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.

A nice beer in the Old Town.

I am not a regular visitor to the Old Town pubs these days but with friends decided to take advantage of a sunny evening and ventured down last night. We arrived at The Mayflower at about 8pm. It is a nice pub with a good selection of beer but I was surprised when at about 9.20 when ordering refills the lady behind the bar said that they would be shutting in 5 minutes and usually shut at 9pm on Wednesday evenings. Admittedly there were only a couple of tables occupied by this time and she looked around, shrugged and said the reason was obvious. My response along the lines of “Are there not many people because you close so early, or do you close so early because there are so few people?” elicited no verbal response but a look which suggested that she probably thought it was a good thing as I had clearly drunk more than enough already! We squeezed one more pint in and then decamped to the Smack. I still have fond memories of the Smack from my years in the 6th form at Westcliff High when on friday nights it turned into our alternative 6th form common room. I am not completely convinced that the layout is better now than it was back then but at least it was open with a few more punters around. Ignoring the chronic state of the gentleman’s toilet we set up on the balcony area overlooking the estuary however at 9.45pm were told that the area was shutting and we need to decamp inside. Once again the beer was good and the staff pleasant but I am not sure that either pub will draw me back on the next hot summer evening. Perhaps the Peter Boat or Billet next time!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Libraries - Cllr Longley to the rescue!

I see from today’s Echo that Graham Longley the Lib Dem Leader and new Deputy Leader of the Council has “..issued instructions to stop work on the library proposals.” This decision made me smile for a number of reasons. Firstly this decision to restructure the service to make it more financially sustainable going forward was made following extended work by a cross council member group, detailed consultation with the public, scrutiny and a debate in full council. I note it is now acceptable for a portfolio holder to stop this action without any decision by cabinet or council. The changes were to deliver an ongoing revenue saving. How will this be met? Even if the proposals are simply delayed rather than abandoned it will have revenue implications. Cllr Longley is going to ask officers for alternatives. What does he think they were asked for before and why would the outcome be any different? Finally it is interesting to note that when the library changes were discussed at full council there was a vote to refer the decision back which was defeated. Who was the only member of the new cabinet to oppose reference back? You have guessed it - Cllr Graham Longley. The other interesting thing about this announcement is that we do not have a single party group in control with an established manifesto and priorities. I wonder how some of the foot soldiers in the Labour, Lib Dem and Indie Groups feel about significant decisions being announced via the local press. I suppose it does give a nice photo opportunity for members of the new cabinet.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Peter Lovett - a response

In response to my blog item on "The forgotten West!" I received a response from Peter Lovett and felt it deserved a full response. Peter commented "Although when you were leader, you had Tony Cox representing the East, he unfortunately ignored the very people that gave him this power previously. Where are the care homes, libraries & alike? All in the East. Walk along the promenade now & see the repaired sea walls up to Shoebury common, where they stop. Where do you dump your spoil? Where is all the previous high financed projects located. Perhaps it is time that the East had some caring Councillors who respect their views and want to see a better Southend that people want. Spend the money on our Pier, not a Museum that nobody wants." My response is - Dear Peter, During my time as leader there were at times three Shoebury members in cabinet, namely Tony Cox, Derek Jarvis and Roger Hadley. There was also a good geographic spread around other parts of the town with representatives at certain times from West Leigh, Belfairs, Eastwood, Blenheim, Chalkwell, St Lawrence, St Lukes, Milton and Thorpe. In my personal experience Tony worked tirelessly for the residents of West Shoebury during his years on the council. He faced an impossible challenge due to the UKIP surge across the country particularly bearing in mind their performance in West Shoebury two years before but was still not frightened of taking the courageous decision to support a potentially unpopular flood defence scheme because he believed that it was of paramount importance to protect Shoebury homes and businesses from future sea flooding and was not prepared to ignore the specialist and professional advice which was being provided to him by council officers. This was an approach which was shared by other members of our administration. I do think that it is disingenuous in the extreme to criticize the motivation and priorities of elected councillors simply because you disagree on one or more specific policies. I am not aware of any local councillor from any party who has not cared about the town and its residents and has aspired to deliver a better Southend. The reality is that significant improvements in core services and investment in infrastructure have been achieved over the last seven years by an administration of which Tony Cox was an integral part. Capital investment has been made directly into Shoebury and West Shoebury to include the construction of the new Hinguar School, investment into other schools in the area, improvements to the access and car parking arrangement at East Beach, investment in ongoing sea defences and beach replenishment, improvements and investment in the swimming pool, expenditure on highway repairs and improvements, proposed expenditure on the new Shoebury library etc., and it is of course also the case that, due to its geographic location, Shoebury benefits from the improvements to the road infrastructure which we have prioritized over recent years and the more general expenditure with regard to regeneration and the improvements of facilities. We have spent significant capital funds on the pier to include strengthening and ongoing maintenance of the structure, final repair of some of the fire damaged areas, the installation of the popular Royal Pavilion and the current installation of an outside viewing area, which has been reflected in significantly increased visitor numbers and accords with the priorities that the public identified in our earlier consultation process. You suggest that nobody wants a museum. Regular messages from residents and businesses alike is that they want Southend to continue to develop an all year round tourist/culture offer to take advantage of our location, our active cultural community and the new links provided by the airport. They’re also concerned that we should provide a suitable and adequate home for the Saxon finds. A museum along the lines contemplated would deal with both these points. I am more than happy to justify all the decisions made during my years in charge and where there have been circumstances where errors have been made, we have been quite prepared to openly admit it to the public and to react accordingly. A good example would be the seafront parking following the installation of the cycle track when the technically correct answer of requiring visitors to back into herringbone parking spaces simply did not work resulting in the spaces being reversed. Kind regards. Nigel

