Thursday, 23 January 2014

Well done Georgina

Conservative candidate Georgina Phillips successfully held West Leigh in the Southend By Election today. She polled 743 votes, the Lib Dems 688, Labour 149 and UKIP 418 on a 26.22% turnout. In all the circumstances this was a very good effort. Fighting campaigns in January is never easy and the weather included heavy rain, thunder and hail stones - not very encouraging for the reluctant voter. Her win means that the Conservatives regain their 1 seat majority on the council. I am sure that Georgina will prove to be a hard working and effective councillor for the ward and I look forward to working with her.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Cllr Woodley gets personal!

I have already expressed my surprise at Thorpe Independent Party Councillor Ron Woodley's attempts to influence the outcome of the by election in West Leigh by circulating inaccurate and negative leaflets about Conservative policy. This has now been further aggravated by a full page advert which he has taken out in the Leigh Times along the same lines. I still remained amazed at his misinterpretation of the borrowing figures. His message to residents is to the effect that by the end of this year council borrowing will amount to £289M, at a cost to the council tax payer of £19.1M during the current year or 31% of council tax income! At today's cabinet meeting I asked the Council's Head of Finance to clarify these figures once and for all. As I anticipated he confirmed that he expected borrowing to reach £256M by the end of the year (£33M less than Cllr Woodley's figure) but that this included £84.5M by the Housing Revenue Account which is a ring fenced account funded from council rents and used to invest in the council housing stock. Accordingly the general fund borrowing which is the responsibility of the council tax payer is estimated at £172.3M - over £100M less than Cllr Woodley's figure. The cost to the council tax payer during the current year is expected to be £13.6M but ignoring repayment of capital the interest will only be in the region of £6M - rather less than the £19.1M quoted by Cllr Woodley. This interest is payable from the gross revenue budget which for the current year will be over £400M so amounts to 1.5% of relevant income. It would be nice to think that Cllr Woodley would acknowledge that his figures are wrong and misleading but past experience suggests not. In a recent e mail sent to a member of the public but for reasons best known to him also copied to my cabinet colleague Tony Cox as well as his own Leader Cllr Martin Terry Cllr Woodley says "Thank you for alerting me to Blobby's blog, I do not read tripe and only on this occasion have I had a look.All the facts are wrong and I expect nothing else from a blue eyed one colour view. The main point of course is if Holdcroft thinks that the level of debt is affordable no wonder the council is financially insecure and we have to close libraries, care homes and reduce vast number of front line services.Enough said, the guy is an idiot and the 15000 leaflets that I did not print are being delivered by someone who did and appreciates my concerns for the Town. what I did get printed are the ones that were delivered in West Leigh and were printed in Southend, but of course as he doesn't do any of this himself so he would not know. just to make sure he understands I hope he also enjoyed the full colour advert in the Leigh Times. I enclose a copy for you to read and hopefully enjoy and please send to all your e-mail contacts." Oh dear - does this mean that he thinks the Council's Finance Team who have confirmed our figures are also "idiots"! And to think they call us the nasty party. I have no problem is debating the policies and priorities of the Administration and being judged by the residents however this misinformation and negative campaigning can only suggest that the Independents realise that if the there is a proper and adult debate they know that their arguments will not stand up. At least some of the other opposition councillors in the chamber have clear convictions and are prepared to be judged on them

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Shoebury Flood Defences

A recent comment article in the Oracle included criticism of the process followed by Southend Council in reaching a decision on Shoebury Flood Defences. At the outset I would say that I am happy with the process that has been followed. In my view there has been extended engagement with interested parties and members and the decision making has been guided by professional advice from not only our own specialist officers but also external experts. However the article did cause me to revie the issue once again. There are 2 main areas of dispute on this project. Firstly as to whether there is a realistic prospect of flooding which could be prevented by flood defence work in this area and secondly, assuming work is required, what is the most appropriate scheme. The opinion of the Council's own officers and experts and the Environment Agency is that there is a significant risk to merit early intervention, a view which is supported by the EA's willingness to fund an appropriate scheme. There are those who refuse to accept this risk and argue that if a majority of the limited number who participated in the consultation share their view that the council would be acting improperly in undertaking the work. I strongly disagree with this. It is a good example of the duty of councillors being to take a view in the interests of the community on the basis of the advice given to them even if it is unpopular with some residents. I suspect that if we did nothing and residents and businesses then suffered extensive flood damage the same voices would be the first to criticise the council's inaction. The further debate relates to the chosen scheme. The council has prepared and evaluated its own schemes in addition to which proposals have been received from BERA and the Friends of Shoebury Common. All schemes have been carefully considered and as can be seen from the detailed reports presented to members which are accessible via the council's website, this has been undertaken in a detailed, open and reasonable manner. Based on this information it was the view of the majority of members across party lines that the most economic, effective and appropriate scheme was the council's option 1 which was approved. The process with the EA is a bit chicken and egg! We cannot submit a proposal for final approval and funding until the Council has approved it but by the same token there is no point asking the Council to approve a scheme that will not attract EA funding so a preliminary view needs to be obtained. The requires early engagement with EA. This seems wholly reasonable to me. In this case EA have indicated their support and potential funding for Option 1 subject to the council being in a position to proceed and this means that they will not fund a more expensive alternative. I do not pretend to be an expert on flood defence which is why I rely on the expert advice given to me. It will have a visual effect however a secondary wall works well in Chalkwell and even the Friends Scheme involved a significant increase in the height of the sea wall as well as being potentially more expensive and raising other issues to include problems with the work required to the beach huts which are in private ownership. It also raises the issue of what is more important - keeping a view unchanged or protecting residents from flooding. In my view this process has been wholly transparent but inevitably those who for whatever reason believe that either no flood defence work should be undertaken or who favour another scheme are unhappy and as happens in most high profile decisions this results in criticism of the council and its motives. For me the priority remains to access the EA funding available and to progress work as quickly as possible to ensure that relevant homes and businesses are protected.


