of the Pier.It was a challenging technical exercise which was completed without a hitch.Congratulations to all the contractors involved and to the council's own officers who have worked so hard.Perhaps even a pat on the back for me and my Conservative colleagues who have been determined to deliver a new chance for the pier in the face of constant challenge, both financial and practical.Up to this point we have concentrated on the significant work to the structure and fire prevention equipment which is not obvious or apparent to residents.At last we have reached the fun part of the project and I cannot wait for the new centre to open with a full programme of events and activities.

Explain that!

At last night's council meeting there was a vote for the Chair of the influential Economic & Enviromental Scrutiny Committee between 2 opposition members - Councillors Woodley and Longley.What I struggle to understand is that having supported Cllr Woodley in his bid to become council leader the entire Labour group then voted against him becoming Chairman of this committee.If they thought he was suitable for Leader why change their collective mind seven days later. Answers on a postcard to Cllr Ian Gilbert!

Musical chairs

Last night it was time to appoint the members, Chairs and Vice Chairs for all council committees and working parties for the coming year.Having negotiated an agreement with the Thorpe councillors which included the release of certain Chairs to the opposition you would have thought that it would be no surprise that we followed the terms of the agreement. Well it appears to have come as a surprise to certain members of the Lib Dem and Labour groups who seemed to feel that having refused to take control of the council or participate in the agreement or even constructive negotiations they were still entitled to it's benefits - apparently even if this meant the signatories breaking their obligations to each other.That is not the way it works. When we reach an agreement we will stick to it although this did result in the allocation of posts of responsibility to members of all opposition groups.

A working arrangement

As I have already mentioned I have offered a Memorandum of Understanding to all opposition groups in an attempt to move forward constructively and to ensure some stability for the council during the difficult months ahead. Only the Thorpe Councillors were prepared to enter into negotiations with me although some other Independent councillors pledged their informal support.Having lost the leadership election it would have been easy for Cllr Woodley to retreat into "spoilt child" mode and refuse to speak to me but to his great credit he didn't (but then he isn't a Lib Dem). He made some policy demands which I was happy to support and we have been able to finalise an agreement between the Conservative Group and the Thorpe Independent Councillors which will be published on the council web site for all to see. No private or confidential closed door deals but an open, transparent and constructive arrangement. This will allow the council to plan forward with some certainty and I hope that the attitude of the other opposition groups follows his lead during the coming months so that we can focus on what is in the best interests of the town and not on negative and destabilising nonsense.

Lib Dems - sitting on the fence (Part 2)

Following my re election as Leader the first concern was to create some stability for the coming 2 years.(There are no council elections next year). Having considered the position with the Chief Executive and done research as to how the situation has been approached in other areas I decided to consider proposing to all opposition groups that we enter into a Memorandum of Understanding.This would outline some underlying principles and then offer a division of important council chairs in exchange for a pledge from the opposition not to attempt to overturn the administration by a vote of confidence. It did not seek to prevent them opposing or scrutinising individual policies and indeed offered regular meetings between cabinet holders and shadow cabinet holders to discuss policy initiatives before consideration by cabinet to ensure that opposition voices were heard.It also enshrined the right of any opposition member to propose any cost neutral amendment to our budget and to have it dealt with by a vote in full council (where my party does not have a majority) but on the basis that having had any valid amendments resolved they would not vote against the final substantive budget.This recognised the fact that last year many opposition councillors voted against the budget notwithstanding having proposed no alternatives.To fix a balanced budget is a legal obligation on the council and I need to ensure that I can do so.Hardly unreasonable!! The Lib Dems simply rejected it out of hand - as did the Labour Group. There were no proposed amendments simply refusal to enter into it. I still have no idea why but in my view it represents a scandalous failure on their part to step up to their responsibilities to the town and the residents who supported them.They chose not to take leadership of the council with the other opposition groups so must work positively to ensure that the council can operate in a stable way as it faces further massive financial challenges.Oh well I suppose it is so much easier to sit on the fence and then just whinge but the residents who voted them in might like to consider if they could be better represented.

