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.