Thursday, 17 September 2015

Woodley recommends more borrowing

I see that at next week’s Southend Council cabinet meeting Leader Ron Woodley presents his recommendations for the Corporate Asset Management Strategy 2015-2025.

It makes interesting reading but I did have to pinch myself to remember that this is the same Cllr Woodley who led an extended campaign against increased borrowing levels during the years prior to his election as Leader.

In particular it is interesting to note that in the report under his name it states that:

“The CAMS introduces a commercial property investment strategy….to set the network for the Council to actively invest capital in commercial property, strictly to generate long term revenue income. It is important to note that as with other investments made by the Council, these are more likely to be found outside the Borough and the strategy provides for this….”

The report also comments that “Currently no capital budget exists for the progression of a capital property investment strategy.” And suggests that to achieve a target of rental receipts of £1M by 2018 will require spending of £20M.

This will require reviewing “various borrowing options”.

So it would appear that the Administration is now proposing significant borrowing to fund the acquisition of commercial property investments, some of which will not even be in Southend, in the hope of generating an income return.

The potential risks are obvious however what a remarkable about face for Ron and his Independent Party colleagues who now seem to embrace the concept of higher borrowing.

Prime Ministers Questions

I have to say that I did sit through all of Prime Minister’s Questions this week to see how the new Labour leader performed. I am not a traditionalist and must admit that I approved of the more adult tone which he encouraged. Whilst the more confrontational style that we are used to did result in some entertaining one liners I tended to find that after a few minutes I was bored with the absence of real debate and by the childish antics of some backbenchers.

So well done on the change of tone, but other than that what a chronic performance by the Leader of the Opposition. David Cameron must be delighted to have been given such a splendid opportunity to set out his stall in the absence of any incisive supplementary questions or responses. When considered with some of the other obvious gaffes over the last few days it is not surprising that my Labour supporting friends are despondent.

It will be interesting to see if the new PMQ approach continues but if so perhaps the time is also right to consider scrapping some of the archaic practices which still operate in parliament, relocating to a chamber which is actually big enough to accommodate all our elected representatives, and dealing once and for all with the reform of the Upper Chamber to ensure that it is democratically accountable.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Independents in meltdown

I was amused to see Belfairs Councillor Steve Aylen’s recent spat with the leadership of Southend’s Independent Party. Steve was a Conservative councillor during my time as Leader, however having been rejected for potential re election he stood successfully as an Independent.

I always had a bit of a soft spot for him when in our group in that he clearly had a love of Belfairs Park and consistently voted in support of the Conservative Administration until deselected - when he voted pretty reliably against us! On the basis that our policies had not changed I am unsure as to how he justified this about face. Generally he wasted a great deal of my cabinet colleagues’ time on irrelevances but otherwise didn’t do much else.

He has now resigned from the Independent Party to become an “independent” Independent and according to the Leigh Times feels that he was being bullied. Does this mean that he will start to vote against the Independent led Administration? The problem is that this might result in him voting with the Tories? Perhaps he should abstain on everything and then he wouldn’t have to support either of his former parties.

Former Independent Party colleague Ann Chalk (who in a previous life was a Labour candidate) is quoted as saying that she agrees with Steve that the Independent Party has become a political party and endorses his “allegations of bullying”. She also asserts that their group meetings “…are a farce, as key decisions are made in advance behind closed doors and minutes are doctored”. Cllr Ayling, another Independent Party member (and this time former Liberal Democrat), has also supported Steve.

It is no great surprise that Steve is starting to feature in the local press extolling his fight to stand up against all comers in defending Belfairs, because he tends to run a similar campaign in the months before every re election campaign. We will also see letters in the press from his friends commending his stance.

The underlying point in all this nonsense is that it demonstrates the ridiculous scenario of trying to form a party of Independents, (and yes I know that is a contradiction).

They aspire to a shared Leader, policies, common material and campaigning etc. without any shared ideological beliefs. Taking advantage of the anti-Westminster and politician sentiments, and a strong Thorpe Bay residents association, they have misled the public into thinking they were actually proper “independents” being concerned with the best interests of the ward in which they live and represent.

You can’t put a purple rosette on a previous party activist and think that by electing them you are breaking the mould of politics and you can’t have a true independent who becomes the member of a party group and accepts the imposition of policies with which they disagree by the leaders of their group.

So yes Ann Chalk is right the “Independents” are indeed a party, as are the “Independents of Southend”, but was ever thus (even when she was a member) and to suggest to the contrary has been farcical.

Who to vote for as Labour Leader?

I was tempted to apply to vote in the Labour leadership election but allowed my conscience to get the better of me as it didn’t seem very “British” to attempt to influence an issue relating to a rival party.

Having said that I would have struggled to decide who to vote for. I know that the popular view is that a win for Jeremy Corbyn will condemn the Labour party to losing the next general election but I am not so sure. It seems to me that Mr Corbyn and his policies are so unelectable that even an organisation as chaotic as the Labour Party will manage to ensure that he is ousted before that time, with the risk that having made one monumental error they may stumble across a candidate who actually presents a more electable face.

My inclination would be to vote for Andy Burnham. He would inevitably make it through to the next election, and as his performance over recent years and in particular the leadership election has demonstrated, he makes Ed Miliband look effective. My view has been strengthened by news that local Labour leader Ian Gilbert has indicated his support for Mr Burnham. As a local politician who has led his group in to the current hotch potch council administration and supports the damaging decisions being taken by current Leader Ron Woodley I would question his judgement on effective leaders!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Capital Budget slippage

It was interesting to note than in the financial year 2014/15 Southend Council only managed to achieve spend of 83% of its planned capital budget. Now I know that there is an argument that projects can suffer slippage for many reasons making higher delivery difficult, however this performance is not as against the initial budget set in April 2014 but against the previously amended budget which was set as recently as February 2015!

One of the problems the Council faced over many years was a failure to deliver capital projects efficiently and over the last years of the Conservative Administration great progress was made on this. Senior members of the Administration attended regular meetings of the Capital Board to monitor delivery and hold officers to account when this was not happening. This was linked to regular review and amendment of the budget where required to ensure that effective delivery was maintained.

It appears under Cllr Woodley and his colleagues the Council is slipping back to its bad old ways. 17% slippage between late February and the end of the financial year is hardly impressive and the slippage against the opening year balance was closer to 40%.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Nelson Street - home for a nice yellow bollard!

I have previously blogged on the rather extended saga of the resurfacing of Nelson Street which did not give great credit to the Council but did eventually result in an improved road and pavement surface for this picturesque and historically significant road.

So I suppose that’s the end of the story. Well yes except……..

The following photograph shows the finished job.

OK so the unsightly ticket machines are unavoidable but would be improved with a coat of black paint.

However is the fluorescent bollard in keeping with the feel of the street? To say it sticks out like a sore thumb is a massive understatement. Now I know why it is necessary because with not great street lighting the build out separating the bus stop from the car parking spaces would be pretty much invisible in certain conditions. However that does give rise to the question as to why the design included the build out which was not present before. It is not designed to facilitate better pedestrian crossing of the road but seems to be for purely aesthetic reasons.

Isn’t it a little strange that when designing it consideration was not given to the aesthetic effect of the inevitable shiny yellow bollard which would need to be added to it as well.

It is another example of actions taken under the current administration which seem poorly thought through with additional money being spent unnecessarily.

Council Members allowances

I see that at the last council meeting the Administration rejected the recommendations of the Independent Panel tasked with proposing any changes to member allowances on the basis that it would be inappropriate to approve increases at a time when council staff are receiving such small wage increases.

I am in agreement with my former colleague James Courtenay on the issue. If you set up an Independent Panel to review and recommend, thereby recognising that it is difficult for members to consider the matter impartially, it is quite ridiculous to then reject what the panel suggests.

