Sunday, 20 April 2014

A brief look back

At the end of the council meeting last Thursday was the chance for a quick acknowledgement of those members who have chosen not to restand, which this year includes me as well as current Mayor Brian Kelly, Richard Brown, Louise Burnett and Maria Caunce. In addition there will of course be those who are unsuccessful in May - potentially a loss of quite a lot of experience in one hit.

This part came after the meeting had moved into private with the webcast stopping. When my term has come to end I will reflect on some of the high and low points but thought I would paraphrase my response to the kind words said about me.

I believe that any political leader who survives for as long as the 7 years I have managed and who can look back on certain success needs 2 important strengths - timing and luck! I think I have had the benefit of both. 

It was timing of a sort to arrive on the council as the then leader lost her seat resulting in becoming deputy leader within 3 months of my return and this was then followed by the next leader losing the following May so that within 12 months I found myself as leader. It was not intended to go that way! I also think that there is a need to get the timing of departure right and in particular to leave whilst there are still a resonable majority of people who are sorry to see you go. If you wait until everybody has decided the time is right then you have almost certainly outstayed your welcome. This does mean that there remains 20% of me which regrets my decision to stand down so again this probably means I have it about right.

As for luck I have been massively fortunate. Firstly I have been able to rely on John Lamb as deputy. You could not ask for more whether helping to cover the numerous regional meetings with me or generally watching my back on council affairs. There is nothing more important in politics than being able to turn your back and John has ensured that I have been able to do so. Secondly I have worked with committed and able members of my own group both in and out of cabinet and all those whose have accepted cabinet jobs have performed effectively and loyally. Thirdly there have been members of other groups who at times have provided support or guidance. Admittedly there have been quite a few who have not, but the input of the likes of David Norman and others has been appreciated.

Finally I have been lucky to work with a very capable, committed and likeable Chief Executive in Rob Tinlin. The importance of this relationship (Leader/Chief Executive) working cannot be underestimated and my successor needs to remember and work at that. We have been supported by a hard working and very able team of senior officers as well as staff throughout the organisation who are committed to the town and it's residents and who are impatient to drive us forward. Whilst as Leader the plaudits are nice members can achieve nothing without able staff and they don't come better than the team we have assembled at Southend.

Timing and good luck indeed!

Last full council

With my departure from the council fast approaching it was my last "proper" full council meeting last Thursday leaving only Mayor Making next month. Notwithstanding the large number of questions and reserved minutes the meeting was quite short being finished shortly after 10. I am not sure whether this was as a result of the absence of former councillor Martin Terry or because of a certain spirit of demob happiness with the elections now looming. 

I have to say that it was slightly annoying! One of the problems with long meetings for those of us that work, relates to the early start the next morning. As I have tried to juggle my leader duties and legal work I try to arrive in the office as soon after 7am as possible. With a meeting finishing at midnight or thereabouts, dragging out of bed the next morning can be challenging. For this meeting the following day was a Bank Holiday with the promise of a lie in before a morning of election delivering. In typical form the meeting therefore finished nice and early!

Friday, 28 March 2014

Councillor Martin Terry

I suppose it was inevitable how Martin Terry, who always portrays himself as the great defender of democracy, would justify his chicken run from Westborough to Thorpe. However he has outdone his usual levels of cant in the Echo today by being quoted as saying “It’s not in my own interests. I’m doing it on the basis that one of my colleagues was elected on a large majority as an Independent and then switched parties”. Of course not Martin! The fact that you are running away from the residents of Westborough a year before your term ends because you know full well that you will not retain your seat has got nothing to do with self interest. Are you really going to continue to try to peddle this nonsense that the Independents are not a political party? It seems you regard the alleged slight to your party brand as more important than remaining in post to represent the voters who have elected you. Your use of the word “switched” is also telling. In 2009 you were happy to complain that in moving to Southend West from Basildon David Amess had acted poorly nothwithstanding that his parliamentary term had come to an end and there had been significant boundary changes to his constituency. You argued that the action was “self serving” and said that “There are many angry, deserted and disgruntled people in Basildon and Southend following what became known as his “chicken run” to a safe seat”. Isn’t it time you owned up? You are running early because you think you will lose Westborough and there will not be an “Independent” vacancy in Thorpe next year. It will be interesting to see with your Labour roots whether you and your team will be telling the good residents of Thorpe that you “are really a Conservative” like they have done with more right minded candidates in recent years.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The art of opposition

I have been critical of the quality of opposition which we have seen from some members over recent weeks. It is an art of which I have some personal knowledge as I spent 3 years in opposition in the 90's attempting to hold the ruling Lib Dem/Labour Administration to account. I was recently sorting through some old files and came across this ageing edition of the Leigh Times which was published in December 1995. I was agitated about the crass decision to undertake some major and disrutive roadworks in Leigh Broadway causing chaos in the the pre Xmas rush. I think a question to the then Lib Dem Chair of Highways asking "Would the Chairman agree Christmas is the busiest time of the year for local traders?" was suitably succinct!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Bastille at Alexander Palace

