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.