Thursday, 29 May 2014

A rainbow alliance!

Well if the Echo is to be believed we are a whisper away from a joint Independent Party/Labour/Lib Dem administration which is along the lines I anticipated a few days ago. I will save any comment on that until I hear “the fat lady singing” but 2 elements of today’s Echo piece made me smile. Firstly even before the deal is struck we are being told that recent decisions on sea defences, care homes and libraries will be reversed. I am not sure if this is an agreed policy, a negotiating ploy by one of the potential parties or journalistic license on the part of the Echo but it does seem to me strangely premature to start leaking policies before you have control of the petty cash tin! Ignoring the merit of those decisions, which I am happy to justify, they all have significant financial ramifications and there is no indication how they intend to make the books balance. The opposition parties were notably silent in their willingness to identify any alternative savings during the last budget so I am sure we are all waiting for their detailed proposals with bated breath. I was also amused to note that Cllr Ron Woodley is quoted as saying “If I were asked, I would be prepared to stand again. I’d treat it more as guidance than leading”. Ron has been telling anyone who will listen for some months that he was the Leader in waiting and is assisted by the apparent reluctance of any other Indie, Lib Dem or Socialist to volunteer for the job. I suspect that in a popularity vote almost any other candidate from the Lib Dems or Labour would be in with a shout. His reputation is that he has a desire to be rather more controlling than his quote suggests but more significantly the Council will need strong Leadership both within the Civic Centre and the wider region if it is to survive the challenges of no overall control. Guidance alone is not enough for a modern upper tier council Leader – particularly in these challenging financial times.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott

Went to the Shepherds Bush Empire last night to see Paul Heaton, former front man of the Housemartins and Beautiful South, in his current joint venture with Jacqui Abbott. The show was a sell out in what is a small and atmospheric venue. In addition to a selection of songs from their new album, which currently sits at number 3 in the chart, they also dipped into Paul’s wide and brilliant back catalogue. His lyrics have always been excellent mixing humour with poignancy but often with a clear and blunt message and as usual his commentary between songs kept everyone amused. A great evening which was well received by the audience with plenty of opportunities to sing along with some classic songs. It was also nice to go to a concert where I did not seem to be about the oldest there! Support was from Cherry Ghost – a particularly classy support with a really distinctive voice. His new album seems to be back to his best (which is a hint for Fathers Day!) All in all 10 out of 10!

Monday, 26 May 2014

The regional challenge

Understandably party leaders across South Essex are currently concentrating on the future of their respective councils but when that job is done a greater challenge will remain on the regional level. The current system of LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) is the portal for channeling central government and European funding to local authorities. We are members of the largest LEP comprising 3 counties of Essex, Kent and East Sussex and 3 unitaries of Southend, Thurrock and Medway. The LEP has an economy larger than Belgium and is intended as a counterbalance to London. Working with John Kent, the Labour Leader of Thurrock, we have ensured that both authorities and our business communities retain seats on the main board and, following initial problems with the size of the organisation, have ensured a federal structure comprising East Sussex, Kent & Medway, Thames Gateway South Essex, and the rest of Essex. This ensures that South Essex retains control of its own destiny rather than be absorbed into greater Essex and builds on the strong South Essex partnership which has been in place for a number of years. However of the South Essex leaders I have stepped down, Pam Challis from Castle Point and Tony Ball from Basildon have lost their own seats and control, and labour has lost control of Thurrock. This leaves only Terry Cutmore of Rochford and the representative from Essex County Council in place. Whoever end up as the leaders across South Essex need to grasp the challenge of the LEP and TGSE quickly to ensure the hard fought progress over recent years is not lost and if those leaders have not previously been part of a ruling administration they may have limited knowledge of the importance of these groups or the challenge in time and effort that will be required of them.

A tough choice for Labour

As the party Leaders in Southend reflect on last week's results, take soundings from their group members and start tentative discussions with the other leaders there can be little doubt that the one with the greatest challenge is Labour leader Ian Gilbert who finds himself in the potentially difficult and dangerous position of king maker. If the Independent Party and UKIP continue their pre election approach and combine behind a single leadership candidate their position is simple. Tory John Lamb as leader of the largest group will also no doubt put his name forward as Leader. All straight forward so far but leaves both camps we'll short of the necessary majority. Lib Dem Leader Graham Longley and his four colleagues don't have the numbers to influence the outcome one way or the other and will no doubt try to wangle some return for their support for the eventual winner. So this leaves Ian Gilbert and his Labour colleagues who can deliver victory to either John lamb or the Indie/UKIP ticket. They have to do something but what! Do they support an Indie leader who is likely to be more opposed to their core policies than any other party group or support either directly or indirectly John Lamb's challenge. This is of course given a further interesting twist by Ian's position as parliamentary candidate for Southend East and Rochford. Does he throw his support behind a party he will be fighting in 12 months time and will he be forgiven for engineering a Tory as the next Leader. Fascinating stuff and all out of the control, either direct or otherwise, of the residents of the town.

