Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Southend Council's Budget - "..something is rotten in the state of Denmark"!

 

It is unfortunate that at such a challenging time for our Town, businesses and residents the Council has been controlled by a rag tail coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Independents who regrettably have failed to rise adequately to the challenge.

Their recent annual budget was depressingly predictable in its lack of imagination and realism. Fortunately following uproar from local businesses and residents supported by the Conservative opposition the ridiculous proposal to raise seafront parking charges to £24 per day was scaled back - however the increase still remains unacceptably high as does the increase in council tax. These measures can only hit the Town Centre, our businesses and residents when many are already reeling from the financial effects of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.

However of greater concern is the underlying refusal to face economic reality, abandon political vanity projects and lay a solid base for the future.

As is often the case the most interesting information is available in the papers prepared in support of the Administration’s budget.

I was particularly intrigued by the comments on the Medium Term Financial Strategy. The MTFS currently shows a projected budget gap for the Council of £20.7 million for the following four financial years. This is a massive hole and is in the context of a budget for next year which in addition to making the money grab on parking charges and council tax referred to above also requires £2.5 million from Reserves in 2021/22 to balance the budget. The MTFS is also based on assumptions as to levels of central government funding and future interest rates which if wrong would signpost additional major problems.

Most interestingly the budget paper comments:

The Council may need to increase focus on the delivery of its services in a more targeted way, concentrating on delivering services to those residents who most need the Council’s support. The Council may also need to review and change its approach to tailoring the delivery of its many statutory services. To underpin these new arrangements the Council will continue to reposition its role as one to work alongside the community, its residents and businesses, to try to improve the many contributing factors that affect people’s lives.

This “possibility” is in my view a statement of the obvious. It was the underlying policy followed by the Conservative administrations between 2007 and 2014 who grasped the need to change the approach to make the Council more focussed and financially efficient – an view that has clearly slipped in recent years. We believed that reserves were to be protected as an important safety net, fees and council tax needed to be kept competitive to support businesses and residents, and  spending needed to concentrate on core services for those in need coupled with creative investment which would deliver for the Town economically in future years.

The question is why have the Administration not followed this approach in the current budget rather than shying away from difficult decisions and rolling the problem on to future years. In the meantime increasing borrowing on projects such as the acquisition of the Victorias is only destined to make the situation worse.

I can’t help but bring to mind the words of the Bard… “Something is not right, seriously amiss...If the authorities knew about the problems and chose not to prevent them, then clearly something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

The challenge of Covid for Southend High Street

Having been invited by Oracle to submit an article I thought that I would further expand on my growing concerns about the High Street. For those who do not receive the Oracle this is what I said:

“As we struggle to combat this horrendous pandemic there is little doubt that even before its outbreak Southend High Street was already “vulnerable” and that covid has made the situation worse with less footfall and increasing numbers of void properties. 

We all know many of the underlying problems to include the influence of internet buying, failing businesses and over large units with rents and business rates to match. Southend has further and more specific challenges with an overlong High Street with shopping centres at both ends, high car parking charges and concerns about security.

The investment by Primark in the old BHS site is a beacon of positivity but with concerns as to its existing site, particularly with Debenhams still struggling. The plan to develop Seaway seems to be further stretching the length of the shopping. 

We now hear that the owners of the Victoria Shopping Centre are seeking to sell and there are rumours that Southend Council may be considering acquiring the site. I can only hope that these rumours are unfounded. The Victoria has been transformed over the years from the unwelcoming wind tunnel open to the elements and yet even with this investment it has clearly remained a struggle to attract tenants. Perhaps this is in part due to the factors I have already mentioned. 

I believe that it would be misguided for public money to be used to acquire the development for three main reasons. Firstly whilst council officers have many skills these are in the areas of the public sector. They do not have the experience or expertise to take on responsibility for a large and challenging commercial development, particularly in trying times such as these. They have more than enough to concentrate on improving and delivering council services in a reactive and cost effective manner. 

Secondly investments of this kind are driven by the correct analysis of risk. Private entrepreneurs are risking their own money and reputations. Council officers and members are risking the money of Southend residents and businesses and if it all goes horribly wrong most if not all of them will be long gone with the rest of us left to pick up the pieces and the bill. 