Friday, 6 June 2014

The forgotten west!

I see that having reached the same conclusion as Labour Cllr Julian Ware-Lane in his blog on the premature announcement of the new leader and cabinet we also seem to have both identified the geographic unbalance of the new cabinet with only one representative of a ward to the west of the town namely Graham Longley. In my cabinets I was always careful to try to ensure a geographic spread as inevitably all members are particularly attuned to the issues and problems effecting the area they represent and to have this input round the cabinet table was positive. This misbalance is further aggravated by the new Leader championing of the interests of Thorpe over other areas of the town and I still wait with interest for confirmation as to whether he is now breaking his formal links with BERA. It does seem inconsistent with the position of Leader to continue to retain an active presence in an interest group which is primarily concerned with the protection of one specific part of the town. This is the argument which has resulted in many councillors with resident association positions relinquishing them on election as councillors. As it is the only “west” voice round the cabinet table will be Cllr Longley in his position as Leader of the decimated Lib Dems – hardly a power base. It will be for the councillors representing wards in the west of all political hues to work together to ensure that the demands of this part of the town are not regarded as secondary. In the meantime perhaps I will have to race to ensure that my thoughts are posted before Julian’s to avoid the risk of plagiarism. I will allow you to decide whether this is an example of great minds thinking alike or fools never differing!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The new cabinet?

Well assuming that the assumptions made by the leaders of the Independent, Labour and Lib Dem parties are correct and they gain control on Thursday what do we make of the proposed cabinet. Well firstly I must congratulate Lib Dem Graham Longley on managing to gain appointment as one of the 2 Deputy Leaders (will they share the allowance?) and a major portfolio holder on the back of leading the local Lib Dems to something close to Armageddon. They managed to lose 3 well established councillors who all dropped down to third in the poll and retained just 1 seat. It may have been a bad night for the Tories but if anyone was rejected more dramatically it was the Lib Dems and to emerge with a reduced group of just 5 and still get a place in cabinet suggests he outmanoeuvred his new partners. It certainly confirms that this coalition does not reflect the message from the voters last month. Cllr Woodley has perhaps unsurprisingly decided to take responsibility for Corporate Services in addition to Leadership. This may reflect the need to take the slack from Messrs Gilbert & Terry (see below) but does concern me as to whether he has underestimated the extent and demands of the leaders role and in particular the need to establish a regional presence. Ian Gilbert takes responsibility for “community support” whatever that might include but assuming he is going to remain working full time it should be interesting to see how he keeps his employer happy whilst properly fulfilling the role of Deputy Leader and portfolio holder as well as being the parliamentary candidate for Southend East & Rochford. If he is able to do all of these duties fully and capably then perhaps we should rename him Cllr Clark Kent. Martin Terry is also in full time employment but steps in to a portfolio with significant day time commitments. This is of course recognised in the allowances cabinet members receive. Let’s hope he has reached a suitable arrangement with his employer. It would seem that Labour demanded 3 cabinet posts and got them which always leaves the challenge of finding suitable candidates. Anne Jones is relatively new to the council but seems a pleasant and able councillor. She takes on one of the most demanding portfolios in children and learning so good luck to her. Nobody can doubt David Norman’s obvious qualities and he will be probably the strongest and most sensible cabinet member. I would happily have had him in my cabinet! However he also takes over a monumental task in Adult Social Care, health and housing and it will be interesting to see how he deals with the physical and time demands of the job. Finally Cllr Assenheim takes on “regulatory control”. Once again not clear what this includes but it does on the face of it seem one of the lighter portfolios. He loves intervening on health and safety matters so let us hope he keeps in mind the difference between the role of members and officers. All in all an entertaining mix of personalities with the potential for some significant and divisive differences in view on a range of issues. The question may be whether David Norman can hold them together as else we may see a cabinet squabbling whilst the town goes to rack and ruin.

