Wednesday, 29 June 2016

An interesting week

Well they say that a week is a long time in politics – it certainly has been this week. So I thought I would throw in my views for what they are worth!

Europe – I have always regarded myself as generally pro the European ideal but admit to voting leave. My main reason was the complete lack of any real democratic accountability, and the clear view of the those at the centre of European power that they can ignore the concerns and wishes of the millions of people they are employed to represent.

Just as the current EU bears no relation to the free trade area we originally voted for, there can be no doubt that an In vote would have resulted in us being tied to an organisation which was set to become larger, more controlling and unified without adequate democratic controls in place. The view of the “powers to be” was demonstrated by their complete failure to give David Cameron any meaningful concessions during the pre referendum negotiations in apparent ignorance of the tide of anti EU feeling sweeping across the continent, and then being surprised at the resulting outcome.

Notwithstanding my own vote (and my immediate family was split down the middle on the issue) I was surprised and, at least for the short term, a little apprehensive when I woke to discover the result.

David Cameron – I don’t believe that he should have resigned. He fought an election campaign offering a referendum and must have anticipated the possibility of a leave vote. If it was a wholly unacceptable option then why agree to a referendum in the first place. He was elected to do a job and should using his experience in leading the country through the challenging negotiations yet to come. One of my family described his resignation speech as akin to a child throwing its toys out of a pram. If he cares as much about the country as he says, and I am sure he does, then how does he think the uncertainty of a change of leadership will help the situation.

Labour – I get that large parts of the parliamentary party think that Corbyn is an electoral liability. However this is hardly a new revelation. I fail to see how it helps anyone to precipite this crisis in the leadership of the main opposition party at this challenging time. If Labour MPs did not want him then why not all resign en mass earlier?

Westminster – will some of our MP’s ever get it? The public have been making their distaste with some of the attitudes adopted by the “Establishment” increasingly clear. So now, at a difficult time when our politicians should be working together to stabilise the markets and forge an exit from the EU is a constructive way which works to the benefit of the UK and our former partners, what are they doing? Concentrating on in fighting and leadership elections and point scoring. The irony is that one of the outcomes of the referendum is to give our MPs proper control of our destiny so isn’t it about time they started stepping up to the plate.

Scotland – it was inevitable that whatever the outcome the SNP would try to manipulate the position to support their ongoing calls for independence. This is hardly a surprise as it is their raison d’être. However if my maths are correct, and if you take the percentage of Scottish voters who actually bothered to vote in the referendum, it demonstrates that about 4 in 10 of the overall Scottish electorate voted to remain. I appreciate that elections are correctly decided on the votes of those who bother to turn up, but if the SNP is now claiming that Scotland is massively committed to staying in Europe how do they explain that only about 4 in 10 of them bothered to vote remain.

They also fail to comment on the fact that the practicality of Independence was based not on Scotland continuing to receive the oil income being generated at that time, but o a massive increase in oil income. In reality oil receipts have gone through the floor. The case for independence as previously outlined in not economically viable – unless they are hoping that rather being subsidised by the rest of the UK they will rely on handouts from the EU!

Friday, 27 May 2016

M&S till receipts

Without wishing to descend in to the role of a grumpy old man I do not understand the current M&S stance on till receipts.

On the basis that I am not sufficiently organised to bring a packed lunch to work I usually stroll round to M&S in the High Street for a sandwich and an apple.

As the humans on the quick tills have continued to disappear I am increasingly forced to use the self service tills.

I am more than happy with the current rule on plastic bags and have no intention of chipping in an extra 5p so inevitably leave the store simply holding my purchases openly in my hand.

What I am surprised about is the change to the machines which asks whether the customer wants a till receipt – whatever means of payment has been used. It is almost as though we are being encouraged to save paper and go without. I usually request a receipt but today, distracted by a fragrant lady on the next till, I hit the wrong button and found myself leaving the store with my goods on open display and without bag or receipt.

