Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Blog break until September

Recognising that we are in the middle of holiday season and local politics are quiet I am taking a blog break until the beginning of September. So I am not just being lazy but looking forward to returning to monitor the activities of our Joint Administration and commenting on a range of local and wider issues then.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

West Lothian (part 2)

On 25th July I commented on the Independence vote in Scotland and the probability that if the “no” vote wins we would see increased devolution of power in any event. I see from today’s joint announcement from the Leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems that this offer has now been confirmed as a further incentive for the Scots to reject the breakup of the union. However as I said before this continues to increase the need for all major political parties to face up to the West Lothian question and to reassure the English as to how we are to be protected from a ridiculous situation where decisions on issues in England, which in Scotland are being taken by the Scottish parliament, may be taken by a House of Commons distorted by the voice of Scottish MPs and potentially in line with decisions of a government only in place because of election results in Scotland. When the outcome of the Scottish vote is known it will be time for the English to start pressing harder for this tricky question to be finally and fairly resolved.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Beecroft Art Gallery

I am delighted to see the Beecroft Gallery now opening in its new home in the old central library building in Victoria Avenue. When the new Forum project started to take shape the issue of what to do with the old building needed to be addressed. Various options were considered to include the possibility of using it for a new school, before the present plan was devised. The original building housing the Beecroft was always intended as a temporary home. It was in poor structural condition and was not particularly accessible. It did not do justice to the gallery itself which at times has risked being too much of a "hidden gem". The new home will provide far enhanced facilities and a home in the middle of the town which will hopefully encourage ever greater numbers of visitors. It is good to see a further initiative of the last Administration coming to fruition.

A cultural weekend

One of the benefits of living in Leigh is that London is so accessible. I have mentioned in a previous blog that a few weeks ago my wife and saw the RSC production of Wolf Hall and on Saturday it was time to see the second play based on Hilary Mantell’s popular novels “Bring Up the Bodies”. As before the show was first rate and I would not hesitate to recommend it. This second play was slightly darker than the first and it is worth seeing Wolf Hall first but the entire cast were spot on and greatly appreciated by the sell out audience. A enjoyment of the West End stage is something engrained in to me by my late mother who would take me and my siblings to shows whenever she could afford it. There are few cultural experiences which beat the excitement and anticipation of sitting in a West End auditorium for the 15 minutes or so before the curtain rises – particularly so now that nearly all theatres allow you to take in drinks from the bar in suitable plastic cups! It is fair to say that there has been a change in the nature and make up of audiences over the last 40 years or so. My mother would have been appalled at a failure to “dress up” to see a show and would not have approved of the jeans, shorts and trainers sported by increasing numbers of attendees, but in my view it is important not to be too precious about such things. So long as those sitting around me manage to survive the performance without using their phone, talking unnecessarily, constantly opening sweets with frustratingly loud wrapping or engaging in sexual foreplay I am happy and the fact that audiences have become increasingly diverse and young is an excellent indicator for the future. The key is ensuring that your behaviour does not unnecessarily mar the enjoyment of your fellow members of the audience or indeed the actors themselves. We also took the opportunity to visit one of our favourite spaces in London, the Royal Academy. We have become ever more regular visitors over recent years and became Friends of the RA a couple of years ago – a very worthwhile investment. On this trip we saw the Summer Exhibition which provided the usual balance of exceptional art, challenging art and in some cases (in my view!) crap art. It is particularly interesting to see the prices indicated for the relevant pieces – some of which defy belief. Together with the Courtauld Gallery and the National Photographic Gallery the RA is probably our favourite of the moment although we have attended some great exhibitions at the British Museum, and National Gallery during the last year. Tate Modern was a regular for us but I have become increasingly unfulfilled by a visit there and still feel that the best use of the carbine hall was the first presentation many years ago with a large setting sum projected over the far wall which created a marvellous and enchanting atmosphere across the whole hall. The space has in my view been under used since then. Some modern art I love and some (Tracy Emin) I don’t, but then that is the great thing about it – sometimes not liking something can be as stimulating as loving it, in that it challenges your values and perceptions.