As in previous years there is the distinct whiff of party political point scoring by Cllr Woodley and some of his colleagues. In the eyes of the general public it will never be the right time to increase allowances. This is in part because few realise quite how time consuming and onerous council duties can be, particularly to those at cabinet level. To play the populist card by rejecting any increase simply makes the allowances ever more unrealistic – a similar problem that laid the foundations for the Westminster debacle on mp’s expenses.

If the advice of the Independent Panel is to be rejected why waste time and money getting it to investigate and report? In reality a panel of this kind is the right way to reach an unbiased and informed decision as they have the opportunity to investigate in details the workloads involved without the self interest of being a recipient.

For those on the council who believe that an increase is either unfair or unjustified then they have a simple remedy – don’t accept the increase. This was a point that in previous years I made to Independent Party leader Martin Terry who argued against the recommendations of the panel but didn’t seem to want to reject any increase if others were accepting it!

The reality is that in making their recommendations the panel factor in the community contribution made by all councillors which should not be financially remunerated and the chronic lack of admin support which SBC has historically given to members compared with many other authorities.

When I was a councillor in the early 90’s, at a time when as a lower tier authority the demands on members was far less, I chose not to accept any allowances, an approach shared by my then colleagues Norman Clarke and Charles Latham. We didn’t publicise it or do it to try to make a political point and nor did we criticise those who felt it appropriate to take the allowance.

Now the demands on time, particularly during the working week, are far greater. If we are to ensure that the opportunity to stand for the council is open to all the payment of reasonable allowances is essential.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Parking Charges

It was interesting to see in the media at the weekend that a Government minister commented that high parking charges were killing town centres and needed to be urgently reduced rather than being used as a cash cow by local authorities.

Hardly cutting edge thinking - rather a statement of the obvious, and one of the reasons that in 6 of my 7 budgets as Council Leader we froze car parking charges. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Rainbow Coalition who introduced heavy increases last year, something that I have commented on previously.

At the consultation meeting for local businesses as part of the budget process Council leader Ron Woodley was warned of the danger of his proposed increases at a time when the High Street was in a critical condition. He accepted the plight of the High Street but refused to reconsider the hike in charges. He said that he would think of new support for the Town Centre in the budget next April - perhaps he didn't expect to be responsible for putting it together!

Well let's see but as the High Street continues to struggle more delay and excuses will not be acceptable and perhaps our local Administration should listen to the advice at the weekend and freeze if not reduce parking charges.


One annoyance of motorway driving is when the 40mph warning signs come on, last for about 5 miles, and then stop without any noticeable traffic build up, accident or anything else. It does undermine their effect if it happens too often, as drivers start to doubt whether the warnings are accurate and don't take as much care as they should.

Different place but same issue. The electronic traffic sign on the A13 opposite Chalkwell Park is still warning of traffic build up due to Village Green. Now I know that Village Greèn finished over 10 days ago because I was there.

If these signs are going to work they have to be up to date but rather more to the point doesn't anyone check them on a regular basis? 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A gracious winner

I was interested to read a recent blog item by Conservative Councillor Tony Cox after his successful fight back on to the council following his unexpected loss last year. Tony is a capable and dedicated councillor and the Council and Tory Group are stronger for his return.

However he was commenting on his regret that a 2nd West Shoebury seat had become available due to the sad death of Liz Day and his embarrassment at beating his colleague Derek Jarvis in to second place.

I know how he feels. When I was asked to consider standing to return to the council in 2006 it was as a result of former leader Howard Briggs deciding to stand down a year early. As a result it was a double header with me standing with Gwen Horrigan who had come to the end of her four year term.

Gwen was a popular and hardworking councillor and a thoughtful and lovely lady. Voting on the night was all over the place with many voters not voting for two candidates from one party but opting for all sorts of interesting permutations. Gwen and I finished well ahead of the other candidates but I received just three more votes than Gwen. This meant that I received the four year term which was rightly Gwens and she had to restand twelve months later. Those three votes meant three extra years.

I am sure that the result was because my name appeared before hers on the list of candidates and she had also been the subject of an unpleasant and untrue leaflet from another candidate on the eve of poll. I did suggest a recount but Gwen was having none of it and was nothing but supportive towards me.

So I know just how awkward Tony is feeling at the moment.

Whilst on the subject of election results at the east of the town I was delighted to see Roger Hadley safely returning to the Council. Another hard working and effective councillor and his victory was well deserved.

Friday, 15 May 2015

UKIP - now you see them - now you don't.

I have raised before the issue of the legitimacy of any new Rainbow Alliance which may be formed under the continued leadership of Independent Party member Ron Woodley, but if the rumours are correct then the new team would not look out of place in the pages of an Orwell novel or Private Eye.

Of the five councillors elected under the UKIP flag we are now told that only two remain loyal ukippers and the other three have formed yet another party group calling themselves “The Southend Independence Group”.

Always an interesting question as to whether in these circumstances they should therefore stand for re-election. Probably less relevant for their Leader James Moyies who was a reasonably high profile candidate but as for the other two they did little other than ride to a win on the national popularity of UKIP rather than any personal campaign and as such if they are no longer active members of UKIP it more than slightly undermines their position.

However in the meantime it is noticeable how critical over recent months some local Labour party members have been both of UKIP as a party and the campaigns and qualities of a number of their local councillors and candidate - and on this point I would admit to agreeing with them. In such circumstances it would be bizarre indeed if they ignored all of this history and happily welcomed in “The Southend Independence Party” to the joint coalition. I know they want to keep hold of their cabinet seats but surely this is a bridge too far, working with previously elected representatives of a party that Labour activists often portray as being “…even worse than the Tories”.

Politicians don’t do much to enhance the reputations of themselves or politics more generally when they completely change their position based on personal benefit and it would be interesting to see Labour Group Leader Ian Gilbert welcoming this alliance.

It reminds me of the famous scene from Animal Farm when having trained the sheep to chant “Four feet good – two feet bad” things had to change when the controlling pigs wanted to stand on their rear feet to mimic their previous human masters and arranged to change the chant to “Four feet good – two feet better” without acknowledging that anything had changed.

Are Labour councillors about to move from “UKIP bad” to “The Southend Independence Party better” avoiding the awkward truth that nothing has changed about the policies or priorities of these born again councillors.

Nelson Street

For those of you who have been following the ongoing tale of the resurfacing of Nelson Street I can confirm that, with the exception of some tidying up, the job appears to be finally at an end some 7 weeks after it started.

As I have mentioned we have had some trials during the works and I am still perplexed as to why only the west side of the newly laid tarmac was stripped off again and re-laid when the whole job looked identical to the naked eye and of satisfactory quality.

However I am pleased to confirm that the final result looks very good and well worth the efforts of the 5 or so workers who appear to have been involved most days since the end of March.

I am still interested as to how much it cost but it does mean that the road condition reflects the historical importance of this picturesque road.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Southend Council - a question of legitimacy!

In the run up to the General Election, when all the polls were pointing towards a coalition of one kind or another, the thorny issue of legitimacy was a regular theme. In particular if the Tories won the most seats and received the most votes but were still short of an overall majority would a new government which sought to exclude them be legitimate.

In the event the “First Past the Post” electoral system (assisted by a chronically inept campaign by Labour) delivered an overall majority avoiding the need to address the problem.

However the storming performance by the Conservative candidates in the Southend Council elections on the same day raises the same question but in a more pressing way.

Of the 19 seats on offer the Conservatives won 13 with Labour picking up 3, the Independent Party (sic) 2 and UKIP 1. If the Conservatives had not been defending a strong performance 4 years before this would have been sufficient to sweep them to an overall majority but as it is they have 22 seats, to 11 Independents, 9 Labour, 4 Liberals and 5 UKIP (to include the various splinter and sub groups that make up Southend UKIP!).