Lib Dems - sitting on the fence (part 1)

I have already explained the reasoning behind my decision to allow the opposition groups to replace me as Leader following our loss of our majority and their decision not to do so.However I do have to add my thoughts of disbelief to the "tactics" of the local Lib Dems and to a lesser degree the Labour Group. Neither group was prepared to put forward one of it's own members for this important role. Strangely Labour whipped it's members to support the independent candidate Cllr Woodley notwithstanding the vitriolic attack on the independent group by Labour leader Ian Gilbert at a pre election hustings meeting or in recognition that in some areas the Independent group pose an increasingly greater threat to Labour than the Conservatives.But the biscuit must go to the Lib Dems who were instructed to abstain.They have been elected to represent their residents. In the first important vote - who will lead the council and appoint the cabinet - they put no candidate forward and don't even vote. It takes sitting on the fence to a new level and having had to endure an election campaign when all opposition groups seemed to have criticised everything the Conservative administration has achieved they can't even get their act together enough to agree on a possible Leader.Still things could be worse - imagine if they had cobbled together a joint Leader bid and formed a cabinet they would probably still be arguing about the seating layout round the cabinet table.

Follow the Leader

Last year I was elected as Leader of the council for a term of 3 years. Accordingly when we lost control I would have been entitled to have ignored our loss of an overall majority and clinged on.That seemed to me to be wrong.It was right that the new council membership, with no overall control, had the chance to choose who it wanted to lead it through the next few difficult years. For this reason I tendered my resignation but, with the full support of my party colleagues, allowed my name to be proposed for re election. Some have painted this as some sort of political stunt but on the contrary it gave the combined opposition, with their majority, the chance to pick one of their own number to take over.I was delighted that Cllr Woodley responded to the challenge and allowed his name to go forward.obviously I was delighted and honoured to be re elected by a significant majority. It gives me and my colleagues a real mandate for the coming 2 years.

Election blues!

I have deliberately delayed updating my blog since election day to give a chance for the dust to settle. It is obviously disappointing to lose out overall majority - we now have 25 out of the 51 councillors leaving us 1 short of a majority. So near but so far! Having said that the clear message from our canvassing was that there is general support for the performance of Southend Council over the last few years but increasing annoyance at the performance of all parties at national level. This was reflected by the appallingly low turnout which frustrated candidates from all parties. It does seem bizarre that at a time when we are improving service performance, delivering budget savings and attracting inward investment in a way which is externally recognised by the Council of the Year award we lose seats.However that is politics and the message was that many of our core voters chose to stay at home.The disappointing night was not ours alone - the Liberals were lucky to hang onto their seats with relatively small majorities, and whilst Labour made gains their vote was disappointing (in Milton the successful candidate polled less to win this year than he did when previously coming second).In an environment custom built for the Independent Party they failed to make inroads - even losing their seat in Southchurch to our candidate.Their "gain" in Belfairs was only due to the success of Steve Aylen who before he was not re selected had been a Conservative councillor for many years, voting reliably for us and seeking our nomination this year. If he is true to his voting record and presumable beliefs it is difficult to see that he will not wish to support us on occasions over the coming months.So now to the challenge of a hung council!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Council of the Year

I am delighted to report that at a ceremony last night Southend Borough Council was confirmed as the Council of the Year in the LGC Annual awards. Having been shortlisted for the most improved Council 2 years ago and the Council of the Year last year it was a special moment to win the top award. In announcing the decision the judges recorded the strength of our staff, partnership work and leadership. The award is great recognition for the hard work of so many members of staff who have driven standards up notwithstanding the challenge of the current economic situation. More details will soon be available but in the meantime having got home after 3am this morning I am going back to bed!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Thorpe Bay car parking charges - credit where credit is due!

