Friday, 20 December 2013

Independents & UKIP announce election pact

It is no great surprise to note that Southend's Independent Party and UKIP have announced a pact at the next local elections and that they will work together post May 2014. Obviously this is subject to one rather large hurdle namely UKIP getting any candidates elected however in any event it represents a further bizarre twist in the enigma that is the Southend Independent Party. They already act exactly like every other party grouping (releasing common literature, having group meetings, taking group decisions, electing a leader who takes the resulting financial allowance and regularly voting together) missing only a clear and shared political philosophy which prevents them adopting a clear positive manifesto of commonly supported initiatives. This is not surprising bearing in mind their vastly different party political backgrounds and beliefs. They call the Conservatives "nasty" and yet constantly produce the most negative material of any of the party groups and allege the other parties operate a whip whereas the voting records show that if anything they are more likely to vote en bloc than the Conservatives who have no whip. They now announce a pact with a group who are at the different end of the political spectrum to many of their members and who have declared no package of Southend priorities or policies. How can the group which tries to herald their "independent" approach on every issue pre bind themselves to a political party of any colour. Surely it is not the case that this motley group are no more "independent" than anyone else and are simply interested in getting control whatever compromises they have to make to get it? I have no problems with a desire to take control but just feel that voters are entitled to a little honesty and a clear indication of policy priorities if party groups are elected.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The art of opposition (2)

I have already commented on my bemusement at the tactics of Cllr Martin Terry and the rest of his Independent Party colleagues. To continue on this theme I would like to give them some helpful tips. The role of members is to decide policy taking account of the professional advice received from officers and then to oversee the implementation of that policy.This does not mean blindly following all advice received but understanding that expert advice and information is a support tool not a hindrance. This is of course in addition to supporting local residents etc. Even on technical items such as flood defence Martin and some of his colleagues continue to refuse to accept the technical advice received from officers and specialist advisers believing that they know better. With Martin this often seems to be based on his ability to use a google search. Repeatedly stating that they know better than experts does, in my view, make them look a little stupid and does not do any favours for members of the public who can be given false hopes or expectations. This is different from their group member Ric Morgan commenting on education where he clearly does have expertise in the area. There is a growing theme of objecting to various measures because they are intended to deliver savings. Well yes they are and the Indies know why the savings have to be delivered. If they want to block our attempts to deliver savings then where are they going to find the money from. It is easy simply to argue against any change but not an opportunity that the Administration has. I also feel that they have not got to grips with deciding which items are better scrutinised at the scrutiny committees and the matters which are better highlighted by a more public and show debate at full council. At the moment they seem to feel that they need to have the same debate twice failing to recognise the different strengths of the two meetings and the different opportunities they present. This also means that council meeting are over long and convoluted rather than being used to highlight one or two key policy areas where they disagree with the Administration's position. There are a number of members of the Lib Dem and Labour groups who have in my view a far better grasp as to the mechanics of the system and whilst I know that the Indies think that they are the only effective opposition group perhaps they should try taking a look at the others! Whilst I appreciate that there is no single or correct view as to the art of opposition I do feel that my colleagues in cabinet and I are well placed to judge the efforts of our opponents in Southend.

The art of opposition

I have already commented on the lengthy council meeting on Thursday evening. Further reflection leaves me bemused at the Independent Party's tactics. The intriguing thing is that their Leader Martin Terry clearly feels that they provide effective opposition and no doubt feels that he is a strong orator. Regrettably I don't agree with either view. Whereas members from other groups are more selective and focussed on items they feel need scrutiny Martin and his colleagues favour more of a scattergun approach. Personally he seems to feel the need to speak to more items than most other members and his contributions are not limited to minutes which his group have reserved for debate or where he appears to have given particular thought as to what he wants to say. The 2 items that the Indies concentrated on were the debates on the proposed Shoebury Common Flood Defences and Priory & Delaware homes. However whilst they tried to argue against both decisions they had taken the decision not to refer the items up from scrutiny to full council. This is a straightforward and regularly used device whereby any 2 members can refer to matter up and full council then acts as scrutiny committee and if it disagrees with a decision can refer it back to cabinet for reconsideration. So long as 2 members make the decision they don't have to win a vote at scrutiny and as there are at least 2 Indies on every scrutiny this is within their power. As they had chosen not to refer up full council could only debate the subject without having any effect on the decision. As it happened the Administration was 3 members light for the meeting caused by Gwen Horrigan's departure and illness to the Mayor Brian Kelly and my Deputy Leader John Lamb. This meant that the opposition groups could, if they were agreed and united, outvote us on any vote and could have referred the matters back. If there is a hidden tactic they have got me fooled!

The longest day!

The last full council meeting of the year on Thursday night turned into quite a marathon. Starting at 6.30pm as usual it did not end until after 1.30am. This was with only one short comfort break for the benefit of the Deputy Mayor who unlike the rest of us could not leave the chamber whilst the meeting was in progress. I was due at a meeting of the main board of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership in Thurrock at 10am the next morning followed by a meeting of the Transport Board where I was representing the council. As a result, and notwithstanding having only made it home at 2.15am, I was in my office at 7am and then at Thurrock for the start of the LEP meeting. The Lep board includes leaders of various county, unitary and district councils across Essex, Kent and East Sussex and there was general humour and incredulity expressed by a number of my fellow leaders at the length and content of our council meeting. Reflecting on the meeting it did seem bizarre. There were only 2 votes all night, both of which were won by the administration with help from various opposition members (and on the second occasion the casting vote of the Deputy Mayor). So why did it take so long? With 51 members potentially entitled to speak on any item I suppose that if meetings are to be focussed and shorter it requires members to speak to the minute being discussed and not try to simply talk for the sake of it. It would also be helpful if we all made an effort not to simply repeat points made by previous speakers.So who are the main culprits? Well now that our meetings are recorded it is possible for us all to make up our own minds and at least viewing the webcast allows use of a fast forward button!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Ken Livingstone

It was interesting to see Ken Livingstone's recent comments to a campaigning group. He accused the Labour party of “cowardice” for building up billions in debts rather than taking difficult decisions on tax cuts and spending and accused Gordon Brown of borrowing too much in the boom years. Mr Livingstone said: “Gordon Brown was borrowing £20 billion a year at the height of the boom in the first decade of this century in order to avoid having to increase taxes, because he wanted to increase public spending.” Whilst non of this is exactly cutting edge it is surprising how many Labour councillors in Southend remain in denial of the financial incompetance of the last Labour government and it's hand in contributing to the financial challenge which the current government is facing.If you think you have eliminated the cycle of boom and bust is it surprising that in times of boom you do not take steps to prepare for the inevitable times of bust. Our Labour members refuse to accept my criticisms of their last government but perhaps they will listen to Red Ken!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Independent Thinking

Bearing in mind my well established political views some friends regularly express their surprise that my wife and I are daily readers of the Independent Newspaper and indeed have been regular purchasers since the original launch of the paper many years ago. Admittedly it has gone through some ups and downs so far as quality is concerned, and this week had the latest of it's regular make overs, but we have stuck to it and I like a paper that challenges some of my natural inclinations and gives reason for thought not only when reading but also subsequently. The nearest I got to cancelling our order was at the last general election when for the first time the editorial encouraged us to vote for a particular party. I would have thought that the editorial staff realised that by choosing their publication we had sufficient interest to evaluate the merits of the parties ourselves and that if we wanted such direction we would have bought the Mail or the Sun. However a couple of items this week demonstrate the papers ability to stimulate thought and debate. In one a renown correspondent was critical of the apparent expectation of the BBC and others for their staff to wear poppies. Infact the article went further than being critical of the policy but also argued against the whole principle of wearing a poppy. I have to say I would never expect or instruct a colleague to wear a poppy - it is a matter of personal choice - but I will continue to wear a poppy with pride in that not only does it represent an outward sign of support for all those who have risked or lost their lives for our common sake but also because I am sure that the money raised from poppy sales is important. In fact I have always thought that this is a good argument against the permanent and reusable poppy badges etc which have recently become popular and make sure that I buy a new poppy each year. In a very different article mention was made of a newly issued cd of glam rock greats which has erased Gary Glitter and his music from this otherwise complete record. The question is whether this is right or wrong and like me the author of the piece was in two minds. As a matter of historical accuracy this music was important to the development of the genre but does including it somehow excuse his subsequent behaviour. The decision not to show past editions of Top of the Pops hosted by Savile seems more obvious as it is almost like showing the scene of a crime. The article also posed the question of whether other artists and authors whose behaviour has been unacceptable should also be air brushed from the history of their art. By way of example the article by David Lister made reference to the serial rapist and novelist Arthur Koestler. On balance I think I favour including artistic work in these circumstances although not without significant doubts.

