Wednesday, 3 December 2014

New parking charges in Belton Way

On my nightly journey home from my office in Southend to my home in Leigh I travel up Belton Way West and like many others have noticed the wrapped and as yet inactive parking pay machines that have been installed as an unwelcome present to the residents of West Leigh signalling the imminent introduction of parking charges in this area.

Whilst I appreciate the need to raise additional funds wherever possible I am strongly of the view that this is an unwelcome and ill conceived proposal.

The area already had time limits in place to prevent use by commuters but provided free parking for those visiting Leigh and the marshes who were prepared for a slightly longer walk to their destination. It supplemented the pay and display parking in the various parking areas nearer to the Old Town and indeed the C2C car park with its overpriced spaces.

The imposition of charges in this area is likely to drive yet more visitors to park in the residential roads on the Marine Estate which already suffer from significant parking stress.

It also seems to contradict the stance adopted by council Leader Ron Woodley and his party colleagues on the potential introduction of new charges in areas of Thorpe Bay. Is this an example of the west of the town getting a raw deal as a result of the current east biased cabinet?

On a related issue I do believe that C2C should be expected to provide car parking spaces to their users at a more reasonable price to encourage rather than discourage their use. The last administration also invested in improving the council owned parking facilities on Leigh Marshes and there may be further opportunity for investment in that area to provide convenient and cost effective parking for commuters and visitors alike.

It does seem unfortunate that when the areas around so many of our local stations are suffering from high levels of commuter parking we cannot better utilise the potential space available in Leigh.

Roger Weaver - a "new" face for UKIP

I suppose there was an element of inevitability in the news that former Conservative, former Independent, and then former Conservative again, Southend councillor Roger Weaver would join UKIP in his ever more desperate attempt to find a possible council seat.

Roger, ably supported by his wife and former councillor Verina, was a good mayor and capable cabinet member before throwing his toys out of the pram in dramatic fashion when he lost to Anna Waite in a Conservative group vote to replace Howard Briggs as group and council leader.

Helping to demonstrate why the decision was right Roger resigned from the party in pique and pulling Verina with him became “Independent” which subsequently developed into the current Independent Party. I suppose it is one solution – if one group reject you as leader form your own group so that you can elect yourself!

Perhaps Roger was attracted by the recent activities of James Moyies who has struggled with his own rejection as potential UKIP parliamentary candidate for Rochford and Southend East and has also been conducting certain toy throwing.

I remain surprised at those who choose to be involved in politics at any level and put themselves forward for election but then cannot accept losing with an element of good grace. If you can’t bear to lose then it is probably best not to put your name forward in the first place. If they had won I suspect they would have expected a greater level of cooperation from the unsuccessful candidates then they have demonstrated.

As a staunch Conservative for so many years I am interested to see how Roger will suggest that as a potential UKIP councillor he has something new and different to offer. If his bid for a seat fails I will watch with interest to see which colour rosette he wears next!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Days of milk & honey?

I had become so used to hearing that everything wrong in the Town from every unpopular decision to the state of the weather was the fault of the wicked Tory administration which failed to recognise the democratic process that I was expecting to see a post May transformation under our new Rainbow Alliance.

Well I have to say that from the people I speak to there is increasing concern about the current operation of the council and its effect on the town and most of the positive feedback relates to the implementation of policies which were pursued and agreed pre May, often in the face of criticism from some opposition members – particularly where they involved greater borrowing.

These popular policies include the roll out of the new replacement LED lights, the improved performance of many of the town’s schools and the continuing policy of resurfacing roads rather than simply filling potholes. On this last issue it was a theme which ran through every budget I presented that we invested additional money on road surfacing recognising that this item had been over cut in previous years which amounted to a false economy. So in praising the availability of funding for road surfacing in roads such as Canewdon Road this represents praise for the previous Tory administration who put in place a proper system for prioritising the funds available and pursuing a concerted campaign to improve our roads – even if it did result in the council’s debt increasing!

But what about the new initiatives and policies? Well so far as “democracy” is concerned the suggestion of a return to the committee system did not even get past the first hurdle of council approval, notwithstanding the clear majority enjoyed by the opposition parties and the support of UKIP form the opposition benches. We also had the farce of the last Development Control meeting and in particular the application relating to the Garrison with councillors voting to reject the plans, then changing their mind and voting to defer, leading to a UKIP member (or will that shortly be ex member) storming from the room in a huff.

Hopefully the critics of the previous administration and its members may now be starting to realise that Development Control is a quasi judicial committee which must act in accordance with relevant planning laws and policies and not at the whim of members who may have their own agendas to pursue. Fail to follow that approach and we will start to see increasing numbers of successful appeals with costs orders against the council and also a return to the bad old days when local investors found the committee so unpredictable and on occasions perverse that they started to take their investment elsewhere. We have fought long and hard to rebuilt relations with business so let’s not prejudice that. It doesn’t mean that all applications are well founded and must be approved but if they are rejected make sure that it is on good planning grounds and the committee is balanced, predictable and defensible.

What else? – well we have seen a cop out on the library review, chaos on the seawall and associated village green claim and this is before they start to put together a cogent cost cutting budget without simply plundering the limited reserves which provide an important emergency fund.

So no milk and honey as yet.

Sea defence funding

I am not sure if I was Independent Party Leader and Cabinet member Martin Terry I would have had a photograph of me happily smiling over an Echo headline “Council may lose seawall funding”.

The item reflects the increasingly high risk that by stalling on the Shoebury flood defence scheme the current Administration are putting at risk the £1.4M pledged by the Environment Agency in respect of the scheme. This was of course a risk highlighted to Cllr Terry previously but which he seems happy to take.

Cllr Terry also comments that “There is a clear view from our engineer that the previous scheme could not go ahead as it was”. The obvious question is whether this is the same “engineer” who previously recommended that the scheme was the best and most cost effective option. Additionally where are the council’s professional officers on the issue who also supported the previous scheme.

If officer advice changes then I am sure that members will ensure that this is not as a result of pressure from cabinet members and will seek a full and detailed explanation. If it is being suggested that the original advice of external advisors was flawed then what remedy will be pursued against them? I have to say I find this suggestion surprising as the original scheme had obviously gained EA approval.

Alternatively is this Cllr Terry trying to bend the situation to what he believes to be his political advantage? I am amazed to see him also comment that the previous scheme was going ahead “like it or lump it” bearing in mind the very extended debate that took place on the subject both inside and outside the Civic Centre. The earlier decision also received considerable support from members across the political spectrum.

If the EA funding is lost then I trust that Cllr Terry and his colleagues will accept responsibility and in the meantime with a harsh winter threatened my major concern remains the delay in undertaking this flood defence work which seems to have been orchestrated by the current cabinet. Lets us hope that they, and more particularly residents and businesses in Shoebury, do not rue the day.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The challenge for Labour candidates

I have to feel some sympathy for Labour candidates for next year’s General Election who feel duty bound to express support for their party leader Ed Miliband. Indeed I have noticed recent tweets from our own candidates Cllrs Julian Ware-Lane and Ian Gilbert questioning the existence of any leadership challenge or doubts as to Ed’s performance.

It reminds me of some of the comments made by fellow Conservatives during the leaderships of William Hague and Michael Howard.

We are told that it is all mischief making by a couple of disenchanted mps and the wicked national media. Oh come on boys you know as well as the rest of us that Ed’s leadership is doing a good impression of a car crash. You would garner far more support if you were honest and accepted that there is a problem.

After all just consider his poor personal ratings, conference speech debacle, spat with his party’s Scottish leadership, inability to connect with the public etc etc.

Now obviously there is not much you can do about it this close to the next election, and in any event there appears to be a dearth of other more appealing candidates, but until you recognise the problem how can you find a solution. Of course it is not just about Ed’s poor leadership – there is a deeper malaise affecting the Labour Party. They can’t decide if they want to return to their true Labour roots or continue to hang on to last remnants of New Labour. Is it simply to be the politics of envy and the nanny state or a continued albeit half hearted appeal to aspiration and economic reality. At the moment it seems to me that they continue to blur any message and in any event I am not convinced that the ambitions of the party leadership are in line with the ambitions of their local activists – certainly in this part of south Essex.

The frustration for the candidates must be that the politics of opposition are far easier than the politics of government – as our own band of Indies, Lib Dems & Socialists are already proving. If they can’t even hit the right notes in opposition then they have indeed got work to do.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Terry Martin welcomes further borrowing

I was pleased to see that the first substantial batch of replacement LED street lights will soon be installed.

This was a major initiative of the last Conservative administration in our budget of last April. Whilst dependent on additional borrowing it addresses the deteriorating condition of many of our current lights but equally if not more importantly takes advantage of the substantially lower cost of running this LED technology. It will deliver long term revenue savings long after the borrowing has been repaid and will help ensure that unlike our neighbouring authorities our street lights can remain switched on at night.

I was pleased to see Independent Party Leader and cabinet member Martin Terry (or as my Yellow Advertiser called him Terry Martin) welcoming the scheme. Having said that if he thinks they are such a good idea it is strange that he voted against them as part of the last budget debate and ran a campaign against further borrowing.