Key polices for change or a damp squib?

Whilst I still think it is premature we now have the coalition’s priorities assuming that everything goes their way on Thursday. What is described as a “new beginning”. It is important to remember that the Indies primarily campaigned on introducing the committee system to council, reversing the decisions on care homes, flood defences and libraries, and reducing borrowing levels. So how are they going to drive forward regeneration whilst meeting the massive financial challenge of delivering core services to increasing numbers of residents with a reducing income. Well here we go: 1. Set up a working party to look at moving back to a committee system. Well ignoring that the vast majority of the population couldn’t give a fig one way or the other it is hardly going to make any contribution to meeting the challenges the council has to face other than making it more slow and unpredictable. But if they want a committee system why bother with a working party just do it. After all if the WP says it is a bad idea does the policy simply get quietly abandoned and if the WP will be acting under strict instructions from above why waste time and money in going through the process. Of course the committee system does tend to look more exciting to the opposition than the administration! 2. Review the plans on the Shoebury seawall, care homes and libraries. Again why not just do it? Of course the reality is that the original decisions were driven by member groups and to try to reverse them will have significant capital and/or revenue implications however that must have been obvious to Cllr Woodley and others when they campaigned on these issues. Perhaps this is the first step to a climb down! 3. Action on derelict homes in Victoria Avenue. I am glad they are continuing the previous Conservative policy but how are they going to fund it. The answer is borrowing which is directly contradictory to Cllr Woodley’s previous stance. 4. More community facilities in the town centre. Nobody would disagree with the principle but how are the capital and revenue costs to be met? There is a need to find savings. Extra capital will mean higher borrowing and increased revenue spending means greater cuts elsewhere. In any event it is an aspiration rather than a clear policy. 5. More affordable and social housing. Again hardly rocket science but how will it be delivered. Once again this is not policy but an aspiration. 6. A pedestrian crossing at Kent Elms. Obviously this is Cllr Longley’s re election bid. The Conservatives have pushed a scheme for improvements to Kent Elms through the Local Enterprise Partnership to government. I assume that they are not suggesting doing this crossing in isolation and ahead of major junction improvements. If it is to be part of the existing scheme then it is hardly new or ground breaking. 7. Scrutiny panels chaired by opposition members. Once again the vast majority of the public will hardly be bothered and nor will this drive the town forward. Indeed if cabinet goes so will scrutiny committees. I suppose this is Cllr Woodley’s sop to UKIP who were expecting to be in closer partnership with him. The reality is that this change was introduced to a significant effect by my administration a couple of years ago with opposition members given various chairs including a couple of scrutiny committees, Development Control and Audit. So hardly terribly exciting and the central policies fail to identify how they are going to continue the improvements the Conservatives have delivered or meet the chronic financial challenge. Is this really the sea change on policy we are being promised? Still it will be interesting to see how many of them are actually delivered and at what cost to other services.

A premature announcement!

I must admit to considerable surprise at reading the Echo this morning which apparently followed a press conference at which the leaders of the Independent, Labour and Lib Dem parties announced their coalition agreement to include the new council leader and cabinet. Now call me old fashioned but this announcement should be made after full council has voted on the new leader and not before! The council is finely balanced and to deliver this result the coalition will need to ensure that all their members, to include those independents who we are constantly being told do not follow a party line, turn up and vote as instructed. In any event for parties who are always banging on about upholding the democratic process they seem quite happy to take it for granted on this occasion. I will comment on the members of their proposed cabinet and their groundbreaking “manifesto” shortly.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Wolf Hall & C2C

On Saturday I was lucky enough to have tickets to see the RSC production of Wolf Hall. I read the book and quite enjoyed it although did struggle a little with the writing style and was intrigued as to how they would compress such a weighty book into a production of under 3 hours. In the event it was fantastic. The plot was quick moving, the acting first class and with a combination of good storytelling, humour and poignancy it was completely absorbing. We have toyed with the idea of getting tickets for Bring up the Bodies on the same day but decided that it might be overkill. Now I can’t wait for the second show which is booked for August. As usual we travelled by rail using C2C from Leigh. I am a great supported of the improvements C2C have delivered on the line over recent years and (if this apparently never ending franchise process ever comes to an end) hope that they are successful. However one whinge is that whilst I appreciate that they are rolling out better ticketing systems it was frustrating to arrive mid morning on a Saturday to be faced with a reasonably long queue at the one manned ticket office with queries on connecting journeys, season tickets etc meaning that it was not moving fast. We were tempted to use the automatic machines and yet the cheapest price we could find for a Travelcard was in the region of £20 so we persevered at the ticket office and were able to buy our tickets at just over £10 each. Why the difference and why were the cheapest tickets not easily available from the automatic machine?