Congratulations to Cllr Woodley on raising the possibility of introducing car park charges in the car parks at Southchurch Park East and on Eastern Esplanade behind the Camelia Hotel. These are both reasonable suggestions which had been overlooked by officers and the Tory administration alike. What I can't understand is that having followed his lead Cllr Woodley is now trying to distance himself from the decision. We did make a change to the proposal on Eastern Esplande to accomodate local hotels and guest houses who were concerned that if charging started at 9am it would catch out guests taking the advantage of a lie in, so this was changed and charging will only be between 10.30am and 6pm.

Perhaps car parking remains a sore point for Ron having failed to notice or oppose last year's introduction of parking charges along Eastern Esplanade.

Anyway come on Ron - you don't make many achievable proposals so when you do be prepared to take the credit.

It's all in the figures!

Last night's budget debate once again saw the Independents spraying around statistics which simply don't add up. We had an apparent dispute that over recent years the council had shed jobs!! This was supported by a figure for the current year based on people rather than full time equivalent posts and compared with historic figures which rather than recording the council's full time equivalent permanent roles referred to everybody including short term government funded contract staff and casual staff. If you really think this authority is not sheding it's permanent staff then perhaps you would like me to introduce you to some of the people involved. They also suggested that the "top" 275 staff cost over £19M in salaries each year. Where does this come from - it is simply wrong.It is time they actually justified these figures or acknowledged that they are misleading the public. For further examples look no further than Cllr Woodley's last Oracle article and the similar article shortly afterwards by Cllr Terry in the Leigh Times. The question is are they misquoting the figures deliberately to mislead or do they simply not understand the information available to them?

Budget Debate

As usual a long and rather frustrating debate last night resulted in approval of the Administration's proposals. Surprisingly whilst opposition members spent lengthy periods criticising the Conservatives and moaning about specific savings they made no alternative suggestions, made no formal amendments and did not even vote against the budget! These proposals have been on the table since January so they can hardly say that they have not had the time or the opportunity. My favourite comment came from Independent Party member Cllr Chalk who said that she was unhappy about the increase in the cost of meals and wheels and would give consideration to alternatives. It was necessary to point out that she had already had over 6 weeks to come up with something and as the budget now had to be approved it was too late.These are difficult times and there are hard decisions to take but it really is time that certain members of the opposition groups stepped up to the mark and started representing the residents who elected them. They either agree that we have made the best (but hard) choices and support the budget or come up with alternatives and propose them so that they can be considered and debated. If they have good ideas that we have not thought of then why we would ignore them. For the 5th year in a row my message to them is the same - put up or shut up!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Marine Parade parking - the ongoing challenge

The recent survey into parking stress across the Marine Estate has failed to highlight any clear messages.

The overall response rate of 45% was very high for a survey of this kind but of those responding 58.7% did not consider that there was any parking problem in their street and 59.8% said they would not be supportive of any type of parking controls being introduced.

This is very frustrating for those residents who feel strongly that action is required however it is important that any measures have the clear support of a majority of effected residents.There have been many examples in the past where a scheme appears to have support but following implementation the "silent majority" express their anger. This is even more relevant where funds are tight and where it is essential that the few schemes implemented have public support.

The survey did result in a number of more localised suggestions and we will continue to work to identify and implement changes which do have majority support and help to resolve the problems caused by excessive commuter parking and, rat running and speeding.

Scrutiny what scrutiny?

The Administration's Draft Budget was considered by the Economic & Enviromental Scrutiny Committee last night in a discussion that lasted almost one and a half hours. Whilst we made some progress with the Lib Dems (see below) the Independent Party team of Messrs Terry & Woodley failed to cover themselves with glory. They failed to raise any issues, comments or queries on the main revenue budget at all nothwithstanding the suggested savings of £11M. In an overall council budget of approaching £500M they spent most of their effort concentrating on a small item on car parking charges which was agreed during last years budget without comment from them and in respect of which no change is proposed this year. We had the usual claptrap on the level of council borrowing - an argument they have lost many times in the past - and yet whilst complaining about borrowing they continue to refuse to identify any capital schemes which they would not pursue. At least Martin Terry acknowledged that after 9 years on the council he still didn't understand how to read the accounts which may explain why he constantly misinterprets them. My favourite part of the evening was Cllr Woodley's declaration that "I am a Conservative". Interesting but then he also claims to be a financial expert.