Finally the Council needs to get a grip on the problems facing the High Street. It would be very difficult if the Council had made a significant investment in a commercial centre at one end of the High Street to view future decision making on the High Street without factoring in this “special interest”. 

There are a number of actions which can be taken to support the High Street, some of which are reasonably short term, but these need to be in the context of a sensible overall plan. In my view the first challenge is the central section under the railway bridge which has an important role in connecting the two ends, but faces issues with empty units and a feeling of being unsafe, particularly at night. Perhaps that is the ideal location for the encouragement of café culture rather than at the northern end, improving footfall and creating the required bridge. I would like to see the reintroduction of traffic at both ends of the High Street – even if only in the evenings - to address the “safety” issue. 

As others have said we need to encourage housing back into the High Street to take advantage of the current vacant units which are available above ground floor level. Who knows with more people living and shopping in the centre of town it might be possible to encourage a supermarket back to the High Street with all the benefits that would bring.

I would like to see a reversal of the apparent anti-car policy being pursued by the current Administration and demonstrated by elements of the Queensway plan and the reality remains that parking charges are too high and this also needs to be addressed. 

Whilst if we can increase those living in the Town Centre they may feel that a car is not necessary the reality remains that many of those millions of visitors who come to the Town come by car and that is not going to change anytime soon. 

We need to continue to encourage and support the seafront and our seafront traders which give us such an important advantage over many other Towns and cities of our size. 

Finally I would like to see the encouragement of an area for the provision of smaller and affordable units to encourage the return of small independent traders and the arts to build on another area of the Town’s strength. The challenge is there – let us hope that the Council is capable is standing up and delivering.”

Monday, 1 June 2020

Council commercial investment concerns

I see that the Government has expressed concern about the policy pursued by some local councils of investing council funds in the acquisition of commercial properties which, as a result of the effects of the virus, are not performing as originally anticipated.
This comes as no great surprise.

As long ago a blog item on this site posted on 27th January 2016 under the title “Speculation on Sea” I expressed my concern at the decision of the Rainbow Alliance to pursue a speculative policy of seeking to acquire commercial property to deliver income streams and capital appreciation and noted that the latest budget proposed the allocation of £6M over the next 3 years providing a pot for this purpose.

This policy was being driven by the then Leader Independent Ron Woodley who in my time on the Council was never shy to advise us of his prowess in all things financial.- something which was rarely apparent from the policies he pursued!

As I commented in January 2016 “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….”

Well perhaps not this time with Ron the current Deputy Leader of the Council. I do not know the extent to which Ron’s policy was implemented and how Council investments have been hit, however this needs to be made clear to the public over the coming months as the situation develops and the Government’s current concern is clearly well founded.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The BBC and double standards!

Am I alone in thinking that there is a whiff of hypocrisy in the air over some elements of the media’s coverage of the Dominic Cummings affair?

BBC chiefs have acknowledged that the comments made by experienced presenter Emily Maitlis on Tuesday’s Newsnight were not acceptable and are quoted as saying “….the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality”.

Now I would have thought that an acknowledgement that the comments of a senior and respected presenter on one of the BBC’s flagship programmes breached the BBC’s standards of due impartiality would be regarded as important. Is not the reputation of the BBC and its public funding based on its reputation for impartiality? However I have seen no apology by Ms Maitlis or the production team for this serious error.

Indeed the item on the BBC’s website seemed to support their presenter highlighting that she had not been removed from the following night’s programme but that she had asked “for the night off”. The programmes editor and deputy editor were both quoted making clear that Ms Maitlis had not been taken off air or replaced and Ms Maitlis was quoted via her twitter account referring to being “overwhelmed by all the kindness, messages – and support on here…”.

Of course the subject matter of her comments were the Prime Minister’s continued support of Mr Cummings notwithstanding him allegedly breaking the rules. Is it just me that spots a certain irony – is it a case of do what we say and not what we do?

Similarly I saw in the media pictures of the scrum of reporters outside Mr Cumming’s house all striving for a comment or photograph. There seemed to be a police officer in attendance but no obvious concern at the apparent failure of this media scrum to properly social distance.
We have also had to endure the daily press conferences with reporters given the privilege of being allowed to question the Government representative and advisors but so often squandering that opportunity by repeating questions asked previously or asking a question when it was apparent to all that the answer was either obvious, or on some occasions unknown. No wonder the idea of questions from members of the public was introduced.