So the Conservatives have a massive endorsement from the electorate, with over 50% of the vote, more than double the number of successful candidates than everybody else put together, and are by far the largest party.

We must now wait with interest to see whether Cllr Ron Woodley manages to cobble together a continuation of his rainbow alliance. If he does, thereby preventing the Tories from taking power, how will such an administration be able to claim any semblance of legitimacy?

Of course it would also mean Labour agreeing either expressly or implicitly to a marriage of convenience with UKIP either as partner members of the Administration or as supporters – an interesting concept. Having said that Labour has been happy to support Cllr Woodley as Leader, notwithstanding his right wing tendencies, so maybe this further step would be worth it to keep hold of their share of power and the allowances which go with it for those members with Cabinet posts.

Interesting times indeed!

A successful campaign in Southend West

It is frightening to think that I have been actively involved as a member of the Conservative team in Southend West for every General Election and Local Election campaign since 1979. This has included standing successfully as a candidate on 4 occasions and acting as agent for local election candidates over 10 times.

However this year saw a new experience as I had the privilege of acting as David Amess’ agent in the General Election campaign. I can’t pretend it was as arduous a job as I had feared as David is a tireless campaigner - canvassing for about 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for the entire campaign – and he was supported by a capable, enthusiastic and tireless team of volunteers.

It was great to see such a hardworking constituency MP being rewarded with a substantial rise in his majority from about 8000 over the next candidate 5 years ago to about 14,000 votes this time round.

It had also occurred me that if I had been the first Southend West Conservative agent to oversee anything but a victory I may have had to leave the town under the cover of darkness!
Congratulations are also due to Rochford and Southend East MP James Duddridge who after a difficult few months overcoming health issues ran a great campaign delivering a majority of almost 10,00 over the next candidate. It is good to know that Southend’s interests at Westminster continue to be represented by two such astute and effective members of parliament.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Sporting Heaven!

Saturday was one of those days when the sporting gods were smiling.

My firm has been a long time sponsor of Westcliff Rugby Club and their last game of the season took place this weekend with the team realistically needing a win to avoid relegation. Against a strongly performing Barnes team, and in demanding and windy conditions, the team played magnificently to snatch a well deserved win by 8 points to 7. With a nervous wait for other results confirmation was received that they were safe. The team played some great ruby and fully deserved their success.

This was followed by news of an essential away win for the Baggies at Crystal Palace which represents a further massive step to retaining their premiership status next year.

Finally Gloucester Rugby played an epic semi final against Exeter to reach the final of the European Challenge Cup. Their play was amazing although not resulting in the points their superiority deserved until the last few minutes. The final now beckons at The Stoop on Friday week but having tried to get tickets I can’t help but be staggered by the decision to hold the final of this important European tournament at a stadium with a capacity of just 14,000.

I believe the clubs have so far been allocated about 2,500 tickets each – wholly inadequate - and Ticketmaster is suggesting the event is sold out reflecting that the seats have been on sale for some time in circumstances where the finalists have been unknown. Surely a stadium with a capacity nearer to 35,000 or 40,000 would have been appropriate to accommodate fans from both clubs as well as the inevitable number of neutrals. It is the club fans who provide the colour and atmosphere to events like these and they need to be given full opportunity to attend.

So it looks like the final will be enjoyed “Chez Holdcroft” with a large group of Gloucester following family and friends and in the meantime we will be at Kingsholm on Saturday to shout the club on in their premiership game against Newcastle.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A political divide?

On what I would hope will be my last need to comment on this issue today the resurfacing which has been carried out has strangely been limited to only the western half of the road surface whereas on the last occasion at the end of March resurfacing extended across the entire road. There were no obvious defects with the surface as originally replaced.

I attach a photograph showing the new divide.

I am now intrigued to discover if they only intend to resurface the one half or whether they are waiting to do the other half until the footpath widening which is currently under way is completed. However if that is the case surely the proposed widening on the other side will affect the twice resurfaced area.

The only other explanation is that this is a wicked scheme on behalf of the Rainbow Alliance to more regularly resurface the half of the road in front of the previous Lib Dem Council Leader’s office than the half in front of the office of the 2 former Conservative leaders. Obviously a serious case of political discrimination!!

Road resurfaced twice in 3 weeks!

Well the saga continues.

Having taken up the surface laid at the end of March we now have a new surface being laid.

I know I have commented previously on this being a road housing the offices of 3 ex council leaders but surely we are not now on a fortnightly resurfacing rota!

I would be very interested if anyone knew why or at what cost.

It seems even more bizarre bearing in mind that no doubt part of it will be dug up again to facilitate the widening of the western footpath!

Nelson Street (2)

The removal of the new surface continues!

Nelson Street

Some weeks ago I commented on the fiasco relating to the proposed resurfacing work in Nelson Street which, after my intervention, resulted in a constructive response from council officers. It did strike me at the time that I was doing the job for which the relevant portfolio holder is financially rewarded.

Having removed the parking suspension until shortly before the works were due to commence the initial chaos was stopped.

THe resurfacing was then rescheduled for 26th March and was completed with a great improvement to the road and with the parking bays remarked.

However having apparently finished the resurfacing, work then started on widening the footways with replacement kerbs and footways. This is estimated to take some weeks and indeed after the first couple of weeks there is still someway to go to complete the eastern pavement.

What has left me confused is why carry out the resurfacing before the widening of the footways as inevitably this has led to areas to the side of the road being dug up. This confusion has turned to amazement this morning as a significant part of the top surface of the newly resurfaced road has today been scrapped up as is demonstarted by the above photo which was taken part way through the work.

Why take up a newly laid surface which is not in the area of the footway widening and once again why resurface before the other works were complete?

I do not criticise the apparent ability of the workforce or the quality of the work but surely significant sums could have been saved by rescheduling the order of the works.

Who is responsible? It is relevant cabinet member and Independent Party Leader Martin Terry. Questions need to be asked and if money is being wasted I am sure that Cllr Terry will do the decent thing and resign. He was always the first when in opposition to whinge about unnecessary expenditure so let us judge him by his actions rather than his words.

Friday, 13 March 2015

City Beach

It was interesting to see the report in the Echo indicating that the current administration is seeking funding to extend the City Beach project. It included a quote from Lib Dem Graham Longley, who is the relevant cabinet holder, extolling the virtues of the current City Beach scheme and proclaiming its safety.

As the relevant cabinet member he obviously speaks on behalf of the rainbow administration and it is nice to see their apparent conversion to become supporters of this project as previously when in opposition a number of their members were prominent whingers about the scheme.

I also support a further extension although this news was in poignant contrast with the other recent article on the seafront referring to the breakdown of negotiations relating to the proposed expansion of the Sealife Centre. I was surprised that Cllr Woodley seemed happy to speak to the press trying to vindicate the actions of his Administration in failing to sign the deal.

I am not privy to the ins and outs of the negotiations but what is beyond doubt is that Stockvale Limited have, through their investment in Adventure Island and the Sealife Centre, been prepared to spend substantial sums of money to develop and enhance the attraction of our seafront. This has operated to the benefit of other businesses in the area and also the council, who have been able to herald such impressive visitor statistics. I wonder what the seafront would be like without Stockvale and its investment?

The failure to deliver a deal on an extension to the Sealife Centre is a matter for regret and rather than rushing to justify his position to the press I would have preferred Cllr Woodley and his colleagues to be concentrating on bridging the gap and brokering a deal which was acceptable to both parties. He previously said he would broker a deal between the football club/Sainsburys and Propects which he appears to have failed to do, but surely resolving a dispute whether the council is directly involved is within his power.

In the meantime investment in the infrastructure on the seafront is to be welcomed but the council must not forget that the first priority must be to ensure that there are attractions in place to tempt residents and visitors to our central seafront.

This is such an important issue I am minded to rush home to meet Mrs H in our second kitchen to discuss it in more detail. Oh hold on we don’t have a second kitchen – suppose that’s why I will never be asked to be leader of the Labour Party!