How long will it take the local Indies to admit that either their stance on borrowing was wrong and misleading or that their "opposition" was a cynical ploy to garner votes. Alternatively perhaps they will actually identify the schemes funded by borrowing which they oppose or stop continuing to increase borrowing levels.

Southend United's new stadium - a further problem?

I could not avoid a wry smile at seeing the recent Echo headline “New doubt over Southend United’s stadium plan”.

The reason for the doubt is apparently that due to the ongoing delays Southend Council would have to reconsider the exercise of compulsory purchase powers over the old Prospects College – a wholly reasonable stance in my view. I hate to make a statement of the obvious but if the scheme was dependent on a potentially contested CPO process the inevitable delay would be likely to scupper the plan anyway.

I am sure that we are all tiring of this saga which was in the pipeline when I became Leader seven and a half years ago and still seemed stuck in that same pipeline when I stepped down notwithstanding the many hours of council member and officer time spent in trying to help put together what is a very complex and demanding jigsaw.

I see that Leader Cllr Ron Woodley could not resist his usual photo call and comment but was a little surprised by his view which was quoted as including this gem “If we don’t get Sainsbury’s and the football club driving it forward then maybe it’s time the council bought the land and developed it.” I am not sure how this strategy fits with his borrowing adverse stance or how he thinks this declaration would help in a possible subsequent CPO (whether for the benefit of Sainsburys or the Council), but is he really suggesting that this would facilitate the new stadium and supermarket or block it. It must surely be the latter.

Monday, 3 November 2014

My greatest Albion team!

Having been away for a few days I had the opportunity to give some serious thought to that ultimate sporting challenge – naming my best all time West Brom team.

Oh the hours of pondering but I have just about got there. I decided that I would exclude any current players. Their time may come in the future. I also had to take some liberties with team positions although a number of my team played in more than one shirt over their years with the team and I am confident would be more than able to rise to any challenge I may be setting them. I have to admit that the one position that I have had a simply impossible choice is in my selection for my central attackers. The options are simply too strong and a change at half time would be unavoidable.

Anyway here goes. In goal John Osborne. A back four of Don Howe, John Wile, Ray Barlow and Jessie Pennington. My dynamic and attacking midfield would feature Billy Bassett, Bryan Robson, Tony “Bomber” Brown and Laurie Cunningham. Finally my starting forwards would be Ronnie Allen and Jeff Astle.

My subs bench would feature Ray Potter as my reserve keeper, Derek Statham and Allie Robertson in defence, Asa Hartford to cover midfield and further ace attackers in Cyrille Regis, WG Richardson and Derek “The Tank” Kevan.

Some of those just missing out included Russell Hoult, Graham Williams, John Kaye, Willie Johnson and Tommy Glidden.

A south Essex Baggie follower!

A question that I am regularly asked is how somebody born and bred in south Essex ended up a lifelong supporter of West Bromwich Albion. The answer is not unusual where football allegiance is concerned. Before I was born the family lived in the Midlands and I had a brother who was 11 years older than me and was a fanatical WBA follower. In the circumstances I really had no choice being indoctrinated from a very early age.

The situation was sealed beyond doubt when almost the first televised match I can recall watching was the 1968 FA Cup Final when Albion beat Everton thanks to a Jeff Astle goal. Little did I know that almost 50 years later I would still be waiting for some further significant silver although there have of course been many memorable and uplifting times along the way.

It was a unique experience attending my local Grammar School as the only Albion supporter being viewed by my class mates with a combination of disbelief and pity! Everyone else seemed to follow one of the big London clubs, although there did not seem to be to same attraction for locals to follow the main Manchester and Liverpool clubs as seems to be the case with many of my daughters’ friends.

The problem is that when a club gets into your system it is simply impossible to change allegiance and whilst I rarely get to live matches these days I still watch Albion’s televised matches whenever possible, follow their progress on twitter and feel a surge of pleasure or despair depending on the final result each week.

So if I could go back to the 60s knowing then what I know now would I change anything – no of course not. After all I am sure that this is the season for that cup or league win. Or if not this year then surely next. Come on you Baggies!

Friday, 24 October 2014

The style of leadership

I was quite surprised to hear that Cllr Ron Woodley, my successor as council leader chose to abstain in the vote deciding whether the cabinet system should be retained or replaced by a committee system. There was added irony due to the fact that the report which was debated by members on the subject was published in Ron’s name.

I am not sure what aspect of this is more worthy of comment, the fact that the Council Leader is not prepared to express a view or take a lead on a potentially significant matter or that he allowed the paper, which was written with an understandable pro cabinet slant, to go out under his name if he did not support it’s contents.

Ron’s view of Leadership is clearly different from mine. I felt that it was incumbent on the Leader to express a view and attempt by argument and debate to persuade others. Ron seems to feel that he has a more passive role – almost of an unbiased mediator. This is strange for someone who was always happy to express a view in opposition and was after the Leader’s role for many months. Indeed I continue to think it odd that we have a Leader who is not even leader of his own political group.

Still we will see. I just hope that he is more vocal in the regular private meetings of cabinet and indeed when he is representing the interests of the Town in the LEP and elsewhere.

Committees - the 2nd damp squib!

I note that last night the 2nd headline initiative published by the Administration bit the dust with the failure to get council approval for a move from a cabinet to committee structure. I should say from the outset that I am a believer in the cabinet system which delivers faster and more effective decision making and has proved itself over recent years. I have commented on this previously. I also don’t accept this guff on the public wanting a committee system or it being more democratic to deal with policy making in committee and by cross party consensus. In my experience the majority of the public neither know nor care what system the council uses to take decisions – the issue for the them is that the right decisions are made and in an effective and responsive manner. It is also my view that the test of democracy and its strength is often the ability and input of the opposition which should be challenging, holding the administration to account where necessary and providing alternative solutions. Surely this is what distinguishes us from puppet governments with pretend opposition. However it does concern me that the current Leader and his party colleagues have been unable to deliver a change when they have been moaning about the cabinet system for so long. I realise that this is in part because of the non attendance of some UKIPers but even so it hardly gives the impression of strong and effective leadership. I also note Martin Terry’s impassioned plea for the retention of the cabinet system because of all the effective changes they have made to it! This actually appeared to be based primarily on the appointment of opposition chairs and vice chairs to scrutiny committees which was already being implemented under the previous administration but did not stop him from berating the system. Of course it’s a bit different when you are in power and the obligation to deliver rests with you but at least it would be good if Martin admitted that this was the reason for his change of heart rather than continuing to hold himself out as the saviour of democracy. Rather more chameleon than white knight. He may also wonder whether those continuing overtures which he and his colleagues have been making to UKIP are such a good idea if their members cannot be relied on to turn up for meetings. It would have been interesting but chaotic if the Indies and UKIP had been able to cobble together an administration.

Council rules of debate

In last night’s council debate on the possible return to committees it was interesting to note that usual procedures were suspended and the group leaders were each allowed to speak for longer than usual. I can’t help but wonder why, when they all announced that their groups were not operating under a whip. In the absence of a whip or agreed group line on a subject the leaders can talk only for themselves rather than having a mandate to speak for all their group members. So why give them longer than anybody else? They have no greater right to have a view than other members. I hope that this will not become the norm, particularly with debates like the budget. It would be bizarre if the Leader of the Council and the 3 group leaders who sit in the cabinet all had unlimited time to speak and it would unbalance the debate. The Leader of the Council and the Leaders of the Opposition groups should have the benefit of no limit. The rest should be bound by the usual rules as has always been the case with other cabinet members.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Scrap university tuition fees

It is time for another of my periodic rants on tuition fees. I was at a very enjoyable lunch at Westcliff Rugby Club on Saturday which was followed by an entertaining but, for the purposes of WRC, disappointing match with the away team ending up clear winners. Over lunch the Managing Partner of one of the leading accountancy firms in the town was discussing recruitment and how for accountants there remains the option of taking suitable recruits straight from school. Unfortunately this is not a viable option for solicitors where the expectation is that applicants will have either a law or other degree followed by the current solicitors final exams (known as the LPC) before starting a 2 year term as a trainee solicitor with a firm eventually resulting in qualification. There are ways of slightly shortcutting the process but the reality is that most applicants will have to navigate their law degree and possible also LPC before attempting to find a rare training contract and will by that time be burdened by the significant debt which is loaded on the majority of our graduates these days. I am in no doubt that this process deters many from less well off backgrounds who will not have the benefit of parental financial support and cannot face the mountain of debt and inevitable uncertainty they will face. This is simply not doing all we as a society should be doing to ensure opportunity for all, dependent on ability and not family financial resources. Whist the position in the law is accentuated by the LPC course and the 2 year training contract a similar challenge faces potential students in a range of other careers and is a far cry from the opportunities and support available when I was at that stage of my education. I had the benefit of no tuition fees and a full maintenance grant from Essex County Council to cover my degree and solicitors finals course. Living in a loving but financially stretched 1 parent family in rented accommodation I would simply not have been able to qualify without that support from my local community. How can it be right to burden our young people with debt, much of which will in any event never be repaid? How does this fit with concerns as to the levels of personal debt which many people now routinely accumulate? Labour introduced tuition fees without any electoral mandate (it was not in their manifesto) and having let the genie out of the bottle it becomes difficult to reverse it, particularly when linked as it was to an uncontrolled growth in university courses and numbers and, in my view, the disastrous decision to eliminate the distinction between universities and polytechnics. The coalition has only made the situation worse and don’t even get me started on the Lib Dems who on this issue have done so much to damage the credibility of national politicians with student voters. I remain of the view that tuition fees need to go. We should review the provision of further education in this county to better reflect the aspirations of our young people and the needs of business and of our society. If we are encouraging those who are able to do so to enjoy a uni career, then we should recognise that if the system is properly coordinated we should be helping them achieve well paid jobs which will result in them repaying our investment in tax over the coming years, or leading to a career which will operate to our direct benefit as a society. In either circumstance we should be prepared to fund it. As it is our students still need to fund their accommodation and living expenses but at least these are things over which they have an element of control. I think our young people have had a rough ride over the last 20 years or so and it is time we started doing something about it. I can think of no better starting point than tuition fees.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Labour spin on the NHS