Friday, 23 May 2014

A hung council

Well there we have it – every council officer’s worst nightmare, a hung council with no obvious grouping or pact to deliver a working majority. 19 Conservatives, 12 Independents, 9 Labour, 5 UKIP, 5 Lib Dems and Cllr Dr Vel. Generally officers don’t mind what political colour is in charge so long as there is a clear direction and an element of consistency. Uncertainty and confusion inevitably leads to weak control and lost opportunities. We are therefore left with the metaphorical “smoke filled rooms” and wheeler dealing between leaders to see what arrangements can be agreed to deliver that all important majority. In Southend this situation is even harder due to the Independent Party who share few cogent policies or philosophical objectives, which has been reflected by the absence of any significant and positive polices for the future development of the town. This year I will play no part in the process and have no inside track. We know from pre election announcements from the Independent Party and UKIP that there is the possibility of them working together but this will leave them well short of a working majority and I struggle to see the Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems being able to live with the concept of any form of pact or agreement with UKIP bearing in mind the nature and content of the recent campaign. The three main parties may also be reluctant to work together in a difficult financial year and with nest year’s general election looming. In addition will the previous opposition groups be able to allow a situation where the council retains a Conservative leader bearing in mind the reaction when they allowed this to happen 2 years ago? Well for what it is worth I think that the most likely options may be either a Conservative minority administration with tacit support from the Lib Dems and perhaps Dr Vel or a rainbow pact between the Independents, Labour and the Lib Dems who have happily cooperated on occasions during the last couple of years. This second possibility would result in an interesting and demanding group around the cabinet table and a challenging opposition comprising Conservatives and UKIP. We will have to wait and see but on any basis with control finely balanced it will impose massive pressure on all members (and particularly those in the administration) to be at all meetings and to stay until the end. For some new members they may be in for quite an unpleasant shock as to the workload expected of them!

A different view!

After the last 8 years as a West Leigh councillor and 7 years as Leader it does feel a little strange this morning knowing that I do not have to spend time at the Civic Centre, deal with an endless stream of e mails and telephone calls, or concern myself with ward problems or council decisions. My paper recycling will certainly reduce significantly with the absence of a constant pile of council papers and documents. I feel lucky that having stood for election successfully 4 times, on the 2 occasions that I have decided to stand down I have been able to do so at a time of my own choosing. My sympathy goes out to those sitting councillors of all parties who have stood unsuccessfully for re election and who now face a significant and unplanned gap in their diaries. Local councillors like my colleagues Tony Cox, Roger Hadley and Sally Carr and Lib Dems such as Ted Lewin, Mike Grimwade and Paul Collins have been conscientious and hard working ward councillors but like so many other hard working councillors over the years have been swept from office on the back of national swings over which they have no control. I wish them well and hope that we see Tony and Roger back on the council in the not too distant future. I have decided to continue this blog which I suspect will accordingly be less well informed on council activity but also less inhibited! As for yesterday (and I will comment on the outcome shortly) 2 particular moments stick in my mind. Firstly the entertaining speech by that old warhorse Labour’s Reg Copley following the announcement of the St Lawrence result showing that he has lost none of his usual vim and style. Although there was a slightly ironic feel to his glee at the “knackered horse” he felt the Lib Dems had become being immediately followed by his somewhat precarious dismount from the dais. The second is more alarming. I was telling at a polling station in West Leigh at about 7.30am yesterday when an expensive car stopped and a well dressed and obviously intelligent woman in her mid to late 30s asked whether we “were open”. When I confirmed that the polling station was indeed open her husband pulled up on the pavement and as they walked past they asked if there was a problem in that they did not have their polling cards. I said not as they could give their names and address to identify themselves. Shortly after they came out saying that they couldn’t vote as they lived on Canvey. I do worry how we can hope to connect with sections of the electorate who seem completely out of touch with the system and with little interest in participating. They also volunteered who they would be voting for when they got to the right place but I will allow you to speculate on that.