There also seems to be the view running across all TV programmes that to achieve a good or effective interview there is a requirement for the questioner to be aggressive and to interrupt constantly rather than using guile and intellect to achieve an illuminating response.
When all this is over and the relevant data is to hand reaction to the virus will need to be properly reviewed (hopefully avoiding an excess of hindsight!) but perhaps the BBC should also be prepared to critically assess the performance of its own team.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Tory opposition leads the way!

Congratulations to Southend’s Conservative opposition group for looking past the current lockdown and drawing up a focussed 10 point plan as to their priorities to support the Town to recover and revitalise after the lockdown.

I have yet to see any similar or alternative clear cut statement of priorities from the Coalition Administration running the Town but bearing in mind their lack of a common voice and failure to break from the more functional control of senior officers and look to the bigger picture this is perhaps not surprising.

We all know that the economic effect of the lockdown on our businesses and many employees has been massive and that our local economy will need to be supported and encouraged over the coming months. With our excellent seafront we have an advantage over many other towns and cities of our size however the High Street was nearing collapse before Covid struck and the situation will now have further deteriorated.

Now is the time for the Council to act urgently and in a clear and focussed manner, attempting to work with our Businesses to support their protection and development. It would be good to see the waiver of parking charges for a period to encourage people back and certainly not to become diverted by vanity projects which will take years to deliver.

Of course if in doubt they could always embrace the Tories’ plan….

Monday, 25 May 2020

A cogent message to visitors!

One of my favourite TV moments is the famous extract from Sky’s Soccer Saturday when Chris Kamara is the match analyser at the Portsmouth v Blackburn match and the cameras switch to him at the ground to ask for an update on a recent red card. Unfortunately he has completely missed it and is left trying to make sense of events unfolding behind him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McdjBaChdBA

My thoughts went back to this clip a few days ago watching Southend Independent Councillor and Cabinet member Martin Terry commenting on potential visitors to Southend seafront following the initial relaxation of lockdown rules.

As Martin faced the camera bouncing enthusiastically on his toes he failed to communicate any clear or joined up policy on visitors to the sea front and seemed unaware of the numbers already building behind him. In the circumstances it was perhaps not surprising that the message was confused and Southend subsequently made the national media as a result of the high number of visitors, many of whom through choice or necessity did not appear to get the social distancing message.

It raises obvious concerns as to whether Cllr Terry and his Labour/Independent/Liberal Democrat colleagues are working on a cogent media message supported by practical policies to encourage visitors back to Southend. Our retailers and sea front traders will need practical and effective support from the local authority to ensure that potential visitors know that over the coming summer months they are welcome back to the Town the seafront. As some potential foreign destinations are starting to increase their efforts to entice back tourists over the summer Southend needs to ensure that we are ready and able to take advantage of a possible rise in Staycations when faced with increased competition from both abroad and other UK destinations.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Lockdown:Belfairs Golf Course - what is the priority?

I am fortunate to live close to Belfairs woods and golf course and this has been a godsend with the introduction of lockdown as it has been a great location for daily exercise. I have not been alone with many hundreds of others also taking advantage of the space to socially distance.

The shutting of the course made this even easier with the wide fairways being available to walk and in more recent time for household groups to sit or play. Many families have taken advantage of this, mixing in these wide open spaces with dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and the occasional horse rider with only a very few idiots deliberately cycling across the greens. The bunkers seem to have served many young children as an alternative sand pit!

I can imagine the frustration of golfers anxious to resume their favourite sport and on this Friday the course reopened. Inevitably this has caused problems. With the course being used by what at least today seemed like a limited number of golfers the many other walkers and visitors have been confined to the paths and tracks through the woods causing challenges to ensure adequate distancing. Inevitably some walkers were still venturing on to the fairways and the risk of dispute with golf course users or injury from flying golf balls seems high.

It does provide an interesting question – should a publically owned course like Belfairs remain closed for the time being until current rules on social distancing are relaxed to allow the greater space to be used by local residents for exercise or should the golfers take precedence?

I suppose that if it continues to be over busy on the walkways we will need to look elsewhere – perhaps the beach except that is not a great idea with the current level of users escalating!