I am not quite sure what I would have been expected to do if I had been stopped by security querying whether I had paid as I had nothing to evidence that I had. The absence of automatically issued receipts, particularly in the absence of free bags, does seem a rather strange development.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

C2C @ Leigh - how annoying!

I have to say that in general terms I am a great supporter of C2C. Whilst not a daily commuter, I do travel to London reasonably regularly for work and pleasure and always travel on this line. I also have clear memories of the atrocious service pre C2C and there can be no disputing the massive improvements in train quality, cleanliness and punctuality.

As a non daily commuter I have not been greatly affected by the recent timetable change argument although generally found the old timetable fine except the frustration of 4 carriage trains being used at times when demand meritied more carriages.

But, and there was always going to be a “but”, there are some really annoying things which bug me every time I travel.

Firstly the car park at Leigh on Sea. When I travel to London during the week I usually drive back from Southend to Leigh to make my journey home shorter after the return trip. By the time I arrive the car park is pretty full but with occasional spaces. Ignoring the ridiculously high charges for a car park serving their customers who are already paying quite hefty fares bearing in mind the distances involved, and the very tight spaces which means that even getting out of a relatively small car like mine is dependent upon the cars on each side being parked towards the middle of their spaces as well as demanding the flexibility of a Caribbean limbo dancer to manoeuvre out, what is going on with the ticket machines?

The last time I went there appeared to be only 1 machine working in the entire (quite large) car park with the others covered with black bin bags, and this machine not only required some technical ability almost beyond a technophobe like me to operate but was also rejecting cash. What is going on? – do they not want people to pay the extortionate parking fees they are charging? The reaction of the few people who arrived with me wavered between frustration, anger and disbelief.

If we are going to encourage commuters to park in railway car parks and not the adjoining residential streets these car parks need to be reasonably priced and user friendly which regrettably in my opinion Leigh on Sea is not.

And whilst on the subject of tickets there does seem to be a deliberate policy of ensuring that at times when large numbers of customers want to buy a ticket there should only be one person on duty selling them, and equipped with the slowest ticket technology that it is possible to contemplate. And I know about the automatic ticket machines but the last time I tried to use one of those I could not get the best value ticket available at the counter. Surely those ticket printing machines are long past their sell by date.

So come on C2C – let’s sort these problems out!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Aylen Election Leaflets

I always think that it is quite interesting, after the dust has settled on the election results, to look back at some of the material circulated by candidates. I know that regrettably it is increasingly usual for candidates to claim credit for things they have not done or to try to frighten voters with scare stories about policies which have no chance of being implemented, but some seem to have elevated this approach to a fine art.

In Southend Belfairs Independent Steve Aylen has proved particularly adept at this. We are all used to his sudden spate of items and letters in the local press in the months leading to his election which demonstrate a great skill for self publicity but this is nothing to some of the election material he distributes.

Having looked at his latest batch of election material, and ignoring the frankly insulting and unpleasant references to the Conservative candidate, he has truly excelled himself this year.

In one particular leaflet he identifies 19 things which he claims would not have been done without him, and 13 issues where he has stepped in to save Belfairs.

I am not sure what is more concerning – that he actually believes these claims to be true or that he realises that the majority are complete hogwash and is therefore setting out to mislead the electors as to his involvement.

The actions he takes personal credit for include improvements to Belfairs Golf Course, retention of weekly refuse collections, modern street lighting, the existence of the Woodland Centre (which at the outset he was strongly opposed to!), a reduction in “flooding issues”, grass verges being cut, street trees being protected etc etc. At best he can claim a part in some of these whilst a member of the Conservative Group by supporting the Leadership who had developed these policies with others. Following his election as an Independent he voted against a number of these policies and in any event they would have been delivered irrelevant of his position on the Council.

He then suggests that without him Fairway would have been widened with a 40mph speed limit, houses would have been built in the park, the golf course would have been closed, Prittlewell Brook would have been closed to pedestrians, dog walkers would have been banned from Belfairs Park at weekends, there would have been a travellers site on the corner of Eastwood Old Road and the Fairway, there would be no bus service to Belfairs, and so on.