Well after all the hard work our budget proposals have now been published and will go to cabinet on Tuesday before going on for wider scrutiny. With inevitable service pressures in a number of areas to include adult social care the budget gap this year is £7.319M. This also reflects a 9.8% reduction in our main government grant to £69.592M. Regrettably it will lead to further job losses - up to 49.5 FTE job losses. Of these jobs 23.5 are currently occupied with the remainder being held vacant in anticipation of these proposals. So pretty bad but not perhaps as bad as we initially feared and we currently have 33 other posts held vacant where we will need to recruit. Whilst it is not inevitable that these vacancies will be suitable for staff whose posts are at risk we have been very effective over the last few years in retaining staff and avoiding compulsory redundancies. In the meantime I am delighted that with the assistance of the government we are offering a council tax freeze (for the 3rd time in 4 years) and a freeze in car parking charges (for the 6th time in 7 years) and leisure charges. The proposals also include some exciting new capital projects and because of our careful financial control in recent years we have accumulated some earmarked reserves which can now fund some short term investment to strengthen our teams in school improvement and economic development.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Borrowing - the true story

For reasons best known to him Thorpe Independent Party member Ron Woodley has recently circulated two versions of a leaflet. The first purported to be issued on behalf of the Conservatives, included a number of misleading items and gave no clear indication that it was in fact an Independent publication. I assume following wide spread criticism he then appears to have changed it in to the third person and has arranged to have it printed and distributed across parts of West Leigh. The Independent Party and UKIP have previously announced their intention to cooperate but their is no suggestion that the leaflet is issued with the consent of the UKIP candidate. If not then I can only question why an Independent councillor from Thorpe Bay should feel it appropriate to distribute a leaflet attempting to effect the outcome of a by election in West Leigh and trust that he has given careful consideration to his legal position. I will comment on some of the relevant nonsense in due course but must correct the misinformation given on borrowing. Putting to one side that the Independents have not specifically opposed any of the schemes funded in whole or part by borrowing his figures are simply wrong. He suggests borrowing of £289M at a cost this year of £19.1M being 31% of council tax payments. In fact ignoring the Housing Revenue Account which is entirely separate and funded from council house income the debt stands at £157.3M. The borrowing costs for 13/14 are £15.3M which is 3.8% of the Council's gross income of £406M. This figure also excludes the HRA income. It is the equivalent of a family with an income of £30,000 having a liability of under £100 per month. The question is does he know the correct position and is he just trying to fool residents or does he actually believe that it is true?

Budget time approaches

Early January always brings with it a heavy but slightly different council workload. Ignoring the by election which has made this year slightly different, we have not yet fully kicked in to the usual cycle of meetings but it still remains one of my busiest times as I work with colleagues and officers to finalise the draft budget for publication on Monday. The budget process starts with a bang with meetings with the other group leaders, the Trade Unions and the media as well as supporting the Chief Executive at three staff briefings. And that is just Monday! Before that a range of papers need to be finalised and agreed on issues including our proposals on revenue, capital, the Housing Revenue Account, the Council Tax Base, the schools budget etc. All these papers go out under my name and I need to work hard to ensure that they reflect the proposals which I have agreed with colleagues and that I have a detailed knowledge of the relevant provisions ready to defend the draft during the ensuing debate. This is not made easier by the late timetable for receiving some information from government or the difficult nature of some of the decisions we have to make. We are very lucky at Southend to have a very skilful team of financial officers who have been working very hard over recent weeks and we are nearly there. I am determined that we will continue to produce creative and reactive proposals which deliver the economies required whilst driving services and performance forward. I will comment on the plans in more detail next week.

ps as many will know typing is not one of my stronger skills. I am relieved that before I pushed the publish button I re read this item only to discover that the letters "ser" has disappeared from the word "services"in the last sentence! Now that would have been unfortunate.

Some nice post Xmas exercise!

For many reasons January is not the greatest time to hold a council by election but this year in West Leigh we have had no option and are now working hard towards election day on 23rd January. We are lucky to have an excellent candidate in Georgina Phillips who is young, enthusiastic and lives in the middle of the ward. In fact three of the four candidates actually live in West Leigh with only UKIP looking further afield. Generally I enjoy doorstep politics whether delivering leaflets or canvassing although this is not easy during a short campaign hampered by dark evenings and some pretty unpleasant weather. Having delivered a couple of leaflets before Xmas, one linked to the election and the earlier one a usual ward newsletter, I am now waiting for the next box of leaflets. As my wife and daughters have pointed out a lengthy stint of delivering may help to shift some the the weight added over Christmas - rather hurtful I thought! Having said that a few hours delivering with iPod at full blast does give a great opportunity to revisit parts of my music collection. This years favourites have been a combination of new and old, both having that essential beat to help avoid unnecessary dawdling namely The Clash and The Vaccines. Give 'em Enough Rope has always been my favourite Clash album unlike so many others who veer towards London Calling and the last few weeks have persuaded me to remind myself of the other Clash albums in my collection!