Remembrance Sunday

The weather conditions for the Town's Remembrance Service were just about perfect this morning. Whilst It was a little fresh it was sunny and dry with a beautiful blue sky. The turnout was fantastic with more on parade than I can recall for many years. As usual the service was supported by large members of the general public. Not only is it a thought provoking occasion which makes it a must do in the council diary, but I also believe that as local representatives it is important that we attend in large numbers to show our support. I am always surprised at the odd elected member who fails to ever attend and would hope that they would rethink for the future. In the meantime congratulations to all those involved in organising the day.

Friday, 8 November 2013

My imaginary friend.

Many years ago in my last year at Chalkwell Hall Junior School I had a pal who had an imaginary friend. It was quite funny at the time as he would regularly stand in the playground having a heated discussion with himself and acting for all the world as though there were two separate people. The advantage from his point of view was that he could always ensure that he had a friend and it also meant that he could ensure he won every argument. My mind went back to him following the performance of Independent Party Councillor Ron Woodley at a recent scrutiny meeting when with a straight face he stood up in his capacity of Cllr Ron Woodley to defend an alternative flood defence scheme submitted by Mr Ron Woodley the Chairman of local residents group BERA. I have previously blogged on this bizarre situation which in my view raises an interesting question as to whether Cllr Woodley could speak as a scrutinising councillor without raising a perception as to conflict. I thought that would be an end to it but I have now been referred to the BERA website and on the “Flood Defence” page there is a message to residents from Mr Woodley and a copy of a letter Mr Woodley has sent to the Council’s Chief Executive. If I had the IT skills of Cllrs Cox or Ware Lane I would provide a link but his letter includes the following gems: “Dear Mr Tinlin Following last weeks Place Scrutiny meeting I have to register my displeasure at the proceedings that took place. Apart from the fact that my elected representative on the committee was excluded from asking pertinent questions of all options on the sea defence proposals..... The following are just a few questions that I am asking as Chair of the Burges Estate Residents Association, which are very different from the questions that I know our elected member of the council was refused/not permitted to ask at the committee. Ron Woodley Chair Burges Estate Residents Association” This is greatly shortened but the full letter is available as indicated. The more perceptive amongst you will realise that Mr Ron Woodley’s reference to “my elected representative” is a reference to Cllr Ron Woodley and it is interesting that Mr Ron Woodley feels it appropriate to ask different questions from his councillor Cllr Ron Woodley. Perhaps the 2 of them should meet to discuss the issue – my old pal would be proud!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Deanes and local government reorganisation

The campaign to save Deanes school continues and I wish it well. I remain of the view that the decision is misguided in that it fails to acknowledge the demand on school places which we will see in coming years or the importance of the network of inter connecting schools with different strengths that exist across south east Essex. However the whole process does have an interesting twist in connection with my ongoing view that local government could be delivered more efficiently, cost effectively and democratically by forming a single unitary authority covering Southend, Castle Point & Rochford. At present Southend is a unitary authority with control over all areas to include education whereas Castle Point and Rochford are part of 2 tier Essex with responsibility for eductaion resting with the County Council rather than the local district councils. The main reason that Southend (and Thurrock) successfully campaigned to obtain unitary status and to break away from 2 tier Essex was the view that the County Council was dominated by representatives from mid and north Essex and that south Essex didn't get it's fair share of the services or funding. We believed that whilst south Essex was the engine room of the county the money on new roads etc tended to be spent elsewhere. Following the split the remainder of south Essex is potentially even more isolated than before. With the sad departure of Stephen Castle from the County Council in May, who was always a friend and supporter of South Essex, the situation appears to be even worse with the power round the cabinet table being based well away from south Essex. It is interesting to ponder whether if we had a south east Essex unitary council, or indeed even a south Essex unitary council, the decision on the future of Deanes would be centered round the views of south Essex councillors and dare I suggest that the current situation and decision might be different. Unitary authorities are all about giving local councillors real power over what happens in their own area and not artificially seperating local government services between 2 different types of authority.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Flooding - not a risk to take

A strange letter in the Echo from SKIPP suggesting that it is disgraceful that the Council is pushing ahead with a flood defence scheme on Shoebury common notwithstanding that fact that everybody is against it. This seems to be aimed at supporting Cllr Ann Chalk's suggestion that any discussion about immediate flooding amounts to scare mongering. The reality is that the facts confirm that there is a real and immediate risk of flooding in areas of Shoebury which necessitate improvements to our flood defences in the area of Shoebury common. The way that risk is calculated is to make clear that flooding will happen within a certain timeframe. Cllr Chalk suggests that it is safe to assume that it will not happen until the end of the time frame which is wrong and frankly reckless. The risk stats reveal that the flooding could happen this winter, or next year or the year after that. The only certainty is that it will happen at some point and when it does there will be considerable damage and disruption caused to significant numbers of homes and businesses. It is for this reason that external funding is available. This work needs to be done and if there is unnecessary delay and the flooding happens will Cllr Chalk be standing at the front justifying the delay to residents - no more likely standing at the back blaiming the Administration. Congratulations to my Shoebury colleagues who are making sure that the affected residents are in no doubt as to the risk and are pressing for early action. The issue as to which scheme is best is a discussion for another day but are SKIPP seriously suggesting that the Council should ignore the inevitable flooding and resulting damage and not carry out improvements to the flood defences in this area because there is a group of residents who are opposed? If so they are talking even more rubbish than usual and I wonder how many of the residents they refer to own houses and businesses in the flood danger area. This work has to be done.

Borrowing levels

Sometime sitting and listening to my council colleagues I have the feeling that I have entered a parallel universe. On Wednesday night I attended a special meeting of the Place Scrutiny committee which was arranged to consider the proposals for flood defences on Shoebury Common. This comprised 3 alternative proposals worked up by council officers, 1 by the Friends of Shoebury Common, and one by Mr Ron Woodley on behalf of the Burgess Estate Residents Association (BERA). I was attending as sub for my cabinet colleague John Lamb who had been on council business in London and accordingly I have not had any detailed involvement to date in what is quite a technical issue. The first slightly bizarre twist was that Cllr Ron Woodley, Member for Thorpe, was an Indie sub at the meeting and there were at least 2 other BERA members to include Indie Leader Martin Terry. As the meeting progressed Cllr Woodley raised a number of questions and made comments which were clearly intended to curry support for the scheme proposed by Mr Woodley and his colleagues over the other schemes.Now call me old fashioned but isn't that a little odd. Whilst I am sure that Cllr Woodley and indeed Mr Woodley (for they are one and the same) was breaking no rule it hardly fosters the impression that the committee was approaching the appraisal of the schemes in an open and even handed manner. Also one of the problems is that we were advised that additional funding would not be made available if we chose a more expensive scheme where there was an alternative cheaper scheme which would do the job.In other words if we go for a more expensive scheme we will have to fund the difference and this was likely to require the funds to be borrowed by the council. This would include Mr Woodley's scheme. On Thursday night at full council we then listened to Cllr Terry castigating the Administration for the level of borrowing which seemed to have no connect with the comments made the previous night. The Indies have followed this running theme for some time suggesting that borrowing is too high even though the Council's experts say that it is at a level which is prudent and affordable. Howevert not only do they continue to fail to identify the borrowing which they would not have undertaken (because it would mean talking against a potentially popular scheme) but also are more than happy to press for their own pet schemes to be funded with borrowing.