Who says we won't listen?

Over recent years opposition parties have complained that it is not worth them making proposals as to budget amendments because the Administration does not listen. Events over the last week have proved them wrong. The Lib Dems have recently raised a number of issues including whether we can find funds to reintroduce limited free swimming for the over 65s. I have discussed this with cabinet and officers and identified that we can allocate some health funding for 2 years with a review in 18 months. We have also agreed that we will re launch the Advantage Card which can be accommodated within the existing budget and have agreed to request a paper on the financial and practical ramifications of offering council tax rebates to special constables.

I have repeatedly invited opposition groups to use our process of extended scrutiny of the budget to come up with budget amendments/suggestions which are either cost neutral or proposed with a corresponding saving on the understanding that we will carefully consider them and if we think they are reasonable accept them. I am pleased that the Lib Dem group have raised these suggestions, which have a negligible financial effect and which we are happy to implement. Perhaps other groups will follow this lead which has been sadly missing from all opposition parties over recent years.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Kaiser Chiefs

Greatly enjoyed the Kaiser Chiefs at the Cliffs Pavilion on sunday evening - the venue continues to attract a great range of bands.The only downside is that as the years pass there is a creeping risk that I will find myself as one of (if not the!) oldest members of the audience. It is always a relief to spot someone clearly senior to me as was the case with a significant number of people on sunday. I am a bit more concerned whether this will also be the case when I see Florence & the machine and Noah & the whale later this year. Still if the music is good enough it is worth it!!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Budget Proposals

This week the Administration has published its draft budget for the coming financial year.This will be considered in cabinet next week before being referred to all three council scrutiny committees and the Business Ratepayers Consultative Forum. Subject to any amendments which result from this process the draft budget will then go back to cabinet before being debated by full council when the final budget will be approved.

Obviously we face a significant financial challenge and these proposals reflect a massive amount of work by senior officers and my colleagues in cabinet.

It is also important that we do not under estimate the challenge that remains over at least the next 2 years. The Chancellor has made clear that we will have further reductions in funding over the remainder of current spending review period and that this is likely to continue for at least a further year after that!

Our proposed revenue budget is £130.3M. It requires savings of £11.8M.

The economies are being found from the four council directorates (£7.4M), corporately (£354K) and by new cross cutting work streams (£3.9M)which try to deliver greater efficiencies and new ways of working without direct effect on service delivery.

We are proposing accepting the government’s council tax subsidy which means that council tax for residents will be frozen.I am also pressing the government to accept that this subsidy should extend to more than one year.

We anticipate up to 120(FTE) job losses of which 49 are currently vacant.

The Dedicated Schools Budget is slightly increased and the effect for Southend Schools is that income will slightly increase (0.35%-0.95%) as will the Pupil Premium (£600 per pupil from £488).

Other than fees and charges prescribed by statute we have tried to maintain most culture fees at current levels and are also holding car parking charges (for the third year out of four).

Council rents will rise by an average of 8.05% in accordance with government aspirations to see convergence with housing authority rents and we are being required by the government to take over direct responsibility for our share of the HRA national debt (£35.27M) although this will be met from the HRA and not general revenue account.

New capital projects for 12/13 to 15/16 of £49.3M are proposed but this includes HRA investment and other new items including certain statutory obligations, the schools capital fund, the Pier, Cliffs Stabilisation and ICT investment.

I now await the input from opposition parties with interest. In my years as Leader we have only ever had one minor amendment proposed (The Lib Dem Leader trying to play party politics a few years ago)since which time the opposition councillors have failed to make any alternative proposals but with the majority voting against our budget!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Independent party politics – plagiarism, lies and bullying?