I am surprised he stopped at that and did not claim to have saved the residents from the spread of plague and pestilence, an oil refinery in Woodside, the construction of Heathrow’s new runway in Belfairs Park and the introduction of the compulsory viewing of X Factor!

For those of us who know what rubbish this is then it is difficult to avoid a wry smile but it is the unacceptable face of local politics. Even more remarkable that this Independent Councillor was being championed by the Leigh Times.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Change of Council control

I did dip in to the webcast of last night’s Council Meeting to enjoy the return of Conservative colleagues to power. I am particularly delighted for John Lamb, who having spent 7 years as my highly capable, enthusiastic and loyal deputy deserved his chance at the top job. I am sure he will do very well.

I was also pleased to see the return to the cabinet table of a number of my former colleagues namely James Courtenay, Lesley Salter, Mark Flewitt, Tony Cox and Andrew Moring who have proved their ability and commitment in the past and will have learnt from that experience. Ann Holland is also a very experienced and well regarded former cabinet post holder and will provide strong support for John. This team return with detailed knowledge of their portfolios and the issues facing the Council and will be well able to step up to the urgent problems and demands which they have inherited from the Rainbow Alliance.

The one surprise is to see the appointment of Trevor Byford. He clearly has considerable technical expertise however in my time on the Council I cannot recall him ever contributing to full council meetings or the scrutiny meetings I attended. As cabinet holders the ability to perform in the chamber, in scrutiny committees and in the wider community is essential and we will see how he gets on.

I was sorry to see no cabinet role for Derek Jarvis. He remains in my view the best Culture Portfolio holder we have had and I hope his experience in this area is not lost.

I have to admit to finding Cllr Ron Woodley’s singing contribution to his departure speech cringingly embarrassing. It did not help that he is no great orator or singer but his other problem is that for someone who has generally performed in the chamber in an aggressive and confrontational manner it makes it difficult to suddenly switch in to Mr Happy. In my experience the only former Leader who could pull off a light hearted delivery without seeming ridiculous was Charles Latham who even gave much of one notable budget speech in rhyming couplets – alas before the introduction of webinars. He was a consensus politician liked across the Chamber but even he would have struggled with bursting in to song!

Friday, 13 May 2016

Let's keep politics out of politics!!

I was intrigued by a letter in today’s Echo by Peter Lovett who stood as an Independent in West Shoebury last week and only narrowly lost. He commented “It is a shame that politics plays a part in councils and with UKIP holding the balance of power, it will lead to deals that are not necessary (sic) the best option for residents or where people even have input”.

This is really quite a bizarre comment and emphasises the fault line running through the campaign which has been run by Independents across the town for some years and with no little success. It panders to the general “anti politician” view among the public but does not stand up to closer examination.

Politics is surely the process of making decisions which apply to the wider community. Without politics there would be no democratic process. It is also inevitable that in all politics, whether within parties or across different parties, there will be the need for discussion, negotiation, compromise and occasionally argument because we do not all agree – life would be boring if we did. This process usually leads to “deals” as if not there would be no agreement and nothing would get done. To suggest that just because the local electorate have placed UKIP in the position to be involved in some of those “deals” the process is flawed cannot be right.

Of course it may be that in fact Mr Lovett’s real beef is against party politics rather than politics itself. This is in my view another fallacy circulated in recent years by the Independent Group. Party politics and politicians give an often disinterested public a shorthand account of a candidates core beliefs and priorities which are then supplemented by any personal attributes and specific and personal policies which they spell out. If I vote for a Labour or Conservative candidate then I know in general terms where they are likely to stand on issues such as state intervention, tax rates etc. If I vote for an Independent I know about their personal attributes and specific core beliefs (if they have bothered to tell me in their election material) but if elected have absolutely no idea on where they stand on a range of other fundamentally important issues. They are asking for a blank cheque which is hardly democratic. This is even worse when, as in Southend, they form an effective party where they have the restrictions of party membership but with no common or agreed core values.

