Friday, 24 October 2014

The style of leadership

I was quite surprised to hear that Cllr Ron Woodley, my successor as council leader chose to abstain in the vote deciding whether the cabinet system should be retained or replaced by a committee system. There was added irony due to the fact that the report which was debated by members on the subject was published in Ron’s name.

I am not sure what aspect of this is more worthy of comment, the fact that the Council Leader is not prepared to express a view or take a lead on a potentially significant matter or that he allowed the paper, which was written with an understandable pro cabinet slant, to go out under his name if he did not support it’s contents.

Ron’s view of Leadership is clearly different from mine. I felt that it was incumbent on the Leader to express a view and attempt by argument and debate to persuade others. Ron seems to feel that he has a more passive role – almost of an unbiased mediator. This is strange for someone who was always happy to express a view in opposition and was after the Leader’s role for many months. Indeed I continue to think it odd that we have a Leader who is not even leader of his own political group.

Still we will see. I just hope that he is more vocal in the regular private meetings of cabinet and indeed when he is representing the interests of the Town in the LEP and elsewhere.

Committees - the 2nd damp squib!

I note that last night the 2nd headline initiative published by the Administration bit the dust with the failure to get council approval for a move from a cabinet to committee structure. I should say from the outset that I am a believer in the cabinet system which delivers faster and more effective decision making and has proved itself over recent years. I have commented on this previously. I also don’t accept this guff on the public wanting a committee system or it being more democratic to deal with policy making in committee and by cross party consensus. In my experience the majority of the public neither know nor care what system the council uses to take decisions – the issue for the them is that the right decisions are made and in an effective and responsive manner. It is also my view that the test of democracy and its strength is often the ability and input of the opposition which should be challenging, holding the administration to account where necessary and providing alternative solutions. Surely this is what distinguishes us from puppet governments with pretend opposition. However it does concern me that the current Leader and his party colleagues have been unable to deliver a change when they have been moaning about the cabinet system for so long. I realise that this is in part because of the non attendance of some UKIPers but even so it hardly gives the impression of strong and effective leadership. I also note Martin Terry’s impassioned plea for the retention of the cabinet system because of all the effective changes they have made to it! This actually appeared to be based primarily on the appointment of opposition chairs and vice chairs to scrutiny committees which was already being implemented under the previous administration but did not stop him from berating the system. Of course it’s a bit different when you are in power and the obligation to deliver rests with you but at least it would be good if Martin admitted that this was the reason for his change of heart rather than continuing to hold himself out as the saviour of democracy. Rather more chameleon than white knight. He may also wonder whether those continuing overtures which he and his colleagues have been making to UKIP are such a good idea if their members cannot be relied on to turn up for meetings. It would have been interesting but chaotic if the Indies and UKIP had been able to cobble together an administration.

Council rules of debate

In last night’s council debate on the possible return to committees it was interesting to note that usual procedures were suspended and the group leaders were each allowed to speak for longer than usual. I can’t help but wonder why, when they all announced that their groups were not operating under a whip. In the absence of a whip or agreed group line on a subject the leaders can talk only for themselves rather than having a mandate to speak for all their group members. So why give them longer than anybody else? They have no greater right to have a view than other members. I hope that this will not become the norm, particularly with debates like the budget. It would be bizarre if the Leader of the Council and the 3 group leaders who sit in the cabinet all had unlimited time to speak and it would unbalance the debate. The Leader of the Council and the Leaders of the Opposition groups should have the benefit of no limit. The rest should be bound by the usual rules as has always been the case with other cabinet members.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Scrap university tuition fees

It is time for another of my periodic rants on tuition fees. I was at a very enjoyable lunch at Westcliff Rugby Club on Saturday which was followed by an entertaining but, for the purposes of WRC, disappointing match with the away team ending up clear winners. Over lunch the Managing Partner of one of the leading accountancy firms in the town was discussing recruitment and how for accountants there remains the option of taking suitable recruits straight from school. Unfortunately this is not a viable option for solicitors where the expectation is that applicants will have either a law or other degree followed by the current solicitors final exams (known as the LPC) before starting a 2 year term as a trainee solicitor with a firm eventually resulting in qualification. There are ways of slightly shortcutting the process but the reality is that most applicants will have to navigate their law degree and possible also LPC before attempting to find a rare training contract and will by that time be burdened by the significant debt which is loaded on the majority of our graduates these days. I am in no doubt that this process deters many from less well off backgrounds who will not have the benefit of parental financial support and cannot face the mountain of debt and inevitable uncertainty they will face. This is simply not doing all we as a society should be doing to ensure opportunity for all, dependent on ability and not family financial resources. Whist the position in the law is accentuated by the LPC course and the 2 year training contract a similar challenge faces potential students in a range of other careers and is a far cry from the opportunities and support available when I was at that stage of my education. I had the benefit of no tuition fees and a full maintenance grant from Essex County Council to cover my degree and solicitors finals course. Living in a loving but financially stretched 1 parent family in rented accommodation I would simply not have been able to qualify without that support from my local community. How can it be right to burden our young people with debt, much of which will in any event never be repaid? How does this fit with concerns as to the levels of personal debt which many people now routinely accumulate? Labour introduced tuition fees without any electoral mandate (it was not in their manifesto) and having let the genie out of the bottle it becomes difficult to reverse it, particularly when linked as it was to an uncontrolled growth in university courses and numbers and, in my view, the disastrous decision to eliminate the distinction between universities and polytechnics. The coalition has only made the situation worse and don’t even get me started on the Lib Dems who on this issue have done so much to damage the credibility of national politicians with student voters. I remain of the view that tuition fees need to go. We should review the provision of further education in this county to better reflect the aspirations of our young people and the needs of business and of our society. If we are encouraging those who are able to do so to enjoy a uni career, then we should recognise that if the system is properly coordinated we should be helping them achieve well paid jobs which will result in them repaying our investment in tax over the coming years, or leading to a career which will operate to our direct benefit as a society. In either circumstance we should be prepared to fund it. As it is our students still need to fund their accommodation and living expenses but at least these are things over which they have an element of control. I think our young people have had a rough ride over the last 20 years or so and it is time we started doing something about it. I can think of no better starting point than tuition fees.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Labour spin on the NHS