I was feeling full of pre Christmas goodwill but this was tested to the full when I received my free copy of “Leigh Oracle” and made the mistake of reading an article written by Independent party member Ron Woodley headed “The True Cost of Local Bureaucracy?” It reached new levels of tosh and factual error - even for Ron whose misunderstanding of public finance continues to plumb new depths. Imagine my surprise when within a few days I received my copy of “Leigh Times” including an article allegedly penned by Independent party leader Martin Terry – the similarity of significant parts of the language and content was distinctly bizarre. Either one of them has been doing a spot of ghost writing or, if I was the author of the original piece, I would be making allegations of plagiarism! I will comment separately on a number of the major errors and inaccuracies made by them both however what was even more distasteful was Cllr Terry’s criticisms of the motivation and competence of council officers. Whilst he is free to make personal attacks on me and my political colleagues and the policies we pursue (which he regularly attempts with remarkable incompetence) he knows only too well that officers have no right to publicly respond to his cheap shots – in my book that is tantamount to bullying. However I will make Ron and Martin an offer – stop telling lies about our policies and I will stop telling the truth about your lack of policies!

Leigh Community Centre - Lib Dem spin

Having tried to launch a constructive, open and early debate on the options available in Elm Road I was surprised to see the public stance adopted by Leigh & West Leigh Libs which bears no relation to their earlier comments to me. I have tried to raise the issue with Cllrs Crystal and Wexham - I am still waiting for a response. Here is my pre Xmas e mail to them. The silence of their response is deafening!

I am writing to express my extreme disappointment and indeed annoyance at your latest edition of “Leigh West Leigh Focus” which includes the banner heading “Save Leigh from the bulldozers” followed by a selective quote from my recent Leigh Times article and a covering comment that can best be described as misleading.

I have previously attended 1:1 meetings with both Alan and Peter on this issue (at your respective requests) during which I believed that you had accepted that no plans currently existed for the site but that with the inevitability of buildings becoming vacant or underused there had to be a full and adult discussion involving the community as to what the future of the site should be. We all accepted that this would be the last opportunity in the foreseeable future to control a significant site in the heart of Leigh and to see if it could help to address some of the ongoing challenges the area faces.

I accepted that Alan was keen to retain the Community Centre but was relatively unconcerned about the current police station whereas Peter felt that the police station could be retained for potential occupation by Leigh Town Council and with a new community centre behind, but had no desire to retain the existing Community Centre building.

We agreed that we needed to avoid turning the issue into a party political argument with unnecessary scaremongering. We also agreed that we needed to indicate that we retained an open mind to encourage others to do likewise to facilitate a proper and open debate. I confirmed I was willing to involve you both and Barry in the discussions from the outset together with various other stakeholders.

It was my understanding that we had reached agreement on a constructive way forward and I would therefore welcome an explanation as to why you have now allowed a leaflet to be distributed which wholly undermines our discussions and agreed approach. It is particularly ironic that Alan is pictured directly in front of Leigh Police Station and is quoted as referring to “handsome and irreplaceable” buildings notwithstanding his comment to me that this particular building had little architectural merit and should not be retained.

Why do you expect me to be open, transparent and inclusive on the issue if you are not?

I await your response with interest.”

Oh well - perhaps next time!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Shared Space & Exhibition Road

Had a visit to the V&A museum over the New Year break to see the exhibition celebrating 50 years of Private Eye. Without planning it I found myself experiencing the new shared space scheme in Exhibition Road.Very dramatic and different. Bearing in mind the hassle we have had in Southend with our limited shared space scheme on the seafront it is a relief that Exhibition Road falls outside our jurisdiction! There is no doubt that a completely new road layout like this makes you stop and think and on my view it seemed to be accepted well by drivers, walkers and cyclists alike. Certainly vehicle speeds were down and everybody seemed more aware of what was going on around them. Early results from schemes across the county seem to show that they increase safety and hopefully as they become more widely introduced and understood this will continue and increase. We are now awaiting the report evaluationg the current operation of our City Beach with any recommendations as to possible improvements.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Happy New Year

Best wishes for a Happy and hopefully prosperous new year to all residents and business' within south east Essex.Certainly for the council it is going to be challenging with further substantial cuts to be found whilst trying to maintain frontline services.