So I remain a strong supporter of both politics and party politics at a local level and whilst agree that on occasions a one issue Independent has an important role this farce of a formal Independent Party/Group(s) is the real risk to accountable politics.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Honorary Aldermen - not sure!

It was interesting to see the recent decision of Southend Council to start to appoint Honorary Aldermen and women, and the resulting decision to bestow this honour on seven illustrious ex councillors, all of whom are previous mayors.

I have to admit that I am no great supporter of the honours system at any level (perhaps because there is no chance of me being offered one!) but I did struggle to see the point of this latest move. As ex mayors they already hold an important position in the history of the Town, have their photographs on display in Porters and their names etched into the wall of the Civic Centre. They are on the council’s “worthies” invitation list so what does this add? Are the public greatly impressed by councillors rewarding councillors in this way? I am not sure. At least with freemen there was an attempt on occasions to throw the net wider than ex councillors and officers.

Having said that if there is an obvious oversight it does seem to me the absence of any formal record of ex Leaders and Chief Executives. From a practical point of view the Leader of the council is the most influential councillor and can have a massive effect on the Town, both through the policies they champion but also the colleagues they endorse in to positions of importance.

It is quite difficult to establish the roll call of past Leaders and certainly there is no formal list at the Civic Centre or Porters. Whilst I would not suggest they be recognised as Honorary Alderman or otherwise it does seem strange that they are not formally listed at the Civic Centre or even merit a place on the “worthies list” unless they also happen to be ex-mayors.

As a group they (we) might on occasions be unpopular and controversial but we have all put our heads over the parapet to do what we think it in the best interests of the Town. Similarly the Chief Executives are massively important and have left a permanent legacy in the Town.

So what about a roll call of the more recent Leaders Nick Hall, David Dedman, Norman Clarke, Charles Latham, Graham Longley, Howard Briggs, Anna Waite, Murray Foster, yours truly and Ron Woodley, and the Chief Executives Douglas Moulson, George Krawiec and Rob Tinlin.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Leigh Times - a poor judgement call?

It has surprised some in the past to learn that my daily newspaper of choice was The Independent. My wife and I bought it from its initial publication and stayed with it through numerous make over’s and changes of editor until earlier this year when it finally stopped being printed in hard copy. I like a newspaper that challenges some of my opinions and we have struggled to find a replacement.

However the one time I almost cancelled my order was in the General Election before last when the paper called on its readers to vote Labour at the polls. I like to think that my annoyance was not caused by the fact that I was being asked to support “the other side” but that a paper which had always sold itself as Independent should think it appropriate to call on its readers to vote in a particular way rather than to present the issues and leave us to decide. I assumed that any regular reader of the paper would be of sufficient independence of mind to cast their vote irrelevant of this call and, like me, would regard it as ridiculous.

I was reminded of this reading the recent Leigh Times leader encouraging readers to vote for Steve Aylen, Dr Vel and Peter Wexham in the recent Southend Council elections. The Leigh Times is a respected local voice and in my view that reputation has been built on providing balanced and informed coverage of local affairs and politics to its readers. To jump to the support of these select candidates was out of keeping with that reputation and raises issues of independence in future coverage. It is also clear that their evaluation of the strengths of the three gentlemen in question was not as balanced as it might have been!

In fact my copy of the paper was received on Friday morning so it would have made no difference but …. If voters were swayed and the outcome influenced in those wards how does that sit with the reputation of the paper, and if not then what was the point.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Local Elections 2016

I have taken a break from this blog over recent months instead concentrating my efforts as election agent for John Lamb in West Leigh. It was worth the effort with John enjoying a great result, increasing his majority from 4 years ago.

Overall the evening was a good one for Southend Conservatives gaining seats in Blenheim and Prittlewell as well as defending seats across the Town which as a result of a range of factors to include the looming EU referendum were under challenge.

The results in Belfairs and Leigh were disappointing but may have been influenced by the bizarre intervention of the Leigh Times - but that is a subject for a later blog.