Friday, 1 August 2014

UKIP & the Indies plot a new coalition

There is an intriguing article in the Echo today suggesting that it remains the aspiration of the UKIP and Independent party groups on Southend council to form a joint administration following the next local elections with supporting quotes from their respective party leaders Cllrs. James Moyies and Martin Terry. It also stated that UKIP would have been in the current Administration save for the objections of the Lib Dems and Labour. Apart from the fact that this would require substantial gains by the 2 parties it raises some other questions. At present UKIP are in opposition and have a responsibility to hold the Administration to account. Is this likely if they still regard the Independents as their most likely route to future power? The current Administration faces a challenging few months and the need to agree and deliver a cost reducing budget. Are UKIP already convinced that they will find an as yet undrafted budget acceptable and a suitable base for future collaboration? Mr Moyies suggests that such an alliance would move away from the constraints of party politics. This of course ignores the fact that it would be based on a partnership between 2 party groups who have shown no greater inclination to disagree on any particular issue than members of the other 3 party groups. But most specifically what are their joint aspirations and policies for the Town which makes this apparent partnership a match made in heaven? If they feel that they have a slate of proactive policies to deliver the required economies, drive up service standards and encourage investment and regeneration why not tell us what they are, as both UKIP and the Independents were decidedly light on any positive policies during the recent election campaign other than reducing borrowing and reversing 3 previous policy decisions. To date from the new Administration, of which the Independent Party is a central player, we have only heard about plans to increase rather than reduce borrowing and the reversal of the decisions on libraries, care homes or flood defence will increase capital and/or revenue costs. Call me old fashioned but when I vote for the representative of a political party I like to have some idea of what they regard as key priorities and what type of Administration I can expect. The Indies and UKIP seem to feel that this isn’t necessary and that we should give them an open mandate. In the interests of local democracy let us hope they are wrong.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The trials of an Administration supporting blogger

I do admit to having some sympathy for Cllr Julian Ware-Lane at present. Julian has been a prolific and effective blogger for some time but he is clearly finding that it is a lot harder to make incisive and potentially critical comments as a supporter of the current administration than as a member of the opposition. This must be especially trying for Julian who is likely to feel restricted, particularly in the early days of the new cabinet, from taking pot shots at its policies or members as it could be interpreted as criticism of his own Labour colleagues or an attempt to undermine the administration which Southend Labour Group has signed up to support. I have never regarded Julian as a great supporter of the current leader or the majority of cabinet who are non Labour and in other circumstances a potential target for Julian’s sharp witted comments. At least when I was Leader I felt able to herald the performance of the council which I had led for some years and the actions of a cabinet chosen by me. Let’s hope the old, sharper Julian makes an early return. A particular irony is that I suspect the current cabinet will be giving plenty of ammunition for local bloggers which in the absence of Labour support and members would be a constant source of material for Julian’s Musings. In the meantime he will no doubt concentrate on updates on his ward activities and his analysis of data on a range of issues.

The need improve Victoria Avenue

A continuing priority for the last Conservative Administration was to try to deal with the poor condition of a number of blocks down Victoria Avenue. Not only does this represent an awful gateway to the Town for visitors and residents alike but is also continuing to depress and limit the market for office accomodation. Initially this resulted in meetings with the property owners to try to agree some coordinated redevelopment action and when this was unsuccessful the issue was pursued through the draft Town Centre planning policy document and was an element of the Town’s bid for a City Deal. Continuing to be frustrated by the lack of progress we included the allocation of £10M as part of our last budget to fund either the voluntary purchase or, if necessary CPO, of the blocks and this appears to have encouraged some owners to come to the negotiating table. As such I am pleased to note that this well established policy, which was also part of our last election manifesto, has been adopted by the new Administration and I wish them success. However it was amusing to note the latest edition of the Echo which included the now mandatory picture of Cllr Longley and which almost seemed to suggest that action in Victoria Avenue was an initiative which he was now starting. It is worth mentioning that Cllr Longley, together with all current members of the cabinet, voted against the Conservative budget earlier this year which included this new allocation of funding. Obviously a sudden change of heart. Whilst I don’t want to labour the point the opposition from Cllrs Woodley and Terry was significantly based on further increased borrowing of which this was a significant element and yet again in power their position on borrowing seems to have done something of a volte-face!.