Labour's health spokesman Andy Burnham was interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning and I am sure that I was not the only one left slightly depressed by his performance. I heard him speak a couple of years ago at the Local Government Association's annual assembly and he seemed to have a clear and realistic understanding of the massive challenges facing the future of the service to include the cost of the groundbreaking medical research being undertaken, increasing levels of expectation, the ageing population and the problems with the cost of social care. He had some interesting thoughts on improved links between health and social care although my understanding is that most of his conclusions were rejected by his own party leaders. This morning his golden ticket was to fund improved cancer services by a combination of mansion tax, increased tax on tobacco companies and a vague suggestion of raising greater tax income from hedge funds. He then said almost as an aside that a Labout government would also restructure to sort out the other funding problems facing the NHS. Well that's alright then! The reality is that the mansion house tax is some way from being deliverable as I have mentioned previously, the proposed tax on tobacco companies would raise relative peanuts and Mr Burnham did a good impression of not having a clue how the measures on hedge funds would deliver - something he seems to have in common with most other people. The truth is of course that measures along the lines announced do nothing to address the fundamental funding issues which face the NHS and if anything mislead the public by suggesting that with a policy along these lines the future of the NHS is safe. In my view the first reality is that the most important step in securing the future of the NHS is to deliver a strong economy. Without an underlying economic strength the NHS will inevitably crash into a financial buffer sooner rather than later. Having delivered that an adult and cross part debate needs to take place on the underlying priorities of the service and how these can be delivered in a fair and universal way.  I do not believe that there is any front line politician from either of the two main parties who is not committed to the future of the NHS and to suggest otherwise is the the politics of the playground. However this is too important an issue for the next election to degenerate into an " I can spend more than you" or "I care more than you do" argument. There needs to be a debate which goes to the core of the problems and which does not try to mislead the public. The reality is that successive governments have spent increasing money on health but for the reasons indicated above the demand is not going to reduce anytime soon. In the meantime in areas like Southend some excellent joined up thinking and working is taking place between health and adult care which I hope my successor will continue to prioritise because I am completely as one with Andy Burnham in believing that this is an area where improvements simply must be made.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Labour politician worth listening to

Whilst my Conservative affiliations are not in doubt I have never been so tribal as to be unable to admire (if not always to accept) the arguments put forward by representatives of other parties - or indeed to occasionally disagree with the views of some of my party colleagues ! I struggle to believe that anyone with a love of politics cannot be absorbed by the views and style of Tony Benn even whilst disagreeing with his views. Another Labour politician who always demands attention is Tam Dalyell. This was confirmed by the interview with him published in today's Independent. Of even greater concern is that on this occasion I agree with most of what he says. As the originator of the West Lothian question he framed one of the most simple but challenging questions of recent years. His views on delivering real devolution to Scotland and the rest of the UK, to include the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, scrapping of the unfair Barnett Formula, and the establishment of a proper system of regional government in Scotland is persuasive. For England he sees devolution but to the existing structure of local government. My main disagreement is his view that the county councils are best suited to deliver this whereas I prefer a single tier, unitary approach. He even highlights another issue which I have commented on previously namely the tendency of our modern Westminster elite to follow the path of university, researcher, advisor and then MP with no experience of the real world which can only increase the risk of a lack of contact between MPs and those they represent. An article which is well worth reading. My only concern is that I struggle within the current crop of front line Labour politicians to find those capable of stepping in to the shoes of Benn, Dalyell etc.

Seafront Development

This week has seen new and ambitious plans for the Golden Mile being published including an exciting mix of commercial and residential space. The plans were not a great surprise as I had been involved in preliminary discussions with the site owners as they were thinking up their plans. This important area for our leisure offer to both residents and visitors is in dire need of investment and improvement and I wish these plans success and hope that this does not turn into another false dawn for the site. My concerns about the plans have not changed. The height of the blocks, particularly adjacent to the Kursaal, are of concern. We have seen the negative effects of over high development elsewhere along the seafront. I also wonder whether the site will attract the necessary purchasers of high value flats in an area which comes with both the advantages and disadvantages of a prime Golden Mile location and sits close to an area of the Town Centre which continues to offer significant financial and social challenges - perhaps not the best selling tag. Still this is not the time for negativity. Perhaps significant investment of this kind will prove to be a touch paper for long term improvement to some of our more challenging town centre areas.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A127 Improvements - the latest stage

Shortly before the elections in May Southend's Conservative Administration successfully bid for Government funding to improve the Tesco roundabout on the A127. This was the latest step in the upgrade to all junctions and followed the previous improvements to Progress Road and Cuckoo Corner. Obviously there is still work needed to Kent Elms and The Bell but it is the way of government funding that these things have to be done in stages. In the circumstances I was delighted when my recent edition of the Yellow Advertiser came wrapped in a  four page Southend Council advert on the latest scheme - although I hate to think what that cost! This included a picture and quote from current cabinet member and Independent Party Leader Martin Terry extolling the benefits of the scheme. Good for him even if I can't remember any great enthusiasm for the scheme from some members of the then opposition when the funding was obtained. I am now interested how Cllr Terry oversees the delivery of the project with as little disruption to the residents and businesses of the Town as possible. When the 4 previous schemes were delivered by the Tories at the same time (Progress Road, Cuckoo Corner, Victoria Circus and City Beach) massive time was spend by my colleagues, to include in particular John Lamb and Anna Waite, to keep the traffic flowing, especially at rush hours. Let us hope Cllr Terry is as effective in dealing with this far less demanding project. I am sure we will all be watching but hopefully not from the middle of a traffic jam.

In defence of the spy cars

In my recent years on the council an issue guaranteed to cause annoyance to some was spy cars, or to use their proper names the CCTV Surveillance Cars.  I have never fully understood the objections to their use. Firstly to describe them as spy cars has always struck me as ironic as rather than being examples of some form of covert surveillance the cars have signage plastered all over them and a large and obvious camera protruding from their roof! However the Council, no doubt encouraged by Eric Pickles, have announced that their use will be restricted to a limited selection of illegal parking enforcement. Like most people I know I do not park on double yellow lines as even though I may not always understand what purpose they serve I accept that they are often designed to improve safety for  pedestrians, cyclists or other car users or to help traffic flow. It annoys me when people ignore these restrictions but if they do they must accept the risk of a ticket and if tickets are not issued there is no deterrent to greater levels of unsafe and illegal parking. Obviously there need to be safeguards to include an element of common sense in their operation and a reasonable and easy to use appeal system, and I also feel that there are too many yellow lines across the town which serve no useful purpose and should be removed. However when I speak to people who don't support their use they normally assure me that they do not park illegally and think enforcement needs to be efficiently applied but somehow think that the use of the cars is cheating. They don't seem to object if the same areas are enforced by officers on foot but don't like the car even though all enforcement action is filmed making appeals in appropriate cases straight forward. They also mostly generally agree that enforcement around schools and other sensitive areas which can be improved by use of the cars is acceptable. It is a strange situation where there is support for a less effective method of enforcement and it seems that the argument is that all enforcement should be equal but some more equal than others. Well I remain a supporter, subject to the safeguards indicated above, and whilst we should be getting on with a review of the yellow lines across the town I still believe that tickets are not issued by the cars if people are parking legally so what is the problem.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cllr Longley - are you listening?