Labour's health spokesman Andy Burnham was interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning and I am sure that I was not the only one left slightly depressed by his performance. I heard him speak a couple of years ago at the Local Government Association's annual assembly and he seemed to have a clear and realistic understanding of the massive challenges facing the future of the service to include the cost of the groundbreaking medical research being undertaken, increasing levels of expectation, the ageing population and the problems with the cost of social care. He had some interesting thoughts on improved links between health and social care although my understanding is that most of his conclusions were rejected by his own party leaders. This morning his golden ticket was to fund improved cancer services by a combination of mansion tax, increased tax on tobacco companies and a vague suggestion of raising greater tax income from hedge funds. He then said almost as an aside that a Labout government would also restructure to sort out the other funding problems facing the NHS. Well that's alright then! The reality is that the mansion house tax is some way from being deliverable as I have mentioned previously, the proposed tax on tobacco companies would raise relative peanuts and Mr Burnham did a good impression of not having a clue how the measures on hedge funds would deliver - something he seems to have in common with most other people. The truth is of course that measures along the lines announced do nothing to address the fundamental funding issues which face the NHS and if anything mislead the public by suggesting that with a policy along these lines the future of the NHS is safe. In my view the first reality is that the most important step in securing the future of the NHS is to deliver a strong economy. Without an underlying economic strength the NHS will inevitably crash into a financial buffer sooner rather than later. Having delivered that an adult and cross part debate needs to take place on the underlying priorities of the service and how these can be delivered in a fair and universal way.  I do not believe that there is any front line politician from either of the two main parties who is not committed to the future of the NHS and to suggest otherwise is the the politics of the playground. However this is too important an issue for the next election to degenerate into an " I can spend more than you" or "I care more than you do" argument. There needs to be a debate which goes to the core of the problems and which does not try to mislead the public. The reality is that successive governments have spent increasing money on health but for the reasons indicated above the demand is not going to reduce anytime soon. In the meantime in areas like Southend some excellent joined up thinking and working is taking place between health and adult care which I hope my successor will continue to prioritise because I am completely as one with Andy Burnham in believing that this is an area where improvements simply must be made.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Labour politician worth listening to

Whilst my Conservative affiliations are not in doubt I have never been so tribal as to be unable to admire (if not always to accept) the arguments put forward by representatives of other parties - or indeed to occasionally disagree with the views of some of my party colleagues ! I struggle to believe that anyone with a love of politics cannot be absorbed by the views and style of Tony Benn even whilst disagreeing with his views. Another Labour politician who always demands attention is Tam Dalyell. This was confirmed by the interview with him published in today's Independent. Of even greater concern is that on this occasion I agree with most of what he says. As the originator of the West Lothian question he framed one of the most simple but challenging questions of recent years. His views on delivering real devolution to Scotland and the rest of the UK, to include the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, scrapping of the unfair Barnett Formula, and the establishment of a proper system of regional government in Scotland is persuasive. For England he sees devolution but to the existing structure of local government. My main disagreement is his view that the county councils are best suited to deliver this whereas I prefer a single tier, unitary approach. He even highlights another issue which I have commented on previously namely the tendency of our modern Westminster elite to follow the path of university, researcher, advisor and then MP with no experience of the real world which can only increase the risk of a lack of contact between MPs and those they represent. An article which is well worth reading. My only concern is that I struggle within the current crop of front line Labour politicians to find those capable of stepping in to the shoes of Benn, Dalyell etc.

Seafront Development

This week has seen new and ambitious plans for the Golden Mile being published including an exciting mix of commercial and residential space. The plans were not a great surprise as I had been involved in preliminary discussions with the site owners as they were thinking up their plans. This important area for our leisure offer to both residents and visitors is in dire need of investment and improvement and I wish these plans success and hope that this does not turn into another false dawn for the site. My concerns about the plans have not changed. The height of the blocks, particularly adjacent to the Kursaal, are of concern. We have seen the negative effects of over high development elsewhere along the seafront. I also wonder whether the site will attract the necessary purchasers of high value flats in an area which comes with both the advantages and disadvantages of a prime Golden Mile location and sits close to an area of the Town Centre which continues to offer significant financial and social challenges - perhaps not the best selling tag. Still this is not the time for negativity. Perhaps significant investment of this kind will prove to be a touch paper for long term improvement to some of our more challenging town centre areas.