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Southend UKIP

I have so far avoided commenting at any length on the recent events in Southend’s UKIP group – it felt a bit like kicking a dying dog – but there comes a time when it is difficult to avoid.

I don’t pretend to have any detailed inside knowledge and base my thoughts on public council meetings, recent newspaper coverage, political blogs and the tweets of their ex group leader, but the whole situation becomes increasing bizarre and it is interesting to contemplate the reaction of the Ukippers and their “Independent” party chums if it had been members of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat groups who had been acting in this way.

It is important to remember that in recent campaigns both UKIP and the independents have been happy to run campaigns which have attempted to play personalities as much as policies – making highly critical comments on the ability and motivation of main stream party councillors and urging support for their “new politics”. In football parlance they have been successful playing the man rather than the ball.

In such circumstances you set the bar high if you are then elected. What have we seen from UKIP’s Southend councillors? Infighting, division, poor attendance and a failure to do what they were elected to do namely represent their residents in an effective manner and provide a credible opposition group helping to hold the administration to account. If you don’t believe me spend a few hours watching the last couple of full council meetings, available on the council’s website to assess for yourself their attendance levels and contribution. Admittedly you probably need to feel mentally and emotionally strong to endure the pain, even with a medicinal glass of claret – and that is just surviving Leader Cllr Woodley’s budget speech!

We have now seen a major spat between the then UKIP group leader and his successful opponent over the candidature for the general election in Rochford and Southend East, either the biggest example of sour grapes ever witnessed or serious misconduct (depending on whose account your believe), the suspension of four fifths of the party’s councillors, the permanent expulsion of the ex group leader and a completely divided and ineffective group.

Based on the national press these problems are not unique to Southend and in a few weeks we will be urged to elect new UKIP MPs who will once again try to ride on the back of an anti-Westminster wave. If anyone needs a salutary lesson on why a vote for UKIP would be a disaster look no further than recent events in Southend. Imagine if a group of inexperienced and newly elected UKIP MPs, with no established party organisation and without older and experienced voices, held the balance of power. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Parking fiasco

When I decided to name this blog “A view from Nelson Street” I had in mind taking the opportunity to comment on the Town and the activities of its council and therefore using the expression “view” metaphorically rather than literally. Little did I know that I would also have the chance to scrutinise the activities of Southend Council by simply looking out of my office window across Nelson Street.

Nelson Street is a picturesque road, close to the Town Centre but with an interesting history which gives an insight in to the proud history of the Town. However the road surface has deteriorated and is currently very poor resulting in it being featured in the road maintenance plans of the last Administration.

The months have passed and on the morning of Monday 23rd February signs appeared on lampposts in the street indicating that the parking bays had been suspended from 23rd February until 31st March for maintenance works to be undertaken. Quite an extended period to lose the income from well used parking bays.

The road is home to a number of professional firms as well as a Bank but no notice of the works or closures was given to any business in the street. To make matters worse there was no sign of any workmen or materials and no notices on the pay and display ticket machines located in the road. The lamp post signs were not obvious and unsurprisingly drivers continued using the bays and buying and displaying their parking tickets. Almost immediately the parking attendants appeared and tickets were issued to drivers. Why? If the intention was to suspend use even in the absence of any actual work would it not have been reasonable to put signs on the ticket machines as at least one person has bought a ticket before being warned as to the risk from a shout from our office window. Even a few parking cones to physically block the bays would have been easy to arrange.

Why suspend parking and lose income until necessary and was it unreasonable for the parking attendants to show some restraint where drivers were showing valid parking tickets? I raised the matter that morning with the Town Clerk and relevant Director (as did other firms in the road) but by Thursday nothing had changed – no sign of work, no better signage and tickets being issued to unsuspecting visitors. I raised it again and am pleased to confirm that officers responded swiftly and efficiently, suspending the restrictions until shortly before the commencement of the work, notifying offices in the road as to what is intended, and cancelling tickets issued during the week.

So eventually well done to officers but the buck for this fiasco must stop with the relevant portfolio holder Cllr Terry. Rather than spending his time searching for photo opportunities in the Echo perhaps he should be doing the job the Town pays him handsomely to perform.

In the meantime if they are going to muck up like this it is vaguely amusing that it should affect the road in the Town that houses the offices of 3 former leaders of the Council in myself, Charles Latham and David Dedman and previously the late Norman Clarke. Perhaps the lesson is that if anyone wants to be a leader of the Council in the future it is worth lining up a lease on offices in Nelson Street!

Friday, 27 February 2015

Tory budget amendments blocked

In his budget speech Cllr Ron Woodley attempted to justify his refusal to accept the 5 budget amendments put forward by the Conservative Group.

In my years as Leader the members of the opposition groups would allege that my colleagues were subject to a party whip. In fact in my 7 years as Leader I never attempted to impose a whip preferring to gain support on the basis of the strength of my argument. Having said that if the members of the Indie, Labour and Lib Dem Groups were not subject to a whip then I can’t believe that they were persuaded by the strength of Cllr Woodley’s comments.

On the rejection of the Conservative proposed council tax freeze and acceptance of the Government subsidy Ron took exception to the proposed reduction in the senior management team, reduction of a cabinet post and removal of free hospitality. He asked the Conservatives to point out the officers sitting behind him who were to go. This would be well and good if he were not making any job cuts in his proposals but of course he is. I didn’t see the staff members who he has put at risk standing at the back of the chamber so that they could be identified by him. In previous years the opposition groups have argued that redundancies should extend to all officer levels so what is the problem with this proposal. If the number of chief officers reduce then so can the number of cabinet posts. As for free refreshments – why is the argument different to the removal of free council teas? The facility can be there but charged at cost.

On car parks he claimed that the proposal had the support of traders. Not the ones I have spoken to! What is the logic of removing charges on the seafront in the evening where car parks are often full with visitors to the town who will not be expecting free parking but at the same time increasing charges for town centre car parks when retailers are continuing to suffer. I still suspect that this will rebound with reduced users resulting in income targets not being reached. Obviously the cabinet have their free parking permits for all Council car parks so I suppose they are not too worried.

He countered the objection to the removal of litter bins referring to alleged improvements in the street cleaning contract and also commented that he expected residents to take their litter home rather than dropping it. If he is so confident then why not remove all the bins and make an even bigger saving? The reality is that without well located litter bins the level of litter will increase.

He justified increasing the cost of entrance to the Pier by suggesting that every house will have an Advantage Card. Not sure if he meant he was going to issue them free to all residents or that the opportunity to purchase was there. If the former then the effect could undermine income targets across a number of services and if the latter why does he expect a greater take up on the cards than has happened previously?

Finally on doorstep textile collection Ron said that he gave his spare textiles to charity and that opportunity existed for everyone else. He misses the point that for recycling to work it has to be easy and accessible. This is how rates have been driven up and the amount of textile collection which is now being jeopardised amounts to many tons each year. If a significant percentage of those textiles end up in landfill he will have cost the authority far more than his proposed saving.

I would not suggest that these proposals were perfect. As an opposition it is difficult to identify specific funding without the pro active support of officers and accordingly compromises have to be made, but where the cuts proposed by the Administration are as poor as is the case here, it justifies a more broad brush approach. The reality remains that if we had a Conservative Administration these actions would have been implemented as part of an overall budget which would have created a more secure base moving forward.

In the meantime those councillors who blocked the amendments will need to justify their votes to the electorate.

Woodley fails to convince

I managed to endure the early part of Southend Council’s Budget Debate yesterday evening although it was quite hard work to even make it through leader Ron Woodley’s lengthy budget speech. I am sure that he would be the first to admit that he is no great orator but if I could offer some advice, he spoke for probably 15 minutes too long and if he is writing a speech (unless of course this was written in part by officers) it is probably worth avoiding words that you struggle to pronounce.