It is generally accepted by many pundits that UKIP’s recent popularity has been built on harnessing the widespread unhappiness with Europe, Immigration and the current culture of Westminster politics. As recent local elections and Westminster by elections have demonstrated the public are only too happy to take out this displeasure on representatives of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It is a warning that politicians at all levels should be heeding but are they? In Southend concerns have recently been raised in the Echo and elsewhere about the £1.8M of Government business grants which have been distributed in the town. In defence of recent events Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council Graham Longley is quoted in the Echo as saying “I am delighted we were successful in receiving £1.8million of funding which has come to Southend rather than another area.” He also comments “The money is not from local council tax. It is not money that can be spent on council services, or other local initiatives as is being suggested.” As usual he misses the point. Nobody is criticising the Council for any input it had in obtaining this investment but what is of concern is that the Council has been involved in deciding who are the lucky recipients but have undertaken the process in what is perceived to many other local businesses as being in a clandestine manner which lacks transparency. In some cases competing businesses who are also important to the local economy will wonder why they have missed out on a cash handout. I am sure that the process has been dealt with in a completely fair and reasonable manner but it is simply not good enough for Cllr Longley to brush these concerns under the carpet. All residents are entitled to know the criteria that was applied and to ask why the potential availability of this funding was not better publicised. Finally for him to imply that it doesn’t really matter because it is not funded from local council tax is exactly the type of comment that must be music to UKIP’s ears. It is government money which has been contributed to by our taxes and as our locally elected representatives with an involvement in the distribution of the money in Southend the buck stops with Cllr Longley and his colleagues.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Libraries - the first damp squib of many?

I had been waiting with great anticipation for the Administration’s review of the proposed changes to the library service – the first of their 3 headline issues together with Flood Defences and Care Homes. We heard all sorts of criticisms about the redundancies of qualifies librarians, the need to protect our library services and the unsuitability of using volunteers to support the service and I was sure that under a culture enthusiast like Graham Longley the changes would be reversed and the current system maintained. After all it was almost his first press quote to block the implementation of the changes pending the review. I happen to think the original decision was right but would have no problem with the Administration delivering the required savings in some other way if they felt able to justify it. Whilst it still requires approval from full council I was therefore shocked by the recent decision of cabinet. It has not reversed any of the previous budget saving and reiterates 2 issues which were already under way, namely the combining of the 2 Shoebury libraries and the relocation of Southchurch library to more suitable premises. The “big” change is that rather than designating 2 libraries for operation by volunteers (albeit supported by the remaining network) they are spreading the qualified librarians more thinly and filling the gaps with volunteers. Nobody who read the election material distributed by some supporters of the current Administration before the election or who heard their comments on the subject would regard this approach as consistent with the line being spun to residents. All they have offered is a minor tinker which was considered but rejected by the pre election cross party working party. Obviously this latest decision has not been taken following full input from all political parties on the council. Questions must be asked. If maintaining the library service was such a priority before the election why have they not put their money where their mouth was? How many qualified librarians who were to lose their jobs will now be retained due to this policy change? If volunteers were not a reasonable approach to library provision why does the new policy continue to rely on them? Do they accept that this change will have a potentially adverse effect of Leigh, Kent Elms and The Forum? Residents who believed they were voting for something different have a right to be disappointed but perhaps should brace themselves for a similar reaction on a number of other headline policies over the coming months.

Internet abuse

The recent death of Brenda Leyland, the women accused of subjecting the parents of Madeline McCann to a campaign of anonymous abuse on the internet, further highlights an issue of growing concern for all who find themselves in the public spotlight for whatever reason. Certainly anyone who achieves public office at any level must be prepared for the inevitable onslaught of internet abuse, particularly if they find themselves in a position of power. One of the biggest changes I noticed during my years away from the council was the growth of the willingness of many who disagreed with a policy to engage in sending unpleasant and often aggressive anonymous e mails. This was particularly the case in my years as Leader when it would appear that some believe that all elected politicians are easy targets for any comments, however unpleasant, abusive and unjustified they might be. On occasions these would arrive on an open e mail with the sender’s name and address which at least allowed for a response but inevitably the worst were anonymous. It is also slightly ironic tha whilst some newspapers are highlighting this issue they should perhaps look at the comments which are added to articles on their websites from anonymous senders which are on occasions as bad. Admittedly there is a choice as to whether you look on these sites but if we are to encourage an adult approach to political debate it is difficult to see how they can be justified. At the least let’s know who posts or sends these items so that they can be responsible in law for their actions. I hope that my successor Ron Woodley has so far avoided this vitriolic electronic postbag but if so I suspect his relief may be short-lived – particularly when he attempts to address the economies which will be essential in next year’s budget.


Thanks to all who have sent their best wishes following my recent eye operations. Things do seem to be slowly improving although my sight remains some way from fully back to normal as yet.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A bad week for Labour

The antics of Labour Party leaders over the last few days must be causing their party workers to despair. Firstly we had the bizarre refusal by Messrs Miliband and Balls to acknowledge that the principle of English votes for English laws was fair. On Sunday Mr Miliband repeated ducked the question when it was posed to him by Andrew Marr in a performance which bordered on embarrassing. It is patently obvious that the West Lothian problem needs to be addressed as the situation becomes even more unfair increased devolution to Scotland and to refuse to accept the obvious and suggest batting the issue of to the long grass (aka some kind of constitutional committee) is like a script from Yes Minister. We then have Mr Miliband’s speech to conference in which he managed to forget the sections on the deficit and immigration thereby only serving to highlight 2 of the many areas where Labour is clueless. We then have the ill thought out announcement of a mansion tax. This is a policy which attempts to build on envy and create division. What is the intellectual justification for this policy? If it is intended to bash the rich then why this arbitrary and ineffective approach? The reality is that the better off pay a growing percentage of the overall tax burden. Whilst many may have benefited from property rises the Government already gets its share through stamp duty and inheritance tax. The policy also misses the point that many older occupiers bought their properties many years ago for modest sums and have simply seen prices escalate in their areas. They are frequently income poor and will struggle to pay a large surcharge payment. There is not even a sensible explanation as to how the valuation system could work – in other words a complete dogs dinner! It is interesting that even senior Labour members are starting to show their dissatisfaction with the leadership on these matters and I struggle to believe that even Labour rank and file see Mr Miliband as a credible PM in waiting.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland decides.

I am delighted at the outcome of the Scottish referendum and hopefully this issue will now be put behind us for many years. I do believe that a yes vote would have had an immediate and adverse effect on the economy of the entire UK which is something we do not need at present. I even informally predicted a 55/45% split. In earlier entries I have commented on this issue and the need to now address the West Lothian question. I am delighted that the PM specifically mentioned this in his reaction to the vote. If, as seems reasonable, Scotland is to receive more devolved power we need to ensure that the interests of the rest of the UK are also protected and this means urgent action to ensure that decisions in England on issues which have been devolved to Scotland are taken by English MPs. The Barnett formula also needs to be considered and there would appear no better time to address these challenging issues than in the aftermath of this vote and the agreement of further devolved powers.

Southend Hospital - a user's view

In my last blog entry I detailed my recent health trials and tribulations. In general terms the competence and dedication of our local NHS staff is beyond doubt. However I do have some feedback from the perspective of a user. Whilst I suspected the diagnosis from the outset I started by using the “111” service which is intended to reduce the burden on the A&E by encouraging those who do not need to attend to go elsewhere. I found the service worked well and the member of staff I spoke to was helpful and constructive. Having consulted with a colleague I was advised to attend Southend A&E within the hour and was told that they would have passed my details to A&E so that I was expected and they would have an indication as to the problem. We immediately went to A&E but when mentioning our discussion with “111” were told that in fact there had been no communication and that “..they always say that but we never get anything through.” I do not know how the system is supposed to work but can see the good sense of prior contact. In any event the reaction on arrival at A&E was very negative and if it is occurring regularly can only deter use of “111”. Either the communication needs to improve or the “111” operatives need to drop that line from their script. A&E was quiet being Sunday morning. We were seen for an initial assessment in about 30 minutes. I was asked to read from an eye chart with my left eye but when I explained that I couldn’t even make out the chart never mind any letters the person in question seemed quite annoyed ! I would have thought that a referral to the eye clinic was reasonably obvious and would have got me out of A&E but we waited for a couple more hours before being seen for a second time. This more or less duplicated the first examination (although without the eye chart) and after about a minute it was confirmed that I needed to go to the eye clinic. We were asked to be at the clinic at 5pm when a nurse and doctor were called in. There were just 2 patients. The staff were thorough, reassuring and supportive. The diagnosis on both eyes was made with telephone contact with the consultant and an appointment for the following morning in the clinic. Obviously the clinic was a little more frantic the following day and there did appear to be a repetition of the majority of the tests which had been carried out the previous evening before I was seen by the consultant and operations on both eyes scheduled for the following day. I re attended where the staff were again helpful and everything seemed to go smoothly leading to my discharge. I do wonder if the staff would be helped by improved IT support. The eye clinic could not decipher the brief notes from A&E and effectively started again. The second attendance at the clinic did not seem to take into account the detailed examination of the previous day although this may be for very good medical reasons. I do think there needs to be improvement in the “111” and A&E axis and would IT help ease the burden on the hospital’s hard working staff?

The best laid plans...

