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!