The important thing is democracy but don't ask the people

The debate last night on "all up" elections was interesting for a number of reasons. This was brought forward following an initial discussion at "all member" briefing sessions last year when there was some cross party support. The proposal was simply to launch a public consultation to establish views before holding a special council meeting which would have required a two thirds majority to action a change. Firstly it was at some point suggested that the Conservatives were operating under a whip. This was a ridiculous comment as I have not imposed a whip on my members in my 7 years as leader and I am certainly not going to start on an issue like this! This was evidenced by the vote as whilst the majority of my group supported the proposal, a couple voted against and some abstained. By contrast every single member of all 3 opposition parties voted against. This has been a running theme recently and would suggest that if there is any question of a party whip it is being applied by the other parties to include the Independent Party (and yes I know that it a contradiction in terms.). There were some well argued points made on both sides. Even though I don't agree with them I thought that Labour councillors David Norman and Julian Ware Lane both spoke well and with obvious conviction as did a number of my colleagues to include Tony Cox and James Courtenay. However I was surprised at the general thrust adopted by a number of opponents to the proposal to consult. There was a distinct feeling that this was their cosy club and what a disaster if the electorate chose to sweep us all out and replace us with councillors who "didn't know where to sit" and other reasons. More to the point there was a lot of gut wrenching pleas to stand up for local democracy and to maintain a more effective link with voters but at the same time a refusal to ask voters what they think about the suggested change. If we had consulted it would have still taken the two thirds majority to actually decide to proceed. It was rather more "we will tell our voters how they should be allowed to elect us" than "let us listen to how our voters want to elect us". For me the most important argument remains that with elections by a third there could be a situation where every one of the 17 seats available was won by one party but it was still in opposition - there is no right for the community as a whole to speak and choose who should be running the town. The impression from last night was that it is all right to let the electorate speak so long as we approve what they are going to say, and that if not then they must have it wrong and need to be protected from themselves. So much for democracy.

The true expense of the committee system

My favourite contribution of the night came from Indie Cllr Mike Assenheim who stood up towards the end of the All Up debate, commented that we could save over £100K by scrapping the cabinet system and promptly sat down again. It came at the end of the debate with no opportunity to challenge him but it is the sort of nonsense which we usually hear from his party leader. The basis of the argument is apparently that if we were to replace the cabinet with a committee system we would save the special allowances paid to the Leader, Deputy Leader and cabinet members. It really is quite annoying when a member who should know better stands up and spouts this type of hogwash which can only serve to confuse any proper or adult debate. Whether or not we should revert to a committee system is a different debate for another day although I would refer to my earlier blogs on the subject. However the relative costs are not in doubt.Under a committee system the Council would still need a Leader and Deputy Leader and on the basis that their role would be unchanged it is difficult to see that the Independent Panel would assess their allowances differently than as at present. I suspect that there would need to be at least the following committees: Policy & Resources, Highways & Transport, Planning and Economic development, Culture & events, Social Care, Children & Learning, Public Health, Housing, and Public protection & waste Each committee would need a Chair and Vice Chair and these would each be entitled to a special allowance. The Chairs would be expected to undertake the functions currently undertaken by the cabinet members and whilst there would be more of them the overall workload would be the same. If not, and assuming that members would undertake less functions, then we would be transferring power from members to officers in what I regard as a most unsatisfactory manner. All meetings would have to be in the evening to facilitate working members so there would be more longer evening meetings with the cost ramifications of additional committee support. The statutory committees such as DC and Licensing would be unchanged with no effect on the current allowances as would the allowances which are currently paid to the 3 opposition leaders. Whilst there may or may not be an argument in favour of committeees the reality is that the cost of the system and resulting allowances would if anything increase and to suggest a saving of £100K+ is not sustainable. As I say whether or not the committee system is better is a different issue but come on Cllr Assenheim admit that you comment was simply wrong and that if anything a return to committees would be more expensive.

Members allowances - Put up or shut up

The debate on whether we should consult on all up elections took some interesting twists and turns but in my view one of the more facile contributions came from Liberal Democrat Leader Graham Longley who suggested that he had offered to voluntarily give up £1K of his member allowance if everybody did likewise. This is not the first time that Graham has made this comment - no doubt intended to demonstrate what a jolly good chap he is and as usual it received theatrical nods of approval from Independent Leader Martin Terry. My views on allowances are well known - we have them assessed by an Independent Panel and there is no point in that process if the recommendations which are made are then ignored. However if there are members who believe that they are not worth the allowance or that they are morally obliged to reduce it then there are at liberty to notify the finance section and their allowances will be reduced accordingly with the balance falling back in to the pot. So perhaps it is surprising (or not!) that neither Graham or Martin, or indeed any other member, has taken this action. If I was a cynic I would say that the offer is only made safe in the knowledge that other members would choose not to match it and therefore it is intended as a crowd pleaser without financial cost. It is also interesting that it is only the opposition leaders who receive an additional allowance which is based not on an independent evaluation of the work they carry out but as a straight multiplier based on the numer of group members they have. Perhaps this is why Graham and Martin feel that they are being over remunerated. In any event if voluntary reductions were made it would not be possible to base a revenue outgoing on them as it would be within the power of any member to choose to reinstate to the full level. I am happy to debate the principle of allowances or their current rates with anybody but in the meantime it is time for Graham and Martin to either to make the concession or stop trying to gain cheap political points by what is a false gesture.

Full council - broadcasting live!

Last night's meeting of full council turned into quite a marathon lasting from 6.30pm until just before midnight. It was the first available for live streaming through the internet and is now available through the council website. Amazingly a significant number of people followed events on line last night and it is interesting to now have the opportunity to dip in to the issues of particular interest and hear exactly what was said rather than rely on sometimes conflicting accounts. I hope that as the webcasts become more established and known access will increase and even on last night's figures feel that the decision to broadcast is justified. So much for those opposition members who opposed it's introduction and said that it was a waste of time and money.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Leigh Times comment

I have always believed that the Leigh Times is an excellent publication and has for many years been an excellent link with residents to the west of the town. One of the pleasant challenges is the Political Comment column which appears in each edition and gives a range of local politicians and others the opportunity to use 800 words or so to get a specific point across to the public. The quality varies but politicians of all political colours often demonstrate a range of traits to include passion, humour and occasionally lunacy! The column is far too effective a communication tool to consider turning it down but I do know that at times, particularly during a politically quiet time, there can be a moments dread at coming up with something vaguely lucid and relevant. As Leader I am lucky in that I usually have recent initiatives to refer to and am also often fortunate to have a column offered at budget and other significant times. Sympathy for those less fortunate sprung to mind when seeing the latest edition with a comment column by Cllr Martin Terry, Leader of the Independent Party. He was clearly struggling until he fell back on his old favourites of zero based budgeting and borrowing levels. A couple of years ago Martin accepted during a public meeting that even after all his years on the council he still didn't understand local government finance and it entertains many across the chamber that he demonstrates this with such predictable regularity. His theme is that there is some way that investment and savings can be delivered without making any reductions in services and, if given the chance, the good old indies will demonstrate this by using policies which, based on his earlier admission, he does not understand. It is relevant to remind ourselves that by the time we reach April 2014, the end of my 7th year as Leader of the Council, we will have achieved yearly revenue savings totalling almost £61M to deliver a net annual budget which currently stands at just under £139M per annum. To put this in context if we were to reintroduce all this expenditure next April it would require a council tax increase of approximately 102%. If he really thinks that we have achieved this without going through every part of the council organisation with a tooth comb then I wonder what he has been doing during the last 7 budget debates. On borrowing it would be helpful if he mentioned the significant distinction between borrowing linked to the housing stock, which is ring fenced, and the remainder. More significantly 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 separately 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). More to the point there has been no desire on Martin's part to speak out against the projects which have been partly or fully funded by borrowing and indeed there have been calls from the Indies to increase borrowing to spend on pet projects like the retention of the Old Hinguar school site. It is the same old game - scaremonger incorrectly on borrowing levels but fail to identify the investment schemes they oppose.