Life is a funny old game. Just as you think everything is under control there is the inevitable curve ball. On Saturday 6th September all seemed well. I was enjoying the season’s opening double header at Twickenham and looking forward to the charity bike ride from East Beach the following morning and the opening of the new Beecroft Gallery during the week. I also had a busy week of court advocacy with hearings in Chelmsford on Monday, Southend on Wednesday and Cambridge on Friday. That was when I noticed a slight blurring of my vision and on closer investigation a curtain across the right hand side of my left eye. Things had not improved by the next morning so an early call to “111” ensued resulting in a recommendation to attend Southend A&E within the hour. After a few hours I was directed to attend the eye clinic at 5pm that evening when the inevitable diagnosis of a partially detached retina was made with concern as to some early issues with the other eye. I re attended the eye clinic the following morning to see the consultant and had operations on both eyes on Tuesday. The rest of the week was spent doing little other than liaising with my office by phone and discovering long forgotten parts of my CD collection. I have been making a slow return to work this week although whilst the vision in my right eye is almost back to normal my left eye has some way to go. The curtain has been replaced by very blurred vision which will hopefully clear over the next 3 or 4 weeks. I will comment on some minor and hopefully constructive issues arising from my treatment but in general terms there is nothing like an emergency of this kind to make you appreciate the skill and availability of our NHS and local hospital and also to appreciate the unquestioning support from family and work colleagues. And I have even avoided being the butt of too many pirate jokes!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The poisoned chalice - maybe the first of many!

I must admit to some sympathy for Labour councillor David Norman who has responsibility for Adult Social Care and Housing in the Rainbow Cabinet. It now falls to him to placate the justified angst and worries of the residents of the Town’s Tower Blocks following the premature, ill advised and self promoting quotes made by some of his cabinet colleagues, to include his Leader Ian Gilbert, on the apparent aspirations to demolish the blocks. As I am sure David will be the first to accept these comments and the linked posing for photographs in the local press were at the very least unwise! As I have mentioned previously these blocks represent home to a significant number of residents and to start making public pronouncements as to their possible demolition at a stage where no plans have been prepared, funded or discussed is simply unfair. Quite rightly the residents are calling for clear and detailed clarification of their position and I am sure that David will be suitably comforting but to the best of my knowledge he did not cause this problem and perhaps we should expect an apology from those responsible for causing the distress in the first place. Of course any administration worth its salt will consider whether the blocks provide suitable accommodation and will consider all options. However this should be done confidentially until any viable alternatives have been established and worked up on at least a preliminary basis at which time residents can be properly consulted – preferably before the local press! I would like to think that this situation will not happen again but with some members of cabinet having an obvious thirst for self publicity I fear that it may.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Estuary Airport bites the dust

I was delighted to hear confirmation that the proposed airport in the Thames Estuary has been dismissed. It was a ridiculous suggestion which would have been financially undeliverable and harmful to the environment and economy of South Essex. Opposition to the proposal was consistent across the Southend Council chamber and we made appropriate representations against the plan from the outset. Pity we can't see a similar common sense approach on the new Thames Crossing.

The end of the summer!

The summer seems to have flown by once again. I have just returned from two great weeks on the Greek Island of Skiathos. Great beaches and tavernas with lots of opportunities to get out on the water. One of my daughters even talked me into parasailing for the first time and here is the evidence.

It was also strange that for the first time for seven years I have been able to go on holiday without picking up my council e mails on a daily basis!

In the meantime the new Administration at Southend Council have had the opportunity to get their feet under the table so I am looking forward to seeing how they rise to the challenge over the next six months.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Blog break until September

Recognising that we are in the middle of holiday season and local politics are quiet I am taking a blog break until the beginning of September. So I am not just being lazy but looking forward to returning to monitor the activities of our Joint Administration and commenting on a range of local and wider issues then.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

West Lothian (part 2)

On 25th July I commented on the Independence vote in Scotland and the probability that if the “no” vote wins we would see increased devolution of power in any event. I see from today’s joint announcement from the Leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems that this offer has now been confirmed as a further incentive for the Scots to reject the breakup of the union. However as I said before this continues to increase the need for all major political parties to face up to the West Lothian question and to reassure the English as to how we are to be protected from a ridiculous situation where decisions on issues in England, which in Scotland are being taken by the Scottish parliament, may be taken by a House of Commons distorted by the voice of Scottish MPs and potentially in line with decisions of a government only in place because of election results in Scotland. When the outcome of the Scottish vote is known it will be time for the English to start pressing harder for this tricky question to be finally and fairly resolved.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Beecroft Art Gallery

I am delighted to see the Beecroft Gallery now opening in its new home in the old central library building in Victoria Avenue. When the new Forum project started to take shape the issue of what to do with the old building needed to be addressed. Various options were considered to include the possibility of using it for a new school, before the present plan was devised. The original building housing the Beecroft was always intended as a temporary home. It was in poor structural condition and was not particularly accessible. It did not do justice to the gallery itself which at times has risked being too much of a "hidden gem". The new home will provide far enhanced facilities and a home in the middle of the town which will hopefully encourage ever greater numbers of visitors. It is good to see a further initiative of the last Administration coming to fruition.

A cultural weekend

One of the benefits of living in Leigh is that London is so accessible. I have mentioned in a previous blog that a few weeks ago my wife and saw the RSC production of Wolf Hall and on Saturday it was time to see the second play based on Hilary Mantell’s popular novels “Bring Up the Bodies”. As before the show was first rate and I would not hesitate to recommend it. This second play was slightly darker than the first and it is worth seeing Wolf Hall first but the entire cast were spot on and greatly appreciated by the sell out audience. A enjoyment of the West End stage is something engrained in to me by my late mother who would take me and my siblings to shows whenever she could afford it. There are few cultural experiences which beat the excitement and anticipation of sitting in a West End auditorium for the 15 minutes or so before the curtain rises – particularly so now that nearly all theatres allow you to take in drinks from the bar in suitable plastic cups! It is fair to say that there has been a change in the nature and make up of audiences over the last 40 years or so. My mother would have been appalled at a failure to “dress up” to see a show and would not have approved of the jeans, shorts and trainers sported by increasing numbers of attendees, but in my view it is important not to be too precious about such things. So long as those sitting around me manage to survive the performance without using their phone, talking unnecessarily, constantly opening sweets with frustratingly loud wrapping or engaging in sexual foreplay I am happy and the fact that audiences have become increasingly diverse and young is an excellent indicator for the future. The key is ensuring that your behaviour does not unnecessarily mar the enjoyment of your fellow members of the audience or indeed the actors themselves. We also took the opportunity to visit one of our favourite spaces in London, the Royal Academy. We have become ever more regular visitors over recent years and became Friends of the RA a couple of years ago – a very worthwhile investment. On this trip we saw the Summer Exhibition which provided the usual balance of exceptional art, challenging art and in some cases (in my view!) crap art. It is particularly interesting to see the prices indicated for the relevant pieces – some of which defy belief. Together with the Courtauld Gallery and the National Photographic Gallery the RA is probably our favourite of the moment although we have attended some great exhibitions at the British Museum, and National Gallery during the last year. Tate Modern was a regular for us but I have become increasingly unfulfilled by a visit there and still feel that the best use of the carbine hall was the first presentation many years ago with a large setting sum projected over the far wall which created a marvellous and enchanting atmosphere across the whole hall. The space has in my view been under used since then. Some modern art I love and some (Tracy Emin) I don’t, but then that is the great thing about it – sometimes not liking something can be as stimulating as loving it, in that it challenges your values and perceptions.

Friday, 1 August 2014

UKIP & the Indies plot a new coalition

There is an intriguing article in the Echo today suggesting that it remains the aspiration of the UKIP and Independent party groups on Southend council to form a joint administration following the next local elections with supporting quotes from their respective party leaders Cllrs. James Moyies and Martin Terry. It also stated that UKIP would have been in the current Administration save for the objections of the Lib Dems and Labour. Apart from the fact that this would require substantial gains by the 2 parties it raises some other questions. At present UKIP are in opposition and have a responsibility to hold the Administration to account. Is this likely if they still regard the Independents as their most likely route to future power? The current Administration faces a challenging few months and the need to agree and deliver a cost reducing budget. Are UKIP already convinced that they will find an as yet undrafted budget acceptable and a suitable base for future collaboration? Mr Moyies suggests that such an alliance would move away from the constraints of party politics. This of course ignores the fact that it would be based on a partnership between 2 party groups who have shown no greater inclination to disagree on any particular issue than members of the other 3 party groups. But most specifically what are their joint aspirations and policies for the Town which makes this apparent partnership a match made in heaven? If they feel that they have a slate of proactive policies to deliver the required economies, drive up service standards and encourage investment and regeneration why not tell us what they are, as both UKIP and the Independents were decidedly light on any positive policies during the recent election campaign other than reducing borrowing and reversing 3 previous policy decisions. To date from the new Administration, of which the Independent Party is a central player, we have only heard about plans to increase rather than reduce borrowing and the reversal of the decisions on libraries, care homes or flood defence will increase capital and/or revenue costs. Call me old fashioned but when I vote for the representative of a political party I like to have some idea of what they regard as key priorities and what type of Administration I can expect. The Indies and UKIP seem to feel that this isn’t necessary and that we should give them an open mandate. In the interests of local democracy let us hope they are wrong.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The trials of an Administration supporting blogger

I do admit to having some sympathy for Cllr Julian Ware-Lane at present. Julian has been a prolific and effective blogger for some time but he is clearly finding that it is a lot harder to make incisive and potentially critical comments as a supporter of the current administration than as a member of the opposition. This must be especially trying for Julian who is likely to feel restricted, particularly in the early days of the new cabinet, from taking pot shots at its policies or members as it could be interpreted as criticism of his own Labour colleagues or an attempt to undermine the administration which Southend Labour Group has signed up to support. I have never regarded Julian as a great supporter of the current leader or the majority of cabinet who are non Labour and in other circumstances a potential target for Julian’s sharp witted comments. At least when I was Leader I felt able to herald the performance of the council which I had led for some years and the actions of a cabinet chosen by me. Let’s hope the old, sharper Julian makes an early return. A particular irony is that I suspect the current cabinet will be giving plenty of ammunition for local bloggers which in the absence of Labour support and members would be a constant source of material for Julian’s Musings. In the meantime he will no doubt concentrate on updates on his ward activities and his analysis of data on a range of issues.

