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.