4 yearly elections

It would appear that my post on the forthcoming vote on a possible move to 4 yearly elections has led to some interesting comments by other bloggers. I am prompted to deal with 3 issues namely that the move would represent a threat to democracy, that as I had indicated my intention to step down it was in some way inappropriate for me to comment, and that contrary to my suggestion the other parties (to include in particular Labour) would experience no difficulty in attracting 51 suitable candidates. Responding to these points I sometimes think that those of us who are actively involved in local politics live in a slight bubble and believe that significant numbers of the public share our passion for the process. Sadly I do not believe this to be the case. I have been actively involved in politics in Southend for the last 30+ years. Particularly as Leader I am constantly approached by residents expressing their views in almost every business and social meeting and the vast majority of these contacts are not people actively involved in party politics of any colour. Except for the specific planning permission which effects their property or the specific decision that directly touches them or their family the reality is that the majority have no interest in the mechanics of local government. The impression I am given is that most people think that most of the time the Council is doing a good job and have no further interest. They often don't know who their local councillors are and until they need them on a specific issue don't care. Many don't vote or if they do, vote on national issues. They just want us to be as cheap and as efficient as possible. Most think that there is a strong Tory majority and rather entertainingly continued to think so at times when we lost control to the Lib/Lab pact. I cannot believe that retaining elections 3 years out of 4 is the answer to encourage engagement and indeed I can find no evidence to suggest that in the many authorities who have all up elections they suffer from a democratic deficiency. The truth is that all up elections will save money and will make settled decision making easier to achieve. As for the other issues my comments as to candidates followed informal comments made to me by activists in the other groups and finally I would have thought that I am perfectly placed to express an opinion which whilst based on experience of the process over many years is not coloured by self interest.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Local government - democracy under threat?

At the next full council meeting we will be discussing whether we should move to “all up” elections. This would mean that all 51 council seats would be contested on the same day with no further elections (except any necessary by elections) for the following 4 years. This compares with the current system when 1 of the 3 seats in each ward is up in each of 3 consecutive years with the 4th year in the cycle being election free. I am pretty sure that this will be roundly rejected notwithstanding the fact that the idea arose from cross party budget saving discussions last year. Some will argue that it represents a threat to democracy as it will prevent the electorate having its say on a regular basis. I will continue to support the suggested change. Not only will it save about £80K in every year that an election is not necessary but it will also prevent the disruption that these never ending elections cause. At times we seem to be fighting an eternal election campaign with some members adopting what they perceive to be a vote catching line even if it is not in the best interests of the town. Many of the policies which are needed to drive the town forward take more than 12 months to deliver and embed and the uncertainty caused by regular elections does not help. After all it is hardly that our local elections have shown any great risk of galvanising the majority of the electorate. Turnout remains appallingly low with many voting on national rather than local issues. All groups are struggling to attract effective candidates or active election workers and this is in the context of the regular elections we are currently holding. I know that some members are concerned that their personal positions may be adversely effected but we need to look at the wider picture. I am also starting to change my stance on an elected mayor for the town. Perhaps what is needed to encourage people to engage is a more personalised campaign with a clearer line of accountability and responsibility. I also continue to believe that issues such as a reduction in the number of councillors and combining authorities, or at least their administration, in south east Essex is essential in not only making local government more costs effective but also perhaps more relevant to local residents.

Rose tinted committees!

A perennial call by some council members is for a return to the old committee system in place of the current cabinet. Unlike a number of current members I have had the benefit of working under both systems and am amused by the simplicity of their argument. They yearn for the days when members would turn up to meetings, review a few papers and make real decisions! Of course the reality was that the ruling administration would appoint all committee chairs and vice chairs as well as having a majority on all committees. In addition the leading members of the Administration would meet in private on a regular basis, and in advance of the scheduled meetings, to discuss policy with officers before the papers were released. In the meantime the Committee Chairs would work between meetings with the lead officers in a role pretty similar to the current cabinet holders dealing with day to day issues and providing input to the management of the relevant department. If done properly by opposition members the chance to effectively scrutinise is more effective under the current system with plenty of opportunity to contribute to the development of policy through the working parties etc – probably in a more “hands on” way than under the old system. One major difference is the changing role of local councillors in local government now as opposed to then. Being a cabinet member is equivalent to a part time (or sometimes full time) job with an abundance of meetings both internal and external, in Southend and elsewhere, as well as constant working with officers to oversee the provision of services. If we revert to committees the new committee chairs will simply take over from the current cabinet members as to do otherwise would result in an undesirable tipping of control and responsibility from locally elected members to officers. In a recent internal e mail exchange one member (who will remain nameless) opined that the removal of the cabinet would save the council £100K+ per year as all the special responsibilities paid to cabinet members would be saved! It did make me wonder if some councillors have any idea of the amount of time spent by cabinet members in doing their jobs – time which would be needed even with a change of system. In addition the increase in meetings under the committee system would inevitably increase the amount of supporting officer time with resulting cost ramifications. So a rose tinted view of committees indeed!

Chalk up another error!

I was amused to read Independent Councillor Ann Chalk's letter to the Echo this morning on the subject of CCTV cars. She seems to have taken exception to an earlier statement to the effect that no member of council had previously voted for the removal of the vehicles. Ann's problem is that the earlier statement was right! She may have expressed some concerns about certain aspects of the car's operation but she did not vote for their removal as is clear from the minutes of all relevant meetings. Indeed I recall her enthusiasm about the cars being used in certain specific areas. Even more strangely in her letter she makes a quip about using the cameras to record events in the council chamber. Did she not notice the introduction of cameras for that very purpose which were trialled at our last meeting and are set to go live for webcast in the near future. Perhaps she just had a memory lapse! Anyone would think that she had not penned the letter to the Echo - which I am sure could not possibly be the case. At least in the future she will be able to check the webcast recording of full council meetings to remind herself exactly what she did and did not vote for!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Prittle Brook Cycle Path

As a keen cyclist I have been delighted with the improvements we have been able to make to cycle facilities across the town. Highlights include the popular cycle path along the seafront, the designated cycle tracks and signage and the resurfacing of parts of the A127 cycle track. This is in addition to numerous cycle tracks and events. However a real jewel in the crown is the Prittle Brook Greenway which has recently been completed through to Eastwood Road and offers a safe and flat route from Belfairs Park to Priory Park connecting up with other parts of our cycle network. The route has been completed in sections over recent years and save for a quiet section round Bonchurch Park is off road. It is another example of pedestrians, cyclists and dog walkers living in peaceful harmony with an element of give and take and consideration on all sides. There really is no excuse for not getting on your bike in this town and if you have not tried Prittle Brook as yet I would recommend it

The Forum Opening

So The Forum formally opened it's doors yesterday and I am delighted that it has received such an enthusiastic welcome from library users and students alike. It really is an amazing building and should act as a real flagship for Southend's Library Service moving forward. I was also fortunate enough to attend the opening lecture in the Forum's impressive lecture theatre from famous scientist Prof Brian Cox. He certainly lived up to his reputation delivering a fascinating and amusing lecture on the creation of the universe, big bang and his work on the Hadron Collider. I am not pretending that I fully grasped all the detail but it was absorbing. The 4 party group leaders were all fortunate to be give a precious ticket for the event with the majority being available to the public on a first come first served basis. Slightly surprised that Cllr Martin Terry announced at the last minute that he wouldn't attend because he didn't want to cross the few protestors outside complaining about library cuts. Still the night wasn't wasted as at least he got his picture in the Echo along with the other protestors but I do wonder whether he ensured that his ticket was used by one of the unlucky residents who missed out on a ticket. I suspect that such a move would have ensured that his evening was not wasted. If he wants to avoid any savings being delivered by the library service perhaps he would like to suggest some alternative source of savings. In the meantime we will continue to deliver well thought out economies which will safeguard a borough wide library service going forward to complement the excellent Forum.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Forum

The new Forum library opens to the public on Monday morning and yesterday I had the opportunity of a sneak preview. I had visited a couple of times during the building work and had been impressed by the sheer scale and layout of the building and was not disappointed with the finished article. The Forum has a children's library, lecture theatre, Focal point Gallery, display area, café and fiction on the ground floor, non fiction public library on the first floor, university teaching accommodation on the first floor and college teaching accommodation on the second floor with a public square and screen outside. It is the first library in delivered in partnership between local authority, university and college in the country and has been built on time and on budget. It is an excellent example of true partnership working which will continue with it's on going joint management arrangements. It has transformed the old and derelict Farringdon car park and is the final part of the puzzle comprising the college building, university building, university accommodation block and multi storey car park. It opens up to the public access to over a million academic publications owned by the uni and college and with major investment in new materials demonstrates our true commitment to the future of the public library service in the Town. I urge everybody to visit as soon as you can - I guarantee that if you like libraries you will love the Forum Southend.