The need improve Victoria Avenue

A continuing priority for the last Conservative Administration was to try to deal with the poor condition of a number of blocks down Victoria Avenue. Not only does this represent an awful gateway to the Town for visitors and residents alike but is also continuing to depress and limit the market for office accomodation. Initially this resulted in meetings with the property owners to try to agree some coordinated redevelopment action and when this was unsuccessful the issue was pursued through the draft Town Centre planning policy document and was an element of the Town’s bid for a City Deal. Continuing to be frustrated by the lack of progress we included the allocation of £10M as part of our last budget to fund either the voluntary purchase or, if necessary CPO, of the blocks and this appears to have encouraged some owners to come to the negotiating table. As such I am pleased to note that this well established policy, which was also part of our last election manifesto, has been adopted by the new Administration and I wish them success. However it was amusing to note the latest edition of the Echo which included the now mandatory picture of Cllr Longley and which almost seemed to suggest that action in Victoria Avenue was an initiative which he was now starting. It is worth mentioning that Cllr Longley, together with all current members of the cabinet, voted against the Conservative budget earlier this year which included this new allocation of funding. Obviously a sudden change of heart. Whilst I don’t want to labour the point the opposition from Cllrs Woodley and Terry was significantly based on further increased borrowing of which this was a significant element and yet again in power their position on borrowing seems to have done something of a volte-face!.

Monday, 28 July 2014

More policy announced on the hoof with the risk of more borrowing

Clearly I am missing something obvious. In today’s Echo we have a front page announcement that Southend Council is considering buying the Royal Hotel after bailiffs were called in earlier this month. We have a nice picture of Leader Cllr Ron Woodley and Cllr Graham Longley standing in front of the building with Cllr Woodley quoted as saying “We’re not an Administration that will sit back and we are here to facilitate opportunities if they come up…Anything we do would have to be worthwhile financially in the long term and give us income.” The article also suggests a possible price of £1.1 to acquire the site before any renovation or improvements have been funded. Putting aside that it seems a funny way to conduct negotiations in the commercial world via the local press and hardly enhances the Council’s negotiating position, I would expect these words to be credited to Tory Leader John Lamb. For the last few years Cllr Woodley has run a constant argument that council borrowing was too high and out of control with the implication that if he was in charge it would be brought under control. Yet now he is in power we have heard nothing about reducing borrowing and indeed he seems happy to announce policy decisions on the hoof on issues like this, or the possibility of building new council homes, which would increase borrowing. Now if I was in charge the idea of buying the Royal Hotel if the price was right would have been considered, particularly if it had the chance of delivering a future income stream, however I would have wanted to approach any negotiations with rather more commercial savvy and if the scheme had proceeded no doubt Cllr Woodley and his colleagues would have been the first to moan about increased borrowing. He has either got to admit that he got it wrong and that increased borrowing if focussed (like under the previous Administration) is to be welcomed, or that his position on increasing borrowing is unchanged but he is happy to break his own rule when there is the chance of a nice newspaper headline.

Keeping Prittle Brook adequately maintained

As I have mentioned previously I am a keen cyclist and have been pleased with the greatly improved cycle facilities which have been developed across Southend over the last few years to include the completion of the excellent Prittle Brook route allowing a safe and flat option from Priory Park to Belfairs Park for both cyclists and pedestrians. When on the council I would regularly ride the route and ensure that it was maintained in a safe and user friendly condition advising officers of any particular concerns. It has always been my view that cabinet members need to get out across the Town and experience firsthand the facilities for which they have cabinet responsibility which is so much more effective than relying on third party reports. Having not used the route for a few weeks I did so on Sunday and was disappointed that some sections had become quite overgrown with bushes, trees and nettles overhanging the route. It did not appear that any recent maintenance had been carried out. I would hope that Cllr Longley, who I am told by Cllr Julian Ware-Lane has responsibility for the culture portfolio, will get on his bike to see for himself and will ensure that the area is kept clear and well maintained. I suspect that I am not the first, and will not be the last, to urge Cllr Longley to get on his bike!

The filming of Council meetings

The Government’s new initiative of allowing the public to record, video or photograph council meetings comes in to force this week. I am a supporter of this move and have always believed that public council meetings should be made more accessible and that councillors should be publically accountable for what they say in such meetings. There have been too many occasions in the past where councillors have made some ridiculous contributions during the course of poorly attended public meetings but it has subsequently been impossible to make them acknowledge their position due to the lack of any formal record. I was delighted when SBC agreed to the webcasting of council meetings (notwithstanding the opposition of some members) as I do feel that this has made often important debates more easily accessible to residents as well as providing an important record of the contributions to the various debates. I hope that webcasting will be rolled out to the major scrutiny meetings and other important meetings such as Development Control. If we are going to try to interest and engage the public in local government easy access of this kind is hardly controversial. I would also expect that formal webcasting will remove the need for individual residents to use the new rules as they will already have access to an official and accurate broadcast of the entire debate and not a potentially selective extract. If local authorities will not follow the lead of more progressive authorities like Southend then at least the less satisfactory alternative being introduced will open up even the most reluctant councils to better and more public scrutiny.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The West Lothian Question

As a lawyer who conducts a fair amount of divorce work it seems quite surprising that in the debate on Scotland’s possible “divorce” from the rest of the UK it is only the home based Scots who are getting to vote and apparently expected to have a view. For what it is worth I hope that they vote “no” as I think that it is the best interests of all of us to remain as one. I also wonder about the Scots future without even control over their own currency. However whatever the outcome it does seem that this vote, over which we have no control, raises big questions for us too. If Scotland were to vote “Yes” we would have the bizarre situation at next year’s General Election where the result could be determined by Scotland’s voters notwithstanding the fact that they will have started their long goodbye. I also feel that if the Scots are leaving it is essential that those negotiating those arrangements on behalf of the rest of us are suitably bullish in their approach and do not make concessions which would adversely affect our position. There are a range of issues to include the pound, ECC membership, the allocation of debt, control of the military etc where we need to drive a hard deal and if the Scots want to leave I am sure they would not expect any different. However I am of the view that the interests of the English will need even more proactive defence if the Scots vote “No”. I suspect that following such a vote further concessions will be made on the devolution of powers and finance in circumstances where the famous “West Lothian Question” has still to be addressed. As I am sure you know this asks why in circumstances where powers have been devolved to Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales, but not England, it can be right that Scottish MPs still debate and vote on issues which do not take effect in Scotland. It amazes me that we have put up with the situation for so long although this is probably in part caused by the fact that any Labour government is dependent on the Scottish mps to provide a majority. I do believe that the time has come for some movement on this. I am not a great supporter of the creation of a new tier of regional government in England but at the least it should surely be made clear that any issues which relate to England and where powers have been devolved to other parts of the UK it should be only English mps who are involved in and vote on decisions. I am concerned that this makes me sound like I am auditioning for the English Democrats (which obviously I am not), but in circumstances where our celtic neighbours can seek to defend their interests without being accused of extremism the English need the same opportunity and as the largest force in English politics I would hope that the Conservatives lead the way by announcing some proactive policies to defend the right of the English to make decisions on “devolved” matters whatever the Scots choose to do.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Elections - another look back.