The style was unexciting but the content was even worse. I do wonder whether he truly believes the things he says or whether he knows he is talking hogwash but is simply trying to hoodwink the public.

I will comment separately on his response to the Conservative budget amendments which were unconvincing in the extreme, but what was also interesting was his willingness to claim credit on behalf of himself and his colleagues for achievements which were worked up to the point of delivery by the last Conservative Administration and which he criticised at the time, together with his failure to accept his inability to deliver on a number of his own pledges.

I have commented previously on the problems for a new Administration making an early mark as it takes so long to develop, agree and implement policy. As a result it is not unusual for politicians to claim credit for the work of others but with Ron he gives the impression that he actually believes what he is saying!

The heralded council house build, the progress in Victoria Avenue, the retention of weekly waste collections, the progress with the Seaway and Med Tech proposals, and the implementation of LED lighting to deliver revenue savings rather than switch off street lights at night, are all Conservative initiatives which were well advanced or part implemented but which Ron now claims credit for. This list is not exhaustive.

In the meantime what about the cutting of red tape and the reduction of borrowing? It is clear that if there is massive inefficiency and red tape bursting from every cupboard in the Civic Centre as Ron was so keen to tell us in previous years he has been unable to find it.

His position on borrowing is even more ridiculous. He is claiming that he has cut the cost of borrowing. The reality is that when a budget is set certain assumptions are made as to the level of borrowing required and the cost of that borrowing is factored in to the revenue budget. Southend Council has a very effective treasury management team which can often reduce the cost of borrowing by delaying external borrowing through using available internal funds. In addition interest rates have remained below the level anticipated. Borrowing costs have reduced purely because of this effective treasury management which has taken place over a number of years and not because of anything this Administration may have done or not done. It would have happened anyway. What the Administration has done is to introduce a number of new capital schemes for the coming year funded by external borrowing meaning that borrowing costs will be higher than would otherwise be the case. He is increasing not reducing borrowing.

In addition whilst we have claims of success with regard to care homes and Shoebury flood defences there has been no attempt to address the issues which have been raised by myself and others and which are detailed in my recent items on these projects.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Conservatives show the way on the budget challenge!

I have already commented on my disappointment at the budget proposals formulated by the current Rainbow Administration. It has been a regular feature of budget debates over recent years for current leader Ron Woodley and the other members of the then opposition groups to bemoan the efforts of the Conservatives in presenting budgets which made significant savings whilst also driving up performance in core services. Whilst always vague on their alternatives we were constantly being told by Ron that we were failing to deliver economies by cutting “red tape” and that our borrowing was too high.

In the circumstances I was looking forward to the current cabinet delivering on their previous promises and sound bites but what we have seen is a draft budget which rejects the Government’s council tax freeze subsidy, hits car parking charges notwithstanding the issues facing our retail centres, increases leisure and other fees and charges, cuts back on litter bins, removes textile recycling collection, imposes substantial council rent increases, increases borrowing levels, pushes some savings into following years and fails to deliver effective and sustainable economies.

This evening I will tune in via the internet to hear Cllr Woodley and his colleagues attempt to defend this dog’s dinner of a budget.

Over the years of recent Conservative Administrations whilst we have seen a lot of hot air from the opposition there has been a notable absence of any meaningful budget amendments. To be fair it is hard work for an opposition group to devise a sustainable alternative without the officer support enjoyed by the Administration.

In the circumstances the Conservative group deserves great credit for coming up with a number of significant amendments which have received financial approval from the Council’s Head of Finance and which seek to address some of the worst oversights on behalf of the Independent, Labour and Lib Dem Parties.

This evening we will see amendments proposing an acceptance of the Government’s council tax subsidy with freezing of council tax to residents, holding car parking charges for the current year to give clear and obvious support to our retailers and businesses, freezing entrance charges to the Pier (the jewel in the Town’s crown), saving textile recycling collections, and blocking the removal of much needed litter bins. I am sure that with a Conservative Administration this more sympathetic and proactive approach would have gone further to deliver a sound and balanced budget that protected core services whilst delivering the required savings in an imaginative and sustainable way – still perhaps we will see that next year!

In the meantime I will be watching with interest as every member of the chamber of whatever party has a choice on all these crucial areas. Let us hope they will be accountable for how they use their votes tonight.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Battle of the Toilets

I see that on his blog Labour Councillor Julian Ware-Lane has taken exception to claims that local Conservatives were responsible for the u-turn by the Administration on toilet closures. He suggests that it was him, and only him that requested the reversal of toilet closures although somewhat confusingly then suggests that he is not claiming exclusivity for the success.

The reality is that the draft budget was the product of the Rainbow Alliance of which Labour is a member and Julian is a supporter. I struggle to believe that the budget was agreed and released without input and approval by the members of the various groups who make up the Administration, either expressly or by delegation through their representatives in cabinet. Certainly in previous years the Conservative draft budget had been seen and approved by the entire Conservative group prior to publication.

When this proposal was released it was the Conservative Party which led the outcry which, at least on this issue, has resulted in the original decision being reversed. If Julian’s colleagues in the Administration were unduly bothered about his views they would no doubt have avoided the proposal in the first place but it appears he was ignored - as has been the case on doorstep textile collections. It is a shame that he has not been prepared to support Conservative opposition to car parking hikes, council tax increases, council rent increases, leisure charge increases and the rest so presumably these are items which he supports.

Finally I was amused by his assertion that “The toilets are saved, saved by my ability to make reasoned and cogent argument. These toilets were threatened because of Conservative-led Government cuts.”

Economies have been required because of the challenges which the country faces following the mishandling of the economy by the previous Labour Government, economies which in many respects Julian’s national leaders seem happy to adopt.

The only reason these toilets were threatened has been as a result of this Administration’s inability to deliver a package of sensible savings rather than imposing cuts to front line services, swinging increases in charges, raids on reserves and contingencies and increased borrowing. The Conservative Administration showed how to deliver balanced budgets with significant savings but with protected and improving front line services – pity that the then opposition parties were not paying attention!

Friday, 6 February 2015

Conservatives force about turn on toilet closures

Congratulations to my Conservative colleagues including Roger Hadley and Cllr James Courtenay for forcing the Council’s Rainbow Alliance into reversing the decision on toilet closures. To suggest the relevant cabinet member Cllr Terry has been like a headless chicken on the issue is probably doing an injustice to chickens.

However whilst the cabinet seem happy to reverse a decision which presumably they reached after careful and detailed consideration it is tragic that they have not adopted a similar approach on other unpopular and damaging decisions such as the significant increase in council rents, the unnecessary increase in council tax, the rises in leisure charges to include pier entrance fees, and the appalling decision to hike up car park charges whilst at the same time shedding crocodile tears at the struggling High street.

How they have managed to fund the about turn on toilets is also worthy of comment. The latest council paper comments that the “new saving” of £40K is achieved by deleting “ … provision for the gain-share mechanism in place with the existing waste collection contractor, which will not be required under the proposed contractual arrangements for the new waste collection contract”.

What a marvellous example of officer gobbledegook! The obvious question is if this saving has always been available without apparent negative effect why was it not identified and proposed by the cabinet in the first place. It also prompts the further question of what other apparently painless savings have been overlooked and if they had been earning their substantial allowances would cabinet members have been able to use them to avoid increase in car parking charges, council tax, leisure charges and the like.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Priory House

One of the most difficult decisions the last Administration had to take was the closure of Priory House. The decision was on the recommendation of a cross party working group supported by officer recommendation. Current Leader Ron Woodley was belatedly opposed to the plan and pushed for the home to retained and operated through a trading company. The evaluation of his proposal included the following conclusions:

A full evaluation of the viability of Councillor Woodley’s final Business Plan was commissioned …. and has now been carried out by LaingBuisson who are one of the UK’s foremost and highly regarded providers of information and market intelligence on the independent health, community care and childcare sectors. LaingBuisson’s conclusions are as follows:
 The revised Business Plan is not viable for the following reasons:

 It is based on weekly self-funding fees that do not reflect market rates.

