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.