Pavement politics!

During my time as Leader I have been fortunate in having a hand in some major developments and investment in the Town which will be good to look back on in years to come. But as a local councillor nothing beats the thrill of intervening on behalf of residents who feel aggrieved and delivering for them. Sometimes the action taken can, in the general scheme of things, seem quite insignificant but it really does make the hours in the council chamber worth while. Many of these interventions involve the personal affairs of residents which I would not dream of airing on this blog but last week threw up a good example of the difference a ward councillor can make. At the end of last week I was notified by residents living in Cottesmore Gardens that council workers had started to take up the existing paving slabs to replace with black tarmac. Now whilst there are situations where tarmac is unavoidable it does not in my view enhance the street scene and in common with many residents I prefer slabs. No prior notice of this work had been given to ward councillors and residents were of the view that the general quality of the slabs was reasonable. Fortunately the work was at an early stage and having checked for myself that the existing slabs were generally of good condition I was able to persuade officers to reverse the decision and reinstate the short stretch were work had started. This has pleased the residents and me and leaves the funding available for a more deserving area.

Gwen Horrigan

It is unfortunate to see the current speculation about the future of my ward colleague Gwen Horrigan. In my view Gwen epitomises much of what is good about local government. For about 20 years she has served the residents who have elected her tirelessly taking a particular interest in housing and the armed forces. She is much loved by residents across the Town as has been immediately evident on the occasions I have canvassed on her behalf. I would have to say that on the doorstep she has had a more positive and widespread reaction than any other councillor I have worked with - and obviously that includes me! As mayor she (supported by her husband Pat) was tireless in her enthusiasm and dedication to the job. Unfortunately recent months have seen a deterioration in Gwen's physical health of and we can only hope that with the care of her family and others this can be reversed. Gwen last attended a council meeting in May of this year. The rules provide that if she misses a period of 6 months her term will come to an end and it will then be a question as to whether or not residents trigger a by election. Accordingly at the moment she is still within the very time limit intended to cover situations like these so why the speculation. Surely her service to the Town demands we all show a little patience. Arguably I should be keen for her to step down - at present we cannot rely on her vote leaving the chamber potentially with no effective majority and in circumstances where we would be hopeful of winning any by election it would reinstate an effective majority. It would also mean that my ward colleague John Lamb and I would have help in dealing with ward issues. But I still think that Gwen deserves better and I am happy to wait for her to make her decision and am confident that when and if she decides she cannot return she will stand down. In the meantime do we really want the cost to the town of a winter by election?

Friday, 26 July 2013

Lower Thames Crossing?

As the Government continues to press ahead with consultation on 3 possible locations for a new crossing point I feel frustration with the process. Clearly the tolls remain a major issue disrupting traffic flow and damaging transport links between Essex and Kent. The original plan was that when the bridge had been paid for the tolls would go - well clearly there is no chance of that whatever the colour of the government. So the second best option is free flow tolling however whilst this is being implemented the speed is akin to traffic speed across the bridge on a Friday afternoon rush hour. In the meantime the promise to lift the barriers when the queues become too long is rarely implemented. The other pressing issue is the promised improvements to junction 30/31. Whilst confirmed again recently by the Chancellor where is the progress or the detailed proposals? Until these 2 priorities have been implemented it is impossible to judge what effect they will have on flow and allow this to inform the mid term strategy. In the meantime this restricted consultation continues. I fail to understand why it is so limited. Why not consult on a link further to the east. It would certainly help Southend and would start to identify a route from the ports to the north steering well clear of the M25 which does not only struggle with traffic flow at the crossing.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Delaware & Priory - a motion to confuse

At last nights council meeting we saw the Independent Party employing a rarely used procedure to force a debate questioning the current consultation process on the future of Delaware House and Priory House. As with many Independent gambits this left me with a distinctly unpleasant feeling and concern that whilst endeavouring to extract some political benefit from a difficult and sensitive issue they have actually only served to confuse those directly effected. The current consultation will close on 1st September and the motion requested cabinet to effectively cease the consultation and start again because of alleged problems with the consultation document. The ridiculous element is that cabinet does not meet until later in September and accordingly the motion will not be considered until after the consultation period had closed. Strict instructions were given by the Mayor to ensure that contributions were limited to the mechanics of the consultation and not the underlying issue and whilst these were followed by the proposer Cllr Morgan and some others a number of indies could not resist commenting on the proposal itself giving rise to a possible argument that they have pre determined ahead of the outcome of the consultation. Following advice from officers I indicated that I would not speak to the motion or vote so ensure that there could be no risk of creating the impression that I had in any way predetermined and this was followed by other cabinet members and a range of other councillors across all party groups meaning that whilst the motion was carried it had the support of a minority of the members present with the abstentions in the majority. What is important is that all interested parties should understand that this has no effect on the current consultation and it is essential that they tell us what they think so that their views are taken into account.This can include concerns as to the consultation itself. Cabinet will take careful account of these views before deciding how to proceed. Let us hope that yesterday's ploy by the Indies does not leave any resident feeling that they no longer need to respond to the consultation.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

MPs salaries

I see the recommendations from IPSA on MP remuneration are creating the predictable furore, particularly on the proposed salary hike from the next general election. The situation is not helped by various politicians trying to take advantage of the perceived public mood by denouncing the proposals. It brings to mind the debate in Southend each time we receive independent recommendations on councillor remuneration. For what it is worth I fail to see the point of taking the decision away from MPs and allowing the matter to be impartially and independently considered if as soon as a recommendation is made MPs of all colours try to undermine it. In reality the proposals seem to create a balance by moving towards a higher basic salary but removing some of the less transparent extras. The reality is that the current salary is below levels in middle management or the professions and if we are trying to attract quality candidates the salary has to be adequate to reflect the demands and uncertainties of the job. If not we will be reliant on those with a private income, external support, 2nd jobs or career politicians who do not bring with them experience of the real world. I would support higher salaries but linked to removal of some of the unseen extras, restriction on 2nd jobs, reduction in numbers of MPs and better information to the public as to the time spent in the Chamber or on constituency or parliamentary business. Lets have a smaller number of capable MPs concentrating full time on their duties but being paid a decent salary for what is after all a very important job. In the meantime if MPs don't feel the need to accept the higher salary they are quite at liberty to refuse to accept it and let us hope that during the next parliament the Lib Dems do not again block a reorganisation of constituencies and reduction in the number of MPs!

Powering on!

Following on from my last post - here is some evidence of our efforts at power generation!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Big Charge

I duly completed my contribution to power the LED screen for Saturday's Village Green at Chalkwell Park. Ably accompanied by Chief Executive Rob Tinlin, cabinet members Derek Jarvis and James Courtenay and members of the Cycle Southend team and Youth Council we cycled for 30 minutes. Sensibly I avoided the giant hamster wheel which I thought would be too much of a gift for the Echo photographer. It was great fun (if a little hot) so why not try it and see if you can beat our total - "The Leaders of the Pack"!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Heseltine and local government reorganisation

I have commented previously on Lord Heseltine's detailed and thought provoking report "No stone unturned" which has received significant endorsement from the government. I attended the Local Government Association's Annual Assembly and Conference in Manchester last week and Lord Heseltine was a lead speaker. His comments were generally well received and it was interesting that he stressed once again his belief that the future of focussed and cost effective local government should be based on a combination of directly elected mayors and unitary authorities. Whilst shying away from a forced implementation of this change Secretary of State Eric Pickles made clear to conference that he believed that it was inevitable that smaller districts would have to come to terms with shared officers or more if they wished to remain viable. Perhaps this was food for thought for colleagues in Rochford as they seek to appoint a replacement for their retiring Chief Executive rather than opening a dialogue as to how the role of senior officers can and should be shared across south east Essex delivering significant savings without adverse effect to residents. I know my door remains open as I am sure are the doors of the leaders of Castle Point and Essex CC.