I am a great believer that few evenings out are bettered by a good show or concert. Last night I was persuaded to take my wife and daughters to see Bastille at the Ally Pally! Not a group that I have listened to much but they seem to be one of the bands of the moment. I have been to a rock concert at this venue once before seeing Florence & The Machine. It is a great setting being perched high above London with amazing views, although the public transport links are a bit of a nightmare and having a lift both ways made the evening far more civilised - particularly with an early start for work the next morning. It has an outer hall with a good selection of food and beer and some live music to get everyone in the mood. My one whinge was the queue for food which seems a little ridiculous as they must know the level of demand they will need to meet. As for Bastille and the 2 supports it was worth the trip with good performances, lighting and a lively atmosphere. Even better I was not the oldest person there as I saw at least 5 people who looked significantly more aged. I have always said then when I am the oldest person at one of these concerts the time may have come to stop going but I think that actually I will wear it as a badge of honour.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Councillor Woodley

For those of you who have witnessed the webcast of the council meeting on Thursday you may be a little bemused by the actions of Thorpe Independent councillor Ron Woodley. I hope it is a fair account to say that he started by indicating that he was prepared to take donations in return for not speaking in the budget debate, changed his mind towards the end, then left his seat and apparently the chamber, cast his vote in favour of the budget from near the exit door, returned after the tea break and after a few minutes tried to raise a point of order (which it wasn't!) to demand an apology from me, refused to accept the Mayor's ruling, insulted the Mayor's authority over the meeting, insisted that he would remain standing which he did for some minutes and when rebuked by the Chief Executive for ignoring the Mayor (and by implication the Constitution) and disrupting the debate by playing with the microphones stormed out of the chamber and into the public gallery. Call me an old traditionalist but hardly the behaviour of a member who believes that he will soon be Leader and regularly announces this to council officers and others. It seems strange to me that someone who is heralded as such a financial guru should seriously suggest not participating in the most important financial debate of the council year particularly when he has been so vocal in the press and elsewhere on our approach to the budget. For the avoidance of doubt his signature on the Memorandum of Understanding almost 2 years ago did not require this stance. It acknowledged that he was at liberty to formally propose any cost neutral amendments he wished during the process so long as when those amendments had been accepted or refused he supported the Administration in voting through a budget. It seemed to me that he was hiding behind the memorandum and charitable donation to avoid justifying his position on borrowing and the wider budget. I am also concerned at the increasing lack of respect shown to the Mayor when chairing council meetings. There are well establisher protocols which include complying with directions given by the Mayor, standing when addressing the Mayor, not making rude or inappropriate comments directed at the Mayor or officers and making contributions from the designated seat in the Chamber which should be followed or the entire process will simply degenerate into a free for all. I am not suggesting that Cllr Woodley committed all these acts or that he is the only culprit but some in the Chamber seem to think that such action is clever or funny and in my view this needs to be stopped. As to the particular issue that Cllr Woodley took exception to it was my assertion that he had "bought" a committee chair in exchange for supporting the budget. I am slightly bemused that he or indeed anyone else was surprised at this. The memorandum of Understanding which was negotiated by me and Ron and subsequently published on the council website made clear that in exchange for the support of the then 3 Thorpe independents in ensuring that we could deliver a majority vote on the budget we would agree to abandon certain proposed parking changes in Thorpe and would agree to cede a number of important chairs to the opposition. Subsequently I agreed with Ron a division of Chairs to include my acceptance of his demand for the Chair of the Economic and Environmental Scrutiny Committee. In the event in a contested vote Ron beat Graham Longley as a result of support from my group. In other circumstances I would have expected Graham to win. I fail to see how it is offensive to record the trade between budget support and the allocation of Chairs. I don't regard this as a matter of criticism for either Ron or me and would not do so unless either of us tried to deny the deal that was struck - which would be quite tricky bearing in mind the published memorandum and evidence of the votes which subsequently took place! When the public contrives to create a situation with no overall control it leaves it to the politicians to negotiate and form pacts and agreements. We have seen this at national level as well as locally across the country. In our case no other leader was prepared to enter into an agreement with me and it was clearly in the best interests of the town and council to create an element of stability by the deal with Ron.

The art of opposition -an update

My colleagues Mark Flewitt and James Courtenay appear to have attracted the ire of some opposition councillors by suggesting that by voting against the budget they were also voting against the bits of the budget they liked. We have heard some tosh on the primary role of opposition being to oppose and not suggest alternatives. Ignoring the fact that in an authority with such a small majority it seems strange that they should not try to take advantage of this situation to press for changes they support. It also fails to differentiate between the budget and other policy decisions. There are many decisions which we have decided to implement where there is a decision as to whether or not to take action and it is reasonable for opposition groups to oppose and/or attempt to hold the administration to account even if they do not provide viable alternatives. However with the budget we are all under a legal obligation to set a balanced budget so decisions have to be made. If opposition groups don't like what we are proposing they can raise alternative suggestions either through the scrutiny process or formally by way of amendments to the budget. If they are voted down then they have tried to influence the decision and can stand by their alternative plan. However where they have failed to make any alternative proposals and then vote against the budget they are also voting against all elements of that budget. It is the only sensible interpretation of the situation as if they wanted to be more selective they have had the chance to do so by way of amendment. Accordingly it is quite fair to say that all those opposition members who voted against our proposals were voting against increased expenditure on school improvement, regeneration etc. as well as our proposals for LED street lighting, intervention along Victoria Avenue and the rest. They simply can't have it both ways.