 It is based on weekly NHS step-down fees that do not reflect market rates.

 The physical structure of Priory House makes it unlikely that it could attract self-funders.

 The revised Business Plan, based on market fees, would lead to a cumulative loss of £754,474 over a three year period.

Even if the revised Business Plan were viable, there are reasons why the Council might not wish to implement it:

 The revised Business Plan envisages a care home primarily for self-funders, a group for whom the Council has no financial responsibility.

 Many care associations have taken Councils to the High Court over the fees they pay care homes: Southend’s position in any action would be seriously weakened if it were seen to be charging residents almost twice what it pays for care home places.

 If the Council offered places in Priory House at £800 it might have the effect of pushing up prices in other care homes and so the Council could have to pay more for the beds it purchases from the independent sector.

 If the Council tried this option and it went wrong the Council would find itself financially liable for all losses incurred assuming the Council had underwritten the trading company and / or suffering reputational damage by walking away from the creditors of a failed company and failing the residents of the home.

The full report is available through the Council’s website. Ron did not like the decision and has now reversed it based on the delivery of a reduced cost base and increased income. I feel sorry for professional officers at times like this who have to deliver against their original advice. The latest report does not address the risks recognised in November 2013. This is in my view a bad decision driven by injured pride rather than informed political judgement.

Labour councillor David Norman has cabinet responsibility for a decision which involves using £100K from the Business Transformation Reserve for a business project previously discounted, spends £225K of precious reserves, and results in a shortfall of savings for 15/16 of £167Kwhich have to be found elsewhere. More importantly it ignores the further and more fundamental risks being played as previously identified by external advisers and the council’s own officers.

At times of financial hardship when difficult decisions on economies need to be made and officers are concentrating on the maintenance of services is it really appropriate to be taking these sort of risks and asking officers to develop a commercial enterprise in difficult circumstances and in a crowded market! The council needs to concentrate on what it does well and cost effectively and not try to outdo the private sector whilst bound in the red tape and regulation inevitable with local government.

Council Budget (6) - Public toilets

When I originally became a councillor on the old Borough Council in the 90’s the regular joke made by friends was that my time would be taken up in dealing with the administration of public toilets, removing dog poo and organising the public allotments. The situation was not helped when my first committee chair was as Chair of the Allotments Working Party! Obviously the reality was far from this although the issues of public toilets and dog excrement were discussed reasonably regularly over the years.

The budget proposals for toilets once again highlight the contradictions and inconsistencies with the thinking of the current Administration and in particular it’s Leader, Independent party member Ron Woodley.

I have previously expressed my concerns about the apparent pro-east bias in cabinet and the potential contradiction of a council Leader who also leads one of the more influential residents associations in the town which represents the Burgess Estate. It is about fairness and the importance of ensuring that decisions are not only fair but are seen to be fair.

We have the decisions on Priory and Shoebury flood defences where it is difficult to see how the appearance of fairness can be maintained bearing in mind the stance previously adopted by Cllr Woodley and/or BERA.

In the budget we then have the stance on public toilets. The proposals include savings of £10K by closing toilet facilities at East Beach and £30K by closure of toilets in Hamlet Court Road, Ness Road and Southchurch Road but increased corporate borrowing of £190,000 to refurbish the toilets at the bottom of Thorpe Hall Avenue, a scheme previously supported by Ron’s ward colleague Mike Stafford. I don’t know what if any revenue implications will arise from this refurbishment.

Whatever the merits of this block it shows that Ron is happy to borrow for a scheme that he or his mates like. This proposal not only undermines his previous stance on borrowing but also suggests priority is being given to Thorpe with an inevitable perception of unfairness. I am surprised that Ron’s non indie cabinet colleagues are content with this.

In the meantime shutting public toilets without adequate alternative facilities is never good, particularly when linked as in this budget with reductions in the spend on the waste collection and street cleaning contract, abandonment of textile recycling collection and removal of litter bins.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Council Budget (5) - Fee increases all round!

I have already commented on the Rainbow Alliance’s proposals to raise car parking charges but this is not the only example of the Administration avoiding difficult decisions on economies by chasing increased income from fees and charges.

The reality is that in these difficult times, where residents, businesses and visitors continue to struggle to make ends meet, trying to over milk council resources in this way raises major concerns. Some of these proposals threaten some of the less well off in our community, risk undermining our reputation as a cultural, tourist and operational centre for the area and avoid the reality that if you increase fees and charges too high you risk creating user resistance which results in people not using facilities and actually reducing the income you generate. There are some areas, and I believe car parking may be one, where to freeze (which in real terms means reduce) or even reduce fees increases usage and resulting income.

I was surprised that with a Labour cabinet member for housing we should see such significant increases in council house rents (although council Leader Ron Woodley has argued in previous years for larger than the proposed rent increase).

Additionally we see Lib Dem Leader Graham Longley proposing increased charges for entry to the Pier, as well as increases to Bereavement Services charges, increases in hire costs of council facilities, general increases in council commercial rents, attempts to increase income from services to our schools, increased taxi licensing charges, rises in the cost of our businesses locating tables and chairs outside their premises, increased charges for bowling greens, and increasing leisure fees.

So whilst Ron Woodley does not seem to be delivering the promised reductions in “red tape” we are seeing increased demands on our council house tenants, visitors to the seafront, the bereaved, our schools, our taxi drivers, our businesses and those keen to keep fit and active.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Council Budget (4) - Reserves and the 3 card trick

We know from Council Leader Ron Woodley that the economies that Southend Council has to find in the coming year are very much as anticipated. We also know from the pronouncements of both George Osborne and Ed Balls that whatever the outcome of the General Election continuing austerity is inevitable over the next few years.

The current draft budget seeks to close a gap of £12,388M of which £3,090M relates to budget pressures.

I will be looking at some of the specific economies in due course however on the face of it they have balanced the figures but……

Of this gap the sum of £1.888M is being financed from reserves and the report includes this interesting comment:

“Note that the 2015/16 draft revenue budget has been prepared on the basis
of using £1.888m from earmarked reserves to allow for a smoothing of the
budget gap across the next three financial years with a consequent
replenishment of those reserves in 2016/17 and 2017/18”

and in case we missed it the report says at a later paragraph:

"The budget is then balanced by the use of £1.888 million from earmarked reserves to
allow for the smoothing of the budget gap over the next three financial years with
a replenishment to the reserves for this sum over 2016/17 and 2017/18"

And again:

"Members will note that the budget proposals now include the use of some
earmarked reserves to fund the balancing of the 2015/16 budget and items of
one-off project spending. The use of £1.888 million of reserves to allow the
smoothing of the budget gap are to be replenished in 2016/17 and 2017/18"

That’s clear then - except I struggle to see the detail as to how this is to be “smoothed” and what effect this will have on savings targets for the next 2 years.

So when is a saving not a saving? – when you take it out of reserves. I am not quite sure what “smoothing” means in this context but the reality is that they have failed to meet the budget gap (even with an increase in council tax and car parking charges) and are therefore raiding reserves to cover the balance.

Not only is this eroding the level of reserves which should be available for emergencies – which are always possible in areas such as social care – but how are the reserves to be replenished over the next 2 years when further and additional savings will need to be delivered?

This suggests the use of a capital pot to underpin revenue expenditure which is a potential road to disaster.