Leigh Times- Comment

I have recently had one of my periodic opportunities to write a comment article for the Leigh Times. This was it:

 I make no apology for returning once again to the financial challenge which Southend in common with every other upper tier local authority continues to face whilst attempting to maintain and improve front line services. It is a daunting thought that by the time we reach April 2014, the end of my 7th year as Leader of the Council, we will have achieved yearly revenue savings totalling almost £61M to deliver a net annual budget which currently stands at just under £139M per annum. To put this in context if we were to reintroduce all this expenditure next April it would require a council tax increase of approximately 102%!

Initially these savings were required because the authority was being seriously underfunded by the government as a result of the undercount of our population in the 2001 census. However the emphasis then changed as we attempted to find economies to invest in services and drive improvements in performance. More recently local government has been at the forefront of the Government’s austerity measures with significant cuts to funding on a year by year basis. Recent announcements make clear that the situation is going to remain challenging over the next few years.

 It has been impossible to make such large savings without an effect. There have been significant numbers of redundancies of council staff linked with rationalisation and reorganisation of our services to ensure that we deliver as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. We have also fought a war on waste.

 However it is inevitable that a point is reached where there are no more savings or economies which can be delivered without obvious effect and difficult decisions have to be made which will affect those who rely on our services. This has become more obvious this year with the cancellation of the airshow, removal of black bag provision and extended consultations on the delivery of savings in areas such as libraries, children’s centres and care homes.

The situation would be difficult enough if we could guarantee some control and stability of our expenditure however the nature of many of our services makes this impossible. With a steadily ageing population the cost of supporting adult social care alone threatens to absorb an ever greater share of the funds available to us – it represents the greatest risk to the future financial survival of not just Southend but every higher tier authority across the country. In addition areas such as children’s services and road maintenance demand increased investment leaving at risk those services such as leisure and culture which to many of us represent the essence of what makes Southend a good place to live.

As an administration we are determined to champion proposals which whilst not without short term effect will help ensure that we have services which can expand and prosper when the economic upturn eventually arrives. This involves having an adult and joined up debate to identify what we as a community regard as our priorities, considering how we can generate revenue from other sources and how we can deliver services in perhaps a different and more economic way which still meet our collective expectations.

In particular there is a challenge for our opposition members. It is simply not good enough to sagely nod in agreement at the unavoidable need to deliver substantial savings but then oppose every proposal without making suggestions as to deliverable alternatives. To do so is not responsible opposition. Even worse is to encourage resident concern by exaggerating the effect of proposals. By way of example the current library consultation does not suggest the closure of any library in the west of the town, whether Leigh, Kent Elms or Westcliff. The cross party group which has been considering the future has focussed on how to protect and develop the library service going forward and has suggested that one library be a hub with the other two operating as community managed libraries within the formal library structure. This is a system which is operating successfully in many places across the country. All councillors know, or should know, what is being proposed and yet in his council comment in this paper a few editions ago Liberal Democrat Peter Wexham suggested that the future of Leigh library was at risk with the possibility of closure. He knows full well that this is not an option being considered. Similarly why is Leigh Town Council spending council tax payer money running a campaign to “Save Leigh Library”?

It is difficult enough for residents to come to terms with and contribute to the ongoing debate as to where and how savings should be made without those who should know better trying to distort the debate for reasons about which I can only speculate. I would encourage all residents who care about the future of library provision in the town to read the consultation and have your say but be reassured that with our new cutting edge central library opening at The Forum later this year this administration remains committed to a strong and town wide library service. In the meantime we will continue our efforts to deliver ongoing savings in a balanced, responsible and effective way.

The Big Interview

For those who missed it I received a list of interesting questions from David Trayner, the reporter at the Evening Echo who leads on political affairs in Southend.

Space restricted some of the original questions/answers but the full list was:

1. Southend, like other authorities, has clearly been hit hard by austerity. However, do you understand how these claims can sometimes be undermined by what many will consider as poor spending decisions e.g. interim officer Mike Boyle, City Beach crossings, the Warrior Square Gardens Kiosk, a £200,000 boat house for rowers or £55,000 for a website when the existing one works fine?
Whilst with any organisation as large and diverse as Southend Borough Council it would be impossible to say we never get it wrong, I am comfortable defending the vast majority of decisions we have taken.  In most high profile cases where the Council has been criticised, such as those you have highlighted, the problem is usually a failure to get across the full and accurate facts.  Sometimes this is as a result of deliberate mischief making by the opposition but it can also arise from confusion between revenue, capital and funded spending.  

 2. Given these spending decisions, which many perceive as a cavalier disregard for public money, do you accept that the council has more to do in terms of being more prudent and careful with public money?
The prudent and careful use of public money is at the centre of every decision we make.  By way of example the Warrior Square Scheme (to include the kiosk) was pursued by Renaissance Southend and was externally funded.  The funder regarded the kiosk as essential and therefore without it there would have been no grant funds to transform the gardens. The website is, in IT terms, outdated and regularly criticised for not being user friendly.  As we try to allow residents greater access to our services via the website we need to ensure that it is up to the job.  Increased use will save us money on a year by year basis.  The boat house capital spend is dependent on external match funding and is also conditional on improved facilities for foreshore staff, increased support for community involvement in rowing and a rental level which takes into account the repayment costs on the capital borrowing.  I am happy to justify any spending decision we make and, if I think we’ve got it wrong, I will say so. 

 3. How much funding has Southend Council lost over since the Government’s austerity programme began and what effect has this had?
From 2010/11 up to the end of the current financial year we were delivered savings of about £43m to achieve our net revenue budget of £139m.  It has had a significant effect on the number of staff we employ and the way our services are delivered.

4.To what degree do you think residents have felt the pain of these cuts and has anything shielded them from the harshest effects of the funding cuts?
Bearing in mind the scale of the cuts to date, I believe that we have done well in shielding residents.  This has been achieved by hard work and creative thinking by my cabinet colleagues and senior officers but each year the challenge gets harder.

5. As Southend Council expects to see an 8.9 per cent drop in funding next year, and up to 10 per cent in 2015/16, how much will residents feel the effects over the coming years?
We have now cut many of our departments to the bone and it will be impossible to achieve these further cuts without an effect on residents.  We are starting to see this as we consult on areas such as our libraries, children’s centres and care homes.

6. What will Southend Council look like in five years? How many staff will it have and what services will it still carry out?
It is impossible to predict with certainty; however, it is inevitable that we will employ significantly less people and for many services our focus will be on supplying quality provision free for those in need but at a fair price for those who can afford to pay.  We will have continued to develop other income streams such as selling our high performing services to others and using the profit to subsidize our activities.  We will have continued to acknowledge that some services can be provided better and more economically by the private sector, the voluntary sector, our residents themselves or in partnership with others.

 7. What specifically could be under threat in future?
 There is no area of the Council’s activity that will be excluded from review and the demand to provide better value for money.

8. Do you accept that it is right to consider cutting services that the council does not have to provide e.g. leisure services – events, parks, flower beds etc – rather than services which people rely on every day like bin collections and care for the elderly?
It is a balance.  It is noticeable that generally over the last few years the savings which have caused the biggest fuss have been items such as cancelling the air show, closing the pier on quiet days during the winter season or stopping the free provision of black sacks.  None of these are services we are required to provide and yet the massive savings that have been delivered in Adult Social Care and Children’s Services have attracted little public comment.  I believe that our challenge is to deliver our statutory services as well and cost effectively as possible so that we still have funding to invest in those things like our parks, libraries etc.  It is these non-statutory services which give Southend its identity and make it somewhere we want to live and work. 

