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!