It seems to be the same old story – the Conservatives create a sound financial base, lose control resulting in Labour and others raiding the piggy bank and leaving a mess that a future Conservative Administration has to sort out. The surprise is that Ron, who has regularly proclaimed himself a Tory at heart, and in previous budget debates has given the impression that on economics he is considerably to my right on budget control, has been willing to p reside over this.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Council Budget (3) Council Tax increase

The current position on council tax increases is that a local authority can propose any percentage increase it wishes but the Government has imposed a rule that if the proposed rise for any authority is above 2% there must be a referendum to gain public agreement. In addition the Government has introduced a further council tax subsidy which provides that if a council freezes the council tax it will receive an increase in its Central Government grant equivalent to a 1% increase in council tax.

It is this grant which enabled us to freeze council tax on a number of occasions over recent years and whilst there were some concerns as to whether the grants would be incorporated into the Council’s funding on an ongoing basis these fears proved to be unfounded.

So what are the current Administration proposing – well they are rejecting the Government offer and seeking to increase council tax by 1.95% which will therefore be payable in its entirety by our hard pressed council tax payers. I believe this is a very poor decision.

Frankly I am opposed to the Government’s referenda cap. In my view if residents vote for a council that wants to introduce large council tax increases then so be it on the basis that if they don’t like it they can vote them out at the next election. I don’t see why Central Government should feel it appropriate to interfere in the relationship between councils and their voters in a way which inevitably weakens local democracy and reduces the true differences between the party groups as they are forced to work within tight financial restraints.

However if we have a cap, then if parties want to increase spending and feel they have the support of residents they should put their money where their mouth is and risk a referendum. I happen to think they would lose but in Southend I was always being told that residents oppose spending cuts so give them a simple choice.

If the Administration is not prepared to go to the voters then it should accept the subsidy and protect residents from increases in council tax at this difficult time. They will say that it only adds a small sum to bills and that the Government may remove the money in later years. As I have already said we kept the subsidy before and in hard economic times for our residents every little helps.

And in any event why 1.95% and not 2%. If you are rejecting Government money why not go as high as you can if you won’t face a referendum. The reality is that this decision gains about £0.5M in the budget for the coming year – a very small sum in the context of the Council’s overall budget, and could easily be found if the Administration abandoned some of its current vanity projects.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Waterstones & HMV

Whilst it may have included an element of PR I was pleased to note the positive post Christmas press releases from both Waterstones and HMV. There seems some evidence that the traditional book is starting to fight back against the electronic book, and that HMV are improving their market share with an increase in demand for cds, but also more interestingly vinyl.

I must admit to owning and using a kindle and for holidays it is difficult to beat with the need to travel with a pile of paperbacks now a thing of the past. However for all the convenience it is not the same as holding an actual book in your hand and turning the pages - which is a physical as well as an intellectual pleasure. This came home to me when I was bought a hardback copy of Bernard Cornwall’s account of the Battle of Waterloo at Christmas. So now it is a question of enjoying the best of both worlds – kindles for holidays and actual books at home.

As for HMV it was a sad moment when it appeared that it would be disappearing from our High Street and over recent weeks I have made a particular effort to support them. I am not a convert to downloaded music – for me nothing beats the pleasure of a new album with artwork and blurb to enjoy and the added benefit of enjoying the tracks in the order intended by the artist. I still miss the sound quality of my old LPs and the added impact of an LP cover but will not be tempted away from my cds. The risk of scratches and the shorter play length don’t quite work although I still have all my old LPs on display even if many of them have been replaced by cds.

So good luck to both Waterstones and HMV over the coming months who remain such important elements of our remaining High Street.

Council Budget (2) - Borrowing

One of the areas that Cllr Woodley and his Independent colleagues have focussed on in recent years has been the level of council borrowing. This reached a head during the council budget debate last year when they were challenged to identify the specific projects which had been wholly or partly funded by borrowing which they would not have undertaken, or to propose variations to the draft budget to remove borrowing funded projects which they would abandon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly they failed to do either although Independent Party Leader Martin Terry came up with 3 schemes which had been primarily or solely externally funded.

With this backdrop it was always going to be interesting to see the new Administration’s proposals on capital which presumably would see no new projects funded by borrowing and proposals to reduce general borrowing levels.

Well it is always difficult to reach any definitive views on the initial cabinet papers but the draft programme which they are seeking to deliver suggests that for 2015-2018/19 they propose a capital programme of £156.9M of which only £57.8M is externally funded. It envisages borrowing of £56M over the period in addition to using £37.1M of reserves.

Particularly the use of reserves from general fund is not greatly different from borrowing as it reduces the size of the safety net available for unexpected expenditure and if it is going to be used could simply repay borrowing to reducing revenue expenditure.

In fact the level of borrowing envisaged for 15/16 in the proposals we pushed forward 12 months ago was £9.3M but with the many new items the current proposals now increase borrowing for capital for the current year to £24.3M. It remains unclear what the total borrowing figure will be by the end of the year but this will no doubt become clear as the debate continues.

So we have a raft of borrowing funded capital schemes and a significant increase in the anticipated new borrowing for the current year!

The final twist on this is that at yesterday’s Business Budget Consultation Cllr Woodley made a throwaway remark that the budget would reduce borrowing by £38M resulting in a revenue saving of £2M pa. I was so surprised by this comment that following the meeting I asked a couple of other attendees whether I had heard him correctly. Their understanding accorded with mine. Clearly this needs to be clarified. I cannot believe that Cllr Woodley would seek to mislead the meeting on the true effect of his proposals but cannot see how his figures tie in with the papers. If he is in reality not only failing to cut borrowing but increasing it then it is reasonable to accept a correction of his comment yesterday and an explanation as to why his position appears to have radically changed.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Council Budget (1) - car parking charges

I thought that I would accept the invitation sent to me as a local businessman to attend the council budget briefing this morning with leader Cllr Ron Woodley, Chief Executive Rob Tinlin and Head of Finance Joe Chesterton which took place at the Forum.

It was strange being on the other side of the fence as in previous years I chaired this meeting. It was noticeable that more of the presentation and questions were dealt with by Rob and Joe than usual but I suppose this reflects that Ron is new to the job and is no doubt still trying to get to grips with the peculiarities of local government finance.

Over the next few weeks I will be commenting on various aspects of a budget which was remarkably lack lustre. I had been so used to hearing Ron say that he could deliver massive savings by cutting red tape that his inability to do so was surprising – or perhaps not!

I wasn’t intending to ask anything but was surprised at how easy going the audience was in the face of some debatable proposals. Perhaps it reflects the limited number of currently active local businessmen who had the opportunity to attend.

We heard about the concerns the administration has with regard to supporting enterprise and economic growth (to include the town centre), which raised an obvious question on car parking charges. The Administration proposes a range of parking charge increases which is some cases are quite heavy. By way of example the cost of staying for 3 hours in the Town Centre, in a car park or in an on road bay, is likely to increase by about 20%! In circumstances where the High Street is clearly suffering, the % of voids and short leases is becoming very concerning, the traders are already forced to pay into the BID funding services that many would argue are really the responsibility of the council, and there is a perception that car parking charges are already too high, this proposal is a real kick in the teeth. It will raise a quite limited amount in the context of the overall savings and as with all rises risks reducing income by driving away users.

The response was that they knew the High Street was in trouble but they would increase charges this year and would introduce some measures to provide support next year. Let’s hope they are not too late! There was also a reference to Brighton which is hardly a like for like comparison.

I also find it strange that their proposals mean that the charges to stay for up to an hour in Thorpe Bay (the favourite haunt of Ron and his ward colleague Martin Terry who has responsibility for overseeing these charges), and for up to 2 hours at the Civic Centre are frozen. Why? If they are suggesting that potentially damaging hikes are required why not apply them to all – or is a case of all car parks being equal but some more equal than others.

This is a bad proposal and a cheap shot at those fighting to defend and develop the Town Centre.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Budget proposals

As we reach the release of the current Administration’s budget proposals it will be interesting to see their funding priorities and initiatives.