9. What do you think of the Government’s austerity programme? Do you think the Chancellor should be cutting so much from local government spending?
I believe that the austerity measures are essential.  The country is no different from any family or business. To continue with the level of deficit and national debt inherited from the last government would have spelt disaster, not only for us, but perhaps more importantly for our children and grandchildren – something the politicians from all major parties now appear to accept.  Having said that, local government has been expected to endure the steepest reductions in funding over the current spending round.  I also believe that a number of the government’s policies have further and unreasonably added to our burden with some comments by ministers about Councils being at best misguided!

10. I understand Southend Council was cutting spending even before the financial crisis. How much was cut and why were you doing that?
Initially we were under funded due to the errors in the 2001 census as to our population. We also identified further savings to help drive improvements in service delivery across the organisation. 

11. As a Conservative, are you in favour of reducing the public sector anyway?
Yes.  Under the last government we saw a massive increase in the intervention of the state in our everyday lives.  This came with a large price tag for the tax payer.  The reality is that local Councils were effectively required to provide things which, for a variety of reasons, they cannot provide as efficiently or cost effectively as the private or voluntary sectors.  The challenge is that users have become reliant on these high cost and quality services and understandably are reluctant to see them delivered in a different and more cost effective way. 

12. Has the need for lean government got any benefits?
Yes.  In an environment where the public want a low tax burden, lean government helps deliver this objective.  It forces the public sector to concentrate on the core services which it provides most effectively and encourages us all to take greater control and responsibility for our own destiny and to choose and fund our own priorities.   

 13. Has the authority come up with any innovative ways of reducing spending (e.g. libraries)? How will it have to operate in a smarter way in future?
We are determined to become less dependent on our traditional sources of income being central government funding, council tax receipts and car parking income.  We are developing commercial ventures, joint working and better use of our assets as well as ensuring that all services are delivered as effectively as possible but also delivering excellent value for money.

14. Can’t you just put up council tax?
My underlying philosophy is to keep Council tax as low as possible.  Residents expect us to do all that we can to keep their Council tax bills under control.  By the end of the current financial year we will have delivered savings of about £51m during my seven years as leader.  If we were to reinstate this expenditure next April, we would need to raise Council tax by 102%.


Sunday, 7 July 2013

Warm up for Village Green (Part 2)

Whilst on the subject of warming up for Village Green I will also be participating in the big charge on Wednesday afternoon along with the council's Chief Executive. I last did this 3 years ago which involves cycling to generate energy to help power the event. Last time I made the error of cycling in my suit and by the end was not just warm - more overheated. Still I am ready this year and the shorts will be on show!

Warm up for Village Green (Part 1)

With the great Village Green event, which is organised by Metal in Chalkwell Park, now looming and having had a great day in Leigh Library Gardens last weekend enjoying Leigh Folk Festival, we followed up with some more live music yesterday at the Olympic Park with a day festival headlined by Mumford & Sons and also including Vampire Weekend, Ben Howard, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Haim and Bear's Den. The weather was glorious and the music matched it with Mumford and Haim particular highlights for me. Not that everything was perfect. Access and exit from the park was pretty chaotic and it was good that we arrived early and claimed our space on the astro turf as the late arrivals looked uncomfortable on an uneven concrete area. The toilet queues were also pretty spectacular however the beer was cold and the company good and I am now ready for Village Fair with my free wristband collected!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Heseltine Report

Some weeks ago saw the publication of a detailed report by Michael Heseltine which had been prepared at the request of the Government to consider how to stimulate economic growth. His report "No stone unturned" makes many recommendations and is an interesting read. It champions the unitary authority model and is consistent with my attempt to encourage discussion with our neighbours as to a possible reorganisation of local government in south east Essex in a way which would deliver management savings, improve the provision of joined up services, and enhance local politicians control over the services our residents receive. The governments response has been to confirm that it will not attempt to force change but will look favourably on plans presented by local authorities. It is a debate which needs to be had sooner rather than later! Lord Heseltine also makes some interesting comments about the organisation of our local enterprise partnerships. There is a concern that the South East LEP is too large and that we are not getting the additional benefits which justify the limitations imposed by a structure covering Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Southend, Thurrock and Medway.For me the jury is still out and we need to do all we can to make the current LEP work before we endure the disruption and delay inevitable with any change but, as the report makes clear, we need to keep this under careful review.

The Independent Party - is the writing on the wall

It is interesting to see that Alex Kaye has given up on the Independent Party having had the benefit of seeing them close up. As I have mentioned many times before there is nothing wrong with the concept of an Independent Councillor or a 1 issue candidate but the problem comes when a group of disparate individuals without common beliefs or aspirations pretend that they represent an alternative administration and start to act as a party grouping. They have a Leader who draws a leaders allowance, vote together as regularly as any other party group, hold group meetings and issue common party literature. They get the hump if any true independent candidate stands diverting votes from what they regard as the "official independent". We also now know that they even impose a group whip as was confirmed by their leader Martin Terry who was forced to follow the group line at a recent scrutiny meeting even though it was against his own belief. However what do they collectively stand for? The answer is nothing much - but that is surprising when you look at their political roots ranging from monetarist right wingers to failed Labour candidates with most others in between. At least with a Conservative, Lib Dem or Socialist there is an immediate understanding of their core priorities and beliefs. This group represent a real risk to the future of the town because if they do get a share of power in the future who knows how they will exercise it or how they will manage consistency on any major issue.Alex has seen the danger - let's hope that the voters hear her message.

Welcome to Alex Kaye

I am delighted that we today formally welcomed Thorpe councillor Alex Kaye as a new member of the Conservative Group with the effect that we are now once again a majority administration. Alex has proved to be an effective and conscientious councillor both in representing the residents of Thorpe and also as Chair of the important Adult Social Care Scrutiny Committee and she will further strengthen the Conservative team at the Civic Centre. It is no great surprise - Alex has been an influential conservative member in the past and her Independent colleagues were only too keen to reassure residents during her election campaign that she was a Conservative at heart. Indeed I know that a significant number of Conservative voters supported her as the best way of getting a Conservative to represent them! It is also interesting that of course Alex has not moved from one party to another. As the Independents are constantly telling us they are not a recognised party but a group of independent minded individuals. The residents having supported her for her personal attributes and there is no contradiction in her choosing to associate more formally with others who share her ambitions for the Town.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Difficult road conditions!

As many will know from first hand knowledge driving conditions on Monday evening were difficult. I have personal knowledge of the extent of the problem having spent some considerable time trying to manoeuvre a rear wheel drive sports car from Southend to Leigh in conditions which can only be regarded as challenging.
However I feel that I need to stress some relevant information to counter the hysteria which appears to have gripped some sections of social media and in particulalr the suggestion that SBC was doing nothing.
Despite suggestions to the contrary we did have our crews out on the road network on Monday afternoon.  Despite their efforts the wind chill took the temperature down to round about minus 7 degrees and froze the wet surfaces covering the grit. The slow moving traffic did not keep enough traction to grind the grit/salt.  Whilst we felt the impact in Southend we were not alone and many areas in the South East were indicating a similar problem.
As always in these circumstances our crews having been working round the clock to keep our traffic moving. From late yesterday afternoon through to 10.30 am this morning 72 tonnes of grit were spread over 850 kms of road. In addition to this we mobilised our quad bikes this morning to support the journey to work / school run.
 The fact that a number of us did not see the gritters as we battled the heavy traffic was not surprising as they were caught in traffic like the rest of us.
There is on occasions an unreasonable expectation as to what a local authority can do to immediately clear snow and ice from roads. We have a limited number of bodies and equipment although diverted everyone possible. We could staff and equip at higher levels but does anybody think that is practical when these problems are relatively few and far between and in the vast majority of situations dealt with reasonably promptly.
It would be helpful if the public could be reasonable in their expectations taking account of the nature and timing of the adverse weather conditions and the resource available to us. It would also be helpful if they took account of adverse weather warnings and adjusted travel arrangements accordingly. Regrettably it is apparent  that many motorists appear to have no idea as to how to drive in adverse conditions making the situation far worse than it would otherwise be, and fail to believe that any proactive measures whether by way of snow clearance or by using winter tyres or similar is their responsibility.
I regret the problems which many faced and we will continue to try to ensure that our team is a responsive as possible. In the meantime when I next replace my car I must steer myself towards a sensible front wheel drive car capable of coping with any freezing conditions without showing an inclination to spin in ever decreasing circles.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The apple in the eye of the Prime Minister