With 24 seats out of 51 there can be no doubt that the democratic mandate rests with the Conservative Party and any further attempt to prevent a return to control would fly in the face of a vote which saw 1 prominent Independent Councillor, and 2 other seats held by central members of the Rainbow Alliance falling to the Tories.

John Lamb has now apparently reached an understanding with UKIP. Let us hope that Ron Woodley has the good grace to resign and let them get on with it rather than hanging on desperately to his Leader’s allowance. It is relevant to note that in 2013 when faced with the same dilemma of a loss of seats I resigned as Leader even though not obliged to do so and then re stood allowing Council to have it say in circumstances where there was no overall control. I was returned to power with the votes of Ron and the Thorpe Bay Independents in return for certain Committee Chairs and concessions so let us hope they do not criticise a similar arrangement with UKIP this time round.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Speculation on Sea

The Rainbow Alliance in charge at Southend Council had previously confirmed its intention to pursue a speculative policy of seeking to acquire commercial property to deliver income streams and capital appreciation and the latest budget proposes the allocation of £6M over the next 3 years providing a pot for this purpose.

It is being funded by increased borrowing and adds to a further figure of £1M for the possible acquisition of properties in Queensway.

Ignoring the irony of this policy bearing in mind council leader Ron Woodley’s previous stance on borrowing this policy continues to raise major concerns.

If properties are in Southend they will be added to an existing range of properties owned by the Council in the Town and make the council’s finances increasingly dependent on the strength of the market in this specific areas. It is a policy based on putting all your eggs in one basket! If properties are sought outside the Town then they are in areas of which the Council, its members and officers have no specific knowledge and may be unaware of the resulting perils.

Effective property acquisition often requires quick and reactive decisions to be taken and is completely unsuited to the restraints imposed on a democratically accountable organisation like SBC.

Council officers are generally very able and dedicated in the areas they are qualified in – however commercial property acquisition in circumstances requiring good returns on both an income and capital basis is generally not one of them.

If the market slumps and the Council is sitting on the wrong investments the effect could be substantial – the problem is that by the time that happens those responsible for this decision will be long gone leaving a future Conservative administration to pick up the pieces as normal.

I fully accept that the Council needs to identify and develop alternative income streams wherever possible but it does not seem to me that the risks of this policy has been fully highlighted to the public.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Ron Woodley - Southend's answer to Jim Hacker

I have always been a great fan of the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister situation comedies and there were regular occasions when as Council Leader I would be faced with an explanation from council officers which could have been lifted straight from the mouth of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

However it would seem that some members of Southend’s current rainbow alliance also lean towards the Jim Hacker approach to politics. For Christmas I received Graham McCann’s fascinating background account of the series’ “A very courageous decision” and he highlights the inspiration the writers took from some real life politics to include examples of leading politicians arguing for a particular reform when in opposition but then defending the policy they were attacking when in power.

In Southend politics nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Leader Ron Woodley’s stance on borrowing. In opposition he constantly attacked the level of council borrowing, although he was always reluctant to identify any specific projects dependent on that borrowing that he would not have undertaken.

Now in power he heralds the new approach to borrowing and the reductions he has delivered. This is complete and utter hogwash. Admittedly the repayments on borrowing have been lower than initially anticipated however this has been as a result of the treasury management skills of officers and the far lower interest rates which have applied over the period – certainly nothing to do with the policies introduced by Ron and his pals.

In fact in the last budget I presented in 2014 the proposed borrowing for the coming year of 2016/17 was identified as £15.9M. In the proposals recently released by Cllr Woodley for 2016/17 he advocates internal and external borrowing totalling £31.2M with an additional call of £8.3M on earmarked reserves and revenue contributions – otherwise known as stripping the cupboard bare! This includes a significant number of new schemes and additions to the capital programme funded by borrowing.

And yet he still argues that he has been tough on borrowing. The interesting question is does he really believe this rubbish or can he just not confront the fact that his opposition stance on borrowing was wrong. Incidentally we also heard him say year after year that major economies could be made by cutting red tape in the Civic Centre. He has not delivered on that either!