It was always an exciting but challenging time during my years as Leader. The release of the proposals followed months of hard work by senior officers and cabinet members and was accompanied by a rush of meetings with opposition leaders, unions, staff and the media before the scrutiny by other members and the public got fully under way.

What am I expecting this year? Well based on Leader Cllr Ron Woodley’s previous comments on borrowing and red tape/waste I assume that we will not be seeing any proposals to increase council borrowing and he will be delivering efficiencies in a way that does not affect front line services. I note that he has already been quoted confirming that the level of economies required is in line with earlier estimates so nobody has been taken by surprise.

I will be particularly keen to see if there is an attempt to reduce the level of council reserves which provide such an important safety net in challenging times like these. I also trust that the Administration will be taking advantage of the Government’s offer to avoid rises in council tax to residents and will also be doing their bit for the town centre by avoiding car parking fee increases.

In the meantime I have received my invitation to the budget consultation arranged for local business. This was a format introduced a couple of years ago and I am looking forward to hearing budget details straight “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Oh come on Julian!

I have to admit to enjoying the blog of Labour councillor Julian Ware Lane.Whilst we may disagree on quite a lot I find many of his views interesting even though would appreciate a little less of the Labour Party rhetoric.

One item which caught my eye was his piece on 30th December heralding the achievements of Labour as part of the Town's joint administration.

I thought I would look at some of his claims.

Taking action on Victoria Avenue after "...years of neglect under the Conservatives." The reality is that we had worked for years to pressurise land owners to redevelop, included the area as a plank of the City Deal bid and eventually in desperation committed funds to purchase or cpo sites in a budget which Julian voted against!

Looking to invest in community facilities including references to Hamstel Children's Centre and libraries. The campaign on Hamstel was cross party and well embedded prior to this Administration. For all the talk of libraries the much heralded review did not reverse any of the economies or save any fte jobs but simply moved the chairs to claim a move away from the previous proposals agreed by a cross party group.

Addressing the housing crisis and investing in community facilities. Well let's see what they actually deliver particularly with the looming budget proposals. I would rather judge on results than claims!

Shoebury sea wall plans. Well I would refer to my last blog item and in any event surely Julian voted in favour of the scheme which he now seems to castigate.

The reality is that local government is like a large oil tanker. It takes a long time to change course or implement new initiatives. In so far as we are currently seeing the Administration claiming credit for good service delivery this reflects the achievements of the last Administration. It is too early to judge the current team but the first major test will be their budget proposals. The major challenge is producing a balanced budget whilst protecting core services and in my view the Rainbow Alliance have a hard act to follow.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Shoebury sea defences (again!)

I have to be honest and say that I did not rush to watch the cabinet meeting earlier this week so do not know what final decisions were made but on the assumption that the majority of the recommendations made in reports were accepted I could not avoid a smile at the contortions the administration are being forced in to on the Shoebury flood defence issue.

I have commented on this previously and wonder how long it will be before they realise that it is impossible to be all things to all men and occasionally you have to have the strength of character to take a decision which is in the best interests of the community even if it makes you personally unpopular.

The report prepared following the instruction of new consultants includes some interesting snippets to include:

The original proposal was confirmed to be satisfactory on cost, technical and environmental grounds, but discounted on grounds of public non-acceptability. The other projects in the review received a range of gradings, but with no outright recommendation.

In recognition that no proposal is likely to be completely satisfactory to all the stakeholders, [the] suggested way forward is to continue consultation with the various groups in a workshop format to attempt to arrive at a consensus view on the outline design.

Any increased costs would therefore have to be found from increased Council or other community contributions. In addition to this, the EA have advised that having fully funded the Project Appraisal Report (and process) through which the original scheme was developed, they are unlikely to fund a second document, since the change of scheme has been the Council’s choice. The outline estimate for this work is £100k, which will have to be funded by the Council.

Obviously this is a very selective extract and the full report is available on the Council’s website.

So here we have it. The scheme which was previously approved was satisfactory on cost, technical and environmental grounds but simply fails because of public opposition. Having said that the public are not agreed on any other alternative! This comes as no surprise to me bearing in mind my earlier contact with those most anti the scheme, and it does remain the case that there are those who oppose any significant flood defence work in this area and feel that there is no need to do anything.

Rather than simply making a decision Cllr Terry, the relevant portfolio holder, and his colleagues are going to delay things even further for workshops and yet more consultation. I wonder whether there has ever been an issue where there has been such extended consultation – particularly where external funding was on the table and there was a risk to homes and businesses. In reality you can talk for as long as you like but if residents are diametrically opposed you cannot please them all.

In the meantime the commencement of the work is pushed back yet again and at a time when the council faces further significant savings there are substantial costs being incurred which will fall on council tax payers and the added problem that any funding from the Environment Agency is unlikely to increase from that previously on offer even though the cost of the scheme will inevitably increase.

Sometimes you just have to take a decision. The Administration have to bite the bullet and either proceed with the original scheme, opt for an alternative scheme (even if it is costly and unpopular), or simply abandon the scheme altogether and be judged on the decision. This dithering because they cannot take a decision is government at its worst and in the meantime the risk for residents in parts of Shoebury is as real and urgent as ever.

If they are not prepared to take difficult decisions perhaps they should step aside for those that are.

The challenge of being a local councillor

Over recent years many councillors representing the traditional parties have lost their seats on the back of the anti-Westminster and anti-politics feeling that had swept the country. In Southend this has been demonstrated by the rise of the Independent Party and UKIP with candidates often offering little by way of policy other than “not being one of them” but still sweeping to success.

In local government this has often resulted in longstanding and hardworking councillors, who have always put the best interests of the community ahead of party, losing their seats and being replaced by large numbers of new councillors who have no particular knowledge or experience of local government and who do not have the benefit of the support and guidance offered within an established party group. I am not suggesting that anybody should have a seat for life and feel that regular doses on new blood is both healthy and essential but it does mean that some of our new councillors may not realise quite what an onerous role and responsibility they are taking on. It is easy to believe the criticisms of our elected representatives without realising the emotional input, time and effort many of our recently unseated councillors have put in for years.

This was brought home to me shortly before Xmas when I was picked up by a taxi on my way to a work social event. The cab driver was a recently elected UKIP councillor and we had a pleasant and constructive discussion about the town. However I was more than a little surprised when he mentioned that he had received a text from a party colleague earlier in the evening asking where he was as he had forgotten that the last full council meeting of the year had started at 6.30 pm. I asked why he had not gone and he seemed surprised that it was acceptable to arrive late.

The poor attendance record of some new councillors has been highlighted by others. I have no idea how much time they are spending on other council related activities but I would hope that having experienced the life of a councillor they have a better understanding of how difficult and demanding the role can be and that at times difficult decisions have to be made which even if unpopular are for the best interests of the community.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

David Amess

I was delighted to see that our MP David Amess has been given a knighthood in the New Years honours list. It is excellent to see a hard working and effective MP like David, who has been prepared to concentrate on representing his constituents rather than try to climb the greasy pole of government responsibility, being acknowledged and rewarded.

In our previous MP Paul Channon we were lucky to have an effective and charismatic representative at Westminster who rose to various important roles in cabinet, however when Pàul stepped down there was a desire to find a new type of candidate who would live in the constituency and have a more obvious and regular presence in the town. David has more than delivered, being a constant attendee at all important town events and forging relationships with numerous residents.

As well as being effective at helping residents with problems referred to him he has also proved to be a persistent and able representative of the interests of the town both in the Commons chamber itself but more importantly in the ears of government ministers and their civil servants. This is not something that is obvious to residents but in my years as council leader the value of his presence and the availability of his support could not be over exaggerated.

Whilst his political opponents may dislike some of his Conservative principles it is only those who are blind to the performance of an effective worker who will criticise his record as a great constituency MP who richly deserves this latest accolade.