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.