I have just spoken to a local business luncheon club (and very pleasant and welcoming it was) and was asked to reflect on the recent local elections and the implications for the town. It did make me analyse once again the results and see whether any clear messages were apparent. Clearly wearing my Conservative Party hat the night was pretty dire with the loss of 7 seats across the Town but is it cause to jump off the Pier? – in my view not yet. These were seats which were previously fought on the last General Election Day and as usual this had an effect, seeing the Conservatives (and at least 1 Lib Dem) winning seats which they would not normally expect to win. Kursaal and St Lukes are not natural Tory homelands and whilst we were “defending Thorpe” this was only as a result of the defection 12 months earlier of the Independent Party Councillor who faced an almost impossible challenge to hold on. The disappointing losses were Shoebury, West Shoebury and Southchurch all of which I expected to hold. Milton was always going to be difficult having lost to Labour last year which often triggers a pendulum with other seats following – particularly when the sitting councillor is not seeking re election. In the West we held the 4 seats we expected to but in the 3 seats where we were sitting on the heels of the Lib Dems, Blenheim, Prittlewell and St Lawrence we held a strong 2nd position and lost out to UKIP on the back of the national picture. We even ran the Lib Dems close in Leigh which was quite a performance. With a little luck in Southchurch and the absence of UKIP the outcome would have been far closer. As it was the Conservatives polled aprox 30% of the vote acroo the Town, well ahead of UKIP with 19% and the rest from 18% downwards. With a General Election bounce again next year and the probability of a waning of UKIP’s profile and support the situation could change dramatically and that is assuming that the current Administration does not pull itself to pieces trying to agree on next year’s budget. The Tories clearly have work to do in the East of the Town which was dominated by Labour in the more central areas and the BERA Independents but in the West (which carries 30 seats to the 21 in the East) the picture looks strong and, with the exception of Dr Vel who is somewhat unique, the Indies have all but disappeared from the West and their original home in Westborough. There is no doubt that there is all to play for and I am particularly looking forward to a strong blue fightback in the East.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Southend makes it to "Rotten Boroughs"

As many will know the popular satirical magazine Private Eye has a regular feature called Rotten Boroughs which highlights the activities of various councils and councillors which it regards as humerous, inadvertently ironic or otherwise worthy of note -  for the wrong reasons! I was always pleased that in my 7 years as Leader of Southend Council we managed to avoid the column however I note that in the latest edition new Independent councillor Derek Kenyon makes an early appearance. The Eye highlights how his vociferous election campaign against the use of "spy cars" curiously left out one relevant fact namely that before his retirement he had worked for the council in the transport department where he was directly involved with the introduction of the cars and for generating parking income. I have already commented on how keen members of the current administration are to feature in the local press. I wonder if Derek is equally delighted to feature at a national level and whether we can now look forward to members of the current Administration or it's supporters continuing to gain publicity for the town in this unwanted way.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Shoebury Flood Defence - the gift which keeps on giving!

Watching Cllr Terry’s attempts to justify his current action on the Flood Defence issue, as expanded in recent press coverage, reminded me of that saying about the gift that keeps on giving. Whether rightly or not I know that a number of current Administration members believe that the Shoebury Flood Defence dispute was harnessed effectively as an election issue and helped fuel the disappointing performance of the Tories in the east of the town and the loss of seats to include Shoebury and West Shoebury. I can’t help thinking that a savvy politician would have pitched the campaign slightly differently and in particular avoided the suggestion that a defeat for the Tories would effectively kill the scheme. Far more effective to say that it had progressed too far and couldn’t be reversed with continued blame for the wicked Conservatives. But no we now have a suspension of the scheme and new review but fraught with problems. Unless someone is going to come up with a new and previously unheard of scheme (which would be interesting in the available timescale) how are council officers going to justify changing their previous advice which was firmly behind the approved scheme? We know that the Environment Agency want the funds used by March 2015 which is an almost impossible timescale if a new scheme is required and we now have talk of a new consultation and new consultants. In the meantime Cllr Terry seemed to have no idea of the delay this would create, the cost (and where it would be funded from) and the ability to avoid losing the EA funding. This also ignores the further problems as to what Cllr Terry does if the expert advice continues to support the existing scheme or (God forbid) there is flooding over the winter which the scheme would have prevented. Oh he also has a potential problem with pre determination! The current Administration appear to be getting themselves into an ever deeper hole and could find out that the issue that they believe caused so much damage to the Conservatives could be as big a political problem to them.

Full council

I was recently asked whether I had tuned in to the webcast of last Thursday’s full council meeting. I have to say that I didn’t as at the time as I was in a team romping to victory in the pub quiz at the Castle (“The Shedheads” in honour of next season’s Rugby Premiership champions Gloucester!) but in any event it seems rather pointless enduring the whole thing now that I don’t have to when to review it after the event gives the option of fast forwarding! I have since had a look although would not pretend to have watched the whole thing and certainly lost interest when the camera seemed fixed on Cllr Moyies. Initial reactions were that the Tory team made an effective switch to opposition and teamed up well particularly on flood defences with some promising stuff from Cllrs Courtenay, Flewitt, Lamb, Garston, Salter and Holland in particular. I hope that we will see increasing input from some of the others who now have a great opportunity to concentrate on a couple of policy areas and make a name for themselves. It is amusing seeing the new cabinet members defending the official line which a few months ago they would have been criticising and it did remind me of a “Yes Minister” sketch at times. I thought Cllr Ann Jones coped well with some tricky questions but Cllr Terry needs to work on his technique. Answering questions as a portfolio holder in full council is not as easy as some members make it look and he gave the impression of still not having a grasp of his portfolio and rather resenting the audacity of opposition members questioning his position. Still early days so we will see how things develop.

Friday, 18 July 2014

New council housing

With the exception of the announced reviews to potentially reverse earlier council decisions on care homes, flood defences and libraries, the only new initiative that the joint administration on Southend Council has formally announced appears to be its aspiration to build more council homes rather than provide housing in partnership with housing associations. Of course in part this comes from the cross party work which was done before the last election however I am sure that many of us can, in principle, support this plan by Labour cabinet member David Norman however like so many things in local government the devil will be in the detail. In particular there has been an absence of clarification as to how this is going to be fully funded and if, which I assume is inevitable, this will require additional borrowing it would seem to contradict the central belief of council leader Ron Woodley that borrowing levels are too high. There is also a concern about whether having made such investment the properties could in the future be subject to “right to buy” with its obvious ramifications. The advantage of working with a housing association is that these issues do not need to be addressed by the Council but the aspiration to provide more social housing is still addressed.However it is an interesting proposal and we will see how it develops. I have already commented on the apparent desire of cabinet members to have their pictures in the local press accompanied by policy announcements which are usually premature. In the context of housing I note Cllr Gilbert has now fallen in to this trap being pictured in front of some of our residential tower blocks and indicating a wish to see them demolished. Once again this is not a ground breaking idea and has been the subject of discussions between officers and members of the previous Conservative administration on a number of occasions however quite properly those discussions were kept confidential. It is potentially upsetting and disruptive to the occupiers of these blocks to have announcements of this kind made by a current member of cabinet in circumstances where there has been no prior consultation with them and there are no detailed plans in place or even indicative timescales or proposals as to re housing. This concerns peoples’ homes and lives and is more important than a premature newspaper headline and pretty picture!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Is anybody listening?

I am confused! When taking control Cllr Woodley commented that the last Conservative Administration stopped listening to the people and that he would deliver a listening democracy in Southend. This was based on the Administration’s decisions, supported by various opposition members, on issues such as care homes and flood defences notwithstand vocal opposition and petitions from members of the public. Now, a supporter of the Administration, Cllr Anne Chalk, has presented a petition with 759 signatures requesting the removal of the taxi rank in Campfield Road, Shoebury. I would have thought that in these new listening times the cabinet would have agreed but the petition was rejected by cabinet and at a recent scrutiny meeting Cllr Chalk’s attempts to refer the matter back to cabinet were out voted notwithstanding the majority that supporters of the Administration enjoy on all committees. So what happened to the listening – or does that only apply when the cabinet agrees with what is being said? Now I have no problem with members taking decisions on the merits and obviously this will on occasions mean rejecting the contrary views of residents, but then I have not just run an election campaign saying the opposite. I suppose it is a question of all petitions being equal but some being more equal than others.

Cllr Ric Morgan

I see in a letter in today’s Echo Independent Councillor Ric Morgan, a supporter of the current administration, is encouraging residents to campaign against the proposed funding to improve junctions on the A13 and A127 and instead seek funding for a new relief road to the north. I don’t disagree that a relief road would be great – an argument that has been made many times before – but the financial reality is that any scheme will not be funded by central government because the economics do not add up. Even if they did such a scheme would be years in the delivery and what is now being offered by the Government is real help now to our overburdened road structure and the logical next step following the improvements already undertaken to Progress Road and Cuckoo Corner. So now that Ric has nailed his colours to the mast I assume we will see him voting against the proposed A127/A13 schemes when he gets the chance!