Whilst on the subject of the City of Culture bid it was great to attend an event on Monday hosted by David Amess at parliament which was aimed to sell the strengths of the Town and our bid to ministers, mps and anyone else who would listen. In his inimitable way, and ably supported by James Duddridge, David beat the drum for us supported by a number of our local businesses and the Council's regeneration team. Thanks to all involved. The best moment was during a brief speech by Eric Pickles who commented that Southend was to him and the Prime Minister " the apple of their eyes". One thing is for sure-we will not let them forget this interesting admission!

UK City of Culture?

It was exciting to see the announcement of the 11 entrants for the 2017 City of Culture. When we announced our wish to bid 4 years ago there was the usual collection of knockers and whingers saying that we were mad and refusing to acknowledge the evidence under their noses. In the event we were unsuccessful but the feedback made clear that it was a realistic and achievable aspiration. Since then we have seen the construction of the Pier Centre and the massive improvement of our local hotels building on a well established commitment to culture of all types. Looking at the other entrants there is no doubt that we have every chance of wining. So let's all get behind the bid in the knowledge that if we succeed we will all share in the opportunities this would bring.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The argument is not won yet!

I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a dinner club operated by a non Southend Conservative group. The food and company was excellent and I then had the opportunity to set out my approach to delivering future budget reductions as well as floating the need for greater cooperation between the authorities in South East Essex. The post speech questions were going well until I was told by one Conservative members "that he disagreed with almost everything I had said!". What a great response. Whilst it was funny at the time it does demonstrate the challenge which still exists to get over the message as to the size of the challenge facing local government in balancing the books over the next few years. But in the meantime it is up there in my top five of the best post speaking questions thrown at me.

Budget -the way forward.

This year's budget was different for a number of reasons but one of the most notable is that we took the opportunity to flag up some of our proposals for the next few years. The reason for this is that we know that we have some years yet of austerity measures and we were keen to set out loud and clear that this administration is not living from year to year but there is a joined up policy to deliver ongoing economies in a creative and structured way. These proposals went through the budget process without adverse comment or criticism from other members.

Budget debate - more reflections

I have already commented on the blinkered approach adopted by much of the opposition to the budget setting process. In this budget we were required to find savings of £10.4M from our revenue budget. The main opposition groups proposed an amendment which reinstated £0.1M of this sum. This meant that they were not seeking to reverse or amend £10.3M of our proposals. In the circumstances I would call it more tinkering than major surgery. In the circumstances it was a little bizarre for a Labour councillor to describe this as "an alternative budget". No I don't think so. When their strange mishmash of an amendment was rejected they then voted against the budget even though they has effectively supported the vast majority of it. How strange.

A good reason not to compromise!

I thought that I would leave it a few days before giving my reflections on last Thursday's budget debate - all 4 + hours of it! I remain bemused about the stance of our opposition groups. In previous years, as we have delivered many millions of pounds of savings, my challenge to them has been to propose any changes they wanted so long as they identified a corresponding saving for every pound of additional spending they suggested. The response was to oppose and vote against our budget without making any alternatives. This year their moment had come. When we finished our proposals and decided we could deliver them whilst limiting the council tax increase to 1.75% it was always likely that we faced opposition proposals to increase by the maximum and in doing so they gave themselves a sum of about £175k to spend without having to identify corresponding savings. I was expecting a populist menu of enticing suggestions. Perhaps they would reinstate the air show, or reintroduce bus subsidies, or increase spending on road maintenance. But no they managed to limit themselves to primarily reinstating a number of reasonable budget cuts and with no attempt to deliver items on which they have campaigned. This package was signed by the leaders of all 3 opposition leaders and represented a compromise of their priorities so they told us. Rather than a compromise it was a wasted opportunity to be imaginative and to set out a reasonable argument for driving up council tax higher than was needed.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

City Deal moves forward

Probably the most exciting news of the week was that we have been successful with our initial bid to be one of the new City Deals. Originally 8 of the largest cities in the country were offered deals - being an agreement with central government to release certain powers and/or funding to help regeneration. Last autumn we were invited to bid to participate in the second wave along with 19 other cities and towns. It was good to receive the approach and we are the only bid in our South East LEP. The bid is in 2 elements. Firstly a bespoke section, crafted by Southend Council and aimed to address a particular issue in the town which we perceive is limiting economic regeneration. If this element works then we are also able to access the Core Package which will be common to the successful bids and will enable us to access a more generic range of powers which will also roll out across south Essex. So this is a big deal for us and our immediate neighbours. Our bespoke deal involves improving CPO powers to enable us to identify specific sites acting as a block to regeneration with the council borrowing funds to develop the relevant sites which will then be funded by us retaining the business rate increased income which the scheme creates. It costs central Government nothing and let's us clear some log jams. If it works it will also be scheme which could roll out in other areas where regeneration is limited by tight urban boundaries. We are now moving to flesh out the details. It is not only a very exciting project but the fact that we are being given the opportunity to participate demonstrates the faith central government has in our ability to deliver.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Labour's latest tax policy - another wrong turn

I was interested to see the leader in today's Independent supporting my own view on the merit of the latest income tax initiative announced by Labour which is described as "... A highly complicated and largely ineffective 10p tax band". As the paper suggests "an altogether better way to ease the burden on the least well off is to take more of them out of tax altogether." it hardly seems rocket science that to create a fair tax system which is difficult to avoid needs an approach which is based on simplicity rather than the over complex tapestry of measures created by the last government which was difficult to understand, complex and left gaps a plenty for those keen to avoid or evade their tax liability. The current government is trying to address this but it would appear that Ed Miliband has still to learn the lesson of recent history.

The jammy dodger turns sour!

It is always a pleasure to know that opposition members are seeking to broaden their horizons and knowledge by reading my blog entries however I take considerable exception when they then subsequently misquote me and rarely has there been such a misguided, inaccurate and offensive misquote as recently made by new Labour Councillor Ware-Lane (see previous jammy dodger post).

Referring to my recent blog "A tale of two cycle paths", which sought to highlight the difference between Cll Steve Aylen's imaginary and tree destructive cycle path route through Belfairs and the actual suggested route, Cllr Ware-Lane suggested that I was making an offensive reference to Cllr Aylen. If I want to insult someone then I am more than capable of doing so without the assistance of Cllr Ware-Lane or anybody else, and if I do so I will ensure that the language I use is clear and not capable of misinterpretation. To try to suggest that the blog meant something that it did not say and was based on an intent of which there was no evidence or factual basis is simply not acceptable. It is insulting to Cllr Aylen and me and I await a clear and unequivocal withdrawal and apology.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A tale of 2 cycle paths!

I was surprised to read a letter in today's Echo suggesting that Cllr Steve Aylen had warned a local group that the planned extension of the Prittlebrook Green Way through Belfairs was going to follow a route which would result in the removal of "hundreds of majestic old trees". The reason for my surprise is that no route has been agreed and to suggest that anybody would advocate and agree such a route is ridiculous. My surprise was heightened in that today was the first of 2 meetings arranged at Belfairs for officers and local ward members to discuss the options available and to try to agree on a preferred route - both Councillor Aylen and I were in attendance. A preferred route was agreed by all present (including Steve and me) which would not require the removal of any trees. Steve has been peddling this scare story for years without any proper foundation in fact so perhaps he will now concede that any concern he has caused is unfounded.