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.