The new Thames Crossing

I see that the Government has now announced a delay in making the decision on the new Thames Crossing as it needs to assess the impact of the free flow tolls which are due to take effect in October. I don’t criticise this as in previous posts I have pointed out that it seems ridiculous to start taking decisions of such a significant kind until free flow had bedded in. However this surely further supports my earlier more widespread complaint. Why was any decision taken so early with regard to limiting possible options. I have always argued that free flow will have a significant effect and that this should be implemented as a priority before the position can be properly further assessed. However at that time all possible options should be reconsidered to include a more easterly crossing which would benefit south east Essex and provide a more long term solution to diverting traffic away from the M25 by providing a better route to the east, perhaps incorporating an enhanced M11. What is the point of the current options which take traffic away from the M25 only to dump it back again. The traffic flow problems are not limited to the crossing. Well at least we are half way there so perhaps post free flow there remains the option for a wider rethink. Let us hope that Southend Council and our LEP continue to lead the call for this common sense and more far thinking approach.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Village Green

It was a pleasure to support Metal’s annual Village Green in Chalkwell Park on Saturday. After concerns over the effect of the introduction of an entry fee and the less than great weather forecast it was very well supported again this year and with hot sunshine through most of the afternoon I doubt if I was the only attendee to return home with a distinctly reddish glow. Whilst numbers may not have been at quite last year’s levels, when it was if anything overfull, it was very well supported once again. We ventured to a different stage from usual, on the corner of Chalkwell Avenue and London Road, and enjoyed some great music to include in particular Youth Club who even persuaded my to allow some of the moths to escape from my wallet by buying their cd. We also toured the rest of the event which provided its usual eclectic and interesting mix. It was good to see the Mayor Chris Walker in attendance and my former colleague Cllr Derek Jarvis who continues to show his love and support of culture in the Town. I did not spot the current culture cabinet member (whoever that might be!) or indeed any member of the current cabinet but then I suppose it is a long way for them to come from their homes in the East! If I had to sound one critical note there remains a significant number of people who by the end of the event appeared to have overdone the alcohol or perhaps other substances and there remains a regular sight of large quantities of cheap lager being carried in from the surrounding supermarkets. As I have mentioned previously I believe that a sensible move would be to prevent visitors from bringing in their own alcohol but to sell beer etc at competitive prices. This would help generate more profit for the event (perhaps even removing the need to charge entry) whilst being more likely to keep alcohol consumption within reasonable levels. Don’t get me wrong I like a drink as much as the next person but I am not convinced that large quantities of cheap strong lager is quite in keeping with the generally family friendly feel of the event. Still I shall be supporting again next year whatever and will try to remember the sun tan cream - even if it looks cloudy.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Leigh Folk Festival

Congratulations must go to the organisers of this annual event which once again was very enjoyable and is an important element of the Town’s excellent cultural calendar. When council leader this was one of those events which I felt it was important to support but always regarded it as a pleasure rather than a duty. The sunshine on Sunday was great whilst it lasted and there was some first class music to be savoured. One difference this year was that as cabinet member with responsibility for culture Derek Jarvis seemed like an ever present at cultural events all round the town. I have to say that I didn’t spot any cabinet members this year and would be interested to know if anybody else did? I would hope that our new east-leaning administration would still find time to maintain a presence at important events to the west of the town.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The new cabinet - a first agenda

I have been waiting with interest the release of the papers for the new Joint Administration’s first cabinet meeting next Tuesday. This is inevitably an important committee cycle. Many policies or initiatives take some months to implement, particularly where there is a period of consultation involved, and the Council’s historic decision to avoid significant meetings in August means that the next cabinet is not scheduled until the end of September with the subsequent full council in October. By then we will be only about seven months until a new cabinet is appointed and with the late autumn dominated by planning for the next budget, time is surprisingly short. Obviously we have already seen a number of policy changes announced by cabinet members in the local press to include Shoebury flood defences, libraries and care homes but as I have already commented many of these announcements have been premature and decidedly undemocratic. However they now they have the chance to deal with this properly as they seek to change previous decisions of the council. So what do we have? Well it is always difficult to absorb all the paperwork without hard copies but on the 24 point agenda there appears to be nothing on Shoebury flood defences, libraries or care homes. I see there is a paper on utilising HRA sites for council house developments but where are the others decisions? Surely they are not hidden in one of the more general capital or revenue papers bearing in mind that we are told theses are headline priorities. If they are not taking decisions through this cycle then on what authority have the earlier council decisions been suspended? If they are not pursuing these policies then surely we should be told - particularly with regard to libraries as this has immediate revenue ramifications. Let’s hope that the opposition members who are being expected to support this administration are better informed than the general public!

C2C - a new 15 year Franchise

I am pleased to note that National Express, which has been operating the Fenchurch Street line as C2C, has announced that it has been successful in obtaining the 15 year franchise to operate the line going forward. I am sure that all of us who remember travelling on the old Misery Line will be relieved that a company that has delivered massive improvements in respect of reliability and comfort has the chance to drive further improvements over the coming years. That is not to say that everything has been perfect and I have previously commented about the issues with ticketing but this is one of the areas where further improvements and investment are promised together with new and refurbished trains, extra trains, station investment etc. Good luck to the company and staff and let us hope that the improvements are delivered quickly and further improve the service to customers.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Is it the Messiah? – no only Graham Longley

If you get the chance it is worth taking a look at Page 5 of today’s Echo which has a picture of Lib Dem Leader Graham Longley with arms outstretched and surrounded by grateful disciples announcing that he is re opening Shoebury East Beach. Following on from some of the articles and photographs published over the last few days we have clearly seen that a main priority for some members of the new rainbow cabinet is to ensure that they claim as much personal credit and self publicity as possible. Perhaps this is inevitable with a cabinet consisting of 3 different party groups and with the next election less than a year away. I think it is fair to say that Graham has not personally been out on the mud with his metal detector ensuring that the area was safe – certainly if he has I hope that the mud was not too deep! Further on the basis that he has only been in post for a few days and has not even attended a formal cabinet meeting as yet I would suggest that his input in to what has been an ongoing campaign for some weeks to get the MOD to prioritise the reopening has been limited. However the tone is set. Cllr Longley is the saviour of the town. Perhaps with East Beach reopening we will even see him walk on the water.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A voice for democracy

I was pleased to note Labour Councillor Julian Ware-Lane jumping to the support of some basic democratic principles in his blog and pointing out that some of the press statements by his party’s partners in cabinet are premature and potentially wrong. Thank goodness for someone in the new Administration speaking out. As he correctly points out it is not for Cllr Terry, the new cabinet member with responsibility for flood defences, to unilaterally announce that the current scheme is being scrapped even before the issue has been considered by cabinet and council. As he also correctly points out the agreement (so are we are told) is to revisit the decision and decide how best to proceed which could still involve continuing with the current proposal. Of course how Cllr Terry can approach any review with an open mind is difficult to understand bearing in mind his recent public pronouncements? It is also interesting to see how he would feel able to remain in post if the council decided that the previously approved scheme was the best available as it would involve him overseeing its implementation. In any event will Cllr Woodley and the other members of BERA be able to participate in the review bearing in mind that one of the alternative schemes was submitted by Cllr Woodley on behalf of BERA. Whilst this may have been acceptable when his role was limited to scrutiny it must amount to a potential interest as a member of cabinet

A great opportunity or a poisoned chalice?

It is going to be fascinating to see how the new Southend cabinet develops policies based on its agreed wish list. The greatest challenge will face Labour portfolio holders David Norman and Ann Jones with responsibility for Adult Social Care, Health & Housing, and Children & Learning respectively. No doubt they were drawn to these areas as providing a good opportunity to demonstrate their socialist commitment to increased public services and yet the reality is that as the Council has to deliver ongoing budgetary cuts the burden will inevitably fall on these 2 areas which account for a significant percentage of the overall council budget. How will they choose to identify and deliver the required savings whilst still holding to their desire to see service expansion rather than reduction. Of course one answer would be to prioritise social care over some of the more touchy feely services such as parks and culture, street scene improvements and the beaches. The problem with this approach is that it is Cllr Woodley who holds the purse strings and his empire in Thorpe has been build on demanding increased expenditure on just those types of touchy feely areas that would face significantly reduced expenditure. Of course they could try a massive hike in council tax or an unsustainable raid of the Council’s limited reserves but I can’t see either of these options appealing to Cllr Woodley and his Independent Party colleagues. What is for sure is that something is going to have to give and when it does the question will be whether the losers regard their positions round the cabinet table as more important than their political principles.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Shoebury flood defences - a change of policy

So here we go again – a further significant policy change announced via the Echo with no attempt to first pursue the democratic process to overturn a previous decision of cabinet and full council. This time it is Martin Terry’s chance for the photo opportunity confirming that officers have been instructed to cease all work on the previously approved plan for improved flood defences in Shoebury and to start to look at the alternatives. Once again I cannot help but wonder at the reaction if a Conservative cabinet had acted in such a cavalier and undemocratic way and struggle to believe that all backbench members of Labour, the Lib Dems and Indies are comfortable with this failure to follow the correct democratic approach. Of course the reality is that the alternatives were considered at great length during the previous process and it will be more than a little intriguing if the same officers now reach a different conclusion. The basis of this change is that “the public were against it”. I have been in local politics for too long to make such a sweeping claim. There was a well organised campaign to generate opposition by some who had given consideration to the technical evaluation of the alternatives but many who supported them will not have been given the chance to fully understand the complex issues involved. They were supported by some who refuse to accept the need for better flood defences in this area at all. It is always easy to get swept along by public campaigns of this type but councillors are voted in as representatives and not delegates. This reflects the reality that on most issues it is impossible to gauge the true view of “the majority” in a reliable way and it is the responsibility of councillors to hear and take account of residents but to then make decisions on what is in the best interests of the community. If not then we might as well adopt the UKIP policy of referenda on all main policy areas which would soon drown the authority in delay and additional expense. Sometimes it is necessary for elected councillors to take decisions which are unpopular with some but are still right when taking into account all the relevant factors. In the meantime let us hope that the agreed funding from the Environment Agency is not lost and that any new scheme will not result in increased council borrowing which was of course such a central part of Cllr Woodley’s campaign. Finally and most importantly let us all hope that in the months of delay which will now ensue the weather and tide conditions do not create the serious flooding which the now abandoned scheme would have prevented.